Bali is certainly the most popular place in the Indonesian archipelago. In fact, the island has become synonymous of tropical indulgence and is even at risk of becoming a bit clichéd. Our 2-month adventure in Indonesia also began with Bali, but instead of partying in infamous Kuta, we decided to absorb the spirit of island culture, by going to Ubud.
An international party scene, on white sand beaches, speckled with palm trees, doesn’t sound half bad. Still, I wanted my first impression of Indonesia to include an authentic cultural experiencе and exclude variations of Tiesto and Rihanna. That’s why Ubud was an easy choice. It might be one of the few beach-less hotspots in Indonesia, but has plenty more to offer.
Here you’ll find a description of our 6-day experience in Ubud, including well-researched highlights and happy coincidences.
After a few tears, some rum, and a 14-hour flight, we went halfway around the world, crossed the Equator, and reached the furthest point from home that we have ever ventured into.
I was excitedly expecting to be received at the airport by the hotel driver – he would welcome us with a smile and we’d roll our humungous suitcases, feeling like VIPs.
Indeed, the airport was packed full of people, waving their handmade signs in the air, but none with our names on it. We walked around the terminal once, and then again, only to acquire a tail of taxi drivers, hot on our heels. As we’d already spent over an hour in fruitless attempts to contact our hotel, we were just about to succumb to the taxis, when our driver appeared.
And so we learned our first lesson in Indonesian patience.
We ended up in Bali Sunshine Homestay & Gallery, which, as the name suggests, is both a hotel and a a gallery, about 10 minutes away from busy Ubud. The owner, a woodcarving master, had incorporated an entire art display into the interior. And all of his family members treated us like long lost relatives, whom they were happy to see.
We had our first nasi goreng (fried rice) and mie goreng (fried noodles), both of which are impossible to dodge in Indonesia.
I always suspected that the tropical fruits that are sold in Bulgaria are fakes, but I’ve never imagined how juicy and sweet they can be, when picked right from the tree. Our breakfast was decorated with flowers, as omen of good health, according to Hindu traditions.
Driving in and Around Ubud
We rented a scooter and proceeded to explore.
The roads around Ubud turned out to be gorgeous, surrounded by a lush jungle, and completely crazy! Hens with chickens, sleepy dogs, and entire families loaded up on a single scooter (including babies in slings), have equal road rights.
It’s a good thing that I wasn’t driving because all I could do for the first half hour was clench my eyes and scream on the inside. However, nobody here walks, and there are no sidewalks, so I soon became used to the scooter insanity and even started to have fun.
We began our cultural exploration with the Ubud Palace, part if which is still home to the former royal family.
Most houses in Bali have at least one temple in the yard, and the palace makes no exception. Just like with all the other temples on the island, you can’t enter Puri Saren Agung, if you’re not wearing a traditional sarong – a long, colorful piece of fabric, that is wrapped and tied around the waist. Again, just like everywhere else, the street vendors at the entrance will try to sell you a bunch of sarongs, even though you will be provided one in the temple.
Pura Taman Saraswati
The water temple in Ubud, which is a tourist favorite on Facebook and Instagram, was our next destination.
Even though the entrance is through a café, the tables end with a cobblestone path, in the middle of a lily pond. A short walk between the blooming lilies will lead you straight to the richly decorated temple doors. That spot where the water and stone sculptures meet, feels like you’ve stepped into a postcard.
The temple was built in honor of the Hindu goddess Saraswati, who is the symbol of wisdom and arts – two essential elements in Bali.
At the end of the day, the setting sun found us in Goa Gajah, also known as the Elephant Cave.
There have never been any elephants in Bali before they were brought here for the tourists, so that name of this ancient sanctuary remains a mystery. Moreover, it is a unique sight. Goa Gajah is a cave, carved into the rocks, with an entrance shaped like the mouth of a beast.
After the beast spits you out, the jungle around, with its ponds and brooks, will cradle you for a short walk, in an Indiana Jones landscape.
Even though it is Bali’s cultural hub, Ubud is also full of visitors and sticky tourist traps. Yet as soon as you step aside from the main strip, or wonder off into the rice fields, the surroundings become quaint and picturesque. Hours really do seem like minutes.
We decide to wake up with a waterfall, instead of coffee. The Tegenungan waterfall is located about half an hour away from Ubud (if we were to measure time in scooter speed) and is a 3-level cascade.
It is a good idea to enter from the Blahbatuh region, instead of the main entrance. This way you’ll avoid the tourist buses and you’d only have to pay one, instead of two fees.
