Ubud is known far and wide as both the cultural heart of Bali and the most reliable producer of frighteningly large penis key chains (most vendors also sell comically large penis bottle openers, but that’s a whole different discussion). Penestanan, on the other hand, is merely a sleepy little suburb of its much more brazenly templed neighbour, the kind of place where you fall asleep to a chorus of contented frog croaking, where all three streets have numerous shops selling bananas, and where another duck-filled field of mud and feces is always lurking just around the corner.
Penestanan is the perfect place for those who love the way ripe rice looks in photos, but hate to be more than a 5-minute motorbike ride from the nearest Italian thin-crust pizza joint. It has the same religious devotion, smiling faces and proximity to ancient temples as Ubud, but instead of walking next to a barrage of passing traffic you instead get to make yourself as skinny as possible every time a motorbike passes through on one of the narrow little jungle pathways. Plus, there a lot of villas out here and somebody needs to come rent them.
When to Go?
It is hot year-round in Bali, but December to March is the rainy season. There are three things this means for visitors from northern winters: 1) It could always rain at any moment, so you should get in the habit of carrying an umbrella 2) It usually doesn’t, and often the sun shines for two or three days straight with the humidity slowly building until eventually you need a snorkel to breathe, a southern belle fan to lazily cool your sticky facial features, and a good pair of scissors to tame any body hair with even a hint of curl to it. 3) Then the lightning will crash, the thunder roar, and water shall rain from the sky in buckets, plural. At which point the whole process starts all over again.
Rustic yoga retreats.
Picturesque rice fields at every level of growth.
A wide selection of scenic villas.
Geckos the size of well-fed squirrels.
Free daily cockfights.
Start with a breakfast of granola, fresh fruit and unbelievably free range eggs from any one of the small friendly cafés that really, really hate gluten. This will provide the energy for a long, meandering walk through the rice fields, taking special care to say good morning to all the farmers who clearly assume you have gotten yourself hopelessly lost. After that workout, treat yourself to a lunch of sprouts and four to five different fruit smoothies. The afternoon is for temple exploration – try not to take too many photos in case people back home ask you to tell them apart. Stop off at a handy open-air restaurant to enjoy a large Bintang beer and watch the sunset over the rice fields, marvelling at the way its steady descent seems to pull every mosquito on the island to your table. Make sure you brought a flashlight to help you find your way back to your secluded villa where you can spend the last remnants of your energy killing God’s more invasive creatures, then crawl under your mosquito net and be serenaded to sleep by tropical rustling and the occasional mysterious splash from the pool.
Something similar seven times, except you can change up the order now and then, and eventually you will need to re-stock your supply of bananas.
You now qualify to carve your initials into the wall at the nearest café featuring free internet and tremendous selection of overpriced coffees. Add in a couple days exploring on a rented moped, doing your best to avoid the traffic of the main roads, the pedestrians in the small lanes, and the dogs everywhere that are continually fascinated by your back tire. Those mangos you picked up on day one should finally be almost ripe.
The local village meeting room, or Balé Banjar, for Penestanan Kaja is located at the intersection of four roads. However, one road leads to a dead end, and another eventually gets too narrow for cars, then suddenly becomes a set of stairs. So if you are driving I would recommend one of the other two.
1907 – After two decades of desperately searching for the spiritual location shown to him in his dreams by the local deity of fertility, a humble shaman discovered this bountiful plateau, deeming it a foremost centre of spiritual power and direct portal to heaven. His fruit stand and motorbike rental business still do brisk business to this day.
1951 – The first motorized vehicle appears in Penestanan, leading to hopeful expressions on the faces of mules everywhere. “Oh, you’d like that, wouldn’t you? Don’t get your hopes up” the farmers responded.
1999 – The first local yoga retreat opens its doors to women from around the world searching for serenity of self, meaning to their life, and the ability to impress people at parties with vaguely erotic feats of flexibility.
2006 – Eat Pray Love revolutionizes the way the world sees lonely middle-aged women. The hot ones, anyway.
Most villas have private internet sticks, but for really hard-core porn downloads you probably want to find a corner table at one of the slightly darker cafés.
The main dangers are getting hit by passing motorbike mirrors, cockfight gambling debt collection, and stepping on huge frogs in the dark.
Everybody has at least one cell phone, but because the numbers are about 15 digits long you’ll never remember enough to make any calls.
There are plenty of places where you can book white water rafting trips, volcano cycling trips, airport shuttles and, well, more or less everything geared toward overcharging tourists that can’t be done right in the convenience of the village.
The nearest ATMs are located in a neat row about a 15-minute walk from the centre of Penestanan, next to the supermarket and the shifty guy selling sunglasses off a giant sandwich board.
Agus Laundry is cheap, fast and efficient. They almost lost one of my socks once, but it turned up under the chair where I unpacked the laundry. Other than that they are pretty good, though.
Sights & Activities
Watching groups of women harvest the fields by hand. Watching the men show up around dusk trying to be loud and menacing to scare off the flocks of tiny birds that like to feast on the rice. So far the birds appear unmoved by their theatrics.
