Tucked into the Balinese highlands, in the midst of long and lush flora, gently-flowing rivers, and cooling skies, lies Ubud, Bali’s cultural capital. On previous trips to Bali, we’ve only gone to Ubud on day trips perusing silver, batik and wood carving shops while baking in the afternoon heat, stopping to have a kopi es (iced coffee) until we’d gathered enough energy to venture out again. We’d have a grand old time at the monkey forest, or partake in a popular locals’ pastime, such as dining at Ibu Oka’s (for more detail on that, check out one of my previous posts: The Freaky, The Fresh, and the Fabulous).
But listening to other travellers describe how peaceful, even magical, it is to actually stay in and around Ubud made us think differently for this trip. There were stories of incredibly private villas with glorious pools set in the middle of lush rice fields, with a myriad of spa resorts and retreats steps away, where you could rejuvenate, meditate and no-doubt exfoliate yourself to a temporary Nirvana. Many people swear Ubud is the ‘real’ Bali, so we thought we’d give it a try.
We arrived via transport from Seminyak, about an hour away. Our destination was a villa in the outskirts of Ubud proper, in an area called Penestanan. Once our driver figured out how to find our rather elusive and hidden villa, it was crazy to think we could actually have missed it. I took one look at the entrance’s 100 or so steep (and I mean steep) stone stairs and said to Cam, “How are we going to get our suitcases up there?” He pointed to the two frail-looking Balinese women who greeted us on the street and said, “That’s how.” OK – I had to see this.
Without hesitation, each woman took a 50-pound suitcase of ours and placed them ever so gently on their heads. And up the stairs they went. And up. And up some more. By the halfway point, I was panting from just carrying my beach bag. Watching these women, I was respectfully humbled. Who needs bootcamp, anyway?
The villa is called Rumah Cinta, which translates to the house made out of love. It was humongous – built to contain at least a couple of families. In fact, they closed off half of the house so the two of us occupied the newer half. The place had all the right things: a large pool and an open-air, stone-built shower (the greatest thing EVER) for starters. It was simply an awe-inspiring place, somehow mystic, comprised of beautiful traditional Balinese architecture as shown in the pic below, which just happened to be above an alcove in our gardens:
(There were so many large and small touches like this that every day we seemed to discover a new gem or another – including many shrines on the property, which received daily offerings.)
Shortly after we settled in, it started raining unlike anything I’ve ever seen or heard. Not the typical long, misty, all-day affairs we get at home. No, it was one of those tropical rainstorms that give little warning and a lot of result: big, hard drops that render you completely drenched almost immediately, umbrella or no.
Our timing was spectacular: getting caught right in the middle as we were walking back from the supermarket. It was so ridiculously loud and intense that we laughed most of the way… until the aforementioned 100 steps, where we slopped and slipped as we juggled bags and umbrellas all the way up. Despite this, it was a lovely respite from the from dusty, scorching streets of Seminyak. Once somewhat dry, we tucked in for a night of watching the rain from our balcony, relaxing, reading, and drinking Bali Hai beer. We finally succumbed to a long, deep sleep to the tune of a VERY loud singer – what we originally thought was a frog and then later learned it was actually a large gecko – and dreamt of green phosphorescent fireflies (which we really did see – very cool).
View of our villa grounds from the master bedroom balcony during a rainstorm.
We woke up early that first morning and breakfasted at Ibu Putu’s warung, a local’s restaurant just down the path. Ketut, the man whose family manages the villa, met us there to help us prepare for our first-ever Balinese wedding. He had invited us to his brother-in-law’s wedding about five minutes after we arrived. Although we were initially taken somewhat aback, we quickly learned that it’s considered a bit sophisticated to have foreigners at your wedding, especially as we were in the (relative) Balinese sticks. Whatever the case, we were only too happy to oblige to attend as very pale ornaments. Ketut dressed us in layers of fancy sarongs and sashes – required for entering holy sites and temples – and off we went with another couple hailing from – weirdly enough – Edmonton, Alberta.
Ketut led the way through the village, and once at the family compound, we were greeted warmly by the betrothed couple, who then promptly disappeared to adorn themselves in elaborate dress and makeup.
Then we proceeded to wait. And wait. Two hours, many cups of sweet tea, spicy satay, rambutan (a favourite of Cam’s) and several suspicious-looking jellies later, the young couple emerged, snapping us both out of our near-comatose state. The bride and groom then led a procession through the streets to her family’s home for more visiting and eating. As the actual ceremony was not for another several hours, we decided to bow out at that point.
Since we were only in Ubud for three nights, we decided to do yet another thing we hadn’t done before: walk through the Ubud countryside (translation: vast rice fields). While attempting to follow a route suggested in one of our guidebooks (the directions left a bit to be desired), we made a few wrong turns, one in particular that set off a neighbourhood dog in a fit of snarling barks, chasing us back up the slope (much to its owner’s delight).
The trek took about three hours, during which we sighted rice field after rice field, flooding, harvesting, a river gorge and an intricate irrigation system, scarecrows comprised of a combination of stalks, metal and garbage, and miniature shrines. Finally the crooked stone and dirt path spit us out, sweaty, hot and dirty, about 1000 metres from where we were staying. Very convenient.
Although you can pretty much get anything you need in Ubud – massages, manicures, health retreats, yoga studios, sweet organic cuisine – really, there is no need. The place itself is enough – serene and beautiful in its nature alone. It envelopes and captures you with its beauty and raw nature. (Not to mention you could hide out in a warung/homestay and pretty much disappear altogether for months on the cheap.)
I can’t really articulate properly how I felt in Ubud. Some people may describe it as a spiritual connection. Others would say my aura agreed with it, or some other such nonsense. All I know is I felt quiet. I could just clamber up to our rooftop terrace (where the feature photo of this post was taken) and stare into the surroundings all day. Just watch life go by. I felt like I didn’t need to talk, or even think all the time. I felt serene. Or maybe I found something there I haven’t found anywhere else: peace.