I started my trip in Ubud, a town that skyrocketed in popularity after the publication of Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling book “Eat, Pray, Love”. I immediately checked into my accommodation, a Balinese style bungalow with a thatched roof, partially outdoor bathroom, and an elaborately carved wooden door. I care less than most travelers about my accommodation–I only want a clean and inexpensive place to sleep; nevertheless, I was charmed by this bungalow and other guesthouses in Bali. While megahotels and resorts have invaded Bali, small and family-run options are still plentiful.
As I unpacked my bag, I chatted with Made, who was repairing a facet in the bathroom and offered to take me on a tour on the back of his scooter. I hesitated to accept the offer, because I had just arrived in Ubud after a 30 hour journey. I really wanted to rest and have a walk around town. On the other hand, some of my best travel experiences have been random, unplanned excursions. I accepted Made’s offer and was soon speeding through rice fields and small villages as we made our way to Tampaksiring.
Our first destination was Gunung Kawi, an 11th-century complex of monuments and temples along the Pakerisan River. I donned a sarong and I descended a stone stairway of more than 270 steps to the bottom of the lush green river valley. Groups of elegantly dressed people were walking to the temple, carrying offerings of fruit and flowers in baskets. Above the river, ten candi (shrines) are cut out of the surrounding rock cliffs. The view is awe-inspiring, making it my favorite temple in Bali.
Made then drove us to nearby Tirta Empul, a nearby Hindu holy springs that pours out through waterspouts into a pool. The Balinese come to Tirta Empul to bathe and purify themselves spiritually. The pool was packed because it was Galungan, a Balinese Hindu holiday where the spirits of deceased ancestors visit the earth. Made washed himself in the holy water while I took photos and observed the Hindu ritual.
Our final destination was Bali Pulina, a coffee plantation where I tried kopi luwak. Kopi luwak is considered to be a superior coffee brewed with the finest beans. Civets, distant relatives of cats, eat the best beans off coffee bushes. The partially digested coffee beans are then retrieved from the turds and roasted to produce kopi luwak. The sad reality is that civets are caged and force-fed coffee beans. My cup of kopi luwak tasted the same as traditional Bali coffee with a hint of fruitiness.
As we sipped our coffee, I got to know Made and a little about Balinese culture. Made is the second child of his family. In Bali, children are given one of four names depending on the order in which they are born: the first child is named Wayan; the second child is named Made; the third child is named Nyoman; and the fourth child is named Ketut. If a family has more than four children, then the names repeat. Made showed me his teeth, which were filed down by a Brahmin priest when he was a teenager. The filing down of the carnivorous canines and incisors is a rite of passage in Bali. Made was amused by my shocked expression when he told me that he had kidnapped a bride and was married. He explained that his wife had agreed to the abduction beforehand, because the practice is still part of the marriage ritual in Indonesia.
On our drive back to Ubud, traffic screeched to a halt and I observed my first procession. Women dressed in white lace blouses and dark floral sarongs were carrying pyramids of fruit on their heads. Men dressed in white shirts, dark sarongs, and udengs (head-dresses) we’re carrying umbrellas and playing drums. Three Barongs (mythical lion-dog creatures) were also marching. Temple processions occur daily across Bali and became a common site during my trip.
I began the next morning with a five mile walk along Campuhan Ridge. The ridge is between the Wos River and Cerik River, offering amazing views of the river valleys on both sides of the trail. After the walk I explored Ubud, which is considered to be the arts and cultural center of Bali. Ubud is home to galleries selling goods from the region’s artisans, along with hip restaurants and cafes. In observance of the Galungan holiday, the streets were decorated with Penjor, tall tapered poles made from bamboo. I like the laid-back vibe of Ubud. Many visitors don’t want to leave Ubud, and it has become home to a large expat community.
In the late afternoon I visited the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary. Officially called Mandala Suci Wenara Wana, the sanctuary is home to over 600 Balinese macaques. The monkeys look innocent, but will steal food, cameras, and anything else they can get their hands on. I steered clear of the monkeys while following the trails through the dense forest. The sanctuary is scenic, with three holy temples, a deep ravine, and a rocky stream. The sanctuary is worth the time and 50,000 IDR (3.35 USD) entrance fee.
I concluded my day in Bali’s cultural capital by attending a Kecak dance performance. For an hour, a circle of men wearing checked loin-cloths moved their hands and arms while chanting “chak”. A couple of women and monkey-like creature danced inside the circle. The performance was interesting at first but tested my attention span. I departed Ubud the next morning with plans to return in a week to further explore the town.