Thursday, April 26, 2012

Day 175 - 178: Ubud

If Kuta is the party town of Bali, and Sanur is the relaxing side, then Ubud is the cultural heart of the island. Everywhere you look, there are miniature temples, carvings and statues. The three main streets in the centre are littered with art galleries and shops selling woodwork, handmade gifts, and other paraphernalia. Ubud doesn't have guesthouses as much as it has homestays, fairly large complexes of buildings usually set in the grounds of old temples. Almost every homestay is like this, and so the surroundings of the place you choose stay are generally spectacular, even if the rooms themselves aren't much cop. An example:

We couldn't get internet access to check whether our original request to stay at Jangkrik Homestay had been accepted or not, so when we arrived at the Perama bus station in Ubud, we didn't actually have anything booked. A tout offered us Hutama Rooms which seemed fairly comfortable, was the same price as Jangkrik and also came with breakfast. Just outside our room, we were treated to this:



As I said, spectacular. Ubud was left pretty much unscathed throughout the various wars in the past, and there is a very "olde worlde" feel about the place. Culture is obviously important to the locals, not just for tourism but as part of their way of life. Many wear headdresses and sarongs day-to-day, and there is a more respectful, relaxed atmosphere in the town.

As soon as we got checked in, we went and found Jangkrik Homestay and immediately booked in for the following 3 days. It was head and shoulders above Hutama in terms of comfort, noise level and hospitality. We were looking forward to moving there.

First though, we needed to explore Ubud. After wandering around and passing an impressive amount of rather fancy caf├ęs, bakeries and restaurants, we eventually arrived at Melting Wok, a French/Laotian-owned joint which only had a small amount of dishes to choose from, all of which looked fantastic. A couple of stir-fry dishes later, and we could confirm they tasted as good as they looked.


After lunch, we visited the Seniwati Gallery which focuses on art created by women. Some of the local Balinese pictures portraying the rice terraces were outstanding. This was followed by a visit at a local outdoor gallery which had various grotesque carvings carved directly out of living trees:



 The old water palace was also nearby:


This, like many of the other large open spaces and temples in the area, is used as a performance ground for a plethora of dances and shows that take place each evening in Ubud. I have to admit, my experience of "dance" on our travels so far hasn't been thrilling. The performance of an excerpt of the Ramayana in the royal theatre in Luang Prabang was almost enough to send me to sleep, so the opportunity to see some Kecak (pronounced KEH-CHAK) dancing didn't really interest me. However, Gilly was quite keen, and it did also have some sort of fire trance dance involved as well, so we took a gamble on it. Apparently, Kecak dancing is predominantly a male activity (there are many groups performing in and around Ubud) but we were lucky enough to book to see one of the first female Kecak groups. After walking up to find the area the dance was going to be performed in, we met a man who was busy husking coconuts to be used for the fire. His wife was one of the dancers, and we decided to buy tickets from him rather than one of the many, many touts around town. He zoomed off on his motorbike and returned 5 minutes later with the tickets - presumably having bought them from a tout! The dance was interesting. It was all done acapella-style, with sections of the group making the beat, whilst others were chanting. There wasn't much "dance" as such, more like sitting down and swaying. The Ramayana was involved, of course, and they condensed a large portion of one story into quite a short period of time which made things more evenly spaced. The costumes were very ornate, and the man playing the evil king that Rama has to overcome had an amazingly evil laugh. It sounded like something out of a cartoon.


The highlight of the show was the fire trance. A man came down the steps wearing a grass skirt which was fashioned into a horse, and was put into a trance by another chap which seemed to be done solely by flicking water at his face. Then a mountain of coconut shells was set on fire, and the hypnotised man proceeded to stamp all over the red hot embers of the coconuts.


If that wasn't enough, he then took some of the embers and put them in his mouth. I have no idea if he burned himself, but after he was brought out of the trance by the water-flicker, he didn't look particularly comfortable.


