I don’t know whether it was the visual of the carelessly strewn frangipani flowers everywhere, the moss adorned statues of the dewas and the dewis that have red hibiscus flowers tucked behind their ears, the perennial scent of incense, the sublime spell of the monsoon evenings, strolls through untouched paddy fields, the heart-warming hospitality or the stunning sunsets at UluWatu and Tanah Lot that still makes me yearn for a visit to the island.
Brilliant colours from one street, leading on to an alley to the next, exuberant ornate architecture, scents of massage oils and sounds of gamelan, seemingly endless processions and ceremonies, Gods and Demi-Gods peering from under every canopy, and delicious Indonesian fare!
A sunrise that left me breathless while my flight landed in Denpasar. Pristine, postcard-like, picturesque roads that led me to the little hamlet of Ubud. A whispering rivulet that ran below my balcony. Tales from Ramayana and Mahabrata painted like frescoes above my bed-posts. A lotus pond and a cluster of moss laced temples in the terraced rocky courtyard..
There were the rain-soaked afternoons at exquisite cafes. Hot, curried chicken soup, flavored with intense kaffir lime and galangal. Warm home-made ravioli with a delectable meat sauce. An orchestra of tap-dancing raindrops, passionately twirling the pink and shy plumerias into a love-frenzied dervish..
There were people I met, as incidentally as I sipped my aloe-vera, coconut and hibiscus juice on a hilly road…who made me wonder how people who chase their secret dreams can actually take the plunge to lead a life they have envisioned for themselves. Like Tridib Nandy. An aviator by profession, a entrepreneur of several online businesses, but at heart a true Bengali in love with his bohemianism, music, poetry and art. A sprawling bungalow facing the Sayan Ridge; a piano in his patio; a four poster bed, covered with blue and white linen sheets; a weathered bookshelf stacking books on poetry, history and philosophy; a guitar and cigars on his dining table and a kitchen that shelters empty wine bottles and beer cans; serving dishes and rice cookers that host his artist and musician friends, feeding them with the exotic Indian food that he cooks!
Seriously, how can anyone not fall in love with this place?
Legend has it that Ubud really began as what was surely the most exotic art colony in the world at that time, with the arrival of Walter Spies, a Moscow-born German artist and musician who came to Bali for a visit in 1927 and stayed there until the Second World War, when he became a prisoner of war in the Dutch-controlled East Indies. In Ubud he encountered a culture as graceful and refined as anywhere in the world, where child dancers in mystic trances enacted the fables of the Hindu classic Ramayana. He couldn’t leave Ubud and go back, of course for this or the other reason!
Let me not hide this from you: Ubud is anything but virgin. Every rain soaked afternoon that I spent on the main streets, most of the faces I noticed were foreign, and most of the Balinese I bumped into were offering transport or other services. Yet it’s still a possible enigma for the lazy traveler – and I would even say that Ubud will have failed you if you don’t soon lapse into a tranquil languor — to stray from the touristic path and discover the enchanted place, the back streets, the smell of the burning incense, the carpet of the frangipanis and the stolen moments when you meet eye to eye with the woman carrying her offerings to the neighboring temple, her eyes twinkling with devotion and dedication; all of which, I am convinced, seduced Walter Spies to stay back!
Settling into Ubud, you need to pick one of two choices: an array of gorgeous, expensive, exclusive, secluded and luxurious resorts perched above the river some 10-20km away from town, or an even bigger selection of family-run guest houses and hotels closer to the main town, offering a comfortable local experience, pretty views and impeccable hospitality.
The elegance of Balinese architecture and hospitality flourish at Tjampuhan Hotel , located just west of Ubud. Here, Prince Tjokorda Gde Agung Sukawati and Walter Spies began Pita Maha in 1934, an association and cultural movement that brought the painting and artistic talent of Ubud into the forefront of world art.
Surrounded by a rich assortment of tropical plants and flowers, the hotel provides a natural sanctuary for vividly-colored birds and butterflies, and the perfect base for a visit to Bali’s artistic heartland. Its the melodious chirping of these feathered companions that sometimes break the spell of sleep and summon you to the realms of reality every morning. You might be a tad bit annoyed to have disturbed your reverie, but when you step outside into the balcony with a hot cup of tea, you will realize that the world outside , in this little slice of heaven was just as beautiful and enchanting as the one you have woken up from!
Much of the romance of the bamboo- and teak-finished rooms derives from inadequate lighting, when the sun, like a shy bride with reddened cheeks, plays a flirty game of hide-and-seek with the wooden interludes!
Sixty-seven individual dwellings built in traditional Balinese style are scattered among landscaped terraces and gardens, offering private views of the tropical river valleys and the 900-year-old Gunung Lembah temple complex which marks the meeting of the sacred Oos and Tjampuhan rivers.The hotel’s bungalows and guest rooms are arrayed along a steep ravine overlooking a turbulent river that rushes between rocky crags to meet its mate. Winding paths lead through the hotel’s lush, sprawling garden, past lily ponds and shrines. On the opposite bank, perched just below terraced rice fields, is the ancient temple where the royal family of Ubud worships and performs its rituals. (Officially, there’s no royalty in Indonesia now, but Bali doesn’t pay much attention to rules.)