At the top level, you can stand at the exact spot where the rocky riverbed gets cut off and turns into a vertical wall. Watch the water, as it transforms from a quiet river, to an angry, foaming mass. The local people come here to meditate and to leave rice, flower and incent offerings to the gods.
Even though the second level is most often used as a background for selfies, it’s worth it to spend a few minutes here and admire the force of nature.
The lowest level is the most fun, as you can swim right under the waterfall, as long as you can handle its mighty waters. I had such a great time, that I felt like one of those children who refuse to go out of the water until their lips turn blue and shivery.
Lunching Like the Locals
Hungry like the wolves, we parked our scooter by a roadside canteen, called warung, which is a typical Indonesian place to grab a bite.
In most warungs, two things are guaranteed – first of all, the food is mouth-watering. Secondly – no soap has been used to wash anything. The locals don’t have a problem eating there, and so far, we’ve been fine too, but snacking in a warung has its risks. On the upside, you get to eat real Indonesian dishes and build local immunity.
In the afternoon, we set off in the opposite direction, do discover Gunung Kawi – a temple and burial site, more than a thousand years old, in the heart of the jungle.
The entire complex was carved meters down into the rock, which makes for an impressive backdrop, especially in combination with the rainforest ferns and lianas.
Gunung Kawi is a special place. Here, you can feel the mystery of an ancient, animistic world, with every cell of your body. As if man and nature have met, to create a small, perfectly harmonious universe.
We spent hours here, wandering between ornamented walls and jungle paths until we were the only ones left in the sanctuary and had no choice but to leave.
Sacred Monkey Forest
We woke up early, to go to the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, before its inhabitants had become sluggish, under the burning Indonesian sun.
The Monkey Forest is a park, right outside of Ubud’s center, where Balinese macaques live in a few groups. The monkeys are free to do as they please and go wherever, so you’ll find many of them on the street and in the parking lot in front of the park.
I was dying to see our hairy cousins in a cage-free environment. At the same time, however, the stories from all sorts of blogs and vlogs had made me wary of the monkeys’ quick fingers and sharp teeth.
The previous day we met Nadine, who told us about the excitement that her maxi dress had caused with the monkeys. They hid food and stones in the pleats, played and tugged on it. I was tempted to draw them in like she did, but at the end, everything I had read, made me cautious.
Are the Monkeys Dangerous?
The macaques here have acquired a somewhat bad reputation but from what I saw, that’s because tourists tend to completely ignore all safety rules. Furthermore, even though a sign at the entrance says not to feed the monkeys, many banana stalls inside the forest lure visitors away from common sense.
If you have any food with you, or are carrying something fun and dangly, the macaques will immediately want it. If you don’t manage to store your possessions safely, and the monkeys get to them, trying to pull your staff away might lead to conflict.
As with all other animals, if you’d like to have a fun, rather than a risky interaction, make sure you are aware of the monkeys’ language, rather than expect them to understand human rules.
Our Experience with the Macaques
A short while after we entered the forest, one teenage monkey hopped onto Ivo’s back and started digging around the collar of his shirt. Then, two other scoundrels chased each other around his torso.
One monkey lounged, face down, in my lap, another climbed on me, and a third untied my shoelaces – thankfully, not all at once.
It’s fun to see the monkey families, but even more entertaining to sit in the shade and watch how people try to interact with them.
Apart from all the cuteness, I also experienced a moment of utter embarrassment. I had a bag of tissues in my hand and was carelessly playing with it, when a big wet macaque, attracted by the sound, leaped onto my leg. I screamed, shook the monkey off, and walked away with burning cheeks.
The entire experience was amazing – seeing these creatures enjoy life with no sad zoo bars, is heartwarming. My only concern was that the monkeys seemed to be afraid of the park employees. I must admit that I was too scared to investigate the reason.
Tegallalang Rice Terraces
We spent the afternoon amidst the Tegallalang fields, about an hour away from Ubud, by scooter. Whenever I’ve seen videos and pictures of rice terraces, I’ve always wondered why people think that they are so special. However, in person, they are simply intoxicating.
By a lucky coincidence, we ended up in Tegallalang at sunset, which has two main advantages. First, the bright green rice plants acquire a gorgeous fiery shade.
And second, many locals have built ramshackle stands all over the terraces, where they ask for “donations”, and try to keep you from continuing, if you refuse. However, by sundown they’ve tired and left, so you can enjoy Tegallalang undisturbed.
