Jul 20

Escape to Ubud, the Heart of Balinese Culture and Art

The artistic, cultural and spiritual heart of Bali for centuries, Ubud is serenely located up in the hills in lush jungle, surrounded by rice-paddies. Lined with galleries, cafés and craft shops, its narrow streets are a delight to wander – just watch out for those drains! There’s no denying the town is commercial and it does get crowded, but at least its shops specialize in textiles and crafts rather than Bintang t-shirts and stubby holders as they do down in Kuta.

Be enchanted by the tranquil gardens and sublime Balinese art – from the Pitamaha school to the naïve style of the Young Artists (my favourites) at Agung Rai Museum of Art (ARMA). Art buffs should also browse Museum Puri Lukisan and Neka Art Museum. Everyone else can go mosey the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary to spend time with the cheeky Balinese Macaques, stroll the rice terraces, take a bird-watching walk, pamper yourself with a spa treatment, or enjoy a dance performance after dark.

A major centre of learning, Ubud is paradise for experiential travellers. You can learn almost anything here, from playing in a gamelan orchestra (see this video of Terence’s lessons!) to learning how to make offerings as I did. There are courses on Balinese painting, architecture, dance, drama, cooking, woodcarving, and yoga. ARMA has a popular and affordable program of cultural workshops though not all instructors speak English; check before signing up. Travel blogger Kasia swears by the batik course at Nirvana.

The not-for-profit Bali Animal Welfare Association (BAWA) supports a vet clinic at Ubud, where they welcome volunteers to help care for animals – they need people to do everything from cleaning duties to dog walking. Not far from Ubud, the innovative Green School – built from bamboo! – welcomes helping hands in the classroom, as well as donations. The excellent Bali Spirit website also lists non-profits that need volunteers. Do you know of other opportunities? Let us know below.

After putting your bargaining skills to use haggling at the already ridiculously cheap and crowded stalls at Ubud Markets (best for sarongs, cotton dresses, baskets, carvings), clear your conscious by buying traditional Balinese textiles at Threads of Life, or handicrafts, postcards and prints at the fair-trade Kafe Kares (formerly Bali Cares) shop. Scores of art galleries and craft shops are dotted around Ubud, but we liked Tony Raka’s gallery for tribal and contemporary art and the The Seniwati Gallery of Art by Women, which supports local women artists.

Local specialties include suckling pig and crispy duck. Overlooking rice paddies, Bebel Bengil (Dirty Duck) is way too famous for its deep fried ducks – we far preferred the delicious BBQ pork ribs (the duck was unpleasantly crispy and practically burnt) and their Pavlova-style coconut cream cake. A better choice is The Pond, also set on rice paddies, and (as you’d expect) a pretty lily pond. We loved their scrumptious duck spring rolls, tasty pork satay, and, once again, wonderful pork ribs.

The best sources of information on what to do, eat, drink, buy, and learn in Ubud are not the guidebooks (all terribly disappointing and out-dated), but two free locally produced magazines (no surprise): Ubud Life and The Bud, which has a brilliant listings section with detailed reviews.

We didn’t stay in Ubud (although HomeAway Holiday-Rentals does list lots of beautiful properties there) but instead drove the one-hour drive along the backroads through fascinating villages from our villa in Tumbak Bayuh. When we return to Bali, we’ll split the time between Ubud and some place on the coast so Terence can get in some surfing – suggestions?

Did we miss some great spots in Ubud? Why don’t you let us know in the Comments below?

Jul 19

Learning the Art of Making Offerings in Ubud

Life in Bali is imbued with rituals – religious, spiritual and social; complicated and simple – from consulting the Balinese calendar to the daily offerings made at Hindu temples.

Every afternoon here at our home in Tumbak Bayuh, the villa staff make offerings at the moss-dappled shrine in our garden and place pretty baskets of offerings around our swimming pool.

The offering or banten is the only demonstration of their spirituality that we’re able to witness and it’s wonderful to be given the privilege to watch – from the respectful placement of the offerings on the shrine to the lighting of the incense sticks and wafting of the fragrant smoke.

