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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Healthy Eating In Bangkok and Bali

I was happily surprised to find so much health food consciousness in Bali. Wherever you looked, at least in Ubud, restaurants had signs that said "No MSG" and "organic food." Ubud has several that serve raw vegan food and there really was a lot of options for people concerned with good nutrition. Putu and Made, our cooks happily made delicious, healthful meals everyday combining organic Balinese vegetables with raw food preparation techniques and, homemade food is always better than restaurant food. Still Bali Buddah and Kafe always had good, healthful food including raw dishes.

I was even more surprised when I got to Bangkok. I have to admit I had some anxiety knowing my favorite Thai restaurant had closed this year. I'd been eating at Bussaracum for decades. Last year I even wrote a post, Lunch In The Same Bangkok Restaurant Everyday For A Month-- Bussaracum, The Best Restaurant In Thailand. Where would I eat? The food in Bangkok isn't always so wonderful and a number of my favorite restaurants have closed down or moved away to locations miles away.

Looking back over my own 2006 Bangkok restaurant guide, I was reminded that someone had told me about a raw food restaurant called the Rasayana Retreat. I ate there today. HEAVEN!

Clean, beautiful, wonderful vibes and the food... unbeatable. The food was very seriously raw and health oriented and SO DELICIOUS! I had lasagna and key lime pie and I can't wait to go back tomorrow to try some more. Here's their raison d'etre:

From the moment that a fruit or vegetable is harvested it undergoes change in it’s chemical and nutritive make up. The fresher a fruit or vegetable is, the higher it’s nutritive content. When you cook food a huge percentage of available nutrient is destroyed, and its chemical make-up is altered, in essence stripping the food of the very nutrients that your body is requesting when it signals hunger to your mind and stomach. Nutrient stripped food does not satisfy the body’s hunger, leading to overeating and dissatisfaction with food for many people. But there are also much greater consequences.

In order for the eliminative systems and organs of the body to function optimally a person must eat at least an 80% alkaline diet. The majority of alkaline foods are fruits and vegetables. The majority of acid foods are animal products, such as meat and dairy, or processed foods that have been heated (as in cooked), ground and separated, and/or have added sugar, salt, preservatives, stabilizers, colorings and many other additives as well. If acidic foods are the greater part of the diet, elimination from the bowels, lymph, kidneys, respiration and skin becomes sluggish, allowing a build up of toxins to collect in the organs and tissues of the body. This ultimately leads to unpleasant symptoms and chronic disease.

Eating raw food is like giving yourself high-octane fuel so that your body can be energized, run efficiently, cleanse efficiently, think clearly and work out toxins so that health and beauty can be a reality instead of a distant goal. On a cleansing program a 100% alkaline diet is a necessity if one wishes to get maximum results from the cleanse. A cleansing diet treats food like medicine, using food to assist the body in healing and rejuvenation. A wonderful aspect of this is that Living Food also tastes good.

It's open everyday. It's real close to the skytrain that runs down Sukhumvit. And it is very inexpensive.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Being Fair To The Other Bali

Maybe I haven't been fair to the southern part of Bali-- Kuta, Seminyak, Legian, Jimbaran Bay, Sanur, the sprawling tourist ghetto surrounding the airport, where upwards of 90% of the tourists who come to Bali stay. And I mean stay.

To me Bali is everything but this consciously created tourist ghetto. I go for places that don't have fast food restaurants, don't have economies based solely on tourism and don't have hordes of pastey tourists looking for they know not what. I've always preferred quiet places or places where peoples' interactions with me aren't necessarily based on the previous interactions they've had with thousands of others "just like me."

I've never eaten in a Wendy's or a Kentucky Fried Chicken or a McDonald's or any of those poisonous industrialized food substitute feeding places and I tend to find little in common with people who do. The tourist ghettos have them woven into their existence, the other 90% of Bali doesn't. I write about the other 90%. But is that fair?

