Brick to Bamboo

Hi, I’m Craig. My wife Valarie, and I, have spent the past six years building Alassari Plantation.

We all have stories that make up our lives. Some experiences are good, some are bad, but all weave into the tapestry of our lives.

This is one of those good stories.

I’m a Perth, Western Australia, boy. Consequently, as the climate of Perth is hot, I have a marked tendency to build in double brick and tile. Consequently, the first building at Alassari Plantation was brick and tile, and was designed by architect, Made Wijaya. It has two bedrooms, each with ensuite, a kitchenette and veranda. We call it the Gatehouse ,as it is part of one of the imposing traditional gateways that we built to define the entrance to Alassari Plantation. It is a delightful cottage, but as so often happens in Bali, you begin to understand, over time, the purpose of doing things the local way.

Living in a local village, particularly one high in the mountains, and therefore more traditional, you begin to see the world differently. Both Val and I had a vision for Alassari Plantation, and that was one of a place for wellness and healing. A place where the air and water were pure and the rainforest was right outside your door. Where you could hear the sweet sound of a gamelan waft across the valley from the neighbouring village. Were you could go for long walks in the forest, and lay on your veranda and, well, just breathe and take in the magic. A place of romance.

The vision we had has not changed, but the methods of implementing them began to. As the beauty that surrounded us began to enter our souls, we began to see things in a different way. As we saw the ancient local ways in practice, and being expats, we compared to the way things are done in western countries. We especially noted the Balinese focus on using sustainable products and methods in their daily lives.

Considering such things, whilst contemplating building a resort in this beautiful and pristine part of Bali, began to give rise to questions. The obvious and first question was, “Should we be doing this?”

The answer to that question was found in the discussions we had with the people of Biyahan. They were familiar with the concept, as there were already two eco-accommodation villages operating in the area. The added-value we were committed to bringing to our local village was based around employment, training, and support for the local council (banjar) and Adat (religious council), in the form of donations to local projects and providing modern concepts about controlling and implementing such things as waste management on a village scale.

Living in a rainforest, my awareness grew, so it was only natural that I began to think of building in timber. Teak is the king of timber in Indonesia, and so I began to experiment with teak buildings. Richard Kaal from Bali Mountain Retreat, a friend of mine, dropped by one day to inform me that he had bought two Limosans from Java, and one was for sale.

“That’s great Richard, what’s a limosan?” I replied.

It turned out a limosan is a teak building that has been built in Java for thousands of years for housing. It is a basic structure, which is generally supported by six large teak columns, with smaller teak columns supporting the surrounding building. Limosans were built by the general populace. The limosan has the spaces between the columns filled in with flat, plain sheets of teak.

I walked down to his place and looked at the pile of wood he had laying under a tarpaulin.

“Looks fantastic Richard. I’ll buy it.”

Reminiscing about these days is difficult, as sadly Richard passed away recently, after a long illness.

I trucked the unassembled components of the limosan home and called out to Val to come see my latest purchase. “It looks like a bunch of firewood” she said dismissively.

“You just wait. It will be fantastic.” I said.

To cut a long story short; I built it and she loved it. Loved it so much she wanted us to move and live in it. After hearing of our love for the building, Richard’s wife, Raani, then started to tell us about the royal teak palaces; the Joglo. Joglos are a style of limosan. Larger, fancier and with intricately carved panels, they are houses reserved for royal families.


She mentioned the area of Kudus in Java, as being the best builders of intricately carved Joglos. She agreed to fly to Java, on our behalf and source and negotiate the purchase of six or seven Joglos that she thought, could be for sale.

Within a week, and accompanied by Raani, we flew to Java and spent 4 days looking at what was on offer. It was my first time in Java, and there are plenty of stories to tell, about how delightful the Javanese are and how some builders there took us to a traditional restaurant to show off their famous dishes.

I didn’t know at the time, but several dishes are served to the centre of the table, and everyone takes a portion.  The sop buntut, ox tail soup, was placed on the table first. I took the entire bowl, and head down, ate it all, then asked if there was some more. The chef, the owner, and several of the patrons had gathered round the table to watch this feat. They were incredulous. The sop buntut was the area’s most famous dish, and they were so delighted to see me devouring it all, they forgave me my bad manners.

