Ubud - Bali's Cultural Capital

One of the highlights of our "Beautiful Bali" tour is our extended stay in Ubud. Located in Bali's mountainous interior, Ubud boasts a cooler climate and central access to many of the island's cultural and artistic attractions. Important archeological sights are easy day trips. Adventure enthusiasts can indulge in white-water rafting and cycling. Art fans can indulge in the island's best art museums and craft villages nearby produce wood carving, stone carving, silver and gold, glass, baskets, painting, masks, and even kites. For visitors wishing to partake of Bali's storied dance drama, Ubud offers multiple venues nightly and virtually all Balinese performance arts are available. Ubud is also a center for a large variety of cultural classes. There are even Bird, Reptile, and Elephant Adventure Parks nearby for family entertainment. And if one gets run down with all the activities, Ubud's many inexpensive spas can help with relaxation and recovery. For us at Imprint, it is the easy access to Bali's best ancient sites that make Ubud a prime destination. Located about 15 miles north of Ubud, Gunung Kawi is Bali's oldest, largest, and most impressive ancient sight. The monument consists of 10 large candi (shrines), situated in a beautiful river valley. Visitors descend to the verdant valley floor via a stone staircase surrounded by rice terraces. The 25-foot candi are dramatically cut from cliff sides, each in its own niche (see photo above). The monuments are memorials to the Balinese royalty of the 11th century, making them almost 1000 years old. Nearby are the sacred springs of Tirta Empol. This is one of the island's most sacred spots and, not surprisingly, one of the most important temples, Pura Tirta Empol, is adjacent to the springs. The spring waters are believed to have special curative and restorative powers and pilgrims come from across the island for ritual purification and blessing in the temple. The spring waters are channeled into a holding tank from which they gush through a series of spouts into the ritual bathing pool. In keeping with our philosophy of making authentic connections, on our Beautiful Bali tour we participate in a water purification ceremony. Our local guide prepares offerings on our behalf and instructs us on proper customs, etiquette, and procedure. Entering the waist-deep pool, we traverse from spout to spout, ducking our heads under each in turn. It is refreshing on both a spiritual and physical level. Afterword, we enter the temple grounds and receive a blessing from one of the priests. It is the most meaningful connection experience on the tour. Gunung Kawi and Tirta Empol together have been nominated for inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage protection list.

Fifteen minutes east of Ubud travelers find Bedulu, once the capital of the 13th-14th century Pejeng dynasty. Two ancient sights, Goa Gajah and Yeh Pulu are located there. Goa Gajah is a small natural cave that was enhanced to create a religious sanctuary. Inside the cave visitors see lingam (the phallic symbol of the Hindu god Shiva), yoni (the female counterpart), and a statue of Ganesh. But it is the creatively carved exterior that impresses. The cave entrance is the mouth of an elaborately carved demon. Gigantic fingers on either side of the demon's face push back a riotous collection of lesser but equally detailed stone carvings. In front of the cave are twin bathing pools with ceremonial waterspouts for requisite ritual bathing. Nearby is Yeh Pulu, an 80-foot long carved cliff face, thought to be a hermitage from the 14th century. The figures can be read as a narrative. Theories on the subject range from scenes of everyday life to the life of Krishna. Visitors can identify a man carrying two jugs, a woman with jewelry, a hunting scene, and Ganesh. The site is attended by a local priest, who offers blessings to visitors (another great connection experience).

A bit further afield, about 17 miles east of Ubud, the town of Semarapura (or Klungkung) hosts the interesting Taman Kertha Gosa palace complex. Klungkung was once the island's most powerful kingdom. The complex is laid out in a large square with courtyards, gardens, pavilions, and moats. The highlights of the palace grounds are two pavilions, Kertha Gosa and Bale Kambang. Kertha Gosa, or Hall of Justice, was essentially Klungkung's court where disputes were settled. The ceilings are completely covered in the creative and elaborate Klungkung style of painting. The paintings depict scenes from a Balinese epic, cautionary tales of punishment for crimes, and various tales from the Hindu epic, Mahabharata. Bale Kambang, the Floating Pavilion, displays equally lavish paintings. The subjects here include Balinese folk tales and the astrological calendar. The small museum on site has a few archeological pieces and exhibits of songket weaving (silver or gold threaded cloth), palm wine making, and palm sugar extraction.

In addition to the historical sights near Ubud, there are a handful of interesting temples as well. Pura Kebo Edan (Crazy Buffalo Temple) contains a 700-year old, 10-foot high statue known as the Giant of Pejang. Pura Pusering Jagat (Navel of the World Temple) is a large, 700-year old temple containing a famous pair of stone carvings, a lingam and joni, which attract young couples wanting to conceive children. Pura Penataran Sasih contains the Fallen Moon of Pejeng, the largest single-piece cast bronze drum in the world. It is thought to be more than 1000 years old. Balinese legend suggests the drum was a fallen moon which came to earth from the heavens, hence the name.

Ambitious travelers could visit all of these sights in a busy, full day using a rental car or motorcycle. But a more leisurely pace spread over two days is recommended. For those not wanting to rent their own vehicle, local transport in the form of Bemos (frequent, communal vans) provide easy access as well. And lastly, Ubud has many, many tour operators that organize excursions. Even farther- flung sights are possible from Ubud where organized excursions to Tanah Lot, Lake Bratan, Mt Batur, and Besakih are possible.