Sadha Budaya Troupe’s Barong dance at the Ubud Palace (Ubud)

While in the exquisite hilly region of Ubud, we made a point of seeing as many of the town’s famed dance troupes as possible, and since “Barong” supplied the masks, costumes and choreography that interested us most, we made this our first selection of the trip. Tickets for most of Ubud’s different dance groups can be purchased from the Visitor’s Center at the southwestern corner of Jalan Raya Ubud and Monkey Forest Road.  A long list provided by the information desk shows the various nightly performances and their locations.  We had heard good things about the Sadha Budaya Troupe and when we realized that their Friday night show would take place in the legendary Ubud Palace, we were sold!

Unfortunately for us, while taking in an aperitif elsewhere in town, the weather turned sour and a torrential rainfall soon moved the show across the street to a covered performance space.  (In retrospect, the downpour was actually a blessing since it kept larger crowds away.)  Though we felt it a bit gauche, we ultimately ordered a couple of beers from a vendor who criss-crossed through the auditorium.  The crowd, busy ringing out their wet clothes, waited patiently for about 15 more minutes until an instrumental number from the gamelan orchestra signaled the beginning of the show.

It was the first time in the entire trip that we were witnessing traditional music performed in a theatrical setting and it must be said, most of the musicians seemed entirely bored.  Looking back on it now, I suppose it’s no surprise.  Once the trio of legong dancers, festooned in impossibly colorful get-ups, appeared to tell their story through a series of intricate hand movements, all eyes were on them for the rest of the evening!  Nevertheless, the manic beat of the gamelan set against the pitter-patter of the rainstorm immediately set the stage for an exciting and dramatic show. 

Sadha Budaya’s performance, about an hour or so with no intermission, regales its viewers with stories from the two sides of Balinese life, its “vice” and its “virtue.”  Characters such as the white-magic guru “Mpu Bharadah” and “Rangda,” an evil witch monster, fight against one another throughout the duration of the show.  Our favorite character was easily the “Barong” himself.  In the Hindu religion, Barong is the “king of spirits” who sets out to heal anyone who has been exposed to evil! 

Thanks to Sadha Budaya’s impressive show, we were immediately hooked by the drama, spectacle and grace exhibited by this unique style of dance.  (We would go on to see two other troupes in the following days - see below.)  By the time the show was finished, our clothes had just about dried.  Luckily, the rain had stopped and we were able to keep the magic flowing from our “Barong” experience all night long. 

Assembled in 1980, Sadha Budaya has been performing legong and barong at the 16th century Ubud Palace ever since.  Shows are every Friday night at 7:30 PM and cost 80,000 IDR (about $9 USD).  Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!

Ubud Palace - north side of Jalan Raya Ubud at Monkey Forest Road, Ubud, Bali

Ubud Tourist Information - south side of Jalan Raya Ubud at Monkey Forest Road, Bali, 011 (62) 361-973285

Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary (Ubud)

After our misty visit to the highlands of Munduk, we weren’t sure if anything could top the sublime experience.  And yet, we should have had total faith in Ubud, the island’s much bally-hooed “center of culture and art” that is said to behold Bali’s true spirit.  This reputation is perhaps best exemplified by the town’s Mandala Wisata Wanara Wana, or the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, that acts as its southern border.

Researching “Monkey Forest Road” prior to arriving in town, we had pictured it to consist solely of a small dirt path that cut a dense jungle in two.  Sure, we expected some temple activity, and perhaps even a monkey or two scattered about, but we never thought the reserve would prove so cinematic!  Fans of the Indiana Jones series could do a lot worse in choosing a place to live out their private adventure fantasies!

First things first, the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary is no small operation.  Housing not one, not two, but three important Hindu temples, the reserve is actively part of the daily life for members of nearby Padangtegal villages.  These communities use the forest not only as a place for worship, but also as a research environment in which to better understand conservation and ecology.  Of course, the main residents of the sanctuary are its Balinese macaques, a population that includes approximately 35 adult males, 95 adult females and more than 150 young.  The monkeys live in three separate “family groups” that occupy different sections of the reserve at different times of the day.

Upon arrival, we purchased tickets from one of the booths at the southern end of Monkey Forest Road and then tossed a few coins into an old woman’s bucket to enlist the aid of some bananas.  It was not long after we ventured down our first path that we were surrounded by a cadre of cute little macaques.  Though some stuck out their middle fingers or showed us their nether regions, they hardly had to perform to get their reward.  Earlier reports suggested that the monkeys of Bali could be greedy, but this was ridiculous.  Our mouths dropped when the monkeys literally climbed up to grab bananas out of our hands.  (Set of Drifters tip:  To avoid some rather unpleasant results, keep your sunglasses and purses well attached to your person, and whatever you do, make sure all food is completely covered!  At one point, Doug ended up having a showdown with one angry monkey who sported his fangs and blocked passage to a bridge.  An associate at the sanctuary had to intervene before the situation was resolved!)

