Ubud: I had imagined it as the land of prayer bowls ringing, smiling yogis wandering the quiet streets in peaceful dazes, delicious smells wafting from brightly-painted organic cafes: the eating and praying and loving conjured, and made so famous, by Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling novel which I read years ago and fell in love with. Everyone we spoke to before leaving for Indonesia told us to get to Ubud. But now we were there, and it didn’t resemble anything I thought it would. Mostly, it was loud and crowded and non-stop bustle. Where does a spiritual seeker find a moment of peace around here? And the answer was nowhere near central Ubud.
Firstly, Ubud is huge. It is a city- not a village. It is a tourist mecca, not just those select few looking for a bit of enlightening. I don’t think this is necessarily entirely because of Ms. Gilbert, but I have a feeling the soaring popularity has only been relatively recent in Ubud.
So the thing to do when in Ubud is to get out of Ubud: to the quiet paths meandering along between the rice paddies, the yoga studios set in amongst the farmland and the quieter roads only accessible on foot or by moped. It didn’t take us long to realize that this was the kind of vibe we were looking for.
Our homestay was nestled in an ornate stone compound with its own family temple off one of Ubud’s back streets, but only a five minute walk from the bustle.
It was quiet and had it’s own pool, air conditioner and breakfast (a banana pancake, coffee and fresh fruit) brought to your front patio every morning – all for $25 a night. It was lovely, and we would spend three nights here in Ubud.
On our first day in Ubud, we made it our goal to walk along all the main streets and then to try and find the rice paddy walk and an organic cafe with the best view in Ubud, apparently. Most of the streets of Ubud are lined with shops, and many of these are upscale boutiques rather than the market stalls hawking popular tourist items I had expected. There were also spas and upscale restaurants everywhere, and my first reaction was that this was not the Ubud I was expecting. Jewellery and clothing and instruments and carvings are everywhere, but no one is really pressuring you to come in and take a look because glass separates you and them and everything has a price tag. Where’s the fun in that?
So we walk along, traversing sidewalks that crumble into the road or just disappear, as cars and scooters whiz by us and the other tourists avoid eye contact with us. Time to find those rice fields. The Campuhan ridge track winds its way through terrifically picturesque rice paddies and homestays we wish we had had the foresight to organize a stay in.
After the constant go-go-go of the past 5 months on the road, we are both longing for some peace and quiet, and to just stay in one place for a while, but Ubud, as it turns out, will not be that place for us. We take lots of photos, find the Sari Organik cafe (with quite the view indeed), and check out the organic farm next door where they grow all the produce.
As we make our way back to the path, dark clouds loom in the distance and we decide we’re probably too far away to do anything about getting stuck in a rain storm, but it’s probably a good time to head back.
We had decided against bringing our fluorescent bike jackets for rain protection, so when the giant rain drops started to fall, we knew there wasn’t going to be much we could do. Other tourists had obviously been in Ubud longer and were well-prepared with both umbrellas and rain ponchos. Not us! We speed-walk back to town and at the first opportunity, purchased two plastic ponchos that closely resembled brightly coloured garbage bags. Christian decided he was too wet to enjoy himself anymore, and headed back to the homestay, but I had spotted a $10 massage place on our earlier walk and decided that it would be a pretty good place to find refuge from the rain.
The traditional Balinese massage is unique: you take all your clothes off except your underwear, lie face-down, get slathered in oil and then poked and prodded in a manner that make you feel like you are a big old slab of meat getting tenderized, and your masseuse is in a terrible rush and has plenty of other things to be getting on with. This lasts a full hour, but did include the best scalp massage of my life. And it was only $10, so I am not complaining.
Day two in Ubud, we decided that it was time to rent a scooter and head for the hills. If you can’t beat ’em, join ‘me right?
