There’s a calm that takes hold of you as soon as you set foot in Bali—and I know you might roll your eyes at the statement. But there’s no other way to describe the feeling as I settled on my seat and began taking in the passing vista from the bus window. The trees, the low houses, the provincial scenery reminded me of home. But I was very aware we’re somewhere more quiet and contemplative.
I’m a Bali virgin but I’m not here to go all “Eat, Pray, Love” on myself and find my own Ketut. I’m here to eat, yes, but also to simply take in the sights, maybe do a bit of shopping, and then go immediately back to eating. It turns out, however, that it’s impossible to be in Ubud—even for just a day, and even if you have the most unspiritual of itineraries—without doing the other two items in Liz Gilbert’s three-pronged agenda.
Bali is the Island of Gods, after all. A magical place it’s been called (Cebu Pacific now flies to Bali twice a week; this will increase to 5 a week come September). Painters and poets from all over have been seduced by its charms. And prayer is a big thing here. Balinese Hinduism is very much woven in the fabric of everyday life. We see it in the little palm leaf trays brimming with an assortment of flower petals, placed on the floors of store, hotel and restaurant entryways.
We witness it in action before our first meal, if somewhat by accident, as we waited for our plates of the famously Bourdain-approved babi guling at Ibu Oka. We put a halt to the crackling sounds of our mouths sampling the restaurant’s krupuk varieties as we watched a lady, likely a member of the restaurant staff, perform an offering, a silent prayer to an altar that looked down on our table. Her right hand dipped a white flower to a cup of water on a tiny tray that her left hand held. Then whisked the gathered liquid on the petals upwards toward the altar, as if sending the water droplets to the gods.
Families pray at home in Bali every day, says our Indonesian tour guide Artana, and at any time of the day. Temples abound in this Indonesian province, each one different from the last. There are those that boast of a particular archaeological treasure, those known for a special garden, and those distinguished for their exquisite architecture. There are temples in private homes and on very high mountains, and there’s plenty of community temples by the roadside—making them very accessible to both locals and tourists, and making the thought of praying easily translatable into action.
One very popular example of this last kind is the over-1000-year-old Batuan temple. A palpable serenity permeates the place. Even the spaces between the structures and animal stone carvings seem like necessary pauses. The gardens are spare and quietly magnificent you might be led to distance yourself from your companions, find a spot by the pond or under a frangipani tree, and meditate or simply take it all in.
Like most places, it’s best to visit temples early in the morning to avoid the crowd and to truly experience them as the calming oases we imagine them to be. And like in most other temples in Bali, men and women are asked to put on a sarong before venturing in (at Batuan, there are sarongs for guests at the holding area). Dressing modestly, after all—in this case covering the legs below the knees—is an expression of respect for places of worship.
Roam if you want to
Bali is a small island, says Artana. You can cover its entire coastal stretch in 14 hours driving at low speed. Coming from the Philippines, I can’t help but take note of the clean streets and the absence of tall buildings—insert sigh here—at least in Ubud. The roads are narrow and while that may be a problem to some, especially during peak tourist season, it makes the place charmingly small-town and intimate. Everyone’s a neighbor and, fittingly, everyone’s in house clothes.
Which is why scooters, bicycles and motorcycles make so much sense as the vehicle of choice around here —that is if you prefer not to take the small buses, the only mode of public transport. Scooters and bikes make you feel like everything’s just within arm’s reach and, like a true flâneur, you can stop at any time your eyes spot something of interest.
But perhaps the coolest way to see Ubud is going around in VW Classics, with the top down of course. Thanks to the guys at Travel Warehouse Inc. who curated our itinerary, we got to ride these nostalgic pops of color to lunch. But more on that later.
After being treated to the sight of long stretches of charming little lifestyle shops, we arrived at the very homey Nusantara where the smell—and smokiness—of things to come greets guests even before they push open the entrance door, thanks to its terrace grill. The restaurant just introduced its new menu in May and we were served a medley of flavorful traditional Indonesian dishes, and the most aromatic and delicious cocktails to go with them.