We woke up at 4:30, to go to the traditional morning market, with opening hours 3:00 AM – 7:00 AM. It is located in a town near Ubud, called Sukawati. The market in Ubud is dedicated to tourists – you’ll find keychains, and T-shirts with, “I heart Bali” splattered over the front. The morning market in Sukawati is a whole nother story. It is the territory of locals, and foreigners are a rare sight.
The streets of Bali, normally free of pedestrians, come to life before sunrise. Groups of children, women balancing baskets on their heads, streets vendors with homemade delights, and even joggers, accompanied our scooter.
Once we reached the market, we found a loud and vivid beehive. Elbow-by-elbow, people made their way through the crowd, scooters, and rugs covered in goods. Because there were no other foreigners at the market, the moment we parked our scooter, all eyes were on us. The people were friendly and seemed quite entertained by our attempts to bargain with the help of smiles, gestures, and a few Indonesian words.
At sunrise, everything vanishes, until the next morning. Despite the early morning, this was a great experience, because I always feel like the local’s market helps you learn so much about the community.
The ancient, traditional dance called Kecak, was our plan for the night.
Balinese dances are normally performed in Hindu temples, which is a distractingly beautiful backdrop, especially in candlelight.
Kecak is a tale, told in dance. It is a representation of a classic Hindu love story, between a prince and a princess, torn apart by an evil sorcerer. Other than the attractive costumes and delicate movements of the dancers, Kecak is also famous for its music. The only instruments are the voices of a hundred men, as the chanting of each blends with the others.
We were lucky to find a performance that combined Kecak and the Fire Dance. The audience sits in a circle and, in the middle, a large fire of coconut shells and palm leaves is lit. The Fire Dance recreates a tale, where a horse has been put in trance and tears through the flames, until rescued.
The performer, who embodies the horse, runs over the scorching charcoal, spreading it around and causing a bit of turmoil in the audience.
At the end, the dancer laid exhausted on the ground, the soles of his feet blackened, as the troop unsuccessfully invited us to test the fire ourselves.
Even though traditional Balinese dances are now performed primarily as a tourist attraction, the atmosphere is still enchanting. I could almost see how, just a few years ago, the artists traveled from temple to temple (because there are no squares here) and brought excitement to the sleepy villages.
ARMA Museum of Art
Ubud is the heart of Balinese art and culture, so we thought it was important to visit at least one gallery or museum. Although we had initially picked a different place, helpful TripAdvisor reviews pointed to ARMA (Agung Rai Museum of Art).
ARMA’s two main buildings display works by local and international painters, who have depicted the life, culture, and history of Bali.
I had never seen paintings like the Balinese! Everything is detailed and literal, it feels like looking at illustrations. Most of the pieces were comprehensive and vivid, even in the modern art gallery.
ARMA is not just a museum – the complex includes botanical gardens, brooks, and lakes. It’s a relaxing place, where you can spend hours soaking up natural and manmade beauty.
Chocolate for a Better World
We left ARMA to visit the largest bamboo building in the world, which houses the Big Tree Farms Factory, and is located about an hour away from Ubud. At the factory, they make organic, fair-trade products from coconuts and cacao. This place is so special that it deserves its own article, which is coming up soon.
Indonesian Bachelor Party
At the end of the day we headed for Ubud again, to say goodbye. On our way back to the hotel, we stumbled upon a special event – an Indonesian bachelor party. Neighbors and passersby had stopped to look in, so the entire street was blocked.
The wedding party, sat on the ground, encircled what seemed like a traditional erotic dancer. With her hand fan, she called them one by one, to dance with her. Some were shy and had to be forced out of their seats by the audience, while others were so enthusiastic, that the dancer would slap them on the wrists, with her fan.
At the end of the evening, we got our first flat tire, and so we left Ubud pushing our scooter.
We spent the next two days in the beach town of Amed, located an hour and a half away from Ubud, by car. We were there to meet a family that we will swap homes with, at the end of our adventure, in October.
Amed is a small and quite place, if we don’t count the traffic jams of buses and trucks, that you have to endure to get to the actual town.
While scuba divers may come here to find underwater paradise, we used our time in Amed to recuperate, get some work done with a jungle view, and learn the best Indonesian recipes (which I’ll share soon).
We’ll return to Bali in October but I’ll still miss the island, despite the crowds of tourists. The locals are cheerful and kind. Besides, nature and culture have created a perfect symbiosis, in contrast with our western world.
Bali’s appeal is undeniable, and yet it could not turn me away from everything else that Indonesia has to offer. And so we set off on our next adventure – the Gili Islands.
This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.