Eating out in Ubud, Bali

With a wrinkle-creased face that expands and contracts whenever her bespectacled face lights up with laughter, she reminds me so much of my grandmother. Her eyes are light and almost diaphanous. She has a natural charm to cast at the visitor who saunters by gingerly to peer into the menu that is left outside on a pedestal of her modest restaurant. Naturally, it takes me exactly two minutes to fall for her disposition and in the days to come, I would frequent her Oka’s Warung almost every day. Most days for a meal and if for some reason I could not make it to a meal at her restaurant, I ensured I had one of her tiny array of desserts – especially her thin rice pancakes rolled with a filling of roasted coconut in palm jaggery. They never fail to prove that there is no better way to end a meal.

Balinese fare
Balinese fare

Oka appears to be a self-made woman much like many women in such establishments – eateries, massage centers, garment shops and shops selling trinkets and gifts – in the perpetually languid Ubud. She tells me that she quit her job at a restaurant 25 years ago to start off on her own and has been running the restaurant ever since.  Her English is rustic and my partner and I know only a smattering of Balinese and Bahasa – Indonesia. Mostly each conversation is an exercise at understanding what each other is trying to convey and not letting up until either one of us is convinced that the clear meaning is passed on.

An evening in Ubud
An evening in Ubud

Oka’s introverted husband handles the kitchen unaccompanied and he never once peeps out of his domicile even out of curiosity to see the faces of the foreigners who are chatting away with his wife despite the pressing language barrier. The restaurant has a seating capacity of 10 and I assumed Mr.Oka can manage it all by himself even if it’s a busy day.

A gorgeous sunset in Seminyak
A gorgeous sunset in Seminyak

Of all the 25 years she has been in business, Oka never thought of expansion plans for her restaurant. May be she wanted to keep it small and maintain exclusivity? When I ask her, she says she did not want anything big.

A Rama sculpture in Ubud
A Rama sculpture in Ubud
The sacred monkey forest in Ubud, Bali.
The sacred monkey forest in Ubud, Bali.

I wanted to ask her one more question, did she ever think about retiring? But I sort of knew the answer. The cobble stoned streets of Ubud never see unmanageable footfall nor does Oka have huge ambitious plans in life. With all its allure, Oka’s present life feels very much like retirement to me. I could trade it right now for my dusty, soulless urban existence. But my grandmother, on the other hand, would not have approved.

A yakshini inside the Ubud palace
                                                A yakshini inside the Ubud palace

Have you been to Ubud? Leave a comment and let me know.

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Walking in George Town, Penang, Malaysia

Leaving the precincts of Kuala Lumpur and its haze, high-rises, malls and traffic seemed like a release of sorts from the quagmires of urban life. Now don’t get me wrong. I liked KL and its veritable array of cultural and gastronomical experiences but I prefer a small town to a big city any given day. And I wasn’t going to exclude Penang, the northwestern coast of Malaysia, from my plans. So I boarded a bus and rode on it for six hours.

The pleasures of arriving in Penang are only multiplied by the beautiful visual scenery en route – the gargantuan mountains, vistas of the ocean, greenery and the tree rich landscape that is a relief from the landscape dominated by palm trees in KL. I arrived in the charming seaside town and its unhurried people to be welcomed by my host Mr. Henry. After a tiny tour of the neighborhood, Henry left me to my devices. Help was at hand, however. An architect friend Sanjay, took over from Henry but by then I had found a hawker stall, ordered the best tom yum soup I had in my entire life and finished slurping it. I felt welcomed.

The World Heritage Site title was awarded to the George Town area in Penang Island in 2008 by the UNESCO World Heritage Committee. The architecture of buildings in George Town infuses elements from the architecture of Europe, China and India. George Town was once a British trade post and hence colonial architecture is predominant. The rich cultural influences brought in by immigrants from India and China have also contributed to the city’s landscape and food.

The Street Art of George Town

The streets of Penang depict a curious array of art – iron rod sculptures on the theme ‘voices from the people’ and mural paintings on the walls by renowned artist Ernest Zacharevic. There are a total of 52 such iron rod sculptures present in almost every street of George Town, of which there are about 18 street murals by Zacharevic. There are maps available if you want to take a walking tour of these. A few pictures:

a wall art
a wall art
street murals of George Town
street murals of George Town

a street mural, up close

Temples of George Town

George Town hosts numerous ancient temples / churches – the oldest Anglican Church in all of South East Asia, the Maha Mariamman Temple from the 1790s, Chinese temples, Kapitan Keling mosque from the 1803 to name a few.

The Khoo Kongsi temple
The Khoo Kongsi temple
a chinese mazu idol
a chinese mazu idol
Kapitan Keling mosque
Kapitan Keling mosque
a smug buddha
a smug buddha

prayer lamps at the thai buddhist temple

a burmese buddhist temple
a burmese buddhist temple

Culture of George Town

Walk the streets of George Town and you are likely to find more than a handful of art galleries, art studios, puppet theatres and workshops, gold and blacksmiths who use ancient methods, Chinese coffin makers, book binders, perfumers and other quirks.

a chinese doll collection in a store
a chinese doll collection in a store
a chinese puppet in a souvenir store
a chinese puppet in a souvenir store
a souvenir
a souvenir

Architecture of George Town

The architectural treasures including the shop houses, colonial era buildings, Chinese clan houses are bunched together as a cultural enclave in the town. These buildings define the rich history of George Town and its cultural past.

the famed blue mansion
the famed blue mansion
an ornate chinese door
an ornate chinese door
streets of penang at night
streets of penang at night
penang skyline
penang skyline

Food of George Town

The coming together of various cultures has ensured a delicious variety of street food sold in the hawker markets of George Town, Penang. Taste the super pungent Assam Laksa, Mee Robus, Mee Rojak, Char Kway Teow and Fried Oyster and get introduced to flavors that you didn’t know existed. night time food scene

assam laksa
assam laksa
a funny sign board
a funny sign board