Our peek into this daily ritual piqued my interest so much so that when Terence enrolled in a gamelan class, I signed up for a workshop to learn about this Hindu ritual and the sacred art of making offerings.

We had loved visiting the Agun Rai Museum of Art (ARMA) at Ubud, as much for its tranquil tropical gardens as for its stupendous collection of Balinese art, so that when we saw that they offered a program of cultural workshops, we put our names down straight away.

However, like the instructor who gave Terence music ‘lessons’, the English vocabulary of the lovely woman assigned to teach me how to make offerings was limited to “like this” and “no, watch me”. Thus my class on creating offerings was short on background, history and culture, and big on craft.

I had also expected I might be in for a spot of flower- and fruit-arranging, but instead I found myself spending a couple of hours pricking my fingers with the bamboo ‘needles’ I made (tooth picks, pretty much), inflicting successive paper cuts upon myself as I ripped, tore and sliced banana leaves into strips, and essentially learning how to weave baskets with the two plants.

Admittedly, I did learn to make a handful of different styles of basket, each one more elaborate than the next, but magically becoming easier to make the more I made. The flower arranging didn’t come until the very end, and that was the quick and disappointingly easy part. My mother, who had been observing until then, even joined in for that bit.

While I had also expected to come away with a wealth of knowledge about Hinduism and had the mysterious ritual of making offerings demystified for me (I didn’t and it wasn’t), surprisingly I had quite a sense of achievement from having made six baskets by hand from a banana plant, some bamboo sticks, and a bunch of flowers.

Hindu women in Bali might make dozens, if not scores, of these things a day, their designs handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter. Desak tells us she makes a couple of dozen at once and stores them in her fridge. The museum employs two local ladies who make around 300 (!) between them a day. With so many Balinese women working full-time jobs, producing offerings that busy women can buy instead of make has become a rather lucrative little business for some.

At the end of the class, the instructor suggested we add fruit, betel nuts, incense sticks, and even some money, to the offerings when we got home. But my sense of aesthetics didn’t allow me to spoil the simplicity of our lovely arrangements (Mum having helped with their ‘design’ too of course).

I suspected that my restraint might not have made the Gods happy (perhaps they interpreted it as stinginess?), so I took extra care when I placed the offerings on the shrine (for the Gods) and on the ground by the pool (for the demons). (Yes, I learned something!)

I didn’t waft the incense over the things or gesture in the mysterious ways I’d seen the villa staff do, as I still didn’t quite understand the full meaning of the ritual I was enacting, but, hey, I certainly knew more about offerings now than I did before I’d done the workshop. And I also knew a bit about basket-weaving too.

Jul 18

Consulting the Calendar: Choosing Auspicious Moments in Time

Each day Desak and Kuman, the cook and housekeeper at our villa at Tumbak Bayuh, consult the Balinese calendar hanging on the kitchen wall. When Kiki, the villa manager, suggests we try to see a traditional ceremony while we’re on Bali, she heads inside to check the complicated almanac.

While we naturally have difficulty deciphering the thing, we’re told that even the locals find it challenging. Regardless, no Balinese would hold a ceremony, or do pretty much anything, without first studying the calendar to select an auspicious date.

What makes a Balinese calendar confusing for foreigners to understand is that it is actually three calendars in one, the Gregorian, Saka, and Pawukon calendars, and therefore includes all manner of details, from important Hindu celebrations, festivals and temple anniversaries to the full moons and new moons observed in the Saka or lunar calendar. The Pawukon calendar is different again, based on Bali’s rice growing cycle, with six months to a year and 35 days to a month, totalling just 210 days in a Pawukon year. Work that one out!

Although all Balinese make offerings and perform temple-cleansing rites on significant dates such as the Sasih New Year, there are many more ceremonies that are much more localised, with their dates chosen for particular events due to their auspiciousness. There are times when it is best to meditate or to socialise, marry or divorce, and bury and cremate. The banjar or village council even uses the calendar to select dates for their meetings, public events and sporting matches!

One day during our stay Kuman informs us that she’s taking a day off for a ceremony, while Desak, from a village a little farther away, tells us she’s taking time off on different dates for the anniversary of her local temple. Kiki suggests we visit the temple at Uluwatu on the full moon when there should be more people about and a wonderful atmosphere, while another day she calls to tell us when and where there’s to be a spectacular cremation – naturally, on a date that’s been especially selected from the calendar.

They say that in Bali there is a ceremony going on somewhere on the island every day. Having lived with Balinese and with a Balinese calendar on our wall, we believe it.

Jul 18

An Amble Around the Rice Paddies of Tumbak Bayuh

“Hello! Hello!” two skinny little kids call out as they peek from behind a dilapidated brick wall, a short distance down the lane from our Balinese villa. “Hello!!!” we shout back and they smile shyly and scurry away.

Opposite, at the entrance to another home, a young woman looks up from sweeping her cement courtyard with a straw broom. She smiles generously and also says hello. Chickens sprint across the yard behind her where an elderly man, dressed handsomely in a batik sarong and headband, places an offering at a small shrine.

Moments later, a wrinkled old lady, barefoot and balancing a stick across her shoulders, cloth bags tied at either end, twinkles her eyes and opens her mouth to give us a friendly toothless grin. I look back at her a few seconds later to find she has stopped to watch us, and once more she smiles at us with her eyes.

By the time we reach the corner of our lane, where it intersects with the main street, we’ve been greeted by a handful of neighbours, and we’ll be welcomed by two dozen more locals by the end of our stroll a couple of hours later.

One of the best things about our home away from home in Bali is its bucolic location, on the edge of the village of Tumbak Bayuh. A 30-minute drive from Kuta and 10-minutes to Canggu on the coast, our picturesque village couldn’t be more different in appearance or atmosphere to the island’s more popular tourist destinations. And we like it that way.

The village is dissected by one main street dotted with warungs, simple wooden stalls selling snacks such as rice cakes wrapped in coconut leaves, or slightly larger shacks offering basic groceries, a fridge of cold drinks, and a table with a few stools that serve as meeting places as much as anything.

In between the warungs are crumbling temples decorated with stone carvings, flowers growing out of the cracks between the bricks, and walled family compounds housing ramshackle pavilions, paint peeling and dappled with moss, their yards hosting a motley collection of animals: pigs, roosters, hens, baby chicks, geese, and everywhere, mangy barking dogs.  

The two-lane road is lined with towering palm trees heaving with coconuts, banana plants bearing small bunches of the sugary fruit, and as far as the eye can see, lush green terraces of rice paddies.

Everywhere there are people, whizzing by on motorbikes and scooters, doubling two and three family members or friends; riding bicycles laden with sacks bursting with freshly picked crops that spill onto the bitumen as they cruise past; and everywhere there are shirtless guys jogging easily, barefoot or in sneakers, occasionally stopping to chat to their friends or say hello to us.

“They’re warming up for a game of volleyball,” my new friend Aditya explains from the back of her motorbike, after pulling up beside me to ask where we’re from.

After dropping her vehicle at home, Aditya skips down the road to join us on our stroll. A thirty-year-old waitress who looks a very youthful twenty, Aditya moved to Tumbuk Bayuh from Sanur after getting married and having her first son – “a happy accident”, she shares with a giggle, which she says is not uncommon.

As we amble, Aditya points out different trees, plants, birds, and animals. “That’s pork,” she tells me, “and foie gras…” Realising her mistake, we both laugh hysterically. Aditya’s English is excellent, but, as she explains, she learned her animal names from restaurant menus.

Aditya shows us where her husband’s rice farm is and tells us how hard he works, from sunrise to sunset, and explains how the banjar or village council operates, and how everyone helps each other out.