Strolling through the labyrinthine paths, we soon realized why the informative brochure contained a map.  (How else would we have found the three separate temples while being distracted by the antics of the macaques?)  Our first visit was to the greatest of Monkey Forest’s temples, the holy site of Pura Dalem Agung.  Preparations for a ceremony were slowly being made, and therefore the temple was closed off to visitors.  Still, we were able to watch as children worked hard at fastening their headwraps and mothers and grandmothers assembled large baskets of flowers for offerings.   Meanwhile, a row of uniformly dressed men sat casually gossiping and smoking cigarettes off to the side.  Though we tried to stick it out as long as possible, we were getting pretty hungry so we eventually left the swarming crowd behind to make our way to the sanctuary’s other sights.

Accessible only by bridge and a small set of stone stairs, the magical site of Nista Mandala was shrouded in some rather invasive banyan trees that haunted as much as they soothed.  (You can imagine the monkeys must love their dangling roots!)  The temple we found at the bottom of the steps sits adjacent to a picturesque babbling brook used primarily for holy bathing rituals.  A monitor lizard kept guard nearby against those uninitiated.  Who knew the Sacred Monkey Forest was going to have so much competing visual diversity?

After snapping a number of photos from underneath the banyans, we soon noticed a steady stream of activity emerging from the Nista Mandala temple.  It seemed that the entirety of the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary was about to convene for some important event.  Following the trail of offerings to the point back past the bridge where they met with approaching music, we were soon treated to one of the most memorable events of our entire Indonesian trip.  Here, on what to us was a normal Saturday morning, the entire village of Padangtegal was getting together for a colorful procession that brought hundreds of followers on a tour of all three temples.  We “hitched a ride” on the tail end of the parade as it flowed from Nista Mandala all the way to Pura Prajapati, the sanctuary’s third temple devoted to funerary cremation.  With spectators from around the world in awe, incense wafting through the air, and the hypnotic gong of the gamelan sounding throughout the park, we are quite certain the monkeys went unfed... at least for a little while. 
Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!

Despite the crowds, a visit to the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary is really a must.  The reserve is open daily from 8:00 AM until 6:00 PM, though temple activities may leave some areas off-limits.  Admission is a steal at only 20,000 IDR (about $2.25 USD).

Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary - Jalan Monkey Forest, Padangtegal, Ubud  80571, Bali, 011 (62) 361-971304

the beaches of Bali

For an island that is known the world over for its storied beaches, we spent very little time on them during our eight day stay.  Thanks to a schedule that was entirely overbooked with activities, our experiences on the sand were frittered down to only few half days here and there.  And thus, we really only touched down on a small portion of the seemingly endless strips of sand that make up the perimeter of Bali.  Ultimately it’s unfortunate, for we hear the island’s many beach communities work together to provide unforgettable experiences for just about everyone.

We started out our Balinese holiday on the “west side” at Batu Belig Beach in Kerobokan.  While it was not necessarily the most attractive beach to look at, its proximity to a variety of hotel resorts and beach bars made it the kind of place where you could easily spend the entire day lounging under an umbrella with a number of tropical drinks.  Regrettably, our resort, the Grand Balisani Suits (see "digs"), had a shortage of available seats and we had to hop over the fence to patronize an outlet next door.  Too bad for them since we ended up spending all of our money elsewhere when it could have gone to the resort’s own F&B division.

The lucky winners of your Set of Drifters’ hard-earned dough?  None other than the brand-new Balinese outpost of the worldwide phenomenon Barca Bar!  Though we would have hoped for a more stylish soundtrack to accompany our lunch, Barca’s sandwiches and mozzarella, tomato & basil salad were to die for (particularly when washed down with an ice cold beer), and we ultimately enjoyed our time here leisurely blobbing out on their sunbather beanbags.

When things got a bit too hot, we made a point to pop into the surf.  Kerobokan’s waves are mighty, but not wicked, and the warm water was mostly clean.  Overall, simple Batu Belig ended up providing us with the best beach experience in all of Bali... which is not saying much.

Days later, we ended up in Sanur, a long stretch of sand on the eastern side of the island that is known for being the more relaxed alternative to the “party vibe” of Kuta, Legian and Seminyak.  From the onset, we could tell that its tourist clientele was drastically different.  In Sanur, gone were the noisy twenty-somethings that clogged the pool bar of the Grand Balisani Suites.  And in their place?  Older couples with their heads buried in books.

