A Quite Long History of Bali Hotel Architecture Part 0: Bali 1936

radit mahindro
10 min readOct 27, 2021

There are different stories about which is the first hotel in Bali. Some friends mentioned a legendary hotel in Singaraja was the first one, but no one knows the name, and lack of documentation effectively makes it lost in obscurity. Bali Hotel, built by East Indies’ Koninklijke Paketvaart-Maatschappij in 1928 in Denpasar, is considered widely as the first real hotel in Bali — it is now managed by the Indonesian government as Inna Bali Heritage Hotel. In the same year saw Walter Spies’ private home in Ubud dubbed as the first hotel In Bali — the house was built in 1928 though it only became Hotel Tjampuhan in 1970s.

One thing that is certain, two waves of movement happened in 1936. In Kuta, Bob Koke brought laid back surf culture with his seaside Kuta Beach Hotel. In Ubud, the Ubud Royal Family join forces with European artists and gave birth to the Pita Maha art collective. Both movements, unfortunately, didn’t last long. The war in Europe went wide and wild (World War II) and forced these creative people to stop their projects, and even leave the Island of Gods for safety.

The following two stories is highly important to learn, and its legacy remain clearly visible — it help shaped the tourism world of Bali into its currently renowned destination, in the image of arts and tropical life, for nearly 100 years.

Revolt in Paradise — Ketut Tantri, Bob and Louise Koke
In the dry season of 1936, two young Americans traveled from Singapore to Bali by steamship, introducing themselves to their fellow guests at the Bali Hotel in Denpasar as Robert (Bob) and Louise Koke.

Louise was the wife of the distinguished but drunken and philandering Hollywood screenwriter Oliver H.P. Garrett (A Farewell To Arms, Duel In The Sun). The previous year Garrett’s affairs had become too much for Louise, so she embarked on one of her own with a tennis coach and stills photographer Bob Koke, who often hung around the Garrett’s Beverly Hills estate coaching Oliver and his pals David Selznick and Charlie Chaplin. It may have even been Chaplin, after visiting Bali in 1932, who planted the idea of the island paradise in Bob Koke’s head. But when he stole off with Louise, that was where they ended up, and soon decided to stay.

In her book Our Hotel In Bali: How two young Americans made a dream come true — A story of the 1930s, Louise Koke (she had married Bob in 1941) recalled: “On the second or third day we were having drinks on the veranda and who should show up but a dumpy woman in a sarong, horn-rimmed glasses, black hair, and she spoke English. She rented us a car and showed us Kuta Beach.” The woman was the an eccentric Scottish American Muriel Stuart Walker, known in Bali as Ketut Tantri.

Ketut Tantri was a radio broadcaster for the Indonesian Republicans during the Indonesian National Revolution in Surabaya — she was referred to by the nickname “Surabaya Sue” among British and Dutch news correspondents, a reference to the Japanese propaganda broadcasters dubbed Tokyo Rose. Ketut Tantri also contributed articles to an English-language magazine produced by the Republicans, which was also called the Voice of Free Indonesia. She witnessed the Battle of Surabaya and later joined President Sukarno’s Republican administration as a speech writer and broadcaster.

Ketut Tantri with President Soekarno

Her decision to emigrate to Bali was inspired by watching a film called Bali: the Last Paradise, which gave a utopian image of the island, which was then part of the Netherlands East Indies. When she first arrived in Bali she stayed at the Bali Hotel in Denpasar, which left a bad impression on Tantri due to its overly ‘white’ management by the Dutch, whom she regarded as “arrogant colonialists.”

During her time in Bali, Ketut Tantri was adopted by King Anak Agung Gede of the Bangli Royal Family as his fourth child, and took the Balinese name Ketut Tantri, which translated into English as “fourth-born child.” Tantri also became fluent in the Balinese and Indonesian languages and became acquainted with several Bali-based Western expatriate artists including Walter Spies and Adrien le Mayeur.

The Kokes fell madly in love with the broad expanse of Kuta Beach and formed an unlikely business partnership with Tantri to create the Kuta Beach Hotel, the first tourist hotel anywhere along Bali’s southern coast. Bob Koke, 26 at the time, was a tall, slim, very fit man who studied at UCLA before getting a job in the production department at MGM, where one of his first assignments was to travel to Hawaii as assistant to director King Vidor on the 1932 film Bird of Paradise, starring Dolores Del Rio. Although he had grown up not far from the beach, this was Koke’s first real experience of surf culture, and he loved it. Soon he was riding big redwood surfboards alongside the beach boys at Waikiki. Now, while he and Louise sat up late at night drawing plans for their hotel over gin and tonic, Bob wired to Hawaii for his redwood plank to be sent by freighter.

Bob Koke’s photos of the laid back dinner parties and drinks sessions on the lawn of the Kuta Beach Hotel (the site is now occupied by the iconic Hard Rock Hotel Bali) paint a familiar scene, although the custom-made bamboo furniture owes more to the Hawaiian lanai style than to traditional Balinese. But that was really where the Kokes pioneered the concept of the Bali resort, offering a combination of the exotic and the familiar.

Part of the Kokes’ package was the surfing experience. Bob had recognised immediately the wave-riding potential of Kuta Beach, and even before his own board arrived he worked with his yard staff to carve out a couple of shorter wooden boards in the Hawaiian alaia style, sensibly thinking that they could be used by guests with no experience to ride either standing or prone.

