When people first think of Bali, they are usually picturing the endless sand beaches and the pounding surf. But Bali is of course more than just its coastline and in between surf days, we left our sanctuary in Canggu and explored the heart of Bali, which offers spectacular nature in the form of mountains, lakes and forests, UNESCO listed rice terraces and water temples and a display of authentic Balinese culture. Two of the most obvious bases for explorations into these facettes of Bali are Ubud, the cultural center of Bali and Munduk, a laid back mountain village far in the north of the island.
While Ubud has long been a travelers’ favorite on Bali, the relaxed town about 30 Km north of the hedonistic party-life in Kuta/Seminyak has been immortalized in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love. It is the favorite place of serious yogis, meditators, seekers of spiritual healing and organic food lovers who are not hipster enough for Canggu. As might be expected, it also draws a big crowd of expats.
Since we didn’t want to miss too much surf in the south, our plan was to spend two full days there to visit the major attractions and get a feel for Ubud and its surroundings. Those on a day tour often hire drivers who take them from place to place but driving our own scooter was much cheaper and quite straightforward in the end. We stayed in a place called Santra Putra, which offered entire, very spacious cottages with balconies for a very reasonable price. It’s located in Penestanan, a little bit outside of Ubud center and surrounded by lush green rice fields, which was perfect for the amazing views and homey feeling. So how did we kill our time in two days of Ubud? Here is our itinerary:
The Monkey Forest in Ubud
Our first stop led us to the Monkey Forest, which is the most famous tourist attraction right in Ubud. There has been some site development going on and the Monkey Forest now has a Chinese style visitor center and wooden paths, as well as a lot of signs warning you about the monkeys you are supposed to visit. Just like their counterparts on Mount Emei in China, these little fellow know every trick in the book to help you get rid of your food or your valuables. There are over 600 monkeys living in the forest and it is possible to watch them playing, eating and fooling around from very close distance. Obviously the monkey forest is overcrowded and it is possible to see monkeys in other parts of Bali. Still we thought the experience was quite cool as the forest itself was a nice shade provider against the midday heat in Ubud.
Visiting a Balinese Dance in Ubud
This is another big attraction of Ubud. There are basically very unique dance and music performances that in our case portrayed a couple of old Balinese legends. The style and particularly the music was definitely something that we had to get used to. The beers offered at the venue helped. The costumes were really impressive and the grand finale included a gigantic lion-like shaman. We ran into the show randomly when a promoter stopped us while we were looking for food in Ubud downtown. He told us that the show he was selling was the best of the night, but probably every other promoter says the same. So all in all, it was a cool one-time experience though probably not something we will get into regularly ;-).
Clear Café - the most stylish restaurant in Ubud?
Since we had to delay our food plans because of the dance show, we were now even hungrier for dinner! Luckily, Ubud downtown is lined up with restaurants for every size and taste. We settled for the Clear Café, which was probably the most beautiful restaurant we have ever set foot in and tremendously raised our standards for interior design. Just look at this:
The food was quite good, but like in a lot of places on Bali, the portions could have been bigger.
Campuhan Ridge Walk
Another reason for people (so also us) to visit Ubud is that it offers some nice walks through those famed rice terraces. The most popular one (the starting point is marked in freaking Google Maps) is the walk across the Campuhan Ridge (here is a good description of it). You could probably consider it a hike if you haven’t traveled through Kyrgyzstan and China before.
Despite rainy season, we had a day of (too) perfect weather and the view along the ridge was simply gorgeous! At the end of the ridge, instead of heading back to Ubud, we decided to go further west in the hopes of finding some path through the Ayung river valley. We didn’t, but Kevin still tried on until he was eventually lost in the jungle and had to climb out the hard way and trespassing through a number of farms.
After this (mis-)adventure, we trekked back and were now trying to find a way back to Ubud through the rice fields, which was not really straight forward. At some point, we walked through some private villas and found ourselves in front of an immensely beautiful pool! We tried to find someone at the reception, but no one was there, so after some hard thinking we decided to just go for it and jump in! After walking and getting lost in the blazing sun for hours, the pool felt like paradise.
Water Temple (Tirta Empul)
Since the day was still early, we decided to do one last touristy spot, the Water Temple (Tirta Empul), about 15 Km north of Ubud. There is actually another temple very nearby which is probably more impressive architecture-wise. But we were still so hot from our hike that the prospect of water sounded more appealing.
The water temple is very popular with local Hindus who go there to have themselves purified by the holy water. So the highlight are some pools with fountains at the end of them were you are supposed to wash yourself. There are also some fountains which locals told us not to use since they were reserved for special purposes, so it was all in all quite confusing. Also, we had to rent a Sarong to get into the temple, which however you could not take into the water. So you had to rent another Sarong and change from one Sarong into the other and back. In any case, the experience was quite fun and we hope that we are now purified for lifetime!
