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Postcard from Bali: water palaces, warungs and bogged down in Bugbug

February 8, 2019

Tirta Gangga Water Palace and Temple

Since my last postcard from Bali we’ve moved from Canggu on the south-west coast of the island, to a place on the east coast not far from the village of Candidasa, Given that we’ve had rain much of the time since we arrived, the highlight of most days has been gastronomic.

One of the joys of Bali are the warungs – small family restaurants that sell affordable meals to foreigners and locals alike. One of our golden rules on holiday is to avoid hotel restaurants as much of possible. Breakfast, yes, but eating in the same place for dinner feels like failure to explore.

Soon after we arrived in Candidasa we therefore went in search of a promising warung. In the bit of the road immediately beyond the hotel, there didn’t seem much of a choice. Many of the restaurants are set up to serve the tourists, with a choice of Indonesian and western food. One of them advertised burgers and hotdogs, with a prominent sign saying “NO Nasi Goreng”. As if those fed up with Indonesia’s national dish could find solace in plain old MAGA food (as in the Make America Great Again hats). Quite an insulting sentiment really, rather like pronouncing “NO Shwarmas” in Riyadh or “NO Chicken Tikka Masala” in Birmingham.

I don’t suppose it’s doing very well, since foreigners are in short supply, it being the rainy season. People don’t like surfing in thunderstorms.

A bit further down the street is a small area by the sea shore that has several warungs. And there we enjoyed our nasi goreng and grilled mahi-mahi fillet. The owner of the one we chose, Ketut, seemed uncommonly grateful to see us. Business was not great. His wife runs the kitchen and, with two kids to feed and educate, every contribution helps.

Like almost every Balinese guy in a tourist area he is a man of many parts. We soon agreed for him to take us sightseeing for a day. To do that he had to hire a car. He asked us to come to the warung to be picked up, because the local drivers would be angry with him if he picked us up from the hotel. That sounded familiar after my experience with striking Barcelona taxi drivers a few weeks ago.

We agreed four local destinations: a water garden, a water palace, a visit to the nearby central market and finally a stop-off at his village where they produce honey and my favourite Indonesian coffee – kopi lowok.

Yesterday morning we set off in blazing sunshine. Not five miles on we were held up for an hour by traffic. It seems that there had been a bit of a landslide further up the hill, and the local authorities were doing their best to clear the road. No matter. It was a nice day, and the macaques by the side of the road provided plenty of amusement.

We finally made it to the Tirta Gangga Water Garden, a temple complex where ponds with large numbers of huge and ravenous carp competed for the fish food you could buy from the temple shop. You only had to stand on the edge of the water with an arm outstretched for a few dozen of these orange monsters to surface en masse, mouths open like piscine equivalents of Donald Trump sounding off.

One of the ponds was laid out with stepping stones which allowed you to wander among the fish on your way to the temple, taking care to avoid barging into the water young Chinese girls pausing for selfies along the way.

The temple itself was pretty nondescript – rather like a bandstand surrounded by glowering statues demanding obeisance. All the favourites were there: Shiva, Rama, Kali and the rest of the pantheon. Beside the temple was a large pool where people can swim – a nice touch.

The garden was beautifully laid out and not too crowded. A good place to spend an hour on a multi-itinerary trip. The most charming aspect of all was Ketut, walking with us with a huge grin on his face, repeatedly saying how happy he was to be there. A day out, away from the warung, was like a holiday for him.

The next stop was the central food market, where Ketut was under orders to pick up some avocados. Nothing special about it, apart from the smiley women, mostly Muslim, who ran the stalls. No strange or startling foodstuffs, such as monkeys, snake heads or odd bits of chicken.

Next stop was the Taman Ujung Water Palace, which once was the home of the last Raja of the area. Again, beautifully laid out, and within the palace itself photos of the Raja with his wives, nannies and 24 children. Also the Raja posing with representatives of the colonial power – the Dutch – looking stiff in their western finery. A reminder that on several occasions rajas resisting Dutch rule carried out mass suicide attacks against Dutch forces – they with spears, bows and ornamental swords against the Dutch with rifles. This raja clearly thought the better of the ultimate sacrifice.

