Our gardener comes from a long, long line of balian, or magical healers. He's a lovely guy. We know him as Pak Kiko, or “Kiko's...Are we connected on Facebook? Click here.Copyright EscapeArtistes. Related Stories- My Teen Can ...

 

I Think We Just Hit Peak Bali and more...


I Think We Just Hit Peak Bali

It's hard to see among the mango leaves...Our gardener comes from a long, long line of balian, or magical healers. He’s a lovely guy. We know him as Pak Kiko, or “Kiko’s dad”, after his firstborn daughter, who’s in her early teens. He’s gentle, kind, serene and smiley, and he pops round our place to do the mountains of stuff that need doing in a tropical garden when he’s not too busy with his main job as a chef.

I’m sure Pak Kiko would be an excellent healer, if you shared a belief system with him. Although I understand from Made, who is no longer the housekeeper, having taken an exponentially more lucrative gig in America, that he’s not quite ready to unleash his powers and go full balian as yet.

The reason my abstruse and thoroughly expat-ty domestic arrangements are relevant is that today Pak Kiko saw a snake.

You could say this was an occupational hazard for a gardener in Bali, particularly one who works in a garden beside a river and therefore full of tasty frogs even before you tuck into the fishponds. You might even be correct in this. But to explain the true meaning of the snake, I need to explain the ghosts.

When, as I understood it, a blood sacrifice was required, Made thought I should check with the landlords.

I’ve touched on the ghosts en passant, I believe. We have the normal-for-Bali pair of a good one, in the kitchen, and a bad one, in the garden, a situation that is, I fear, not helped by our position on a river down which the ashes of the dead may sometimes travel.

Neither Zac nor I can see the ghosts. In fact, only Balinese Hindus are aware of them. But our bad one is particularly bad, apparently. As proven – I believe in its entirety – when Pak Kiko dreamed about a ghost lady with a strangling snake in the garden.

The reason our bad ghost is so evil remains TBC. Made at first believed the issue was that our landlords had failed to hold a ceremony to appease the earth goddess before digging holes for the fishponds and the pool. I went so far as to get estimates from a Hindu priest to undo the insult to the goddess, but when, as I understood it, a blood sacrifice was required, Made thought I should check with the landlords.

After agonising and negotiation, the upshot of this thoroughly Indonesian theological conundrum ran roughly as follows…

Our landlords are Christian. He started out as a Balinese Hindu. She’s from Toraja, so has been a Christian of the buffalo-sacrificing variety since birth. So, naturally, they had a Christian ceremony to appease the earth goddess when the pool and ponds were dug. (Being a priest in Indonesia must, one feels, be something of a shock to the system, not least because this is not the sort of problem the travelling missionary expects to encounter in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.)

The Balinese landlord explained they weren’t averse to having a Hindu ceremony on top of the Christian one if that seemed important, but they’d rather not have a blood sacrifice. The Torajan landlady – and Torajans are famously canny businesspeople, due to the fact that they spend most of their lives and income paying for buffalo sacrifices and clan houses so anyone who escapes the village has to be as hardnosed as hell with an Einstein IQ – pointed out that a Christian exorcism is exponentially cheaper than a Hindu one. (All a Christian exorcist needs is a bit of holy water, a bible and some incense, while the cost of the Hindu exorcism included a budget line for a truck to transport the offerings.)

After agonising and negotiation, the upshot of this thoroughly Indonesian theological conundrum ran roughly as follows. Only Hindus can see the ghosts, but the house is Christian, so the ghosts may well be Christian. We should, therefore have the ceremony in the religion that is most important to the household. Since Zac and I, the only non-ghosts resident in the home, do not have a religion and cannot see the ghosts we can’t participate fully in an exorcism either Christian or Hindu. Therefore, we should leave the ghosts to do their thing and get a Christian exorcism as and when we see them.

And so the ghosts removed themselves from my list of things to fix around the house and became a fact of Bali life. They are, unless you’re poor Pak Kiko, rather unobtrusive. Neither Zac nor I have ever registered anything untoward. In fact, it’s for all the world as if they’re not even real.

A large, green snake in a tree didn’t sound good. In fact, it sounded rather like a bamboo viper to me, though I know nothing about snakes.

I think, though I may well be wrong, that many Balinese have been a bit on edge after the earthquake, which comes uncomfortably close to the Nyepi New Year festival. Incense definitely hung heavier in the air than usual the morning after the quake.

So when I returned from school with Zac to see Pak Kiko in the garden staring fixedly into a tree with the long handle of the pool-cleaning net in one hand and a spray bottle of pesticide in the other, I wasn’t unduly concerned.

“How are you?” I asked him in my resolutely rubbish Indonesian.

“There’s a snake,” he said, looking tense, sweaty and grey.

“Oh,” I said, squinting up into the mango and not seeing anything. “What’s it like?”

“Green and big,” he said, frowning.

A large, green snake in a tree didn’t sound good. In fact, it sounded rather like a bamboo viper to me, though I know nothing about snakes. More to the point, Pak Kiko didn’t think it was good either.

“OK,” I said in rubbish Indonesian. “There’s a man who will come and get it.”

Pak Kiko seemed relieved. “Zac,” I yelled through the locked door behind which my spawn appeared to be celebrating the start of the school holidays by sitting beneath a headset definitely not revising for his imminent IGCSEs. “There’s a snake in the garden.”

“OK,” he yelled back, and pulled the blind down.

A tense 40 minutes passed, during which Pak Kiko watched the snake move from different locations in the mango tree into another mango tree, up a palm tree and back again.

I dialled Bali Reptile Rescue, the charity which exists less to protect people from snakes than to protect snakes from people and which helped us out when I found the cobra in my bedroom a while back.

An Indonesian lady answered. I handed the phone to Pak Kiko who described the snake and explained our address, then I explained the address again, then I texted it. (You can live in Bali for decades and still get lost. It’s not an island that’s set up for navigation.)

A tense 40 minutes passed, during which Pak Kiko watched the snake move from different locations in the mango tree into another mango tree, up a palm tree and back again and I, but for a few minutes when I thought a patch of congealed sap was a very small and extremely somnolent serpent, could not see a goddamn thing.