This was a very good idea. We got up early knowing this would be the best way to beat either the heat and/or the rains, had breakfast, packed a bag of essentials, and headed off! It was a full day of adventure, from seeing the iconic Tegalalang Rice paddies (you’ve probably seen pictures of them somewhere before), to the Pura Tirta Empul Hindi water temple, to Mout Batur and the Tegenungan waterfall, and we travelled a total of about 80km that day. If you are going to rent a scooter (for a whole $6/day), you’ve just got to go as far as your wheels will take you and see as much as humanly possible.
The Temalalang Rice Fields
Our first stop of the day, the sun was hot and the paddies were teeming: mostly with tourists and with rice. You can hike around the terraces and try not to get wet feet or slip into a paddy while you’re at it.
Pura Tirta Empul Water Temple
The Hindu water temple was another must-see stop in the area. Upon paying the entrance fee, we were donned in brightly coloured sarongs and joined the equally-colourful crowds to take pictures of beautiful temples, Hindu statues and the water temple itself. Balinese Hindus have been performing ritual purifications here since 962 AD. We found some respite from the heat here by dipping our toes in the cool springs and enjoying watching the bathers.
Or at least the viewpoint of it, was the furthest north we headed. We enjoyed some lovely views of this 1700m high active volcano, the lake below it, and the looming dark clouds above it.
The point of our adventure that was located the furthest south, we had arrived in the outskirts of Ubud with lots of time still to spare and decided to check out this other must-see site. It had turned into a hot day and we were both dying for a bit of a cool down. The waterfall was the perfect spot for this, particularly after the steep climb down into them. I cooled off under the very turbulent waters of the waterfall, and Christian hung out with some little boys in the fresh water pools nearby.
Zooming along on the scooter was an amazing way to see the countryside and we both got a chance to whiz along – although I let Christian drive any time we were in a busier area, and he was not fazed at all by it. Here’s a little video of the experience.
Warning to parents: Objects in video are much slower than they appear. (Most of this footage has been sped0up for the sake of brevity)
At one point, after I had just taken over control for driving the first time and was getting used to how fast I could go while remaining comfortable and in control, I hear a voice behind us saying, “Please pull over. I am police.” My heart starts racing and I immediately slow down and come to a stop. A man riding a scooter almost exactly like ours, dressed in a brown jumper with a black collared shirt and a badge that says “Police” on it (like, the kind you can buy at a dollar store if you are really desperate for a lame Halloween costume. It might as well have said ‘Sherrif”) pulls in in front of us. He wants to see my driver’s license and then my “International Drivers Permit.” I of course did not have one, and was going to be fined 200,000 rupiahs ($20). Luckily, I was prepared.
I had read online that police try to pull tourists over and demand exorbitant amounts of money from them for made-up infringements. I had wondered if this would happen to us and had planned for the worst. I knew from looking at this guy that he wasn’t a policeman though, and immediately wondered if the “police” the internet spoke of were actually all con men everyone else had fallen for but me. So I refused. I said we had heard about people like him and we were not going to fall for it. That we were not going to pay him any money and what he was saying about this international driver’s permit was simply not true. I was bold and powerful in my knowledge, but also slightly afraid that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off and my fear of authority -fraudulent or otherwise- would get the better of me.
“200,000 rupiahs you must pay.”
“No, we won’t.”
“OK, 100 000 rupiahs then.”
And that was it! He zooms off without another word! We are both flabbergasted that it was that easy, and we almost expect him to return any second with his posse to chase us down. So we whiz off too, take a couple of turns we don’t really need to, and eventually it sinks in: we beat the con man! We yip and jubilantly recount the whole story to each other, finding it more incredulous each time we tell it! “100,00 rupiah! He was bargaining our fine with us! Hahaha!” I just regret we didn’t get a chance to get any of it on film.
We head back to Ubud for dusk and return the scooter just before our time is up. Back on foot, finding dinner with the scooters still whizzing past us and the noises of the city everywhere, we realize we have seen as much as Ubud as we need to, and it’s time to move on to Nusa Lembongan, a much, much smaller island than Bali.
Musician, teacher, traveller. Currently on a year-long journey around the world. Bronwyn is one of the founders of onlyamazingdays.com.