A Bali of Two Halves

13th September 2017 to 19th September 2017

Singapore, Seminyak, Ubud

Our second and final day in Singapore was a pretty laid back affair. We had been in no hurry to get up, so our first engagement of the day was lunch with some ex-colleagues of mine, now based in the Singapore office. We ate a delicious set lunch at a Thai restaurant a short walk from their office. After lunch, we set ourselves the challenge of walking as far as possible without leaving AC. In Singapore, this is surprisingly far. Our walk took us through multiple shopping centres before our progress was halted by the Formula 1 track that had been setup for the coming weekend. The track was accessible to the public (deliberately or not, I don’t know!) so we wandered round to soak it all in. Even as people with only a passing interest in the sport, four days ahead of race day there was a real atmosphere building around the circuit. 

After drinks at the top of the Marina Bay Sounds Hotel, that failed to live up to the view, we took a trip to Arab street for a Singaporean favourite – Murtabak. The Murtabak is essentially a turbo charged roti, stuffed with a variety of fillings and served with two curry sauces. Kim ordered a small, I ordered a medium. Both were almost identical in size and based on the size of those I would be concerned for the well being of anyone who could eat the largest size on the menu, XXXL! Kim put it to the top of her “favourite things we have eaten on this trip” list. High praise indeed after Penang.

After an impromptu wedding planning session (no, we still haven’t set a date) and a wander around Chinatown our time in Singapore had come to an end. The next morning we would be off to Bali.

We arrived in Bali at Ngurah Rai Airport in Denpasar to the worst scrum of taxi drivers that we have ever witnessed. It was chaos and completely unexpected. We had pictured a Bali of tranquil temples, pristine beaches and package holidays, it wasn’t supposed to be like this! Without exaggeration, we were offered a taxi by about 50 drivers and prices to Seminyak were ranging from 100,000 rupiah (£6) for an uber to 300,000 rupiah (£18) from the first driver who quoted us. I ordered multiple Uber’s, but by all accounts they get blocked by the official taxis from entering the airport. This did explain why the other drivers took such delight in telling me that my uber wouldn’t arrive. Eventually, I relented and took an airport taxi for 140,000 rupiah and had a lively debate with the driver about the taxi situation on the way to Seminyak whilst Kim slept. Over the course of the journey, the driver and I warmed to each other and chatted less about the airport taxi situation and more about the island of Bali. As such, I was feeling distinctly more positive about our time to come here, particularly when we checked into the lovely Ping Hotel. This feeling quickly dissipated when we hit the streets to another barrage of pressure selling. This still wasn’t at all what I had expected of the island.

Jenny, an ex-colleague of Kim’s was embarking on a year long trip of her own and would be spending the first week of her trip with us in Bali. She made quite the entrance, rolling into town in her taxi calling out of the window to both Kim and I and another couple she knew, as we all happened to be walking down the same street as she arrived.

The three of us spent a largely enjoyable couple of days in Seminyak, mostly on the beach, but never felt entirely at ease there due to the constant sales pressure. I left with the feeling that we hadn’t seen the best of what the town had to offer. So far, I really wasn’t warming to Bali as a destination, which surprised me somewhat.

We took a taxi up to Ubud and over the course of the hour long journey (it’s only 14 miles!), my opinion started to shift rapidly as I watched the world go by out of the window. The countryside was picture perfect and Balinese architecture has to be some of most beautiful that we have seen on our travels. Every other building is a temple!

Ubud itself was an intriguing place, with plenty of palaces and temples to see, including the ever popular monkey forest. With nearly 700 macaques patrolling the monkey forest, Kim was in heaven!

The area surrounding Ubud was dotted with spectacular green rice terraces, which we visited on a couple of occasions.

Our guesthouse in Ubud was down a tiny side street and through an ornate gate that opened out into a courtyard complete with temple. Our room itself had a wooden door even more ornate than the gate and a little seating area outside in the courtyard. This was what I had expected of Bali!

