Active travel in exotic lands is definitely one of our most favorite travel themes and today, we’re mixing a little foodie fun in as well. Today’s guest writers, Sarah and Laura from Wandercooks, are here to tell us all about their adventures exploring Bali’s Tabanan Regency.
Indonesia’s island of Bali is renowned for beautiful beaches, relaxing getaways and endless nights by the pool. But when we venture over to our closest Asian neighbor (just a 5 hour flight from Adelaide, Australia), we love nothing more than getting away from the tourist centers of Kuta, Seminyak or Ubud and delving deep into the Balinese culture and landscape.
For such a small island, Bali is packed with people—over 4 million to be exact. Its population is a mix of majority Hindu living beside Muslim, Christian and Buddhist communities, forming a unique culture that is friendly and welcoming for those who take the time to connect.
We recently traveled through the island over two incredible weeks, mixing in a few action-packed days in Bali with plenty of exploring, eating and relaxing. But of all the places we ventured, we felt the strongest connection with Balinese culture and village life in a small village called Tabanan, tucked away in the Tabanan Regency.
Situated to the northwest of Kuta and a winding 30 minutes drive from Ubud, Tabanan nestles within picturesque rice fields cultivated using traditional agricultural practices. ‘Subak’ irrigation systems, in use since the 9th century, link terraced rice paddies with water by way of temples scattered across the landscape. One such water temple is Pura Taman Ayun, which is surrounded by green parks and ponds—providing locals and tourists with a place to contemplate the life-sustaining forces of the natural world… or to just take a break from the busy scooter-packed streets of Bali.
We stayed just outside the main village in a resort called Puri Taman Sari, which was built from the ground up with the intention of supporting the local community. Here the luxuriously appointed rooms are owned by the villagers, who receive an income in exchange for taking care of the rooms, maintaining the gardens, farming their rice paddies and preserving their traditional subak irrigation systems.
According to resort owner Agung Prana, who invited us to share a cup of tea with him one sunny afternoon, the way of life here is as close to Bali of the 1920’s as you can get these days. It’s a stark and wonderful contrast to the brand name, souvenir-lined streets of Ubud. Preserving the local culture and the natural environment are of the utmost importance at Puri Taman Sari, and our stay here made us feel we had contributed to a positive difference for the local community. Even better, it was a chance for us to experience the daily life within a private Balinese household.
Each day we would experience the morning prayer offerings to the Balinese gods before walking into town to explore the local morning markets (pasar pagi). At night, we’d navigate the bustling night markets (pasar malam) on the hunt for something delicious to eat for dinner. Vendors would happily serve us plates of ayam betutu (slow cooked chicken steamed in Balinese spices) with rice and local vegetables, or packets of nasi campur (steamed rice usually mixed with spicy chicken, caramelised deep fried tempeh and vegetables). These we picked up for between 5000 and 10000 Indonesian rupiah (or around 50c to $1). A fresh fruit shake or local sweet for dessert finished off the day nicely.
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At Puri Taman Sari, Chef Lole does one of the best cooking classes we’ve ever experienced (and we’ve done a few in our travels!). Waking early beneath the mosquito canopy in our bamboo hut, we met our guide for an early morning bike ride to the markets. It was exhilarating to ride through the open fields underneath the bright blue sky, with views of endless greenery and blue grey mountains off in the distance. The path was narrow at times, requiring a lot of concentration to avoid dropping off into the subak channels, but we took a few pitstops to catch our break and admire the 360˚ vistas surrounding us.
At the marketplace we wandered aisles of bright red chillis, piles of bananas and stalls laden with woven reed offerings for the gods. The butchery section at the back was well and truly cleaned out; everything here always sells out while it’s early and the meat is freshest. Ours was just a quick introductory visit, we weren’t there to buy supplies, so for those wanting to truly explore the local markets we recommend an early start.
Back in the resort kitchen, we got our hands dirty grinding spices like galangal, ginger, candlenut and chilli into a popular spice blend known as basa genap. This went straight into making tum ayum (spicy minced chicken steamed in banana leaves), jukut gedang mekuwah (papaya soup), sate lilit (minced pork satays), and berkedel jagung (crispy corn fritters). For dessert, crispy fried bananas drizzled with honey had us sitting back with our hands on our tummies, defeated. (Until dinner, that is!)
Suggested itinerary to experience a day in the life of Tabanan Regency
- Start your day with breakfast from the pasar pagi (morning market) – You’ll need to get up early, as most of the action is done for the day by 9.00am. To find the nearest fresh food market, just ask your guide or hotel/guesthouse to point the way to the ‘pasar pagi’. Once there, feel free to wander along and take in the fresh fruits, vegetables and meats on display. Look out for little triangular parcels of nasi campur for a quick and cheap breakfast at 5000 rupiah.
- Visit the water temple – Pura Taman Ayun – Translating as ‘beautiful garden’, Pura Taman Ayun was built in 1634 by the Raja of Mengwi, I Gusti Agung Putu. The small entry fee offers you the chance to take in the traditional architecture, expansive gardens and gorgeous fishponds.
Jalan Ayodya No.10, Mengwi
- Cook up a storm – We can never go past a cooking class for a chance to delve into a culture by way of its cuisine! Puri Taman Sari’s half day cooking class costs 700,000 rupiah and includes a bike ride to the local markets, as well as five dishes prepared under guidance from local Indonesian chefs.
- Grab dinner at the pasar malam (night market) – The nightmarkets in Tabanan and Mengwi are a feast for the eyes as well as the stomach!
Tabanan: Pasar Senggol on the corner of Jalan Wisnu and Jalan Raya Denpasar
Mengwi: Pasar Desa Adat on Jalan Rama (around the corner from Pura Taman Ayun)
Tips for getting around the Balinese Countryside
- Hire a driver – They’ll also be your guide, and can help you decide what to do and where to go if you’re unsure. You can easily hire a driver for the day, or book a taxi to drop you off at a particular destination, just ask your hotel or guesthouse for a recommendation. We recommend keeping your smartphone handy with Maps.me running so you can help direct your driver (or just feel confident knowing where you are at all times).
- Drive yourself – If you have a current license and an International Drivers Permit you may like to hire a bike or scooter and head out on a self-guided tour. However, be prepared to drive like a local – you’ll be sharing skinny roads with endless scooters, minivans, trucks and the occasional chicken, so be sure to drive with care and attention.
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