Photographed by Resham Melwani
What Singapore lacks in natural resources with its partially reclaimed land and man-made beaches, it more than makes up for in its composition: the tiny island-state is home to a melting pot of cultures, ethnicities, religions, and backgrounds. This utopian first-world city plays host to a young, transient, and upwardly mobile population, for whom an entrepreneurial spirit and a sharp eye for design is not an unusual thing. It was in Singapore where I met Suraj Melwani, a designer who subsequently became a good friend.
What I admire about Suraj is that he has always been ahead of his time, bringing to the island independently and sustainably made garments when the green movement was still on the fringe of fashion. Today, he brings the same foresight to Bali via Bisma Eight, a self-sufficient hotel he co-founded with his family in the heart of Ubud which champions permaculture, artisanal craft, and a community deeply woven into the fabric of Bali.
Hi, Surrie! Please tell us a little bit about yourself for DAMDAM.
I was working in fashion as well, like you. I studied at Parsons School of Design and I had applied myself over to Singapore. I was doing retail with our multi-brand select shop and progressed into making our own clothing line. I wanted to create a longer-lasting product, a bit more pragmatic in design, stuff that could last with a lot of value. From there, I progressed and applied the same sort of skills – the critical design skills – onto a larger project, which was hotel design. In February 2015, we launched Bisma Eight after working on it for three years.
What brought you to Ubud from Singapore?
We were always drawn to the nostalgia of Ubud, the old-world vibe of Ubud. Ubud is a melting pot of creative professionals and people that are looking to have that laidback approach to their work-life balance. It made sense for us to explore something there.
We weren’t interested to just set up a traditional boutique hotel experience. We found that nice niche, that nice sweet spot, where we wanted to put Bisma Eight into. We wanted to put in fashion, music, design – all of the things that were important to us – we found that that niche wasn’t being filled. We developed Bisma Eight with that in mind. So far, it’s been quite successful. It’s the busy season right now so it’s almost the perfect time to stay away because it’s overwhelmingly busy down there!
“We’re big on observing context: the local landscape, the local history, the local culture… The jungle is brought into the [Bisma Eight] property and you can see that the building almost doesn’t interfere with what was there before.”
Can you share with us the inspiration behind Bisma Eight?
Bisma Eight revolves around tropical modern architecture that we feel is really fitting for Ubud. We’re big on observing context: the local landscape, the local history, the local culture. And as you’ve seen – you’ve been there – around Bisma Eight are these small touches of culture. We play a lot with local fabrics, local pottery, antiques. We take a lot of the past and reinterpret it into a modern context. The architecture works really well with the landscape so we don’t overstep [nature]. We’re really respectful of the context. The jungle is brought into the property and you can see that the building almost doesn’t interfere with what was there before.
What kind of travelers do you get at Bisma Eight?
It has always been for the person who wants his/her modern comforts so the hotel suits them really well. And because Ubud is a big place, we are sort of stuck nicely in the middle of it. For a lot of people that want to venture there but don’t want to be too far into the jungle, Bisma Eight is amazing.
We get a lot of different types of travelers but the travelers we really speak to are those looking for modern comforts but with respect to the past. We’re not trying to provide something that is too progressive; it’s still modern while respecting the nostalgia of the old. We get a lot of travelers that are big on creativity, people that are passionate about art, about design, and about respecting sustainability. That’s what we do and you find a lot of touches at the hotel paying homage to that. We reuse water, we have eliminated single-use plastics [like drinking straws], we’ve done a lot of things that are important to us and the modern customer of today. The modern customer that’s switched on, clued in, well-informed, and well-travelled.
We love the farm and the Bisma Gardens, the produce of which you serve at your restaurant. How did that start?
One of the things that brought my father to Ubud was the fact that the weather was great there. He actually lives further away, in Kintamani, which is close to the volcano. The climate is cooler there. He was also working in the fashion industry, with two garment factories in Indonesia and he closed that down and progressed towards Ubud. I think he was also looking to advance himself spiritually and mentally. He really wanted to get a grasp of a better work-life balance and that’s what he managed to do there.