I went out the front to check for reptile rescuers, rang the reptile rescuers, looked up the road for reptile rescuers, rinsed and repeated. Finally, having only got lost once, the cavalry arrived: two Indonesian girls, one wearing flip-flops over socks by way of foot protection, equipped with snake forks and a large white bag. (I suppose this is a step up from the towel traditionally used to protect against rabid animals.)

That’s interesting, I think. Clearly the snake man has found some young local people who share his passion for reptiles and is training them up to continue his good work. Because, believe me, snake-wrangler is not a job that anyone should take without aptitude or at the very least enthusiasm. (And, yes, I know Indonesia is a developing country, but my point still holds.)

Neither of them could see the snake. Pak Kiko pointed it out, then pointed it out again, but it remained elusive. I realised, with a mild sinking feeling, that only one out of four of us had now seen the snake, and that one was the person who had had the dream about the snake lady in the garden. Oh Bali!

“Do you have a ladder?” one of the girls asked, as the three of them stood, hands over foreheads, squinting up into the mango, silhouetted like something from an Eastern Bloc flag-raising sculpture or perhaps an early 80s expressive dance troupe.

Of course we have a ladder! Not a very long ladder, not a very good ladder, and more step-ladder than the sort of telescopic affair that’s really needed to climb our substantial trees, but a ladder nonetheless. At last! I could be useful!

To do anything more would suggest that I’m unreasonably withholding a perfectly good, if rather, umm, shocking, 1990s Chinese factory reject washer-drier from someone who currently does the whole family’s washing by hand as well as working two jobs.

The ladder had moved into the store room because, after the tap came off in my hand the day of the earthquake, flooding the junk area, I had emptied the area of all junk and moved non-junk to the storeroom. Well, apart from the junk which Komang, the helper, or Komang #2, her cousin who was fixing the roof, wanted (and, yes, the roof leaks often, and, yes, there are a lot of Komangs in Bali: in fact, Pak Kiko is also a Komang). They couldn’t, however, take any of it as it wouldn’t fit on a motorbike, so we’re still housing a broken bed, a broken washing machine, and a broken TV.

I am, frankly, concerned about the washing machine as Komang #1 is Made’s cousin, Made has already lost one cousin (quite possibly another Komang) to a badly wired washing machine and I am fond of our Komang. But I have uttered my warnings, if not exactly articulated them, and to do anything more would suggest that I’m unreasonably withholding a perfectly good, if rather, umm, shocking, 1990s Chinese factory reject washer-drier from someone who currently does the whole family’s washing by hand as well as working two jobs to put her son through high school.

This post will answer all your questions, so back to the ladder. Rather than being in the junk corner, this was not only in the storeroom but actually locked in the storeroom. This is because Zac had left his keys behind one day, so I’d left my computer in Zac’s room, locked the two rooms containing anything of value – the storeroom and Zac’s room – and left the windows open so Zac could break in. (At over six foot, skinny and spectacularly supple, he can climb through the most extraordinary openings.)

Of course, because Bali, and because crisis, the storeroom door refused to open. I tried a range of approaches. Despite knowing damn well which one was the storeroom key, I even tried several keys. I pulled the handle a little, pushed the handle a little, yanked the door while pushing the key, pushed the door while retracting and turning the key, for all the world like a queen on his wedding night.

At this point, with three Indonesians still looking for the snake in the garden, and waiting on the ladder, the lock began to come off the door. Sensing a rapid deterioration into farce, I yelled frantically for Zac.

“The screw?” I said. “The screw that has come out of the door handle,” my son said slowly, as if talking to a developmentally delayed child.

“Can you mend the door?” I asked, helplessly. “I need to get the ladder out for the snake people and the door is locked.”

To his credit, Zac inquired neither why the ladder was in the storeroom nor why the storeroom was locked. “Where’s the screw?” he said.

“The screw?” I said.

“The screw that has come out of the door handle,” my son said slowly, as if talking to a developmentally delayed child.

I found it on the floor. “I have a screwdriver,” he said. “Let me have a go.”

Fixing the door handle didn’t make the door any more receptive to the key. “How about you just take the whole thing off?” I asked. “That couldn’t make matters any worse, could it?”

“I don’t think so,” he said.

I ambled off into the garden, where the girls were still looking for the snake and Pak Kiko was still pointing it out. “You have good eyes,” I said amiably, in rubbish Indonesian.

Christ! Taking the lock off, I realised, might make the door unopenable except by taking the thing off its hinges. Further, due to overspending on a weekend’s diving, we were on the verge of breaking into the emergency coin jar and certainly in no position to hire a locksmiths.

I rushed back indoors. Zac was patiently screwing the lock back on. “Yeah, I realised that wouldn’t be a good idea,” he said.

Everyone who works at the property thinks I’m stark staring bonkers because I have long, animated conversations with my computer and appear to spend all day every day frowning, muttering and typing.

Out in the garden, the girls had finally identified the snake, so in came Pak Kiko, with the relieved air of a man who knows people have stopped thinking he’s mad. “The ladder, ma’am,” he said. (Indonesian as a language is hot on terms of address and hugely status-conscious in the way it uses said terms.)

“The door doesn’t want to open!” I exclaimed. “It can’t be unlocked!”

I gave the key one last despairing twist. It turned, smoothly and seamlessly, and the door opened. I’d say it swung, but it graunched and a bit of the facing almost fell off. My point is that it did not behave like a door that has been stuck shut.

I should add, here, that both Pak Kiko and Komang have watched me Skype chatting for the duration they have worked here. It was only after I mentioned to Komang that I was talking to my mother, and pointed to the computer where the voice was coming from, that I think she realised I was not insane. I then made a point of explaining the same thing to Pak Kiko, but I’m not sure he’s entirely got it yet.

I don’t know what they think I do on the computer all day, but they seem to find my habit of talking directly to it quite alarming. (That’s not helped by the fact that, like a lot of self-employed people, I can occasionally mumble when reading things to myself or totaling numbers.)

