Bali’s Cultural Epicenter – Ubud

10/19/2013

TL;DR for our Ubud Post:

  • Photos from Ubud
  • Favorite Moments: Daily massage, varied cuisine, amazing carvings, monkeys
  • Walked:
    in Ubud: 115,951 steps / ~58 miles
    in Total: 3,149,295 steps / ~1574 miles

After centering our first couple of Bali destinations around beaches and snorkeling, we were ready to head inland to enjoy rice paddy and temple views.  Ubud is often described as Bali’s cultural center and known for its famous arts and crafts and remarkable architecture.  We found it welcoming and peaceful despite its sometimes busy streets.

We were determined in Ubud to find a guesthouse or hotel with descent internet (a challenge for us in Bali thus far) so we spent our first day switching locations and even testing out the signal in specific rooms until we were satisfied.  Still even our new hotel turned out to have its internet ups and downs, but it was well located for us in a quieter location near Monkey Forest and still close enough to restaurants and attractions to walk to everything.

When we arrived we weren’t sure how long we would stay, maybe 4 days maybe more…but it turned out we loved Ubud so much we stayed a full week and even thought about returning there at the end of our time on Bali.

The Balinese People and Culture
This post seems like the right place to share our observations thus far about Balinese Culture since it is most known for it’s dance, drama and sculpture.

DSC02842

Bali is different… seriously!  The people here seem content, rarely frustrated and never angry.  As an example, while there is some honking among car/motorbike traffic, it is always done more as a greeting, like “Hey there, going to pass you on the right.” Even when we have been in the most out of the way place, any Balinese we meet (even those carrying heavy loads on their heads) will greet us with a smile and hello.

The religion on Bali is radically different than the rest of Indonesia, which is overwhelmingly Muslim; 85 percent of Balinese are Hindu, while that number for the nation as a whole stands at less than two percent! Hinduism came to Indonesia in the 5th century from India and while today Balinese Hinduism is similar to what is practiced in India there are some differences. We enjoyed seeing the ritual of offerings being placed everywhere from motorbike seats to temples several times a day.  These were generally made up of a woven grass/leaf base with flowers, rice or cracker and burning incense. I read that it is said if you ask a Balinese what heaven is like, they would say, just like Bali, without the worries of mundane life. They want to live, be cremated and reincarnate in Bali.

What to do in Ubud
When we weren’t catching up on internet-driven tasks we would wander out to eat and admire the amazing stone and wood carvings that Bali is famous for along the way.  One larger hotel actually employed about 300 carvers for 2 years as it was being designed and built.  There were also lots of arts and crafts shops with everything from silver jewelry, paintings and carved bone.

skull

Our favorite pieces of art were these intricately carved water buffalo skulls which we were oddly drawn to and found quite beautiful.

On most nights there are several cultural performances with dance and music that you can enjoy in outdoor theaters.  They often include chanting, fire and trance dance and are accompanied by bronze or bamboo xylophones and gong chimes.

DSC02864

We went to a performance at the water palace Puri Saren Agung, which was a spectacular setting. Performances also take place in the Royal Palace portion of Puri Saren Agung. While some royal descendants live in the palace to this day (parts are off limits), much of it is open to the public, quite beautiful, and worth a visit.

DSC02839

We also enjoyed visiting the famous Monkey Forest.  These monkeys are not aggressive, but incredibly curious and have a keen nose for food, particularly bananas brought in by tourists.  They will climb up you, dig into your pockets, sit on your head and unzip your backpack for a chance at another banana! Oh… and sometimes pee on you, which often results in blood curdling screams from the poor soul who gets doused. All-in-all seriously fun entertainment! Check out this video of swimming monkeys:

You can also hire a car for a half- or full-day to take you on a tour of the nearby rice terraces, temples and other attractions.  Having just come from hiking among rice terraces in Nepal, we didn’t go for this, but the surrounding rice terraces that we saw daily were truly magnificent.

DSC02798

Ubud is also known a bit as a spa town and it is easy to see why as you wander along the streets and often hear, “Yes, Massage?”  We quickly found a salon that we liked and I’ll admit we became quite regulars during our week stay. Our experience with Balinese massage has been that you can get an excellent $5 massage and a mediocre $12 massage, so once you find a place that you like, just keep going back.

Ubud also has a reputation among yoga enthusiasts and those on spiritual journeys and while we didn’t find this to be over the top, if this is the path that brings you to Ubud, you will find like company in your journey.

Where to eat
Ubud has attracted a fair number of expats, which we have learned in our travels means that the food scene is usually a step above in terms of cuisine options and quality.  This was certainly true here and when we weren’t being entertained by monkeys we enjoyed eating our way through the town.

alexmonkey

For something a little nicer than the average Warung we enjoyed:

The Melting Wok Warung owned by a French woman and her Lao husband (who does the cooking) has a small menu of super fresh and flavorful food.  We had to make a reservation here which is highly unusual during low season, but was well worth the effort.  Our only comment is that they should seriously raise the prices of their $5 entrees.

Taco Casa was a welcome change of pace from our Indonesian diet and has great standard Mexican fair. Being #4 on TripAdvisor out of 350 restaurants says something!

Warung Schnitzel was a delightful surprise.  We tried a pork schnitzel and local seafood curry and both were great. The schnitzel was a huge portion offered with 4 sauce options and the curry was the best we have had on our trip. The atmosphere is also lovely with plenty of space on three levels.  They dedicated a page of their menu to explaining what qualities make a good Schnitzel!

Nomad was a great place to people watch (get a street side table) along the main drag and we shared an amazing tapas platter full of Indonesian specialties which gave us a great variety and taste of local food.

We were also always amazed at the extensive menus that most restaurants had, offering dozens of dishes with all kinds of ingredients.  How they managed such large menus when they use so many fresh ingredients was a mystery, particularly in the off season when they might see only a few customers per day.

Where to stay
Ubud has accommodations to meet every budget and need.  We had heard that Bisma road was a bit quieter and initially planned to stay at Nick’s Hidden Cottages, but after a night of failed internet we moved on to the Inata Bisma Hotel.  Despite this, we’d still recommend Nick’s as it had beautiful large rooms with balconies and gorgeous grounds with a great pool, gardens and amazing carvings throughout.   We were pleased with our decision to stay on Bisma road, which was pretty peaceful, yet conveniently located and just a 10-20 minute walk to most attractions.

Would we go back?
Absolutely!  In fact, we both enjoyed Ubud so much that I think it is one of the few places on our trip where we could see ourselves staying for a longer period of time. With a motorbike you could really explore the broader area and navigate the many neighborhoods that Ubud has to offer and I could easily see getting into a pleasant routine here.

And, of course, MONKEYS!  They are hilarious. I’ll leave you with a couple of our favorite monkey photos.

monkeycomposite