Ubud, Bali

30 July 2021

Bali is up there in my top three destinations. I have only been once when we were just a couple, but I will definitely return when my children are old enough to endure the very long flight.

It’s actually quite a big island with a lot of resorts to choose from, so it is worth researching which parts are going to appeal to you – as there will definitely be areas you’ll love, and probably places you’ll want to avoid. I went with fairly low expectations as I had heard so many people say how it was tacky, touristy, and dirty – the Australian version of Magalluf. If you spend two weeks in Kuta, you’d agree with the rumours.

If you follow any travel pages on Instagram then you will almost certainly have been exposed to a mirage of images of Ubud – the lush greenery and steep river valleys make a scenic backdrop for the bamboo architecture, bohemian decoration, and dramatic swimming pools perched on hillsides. We spent our first four nights here in one of the most amazing hotels – the Alila Ubud. It took us about an hour to get there in a taxi from the airport. We learned immediately that you must barter hard or pay over the odds for a taxi. Our driver opened negotiations around fifty pounds and we ended up with him chasing us out of the terminal building to his taxi after finally agreeing on a figure somewhere around twenty pounds.

Traffic between the airport and Denpasar is insane. There seems to be no highway code in existence, and locals seem content to take their lives in their hands on mopeds. On the journey we saw a team of four men, each on their own scooter, precariously balancing a full-sized wooden telegraph pole between them as they wound in and out of traffic at around thirty miles an hour down the street. But once you get out of the city and start to gain altitude the scenery changes and you can finally breathe. The roads are narrow on the way up to Ubud, barely wide enough to allow two cars to pass in places. It seems that you are travelling out to the middle of nowhere, as it absolutely does not look substantial enough to be a main road. Yet, we were greeted with a bustling tourist town when we reached Ubud, with heavy traffic along the central stretch of road and hundreds of shops, restaurants and hotels, ranging from basic hostels to accommodate the throngs of backpackers, right up to luxury five-star retreats nestled away discreetly between the dense rainforest.

The Alila is about ten minutes' drive out the other side of town on the way to a small hill village called Payangan, nestled high up on the edge of the Ayung river valley and surrounded by green jungle and rice paddies. The architecture is a contemporary take on traditional Balinese design, with thatched roofs and villas perched on stilts over the ravine.

We upgraded to a Valley Villa and were instantly blown away – the door opened out into a large wooden interior with a dramatic vaulted thatched ceiling, a four-poster bed in the centre draped in a crisp white canopy and facing out onto a wall of glass doors with a jaw-dropping view over the river valley. Double doors behind the bed led the way to an outdoor bathtub, sunken into a pond, and a separate dressing room with shower and toilet tucked away.

The swimming pool is a real Instagrammer dream – a long rectangle of blue-green water stretching out from the hotel towards to edge of the ravine, with sunbeds and parasols lined up neatly down one side. And the staff were amazingly friendly – all the locals we spoke to in Bali were beautiful people.

The weather is different in Ubud to the main beaches in the south. It gets a much higher rainfall due to the altitude and we didn’t glimpse blue sky for the entire time we were there, despite it being ‘dry season’ when we travelled. Don’t go expecting to sunbathe for a week by the pool, we managed to squeeze in a few hours here and there to relax and cool off, but you’ll probably be a busy as we were anyway – there is so much to see and do in this little bit of jungle.

On our first full day we caught a taxi back into Ubud and wandered around the shops and town, and headed down to the Monkey Forest Ubud, just a short walk out of the centre. It only costs a couple of pounds to enter – you don’t need to book a tour or anything, just turn up when you like. The monkeys are free to roam around at their will – they are not caged or tied up, and in fact are even found wandering around on the streets nearby. Words of warning – don't bring any food or drink in with you, and I'd be careful with things like sunglasses that could be easily snatched away. The monkeys are basically tame but will become aggressive if you stare them in the eyes! We took a bottle of lemonade in with us and put it down to take some photos when an opportunistic primate sneaked up and grabbed the bottle and scuttled away with it. We thought that would be it – he'd have a sniff and get bored and leave it alone, but he quickly proceeded to unscrew the cap with great dexterity and guzzled the full bottle right in front of us.