Which is a long-winded way of saying: everyone who works at the property thinks I’m stark staring bonkers because I have long, animated conversations with my computer and appear to spend all day every day frowning, muttering and typing. The door, perhaps possessed by the kitchen ghost, only served to enhance that perspective.

But apparently we weren’t finished. Oh no. That would be too easy. The ladder had been fetched so the snake needed to be retrieved.

“What snake is it?” I asked, out in the garden, still untarnished by sight of said ophidian.

The girl presented us with our second copy of the reptile rescuers’ handy guide to the snakes of Bali: we’d lost the first. “It’s a vine snake,” she says. “Not dangerous to humans. A pit viper is bigger. This is a thin snake.”

An hour or so in to the saga, I considered this job done, not to mention, the second everyone vacated the property, gin o’clock. “Thank you,” I said. “Would you like a glass of water? Or some tea?”

But apparently we weren’t finished. Oh no. That would be too easy. The ladder had been fetched so the snake needed to be retrieved.

Despite the fact that everyone involved now knew it was harmless and it was, at a minimum, five metres up a goddamn mango tree. What could possibly go wrong?

I’ve crawled through a snowmelt waterfall rather than go too close to the edge of a drop, and at Everest Base Camp muleteers paused entire trains to let me count my way across swaying suspension bridges.

After years of more or less artless pruning, the mango tree in question – we have five – has taken on the shape of an inverted capital ‘L’. I am scared of heights so have endless respect for people, be they window-cleaners or guys who have summitted Everest eight times, who can brave them.

Blimey, I think, as the girl in the shoes shimmies up the ladder and inches her way across the bar of the ‘L’, I couldn’t do that for all the world! Wow.

The chick with the flip-flops hovers below with a large white bag, Pak Kiko keeps his eyes fixed on the snake, and shoe chick pulls out the snake fork and reaches up. Wow! I think. These girls are really showing the snake man a thing or two – he must be super-proud of his new hires.

The second she lets go of the branch, it all falls to pieces. “I”m scared of the snake,” the girl exclaims, in English. “I’m scared!” She looks like she’s going to cry.

Unfortunately, she is now more than her body’s length away from the top of a ladder, so freezing is not an option. Nor is dropping, as she’s more than three metres above the ground.

I recognise the symptoms of someone who’s scared of heights spazzing out, as we acrophobes technically put it. I’ve crawled through a snowmelt waterfall rather than go too close to the edge of a drop, and at Everest Base Camp muleteers paused entire trains to let me count my way across swaying suspension bridges, so I’m thoroughly au fait with THE FEAR. I also identify an absolute clusterfuck in the making.

“ZAC!” I yell, beginning to drag our beanbag loungers into position below the tree so she’s got something to land on if she falls. She could break a limb, I realise. Or even her neck! “ZAC!”

“It’s OK!” I say to her. “Please come down. It’s not a poisonous snake so you don’t need to catch it. The most important thing is that you don’t hurt yourself.”

The lack of venom in the snake and the lack of snake-catching chops of our saviours may be connected. Triage might have identified our household with its puny vine snake as the perfect practice arena for trainees.

As we coax her down from the tree, rather like firemen wrangling a kitten, it dawns on me that, perhaps, the lack of venom in the snake and the lack of snake-catching chops of our saviours may be connected. Triage might have identified our household with its puny vine snake as the perfect practice arena for trainees.

As the girls head off on their motorbike and a visibly relaxed Pak Kiko heads for home, I can’t help but wonder. Will he ever come back?

Has this scenario quelled his fears of the snake lady in the garden by living out the dream with a happy ending? Or is it a sinister precursor of snakes to come that indicates there is more to be worried about further down the line.

I lack the linguistic facility to ask him and I very much doubt he’d tell me anyway. If he doesn’t show after Nyepi, I guess I’ll give Made a ring. But first…. Gin o’clock.

Are we connected on Facebook? Click here.

Copyright EscapeArtistes.

 

My Teen Can Literally Sleep Through an Earthquake

Earthquakes, like venomous snakes and everything breaking all the time, are one of those Bali facts of life. As with snakes and broken objects, I have yet to be sufficiently au fait to handle them with sang froid. (Isn’t it funny that for all sorts of words to do with calm, from courage to soigné, one has to resort to French?)

This morning, we had a corker. Quite how much of a corker it was, as, for that matter, exactly where it was, remains TBC. The US Geological Society has it at 5.5 and somewhere near Keramas on the east coast; the Indonesian BKMG has it at 6.4 near Uluwatu down south. Anyway, it was what we pro journalists call “too goddamn close to my house for comfort”.

Further, as I visited a real live seismography centre at Krakatau. I’m going with the Indonesians, their 1950s seismographs, their 1990s computers, their proximity and their experience over the Americans and their fancy tech. Plus, it’s a big number.

I was “working”, which is to say on Twitter, when it hit. And hit it did. We get a lot of 5.-something earthquakes here and they’re a pretty ambiguous experience. There’s the odd ripple in the fishpond, a sense that your stomach just shifted a few centimetres sideways and back again, and a general feeling of seasick insecurity and hungover malaise. Nothing, in short, to write home about, which is why I haven’t, although I’m sure Sartre would have done a lovely job of it.

Holy cow, I thought, either that cat that nests up in the roof has really put on weight or someone’s driving a bloody mining vehicle past the house.

This morning’s earthquake started with a bang. Now, I am not sure whether there actually was a bang or I retrospectively invented a bang to rationalise the sensation that an elephant was leaping around in the roof. On balance, I think something heavy probably fell in one of the neighbours’ houses.

Anywise, the elephant jumped on the roof, and the walls began to shake; the windows, which have many panes, took up a gentle percussive tinkling. Holy cow, I thought to myself, being a little slow on the uptake of a morning, either that cat that nests up in the roof has really put on weight or someone’s driving a bloody mining vehicle past the house. The floor began to shake more vigorously. Reality dawned.

Zac, being sixteen, sleeps with his door locked. Being sixteen, he can also sleep through pretty much anything although not, I am pleased to note, his alarm. “Zac!” I yell. “Are you OK?”