For Indonesia first-timers like me, you can quickly get a sampling of the country’s culinary pride in a “snack wheel” consisting of nine treats that include martabak tahu (tofu, garlic and leeks in spring roll wrapping), keong sawah pedas (rice field snails braised with chilies, salam leaves, lemongrass and sweet soy sauce), sempol (tapioca fritter with celery leaves) and asinan bogor (a fruit marinated in rice vinegar, chilies and shrimp paste).
But don’t forget to order their moringa and ginger soup served in the young coconut shell it was cooked in—which reminded me of our own binakol—and the babi kecicang, which is cubes of pork shoulder stir fried in coconut oil, torch ginger, shallots and kaffir lime. This one traces its origins in Payangan, Central Bali.
My seatmates, however, were singing the es teh beras merat drink praises. The menu describes it as a brown rice tea shaken with fresh milk and cinnamon sugar. It’s a sweet treat and refreshing drink in one. And it comes with that Instagrammable and highly aromatic flourish of a lit cinnamon stick sitting on top of your short glass.
But enough of lunch. We were soon getting back into our candy-colored rides and in no time were roaming the rural villages in Bongkasa, enjoying the breeze and looking at rice paddies and rice terraces. After which it was time to feed the fish and take in the tranquil scenery at Taman Mumbul, a tourist attraction where nature is the star.
Designed for the German army during World War II, the VW cars made so much sense for the period it was made for. These were meant to survive the roughest terrains and were inexpensive to maintain. They arrived in Indonesia in the 1970s and has caught the eye of many local collectors—they are, after all, rare and no longer in production—so it was a surprise to discover these babies are only now being introduced as a come-on to tourists.
While the Balinese have engaged in many wars in the past—and they can be aggressive too when personal space is intruded upon, or when you’re a stranger trying to meddle in their business—they are generally a calm people. Must be all that praying. Must be all the nature around them. One’s environment, as they say, very effectively impacts one’s personal disposition.
Artana explained to me why Bali’s homegrown culture is very strong in Ubud. He said because it was the last kingdom in this Indonesian province. Bali was divided into eight districts and the rest cut their ties from the monarchy earlier. “[Ubud] People until today feel like they’re still under the control of the king,” the veteran tour guide says, “in a good way.” That’s why they’re very protective of the culture, he added, and of their identity. Even of their architecture. That’s why there are no big foreign franchises opening here—well, no McDonald’s but there’s Starbucks—no tall buildings, and according to Artana, non-Hindis are “not expected” to build houses, most likely in order to avoid messing with the architectural landscape.
Speaking of culture and identity, my first day in Bali ended in a special dinner that exposed me and my writing colleagues to a ceremony once reserved for the Balinese king and members of royalty. We wore traditional Indonesian batik and walked slowly, as in a procession, towards our dining table at Plataran’s outdoor restaurant.
The Plataran Ubud Hotel and Spa is a tourist attraction in itself, one whose roadside entrance might trick the unsuspecting visitor into underestimating its full expanse. It is, in fact, a sprawling property where modern amenities like its well-appointed suites, two large swimming pools, and a gym coexist with rice paddies, giant coconut trees, a beautiful garden, and an over-100-year-old temple.
As we gathered around the dinner table under a changing sky, and watched our food arrive—carried by a team of local villagers dressed in traditional Balinese costumes—I can’t help but steal glimpses of the rice paddies and feel extra grateful for this ceremony unraveling before us and against this spectacular setting.
Who gets to eat like royalty on their first ever trip to Bali? And who gets treated on their first day with so, so much—a taste of the archipelago’s different flavors, a morning walk at a majestic temple, a ride around Ubud’s idyllic agricultural vistas as well as a stroll on its busier side of shops and dining spots? And now here we are ending the day as we started it: with delicious, transcendent babi guling and a prayer.
If you’re interested in curating your own Bali experience, visit Travel Warehouse Inc. https://www.twi.com.ph/ Meanwhile, Cebu Pacific https://www.cebupacificair.com recently announced it is now flying twice a week to Bali, and will increase this number to five times a week come September.