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Ubud - the cultural heart of Bali

Luwak coffee, rice, temples and the burning of the dead

Following another aimless town based day in Kuta the Fool finally got his butt into gear and (after a McD's coffee) headed to the main street in Legian to locate the bus/tour company for a ride to Ubud. Having secured a ticket, returning by taxi to the hostel to collect my baggage and then being dropped off back at the bus stop ought to have been straightforward. However limited time and the crazy, all-day-long traffic in Kuta meant my arrival back at the ticket agent's office was pretty much at the same time as the bus was due to depart. Although Bluebird Taxis are everybodies first choice and run on the meter the drivers appear to think that the size of "tip" they get from customers is something that they alone decide!! Hence, whilst the meter for my trip read a tad over IDR30000 my driver deemed it appropriate to give me no change out of the 40k I handed over - he probably sensed that I had very little time and to be honest I struggled to work out what the tip actually meant in proper money, before he rejoined the constant stream of mopeds and taxis and sped off, at about 5 kph!!!

The bus ride cost 50k (just over 3 quid) and proved that you get what you paid for: no air con, possibly no suspension judging by the constant bone jarring jolts from the many potholes that the driver appeared to aim for, and the "stick to your thighs" ancient plastic seats.

On arrival at Ubud we were ejected into the usual melee of locals touting for guests for their homestays. My captor, Nyoman Seuren, whose family own and run the Suartha Pension homestay, reduced his initial quote to the off season norm of R100k per night then it was off into the tight street traffic on his moped - we two adults, my full backpack and a couple of other bags, negotiating the narrow streets at a fair old lick on his gutless little machine. Once at his I was led to my "room" which was a self contained unit - double bed, overhead fan and en-suite bathroom, far from the noisy main street - bargain at the price methinks. An initial chat with mine host included agreeing an itinerary for the Tuesday in which he would transport me around the countryside for the day on his newer, more powerful motorbike, and would end with me having to decide how much I should pay him based on how much I enjoy the day!! An after event narrative follows:

Day 2: After a quick trip to the local food market (which reminded me of last year's Peruvian equivalents) it was back to a delightful breakfast of an omlette sandwich and fresh fruit before perching on the back of the moped for a magical mystery tour of the top spots, as identified by Nyoman.
Homestay breakfast .... nom,nom,nom

Homestay breakfast .... nom,nom,nom

Our tour comprised what must be the standard for every short term visitor to Ubud - winding through un-named and largely unmade streets, roads, paths and alleys to a set number of "must see" attractions, each of which cost an entrance fee of about £1 (reminding me of the farmer in the "Carry on Camping" film).

First stop was to view the rice terraces which were all the more impressive as they were some way up in the hills in a steep sided valley. The most remarkable thing about these (and all subsequent paddy fields throughout my asian swing) was the amazing hue of green that the mature rice plants reach just before the rice is ready to harvest. It is a different shade to any other vegetation I can recall in that it seems to radiate its colour, drawing the eye and brightening up the surrounding area.
Rice paddies

Rice paddies

Harvest time

Harvest time


Next port of call was the Rock Temple, built, not surprisingly, into the rock of another valley. Evidently ancient, it is still an active place of worship with an attached monastery. After this we went to the Water Temple and I bet you can guess what the theme of this one was. As well as the temple itself there were a couple of large rectangular pools, fed by multiple spouts under which one is encouraged to cleanse away ones sins by ducking into the flowing torrents. Yes, the Fool did do the tourist thing and go in and, yes, the water was bl@@dy cold.
The Rock Temple

The Rock Temple

Cold?? - its effing freezing!

Cold?? - its effing freezing!


The fourth stop was a bit of a surprise on two counts 1) it was free and 2) it was informative and enjoyable! Stopping on a quiet country road I was led into a well cultivated area which is run by a coffee plantation in the hills. A guided tour of their local fruit trees was followed by a run through of the manual process of making Luwak coffee - the coffee berries are eaten by wild Civets which then pooh out the coffee beans, allegedly removing caffeine and adding some magical health inducing ingredients and properties during their digestive processes. The beans are collected, washed and then roasted before being ground up - all by hand - packaged and sold at a rediculous premium, mainly to a few Singaporean restaurants apparently. After the tour I was treated to a tea and coffee tasting session which was a real treat.
Luwak coffee basics

Luwak coffee basics

Coffee tasting - nice job

Coffee tasting - nice job


After the coffee stop it was into the mountains for lunch - another entrance fee for the valley view then a hugely inflated priced, rubbish buffet which, given its location and the lack of alternatives at the top of the mountain, was not really optional.
The view at lunchtime!

