The souvenir I didn’t get…yet

Ubud is a shopper’s paradise, and not just for souvenirs. Paintings, sculpture, clothing, furniture, and more are all available for sale, much of it locally handmade and at reasonable prices. Of course we don’t have extra room in our packs, so we haven’t really been in a shopping mood. Anything we buy either has to be small enough to carry, or small enough to send home. For the most part, we just take photographs.

The good news is that there’s so much for sale, it almost becomes an undifferentiated blur, which makes it easier to ignore. That is until the other day. I was walking down Monkey Forest Road in Ubud, and something caught my eye. It appeared to be a cow skull, like you might see decorating a ranch in New Mexico, except this one was adorned with intricate carvings. The centerpiece of the design was a portrayal of Ganesha, the Hindu god of knowledge, surrounded by decorative floral flourishes around the eye sockets and down the snout. I later discovered that the skull most likely belonged to a water buffalo (based on the distinctive horns).

Carved water buffalo skull, portraying the Hindu deity Ganesha, found in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
Carved water buffalo skull in Ubud, Bali

It stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t have my camera with me, but I soon went back to take a photo. I inquired about the price: 3.5 million rupiah, or about $350. Not a king’s ransom, but not a steal either. I was more concerned about the logistics of shipping it home. I talked to a specialized cargo company to try to get an estimate, but they said they couldn’t ship bone.

I tried to ask myself (and Stephanie) what I liked so much about it. On one hand, it’s completely unusual. I’ve never seen anything like it. I appreciate how it transforms a reminder of death and decay into something uplifting and beautiful. I like how Ganesha, the Hindu god of knowledge is juxtaposed against the skull of a buffalo, which, like cattle, are sacred to Hindus (in India at least). I like how this symbol of the American West is commingled with the exotic East. It just gets me on so many levels.

Detail of a carved water buffalo, portraying the Hindu deity Ganesha, found in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
The carving portrays the Hindu god of knowledge, Ganesha

I found some more carved skulls in two other stores, ranging in price from 1.2 million to 2.5 million rupiah, but none were as delicate and sophisticated as that first one I’d seen. I tried to ask how I might ship one home, and though I came up against something of a language barrier, I got the sense that bubble wrap, a box, and the post office were the most obvious way to go. Apparently the horns can be removed for easier shipping, but still it must weigh 15-20 pounds. I can’t imagine what it would cost to send to the US.

I went back to the first store, figuring if I could talk down the price, maybe that would motivate me to foot the shipping bill, but they wouldn’t budge below 3 million rupiah. I also considered visiting the workshop of the man who carves the skulls (as it’s usually much cheaper to buy directly from the artist), but we already had plans to go to Amed, so I didn’t have time to arrange a visit.

Anyway, we’ve got a week left in Bali, so there’s a chance we could go back through Ubud and/or check out the workshop on the way to the airport. What do you think? Am I crazy? Is it worth pursuing?

Update, January 6, 2011: On Monday we drove up to Tampaksiring to try to find the artist. We’d been communicating over email, and I told him I’d be coming. Of course when the taxi driver finally found his workshop, he was asleep. Someone there directed us to his studio in town which turned out to be the same as the one I’d gotten his card from in Ubud. Many nice carvings, but few additional skulls, and none that grabbed me as much as the first one.

The most interesting thing about the taxi ride, other than the beautiful countryside on the way there, was that Tampaksiring really is a center of bone carving, and many shops had carved skulls hanging out front. However, we’d already seen countless mediocre examples of carved skulls in Ubud (intertwined dragons, celtic knots, Native Americans, flat designs, mismatched horns, etc), so I didn’t want to waste our time looking at every last carved skull in Bali. All signs were pointing to the Ganesha skull. It was still hanging outside the store in Ubud on our way to Tampaksiring, I just hoped it hadn’t been snatched up in the hour since we’d been away. Of course it hadn’t, and 3 million rupiah later, I was walking down the street to our bungalows with a buffalo skull, horns and all, in both hands.

