Ubud, Bali: the joy of doing nothing

Hi there. I am sitting down to write this and it feels like my head is finally slowing down, after spinning in complete circles the last few months. It seems I haven’t stopped moving since the beginning of September, between visitors in town, travel (work and personal), work commitments, events and parties, errands, holiday planning, and all the rest that comes with this time of the year (all of which I am far behind on in terms of blog posts, I know!). November was a particularly chaotic month for me, and I spent the last week of it in Shanghai executing the project that was the culmination of my work over the last three months. On top of it all, I came limping back from Shanghai with an upper respiratory infection (which I then passed on to Mr. Zé). Needless to say, it was time for a break.

So what does a break mean when you live in Singapore? A short zip to Bali, of course! (Dad, I can feel your financial finger-wagging from over here, and note that everything – everything – is cheap in Asia). From the the laid-back vibes, to the sacred atmosphere and the majestic landscape, Bali is a natural, cultural and artistic paradise and the perfect place for some R&R. We had been a number of times in 2019 to Seminyak (upbeat/trendy area of Bali) and Uluwatu (chill/natural area of Bali), so we decided to venture inland and north to Ubud.

If you’ve seen the Julia Roberts waste of time movie Eat, Pray, Love, then you already ‘get’ Ubud. The cultural heart of Bali, Ubud is a town in the central foothills of Bali island (Indonesia). Located inland about an hour and a half north of the airport, it’s known as a quieter and more cultural destination compared to the fun but often raucous atmosphere of Seminyak. It lures in visitors from around the world for its art galleries, yoga retreats and divine restaurants.

We arrived on Friday, ready to do nothing all weekend but rest our minds and bodies. We checked into our hotel, the Ubud Valley Boutique Resort, which we loved from the minute we walked in. Of the hotels I have stayed in during my time in Asia, this one takes the cake. It was a superb jungle retreat in every way, from the impeccable service (including a farewell gift of herbal upon our departure), a beautiful space and rooms that balanced the elegant and ethnic, free amenities, wonderful location – ah, the list goes on. There is a reason it has five stars on TripAdvisor! Zé was lovely enough to surprise me with this stay after a tough few weeks, and he really outdid himself by booking one of the premium villas that came with a stunning private pool. Zé gets five stars for this move, too.

It was also an exciting weekend because it was one of the first trips Zé and I were taking together where we could whip out the GoPro, the gift I (and some other very generous friends of ours) got him for his 30th birthday in October. We were very pumped to put this baby to the test and start snapping some action shots. Check out our favorites below.

After finishing up some work Friday evening, it was time for dinner. Having barely eaten all day with the travel between Singapore and Bali and given we were both exhausted and ready for a night of quality sleep, we headed to dinner early, around 7PM. For the Americans reading this, yes, 7PM qualifies as an early dinner in this Portuguese-American duo. I tried, and lost, the fight months ago.

For dinner Friday evening, we hopped on our rented motorbike and headed to the Sayan House, recommended to us by our friend Charlotte. Nestled in the lush garden by Ayung river’s gorge, Sayan House gave us plates filled with delicious Japanese Latin fusion food. The scenery was beautiful and cozy, perfect for what we were looking for on our first night out. The food, however, left something to be desired. We shared a few plates between us, including ceviche, empanadas, and a few sushi rolls. Since we were on a healthy kick and both recovering from our sniffles, we passed on the cocktails and went straight for the ginger kombucha, of which we had two or three glasses. Everything was tasty enough, but nothing stood out for us. If you’re going to Sayan House, go for sunset and drinks, and head somewhere else for your main meal.

Friday evening was marked by a glorious, heavenly, otherworldly eight hours of sleep (the first deep sleep I had gotten in weeks). I woke up feeling refreshed and ready to go, a rare feeling in the last few months! Unfortunately, Zé woke up several times in the night from coughing and stuffiness so he wasn’t quite as fresh on Saturday morning, but luckily we had a very relaxed day ahead of us. The plan? Hop on the bike and zip around the island to visit some cultural sites, mainly temples. The temples of Bali are a big part of the whole Eat, Pray, Love experience. Unlike any other island in largely Muslim Indonesia, Bali is a pocket of Hindu religion and culture, and there are thousands of Hindu temples scattered all over the island. Temples in Balinese are called ‘Pura,’ a Sanskrit word meaning space surrounded by walls. Sounds like something I could use at the office most days.

Our (very loose) Saturday agenda looked something like this:

  • Enjoy a leisurely breakfast at Ubud Valley of fresh tropical fruits, poached eggs, a warm pastry basket, and juice/tea/coffee
  • A scenic 45-minute motorbike ride to Pura Taman Ayun, a massive, royal water temple surrounded by a wide, elegant moat. It was main temple of the Mengwi kingdom, which survived until 1891, when it was conquered by its neighboring kingdoms. Since it’s low season in Bali and the temples are quite a drive outside of the main city, it was incredibly quiet, offering us a spacious place to wander, and a serene place of enveloping calm.
  • A one-hour cruise to the Jatiluwih Rice Terraces, over 600 hectares of rice fields following the flowing hillside topography of the Batukaru mountain range (and nominated for designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site!). These rice terraces are just stunning. Seriously, their vibrancy gives new meaning to the word ‘green.’  And, like so much of Bali, they were equally as empty as they are beautiful. These sites are often overlooked in favor of the trendier bits of the island, leaving you to relish in the rolling greens, just you and nature. Glorious. We stopped at a restaurant perched over the perfectly contoured terraces for some fresh juice, just as it started to rain. We decided to wait it out, sitting and staring at the falling drops over the flowing hillside. The joy of doing nothing, indeed…..
  • Ending the day at Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, a picturesque landmark temple in Bali’s central highlands. It sits on the western side of Beratan Lake and next to Mount Bratan and Mount Catur. The smooth, reflective surface of Beratan surrounds most of the temple’s base, creating a unique floating illusion, and the mountain range behind it provides the temple with its hazy, dreamy backdrop. It was a beautiful view, but a strange and tourist-filled experience. There is a children’s playground there as well as many ‘photo opps,’ including large ceramic animal sculptures and many photo points. We saw what we came to see, and quickly headed out.