Silence. Panic bites. How can anyone sleep through this? The bloody house is flamenco dancing. The windows are its jingling castanets. There are WAVES, not ripples, in the goddamn swimming pool.

If this carries on, I think with sudden dread, the house could come down. And why in god’s name is he not responding?

“ZAC!” I yell, pounding on his door with an open palm. “ZAC! WAKE UP IT’S A FUCKING EARTHQUAKE!”

“Uh?”

“It’s an EARTHQUAKE! We need to GET OUT!!!!”

My spawn emerges, floor still shaking, in his underpants, with the bewildered and rather aggrieved air of someone who just can’t understand what all the fuss is about.

Unfortunately, none of our furniture is designed for hiding under.

And then it clicks. We look around the room. I’m not particularly up to speed on earthquakes but I do know that you’re supposed to get under a table to stop things falling on you and stay away from glass. Unfortunately, none of our furniture is designed for hiding under.

Our beds are solid-frame. The Suharto-era furniture we’ve inherited from our landlords includes an ugly teak table with one central leg below a circular base – better than nothing, but hardly going to help if one of the palm trees or mangoes in the garden comes crashing down (the papaya fell into the pool after a previous earthquake, so I’m aware of the risks). The grotesque and spectacularly uncomfortable teak sofa might fit some of Zac under it, but not me.

And, umm, that’s it. We look at each other and discuss.

“Should we go into the garden?” Zac asks.

“Trees!” I say, although I’m thinking that trees are likely better engineered to cope with earthquakes than the typical Indonesian building, even a single-storey one like ours. “What about hiding in a door frame?” (This is, gentle reader, terrible advice, about as bad as it gets after taking shelter under a chandelier.)

“Hmm…” says Zac, who actually does earthquake drills at school, which consist, I believe, of getting under your desk and covering your head then filing out in an orderly fashion at an appropriate time. “I guess.”

Normal service resumes later, as I go to turn off a dripping tap, the whole thing comes off in my hand, and I have to switch the electricity off at the mains as I cannot find the stopcock.

And with that the shaking eases, the windows stop vibrating, and the pool calms down. It will be a while before the birds, which stopped singing as they do at total eclipses, start up again, and quite a long time before I, personally, stop shaking.

I’m back on Twitter, trying to find out if there’s a tsunami warning and who knows what about the earthquake (answers, no, no one and nothing), when the Bag Lady rings on WhatsApp.

“Yes!” I squeak excitedly, picking up the phone and feeling suddenly soigné. “It WAS an earthquake! It was a REALLY BIG earthquake!” We agree to meet for coffee and a chat. The boy seems spectacularly underwhelmed.

It’s almost a relief when normal service resumes later, as I go to turn off a dripping tap, the whole thing comes away in my hand, and I have to switch the electricity off at the mains as I cannot find the stopcock.

Are we connected on Facebook? Click here.

Copyright EscapeArtistes.

 

Where Should I Stay in Ubud?

At least once a month somebody asks me, “Where should I stay in Ubud?” To which my answer is, generally, “What’s your budget?”

As someone who both backpacks and writes about top-end food, booze and travel, I can confirm that Ubud offers the full spectrum of places to stay, from uber-luxury through to simple homestays, not to mention AirBNB.

To be honest, while I’m a big fan of AirBNB in city locations, I wouldn’t recommend it for Ubud. One of the great advantages of Ubud over the rest of Bali is its walkability, and villas in Ubud are often a proper schlep from anywhere.

So herewith, in answer to the timeless question, “Where should I stay in Ubud?” are eight great places to stay in Ubud. That means next time someone asks me, I’ll just send this link.

Please note, prices are in descending order. Also, if you book using Agoda after clicking through from my site I receive a small commission.

Serenity at Como Shambhala Estate, the best hotel in Ubud.

COMO Shambalha Estate

The flagship of Christina Ong’s COMO brand, COMO Shambhala is generally considered THE best hotel in Ubud and one of the best spa retreats in the world. Out in Payangan, 30 minutes or so north of Ubud, it’s a fair old whack from the centre, scattered among stunning gardens in splendid isolation.

Glorious natural hiking opportunities run all the way down the dazzling gorge to the river and encompass a jungle gym and tiered natural spring pools. The service is so unnervingly good that you can expect a helper to arrive with a cool towel and a glass of spring water the second you start to look puffed.

Whisper it, but I personally prefer the spa at Hanging Gardens. Still, as part of an integrated wellness programme – complete with diet, exercise, and relaxation – the treatments here take some beating. I’ve heard the yoga teaching is phenomenal, while the in-room products smell stealably lush.

The suites cluster in groups, each themed around an element and an Indonesian design style, with individual pools and dining-cum-sitting rooms shared among the units; you can build community if you would like, but opt out if you’d prefer not to. Even the entry-level suites feel wonderful, built out over the garden so that they float in thin air like treehouses, while the private pool villa is sybaritism writ large.

COMO Shambhala is a timeless place where the ordinary pace of life slows down, helped by the ban on both mobile phones and smoking (the second is honoured more in the breach than in the observance). The restaurant offers the full spectrum of dishes from spa-friendly to steak.
Visit website
Check discount rates on Agoda.com

The pool, the spa and the funicular make Hanging Gardens super-special.

Hanging Gardens

A honeymoon favourite for its eminently Instagrammable pool, Hanging Gardens also sits well north of Ubud in Payangan, and literally hangs down the gorge. So vertiginous is the descent, in fact, that you ride from entrance to the rooms and the glorious spa on a dinky little funicular railway.

Rooms here feature their own dinky little infinity pools – strictly for plunging, not swimming! – and many have outside tubs as well (some, bizarrely, in colours like pink or peach!). Dark wood dominates, and they feel quite blissfully airy and timelessly Balinese.

The spa at Hanging Gardens is probably the best in Ubud. It’s the location that does it – so close to the water’s edge that you can hear the river rushing past as you indulge in pampering treatments. Facials are phenomenal, while the signature massages fuse disparate elements into an integrated whole – request a hard massage if you want it.

