I knew Bali from Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, ‘ eat pray love.’ Well I guess that doesn’t say much about my knowledge of Geography or my fascination for Hindu culture or maybe it just says a lot for the romantic in me. When we decided on Bali, I was thrilled. I had been longing to go there ever since I read the book and watched the movie.
Thankfully, Bali does not let one down. It’s the kind of place you promise yourself to go back to, whether you’re a romantic, a lover of adventure and all things ‘sea’ or you want an ‘off-the-beaten’ track holiday away from the daily hustle-bustle of city life.
Of the staggering number of 17000 odd islands that make up the Indonesian archipelago, Bali is a gem to which most travelers from Asia, Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand flock. Located in the Indian Ocean, to the Southeast of India, it is the Asian man’s ‘Hawaii.’
We reached Bali on the first of June which marks the end of the rainy season there. We happened to catch the last of the showers on June 2nd. If Bali was a book, it begins its story seeped in Hindu mythology, right from the cover page.
At the airport is the statue of a rather scary looking demon which makes one wonder why they would put it up just there. Therein lies the difference. Balinese people worship the Gods and give due respect to the demons so that they are not a source of trouble. As one steps out of the airport area, it feels like you are entering a temple because of the traditional architecture of the doorway. With statues of mythological characters from the Indian epics Ramayan and Mahabaratha throughout the city – at roundabouts, street corners, road sides, compound walls, homes, its hard to believe Bali exists in Muslim Indonesia. There can be no greater sign of a nation secular by heart, than this.
The traditions in Bali though retained since centuries feel far from cumbersome and are certainly not imposing. The people are warm and welcoming and though are fully clad in a sarong and a beautifully embroidered full-sleeved jacket, do not ogle at those on holiday in shorts and beach dresses. In fact, by selling such clothes in the shops, they cater to the needs of the tourists. If I had to describe Bali in one line it would be ‘ a package with the simplicity of Kerala, fun of Goa and style of Europe.’
With 6 days in Ubud, 2 days in Gilli Travangon, 3 days in Semniyak and a day that was spent in travelling between the places, we stayed a total of 12 days in Bali. If you’ve shot up your eyebrows, I totally understand. I’ve had the same reaction from all those I’ve told for not many stay longer than 5 days on the island unless they have a purpose – a 7-day scuba diving course or a 5-day yoga program or for healing. With no such specific goal, we were free to roam and take every bit of what was offered with relish and even go back for a second helping during our stay. A period beyond a week helps one appreciate the true spirit of a place which is more than seeing it from the eyes of a tourist.
An hour’s journey north from the airport and you reach the country town of Ubud. Finding our resort wasn’t easy. We were there and yet we weren’t, for we couldn’t see it and Google couldn’t tell us anything other than ‘Your destination is on the right.’
Hidden Villas, as the name stated was aptly named. Nestled between paddy fields, the villas weren’t visible from the road despite us being right in front of the alley leading to it. The 4 villas made of teak wood and bamboo roofs had all the comfort of a modern villa with the bonus of the countryside. At 1.5 km from the town, it provided us the benefits of a great walk to and fro. With a chant of ‘Om Namah Shivay’ playing in the background, we entered ‘Hidden villas, our home for the next 6 nights. 4 villas with a covered porch in the center that served as the reception desk and the dining area, Hidden Villas was a cozy place with no airs about it.
Being a stone’s throw away from the Ubud market, it allows us to enjoy the best of 2 worlds – the untouched, pristine countryside and the cheery marketplace.
There are a lot of options in Ubud for staying, that meet all budgets and styles. Most family run places (like the one where we stayed) provide only breakfast and do not have the kitchen open for any other meal. However, with so many restaurants around, this does not prove to be a hindrance. If you can’t walk it up to the market, taxis (without a meter) are easily available. The only thing is you need to ask the hotel where you’re staying, the approximate charges and then bargain with the taxi driver, if he quotes an exorbitant rate, which 99 to 1, he will. But all’s well that ends well because he will accept the price you state (based on what your hotel’s advised you. In the absence of metered taxis, the charge is higher than you’d otherwise have to pay for the distance but it’s part of the Ubud experience and it does not burn your pocket.)
Ubud – The country town
Ubud comprises a predominantly Hindu population and is the cultural heart of Bali. Intricately carved doors painted in red, gold or plain terracotta open to traditional homes. The narrow entrances only allow for a view of the family temple built immediately inside. Family temples are built magnanimously, occupying a large portion of the family property. Statues of Ganesha (the Hindu God with the head of the elephant) are found in front of the temple, overlooking the main gate along-with a number of other sculptures. Just walking there takes you back in time, to a period that you’ve only ever read about.
The town is filled with art studios, stores selling wooden and metal craft-works , furniture given the ‘distressed’ look, Bohemian styled clothing, cafés, gellato parlors, restaurants and spas. All this with friendly, soft-spoken, peace loving people make up for a laid back holiday experience.
Ubud has no nightclubs or discos here and yet the place is filled with tourists. Not just the ‘over-40s’ (if that’s what you’re thinking). But, if you’re the party animal, this is not the place for you. You’d have to go to Gilli island or Seminyak.
With round-the-clock supermarkets and doctors, most people conversant in English, restaurants taking orders until 9 p.m. and stores open until around 8.30 p.m., the small town is more tourist friendly than many others that I have had the opportunity to visit, across the globe.
And if you’re taking a stroll down the street, its impossible to miss the offerings in baskets made of palm fronds. The offerings consist of flowers, a sweet dish, a cigarette and are kept outside every home and shop along-with a burning incense stick giving the entire street a pleasing, holy fragrance. Its a ritual followed by all homes and shops in Ubud.
Things to do in Ubud
With loads of street sellers and shops selling Bohemian style clothing and bargaining being the norm, it’s a treat for the shopaholic. So, if you’re planning a vacation to Bali, please do not pack too many clothes. Because you’ll definitely want to buy some here and there’s no point in having to worry about luggage space or weight. So carry light and return full! Ubud helped me regain my knack for shopping and helped me hone the art of bargaining. With hubby away on a massage, the girls’ and I tried our hand at bargaining. At times the price we offered was so bad that the sellers refused to sell the item to us even if they were closing their shop for the day. By the end of the day though, we returned the wiser and managed to crack some really good deals; leaving the three of us with a smile and loads of bags. Just what women like 🙂
So the rule of the game is state a price that is quarter the price quoted. For instance Harem pants would be quoted at 200,000 Rupiah or even 350,000. You must say 50,000! You just must bargain here.
With loads of massage parlors at affordable prices, getting a foot and back massage after a day’s shopping or sight-seeing is not unthinkable. Go; climb mountains, explore, hike, shop and end the day with a massage at the market before you go to bed.
The girls’ and my husband gifted me with a Balinese massage, facial and hair spa on my birthday and honestly, it was the best thing in the world. Having a rather restless temperament, I couldn’t see myself spending 4 hours on my special day locked up even if it meant being pampered but as we had nothing planned for the morning that day and the bright sun made wandering around the streets impossible, in I went. The thought did cross my mind, that my family had got rid of me in the best possible way but one look at me after the pampering, I had no reason to complain. I came out shiny and new :).
If you’re the kind who loves trying out different cuisines, then this is the place to be. Have authentic Indonesian food- Nasi Goreng and Mia Goreng, followed by coconut ice-cream or the Balinese coconut cake. We enjoyed the sweet potato curry cooked in coconut milk and served with sticky rice.
There are fine dining restaurants and there are the small family restaurants with 3 or 4 tables. The food tastes the same and is delicious and hygienic. The difference in price is due to the ambiance. For instance the smaller restaurants would charge a 30,000 Rupiah for a Nasi Goreng while the bigger, nicer looking ones with candles lit would charge 80,000 Rupiah for the same dish. Vegetarians options are very few in number and egg is not considered non-vegetarian here. Its liberally put into every dish cooked and in some restaurants even shreds of chicken may find its’ way into a ‘vegetable soup.’ So, if you’re a strict vegetarian, its best you eat at restaurants that clearly say, ‘Vegan.’
Explore the town
The palace, once the official residence of the royal family is an open courtyard in which one can see the ornamented throne of the king. But that’s about it. Don’t expect to find the grandeur of the palaces in Europe or Rajasthan here.
Having seen enough monkeys in India and Sri Lanka and we did not go to the monkey forest and instead spent time walking down the narrow alleys of Ubud, appreciating artwork, gorging on coconut delights and ending the day with a Balinese foot massage.
Ubud days and Ubud nights
Mouthwatering food, charming streets to amble on, smiling Balinese faces, our days in Ubud passed by in a blur. Waking up to the tireless hum of the crickets and the cicadas, the constant twittering of the sparrows and to the sight of the white herons in the paddy fields around, grazing cows and dragon flies buzzing over white and pink blooms; and dozing to the clicking sound of the geckos, the croaking of frogs and our satiated Bali bellies, Ubud was a perfect holiday experience, a perfect escape from the monotonous daily grind.
For the places we visited around Ubud, stick around and check my next post. And let me know if you liked this post. Its always encouraging to read comments 🙂
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