The ultimate palms and paradise destination? There are many, and Bali is definitely on the shortlist. But there’s more to the Indonesian island besides white-sand beaches and clear blue water. We hop on our bikes to experience the authentic life and ways of Bali.
At the top of the Kintamani volcanic rim, I stand poised with my trusty two-wheeled companion, ready to take on the 35km-downhill ride down to Ubud, Bali’s cultural centre. The sweeping views overlooking Mount Batur, with its shimmering crater lake cradled at its base, gives me all the motivation I need to embrace this exciting challenge.
For me, the town of Ubud is the best place to base myself. I find myself among the tranquil, terraced rice fields and beautiful mountain scenery. Taking in the clean Kintamani mountain air is the perfect kick-start to my adventurous week here, aimed at exploring and experiencing Bali’s local way of life.
Gongs and drums
I follow my cycling guide at a steady pace and weave my way through small villages, sharing the scenic quiet roads with the villagers. Along the way, the rural scenes make me smile. I pass duck farmers using long bamboo poles with a white flag on top to point the way, their flock of ducks trailing behind. I cycle through village after village, encountering rich green rice fields framed by groups of industrious women, threshing rice by hand and sifting the grains with giant bamboo baskets. I hardly pass through any towns, which makes me feel connected to traditional village life and the serenity and slow pace of rural Bali.
We also pass by beautiful women dressed in bright ceremonial finery with lacy white tops and brightly coloured sashes as they make their way to the temple. They walk in procession, carrying tall fruit towers on their heads, resulting in extraordinary photo opportunities when we stop for a moment. By travelling at 10km per hour, I appear to be more in touch with what
I see, feel and hear. The temple bells calling in the distance and small quaint lanes make me feel like I am truly discovering Bali, with all sorts of surprising impromptu moments that come along.
I stop in a small village and talk with a young Balinese man called Kadek, who is clanging away on some ancient looking cymbal. “This is called a gamelan,” Kadek explains. “It’s very complex and is made from a sophisticated ensemble of instruments. These gongs and drums have been played at our temple ceremonies for many centuries. They date back to the very beginning of Bali.” Kadek tells me that the gamelan is played at weddings, funerals and rites of passage as well as other ceremonies, and that the special instrument is mastered by memory, by heart.
Kadek invites me to come back the next
day to attend his family temple birthday celebration. “There is really no need to bring anything, we have prepared plenty of food, and we welcome guests. In fact, it is a great honour to share our customs with a foreign guest,” the young man reassures me. He quickly gives me his Facebook name, adds me to his phone, and I make a promise to return.
The temple bells calling in the distance and small quaint lanes make me feel I’m truly discovering Bali.
I find that everywhere I go in Bali, the conversations that I engage in always seem to come back to culture and tradition, whether I’m talking to the hotel concierge or the local fruit seller at the market. Balinese traditional life is what you experience outside of the main tourist areas of Kuta, Nusa Dua and Seminyak. From what I experience, Bali life is ritualistic and steeped in Hindu religious practices. For me, every day seems to offer another history lesson, which slowly unravels in a natural way. Bali is, in all essence, a living culture.
The island has over 20,000 temples and shrines. For such a small island, one is bound to run into some sort of ceremony. Women wear sarongs, long sashes and tops that cover their shoulders to attend such rituals. And men use udengs, Balinese male headdresses. If you choose to travel around Bali with a car and a driver, udengs are pretty much a given item, tucked away neatly in the back of the car, ready for a sudden occasion. When you catch sight of a line of women walking down the 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 attend the celebrations and experience the culture.
As a foreigner, you are very welcome to go to a temple prayer session. If you are lucky, and the timing is right, you can catch temple dancing and plays being acted out. These ceremonies often last until late into the night, many even way past midnight.
My cycle tour finishes with an abundant lunch: a traditional Balinese salad including green beans and sprout (urab), tempeh with delicate spices, tantalising spicy and shredded steamed chicken, satay on bamboo skewers with peanut sauce, and steamed vegetables cooked in coconut oil. This is all served on a pile of steaming organic red rice. I also really enjoy my beverage: fresh young coconut water served in the shell; a natural energy drink and electrolyte replacement. We all hail a coconut- water ‘cheers’ to celebrate our accomplishment of completing the ride.
Places to eat
This high-end restaurant has its own private wine cellar and offers gorgeous views over the jungle. Centrally located at the Old Dutch Bridge, it is necessary to book ahead to get a table near the edge of the forest. Leave room for the desserts, as the chocolate cheesecake and lemon tart are both true works of art. bridgesbali.com
Jalan Raya Campuhan, Ubud
This four-level open-air restaurant overlooks a jungle- clad ravine and raging river. Not only does the restaurant serve excellent Indonesian and western dishes, it also houses a shop with textiles, jewellery, tribal artefacts and collectables. Try their famous apple pie.
Jalan Raya Campuhan, Ubud
Abe-Do Organic Warung
Nyoman and his lovely wife Sri run this organic café serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. The Balinese chicken curry with subtle local spices is delicious. Jalan Tirta Tawar, Ubud
Things to do
Rent a bike
Exploring the island by bicycle
is a unique experience, enabling you to fully take in the people, surroundings and aromas. Several companies offer rental bikes, such as Banyan Tree Bike Tours, which organises tours to the terraced rice fields, temples
and more amazing sites. cyclinginbali.com
Jalan Raya Sayan, Ubud
Photography & Cultural Tour
New Zealand-born photographer David Metcalf takes you to traditional markets, remote villages, hidden temples and dramatic landscapes only known to locals. Just as much cultural as photographic, so you’re also welcome without a camera. davidmetcalfphotography.com Jalan Wenara Wana (Monkey Forest Road) 11a, Ubud
The Traveling Spoon concept links cultural cuisine with curious travellers and allows you to experience Balinese culture and hospitality in a home setting. travelingspoon.com
Murni’s Tamarind Spa
Located in the heart of Ubud, this beautiful spa in quiet tropical gardens offers aromatherapy massages, traditional Balinese boreh herbal scrubs and more. murnis.com
Jalan Ubud Raya, Ubud
Sanur Jewellery Making
At the end of the day, you will have crafted your own unique necklace, key chain or earrings. Includes a lovely healthy lunch. sanurjewellerystudio.com Jalan Kanda, Sanur
Places to stay
Bamboo resort on the edge of the jungle. Take a shower in the outdoors, surrounded by the sounds of nature. The sunset is dramatic, overlooking a massive jungle gorge and thundering river. bambuindah.com
Banjar Baung, Desa Sayan, Ubud
A private villa in the rice fields, where in-house meals are prepared by your own cook. The massive yoga platform offers splendid jungle and rice-field views. Full spa and massage menu available. villadamee.com
Jalan Pejeng Kelod, Ubud
Lovely resort in the hills, with stunning views of Mount Agung, Bali’s sacred mountain. Includes a natural-stone pool and an open-air tropical restaurant and bar. It is close to the artist’s village of Keliki. alamsari.com
Jalan Raya Dalem, Tegalalang
The next day, my body tells me it is time to take a rest. I book 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, drinking mango lassies. 46 years later, Murni still lovingly presides over her dream creation on the jungle-clad Campuan Gorge above the Wos River. The stellar-rated Tamarind Spa is the latest addition to Murni’s business. Under a beautiful tamarind tree, I find out that my massage therapist, Kartini, was the former personal therapist of the President of the Seychelles.
After a welcome drink, cold towel and foot ritual, Kartini starts to weave her therapeutic magic on me. She begins with an hour-long traditional massage, deeply relaxing, mind- soothing and muscle-relieving. A full-body exfoliation follows, with a fragrant green-tea scrub and a yoghurt rub down. After that heavenly treatment, my skin feels softer than that of a baby. I end up soaking in a warm bath with multi-coloured flower petals floating on the water’s surface. Finally, after a pot of organic herbal tea and fresh tropical fruit, I leave feeling relaxed as can be.
