I stood near the rim of Kintamani volcano, taking in the sweeping views of Mount Batur and its expansive crater lake shimmering in the early morning light. Ahead of me lay the 35-kilometre, downhill bicycle ride to Ubud.
I headed off with my cycling guide and, soon enough, we started to weave through small villages, sharing the quiet, scenic roads with the people going about their day. We passed by duck farmers with long bamboo poles, a white flag on top, each with their gaggle of ducks trailing behind them. Vibrant green fields panned out on either side as we rode through the back lanes; many with groups of women threshing rice and sifting the grains with giant bamboo baskets.
We passed lines of beautiful women dressed in bright, ceremonial finery with lacy white tops and brightly coloured sashes, as they made their way to the local village temple. They walked in procession, single file, carrying tall towers of fruit on their heads. This made for extraordinary photo opportunities. Believe me, you do not see this in downtown Kuta, Nusa Dua, Canggu, or Seminyak.
By travelling at just 10km per hour, I felt like I was able to make intimate contact with the world around me and could see, hear, and feel so much more than I would have in a car or on a motorbike. I could hear temple bells in the distance. The quaint lanes we passed made me feel like I was discovering the authentic Bali, opening up to impromptu moments that might come along.
We stopped in a small village for a break and I got talking to a young Balinese man named Kadek, who was sitting under a makeshift shelter next to a small, ancient, stone temple. He had been clanging away on ancient-looking cymbals, surrounded by an array of other instruments.
“These are all part of our gamelan orchestra,” Kadek explained, pointing to the gongs and drums. He said, “these have been played at our temple ceremonies for many centuries.” I learned that they are still played at weddings and funerals as well as for other rites of passage and ceremonies. Gamelan is mastered by memory, by heart.
Kadek invited me to come back the next day to join his family temple birthday celebration. Not only would I hear the gamelan being played, but I would also meet the shadow puppet master and watch the wayang kulit, the ancient Indonesian art of shadow play. What an offer!
“No need to bring anything,” Kadek stressed. “We have prepared plenty of food, and we welcome guests. It is our great honour to share our customs with foreign guests.” He quickly gave me his Facebook name, we exchanged phone numbers, and I made a promise to return.
It seems that all the conversations you have with Balinese, from the hotel concierge to the local fruit seller, always seem to include some discussion of their culture and tradition. Balinese traditional life is still very much alive outside the main tourist areas of Bali. By basing yourself in the town of Ubud, for example, you get to observe a ritualistic Bali which is steeped in Hindu religious practices. For me, every day seemed to offer another lesson, unravelling slowly and naturally. Bali is, in all essence, a living culture.
The island has over 20,000 temples and shrines. For such a small island (153km x 112km), one is bound to run into a ceremony of some description. All you need to attend a ceremony is a sarong, a long sash, and a top that covers your shoulders. Men wear an additional item, an udeng, the Balinese male headdress.
If you choose to travel around Bali with a driver, these are pretty much a given item, tucked away neatly in the back of the car, at the ready for an impromptu moment. When you catch sight of a line of women walking down a road with offerings on their heads, all you need to do is join the procession at the back, and you will likely end up at a temple where you can participate in the celebrations and experience the culture.
As a foreigner, you’re always welcomed to join a temple prayer session and, if you are lucky, you can also catch temple dancing, and sometimes drama plays being acted out. These ceremonies often go late into the night, many ways past midnight.
My cycle tour finished with lunch, including a traditional Balinese salad with green beans and sprouts (urab), tempe with delicate spices, tantalising spicy, shredded, steamed chicken, satay on bamboo skewers with peanut sauce, and steamed vegetables cooked in coconut cream. This was served on a pile of steaming red rice. Our beverage was my favourite, fresh and young coconut water served in the shell, a natural energy drink and electrolyte replacement. We all hailed our coconut water with a “cheers” to celebrate our accomplishment of completing the ride.
The next day, my body told me it was time to take a rest. I booked in for a three-hour relaxation and rejuvenation treatment at Murni’s Tamarind Spa in Ubud. Locally, Murni is affectionately known as “the Mother of Ubud.” She pioneered tourism in Ubud in the 1970s by setting up her legendary restaurant, Murni’s Warung, where artists, adventurers, and academics hung out, drank mango lassies, ate smashed avocado on toast, and devoured Murni’s famous apple pie.
Murni lovingly presides over her dream creation on the jungle-clad Campuan gorge above the Wos River, and 50 years later, it’s still the same. The award-winning Tamarind Spa is the latest edition to Murni’s businesses and it was under the tamarind tree I discovered my massage therapist, Kartini, was the former personal therapist of the President of Seychelles.
After a welcome drink, cold towel and foot ritual, Kartini started to weave her healing magic on me. This began with an hour-long traditional massage, deeply relaxing, mind soothing, and muscle quenching. This was followed by a fragrant green tea scrub and a yoghurt rubdown. My treatment finished by soaking in a warm bath with orange and red flower petals floating on top. To finish it off, I was served a pot of organic herbal tea and fresh tropical fruit.