While easily more picturesque, and more abundant in beach chairs, the downside of Sanur, at least for us, was the fact that the surf was virtually non-existent.  Thanks to a well-positioned sandbar some distance from the shoreline, the surf breaks very far out, creating a bay of still water that collects heaps of seaweed and shells.  Although relaxing, we wished we could have taken our resort, Hotel La Taverna, and popped it over to another beach with more waves.  In fact, Set of Drifter Brady was so bored that he had to get rather creative to pass the time.  (See "digs" for more information on his construction endeavor.)  Set of Drifters tip:  It must be said that Sanur Beach got slightly more interesting on Sunday afternoon when local families arrived to play and picnic in the sand just north of our resort.  It was fun to watch the parents take their kids out on small fishing trips and to ogle at the gymnastic abilities of the teens who performed somersaults into the air.

After only a day of sunning ourselves beside the still, still (did we mention still?) waters of Sanur, we were ready for a little more action.  To achieve this, we headed south to Ulu Watu.  The beaches found here are not “true” beaches by definition, but part of a dramatic coastline that informs Bali’s esteemed surfer’s paradise.  Now, your Set of Drifters have never attempted any surfing beyond a standard body board, but we can report that Ulu Watu’s wave community is most impressive.  Parking our car at the end of a long drive, we made the remainder of the journey to the shore on foot.  Along the way, we passed a number of locals and tourists from around the world, all desperate to catch that perfect wave.

Since Ulu Watu is positioned at a point of the island that juts out like a tiny peninsula, the almost 270 degrees of water create a nexus of six different breaks.  (It’s a wonder anyone spending time around these parts ever gets anything productive done!)  After checking out the gorgeous “secret” cove (positioned down a steep cement staircase to the left), we eventually made it up to the top of Ulu Watu’s tourist village, an impossible mountain of restaurants, surf shops and bars that finds its apex at a cliff with breathtaking views in all directions.  We downed a beer or two and earwigged on the local “surf talk.”  (Sorry, we don’t understand much of the lingo and therefore can’t provide you with any of the latest Ulu Watu gossip.)

Feeling a bit out of place, we returned to our car and headed to The Gong, a restaurant we had spotted on the way in.  Thought the larger hotel also caters almost exclusively to the surf trade, its position a kilometer or so from the shore ensured that we would probably be the only ones there at lunch time.  Since arriving in Bali, we had been jonesing for a burger.  Assuming that a surf restaurant would probably be our safest bet in Indonesia, we were a bit surprised when our order took more than 25 minutes to arrive back at our table.  Perhaps they had to go get the burger from another joint down the road?  Who cares?  It ended up being one of the best burgers we’ve ever had... or maybe we were just starving?

Ultimately, a stop off at Ulu Watu is mandatory for any surf fiends coming to Bali.  But even those that have never taken to the waves will find its picturesque cliffs and coves worthy of the side-trip.  And did we mention that crazy cliffside temple and Kecak fire dance?  (See below for more information.)

Barca Bar - at Batu Belig Beach, off of Jalan Batu Belig, Kerobokan, Bali

The Gong - Jalan Pantai Suluban, Ulu Watu, Bali, 011 (62) 769976

Pura Ulun Dana Bratan and nearby monkeys of the lakes (Candi Kuning)

Many say Bali is shaped like a giant mushroom, but we prefer to compare it to a tree, with the capital Denpasar as its trunk, and the beaches of Kuta, Legian, Sanur and Seminyak its bark.  The southern “hot-spots” of Nusa Dua, Jimbaran and Ulu Watu provide Bali with roots, while a number of various unforgettable sites fill out the tree’s many boughs and branches.  Now, think about it.  You wouldn’t dare describe a tree without considering its limbs, would you?  And thus, we wondered why so many first-timers to Bali never seem to make it past the bark?

At any rate, the jagged peaks, rolling hills and rice paddies to the north, east and west had certainly called our names, and their lush vegetation, breathtaking views and mountain-top lakes laced with fog instantly made us feel as though we had entered a magical dreamland.

Our first stop was the important Hindu-Buddhist temple of Pura Ulun Dana Bratan, a 17th century structure built to appease the goddess of water Dewi Danu.  Noted by many as one of the most picturesque locales in all of Bali, you are guaranteed to run into more than a few fellow travelers.  Still, the evocative setting is well worth any potential queuing for photos.  Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, with its impressive 11-tiered meru roof, juts out into a rather large lake, making it perhaps the ultimate setting in which to snap next year’s holiday photo!  For us, however, it was others who wanted to take our picture.  No longer surprising, our pale skin continued to attract the attention of tourists from other parts of Indonesia who wanted to take pictures with us to share with friends back at home.  Ahhh, the life of a celebrity!

Pura Ulun Dana Bratan often welcomes spiritual pilgrimages, and you can be assured there was more than a handful or orange and gold-robed monks visiting during our stay.  The intense color of their drapery was further defined by a misty backdrop of fog that rolled across Lake
Bratan.  (Due to the terrible visibility, there would be pedaling on one of the kitschy animal-shaped boats for us that day!)   The remainder of the temple grounds are very well manicured, and feature not only a host of fun animal statues for the kids, but also a small “zoo” of live creatures that featured some of the tiniest owls we had ever seen!  This annex of the temple is the kind of place where you have to “pay to play” and any photos taken of the oddities will cost you.  (In other words, get out our zoom lens.)

