Real Life

A real-life fairytale: How an Australian kindergarten teacher became a Balinese princess

In 1977, Jane Gillespie was holidaying in Bali with her mother. She had no idea that there, she would fall in love with a real-life prince. Here's her first person story.

When I was younger and I pictured what my life would be like, I imagined myself living a pleasant, quiet sort of existence in Sydney, working as a kindergarten teacher, which is what I was doing when I went to Bali for a holiday that would change everything.

The year was 1977 when my mother and I set off. We arrived in Ubud and went to our accommodation at the Puri Saraswati Bungalows, which was a beautiful and tranquil hotel on royal palace land. The luscious gardens shimmered with a million shades of green and the Balinese architecture took my breath away. The property was owned by one of the two wives of Prince Tjokorda Agung Suyasa.

One of his wives lived with him in the palace, and the other lived in the hotel. Her brother-in-law, Prince Tjorkoda Raka Kerthyasa, was a handsome young man who loved to come and meet the international guests and talk to them about Balinese life and culture. He’d been to Australia before and was very charismatic. I found myself drawn to him immediately.

The Prince and I discovered we had a lot in common. He was interested to learn that I was a kindergarten teacher and explained that he was involved in a local children’s theatre group. He invited me to come along one day, and told me about his work and life. I realised there was something special about the connection between us. The fact that he was a prince didn’t really enter my mind. To me, he was just an interesting and magnetic young man who was opening my eyes to a side of Balinese life I might otherwise not have seen.

Sadly, our time together was short because my holiday came to an end. I had only been in Bali for two weeks but it had left a deep impression on me. When I was back in the classroom, I found myself feeling unsatisfied. The quiet Sydney life I’d imagined for myself no longer felt right.

Prince Raka and I kept in touch by writing letters. It’s funny to think about now, but this was the 1970s and there wasn’t a telephone in Ubud. Not even in the palace! I always looked forward to the arrival of an envelope from Bali.  

As the months passed, I couldn’t stop thinking about how happy I had been in Bali. So I made the bold decision to resign from my job and return to Ubud for a sabbatical. I’d always been passionate about children’s literature and decided I would stay for three months and use the time to write a children’s book.

How I became an Australian Balinese princess

I didn’t have any expectations regarding the Prince. He was on my mind, of course, but six months had passed since we’d last been together and I didn’t want to get my hopes up. I returned to the Puri Saraswati Bungalows, and the minute I arrived at the hotel, the jungle drums went out! People somehow got the message to Prince Raka that I was back, and he came straight over. From the moment I saw him, it was as if we’d never been apart. I realised that what we had was more than a fleeting holiday romance. Soon the Prince asked me to marry him. I didn’t hesitate in saying yes. When you know, you know, and I was ecstatic. 

However, the Balinese royal family is vast and sprawling, and they do like their members to marry from among their ranks. They took my passport and checked me out with Interpol to make sure I was legitimate. I had to convert to Hinduism. Luckily, my background checks came back clean, and we had a beautiful wedding.

I changed my name to Princess Jero Asri Kerthyasa. Jero means “from the palace” and Asri means “perfect”. Our wedding was a simple affair. Back then, people didn’t throw the elaborate events they do now, and I didn’t want to make too much of a fuss of the “princess” aspect of the wedding. For me, the day was about the love I shared with Raka. A few of my friends and immediate family came up for the wedding, and I suppose there was some interest as we were featured on the cover of The Weekly. It seemed like everybody saw that magazine!

I was drawn to the Balinese way of life, but there was one element that had me a little worried, and that was the tooth filing ceremony. That ritual would require me to have my teeth all filed to the same length so I would not be mistaken for a demon when I entered heaven. At the time, I managed to avoid that particular ceremony, but I quickly learned that my life in Bali would be vastly different from my life at home. Being young and in love, the Prince and I hadn’t discussed how much things would change once we were married. For one thing, his religion allowed multiple wives.

“Prince Raka was the youngest son of his father’s 10th wife, but I told Raka that if he wanted another wife, he’d have to divorce me first!”

We were very happy together, although I did find royal life to be a bit of an adjustment. In those days, the palace wasn’t very palatial. There was no plumbing. All water had to be brought in by bucket. We were lucky to have servants who did that. But there were always lots of visitors. We’d wake up and find a whole village at the front door, waiting to get advice from my brother-in-law. We shared the palace with Prince Raka’s stepmother, his older brother and his wife, and their three kids.

I wasn’t allowed to leave the premises without permission. So, at times, I did feel a bit stuck. We lived in the palace for about a year until our first son was born. Raka had his own place outside the centre of Ubud, so we moved down there. We didn’t have electricity or running water, but nobody did.

From Australia to Bali and back again

Before our second son was born, we returned to Sydney, where we stayed for about 12 years. We wanted our children to know both Balinese and Australian cultures, and while in Sydney we were blessed with a daughter, too. But Raka always longed to return to Bali, and so we came home. All three of our children are in Bali now, and they have children too.

In 2017, I finally had my teeth filed alongside my eldest grandson. It didn’t hurt! It is more about the ritual than the actual filing. It’s a symbolic act, though I believe my husband did whisper in the ear of the person doing the filing to go easy on us.

These days Raka is very involved in his royal duties, while our son and I run a tea house in Seminyak. Our establishment, Biku, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, but is famous for its high teas. Some people get a kick out of visiting a  cafe owned by a princess. Little girls, in particular, come up and say, “Oh my God,  I can’t believe it!” So that’s very sweet. I gave up quite a lot of my old life to marry my prince because I just knew he was ‘the one’, and after all these years, he still is.

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