Ubud: Volcanoes, meths and rise of the insta-hippy

Monday, March 14, 2016
Ubud, Bali, Indonesia
The ride up to Ubud was nice. We weren't in a rush as it only took around an hour from where we were and once we had passed Kuta and Denpasar the roads became noticeably quieter. As soon as we turned off the bypass and started heading towards the heart of the island we were ambling along small winding roads through tiny villages and past lush green rice fields. This is the Bali I love and the Bali you only really find with the freedom of having your own transport to access it.

A lot of websites particularly the government ones advise against hiring motorbikes here and to be fair to them the figures appear to back up their claims . On average around 8 deaths a day occur on the roads here which given the size and population of the island is a lot compared to say the UK or the USA but personally I've never found it to be a problem. Legally you should have an International driving permit that you have to obtain from the capitol Denpasar but I've never bothered and I doubt many tourists here do either. If you do get stopped by the Police a crisp 50,000 Rupiah note is usually the only paperwork required to happily get you on your way, but provided you wear a helmet (which you would be stupid not to wear) your chance of being stopped is minimal. I have never been stopped here and every Police we have passed usually give you a nice big smile or don't even give you a second glance. Yes the road etiquette here is chaotic with no set rules adhered to other than traffic lights on the bigger roads but the usual unwritten rules of Asian roads are easy enough to get your head around and will see you through and provided you keep your wits about you it's as safe as riding at home if not more fun . Having said that we have extended the bike rental for another 5 days now so hopefully I haven't tempted fate by saying that!

This time we decided to stay South of Ubud nestled among the quiet rice fields, away from the hustle and bustle of the centre with it's never ending flow of daily tour buses and packs of Japanese camera carriers. I like Ubud, it's a great place with a lot of character. The self proclaimed artistic capitol of the island but it also has it's draw backs like any other popular tourist destination. For a start it's ridiculously popular given it's small size. When I first came 15 years ago it was classed as a village and the centre itself was quiet enough bar the occasional day tripper bus. These days it's a town, has a constant flow of daily visitors and it has burst out at the seams and into the surrounding countryside. It's no surprise though that the local farmers have taken to building guesthouses and restaurants on the edges of their rice fields, the economic gain is too much for them not to and who can blame them . That said though the part I like the most is getting out of the center and enjoying the simple village life and the stunning scenery that surrounds the town, and that's exactly what we did. There is a certain satisfaction and freedom to be had from getting lost among the small winding roads through the rice terraces. Maybe a little cliched I guess. To the locals they are just farm land and rice paddies but to me there is a definite beautiful quality about the lushness of this environment. The way the rice paddies cling to the steep sided hills is impressive, no inch of land is wasted and the simple irrigation system of how the water flows down and through the terrain is clever yet honest.

We trundled around for hours on the first day, stopping here and there for a drink at the small local Warungs dotted along the road side and just generally enjoying being out and about in the countryside among the locals. After a leisurely ride around we headed back towards town for some well earned food at Mama's Warung, one of the rare cheaper places to eat in the centre and home to the best Satay know to man! If your ever there I totally recommend this simple little place to eat . As well as the satay she cooks a pretty mean Tuna steak, smothered in Balinese spice and wrapped lovingly in a banana leaf. From there we headed off in search of cheap drink. Drinks in Bali are expensive now. I'm not sure if it's the fact most locals don't drink or that Indonesia is predominantly a Muslim country so maybe the government tax it heavily. Other than the local firewater Arak which is around 80p a litre every other spirit is generally expensive. We had some pretty mad nights on local Arak last time, in particular the incident with the Scooter riding ninja slut in Kuta who stole my phone! This time we decided to steer clear though as you have to be so careful with it. Many locals simply add methanol to it and sell it to tourists with God knows how many deaths and injuries such as blindness occurring each year. Eventually we settled on the next cheapest alternative of local rum from the supermarket for around £7. Not a bad price I guess when you consider bottles of Jim Beam and Jack sell for over £40 here and that's just for a 70cl bottle . The price though was the only thing that wasn't bad about it. It was awful stuff, in fact not just awful it was down right grim. It's 40% and you can certainly taste the alcohol but grief it's a terrible drink. Nothing like rum at all, more like meths with food colouring added, but hey needs must right? A few of those and I had had enough, off to bed it was.

The following morning after some mie goreng for breakfast at our homestay we headed off on the bike again, not really sure where to ride or what to do. We eventually decided on heading North and would just take the day as it comes. Through the town we went and just as we turned off the main road to head north through the fields we hit our first puncture of the trip. Unsurprisingly as is always the case in Asia we were only about 20 yards from a small shop and a guy who could sort us out. Or at least we though he could! Sure enough it was a small bike repair place and the old guy who lived there didn't speak a word of English . That's never a problem, a flat tyre is pretty easy to show and communicate in any language, the problem was that this guy was absolutely out of it on his home brewed Arak. He didn't look too well to be honest. Constantly swigging from his small bottle and in all honesty he looked a bit spaced out and not with it. He popped the inner tube out to repair it and then proceeded to sit there for ten minutes staring into space and not moving an inch. We couldn't really say anything to him as my Balinese is basic at best so we sat it out and had a chuckle at his antics. It was like watching a foreign Norman Wisdom trying to fix a bike...then forgetting he was fixing a bike....then fixing a bike again. Hilarious. Eventually though the guy came good and 60p later we were off on our way again.