Admission to the temple of Pura Ulun Dana Brat
an will set you back only 10,000 IDR for adults (about $1.15 USD) and 50,000 IDR for children (about 55 cents USD).  This includes use of a sash that must be worn at all times while visiting the complex.  Those driving their own car should also note an additional parking fee of 2,000 IDR (about 20 cents USD) is charged upon entering the lot.  Set of Drifters tip:  One of the best kept secrets at Pura Ulun Dana Bratan is its gift shops, though we doubt they are actually affiliated.  In this short block of stalls, we grabbed some of the most attractive wooden jewelry, batik and coconut wood utensils we had seen thus far - and at great prices!

Further up the road from Candi Kuning on the way to Munduk Village is the majestic one-two punch of lakes Buyan and Tamblingan.  You cannot miss the spot since a gaggle of hungry macaque monkeys have set up shop by the side of the road.  While you snap pictures of the incredible vistas, they wait (perhaps not so patiently) for you to feed them bananas or strawberries from nearby farms.  The members of these primate families are so precious and charming, we bet you’ll have a hard time getting back into your car.  Then again, this is Bali, and there are plenty of other opportunities to meet some monkeys.  (See Ubud’s “Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary” above for more information on interacting with macaques.)

Quiet honestly, we felt the experience of driving through the northern mountains of Bali to be one of the highlights of our entire trip, and in order to really take in the magic pulse of this special island, we wholeheartedly encourage all future visitors to GET OUT of Seminyak or Sanur - and for more than just a day-trip!

Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!

Pura Ulun Dana Bratan - about 55 km. from Denpasar on the right side of the main  road to Singaraja, Candi Kuning, Bali

jungle trek through Munduk (Munduk)

Entering into the serene hilltop village of Munduk is really like arriving in paradise.   Our fabulous accommodations, the Puri Lumbing Cottages (see “digs”), were so completely tucked away from the rest of the world that we honestly had no reason to set foot outside its borders.  That being said, the property is actually located on the edge of a large jungle ravine that features not one, but two prominent waterfalls.  During our first dinner at Puri Lumbung’s Warung Kopi Bali, our waiter mentioned that he sometimes provides tours of the jungle for hotel guests and that he would be available the following day if we were interested.

Now, normally we shy away from indulging in tour guides, preferring to experience new locales all on our own, and yet Arya seemed especially nice and relaxed.  Furthermore, after glancing at the hard-to-decipher map of the surrounding environs provided by the Front Desk, we started to wonder if we might not end up like Bobby and Cindy Brady from the “Grand Canyon Adventure” of The Brady Bunch!  Knowing that we would ultimately be better off with a local who really knew his way around, we decided to book Arya for the following morning.

Still feeling a bit queasy from our babi guling experience the day prior (see “eats”), we made sure to equip ourselves with plenty of water, Imodium - and tissue paper.  And since we had heard that many trekkers use the falls to cool off in the heat of the afternoon, we also threw in a bathing suit or two.  The rising temperature was also a factor in us choosing to head out right after breakfast.  Happily, Arya was right on time.

Our jungle trek started off mostly downhill from the resort.  As we descended further and further into the lush valley, we happened across a number of private properties that featured individual plantations.  (Local crops included nutmeg, cacao, vanilla, coffee, pepper and even pineapples!)  It was pretty incredible to imagine that all of Munduk’s mountain dwellers grow their crops vertically along these same steep inclines.  Arya later showed us the inner-workings of the ingenious water irrigation system that is to thank for the success of Munduk’s storied agriculture.  Apparently, only the purest H2O from the falls is channeled to water the crops, producing fruits, vegetables and spices that are cleaner and more robust in scent and taste.

Along that first part of our journey, we continued to run into a number of children heading home to their village after school.  We could not help but ponder how different their experience in Munduk must be compared to ones we had growing up in the suburbs of New York and Chicago!  While some might say that the young Balinese kids live a more difficult life, their carefree spirit certainly seemed more in tune with the more integral elements of life on Earth.

The winding dirt path continued to careen up and down the mountain, eventually leading us to our first destination, Melanting, the smaller of the two waterfalls.  It was here that we actually ran into two Dutch honeymooners who were on the same trail, yet in reverse.  We assisted each other in taking photos in front of the dramatic 15 meter-tall backdrop before gearing ourselves up for a climb that the Dutchies warned might be a bit steep!

