Inside Bali’s Most Celebrated Cultural Festivals with Janet DeNeefe

The founder of Ubud Food Festival and Ubud Writers and Readers Festival reveals what it takes to run an international cultural festival on the island of gods. 

It is the kind of story expats may be familiar with: foreigners visit Indonesia for a vacation, fall in love with the country and decide to call it home. But for Australian expat Janet DeNeefe, she did more than turn Ubud into home sweet home for the past 30 years. After arriving in 1984, she has helped make Ubud, one of Bali’s most exotic locales, a popular for international cultural festivals.

This month, the Ubud Food Festival returns for the third time, while the Writers and Readers Festival (UWRF) celebrates its 14th anniversary in October.

I sat down with DeNeefe at her famous restaurant Casa Luna in Ubud, where she shared the exciting process behind preparing for a festival in Bali’s cultural capital.

How do you normally prepare for UWRF every year? 

Well, first we have to come up with a theme and then we select the writers that kind of fit in with theme. We also look at those who are doing interesting things, those that we have not heard of about before. It is like being a detective, we just search for current work that we feel is really appropriate for us. And then it is inviting the writers and hoping that they can come along.

The problem sometimes can be that they confirm initially and then later at the last minute, sometimes they cancel. It is a bit, particularly last year, was a bit of a nightmare for the programme because suddenly, just a couple of days before we need to find a replacement for the speakers or moderators who are crucial to the session.

Last year you had the theme of Tat Tvam Asi (I Am You and You and I), what exactly was the idea behind it? 

It was a reaction to two years ago and the fact that we all share the same humanity and identity. And I guess it was also a reaction to what was happening around the world, with 65 million people being forced from their homes. There are almost more boundaries, more borders, more divisions across the world. It’s time that we as a collective look at the fact that we are all one.

How exactly has the issue of censorship in the past affected the way the festival is run? 

Well actually it has not affected that much. I was worried that it would affect the overall programme but eventually it hasn’t. We are still creating programmes that we want to create.

How do you feel about those who think that UWRF focuses more on the tourism aspect as opposed to literature?

I think the people who say that have never been to the festival. It is about bringing people together and when you have a writer’s festival, you don’t call it tourism. It is a forum for discussion, so just because it is held in a tourist destination, you kind of get labeled I suppose. Of course people are traveling here to see the event, but hey you travel anywhere to see any event and that doesn’t mean it is directly called tourism.

A lot of people are increasingly interested in coming here and being a part of the local arts scene, especially the younger generation. As the creator and founder of UWRF and UFF, what do you think are the keys to organizing a successful festival? 

To organize the event, you have to have skilled and professional staff. In terms of selecting the programmes and coordinating, all these people must be experienced. And I think that it is better that they are young because it is a high-energy job, you really need a lot of stamina. And I guess you just have to be aware of the community.

In order to organize a top festival, you must have a set of top people working behind it.

What do you think people expect when they come to the festival?

I think a lot of our audience have been to the festival before so they already know. But the newbies, the ones who have never been here before, I think they expect an Aussie-style writers’ festival. And when they come here, they are kind of blown away by the fact that it’s so diverse and so exciting. There’s so much to hear and see, the location is fantastic, so I think it becomes a magical experience for them.

What do you mean by Aussie-style writers’ festival?

In Australia we have a lot of writers’ festival and we were mentored by the Byron Bay Writers’ Festival, so we kind of initially looked a bit like them. That was before we grew into our own skin.

You have your own restaurants and also written several cookbooks. Can you share a little bit about what you do in the food industry? 

I have had restaurants here since 1987, so I am really passionate about Indonesian and Balinese food. I have published two books, both of them started with recipes. The first one started with recipes and then I wove in the stories around food, whether it is something we ate at ceremonies or something that my kids love. So it started with recipes and then I built stories around them. And the second one was recipes with stories to do with those dishes so that was kind of easy.

What do you think is so special about Indonesian food? 

I’s just so exciting and interesting. There are so many layers of flavours. I think because we are in this spice island, there’s sort of flavours you get from the different gingers, lemongrass and all those delightful ingredients to use. 

This transcript has been condensed and edited. For more information on UFF and UWRF, please visit the following websites:




Caranissa is an editor at Indonesia Expat. She occassionally writes, dances and performs on stage.