Stepping across the offering of flowers on a small woven mat, laid daily outside every doorway in Ubud, we came into the courtyard of Pondok Prapen guesthouse and were immediately greeted with a sign that we were in the only Hindu island of the world’s largest muslim country; a Ganesha statue decorated with marigold garlands and incense sticks. Oddly, all the statues we’d passed on the way from the airport were Buddhas; “…yeah, not for Hindus, but the tourists love Buddha“, said our taxi driver.
Pondok Prapen was easily one of the best value places we’ve stayed in Asia; our room was in one of four traditional Balinese buildings set around a shady courtyard. For just £17 a night, we woke up in a big wooden four-poster bed to views of the vibrant green Ubud countryside, and took a couple of steps to our small private terrace where we enjoyed free breakfasts each morning.
Although it’s surrounded by rice fields and palm trees, Pondok Prapen isn’t far from Ubud centre, connected to the main road by a raised concrete pathway, too narrow for cars but fine for scooters. The pathway had only just been extended up to our guesthouse; on our second morning a group of Brahmins came to perform a puja blessing on the finished section, meaning our first few scoots had been unknowingly risky scoots on an un-blessed road! Risky, but cheap – our guesthouse offered 24 hour rental for just £2.50.
It took a few rides around the one-way loops and long, unconnected parallel roads heading out of town before we started to get our bearings. The main road running east to west through Ubud is essentially one big traffic jam of cars, scooters and tourists – the other roads going north and south run through the valleys and along the ridges, with hardly any connecting roads between them.
Tourists and traffic aside, there’s a lot to love about Ubud. At the end of March, just after the rainy season, the hills and valleys around the town were a deep, deep green of thick palm forests. At sunset we did the Campuhan Ridge Walk after an afternoon lazing on the top floor of Clear Cafe, and shared the views of the densely covered valleys falling away on either side with a mix of Balinese, American and Aussie voices passing us jogging, walking dogs or just strolling in the sunshine.
A mix of local and ex-pat culture runs all the way through Ubud. For every plate of nasi goreng, babi guling, or satay sold from family-run warungs, there’s a wheatgrass shot, cold-pressed juice or raw veg superfood salad sold from yogi health-food cafes. Coffee is the crossover point of Indonesian and expat culture; local roasts and blends translate very well into the singe-estate espressos and flat whites that fuel all hipsters.
Alongside the shabby-chic cafes strewn with Macbooks and yoga mats sit beautifully carved, traditional Hindu temples with lily pad strewn ponds and quiet courtyards. In the courtyard of the 16th century Puri Saren Agung temple we watched a night time performance of Balinese legong dance with gamelan orchestra, telling the story of the Ramayana.
The costumes and make-up reminded us of the dances we’d watched in Udaipur and Kerala in India; the ultra-precise finger and face movements flick constantly between comical and creepy, like possessed marionette dolls, and the ornate golden head gear are decorated with flowers that are ritualistically passed between performers to symbolise the shifts of power and love in the story.
Bad weather and a 16 hour round bus trip had put us off seeing rice terraces in the Philippines, so the Ceking terraces were a must-see for us in Bali. After checking out of Pondok Prapen we had a free morning before we could check in at Room@Bali for a night of luxury in our pool suite for Rebecca’s birthday. This was the perfect amount of time to scoot north to Ceking and see the terraces before it got too hot and too crowded. We thought we’d seen greener-than-green countryside from the Ridge Walk, but it was still nothing compared to the green of the rice terraces after the rainy season.
We snaked our way down through the steep valley, pausing at the ‘donation-stops’ manned by the families who maintained the paths and bridges around the terraces, and up again at the other side to see the steep terraces, cut neatly into the hillside, cascade down to the bottom of the valley.
Driving back past lots of artists’ workshops selling batik prints, wood carvings, silver jewellery, carved wooden furniture and silk scarves, we again wished for bigger backpacks to carry home everything we wanted. As usual, we decided to fill our bellies not our bags, and stopped to pick up ingredients for the birthday feast we’d cook later at Room@Bali.
The sign outside Room@Bali advertising their “nice view” was a major understatement. The building is set into the side of a valley and we descended four sets of stairs to our suite and found our pool and terrace overlooking the perfect combination of Ubud countryside; palm-covered hills above a deep green, terraced valley and curve of frothing white river. The Prosecco and cakes waiting on the terrace as a birthday surprise completed the picture.