People visit Bali for a lot of reasons: to surf or sunbathe in the south, to snorkel or scuba dive in the east, to see dolphins in the north, or see the national park in the west. Erika Suban, our Italian writer and travel specialist, had reasons more spiritual in mind.
I went to Bali because it was on my bucket list, and for good reason. In just over a week on the island I was charmed by lotus flowers and frangipani, grass that seems greener, banyan trees with aerial roots that reach the ground, delicious juices (dragon fruit in particular), an impossible number of temples with a million stories to tell, sacred mountains partially hidden by a veil of mist, children playing soccer barefoot, sunrises over crystal clear waters where fishermen have already been sitting on their jukung boats for hours, smiling faces, and a pleasant absence of noise.
No loud music, no loud voices, no sirens, and no honking.
During my stay I never thought, even for a moment, about any of the several Netflix series I am usually obsessed with. As I write this back home in New York, I have forgotten the smell of the incense that pervades Bali — and fortunately also the smell of the monkeys — but I hope to keep forever some of the island’s carefree spirit.
I planned to see the “real Bali” and avoid tourist traps like Kuta, the crowded beach region where bars and clubs set the agenda. Ubud, in the middle of the island, turned out to be my entry to the true heart of the “Island of Gods.” It might not be the same city that Charlie Chaplin visited in the 1930s, but while walking through its three central streets (Raya Ubud Road, Monkey Forest Road and Hanoman) you’ll still find icons like the Royal Palace, the temples, and the Monkey Forest, all alongside shops and boutiques selling local handicrafts. Ubud is also the artistic center of Bali, with a list of excellent museums that includes the Neka, the Agung Rai, and the Blanco.
Of course, travel isn’t always pretty, and a couple of my experiences were bittersweet. My visit to the Bali Zoo ended up being pricy and quite sad, as most zoos are. Looking at animals in cages exploited for profit is not my idea of fun, and a visit to a luwak coffee plantation felt similarly uncomfortable. Kopi luwak is produced by a little animal that sleeps during the day and eats coffee cherries at night. Once ingested and digested, the beans are expelled still intact — so workers collect the feces, then extract, wash, rinse, and roast the beans. The process is the reason luwak coffee is among the most expensive in the world, costing up to 600 dollars per kilo.
Bali is very spiritual. Every religion is practiced freely, but 84% of the Balinese are Hindu. The Balinese are devoted to their gods, who live on Mount Agung, and celebrate them with festivities throughout the year. They light incense to reach the gods, and seeing them doing so prompted a moment of meditation. Every home seems to have an altar, and sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish a house from a small temple.
When I left Ubud, the taxi driver told me that this was a special day for the Balinese. He could’t explain what they were celebrating — maybe he just wanted to say that Saturday is a special day — but I noticed a higher amount of small braided baskets placed in front of each door and on every statue. They are called canang sari, and they’re made of banana leaves filled with rice, crackers, or candy and fresh flowers. Canang sari are miniature masterpieces that the women of the island spend hours every day preparing. Each cardinal direction represents a deity and the basket must be filled with the flowers that represent them. White to the west, red to the south, yellow to the west, and blue and green to the north. Try not to step on them, even if it’s hard, because they really are everywhere. But even if you do, the Gods will forgive you, because it’s believed that the offering is taken by them as soon as it’s placed.
Our CEO at Tablet says that there is no place in the world with a higher concentration of truly breathtaking hotels than Bali. Once I set foot in Chapung Se Bali Resort and Spa I couldn’t help but thinking that he was right. I chose this hotel specifically because it was located outside of central Ubud, in the middle of rice fields and in front of a small jungle. I thought it would offer a more relaxing and authentic experience of Bali, and it did.
Chapung Se’s owner is originally from Denmark, and the hotel’s design combines local and European elements. The reception, located at the end of a narrow road, opens to a few buildings separated by vegetation and ponds with water lilies and a submerged boat. There are also a few peacocks, one of them white. The plants and trees offer privacy and spread serenity, but all paths lead to a magnificent swimming pool that is the focal point of the hotel and gathering place for guests. Here you’ll have breakfast every morning, staring at the blue water reflecting the jungle and the clouds. Breakfast, like every other meal, is simply heaven: pastries, bread, jams, cold cuts, various kinds of juices, water coconut, a dish from the menu, and your preferred type of coffee. Try the Jungle Bowl or Avocado Di Caprio. You won’t regret it.
My room, a Deluxe Suite, had a spacious open layout, very high ceilings, a mezzanine with two additional beds, a huge bathtub, and a terrace overlooking a river. The hotel also offers two-bedroom villas and a residence, each with private swimming pools, so there were quite a few families with children of all ages while I was there. There’s also a mini rice field in the middle of the hotel, where you will have the chance to watch workers picking the rice in the morning. Talk about farm to table!
I believe that there’s no better introduction to Ubud than to the Campuhan Ridge Walk, which starts just a few meters from the hotel. Turn left at the exit, continue straight, and the next 45 minutes will be unforgettable. With Mount Agung in the distance, you will have countless opportunities to take unique photos and to sit on one of the many swings that the Balinese people hang in the most romantic or spiritual places.
For me, this trip and Ubud deserved many swings.