Next stop on out tour of Bali was Ubud inland from the capital Denpesar. Agung picked us up from the hotel in Sanur and provided a running commentary for the journey to Ubud he told us a lot about Balinese society and tradition which was very interesting. Ubud is described as the cultural centre of Bali and, although the town itself is very much focused on the tourist and back packer trade the villages around it are fascinating. Each village seems to have a speciality. We stopped at one which is famous for weaving and batik printing, we saw women creating intricately patterned fabrics on simple wooden looms and others applying wax to fabric prior to dying to create ‘printed’ patterns. Other villages we passed through specialised in woodcarving and stone masonry, all along the roads there were open workshops where we could see men at work and great stock piles of wooden sculptures and concrete and stone statues and architectural decorations. When we arrived in Ubud we checked into the Tepi Sawah hotel just outside the town, it was another small, locally owned hotel oozing with Balinese style. The rooms were located in fairly modern two story blocks situated in lush tropical gardens with paths winding through them to the restaurant, spa and two swimming pools. Our room was on the top floor with a large balcony over-looking the garden and, hidden within it, a rice field. We dropped of our bags and went for a swim, before we knew it it was time for complimentary afternoon tea served in the small restaurant by the pool – very civilised. We also had dinner in that restaurant before heading to bed to catch up after our late night on New Year’s Eve.
On Monday morning we were ready and waiting at 9.00 for our “Full day temple excursion”. First stop was the sacred temple and holy spring at Tampaksiring, Agung told us the story of the founding of the temple at the spot where a god struck the ground with his spear and created the spring. Hindu faithful from all over Bali come to this temple to bathe in the holy spring and to collect water to take back to their shrines at home. Before we went in Mark had to borrow a sarong so he was appropriately dressed then we went in and saw people bathing in the spring. There are 12 waterspouts in a large bathing area and the worshippers bathe in water from each one in turn, each spout has a different holy purpose and the bathers pray at ten of them in strict order, two are bypassed, these spout water for blessing the dead. The temple welcomes all visitors and even non-Hindu’s are welcome to take part in the bathing ritual, it was quite funny watching some tourists trying to work out what to do next! Just before we reached Tampaksiring we stopped at a village called Tegalalang at a view point overlooking a valley lined with rice terraces and held our breath as a young man climbed a very tall coconut tree without any ropes!
From Tegalalang we drove further in to the hills and stopped at a coffee plantation/spice farm, we wandered through a display garden spotting familiar spices growing in the beds, lemongrass, vanilla, cloves, pepper, citronella, they are so familiar in their dried form it was great to see the plants. Unlike the coffee production we saw in Hawaii and New Zealand coffee production in Bali is very small scale, this plantation processes 1kg of beans at a time, hand roasting them in a kind of wok over an open fire. Balinese coffee is made with very fine ground coffee in a cup and adding hot water, it is very strong and you get a sludge of coffee powder in the bottom of the cup. This plantation also produces Luwak coffee, rarest and most expensive coffee in the world. Luwak is made from coffee beans that have been eaten, digested and ‘passed’ by Asian Palm Civet Cats (I kid you not), the cats are quite rare and they don’t eat many beans so it takes a while to collect them. Having checked how the beans are prepared (washed in hot water and then peeled by hand) we decided to try a cup, it was quite nice, and had a fuller flavour than ordinary coffee but we aren’t going to stock up!! At the end of the tour we got to try a selection of spice tea’s and flavoured coffees produced at the plantation. Ginger tea, lemongrass tea and rosella tea were delicious so we bought a packet of each to take home.
Next stop was Gunung Kawi, an C11th Palace hewn out of solid rock; alongside the palace, lining the valley walls were huge rock memorials to the Royal family and to the king’s favourite concubine, also carved out of solid rock. Like all the best places the palace was at the bottom of 300 steps, and as we have learned on this trip what goes down must come up again! Time for lunch. After lunch, in a restaurant looking out over a rice field, we had one more temple to visit, Goa Gajah or Elephant Cave (after the nearby river, there aren’t any elephants here). This site from approx. C8th had more rooms cut into solid rock, one of which contained some very old stone statues, it also had a bathing area similar to the one we had seen at Tampaksiring. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Goa Gajah was that at some time in the past it was completely buried in an earthquake and then forgotten, it was rediscovered in the 1930’s(?) and gradually restored. Beneath the main temple area there is a pretty water garden which also contains huge carved rocks that must have fallen from the temple buildings. Agung offered to take us on to the site of three other temples but we felt we had done enough for one day and we headed back to the hotel.
On Tuesday we were let loose unaccompanied so we decided to get the hotel shuttle in to Ubud and have a look around. As mentioned above it is very much a tourist town with lots of cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops selling products from the nearby villages. There is also a market, a two-storey bazaar selling just about everything you can think off in tiny dark stalls. We had set ourselves a challenge to find a sarong for Mark (he has had to borrow one at each temple we have visited and is quite taken with them). Agung had told us to look in the market but not to pay more than 50% of the asking price. After looking on several stalls we finally found what we were looking for and bought one each, we didn’t quite get 50% off but close. They were so cheap it seemed harsh to barter at all but when in Rome… As we came out of the market it started to pour with rain so we ducked into a café and ordered a drink keeping under cover while we watched the world go by getting soaked. When the rain stopped we continued exploring the town until the rain started again and we decided to go for lunch. Agung had recommended a restaurant called the Lotus Café, we found the entrance and headed inside, when we got in we discovered that the restaurant was open down one long side and looked out over a pond full of Lotus flowers (pale pink and the size of a grapefruit on the end of a four-foot stem) and across to a temple, what a spot for lunch. By the time we had eaten it was time to catch the shuttle back to the hotel for an afternoon by the pool, question was, which of the two pools to choose. Decisions, decisions.
Our itinerary for Wednesday said ‘half day guided walk through rice fields’, Agung picked us up at 08.30 and we drove a little way out of Ubud then got out and walked up a narrow footpath, dodging the scooters that were using it to transport bags of cement, boxes of tiles and plumbing supplies to a building site further up. After a few minutes the path emerged into a landscape of terraced rice fields climbing up the hill. We walked along the edge of these fields for over two hours tracing the water course up the hill. Agung explained the rice growing process which involves clearing the stubble from the previous harvest; flooding the terraces and repeatedly ploughing until they have created a very fine mud; leaving it for a week or two and then weeding out anything that sprouts; planting 6 inch seedlings grown from saved rice grains in straight rows; and after about 4-5 months cutting the rice by hand, drying it and threshing it manually to remove the grain and the husks. Almost the whole process is done by hand and it is back breaking work. It was particularly interesting to see how the water is managed to irrigate the fields. Water is managed by voluntary societies in each village some of which have existed for hundreds of years. They maintain a network of channels which can be opened and closed to flood or drain the fields as required. They meet annually to decide the timing for the channels to be opened to ensure that each farmer down the hill gets water at the right time. Each society maintains a temple at the edge of their territory and offerings are made to ensure a successful harvest. Towards the top of the hill we followed the edge of a wooded area and had fun identifying trees and shrubs in the hedge row; coconuts, papaya, pawpaw, vanilla, chilli, cloves, guava, but not a single blackberry. It was a lovely morning, dry but cloudy so it wasn’t too hot, once again a simple activity proved to be one of the highlights of our time in Bali.
On Thursday we set of early to travel to the far west of the Island but more of that later.