This was the kind of garden where you would expect peacocks to be roaming. So it was a surprise to find that the garden’s ornamental birds were not peacocks but a family of turkeys, casually wandering in and out of the shrubs and ornaments without a care in the world. The biggest ones would probably make the 6-10 kilo range at Tesco, but these guys are not destined for the pot. The luckiest turkeys in the world. And how beautiful they are from close up.

Our last destination was Ketut’s village, where we would commune with bees and drink coffee. Except that things didn’t quite work out as expected. On the way to the village, which is close to our hotel, we encountered another gargantuan traffic jam at the aptly named village of Bugbug.

It was strange to see a single lane highway in the middle of the country as clogged as any I have encountered in London, Riyadh or Los Angeles. The difference was that the Balinese seemed to take it in their stride. Whereas in London the faces of the drivers would be etched with sullen fury, and in Riyadh a cacophony of car horns would erupt as drivers threw their hands in the air and thumped the steering wheel in frustration, the drivers here never came close to losing their cool. It was an opportunity to get out of the car and chat with others in the queue, one of whom was getting regular updates via WhatsApp from a policewoman friend at the scene of the hold-up on the progress of the road works.

Meanwhile, the sky was getting darker. Ninety minutes later, we finally got through the choke point and headed for the village. We were running out of time, and it was starting to rain. Heavily as usual. Against our better judgement, we agreed to stop briefly in the village. By now the rain was monsoon grade. With thunder and lightning all around us, we climbed some steep steps to a where we were treated to a coffee production demonstration and a spot of honey tasting. We didn’t linger long at the coffee station because we’d been to somewhere similar elsewhere in Bali. But in for those of you who have never encountered kopi lowok, it’s made from coffee beans eaten and excreted by civet cats. Because the civet partly digests the beans, the resultant coffee lacks the bitterness of other beans. It’s a smooth, delicious and hideously expensive drink.

The honey came from two species of bee. Asian bees, which produce the kind of honey we would easily recognise in the west, and black bees, which are smaller, don’t sting, are difficult to breed and produce about one tenth of the output of the Asian variety. The black bee honey was unlike any that I’d tasted before. The flavour is best described as sweet and sour. The locals ascribe to it all kinds of medicinal properties. Both honeys were also hideously expensive. Our budget didn’t stretch to £30 for a small jar of black honey or £20 for a similar quantity of the regular stuff.

When we got back to our hotel, we expected to find a Balinese Noah with an ark full of animals ready to take us away. Several ground floor villas were flooded out and the stream at the back of our first floor apartment had started to get very angry. We later learned that an entire building next to the hotel had been swept away, which was a bit scary. Nobody was hurt, fortunately.

Nonetheless, being British, we kept our promise to eat at Ketut’s warung that evening, so with the rain still bucketing down and lightning nearby threatening instant death, we opened the brollies and made it to his place for more mahi mahi. When we got back, the rain was still pounding, and the path to our villa was a river. We waded through a six-inch stream of water to find that the occupants of the apartment beneath us had been evacuated. Since we were one floor up, it would have taken a tsunami to disturb us – a real possibility in an area that a few months ago felt the effects of Richter 7 earthquake that caused much damage to nearby island of Lombok.

This morning our stairway was clear of muddy water, but the footprints of some unidentified animal ending with claw-marks on the wall were evidence that some residents were less sanguine than us.

Today the rain has continued. The flooding has returned downstairs, negating the hard work of the team that worked so diligently to clear up the mess this morning. No doubt more debris has fallen on the road to Bugbug. But are we bothered? So long as we aren’t carried into the sea by a mudslide, who cares about rain when we have a dry balcony, the temperature’s in the late twenties, and we have books to read. Not to mention warungs to feed us and the Balinese with their seemingly limitless cheerfulness to keep us smiling.

Trust me, there are far worse places to be.

From → Postcards, Social, Travel

  1. Great post 😁

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