As Indonesian destinations go, Bali was very low on our list of priorities. Clearly, we are in the minority though since the majority of Indonesia’s tourists end up there at some point. Most of them head to the beaches in the South to approximate an extended version of a debauched weekend at home while working on their sunburn. Laura had been keen to follow Lonely Planet’s advice to wear modest clothing as to ‘not offend local sensibilities’ but that changed within 2 minutes of arriving in Ubud. Local sensibilities must have changed considerably in the two years since Lonely Planet was published since every foreign woman wore tiny shorts and tank tops, and many of the dudes strutted around shirtless.
Ubud: Three way battle- tradition, skimpy shorts and yogic bliss
The traffic from the airport and around Ubud was utterly atrocious. Many tourists visit Ubud on day trips from the beaches and the streets snarl up fast. Laura had done a fine job again of finding a hotel a little ways from the main drag so we had a bit of peace and quiet. I suppose in some parts of the world, walking into an establishment with a Swastika over the door and, in fact called ‘Suastika’, probably means you are in for a night of Screwdriver records in the company of black shirted, shaven-headed gentlemen! Thankfully, the Suastika Hotel couldn’t have been further away from this image. Traditional Balinese houses, or family compounds, are built around shrines and statues of Hindu gods. The shrine areas are extremely colorful, tranquil and awash with beautiful offerings and burning incense. Every morning, Balinese families make considered offerings to the ‘good’ gods in the shrines and place more casual offerings on the ground to appease the more malevolent deities.
Ah, maybe I should add for those that aren’t aware, that the Swastika is an ancient symbol of power in Hinduism and Buddhism. Mr. Hitler and his cronies co-opted this as a potent symbol (branding?) of an altogether different and more malevolent display of power.
Almost every traditional house in Ubud has a shrine area so despite the obvious commercialization of the central area, traditional values are seemingly retained. In fact, walk a few blocks back from the center and you are in rice paddies where traditional rural life continues as it presumably has done for hundreds of years. All-in-all Ubud seems a schizophrenic kind of place- traditional ways still govern Balinese life, daft tourists in skimpy gear lap up the good food and boutiques, and spiritual seekers contort themselves into yogic bliss. The three groups seem to happily co-exist but a number of Balinese are concerned that sheer numbers of people are beginning to take a toll on the town.
The food scene in Ubud is particularly good. We tried to avoid the foreign owned chichi fusion restaurants called things like ‘Spice by Francois de Poncey-Grub’ and stuck to good straight up Indonesian warungs. We are not big pork eaters but we had to try the famous suckling pig served up at Warung Ibu Oka. It is so popular with tourists and locals alike that it has taken over three large buildings near the main drag. We ordered a Spesial, which consisted of fat chunks of spicy pig, pork scratchings, and fried lumps of fat. It was extremely tasty despite, or because of, the fatty elements! Mama’s Warung was another favorite eating and drinking spot of ours. Mama served up utterly delicious Tofu Satay in Peanut Sauce, Chicken and Avocado salad, and massive glasses of tasty mango and coconut juice at preposterously low prices.
There are couple of lovely walks detailed in Lonely Planet that take you into the paddy fields to the north of the downtown area. They are well worth the effort as they take you quickly into rice terraces and coconut farms, as well as the burgeoning collection of spas, yoga centers, and retreats that seem to be the main stay of the area.
Ubud seems to have a burgeoning expat community, which seems to be having a questionable effect on the town. On one hand, they open small, delightful boutique shops and cafes where travelers can pick up organic gluten-free bread, red quinoa and batik knickers; but, on the other hand, they seem to want build concrete monstrosities in the paddy fields. I am a little cynical of the overseas organic yoga mat brigade but, to be honest, their back-to-nature-cum-simple-life vibe does seem appealing. However, I wish they wouldn’t spoil the overall ambience so much by building ugly-ass houses everywhere!
Ubud is famous as a center of traditional Balinese dance and music. Every night, tourists pour into the local temples to watch performances of Kecak, Legong, or Barong dances. We opted for a performance of the Kecak dance. Like the ballet in Prambanan in Java, the Kecak centers on the Ramayana epic and the story of Sita’s kidnap and eventual rescue. Unlike the other dances, Kecak is sound tracked by a troupe of male vocalists instead of the Gamelan gong orchestra. The singers sit on the floor and sway and gesture in sync while vocalizing the music. The performance is often called the chak-chak-chak dance since the default vocal pattern is ‘chak chak chak’. The overall effect of the sounds and movement is quite hypnotic. The dancers move in and out of the circle of vocalists throughout the performance. The quality of the dancers was much higher than that in Prambanan, and since the venue was much more intimate you could really see the facial gestures and hand movements that are crucial to the storytelling. The setting of the show was incredible. It was set in the grounds of Pura Taman Saraswati temple, and candles and tiki torches lit up the statues and shrines. Despite the religious setting and context, amusingly, a posse of old women swarmed over the audience pre-performance to sell bottles of Bintang beer to tourists.