Permaculture is a big passion of his, and because he has land in abundance, he realized that he wanted to take a stab at it. He started doing it and it quickly became a major part of his life so when we started working on Bisma Eight, he began planting at the Bisma Gardens site and developed the permaculture there. We use a lot of that and we’re trying to increase it year on year as much as we can. We cycle that food, the produce, back to Bisma Eight. The garnishes and the vegetarian options are all from our gardens. Funnily enough, we have goats in the farm as well so we want to do goat’s milk and goat’s cheese next. We have all sorts of things growing in the farm and it’s a massive part of what we do at our kitchen and bar.
The beautiful thing about Ubud is we keep finding new and interesting things. Further up in the mountains, if you forage through the forest, we have a different variety of the shiso leaf, a Balinese version of that. You can literally just pick it off the ground and eat it. We recently just discovered it so we started serving that at Bisma Eight, too!
“We get a lot of travelers that are big on creativity, people that are passionate about art, about design, and about respecting sustainability… We reuse water, we have eliminated single-use plastics, we’ve done a lot of things that are important to us and the modern customer of today. The modern customer that’s switched on, clued in, well-informed, and well-travelled.”
Another extension and the perfect foil to the stylish Bisma Eight is the fun, dive-y bar that you have, No Mas. How did you come up with that?
Music is a big part of what we do, from the beginning of our project. Art, design, and music work seamlessly together. After the first year, we found some great people that were really in touch with fashion, art, and music [to join our team] and they started to implement a lot of their personal preferences which was closer to what we were trying to do. One of our graphic design leads created a playlist for the different areas of the hotel, bringing their personal touch for an authentic experience.
It’s that same team involved with the conceptualization of No Mas. No Mas is a bit more dive-y, fun, a laidback kind of bar. We started to open up some nights to be more friendly and mainstream, and have some DJs come and play there. It has that grunge-y, no-frills setting and we try to make it diverse and more varied. In its short lifespan, it’s become an institution in Ubud already, if I may say so myself! We’re busy most nights because we were filling a need in Ubud. We needed that one not-so-fancy, laidback, casual setting which No Mas has. It’s very rock and roll!
“There’s a lot of great people that have really made Ubud unique. These are the people that were never really in tune with the whole hustle and bustle of Seminyak so they ventured off to Ubud to hone their craft in a different, almost pure, setting. Ubud is really varied in that sense so that’s why I gravitate to that part of Bali.”
What are your personal recommendations when in Ubud?
I try to enjoy Ubud on different wavelengths. The reason why I fell in love with Ubud is because it’s so true to the past. Not much has changed in certain areas. I do love the things that pay homage to the past but I also do appreciate all the things that are part of today. So I obviously love all of the things we do at Bisma Eight but I also love living in places like Tegalalang. I love spending time over in Kintamani. It’s so beautiful living that simple, fuss-free way of life. But it’s also a beautiful thing to spend time in downtown Ubud to see what all the brilliant chefs are doing around there. We’ve got guys like the Locavore boys who are doing a fantastic menu and they recently launched a new restaurant. There’s a lot of great people that have really made Ubud unique. These are the people that were never really in tune with the whole hustle and bustle of Seminyak so they ventured off to Ubud to hone their craft in a different, almost pure, setting. Ubud is really varied in that sense so that’s why I gravitate to that part of Bali.
What is your ritual when in Ubud? How do you spend your days there?
I live in Singapore but I spend a lot of time in Ubud – not so much in the city but a little bit further away, in the area where my father lives. It’s not even Ubud anymore, I actually live in the middle of the jungle, to be honest with you. We head towards where I live in Tegalalang which is where the rice terraces are, where the ravines are, where the beautiful untouched forest is. We spend a lot of time there where we can lay back, lie low, have our bonfires, our simple Indonesian food, and just spend time with family. We also venture out to other areas of Bali like Canggu.
Apart from Bali, what are your favorite places to travel to?
I think Flores in Komodo islands, Indonesia. It’s a must-visit for people looking to venture out of Bali. Those are some beautiful islands. We’re hopefully looking to do something there in the future. We just went on a trip to Myanmar as well and we had a fantastic time over there. It was really beautiful to see a location so spiritual and as close to the past as it was. Those are the kind of destinations we gravitate towards, not so much the bright lights, big cities!
For more information on Bisma Eight, visit: