I hadn’t been to Australia since my first (and only) trip to Sydney back in 2003, for the rugby World Cup. Back then, what I knew of Sydney’s dining scene came from Wildfire, Rockpool, and the basement of David Jones. Possibly as a result, my one trip to Down Under was a hazy blur, my only memorable experience being the train ride after a NZ loss to Australia, listening to an Australian explain that New Zealanders were sore losers because rugby was basically all they had going in their lives. (An aside: karma would come for this man only a few days later, when Australia lost to England in the final few minutes of the match).
So I wasn’t prepared for the sheer charm of Cairns, or the hints of immense beauty in the patch of the Great Barrier Reef that I snorkeled. In Darwin, I found alive all of the stereotypes that Americans have of Australians: guides named Wookie, towns named Humpty Doo and pubs that allowed customers who arrived on horseback to tie their horses up inside the bar. Australia is a vast, immense space, not even wholly known to most Australians themselves; in this way, it very much resembles the US. There also seems to be a big gap between the rich and the poor; in this way, it also resembles the US, and Thailand as well.
All the same, it was a feeling remarkably similar to relief that greeted me when I woke up a few mornings later to the view of Bali’s Benoa port: a concrete parking lot, what appeared to be a facsimile of a temple, and the full-on wall of humidity that could only be found in Southeast Asia. One reason was that I would find lots of good meals featuring rice (when did I turn into my parents?!); the other was this:
Bali is known as the “Island of the Gods”, and there’s a good reason why. It’s beautiful. Green, lush and verdant, like French Polynesia, it has also taken on the infrastructure of a (very) well-visited tourist destination. Women still wear their sarongs, and temples (and accompanying offerings to the gods) are everywhere, including underfoot.
There are places in Thailand, particularly around the capital, where anything even remotely hinting at the kingdom’s agricultural past — traditional dress, rice paddies, untamed greenery — is viewed with disdain and denigrated as “baan nok” (from the country). The Balinese have no such qualms; rice paddies coexist down the road from luxury resorts and shopping complexes, and it’s not hard to find farmers ploughing their fields with their water buffalos, hungry cranes following in their footsteps.
By this time, we have traversed most of the island, comfortable (ish) within the confines of our enormous tour buses, the kind of tourists that I myself would view with suspicion and run away from. We have seen dances and weaving and thrown money at batik factory owners, visited many temples and had more than our share of complimentary Balinese snacks with tea.
But the very nature of a trip on a cruise ship is just that — comfort within the very confines of the touristic bubble, the foreign-focused “parallel universe”, that I usually try to avoid. The point of the cruise ship tour is to isolate oneself from the burdens of researching, haggling and scrambling, but these are the only ways to get anywhere good. So at the end of our temple visit today, nearing lunchtime, we asked our tour bus to kindly drop us off at a place where we could easily find a taxi (another benefit of Southeast Asia: Grab works here too). From there, we would find our own way to lunch at a place called Warung Bambululu (otherwise known as “Lulu”, Jl Suka Merta, Sanur Kauh, Denpasar Selatan, +62 852-3731-7777), where Wikki had lunched only the day before.
I knew we were at a good place when I saw there were two containers of sambal on each table: white, for the usual red, garlicky (and very spicy) sambal that one associates with Indonesian food; red, for a fresh chili paste that resembles Thai “ajad” or Mexican “pico de gallo” but is spicy and tart, made from slivered fat chilies that look like this:
(Photo by Wikki Bhanubandh na Ayutthaya)
Hungry from an entire morning spent exploring temples and villages, we ordered as much as we thought we would be able to eat for that day: an entire steamed “Hong Kong-style” fish with soy sauce and a mountain of green onions; simply deep-fried tranches of fish; “asam padas”, a sour curry-looking stew of fish filets with okra and pineapple, as well as a separate stew of the fish head; chicken fried rice AND noodles for my seafood-hating son; a selection of fried greens including our beloved morning glory; an omelet (to soak up all the spice, of course); and best of all, stir-fried shrimp with sator, in a veritable pool of sauce.
Either it was an excellent restaurant or we were extremely hungry (or a combination of both), but the meal was demolished in a half an hour’s time, like a field of grain ravaged by a plague of locusts. It was well worth the haggling with the taxi driver to get there and the journey back to the port (where we belatedly realized we needed Indonesiah rupiah to gain access). Being cosseted and spoiled in the confines of a cruise ship are nothing to complain about, but sometimes one just wants to feel alive, hot and grateful in a bare-bones dining room with a nose streaming from eating too many chili peppers.