I must admit, the first time I went to Bali was mainly because our friends were on holiday in Indonesia. Bali was just a short plane ride away from Australia and so we agreed to meet them there. Before I ever set foot on Bali I was a little judgemental. I thought the island would be crowded with tourists, I thought there would be hardly any culture left and I thought it was a waste of time to explore the island that was already destroyed by tourism.
I think some of you will go like: “Yup, that sounds like Bali”, but when I arrived at Villa Minggu, our Airbnb in Silakarang, a small village just a 10-minute drive out of Ubud I immediately felt what people love about Bali. My first visit was just for one week, but already when we left, I knew that I had to come back to the Island and to specifically to Ubud to explore more. Of course, I do agree that Bali is a place that is packed with tourists but believe me when I say that there are different ways to connect with the culture. There are ways to truly connect with the Balinese people who are just different from all the other people you’ll ever meet. And there are multiple ways to explore the island in a way that ensures that you don’t feel just like one of the 1.500.000 people that visit it every year. I will share with you the way my boyfriend and I explored Bali and how we got in touch with the local life in and around Ubud in the hopes that it will help you to find the beauty that Bali still has to offer!
Discover Bali through the places you stay
Like said before, Villa Minggu was for us the perfect place to start. It’s a beautiful house that looks out over the quiet rice fields. The villa is owned by Ongky who is a local stone carver (can it get more Balinese?) and his wife Hannah, who is from the Isle of Man. They are very welcoming, and it’s cool to hear their stories since Hannah was plunged into Balinese culture when they got married in a traditional ceremony. They live in Ongky’s family compound, and they gave us a short tour of where they lived and told us about Balinese traditions in their family temple. Besides that, they had lots of beautiful places to recommended on the island that are not overrun with tourists. And so we hired a scooter and drove to these places. In that one week we explored in and around Ubud all based on local recommendations; from Ongky’s favourite local (cheap!) Warung in Ubud to a nice route to drive up in the mountains. We had a great time thanks to our local hosts.
When we returned, we wanted to have a similar experience, so we searched the internet and based on a recommendation from my instafriend @julia.travelling I found out about Hibiscus cottages. A family business run by Ballon (named after his big balloon belly) and his son Wayan. It’s a few lefts and rights from the main street but hey, what do you expect if you want to find six traditional cottages tucked away behind the cute and small warung, which is exactly what we found when we walked the narrow streets through the rice fields. We were also very happy to meet Wayan and his wife, Kadek. They invited us to come with them to Eden House, the guest house they have together. We agreed and chatted away about the Balinese lifestyle, and were truly touched when we heard their story:
Like many other Balinese, Wayan and Kadek got married very young. They wanted to start a family together but Wayan had one goal: to make a better life for his kids than he had because his family was very poor. He told us the translation of his nicknames meant ‘silent’ and ‘hungry’ because when he was little he had nothing but rice to eat three times a day. So before Kadek got pregnant he worked on a cruise ship for 2 years, resting only to sleep. He came home and invested his money into building his own guest house, which took four years to complete. The house had just been finished when we arrived and he was humble but proud to show us around. We were really impressed but also surprised that there were no guests. Wayan told us how worried he was, but he believed that if he made offerings to the gods everyday that guest would come eventually. Thijs and I, both from the advertising world, looked at each other with a look that gave away that we didn’t have much trust in his approach. We ended up helping with some small things to promote their homestay, not only because we liked them and their story, but also because we obviously loved the place and were happy that we stumbled across it.
If you look up the location of Eden House, you will find a lot of more home stays as well as yoga schools, spas and cafes in the rice fields. After doing a few homestays in different places in Bali I think it’s safe to say that a homestay will allow you to learn about the culture because a big part of Balinese culture is the open, friendly and heart warming people. And where to get to know them better than in their own house where they welcome you with open arms?!
The reason I loved Eden House is because you will experience the Balinese culture from a home stay but you will also notice that because it’s a new house that it almost feels like a hotel in terms of luxury and privacy. If you do want to experience a more traditional homestay I can recommend Hibiscus Cottages, Pajar House or Umah Belos.
Discover Bali through traditional food
Another way to explore local culture is of course through food. Ubud (and Bali in general) has a lot to offer for foodies and is way ahead if you’re into healthy, vegan and organic food. You can find all kinds of high-end restaurants and cute little cafes, but there is way more to explore for those who like to discover more about traditional and local food. My top picks would be:
Mangga Madu – A staple for locals and expats, this warung hasn’t changed its menu much since it opened years ago and still charges lower prices than most warungs in Ubud.
D’Waroeng – A small, friendly restaurant in Nyuh Kuning with some real traditional flavors. An absolute must-eat is the Ayam Sambal Sereh; shredded chicken with shallots, lemongrass and chilies on a bed of cooked greens.
Sate Kakul – Kakul or rice field snails are their speciality but they also serve excellent grilled chicken and fish with delicious spicy sambal and water spinach for a fraction of what a meal would cost you at a more touristy cafe in Ubud.
And last but definitely not least would be my favourite experience, the Balinese Farm Cooking School. You learn how to cook traditional Balinese dishes; as fresh as they come since you pick most ingredients yourself out of their organic garden. The other ingredients you get at a nearby market where you can experience a different kind of market than the crowded market in Ubud. You will get picked up at your hotel or homestay in Ubud and drive through tiny villages all the way to the farm in Pemulan.
Pemulan is a tiny village where it seems that time has stood still. For me this was definitely one of the best things I experienced during my two month stay in Bali. I learned a lot about all the different greens growing in the garden, and more importantly, I learned how to create Asian tastes by combining just a few well-known vegetables and herbs. We did a cooking class with five of my friends, and it was great to create, learn, taste and eat together in the outside kitchen in the centre of the garden surrounded by jungle. And really, it sounds as idyllic as it looks in real life. The sunset over the jungle and the sound of the monkeys were the perfect end to an incredible day.
After dinner, a few of my friends got dropped off back in Ubud and another friend and I choose to stay with the family. We were welcomed into their family compound, offered homemade treats, and they even tried to teach us some Indonesian. In no time we were surrounded by eight family members who were curious to see who we were (that made us feel like this evening entertainment). Some of the family members spoke English and translated our conversations for the rest that gathered around. Grandma her English was not that good, but she was smiling and laughing the hardest every time we would make a joke. After a few hours, we were the first ones to end the party and went to bed.
Being a tourist is a choice
Yes, Bali is one of the most (if not the most) touristic islands in Indonesia, but I have to disagree with anybody who says that there is no local life left to explore. Nowhere did I meet such genuine, sweet and open people as in Bali. They are proud of their culture, and they are happy to share it with anyone who is interested. If you open up yourself to the people, they will open up their life for you and you will explore a whole different Bali then you might expect. The places I named in this post will help you to find the Bali I fell in love with but I am sure that if you bring your curiosity and an open mindset that you will find this Bali everywhere outside of the main streets, away from the popular tourist spots.
I hope you will get inspired to explore a different kind of Bali and I am very curious to hear back from you guys. Did you discover local warungs, homestays or great activities? Don’t be shy and leave a comment!