Justin carrying his new Balinese carved water buffalo skull in Ubud, Bali
Justin carrying the skull down Monkey Forest Road

This turned out to be a transformative experience. All over Ubud there are countless men sitting on the sidewalks asking everyone who passes “Transport? You need taxi? Maybe tomorrow?” Over and over and over again. From across the street. Combined with the universal two-hands-turning-the-steering-wheel gesture. It’s enough to drive folks a little crazy. But here I was, with this giant skull in my arms, horns poking out beyond my shoulders, and suddenly every taxi driver saw me in a new light. Their eyes would widen when they realized what they were seeing. They’d yell out “Buffalo!”, point, and make various gestures of approval. At one point someone even started singing Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Solider”. Not once did they ask me if I wanted transport.

Shipping it home turned out to be a fun process. I was a little nervous after both Bislama (a cargo company) and DHL said they could not ship bone, but the person at DHL said I should just go to the post office (Pos Indonesia). So I did, and they had no problems—they just warned me that it was going to be expensive because of the dimensions and weight. It took two guys nearly an hour to build a completely custom box for it: wrapping the skull expertly with insulation, forming the box around the skull, and then encasing the entire thing with plastic tarp. Had I known it was going to be this involved, I would have brought my camera! I sent it via “seamail”, which was supposedly cheaper than airmail, but slower. Much slower. It cost nearly $200 to ship. Who knows when/if it will arrive in Austin.

Update, March 27, 2011: I got an email from my parents today that a very large package arrived. Yippee!

Custom-made seamail box for a water buffalo skull, handstitched with plastic tarp
Custom-made seamail box, handstitched with plastic tarp

It’s been almost 3 months since I shipped it home to Austin, and I had pretty much written it off as a $500 folly. But no, it arrived, safe and sound. Pos Indonesia for the win! It looks like my family had a fun time unwrapping it. Wish I was there—I’ll be in Chiang Mai, Thailand for a few more days before heading to India!

Unboxing the water buffalo skull collage
Unboxing the skull—miraculously, it was still in one piece!

Update, May 3, 2012: We brought the skull across the country to San Francisco with us, only to deposit it in our storage locker for 6 months before we moved into our new place. And then it took us 2 months to finally put it on the wall. Now it’s home. What a journey.

Balinese carved water buffalo skull
Our dreamy Balinese water buffalo skull

85 Comments

jackie

that thing is gorgeous. also, it screams “I found this in my travels to faraway lands.” for better or worse.

I think if you like it that much, you should get it. When are you going to be back there again in your lifetime? You guys aren’t the type to get a ton of souvenirs, so when you do, it should be something that “gets you on so many levels” like that.

Personally, I find that I never remember the price or hassle of getting something like that home once I’m back from the trip… I just look at it and feel glad I got something I really liked from the place while I could.

Let us know what you do!

Bri/Dad

Your grandmother thinks it would be a great conversation piece. I’m of mixed emotions, but “beauty” is in the eye of the beholder and it’s totally up to you. We’re here if you want to send it to us.

Stunning. Absolutely beautiful.

Go back. Visit the artist if you can. It will be a memory of a lifetime, regardless of what you decide to do about the object itself.

Wow, the crowd has spoken! Thanks for the feedback. Post title updated accordingly (added: “yet”). I definitely want to visit the artist’s workshop. We’ll see where it goes from there.

It’s obvious that you need to get this (or another one from the same artist). It’s terrible and beautiful all at once, and “gets [you] on so many levels”.

I may book a trip there just to go find this piece :) Gorgeous. Hope you get it and post some info about the artist!

I’ve added an update to the bottom. Also, turns out it’s actually a water buffalo skull. Oops! I’ve revised the post accordingly.

Ben

stunning piece! Would you happen to have the address/ name of this workshop in Ubud. I will be visiting soon and this piece of art would make a perfect souvenir!