You’re less splendidly isolated out here than you are at COMO – there are regular shuttles to and from town, while you’ll see plenty of other guests in a way you don’t at COMO – but it is still simply gorgeous (sorry!).
Visit website
Check discount rates on Agoda.com

Individual antique houses make this eco-boutique hotel very special.

Bambu Indah

The brainchild of jeweller and Green School founder John Hardy, Bambu Indah sits in Sayan, in the north of Ubud, amid an actual Balinese village. It’s a lovely and unique place, perched atop the gorge, with each villa individually designed and styled. While still set away from the action, it’s a much shorter ride from other food and cultural activities than some other high end venues.

Quirks from a bamboo lift down to the river below to a bamboo treehouse nestled high above the gardens, not to mention the freshwater pools, enliven it no matter which you pick. Hardy lives his values and the permaculture garden supplies much of the organic fare served in the restaurant, while the Balinese activities on offer here are unusually authentic.

You can choose between antique buildings sourced from across the archipelago or airy new constructions in bamboo or teak. The Udang house features a glass floor set over the freshwater swimming pond; the Pagoda is a magical, four-storey, bamboo structure with a child-like playfulness; the Padi house is the perfect place to play Marie Antoinette or work on that novel.
Visit website
Check discount rates on Agoda

Central, luxe and with a contemporary, fresh feel, Bisma Eight breaks the mould.

Bisma Eight

If you’ve got this far, you’ll have noticed that top-end accommodation in Ubud tends to cluster a fair way out of town. You may well also have found this irritating, since Ubud’s walkability is a major plus point.

This contemporary, hugely awarded boutique hotel is the answer to your prayers, sitting on leafy Jalan Bisma roughly halfway between Monkey Forest Temple and the Ubud Royal Palace: they’re 15 minutes walk in either direction. Yet Jalan Bisma is still at heart a ricefield road and come nightfall you’ll still hear the sounds of the sawah issuing from the greenery that surrounds you: Bisma Eight even has its very own 53-are farm just down the road.

The rooftop houses a very solid restaurant and cocktail bar, with spectacular views. Rooms, which are all suites, feature Japanese bathing tubs in the bathrooms, cool dividing screens, and contemporary design that wouldn’t, but for the greenery, feel out of place in Ginza. The pool is pretty, too.
Visit website
Check for discount rates on Agoda.com

In serene Penestenan, the sleek Bali chic of Sri Ratih Cottages appeals.

Sri Ratih Cottages

While downtown Ubud feels traffic-choked and tourist-heavy – especially over peak season – Penestenan, known as an “artists’ village”, is much less hectic. That’s not to say it’s immune from construction or development – far from it – but if you’re looking for a quieter location in Ubud, Penestenan’s rambling web of narrow ricefield roads may hit the sweet spot for you.

And, if you don’t mind braving steps and hills, Penestenan is still walkable from downtown Ubud, and an easy hop from the classic walk along Campuhan Ridge. Sri Ratih Cottages enjoy a great location: far enough into Penestenan to feel rural, but not so far that walking into town means hiring a scooter or a car, and also a feasible walk from the high-end eateries of Sanggingan. (See my “Where to Eat in Ubud” piece for more on this.)

Rooms are fresh and modern, with outdoor showers and a contemporary take on Balinese style that’s very attractive for the price point. There’s a pool and expansive gardens, with ricefield walks just seconds from your doorstep. And, at least on Agoda, the rates are right.
Visit website
Check for discount rates on Agoda

Great-value flashpacker cottages in a central location.

Sri Bungalows

Right in the heart of the action, yet pleasingly set back from it, this complex of bungalows sits amid gardens and ricefields just at the top of Monkey Forest Road, which is about as central as it gets in Ubud. But it doesn’t feel either noisy or central, thanks to the quiet gang you need to stroll down to discover them.

The deluxe rooms feature everything the flashpacker could desire: fresh, modern bathrooms, airy four-poster beds, and terraces with views across the ricefields. There are no fewer than two pools in the pretty gardens. Food, booze, and spa are on the basic side of flashpacker, but with foodie magic from Locavore to Spice by Chris Salans pretty much on your doorstep, it really doesn’t matter.

As with much mid-priced Indonesian accommodation, unless your haggling skills are solid you are likely best off booking through an online platform like Agoda.
Visit website
Check for discount rates on Agoda

The pool has glorious views across the gorge.

Taman Indrakila

The Sanggingan location puts these great-value bungalows a little way north of the action, except for during Ubud Food Festival and Ubud Writers Festival when it’s right at the heart of it all. Yet when you look across the pool into the gorge and turn to admire the sacred mountain Gunung Agung from your verandah, it’s hard to care.

Air-conditioned classic Balinese bungalows feature details like hand-carved doors and sculpted brickwork, as well as airy four-posters with drapes, and terraces with tables, chairs and staggering views. (Laptop luggers please note: there’s no desk.)

The simple bathrooms let the side down but explain the sensible price, while the included breakfast is on the dainty side. The adjoining Elephant Cafe serves up good-quality vegan fare as well as booze and coffee, while you’re well positioned for fine dining at Mozaic, Room 4 Dessert, and more.
Visit website
Check for discount rates on Agoda

A bit more character than your average homestay.

Tu Eka Homestay

On a budget? One of a raft of cheapies at the south end of Jalan Hanoman, Tu Eka offers good value accommodation in comfortable walking distance from all the main attractions – generally around US $10-15 on Agoda. The air-con rooms, in a classic Balinese garden setting with flowers, statues and birdsong, feature details like four-posters and hand-carved doors for an authentically Balinese feel that’s a bit more interesting than yer average homestay.
Check for discount rates on Agoda

And, whew, I think that’s it! Let me know if you’ve got any faves you’d like to share…

Are we connected on Facebook? Click here.

Copyright EscapeArtistes.

 

Indonesia Travel Tips


With anything from 13,466 to 18,306 islands, depending who you ask, sprawling over 5,000 kilometres across the equator, Indonesia isn’t the easiest place to navigate as a traveller. Here’s five key travel tips to help your holidays in Indonesia go well.

River boat against the setting sun on the Mahakam River, Borneo.