Our new friends weren’t kidding.  After ascending what seemed already liked 100 or so steps, we started to wonder if they would ever end.  And with the intense heat of a midday sun kicking in, it was not long before we had to ask our guide to stop for a few moments.  We felt a bit embarrassed to be so out of shape.  Then again, we had spent the majority of the previous two weeks lounging by a pool - and we still had that foul babi guling to push through our system!  Nevertheless, the brief respite gave us a nice chance to talk to Arya about topics other than what we were seeing along the trek.  We asked him how the natural disasters and political upheavals of Indonesia’s recent history had affected tourist levels.  Arya stated that it was really only Americans that had not yet made a return to the country after the 2002 Bali bombing and the horrific earthquakes/ tsunamis that thrashed good portions of the country in 2004 and 2006.

The stairs finally leveled off onto a higher elevation and it was not much longer until we found ourselves facing the larger of the two waterfalls, Tanah Barak, noted as the highest in Bali.  The setting was truly spectacular, and it was ultimately no surprise that a number of other trekkers had made the shortcut here from another trail that lead down from the main road.

Still, we say:  No Pain, No Gain!  We felt invigorated to have made the entire journey through the rainforest.  (Set of Drifters tip:  While scouting out Tanah Barak, make sure to look out for a hidden shrine, ensconced in the moss that drapes the rock wall off to the left of the falls.)

On our return back to the hotel, we walked through several more villages, plantations and temples.  Who knew that so much activity was going on just below the grounds of the quiet and peaceful Puri Lumbung?

Puri Lumbung charges $8 USD per person for the guided trek, though you can do the same on your own for FREE.  Monies are payable directly to your guide and while not expected, tips are appreciated.  We gave Arya 200,000 IDR for the two of us ($22 USD) and he seemed more than pleased.  Overall, we were quite happy we decided to go with a guide.  Though the paths in the forest are clearly delineated, they often fork off into two, sometimes even three different directions.  We never would have been able to figure out the maze on our own! 
Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!

Set of Drifters tip:  While on your mountainside journey be on the watch for small vendor stalls that sell spices, herbs or coffee.  We surmise these cater mostly to local villagers, somewhat like a bodega market in New York City though they are a wonderfully unique place to pick up elements you may be missing in your kitchen back home.

Munduk - about 85 km. northwest of Denpasar (contact us for more detailed     directions to the waterfall)

The Blanco Renaissance Museum (Ubud)

We had seen its gates a number of times during strolls back and forth from the center of Ubud to our hotel on Jalan Raya Campuan.  An elaborate driveway beckoned with a Western baroque opulence that contrasted sharply even with the ornamentation of Bali’s already frilly decorative aesthetic.  Since we had a couple hours to kill on a rainy morning before heading out of town, there was really no argument in choosing The Blanco Renaissance Museum as our final taste of Bali’s cultural epicenter.  After all, the ridiculous manse of the now-deceased artist was only a hop, skip and a jump across the street!

The eccentric vibe of Blanco’s family compound is set almost immediately upon entering.  A large framed photo inside the admission foyer shows the painter mingling with none other than Michael Jackson!  Often described as the “Dali of Bali,” Blanco is made instantly memorable by his requisite beret and deep-set, agape eyes that suggest he may be playing a role destined to be carried out all the way to the grave.  A sign above the door on the opposite side of the room reads:  “Through these portals enter the most beautiful people in Bali.”  It’s a bon-mot that serves as a decent appetizer for the pretense that was soon to follow.

Don Antonio Blanco arrived in Ubud in 1952 by way of New York, and originally Catalonia, Spain, after studying at the National Academy and traveling throughout the world.  Seduced by the colorful, and somewhat erotic nature of Balinese culture, it was not long before Blanco had set up residence, making a living off his oeuvre of risqué portraits of women in all states of saucy undress.  After viewing only a smattering of this work inside, it will be no shocker to learn that Blanco soon found himself married to a traditional Balinese dancer.  Together, the couple raised four children in their magnificent compound located on Tjampuhan Hill, a gift of land provided by none other than the King of Ubud!

After paying for our tickets, we first sipped a sumptuous welcome drink from the museum’s cafe perched high above surrounding jungle environs.  Then, after descending down into an equally picturesque garden that abutted a small bird park, we ended up at the compound’s pièce de résistance, the grandiose Antonio Blanco Museum, made known by a huge sculptural rendition of the artist’s signature.  Wow.

Yet it’s not just the exterior of this two-story gallery that drips with a gaudy pomp and circumstance that is believed only once seen in person.  Inside, a series of intricately carved frames covered in gold leaf are further embellished with everything but the kitchen sink.  (Blanco often signs his works with what appear to be laser die-cut swatches of painted leather?)  En masse, the dressings of Blanco’s paintings offered enough histrionics to make us ponder if they weren’t meant to be the focus of Blanco’s work.  Sure, the artist’s painting ability cannot be disquieted, but once bathed by such mundane trappings as shellacked cigarettes, their impact is certainly diminished.

