Before coming to Bali I thought I’d either love it, or it would be too touristy. Both proved true, but the latter is less offensive because of how ridiculously beautiful and peaceful the island is. Unlike most of Indonesia which has a Muslim majority, Bali is overwhelmingly Hindu. Offerings to the Gods are made every single morning in the form of chanang, small hand-made coconut leaf “trays” filled with a combination of items such as flowers, crackers, rice and pandan leaves. Small bits of rice on banana leaves are also scattered about, much to the delight of hungry ants. These chanang can be found in home doorways, walkways, streets, car windshields, motorbikes, inside the home… basically everywhere. They are constant reminders that Bali isn’t simply an island of resorts- it’s full of warm, hospitable, grateful people who hold tight to tradition. I was in love from the start.
I arrived in Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali, late at night from Kuala Lumpur. The drive from the airport to Sunarta Homestay was about an hour and a half, so it was after 11pm when I apologetically woke my hosts to show me to my room. I barely looked around the room before I unpacked my pjs and plopped into bed. Roosters woke me early, and I wondered what kind of paradise I had landed in. After unsuccessful attempts to go back to sleep, I decided to look out my window at the early light of dawn. And there, on my porch, was a thermos of hot water along with a cup, coffee, tea bags and sugar. I threw open the door, poured myself a cup of tea and all was right with the world. About an hour later I grew hungry and went to the front of the compound to inquire about breakfast. As I walked down the steps I heard a woman say, “You want breakfast?” “Yes, that would be great. Sorry again for my late arrival.” “No problem,” she said. “We’ll bring it to your room”. And with that, I returned to my porch. A few minutes later a small fruit plate and steaming hot omelet were delivered. Yep, I could get used to this, especially for $20/night. Homestays are prevalent in Ubud with many families offering accommodation to travelers. And with the Balinese compound set-up, it’s easy to add separate bungalows for roving tourists.
Each morning at Sunarta Homestay, a member of the family would walk around placing offerings throughout the grounds and on the shrine attached to each bungalow. I would sit on the porch with my computer, watching them walk from bungalow to bungalow with incense burning. It was a peaceful ritual that, strangely, made me feel right at home in Bali.
The main streets of Ubud make a “T” and are jam-packed with cars and motorbikes. Along Monkey Forest Road are shops and restaurants a-plenty. For the first time during my travels, I wanted to buy everything in sight. There were beautiful silk dresses, sarongs, batik fabrics, scarves, silver jewelry, coconut shell everything… amazing. Unfortunately my bag is already packed to the gills, so I was able to replace my existing sarong, but not much else.
While Bali is more expensive than Vietnam and Cambodia, it’s still extremely reasonable by Western standards- especially for a vacation destination. Local warungs serve Balinese-style food on the cheap, including rice and noodle dishes, but there are also restaurants for the tourist set where you can find pizza, pasta and burgers alongside traditional nasi goreng at mostly reasonable prices. Unfortunately alcohol is not as cheap. A local Bintang beer will only set you back $2-3, but wine and hard alcohol are heavily taxed. You’d be hard pressed to find a mojito for less than $8 outside of happy hour.
A few days into my stay in Ubud, I took a cooking class through Paon Bali Cooking Class. Puspa is a former chef who, along with her husband, has turned their home into a cooking school. Just a few minutes from the center of town, their traditional Balinese compound overlooks lush jungle.
When I first arrived in Ubud, I was shocked by the number of temples that lined the streets. But as I began to better understand Balinese architecture, thanks in part to the explanation by Puspa, I realized the “temples” I’d seen were actually residences. They have high walls and a narrow entrance with statues to discourage negative spirits from entering, and each faces either the mountains or the ocean. Direction is very important in Balinese architecture and determines the layout inside as well. There is always a mountain-facing family temple that receives the first light of day, and is typically comprised of five small shrines where offerings of fruit and flowers adorn the stone carvings. In the center is a small, open pavilion with a raised floor and a roof where the family can sit to escape the mid-day heat. Ceremonies may also be conducted here. The main sleeping quarters (bale daja) is located at the top of the compound, and is where the head of the household sleeps with his immediate family. Smaller dwellings are for extended family and visitors, and the kitchen, or paon, is a separate building as well. Lush greenery and flowers flourish in the tropical heat, providing natural landscaping. Balinese compounds blur the lines between inside and out with families spending much of their time at home outside. Some of the buildings even have glass-less windows or other cut-outs in the walls to allow for air flow. And in a place this beautiful, who wouldn’t want to invite the outside in?
Ok, time to bring it back to the food. There were about 15 students in the class, a little large for my taste, but Puspa was so fun and magnetic, I hardly minded sharing a cooktop. We started with a trip to the market, then returned to make traditional dishes: clear mushroom soup (yes, I ate the mushrooms!), chicken satay, a shaved coconut and long bean salad, deep-fried tempeh in a sweet soy sauce, fish grilled in banana leaf, gado gado (mixed veggies), peanut sauce and their basic yellow sauce which is the foundation for many dishes. After some instruction, chopping, mixing, more instruction and cooking, we sat down to enjoy the food we had all helped prepare. In the month I spent in Bali, that meal from Paon cooking school was one of the best I had. Everything was fresh and delicious with just the right amount of spice. And I love peanut sauce, which is plentiful in Balinese cuisine. Puspa provided a book of recipes, so hopefully I’ll be able to replicate at least one dish at home. Enchanting me with food is definitely the way for a country to win me over!