Getting A Culture Fix In Ubud


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Asia » Indonesia » Bali » Ubud
October 29th 2017
Published: December 2nd 2017
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Legong DancerLegong DancerLegong Dancer

With the traditional gamelan (orchestra) in the background.
Bali. Everyone has been there. A common perception of the place and certainly one that I had, was that it was a place full of obnoxious young Aussies and Kiwis there to get f*cked up. The Magaluf of Oceania. It is part of the reason why perhaps I have taken so long to get here.
Indonesia also doesn't seem so different to Malaysia, so it perhaps didn't excite me too much either. But you can of course escape the crowds to see other parts of the country that are apparently beautiful and relaxing, so it seemed like a nice, logical stop for me on the way back home - the last country I will stop at on this epic journey.

Japan had worn me out as have the previous two years and to be honest I almost didn't want to come here at all, wanting instead to head straight home from Japan. But I've got through twenty-five months now, I'm sure I can get through one more. Besides, everything has been arranged and paid for - I just have to get through it. God, I'm making a holiday sound like an ordeal.

There was time for one last cock-up
In The Rice FieldsIn The Rice FieldsIn The Rice Fields

I may have trespassed to bring you this photo.
in Tokyo however.
I was planning on spending the night at Narita International Airport as I had a super-early flight in the morning and I saw a chance to save money on accommodation. Pissing around at the hostel, I finally thought that I should probably get to the airport at around 10pm.
I knew that there were shuttle buses that headed to the airport from Tokyo Station throughout the night - I had however overlooked the fact that they became less frequent and double the price after 11pm. I had just missed the last one.
I was furious. If only I had done my homework on this properly, I would have saved myself ¥1,000 and another all-nighter. So for the third time in six nights, I wondered the cold streets of Tokyo in the early hours trying to kill time.
When it was finally time to board my bus at 1am, I then found out that they had separate buses for men and women, which I was surprised by as I thought the scourge of sexual harassment wasn't that prevalent in Japan. It was ladies first, as the male bus departed after a fifteen minute delay. Perhaps typically, the bus staff were very particular about
Batuan ArtBatuan ArtBatuan Art

A close up of a painting done in the local Batuan style.
where we should stand to wait for the bus and where our luggage should be placed before our bus arrived. I found it all comically OCD and OTT.
Arriving at the airport at around 2.30am, I had missed out on all the comfortable sleeping spots the airport might have had, even the semi-comfortable ones. The place wasn't as big as I thought it would be and only about half of it was open to the loads of passengers who like me, were pitching up here overnight. So I ended up camping out on the terminal floor and got about one hour of sleep.

I slept in-and-out most of the way to Bali and once I arrived, there were long queues for immigration, customs, money exchange and the ATMs. Then there were the hustling swarms of persistent, desperate taxi drivers awaiting me as I came out of the arrivals hall. It has been a while since I have had to put up with this and it wasn't a pleasant experience as I had at least two or three guys following me everywhere I went as I tried to arrange an Uber. The annoying thing about trying to do this at
Ubud Kelod Community HallUbud Kelod Community HallUbud Kelod Community Hall

The hall where we watched the legong and barong dances was in itself a fine example of traditional Balinese architecture.
an airport is that there is never any wifi at the pick-up point and you have to keep walking back to the terminal to get signal to see where your driver is at; all the while being pestered by seedy-looking taxi drivers. In the end I had no choice bu t to be coerced into a ride with one of them - it seems that there is an unofficial ban on Uber and other app-based transport schemes and it seemed that my driver was never going to get through into the airport. My experience dealing with hustlers got me a good deal for the two-hour ride to Ubud in the end although I was a bit peeved that there isn't a cheaper way or any sort of public transport to get there.

