Ubud, Bali’s Cultural Capital

We rumbled into in the dead of night, passing by little islands of light illuminating homely scenes – a mother and child watching television, an elderly man sitting on this front porch, waving away mosquitoes – interspersed with the gleam of moonlight on serene paddy fields. The entrance to our guesthouse is marked only by a small sign, visible only at street level. Our driver, tired from an early start and the drive from Tulamben, waves us off with a selamat malam.

Down a dark, narrow aling-aling, or alleyway, then, a sudden explosion of light, when we get to the entrance of the guesthouse. We’ve chosen a family-run establishment, housed in a traditional Balinese compound. The Balinese are masters at marrying indoor and outdoor spaces, and the living areas here are open-sided, shaded structures. There are separate bale, or buildings for washing, cooking, and sleeping. The family’s shrines are dotted around, and chickens cluck underfoot.

Ubud homestay
Traditional Balinese compound in Ubud

The next morning, we find Gung De, our driver, lounging near the entrance to the compound. He nods his approval at our choice of accommodation, then ships us off to the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary. The main temple within the sanctuary is Pura Dalem, the local village’s temple of the dead. Associated with the underworld, there is also a graveyard nearby. The temple is guarded by statuary of demons, crowned over by moss. There is lovely dappled sunlight and old trees with trails of wizard’s beard hanging from branches.

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We wander along the paths, following the not-very accurate map given to us at the entrance. Everywhere around us there are long-tailed macaques, the monkeys that give their name to the Forest Sanctuary. They stroll nonchalantly along us on the path, sit grooming each other in patches of sunshine, run along the branches of trees. There are cheeky, sly and wily monkeys everywhere, and they don’t limit themselves to just climbing trees – some have found better posts on the shoulders of tourists, grabbing sunglasses, cameras, uncorking water bottles for a drink and unzipping bags to rifle through the contents.

Dragon sculpture
Monkey on a sculpture in the forest

Although used to humans, these monkeys are still wild animals and can get aggressive, especially if you have food on you or if they have young. If you follow these monkey safety tips, you should be fine – though I jumped a mile when a juvenile monkey clambered onto me, his surprisingly warm little hands clasping the side of my cheek. He hopped off after realising I had no food and after I ignored him for a few minutes, though.

Ubud Tegallalang
Rice paddies of

We spend a few hours in the before finding our way out – Gung De is ready to take us to Tegallalang next. Ubud is surrounded by gently undulating rice paddies – a beautiful serene landscape of various shades of green. Tegallalang is well known for its rice paddy vistas – the traffic along the narrow, winding roads is hectic, and you are charged an entrance fee to the area. Gung De drops us off and we choose a hillside cafe with a view, order fresh coconut juice then just… sit. And listen to the sound of rice growing. It’s quiet lower down on the slopes, away from the touts, the traffic the madness of the road above, and the sky is a bright blue, sitting atop the emerald of the young rice.

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Ubud Goa Gajah
Bathing pool of Goa Gajah

Our next stop is Goa Gajah – the Elephant Cave. The entrance to the cave is carved with demons; a bathing temple sits outside. Inside there is a holy sanctuary. As with all temples in , you have to cover your knees and wear a ceremonial sash – both of these are available for rent at the entrance to the cave. The cave is tiny, scattered with fragments of statues and presided over by a statue of Ganesha, the Hindu elephant god.

It’s late by now, and with the sun setting, it’s time for the traditional dances in the grounds of the Royal Palace of Ubud – the Puri Saren Agung. This performance is more professional than the kecak dance we watched at Pura Uluwatu – there is staging, light placement and traditional musicians and instruments like the gamelan in place of the all male chorus that characterises the kecak dance. We’ve come early, to stake our spots, but the crowd slowly swells. There is space for people on the ground too, but a two hour performance watched from the floor does no one any favours, so we’re glad Gung De has hustled us here in time to swipe some good seats.

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Ubud bathing temple
Bathing temple in Ubud Monkey Forest

The performance is a mishmash of various different types – the welcome dance, the legong or maiden dance, the barong, or warrior dance, the cenderawash, or bird of paradise dance, which keeps it varied and interesting. There are many performers, both male and female, all magnificently costumed and in traditional make up. Each dance has a story, and while although we’ve been issued a handout, I find it far more fun to try and understand the meaning of the movement from the dancers, rather than from the text. Although the majority of the spectators are tourists, nothing about the performance feels contrived; there is a genuine air of spirituality in play.

We walk back to our guesthouse after, through the streets of Ubud, followed by a friendly dog. Midway on our journey we stumble on a baby grand piano being played in the middle of the street, a group of gay revellers surrounding it. It’s a live music performance, the sound voices raised in song follow us home.

Ubud paddy fields
Ubud paddy fields at dawn

Ubud Map

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  1. Jeanette says:

    Sounds like a magical evening — esoteric and timeless temple dances, followed by music in the streets!

    1. Peggy Tee says:

      It was magical, but best of all is that it was totally unplanned. I love those moments best while travelling – the ones that surprise you. Happy new year Jeanette!

  2. stephglaser says:

    Peggy — I’ve so enjoyed reading this post since Ubud is probably my favorite place on Earth. I was lucky to travel there with my husband and two young kids in 2010. Thanks for sharing the lovely descriptions and photos!

    1. Peggy Tee says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Steph! I loved Ubud too, it’s so much more peaceful and “real” than Kuta.

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