The warm air smells of wet flowers, a chorus of frogs celebrates the end of the morning rainstorm and, as the sun bursts through the last of the clouds, the gardens of Ubud, in central Bali, wake up
We arrived late at night, the sky pitch black and full of stars. On the road from the airport we had been overtaken, undertaken and driven around enormous statues of gods, dragons and horses, and held on to our seats as our ever-smiling driver had navigated around the many packs of dogs that lined the streets. As the road suddenly got bumpier, the driver slowed down, waved to another smiling face and then stopped outside an ornate stone doorway. “Om swastyastu!” “Welcome to Bali!”
For the next hour, none of us really spoke, not even the children. Wherever we turned there was a sight more beautiful than the last. If there was a flat surface, it was covered in flowers. If there was a dark corner, it was lit with candles. We walked in silence around the garden, taking in the statues and the lily ponds and just looking at each other with wide eyes. Our villa was called Alam Shanti, which means Peaceful Nature. It was perfectly named.
The Sacred Monkey Forest
In the hills above Ubud stands the Sacred Monkey Forest, where hundreds of long-tailed macaque monkeys skip and jump around banyan trees and dodge stones catapulted by local children. Women wearing sarong skirts and lace blouses tied with colourful sashes wander through this forested jungle, offering bunches of small local bananas to brave-hearted tourists.
The forest is home not only to the monkeys but also to the beautiful Padangtegal Temple, a Balinese Hindu site, which is one of the three main temples in Ubud. With its ornately carved stone walls and sloping thatched roofs, this imposing temple seems perfectly at home deep in this tropical forest. The footpath through the forest down to the town of Ubud is lined with stalls selling local crafts, from gourd-shaped lutes to straw hats. The path follows a rushing stream along the forest floor, where turtles can be seen basking on rocks in the sun, and brings you to two ornate carved stone gateposts at the foot of the main street in Ubud.
Ubud town is noisy, very noisy. Cars honk, children play games at the roadside, taxi drivers tout for fares and above it all, from high overhead, there is a loud and constant humming noise. A quick glance into the skies reveals tens of quivering kites shaped like birds and fish. The kites fly impossibly high, their strings vibrating madly in the wind.
Down on the ground, frangipani and hibiscus flowers line the streets, as do shop-keepers inviting you to come and see their wares. Art galleries filled with bright canvases and intricate wooden carvings spill out onto the rocky pavements; jewellers nestle next door to famous brand surf shops. Set back in one of the many alleyways off the main street, a drum factory sells rain sticks and hand made djembe drums while, next door, a craft shop drips with strands of glass beads that sparkle like rainbows in the sun.
Masked men and gamelan in Nyuhkuning village
Xylophones and drums, chimes and gongs. The music of the gamelan orchestra rings out into the warmth of the evening. The village children skip around behind the musicians, only to stand stock still when the golden cerise and blue curtain on the stage begins to twitch. The music gets louder and louder and suddenly, a hand with extraordinarily long fingers appears around one edge of the curtain. The curtain is snatched to one side and a figure wearing an ornate golden headdress, red tasselled robes and a smiling, moustachioed mask steps out onto the stage. The mythical tale of Barong, the King of Spirits and Rangda, the Demon Queen, is once again brought to life in a tiny village on a hillside in Bali.
The Botanic Garden, Ubud
“Hello! Guten tag! Bonjour!” We turned to see a huge black mynah bird hopping in its cage to welcome us to the recently opened Botanic Garden in Ubud. With Bali’s first-ever planted maze, ‘The Labyrinth’, and a Meditation garden centred around an ancient banyan tree, the gardens offer a beautiful introduction to the flora and fauna of Indonesia. From the fat orange toad in the toilet block to the vivid green praying mantis whose eyes didn’t move from the camera lens as we filmed him, the gardens teemed with life. As we wandered through the beautifully tiled mosaic pathways of the Islamic Garden, and tried not to tread on the fallen limes and swollen figs, we attracted the attention of three bright blue swallow-tailed butterflies. They dipped and darted above our heads, landing finally on a banana plant – with bright pink bananas.
Where to stay
Alam Shanti: the Alam Indah resorts were recommended to us by a couple who know of what they speak and who would not stop talking about the resort until we promised to book a holiday there. We booked, we visited and we have done the same thing to many of our friends: go, you will love it!
Where to eat
Café Wayan: come here for delicious home-cooked meals served on low tables above a vast waterlily pond - which is candlelit at night - and for Balinese cookery classes. Café Wayan is situated between the Monkey Forest and Alam Shanti.