Pocket Guide to Ubud, Bali

Balinese Vibe

It is no secret that Bali vibes are infectious. Your experience starts at Denpasar airport with Balinese wood-carven gates greeting you, and a few steps ahead being showered by floral installation of orchids and ferns that will have you mesmerized before you even step out into this beautiful land.

The airport is a couple of hours drive from Ubud although the roads will draw your attention as you see sculptures based on Hindu mythology, beautiful architecture that adorn houses and stores, and more surprises throughout the way. You know you have arrived in Bali!

Where to stay

Villa Aruna: A 20-minute drive from Ubud, filled with lush greenery, local stores and hidden waterfalls led us to Villa Aruna. Tucked next to a rice field, this property had two bungalows – one larger than the other. We walked past the small garden and water installation, into our villa. Our bedroom view opened to rice fields on one side and our gorgeous bathroom, with an inviting bathtub and an outdoor shower, on the other. The photos on Instagram were indeed real! Cost: INR 4500 a night

Villa Pecatu: Located in the heart of Ubud, right next to the monkey forest, is Villa Pecatu. With a long corridor of rooms, they invite you to a cozy, comfortable space with gorgeous architecture at your doorstep and a nice garden and sit-out across the room. Their eggless pancake was probably the best version I ever had. You will be spoilt for choice when it comes to restaurant, tattoo studios and bars in the area. Cost: INR 2000 a night

Commute in Ubud

The best way to experience Ubud is by renting a two-wheeler bike or motorcycle. Ubud can have a lot of traffic congestions and traveling within Ubud by car can be an extremely painful experience. There are many local stores that will let you rent bikes for INR 500 a day.

Where to eat

Rumi’s Love at Cafe Zest

Gastronomy was at its peak when we were in Ubud. The average café or restaurant serves great food and unless you spend a long time in Ubud it’s hard to sniff out all the local gems only because they are so many in number! Let me also add that this is a haven for Vegans and Vegetarians (aka me!).

Clear Cafe

Some of our favorites included Café Zest, Clear Café, and Hujan Locale. Café Zest has an all-plant based menu which even my meat-eater partner loved; Clear café is a chain of cafes across Bali that serve delicious multi-cuisine food; and Hujan Locale is a high-end restaurant serving local Balinese cuisine.

What to see

Neither did we visit the temples in Bali nor the rice terraces, so what did we do?

Rising paternal instincts 😀

Bali Bird Park: As nature and bird lovers, we spent more than half the day at the Bali bird park. Spread over 2000 sq. meters and boasting of more than 250 bird species, this aviary was a delight. They had bird shows, feeding locations, open areas to chill with different species, and enough to keep you on your toes throughout the day. Favorites included the section with Birds of Paradise and Lori feeding. Least favorite was being bitten by a Rose Cockatoo (but don’t let that stop you)!

Saraswati Temple: Also known as the Lotus Temple due to hundreds of lotuses that adorn the walkway to the temple. We could not enter the temple but only admire the façade. However, every day at 6:30 pm they have local dance performances or acts from Hindu mythology. Balinese architecture is so mesmerizing that you don’t need to be religious to explore the temples, as long as you want to admire some intricate carvings and art from centuries before.

Tegunungan Waterfall: So much fun! Don’t get intrigued by the crowd – once you make your way to the waterfall you will realize that the majority of people are on the sidelines and very few in the shallow waters of the waterfall area. We spent more than a good hour chilling with this huge waterfall spouting and spraying its aqua powers. As you make your way around Ubud you will encounter numerous small waterfalls, so prepare yourself for a hop on, hop off journey. 

AMRA Museum: You cannot see enough of Balinese art and architecture. Every carving, every art piece, and every corner is so aesthetic that you will be drawn by the universe. Walking around AMRA museum’s courtyard and property will transport you to the land of greenery, playground of different levels, sculptures and picture-perfect frames. We did stop for a bite at their restaurant which had a beautiful ambience, but I must admit we weren’t impressed by the flavours.

Ubud Monkey Forest: If you are from India, you are probably striking this off your list but don’t! Set in a natural habitat with old, tall trees, beautiful terrains and monkeys that look like royalty, you will not be disappointed. The Balinese long tailed macaques sport a handsome moustache and beard (females as well) and as long as you don’t tease them they will be civil to you.

What you should know:

Kopi Luwak: Bali is filled with coffee plantations where they serve you different varieties of coffee including the most expensive coffee in the world, Kopi Luwak. Unlike some other countries, Indonesia allows for civet cats to be kept in captivity and they are often kept in terrible conditions, with the tiniest of cages, unhygienic conditions with civets strutting full of anxiety. If you still cannot resist the temptation, Kopi Luwak packaged as “wild civet coffee” is the better option to choose. On a lighter note, we loved the mangosteen tea powder and returned with a couple of bags of this instead!

Birds in captivity: Tropical lands equals the most exquisite birds and Bali is no exception. To our disappointment, as we walked the streets of Ubud we saw many house and store fronts with beautiful birds in captivity. Even outside Ubud, we learned of traditional practices where hornbills and other exotic birds were captured and killed to make costumes which has led to extinction of certain bird species in different parts of Indonesia.

Visiting Temples: As you visit different temples, you will notice signs and rules operated around how you should dress, when you can enter, when you cannot be permitted etc. that it may almost seem uninviting. Be aware of these cultural quirks and don’t let them dampen your spirits as you enter the world of architecture and beauty.

Parting notes:

Spas: Spas and Ubud are synonymous. Make sure you check for options at your stay or google your way to some fantastic massages in natural settings, with waterfalls or rice fields or flowers to soothe you.  

