In making plans for our 2+ weeks in Bali, I chose 4 very different locations and accommodations to try to give us a real sampling of the island. Our destinations included 2 interior locations: a boutique hotel in cultural-center Ubud and a homestay in rural Munduk for its waterfalls and rice terraces; and, 2 waterfront spots: a little beachfront hotel in backwater Lovina in the north for narrow black sand beaches, dolphins and scuba diving and a sprawling resort in gated-enclave Nusa Dua for wide white beaches and a little luxury.
I chose Ubud as our first destination because I wanted to start with the cultural heart of Bali. I also wanted to organize our trip so that we ended up in Nusa Dua, our closest stop to the airport. With traffic notoriously bad to Denpasar International Airport (DPS) especially during ongoing construction of an underpass intended to alleviate the problem, I wanted the shortest trip possible when it came time to leave Bali.
We arrived DPS from Singapore in the early afternoon and found a lovely airport and a horrendous line at customs despite the recently-enacted 30-day visa waiver. The line moved relatively quickly, though, and we were out the other side in about 25 minutes. (Note: There’s a shorter line for locals and those over 60 and those traveling with small children. Although shorter, it did not seem to move very quickly. There are also toilets just to the side of the line if you need to dart over there while someone holds your place in line.)
A driver from our boutique hotel in Ubud, Sri Ratih Cottages, was waiting for us when we landed at DPS. Although Ubud is only 38km (less than 24 miles), the drive takes about 1h30 due to traffic. (The main roads are actually in good shape; it’s just a matter of too many cars and motorcycles, especially near the airport where clubbing hotspots like Kuta add to the crush. Further into the central hills and mountains, the going is slowed by winding narrow roads.)
We found ourselves charmed by Ubud. Although brutally hot and humid, the town defines exotic. Every doorway seemed to open onto a gorgeous hidden courtyard replete with temples, tropical flowers, statuary and incense. The traditional dress of sarong (k), sash, 3/4 sleeve lace blouses for women and tied “udeng” head scarves for men are commonly worn.
Offerings are made throughout the day to the many Hindu gods and little banana leave trays with flowers, snacks and often with burning incense are left everywhere. You actually have to watch your step as they are left in doorways and in the middle of sidewalks. David twice stepped on incense sticks, one still burning, that lodged in his sandal. Ouch!
Our hotel offered free shuttles into town that dropped us off in front of “Ubud Palace.” (It was about a 15-minute walk.) The place is open free to the public and consists of several open courtyards with altars and raised roofed seating areas. Just across Jalan Raya Ubud (the main street) from the palace begins the byzantine Ubud Market, a combination of open-air stalls and a rabbit warren maze of covered stalls selling items of all kinds: sarongs, dresses and shirts, sandals, jewelry, spices, and other souvenirs.
Back on the main street, we wandered into the spectacularly beautiful Pura Taman Kemuda Saraswati, a large temple fronted by a massive lotus pond. Entrance is free to the garden and front area, but the temple itself is closed to the public. We enjoyed a delicious lunch at adjacent Café Lotus, sitting cross-legged under a thatched roof overlooking the lotuses. A tiny alligator made an appearance among the flowers as we ate.
Another day took us to the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, a 15 minute walk down Monkey Forest Road from the Ubud Market. We weren’t expecting too much, probably something uber-touristy and kitschy. Instead, we found a large and breathtakingly beautiful jungle park filled with exotic statuary, free-roaming macaques and a river gorge. An active temple sits among all this beauty.
If you go to Ubud, don’t miss Monkey Forest! Entrance is 50,000 rp/adult. Also, beware the monkeys. They’re little thieves. I watched one jump on a girl and wrest the water bottle she had tucked into a side pocket out. He ran off with it, bit holes in the bottom and drank. Not far from him, another monkey was drinking from another pilfered water bottle. Before we entered the forest, I took the precaution of removing my jewelry, too. I had no desire to have a monkey rip the earrings out of my ears. For the most part, though, they were busy doing monkey things and not all that interested in the people among them. Vendors sell bananas and sweet potatoes to feed them, but I didn’t want to start that kind of attention. Signs also warn against making eye contact as that is seen as a sign of aggression. We saw many mothers with babies, some clearly newborns. The interaction among the troupes was fascinating and delightful to watch. We laughed as one older monkey kept grabbing a little would-be runaway by the tail.