The final day of our third week was spent white water rafting the stunning Telaga Waja river. We were teamed up with a Dutch guy called Mark to complete our raft (spoiler alert, he will appear again in week 4!). The Rapids themselves were fairly tranquil compared to some that we have done, but the setting could not have been more perfect. The lush greenery would not have been out of place in Jurassic Park and this feeling was only intensified as dragon flies and swallows flitted around our heads as we floated down river. The (now) 4 of us agreed it had been one of the best activities on all our respective trips.

Our experience of Balinese food has so far been almost exclusively from “Warungs”. The word as it is used in Bali today seems to indicate a modest restaurant serving Indonesian food, though I am lead to believe that this stretches the traditional use of the word slightly for ease of marketing to tourists. Either way, the warungs that we have visited have largely served some very tasty dishes at reasonable prices. The universal core warung menu, at least in Seminyak and Ubud (an admittedly small cross section of the country) seems to consist of the following dishes:

• Nasi Goreng – fried rice

• Mee Goreng – fried noodles

• Gado Gado – vegetables and hard boiled egg with peanut sauce

• Chicken Curry

• Satay

• Nasi Campur – rice with “side dishes”

Both the “Goreng” dishes were a touch above the versions served in Malaysia, due to the accompaniments. Usually they would come with a fried egg, a stick or two of satay and some prawn crackers. However, the real star dish in my eyes was the Nasi Campur. Typically the versions of the dish that we were served was centred around a cone of rice, though at times it may be less artfully presented. The rice was then surrounded by any number of side dishes, often 4-5 different dishes at a time. At one time or another, we were served:

• Sate Lilit Ayam – spiced chicken mince formed around a lemongrass stalk before being grilled.

• Tempeh – a soybean product that looks and tastes an awful lot like peanuts when crispy.

• Sambal – a hot chilli paste that is often flavoured with dried shrimp or fish sauce.

• Kare Ayam – Chicken curry, rich with coconut milk and Balinese spices.

• Lawar – a spicy dish of vegetables, coconut and sometimes meat.

• Jackfruit

• Vegetable fritters

• Stir fried vegetables

• Crispy prawns

• Hard boiled egg

• Garlic crisps

• Crispy onions

• Pickled chilli

• Tomato

• Cucumber

It was always a fun thing to order, because you never knew quite what would come out of the kitchen. Whilst the menus in Warungs may lack a bit of variety, the wide variety of accompaniments to the Nasi Campur meant that meals were never short of a tasty surprise or two.

The exception to the standard warung that we had eaten in was a warung specialising in Babi Guling. Babi Guling was a dish that I had been excited about long before we arrived in Bali, spit roast suckling pig with Balinese spices. Don’t mind if I do!

So far, we have tried Babi Guling twice. Once in Seminyak at Babi Guling Pak Malen and once in Ubud at the famous Ibu Oka.

Babi Guling Pak Malen

Pak Malen was our first experience of the dish. As we sat down to eat it in a dark and dingy warung, I was brimming with excitement. I had heard so many good things about this dish. Being told that there was only one thing on the menu only added to my excitement. Whenever a place doesn’t offer anything else, you always know what they do offer will be pretty special.

Initially, we were brought a soup of pork and vegetables, rich with spices. It was as fiery as hell! I hadn’t anticipated that…

Next, a basket of rice and a basket of pork were placed in front of each of us. The serving of roast pork was actually quite small, but was accompanied by a spice paste, crackling, a pork scratching, blood sausage, crispy pieces of fried pork and a lawar, heavily flavoured with coconut and chilli. Add to that the pickled chillies served with the rice, on top of the spice from the soup and this was one spicy meal! I loved it, but Jenny and Kim were not quite so sure.

Ibu Oka

Ever since I saw Rick Stein eat Babi Guling at Ibu Oka, I had been desperate to come here. In many ways, it did not disappoint. What’s not to like about slow roast pork served with a Balinese spice paste, blood sausage, crispy nuggets of fried pork, pork scratchings and rice. It was every bit as delicious as it sounds. For me though, it was lacking the kind of crackling you would get on a great bit of roast pork with a succulent layer of fat under crispy skin. The crackling we were served at both restaurants was certainly crispy but drier than I would have liked.

Both experiences of Babi Guling were great, but I feel like they both could have been better if the crackling were better. Oh well, I think I will enjoy continuing the search…


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