I met a young German the other day who's been living in Bali for the last few years. He's staying on the outskirts of Ubud helping a friend refurbish a house. But he lives in Seminyak. "Ubud," he told me, "is the most boring place in Bali. Everything is closing when I'm getting ready to go out and party." He loves Seminyak, a real party town. You can drink and find plenty of cheap sex there. The Australian partiers are exact duplicates of the American spring break crowd that makes places like Cancun and Cabo so absolutely avoidable. Avoidable to me. There's no doubt that far more people like those places than the quiet kinds of places I prefer.

So let this serve as a warning; most people prefer a very different Bali-- and a very different Mexico-- to the one I prefer. I once went to Athens with a friend and every morning when I'd being going out to see the Acropolis and the sights that drew me to Greece, he'd be dragging his ass home from a night of cruising the sights that drew him to Greece. Who am I to say my way is superior or more worthwhile? He had a great time. Personally I'd rather spend a day on the slopes of Mount Agung or white water rafting on the Ayung than spend a night of club hopping in Kuta. And I basically eat a variation of vegan Nasi Campur or gado gado everyday. I'm sure it's not right for everybody. And I'm sure Disney World and the Atlantis Paradise Island are a million times more popular as travel destinations than the kinds of places this blog covers.

When we got to the Amankila the other day, the security guards searched underneath our car with a huge mirror, the way it's done in much of the third world. We didn't think it looked very effective. I wonder if someone did the same at the Ritz-Carlton and Marriott in Jakarta today, each of which was bombed. Noisiest thing around ole Ubud is the roosters crowing away day and night... and the mosquitos buzzing.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Anyone Ever Offer You A Cup Of Mongoose Crap Coffee?

I never drank a coffee in my life and I resisted the temptation to try yesterday when Roland, Helen and Michael sampled some coffee made from mongoose crap. Sound enticing? We spent the day traipsing around northern and eastern Bali seeing sites from the Batur volcano and Bali's mother temple on the slopes of Mt Agung to an aboriginal village, Tenganan, known for intricate books painted on palm leaves, and the ancient kingdoms' hall of justice at Klungkung with wonderful paintings of punishments all over the ceiling. Roland especially liked the one depicting demons sawing into someone's head who had been disrespectful towards his parents. But the highlight of the day was probably the trip to a coffee and spice plantation where one is able to sample some Kopi Luwak.

As a preface just like me say that I'm a huge fan of argan oil from the Essaouria region of Morocco. The oil is pressed from the undigested pits of a fruit that grows on the argan trees which are eaten by tree climbing goats and then pooped out. (See the photo at the link above.) So it isn't poop-processed food per se that turns me off. And the mongoose poop coffee doesn't really even come from a mongoose. The creature is a civet cat. Here's how Wikipedia describes the concoction we're talking about: "Kopi Luwak, also known as caphe cut chon (fox-dung coffee) in Vietnam and kape alamid in the Philippines, is coffee that is prepared using coffee cherries that have been eaten and partially digested by the Asian Palm Civet, then harvested from its feces."
Sound unappetizing? Roland, who used to work at Starbucks and is a coffee addict said it's strong but "bueno."

If you want to add a bit of a fear factor moment to your coffee morning with your friends, ask them to drink some civet droppings with you. It will be quite a test of courage for some of them. Really though, there is nothing to be alarmed at. You are actually serving them coffee, but it is coffee that went through a more exotic process than your regular cup of Joe goes through.

It is called civet coffee. What makes this coffee most unusual is that it literally is the dropping of the palm civet. These furry little creatures love coffee cherries, particularly the reddest ones. They do have excellent taste, don’t they? They swallow them whole. While in their stomach, the cherries are processed by the civet’s stomach acids and ezymes. After a while the beans exit the civet body. The fruit has been removed but the beans are whole.

The resulting bean is has an aroma and flavor distinctly its own. The beans are cleaned and dried before roasting, if that’s on your mind. When roasted it results in oilier beans. The oilier the better is what the experts say. The result is coffee that tastes rather like dark chocolate with a hint of hazelnut.

Civet coffee has more than one source. The best known is Indonesia where it is called Kope Luwak. This exotic coffee sells for about $600 a pound.