Ben, the place I’d recommend checking out is Pegasus Fine Art, located at the southern end of Monkey Forest Road in Bali before it veers east towards Jl Hanoman. They also have a gallery in Tampaksiring. There are several other shops along Monkey Forest Road and one on Jl Dewa Sita that also offer water buffalo skull carvings, but the quality varies. The place where I got my skull was a very small bone carving/jewelry shop near the top of Monkey Forest Road (I’m not even sure it had a specific name), but the only skull they had for sale was the one I bought. Good luck! Feel free to email me if you have any more questions

stephanie.

Hi,

I wanted to get this exact skull! I didn’t because I was unsure of how it would go with customs getting into australia, did you have any problems?

I’m regretting not buying it so much, I almost want to plan another trip just to go and get it!

stephanie, yep, I bought it and shipped it to the US. It took over three months (by sea), and survived the journey in one piece. Now it’s in storage in California while we get settled. Hope to take a new photo of it when we can find a place to re-hang it in it’s new home.

Paul

Had it been fumigated? Did you have to get a certificate of fumigation before it was shipped?

Paul, I doubt it, and no.

Anne

So I’m curious. What company did you use to ship it back to the U.S.? I was just in Ubud and got back to the states a week ago. I actually bought one too, but customs seized it….that was a very heartbreaking moment. I am trying to figure out how to have one shipped without it being taken….again:(

Anne, oh no! I just used Indonesia Post (on Jl Jembawan). They packed it up real good (cost me ~$200 to pack and ship by seamail) and it made it all the way to the US about three months later.

Anne

Ok, I should’ve done that in the first place. As you can tell, I’m determined to find another one:) Thanks for the info.

Danielle

Hey! These are amazing :) We bought the same color, style, with Ganehsa, it is so beautiful, talked the guy down to 1.5 million rupiah we bought a few other things. Now…just waiting to see if it makes it into Canada!!!!

Danielle, definitely send me a photo of yours if you have one, or after it arrives in Canada. I went all over the place looking for a carved skull of similar quality as this one, but none were as good, so I went back and got this one. Sounds like you found a good one, and got a good deal as well.

Ryan

Hey Danielle, can you tell me where you bought yours? And how much did it cost to send to Canada? Is there a way to get the packaging done somewhere cheaper? Sorry for all the questions but I am in Ubud right now looking at some. Thanks. And Justin that one looks awesome! Good purchase!

Daryl

What a beautiful piece, dont suppose you fancy selling it? ;-) Let me know!

Daryl, thanks for the offer, I think I’m going to hang on to it for a little while, especially now that I’ve got a place to hang it!

Daryl

:-) hay cant blame me for asking, you dont try you’ll never know. Enjoy it, for you it has a story to go with it which is priceless.

& congrats on your new condo, its beautiful! Having just bought myself (in London) I know how stressful it can be.

Sarah

Hi Justin – could you please share the email contact for this skull? I need to buy one :-)

Sarah, I responded to the email you sent. Let me know if you need any more information.

Bill

I just returned from Ubud with a Water Buffalo myself! To get it home I just wrapped it really well and took it on the plane as a carry on. With the horns removed and laid against the skull it wasn’t huge but not small either.
I got questioned at every check point on what it was but no major hassles. Apparently you can not take them into Australia.

Skye

Hi Justin,

can tell me exactly where including address you got it. It is quite a beautiful piece. The showroom and the workshop of the artist.
I am heading to Ubud in April and a carved buffalo skull is one of the things I am looking for.
I will have to look into the logistics of shipping or bringing with me into Australia as I live there.
Thanks

Skye, I bought it from a shop that had only one. There are 3-4 shops along Monkey Forest Road and Dewi Sita that sell carved Buffalo Skulls. The road is very short, so walk around, take a look, and see if you find one you like. Probably the nicest work you’ll find is at Pegasus Gallery, shortly before the bend in Monkey Forest Road at the southern end.