Tattoos: Both my partner and I got our first tattoos, and we were delighted! We would highly recommend Bali Bagus studios who has one of the best tattoo artists in Ubud. Very close to that is another studio, Conscious Arts Tattoo, that uses vegan ink as well.

We loved Ubud for its nature-loving, architecture-obsessed, clean and conscious living values. If all you can dream of is great food, tropical vibes, greenery and waterfalls, coupled with an inexpensive holiday then get yourself to Ubud for you will not be disappointed.

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Pit stops in North East India

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North-East India is still an unexplored treasure, perhaps, due to all the bias around being unsafe, underdeveloped and less accessible. As you can guess, I beg to differ. Cities have spoilt us for choices that are sub-par in quality or terribly expensive or both and yes, I know that ranting is not really blogging! So hopping over to the bright side, anything not commercially violated translates into pristine, untouched wonders and as we traversed some lands of Assam and Meghalaya they turned out to be nothing short of stunning.

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As you enjoy some of this scenic view, let me introduce you to some pit-stops in these two states.

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Umiam Lake: If there was one word that could envelop the meaning and sentiment of ‘Unbelievably gorgeous’ I would use that for this waterhole. I am a total sucker for lakes, rivers and all water bodies, but you should know that with this one I am not biased. Spread across 220 square km, this catchment area is surrounded by old coniferous trees and open skies that exaggerate the drama. Legend has it that two sisters were alighting from heaven when one got lost on the way. As the other sister reached Meghalaya, she cried so much with grief that it formed Umiam which means “Water of Tears.” It seems apt to have a story so heart-wrenching for a place this beautiful.

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What would I do differently? We rented a motorboat that flew at the speed of lightning (reduce that by a few notches!) causing a scenic blur. Given we were late, we did not have a choice. Next time, I would try and find someone patient who would be willing to treat his boat like one rather than a sports car! A woman driver?!

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Dawki River: In the movie ‘A walk to remember’, on a starry night, Landon fulfills Jamie’s wish to be at two places at once by taking her to the state border of North Carolina and Virginia. At the Dawki River, as the riverside was flocking with tourists, persistent vendors, and boatmen looking for a ride, granted that the setting was not romantic, but it was still special being in two countries at once at this India-Bangladesh border. The boat ride was perfect with the setting sun, colorful river bed, lone fishermen on rocks, and a small waterfall that greeted you at the end.

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What would I do differently? Visit at a time when I am not reminded of how we need better population control measures!

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Nohwet Living Root Bridge: Living root bridges are one of the coolest examples of how nature and (wo)man can co-exist. Ariel roots of ficus trees are guided and trained by people so that they grow and strengthen over a period of time to become a natural bridge that can hold the weight of humans. The bridge naturally self-renews and strengthens itself ideally over hundreds of years! As the uneven steps led us down, it felt like a gateway unfolding an old gorgeous rubber tree that lived to tell its immortal story. And this was how I made a strike in my bucket list!

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What would I do differently? Visit the double decker living root-bridge in Cherapunjee. More twisted trunks, two bridges, bigger stream, a double miracle – what more could you ask for.

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Have you encountered hidden gems that have been a show-stopper? Are there stories you want to listen to over and over again? Are there moments you want to go back to, so that time could stand still as you stare at the fading palette of the sun, or catch the last rays falling through the crack of trees? Are you willing to express yourself as that emotional fool, like I am right now?!

 

Trekking the Mawphlang Forest in India

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It’s the small things that give you most joy in life, and it’s the hidden gems that provide the real thrill when traveling. During my recent North-East India trip I tucked one such precious memory at Mawphlang village. As we drove from Shillong to Meghalaya we stopped at a small Khasi village spread across a beautiful landscape with picturesque houses, budding soccer players and laughing children. Beyond this scenic view, we treaded into the 800 year old sacred forest and, no, we did not get lost although I would have liked to!

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This enchanted forest has one rule: Anything that is killed, picked, taken from inside the forest is to be eaten, consumed or used within the forest. In other words, what happens in the Mawphlang forest stays right there! This seems like a good rule as it helps prevent encroachment of lands, natural resources and plantations being abused especially with the innate human need ‘to develop and progress.’

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The Mawphlang forest was earlier a ground for sacrificial rituals. Historically (and in some places, even presently) many Indian cultures sacrificed animals as offering to the local Gods, and the choice of animal in this forest was the “reddish-brown bull with no spots.” So once they killed this beast in the forest, they would prepare, sacrifice and eat the bull within the forest boundaries true to the rule. Interestingly when you trek the path there are remains of the preparation ground, sacrificial stone and the resting stone; translating this to the modern day picnic grounds!

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The forest was wild, untamed, and I attempted swinging some forest vines inspired by Tarzan but, I admit, I failed miserably. As if the embarrassment were not enough, our guide chose to show off and effortlessly swung on them. In my defense, I had no practice time.  

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Our two-hour trek was interesting and adventurous, and our guide was a good storyteller. This kid explained he was in the tenth grade, and went to school like many other children in the town of Shillong, 25 kms away. They were mostly familiar with two languages: Khasi and English, and this also presented them an opportunity to explore other places for higher studies. As a local guide, he earned some money after school.

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Big trees and plantations spread across the area most notably Rhododendron and Rudraksha trees. For those unfamiliar, Indians use bead strings extensively for religious chanting and these are traditionally made of Rudraksha. We saw beautiful wild mushrooms grow along the way as we skipped through small streams, crossed over big tree stumps and enjoyed our undulated forest walk. Our guide further assured us that there were not many animals except for the occasional fox, hare and other cuddly creatures (don’t listen to me).

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On such a beautiful day, with the sun rays perfectly presenting rainbow colors, the huge trees providing comfort, and the forest inviting us to explore, we only wished we had planned to do the half day trek instead of two hours. But some things are left for the next time!

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