I love Bali and in particular Ubud. I have travelled there alone, with friends and I have even acted as a tour guide there for my parents. These are my top tips for the best cultural experiences.
Join the locals in a water blessing at the Tirta Empul Temple
Bali is about 90 per cent Hindu and water is so important to the religion that its people even see it in different grades; normal, holy and healing.
Cleansing and purifying, Bali is surrounded with water and that is why it is affectionately called ‘The island of Gods’ or ‘The island of 1,000 temples.’
I don’t think I had ever experienced a spiritual connection until I visited the Tirta Empul Temple just outside a town called Tampaksiring. Tirta Empul means holy water spring and some people refer to it as ‘the Ganges of the East’ because the local Balinese Hindus, who go there in their thousands, believe the waters to have the power to heal illness as well as purify the mind and soul.
The waters are distributed throughout a number of pools in the temple complex. For visitors there are changing rooms and a place where you can hire a robe and sash required for the water blessing.
I was taken through my blessing by a spirit guide. There are quite a few who offer their services at the temple for a very small tip. I would definitely recommend using a guide because they show you the customs, help you avoid faux pas and explain the history and meanings of things in the temple.
My guide took me on this amazing meditative journey. After dressing in the sarong and sash, I went inside the main pool area where locals worship. I discovered it was not a simple jaunt into the waters. No. One must make an offering, pray, meditate and wash in a particular order.
It’s a ritual that starts with a meditative prayer to the spirit of the sun. I sat on the stone next to the pool with my offering of flowers in a banana leaf bowl in my hands and my eyes closed. My spirit guide showed me the way through thoughts of happiness, love, important people in my life, my hidden depths, the beautiful environment, the earth, the cosmos, the sun and the universe. I opened my eyes in a daze and he guided me into the waters.
The water was cool and there were huge koi fish swimming around. I could feel soft moss-covered stones under my feet and there were scores of locals and a few tourists queing at the fountains, having a chat and bathing.
The pool has 13 fountains and at each fountain I was to say a prayer, wash my face three times, rinse my mouth three times and dunk my head under the fountain and and let the water into my eyes to cleanse them. Despite my journey into self, I was still holding on to my vanity quite tightly. I went into the pool wearing my hair piece, which promptly disappeared under the water as soon as I dunked my head! I kind of stood there waist-deep in holy water grinning sheepishly as the locals surrounding me giggled.
So, I placed my offering on the head of the fountain and did the ritual and continued on making wishes and prayers under each fountain. When I had completed the ritual I felt refreshed, revitalised, serene and somewhat hopeful for the future.
Learn Batik in the countryside.
Batik making in Indonesia goes way back and is most famous in Java.
Basically batik is wax-resist dyeing. You pour an intricate wax design on fabric and paint on dye in various colours.
Surrounded by gorgeous batik prints on sarongs and cloths, I felt inspired so I went to try my hand at the skill at a Widya’s Batik Workshop in Ubud.
He has a simple studio where people go to get creative. Backpackers, artists and families spend days surrounded by fields, his pet dogs and friends while they concentrate on their designs.
I’m no artist yet I have huge artistic desires that never turn out the way I want. Luckily Widya had a variety of stencils I could mix and match to help me create a workable outline of for my ‘masterpiece’.
He demonstrated how to do each step. It was quite simple really.
Batik is very detailed and takes patience. I spent a whole relaxing day on my 50cm x 50cm cloth design, which featured a lotus flower and plenty of dots.
Live with the locals.
The architechture and temples in Bali are amazing. I was told every home has a temple and while I was staying in Ubud I noticed that this was actually true. I walked down the streets and peered into the open entrances to people’s homes and saw temples and shrines standing centre stage.
This is what makes a Bali homestay special. You get to live with local people, who give you a real insight into local ife and great tips on where to visit and what to eat. I stayed at Gusti Kaler House in the heart of Ubud and it was very cheap (about 14 euros a night, which I shared with a pal).
I spent my time there exploring its religious shrines and monuments. The rooms were basic but our needs were simple. We had huge wooden carved beds, cosy mattresses and a space for yoga and reading.
Stop and say hello.
The people of Bali are really welcoming and curious about foreigners. As I wondered around Ubud, lots of ladies wanted to take a photograph with me! I was like famous…
I totally embraced the warmth of the people. The women are very touchy feely and affectionate. They wanted to stroke me and even wanted to feel my bloated belly for movement after a I ate a huge meal! I had to explain that I wasn’t pregnant, just ‘with food’.
Eat babi guling and ayam goreng in a warung.
And when I say this I mean eat local. Babi gulling is suckling pig and one of Bali’s most famous dishes.
Like many Balinese dishes, it comes served with rice and spicy vegetables. You can have any part of the pig you want as the Balinese leave very little to waste. I chose crackling and belly meat. I went to the very popular Ibu Oka, which has two locations: one on Ubud high street (best to go at 11am) and the more elegant version, just outside Ubud, called Ibu Oka 2.
Both are great warungs. A warung is simply a tax-free eatery and it is where the locals go. If you’re worried about trying foreign foods, go by my rule – if an eatery is packed with locals enjoying food, it’s good and safe.
While driving down the street I asked my driver where he goes to eat so he took me to a roadside warung for ayam goreng. Ayam is chicken. Most people will say ayam goreng is friend chicken. Mine came shredded and mixed with spicy vegetables and it was served with a chicken kebab and a chicken drumstick.
Watch the traditional dances.
From about 7pm every night there is a selection of traditional dances taking place all over Ubud. There are more than 10 locations that host different styles of dance and performance, including fire dance, bamboo dance and puppet shows (see here for a full schedule) .
I love the backdrop at Cafe Lotus in central Ubud (below).
Arrive early at about 5 or 6pm to get a front row seat and you can dine and watch the show. They do expect you to spend a minimum amount (about 20 euros/21 dollars) on the front row tables. I found once you order a bottle of wine and a meal for three you can easily cover the spend.
And that’s it. These are just a few of my favourites cultural experiences in Ubud. What are yours? You can share your tips and start a conversation in the comment box below xxx