Exploring Bali’s inland charm

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By Simon J. Lau

Bali may very well be the most charming place in Asia. Its distinct food, diverse landscape, and vibrant culture make it a small wonderland of sorts. I spent each morning walking along the beach in Kuta and Seminyak. This leisurely stroll gave me time to catch up on my plans for the day, and an opportunity to take in the sights and sounds of the beaches along the island. During the evenings, I explored the larger island, including a food tour of local Indonesian cuisine, and an off-road tour of the rice paddies in Ubud. But, perhaps one of my favorite days in Bali was the private night tour of famous landmarks and night markets. Each of these experiences were worth writing home to.

To me, there is no better way to explore a culture than by way of its food. My food tour in Bali was both a treat and a learning experience. It was here that I learned some of the larger distinctions between the Balinese and their fellow Indonesian nationals. For instance, Indonesia is a mostly Muslim country. Nearly 90% of Indonesians are practicing Muslims (CIO – World Fact Book 2017), a fact that I’ve been well acquainted with for quite some time. Bali, on the other hand, is a Hindu region. Most of Indonesia’s Hindu minority live in Bali, and more than 80% of Bali residents are practicing Hindus (Indonesia’s Central Bureau of Statistics). These distinctions are manifested in Bali’s food culture. For example, pork is a meat most practicing Muslims wouldn’t eat. However, it is a common ingredient in many Balinese dishes. In fact, babi guling, a Balinese roast pork dish, is popular in the region. I was also introduced to my new favorite dessert: the Indonesian pancake. This pancake comes in both a savory and a sweet form, but the savory experience was one that blew my mind away. As I write this, I am still searching for an Indonesian pancake restaurant anywhere in San Francisco.

Still, my most vivid memory was the time spent with a street vendor as he prepared a kerak telor, a spicy Indonesian omelette, for me. This gentleman had put in a full day of work at his factory job only to setup his sidewalk stand at night as a second job. As with my experience in Vietnam, I couldn’t help but see many instances such as these where the perseverance and hard work of people shined through. I hope my work here brings some depth and color to the resourcefulness of these individuals and the many others like them.

Before Bali became famous for its beaches, it was well known for its agriculture. In some ways, its agricultural capabilities once rivaled some of the more well-known regions in Europe. For example, during Dutch occupation in the 1800’s, the British naturalist, Alfred R. Wallace, compared Bali’s irrigation system to the “pride of the best cultivated parts of Europe” (The Malay Archipelago). Today, Bali’s agriculture remains an important part of the economy and the irrigation system remains an integral part of its rural infrastructure. When I visited the paddy fields in-and-around Ubud, I was greeted by miles of irrigation systems that wrapped every plot of arable land. Fast moving bodies of water flowed throughout this system and eventually fed each paddy field. This experience helped me ground what I had read of Bali’s history, and relate it to its current agrarian infrastructure, an exercise I’ve found valuable in learning how regions evolve and cultures develop.

I found the most lively areas of Bali to be the night markets. I have a soft spot for night markets, especially wet markets, and I love night photography. Bali, in particularly, had some amazing night markets that included large outdoor wet markets. These vibrant scenes were wonderful photo opportunities for me. Furthermore, one aspect of Balinese culture that made photographing in Bali so much more fun than in other areas is that the Balinese are generally gregarious people and receptive to having their portraits taken. In fact, there were several instances where I took photos of one stall vendor only to have the next vendor ask me to take his or her photo. It was a welcomed change from what I’m used to.

For my last night in Bali I found an opportunity to schedule a private night tour which included several stops at notable landmarks in the area. My favorite of which, and featured here, was the Bajra Sandhi Monument. This landmark is relatively modern, built in 1987, but it is intended to illustrate the history and struggles of the Balinese people. By the time we arrived here, it was late at night and raining. I wasn’t optimistic that I’d get any usable photos of this monument. But, to my surprise, these may have been the most stunning photos I took throughout my time in Bali. Seeing these photos makes me realize that as much as I love to photograph people, I’ll always be drawn to night photography of cityscapes and the structures we tend to pass by all too quickly during the day.

Of all the places I visited last winter, Bali may have been the most difficult place for me to craft an itinerary. On one hand, Bali is famous for its beaches and water sports, but I was far more interested in photographing and exploring its distinct food, diverse landscape, and vibrant culture. Fortunately, I was able to cobble together a diverse experience that met, and in some cases, exceeded my expectations. So for those who intend on visiting Bali, my recommendation is to veer off the well-worn path to explore Bali’s inland charm. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised.