Ubud – Our Starting Point
Flower vendor at the Ubud market
Having learned during our research that the Kuta area was very touristy, we made our first destination Ubud which is labeled the spiritual center of Bali. With the cost of travel in Australia expensive, we ended up traveling quickly through the country. Wanting to do things a little slower than in Australia, we decided we would spend a week there so we wouldn’t have to rush through the sites. The laid back appeal of Ubud sounded enticing. Five location changes in less than a month left us feeling a little worn out. When we arrived on Bali we decided to take it easy in Ubud.
Whether you have a week or a month, we recommend you make the effort to visit Ubud. There are many things to do in and around Ubud. No matter whether you are doing independent exploration or with a tour you will find something that suits your interest. Ubud makes a great base for many activities. Because of its location, there seemed to be endless options for things to do. Activities include everything from hiking a volcano to riding bikes through the rice fields. For those who are not seeking adventure but a holistic experience, you can take advantage of the many spas, masseuses, and yoga facilities. Some of the activities we did while staying Ubud were seeing traditional dances, learning to cook, and taking a leisurely walk through the monkey forest. Most hotels will help arrange activities or you can join a tour. There are several tour organizers in town.
Getting to Ubud
There are several options for getting to Ubud. To get to Ubud, you can take the Kura-Kura Bus, hire a driver, or rent a motorbike and drive yourself. Since we were going to Ubud directly from the airport we hired a driver. There are several options but check all their prices and bargain. Bali is notorious for traffic, especially during commute hours, which is when we arrived, so we had to put our excitement of exploring Ubud on hold. Following a three-hour drive, even with our skilled driver Wayan weaving in and out of traffic, we arrived at Y Resort and were greeted with a welcome drink by the friendly staff. It was a pleasant drive, first going through the city and then the countryside so we were able to see a little bit of everything on the way.
Learning a New Culture
Kecak Fire Dance
We would learn during our time on the island that the people of Bali are very spiritual. Bali is almost entirely Balinese Hindu and we felt this most in Ubud. It seemed that everything was celebrated on Bali. The receptionist of our hotel would be celebrating the full moon later in the evening of our check-in. Everyday offerings are given to the gods, placed in front of nearly every business, several were placed around the hotel grounds. If you go to the market, the first sale is considered lucky so you may be able to get a better bargain.
The next day we decided to get a massage so we could begin to work out the stress we had built up over the years of our lives and begin healing our body and soul. After getting traditional Balinese massages, (where they massage your chests or breasts), we then caught the free shuttle from the hotel to downtown. We were dropped off in front of the old royal palace and when we tried to cross the street we were a little shocked by all the motorbikes that passed in front us. What got our attention was how much many people or goods were packed on the bikes. It is not uncommon to see four or five people packed on a motorbike. It seemed there was could be no limit to the volume of people or goods that could fit on a motorbike. I would have never thought an entire family could fit on a bike – mom, dad, and as many as three kids. But we would see it every day to our amazement. More amazing was the age of some of the drivers. Due to lack of public transit we would see elementary school age kids driving them around which was a little shocking since we would never see that back home. By the end of the two months, this would just seem normal.
Penis bottle openers are sold in Ubud, and everywhere on Bali
The main drop-off and pick-up point in the town center is in front of the old Royal Palace. If you are staying in a hotel outside the city, this will become a familiar with this location. Most things are within walking distance from here or you can hire one of the many taxi drivers to take you to another location. Wanting to visit the visitor center located across from the old Royal Palace in central Ubud, we crossed the street as soon we saw a break in traffic. With all the motorbikes whizzing by, it was a little intimidating to just step out into the street and not worry about being hit. We would get used to this way of crossing the street very quickly.
After the visitor center, we went to explore the market located next to it. Walking through the market and just wandering around was a fun experience, how could it not be, when there were penis bottle openers everywhere. Who doesn’t want to own a penis bottle opener? Besides the penis bottle opener, the market is bursting with art, from woodcarvings to paintings. It was fun to window shop, I felt like buying everything. It seemed like we were walking through an open air art gallery, making the temptation to buy a painting hard to resist, but I just couldn’t see lugging one around the world with us. Well, if we ever do stop and settle in the region, we know where to pick up some art at. Having fully enjoyed the market, we headed back to the hotel so we could soak in the fact we were no longer in the comforts of the developed world and things here would be a lot different than what we were used to. For me, this would be the beginning of letting go of the customs and rituals that defined our daily routine of life in the U.S. and starting the process of growing as individuals and citizens of the world.
Sacred Monkey Forest
Ubud Sacred Monkey Forest
Ubud Sacred Monkey Forest
After resting for a couple of days, I headed to the Sacred Monkey Forest while May was getting acupuncture done at Taksu Spa. This was a fun visit; wandering the trails and just observing the monkeys interact with each other. Having learned that the monkeys can become aggressive if you have food, so I passed on buying the bananas that the vendors were selling. I knew that I made a good decision when I saw a girl run by me screaming and throwing the bananas she bought because a monkey was trying to take them; I had to laugh because I thought it was a little funny to watch. It was very peaceful just stand but and watching as the baby monkeys would play with each other, scampering up a tree and jumping from branch to branch while playfully chasing each other. While wandering on one of the trails, I stopped to watch a monkey play and as I stood there I felt the weight of a monkey jump on my back. This made me a little nervous since I didn’t know what it was doing and I didn’t want to make it mad. It was nice that I was able to make a new friend in the forest, but it got bored with me, jumped off and I was free to continue wandering the forest, a little sad my friend had left though. It was a good place to visit for a couple of hours.
Paon Cooking Class
All the yummy Balinese food we learned to cook and eat!
Before we started the trip we decided we would take cooking classes in the different places we visited, so when we return home, we can share what we learned while traveling. I know I could definitely use the help learning to cook as well. So we chose to take some cooking lessons at Paon Cooking Class in Ubud. On the morning of the class, we headed to the market; located near central Ubud, where the locals would typically go and learned about the different ingredients we would need for the dishes we would be learning to make. Popular ingredients sold here specific to the Ubud region are candlenuts (similar to macadamia nuts, but a bit drier), cinnamon sticks (so long), vanilla beans, and various spices. The market was an interesting place to tour with all the different fruits, vegetables, and spices that was offered along with the activity of people going about their business.
Wayan explaining rice cultivation in Ubud
After the market, we were taken to rice fields located on the edge of Ubud where we met up with another Wayan. He explained how each household was provided land by the government so that every member of the family can plant and harvest rice three times a year. Enough to feed the members of the household and maybe a little bit more to sell. Some households, like the one across from where Wayan lived, would have as many as 18 people living in it. In his case, there were only 2. Wayan continued to explain that there are three types of rice that are grown in Bali – white, brown, and red. We then headed to his house where he explained how a traditional family house was set up. Each and every house in Bali would have their own temple and the placement of the rooms is laid out the same. Based on the direction of the entryway placement. He later introduced to us to his “his ex-girlfriend” or now wife Puspa, who would lead the cooking lessons.
Left: Joshua learning to cook, Right: Our instructor Puspa
Tempe Me Goreng
We learned how to make Sate Siap, Tempe Me Goreng, Kacang Me Santok, Kuah Wong, Base Gede, Be Siap Mesanten, Jukut Urab, Peoesan Be Pasih, and Kolak Biu. It was fun to get some quality lessons on how to cook. Even though we learned to cook, did not do any cooking after that since we didn’t have a kitchen, and the food was inexpensive at restaurants. There are so many good options for eating that there was no need to prepare our own food.
Kecak and Barong Dances
At the visitor center, we got a schedule of all the traditional and cultural dances that are performed in Ubud. The schedule lists the time and location of all the dances. You can either buy tickets for the dances at the visitor center, from a reseller on the street, or at the venue itself. Legong dance and Kecak Fire dance are the most popular dances performed in Ubud. We originally chose just to see the Kecak Fire dance but ended up also watching the Barong dance during a day trip tour. The plots for both of these dances centered on two different battles of good vs evil. We enjoyed the Kecak Fire dance, it was a little more unique than the Barong dance, but both were entertaining. Taking in the traditional dances in Ubud happened to be one of our favorite activities on Bali
The Barong & Kris Dance is a traditional Balinese dance drama portraying the eternal battle between good vs. evil from characters in Bali mythology. Barong, is a lion-like creature, is the king of all good spirits and Rangda, is a widowed witch and the queen of all evil spirits. Both are equally revered and worshipped amongst the Balinese Hindus as one cannot exist without the other. The backstory of Barong and Rangda is explained below.
“The story goes that Rangda, the mother of Erlangga, the King of Bali in the tenth century, was condemned by Erlangga’s father because she practiced black magic. After she became a widow, she summoned all the evil spirits [demons and witches] in the jungle, to come after Erlangga. A fight occurs, but she and her black magic troops were too strong that Erlangga had to ask for the help of Barong. Barong came with Erlangga’s soldiers and fight ensued. Rangda cast a spell that made Erlangga soldiers all wanted to kill themselves, pointing their poisoned keris (swords) into their own stomachs and chests. Barong then cast a spell that turned their body resistant to the sharp keris. At the end, Barong won and Rangda ran away.” —Indo.com
The drama we watched is depicted in five acts in Indonesian and features a Balinese gamelan orchestra, Balinese dancers, actors in full traditional costume, and sword-wielding Kris dancers. For those who do not understand Indonesian, there is an English translation that explains what is happening during each act which I have re-written and included below. The original translation was hard to follow and to fully understand the drama, the storyline needs to be understood before watching. The dance show can be viewed daily from 9:30-10:30am in Ubud in the Gianyar area for IDR 100,000 and comes highly recommended to watch to enjoy Balinese culture.
