It was about five miles from the Kudesa Homestay guesthouse in Kemenuh village to the Gianyar Night Market, on the Indonesian island of Bali. So I asked my host, Mangku, whether I could make it on the bike he had available for rent. No problem, he said, he knew people who do it all the time.
It was a miscommunication. I was asking about the bicycle, but he meant the motorbike, which made sense since motorcycles and scooters are the main form of transportation on Bali, the fourth, final, and by far most touristy stop on my Indonesia tour.
Alas, I don’t know how to ride them. Still, he reluctantly let me take the tough-looking red hybrid bicycle, warning me to stay out of the heavy traffic. I took his instructions literally, sticking just off the road in what I would call the anti-bike lane.
That meant bouncing over pebbly dirt shoulders and narrow sidewalks often blocked by parked cars and market stalls, edging onto the road only when there was a lull in the nearly constant scooter buzz.
It was worth it, for two reasons. First, it gave me easy access to the unadulterated Balinese food sold at market stalls — a spicy jumble of mixed vegetables called serombotan, a luscious goat satay (no beef, since the vast majority of Bali, unlike the rest of Indonesia, is Hindu).
And, on the way back, drenched in sweat, I stopped to see a group of men scorching the hair off two slaughtered pigs and ended up with an invitation to spend the festival of Galungan with a new friend.
Three days and four nights is a ridiculously short stay for one’s first time on Bali. Ideally, I knew, getting away from the tourist crowd meant heading away from southern Bali’s two tourist epicenters: Kuta, which has a reputation as a depraved Cancun for young Australians; and Ubud, for those seeking the more spiritual Bali described in Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” without straying too far from a Starbucks.
Instead, I stayed outside Ubud in the village of Kemenuh, which travelers visit for its woodcarving shops but not much else. Mangku himself was a retired woodcarver who became a village priest, which is what “Mangku” means.
His family still runs a shop nearby, Sembahyang Wood Carvers, that ships its intricate, mesmerizing woodwork around the world, with the prices for some of the larger mahogany pieces stretching into tens of thousands of dollars.
The guesthouse is a complex of elegant buildings in traditional Balinese orange brick and adorned with carved sandstone as elegant as the sculptures, with one big difference between the two family businesses: the price. My room cost 125,000 rupiah, or $9.41 at 13,279 rupiah to the dollar.
But I had moved there only after spending a day in Ubud. On my first trip I had to at least see what the hype was about. (I did completely skip Kuta, with no regrets.)
So, arriving after midnight on an indirect flight from Papua, I checked into the very pleasant Odah Ayu Guest House, just off Ubud’s main strip, where a tasteful room cost me 400,000 rupiah.
The next day was packed full of attractions. First, the Puri Lukisan Museum (85,000 rupiah), which offers an introduction to Balinese art on lush grounds. Many paintings depicted scenes from Hindu epics I knew nothing about; I struggled to understand them but still found their elegant floral style absorbing.
I paused at “Just Punishments in hell,” an intricately detailed depiction of “all the different kinds of punishments suffered by the dead that fit the misdeeds of their lives.” Characters were impaled on trees or partly submerged in a pool of flames; others were being pushed into dragons’ mouths or had their genitals set on fire.
Then it was on to Ibu Oka, renowned (as in, featured by Anthony Bourdain) for babi guleng, or roast suckling pig, for a 55,000-rupiah plate with meat so moist I’d call it swampy, doused with a peppery sauce and much ballyhooed pork skin that I found a bit too chewy. (I prefer my crackling a bit more, um, crackling.)
Then there was the famed Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, which is on lovely temple grounds and certainly worth the 30,000 rupiah fee, especially if you’ve never before had monkeys eat bananas out of your hands.
And I was intrigued by online raves about the Sari Organik Warung Bodag Maliah, depicted as an organic restaurant in a pristine location amid rice fields. It wasn’t quite as pristine as promised: A pedestrian (and motorbike) path ran through it, dotted with souvenir shops and cafes. I’d call them not so much rice fields as “Rice Fields,” framed as a destination for travelers. Few agricultural features I’ve seen have signs directing you toward them.
I get the appeal, but a week earlier, I had clambered over rice fields on Sulawesi for miles and miles, without a tourist in sight. In Papua, I had hiked hours to villages without seeing a single sign, let alone one directing you to the local sweet potato plantations.
Still, the cafe was lovely. My salad was so fresh it tasted as if I were picking it directly from the earth, and with some surprising ingredients, with greens like leaves of both guava and soursop. At 48,000 rupiah, it was a bargain.
As was my day in Ubud, which cost me, astonishingly, something like $20. But halfway through the day I paused and went to Booking.com, the site I turn to for lodging not listed elsewhere, and found Kudesa. (I didn’t even find it on TripAdvisor.)
During my stay at Odah Ayu, I had met Komang, a member of the family that owns it; as I checked out, he offered to drive me to Kudesa. Thirty minutes later, we passed through a lavish carved gate and entered what looked like a palace or temple: buildings made of that orange brick, their doors shrouded in ornate sandstone carving. Komang was impressed. “This is maybe rich family,” he said.
