This is absolutely ridiculous. I had the Bali pictures all done in January. This text was drafted months ago. All I had left was to cut down and edit the draft, and pick the pictures. But I was busy, one thing led to another, and weeks turned into months. It became embarrassing to post this, but at the same time I didn't want to "skip the line" with other posts either, so this was holding me up. So, here it is, five months late, unedited and too long, our winter trip to Bali.
Our winter holidays found us going to Bali, Indonesia. The idea felt very exotic — "Bali" has the otherworldly, far-away vibe of "Tahiti" or "Ulan Bator" to me. But it's really no farther from Osaka than the Canary Islands are from Sweden. Half a million Japanese visit each year (the fifth largest group), and there's a fairly large Japanese community living there.
We picked Bali because a friend of Ritsuko has a daughter that works as a web developer on the island. Any place becomes more fun to visit if you know somebody local, and a friend of hers runs a small 4-room hotel/villa in a village outside Sanur, called Villa Beachside. These kind of villas are really common on Bali, and surprisingly inexpensive - less than a cramped business hotel room in Japan.
There's only four rooms, and they are almost never all rented out at once, so you usually have the entire place all to yourself. You have a dining area, roof terrace, pool and a common kitchen and fridge if you want to cook. You can really treat it as your home. It's a bit remote but the staff will drive you to nearby Sanur for free, and you can rent car and driver for trips elsewhere. I can recommend that too — it's really helpful to have somebody local to help you find things.
|A room at the villa.|
Indonesia is a bit odd. It officially has freedom of religion, but that "freedom" is restricted to one of six required religions: Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Confucianism. Everybody must belong to one of them, and people take religion very seriously in public(1). Bali is unique in Indonesia for being almost exclusively Hindu. The few other believers are all migrants from other parts of the country.
|Bringing food offerings to the compound shrine.|
In general, shrines and holy bits are placed higher up, while common or dirty areas are lower down. As a consequence you can't build buildings taller than that of the nearby temples. So Bali is blessedly (sic.) free from high-rises and tall, ugly resort hotels marring the view. There are plenty of hotels of course, but they're all low-slung and meld into the landscape rather than break away from it. This is great for the atmosphere on the island, and I hope they keep enforcing this rule.
Our view from the villa. Not a high-rise in sight.
Many Balinese live in traditional family "compounds", where an extended family shares a large, walled area with multiple buildings. The shrine area is closest to the mountain and highest up. Larger compounds are then divided into a middle area in the center with living quarters for the family heads and ceremonial buildings; and a lower, "dirty" area at the bottom with bathrooms, kitchens and where most members actually live.
A village street.
The island villages seem largely organized in compounds as well. The streets are lined with high walls, broken with ornate gates that lead inside. The repeated similar pattern feels more than a little like an early 90's adventure game. There's a fair number of small shops and restaurants ("warung") facing the street, run by the family inside.
Bike repair shop, possibly.
Table coral in shallow water.
We took a half-day snorkelling trip to Lembongan with Mango Dive, a diving shop catering especially to Japanese visitors; and, not incidentally, owned by another friend of a friend. This was the one thing we really splurged on: a small chartered boat with just the instructor, the boat driver and the two of us. It takes about thirty minutes from the south end of Bali to the north tip of Lembongan.
Multiple species of coral.
With a small boat, we could go to a different area with far fewer people and more sealife. With only the two of us to keep an eye on, we could snorkel at spots with fairly strong currents and still be sure we wouldn't be lost if we got dragged along faster than we realized.The current does make snorkeling a little challenging; you have to work to stay in place or you quickly drift away.
Possibly an anemone on the left, and some deeper corals on the right.
This was really the single best part of the entire trip. The boat crossing to the smaller island; the snorkelling; eating spicy chicken fried rice for lunch on the roof of the boat — it was all great. Free diving and snorkelling is a lot of fun, but it's frustrating that you only get a few seconds at a time at the bottom to take pictures. I really want to get a diving licence for next time.
Leaving Lembongan Island.
We try to go to a cooking class on our trips. We both enjoy cooking, and it's a fun way to learn a bit more about the local flavours and preparations. We went to Lobong Culinary Experience toward the central part of the island. It's held in a large family compound, run by a professional former hotel chef.
Lots of ingredients. Some familiar, others less so.
Prepping the Sambal.
Then we got down to cooking. The menu included minced chicken skewers, grilled chicken, a couple of salads, and a dessert. We were about 15 people, so we all made some different part of the finished meal. It was very well organized, with helpers doing prep work and cleaning up at all stages. At the end, we enjoyed our food for lunch.
The salads and chicken skewers. Delicious.
The class was not bad, but I honestly think the food is too, well, professional. Some of the steps - actually grilling the chicken for instance - happened completely out of sight, and with so many students none of us got to make a whole dish from start to finish. I'd much rather make one or two dishes from start to finish than bits and pieces from a dozen ones. This made for great food, but not such a great learning experience. Next time we should look for a cooking class with fewer students and home-cooked style dishes instead.
Lunch at a Warung. Picture by Ritsuko.
A typical restaurant warung has a selection of rice dishes, toppings and soups, heavy on the chicken(3). You typically have a short menu on the wall behind the counter, and a large glass case on the counter-top with bowls of today's toppings, ranging from fried fish (and chicken, naturally), to vegetables, fermented beans (think crunchy, delicious natto) and hot sauces.
You order rice and the toppings you'd like to have. Then grab a drink and sit down to eat at one of the tables. Fun, simple, and often so very delicious. One warung nearby has a chicken soup (above on the left) that I could happily eat for the rest of my life.
A warung at a local market.
We loved this place. And we're absolutely going back. I'm even thinking of learning Indonesian. It's an easy language after all, and you can use it throughout south-east Asia.
#1 You can get arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison for stating that you're not religious. It's impossible to know the real number of actual believers in such a situation, but it's a reasonable guess that not everybody is as religious as they make out to be in public.
#2 I always do, I know.
#3 All food here is heavy on the chicken. So are the streets, the backyards, garden walls and vacant lots. You wake at sunrise every morning to the verberating sound of dozens of chicken flocks in the neighbourhood greeting the sun.