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Yak Throwback: Eastern Promise

Rolling back the years to 2010 and issue 26 when we took a ride out East. Thankfully not much has changed. Photos: Lucky 8.

We rolled out of Sanur with its bypass traffic and fast food outlets and onto a sublime new road (dangerous drivers notwithstanding) heading east, to that part of Bali that always brings tranquility to my mind. Our destination was Manggis and the Alila hotel, a property that has been through a major name change over the years but remains sublimely rustic, natural and accommodating in a way only Bali can be.

Set around a simple coconut grove that fronts the beach, the property is blessed with an Old World charm that keeps it essentially simple – it reminds me of a Malaysian colonial rest house: two wings of up-and-down rooms covered by a steep alang-alang roof, sitting there shading us in the sun. The pool sits in the middle of the grove and the superb restaurant is off to one side, and that’s pretty much it, or so it seems. But there’s more to this hotel than meets the eye. 

There’s Seasalt, for starters, the hotel’s restaurant and an organic haven headed by Executive Chef Penny Williams, something of a culinary legend in eastern parts, and not shy of a day that might include chopping garlic with 40 Balinese village men in order to discover the best way to prepare a certain local dish (an ordeal she has been known to say was a breeze compared to working for Gordon Ramsey as the only female chef in a brigade of 100 men at London’s Savoy Hotel).

One of her central culinary passions is the Alila Manggis Cooking School, the only East Balinese specialty programme on the island in which Alila chefs celebrate and share with guests the essence of Balinese lifestyle through various culinary adventures to the island’s heartlands, oceans and local villages. To Penny it is not simply the creation of a delicious meal that is important from these trips. “As I learn more and more about traditional Balinese cookery and the cultural importance of food,” she says, “I understand that to be content in one’s self it is essential to fuel the body with the correct substances.” This holistic approach reflects much of the thinking that is currently producing amazing menus in top restaurants across the globe.

“Through my efforts to create a menu that is truly honest to the produce used,” she says, “I intend on serving simple, unadulterated dishes that will celebrate the ingredients’ curative value and offer a healthy and internally satisfying experience.”

East Bali also offers the proximity to Candi Dasa of course, and places of interest that include the Bali Aga village of Desa Tenganan, established before the first millennium where modernism barely exists. A self-sourcing, independent community, complete with its own government, traditions, crop fields and cattle, Tenganan is somewhat famous for keeping it all in the family, as it were – people do marry outside of the confines of the tribe but once they do they cease to be included in the coordinated distribution of basic needs such as rice and housing. To date there are around 30 purebred families left in the total of 250 families living inside the small town.

Tenganan is famous too for its double ikat handwoven cloth, material that can take more than three years to produce just one-and-a-half metres of fabric. This is because the thread is handmade from organic cotton harvested from their own village and tinted with all natural dyes made from turmeric, indigo juice and other seeds. The creation process itself takes approximately three to four weeks and the making of these weavings is considered sacred, as are the weavings themselves.

Another historical must-see while in the Candi Dasa area is Tirtagangga Water Palace, a majestic complex built in 1946 composed of flowing streams, lush greenery and elegant sculptures. Owned by the Royal Family of Karangasem, this palace is located in the midst of a paddy field and gets its water from the natural springs. The water from the springs at Tirta Gangga is considered to be holy and is collected for ceremonies at nearby temples.

There’s more too, but it’s time to head back to civilisation after our three-day stay. We retreat once more from the green peaks of East Bali and traverse rivers back to Sanur and the motorbike madness. It’s been a short trip, but enough to change and refresh our views once more…and remind us that Bali is a healthy composite of many parts, and east of its Edens remain among the most gratifying.