For me our visit to Ubud we the absolute highlight of our trip to Bali. When you think of South Bali imagine rugged cliffs, sandy beaches and crashing ocean waves but as you head further north into Ubud you’ll see ancient forests, rivers, rice fields and feel a rather cooler climate. Ubud is known as Bali’s capital of culture with sacred temples, local handicrafts, art and nature; it’s less touristy and congested with traffic than South Bali. I do warn you that it is *still* very crowded and many western shops have taken over the shopping areas, you will still see Starbucks, Ralph Lauren and Pandora shops BUT Ubud is still the heart and soul of Bali and the centre of spirituality. Hinduism is the major religion in Bali and beliefs permeate most aspects of their culture and define the lives of the people.
So what are things to do in the town made famous by it’s appearance in the novel Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert?
1. Visit the beautiful rice fields
Ubud is home to many working rice fields and Tegallalang rice terrace is one of the most beautiful paddies to see. Located on the hillside, in beautiful wave like layers we enjoyed the gorgeous panoramic view and witnessed the farmers working on the field. The current method of irrigation is know as Subak and goes back at least a 1,000 years, as well as being practical, it has religious significance and rice is seen as a gift from the gods. It was so interesting to learn that rice is not only a staple food in Bali but an integral part of their culture.
3. See a traditional Balinese dance
Dances are an ancient part of Balinese tradition that are significant for both the religion and the culture of the country. The intricate gestures and hand movements of the dancers express stories told in ritualistic dance-dramas.
Mr S and I went to see one of Bali’s most significant dance-dramas, the Barong dance at the Batulan Village.
The play represents the struggle between the Barong who is a good spirit in the form of a mythological animal and the Ranga, an evil mythological monster. The costumes and the performers were incredible and it was interesting to witness such a dramatic part of Balinese culture. One word of warning though give yourself time to get there, the dance starts at 9.30 and we missed the beginning as we got stuck in traffic!
4. Pay a trip to Goa Gajah
The history of Goa Gajah or the ‘elephant cave’ is disputable but the Hindu holy temple is estimated to date back to the 11th century, built for prayer and meditation. The cave is built where the Petanu and Kali Pangkung rivers meet as the idea of mixing water is considered magical by the Balinese people. Though mostly Hindu there are other relics surrounding the cave that have significance in Buddhism.
From the outside the cave is pretty scary and the facade is covered with demons and animals and inside are three stones idols. The cave was narrow and dark and claustrophobia hit as I walked in so I headed back into the light pretty sharpish!
There are also large carved female figures in the courtyard outside the cave holding waterspouts to fill bathing pools.
Surrounding the religious site are beautiful rainforests and rivers connected by a network of stairs and bridges. I do warn you that if you have problems with mobility, there are a lot of stairs.
As with other holy sites, sarongs must be warn at Goa Gajah, but these are provided.
5. Go Ape at the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary
The Sacred Monkey forest was somewhere that I was really excited, though somewhat nervous, to see. Leaving our sunglasses and anything else that could be swiped in the car we headed gingerly into the forest.
The Monkey Forest is located in the village of Padangtegal and is home to three temples and around 600 long-tail Macaques monkeys. It’s actually very easy to get to as it’s just off the main street of Ubud on Monkey Forest Street. In the forest they sell bunches of bananas to feed the inhabitants….
And if you hold a banana above your head, the monkey will climb up your body and sit on your shoulder to eat it! There were monkeys everywhere you looked and I was a little nervous that they’d scratch me, or even worse our cameras! But they were actually pretty cute and friendly, and only a little cheeky!
The monkey forest is really fun but it also has serious cultural significance; monkeys represent both positive and negative forces and are animals to be both loved and feared. However, the moneys in the forest are seen as a force for good as they guard the temples from evil spirits.
6.Check out a water temple
Balinese Hinduism is also known as the holy water religion and water is used in every single ceremony and ritual. For this reason Tirta Empul, a 1000-year-old temple that encompasses a holy spring, is one of the most important temples in Bali. The Balinese come on pilgrimages to bathe in the water and tourists can too, though Mr S and I were just spectators on this occasion!