We trundled around the small roads creeping our way North away from the town until eventually we stumbled on some wood carvers. These guys work was stunning and we grabbed a drink from a nearby warung and sat and watched them as they skillfully and patiently chiseled away at a massive section of tree trunk . Eventually one of the village Banjar appeared. Banjar are a social group within each village that make sure that traditional law is maintained. They organize the local religious events, collect money for the ceremonies held, oversee land sales and occasionally hand out punishment to any troublemakers in the community. In a nutshell they are good guys. This particular Banjar spoke very good English and was a friendly soul. He talked to us for a good while and answered any questions we had, mainly around the wood carvers and how their skills work. Each piece of sculpture is determined by what the piece of wood loosely resembles. If the branch they are carving looks a bit like a snake it becomes a snake. If it looks like a fish with a squirrel on it's head it becomes a squirrel riding a fish...you get the picture. The particular piece we were looking at was being carved by three guys and we were told would take around two years to complete, two years! It was a hefty size from the base of a big hardwood tree with some of the root structures left on that were being carved into serpents and people . Apparently these pieces can end up being sold and shipped all over the world. Some bought by individual collectors, some bought by big companies to put in their offices or receptions, hotels etc This one I was told would sell for around $20,000 USD. That's some hefty money in Balinese terms, no wonder this Banjar had a big smile on his face.

After saying our goodbyes and thanks to the guys we checked the map for where we were and decided to continue north up towards Mt Batur. It was quite the road up there as well. A constant straight incline for miles and miles through some good scenery until eventually we hit a T junction at the top only to be pounced on by several security guards and shady looking characters with big grins and sunglasses on. It's fairly well known that the local mafia control these areas in particular the guided tours to take you trekking up to the top of the volcanoes. There was some kind of home made security shed at the roadside and we were asked for 30,000 rupiah each just to be able to go any further on the road . We were temptingly close. You could just say see the top of Mt Batur from our side of the road and after some friendly haggling we sorted a price of 15,000 each and were allowed past.

 Mt Batur itself is one of four active volcanoes on Bali. It last erupted in the year 2000 and as far as volcanoes go it's active on a fairly regular basis. The last real big one was in 1968 and the hardened lava is still visible now with no new foliage growing there yet. It does look fairly impressive and there is a beautiful turquoise lake sat between the volcano and a nearby mountain. Around the lake we could see a couple of small villages so after taking in the view we headed off again to check them out. After another 20 minutes of riding we were stopped yet again and asked for money to proceed any further. I don't really like the idea of funding the local mafia round here as in the past they have had connections with terrorism and Al-Qaeda. We decided enough was enough so turned back at this point and took a long slow cruise back down the road towards Ubud and another of our favorite Warungs, The quirky Warung Bintang .

Warung Bintang is the cutest little place you can imagine eating. Sat at the edge of a rice field facing West for sunset it is a tiny place that can seat around a dozen or so people and is decorated with fairly lights and such like, it has a lovely eclectic feel about it. It also does some amazing food as well at cheap prices and we treated ourselves to some crispy duck and Tuna steak all washed down with a couple of Bintangs. They had a band on that night which was nice, and they were good as well but unfortunately our budget is limited and we had to cut it short as the beers are fairly pricey there. But having gotten the taste for a drink we couldn't resist and headed back to the supermarket for yet another bottle of coloured meths...oh dear when will we learn!

The next day was pretty much more of the same. This time we headed out West and went off on a walk through the fields and jungle areas. It was so peaceful and there is an amazing array of wildlife to see . Mostly of the insect variety. Beautifully coloured dragonfly's and some of the biggest and prettiest butterflies I've ever seen in the wild. It's nice to bump into the locals trekking around these parts as well. Everyone is so friendly and welcoming. Your always greeted with a big smile and a wave wherever you go in Bali. It's an infectious kind of happiness driven by the Balinese Hinduism practiced here, beautiful to see.

It was a nice lazy way to spend a few days around Ubud and we really enjoyed the slow pace of it all. On the last morning we did take a quick wander round the centre and it cemented what I said earlier about the place. One of the things I don't like about the people who hang out around the centre is the pretentiousness of it all. Now I'm a tourist myself and I don't claim to be anything else (although I do prefer the phrase traveler!) I'm a visitor and guest in someone elses country the same as the next man but the bit that gets me is the looks you get from some of the other certain types of traveler . In Ubud you get a lot of super cool insta-hippies. They've had their hair braided two days ago, eat rare and obscure nuts like squirrels, drink random new health drinks and are suddenly the next new expensive shisha smoking Yoga master in their tye dyed pants. And that's fine, everyone is entitled to do as they please and live their life as they want, whatever makes you happy. Some of these folks though look at you with disgust, as if to say "what are you doing here.....this was a quiet little village that we had to ourselves before you other travelers arrived" well my friends we are all visitors here, and no different to each other. I travel responsibly and as eco-friendly as I can, respecting the locals and their traditions as much as the next man. There are a lot of flash packing hippies these days traveling on crazy budgets provided by their rich parents. I don;t think that really entitles them to look down on others though. That is the only downside in my eyes but then again maybe that's just me and I'm no better than them for thinking this of them?

If your ever here get your self out and about as much as you can, talk with the locals and take an interest in what they are doing and their culture, they are so very open about everything they do. It's as rewarding a place as anywhere I've visited so far.

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