Ubud is often referred to as the cultural heart of Bali. Located in the central foothills of the Gianyar regency, the district is also home to terraced rice paddies and Hindu temples and shrines in addition to traditional crafts and dance. Many travel operators run coaches and group tours to Ubud but I prefer the private option with my own guide and vehicle. Family Bali Tours is a small independent operator who focuses on customer-friendly arrangements at affordable prices.
With their expert advice, I was able to map out my own itinerary, complete with places I wanted to visit and things I wanted to do for IDR700,000 excluding entrance fees and personal expenses. There were no tourists shops and duty-free showrooms. Gede Bob was my personal guide, translator and driver, and he arrived with a comfy and air-conditioned 6-seater (that is essential to survive the Bali humidity and heat). Together with Gede Bob, we undertook our own private exploration of Ubud in a day.
Our first stop was a close encounter of the Balinese kind. We paid a visit to a local home on route to Batuan. Since I have never been invited to any local's home, this was an opportunity to witness an important aspect of the Balinese everyday lifestyle.
Located on a long plot of land, the home was sectioned by a family temple, social area and living quarters. The individual houses were rustic, busy with the traffic of free range chickens and surrounded by coconut trees, fruit trees, herbs and flowers. Meals were prepared in rudimentary kitchens with firewood.
Despite the simple design of the homes, the entry gates, low walls and temples were adorned with intricate sculptures and cravings. This is evidence of the artistic nature of Balinese people, display of family wealth and respect for the gods.
Everyday life was dictated to some extent by a lunar calendar that helped determined the best days for important personal and family events and occasions similar to the Chinese almanac. There was no air-conditioning in sight.
Our second stop was this village temple located in Batuan. The village is well known in Bali for paintings and is a major painting centre with many art galleries and cooperative art societies. It is no wonder the Batuan Temple's classical architecture and ornate carvings reflect the artistic flair of the villagers.
This ancient temple actually dates back to the 11th century with an inscription that states the date of founding of Batuan in 1022 AD. I was amazed by the quality of craftsmanship that went into craving and building the heavy stone gateways, statues and the various depictions on the temple roofs. Gede Bob also explained the handmade daily offerings used in the temples and homes.
Most of its current design as reflected in the entry gates, decorations and icons are the result of restoration in the 1990s. A commonly replaced feature of the temples are the hatted roofs made from the fibres of the chromatic black palm tree. An entrance fee of IDR10,000 per person and sarong was required to enter the Temple.
With the slight rumbling in our stomachs, we decided on an early lunch of Babi Guling or Roast Suckling Pig. One of the popular local stops for this dish in Ubud is Warung Babi Guling Ibu Oka. In addition to Gede Bob's thumbs up, this venue also came highly recommended by a staff of the UNIQUE Rooftop Bar & Restaurant at Rimba Jimbaran Bali by AYANA.
The venue was not easy to locate but the large sculptures of pigs at the lane way entrance directed us to the restaurant. The interior was airy, spacious and clean with plenty of seating to choose from. The menu offered a small selection of meals and beverages.
We ordered the set meals with rice, vegetables, pork meat, sausage and skin (IDR55,000) with the additional side orders of roasted skin (IDR60,000) and fried meat (IDR45,000). I enjoyed the pulled pork soaked in roasting juices and Balinese herbs and spices and topped with cut green chillies.
Drove past a row of shops stacked with durians. We decided to investigate and found out that the fruits were collected from nearby homes and villages. Commonly known as Kampung Durians, they were of varying shapes, sizes and colours. We weren't experts at selecting the best specimen and neither was the seller based on the conversation.
So we agreed on a price and threw the dice on the gambling table hoping for a tasty win. The result was pale coloured flesh with large seeds and light durian flavour. We relented on this dessert after the first fruit and proceeded to our next stop.
Our next stop was the Tirta Empul Temple located in the village of Manukaya in central Bali. It owes its name to the holy water spring, a water source located within the temple that feeds various purification baths, pools and even fish ponds surrounding the outer perimeter.
This Vishnu temple was also ancient, dating back to 926 A.D. I passed landscape gardens and statues before stepping through the temple gate and into walled courtyard. Several bathing pools with water spouts along a wall were busy with queues of tourists awaiting a cleansing and purification ritual under the cold spring water.
The many legends behind the water and the water features makes this venue one of the largest and busiest water temples in Indonesia. Gede Bob related the legend of good versus evil and how the pure spring water of Tirta Empul counteracted a poisonous source. An entrance fee of IDR10,000 per person and sarong was required to enter the Temple.