The waters at the temple are believed to have magic healing powers and to purify those that bathe in them. As well as the water springs there other beautiful statues, temples and relics to admire around the courtyard.
7. Taste Coffee at a Local Plantation
I’m am a big worshipper of the coffee bean and I was excited to visit a real working coffee plantation in Bali.
Entering the plantation was like going into the forest and we were shown coffee plants as well as the crops of other herbs and spices such as cinnamon and lemon grass. Once the beans are harvested they look like this:
Before they are roasted and brewed into incredible coffee with different flavours. Bali is also famous for the producer of Luwak coffee or Kupi Luwak; one of the world’s most expensive coffees. You’ve probably heard of this before; civets (small creatures that are distantly related to cats) will eat only the very best coffee beans off the bushes. The beans pass through the civet and the digestive juices effect the beans…the poo of the civet is than collected and cleaned and the beans are roasted and brewed producing superior coffee. Ok, it sounds pretty disgusting but also quite intriguing.
We were given a selection of coffees and teas to try for free, which I must say were delicious, some had added sugar while other were served straight. Each flavour had a different property and many had healing benefits; for example ginger tea aids digestion, ginseng strengthens the memory and lemongrass helps with detoxification. Actually the lemongrass was my favourite, its kind of a super tea as it also helps lower the blood pressure, prevents cancer and reduces acne. We had to pay to try the Luwak Coffee, which we did in order to satisfy our curiosity.
Personally, I found it too strong and left Mr S to finish the cup. I really enjoyed visiting the coffee plantation and trying the different flavours but the Luwak coffee is slightly gimmicky and not really necessary to try.
8. Visit a volcano
Active volcano, Mount Batur, is located in the Kintamani Village, about an hour’s drive from Ubud. From Kintamani there is an incredible panoramic view of Mount Batur and Batur Lake.
Mount Batur is the most active volcano on Bali, it is 1,717 metres high and rises from inside a caldera or cauldron. The volcano has erupted twenty-six times since 1804, the last time being the year 2000. The biggest eruption in 1926 caused the surrounding village to be covered in lava.
Adjacent to the volcano is Lake Batur, the largest lake in Bali; the two natural wonders positioned together make a stunning vista and both are sacred sites to the Balinese people.
9. Shop local handicrafts
Ubud is the centre of the arts and is the best place in Bali for buying local handicrafts and art work. As you drive through town you’ll see different villages with shops, artist’s studio and galleries dedicated to creating art from different materials using skills passed down throughout the generations. For example Mas Village is dedicated to wood and stone carving, Celuk Village for traditional gold and silver art and Batuan village for traditional Balinese paintings. Along the main streets such as Jalan Raya Ubud and Monkey Forest Road there is a mixture of shops selling paintings, carvings and textiles to take home with you.
We didn’t get a chance to visit but Ubud also houses a traditional art market which is centred among the artisan villages. It’s quite a wonderful opportunity to see so many stunning local, hand-made products but do be aware that’s there are still plenty of tourist traps selling cheap sarongs, comedy wood carving and tacky souvenirs.
10. Eat Everything
Ubud has a reputation for having some of the best restaurants in Bali both in terms of high-end dining and local Indonesian food. The fine-dining destination of choice is definitely Mozaic, one of the best restaurants in Bali. We also loved Cascades at The Viceroy both for local food and for fine dining.
As we only had three nights in Ubud we didn’t get to try many restaurants but here’s a great list of places to try by Lady Iron Chef and one by Bali Bible, including some of the local warungs. Once again it’s easy to fall into to tourist traps when dining in Ubud so I would suggest getting some recommendations from your hotel and from locals. Another option to immerse yourself in Balinese culture is to try a cookery class which usually involves a trip to the local market too. Once again, it wasn’t something that we had time to do but the wonderful Shikha from the blog Why Waste Annual Leave recommends the Payuk Bali Cookery School. Mozaic also offer cookery classes, the Casa Luna Cooking School is highly regarded and many of the local hotels also offer cookery lessons.
The places I’ve listed will give a great start to a trip to Ubud but they are all still on the main tourist trail. If you have extended time there discover the local culture, explore the countryside, visit traditional villages, climb a mountain….just get lost in the beauty of the place….