We were surprised to see a small monkey swimming underwater in a little pond. A larger monkey with him was very defensive whenever the little one was under water and was the most aggressive with a human that we saw. She tugged on the leg of a man who got to close trying to take a picture, snarled, and literally chased him away.
One morning, we got up early for a sunrise hike along Camphuan Ridge, a paved trail through picturesque rice terraces to end in an area dotted with homes, some for tourist rent, artist studios, a few cafes and a little spa. A temple called Pura Gunung Lebah at the beginning of the ridge trail had caught our interest for some time. It’s large and beautiful and had been the focus of local activity.
A highlight of our trip came when some of the staff at our hotel invited us to join them for a Hindu ceremony at this temple when the saw how intrigued we were by small parades filing past our hotel entrance carrying musical instruments and things similar to Chinese dragons to the temple. A waitress we’d made special friends with, Ugune, told us there was a 4-day celebration going on and we were welcome to come, but that traditional Balinese dress was required to attend a ceremony. Sometimes, sarongs or long skirts are required to visit active temples, but this was something more. We needed sarongs, sashes, long-sleeved shirts and a udeng head scarf for David. We bought the sarongs, improvised sashes from my scarves, used our own long-sleeve shirts (my long-sleeved t-shirt decidedly less beautiful than the lace blouses of the other women) and borrowed an udeng.
When the time came, we met the others in the hotel parking lot where our fleet of motorcycles and scooters assembled. Our new friends ferried us on the backs of two bikes and we were off.
Lovely in their finery, women in the group also brought baskets full of offerings. After parking the motorcycles, they carried the baskets on their heads as we walked the final way down a steep hill to Pura Gunung Lebah, the temple which sits on the Oos River near the start of the Camphuan Ridge Trail.
Before entering the main gate, Ugune dipped a bundle of straw-like leaves in a container of water then flicked it on each of our group for cleansing before we entered the gate into the first courtyard of the temple.
The temple was beautifully decorated for the ceremonies, which seemed to be on a rolling hourly basis. Long bamboo pole decorations called “penjor” dipped gracefully overhead and flowers and bright cloth adorned the platforms and idols. We proceeded into the next courtyard where we joined others waiting for the preceding ceremony to finish.
David and I were the only Westerners present, but everyone was very welcoming. We felt comfortable taking photos and videos as the Balinese were doing the same thing, snapping photos of family and friends dressed in their holiday best. It was a cheerful, happy crowd.
We could hear the voice of the priest leading the ceremony in the main courtyard and glimpse some of the worshippers through the main gate. Eventually, things seemed to be winding up then we saw people filing past a side gate, evidently having left the main courtyard by a side exit. People in our courtyard began to line up by the main gate and our group joined them.
A guard/usher opened the gate and we entered the spacious main courtyard Women with offering baskets headed to the right and around the main area to mount the raised front area to leave offerings on the altar. They filed from right to left, descending again to find a seat, kneeling or sitting cross-legged on the ground with the others. They kept some flowers in their baskets to take back with them to be used in the ceremony. Men, women and children sat together on the ground. Agune told us we were welcome to stay for the ceremony which would go on for an hour, but we decided to excuse ourselves thinking we’d be more than a little out-of-place. And not wanting to intrude or treat their religious ceremony like some sort of tourist entertainment. We found a spot in a side courtyard, though, where we could watch the ceremony.
The priest, who sat in a small structure behind and to the side of the worshippers rather than in the front, led the congregants over a loudspeaker in a series of prayers while chimes tinkled all the while. Each time they prayed, a bell would ring along with the chimes, then increase in volume to indicate the approaching end of the prayer. Worshippers would lift a flower between their pressed palms which were held as Christians would in prayer but raised so that the thumbs pressed against their foreheads. Then, they would place the flower before them and put a petal behind an ear (men) or tuck one in their hair (women).
Agune later explained the priest would tell them to which god they would pray next and that the petals were to indicate a sort of blessing. It was a beautiful ceremony!