Balinese Warung

A warung is an Indonesian term for a small roadside stall that sells snacks, drinks and convenient household items. However, in Bali a warung is also the local coffee house, corner store and community meeting spot for neighbours to sit and exchange the latest news or gossip. Every village has at least a dozen warung’s that serve the daily needs of locals and anyone else who happens to pass by.

Some warung’s are crude makeshift structures of bamboo and oddments of timber, while others may be a more permanent construction built as an afterthought on the outer perimeter of the family compound. The general setup of a warung is fairly basic, consisting of aged wooden benches for customers to sit upon. Goods are displayed in glass canisters on shelves or spread across large plastic covered tabled that can be wiped down with a damp cloth.

Fresh fruit sits on mismatched plates next to capped bottles of coca cola, the latest release of flavoured bubblegum and small bags of fried peanuts. Colourful packets of potato chips are strung up on lengths of wire hanging from the roof along with individual sachets of mosquito repellant, shampoo, washing powder and instant coffee. Most Balinese warung’s are a chaotic jumble of goods and sometimes even the vendor can’t remember where things are kept.

Owning a warung does not really generate a great income as most goods are sold for just a few hundred rupiah above the recommended retail price. But the main benefit for a warung proprietor is that the work is flexible and if it is attached to their home they can go about their other daily household chores in between sales. Opening a small warung is a popular means of employment for married women as they can literally ‘take care of the shop’ whilst suckling a newborn infant or prepare the numerous offerings required for Balinese Hindu ceremonies and rituals.

As the Balinese habitually snack throughout the course of the day, the warung is the ideal spot to satiate one’s appetite with a sweet sticky rice cake and a tall glass of aromatic coffee. Children come to buy cheap candies and imitation soda drinks cooled with chunks of ice. When the afternoon draws to a close the menfolk flock to their local warung clutching their prize fighting roosters to socialize, discuss recent events, analyze the headlines of the daily newspaper and share bottles of warm beer.

Many warung’s provide customers with a small platform-like seat constructed from strips of bamboo where a group of men can sit cross-legged in their sarongs to play chess, dominoes and traditional card games. Warung’s in rural villages often stay open until late night and served alcoholic beverages. These potent wines, brewed from fermented rice and palm juice, are a cheap alternative to imported liquors.

The warung’s that serve such beverages are especially popular at the weekends with teenage youth in areas where nightlife entertainment is limited. Warung’s also function as convenience stores and prevent unnecessary trips to the market for items such as cooking oil, sugar, shampoo or dish washing detergent. Most goods are sold in single use sachets and packets, although this excess of plastic is playing havoc with Bali’s waste control system.

Many warung’s these days either have a television set or radio blaring in the background to help the seller relieve the long hours between sales. The most unique aspect of the traditional Balinese warung is that it operates on an honour system. Customers help themselves to the array of snacks on display and the charge is calculated after consumption. This is a sign of trust; nevertheless, a shrewd proprietor will always keep a sharp eye out for just how many packets of shrimp crackers or shelled peanuts have been eaten.

In an era where shopping malls and trendy cafes have sprung up all over the island, there still remains a place in Balinese society for the humble warung. For many there is a sense of comfort in sitting at the warung with friends and neighbours in familiar surroundings that are void of pretentious consumerism.

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