Bali, the Indonesian province no bigger than the state of Delaware, provides dramatically different experiences from coast to coast: sun-kissed beach resorts in the south, untamed natural wonders in the east, unbridled nightlife in the west. Perhaps this is why Bali attracts so many wanderers, people searching for calm or chaos. Maybe too this is the secret to Bali’s otherworldly charm. My own wandering journey was a tale of contrasts; the bustling roads my gateway to Bali’s lesser known destinations.
On an island known for it’s beaches, only an extraordinary place can draw people away from the coast. Thus I began in Ubud, the artistic hub of Bali, about an hour’s drive inland from the airport. At the height of dry season, the entire island was ripe: coconuts ready for harvest, juicy papayas hanging heavy on trees. Though the road to Ubud feels like an unmapped side street, a booming tourism industry has introduced fleets of t-shirt hawkers and congestion upon arrival. I chose to avoid this, renting a bungalow west of town in the Campuhan Ridge, whose unmarked winding paths have not lost yet lost their charm.
Given the peaceful nature of its surroundings, I’m not surprised that Ubud attracts many travelers looking for reflection. My own interests are less spiritual and more tangible: I wanted to fully embrace Balinese food. Indonesian cuisine is by nature very vegan-friendly, and in Bali, traditional food combines ancient Hindu roots with foreign influences brought by 20th century Dutch colonization.
In recent decades, a new wave of yoga-practicing immigrants brought vegan food to the forefront. I started my day at one such product of the vegan food movement, Alchemy, a raw food cafe that sits conveniently on the major road connecting Ubud and the Campuhan Ridge. The oversized chaises and bright vintage décor are welcoming; it is the type of place where you could spend an afternoon reading and nibbling, and in fact, many people do. I feast my eyes upon the breakfast bar, which offers a wild buffet of raw granola, vegan yogurt and fresh fruit.
Alchemy is perfectly situated to begin my walking tour of the Sayan rice terraces, a lush and peaceful oasis that is worlds apart from Ubud’s busy roads. Starting at the Sayan Terrace Hotel, I traced the side of the Ayung River, which afforded stunning river valley views. The surrounding rice terraces are bursting with life and the vivid green paddies cover the rolling hills for as far as the eye can see. Wandering through the fields is an activity in it’s own right, and I’d recommend setting aside some time to enjoy the tranquil landscape.
Following my walk, I was eager to try tempeh, the fermented soy food and Indonesian staple. Often shamed as a “meat substitute” in Western dishes, tempeh is a star in Balinese cuisine, and the preparations I had in Bali rocked my world.
One of the best tempeh dishes is served at the Yellow Flower Café, a lovely eco-conscious spot tucked amidst bungalows in an unassuming Campuhan neighborhood. Nasi campur, or mixed rice, is a popular Indonesian dish, and Yellow Flower Café is home to my favorite. There are no rules to nasi campur; it is simply rice served tapas style with other small dishes. At Yellow Flower, these include a mouth-watering fried tempeh, a spicy spinach dish, kang kung, and local cashew nuts.
After my drive to Ubud, I was weary of getting back on the road. Transportation in Bali, like in many other Southeast Asian nations, is a thrill – and not always in the pleasant sense. Major transit roads are a mess of precarious eighteen-wheelers and whizzing motorbikes. It is not unusual to witness cars weaving through one-lane streets, dodging in and out between oncoming traffic. But if any destination is worth an additional drive, Balian Beach is it.
The biggest challenge is finding a driver who knows Balian Beach. This isn’t shocking considering that just 15 years ago, Balian was little more than some farmers, roaming cows, and maybe a couple wayward surfers looking for waves. Now, the town is home to a bohemian community of beach lovers. This is not the glitzy white sand beach you see in travel brochures, but rather a stretch of black sand and pounding waves. The only crowds here are in the water, where surfers gather to catch the powerful swell. Forget about lawn chairs or umbrellas – Balian’s appeal is not curated, but natural and rugged.
I lunched at Mai Malu, a vegan-conscious joint serving Balinese staples. The food here is simple, well priced and beautifully plated. A standout was the watermelon banana smoothie, one of many drinks at Mai Malu highlighting Bali’s host of native tropical fruits.
Next I headed to the beach, surfboard in hand. The afternoons tend to be mellower than the mornings, when the locals wake up without fail for dawn patrol. The coastline around Balian is magnificent: towering cliffs encircle the beach like a gate to paradise. I struggled to paddle the long distance to the break, but I was rewarded with remarkable views of the coast and front-row seats to watch Balian’s best surfers.
After a couple of hours in the water, I walked just up the road from the beach to Deki’s Warung. This local surfer joint has the best beachside view in town, a perfect capstone to my day. I feasted on a delicious, albeit fried, tempeh burger – hands down the best burger I’ve had – with a perfect crispy exterior and dressed with fresh tomatoes and spicy Balinese chili sauce.
I arrived early to snag a table at the front, where I could watch the surfers and the sunset. My muscles ached from battling the ocean, but the pain is dulled by fantastic traditional medicine: cheap beer and a great view. The afternoon gives way to night with pop tunes blaring in the background, as one by one, surfers returned to shore. I watch until the sky went dark, every single star brighter than any I’ve seen back home.