During my yoga retreat at Blooming Lotus, I had time to explore Ubud city center and the surrounding area.
Initially, I thought I’d end up staying in Ubud for much longer than I actually did. I thought, of all the places I could venture in Bali, I’d like it the best.
After the relaxing, laid back beaches of Sanur, though, and the quiet luxury of the retreat space, Ubud was frenetic. I was a little disappointed; all the reviews and blogs I’d read had talked about Ubud being this organic food, vegetarian/vegan, temple-filled spiritual mecca. I think the whole Eat, Pray, Love thing has pervaded everyone’s mindset a bit too much, though. The city itself is nowhere near as calming and spiritual as it is set up to be. If you wander just out of it, though…well, read on!
Ubud and the vicinity is certainly the most dynamic place I went in Bali. Do you want to just laze by the pool? Walk through a bustling city? Visit some temples? Jump down a waterfall? Bathe in holy waters? Eat lunch in a rice field? The options are endless if you hire a driver or feel brave enough to rent a moped. (Because of my experiences in Croatia, I did not do so.)
One afternoon between yoga classes, I set out to find Sari Organik. I’d read amazing reviews on TripAdvisor, and was curious about the fact that it said it was in the middle of the rice fields. From what I’d seen of Ubud, it seemed near impossible to think that rice fields could be within walking distance.
I was dropped off not far from the monkey forest, so ended up walking about five miles to Sari and back- in the heat of midday. I didn’t really realize how long of a walk it’d be- not because the rice fields are too far from town, but because they are closer to the northern part of the city, by the Ubud Palace, which I stopped to see before going to the fields.
Ubud Palace was, honestly, the least impressive temple I went to on my trip- as you’ll see below, I went to a few amazing ones- but it is right in the city, so it makes it very accessible.
Right behind the palace, as promised, were the Kajeng rice fields. It is weird to think of a rice field just a block away from a major city street. But it is.
I walked all through the Kajeng fields, partly because I was so spellbound by how beautiful they were, and partly because I was determined to find Sari Organik, which I’d read had an amazing view of the rice fields, and good food to boot.
I got a bit lost. The rice fields are actually huge- Ubud is, I think, pretty much surrounded by them. I ended up walking about three miles, taking the longest possible route to the restaurant possible. Even though it was peak afternoon heat, I’m not at all sorry. I honestly fell in love with the rice fields during this walk.
Finally, starving and sweaty, I arrived at Sari. It literally is in the middle of the fields; a thin concrete sidewalk has been cut through miles of field, and on the day I was out exploring, the path (road?) was full of tourists on foot, as well as on mopeds (!), making the thin thoroughfare very, very busy. It is also not particularly well kept, so my feet were pretty sore from uneven bits and potholes. (Wear sneakers on this walk!) Didn’t matter, I loved the view so much, but it made me especially excited to sit down and have some food.
Not a bad view for lunchtime.
I had the most refreshing drink I’ve probably ever had in my life- lemonade with blended mint swirled in. It cut right through my heat exhaustion and brought me back to life.
For lunch, I had papaya salad with peanut sauce, and spring rolls. Thick, peanuty goodness on fresh veggies, with sweet papaya hidden among the leaves, and crispy, warm spring rolls filled with crunchy veggies. Mmmm!
Everything there is fresh, local, organic and in season, and I could really taste the difference. It was amazing, fresh and fragrant. Everyone else at the retreat was so impressed by my pictures and rave reviews they ended up paying Sari a visit the following days. It is definitely worth the walk, not least because the walk is half the attraction!
The next day, instead of going into central Ubud, a big group of us got together to visit Tegenungan Waterfall. I’m not hugely a fan of waterfalls. I wouldn’t find myself going out of my way to see any, unless possibly in rural Iceland, but since the group wanted to go, I agreed.
On the way, we stopped off at Pura Puseh Batuan, a beautiful Hindu temple just outside Ubud center.
The temples in Bali really are something else. I’ve been around southeast Asia- Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam- and everywhere I’ve been heretofore, the temples have been much more colorful and bright. The temples in Bali were more somber, in a way, but just as intricate in their craftmanship. The materials are very different; stone and brick, often, to the marble and gold of other temples I’ve seen elsewhere.
The differences may be accounted for in the difference of religion. Although many of the Balinese temples I went to had Buddhas around, the religion is a type of Hindu. (Most of the people I met in Bali were quick to tell me theirs isn’t the Hindu that Westerners are familiar with; their Hinduism has accommodated the Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism, Islam and other religions of groups that have interacted with the Balinese for a long time.)
Although when people asked me why I went to Bali (especially alone), I’d joke that it was to burn my skin off, the real reason was to see temples. I missed them, from my trips to other places in Asia. At first, I was a bit taken aback by how different the Balinese temples were, but they quickly grew on me. The temples are like the austere Protestant churches, when compared to Catholic cathedrals. I like how essentialist the temples are; its ostentation without the flashiness.
After the temple, especially since we all had to wear sarongs in the heat of the day, we were ready for a dip in the water.
The current at the base of the waterfall was intense. There was a nice wading pool nearby though, and most of the river was shallow enough to walk through, too.
Never the one to be put off by a little current, I jumped right in.
One of my shorter morning breaks was spent sampling Balinese coffee, or “kopi,” and other delicacies, including luwak coffee.
There was a coop near the retreat that produces it, so I meandered up the rough roads one sleepy morning after yoga and meditation to see what it was all about.