Bob Koke (lower left) at the Kuta Beach Hotel

By the end of 1937 the Kokes and Ketut Tantri were at dispute over issues of ownership and the direction of the hotel. She moved into a bungalow on the other side of the sandy beach lane and opened her own hotel, which she called Swara Segara (Sound of the Sea), although most people knew it as Manx’s Rooms and Bungalows (Manx is Ketut Tantri’s western nickname). The Kokes went to court to try to stop her, and were still in litigation when the Japanese were poised to invade in 1942.

Ahead of the occupation, Tantri fled to Java, where she was later accused of collaborating with the Japanese — she has maintained in her autobiography Revolt in Paradise that she was imprisoned and tortured by the Japanese. After Swara Segara was destroyed by the Japanese military assault, Ketut Tantri had lived at the Merdeka Hotel — now the Grand Inna Malioboro— from 1946 to early 1947, as a staff of the Ministry of Information, when the Republican government moved to Yogyakarta.

On the other hand, Louise took passage for California and Bob joined the CIA after the war in 1947 and was stationed in Shanghai, where he was reunited with Louise. They spent two years there before being forced out again, this time by the Chinese Communist Revolution. They lived the rest of their life in Washington, DC, where Bob was based in the CIA.

Immediately after the war Bob Koke returned to Kuta Beach, and found that his hotel had been burned to the ground. The only souvenirs of those years were his surfboards, which are still in Bali today. When Louise died in 1993, Bob came back to Kuta for a final time to scatter her ashes in the waves of the beach she loved so much, an old man wading into the surf with a small jar, unrecognised by the surfers passing by him as the father of surfing in Bali.

The Pita Maha Art Movement
The tradition of uniting in a certain community has taken place in Bali for generations, be it based on a territory like banjar organisation, genealogy/clan (dadia), or solidarity amongst holders of certain special talents (sekaa). The three organisation models are noted as the social capital for the Balinese artist generation of 1930s that pioneered the establishment of a painter community.

On 29 January 1936, Pita Maha (ᬧᬶᬢᬫᬳ), a Balinese artist organisation was established with the founders being Ubud princes Tjokorda Gde Raka Soekawati, Tjokorda Agung Soekawati, undagi Gusti Nyoman Lempad, and foreign Rudolf Bonnet and Walter Spies. The name Pita Maha was taken from the Kawi language meaning “the great ancestor(s)”, referring to the Shakti of Brahma, Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge.

Arriving in Bali after a stint as a conductor for Yogyakarta’s European orchestra, Walter Spies is mostly remembered in Indonesia for the paintings he produced on the island. In fact, many of his atmospheric pieces have encouraged the Western notion of Bali as a tropical paradise.

And while he is mostly remembered for his painting, he was also an avid photographer, filmmaker and a musician. In 1932, Walter Spies collaborated on a German film Der Insel der Dämonen (Islands of Demons), one of some exotica films which one could say introduced the West to Balinese culture. The film was created within several weeks as part of a film expedition by ethnologist and documentary filmmaker Friedrich Dalsheim and expedition leader Victor von Plessen to Indonesia. The film, whose script was written in collaboration with the local priests and village chiefs, had its world premiere in Berlin on 16 February 1933.

Interestingly, during the making of the film, Spies choreographed a new version of a traditional Balinese chant “chak-a-chak-a-chak” based on the story of Ramayana and monkey deity Hanuman, which led to the creation of Kecak, a Balinese-style dance performed just for tourists.

The Pita Maha collective lasted for 6 years (abolished because of World War II) and boasted a membership of around 150. The group regularly met at Walter Spies’s house in Campuhan (now Hotel Tjampuhan, built in 1928) to share ideas and discuss projects with members, which included painters, sculptors, carvers, and undagis (priest-architect — such as Gusti Nyoman Lempad).

Walter Spies’ house in Campuhan (now Hotel Tjampuhan)

Today, the historic two-story house and former studio sits alongside a number of more-recently built bungalows. The charming timber house, which overlooks a picturesque lotus pond, is also available for rent. While the current management have done some refurbishment to the house, it has been left in its original structure. However, the house did not actually open as a public hotel until the 1970s, and all the Walter Spies paintings that grace the walls of the current hotel are reproductions, as it would be too risky to keep the real deal at the hotel.

Walter Spies’ house as part of Hotel Tjampuhan today

Room inventory and facilities mentioned on this post are based on the actual situation during the opening year of the hotels.

A Quite Long History of Bali Hotel Architecture

This ten-part 130-minute blog story is made as a tribute to the hospitality world of Bali, and to the people who love and live it.

The story, more or less, chronicles the milestones of Bali hospitality and hotel architecture from 1930s to 2010s, celebrating the works of renowned hoteliers and architects Wija Waworuntu, Geoffrey Bawa, Peter Muller, Kerry Hill, Adrian Zecha, Hendra Hadiprana, Jaya Ibrahim, WATG, John Hardy, Ketut Arthana, and Andra Matin among others.

A Quite Long History of Bali Hotel Architecture (video trailer)

Each part is illustrated with images, sketches and site plans, including old photos of Tandjung Sari, Batujimbar Estate brochure, photo series documenting the construction of The Oberoi Bali and Amandari, Kerry Hill’s original design for the Regent Jimbaran Bay (eventually came into being as the Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay).

There are also footages of Ronald Reagan’s meeting with Suharto in Nusa Dua Beach Hotel, Geoffrey Bawa’s unused site plan for the expansion of Bali Hyatt, TV commercials, World Bank’s proposal for the development of BTDC extracted from a 400-page BTDC-World Bank document containing mail correspondences, bills, and researches, and thirteen volumes of GHM’s late 90s publication: The Magazine — A Style to Remember.