Updated: Apr 27, 2020
Sure, Bali is zen. Yoga and meditation are abundant. But Bali also does not run short on contradiction. Beneath the quietude is an undercurrent of hustle and let’s make a deal. The place and people are hard work personified. Because tourism lays such a foundation for many, there is a noticeable binary pull between the Bali that locals love and wish to portray, and the forces that compete for the recent influx of tranquility seekers and, with them, a steep rise in foreign dollars ready to secure paradise.
I am one of these interloping seekers. Making the pilgrimage to an island that has reached the layperson’s grasp, and achieved awareness as a result of pop culture and the golden age of travel. Hawaii was the island dream of thirty years ago. Bali is the nirvana of the past decade.
Along with the surging popularity for travelers, the Balinese people are smart to recognize the impact the nomadic footprint has on their way of life and, damn straight, they are determined to get what they can in return - and I fell for their intuitive entrepreneurship. This trip was really about the people of Bali.
The Indonesian province is already a highly affordable destination for travelers, and can serve as a budget-friendly location for the bargain hunting wanderer - even one unflinchingly unwilling to sacrifice first-class amenities. However, one willing to put in a little extra legwork by flexing negotiation skills, will both save some coin and also take away meaningful interactions with ever-smiling locals. To re-emphasize, even for those shy to haggle, Bali is still a bargain destination for most Westerners.
At most markets and street stalls, there are no signs for prices so a few back-and-forth bouts of “make me an offer” are the accepted, and expected, method of transacting. However, keep a big picture in perspective and do not unceremoniously haggle over 10,000 Rupiah for that bunch of mangosteen. That farmer’s livelihood relies on the sandal and shorts crowd to put food on their table in return. Hardly warrants walking away from a deal for what amounts to ~$.70 USD.
Few moments passed upon arrival before one’s skills are put into practice. In practical application, one finds that grade school summers tucking into Price Is Right over a bowl of cereal served you better than secondary advanced mathematics courses. Resist overconfidence though, street smarts win the day here and the majority you encounter possess the advantage.
Upon stepping foot outside Ngurah Rai International, two things immediately take you aback: the speed with which your sunglasses cloud over in the stifling humidity and the speed with which taxi drivers ascend on anyone with a backpack or rolling case in tow. The drivers stack eight deep to compete for passengers, each shouting that their ride is the most comfortable and the best deal in town.
I already had a ride pickup arranged, but that did not prevent me from paparazzi treatment as I moved through the crowd of escorts.
One determined operator was certain he could sway my plans. He stayed at my side for a walk all the way to the ride-share pickup area. Insisting I was “crazy” to pass up his ride for whomever was waiting for me. The closing pitch, he “had Drake ready to play for me!” Little did he know, this would have served to disqualify had I been on the market.
Not until my ride pulled up and driver hopped out that this persistence ended cordially. A smile and a shrug of the shoulders as if to say “I gave it my best shot” - and he had. I felt a twinge of regret for having booked a ride before the cab line, this persistent Drake fan had won me over.
The drive from Denpasar to Ubud is wildly entertaining, if not white-knuckling. Our small compact car dodging and weaving around scooters and through roundabouts. Passing custom-built flatbeds toting cows who looked on with the uninterested glazed over expression of a five-year-old watching the nightly news.
About two-thirds of the way to Ubud, everything changes. The roads compress to two-lane and the lush vegetation replaces stone storefronts. We pulled into the Villas that would be my home for the next week and my driver commented “this place is hard to find.” Yes, I know. Exactly my aim.
I booked a somewhat off-the-grid Villa complex that was family run and encompasses only six units. Entering my private suite, laid before me was a perfectly symmetrical patchwork of emerald green rice fields just beyond the private infinity pool. The vibrancy of the green plugged landscape like something pulled from the Wizard of Oz, with the fanciful feeling of otherworldliness matching the mood.
These full-service villas are quite common across Bali and are reminiscent of Italian agriturismos - designed so that an occupant does not have to leave should they choose no too. However, my intention was to explore both the rural Bali and also the city of Ubud.
The amazing crew that ran the villas at all hours were a joy to interact with each morning. With the villas located 9km southeast of Ubud center, daily rides into town were routine and some of the most memorable times during my stay.
Each driver took immense pride in their jobs while sharing an aspiration and dream for greater things. My most frequent companion was Komang (a common name bestowed to the third male of a family) and he was eager to study as a chef. Meanwhile, Wayan (denoting the first male of a family) was passionate about all things coffee and dreamt to open a cafe one day after perfecting his home brewing methods.
Their willingness to open and share with a complete stranger an unguarded example of the trust and acceptance that I met with nearly every encounter on the island. Through basic English, we could share a similar underlying desire to do our own thing. I hope by sharing their dream with me I played some extremely small role in manifested desire to make good on the goals. I’m rooting for them both.
Keying the pervasive feeling of non-stop hustle and ingenuity on the island is that a large number of the businesses operate as warungs, or small family-owned shops and restaurants. Most of these storefronts invite patrons into the family’s home, where your lunch plate is prepared in the same kitchen that later that evening will serve the family. It is intimate and adds a layer of appreciate to each meal and experience.
