Postcard from Bali (or: Eat Pray Love)

I first came to Bali almost 20 years ago. At the time, I was a single mother with no two brass razzoos to rub together but, as luck would have it, a small inheritance came my way. Determined to show my children that there was life beyond the grey skies of London, and with careful budgeting, I took us off on a backpacking holiday to Indonesia. Back then, Kuta was, as it still is, full of young Australian surfers, bars and stalls selling counterfeit designer goods and souvenirs, local women crying out “Hey Mama, plait your hair? Do your nails?” which they then did for a few rupiah right there on the beach. My already very entrepreneurial son soon made fast friends with the stallholders and young as he was, got himself involved selling fake label sun glasses and watches to passing tourists and doing black market deals to get us better exchange rates on our money. But Kuta was too busy for my liking, too much of an ant heap, so we rented an old jalopy , one in which, as I was to find out, only the handbrake worked, and with my heart in my mouth, fiercely concentrating to avoid the throngs of motorbikes, we headed inland to Ubud, then a pretty little artisan village, and ensconced ourselves at Gerebig Bungalows (www.gerebig.com) in among the paddy fields in Penestanan for something like £10 a night including breakfast.

Budget Homestay Gerebig Bungalows in Penestanan
Budget Homestay Gerebig Bungalows in Penestanan

In the intervening years, both Kuta and Ubud have expanded tremendously. In Kuta, all those stalls have turned into sleek shop fronts and the manicure ladies have disappeared. It’s become an even busier tourist hub and clearly the party destination for young Aussies and Westerners. Sleepy little Ubud has retained much of its alternative charm but has become a bustling small town with one Buddha manufacturer after another and boasts a Starbucks, Pandora, Accessorize and other International chains. Some change, since back in the day when you had to drive all the way to Kuta, to get a photocopy made! Time and tide wait for no (wo)man! But pretty Penestanan, just on the outskirts of Ubud, still has that same old boho vibe and Gerebig Bungalows, now with the addition of a pool, is otherwise unchanged and still offers great budget accommodation.

Bali, courtesy of www.sukizoe.com
Bali, courtesy of  www.sukizoe.com

I fell in love with Ubud that first time. The lush vegetation, the rush of the river in the gorge, the green green paddy fields, the little side streets with a multitude of shops and stalls to meander around, small road side cafes and ‘warung’, often with just one or two tables set up outside someone’s house, offering stupendously good food for very little money, the incredible warmth and friendliness of the people. Much later immortalized in Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestseller ‘Eat Pray Love’ and a matching blockbuster film, starring Julia Roberts and Xavier Bardem, Ubud was very much my kind of place, my spiritual home.

Lily Pond at Amandari
Lily Pond at Amandari

My children must have loved their first visit there too. Both have been back several times, each for weeks, even months, during their respective gap years and on holidays since. My daughter fell quite seriously ill there in 2002 with horrendous amoebic dysentery and was eventually persuaded to return to the UK early to receive the care she needed. Within days of her departure, the Bali bomb went off in the bar she frequented daily. To this day I am on my knees with gratitude that my child was saved. The memorial in Kuta always has me in floods of tears at the horrific tragedy that occurred there. 202 people died.

Bali Bomb Memorial in Kuta
Bali Bomb Memorial in Kuta

I, myself returned to Ubud in 2007 for my honeymoon with the lovely husband. We stayed at the amazingly beautiful Puri Wulandari Hotel (www.hotelpuriwulandari.com) , with stunningly appointed villas with their own infinity plunge pools overlooking the gorge. Happy times!

Hotel Puri Wulandari
Hotel Puri Wulandari

This time, to break up our journey from Singapore to Moyo Island, we stayed at the equally gorgeous Amandari Resort (www.amanresorts.com) for three nights. Here they take spoiling to a whole new dimension! Even before you go through customs, a representative meets you and sees to the retrieval of your luggage while you make your way through arrivals. Then a driver in a crisp white uniform meets you at the airport and transports you 40 minutes to the hotel where you are greeted warmly and taken on to your private thatched villa, built in local style with local materials, an interior designer’s dream inside, and once again with its own pool. The small thoughtful touches are too many to mention but every last detail which might possibly make your stay more memorable or comfortable has been considered, the result is one big Wow! effect.