Luwak seem kind of like raccoons, if you’re familiar with them. (They are a nocturnal animal common in North America; growing up, they’d go through our trash.) In Bali, though, luwak were likened to cats when explained to tourists. Whatever these animals are “kind of like,” they are nocturnal felines that eat coffee beans. They then, obviously, expel them, as all animals do waste products. Instead of letting the feces biodegrade, through, it is collected, cleaned, roasted, ground and served as coffee. It is a delicacy.
When I first heard about this, I had two immediate thoughts: 1) just no and 2) how cruel that poor animals are forced to engage in this process! But curiosity drove me to find out more.
The morning I went to the coop, it was so early on in the day that no one was else was there, so I had the place to myself. I sat down with a local who worked there, Jero. He told me all about his life. He lived up closer to Mt Batur volcano, with his wife and two kids. His wife stayed up in their village, but there is little work, so he came down to the coop to earn a booming $5/day collecting the digested coffee beans- this place, unlike most, lets the luwak roam free. Jero and others at the coop wake up super early every morning to find the luwak droppings. That’s what you see here:
The luwak apparently digest the droppings in a special way, removing the outer shell of the coffee bean to expose just the part that needs to be ground and roasted.
While I was really interested in this process, I was more interested in Jero, and his life. He’s never left Bali. The coop is as far as he’s traveled. He works 7 days a week for the most part, and visits his wife and kids every few weeks. His wife can sometimes work, for $3 a day. He was so excited to tell me about his wife’s current job; he noted that they can save the extra $3 a day because their kids are getting older, and may need the money for further education. His life really opened my eyes to what life in Bali might be like for the people who live here all the time. Think you can ever afford a holiday on $5, or even $8, a day? What was more eye opening is that even the coffee I was casually drinking, because its the equivalent of $2 a cup, is a very, very rare treat for most Balinese.
Jero was wonderful, though. Since I was a lone traveler he sat with me throughout my tasting, and we chatted while he told me about the coffees and teas I was trying.
There was much more than the luwak coffee to try– although, of course that was the main event. For instance, I tried durian coffee. If you’ve ever traveled in southeast Asia, you’ll know durian by its pungent smell. You can’t even take it in to hotels because its been known to set off alarms- and permeate rooms!
Did I mention the view from the coop was amazing, too? A view across the fields straight to Mt Batur.
After the retreat ended, I hired a driver to take me to all the places in Ubud I wanted to see. Hiring a driver in Bali is super reasonable- I paid Ketut just $20 for six hours- and he, of course, not only knew all the shortcuts to get me to where I wanted to go, but history and odd bits of information about the local area that no tour guide would probably even think to offer up.
The first stop was the Tegalalang rice paddies, picturesque rice fields that are terraced up a network of hills.
This was one of the highlights of the trip. Although I was there in the middle of the afternoon- it was SO hot- that meant there were few other tourists, so I had the place relatively to myself.
There were quite a few locals working in the fields. There were also a few that had set up shacks along the paths and demanded that tourists pay to keep walking along. I gave a few coins to one guy, but he wouldn’t let me pass without giving him a bill. Note, he was asking for less than $1, so I didn’t argue– especially as, on the way there, I’d seen some pretty impoverished towns. Still, you have to pay just to enter the town of Tegalalang, so I felt slightly put off. But, I’d just come from a relaxing four day yoga retreat and I was look out at one of the most beautiful sights I’ve seen in my life, so the moment passed and I just tried to drink it all in.
Next, we went to Tirta Empul, an ancient water temple. If you bathe in the waters of the temple, legend has it you’ll enjoy the looks of your youth forever. Since I was drenched in sweat, I decided not to get in the water and sully it. Instead, I walked around, and took pictures of other people trying to stay forever young.
If you look closely enough, you’ll see the water coming from the natural spring at the bottom left hand corner of this picture. It is pretty amazing. I can understand why people believe this place has special powers.
That’s also something that is just so interesting about the Balinese. Everything, to them, is sacred, and has spiritual significance, from the water to the sidewalk to the air to the fields. I like the idea that everything is a small sign that, added together, links into something so much bigger and more significant than its one little part or function.
After Titra Empul, it was time for Pura Kawi, an ancient temple hued from the canyons of the river.
You have to climb down hundreds of steps to get to the temple, which is actually a collection of several temples at the riverbed.
Tucked amidst these massive carvings is a temple in the rock. It had a sign about being ancient- so old, and so revered, you couldn’t wear shoes in. This was somewhat of a problem, as the rock as so old and rain-worn that it really. really. hurt to walk on.
After Pura Kawi, we stopped at Goa Gajah. It was just found about 50 years ago, when some architects were digging along the river.
It is also home to a pretty big temple, where monks currently still live.
I’d decided not to stay in Ubud for multiple nights after the retreat, as I’d originally planned, so I crammed all this temple-viewing in to one day, when it could really have done with two or more to really take in. But the city center was too busy and, as much as I wanted to stay in the rice fields, I would have needed a moped to get me around- and I didn’t feel safe driving one, especially at night. In Ubud center, there is no such thing as a recognizable traffic pattern and outside of the center, there are no street lamps and it is dark as pitch at night. So I got an Airbnb for just one night in the middle of Kajeng, to rest from my retreat and my day of temple sightseeing.
This was the view from my private villa- my own pool, with the rice fields stretching beyond! Not too bad, hmmm? But wait until you see the bathroom…
Slightly pathetic to admit this was one of my more happy moments in Ubud, sinking in to this tub and staring up at the many, many stars in the night sky after a day of sightseeing (and after four days of yoga twice a day).
If you go to Bali, I’d recommend a few days in Ubud- and more, if you can navigate with a moped. It is slightly more busy than I’d have thought, but there is a lot to see, do and eat. And if you can get a bathroom like I had, imagine the restful evenings you’ll have after your busy days. Utter bliss.