Justin, Is it possible for you to provide me with the artists email address? I would like to ask him a few questions about his technique as this piece is so amazing to me I would like to try something similar.

JD, I shot you some information in an email. The short of it is, I’m not 100% sure who the artist is, but based on the quality of the piece, I have a hunch.

Amanda

I saw one of these in the Netherlands and have been trying to find out where it came from! Ubud, now I know! Thanks

tpot

We just made it home from Bali with two carved cow skulls in our carry-on luggage. Both very intricately carved and purchased from the artist in Tampaksiring. We paid $50 each for them. It would have been $250 to ship them so carry-on was the way to go. It was kind of a hoot seeing airport security react to them but no problem getting them into the states. Ours actually have been wired for a small light fixture. At first I thought that was a tacky feature that I would remove, but OMG – it is so cool to see lit up!

tpot, I’d love to see a photo of the skulls lit up a night. Sounds like you got a great price for them as well. Since we were going to be traveling for another 8 months, shipping was our only option.

Allie

I would like a buffalo skull. How do i get one justin?

Allie, unless you’re lucky enough to stumble upon one in an import shop in the Netherlands, my best advice would be to catch a flight to Denpasar, Indonesia (the airport in Bali) and head to Ubud or Tampaksiring. Good luck.

I would love to buy one of these! I saw three at a restaurant in Auburn Al. !!!

Linda

Hi Justin and friends, since you like to travel, maybe I can welcome you in my shop in Koh Samui, Thailand one day. My shop also sells carved cow skulls.
Have a look at my website, Sholinisland.com for more
details. I wish you a nice day!
Linda

Jareb

What an amazing piece of art. Like JD, could you send me some information about where you got it, and their email? Thanks.

Jareb, I’d be happy to, but I’d need your email address. Feel free to contact me if you’re still interested.

sarena

I got the exact same one in Toronto at a Philipino store. But I paid $500 Canadian for it, probably because of the shipping costs added. I love it! Thanks for sharing info about it.

john

hai. everyone who know how to send it from bali to america? please help me..

John, I successfully sent mine from Bali to Austin, Texas via Pos Indonesia (the Indonesian Postal Service). Sent via “sea mail”, it cost around $200 and took over 3 months, but it made it!

Sagi

Hello Justin, can you please send me more information on where you go this piece?
wolfeagleleader@gmail.com
Thank You
Sagi

Christophe

How could you even try to bargain the price down….?!?!?!

Soukoun

Hi Justin could you please tell where i can find this carved buffalo head.

hey,

so happy to stumble over this & you. saw an amazingly beautiful carved white skull in paris when i was there a month ago & couldn’t forget it {it was e x t r e m e l y expensive; sitting there just one in really posh shop}..

just now i decided to search the internet for ’carved skull’ & the first image on google images that caught my eye was yours. when i read on a smile reaches from ear to ear as i am visiting ubud in september !

so happy for you you found this, ~ & actually got it home.

beautiful !

all the best to you from sweden,
hannah

Christophe, bargaining expected while shopping in Southeast Asia. Plus, 3.5 million rupiah was far and away the highest price I’d seen on anything (outside of a fine art gallery).

Soukoun, I found it at a shop on Monkey Forest Road in Ubud. There are several shops in Ubud that sell a variety of carved water buffalo skulls, for various prices. One of the more upscale dealers is Pegasus Gallery.

Hannah, I’m glad you so enjoyed my post. Good luck finding one of your own in Ubud. Tell me about how it goes.

Dan Nordquist

Fantastic. Could you supply me with the contact info for the buffalo skull artist ?

Dan, I don’t know for sure, but I sent you an email with some details.

