June 8, 2019. My friends and I only had four whole days to spend in Bali, so we decided to do just some of the “essential” destinations for first-time vacationers on the island. Two ticks in the checklist were sites in Ubud, a town in central Bali, regarded as the island’s cultural heartland and a temple in Manukaya right next to Ubud.
I had previously followed the referral of another friend who recommended a local driver to take us around our desired destinations for a flat fee per day. His name was Joe. It is essential to have someone drive you around Bali since there doesn’t appear to be any mode of public transportation convenient enough for tourists to go about the island on their own. The only other way is to rent scooters or motorbikes. None of us knew how, so that was not an option. I coordinated with Joe days before the trip and agreed on an itinerary.
From our hotel in Seminyak, Joe drove us an hour to the interior of the island along rural sceneries typical of tropical Southeast Asia–meaning, nothing too unfamiliar to Filipinos like us–rolling hills, rice paddies, terraces and vegetable gardens flanked by towering coconut trees and clusters of village homes.
But first, breakfast! Joe drove us to an obviously tourist restaurant called Bebek Joni. It was your typical tourist trap, but hey, whatever–we were hungry. We were there for breakfast, so the chartered tourist groups have not arrived for lunch, and we were the only guests around. Set in the middle of rice paddies and duck ponds, it had a very peaceful and provincial ambiance. I had a combination plate of satay, fried chicken, and some morsels of scrambled egg with my nasi. It came with Bali coffee and some rice crackers.
After breakfast, we drove a few more kilometers to Tegalalang, still in Ubud, for its famed rice terraces. We dropped by the Instagram-essential Alas Harum agro-tourism site. It was a privately-owned resort with perfectly-manicured rice terraces running along a small valley with a freshwater stream in the middle. The basic entrance ticket allows you to roam around the garden for as long as you please, but for some additional rupiahs, you can avail of their other activities such as luwak coffee tasting, the sky bike, and the Instagram-famous swing. It is what it is–a beautiful garden with plenty of spots to take great vacation photos.
After getting our fix of photos at Alas Harum, we drove to another Tegalalang site further north for more picturesque terraces. I think these ones are maintained by the community that hosts the stepped rice paddies, as the ticket there was just 10,000 rupiahs (Php 35).
Right next to Ubud is a town called Manukaya, which hosts one of the most visited sites in Bali, both by locals and by tourists, the Pura Tirta Empul. It is a Hindu Balinese temple where devotees (and tourists nowadays) congregate to purify themselves spiritually by literally bathing in its pools fed by dozens of water spouts. Beyond the purification pools, there are inner courtyards where locals pray and make offerings. Some sections are off-limits to tourists but you may still witness how devotees conduct their worship.
Do note that before you get out of the temple complex into the parking lot, you’d have to pass through a tourist trap maze of souvenir shops and persistent vendors. One vendor baited my attention by practically saying something was for free, then literally dragged me into her shop and cajoled me into buying a sarong, which I later on realized was terribly overpriced.
Walking up and down rice terraces and around temples worked our appetite well for lunch. Joe drove us further north of Bali to Kintamani, along the edge of a ridge overlooking Mount Batur, an active volcano that had spewed black volcanic matter into the plains below some years prior. We settled in a restaurant named Batur Sari, which was another tourist trap where I didn’t enjoy my food, at all. My noodles were not only overpriced but were dry and bland. The place’s only saving grace was the view. We would, later on, tell Joe not to bring us to tourist restaurants anymore, where he probably got commissions or free meals. We didn’t mind dining with him and paying for his meals as long as he brought us to places where he would eat as well.
We eventually drove back to Ubud and made our way to the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary which was a thickly forested garden of around ten hectares habited by hundreds, and I mean hundreds, of long-tailed monkeys. We should have known better than not to be mindful of our belongings because the monkeys got quite aggressive. We witnessed our water bottle snatched from us by a team of around five monkeys. We made the unwise decision of trying to wrestle it back, only to lose it altogether in a lopsided fight amidst shrieking visitors around us.
Late into the afternoon, Joe made good of our instruction not to bring us to more tourist trap restaurants. He brought us to three places where he would eat. First he brought us to a roadside cafe where we had really cheap but yummy noodles and some iced coffee. Then he brought us to a gelato ice cream parlor that was really famous among locals.
Finally, for dinner, Joe brought us to a typical babi satay (pork barbecue) eatery in Seminyak where we had plates full of Bali-styled barbecued pork in skewers with plenty of rice. The satay was delectable and cheap. It’s a good sign when you don’t see other Western or Chinese tourists around.
It was a great first day in Bali. We retired to our respective hotel rooms early to recuperate for the next day.