Roland claims it's $1,000 a pound and that the British royal family and Hong Kong's Peninsula Hotel pretty much buy it all up every year between them. The cup he, Helen and Michael shared cost them $10 in the middle of the jungle and the place where we got was also selling a small jar of the beans for $35 (enough to make 2 cups back home; we all passed on that).

UPDATE: I Forget To Mention...

With all the talk about mongoose shit-- or civet shit-- I should have remembered to mention that we have our first shit meal since we got here. We have two great cooks and normally we eat breakfast and lunch at home, simple, wholesome, delicious food. And for dinners we've been eating in health-conscious vegetarian-oriented restaurants around Ubud. They're friendly, pleasant, organic and incredibly cheap. A dinner is never over $10. So yesterday we decided to pop in on the best hotel in Bali-- and Bali has a couple 4 Seasons, a Ritz Carlton, 3 Amans and a Bulgari-- the AmanKila, in the northeast, far from anything. It was voted the #1 best hotel in Bali and the least expensive room is $750/night. (They go way up from there.) We decided to have lunch there.

They told us that 19 of their 40 rooms and suites are taken When I visited in 2004 there were fewer guests. We were the only people having lunch. The view was beyond stunning-- mountains, ocean, islands, jungle, manicured gardens, triple-decker infinity pool... And that's what you pay for. The bill isn't that outrageous compared to a first rate U.S. restaurant. Our lunch for 5 was just a bit over 2,300,000 rupiah, around $230. But the food was so deadly dull and uninteresting that Anwar, our driver who told me he had never eaten in a place like that before, was thinking that rich people are crazy. (In way of comparison, an average weekly salary in that part of Bali is 800,000 rupiah.) Roland and Helen said some kind of decadent 5-texture flourless chocolate cake they had was a 10 on a scale from 1-10. Everything else lacked flavor or anything that some crotchety old tourist might complain about. This one is "a must avoid."

Thursday, July 09, 2009

A Day Of Being A Tourist In Bali

t's tempting to just never leave the villa. It's cool and breezy inside and like living in the Garden of Eden. But now that my friends have joined me, everybody wants to go and see Bali. It's all beautiful and Anwar, the driver I met in 2005 knows all the best places to go and has enough sensitivity about individuals' peculiarities to know where to take us and what to skip-- although it's a diverse group and he must be getting confused by now.

Our first day out with him was to the mountains in north central Bali and Danau Bratan (Lake Bratan, site of a famous temple). We headed southwest from Ubud to Mengwi, site of another famous temple, Pura Taman Ayun, a huge and beautifully kept up complex built in 1634. It's got a huge moat and a couple of landscaped courtyards and a big climbable bell tower. Climbing it is the only way to get a look at the inner sanctuary.

From there we drove through lush green rice fields for a couple hours, along mostly uncrowded narrow roads straight north into the mountains towards Bedugul. On the western shore of Lake Bratan is Candikunning where you can get your picture taken holding a giant bat, a huge python or some kind of a monitor before moving on to the Buddhist-Hindu temple, Pura Ulun Danu Bratan. It appears to be sitting in the water and it's very picturesque. If it wasn't so far from where all the tourists are it would be far more overrun. It's overrun enough as is. From there we headed to Munduk up in the misty mountains. We parked a trekked up and down the mountains to a gorgeous, isolated waterfall in a forest of spice trees. After that it was some amazing mountain top restaurant with a view of the whole world and then a trip to the vast Bali Botanical Gardens (Kebun Raya Eka Karya Bali) with whole areas dedicated to ceratin species like bamboo and orchids.

I was more than ready to call it quits after that but Anwar knew everyone (else) would want to see the temple in the Indian Ocean at Tanah Lot, so we headed south again for the sunset ceremony, the most touristy thing imaginable. When Roland started growling at me (as if it was my fault we were surrounded by hundreds of Australians and Ma and Pa Kettle) I pointed at that this would be the most beautiful spot on earth if there were no people around. After we left it was just about an hour and a half back to Ubud and straight to Kafe, one of our two favorite organic restaurants for dinner.