Ubud is not a village where you should be up and running…the order of the day is to relax and live in the now. It is more a place where you’ll want to stroll around or just sit with a book and watch the colourful and delightful pictures pass by. An incredibly charming thing about the Balinese is their capacity for getting right into the thick of things with you, without battering an eyelid! They are so friendly and are amazing at turning “Can I try this on?” (if your are in a shop buying art-jewellery, for example) to “When are you having your next child?” . And they do it with such panache that you actually feel totally comfortable having this conversation with someone whom you just met seconds ago! We ended up having a 45 min conversation with the gorgeous lady at a shop selling local art work, and by the end of it she and I were exchanging notes on our college romances! By then you also know that all Balinese have four first names. Everyone. The first child is Wayan or Putu, the second child is Made or Kadek, the third is Nyoman or Komang and the fourth is Ketut. The fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth will be another Wayan, Made, Nyoman, Ketut and Wayan again. So, it’s all pretty cool and very easy. But, it also means that every second person on the road is called Wayan or Made. And often, the easiest mistake you make is trying to identify (or hold accountable)which Wayan promised to pick you up at 6am, and which Made said he will offer that 10% discount on your next massage!
Befriend one or two of a Wayan or a Made(pronounced: maad-ey) while you are there.. and they serve you delicious stories! Take this: Each stage of Balinese life is marked by a series of ceremonies and rituals known as Manusa Yadnya. For example, with birth comes a ceremony in which soon after they are born, a child’s placenta (yeah, you read that right!), is buried in the household courtyard. Specific directions for a girl child, and a boy-child. And worshiped everyday by the ladies of the household. And why? So that when they grow up and probably venture into greener pastures, or take cross-ocean flights to the US of A, there is the ‘pull-of-the-placenta’ that will eventually bring them back home at some time in their life! Elders are treated at par with Gods. In a typical Balinese home compound, beside the pertinent family temple, will be the room that hosts the eldest members of the family. This room is the second holiest, in the order of importance. And because of that, the first night a newly married couple spends as husband and wife is hosted by this very room- the emblem and the most ‘fertile’ room of the household, from which the other generations have sprung into existence.
This is a country which treats the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, not as mythology, but more as religion. But, its almost astonishing how different it is from the Hinduism that we know is practiced in India. Dances are merged with stories and history in Bali, and deem almost religious in their presentation. Among the several dance forms that can range from ornamental to feisty, we soaked in vibrant Legong. A Legong is the most graceful form of Balinese dances. Usually performed by teenage girls, the dance depicts stories from local folklore, and what we watched was a quaint story from the Mahabharata on a hidden chapter in the life of Bimanyu(Arjuna’s son), known in India as Abhimanyu! The girls were dressed in colorful costumes, accessorized with intricate head-dress. With the trademark numbered, jerky movements of Balinese dances, they danced to the music of live Gamelan ensemble.
This was another discovery. The Gamelan. Gamelan is a term for various types of orchestra played in Indonesia. It is the main element of the Indonesian traditional music. The Balinese believe that the gamelan is sacred and has supernatural powers. It is also believed that each instrument in the gamelan is guided by spirits. Thus, your footwear needs to be removed while you play the gamelan. It is also forbidden to step over any instrument in a gamelan, because it might offend the spirit by doing so.
I come from a state in India where paddy fields are places of love and labour. Never does it feature in an article or a tourist map, or made to sound exotic. But the paddy fields in Ubud, aren’t the siblings of this parent! They are flamboyant and love to flaunt their greens. They are lush and luscious. And they are almost second in their order of importance after the ceremonies and religion. Every family in the village owns paddy fields. They inherit, gift, share and buy land that can be converted into rice fields. Rice is sacred. Fields are worshiped and protected. Possession of rice fields ensures a secured status in society. Or marks out a higher caste. But,they are indeed pristine, picturesque and absolutely deserves a mention!
A little away from Ubud, Bali’s shores are dotted with about 20,000 Hindu temples and shrines, and each of them, apart from the gorgeous locations that host them, offer spectacular visuals of the sky and the celestial. Like the setting of a sun. In Bal,i the temple is only used for particular ceremonies and festivals, sometimes only once in the 210 day cycle, when the temple’s birthday (odalan) ceremony is held. The two that I could allow my lens to gawk at were the Tanah Lot and the Ulu Watu, both at a time,when the crimson, bold and handsome sun mellowed into the pink of the twilight, casting shadows and silhouettes that left me lens-struck and spell bound!
Ubud is so much and so little all at the same time. But, when at night, you sit in the teak and bamboo nested balcony and watch the fireflies in the distant paddy field, hear the chants in the village temple and see the stars in the clear night sky… you will be once again hypnotized, and you will know that you have lived the vacation that you truly deserved!
Sambrita Basu is a food-fascinated travel writer and photographer based out of Bangalore India. A background and a degree in hospitality and restaurant management paved her interest in food. As the secretary of the institution’s editorial club, she contributed regularly and wrote about food in their annual magazine, A la Carte.
Sambrita has published interviews of celebrity authors and business veterans in international publications like Infineon. Her contributions also include photographs on foods and restaurants of Bangalore for DNA—a leading newspaper publication in Bangalore. Sambrita’s creative expressions transport readers to alleys, hotels, hide-outs, restaurants, attics, and spice markets in several cities across the world.
Sam (as she is popularly known by her friends and family) doesn’t write for a living, but she lives to write.