Despite us having only five days to spare in Bali, I couldn’t possibly leave the island without seeing Ubud, the culture capital of the island. Ubud is awash with fascinating things to do and stunning places to visit. As tempting as it was to make it a marathon of ticking “must-see things” off the list, this trip was all about pure relaxation and indulgence, so we decided to make a leisurely day out of it, and enjoy Ubud at our own slow pace. And it was amazing.
To ensure a comfortable tour, I hired a driver from BaliCab, who promptly picked us up at the hotel early in the morning as I requested and was incredibly cordial. Even though I had a general idea of places I wanted us to see (well, you didn’t believe I would travel completely unprepared, did you?), I trusted his advice to opt for some other spots to avoid notorious local traffic. And I was so happy I did, because he showed us around some amazing places and made sure we fell irrevocably in love with Ubud.
After spending only 12 hours here and barely scratching a surface I’m nowhere close to being fit to offer you “a comprehensive guide of Ubud”, but I’m more than qualified to share how to plan the most perfect day there. So, without further ado, here’s the story of our first taste of Ubud.
Pura Taman Ayun Temple
I was particularly keen to visit local temples because I’m fascinated by the architecture of Balinese places of worship – open air spaces with intricately decorated gates and thatched-roof pavilions. Known as the land of a thousand temples, Bali is home to more than 5,000 stunning examples. In fact, every single family has a small shrine in Bali. This means that while there are a few prominent temples to visit, if it is a truly off the beaten track photography opportunity you are looking for, then drive around (not just within Ubud), observe and I promise you, you’ll find more than one temple grounds that will make your jaw drop. For the first time in my life, I wish I could rent a motorbike and just roam the nooks and crannies of local villages. The untainted beauty of this island is unimaginable. We got the windshield tour of villages in and around Ubud, I cannot even fathom what lies beyond.
But I digress. An hour and a half drive from our hotel, brought us to the doors of Taman Ayun Temple, which translates into a poetic name ‘Garden Temple in the Water’. This UNESCO recognized site of cultural heritage is located in the village of Mengwi and dates back to 1634. The temple grounds featured spacious courtyards and enclosures with green lawns, manicured gardens, fish ponds and fountains and most importantly, jero – the gated holy area with multi-tiered meru (pagoda-like towers). These 11-roofed shrines are dedicated to Sanghyang Widhi, the highest Balinese deity. This temple was to serve as a main site of worship among the Mengwi people who need not travel too far to the main large temples.
Lunch at Cacades by Viceroy Bali
After frolicking the grounds of Taman Ayun, we were sufficiently hungry for a delicious lunch. Choosing a place to eat in Ubud is very hard simply because there are so many great options – from local warungs serving finger-licking Indonesian fare to fine dining restaurants (I am so bummed we couldn’t try the famous Locavore!). We opted for Cascades, and like I am so happy that we did. The view of the lush jungles that this area is so famous for was unbeatable. Plus, our multi-course chef’s tasting menu didn’t disappoint.
Tegallalang Rice Terraces
The verdant winding rice paddies are perhaps one of the most iconic images of Bali and I was so keen to see it in person. It was every bit as beautiful as I imagined. Tegallalang is one of the most popular and hence the most touristy spots, surrounded with multiple local cafes where you can drink the local specialty – kopi luwak coffee and take in the beauty of the green of Bali. You can also walk around the terraces and take as many photos as your heart desires. I don’t necessarily think these are the most beautiful terraces I’ve seen, even though I loved the wave like shape of the paddies that draped along the steep hillside into a deep gorge. But remember the point I made about temples? The same applies to the rice terraces. During our windshield tour of the area we saw so many spectacular spots that were equally beautiful and completely deserted. Having said that, I think it is absolutely worth seeing Tegallalang if you have a chance.
Windshield Tour of the Art Villages
Ubud is known as the culture capital of Bali for a good reason. There are dozens of villages and art markets where you can purchase the most beautiful local handicrafts and art work. Each village is famous for a specific form of art: you can find high quality wood carving in Desa Mas, highly skilled gold and silver crafting in Caluk, traditional Balinese paintings in Batuan, batik (clothe painting which is one of many Indonesian finest heritages) and traditional hand weaving in Tohpati Village. You can also watch many types of traditional dances being in Batubulan Village, which is known as one of the most artistic and creative villages in Bali. And there’s also Ubud Art Market, open daily for the exchange of arts, handicrafts and textiles.
Gunung Kawi Sebatu Temple
This place. It was otherworldly. I can’t find another word to describe it. Located within the highland village of Sebatu in Tegallalang, it features verdant courtyard with ponds filled with carp and blooming lotuses, and ancient shrines surrounded by crystal clear pools fed by natural springs. You will even see roaming free packs of tame fowl, caged white doves and roosters frolicking around which makes you feel you just arrived into a Garden of Eden.
Beside the pool there are two walled bathing sections that the locals and pilgrims to Gunung Kawi Sebatu actually use for bathing. Water features at Balinese Hindu temples are not only used for decoration purposes, but serve to purify and heal thus being used in every ceremony and ritual. The best part of this temple was that it was almost deserted, which contributed to the ethereal tranquil atmosphere.
Gunung Kawi Temple
After all this sightseeing, we had just enough time and energy left before dinner for one more place and our driver surprised us with a visit to this special spot – Gunung Kawi Temple complex which is one of Bali’s most unique archaeological sites. We descended a long flight of stairs (300 to be exact!), that winds through the stunning rice paddies and tropical forest lined with art shops and small local warungs, to the bed of the sacred Pakerisan River.
And then I gasped. No photo will ever do justice to the beauty of this place. There is a collection of massive ancient candi or shrine reliefs carved into the face of a rock cliffs facing each other on both sides of the river. Dedicated to the kings from centuries past, the complex exudes a certain mystical atmosphere of ancient legends and long lost tales of forgotten Balinese kings.
Legends relate that the whole group of memorials was carved out of the rock face in one hard-working night by the mighty fingernails of KeboIwa, a renowned military commander in ancient Balinese Kingdom who possessed supernatural powers. Legends aside, the candis of Gunung Kawi are believed to date back to the 11th century (1080 AD) and were carved under the orders of King Anak Wungsu in honor of his father, the great Balinese ruler Udayana and the Warmadewa Dynasty.
For what it’s worth, President Obama also visited the place during his recent (June 2017) family trip to Bali. As with any other temple visit in Bali, and especially to temples held sacred, proper attire consisting of a sarong cloth with a sash around the waist is required for all visitors. The sash and sarong are available for rent at the ticket purchase booth before the stairs down to the valley.
I wasn’t planning on it, but I felt like we saw two very special and off the beaten track temples and I couldn’t have been more thankful to our driver for that.
Dinner at Mozaic
I didn’t think anything could wow me at this point, but Mozaic (often touted as Bali’s best restaurant) didn’t fail to impress with its ambiance. Dining al fresco in a cozy lush courtyard at candle-lit tables was the best ending to a wonderful day. Not to say that food is lacking in any way. Chef and owner Chris Salan’s French-Indonesian restaurant has been a forerunner among Bali’s elite dining club for a while now. Alongside charming ambiance, the signature multi-course tasting menu tantalizes your senses by showcasing the best of local and foreign ingredients cooked in the most beautiful and inventive way. We loved every single course and had the most romantic dinner of the trip.
On our way back to the hotel, as we drove past the flickering lights of the impatient motor-bikers, I couldn’t help but smile to the perfect day we’ve had. At times letting go and going with the flow, truly leads to the best experiences.