R&B

As stated, you are expected to bargin for your art here in Ubud. There are at least 5 levels of pricing here the first price you hear is for people who don’t like to bargain for anything. These people are not stupid. If you want a better price, simply be willing to ask. Banter is expected and respected. They want to know everything about you. Talk to them and you’ll be pleasently rewarded.

basicmagic

i would really like to get any contact info for this artist too, please… what a fantastic piece!

Nice! I know exactly where you bought that, as I drawn into the store by it back in 2008 and bought a beautiful dragon carved from Canadian moose antler there. Congrats!

Sander Janssen

You found yourself a true masterpiece! I am now in Ubud, on the hunt for one as well. I collect skulls and always look for the best quality possible, so I could use a push in the right direction ;)

Sander, your best bet in Ubud would be to check out Pegasus Gallery at the south end of Monkey Forest Road. Otherwise, if you’re interested in having custom work done, head up to the village of Tampaksiring, which specializes in bone carving.

For all those who are interested, I updated the post with information about how I shipped it home, how it arrived (courtesy of my parents), and how it looks up on our wall (courtesy of Instagram).

if you want the carving like that.. visit my blog
http://www.balicarving10.blogspot.com

direct from the carver..so you will get the cheaper price..

Christophe

Justin, I know that bargaining is more than common in southeast Asia, Africa and south America, but….This piece you are showing would deserve that you let your “bargaining” on the side. I guess, beeing myself a bone carver, I can see how much work and time there is in there. But if you think that you “have to” bargain…what can I say….my comment was more to point your attention that even though the price might be high for southeast asia….the work deserve it….

Lenny

Hi I love your Buffalo skull, I was wondering if u know where I could purchase one like this on the Internet, as I live in the Uk. Or do u have the email details of the artist u purchased it from so I could contact them. Many thanks Lenny

I don’t know what it is about that skull that is so captivating, but I feel it just looking at the photos. I cannot imagine what it is like to bask in its presence. I could gush about the intricacy of the carving, or the juxtaposition of the hideous and the sublime, but that still wouldn’t begin to express how I feel about this thing. I’m so happy for you that you found this and had an interesting experience getting it to its destination on your wall. Thanks for sharing your story.

chris

Goodness… This is absolutely beautiful. I’m a big fan of skulls in general but this is just on a whole other level. Nice find man. Hope to have something similar grace my walls some day.

pb42

I’d like to import and sell this en-mass, and make the local population very rich. How about we cut a deal, and you be our exclusive go-to agent. Send us an email!

Hayley

Surely the artist deserves a greater credit reference than only to merely be mentioned.
This piece is priceless
Wonderful discovery

Rojin

Hi there
I’m in bali and looking to do the same thig.. Was 200 your cheapest option ? How much was the packaging?
Cheers

Rojin, $200 was my only option. It’s possible it might have been cheaper had I been able to remove the horns. They calculated the price based on an inscrutable formula using the weight and the final package’s dimensions. Of course leaving the horns on made the dimensions quite a bit bigger. The price of $200 included the custom packaging as well as the shipping.

At the same time, and the dreaded skull and beautiful.
Word. scary looking!

Karen

I purchased and incredible Buffalo skull in Ubud by a carver named “Wayan” I did barter, but still thought the price fair as the piece is amazing. I wrapped it in bubble wrap and cardboard and took it home to Australia as hand luggage, declared it and it now has pride on place on the living room wall. :-)

We have this in North Carolina USA ready to shipped, similar design :) , my family create this in Ubud Bali, our business based in North Carolina USA, contact us if you interested to own Water Buffalo Skull Hand Carved Art of Beauty like Justin Has. http://arianabali.com/Contact_Us.html

well this is great example of an art

it is worth every penny! At $300 the carver must have made 30-40c an hour!

it is spectacular! in a store in US you would pay $1500 to $2000 for something like that! maybe more

Fredrik

Seemingly a very like or even the same skull beeing carved. Found the vid on youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4rZI9nCywCU