As I looked out the window on my ride to Ubud, I noticed that Bali didn't seemed as developed as Malaysia, the one country I thought I could compare Indonesia to. Parts of the island actually felt a lot like India, with small street stalls and ramshackle housing. Development really seems to have spread right across the island from the main beach and tourist zones down in
Streets Of UbudStreets Of UbudStreets Of Ubud

A typical alley in Ubud, lined with restaurants, shops, cafes, spas and bars.
Kuta - it seems like all the rural island villages have gradually been joined together in one big urban sprawl. The narrow, traffic-choked roads were sadly never meant for so much traffic. It would've been really interesting to see what Bali was like thirty or even just twenty years ago.
Arriving in Ubud, I thought the place resembled a much busier and less hilly version of Ella. It had a familiar yet unique feel; a place where if you ignored the incessant traffic and the constant rumbling of motorbikes, was that classic, exotic, one-with-nature, yoga-retreat, spa-sanctuary haven that you imagine a woman might dream of when stuck in the office on a miserable, wintery Thursday evening. There were definitely shades of Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang about the place. The traditional architecture here evoked Thailand and Cambodia yet is unique - same same but different.
I was also surprised to discover that Hinduism is actually the main religion on Bali - this was reflected in the offerings of flowers put out the front of every shop and restaurant, similar (but different) to how you saw rangoli drawn outside many houses in India.

Absolutely exhausted, I was just looking forward to a
Nasi CampurNasi CampurNasi Campur

The national dish; rice accompanied by a variety of local sides sometimes including sate (satay), tempe (soft bars of soybeans stuck together) and gado gado.
good and early night's sleep; not to be constantly awoken by bedbug bites. For f*ck's sake. Again. It's the twentieth time I've got them on my trip in the last two years and the twelfth time in Asia alone. There isn't much you can do when this happens as it's not good hostel etiquette to change beds in the middle of the night. I was too exhausted to move anyway. So I just killed whatever bugs I could find and put them in a cup for presentation to the owner the next morning. The bites stopped at around 7am which meant I proceeded to sleep literally all day; I got up at around 5pm thinking that all I wanted to do was call time on this whole trip and go back home, where there are no bedbugs.

Heading out to find some dinner, I managed to find a locals-only makasan. The grilled and fried chicken I got here was good and cheap though not too filling. I found another cheap place on the way home where I tried gado gado; boiled vegetables with peanut sauce and that could've done with more peanut sauce. For £1 and a second dinner
Pura Dalem AgungPura Dalem AgungPura Dalem Agung

This is the central temple inside the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary.
though, I wasn't complaining.

I finally saw daylight in Ubud on my third full day here. The Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary fifty metres from the hostel was nice and atmospheric with moss growing over the old bridges, statues and temples; it had a real Tomb Raider feel to it and reminded me of Ta Prohm in Angkor. While the monkeys jumped on and attacked many a tourist (usually if they were carrying anything resembling food), the macaques thankfully left me alone. While amusing and sometimes interesting to watch, I've seen so many macaques on my travels that it's not really a big deal for me.
I then went to the Agung Rai Museum Of Art. Now I don't always go in for art galleries but Ubud is a bit of a nexus not just for local artists but for international ones too. Although there were works by several international artists, local art patron Agung Rai's collection mainly showcases Indonesian talent and there are pieces ranging from the 19th to the 21st century. Local styles are heavily featured including Kamasan and Batuan-style works, which have a lot going on in the paintings. Themes - even in the paintings by international
Agung Rai Museum Of ArtAgung Rai Museum Of ArtAgung Rai Museum Of Art

This gallery had a lovely, Balinese, indoor-outdoor flow.
artists - are mainly focused on local life in Bali, as well as scenes from Hindu epics. Through the paintings, one definitely got a sense of how people lived on the island and what their cultural and religious practices were - and perhaps still are. The works were generally of a world-class technical standard - in particular I liked the works of German Walter Spies and his use of shadow which gave his paintings a real art-deco quality. The museum is part of a large complex which includes a restaurant, a resort hotel and a cultural centre. Wondering around the grounds was delightful and indeed you were even invited to do so. Some of the bungalows looked luxurious.

My hostel wasn't the most social but I nevertheless made friends with Roland from France. We went to check out a Balinese dance performance in the evening, which is supposed to be the cultural highlight for many visitors here - it would certainly round off my day of culture in Ubud.
The performance cast was huge and since the beautifully constructed performance hall was rather empty, there were probably more performers than audience members. Most were in the band which played
Monkey & BarongMonkey & BarongMonkey & Barong

The barong dance is similar to a Chinese lion dance.
traditional instruments such as a local version of a xylophone, flutes and drums known as gongs. They were all women and such an orchestra like this is known as a gamelan. The music was a little haunting and off-key, although Balinese music probably uses completely different scales and keys compared to classical Western music. The arrangements seemed complex and the pieces were long, so overall I was deeply impressed by the gamelan and their music.
As for the dances, we were treated to two types; legong, a dance performed by young women; and barong, a dance performed by a pagan-looking beast which was very similar to Chinese lion dancing. The legongs had a resemblance to Indian dancing with the same kind of head movements and the flashing eyes reminded me a lot of kathikali. The barong involved a monkey - a performer, not one of the macaques from the sanctuary - coming on stage for comedic effect, making a fool of of the barong.
Overall the dances and the music were highly synchronised so I was highly impressed and it really showed how rich and developed local Balinese culture is. For some reason however, I've been really tired the last
Rice TerracesRice TerracesRice Terraces

Many paintings that I saw in the galleries here in Ubud were inspired by scenes just like this.
couple of days despite getting a decent amount of sleep - perhaps the pace of travel in Japan and three all-nighters in six days were starting to take their toll. The music and dancing tends to get a little monotonous and struggles to fully hold your attention, so I was surprised I didn't fall asleep!

Now if one were to come to Ubud and just stay in the town, you'd wonder why anyone would come here to relax. The traffic and its accompanying noise does spoil the vibe in all honesty but thankfully you can get away from it easily enough.
A walk into the countryside reveals beautiful rice fields and the small hamlets whose residents farm them. You can also find homestays and guesthouses out here - some of these retreats are quite lavish - that takes guests away from it all. I did one walk called the Campuhan Ridge Walk which follows a ridge with valleys on either side of it, which provides some decent views and scenery. At the end of the walk are some wonderfully scenic rice terraces; I may have been trespassing while getting amongst them for some good photo ops.

Although I
Gamelan SuaraGamelan SuaraGamelan Suara

This male a cappella orchestra surrounding a candle chandelier provides the music for a kecak performance.
had already seen a Balinese dance performance, I was still interested in seeing another one called kecak, where the music is provided by a male choir chanting like monkeys, seemingly in a trance. Some of these dances involved fire too! It just so happened I walked past a guy selling tickets for a kecak fire dance that night.
Performed inside a temple, a huge chandelier holding candles is the centrepiece of the performance and about no less than fifty shirtless men come out from backstage. They form concentric circles around the chandelier and start chanting, with the most distinctive chant being the "chak-a-chak-a-chak" one that imitates a pack of monkeys. There were many vocal layers to the music, with some of it taking the place of percussion, like some sort of group beatbox. Like the performance the previous night, it was quite complex and impressive as a result. The men in the gamelan suara would sway, raise their arms with spirit fingers, occasionally collapse into lap of the man behind them and sometimes stand up during the performance. Characters would then come out and dance in the same style as the legong I saw the previous night, dressed similarly as
Walking On EmbersWalking On EmbersWalking On Embers

The last part of the kecak performance saw a man kick and walk over piles of embers with his bare feet.
well. There was a bit of acting and theatre too, as the whole performance is supposed to tell a story from the Hindu Ramayana epic. To be honest though, if I hadn't read the story in the pamphlet provided, I would've had no idea what was going on. The whole thing felt a lot like how generic jungle tribes are portrayed in the movies.
At the end, a fire was lit and a man came into the middle of the stage and repeatedly kicked around the embers before two other men would come in and sweep them up into a pile again. At the end, the man was walking on the embers before we was laid down by two other men and sprinkled with water. The dance is supposed to stamp out evil spirits. It was all quite interesting.

I thought it was funny how Bali so far felt familiar despite having never been here before; as well as being very similar visually to other South East Asian cultures, a lot of design that you see around the world with an exotic South East Asian theme has been inspired by Bali. This can range from the use of flowing
Balancing ActBalancing ActBalancing Act

It seems women in developing countries have all mastered this skill; I've seen it in South America, Africa, South East Asia and India.
water features, indoor/outdoor flow, styles of carvings, architecture and the heavy use of plants. About half the restaurants here use all of these elements to give Ubud a luxurious 'big tribal village' feel.

The local people here have also been genuinely warm and friendly, which surprised me. However I've not met too many Indonesians to be fair and I've certainly not met any Balinese people before; the closest people I've met to Indonesians and/or Balinese are the Malays, who aren't the friendliest but perhaps the Malays really aren't close enough as a people or a culture for me to be basing my expectations of Indonesians and Balinese on them.

When I eventually get home in just over three weeks, I will be spending my first Christmas home in New Zealand for eleven years...which means the first time I've had to do present shopping for eleven years.
I've always seen present shopping as a chore, but something that has to be done very thoughtfully. I would ideally liked to have got gifts for everyone from all over the world but that would've meant carrying them all around with me for up to two years...but I pretty much got it
The Sacred Monkey Forest SanctuaryThe Sacred Monkey Forest SanctuaryThe Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary

This sanctuary of macaques has three holy temples within it, including this Tomb Raider-esque one.
all my shopping done in Ubud on my last day and for reasonable prices too! I was satisfied with my day's work.

Last but not least, Ubud is a wellness mecca and there were myriad spas and (above board) massage parlours on my street. Therefore it just wouldn't have felt right to have left Ubud without having a Balinese massage. The Balinese massage is a bit more 'traditional' in that you lie face-down on a massage table with a face hole and that oil is involved. Apart from right at the start when the masseuse mounted me to dig her knees into my back, the overall experience was very much like what you'd expect in any Western massage parlour. Except that it was just £5 for an hour. Overall it was much gentler than the Thai massage I had in Bangkok and with no question of anything untoward happening. If anything the masseuse could have pressed down a little harder. But in the end, I was in a very relaxed state and my aching backpacker bones and muscles definitely needed it.

Having now got my culture fix in Ubud, it was now time to get a beach and
MacaquesMacaquesMacaques

Monkeys chilling out inside the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary.
partying fix in the famed Gili Islands!

Sampai jumpa lagi!
Derek


Additional photos below
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Legong DancersLegong Dancers
Legong Dancers

Note the beautiful stage behind the dancers.
Kecak DancersKecak Dancers
Kecak Dancers

Kecak dancers dance around the chandelier in the middle.
In A TranceIn A Trance
In A Trance

The members of the gamelan suara chant as if they are in a trance.
Taking A LapTaking A Lap
Taking A Lap

Members of the gamelan suara take a nap mid-performance in the lap of a colleague.
Rice FieldsRice Fields
Rice Fields

The rice fields just outside of Ubud makes for some lush landscapes.
Fields, Coconut Trees & PathFields, Coconut Trees & Path
Fields, Coconut Trees & Path

Some rural Balinese scenery.
Campuhan Ridge WalkCampuhan Ridge Walk
Campuhan Ridge Walk

A lovely walk along a ridge overlooking two lush valleys.
Luxurious BungalowLuxurious Bungalow
Luxurious Bungalow

Inside the same complex as the Agung Rai Museum Of Art.
Balinese PaintingBalinese Painting
Balinese Painting

Close up of a painting on display at the Agung Rai Museum Of Art.
Walter Spies PaintingWalter Spies Painting
Walter Spies Painting

I love the way Spies has used shadow in all of his paintings.


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