Sightseeing and culture-wise, Ubud easily beats the southern coastline. So we were quite happy that we took the time to spend two days in Ubud, but we could have definitely extended for another day or two (that is, if we find some place with bigger food portions). We loved our hike through the rice terraces so much that we decided to visit another (more offbeat) place famed for its walks in nature: Munduk.
Munduk is about 70 Km away from “the South”, so in Balinese terms, that means driving 2 to 2.5 hours one way. But the good thing is, the way to Munduk is already filled with sights and other interesting places and leads through a variety of different landscapes. So the roadtrip up is as much part of the adventure as Munduk itself.
In Munduk, we stayed at Adila Warung and Homestay, which was A-MAZING and (apart from our airBnB in Canggu) the best accommodation option we had in Indonesia. The rooms were spacious and clean and the restaurant offered some amazing views over the valley as well as the best pasta we had since leaving Europe! On our first day, Kevin ordered two plates of seafood pasta straight away. Last but not least, the family running the place was wonderful, full of useful information and when we left, they even gave us some Balinese pancake as snacks for the road, for which we are super grateful.
Pura Ulun Danau Bratan
Driving up from Canggu, this was our first sightseeing stop. It’s the Hindu temple with those towers floating in a mountain lake, arguably one of the most famous images of Bali and cover picture of Lonely Planet. Simply for Fear of Missing Out (FOMO), it was obvious we had to stop there. The lake (Danau Bratan) and the structure built on and around it are indeed very beautiful (though nothing otherworldly like the religious buildings in Uzbekistan). However, like most touristy places, it was quite crowded, but we still managed to snatch some people-less photos. So mission accomplished!
By the time we left the temple, it was already lunch time and shortly after Pura Ulun Danau Bratan, we stopped at a place called the Strawberry Stop, which was one of those discoveries while traveling that brighten your day. They served quite a good Nasi Goreng but also offered every variation with strawberry you can imagine: we had strawberry pancakes and strawberry milkshakes which were superb.
Handara Golf Resort Gate
The next (short) stop on our way to Munduk was this typically Balinese gate. We have no idea why it now serves as the entrance to a golf resort, but it’s definitely good marketing for them: quite a lot of people were with us at the gate at the same time taking photos with the incredible background. Instagram loves them pictures.
Hidden Hills Swing
The Munduk region is home to several mountain lakes. Apart from Danau Bratan (the one with the temple) there are Danau Buyan and Danau Tamblingan, sometimes also known as twin lakes. It is apparently possible to do some quality hiking through the jungles around the lake and to the mountains behind, but Nicole was still feeling sick so we didn’t do any of those. Instead we contended ourselves with taking more instagramworthy pictures: All along the way around the lakes, there are viewpoints where people have built up swings and bird nests and eggs and whatever and you can take ultra-cheesy pictures for a small fee. Naturally, since we paid the entrance we did everything, the swing, egg etc. We didn’t take pictures with the fake helicopter though, that seemed too much ;).
While all viewpoints are similar, we went to the hidden hills, which had a nice, big wooden swing. It was honestly mildly scary to rock around in the swing as there is an actual possibility to fall off and under.
The biggest touristic draw in Munduk, apart from the cooler climate, is the possibility to do some leisurely hikes to rice terraces, coffee plantations, and waterfalls. There are tons of waterfalls there. When we drove up to Munduk, we stopped (our last stop) to visit the Golden Valley waterfall, which was a short hike down from the main road and another twin waterfall. Nothing seriously impressive, but cool stuff nonetheless to jump in the water.
On our second day in Munduk, we decided to do a classic three-waterfall-hike. Our hosts at Adila provided us with a very rudimentary hand-drawn map and off we went. The trail actually started directly behind our homestay and mostly consisted of steps and some dirtroad in between, so fairly easy. It took us to three waterfalls surrounded by dense forests and each one was basically bigger than the one before. With each waterfall, we tried to walk towards the water pouring down, but at Melanting waterfall, the last one, the splash from the water was already so strong that Kevin fell multiple times just walking towards it! From there, a small, barely visible trail (marked in maps.me!) led all the way back up to the center of Munduk through some very charming small villages.
Finally, rice terraces! There are multiple ways to hike towards the rice fields, but we’ve become lazy on Bali and opted for the scooter. As in Ubud, we were basically just driving/walking around, trying to find the best viewpoints for the rice fields. Because Munduk was more hilly, we had the feeling that the rice terraces were a little bit more impressive!
We probably could have spent several more days in Munduk, exploring this charming small mountain village and hiking some more through rice paddies and waterfalls. It feels like the perfect place to escape the heat of Kuta/Seminyak, switch from surfing to hiking but still being able to enjoy the friendly locals of Bali. And it was definitely a tad less touristy than the coastline. But we really didn’t want to miss any more surfing, so after two days, back to Canggu we went!
written by Kevin and Nicole in East Java
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