Indonesia - Into the hills of Bali
Written by Holly McDonald
With Qatar Airways now flying direct to Bali, Indonesia, long-time resident Holly McDonald shows that the interior of the tropical island offers much to explore beyond the usual popular beaches.
Our guide, Teja, cracks open a yellow, elongated pod plucked from a cacao tree and offers up the seeds nestled inside for us to see and taste. The pulp is unexpectedly sweet and edible, the beans soft and slightly bitter – nothing like the chocolate glistening in the nearby workroom.
We’re at Pod Chocolate (podchocolate.com), a workshop tucked into the hills of Bali, and one of just a few places in the world where chocolate is made a few minutes from where it is grown. Beans are fermented here under banana palm leaves, then laid out in the sun to gently dry before being roasted and cracked into nibs, then ground into a rich, liquid chocolate ready to be shaped into the final bars.
Like many experiences in Bali, a visit to Pod is educational – who knew that only bulls, not cows, should eat the empty cacao pods? – but somewhat indulgent as well. We make a dozen elephant chocolates ourselves, savour a gado-gado (Indonesian vegetable salad) doused in a decadent chocolate-peanut dressing, and delight in the vanilla ice cream topped with a luscious chocolate sauce.
We’re about 30 minutes’ drive from Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali, and, as far as travellers are concerned, the main town away from the island’s iconic but busy beaches of Kuta, Seminyak, and Sanur. Ubud and its surroundings offer slightly cooler weather, particularly during the evenings, and beautiful green landscapes where one can get back to nature without sacrificing luxury for a single minute.
The accommodation on offer is world class: wellness retreat Como Shambhala Estate (comoshambhala.com) is in a league of its own, while The Chedi Club at Tanah Gajah, (tanahgajah.com) the former estate of a renowned Indonesian art collector, is an intimate getaway, and Ubud Hanging Gardens (hanginggardensubud.com) offers breathtaking views in plush surrounds.
Do drag yourself away from that infinity pool, though, to enjoy Bali’s attractions. For a taste of culture, head to Ubud’s Royal Palace or Puri Saren, built in the early 19th century and now on Ubud’s main street of Raya Ubud, to see classic Balinese architecture and catch a Balinese dance performance in the evening.
Ubud is home to many galleries and art museums, with Neka Art Museum on Jalan Raya Campuhan and Agung Rai Museum of Art on Jalan Raya Pengosekan particular favourites, showcasing the history of Balinese art. Ubud’s main market, just near the palace, offers a great array of arts, crafts, and trinkets (bargain hard!), while the surrounds of the town are home to artisan villages specialising in particular kinds of products, such as stone carvings, weavings, jewellery, batik, and metalwork.
If nature is more your thing, Bali offers plenty of satisfying options: rivers meander through overgrown jungles, terraced rice paddies, and lush farming land. White-water rafting down the Ayung River is an adrenalin-pumped way to spend a day, or try a trip down Telaga Waja River in eastern Bali, starting at the foothills of Gunung Agung, Bali’s highest point and its most revered volcano.
True adventurers can climb the volcano itself, waking in the middle of the night to start the ascent so they are at the peak by sunrise. It’s best to stay in the charming hamlet of Sidemen to do this. Gunung Agung is a challenging, though not a technical, climb and the views back down south all the way over Kuta Beach in the distance make it well worth the sweat to get there.
A more sedate way to sample Bali’s beautiful nature is to go on an old-fashioned bird-watching walk. Knowledgeable Wayan Sumadi of Bali Bird Walk (balibirdwalk.com) guides tours into Ubud’s hinterland, pointing out local birds such as the blue kingfisher and other wildlife including butterflies and spiders.
If you like your animals larger – and up close, too – Ubud offers its own Monkey Forest, located along the road that goes by the same name, to explore. The small, shaded forest teems with hundreds of cheeky macaque monkeys, all eager to eat the bananas you can buy to feed them. Hold on to your hats, sunglasses, and bags as they’ve been known to snatch and grab when not fed enough!