The next day, I was on a mission to discover Bali’s secret photography spots. I decided on a David Metcalf Photography tour after reading some rave reviews online. I was collected bright and early, in time for the dramatic 6.00am sunrise over Mount Agung. Next, we ventured to a local traditional market which was teeming with piles of colourful, hot-red chillies, purple dragonfruit, snake fruit, bright green guavas, and pyramids of multi-coloured local spices. Next, we spent time at the river capturing some dramatic morning sun rays through the trees, and had a lovely chat with the local rice farmer.
After that, we headed to a beautiful 10th century water temple which we had entirely to ourselves. Lunch was up next and sumptuous traditional fare of steamed fish wrapped in banana leaves, coconut yellow curried vegetables, traditional Balinese salad with bean sprouts, and rice steamed in bamboo over an open fire. We ate in the home of a beautiful Balinese family. It was a delightful surprise to see a glimmer of gold shining through the thick foliage in the back of the garden, and soon enough, two delightful young dancers appeared.
They performed the Legong dance for us. It turned out these two little girls were temple dancers and loved to take the opportunity to dance for visitors. They were all of five and six years old and danced so elegantly, with beautiful flowing movements infused with pure grace and spirit. It was spellbinding.
What I really loved about my photography day, which also included plenty of one-on-one photo tips, was how immersed I was in Balinese culture all day. We did not see another foreigner all day. My kind of Balinese day.
Next on the agenda was yoga. Wandering the small streets of Ubud, I found myself walking towards “The Sari Organic Pathway,” which was well signposted from the centre of town, wending my way to the Yoga House; a yurt shaped building situated in the rice fields.
Sheila, the owner, offers classes five days a week and refers to them as yoga for everyone. Indeed, it was. As I eased into my gentle flow yoga class, my view was framed by three stunning, volcanic peaks fanning out from the yoga platform. The yoga studio was also surrounded by terraced rice fields that encircled the studio like a living green carpet. By being amongst nature, in the outdoors in this idyllic setting, I felt deeply connected to the yoga philosophy which connects the mind, body and spirit, through breath and movement.
In the late afternoon, I headed off to a remote, rural Bali village, Lokaserena, on the outskirts of Ubud. I was welcomed into the home of Kadek, who is an Ubud Village Plate host. Ubud Village Plate is a local initiative that supports the community and connects travellers over a shared lunch or dinner in the home of a Balinese family.
Cooking classes are offered as well, but I decided on the dinner-only option. On arrival, I was taken on a tour of Kadek’s house, which is part of his larger family compound. He explained the layout of his traditional compound and told me the history behind the ornate carvings and entranceways and the cultural aspects of the directions of the buildings.
Dinner was a succulent affair with sizzling chicken sate on bamboo sticks and steamed tuna baked in banana leaves, accompanied by a pile of fresh vegetables from Kadek’s garden. All was finished off with traditional black rice pudding with fresh coconut cream. We talked late into the night about tradition and customs and I didn’t want to leave.
My next journey of discovery was into the spiritual heart of a timeless temple called Gunung Kawi; my temple of choice, located only 20 minutes out of Ubud. I decided to visit this ancient 10th-century temple complex at 7.00am, which allowed me some solitude and a few quiet, reflective hours before the tourist buses arrived for 9.30am.
By chance, I meet Wayan, the temple sweeper, near the entrance and he offered to take me to some lesser-known parts of the complex. “Come with me. I will show you the way to a waterfall and a hidden temple, and we will pass by some ancient rice fields.” I eagerly took up Wayan’s kind offer, and he explained how the terraced rice fields, which grow right in the temple itself, date back to the 9th century and are now World Heritage-listed.
As we walked along the small path, the misty jungle clung to the edges of the steeply terraced rice fields. Wayan took me on a little trail where we passed by a waterfall on the way to some old meditation caves. Chiselled from the rock, I came to a series of open doorways, which stood in a straight line symbolically representing an open door. “A door to the other world,” Wayan said with a smile. Near the caves was a shrine, which Wayan explained, stood as a representation of King Anak Wungsu, 1050 AD.
I spent the rest of the morning walking in the shadows of a series of seven-metre high temple tombs known as the Queens Tombs. Wayan was excellent company and highly informative.
As Wayan continued with his morning temple sweeping routine, happy to have been interrupted by a lone traveller, I reflected on the beautiful Balinese people I had encountered over the week, whether that be by bicycle, in a Balinese home, or leaning on a broomstick. The famed Island of the Gods breathes with an even rhythm and welcomes the curiosity of a stranger to explore a very pure and authentic Bali.
Ubud Village Plate:
David Metcalf Photography Tours:
The Yoga House:
Wayan – the temple sweeper and guide: