Bikes, Barong, and Blessings; My Ubud Experience

A Balinese Prayer Offering
A Balinese Prayer Offering

I’m sitting in the Bali airport waiting for my midnight flight to Korea, where I have a days layover, then home to New York.  My last few days in Bali have been memorable and I will try to share as much as possible in this post.   Apologies for the length.

A fter a long drive from the Menjangan hotel last Saturday, we arrived in Ubud, the cultural capital of Bali, and I quickly realized how diverse this tiny island can be.  From the beaches and party scene of Kuta and Legian, to the secluded isolation of the national park in the West, to the artsy, holistic, bohemian vibe that is Ubud, Bali definitely has something for everyone.  The ride to Ubud was eventful with our driver stopping at Lake Buyan again, only this time we spent a little more time there hanging out with the local animals.

Hanging with the local lizard
Hanging with the local lizard
Is that Dracula?
Is that Dracula?

Then, a little further down the road, we stopped for lunch overlooking the rice fields.  Though the food left much to be desired, the views were fantastic.

View from Lunch
View from Lunch

About ten minutes later we found ourselves at a coffee plantation where the big thing is Luwak coffee. (Also, every time we got in a car with a new driver for the remainder of the trip he tried to take us to a coffee plantation- this is definitely along the tourist circuit.) Essentially, the Luwak (what we call a Mongoose) eats the coffee bean and while it is being digested, it gives it a good flavor and takes away a lot of the caffeine.  The Luwak then poops out the beans and they are opened and ready to be brewed.  Apparently this is the most sought after and expensive coffee in the world.  After trying it, I’m not sure why.  It was good enough, but very much resembled an Italian expresso, which costs about 1/5th the price.

Luwak Coffee
Luwak Coffee
Michelle drinking the Luwak Coffee
Michelle drinking the Luwak Coffee

As we started to see art galleries and designer clothing stores dotting the streets, I knew we were approaching Ubud.  By the time we pulled onto Jl. Raya Ubud, the main hub that runs through the center of town, we had already passed swarms of boutiques selling art, carvings, sculptures, clothing, and anything else you could think of.

We arrived at Nick’s Hidden Cottages, a nice hotel located a short walk from the main drag, but far enough away where it is quiet and peaceful.  You have to get dropped off at the sign on the road, then walk through rice paddies to get to the hotel, which is decorated in traditional Balinese fashion and has a shrine to Ganesh, my favorite Hindu god, in its center.  We spent the first night just roaming around the streets of Ubud, ducking in and out of stores, and wandering our way through the art market where I saw a few paintings that I thought would look good in my bedroom.

View from Nick's Hidden Cottages
View from Nick’s Hidden Cottages
View from the room
View from the room
Ganesha Shrine
Ganesha Shrine

Our second day in Ubud, was much more eventful.  I had booked a bicycling tour with Banyan Tree Bike Company mainly because it was recommended on Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet as the least touristy.  There were only eight of us on the tour; two French women and a super nice family from Switzerland, and the entire time we saw zero westerners.  The day was adventurous for no other reason than that the moment we hopped on our bikes and started pedaling, the skies opened up and it began to rain.  And I don’t mean a light drizzle, I mean it was raining buckets! Monsoon like!  So much for it being the dry season.  Fortunately, it did not rain the entire time, and to be honest it was rather fun to be biking in the rain, except for the fact that part of the ride was through single track trails that went through rice paddies, with water and mud on both sides of you.  At one point, I lost my bearings, my bike slipped out from under me, and boom…I went flying into the rice paddy!  Somehow though, I didn’t mind; it all seemed part of the experience.  The day was a great success, and we had an awesome tour guide who taught us a lot about Balinese culture.  Here’s a few interesting (or not, you decide) things we learned along the tour:

Marriage: Balinese culture is Paternal, meaning when a woman marries she moves into her husband’s family compound.  The ultimate goal is to have a son so as to pass on the land, so much so that if a man and woman have two children, both of whom are daughters, the man is allowed to marry again in order to have a son.

Rabbies: In 2008 there was a massive outbreak of rabies.  Before then, every Balinese family had a dog, but after the outbreak, families wanted nothing to do with these poor animals.  Today, there are thousands of wild dogs roaming the streets of Bali looking for food.  The government has provided a free vaccination for rabies, but doctors pretend they are all out of it and force people to go to private doctors and hospitals where the price is extremely high.

Cremations:  A cremation is the most important ceremony in Bali, but it differs for class. (The second most important ceremony is a wedding)  Only the wealthy can afford a private cremation because the tower is extremely expensive.  So the wealthy have one tower per person.  The lower and middle classes cannot afford this so they partake in mass cremations that take place every four or five years.  When a person from the lower and middle class dies, they are buried in the ground until the time for the mass cremation arrives and the bodies are dug up.  There is usually one tower for 100 people.

Garbage:  As you drive around the island you notice that there is a lot of “rubbish” lining the streets at times.  Our guide explained that there are garbage collectors who are paid by the government, but it is a low paying job so they don’t do it very often.  He also explained that the Balinese have a bad habit of throwing garbage on the streets, though he did say that is starting to change.

Stealing:  Stealing is considered extremely sinful in Balinese culture, to the point where if one is caught stealing another’s chicken, the whole village would beat the thief to death.  But, our guide explained that today, “it is not okay anymore to kill, so now we beat them almost to death, then take them to the hospital.”  Interesting.

Our guide also explained that today, almost 70% of Balinese people work in tourism so the villages are emptied out during the day.  Luckily for us, the few villages we biked through were full of extremely friendly people going about their daily lives.  We biked for about three hours before we stopped off at another coffee plantation; again, this seems to be the thing to do in and around Ubud.  We all enjoyed some more tastings of coffees and teas, with the red rice tea being my favorite.  Afterwards, we biked another ten minutes or so when we reached the edge of a field of rice paddies.  Our guide explained that this would be the end of the bike ride and we were to now have lunch at the owner, Baji’s house.  It was still raining off and on and the paths across the rice fields were narrow and muddy, with menacing mud and swamps on both sides, yet when he asked us if we wanted to drive or hike, we all chose the latter.  Though there were a few close calls and I envisioned my camera and buttocks going flying into the muddy waters more than once, we all made it safely to Bagi’s beautiful house where lunch was awaiting us.

Rice Paddies
Rice Paddies
Bali Bike tour
Bali Bike tour
Some local we met along our hike through the rice fields
Some local we met along our hike through the rice fields
Hiking over the river..yikes!
Hiking over the river..yikes!

That evening, tired from a long day of biking and hiking, we decided to just take it easy and stroll along the main drag of Ubud haggling for souvenirs to bring back home.  Every night in Ubud one can find traditional Balinese dancing at one of the many palaces or temples.  We bought tickets to the Legong of Mahabrat Epic which was performed in the Ubud Palace, home of the royal family.  The music was haunting at times, and so was the facial expressions of many of the dancers as they silently acted out the epic with detailed choreographed moves.

Barong Dance
Legong Dance
Legong Dance
Legong Dance
Legong Dance
Legong Dance

The next day we hiked up our road to visit the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary which is inhabited by hundreds of little monkeys, some rather cranky, who are more than willing to attack someone if they have food on them.  Still, they are cute.

Monkey Forest
Monkey Forest

After our visit to the Monkey forest, we ventured out of Ubud to the local village of Mas, known for woodcarvings and mask making.  For whatever reason, throughout my travels I have developed a fascination with masks and musical instruments; not the easiest of souvenirs to lug home with you.  Needless to say, I was super excited to visit this little town and go into some of the workshops of the mask makers.  When the driver dropped us off on the main street, I was a little nervous at first that this was a mistake, but sure enough as we walked along, we came across many wooden signs directing us into stores and workshops of local woodcarvers.  The first shop we came across was run by a little woman named Sura Nadi, whose family’s workshop lied just behind her store.  Here, I bought a really cheap mask of Barong; the spirit to ward off evil spirits in Balinese folklore.  We looked around and promised the lady we’d come back, because Michelle had her eye on a wood carved statue of Buddha.  We walked around some more when I found a man’s workshop full of masks.  There were so many and they were so beautiful and frightening and weird and spectacular, I couldn’t make up my mind.  He then took us back through his workshop and family compound into a room where he paints the masks and I found the perfect, hand carved, custom painted Barong Mask.

By my mask in Mas Village
Buying my Barong mask in Mas Village

We continued on and found our way down a narrow lane where a woman invited us up into her husband Ketut’s showroom filled with many wood carvings and masks where Michelle bought a Buddha mask/statue.  When we asked him where the Museum of Masks and Puppets was, he explained it was about a mile away and that he would take us “one by one” on his motor bike.  We asked how much, but he waved his hand at us and said”no, no, no,  it is free” and proceeded to get his son to join us and together these two kind souls zipped us through the back streets of Mas until we arrived at the museum.  The museum was unlike any I have visited, with a collection of masks and puppets from all over Indonesia, Asia, and even Italy.  Very cool, and somewhat creepy.

Michelle and Ketut
Michelle and Ketut
Mask and Puppet Museum
Mask and Puppet Museum

After the museum, we managed to score rides on the back of motor bikes with two of the museum’s workers back to Ketut’s workshop.  We had noticed a sign for Babi guling (suckling pig) earlier and wanted to try this Balinese specialty.  When we tried to enter the building where we saw the sign, Ketut came out and laughed at us, explained it was for weddings and directed us to a little Warung around the corner across from the giant Banyan tree.  We sat down and ordered two Babi gulings; very delicious and spicy, washed down with a cold Bintang.  Delicious.

After lunch we eventually made it back to Sura Nadi’s store where Michelle bought a rather large wood carving of Buddha.  Good luck getting that home!

The following day, Michelle was not feeling well (perhaps from the suckling pig street food), so I awoke early and headed out for a hike outside the town along a pathway ridge that rises up along the Sungai river.  It was early morning and I was able to see the sun coming up above rice paddies, women giving offerings in front of stores and temples, and children heading off to school.

Sunrise Trekking
Sunrise Trekking

The rest of the day was filled with a visit to Goa Gajah, known as the elephant caves, and a visit to Tirta Empul temple, which literally means temple of water springs.  The elephant cave temple dates back to the ninth century, and is one of the most visited sights in Ubud.  After checking out the cave itself, with the temple of Ganesha inside, I found my way down a flight of stairs onto a pathway that led into the jungle a bit and happened upon a little temple with a kind Hindi woman tending it. I gave up an offering and we prayed together.

Praying at the Elephant Cave Temple
Praying at the Elephant Cave Temple
Elephant Cave Temple
Elephant Cave Temple

The Temple of Tirta Empul was equally as impressive, with a huge bath of sacred springs that Hindus come to bathe themselves in.

Water Springs Temple
Water Springs Temple
Devote Family at Water Springs Temple
Devote Family at Water Springs Temple

Today was my last day in Bali, and it was one of the best.  We woke early, packed our belongings, said goodbye to the delightful and friendly staff at Nick’s Hidden Cottages, and waited for our driver to arrive.  Our first stop; a traditional Balinese spiritual healer named Cakorda Rai.  Known as a Balian, a medicine man, or a Shaman, Cakorda Rai’s practiced traditional Balinese medicine at his compound/house in Singapu; a tiny village that sits about twenty minutes outside of Ubud.  We contemplated going to visit Ketut Lyer, the Balian of Eat, Pray, Love fame, but decided against it when everyone we consulted said he basically says the same thing to everyone who sees him, charges 30 U.S. dollars a visit, and the line to see him runs around the block with fans of the book.  Instead, our guide took us to Cakorda who is also popular in Ubud, but is not nearly as well known as Ketut.  There were a few other people waiting when we arrived at his house and to be completely honest, I was a little frightened at first when the man he was “healing” was lying on the ground in the open air compound and Cakorda was poking his feet with some pointy object that did not look too pleasant.  It did not ease my fears to watch the patient jolt around every time he was poked, though I was warned that whatever consultation or healing the Balian did would be in full view of all his other patients.   Nevertheless, I decided to go ahead and speak with the him, and I have to say Cakorda Rai was one of the kindest, most gentle of men I have yet to meet.  I spoke with him about my family history and fear of eventually developing cancer, and he gave me sound advice that even western doctors couldn’t argue with.  He then proceeded to examine me by feeling around my neck and head and having me lay down and poking around all parts of the body, particularly my feet. (Presumably checking my blood, pancreas, hormones, bones, etc.)  He gave me a blessing and reminded me not to let my fears get the best of me.  Though my feet hurt for a few moments after he was done, I’m glad I had the chance to meet this incredibly kind soul.

Visiting a Balinese Healer
Visiting a Balinese Healer
Cakorda Rai- Balinese Healer
Cakorda Rai- Balinese Healer
Examination Time
Examination Time

After the Balian, we headed back to Legian where we had left some luggage and had a nice lunch at a resort overlooking the beach.  From here we drove down to the Bukit Peninsula to visit Pura Luhur Uluwatu; a spectacular temple that sits perched upon a cliff overlooking the ocean.  The temple is believed to have been built around 1025 and is dedicated to the spirits of the sea.  The temple itself is impressive, with views of the pounding surf below, not to mention the nasty little monkeys that inhabit the place attacking tourists and grabbing their glasses right off their faces!

Utawatu Temple
Uluwatu Temple
Does this need a caption?
Does this need a caption?
View from Utuwatu Temple
View from Utuwatu Temple

Bali is truly a wonderful place filled with incredibly friendly and generous people, breathtaking scenery, and a long history of culture and art.  I am glad I had the opportunity to visit this amazing island in Indonesia, and hope one day to be lucky enough to be able return.

Uluwatu Temple
Uluwatu Temple

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