It was an enjoyable hour and a half, and it was nice to engage in some local art performances - the last time we'll likely be able to afford to do so, at least until the US. 259 We moved to Jangkrik Homestay the next morning, and were introduced to the family there - Made, Kadek, Wayan, Nita and Komang. We learned that it was Nita's birthday on Saturday, the day before we were leaving, and the family were holding a joint party for all of the people staying there, as one of the guests, a Dutch lady called Ans, was also celebrating a birthday the day before.

We had lunch at Gula Bali, which did fantastic BBQ chicken and the largest prawn crackers I've ever seen. Unfortunately, I wasn't feeling too well before lunch, and got progressively more rundown throughout the afternoon.

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We managed to make it all around the ARMA museum, which was set in a series of beautiful buildings and lovely grounds.

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In one of the buildings there was a dance school for children which was just starting as we arrived. Presumably this was to train the next batch of dancers to ensure that Ubud's traditional arts continued.

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Dinner was at Wild Ginger, which is inexplicably popular on Tripadvisor. The food was good but the portions were tiny, and it was more expensive than other places around town.

Ubud is famous for its Monkey Forest Road which, as one might imagine, is a road that leads into a forest and contains, yes, monkeys. That's a Ronseal street name, right there. We went there the next day after another lunch at the wonderful Melting Wok, and we found that it was full of monkeys. Vicious, bipolar monkeys who look cute, but which turn ferocious at the drop of a hat. If you have food in your hand - and a lot of people do, as banana sellers are crawling around the entrance - then the monkeys will climb up you to snatch if from your grasp. If you don't have food, they will crawl up you to rifle through your pockets if they suspect you have anything in there. Gilly found this out as she sat down on a wall, and a monkey immediately became "friends" with her, only to leave moments later when she didn't have anything to offer.

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For some reason, monkeys have a tendency to lick the walls of the temples which are dotted around the forest road. No-one knows why, but it's certainly odd to watch.

Gilly also had a run-in with this beast, who was attempting to smash a bead with a rock, and didn't take kindly to her rolling the bead back to him.


Shortly after this photo was taken, he bared his teeth, sauntered over and bit her leg - thankfully, it was more of a gesture of dominance than anything serious, she was looking away (making eye contact is a no-no) and her shorts protected her leg - it was gentle, and she didn't feel anything. After that, we decided to stay the hell away from the monkeys. I guess that's the problem when you mix wild animals with tourists who feed them - their natural behaviour is all but shot to pieces, and they have to adapt to strangers wandering through their home.

In the evening we ate at Laba Laba, which had some delicious pork satay - possibly the best satay I've eaten on the trip so far.

I got a haircut on our last day in Ubud - there are so many spas and boutique salons around that it was difficult to find somewhere that just cut hair. Thankfully, Made took me out on his bike to a local barber (one guy, one chair, one mirror) who trimmed my afro to a more manageable size, and with a brief stop at the pharmacy on the way back to pick up some painkillers, the rest of the day was spent strolling through the town, eating lunch at Ibu Rai - a fairly bland affair, but Gilly enjoyed her meal more than I did - and then heading back to Jangkrik for Nita's 18th birthday party. It looked like she'd invited half the teenagers in the town, all crammed into a fairly small courtyard. I'm not sure if it was a traditional Bali birthday celebration, but there was an MC complete with microphone and a number of Nita's friends were called up to say - presumably nice - things about her, before being fed cake from Nita's hands. We had the traditional "Happy Birthday" song for Ans, followed by the Balinese equivalent. One of Nita's friends sang a song whilst accompanying himself on guitar, and then parcels of food (fried rice, fruit, etc) were handed around the guests, along with some cake.

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It was a great way to end our stay in Ubud, and indeed, South East Asia. It felt like we'd barely touched Indonesia - and I guess we really hadn't. We didn't get to visit Komodo, sadly, but it's being put on the list of places to go to when we next come to this area.

We were now moving into the more pricey second half of our round the world trip, and Australia was up next. Perth was our first destination, and we were pretty excited.

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