Our first few days in Bali were spent soaking up the island experience on Nusa Ceningan, so the four of us (the missus and I, and my brother- and sister-in-law) were appropriately chilled out during journey back to the mainland. The bumpy boat ride back to Sanur didn’t phase us much, and the long bus ride up to Ubud let us admire the lush Balinese landscape. As we got closer, though, we got a few glimpses of what we could expect in Ubud. Fleets of tour buses drove past, and ornate signs pointed off the main road to resorts with flowery names.
Ubud was very atmospheric, with lush greenery, stone walls, and intricate temples.
Ubud itself was very atmospheric. Lush greenery, stone walls keeping the jungle at bay, and intricately decorated temples were around every corner as we drove through town. By the time we were dropped off at our homestay, we couldn’t wait to get out and explore.
Also read: Peace and crashing waves on Nusa Ceningan
Our three days in Ubud begin: Settling in at Bali Asli Lodge
We got to our homestay, Bali Asli Lodge, around lunch time. It was set in a traditional Balinese family compound, and our rooms were right at the back. The compound ran down the side of a ravine, so we needed to get down some steep, moss-covered stairs to get there. The rooms were nicely done, with lots of glass to let in the light. Still, the rooms faced some tall stands of bamboo, so there wasn’t much light overall and we couldn’t see the advertised rice fields.
Once we were settled in, we headed back up the stairs to the open dining room. There, our hosts Ketut and Made (pronounced ‘keh-toot’ and ‘mah-day’) engaged us in conversation while we tucked into some delicious soup, stir-fried vegetables, noodles and tofu. One of the best meals we had in Bali! And the fact that Ketut and Made’s two friendly little doggies decided to join us made it even better.
An evening out
After a much-needed afternoon snooze, we decided we didn’t feel like going back out immediately, and decided to watch a traditional Balinese dance performance at the Ubud Palace a little later. So we headed out in the evening, to watch the dance and to take a look around while we were at it.
Despite being cool, the weather was so humid that I would start sweating at the slightest exertion.
That’s when the reality of the Ubud climate impressed itself upon me. Despite it being quite cool, the high humidity meant I would start sweating at the least bit of exertion! Luckily, I was carrying a sweatshirt for whenever we stopped walking. I quickly realized we should have made the effort to get an international license so we could’ve hired some scooters.
A traditional Balinese dance performance
It was a short one-kilometre walk down Jalan Suweta (the road we were staying on) to the main crossing on which the Ubud Palace was. Lucky, or I would’ve dissolved in a puddle of sweat! Anyway, we found places in the impromptu amphitheatre set up just inside the palace entrance and waited for the performance to start.
The dance was to tell stories from the Ramayana, one of Hinduism’s most famous epics, and I was curious about the Balinese interpretation, since we were more familiar with Indian Hinduism. I was stunned at how different it was! From the slightly discordant music and the unfamiliar movements to the fierce representation of the forces of good and almost demonic appearance of the gods, everything was different. I was a bit dazed by the end of it.
Mexican dinner in Bali
After the performance, we headed out for some souvenir shopping, and to get a bite to eat. We didn’t end up buying anything, and the traditional warung we had our eye on was closed when we got there. So we ended up eating a decent Mexican dinner, of all things, at the outdoor Taco & Grill. The weather and the walking (and the dance performance) had taken it out of us, so we turned in early, deciding to do more exploring the next day.
Our three days in Ubud: We get a bit touristy on day two
The second of our three days in Ubud, we spent doing somewhat touristy things. That morning, we walked down Jl. Suweta again, gawking at every intricate temple, and at the gateway guardians at every family compound. We passed the Ubud Palace of the night before, and continued on down Jl. Wanara Wana towards the Sacred Monkey Forest.
That short walk showed us just how touristy the centre of Ubud was.