My next rejuvenating mission is yoga.
On every street corner in Ubud, a yoga studio seems to offer the latest trendy classes, such as power yoga, flying yoga, warrior yoga, pranayama and kundalini-tantra yoga. I
find myself walking towards the Sari Organik pathway, which is 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 is. This easy-flow yoga class caters to everyone’s anatomy and ability, and because we start our class with a short self-introduction, Sheila knows our levels and adjusts to these.
Our small group of yogis is comprised of people from Japan, Sweden, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and the Netherlands. As I ease into my gentle-flow yoga class, my view is framed by three stunning volcanic peaks fanning out from the yoga platform, and the terraced lush rice fields spread out before me like a living green carpet. As I practice my yoga poses, I am accompanied by the soft rhythmic sounds of the jungle that surrounds Ubud, which seem in sync with the mantras we recite. Immersed in my serene surroundings and yoga moves, I truly understand why Bali is nicknamed the Island of Peace, or the Morning of the World.
As I practice my yoga poses, I am accompanied by the soft rhythmic sounds of the jungle
In the late afternoon, I head off for another jungle experience. And as the sun sets across the rice fields of Lokaserena village, on the outskirts of Ubud, I am welcomed into Kadek’s home. He is a so-called Traveling Spoon host, welcoming travellers to share lunch or dinner at his home. Traveling Spoon is a new concept sweeping through Asia like wildfire, offering a beautiful cultural connection over food.
On arrival, I am taken on a tour through Kadek’s orchard and meet his two enormous pigs and a lone brown cow. Dinner is a succulent affair, with sizzling chicken satay on bamboo sticks and steamed tuna cooked in banana leaves, accompanied with a pile of fresh organic vegetables from Kadek’s garden.
Our meal is finished off with a wonderful traditional black rice pudding including
fresh coconut cream.
The next morning is dedicated to exploring the spiritual heart of Bali, by going to one of the many timeless temples. Gunung Kawi is my temple of choice, which is located only 20 minutes from Ubud. I decide to visit this ancient 10th-century temple complex early at 7 a.m., which allows me some solitude and
a few quiet, reflective hours before the tourist buses arrive. I meet Wayan, the temple sweeper, near the entrance and he offers to take me to some lesser-known parts of the complex. “I’ll show you the way to a waterfall and a hidden temple, and we will pass by some very old rice fields.” I eagerly take Wayan up on his kind offer, and he explains how the terraced rice fields, which grow right in the temple itself, date back to the 9th century and are now
listed as UNESCO World Heritage.
The misty jungle clings to the edges of the steeply terraced rice fields, and the magic of this ancient site is caught in the early morning light, which filters softly through the dense jungle track. As we walk along a small path, Wayan points out the waterfall, which is set back off the trail. The crystal clear waters tumble over a deep chasm. The sounds of the falls are muffled by the extremely dense forest undergrowth. “We won’t walk to this waterfall,” Wayan says gently. “We will just observe it from here.”
Soon, we arrive at a series of open doorways, chiselled from the rock, which stand in a straight line symbolically representing an open door. “A door to the other world,” Wayan says with
a smile. Near the caves is a shrine, dedicated to King Anak Wungsu, the ruler of Bali and Java in the 11th century. We spend the rest of the morning walking in the shadows of the four seven-metre-high temple tombs known
as the Queens’ Tombs, honouring the king’s less important wives. The five Royal Tombs across the river are to commemorate the king himself and his four favourite consorts. Wayan is excellent company, highly informative and takes his cue to go back to sweeping, when he feels I am ready to be left alone to soak in the mystic vibe of the temple complex.
While Wayan continues with his morning sweeping routine, very happy to have been interrupted by a lone traveller, I reflect on the beautiful Balinese people I have encountered, whether by bicycle or leaning on a broomstick. The famed Island of the Gods breathes with an even rhythm and indeed warm-heartedly welcomes the curiosity of a stranger eager to find out more about its way of life, history and, above all, true essence.