Intro to Southern Bali, Dancers, Dinners & the Divine

Balinese women at the temple - Ubud Bali“Where are we going to go?” Ideas were tossed back and forth for weeks. Rose and I had decided to join forces as travel buddies once again for my break during my Asia work trip having had many wonderful adventures in Thailand last year. The problem wasn’t when or if we were going to go somewhere together … but where.

Rose had already traveled through more Asian countries than me which whittling down our possible destinations substantially. Back and forth over email flew the Philippines, Southern China… Myanmar… all shot down for a range of reasons from getting a VISA in time to monsoon rains. It was such that we decided on Bali. Not the closest from my start point of Hong Kong and the bookend of Bangkok… however, a place I’d been dying to go to. Cheap flights tracked down and booked, off we went!

Did I mention cheap? I’d been so busy jetting around for work and struggling with the internet in China that it was rather remarkable that I’d managed to find a reasonably priced flight… through Royal Brunei airlines. I had to admit… I had no idea where Brunei was, thanks to Wikipedia I learnt that it was on the north coast of Borneo and is officially known as the “Nation of Brunei, the Abode of Peace,” what an excellent name for a gateway to my holiday. Ten days later I was aboard a packed plane of Asian deal seekers in the direction of the Brunei capital, Bandar Seri Begawan… another new mystery. Sometimes we have to embark into the unknown, take travel risks and seize the moment. Even though we weren’t going to completely uncharted territory, this theme was the surfboard of our trip, a philosophy of riding those crystal blue waves.

Indonesia is a place where it’s totally possible to remain in a comfy tourist bubble, that said, there is still a lot of authenticity to be found even on fairly well-trodden Bali and it was the further afield we ventured where we had the most offbeat experiences. Each day had its own surprise/s.

Bintang, Beaches and Cheap Eats

For our first two nights, we opted to stay in south of the airport in the less touristy town of Jimbaran, booking at the charming Puri Bambu hotel. On our first real day, almost as soon as we stepped out of our hotel, I knew we were in a magical place as we traced the trail of personal offerings in front of many of the driveways on the road. We were thrilled and somewhat astonished to find the beautiful beach virtually empty (the benefits of traveling in the shoulder season), its length we blissfully ambled, taking in the last of the fishing boats coming ashore during a refreshing swim. Rose and I furthered cooled down with our first cool Bintang, the local beer which would become our daily staple. This was it. the sign: we were officially on holiday. And we’d soon made our first friends of the trip; the above two adorable boys, lady killers in the making, vying for our attention with their cute antics, seashell collection and creative art made of Bintang packaging.

Eventually peeling ourselves off the plastic seats of the makeshift beach bar (i.e. a lady with a cooler and an umbrella), we ambled up the road to where Rose had scoped out some local eateries in the few hours she’d had alone before I’d arrived (well, in addition to getting her butt slapped by young boys passing on a scooter—she hadn’t made friends with those particular boys…). Rose loves both a bargain and eating authentically (street food or stalls). We ended up at a place where nobody spoke English, the photos on the menu guiding us to our first Nasi Gorengs (fried noodles with vegetables) of many throughout our trip and the succulent fresh melon juice, all for about $2.50.

Candlelit Dinner on the Beach

That night we “splurged” (about $8) at one of outdoor restaurants along the beach, each trying to outdo the next with their candlelit tables facing the sea and entertaining dancers or musicians. Albeit a little touristy, it was far from Disney or Las Vegas-esque. We enjoyed our serenade to the rhythm of the crashing waves.

We’d come up with a rough itinerary of what we wanted to do and had booked the first two hotels, but for the rest, we’d figure it out day to day. Rose had read that drivers in Bali were fairly economical so we decided to hire one for the day to visit some sites between Jimbaran and our next destination, Ubud. One thing we learnt from that first day was not to leave everything in the hands of a driver. It wasn’t that he was a bad driver, nor out to make some sort of kickbacks (like is often the case), he just didn’t get our requests for authenticity.

