My wife and I finally had time to look at our photos from our trip last night so I have full permission to post some here and analyze where we went and what we did. Be prepared for some awesome stories!
After our time at Samabe we organized an AirBnB in a villa with a private pool right near the center of Ubud, a city in the center of the island. We wanted to begin exploring more of the natural and historic world of Bali and from what we heard of friends and family visiting Bali before us Ubud was the place to go. Unfortunately, everyone else and their mother had also heard that. In fact, it was a feature in the book and movie Eat, Pray, Love. It was in the Love section. So, it was also a tourist trap.
We arrived to our villa to realize that luckily (and unluckily) it was farther away from the center of town (maybe a 10-15 minute walk). But, it had a host of restaurants and shops nearby to entertain us. And, we could walk from there nearly anywhere we wanted to go.
There are generally a few activities to take part in around Ubud: hiking, eating, watching performances, and day-tripping. We did all four.
The first full day we hiked the Campuhan Ridge, a very steep and strenuous path that you can get to quickly from any part of the central area of Ubud. It snakes around right between two river valleys and is surrounded by beautiful vistas, rice fields, and an occasional shop/spa offering you their services. It took us a few hours to really experience and enjoy, but we were definitely able to do so.
Along the way back we stopped off at what we thought was a small store/guesthouse and turned out to be an amazing educational experience. While the store/laundromat/guesthouse was not open for business yet, the gentleman who was preparing it all was so kind and welcoming to us. His name was Sutama and he showed us everything: from the laundry he was preparing, the civet he had in a cage to make coffee luwak (look it up, it’s pretty gross), the cows in his back yard, and the amazing plantation of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices growing there. We spent about an hour with him learning, eating some new fruits (the Markisa, or local version of the passion fruit), and exploring the land. It was a great experience.
During our time in Ubud we also saw two dance performances that were not really that much to write home about. One was the local performance of Legong-style dancing at Ubud Palace (not very good) and the other was Cecak chanting and dancing from a group a bit out of the city (much better). We observed that our Lonely Planet travel guide had a good section explaining which groups to watch and which to avoid. The local tourist office was also helpful and provided transit there/back.
One of the best things we did was to rent a car and driver for the day to explore the nearby region. We went to a host of sites including the Water temple Tirta Empul. While the temple itself was interesting we also got a unique experience of seeing the beginnings of a ceremony a local village was hosting. There was some amazing music, singing, and the dress they were wearing was all white and yellow and looking beautiful.
We also went to see the rock-cut shrines of Gunung Kawi. This temple included so many sites carved out of the stone of the mountain and valley where it was located. It was really impressing and definitely something to see with the naked eye. Unfortunately, there were many steps to get down and back up again so visitor beware.
We also visited the Elephant Cave of Goa Gajah. While it was cute to visit it was not as interesting as the earlier two. Some steps down and a few temple buildings are outside of a small cave with various rooms. We spent about 20 minutes there.
We also visited the markets of Sukawati and tried to get some silver in the jeweler town of Celuk. Not much came of our visit although there are plenty of vendors selling all kinds of art and souvenirs in Sukawati and a lot of jewelers of various qualities/prices in Celuk.
One of the last things we did in Ubud was to see the Monkey Forest Sanctuary. While it is definitely a tourist trap it is also quite amazing. A large swath of land is dedicated to being a home for grey rhesus monkeys that have their free reign of the place. Local vendors sell bananas to entice them to come to you and – if you are lucky like we were – some will spend some intimate time with you. We walked around the sanctuary for quite a while and enjoyed the views. There were a few interesting temples that we explored (with monkeys all over them, including one trying desperately to open a coconut).
Ubud can be a great place once you realize that part of it is overrun with tourists but if you get out of the central areas, you can find amazing experiences for yourselves.