The water vapor escapes the small rice container as the old lady opens up its lid. Before it, plates of side dishes cooked in rich Balinese condiments tease the senses of passersby with their sweet and fragrant aroma. A few meters away some women are preparing small pieces of offerings made of various flower petals with different colors, sliced pandan leaves, and a pinch of sticky rice. They are making canang sari, the ubiquitous Balinese offering normally placed in front of houses, at temple altars, on cars’ dashboards, and many other places.
This is Ubud Market at the heart of the so-called cultural center of Bali, filled with morning activities of vendors and locals, boisterous and colorful. Compared to similar places in Indonesia, Ubud Market is arguably one of the most unique traditional markets in the country due to its wide array of goods, commodities, and artworks sold to not only fulfill the daily needs of Balinese people – particularly the Hindus – but also to satisfy visitors with different necessities.
Tracing back its history in the 19th century when Ubud was the seat of a powerful kingdom in Bali, no one would have imagined this place transforming itself into the cultural hub of the island within the next few decades. It was Walter Spies, a German painter, who introduced Balinese culture and art to the Western World in the early 20th century. Living in Ubud for nine years at the invitation of the Prince of Ubud, he helped the locals modernize the artworks to cater to a broader audience. Today, Ubud Market is one of the places to find the traces of his legacy where artwork vendors replace those selling commodities after morning time.
Ubud Palace itself, officially called Puri Agung Ubud Krisnakusuma (the Great Palace of Ubud Krisnakusuma), is located a stone’s throw away from the market. Its elegant entrance leads to an even more beautiful courtyard, conspicuous among the nearby restaurants and shops. Despite no longer possessing the power it once had over the region, the royal family still lives in the palace, in a secluded area off-limit to tourists.
Having taken some pictures of the vendors at the outside of the market, we walk inside, through some dark alleys and slippery floors. Suddenly the humid labyrinth opens up to a courtyard where more vendors share the cramped place under the clear blue skies. “Beep beep!” a garbage collector shouts to ask everyone to give her and her cart a way out of the crowd. A typical Balinese spirit house stands right at the center of the courtyard, studded with a handful of canang sari and burning incense sticks.
“That woman has been selling fruits and vegetables at the exact same spot with the exact same basket arrangement since I was a kid” Alexander recalls his memory upon noticing one of the vendors. “She has the same facial expression,” he adds.
At one corner, a food stall displays a roast pig complete with the head. Some might find it horrible, some others amusing. But clearly that is a not a common sight in other traditional markets across Indonesia. Craving for ayam betutu instead, we go back outside to find the vendor who serves the best ayam betutu in town, Alexander assures me. Some parts of the market have changed since my last visit in 2011. Modern blocks of shops have been built to accommodate more vendors, unfortunately forcing some others to leave the market.
Alexander looks puzzled. “I am sure his stall was right here back then.” Then he asks some people around where the ayam betutu vendor has moved.
“He’s moved to his house, not far from here,” a parking attendant replies.
“His house is at that alley, to the right of the main street,” an old woman adds.
It seems like everyone knows this man. But it is this kind of bond and friendship a place like a traditional market is filled with. We walk towards the alley, with so many questions hovering in my head. Will this place change when it is fully modernized one day? Will more vendors move out from the market to sell their goods or food at their houses? Will it be harder to feel the real Balinese experience in the future?
Only time can tell.