Ubud is undoubtedly one of my favourite places in the world – there’s something about the permeating spiritual atmosphere of this market town that just can’t be beaten. And while many people head to Ubud to delve into the world-famous markets, it isn’t just about shopping here; this is a veritable paradise for adrenaline junkies and culture vultures alike.
Start your first day with a wander around the town; a slow meander is the best way to come to terms with everything going on here, and boy is that a lot. Jl. Raya Ubud is the main street, with a huge open-air market on one side and a selection of restaurants, bars and temples on the other. Make the Saraswati Temple your first stop – this beautiful Hindu temple sits at the end of a long path, surrounded on both sides by lotus-peppered ponds. Incredible water garden aside, the carvings on this temple are a photographer’s dream, just remember to be respectful, this is a place of worship after all.
Next, walk just up the road to the Puri Lukisan Museum, the oldest art museum on the island, which holds a collection of stunning Balinese art and provides a true haven from the beep and bustle of motorbikes on Ubud’s main streets. Here you’ll find a staggering array of pieces, ranging from traditional Balinese Barong masks to surrealist interpretations of Bali’s landscapes.
This afternoon, book a driver for half a day. You can pretty much just find a driver from off the street, but if you want someone who knows what they’re talking about and can give you a little culture, get in touch with Mus the Bali Tour Guide, one of the friendliest and best tour guides I’ve ever come across.
First, head to the Tegallalang Rice Terraces – they’re quite a sight. Steep, sloping terraces rise up the hillsides in all their verdant green glory and you can wander along them under the golden sun, admiring one of Bali’s most important irrigation systems-come-ecosystems. You won’t be alone here, unfortunately, as this is one of Bali’s most iconic sights, but it’s well worth the visit anyway. If you’re one of the adrenaline junkies among us, don’t miss out on the chance to soar through the air over the terraces on a ‘jungle swing’.
Next, carry on to Tirta Empul, the holy water temple, visited by Hindu inhabitants of the island for centuries for purification rituals. This was hands down my favourite experience in Ubud – there’s something so unbelievably spiritual about stepping into the cool water – and our outing there was made all the more atmospheric by the torrential rain that decided to grace us. Locals will say that if you believe in Karma, you must bow your head under each of the 11 spouts, saying a prayer at each one, to purify body, mind and spirit.
To round off your first day, head back to Ubud and stop off for dinner at Bebek Bengil, also known as the Dirty Duck. This open-air restaurant has been serving up Bali’s best crispy duck for years, and the setting is almost as good as the food – you’ll be eating on raised platform tables, cross-legged, surrounded by glowing lanterns.
Today’s the day for adventure, and in Ubud it can come in many forms. One of the best is white water rafting on the Ayung River. Partially terrifying, mostly thrilling, tackling this river is an unmissable feat, and your expert guide will take you gliding, bouncing and bumping down the river, through the most idyllic jungle surrounds you can imagine. From a cascading waterfall to intricate rock carvings and monkeys swinging in the surrounding greenery, this journey will give you a truly off the beaten path feel of incredible Bali, and another perspective far from the motorbike-filled streets.
Back in Ubud, fuel up with some lunch at Babi Guling. You’ll need a local to point out the best restaurant; I must say none of them look particularly appealing, but don’t judge a book by its cover. Each Babi Guling shop buys a suckling pig every morning, and the meal is made almost entirely from different parts of the pig – I suggest just eating and not asking questions. Though this is surely a local haunt, it’s one of the most authentic Balinese meals you can get your hands on.
This afternoon, why not visit another one of Ubud’s iconic sights: the Monkey Forest. 900 sweet-faced macaques live here, and they hold great spiritual importance for the people of Ubud, but they’re not as sweet as they might seem. These little monkeys will do whatever they can to get hold of your bananas (you get a bag with your ticket) and will climb on your back, grab the bag out of your hand, and steal anything else you wave around near them, but that’s all part of the fun!
One of my favourite things to do in Ubud is take a cooking class – its a really good way of learning more about Balinese culture, and you get an awesome home-cooked meal at the same time! Most of them will take you on a tour of the local market first (but only if you opt for a morning class), and you’ll get to pick out the foods you’ll be cooking with from the chaotic surrounds of the rainbow-coloured food market.
Delve into the delights of Balinese cooking – most classes include dishes like mie goreng (Bali’s answer to Pad Thai), sate ayam (chicken satay) and pepes ikan (grilled fish in a banana leaf), among other delicacies. Some classes teach you how to make Balinese offerings too, you’ll surely have seen these around the streets by now; decorated with colourful flowers, these Hindu offerings are a form of gratitude left out for the gods.
Rest up for the afternoon at your hotel or homestay – my favourite is Bayu Guest House, a simple homestay owned by a lovely family overlooking the rice paddies. I’ve stayed here twice now and it truly is a little slice of paradise. Why not treat yourself to a massage too – when in Bali, do as the Balinese do, eh?
Make sure you get an early night this evening because, if you feel up for it, you’ll be climbing Mount Batur tonight. At 1,717 kilometres above sea level, this mount is actually a volcano, which can be climbed in the early hours of the morning to witness a spectacular sunrise. You’ll be picked up from your hotel about 2am and hike for roughly two hours to reach the summit, where views of Mount Ayung opposite, shrouded in cloud, will greet you, along with a breakfast cooked on volcanic steam.
If a sunrise hike up a volcano doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, why not spend the afternoon wandering around the clothing market, picking up some flowy trousers and souvenirs to take home. It definitely helps to learn a little Indonesian before you embark on a shopping spree – asking how much things are (berapa) or even just saying thank you (ma kasih) will get you a long way.