Hotel Amandari
Hotel Amandari
Hotel Amandari
Hotel Amandari
Hotel Pool Amandari
Hotel Pool Amandari

We arrived in the early evening, dusk settling in, candles everywhere, the scent of frangipani enveloping us, frogs croaking in the lily ponds, just in time for a sundowner in the bar, during which we were entertained by a magical dance performance given by little girls from the on site community temple dancing school. An enchanting experience! Too travel weary to venture into Ubud, we had dinner in the hotel restaurant and what a wise decision that was! Our Beef Redang and Mahe Mahe Sambal, followed by a shared Melted Apple Crepe with Icecream was to die for, each bite a sensory pleasure. Needless to say, breakfast the next morning was no less wonderful and, to top it all off, it came with a Birthday cake for me. The date had not escaped the staff when they took our passports on registration. Nice one, Amandari!

Little Temple Dancers
Little Temple Dancer
Little Temple Dancer
Little Temple Dancer
Breakfast at Amandari
Breakfast at Amandari

So, in a celebratory mood, we headed into Ubud to meet my lovely friend Suki Zoe. Now Suki is one of life’s happy vagabonds. Originally from the UK, she has adapted her career(s) to wherever she might have found herself. A pastry chef in New York, a hydro therapist in London, a teacher in Thailand and, for the last four years, a photographer and raw chocolatier in Bali (www.sukizoe.com), this girl is fizzing, stimulating company and absolutely drop dead beautiful to boot. She moves, she grooves, she shakes things up and when she’s taken what any one place has to give her, she unsentimentally sells up every last one of her possessions and moves on to pastures new. We met at Alchemy (www.alchemybali.com), a raw food bar in Penestanan she helped to set up, raw meaning vegan and uncooked. If you’ve never tried a raw food vegan hamburger or a raw carrot cake, you don’t know what you’re missing! Don’t let the super health aspect throw you off course, these are real gourmet treats.

Bambu Indah
Bambu Indah

Suki, in fact, organized dinner for the lovely husband and me with friends of hers who run Bambu Indah. Bambu Indah (www.bambuindah.com) calls itself a ‘radically distinctive eco-luxury boutique hotel’ and that’s exactly what it is. Set in amongst paddy fields and designed in a most beautiful and serene lay out with streams and ponds and lush gardens, it consists of eleven antique Javanese bridal homes which have been lovingly restored and now serve as guest accommodation. We ate in their romantic restaurant at a table they had set aside especially for us and festooned with colourful blossoms in honour of my birthday. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that that evening, I had the very best Asian food I have ever eaten. It was the feast of all feasts! We had crispy vegetable samosas with satay, Kale fritters, roast aubergines, spinach, barramundi, lime sorbet with chocolate brownies and all manner of other delicacies. The cost? Rp1.022.450 which equals about €70 for two, including a bottle of wine and two glasses of champagne.

Bali Door
Bali Door

In the course of our stay in Ubud we also ate at Casa Luna, the Art Café and Bumi Bali Restaurant and Cookery School. All meals were delicious and inexpensive.

On our return journey from Moyo Island back on our way home to Baku, we had almost a whole day of transit time, so we took the opportunity to meet up with Adrian Ellis, the former GM of Baku’s Fairmont Hotel, who is in Bali on a temporary work project. We rendezvous’d for lunch at the Echo Beach Café (www.echobeachhouse.com) in Canggu after which the entire stretch of beach is named. Canggu is a beach side surfer version of what Ubud village used to be like and abounds with tanned young buff bodies, athletic guys with sunstreaked hair and board shorts and effortlessly beautiful young women, flat stomached, long limbed, in bikini tops and casually cut off denims. And they all seem to congregate at the Echo Beach Seafood Café where you can drink your cocktails while watching the surfers skillfully riding the waves.

Echo Beach, Canggu
Echo Beach, Canggu

Bali still has that magic, that very special charm, a combination of authentic indigenous culture, boho lifestyle, stunning nature, outstanding cuisine, warmhearted happy people and gorgeous weather. Of all the many South East Asian places I have visited, all of them lovely, this is the most enchanting. Twenty years on, it still holds my heart, Bali, Island of the Gods.

Offering to the Gods on the pavement
Offering to the Gods on the pavement

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For a little taste of Bali spoiling in Baku, I can only recommend a fabulous massage or facial with therapist Lulu from Ubud at the ESPA spa in the Fairmont Hotel, Flame Towers.

Equally relaxing and reinvigorating is a Reflexology session with gentle Indian Arif at the Marriott Absheron Spa.

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For an excellent review on Amandari by travel journalist Jess Baldwin, see

www.arbuturian.com/travel/hotels/amandari-bali

You may also be interested in my Postcard from Moyo (or: finding my Mojo in Moyo)

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