We didn’t really want to go in, since none of us is very comfortable with monkeys, and there were lots of monkeys hanging out on the road anyway. We just wanted to see what Ubud was like, and that short walk showed us just how touristy the centre of Ubud was. While Jl. Suweta was relatively quiet, Jl. Wanara Wana (and the perpendicular Jl. Raya Ubud) were full-blown tourist traps, lined with upmarket restaurants and chic boutiques.
The real price of kopi luwak
After much sweaty walking (I cursed myself for wearing jeans instead of shorts), my brother- and sister-in-law decided they wanted a traditional Balinese massage. So me and the better half decided to chill for a bit in one of the cafés while we waited for them. On the way in, we saw a furry little long-whiskered, long-tailed animal sleeping on a counter outside, next to some sachets of coffee beans. While we sat inside and drank our tea, I wondered what it was; and when it hit me, it broke my heart! What we had seen was a captive civet, and it was being used to market kopi luwak, or civet coffee.
On the way in, we saw a furry animal asleep on the counter. When I realized what it was, it broke my heart!
(Aside: For those not in the know, kopi luwak is among the most expensive coffees in the world. It is traditionally made from coffee beans that have been swallowed and pooped out by wild civets, and whose digestive juices supposedly give the coffee a distinctive flavour.)
A long time ago, I had read (and completely forgotten about) how civets in Bali were being captured and force-fed coffee fruit to cater to the demand for kopi luwak. The sight of the unhappy little chap (it looked extremely lethargic, like it had been drugged) brought it all back to me. I then realized that we had seen one in our homestay too, but didn’t know what we were looking at, at the time. It made me sick!
Also read: In the shadow of elephants in Valparai
Relief from bottled water
We eventually left the café and the sad little civet behind, and headed back towards the main crossing. I had heard that one could refill one’s water bottle (instead of buying bottled water) at a library nearby. So using our trusty Google Maps, we crossed over a public football field, and found the Pondok Pekak Library, tucked away in a corner of a by-lane. There, we filled our bottles for IDR 10 per bottle, which works out to a negligible fraction of whatever currency you convert into (5 paise in INR, for example)! We had heard tell of other such places where we could fill our bottles, but never managed to find them.
We filled our bottles at the library for a negligible fraction of whatever currency you convert it into.
After meeting up with the other two again, we walked back towards our homestay, admiring the impressive Puri Kantor temple complex along the way. We eventually managed to have lunch at the warung we saw the previous evening: Warung Makan Bu Rus. From the road, it looked like a tiny little shack with a table or two, but it turned out to have a lovely garden behind, with lots of tables. We had an enjoyable lunch surrounded by greenery (even though the vegetarians had to make do with nasi goreng, mie goreng and gado gado, as usual).
Slight disappointment at Goa Gajah
That evening, we thought we had better see some sights, so we hired a taxi and headed out (despite Ketut trying to convince us to come see his family’s fire dance). Our first stop was Goa Gajah, the ‘elephant cave’. Three of us got sarongs tied on (the fourth was wearing trousers, so appartently didn’t need a sarong) and we walked down some steps to the temple complex below. We were lucky to be there just around closing time, so it was relatively empty. But the entrance to the cave temple left me a little underwhelmed. Intricately carved though it was, everything I had seen and read about it made me think it was huge. Instead, the entrance turned out to be just high enough to let a tall person through without ducking.
The small size of the entrance to the cave left me a little underwhelmed.
Inside, it was a simple (and slightly claustrophobic) cave, with niches carved in the walls for idols. At the far end was an idol of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesha—after whom the cave is presumably named—accompanied by his companion rat.
The reality of Bali tourism at Tanah Lot
Next, it was on to Tanah Lot, the ‘sunset temple’. The drive through the countryside was lovely, with rice fields stretching out on either side, and an intricate little temple appearing by the road once in a while. Eventually, we got to Tanah Lot. And if we thought Ubud was touristy, this place took it to another level!