I always arrive to a destination with a few must-try local dishes. In Bali, that meant babi guling and local coffee. I “tested” a few examples of the former and fell hard for Babi Guling Gung Cung. Tucked away down a nondescript side street in the center of Ubud, the place would be easy to miss if not for the locals posted up on the stoop and the smell of glorious barbecued pork snaking its way from the entrance. Babi guling is not necessarily a dish one has every day. That would be like ponying up to your favorite roadside pulled pork spot for a daily sandwich and side of slaw. This slow roasted suckling pig specialty is helmed by masters of feel and instinct at the best spots in the country, and Gung Cung is a gem.
If you find a spot that has mastered the balance of crispy skin, bumbu (spice paste), satay, long beans and rice - arrive as early as possible. The crispy glass-like shards of burnt orange skin are prized treasures for the plate, and the first element to go as orders pile up. I arrived just in time, got my order in and then confirmed to the proprietor that I was “ok with a little spice.” She shot me a look like she had heard this before to little success.
I settled on an upstairs deck overlooking the temple gardens of the home, and sipped on an ice cold Bintang beer that was quickly developing a pool of condensation under it in the all-encompassing humidity. Each drag of crisp lager sprinkling my shorts and shirt with off cast drops of its losing battle with the elements. I did not mind. Any shower in this environment is welcome, and I took a few moments to press the chilled bottle to each wrist.
The plate of greasy pork meat arrived on a straw plate with a fresh beer that I did not yet ask for, but was appreciative of the prognostic instincts of the restaurant owner. Three triangles of glorious reflective pork skin caught the mid-day sun and put off an aura worthy of the dish. Tucked in the top right corner of the plate sat a small dap of sambal. Her parting words for me before retiring back downstairs to attend to more patrons, “careful,” pointing at the small mound.
Compared to two other versions of the dish, this one hit a symphony of additional taste notes. The smokiness of the pork meat seemed more noticeable and the accompanying rice had just a hint of what I believe was coconut milk which, surprising as it may sound, really worked to balance. She was correct to warn me about the sambal, as just a drop cleared out the sinuses and the chili paste high-fived the heat of the day to hasten the full swing of my perspiration.
Finishing off my beer, I swung back through the bottom floor of the establishment to see the pig skin entirely sold out and nearly 3/4 of the meat claimed. It was barely 12:15. I handed over my 40K Rupiah (roughly $2.50 USD - insane!), and offered up a “matur suksma” as verbal gratitude.
Belly satisfyingly full, I spent time the afternoon walking some of it off on the Campuhan Ridge Walk just to the west of the heart of Ubud. The trail runs along a ridged hilltop that comes heavy with stunning views that surround on all sides and slope sharply down each side into lush windswept fields of grass and rice terraces. It invites both leisurely pacing and reflection, two approaches that surfaced often while on the island.
A goal each day in country was to follow-up my complimentary french press at the villa with more caffeine hunting throughout the day. Try this, next time you are at your local supermarket, take a look at the sourcing details on the bags of higher quality beans stocking shelves and you are sure to find an Indonesian variety. I knew this coming in and was determined to seek out as many opportunities as possible to sample the local roasts and teas.
A great way to start is visiting one of the numerous coffee and tea plantations that squat on the slopes of the forests. On a trip to Mount Batur, we pulled over at Alam Bali Agrowisata at the suggestion of my driver. All of these plantations work, essentially, the same way. You are given a brief history and overview of the production process and then seated for a tasting flight of roughly 10-12 coffee and tea offerings. I visited two separate facilities during my trip and neither charged for the tastings, but you are funneled through the shop at the conclusion in the hopes of a purchase. I had wonderfully knowledgeable tasting guides at both, and tipped them each at the conclusion as well.
Flight highlights included the proverbial and straight-ahead black Bali coffee, as well as the ginger and ginseng varieties. However, the tea offerings really caught me unprepared for the subtle flavor notes and excellent steeping. I did not escape either gift shop without bags of mangosteen, rosella and turmeric tea. Each built the noted flavors on a solid base foundation of smoothly defined tea, so as not to overreach with cloying ruination.
Like all things in life, particularly when traveling to other cultures, these facilities are not all inspiration and romance. The luwak coffee trade is still thriving in this region and that comes with serious concerns over the captivity and unnatural treatment of the Asian palm civets that eat and defecate the beans used for roasting. What is produced is marketed as “the most expensive coffee in the world” and, it is I presume, but I highly doubt that is based on taste and certainly not in tradeoff. The luwak coffee was never included in the free tastings, but an attempt to sell me on a cup met with three refusals at both locations. I would encourage similar responses if you decide to go in an effort to tamp down the demand for this style and, hopefully, expedite the move away from its appeal among planters.