There is also a fabulous district in the province called Marlboro. It has much in the way of batik, but little in the way of alcoholic refreshment, as one would suspect in a Muslim town. Feeling quite thirsty at the end of a long day, Val and I were surprised to see a large neon sign flashing “BAR”.

We made our way through the throng and stood in front of the establishment. It was built to resemble a yacht club, with picture of old ships, brass railings and a stainless-steel wire fence separating it from the sidewalk. We walked in, and the fact that we were the only customers should have given us pause. A bouncy young sailorette, dressed in blue and striped fare, handed us the drinks menu. It was the largest drink menu on Earth. It was a tome to all sailors’ fresh home from the sea, it was the Moby Dick of drink menus, and we were Ahab.

“I will have a Bloody Mary please.” I said.

“Make that two.” Said Val

She bounced off, to return 15 minutes later, with no drinks.

“I am sorry, but we don’t have those’ she apologised.

Hmm… I perused the menu and chose a Scotch from the fifty or so that were listed there. Val chose a G&T - Grey Goose.

Fifteen minutes later our wait-personis back, sans drinks.

Of course, the poor girl was embarrassed, so we pre-empted any apology, by saying.

“You don’t have that it in stock do you?”

She shook her head.

“Do you have a beer, any beer?”

Another shake of the head.

“Anything remotely alcoholic?” I asked hopefully “Arak perhaps?”


Another shake of her head, and Val and I looked at each other, and began to laugh. We fell into the street laughing, went back to our hotel and paid one of the young men there to find us some beer, which arrived a little time later, and it was cold. When in Rome… the saying goes.

I also fell down a rather large hole in the pavement the following night, before partaking drinks, I might add, and smashed both rotator cuffs. How they were repaired appears in another of my stories about Bali healers. Milk under the yardarm, (to completely mix metaphors), but that is what happens when you are thrown into a completely different culture.

We had looked at five Joglos at this stage, and done a tour of many places that had parts of Joglos, but none had taken our fancy. We would see a part of one that we loved here, and another part we loved there, but the complete package eluded us. We had the allude beckoning still, so we decided to give it one last try before packing up and sailing for home.

The moment we saw it, we knew this was the one. Covered in cobwebs, dirt floor, chickens and dogs scurrying around, I said to Val “Don’t, whatever you do, act interested.”

She nodded, as if in a dream, jumped out of the car, and started doing pirouettes in a fine allegro, past the astonished owners, and disappeared inside.

“Shit!” I thought, putting on a smile. “That’s that then.”

Yes, we bought it. Full price, less a small grace saving amount for my sake, bless them.

A wonderful family, who took us home and made us feel at home. Oh well!

The Joglo is magnificent, 160 years old, and was owned by their grandmother, and we love living in it.

We signed all papers in front of a very good notaries, (why are all the best notaries women?), including a signed letter from the Governor of the province allowing us to take it to Bali.

One month after it arrived, the Indonesian Government placed a moratorium on the further removal of Joglos from Java.

It was while the builders were erecting our Joglo that I got the idea of replacing the limosan plain panels with copies of the carved Joglo panels. We built three more limosans and they are a testament to the wood carving skills available still in Indonesia. Beautiful buildings, with the sweet smell of teak mixing with the rich smell of the coffee plants growing outside.

It was fun designing and learning about building in wood, but then the wind swung again.

Norm van Hoft, who had also built Sarinbuana Eco Lodge down the road, was the first to do so in fact, had just built a bamboo yoga bale. We loved it. However, being a businessman, I always build for longevity and for the least amount of maintenance. Bamboo fits neither of these criteria.

I loved the idea of building in bamboo. The Tabanan Region is known for its towering bamboo. It fitted all my ideas of sustainability; it is a grass, it grows quickly, the larger bamboos growing a meter a day, it has astonishing strength/weight ratio, and in the early days it was relatively cheap. However, it is prone to all sorts of attacks from a myriad of insects, doesn’t like the rain, and requires an enormous amount of maintenance. It took me twelve months to shift the habits of a lifetime. The trick is to think of the building as a living object, as an organic building. When a piece gets too old, then you replace it. Simple. We contracted Norm to build us a bamboo yoga bale. He did and we love it.

In all buildings, there is a transition when you move from the outside into the inside. This transition is quite apparent in walking into a brick or concrete building, and much more so when the outside happens to be a rain-forest. The forest disappears. It is much less so when walking into a teak building with large floor to ceiling windows. The building is wood after all. When walking into a bamboo building, with almost no walls, there is no transition. If anything, the forest leaps in at you. The poles frame each picture of the forest and you find yourself examining each picture in detail.

A few months after the building had been completed, Val told me she wanted me to build a spa under the bale. Did I tell you that Val is the driving force behind Alassari Plantation?

“Under the bale?” I asked. It built on columns, on a steep slope of a ravine, but still “Under the bale?”

“Yes!” she said.


I contacted our new architect, Made.

“Under the bale?” he asked.

“Yes!” I said. “That’s where ibu (mother) wants it.”

“OK” he said. Wise man.

It’s also fabulous, and the big round concrete columns supporting the bamboo, with the bamboo flowering from these and disappearing into the roof make it quite unique.

By this time, I had decided that any future buildings within Alassari Plantation would be of bamboo. Using wood is causing serious deforestation issues worldwide, and as the forests, along with the oceans, are the lungs of our world, we need to start taking such things far more seriously that we are currently.

So I started researching more about bamboo, and fell in love.

The regency of Alassari Plantation is Tabanan, Bali and is famous for its bamboo.

Untreated bamboo has a service life of between 2-5 years. To extend its life it needs to be harvested at the right time, be treated correctly, and within the context of sustainability, to be treated with non-toxic methods.

The best time to harvest bamboo is;

  1. when it is 3-5 years’ old  
  2. at the end of the dry season, when sap levels are at their lowest. (some argue the opposite)
  3. on a waxing or waning moon, as the sap levels are lower
  4. at dusk or dawn when photosynthesis is at its lowest

The normal way to treat bamboo here was to soak it in borax and water for a week or two and then to smoke dry it in a shed for a further week or two.

However, when we attempted this our staff reported feeling sick. This was unacceptable, although as it is non-toxic, I am not sure why it did so. They suggested we try an old method of using chili and garlic. We have tried this, and the results are too early to tell.

I spoke to a forestry expert and friend of mine, Alexander Stanley, and although he stated that he knew little of bamboo, he pointed me to an article that mentioned water leaching as being effective. Particularly if it was used in a further non-toxic treatment of the culm (bamboo). This method has been used extensively for thousands of years, especially in Thailand, where they would build rafts of it to float it downstream to the building sites. Now I love anything to do with water, but unfortunately the stream is not big enough, or the island large enough to float the bamboo downstream, and I think (hope) Val would object to me disappearing for three weeks

Fortunately, we have a running stream through Alassari and as I have built a dam so as to raise the local fresh water fish for our tables, I have the perfect spot. We will sink the bamboo for one month. This will leach out the starches that attract insects. We need to drill two holes in each enclosed section of the bamboo to facilitate the process, and we can use these to later inject a mixture of Freemite, produced in Bali by Asali Bali. They state it is made of Neem, Borax, crystal of Kamper, Chili, 12 insecticide plant extracts, a nano-extender and some secrets.

Stay tuned for results, but in the meantime I had our architect Made design a two story tree-house for accommodation. The builders I employ full time at Alassari Plantation, have built this beautiful bamboo building, which Decky, our planation manager, has named the Harmony Tree-House. It will be available in a week, and Val and I will be the first to live there.

Made has also designed a second single story bamboo villa, only this time we are playing with curved bamboo to give it an exciting organic look. The foundations are down and we will be using the bamboo soaked in the stream for this.

Stay tuned for further results. Who knows what we will be building in next year.