The broad path to the actual entrance of the temple complex wound past countless souvenir shops and cafés, with hordes of visitors everywhere. And when we got down to the wide, rocky beach from which the temple rises, the crowds got thicker. One couldn’t even walk up the stairs to the temple itself, because only Balinese worshippers were allowed up there. We would’ve been better off sitting at one of the many café tables overlooking the beach instead. On the other hand, we unexpectedly bumped into some friends of the family who were also visiting Bali, so that was an interesting turn of events.
In search of a good time in Seminyak
Eventually, we decided to skip the fire dance performance at sunset, and headed out for dinner. We were curious about what the night life of Seminyak would be like, and we had heard about Finn’s Beach Club, so we headed there. As it turns out, Finn’s was actually in Canggu (pronounced ‘chang-goo’), and we were unprepared for its size. It looked like the deck of a cruise liner had been propped up on the beach, separated into sections, and filled with party-goers. The place was one massive party! After a bit of confusion, we found out that if we wanted to sit in the quieter areas away from the crowds, we would have to become VIP members. So we skedaddled instead.
A quick dinner, and the end to a disappointing day
We walked around outside a bit, looking for a place we could get a drink and bit to eat. To our utter amazement, most places were already closed, and it was barely 8:00 PM! After some asking around, we were directed to the beach down a dark, scary path between some trees, where we found the Brekele Beach Bar. It turned out to be a lovely little place with beach tables and a wooden deck, but they were closing soon, too. So we quickly ordered some Bintang and whatever food was available, and spent a pleasant half an hour admiring the waves.
On the way back to our car (which was being faithfully guarded by our friendly driver Gushti), we stopped for dessert at the pleasant Panama Kitchen and Pool, after which we headed back to Ubud. All in all, a somewhat disappointing day.
Closer to nature on the last of our three days in Ubud
On the last of our three days in Ubud, we decided we’d had enough of touristy sights. So we headed over the Campuhan ridge to hike the trail along the top. On the way, we got fleeced by the taxi we hailed on the road, but I guess no tourist experience is complete without being fleeced by the locals.
The ‘trail’ was actually a well-paved path that led down from the bridge over the Campuhan river, past a little atmospheric temple, and then up to the top of the ridge. On the way, we checked out a supposed ‘real Balinese swing’ that swung out over the valley, while the operators sang Bollywood songs at us!
Jungle vistas. And jungle climate.
Up on the ridge, we could almost believe we were out in the jungle somewhere, instead of in the middle of one of Bali’s most popular towns. There weren’t too many other people around, there was dense green everywhere, and valleys sloped down on either side of the path. The only spoiler was that it was really hot and humid, even though it was mostly cloudy. And when the sun did come out, it became almost unbearable.
By the time we got to the end of the ridge an hour and a half or so later, we were ready to call it a day. There were a few little warungs and cafés where the path ended and a road continued on (presumably how the little eateries got their supplies). We decided to catch our breath at the lovely little Namo Warung, where we sat cross-legged on bamboo mats at the edge of the valley, drinking coconut water and (surprise, surprise) Bintang.
Lunch with a view
Refreshed, we continued up the road, between rice fields and past arty little souvenir shops and spas. There was a nice breeze up there, and the clouds had receded, so we spent a pleasant time soaking up the views of the rice fields and pleasant weather. Lunch was on the first floor of the Karsa Café, with its thatched roof and rice-field view, and we couldn’t have asked for a better setting! The breeze was a bit chilly, though, especially with us having sweated through whatever we were wearing. Luckily, I was still carrying my sweatshirt!
We couldn’t have asked for a better lunch setting than the first floor of Karsa Cafe.
Lunch done, we didn’t feel like hiking all the way back again, so—with some difficulty—we managed to find a taxi to drive us back the long way round. The drive down the other side of the ridge was long but beautiful, along green valleys and through forest roads, with the sun blinking through the trees every once in a while. That morning and afternoon were probably the best part of our three days in Ubud!