If you're coming to Bali, you can e-mail Anwar ( and tell him you heard about him from Howie and he'll help you with whatever you need-- from a villa or a diving expedition to a guided tour around the island.

Monday, July 06, 2009

The Soft White Underbelly Of Paradise

I'll leave out the mosquitos since they don't seem to be bothering anyone but me. (I'm, literally, a bitten up mess. Helen was wearing a sleaveless wisp of a dress last night and I was wearing a tight-wristed black hoodie and they bit right through my clothes and never went near her.) Last time I was in Bali I never saw a mosquito; this time they're like a Biblical plague but not for anyone else.

On the other hand, 2 nights ago the next door neighbor's 15 year old son-- along with 4 friends-- were in a fatal car accident. For the last 2 days hundreds of friends and relative have lined the lane to our house-- and our front courtyard-- in mourning. It's very sad, horrific. Anyone who has a car or motor scooter can drive; no age limits are enforced. Bizarrely, each night scores of men come to the house and gamble way into the night, laughing and... not very mournful. They want it to be noisy and less scary we were told.

A warning to travelers: one of our party arrived yesterday and was immediately told he would be put back on a plane and deported. Why? He and several other foreigners were being shaken down. One guy's passport only had 5 months left on it. Why this should matter for someone on a 2 week vacation. Deported! Another didn't have enough empty pages. He avoided deportation by giving a million rupiah to the government official as a bribe. (The guy tried shaking him down for more but when he drew the line at a million, the guy smiled, told him not to ever tell anyone and stamped over another page and let him in-- after a half an hour detention.)

And then there are the geckos and monitors... Roland wants to see if he can find someone serving komodo dragon sate.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Bali: A Day At The Cremation

Funerals aren't my thing. I go to great lengths to avoid them. So when Made, the cook, invited me to come to her grandmother's cremation, I was a little hesitant. Last time I was in Bali people talked about how unique and fascinating the ceremonies are but I never did go. I felt though that one right in the household I probably shouldn't miss. And it turned out, it wasn't one in the household; it was two. Putu, the housekeeper, also had a grandfather being cremated at the same time. In fact, we drove to a small rural village a bit less than an hour from Ubud-- Pejeng, I think-- and we got there just as a mass cremation was beginning-- 15 people.

When someone dies, the body is temporarily buried until the family finds an auspicious date and the money for the cremation ceremony (something like 5 million rupiahs, $500 in our money, but quite a lot for an ordinary Balinese family). Chipping in with a bunch of other families in the village helps everyone handle the cost.

We got to the village crossroads-- the fount of all evil from the Balinese Hindu perspective-- just as the gigantic, colorful towers holding the bones of each of the deceased was manhandled noisily around in circles, "confusing" the evil spirits of the unclean corpse to prepare for the setting free of the soul from the material world. The towers were carried by dozens of men to the cemetery while hundreds of villagers followed along, merrily.

The whole scene is one of joy, not sorrow. The souls of the departed were being liberated so they could evolve to a hopefully higher state. At the cemetery, the bones are transfered into huge colorful sarcophagi-- bulls, lions, fish... depending on caste. Then hundreds of family members and friends march by, many chanting, carrying offerings, piled all around the sarcophagus. People are eating and drinking and socializing for hours while this goes on and suddenly the pyres start being set ablaze and the whole area turned into a conflagration, ashes flying everywhere.

I was happy to get home and jump in the pool. It's Saturday, 7pm now, getting towards my bedtime. Tomorrow night (well technically Monday morning) Michael and Helen get here around 4am. A few hours later Roland arrives from Bangkok. Once they all shake off whatever jet lag they have I expect my laconic idyll will have ended and we'll be going to temples and volcanoes and beaches and botanical gardens, villages off the beaten path, whitewater rafting, and plantations that grow vanilla beans and cinammon. I'm always up for anything that doesn't bring me within eyesight of a McDonald's or Burger King. The Lonely Planet Guide Bali & Lombok has been useful in helping me get oriented and figure stuff out. And, by the way, that's a photo Michael took of Made and Putu on the left.