Searching for the real Ubud

On a short walk between our guesthouse and restaurant on the popular Monkey Forest Road, we were offered no fewer than 20 taxis and a dozen massages. A fellow tourist told us that restaurant staff had thrust menus at her while she was out for a run. Certainly the hawkers in the tourist centre are pretty intense and if they're not part of your preconception of Ubud they can easily cloud your initial impressions. This was the case for us, and it took a little time and a bit of poking around before we finally understood why the city is a must-see on any itinerary to Bali.

Ubud’s main routes are clogged up with traffic throughout the day, with daytrippers from Kuta and Seminyak adding to the mass of local traffic on the hopelessly inadequate roads. Tour operators, restaurants and money changers line the streets. Pavements are often absent, with large holes randomly formed to punish those who don’t look up from their phones or cameras to see where they're going.

View Ubud only from the main drags and you’d probably leave unimpressed, having seen little more than the standard fare seen in tourist traps the world over; although in Ubud’s defence its restaurants offer more variety and better quality than you’ll find in many similarly popular towns. But the good news is that it doesn’t take a great deal of effort to dig beyond this soulless exterior and uncover the most appealing side to the town.

My early indifference to Ubud changed when we took a morning walk up to the village of Campuan. The 3km track from the edge of town took us on a steady climb above a river bank and quickly gave us views over the surrounding rice fields. We’d set off at 7am to avoid the worst of the heat and were grateful for the light rain which accompanied our early start, but by 8am the humidity was already stifling. Egrets rested in the fields and after the rain had faded, insects came out to feed on the moisture and we stopped to admire dragonflies and a particularly long millipede which narrowly avoided my size 11s.

In Campuan ladies were bringing their offerings to the temple and the many surrounding small shrines. Builders were already hard at work (they start very early in Bali, as we’d discovered at our previous hotel).  Chickens crossed the road for no obvious reason, and the stray dogs, so prevalent across Bali, raised their heads to see who was passing. Few were stirred into even a half-hearted bark.

Our walk took us around the edge of the rice fields and eventually back into Ubud, just in time for a well-earned shower and breakfast. After 3 days in town we’d finally seen a glimpse of the landscape which has inspired artists from around the world to settle in the town.

 

 

In fact even those who don't fancy a walk out of town can get beyond Ubud's commercial facade. Oddly enough, to lose the hustlers who fill the main roads, the best tactic is to head into the centre, between the main roads which ring the town. Here, rice fields sit between homestays and villas, and the faces at the stalls of the local shops are gentle and smiling; it's quite a contrast to the determination, almost desperation, at the central market, where visitors are chased for their precious rupiah.   

You can get Bali included as a stopover on your round the world here

 

Making coconut oil in a Balinese home


 

It was hardly a tough afternoon’s work, and coming away with two bottles of coconut oil seemed like a generous reward for doing little more than sitting in the sun. But what was offered as a coconut oil making workshop turned out to be just as much about an intimate look at Balinese family life.


The Kali Manik resort is on a remote stretch of black sand beach on the north coast of Bali. The owner is a straight-talking Austrian lady who set up the 3-room hotel with lofty social and environment aspirations. As she told me, “If I wanted to make money I would have built more than 3 rooms.”

One of the features of the property is the range of activities which guests can do within the local community. It was one such option which appealed to us and resulted in an afternoon at the home of an extended family in the village to learn the craft of making coconut oil. Asri greeted us with a warm smile, her thin face accentuated by her two front teeth, which stood like steadfast beacons in a row of long-gone teeth. 

As Asri sliced open the coconuts her grandson Kulik introduced himself. His English was limited, but he provided a useful if sometimes uncertain explanation of what his grandmother was doing. She worked on the shaded veranda of the family house, and one by one other family members began to appear: babies and toddlers, grandfathers, uncles, other grandmothers. In fact only the middle generations were unrepresented, with parenting duties seemingly the job of older siblings and grandparents. 

Apart from Kulik’s commendable efforts at communicating with us, nobody in the family spoke a single word of English. Sign language can get you so far, but we had to accept that the finer details of how to extract oil from a coconut would remain a mystery. The preparation phase of the process took around an hour, and this was followed by a two-hour wait while the solution slowly boiled away to leave the clear oil sitting on top of the white residue.

Two hours sitting watching a pot boil can pass very slowly in the company of a dozen or so people with whom you don’t share a common language. What made this less uncomfortable was the action taking place around us. The courtyard enjoyed the partial shade of a mature tree which dominated the garden. A cockerel strutted around the yard keeping check on his harem of chickens, while two small pigs sniffed their way across from time to time, eager to snap up the scraps which they knew would come their way at the end of the oil-making session. 

The young children played in the yard, crawling and tumbling in a shared space with the pigs and chickens – I marvelled at the immune systems they were doubtless developing, but more impressive still was the ease with which they mingled with an extended family which lived in this and the adjacent houses. I may have been an outsider to the chitter-chatter which continued in the shade of the old tree, but it was hard to resist smiling along with the contented glow which the afternoon sun appeared to cast over Asri’s family members. 

Three hours after we arrived the oil which had been separated from the boiled mixture and left to cool was poured into two plastic bottles. We shook hands and finally left the family in peace, carrying our two bottles of pure coconut oil. But the reward of the afternoon had extended beyond our freshly-made oil; a slice of Balinese family life had come as an unexpected extra.