Ketut, Side By Side’s main man, picked us up at 11am from our hotel in Seminyak. The drive to the organic farm took about 3 hours, with a brief stop by a beach to take a quick photo. It was enjoyable chatting away to Ketut for the duration, learning more about Balinese culture and asking him all of the questions we’d been saving up in our heads since arriving. Ketut explained to us a little bit about the religious beliefs of Balinese people, how Bali has changed in the past 10 years so dramatically, and gave us a detailed background of Side by Side Organic Farm.
Founded in 2003, Side by Side Farm aims to preserve an indigenous way of life by helping farmers return to an organic, green way of life. It’s a co-op owned by the villagers who grow healthy food, sell their products at markets and cook delicious meals for visitors. They aim to encourage cross-cultural understanding where people from around the world can work together on the farm to make a difference. The farm works both with the local community, schools and volunteers in order to increase incomes in what has always been one of Bali’s poorest areas. We were there simply to spend one night in the rural Balinese countryside, to walk around the surrounding area and learn more about farm life while sampling its produce!
We pulled into a dirt track that led us up to fields of rice terraces and we were immediately transported into rural Balinese life. Local villagers and their curious children peered at us shyly as we heaved our rucksacks on to our backs and trudged through the paddy fields towards the farm, Ketut leading the way.
The farm is located in the tiny village of Dhausa, 70km east of Ubud, set amid lush rice fields near Tirta Gangga. The farm consists of 2 private bales (open-sided pavilions on stilts) where guests sleep, and another communal bale for eating all of the delicious locally grown produce. There is one open-air toilet with a cold-water shower, and the whole farm overlooks a shallow prawn and fish pond, surrounded by a canopy of trees. There was even a view of Mount Agung, visible only when the clouds parted.
Ketut directed us to our little hut where we would be sleeping that night. It protruded over the fishpond and looked pretty cosy to us. He told us we were the only people staying the night so we had the whole farm to ourselves! It doesn’t seem like Side by Side caters for many over night stays (we were the only ones staying that week) but does see groups of tourists popping by to enjoy their buffet lunches. Side by Side also offers various ‘voluntourism’ projects with school groups and companies from around the world invited to participate in developing the farm.
After dumping our luggage, it was time for us to sample their infamous buffet lunch. We settled down on our mats and watched in awe as Ketut carried out dish after giant dish of Side by Side’s home grown vegetables, fried, boiled, seasoned and steamed to perfection. Ketut and an elderly local woman hiding in the kitchen had rustled up a magnificent feast that could have easily fed a family of four. As neither of us have much self control when a buffet of delicious organically grown food is placed under our noses, and we were starving as it was now after 2pm, we succeeded in devouring 90% of the meal.
We heaved ourselves, along with our bulging stomachs, into our trainers and allowed Ketut to lead us on a walk in the surrounding countryside that afternoon. We proceeded to fire dozens of questions at Ketut as we wandered along the winding pathways, dodging marshy plots of farmland. Each answer stirred up yet another question such as how exactly do you get a grain of rice out of the husk, or how many hours do these farmers work on their land each day, and how many bags of rice would that plot of land produce. Ketut must have been laughing in his head or at least rolling his eyes at us as we asked these ignorant questions that only a seasoned Tesco shopper would query. But he was always patient with our hunger to learn as much as we could and chatted away happily and answered us eloquently. It was clear how passionate Ketut was, in his gentle and humble manner, about nature, organic farming and how important it is to him to preserve the land while generating a sustainable income for local people.
After traversing the narrow irrigation ditches that funnel water into the rice fields, we arrived at the Hindu Tirta Gangga Sacred Water Temple. It was very different to what we’d expected and much more touristy considering we’d been wandering through isolated countryside for half an hour. A scattering of guesthouses and restaurants popped up out of nowhere as we approached the temple.
This multilevel aquatic masterpiece features two swimming ponds and ornamental water features filled with humungous koi fish and lotus blossoms. It was pretty impressive and looked rather majestic framed by the picturesque rice terraces.