Yoga classes are job one in these parts. Let’s face it, you didn’t haul those flashy leggings 5,000 kilometres across the world just to impress the guy who cleans the pool at your villa.
Many people also opt for cooking classes where you can spend the whole day learning the intricacies of Balinese cuisine, including Nasi Campur and Cap Cay Tumis, as well as how to sprinkle your menu with humorously misspelled English words.
Numerous meditation instructors will happily accept payment to watch you sit on their cushions for an hour.
Start: The big bulletin board full of restaurant and villa names on Jl Raya Sanggingan.
End: A roadside fried chicken stand in the middle of nowhere.
Duration: 30 minutes, plus however much time you spend carefully framing your “ducks in a rice field” photos.
Head up the stairs from the busy street out of Ubud, on the way up admiring the intricate stone carvings of Richard Lewis dressed as a Vegas dancer. Enjoy the small town charm as you stroll through narrow alleys and damp streets past quaint restaurants and signs for villas with cute names but imposing doors and fortress-like walls. Once you have passed the offering wall, the bathing river, the volleyball court and the trash dumpster full of excitable chickens you come to the Balé Banjar. This is the essentially the town office, but most of the time is used as a place where otherwise unoccupied village men linger to pass the time in a relaxed environment which does not require them to wear a shirt. Here you take a right, walk roughly 2 blocks past numerous small confection shops and a different group of guys, these ones do wear shirts, but they do less talking and more watching people walk by with blank stares. A left at the end, then a right and you can follow the path for about 20 minutes all the way to the end – past villas, fields, a hotel, and finally the continuation of the busy road you originally started on (but a long way from there, I have no idea how you’re getting back). Also, I would advise you not to give in to the temptation of the deep patch of mud just off the trail on your right, the one with the rat scurrying for cover. Stepping in it up to your knee won’t be the lasting thrill you imagine it will.
Villas: Every second building is available for long-term rental. The rest are being renovated.
Retreats: Open-air yoga studio – check. Eclectically-styled lounge lobby – check. Dozens of girls between the ages of 18 and 25 who spend most of their day at the pool – check.
Made’s: Awesome vermicelli bowl, and free mosquito repellent for every guest.
Lalla & Lili’s: Who can pass up that type of effortless alliteration?
The Waroong: A scenic location with a fountain backed by a rice field on one side, people getting cheap massages at the spa on the other.
Warung Bubu: Cheap, and they have very good Nasi Goreng (special fried rice) and terrific grilled pork with rice (Babi Panggang Bubu… with rice), plus it is located right on the blind corner where adrenaline junkies come to cross the road.
Warung Bayu: Pad thai and burgers, although they are found on different pages on the menu.
Café Vespa: Organic specialties, a vast range of creative drinks, a cabinet full of disappointingly gluten-free baking, free filtered water, and wifi that attracts every aspiring blogger not successful enough to buy their own internet stick, but still successful enough to buy $3 avocado smoothies all day.
Banana Leaf : They boast the “coldest beer in Ubud”. Let’s just say it was cold enough that I cannot definitively refute their claim at this juncture.
Homemade lunch at your villa can be both convenient and chalk-full of salami and cheese.
Bintang from the fridge in shop 1. Or shop 2. Or shop 4. Not shop 3, I saw the owner licking the bottles. And not in a nice, friendly sort of way.
Visiting the pool at D’Omah hotel. For 50,000 rupiah (around $5) you get full access to their pool and its posh surroundings for the entire day. For an extra 50,000 they’ll tell you the riveting story behind the apostrophe.
Warung Bayu has live music on Sundays so it is best to get there early. Like Saturday.
Cockfighting takes place most afternoons in the small paved area near the last shop on the block. The fun kind, with taped spurs and easy to remember safe words.
For the minimal cost of just a crust of bread a day, you too can feed an entire school of small fish living in the moat at your villa.
You’ll find little shops selling the basics every 8 or 9 dog lengths, plus it is just a 15-minute walk to the large Bintang supermarket, which occasionally stocks our favourite “salted” New Zealand butter, plus they have a no backpack policy that doesn’t seem to apply to white people.
The bakery next door will fill a tiny foldable backpack with bread and quiche for around $6.
The ducks apparently aren’t for sale, no matter how many batteries and miniature bottles of shampoo you offer, so there’s no point even asking.
Getting There and Away
You can walk from Ubud in about 30 minutes.
You can pay a taxi about $5 to take you to or from Ubud in about 5 minutes.
You can rent a scooter for $5 and also ride to or from Ubud in about 5 minutes. And since that gets you a 24-hour rental period you should be able to do the return trip around 124 times.
Everything in Penestanan is within a 5-minute walk, so your choices should be, in this order – motorbike, moped, any version of Toyota SUV, a bicycle (known locally as a “push bike”), or ferried in the wheelbarrow of one of the women leaving the fields. Walking is theoretically possible, if you are ok with all the surprised looks and pitying stares.
More villages that are similar in many ways, but most of which lack the endless confusion of which syllable to stress in casual conversation.