Many of Blanco’s more “famous” works were represented by faded reproductions of originals that must already be in the spangle-gloved hands of collectors like Michael Jackson.  While we were not really into the subject matter of the lion’s share of Blanco’s work, we did appreciate the snarky humor of his later pieces.  (A small gallery that segues visitors from the main museum to the artist’s original studio features multimedia paintings that require the viewer to interact with tiny panels and doors.  When opened, they reveal all sorts of randy subject matter.  Who knew E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was such a skirt-chaser?)

We spent about an hour at the Blanco Museum, gawking at everything from the impossible views of its uppermost terraces all the way down to the studios of Blanco and his son Mario - who has since followed his father’s painterly footsteps.  After all is said and done, we were perhaps most perplexed by the “documentary movie” of Blanco’s life that screened at the exit.  Self-aggrandizement had never felt more pungent.  Yikes.

The illustrious world of Don Antonio Blanco is yours for an admission price of 50,000 IDR (about $5.75 USD).  The grounds are open every day of the year from 9:00 AM until 5:00 PM.  Even if you are not staying out near Tjampuhan, the bizarre location is only a short walk from the center of town.

The Blanco Renaissance Museum - Jalan Raya Campuan, Ubud  80571, Bali, 011   (62) 361-975502

Kecak & Fire Dance Cultural Show at Pura Luhur Ulu Watu temple (Ulu Watu)

One of the most dramatic settings we experienced in all of Bali - well, really the entirety of Indonesia -  was the view from the Pura Luhur Ulu Watu temple at sunset.  Situated high upon a seaside cliff at the southwestern edge of the island, the surroundings of this important temple make you feel as though you are worlds away from home. 

Now it must be said that, aside from Borobudur, this was probably the most touristy thing we did in all of Indonesia.  And like the hundred or so others in attendance that afternoon, we had come to Ulu Watu for one reason only, to see the popular Kecak & Fire Dance as presented by the Pecatu village troupe.  We sat down mighty early in order to guarantee the best view, and for the next ½ hour, shielded ourselves from some of the most intense rays of sunlight we’ve ever experienced.  (Set of Drifters tip:  This is prime “International Grooves and Mangroves” territory so get out your cameras to pass the time!)  As we looked out beyond the silhouette of the Bukit temple into the stunning  Indian Ocean backdrop, it was somehow easier to understand how folks in the 11th century would have trekked to this remote location 70 meters above the sea just to worship.

As the sun slowly set over the orange and pink horizon, an elderly man finally emerged from the rear of the stage to light a fire in a cauldron.  The Kecak & Fire Dance had begun.  What makes this performance so different from the other cultural dance events you might experience while in Indonesia is that this one features no traditional gamelan orchestra.  Instead, the “music” of this unique Balinese dance is sung, or rather chanted, by a choir of seventy heaving, shirtless men! 

Combined with rhythmic hand claps and body slapping, the aural and visual spectacle of this ”Sanghyang,” or trance dance, is quite hypnotic for the viewer.  In fact, while watching the further antics supplied by an additional cast of masked characters, you may even feel as though you’ve been transported to a remote tribal village and led into a secret ritual taking place inside the rim of a volcano!  It may sound scary, particularly for the youngins, but have no fear!  The twist of the Kecak is that it is actually punctuated by humor!

Certainly more rough around the edges than classic legong or even barong, the sight gags produced by the villains in this cast made the overall act feel much more contemporary.  Some of the goblins, particularly the white monkey “Hanuman,” loved to pick people out from the crowd to play with.  His pratfalls certainly pleased the crowd time and time again - and what a crowd it was!  It’s no wonder real wild monkeys like hanging around here so much with so many tourists packing the outdoor amphitheater nightly.  (That means more banana feeding!) 

After the Kecak came to its fiery crescendo, we luckily managed to race out from Pura Luhur Ulu Watu rather quickly.  It was just one of the advantages we noted to driving our own car while in Bali!  Speaking of which...  Set of Drifters tip:  Visitors to the Kecak & Fire dance at Ulu Watu should note that the price of admission - 50,000 IDR (about $5.50 USD) - will include not only the requisite sash needed to enter the temple, but also a tour guide that you may, or may not, really need.  Guides will share information about the 800 year-old history of the site (for an expected tip), though we surmise they are provided primarily to help visitors defend against the wild macaques.  We hear they can get rather feisty!  Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video content from this event!

Pura Luhur Ulu Watu - about 6 km. from Jalan Ulu Watu on your way to Ulu Watu       from Jimbaran, Ulu Watu, 011 (62) 998-31599

Pura Luhur Batukaru (Batukaru)

The most striking difference we noticed upon transitioning over from Java to Bali came into focus almost immediately.  Aside from the fact that roadside macaques assured this was indeed “monkey territory,” a proliferation of stone gated temples on almost every corner helped us to understand the extent of their Hindu followers’ devotion.