It’s always such a treat to have a local guide by your side to talk you through sacred sites such as this. We were informed that the temple was dedicated to Vishnu and is famous for its holy spring water, where Balinese Hindus go to for ritual purification. We knew that without Ketut we would have spent a fraction of the time whizzing round the temple, appreciating the aesthetics but not really knowing what the meaning of the statues represented. We spent about an hour leisurely strolling around the grounds and marveling at the enormous fish that inhabited the ponds. Ketut continued to take photos of the two of us on his phone to be uploaded on to their Facebook page later on. We were happy to be his promotional material and hoped our beaming smiles would encourage more tourists to visit Side by Side.
We headed back to the farm as the sun began to set, still feeling full from our massive lunch. But Ketut made sure to update us that dinner would be in an hour and came in the same buffet style as we had at lunchtime. We could have easily gone to bed without any dinner at all, but not wanting to seem rude, we did our best to finish as much of the food as possible.
After eating so much we were almost immobilised, we weren’t in much of a position to do anything at all but go to bed. The locals here wake with the rising sun and sleep when it sets, and the evening certainly felt later than it was as we sat in the darkness, with just a little lamp overhead attracting some mosquitos. We sat and watched bats the size of small dogs swooping the night sky, nibbling on juicy fruits growing on the surrounding trees and hopefully eating some of the biting insects too. The geckos here are also magnified in size, jumping substantial distances to position themselves near the tasty insect infested light bulbs. We witnessed the true magic of nature when the fireflies came out to play, seeing them hovering around the fishpond, their amber lights flickering and pulsing as they drifted through the night. By 10pm we were heady to hit the hay under our mosquito net.
We had a pretty comfortable sleep and didn’t rise until 8:30am the following morning. We were woken in the night a couple of times with some suspicious thumping and rustling sounds. It’s quite terrifying hearing any unidentifiable noise when you’re sleeping more of less under the stars. The sounds were similar to a bird’s flapping wings, as though caught under the roof of one of the bales. But a quick scan with the torch revealed nothing but some hefty geckos, which we were happy to share our hut with.
In the morning Naomi wasn’t feeling great. She initially blamed it on having too much to eat the day before after greedily stuffing herself with one too many aubergines. But her cramping stomach told another story. Lawrence seemed to be fine and ate his banana pancake as well as ¾ of Naomi’s breakfast.
Ketut had planned to take us on another walk this morning, which Naomi hoped would ease and loosen some of the aching in her stomach. Everyone we passed grinned in our direction, nodding their heads with a good morning. The children seemed a little more shy but some of the pluckier ones bellowed ‘HELLOOO’ from the safety of their garden fences. Many were busy bathing in the irrigation ditches beneath the heat of the morning sun, desensitised to the beauty of their surroundings.
There seems to be a number of microclimates in Bali. Ketut informed us that while it may be raining at Side by Side farm, just a half hour walk closer to the coast would be all sunshine and humidity. The farm itself is often smothered with cloud and the skies were overcast for much of our time there. But as soon as we walked further to the coast the sun beat down on us with full force. We ended up walking through the countryside and the heat for 4 hours, ending in the King’s Residence Temple.
Naomi was struggling by hour 3 of the walk but managed to keep a brave face for Ketut’s sake, not wanting to give anything away in case he worried that the cooking may have been the cause. After experiencing some kind of stomach bug/food poisoning in Ha Giang and being pandered to by our anxious host with mugs of ginger tea, Naomi thought it was best she soldiered on in silence to avoid a similar situation. A pit stop to down some sugary coke for a spurt of energy just about got Naomi through the rest of the walk.
The King’s Residence Temple was built at the end of the 19th century and home to many generations of King’s from the Dutch Regime.
We finally arrived back at Ketut’s car by 2pm (quick to mention to him that we didn’t need any lunch today), which looked like the Holy Grail to Naomi’s weary eyes, legs, arms, back etc. etc. We climbed in and made our way to Ubud, the next stop on our tour of Bali. It was quite sad to say goodbye to our new friend Ketut. He’d been such a wonderful guide and we learnt so much about Bali and rural farming life. Side by Side felt a world away from Seminyak’s bustling boutiques and restaurants, and it was great to get a taste of the some authentic Balinese culture albeit for one night. It’s strange to assume we will never see this man again, who welcomed us into his home to readily and gave us some unforgettable memories of Bali.