Don’t Try to Do Too Much

Indonesian Borneo is around the size of Turkey, Sumatra is almost as big as Spain, Sulawesi is closing in on Great Britain, Java is larger than Greece, and Indonesian Papua is on a similar scale to Sweden. So even before you get to the myriad smaller islands, there’s a whole lot of Indonesia to get around.

And, whether you’re island-hopping, braving west Java’s toxic traffic, or stuck behind a fallen tree on some slender jungle road, it’s amazing quite how long journeys can take – even if you fly.

Pick a region – or a well-trodden tourist route, such as Bali-Lombok-Flores or Bali-Java – and stick to it. Or try one of these Indonesia itineraries for size.

Mist swirls around the volcanos of Bromo, Java.

Pick the Right Time to Visit

Because of the archipelago’s sheer scale, there’s no best time to visit Indonesia: conditions will always be good somewhere, and less good somewhere else. Roughly speaking, the rainy season coincides with the European winter in Java, Bali and Lombok, and with the European summer in Maluku and Raja Ampat. Mainland Papua and Borneo are rainy all year round, while Sumatra and Sulawesi have multiple weather systems. The rainy season presents travel challenges from landslides to litter-strewn beaches and murky seas, not to mention high humidity, grey skies and, ya know, rain, but can also be a beautiful time of year with fewer tourists.

Besides the season, there are wind and sea conditions to consider: while of particular relevance to divers and surfers, big seas can also make some islands hard to reach. The tourist season peaks in July and August, which is the European summer and Australian winter, with a subsidiary peak in December-January, which is European winter and Australian long holiday, and, increasingly, a spike for China’s lunar new year holiday as well as the Easter break. In tourist meccas like Bali and the Gilis, expect price hikes and congestion.

For most visitors to Indonesia, April to June is a sweet spot, but check the climate for the area you’re visiting before you book.

A boat anchored off Maratua, in the Derawans, Borneo.

Don’t Be Afraid to Fly

I love overland travel and, for that matter, Pelni ferries as a means of getting around Indonesia. And if you’ve got the time, overland – be that train, bus, bemo or bike – plus boat remains the best way of getting to know the country.

But if you want to cover ground, you’ll need to fly. Airline travel in Indonesia is very affordable and, given the terrain and weather conditions at some airports, safer than you’d think: national carrier Garuda, its low-cost subsidiary Citilink, Indonesia AirAsia, Lion Air and Batik Air meet EU safety standards.

Booking can be harrowing process since many international card companies flag transactions made in Indonesia as fraud and airline websites don’t always work. Online travel agents like tiket.com or nusatrip.com are much more reliable than smaller airline websites.

Do Your Research

Even if you’re lucky enough to be doing longterm travel, Indonesia’s geography and visa regulations does not generally make flying blind rewarding. If you’re going off the beaten track you’ll need to learn some basic Indonesian, and I’d recommend picking up some books about Indonesia as well, including a decent guidebook: besides the print versions, Travelfish members can download niche guides to a range of different areas.

Children paddle a canoe in the Derawans, Borneo.

Get Travel Insurance

Accidents in countries with inadequate hospitals can come in really expensive, as I found out. And medical events from dengue to pericarditis can run to thousands of dollars in hospital fees. So don’t travel Indonesia without travel insurance.

Always read the Ts and Cs to ensure you’re covered for what you plan to do, be that diving, surfing or riding a motorbike – I don’t think there’s an insurer on the planet that will cover you unless you’re licensed, sober and wearing a helmet. For most people, World Nomads is the best travel insurance for Indonesia, but check their motorbike conditions carefully.

Are we connected on Facebook? Click here.

Copyright EscapeArtistes.

 

CSI: Food

I have undergone some unpleasant eating experiences in my time. Decades have passed since I repressed my gag reflex to swallow rancid, sandy goat fat in the depths of the Mauritanian Sahara, but many more will pass before I forget it.

In China, once upon a time, I was sufficiently unwise to utter the phrase ‘Oh, I eat anything!’, which led to me expanding my repertoire to both chicken feet and chicken heads, though mercifully no bear paw, tiger parts or genitalia. (Thanks, China!)

Because I like challenging my own personal food taboos, I have forced items from dog and snake to crickets past my protesting emotions and because I am a moron I routinely nibble raw chillis to see if they’re the heat I want for my cooking.

However… When it comes to fine dining, I have rarely had a truly bad experience. Indifferent, yes. Over-ambitious, yes. Room for improvement, yes. Dull, yes. Overpriced, hell yeah. But rarely proper abysmal.

In fact, I’m always rather mystified by how food critics find such memorably execrable dinners. Do they go looking for them, in the manner of Pete Wells versus Guy Fieri? Do they prowl through the TripAdvisor top ten, sniggering, until they find a corker? Do they have teams of junior researchers, like the ones who find the victims for Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares? Or are they just insanely picky?

On Friday, I lost my bad fine dining virginity. And how.

It was the Bag Lady’s idea. Well, in fact, it was Miss Korea’s idea. I was booked in for dinner with the Bag Lady and the Mother of Four, another lady who stands in loco parentis for Zac when I’m occupied with dengue, or travel, or suchlike. Then Miss Korea suggested to the Bag Lady that they have dinner at a beach club none of us had visited.

I’m a sucker for a bargain. And, at just 400,000 IDR (that’s around USD $30), for four courses with a glass of wine at each round, this sounded like a bargain. The food in the photo looked pretty enough – a riot of colour and texture, complete with edible flowers. The beach club belonged to a legit 5-star resort – I’d meant to take a look when it opened but, after a look at the menu, hadn’t been down. And, while I hadn’t heard of any of the three chefs featured on the menu, it all looked plausible enough.

This is the picture:

Picture of attractive dessert with title Unoaked 2.01

Looks legit, doesn’t it?

The accompanying glass of international wine with any pairing menu in Indonesia will be more of a thimble than a goblet, even if the establishment is on the very best of terms with the smugglers that run booze out of Batam and across the archipelago in speedboats.

Further, Miss Korea said, the wine was international. This was probably the point at which alarm bells should have started to ring. It is sadly true that the accompanying glass of international wine with any pairing menu in Indonesia will be more of a thimble than a goblet, even if the establishment is on the very best of terms with the smugglers that run booze out of Batam and across the archipelago in speedboats.