We wind up with some good dessert
In the evening, we did some more souvenir shopping, and then ended up having dinner at the Lazy Cats Café, a cosy first-floor restaurant with a vintage, arty theme, pretty decent food and a nice view of a temple opposite. They didn’t have much by way of desserts, though, so on a whim, we dropped in at Milk & Madu on the way back. Those desserts were so good, and they were gone so fast, I didn’t even have time to take a picture! A great end to our last day in Bali.
The end of our three days in Ubud
The next morning, we said bye to Ketut and Made (and their doggies), and hopped into Ketut’s cousin’s taxi for the drive back to the airport. On the way, we got experienced first-hand how bad Ubud’s traffic can get. Despite the orderly driving, the narrow roads and sheer volume of cars and scooters clogged everything up! Thankfully we left early, and once we were out of Ubud, the roads opened up.
We got to the airport with time to spare, so we checked in early (making sure AirAsia had no reason to hassle us about our baggage this time). It was close to lunchtime, so we had ourselves some excellent (but somewhat expensive) pizza at the Last Wave, before eventually boarding.
Bali had been a mixed bag for us, and we definitely enjoyed Ceningan more than Ubud. But we did have some nice moments during our three days in Ubud, too; the incredible architecture everywhere, and the peaceful Campuhan trail are things that will stay with us for a long time to come.
IQ’s top tips from our three days in Ubud
- Ubud is very touristy, so expect lots of crowds, especially at the centre.
- Staying close to the centre means you’ll have better access to all the sights, but it’ll also mean more crowds and more traffic.
- Staying in the outskirts will probably mean you’ll have a more peaceful, less touristy experience.
- It’s worth getting an international license and hiring a scooter, even if you’re there only for a few days. The weather can make walking everywhere a little uncomfortable, and taxis can be expensive (and scammy).
- The weather in Ubud can be both humid and cool, so it’s worth carrying a sweatshirt or light jacket everywhere, especially if you sweat easily. It can also rain any time, so be prepared.
- If you’re thinking of visiting the sights, try and go at opening or closing time. Even so, be prepared for lots of people.
- You don’t really need a sarong to enter temples, just something that covers your legs. Trousers or a maxi skirt should work fine.
- If you’re thinking of hiring a taxi for a few hours, it might be a good idea to check with your hotel or homestay instead of hailing one on the road.
- If your hotel can’t arrange one, try getting in touch with Wayan (WhatsApp +62 813 3888 0540). Ask for Gushti to be your driver; he’s very nice, and drives very well. He charged us IDR 300,000 for about six hours, from Ubud to Goa Gajah, Tanah Lot, Canggu and back (we paid him a little extra for waiting while we had dinner).
- If you’re thinking of booking Bali Asli Lodge, keep in mind that you can probably only see the rice fields from the upper rooms (if the jungle hasn’t grown up in front of them), and the lower rooms are a little gloomy. Also, the stairs down to the rooms are steep, and you need to climb some more to get to the upper rooms. It’s all a bit difficult with heavy suitcases.
- Almost every local in Ubud will try and sell you something, which gets annoying after a while. Try and take it in your stride. Everyone needs to make a living, after all.
- It might be a good idea to spend more than three days in Ubud, so you can figure out what not to do.
- You won’t find a lot of local vegetarian options in restaurants (besides the usual gado-gado, and veggie versions of nasi goreng and mie goreng). But Ubud has hundreds of restaurants that serve good international cuisine, and you’’ll get a wider variety of vegetarian food there.
- If you’re staying in a homestay, though, your host should be able to whip you up some tasty local vegetarian dishes.
- The Pondok Pekak Library and Learning Centre will let you refill your water bottle at an extremely nominal charge, so you don’t need to buy plastic bottles. You might find other places too, if you ask around.
- If you’re buying kopi luwak, try and make sure it’s sourced from the wild, and not from captive civets that are force-fed coffee fruit. If you’re not sure, don’t buy it.
Also read: 21 simple tips to be a responsible traveller