The busy inland town of Ubud on Bali is a striking contrast from the more remote areas of Indonesia where we had been traveling for the past several weeks, and much of the change was welcome after being off the beaten trail for a while. There may be hordes of tourists and higher prices, but with this comes a cornucopia of delicious (and often healthy) foods which we were more than ready to sample. Throw in peaceful and comfortable accommodation, clean and solid (by Indonesian standards) sidewalks, and a pleasant absence of the smokiness that pervades the air on Sulawesi, Flores, and Lombok, and you’ve got a good place for us travelers to rest and recharge. I think we did well to make Ubud the wrap up, rather than introduction, to Indonesia – otherwise it might have been a bit harder to enjoy some of the more rugged areas we visited along the way.
Recharging is what we came to Ubud for. With our last week in our two-month Indonesia adventure we wanted an opportunity to catch up, relax, and make new plans. Bali has a lot to offer including great beaches and diving but is also crowded; we were content with our unique aquatic experiences elsewhere and so weren’t seeking the coast. Up in the hills and rice terraces, Ubud sounded like a good place to enjoy some local culture while remaining pretty comfortable. At first we were surprised by how crowded it was with travelers – I think this may be the highest ratio of foreigners to locals we have encountered since Siem Reap and Angkor. But quickly the charm (and tasty food) took over our experience.
We stayed in a roomy garden-filled guesthouse stylized after the numerous Hindu temples that are around every corner. This aesthetic is quite common in Bali, with Hindu motifs and statues on every wall and nook. After the primarily Muslim areas we had been elsewhere this was another big shift for us and I can’t say we especially missed the 4am calls to prayer from the local mosques! Our room was located near the main road in town but far enough back for it to be pleasantly quiet, which was great – we could easily walk to anything we needed while having a space to relax.
We arrived looking for meals that didn’t center around rice and we were not disappointed. Fresh greens, fruits, and breads abounded. We gorged on salads, juices, and sandwiches, cheap duck eggs for breakfast, and even some fantastic crepes with real French cheese! Not wanting to wholly abandon Indonesian cuisine we also made sure to try out one of the higher end places providing such, and it was excellent: local tuna crudo, oxtail stew, and braised lamb shoulder. We even tried some local Bali wine and it was passable!
One of Ubud’s charming features is its market. Sure, much of it is for tourists and a lot of the stuff for sale is junk, but compared to many other such markets we’ve been to this one is laid back and enjoyable. There is little shouting or pestering for your attention and the layout takes you through a multilevel building as well as an ornamented alleyway. Unique artwork and crafts balance out the standard tourist fare and we were also able to load up on fresh fruit for our stay.
One of the “must-see”s in Ubud is a local dance performance, of which they have a few different varieties put on by what seems like dozens of different venues. We selected the variant that focuses on elaborate costumes. It was entertaining and unique – the dancing focused on hand and eye movements more than I’ve seen otherwise (not that I’ve been to a great many dance performances), and lively accompanying music was played by an orchestra of traditional instruments.
Elaine was excited to partake in some yoga, another activity Ubud caters to. A pleasant wooden open-air studio was not far from our place and so she go several times during our stay. I also acquiesed to tagging along and joining in on a beginner’s class while Elaine was upstairs doing her advanced moves. If I was going to try yoga anywhere, Ubud would be the place, and it was pretty fun! I managed to not fall over, and found it to be a nice mix of unhurried and deliberate mental and physical activity kind of like a relaxed version of rock climbing.
We spent a day visiting a couple of the more famous temples on Bali: Pura Taman Ayun and Pura Ulun Danu Bratan. We were more excited about the latter, with the former only filling in for a different temple that we couldn’t visit due to renovation; but after visiting both we found we preferred Taman Ayun. It has manicured open grounds that lead to the main temple itself – a small walled complex – behind which is a small forested garden. The whole temple is surrounded by an attractive moat. Ulun Danu Bratan, on the other hand, sounds appealing with its lake and volcano surroundings but came across as rather commercialized and haphazard. The temple tour trip also included a stop and brief walk around the scenic Jatiluwih rice terraces which was worth going out of the way for.
Looking for a little more sightseeing, I rented a scooter on our last day and headed east while Elaine stayed in town for a spa visit. She’s not a huge fan of riding on the back of a motorbike and in this case she chose well: despite heading over to the guidebook-recommended Sideman Road, the views weren’t particularly good and I got soaked by a passing rainstorm. Fortunately the rain cleared as I found a more fun stretch of windy road to travel, and I passed a series of independence-day celebrations (it being the 72nd anniversary of Indonesia) on my way to Pura Tirta Empul temple. This is a really cool spot where crystal-clear spring water flows up from the ground and into a series of temple pools where it is customary to make an offering and douse yourself. It’s considered quite a special place by the Balinese and I can see why – it was totally worth throwing on a sarong (required) and wandering the grounds.
Our appetites satisfied, plans made, and batteries recharged, we made for Bali’s airport in Denpasar and our flight to Malaysia (bought a month ago in order to extend our visa). We booked a group shuttle with plenty of time to spare, and fortunately so: not only was the driver quite late, he then disappeared for half an hour at a stop midway through the drive, and then Denpasar’s international terminal was a complete disaster. We had flown through the domestic terminal several weeks ago on our way from Flores to Sulawesi and it was totally fine so we were unprepared for the confusion and huge lines this time. Our expectation of a relaxed travel day with a few hours to kill at the airport turned into missing lunch, running for our flight, and then starving on the way to Kuala Lumpur. After two months in this country we shouldn’t have been surprised. Farewell Indonesia, you amazing, frustrating, exhausting, and beautiful place!
Specifics: the airbnb we stayed at was Taman Mesari Homestay – certainly recommended, it has a great location but remains calm and quiet. For eating, we loved Bali Buda Cafe and their bakery/shop around the corner. Le Moulin has excellent crepes and Hujan Locale was great for semi-casual Indonesian dining.
For sightseeing in the area: As mentioned, Ulun Danu Bratan may be picturesque but lacks atmosphere so be prepared. Tirta Empul is also crowded but it didn’t seem to matter as much – it’s a really nice spot. The rice terraces at Jatiluwih are worth stopping at if it’s near your route – there were some groups biking the paths there which looked fun, but I’m not sure how far you can actually go. As for driving, I didn’t find Sideman Road to be all that great but I did find some fun roads in between the area south of Gunung Agung and the terraces north of Ubud. I think I would have actually preferred to rent a bicycle and ride north from Ubud up to Pura Tirta Empul.