Temples – the overrated and under-visited

Is this temple nice? – Oh, yes. Is this a beautiful beach? – Oh, yes. Can you take us to a “real” local place for lunch? – Oh, yes. Instead the first temple, Pura Luhur Uluwatu, though while situated in a spectacular location clinging to the edge of a cliff, was quite small, had very little one could see without entering for a ceremony except for the view… and some monkeys (if you plan on going, visit at sunset like is often suggested, we went in the morning).

Then we stopped in at Padang Padang Beach, the one featured in movie based on Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling book Eat, Pray, Love. We shouldn’t have been surprised to find it was packed with tourists the polar opposite to our experience of the previous day. He suggested some art villages en route which turned out to be a tourist-geared “art colony” where we were escorted around a sort of large art gallery of extremely overpriced paintings. His typical village was another touristy trap, the lunch spot a tourist stopover. Then we made a stop at somewhere more worthwhile: the Batuan Temple.

This was more like it. Here was a real temple, a true “abode of peace.” Rose and I wandered off in our separate directions, slowly discovering the weather-worn statues, the various alters, platforms and other hidden corners of the complex. In one of these, I stumbling upon a courtyard abuzz with activity. In a few days’ time there was an important ceremony and here were about thirty women preparing offerings. Concentrated on their work, some in a low hushed chatter with the neighbors, they barely noticed the peering curious strangers. This was the Bali I’d wanted to discover.

Monkeying Around at Ubud’s Monkey Forest

On our way into Ubud, we made a stop at its famed Monkey Forest. It had just rained so the tropical forest teaming with little monkeys was glowing in a vibrant green overhung with a light mist. Very atmospheric, yet the Batuan Temple still remained the highlight of the day.

We spent two full days in Ubud. Many come here to practice yoga, escape to a rice field retreat or in seek of other spiritual pursuits as in Eat, Pray, Love. I have to admit, at first I was really tempted to track down some of the places or people described in her book, however, I hadn’t come to Bali to mirror someone else’s experience, one needs to find one’s self on her own path. Through our own adventuring, we would find our own connections to this special place.

Our first evening meander gave us a nice introduction to the town, we grabbed a bite at the Warung Boga Sari with its cozy setting and tasty food, then with full bellies we moved on to admire the palace at night and contemplated what to do the next day. We both agreed a cooking class would be fun, yet when we stopped by two, neither could accommodate a vegetarian at the same time as “regular classes, so we stopped by a little booking kiosk to see if they could help and as luck would have it they found us spots with Jambangan Cooking Classes.

Balinese Cooking – Family Style

Picked up early the next morning, we were joining by three friendly Australian women and off we drove to a nearby village where we started with a tour of an authentic local market. We tasted fresh fruit, had a gander at the colorful stalls, sampled some mini pancakes with toasted coconut, spotted some brightly dyed baby chicks and picked up some last ingredients for our class (no, the pink chicks didn’t end up in our basket). We were then taken back to a nearby village to a traditional family compound… and our class was indeed a family affair with different members assisting in various ways. They were extremely hospitable, pedagogic and ensured we all got our hands dirty, chopping, stirring or grinding (…sauces). The resulting feast of our labors was divine. Not only did we have this unique window into Balinese life and cuisine, we also learnt more than we would during some of the other classes in town that are more of a demonstration.

Our meal was just finishing up as the sky started clouding over with one of the season’s afternoon downpours brewing, its inevitable cascade descending on our car as we were getting back into town. Wanting to make the most of our day rather than pouting at the raindrops from our hotel, we got dropped off near some stores that were recommended by one of the Australians who’d been coming back to Ubud once a year for nine years. We ambled into her friend’s shop to peruse her lovely assortment of weavings, batiks and clothing. In no rush to get soaked from the deluge, we leisurely browsed, chitchatted with the shopkeeper and each ending up finding a few treasures amongst her good quality and reasonably priced wares. Cashing up, She asked us if we already had plans for that evening. We’d thought about going to a traditional dance show during our stay in Ubud and as luck would have it, she was actually in an all women percussion and dance group which were performing that night, she’d save us front row seats!