Also, since foreign alcohol is taxed at around 400% in Indonesia, said glass of international wine will generally be the sort of thing you’d pick up for a fiver, or conceivably a tenner, in your local offie no matter how high-faluting the menu. This is also why cocktail pairing is often the way to go on Bali, unless you appreciate the comedy value of a real live French sommelier solemnly unveiling the Jacob’s Creek complete with tasting notes as you sample your 8-course dégustation.

There are, in fact, some local wines – made with imported grapes – that aren’t actively disgusting, particularly if you haven’t recently drunk wine in Europe, Australia or the Americas: entry level retail for these is around US $13. But I digress. The point is: if you’re giving away your food PLUS international wine at those prices, you are sending up a major red flag.

We began with a stellar Bali sunset, a round of cocktails, and sundry complaints. Miss Korea sent her Dirty Martini – plastic glass – back for more dirty and more vodka, yielding a round of rapid-fire Rohypnol jokes; I fished the ice out of my Negroni; the Bag Lady wisely ordered her French-75 clone without sugar, which was sensible since someone had clearly dumped a vat of antifreeze in the carbonated urine that served as a base wine; and the Mother of Four remained diplomatically silent.

The table collapsed in nervous laughter. I picked up a strand of the nest to inspect it. “It’s crisps!” squealed the Bag Lady. “And they’re stale!”

And so to dine. Our first course was an amouse [sic], “Tahu Berontak deep fried tempura crushed tofu, wok fried vegetables”, accompanied by about a centimetre of “Cape Discovery Brut Cuvée, Indonesia”.

Along came the amouse: a bread-crumbed mini-egg perched atop a quasi-nest of mysterious white things, on a neat black plate as sold by all the best catering supply companies in the early noughties. Were they wok-fried vegetables? Jumbo crispy noodles? Miss Korea and I took forks in hand and probed the nest, which skittered, hilariously, across the saucer.

The table collapsed in nervous laughter. I picked up a strand of the nest to inspect it. “It’s crisps!” squealed the Bag Lady. “And they’re stale!”

It was mystifying. I tried to imagine the scene, backstage at this 5-star resort (rack rate from US $200 per night, which is a lot on Bali), where the chefs opened up a catering size packet of out-of-date crisps, dumped handfuls on the plate, and balanced eggs on top of them, and servers brought them out, and nobody, at any point, realised that this was not a good idea.

The bread-crumbed mini-egg tasted of sour tofu. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it wasn’t a tempura, either.

Also bewildering was the wine. While Cape Discovery is far from my favourite bottle of local fizz, it’s normally perfectly quaffable, particularly if you haven’t left Asia for a while. This stank of sulphites, a burnt rubber waft that I’d never come across before, and I wondered whether they’d actually picked up a bad batch cheap.

“And how was the wine?” she asked, clearly hoping for a win. I maintained a diplomatic silence. Miss Korea gave it all barrels. “It was disgusting,” she began. And continued. And continued.

We were, collectively, deep in analysis of the meal’s many flaws, when the poor marketing girl from the resort came to our table and asked, “How was the amuse?”

“Very amusing,” said Miss Korea. “It certainly amused,” I said, almost simultaneously.

Miss Korea and the Bag Lady launched into a detailed explanation of why stale crisps should not feature on a fine dining menu, even if they did look a bit like a nest.

The poor girl gritted her teeth and made all the usual noises about feedback being helpful.

“How would you change it?” she asked.

“Daikon nest? Spiralised zucchini?” I suggested. (I’m a great armchair cook.)

“The point about tempura,” said the Mother of Four, when pressed. “Is the contrast between the soft, fluffy batter and the ingredients inside. That’s not what’s happening here.”

“And how was the wine?” she asked, clearly hoping for a win.

I maintained a diplomatic silence. Miss Korea kicked every single stereotype you’ve come across about Koreans being indirect and concerned with saving face hard in the nuts with a metaphorical stiletto heel and went in with both barrels. “It was disgusting,” she began. And continued. And continued.

The marketing chick looked as if she might cry. “Would you like to exchange it for a different sparkling wine?” she asked.

Hell yes, we would. She disappeared into the kitchen never to be seen again.

It arrived as two flabby pancakes loosely rolled around some filling in a diarrhoeic puddle of peanut sauce topped by a mournful cherry tomato and some cress.

Enter the second course. The Bag Lady has been vegetarian for a while now, with the odd bit of fish when she feels like it. (One of her dogs had a narrow escape from the people that kidnap dogs for the dog meat restaurants, after which she felt she couldn’t object to people eating dogs if she went on consuming pigs and cows and sheep and chickens, which is a position of admirable consistency.)

A vegetarian menu had, therefore, been ordered.

The second course described itself as “Lumpia Basah home made ‘Javanese’ fresh vegetables and chicken spring roll peanut butter sauce and pickles”, and, no, I don’t know what’s up with the scare quotes either. It arrived as two flabby pancakes loosely rolled around some filling in a diarrhoeic puddle of peanut sauce topped by a mournful cherry tomato and some cress. Yes. Cress.

This raised many questions. Not only: “how difficult IS it to leave the chicken out of your spring roll filling?” But also: “why is an allegedly 5-star kitchen buying in both peanut sauce and pancake mix?” And, further: “why on earth are we paying 10-15 times the price we’d pay at a local warung for a flaccid spring roll in a pool of brown gloop?”

This is the difficulty with Indonesian food. It’s so easy to get a feast of spicy goodness at your local warung for pennies that you really need some serious-ass provenance or cheffery to justify paying restaurant prices. There are a lot of great chefs doing wonderful things with Indonesian food right now, but it does need to be approached with both caution and talent.

Or, as the Bag Lady, who was on a bit of a roll as the meal entered so-bad-it’s-good territory, explained to the manager when he had the unwisdom to come over and see what we thought of the food, “You’ve made this with pancake batter out of a packet! I know the taste, because you get it in a packet, and my kids love it, so I make it for them. I know what pancake batter tastes like. EVERYTHING has come out of a packet…”

You seem embarrassed, suggested the Mother of Four.

