Bali. Indonesia's Jewel. Island of Gods. Morning of the World. Following almost seven months of travel, it would be our last destination in Southeast Asia. We'd seen so many rich cultures, toured so many old temples, and motorbiked through such a wide variety of vibrant countryside, that it really took something amazing to wow us at this late stage in the journey. Somehow, though, this little island did just that. Or more specifically, Ubud did.
Located in the foothills and rice paddy fields of southern Bali, this small town is known as Bali's capital of arts, crafts and culture. I say town, but Ubud is actually a cluster of fourteen interlinked villages, and even in its busy centre it somehow retains a pastoral quality, with its tangles, trees and vines sprouting from between old buildings, and a sombre green moss coating the walls and pavements. It is heavily touristified and filled with fashion stores and upmarket hotels, yet somehow it's one of the most authentic places we've come across, a mysterious labyrinth of magic and spirituality. It's one of those places like Barcelona or Prague where every single street you look down beckons you to switch on your camera, reeling you towards some pretty temple or elaborately decorated doorway, or even something simple like a staircase with lotuses on it. In most Southeast Asian towns, you can only get a taste of the old world - a glimpse of those fantastical places you might have seen in paintings - at certain select spots, like maybe within the old city, or in ruins a mile outside the city, and even there it might only be one or two buildings that really spark your imagination. But here the magic is omnipresent, so that you cannot walk anywhere without seeing something beautiful or captivating. Even the hotels and guesthouses look and feel like temples. We were amazed at how vigorously the local culture presented itself to us, so that no amount of cars, shops or tourist agencies could detract from this place's sacred aura.
It's a pity, then, that we only had a day to spare here. We were planning to get married in Nusa Dua in a few days, and needed to be there for an appointment with the wedding company. With Ubud's wide range of shops along Monkey Forest Road, we spent almost our whole day there looking for stuff for the wedding: a dress for Angela, a shirt for me, necklaces, shoes... It was actually a fantastic way to explore the main road, as it forced us to slowly make our way up and down its main stretch, stopping at cool shops and temples along the way and savouring the sights in between. We didn't get to do a whole lot of touristy stuff like the actual monkey forest or the rice terraces near town, so we'd have to come back at a later date for those. In the meantime, we simply savoured getting to wander around this charming, cultural heart of Bali.
|Like many of Ubud's accommodations, our guesthouse looked like an old Balinese temple. Perhaps it used to be one.|
|This is the small road leading from our guesthouse to the main shopping area of Ubud.|
|An ancient warrior contemplates Monkey Forest Road.|
|Everywhere along Monkey Forest Road there are stone statues, shrines, gargoyles, engravings, and decorated portals, if not on the main road, then peering at you from peripheral lanes and alleyways.|
|Interspersed among the relics of Balinese spiritual life are dozens of quirky modern day shops, most selling colourful clothes and jewellery. Needless to say, we spent most of our day in these, searching for our wedding inventory.|
|There are also art galleries displaying the work of local artists, many of whom combine traditional Balinese subject matter with modern artistic styles.|
|Balinese Frida Kahlo meets Monet's Rice Paddy Fields?|
|Anywhere else in the world, such a grandiose gateway as this must be the entrance to the city's most impressive temple. Here in magical Ubud, it's just a backdoor to a budget guesthouse.|
|Continuing our walk down the road, we browsed its many offerings the same way we'd browse trinkets in souvenir shops. There is too much in sight to really see everything.|
|This sports field was being used for a school event.|
|The Balinese equivalent to a school bus.|
|Shops, shops, and more shops.|
|Culture, culture, and more culture.|
|This is where I bought my wedding shirt.|
|When we'd finished browsing the many trinkets, clothes and crafts of Ubud, we returned to our guesthouse for a brief respite, then headed back out at nightfall.|
|We made a short pilgrimage to a temple to watch a kecak performance.|
|Kecak is a form of Balinese dance and performance art involving over a hundred men who gather in a ring around a fire, chanting and singing as they recreate scenes from the Ramayana.|
|Kecak is also known as the Ramayana Monkey Dance, and its most distinctive part is the percussive noise the men make with their mouths, a repetitive jak jak jak sound as they wave their fingers in the air.|
|Though it's predominately men who perform the dance, a few colourfully-clad women also partake.|
|The whole thing went on for about an hour, and at the very end the men made a bonfire.|
|Then a man in a dragon costume would come and stomp all over the bonfire in bare feet, scattering embers across the ground.|
|If you're interested in seeing and hearing the dance in motion, there's a cool clip of it below from the movie Baraka (which is also a great movie in itself, if you haven't seen it already).|
|Leaving the temple behind us.|
|For dinner we had pear-glazed, marinated pork loins with mixed herbs, Balinese fern-tip salad, and rice pilaf. It took forever to get served, but it was worth it.|
We had some very important matters to deal with down south in the Bukit Peninsula, so we left Ubud early the next morning. However, there was no way we could feel content with only a day's exploring this incredible place, so we vowed to return in a week or so.