While researching the trip, we had already seen plenty of Balinese temple complexes written up in guide books, magazine articles and blogs.  It seemed everyone had an opinion as to which temple, or pura, was the prettiest, most serene, or revered.  And thus, when we finally arrived on the island only to discover so many other temples not even given a passing glance in our reading, we were a bit taken aback.  Where exactly would we begin?

To be perfectly honest, many of the Balinese villages’ Hindu temples look remarkably similar:  orange-red brick structures with stone block gates and retaining walls that enclose a series of smaller pagodas and a variety of sculptures that depict various gods and goddesses within the Hindu pantheon.  Many of them are wrapped in black and white checked cloth, a pattern that is meant to symbolize “good and evil living in balance” in everyday life.  We’re betting that after you snap a few photos at a couple of these lesser village temples, you’ll have no qualms about simply passing by the hundreds of others that you will encounter throughout your visit to Bali.  That being said, guidebooks, magazine articles, and ahem, travel blogs don’t write about particular places for no reason.  There are indeed a number of temples that stand out above the rest.  (We’ve already mentioned one of them, the temple complex of Pura Ulun Dana Bratan - see above.)  While many, more touristy travel guides tout a sunset at the seaside Pura Tanah Lot (north of Kerobokan), we can assure you this will be no relaxing dusk encounter.  You will be sharing the space with hundreds of others duped into a quickie “half-day” escape from the hells of Kuta, Legian or Nusa Dua.

For a more rewarding temple experience, we recommend a trip up into the hills near the Jatiluwih rice fields to see Pura Luhur Batukaru.  The true “half-day visit” may require a drive that is not for the faint of heart, but that’s exactly what keeps the hordes away and makes Pura Luhur Batukaru one of the few “grand temples” of Bali that you will really be able to sink your teeth into, mostly undisturbed.

We arrived about mid-day, paid our entrance fee of 10,000 IDR (about $1.20 USD) and wrapped a sash around our waists provided by the temple.  A sign posted at the gate tells visitors who can and cannot enter the temple, noted by locals as one of the most holy in all of Bali.  (Apparently, ladies who are menstruating must stay in the parking lot.)  We were not the only couple to take photos of the unfamiliar regulations to show friends back home.

Even from the entrance, Pura Luhur Batukaru is imposing with its seven-tiered roof structure, or meru, that pays homage to a nearby mountain spirit.  (At 2,276 meters, Batukaru is Bali’s second highest peak behind Gunung Agung.)  Still, the real treat at this temple is stroll through its lush, peaceful surroundings.  Saunter off to the left from the main temple and you will arrive at a babbling brook.  Make a turn to the right and hop down the insanely geometric steps to discover a man-made lake that features an intriguing temple shrine at its center.  It was here that we heard music emanating from the jungle forest.

Following a resident duck toward the mesmerizing sound, we were able to spy, from afar, a traditional Hindu ceremony made complete with the intoxicating aromas flower offerings and incense.  Pura Luhur Batukaru was built during the 11th century, yet its relevance as a place of pilgrimage for Balinese Hindus has assured that it remains in pretty good shape.  Still, no temple can fight off the advances of Mother Nature, particularly when one is perched to the side of a tall mountain!  Expect to see many a twisting roots and lichen- and moss-covered statuary during your visit.  (We wouldn’t have it any other way.)

If you are looking for a Balinese temple that offers both impressive architecture as well as the spirituality that is often missing from Bali’s other, more well-traveled spots, Pura Luhur Batukaru certainly delivers the goods.  Just don’t tell too many people about it! 

Set of Drifters tip:  The drive to Batukaru can be made from Denpasar via Tabanan, and eventually a turn-off from the village of Penebel.  Another option is to arrive from the east through the impossibly verdant rice paddies of Jatiluwih.  This valley is so picturesque that it almost looks as if the entirety of nature had been landscaped for your viewing pleasure.  Expect some pretty gnarled conditions and some poorly-signed turns on the 18 km. road from Pacung.  A nominal road toll of 10,000 IDR (about $1.20 USD) is required somewhere along this road.  If you blink, you just may miss the booth so keep an eye out.

Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!

Pura Luhur Batukaru - about 22 km. from Tabanan on the road toward Batukaru (near Wongayagede village), Bali

Chandra Wirabhuana Legong dance at the Pura Taman Saraswati “lotus pond” (Ubud)

After checking out the extravagant Sadha Budaya “Barong” show the night before, we were anxious to see how a similar cultural dance performance by another local group would measure up.  Once again using the services provided by Ubud’s Tourist Information Center, a recommendation was made for the Chandra Wirabhuana troupe.  Though we didn’t know anything about them, or their prowess, we felt a bit more reassured of their abilities after learning they’d be performing out front of the illustrious Taman Sari “Water Palace” (see below).