Barong – King of Good Spirits
Barong is the king of good spirits and is portrayed as a fun-loving, lion-like creature with a red head, covered in thick white fur, wearing gilded jewelry adorned with pieces of mirrors. The term barong is derived from local term bahruang which today corresponds to Indonesian word, beruang which means bear. The origins of the Barong are quite uncertain as its origins could be from animist worship before Hinduism appeared when villagers still believed in the supernatural protective power of animals.
Rangda – Queen of Evil Spirits
Rangda, is the mother queen of all the evil spirits with an army of demons and evil witches who practice black magic at her disposal. She is depicted as an old woman, with long and unkempt hair, pendulous breasts and claws, and her face is traditionally portrayed with fanged teeth and a long, protruding tongue.The name Rangda in old Javanese and Balinese language means widow. Rangda’s origin was linked to the legend of Calon Arang, the legendary witch who wrecked havoc in ancient Java during the reign of Airlangga in late 10th century. She is also linked to the legend of divorced and exiled Javanese queen Mahendradatta.
The Barong Drama
Indonesian dancers in traditional outfits with Barong, the king of good spirits.
The dance starts with music by the Balinese Gamelan Orchestra
The monkey and tiger, both friends enter the forest. Three men are seen making and drinking palm wine in the forest and are also servants to Dewi Kunti. They spot a tiger and see it killing a child and the men respond by attacking the tiger to fend it off, but the monkey assists the tiger in the fight. The nose of one of the three men was bitten off and the tiger and monkey escape the scene.
Act 1: Two female dancers who represent the servants of the Rangda search for the servants of Dewi Kunti who are on their way to meet their Patih (Prime Minister).
One of two dancers, also one of Rangda’s servants shows off her intricate hand movements called mudras, or symbolic ritual gestures similar to classical Indian dance.
Act 2: Rangda transforms one of her female servants into a witch (who also looks like Rangda) and starts to fight the servants of Dewi Kunti. Dewi Kunti’s servants manage to escape the Rangda and encounter the mischievous monkey again on the trail. This time they defeated the monkey and they make it safely with Patih to later meet up with Dewi Kunti.
Barong dance is injected with some humor. The servants of Dewi Kunti (right) and Patih (left) kill the monkey who tries to attack them earlier.
Act 3: Dewi Kunti has promised the Rangda to sacrifice Sadewa, her son. A witch appears and ends up possessing Dewi Kunti and she becomes angry and orders the Patih to bring Sadewa into the forest. The Patih is later also possessed by a witch so he does not have pity on Sadewa and continues to take Sadewa into the forest and ties him up to a tree.
Rangda here with Sadewa tied up to the tree
Act 4: Unknown by Rangda, Siwa, a Hindu God appears and grants Sadewa immortality. The Rangda appears ready to kill Sadewa to eat him up, but Sadewa is still alive. Rangda then surrenders and asks Sadewa for redemption and Sadewa agrees and kills the Rangda. The Rangda goes to heaven.
Left: Rangda witch with Sadewa, Right: One of the servants of Dewi Kunti
Act 5: One of the servants of the Rangda called Kalika comes up before Sadewa and asks him to redeem herself too, Sadewa refuses. Kalika gets angry and transforms herself into a boar to fight Sadewa. The boar is defeated. She then transforms herself into a bird but is defeated again. At last she changes herself into a Rangda. Sadewa meditates and then he changes himself into a Barong. Still the Rangda seems to be too powerful for Barong to defeat Rangda and the fight doesn’t seem to end. Followers of the Barong, Kris-wielding dancers appear and help Barong fight Rangda. Rangda puts a spell on the followers to turn their swords to kill themselves, but Barong casts another spell to make them immortal. Ultimately the fight ends and Rangda is scared away.
Kris Dancers stabbing themselves with the keris sword.
Where to Watch
Jambe Budaya, Jalan Pasekan, Batubulan, Gianyar
Phone: (0361) 2770291
Cost: 100,000 IDR
Other Traditional Balinese Dances
Another equally enchanting traditional Balinese dance to watch is the Kecak dance where hundreds of half-clothed men chant the word kecak to a melody they create with their own voices while the Hindu Balinese epic of Ramayana is portrayed by beautiful Balinese dancers. One show in Central Ubud even had a man who kicked fire under a trance.