On our last day in Ubud before heading north, we witnessed a very colorful and noisy temple festival and parade at Pura Desa Ubud. I have absolutely no idea what they were celebrating but with four gamelan orchestras competing for attention, parades of statues on the streets, and the waft of incense all around, it was certainly an uplifting and energizing experience.
It comes out of a Civet’s butt then you roast it and drink it!
Ubud is also a good place to try, and to buy, Luwuk coffee. Luwuks are known as civet cats at home and by all accounts they have extremely good taste in coffee beans. Luwuks like to eat the sweet shell of the coffee fruit but poop out the bean. Traditionally, the beans were collected up in the wild and ground down for coffee. The tradition has somewhat mysterious origins, but allegedly, slaves who were working on coffee plantations but not allowed any coffee first harvested the Luwuk beans. The slaves also noticed that Luwuks were very choosy over their morsels and figured that they only ate the good stuff. Over time, their masters cottoned on to this and began to harvest the beans themselves and sell it on for large sums of money.
We were keen to try it but the one question that came to mind was ‘how do we know that this coffee has passed through the butt of a civet?’ We did a bit of research online and we found out that Luwuk coffee is now mass-produced and the civets are force fed the beans. One outcome is that the beans they eat are not necessarily the best. We passed on the coffee, however, since we were not keen on supporting a practice that cages and force-feeds wild animals.
Munduk: where it is always Valentine’s Day for couples on the road
After dipping our toes in Bali’s mass tourism trade, we decided to head north to check out an area where more traditional lifestyles prevail. We headed up to a small village called Munduk, which sits on a ridge overlooking beautiful clove tree forests, lakes, and volcanoes. The fantastic Ubud Tourist Information Center organizes minibuses to many areas of Bali, including Munduk, which is a godsend since Bali’s public transport system is dwindling to nothing. Weirdly, there is no shuttle in the other direction to get back to Ubud. No idea why but it seems a no-brainer to me.
Munduk is where traveling couples in Bali go to chill out! I don’t think I saw one singleton in Munduk. It was like an awkward dinner date in a posh restaurant on Valentine’s Day!
We stayed in the Meme Surung Homestay in a lovely bungalow surrounded by clove trees and overlooking rice paddies and farmland. Many delicious things are grown in the hills around Munduk: cloves, vanilla, cacao, coffee, pineapples, bananas, and papayas. Men climb rickety bamboo ladders to pick cloves, which, spread out to dry in front of houses, send wafts of fragrance through the air.
We took a guide on day two to explore the area. To be honest, the hike can be done without a guide but it is nice to have someone on hand to give some cultural and economic context for the area. He also invited us into his uncle’s house for coffee and fruit, which was a great way to take a look at rural life out here. Rural life seems like a busy life. Unlike home, where we do our 8 hours 5 days a week, and if we want, we eat in restaurants and try to create as much time as we can for leisure, Asian rural life is a truly 24/7 enterprise. There is rice to grow, cloves to cut and dry, animals to milk and slaughter, fruit to pick, mouths to feed, babies to tend to, houses to clean and so on. I have yet to see in any rural Asian household, folks sitting down and reading or chilling out. It always seems like a relentless cycle of activity. It’s exhausting to watch ☺. I would like a simpler life, for sure, but I don’t think it can be found in rural Asia.
Do not enter if your child has not shed his first tooth
Since there was no shuttle back to Ubud, we decided to hire a car and driver for the day to hit a few outlying spots of interest on the way back South. Many important Balinese temples sit on the sides of volcanoes and their beauty and setting has led to a steady stream of tourists heading to them over the years. Where there are tons of tourists there are tons of touts and rip-off merchants trying to part them from their dollars. Pura Besakih on the slopes of Gunung Agung is one such spot and the relentlessness of tourist hordes and their tout ‘attendees’ has turned it into a miserable unholy destination. For some reason, Pura Luhur Batukau, another serene temple sitting on the slopes of an impressive volcano, Gunung Batukau, has no such problems. Very few tourists make it out here, but the ones that do will be thrilled at the forest setting and beautiful shrines and temples. There are a few rules to adhere to, some of which are easy to understand (the dress code of sarong and sash), and some are truly odd (women whose children’s first tooth has not fallen out cannot enter) but on the whole it is fairly relaxed.
On the road to Batukau, we stopped off at the marvelous rice terraces of Jatiluwih. This UNESCO site is attracting a few tourist buses these days but most of the time you are on your lonesome wondering around emerald green paddies carved out of the hills many generations ago. The villagers have carved out a lovely path through the fields so that you can get to the best viewpoints (and no doubt to stop tourists wondering into people’s yards!).
We were pretty impressed by Bali and its utterly unique culture. It’s great to see that some elements of Balinese culture remain despite the hordes of tourists passing through with their odd ideas about ‘not offending local sensibilities’.
Next stop was Lombok and the tiny backpacker infested islands of Gili.