At first lit only by a few candles and service lights, the outdoor stage and adjoining lotus pond looked perfectly magical when we arrived about 15 minutes prior to the show.  It was from this audience that we had our only true interaction with other Americans during the entire trip.  The two ladies seated in front of us were from Washington, D.C., and they were excited to exchange with us their stories, recommendations and other travel tips before the show began.

Chandra Wirabhuana was formed much more recently than Sadha Budaya, having only performed together for a little over 10 years.  The troupe that gets its name from the “strength of a heroic moon” is comprised of a talented group of gamelan musicians and classically-trained dancers who spend multiple nights a week honing their craft.  Together, the unit prides itself with marrying classic stories and gamelan tunes of historic importance with new compositions that will hopefully inspire the generations of tomorrow.  The result of their innovation is a show that feels decidedly more modern and relaxed.  That being said, don’t expect an experience entirely different from the one you’ll encounter at Ubud Palace.  While perhaps more youthful, the Chandra Wirabhuana show at Taman Sari is equally full of historical Hindu lore that is expressed via a series of intricately maneuvered hand mudras.

Aside from the finale number, a flashy retelling of the war between the Kingdom or Korawa and Karna that may or may not have starred Prince, the standout performance here is clearly the “Oleg Tamullingan.”  Danced by a couple of “bees,” the courtship choreography in this number offers more than a few pauses for high drama.  It was about this time that we noticed a young girl rise from her seat in the audience to replicate the movements of the dancers on-stage.  Unfortunately, she was unable to keep her eyes open long enough to match the wide, agape stares provided by the performers.  (Set of Drifters tip:  Make sure you check out the colorful get-up sported by the prettiest “boy bee” you will ever see, fan included.  Can you say “next year’s Halloween costume?”)

Of course, the scene stealers are always the masked demons and witches.  If you are a fan like us, have no worries; the funny creatures pop up throughout Chandra Wirabhuana’s show.

Chandra Wirabhuana performs each Saturday at the Taman Sari at 7:30 PM.  Tickets are available from Ubud’s Tourist Information Center for 80,000 IDR (about $9 USD).  This includes a short photo session afterward where you can pose with your favorite cast members from the show!

Pura Taman Saraswati - north side of Jalan Raya Ubud, Ubud, Bali

Ubud Tourist Information - south side of Jalan Raya Ubud at Monkey Forest Road, Bali, 011 (62) 361-973285

Pura Taman Saraswati and nearby Pura Dalem Ubud (Ubud)

During our two-day stay in Ubud (way too short in our opinion), we managed to see quite a few temples.  While there are a handful of complexes that are very well-traveled with tourists (see "Monkey Forest Sanctuary" above), others seem virtually abandoned.  Pura Taman Saraswati, aka the “Water Palace,” is another of the former variety. 

What makes Pura Taman Saraswati so unique is the fact that its long entryway bisects an impressive lotus pond covered in overgrown lily pads.  Koi fish and frogs make this an enchanting place either day or night.  In fact, we ended up revisiting the Water Palace again at night to take in their Chandra Wirabhuana Legong (see above).  If you only witness Pura Taman Saraswati by daylight, you’re missing out! 

Inside the temple grounds proper, a number of sharply-landscaped pavilions display costumes, instruments and other elements from the show.  But the best star of this show - at least during the day - is the incredible assortment of stone carvings - both big and small.  We bet you’ll be pulling out your camera a few times during your visit!  Set of Drifters tip:  A nearby restaurant offers outdoor seating looking out to the lotus pond.  Should you want to see the Saturday night show while eating dinner at the same time, this spot makes for the perfect romantic getaway.  Very civilized indeed!

The next temple on our list was Pura Dalem Ubud.  It turned out to be one the more scary temples we visited, and the perfect place for us to celebrate Halloween away from home!  Referred officially as “the temple for the dark side of life,” Pura Dalem Ubud’s creepy vibe is imbued by stone-cut monsters and she-witches that feature mossy fangs and boobies that drag all the way to the floor!  Overall, It kind of reminded us of Angkor’s Ta Prohm, or one of those temples that Indiana Jones should never have entered! 

One of our favorite spooky faces came in the form of a pumpkin-shaped skull.  We just had to return here later that night to grab a photo of the little haunt to update our Facebook page!

Elsewhere, sweeping banyan trees loom large.  At any moment, it feels as though someone might just walk out in a black cloak and scream!  Sadly, since a portion of the temple was blocked off to visitors, we could not see as much as  we would have liked.  Still, we would highly recommend a visit here, particularly if there is a ceremony going on.  Witnessing these sacred events, you definitely get more of idea of how every day temples are still revered and used in celebration.

Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!

Pura Taman Saraswati - north side of Jalan Raya Ubud, Ubud, Bali

Pura Dalem Ubud - north side of Jalan Raya Ubud before it descends onto Campuan, Ubud, Bali