She tells us about the rats that are ruining the rice crops, for which no solution has been found – a nuisance second only to the birds, which explains the ubiquitous scarecrows and the full-time human lookouts. The latter, children and teens mostly, shake the contraptions that stretch convolutedly above the rice fields, making a rather pretty tinkling sound intended to frighten the birds away.

“I like living here,” Aditya says. “It’s so quiet and the air is so fresh compared to Sanur or Seminyak, and everyone is so friendly.” We completely agree.

Jul 16

Weekend Eggs: the Bali Edition

One of the things we are certainly not missing this year is the hotel breakfast. The repetition of crowded breakfast rooms, people eating like there is no tomorrow, and overcooked or runny eggs has seen us skipping many a hotel breakfast in the past, particularly if we had an espresso machine in our hotel room.

But what we did like was when we stayed at a hotel catering to Asian guests. There always seemed to be a congee simmering away in a pot, with a wide array of condiments to spice up the rather homely rice broth. In Bali and Indonesia, congee is known as bubur.

After a couple of days of scrambled eggs and the thin local omelettes, Desak, our cook at the villa, made her local version of congee, bubur ayam, served with chicken (ayam).

Where are the eggs, considering you’re calling these posts ‘Weekend Eggs’ you’re asking? Well that’s a great question! I asked Desak for a local breakfast dish that had eggs in it and she suggested the bubur ayam, which has a shredded omelette sprinkled over the top. Good enough for me, considering that this is the last Asian stop on our Grand Tour.

It’s quite a simple dish. Rice cooked with some garlic with a chicken breast poaching in the pot. An omelette chopped into strips and placed on the rice porridge with the poached chicken meat shredded on top as well. Add some condiments and you’re done.

While the dish itself is not spicy, the condiments can be. Desak has a fondness for serving kecap manis (sweet soy sauce) and lethal, tiny, chopped green bird’s-eye chilis in a small bowl with just about everything, so if you think your congee is bland a small amount of this mix will fix it! The soy is essential to flavour the dish even if you don’t want the chilis. It’s probably best to take a spoonful of the soy without the chili slices if you don’t like the heat.

The most intriguing ingredient in the dish is the semi-dried ‘beans’ from the long beans (kacang panjang) that grow so prolifically here in Bali. Desak called them ‘peanuts’, but while they superficially had the look of peanuts, they had much more of a crunch. Desak adds some dried Indonesian bay leaves to the stock, but if you can’t find them just use normal bay leaves.

It’s a delicious, filling breakfast, great after a morning surf or swim and you’ve burnt up some calories.

Bubur Ayam (Indonesian Congee with Chicken) Recipe

Author: Terence Carter
Recipe type: Breakfast

Prep time:  10 mins
Cook time:  30 mins
Total time:  40 mins

Serves: 2

Bubur Ayam is quite a simple dish. Rice cooked with some garlic with a chicken breast poaching in the pot. An omelette chopped into strips and placed on the rice porridge with the poached chicken meat shredded on top as well. Add some condiments and you’re done.
• 1 egg
• 1 chicken breast
• 1 cup of rice
• ½ cup of beans
• 1 clove of garlic, slightly crushed
• 1 handful parsley, chopped
• Dry fried onions
• Several small green bird’s-eye chilis, chopped finely
• ½ cup of kecap manis (sweet soy sauce)

1. Put the rice and 2 cups of water in a saucepan over high heat.
2. When it starts to boil add the garlic and the chicken.
3. Cook for 15-20 minutes; the chicken should be cooked through.
4. Make the omelette by breaking the egg, and mixing and cooking it thinly in vegetable oil.
5. Cut the omelette into strips. Shred the chicken, making sure it’s cooked right through. Some Balinese will then fry the chicken.
6. Pour some sweet soy sauce into a small bowl and add the chopped chilis.
7. Distribute the ‘porridge’ into two deep bowls.
8. Add the shredded chicken, omelette, fried onion, beans, and some chopped parsley.
9. Add a little of the soy sauce to the bowl. Leave the bowl on the table for those who want some of the chilis to give the dish some real kick.

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