The rain had decreased to a drizzle by the time we’d left her boutique, so we crossed back over the road to check out a temple in the distance which had previously caught our eye (the Gunung Lebah Temple). Like the one of the previous day, we had the chance to have a quiet wander, admiring some women once again busily preparing offerings for the upcoming celebrations.

Shall we Dance?

On our way back into town, we did stop to admire the famous lily pond at the Pura Taman Saraswati temple and weave our way through the palace courtyards, though, for us, neither were quite as magical as the hidden temple.

We were enthralled and envigorated by that evening’s special dance and percussions. Snug in our front row seats at the community center (the Balai Banjar Ubud Kelod), the talented performers told the tale of several hindu stories through their intricate moves and the chimes of their instruments. These arts, along with the tranquil temples, delicious cuisine and laid-back attitude, we were falling under the spell of Balinese culture.

Biking the Ricefields … in the Rain?

Our next day also provided its fair share of offbeat adventures. We’d both wanted to see some of the rice fields around the town so we rented some bikes and headed off along a path which was supposed to have a scattering of art studios and cafes (the one leading out to Sari Organik). From our experience of the day before, we did expect it to rain at some point that afternoon, however, we’d hoped to get in much of our bike ride before skies opened up. Fate would have it otherwise…

After pedaling down the bumpy narrow lane for around 15 minutes, we eventually reached the gorgeous fields, though somewhat hard to admire with our eyes veering back and forth to the ground in a nervously trying to avoid the rocks and potholes which could propel us to the left into the rice paddies or the the right into the creek ravine. Just as we were getting used to the treacherous path, the brooding clouds burst opening with rapid, round drops.

It so happened that we were nearing a small hut, which as we ducked under their tarpaulin awning discovered was one of the expected art studios. A little browse would keep us dry and occupied for the time being. The mild-mannered artist and his sweet wife welcomed us warmly, offering up some coffee and snacks. We were soon joined by an aloof Brit, seeking protection mainly for his large professional camera, he remained virtually to himself whereas Rose and I chatted cheerfully to our hosts and as the rain tumbled on and on, we went back inside for yet another tour around his art collection. As it turned out, due to his failing eyesight, the artist’s wife had begun working with him, finishing off some of the finer details, some of our favorite works were actually signed in her name. When the rain finally petered off… two hours later… Rose and I were armed with several small paintings, a couple of carvings (produced by his brother) and two new friends. The rain may have impeded our geographical discovery of the area, but not getting to know the people and their culture.

Dinner Deals and Our Turn to Dance

That night a slight melancholy hung over us, with the sadness of moving on the next day. Our spirits lifted with the delicious flavors of Nasi Campur (an assorted dish of local specialities) and of course a Bintang (enjoyed at the Dewa Warung a local nitty gritty cheap fav for travelers). On our way back to the live music venue we’d checked out the previous night, we passed the local night club, the friendly doorman remembering our names and beckoning us to try it out. Impressed with his memory but less with the playlist, we smiled and grabbed a table instead at the L.O.L. bar to groove to the tunes of that night’s band UBUD 40, a cover band of tunes by UB40 and other reggae classics.

I hadn’t come to Bali precisely for a spiritual awakening, but so far the trip had reminded me to be ready for the surprises in life and to go with them. If we aren’t open to new experiences in life, they won’t come our way. A philosophy the beautiful and welcoming people of Bali seemed to embrace, we didn’t need to go seek this wisdom out from a gifted teacher, we just needed to be receptive, and as the above bathroom graffiti reminded: Love yourself before anyone else…. or rather we need to find and love ourselves before we can properly love anyone else.

More Indonesian adventures to follow shortly!

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