Bali. It’s a place and a topic that has been covered ad nauseam in countless blogs, books, and yes, that movie / book. So is there anything I have to add to the general discourse? Probably not, but I’m going to write about it anyway.
First of all, let’s deal with that book / movie situation. Eat Pray Love. Yeah, it’s inescapable in Ubud, but it’s not as bad as some would lead you to believe. There are annoying signs and businesses and tours that have popped up, creating a not-insignificant cottage industry around those obsessed with Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, or more likely, the Julia Roberts movie version. But if you’re not looking for it, it’s largely invisible. And in the interest of full disclosure, I actually read the book while I was there. I figured I should read something about Bali and it seemed to be low-hanging fruit. I enjoyed the Italy part, as it was all about food; the Indian part was a complete bore, and the Bali part was fairly cheesy. But it was a decent book, and then was turned into a mediocre movie and unfortunately that’s the one that gets all of the attention.
We arrived in Bali in the evening, and immediately grabbed a taxi to drive us up to Ubud. We had been warned that Denpasar was a dirty, commercial city, but even driving through it in the dark, we could tell that Bali was going to be special. Borneo is beautiful, in a natural, lush, green way. Coming from that, we were immediately struck by Bali’s man-made beauty in addition to its wealth of natural, green beauty. Driving through Denpasar and up to Ubud, the highway was lined with ancient temples, hundreds of roadside shrines, and endless workshops producing stone, concrete and wood carvings and statuary. It seemed that every foot of roadside space was devoted to buildings covered in statues, or those devoted to the crafting of statues.
Over the next week, we found that this was a fairly accurate impression of Bali. Virtually everything is encrusted in carvings, figurines and statues of various sorts, and what is so striking and delightful is that they are all consistent in terms of aesthetic. Tourism has exploded here, but unlike many other places in the world, it still retains its traditional feel. Brand new hotels and restaurants will be next to ancient temples, and they will be in harmony, will feel of the same culture and time and place. We noticed no horrid, out-of-place modern monstrosities of hotels or office buildings. They probably exist, perhaps in downtown Denpasar, or the fancy, over-developed resort areas around Seminyak or Kuta, but fortunately we didn’t see any.
We arrived in Ubud later than planned, and it seems to be an early town. We got some dinner at one of the first places we came across, Warung Enak. It was on the fancier side, geared towards the tourist crowd, but it was a nice introduction to Ubud and Bali: polished, attentive service, amuse bouches of prawn crackers and fruits and a sweet tea with basil seeds. I enjoyed a nasi campur with some really nice lemongrass fish skewers and spicy beef, and it was nice to be able to get some good cocktails. After Borneo and its lack of polish in terms of things like service, food, drinks, architecture, etc., these things were very welcome.
By the time we finished dinner, there were no taxis to be found, so we ended up having the restaurant call our AirBnB host, Nyoman, who promptly drove over to pick us up. There are probably hundreds of hotels and guesthouses around Ubud, and nearly all of them are beautiful and very reasonably priced. It is truly hard to pick a place to stay there. As veteran AirBnB’ers, that is usually our first stop, and it didn’t let us down. Of the various options, we decided to go with Kishi Kishi, and it was a great choice. We had a beautiful room with big, gorgeous carved wood doors, a four-poster bed, an outdoor shower, amazing views of rice paddies, and a small pool for the use of us and the two other guest rooms there, all for $34/night.
Another really cool thing about Bali is the prevalence of the traditional clothes. Nyoman, our host, showed up in the traditional formal costume – a sarong, shirt and a head scarf, or udeng. I noticed a few in the airport and around town, and initially thought that it was a tourist thing – resorts and others having them as a uniform for the benefit of tourists and to set the atmosphere. But as we saw them all over town over the course of the week, we realized they are still very much a part of everyday life here. It does nicely contribute to the overall atmosphere and aesthetic, and it’s nice to see people retaining their traditional culture on a daily basis. Plus sarongs are just really damn comfortable, as I discovered after purchasing one here.
We woke the next morning to see a line of ducks marching around the rice paddies, just their heads bobbing above the brilliant green of the rice. We rented a scooter from our host and set off to explore Ubud.
Ubud ended up being bigger than I thought at first, as it is spread out over a large area, though without any built-up, modern-looking areas, the whole thing feels more like a small, quaint village. Coming from Borneo, it was nice to find cute coffee shops for breakfast, with all of the things we were missing – good coffee, real cream and milk, attention paid to aesthetics, and good pastries. Fortified with a good breakfast, we spent most of the day wandering around and exploring the central part of town, including the Monkey Forest Temple.
For lunch, we went to Warung Rai Pasti, one of the eateries at the top of my list. It’s a former tailor shop, with a back porch looking out over rice paddies and temples, and most importantly, it has babi guling, the traditional roast suckling pig that is a local specialty. Ibu Oka is the most renowned place in town for babi guling, and that was definitely on the list, but we figured we’d enjoy the nice views here our first day, and supposedly these are sister restaurants and the babi guling is actually produced at Ibu Oka and sent over. The setting was great, but more importantly that suckling pig. I could wax poetic about it, but really, what I needs to be said about it can be summed up quite succinctly: it is fucking delicious. Go to Ubud and eat this. Do yourself the favor. I’ve cooked a lot of suckling pigs in my time, and I am ashamed to admit that I have not done them their full justice. I feel I must publicly apologize to those pigs; their lives and their deaths were not as honored as they should have been.
The babi guling combo is a glorious meal. You want your hipster Brooklyn, “we use the whole animal” thing? It’s all on one damn plate here. Yeah, I’ve worked at restaurants where we’ll butcher a whole pig and turn it into chops and braised shoulders and sausage and even blood sausage. It’s au currant and it’s the right thing to do and it respects the animal. But I have yet to see as perfect an expression of that ethos as a plate of babi guling. The plate comes with some perfectly crispy shards of deep, lustrous, mahogany skin, a pile of roast meat, both light and dark, crispy pork fritters (ground meat and intestines mixed with some type of flour and seasonings), and a chunk of blood sausage. You’ve got the entire pig on your plate right there! To compliment it all, there’s a mound of rice, a fiery chili sauce, a rich, complex curry, and some vegetables.
The suckling pig has been stuffed with a mix of chilies, herbs and lots of roots – galangal, turmeric, ginger – and is then spit-roasted for about 5 hours, turned by hand, and basted with coconut water and coconut oil. It’s old-school and glorious. The stuffing ends up mixed in with some of the roast meat and is fantastic.
Sounds good? Yeah, no shit. It’s revelatory. What’s that? You think it’s missing something? Like some type of delicious local alcoholic beverage to compliment it? Funny you should mention it. We had two drinks here, that both were interesting, tasty, and went really well with the pork. The first was the local rice wine, known as bremen, which was unfiltered, a bit sour, slightly effervescent, and had a bit of a funky taste that was reminiscent of pig. The second was a cocktail of arrak, the local distilled rice liquor, with orange and lemon juice and a sugar rim. The arrak was smoky and deep, and this tasted a lot like a mezcal margarita, which is as perfect a thing to quaff with roast pork as I can imagine.