Perhaps, but one that charges less than $10 for a single. The place had undergone an expansion recently, and now included a handful of fancy-looking rooms along a reverse infinity pool. (That’s my new term for when the infinity edge points in the wrong direction — to the rooms themselves).
I never got to see my single; the place was nearly empty, so I was upgraded to one of the older doubles (regular price, 180,000 rupiah.) It was a no-nonsense room, with a single sheet and blanket on the bed, an air-conditioner that leaked, and acoustics that allowed me to diagnose sleep apnea in the guest next door. Considering the elegant surroundings (and the dinner they served me by the pool the next night, no charge), it was still a deal.
That dinner was lovely, a standard plate of rice, meat and spicy homemade sambal, but did not compare to that first night I ate at the market, after parking my bike among dozens of scooters.
No taxis wait at the market, making it difficult for travelers to get there on their own, and English is a rarity, so those not willing to get on two wheels may wish to consider a tour offered by the Casa Luna cooking school for 400,000 rupiah to tame the chaos and choose the right dishes.
I tried a more D.I.Y. solution. On the ride over from Ubud, I asked Komang to list a few Balinese dishes I should try. He gave me three: serombotan, betutu and sate langwan. I jotted them down (having no idea what they were) then asked him how to say “Where is the most delicious _________?” in Indonesian. “Di mana ________ yang enak?” was his suggestion. He also gave me the phrase in Balinese, just in case.
It worked brilliantly. First, I tried asking for the serombotan, and was pointed to a woman standing at a no-name cart behind an array of plates and bowls loaded with vegetables, bean sprouts, soybeans and more. She piled them all together for me, dashed on a combustible sauce and charged me 5,000 rupiah, a delicious, crunchy, tongue-numbing bargain.
Next, two other women argued before sending me to Warung Carmayani for betutu, slow-roasted poultry (chicken, in this case) with rice, for 22,000 rupiah. Nice, but rather bland.
Finally, sate langwan (which turned out to be a fish satay) was sold out. So I compromised at a stand labeled Sate Kambing Juprianto, which specialized in goat satay. A man tossed 10 two-bite sticks of meat over glowing coals and whipped together a rich, surprisingly savory peanut sauce for me on the spot for 20,000 rupiah. I finished it off with some es campur, shaved ice and crazily colorful gelatins, fruit and coconut milk for an additional 6,000 rupiah.
On the way back, in Blahbatuh, the village before Kemenuh, I saw a group gathered around the slaughtered pigs and pulled over.
“Where are you from?” boomed a voice.
I immediately took a liking to Widi, perhaps in part because he reminded me, in both looks and boisterously welcoming manner, of a friend in New York. He explained that he and a few others had killed two pigs to divide among his extended family, to be used in dishes for Galungan, during which ancestral spirits are believed to visit.
He invited me over the next morning for a breakfast of lawar, made of minced pork and vegetables and grated coconut, jumbled together with a spicy sambal.
I had planned a tour of island temples and other attractions with Mank Jay, a driver and guide who was Mangku’s nephew, so I stopped by early and met Widi’s family, who lived in a traditionally structured family compound.
I had read that every Hindu family in Bali had its own temple, or sanggah, but I hadn’t imagined an entire section devoted to shrines representing different manifestations of the gods and the family’s ancestors. Offerings of rice and flowers had been laid in front of each; Widi himself prays there three times a day when he can, two times when he is working as a bus driver.
I was invited back to spend the first day of Galungan with Widi’s family (more on that next week). But that day I still had my tour with Jay, for which he charged 600,000 rupiah, including gas. You may find others willing to do it for 400,000 or 500,000, but it’s worth extra for a guide you like, and I recommend Jay (62-812-3739-8422).
We motored around to numerous temples and historic spots, the highlight of which was Kerta Gosa, a partly restored complex that had served as a royal home and hall of justice for the Balinese king. Two elegant, typically Balinese buildings remain, one set dramatically in the middle of a pond, as if it were a ship connected to the shore by a sculpture-lined gangplank.
Inside, the ceilings are painted with mesmerizing depictions of the Hindu epics, most notably the Bhima Swarga story, in which a man enters the underworld to rescue his parents. In a scene now familiar to me, sinners were depicted being punished in hell — in this version, for example, hanging from trees over a pit of fire as rats gnawed on the ropes.
“We believe in karma,” Jay said. “When you do a bad thing in your life, and the gods call you, your time is up. And then you see what they’re going to do to you.”
I had asked Jay if there was a traditional rural village we could visit to get away from the temples and monuments. So he took me to Penglipuran, a beautiful village with an odd twist.
Along its main street of beautifully laid-out stone, families live in homes that date back centuries to pre-Hindu Bali. One catch: You pay 15,000 rupiah at the ticket booth to enter, where you are handed a scrap of paper with a number, referring to the house you have been assigned to visit.
The houses and people were lovely, but it felt as if I had entered a human zoo that was an apt metaphor for the island as a whole, particularly the more touristed parts: traditional families living traditional ways, as travelers pay to wander through their lives.