To explore Indonesia’s plant world, escape to Bali’s Botanical Gardens (kebunrayabali.com) in Bedugal, at an even higher elevation than Ubud, further north on the island. The park is home to more than 2,000 species of plants from as far afield as Sulawesi and Papua. The gardens are also home to the Bali Treetop Adventure Park (balitreetop.com), which offers circuits with challenges such as flying foxes, spider nets, and suspended bridges.
Bali lured yoga lovers long before Eat, Pray, Love made it a fad, and Ubud’s Yoga Barn (theyogabarn.com) has been there almost from the start. It’s a great place not just for several kinds of yoga classes but also for many kinds of healing therapies, such as cranio-sacral therapy, kinesiology, and acupuncture.
Whether your muscles need soothing post-rafting or post-yoga, or if you simply deserve a treat, you’re still in the right place as Ubud is known for its pampering spa retreats. Ask for the ‘tree spa’ treatment room at Mango Tree Spa by L’Occitane (kupubarongubud.com), where you’ll overlook an enchanting mix of rice paddies, coconut palms, and the Ayung River, while the gorgeous Spa at the Maya (mayaubud.com) is right next to the rushing Petanu River. Taksu offers excellent treatments too, as well as yoga classes (taksuyoga.com).
Bali boasts world-class cuisine , away from the beaches, Ubud offers a high concentration of superb restaurants. Mozaic on Jalan Raya Sanggingan has fine-dining degustation menus with a focus on Indonesian flavours, while more relaxed Locavore on nearby Jalan Dewi Sita, as its name suggests, sources almost all of its produce locally. Celebrity US pastry chef Will Goldfarb opened his own restaurant, Room4Dessert (room4dessert.asia) in mid-2014, and most nights he personally serves up rustic desserts using Balinese flavours such as cacao, rosella, and vanilla.
And if you fall in love with Balinese cuisine, head to Bali Asli, set in a stunning location looking up to Gunung Agung, for a day’s exploration combined with a cooking class. As at Pod, and so many other spots in Bali, you’ll learn a lot, and be deliciously spoilt as well.
What to eat
While Bali’s food features plenty of chillies, it also boasts lots of subtle herbs and spices, usually combined in a thick spice paste. Particular pastes are found in specific dishes, typically using some combination of turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, tamarind, cumin and coriander seeds, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, black pepper, garlic, red shallots, ginger, and kencur (lesser galangal).
Don’t miss bebek betutu, or slow-cooked duck, a dish that was traditionally only served at Balinese ceremonies but today is on many restaurant menus. The duck needs to be wrapped in betel nut husks and buried in embers for hours on end, so you’ll have to order it a day ahead of eating. If you don’t have time, try instead the equally delicious, but more readily available, ayam betutu, the chicken version.
Bali’s version of satay – which is found right across Indonesia in regional variations – is another essential dish to try. Here they pound chicken or fish in a mortar and pestle with young grated coconut and various spices, pop bite-sized portions onto bamboo skewers, then barbecue them over hot coals.
The Organic Farm
Get right off Bali’s beaten track and head to the Organic Farm Bali, where you’ll slumber on your own private mist-draped hill for a night. Meals are prepared using the remote farm’s own produce and you’ll bathe with the locals at nearby traditional hot springs, surrounded by flowers. Toast marshmallows over your own crackling bonfire, and let the kids sleep in their own tent.
This restaurant and cooking school set up by British chef Penelope Williams is located outside the under-touristed town of Amlapura in east Bali. Williams is a passionate advocate of local slow food and uses, wherever possible, produce offered by the people who fish, farm, and forage in the nearby fields, ocean, and jungle. Her hands-on classes are a special kind of journey themselves, and the best part, of course, is getting to eat your own creations at the end.
Threads of Life
This modest but important gallery and fair-trade business aims to keep alive the Indonesian traditions of weaving and natural dyeing by encouraging their production by artisans in their traditional villages. On display and available to buy are intricate ikat, batik, and songket textiles. Classes in textile making are also offered.
Distance: 6,930 km
Flight Time: 12 hours , 10 minutes
Frequency: Daily via Singapore