The next morning, we woke up really early, ready to be picked up by a driver at two o clock. We drove for around an hour in the dark before being deposited at the foot of Mount Batur, ready to begin the hike to the summit in time for sunrise. It is an incredibly popular trip, but you do have to be of a reasonable level of fitness to complete the climb – the terrain is steep and rocky, and it typically takes around two hours to reach the summit. You will be arranged into groups of around four hikers to each guide, and your guide will ask how fast you want to hike – unfortunately for me I was in a group with my now-husband, who enjoys any physical challenge, and two young German guys who’d clearly spent a good deal of time in the gym. If it had not been for our amazing guide practically carrying me up the mountain for a good portion, then I do not think I'd have made it at that pace!

The vista at the top is worth the few hours of burning muscles. If you’re lucky enough to hike on a clear day, then you will be rewarded with a view of dawn breaking over Mount Rinjani on neighbouring Lombok. The guides cook breakfast while you watch the sunrise – a cup of black tea and a meal of eggs and banana sandwiches, both cooked in the volcanic steam which vents from little fissures at the edge of the crater.

You can spend around an hour at the top to rest, refuel and take photos of the sunrise – this hour lives in a special place in my memory as it’s the moment my husband decided to propose. Of course, I said yes!

The descent is down a different route – you set off over a narrow ridge between the two craters, and then more or less ski down loose sand for a while until the path levels out. The heat picks up quickly as you lose altitude, and the sun begins to melt away any morning cloud. On the way up it was cool enough to need a lightweight jacket, but by the time we were halfway down it was vest weather. We reached the minibus back in the foothills by mid-morning and left our guide with a handful of cash to thank him for his sterling effort in getting us to the summit.

We had booked a full-day trip, including the guided sunrise hike in the morning and Ayung river rafting in the afternoon, broken up with a classic ‘trip to a local coffee plantation’ where you could watch the coffee process and taste local beans. You could also spend a small fortune on the famous ‘Kopi Luwak’ beans, which are processed ‘naturally’ by palm civets and retrieved from their droppings by coffee farmers. In hindsight, we should have gone back to the hotel to rest after the mountain climb, but instead, we headed back towards Ubud for a white-water rafting trip on the Ayung River.

The rafting itself is not terribly exhausting – Ayung offers Class II-III rapids, which are suitable for beginners, but you do have to get down what I remember as around two hundred uneven steps to reach the river – and then the same back up to the street level at the finishing end! It would have been perfectly manageable if my legs weren’t already jelly from climbing Batur the same morning. Depending on which company you go with, you travel in the raft around 12km along the river, which takes between an hour and ninety minutes, including stopping in places to spot wildlife or getting out to swim under waterfalls that cascade down the steep riverbanks between the thick jungle. Afterwards we took a shower back at the rafting centre and had a late lunch, all included in the price, before heading back to the hotel to relax in the pool.

The following day was our last full day in Ubud; we just wanted to see the Tegallalang rice terraces, so we checked a map and decided it wasn’t too far from town and set off walking. I had expected the route to be far more ‘touristy’ than it was, since the rice terraces are so popular, but the road we walked along was becoming more and more remote with only a few houses dotted along every so often and some local shops. After a good hour of walking we popped into a local shop to ask how much further we had to go. The Balinese man we asked exclaimed ‘Tegallalang! Two hour away!’. Surely not, we thought, we had already been walking for ages. After asking another local man a little further along and getting an identical response, we conceded and turned around. We did, however, stumble upon a little shack at the side of the road where they were making Papuan wedding necklaces on the floor. They had hundreds of them piled up all over – ornate shells woven together in intricate patterns. I had seen them before in Thailand, and in shops in Ubud, but they generally cost over £200 each. I asked one of the men ‘how much?’, and in very broken English managed to buy two from him for around thirty pounds. They were bubble wrapped up and followed us around everywhere we went on the rest of the holiday, too big to fit in our suitcases.

On our last evening we had dinner at Bale Bengong, which has been voted one of the most romantic dining experiences in Asia. Part of the Alila Ubud, sits a luxurious ‘bale’, hidden away in the rainforest with a table for two overlooking the Ayung river and a lounge area to relax and stargaze after a five-course meal, freshly prepared by your personal chef. If you’re celebrating a romantic occasion or anniversary while you’re staying in Ubud then you have to dine here.

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