“Fuck no,” I said. “I’ve been through childbirth.”

“You’re comparing this to childbirth?” asked Miss Korea.

“If it gets that bad I’ll just make the rubber glove sign,” I said.

The wine, a centimetre of Australia’s Sacred Hill Chardonnay – that’s under US $4 per bottle in an Australian off-license – was palatable.

This raised a range of questions. Signally, what the actual fuck is a foam of anything, let alone sweet basil, doing on a menu that also features stale crisps and bought-in peanut sauce? Are you so short on ideas that literally half your courses have to include tempura? And, what is a pindang sauce?

For the main, we had a choice of “soft-shell crab tempura with South Sumatran ‘pindang’ sauce, roasted baby potato, ‘kemangi’ (sweet basil foam)” or “beef cheeks ‘rawon’ sauce slow cooked in traditional Eastern Java black nut keluwak broth, whipped potato and vegetables, salted duck egg and bean sprout”.

This raised a range of questions. Signally, what the actual fuck is a foam of anything, let alone sweet basil, doing on a menu that also features stale crisps and bought-in peanut sauce? Are you so short on ideas that literally half your courses have to include tempura? And, what is a pindang sauce?

“Sardine,” our server helpfully explained, which sounded risky. For some strange reason, perhaps related to us being a gaggle of cackling bitches, we were hitting a new server every course.

Our main courses arrived in what looked like outsize ashtrays, or, suggested the Bag Lady, “specimen bowls”.

The sardine sauce was less disgusting than anticipated. The lemon basil foam did not belong with any of the ingredients it shared a plate with, or indeed in the same restaurant, but would have been quite nice served with a dessert of some kind. The soft-shell crab tempura was an actual tempura, with nary a breadcrumb in sight. The potatoes were fine.

Rawon, which is basically a beef stew with extra umami from the kluwak nut, was authentic, done well, and paired fabulously with mashed potato. It seems churlish to whine about serving size after two abysmal courses, but, fuck it, I’m going to. Two teaspoons of mashed potato, two dinky cubes of beef, a slice of carrot, half a bought-in salted egg, and a sprinkling of bean sprouts doth not a main course make, however artfully arranged.

The Bag Lady’s vegetarian pasta started promisingly – by which, in this context, I mean “tasted like normal restaurant food” – but revealed startling and repellent patches of pure sugar, an inclusion we concluded could only be explained by someone in the kitchen confusing the salt shaker with the sugar shaker and then not stirring properly.

It was at this point that we began discussing where we should go to dinner AFTER this. Rare as it is to be actively hungry three courses in to a four-course meal, the Bag Lady and Miss Korea could do with dessert, while the Mother of Four and I could do with an entire meal.

The wine, a Vina Ventisquero Reserva Pinot Noir from Chile, was fine. It apparently retails at almost USD $10, so that’s a pretty damn fine wine for Indonesia (unless they’ve been grey-marketing bottles from when the wine-maker was producing cheap wine, which is also a possibility).

Incredibly, almost unbelievably, it tasted like sick. I don’t mean that metaphorically. I mean it literally tasted like vomit, albeit dairy vomit, perhaps what baby spit-up might taste like.

Finally, the pièce de résistance! Dessert! It looked BEAUTIFUL. Exactly like it did in the picture, complete with pretty strawberries and edible flowers. In fact, before tasting it, I even apologised to the manager for whining that the meal looked nothing like it did in the picture.

It was “Es Pisang Ijo ‘Makassar’ refined Makassar pandan banana dumpling with rice flour porridge, vanilla ice cream and mango jelly”.

And, incredibly, almost unbelievably, it tasted like sick.

I don’t mean that metaphorically. I mean it literally tasted like vomit, albeit dairy vomit, perhaps what baby spit-up might taste like.

Which was really, really weird because, at least in my experience, food doesn’t taste like vomit on its way into your stomach, only on its way back out again. Even off food doesn’t taste like sick. It tastes wrong, but not like vomit. (If you’ve eaten food that tastes like sick before, please do let me know.)

By this point, we were all thoroughly enjoying the meal, albeit more as a culinary crime scene investigation (CSI: Food!) rather than anything like dinner. Truly execrable food can make a fine bonding experience.

The culprit wasn’t the lurid green banana dumpling that didn’t taste of banana (or pandan). It wasn’t the sickly-sweet bulk-catering vanilla ice cream. It wasn’t the under-ripe strawberries, the unnerving brown coil of theoretically mango-flavoured grass jelly, or the feathery thing none of us could entirely identify but which seemed to have popped over from a different, and altogether better, restaurant. It was, the Bag Lady, decided, the rice porridge.

“I’ve found the bit that tastes of sick!!!!” she squealed, waving a spoonful of white gloop at me. “Here! Eat it!”

Our wine pairing was Bellissimo Moscato, another local wine and one tailor-made for the Indonesian palate. If you can imagine an Asti Spumante with reduced alcohol and extra antifreeze for tooth-hurting sweetness, you’ve just imagined Bellissimo Moscato, a watery, saccharine affair that’s closer to diet Sprite than wine.

There is a great deal to be said for simple food, done well.

We closed the evening with another first. I’ve had two dinners for work before – notably when I’ve forgotten to try a crucial local delicacy and I’m leaving the next morning, but also when I’ve had three places to eat at for research in a single day – but I’ve never had two dinners socially.

We drove across town to the place we were originally planning to eat, our little neighbourhood French bistro, Les Buku. It’s not fine dining, has limited pretensions, and is pretty much the kind of food you’d find in any decent-sized town in France.

But there’s escargots, oysters, entrecotes, onion soup and, most of the time, tartare, all served with minimal fuss and spectacular warmth.

We ate another dinner, drank our bodyweight in red wine, and toddled home, happy, if overfed. There is a great deal to be said for simple food, done well.

Are we connected on Facebook? Click here.

Copyright EscapeArtistes.

 
   

 


Email subscriptions powered by FeedBlitz, LLC, 365 Boston Post Rd, Suite 123, Sudbury, MA 01776, USA.