We headed towards the Tegallalang district in search of the postcard fields of rice paddy. The winding road heading into the area was solely entry by toll of IDR10,000 per person. It was flanked by souvenir shops on the right and cafes looking down onto the terraced slopes on the left. Roadside parking was a challenge due to the large volume of visitors.
The weather turned wet and grey on us when we arrived. We took refuged in the Teras Padi Cafe, an elongated venue built into the hill slope with views of the rice terraces below and beyond. The space was clean and offered an extensive menu of international and local fare. It was an ideal spot for lunch while enjoying the verdant scenery of terraced rice fields.
We ordered Indonesian favourites like Dadar, Pisang Goreng, iced cinnamon tea, Balinese coffee and waited out the stormy weather. The scenery before us turn grey-green with the pitter patter of rain. Finally, a few shafts of sunlight peeked out from behind swollen clouds and we ventured out to the terraces.
This area is well known for views of rice paddies involving the subak, a traditional local cooperative irrigation technique. It had grown in popularity since it first appeared in Bali postcards. The vista before us was like a layered Kueh (local cake) of greens and browns, divided into sections by coconut trees and tropical vegetation. The view looking down the hill slope was steeped with elongated pools upon pools of wet rice, framed by thick green bunds that reflected the fingers of sunlight.
Today, the Tegallalang Rice Terraces are a major Ubud attraction with large crowds of tourists. It has evolved into a collective of farm attractions with local posing for photos in exchange for a modest tip (IDR5,000 to IDR10,000). They also welcome visitors to take a walk around their padi terraces for a small fee (IDR10,000).
On the walk back to the vehicle, there were stalls upon stalls selling a wide variety of handicrafts including Batik sarongs, glass art, paintings and stone sculptures. The most prolific were wooden carvings of animals and traditional masks.
There was a proliferation of Kopi Luwak signboards offering tastings and sale of the coffee beans around Ubud. This type of coffee is made from coffee cherries removed from the faeces of the Indonesian palm civet. Though commonly referred to as civet cats, they are actually more closely related to mongooses than cats with their small, lithe bodies and pointed muzzles. We decided to make a stop at Lumbung Sari House of Coffee to find out what the fuss about the world's most expensive coffee beans was all about.
We were ushered to an area with a live civet enclosure and demonstration of the roasting. The staff explained that the faeces were collected daily by hand, left by civets roaming the company's extensive rainforest in Bali, unlike those retrieved from the animals housed in battery cage systems. The faeces are then dried, the coffee cherries removed, cleaned and processed to remove the hard exteriors. The beans are then slow roasted by hand, through a continuous stirring motion.
We were invited to a complimentary taste test of the company's range of flavoured coffees and tea blends with an additional IDR50,000 for a cup of Kopi Luwak or cat poop coffee. Retail prices can reach as USD80 a cup in the US and Europe. 100 grams of grounded Kopi Luwak or roasted beans retailed at IDR250,000 on the premise.
A whiff, sip and mouth swirl of the Kopi Luwak revealed berry notes followed by a pronounced flavour of light roasted coffee. It was smooth and easy to drink. The sampling of 14 different coffee and tea blends were interesting on the palate. While it may not go the way of the Tasmanian Devil, the demand for Kopi Luwak may pose a threat to wild palm civet populations.
On route from Ubud to Denpasar, we made at stop at this local department store. The venue was clean, air-conditioned and extensive like a warehouse. They also accepted international credit cards. It was popular with Indonesian visitors and student groups due to its low prices, compared to tourist outlets. Key chains were less than IDR5,000 each, a packet of chips went for IDR10,000, a pair of slippers at IDR15,000, large bottles of shower gels were from IDR20,000 and sarongs cost less than IDR80,000.
On the drive back to the hotel, Gede Bob made dinner reservations and ordered up a private Balinese balé at this restaurant. The rustic setting, robust flavours and affordable prices made the venue very popular with visitors. We had our own thatched roof hut with views of the surrounding pond.
We ordered a variety of signature dishes including the prawns on skewers, carpfish with rempah, grilled chicken, stir fried pumpkin leaves, seafood soup in a whole coconut and accompanied by steamed rice. The meal was washed down with fresh coconut water. While waiting for dinner to be served, we enjoyed dipping our toes in the water and feeding the fishes.
As we headed back towards the bright lights of the hotel, I was surprised at the rich montage of Ubud we'd experienced in eight hours. The wonderful day regrettably came to an end but there's always more to see and do. We'll just have to find time for another visit.