The view at lunchtime!


The return journey incorporated a visit to a "traditional" village which was well worth the fee followed by a surprise visit to Nyoman's family home where his wife made us tea and snacks. His eldest daughter is currently studying to be a beauty and massage therapist and gave me a full thai massage on their front porch, with all family and pets looking on, as practice for an exam she was taking the next day. After this relaxing session it was back on the motorbike and back to the homestay.
Standard issue shrine in the traditional village

Standard issue shrine in the traditional village

Suaren's family

Suaren's family


Day 3 was supposed to be relaxing and low key however my host kept coming up with interesting things to do. Having taken a leisurely breakfast of banana toastie and fresh fruit the Fool set off to visit the nearby Monkey Forest and temple at the bottom end of town. This proved to be mildly entertaining as the monkeys tried to rob those tourists who allowed them to get too close or taunted them with bananas.
Statuary at the Monkey Temple

Statuary at the Monkey Temple

Mmmm ... banana!

Mmmm ... banana!

Dont tease me frenchie!

Dont tease me frenchie!


During our trip the previous day we had passed through sites of forthcoming weddings and funerals so Nyoman suggested that I hotfoot it back from the monkeys for around midday so that he could drop me off to view a quadruple funeral/open air cremation ceremony.
Depositing me at a local's eatery near the procession start point I find that I have no local lingo knowledge and nobody in the food shack speaks a word of the queens (or any other) english. The chappie there tried to help me but we both end up simply pointing at the menu and reading out aloud the names of the dishes - not a hope of either understanding the other. I ended up having some coloured, cooked and flavoured rice with crispy fried onions on top, filling and tasty but still, as yet, unnamed!
Lunch despatched to the old belly and its outside into the raw heat of the day to follow the funereal procession through the streets, witnessing the chaos that ensues when 25-30 men of all ages carry a multi-storey construction (containing the deceased) through streets which are criss-crossed with telephone and power lines that hang too low for the procession to pass under unaided.  Every time a new cable is reached pandemonium breaks out as long bamboo poles are used to try and raise the wires above the construction and all the while an old fire engine is using its water cannon to soak and cool down the pall bearers. Not all of the construction (nor indeed the wires) escaped damage but eventually the procession reached the cemetery.
Too big for the streets

Too big for the streets

Crowd refreshment

Crowd refreshment


Preparation of the body for the cremation itself takes about 45 minutes during which the brightly wrapped remains are transferred to the platform on which it will be burned, various things are added to help the deceased in their onward journey and the large attendant family pay their last respects. Finally the pyre is lit using a couple of industrial gas-fired flamethrowers and, with remarkable speed, the whole thing flares up and burns bright and very hot. Once the body has been completely cremated the families set up shrines at the various cremation platforms to remember those who have passed, a noisy, colourful and vibrant celebration and ceremony, fittingly ended with time for quiet reflection.
Having never previously witnessed a Hindu send off I had the mixed emotions of a nearby observer, walking in amongst the crowd following the route, slightly bemused by the vivid colours and raucous musical accompanyment, unused to the friendliness and openness of everybody involved and also slightly embarrassed at intruding on such a private family event. The local people, however, celebrate the passing of their relatives and are very welcoming to all and sundry at the open air site, offering food and drink freely to anyone in the throng.
After witnessing the cremation of the body that I followed from the start I wound my way back to a rendezvous with Nyoman and his motorbike who returned me to the homestay.
The body is transferred...

The body is transferred...

...... and finally the cremation

...... and finally the cremation

Day 4 was moving day, as I had decided to head off to the Gili islands for a few days rest and recuperation after my all action programme in Ubud.

Postscript: Whilst Kuta, Legian and the other coastal places are completely commercialised and touristic Ubud is currently undergoing an increasingly rapid transition. Currently it still, deservedly, retains its cultural centre of Bali title but the tourism sector has recognised its financial potential and a speedy regeneration programme has been undertaken. Whilst the town still has its mixture of quaint traditional streets and some run down areas, a number of 5 star resorts, spas etc have sprung up with many other high end tourist hotels and the like under construction or in advanced planning. Some of the shabbier street have already been "made over" with restaurants and souvenier shops moving in, to the detriment of the village feel that so recently attracted the punters. If you want to experience the old and the new, I suggest that you get yourself to Ubud asap before it loses what character that still remains.

Posted by RoystonBoyston 19:09

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