Thursday, April 14, 2011

Strolling through rice paddies in lovely Ubud

Right after saying our good byes to Australia, we were ready to say Hello to Bali. Almost everybody had told us to avoid the south area of Kuta, as it's just a big touristy area so we did just that and went straight for our first destination, Ubud. It's a town situated inland, slighly up the mountains and surrounded by rice paddies.

Welcome to Ubud!

We could quickly tell that if the town's original economy was based on agriculture it is now very much centered around tourism. You can still find some paddies in the middle of town, but chatting with the locals we learned that they are becoming rarer over time while hotels, stores or restaurants are being erected.
No to worry though, if the main roads of the center feel very much tailored to us, westerners, Ubud is still very much a beautiful authentic town. There are no big buildings and a lot of the accomodations have you stay within a traditional family coumpound. One doesn't need to go far from the center to really be immersed in the country.

We did a lot of walking around while in Ubud. Particularly we went on a long loop that goes up North of the city, through a ridge trail that brought us to our first rice paddies and farmers working them. The way back winded through a couple villages and temples.

Religious celebrations and decorations are almost continuous

According to the Lonely Planet, whose content is now more than 2 years old, that's when we were supposed to find a path off the main road that would bring us back through more rice paddies. However the path doesn't exist anymore since a building has been erected in its place. We kept going looking for another way in when a local pointed us in the right direction. Now this guy does this for a living and is pretty good at striking the right balance. As he was explaining us where to go, proposing to show us, he knew we were a little wary of a stranger trying to show us the way, but he played it well enough ("no that's the wrong way...") that he became our guide for what ended up being an extra 1.5 hours of walking in the middle of the fields. The guy was genuinely nice and explained a lot about the local farming and we really enjoyed that extra visit, but it's always awkward when you end up with a guide you never really asked for, without having agreed on a price before hand. We left him a tip and took off, only to realize a couple days later that we probably left him a lot less than we thought (the whole time we've been in Bali we regularly gave out 2,000 rupee when the price was 20,000... so many zeros are pretty confusing) What should have been an 8km walk ended up being a pretty long afternoon and we were exhausted when we finally made it back to our abode. The views were worth it though!

Ubud was also our first encounter with Balinese food, and it definitely convinced us. It was a little annoying at first to get into the Lonely Planet recommended places and have the first part of the menu being westerner food, but we found other good places and learned how to locate the Indonesian menu too.
Speaking about food, while in Ubud Denise took the opportunity to take a cooking class. I'll let her talk about it:

Cooking class in a developing country.... If you know anything about me, (being a microbiologist and working with human pathogens for 4 years) you know that I would describe that as scary! But I do love cooking and eating, and Vince had diligently searched for a good class, and found one with great reviews. 
Paon cooking school was over 1 hour late.  They call it Bali time, no one wears a watch or knows exactly what time it is, but I thought it might be a bad omen.  Expecting the worst, I was finally picked up at the hostel and shuttled to the local market.  Like other markets we've seen in developing countries, it was pretty and dirty and smelly in both good and bad ways.  Redemption point #1, our instructor didn't buy anything at the market.

We were then taken to the family's rice fields and given a short explanation of how rice farming works, and then to their home, where we were served limeades, cold and refreshing, while the master of the family explained the building of the family compound and the matron did her daily offering ceremony.  In short there are 3 levels.  The first is the temple level, ornate and only for worship.  The second is the living level consisting of 4 or 5 (if the family has rice paddys) buildings, the kitchen, the living area, the gathering area, and the kings house all situated at a certain cardinal points. And the third, the whatever you want level, which had a number of open buildings that were used for our cooking class and as a dining area. 
As we arrived to the back to see the open spaces which we would cook in, I found Redemption point #2, the food was all washed, peeled, and displayed beautifully.

Mushroom Soup Ingredients

Balinese Yellow Sauce Ingredients
And Redemption point #3, we were all given aprons and our own clean towels and made to wash our hands before touching any food.  Yessss, this is going to be a good day.  I'll wrap this up by saying that it was more sanitary than I could have ever imagined.  All meat was handled with gloves, cooked thoroughly, and new spoons were used for tasting every time. It wasn't the most hands on class as there were many of us, plus a few local helpers, but we made a ton of lovely dishes, were showed how they get coconut oil from coconuts, and got all the recipes.  And I met the wonderful Jo and Vince who said I always have a place to stay in Perth, Australia.  The best part is that the food was the best I've had in Bali. 

Peanut Sauce Ingredients

Grinding the Peanut Sauce

Making the Balinese Yellow Sauce

Spices:  Black and White Pepper, Coriander, Nutmeg and Cloves

Chicken Curry

While Denise was discovering the wonders of Balinese cooking I rented a scooter and went a little further outside of the city to visit more temples. Driving in Balinese traffic is a little crazy but ended up being a lot of fun. Even if it doesn't seem like there are any rules at first, if you mind what's in front of you and use your horn and blinkers it's liberating to be able to do pretty much whatever you want. And I have to say, I'm happy I had spent many hours splitting lanes on my big motorcyles. It made dealing with the rules of driving in Bali a lot easier!

Elephant cave
I went to the Elephant cave, with its big head carved at the entrance, and visited a couple other surrounding temples as well. I ran into another'guide' at one of them called Yeh Pulu who taught me some more about the rules and religion there. He even invited me to his nephew's wedding a couple days later. Sadly we were leaving before it happened.

Of course we couldn't miss the craziness of the morning market with its myriad stalls crammed in little space, and the Monkey Forest Sanctuary, completely overtaken by monkeys. They are not particularly aggresive unless they think you have a banana (a particularly fearless one was climbing on people and looking in their bags and pockets) but they definitely got Denise a little on edge and she didn't walk too far away from me when monkeys were around. It was pretty entertaining. The sanctuary also has a few temples of its own and some of them definitely made us feel like we were in an Indiana Jones movie.

All these statues and monsters make you wonder how the kids sleep at night

Since we had the time we also went to see a typical Balinese dance. It had been shortened a little for tourists as it lasted 1.5 hours but can go on almost all night in the more traditional fashion. What I can say is that it defintely surprised us as it wasn't at all what we expected, but the strange music, crazy costumes and fun story made for an entertaining and educational evening. I definitely recommend checking one out if you're around, it's a nice glimpse into the local culture.

What surprised us the most overall was the number of temples everywhere, since each family compound has its own, and the intricacies of all the different gates and doors. They really take their doors seriously and it makes our own very practical westerner doors seem a little lackluster in comparison :)

We really enjoyed our time in Ubud and could definitely have stayed longer than the 3 days we spent there. But with only 2 weeks for the whole country we had to move on to our next stop.

By the way, we made an udpate to our biker dude challenge, with Iwan, who was hanging out by our hotel one night. The guy and his homemade trike were so cool that I wish we could have taken a photo by day, but he definitely fit the bill.

Of course, you can heck out the rest of the photos here, or see them directly on a map.

View Bali - Ubud in a larger map

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