Fredrik, it’s not the same skull, I can tell that the arm of Ganesha holding the axe is positioned at a slightly different angle. That said, it is strikingly similar—I wouldn’t be surprised if the artists train by copying previous works. The video is very interesting to me, as I never got to see the carving in progress. Thanks for sharing the link.

al

thanks for the post on the bali skull
i just picked up a similar skull in bali
now in transit in bangkok
but wondering whether to ship it via seamail from bangkok to u.s.a. as you did, or just try and carry it on plane to san fran. did you research the plane carry option? worried about confiscation at customs? in that light, how did the sea shipment make it into u.s. without problems? cow/buffallo i imagine might be regualted becasue of the owrries of foot mouth disease/ made cow disease etc. – anyways, any help would be much apprecaited. when you shipped via sea mail did you indicate it was a skull you were shipping? thanks

al, I never researched the “plane carry” option, because I wasn’t flying back to the US. Sounds like other people have taken that route and succeeded, but I suppose there’s always a risk that customs might confiscate it for some arcane reason. On the seamail customs form I said it was a “sculpture”.

Jenna

I would love to get this as a tattoo on my back. It is so beautiful!!!!!!

Erick

Hi justin.. you got beautiful piece. Just bought one myself on my last trip, but now i want to add more for my collection. Do you happen to still had the contact of the store or the artist at tampaksiring. Thanks..

Kelly

Hi Justin, wow this is amazing! Do you recall the name of the shop or exact location that you brought this from, I am headed to Bali in a couple of months but will only be in Ubud for one day and Monkey Forest Rd is quite long, I would love to know where to go and buy one like this, thanks

Kelly, check out Pegasus at the sound end of Monkey Forest Road. However, there are several stores that sell bone and skull carvings of varying quality.

Hi Kelly, you also can visit Tampaksiring Vilage directly to the producer of the Buffalo Skull Carving, its about 45 minutes drive from Ubud, the price will be much different there comparing to get it from Ubud Village Reseller.

For anyone didn’t have chance to come to Bali, you can order it trough us located here in mainland USA, North Carolina. If you look in Ebay the lowest price you will see $300 +S&H. But if you talk to us we can negotiate (bargaining) with pricing :) just the Balinese way, lol.

Ariana Bali Design is a producer, wholesaler, and retailer of all kind of item as seen in Bali Island, owned and operated by Balinese, located in USA Mainland, Cherokee, North Carolina.
visit our web at http://www.arianabali.com/#!blog/cxv5

Brian Coombes

Hey guys I love these too that’s why import them from Bali (threw numerous channels to take the pain out of bovine Importing) I’m uk based so anyone who didn’t get one and still wants one can get in touch and can send you one (for less than you’d pay in Bali and on ebay too!) if your interested get in touch. Brian.coombes@me.com

Sheila

I know exactly how you feel. I’m Dutch and I travelled to Bali many times. And these carved skulls have always caught my eye. This time I finally bought one. Especially after I checked with Dutch customs of it was ok for me to ship a carved skull home. They said it was. I bargained (it probably helps i can speakthe laureatea bit) and paid about €85 for the Buffalo skull and I’ve already visited the post office for prices to ship it home. Will do later this week. Like you I cannot wait to have it home! It’s an awesome souvenir I will never regret :)

Sheila

Ah, completely jealous of Ganesha skull, it’s pure amazing. Is it by Bali Organic Arts? We posted about them on our blog and people love their stuff, as do we.

Megan Funchess

Wow! They’re all wonderful. They’re like the sculpted buffalo skulls I saw in a site awhile ago.

Bali dweller

Be careful folks. Many of the carved skulls on sale are a mixture of resin and real skull or pure resin with real horns. Bone is not really translucent so if it being sold as a lamp… It is almost undetectable except by breaking or melting the material. The resin is brittle and melts… duh. The skulls that look older are usually resin. Buy off the carver if you can. Expect to pay several hundred dollars for intricate work.

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