If a more traditional shop and wifi setup are necessary, one is hard-pressed to find a better setup than Seniman Coffee. These purveyors are advancing the “4th Wave” of coffee, where high-quality harvesting, roasting and consumption experiences are brought back home to the coffee producing countries. A noble endeavor that allowed a traveler like myself to enjoy local beans on local soil, creating a full circle of benefit for producers, cafe owners and residents alike. I would often grab a seat at the bar and put myself in the hand of the barista. Give them a short description of flavors and roasts that appeal to you, and they never failed to craft the perfect pour-over cup.
When I was not sweating over a delicious plate or sipping selections, I found myself filling in the gaps with visits to the Hindu and Buddhist temples that are scattered all throughout the island. While the rest of Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, almost eight out of ten Balinese are Hindu (hence the pork on the menu). An entire piece could be written on the temples (and that may happen), but if you choose one make it Pura Gunung Kawi.
A drive north of Ubud lands you at this temple where 25 foot high candi shrines are carved into the rock faces dating back to the 11th Century. My guide informed me that the roughly 300 steps necessary to traverse into, and out of, the complex help naturally control crowds. Surrounded by rice terraces, koi ponds and the babbling Pakerisan River cutting through the temple grounds - it is as idyllic as any of the numerous temples I set foot in on the island.
Temples were fertile grounds for additional hustle and entrepreneurial encounters. The smiling elderly men patiently perched sentry outside the public bathrooms within the walls of the complexes. Each waiting with a smile and outstretched hand meant to communicate a wordless reminder to drop a few bills or coin in the basket at his feet. Never mind that you already paid to enter the temple. Knowing this was unnecessary, I made a security deposit for the successful bathroom mission nonetheless. Sitting in that heat required dedication and, who knows, maybe this washroom sensei played some mystical role in my relief?
Similarly persistent were the delightful ladies selling sarongs on your way into the temples. By doing one minute of research beforehand, I knew the temples provide you with complementary dress just inside the gate. Not sold on the way in? No worries! The same smiling face will greet you upon exiting just in case that gratis sarong impressed so much that you want one to take home now!
Not a sarong guy but, if I was, they were a great deal and a souvenir to bum around the house in once back home.
My driver from Ubud to Canggu indexed the highest on the overzealous “pitch” scale and laughs per minute. He insisted I call him “Big Belly” because of his proudly robust midsection and hearty laugh that gently rocked the compact car as we wound through the Bali hills. Less than five minutes into our journey, “Big Belly” had a business proposition for me. In return for highly recommending him to fellow travelers via various travel websites, he would arrange to give me a cut of the proceeds.
“Ok, what’s that worth to me you think?” I inquired.
“Something around 5%?” He offered.
The discussion did not get far, but pivoted quickly to shared laughter and family stories. I think he caught on quickly that my travel recommendations would not net much of a windfall. He seemed convinced and flipped on the radio for the final few kilometers of our journey. Not Drake. Phew!
Each interaction with locals in Bali are done with a knowing smile. These are friendly encounters. Remember there were two hundred other luggage toting pilgrims they played this game with yesterday and the day before that, and so forth. They are more skilled at this banter than most and the surest way to be sure is walking away from a transaction. If you do not hear a quick call after you, take it as a sure sign you overstepped with your attempt and ventured into the red.
A few quick takeaways on the best approach to skilled dealmaking. As told by a non-expert dealmaker.
Aggression: Do not embrace this impulse. It matters not how hot, humid and long it has been since you had an ice cold Bintang. It does not look good on anyone and plays into many stereotypes of privileged tourists.
Intimidated: Try to roll with the exchanges and not let language barriers, or a lack of confidence, get in the way. While learning a few basic local phrases always helps, old fashioned charades can also carry one far.
Exhaustiveness: Have self-awareness when the game is up, and you have worked your way to a “fair” price. The deal-seeking is not meant to last all afternoon and to do so over a pinnace is likely costing that vendor a few more sales.
Win/Win: This should not be a zero-sum and winner-take-all exercise. Focus on an outcome good for both parties. Bargaining equals commerce on the island, so do it respectfully and with a smile.
While I spent most time in Ubud, I finished with a few days in Canggu. The dichotomy was shockingly noticeable and was not my speed. The casual vibe, lush forests and mountain peaks of Ubud greatly overshadowed the flashy Coachella vibe that seemed to consumed Canggu. However, that is primarily personal preference and what you hope to get out of a visit.
The lush canopies of the mountainous inner region in the island offers a bountiful variety of rice terraces, volcanic ranges, coffee plantations, and temples. In between trips that required more than two legs, I learned about everything from the politics of Indonesia (roughly 22 parties running for President) to the culture and high importance placed on family.
The people of Bali are amazing. From everything this traveler witnessed, they work diligently to get ahead and love sharing their culture with visitors to their country. From the smiling older woman gleefully working a pestle and mortar nearly as big as she was tall to the mind-blowing detailed hand wood-carving works found in family showrooms - the open and inviting nature of Bali is intoxicating.
Once you get comfortable with the balance of island vibes and well-established bargaining culture, you respect the hell out of what it symbolizes. Hard work, determination and pride in one's skill and one’s name Put yourself out there and try your hand. What do you have to lose?