Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Ubud: taking the rough with the smooth

If I was in a relationship with Ubud, Bali's so called spiritual centre, our Facebook status would undoubtedly be “it’s complicated”.

What is it about Ubud that makes me feel so out of synch with the rest of the world? On my first trip it was like being an extra on the set of Disney Bali. The art! The market! The colour! The people! The hippies doing yoga! And action!

I just didn’t dig it. In fact, after a few days I felt decidedly ill. A malady that disappeared within hours of leaving the city.

Four years later I was determined to give it another go. Call me a masochist but I felt that Lucy, on her first journey to Bali, deserved to make up her own mind about the place. For the previous two weeks we’d meandered along the road less travelled in the east and north of the island. Our soft landing in Tirta Gangga was a taste of paradise. Talumban gave us the thrill of the ocean. Lovina served up the perfect sunsets. Even Seririt, where I attended a mindfulness workshop for a week, was an unexpected a gem.

The final day and a half of our holiday landed us in the grime and heat of a city, without the benefit of a sea breeze to cool off. The noise, traffic and hoards of tourists seemed even harsher after the loveliness we’d been experiencing in the quieter parts of Bali. If there wasn't the small issue of a plane to catch the next day, I'd have hightailed it to the hills of Munduk to spend some more time in the spice groves. As that wasn't an option, I was determined to find an upside to the town.

And I did.

Ubud redeemed herself with simple warungs and a humble tailor. Nasi campur soothed my soul. While a wicked espresso bounced me into enjoying my last day in Bali. Once you head away from the central rectangle of streets ( Jalans Monkey Forest, Raya Ubud and Hanoman ), the pace is not so hectic. Far from the spiritual centre of Bali for me (give me the hills any day) but good to discover the smooth amongst the rough.

Humble eats

Warung Kyoma (off Jl Hanoman, in a street parallel to Jl Dewi Sita)
This local run, basic eatery saved us on the first day. Tired, cranky and need of a late lunch, this blue-walled place, open to the street served us simple food cooked to order. Cheaper than chips – the small plate of gado gado provided a much needed protein and veggie hit. The peanut sauce wasn’t too rich and the vegetables were fresh. Lucy’s spring rolls were served hot straight from the wok (they must have been good, ‘cos she didn’t share them). The freshly whizzed mango juice cost about AU$1.50, a bargain in this town.

No tax (often a hefty 21+% in Ubud).

Biah Biah (Jl Goutama)
This was a Lonely Planet recommendation. It didn’t look that exciting when we passed it in the afternoon but it was close to our accommodation and I was hanging out for a vego nasi campur. While a step up (albeit a small one) from our lunchtime warung, Biah Biah was also extraordinarily cheap. At night the simple restaurant is transformed by lights nestled in cane lampshades. Service was a little chaotic but the Bintang was cold and we had the perfect Chefs Table seats, peering into the small but ordered kitchen. Nasi campur didn’t disappoint. Nothing overly memorable, just good honest vegetarian dishes.

No tax.

Oka’s Warung (Jl Kageng)
Another day, another vegetarian nasi campur and yet another small, blue painted Warung. We popped in for a (tax free) juice to cool off and ended up sharing a vegetarian nasi campur, not because we were particularly hungry but once we saw a fellow patron served it, we couldn’t resist.

Unusually it came with a little bit of omelette. As always the tempeh was great. Bali is the home of tempeh and it’s quite extraordinary. We couldn’t get enough of the stuff.

No tax.

Warung Sopa (jl Sugriwa)
We stumbled across this unique, vegetarian café quite by chance but later found it mentioned on Travelfish (excellent app, you can download it cheaply and access it while you travel without being online). Japanese influenced (and likely owned) you feel confident that the food is without the usual dash of shrimp paste that most “vegetarian” sauces often have in Bali. Apart from homemade bread and miso paste for sale, the “nasi campur” is a little different. You get to choose from a daily array salads, curries and non-Balinese offerings such as a tofu falafel and samosas. Another twist is that it comes with red rice, a nice change for our last meal. Amongst my offerings I chose an excellent bitter melon and tofu salad. They checked first that I knew what it was. Yes it’s a little bitter on first tasting but pared with the excellent, slightly sweetened tempeh it was a winner.

No tax (and free wifi)..and still incredibly cheap
Check out their amusing website.

On my last visit to Ubud four years ago, I’d done the rounds of some of the more upmarket, foreign-owned restaurants such as Casa Luna and Kafe Batan Waru and while tasty, it was as if the flavour balance had been altered for a Western palate, lacking the subtlety of some of the local food. Both are still going strong. This time I craved simple pleasures. I wasn’t disappointed.

Expensive drinks

We took some afternoon refreshment at Casa Luna (Jl Raya Ubud) and nothing has changed about this place from my last visit, though the staff at the height of the tourist season weren’t as friendly and finely honed as I remembered. A coconut juice, or the excellent lime and ginger number sets you back more than a nasi campur and beer at any of the local warungs. Sometimes, in the heat of the afternoon, you just need to cool down in pleasant surroundings.

Tax++ Free wifi on request

Tutmak café (Jl Dewi Sita)
I’d gone two weeks without an espresso and on my last day I caved in. Ubud does in fact have some great coffee and the lovely local at Utama Spice responded without hesitation to our question as to the best coffee in town. Tutmak, a fair walk from the shop she apologised, was definitely her pick. Then shyly, as if a little embarrassed to admit it, she mentioned the cinnamon buns and we were sold. Ten minutes later we were in the land of great coffee, munching on a warm, fragrant pastry. Ubud didn't seem so bad after all.

Tax and Free wifi on request.

So Ubud, I forgive you. It's still not love. And still complicated. But I'll keep working on it for now.

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Blogger Michelle Chin said...

wah so many warungggss! I wished i went to that many as well when i was in bali.

5:08 pm  
Blogger Margaret said...

I think the Disneyland metaphor is pretty true, alas. Maybe 50 years ago, it would have been wonderful. But now... yep, you're right.

I was very amused by this, from the Lonely Planet "Bali and Lombok":

"You see them everywhere these days in Ubud: women of a certain age strolling the streets with *that* look. A mixture of self-satisfaction, entitlement and too much yoga, with maybe just a hint of desperation that they haven't yet found their Filipe. You know, a rich Brazilian who can bed you silly for an entire month. Yes, it's the readers of "Eat, Pray, Love," the best-selling Elizabeth Gilbert book that chronicles the author's search for self-fulfilment (and fulfilment of a book contract) across Italy, India and yes, Ubud. 'That Damn Book' was the immediate reaction of a long-term Ubud resident when we asked her about it."

When we were in Ubud earlier this year, the place we were staying at had the usual collection of left-behind paperbacks. Among them, indeed, was a copy of 'Eten, bidden en beminnen'.

1:08 pm  
Anonymous Lucy said...

yep. the food! the food was the saviour of ubud...and then we found the tailor from serririt and then, and only then, was all of ubud's busy-ness forgiven.

can we go back, please? (well, maybe not to ubud, but you know what i mean!)

8:20 am  
Blogger Another Outspoken Female said...

Lucy having so much choice of food, from cheap/local to expensive international gourmet...and a decent coffee certainly redeemed this town. If I go again I'll scope out Mr Seririt Tailor first and stay a few kms out of town somewhere tranquil.

Margaret oh don't get me started on that darn book and what it's done to the town!

Michelle and that was just a day and a half of eating!

8:46 am  

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