After zooming around for the most of the day between remote sites, there was little opportunity for lunch (plus, we weren’t feeling so hungry after our big and tasty breakfast). But, by 6PM, we were certainly snack-y. We found a chill cafe called Zest in downtown Ubud, that was conveniently located on our route back to the hotel. After four hours on the bike and nearly 125 km (80 miles, and mostly on tight, winding mountainous roads), we were due for a rest and a quick bite. Zest is much like many of the other cafes in Ubud, with vibe-y decor and marketing menu buzzwords like “ingredients sourced locally,” “We support organic farmers,” and “powered by plants.”  The restaurant itself was like a living atrium, surrounded a huge, living tree. The space was warm, inviting, calm, and cozy. The dishes have creative names like the “Arak Obama,” and the “Smooth like Barry White’s Vocals.” We ordered a few small plates, like broccolinis with cashews and rosemary, sweet and sour tempeh bites, and a tasty garlic dish. We went light on the bites as we had a dinner reservation set for 8:30PM and didn’t want to over-stuff ourselves.

After finishing up our food, we paid and headed out: first, trying to grab a taxi, but after no luck (Grab and Go-Jek cancelling on us, a local driver quoting 250,000 RP or 25 SGD for a 20-minute ride), we decided to get our sore selves back onto the motorbike and head back to Ubud Valley. Upon entering our villa, we both immediately hopped into the pool to decompress our muscles and cool it down for an hour or so before dinner.

Dinner that night was at Mozaic, “the best restaurant in Ubud for fine dining,” according to its website (I respect that self promotion). Mozaic is a French-Asian fusion restaurant (‘the marriage of seasonal ingredients from the islands of Indonesia to modern French techniques of cooking and presentation’) set in an intimate garden setting. And spoiled for choice we were: Mozaic offers three different tasting menus, each with a six or eight-course degustation set. They were kind enough to accommodate my pickiness, too (no beef, no duck) and swap out the dessert option, too. Zé was more straightforward (shocker) and went with the Seasonal Menu. We both decided to skip out on the wine pairings that evening, still trying to focus on rest and recovery. The evening was a sensorial experience, from start to finish. To give you a sense of the strong bench that is the Mozaic team, the chef and owner Chris Salans is Le Cordon Bleu graduate who worked in Michelin-starred restaurants in Paris and was the head chef of the US Thomas Keller’s French Bistro Restaurant at Napa Valley before moving to Indonesia. Needless to say, the quality of the food, staff and overall experience was in line with what you’d usually only see in large cities with fierce culinary competition. Here is a peek at the menu that I enjoyed on Saturday evening:

  • Two amuse-bouches of watermelon carpaccio with rendang spices, and a fresh cumin leaf and Parmesan emulsion
  • Seared Indian Ocean king prawns, with kalamansi lime, spiced pandan and ‘coconut apple’ (who knew…?)
  • King mackerel confit in Balinese coconut oil, with broccolini and aromatic laksa roe sauce
  • Pan seared coral trout with spinach sauce, pickled snake fruit, and hazelnut salad
  • A main called ‘1,000 vegetables’ (in place of the pork dish), a medley of delicious and fresh local vegetables
  • For dessert, pineapple sorbet with palm sugar, miso mousse and caramelized soya beans and a coconut tabletop dessert, where the chef prepared it directly in front of our table using liquid nitrogen

What an experience. So many dishes. So many flavors. The best calories I have consumed in ages. I think it goes without saying that I would recommend this place to anyone looking for an upscale dining experience in Ubud/Bali. If you’re interested, The New York Times reviewed the restaurant in 2009, which you can find here. But after a full day of adventure and an eight-course tasting menu, both Zé and I couldn’t contain our sleepiness. Another evening of deep, deep sleep followed that dinner on Saturday.

In the spirit of doing nothing, we woke up Sunday morning around 9:30AM with no activities planned for the day. It was all about seeing how we were feeling and going with the flow. We had breakfast delivered to the room, and ate our fresh fruits and eggs poolside. I had weeks of New York Times issues piling up, and was knees-deep in the middle of a good book (Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay), and Zé wanted to catch up on the news and a few podcasts. So we took Sunday morning as an opportunity to enjoy our villa and catch up on reading under the sun. Unfortunately, we had to vacate our room at 1PM (of course those rooms are always booked out). But Ubud Valley also has a wonderful ‘public’ infinity pool overlooking the expansive jungle, at which there were no other people besides us. We continued our reading and relaxing there until about 3:30PM, when we started getting a bit restless. So I finished my book chapter, Zé finished his podcast episode, and we headed to the main dining space for afternoon tea and a few light finger snacks. From there, we decided it was time for a bit of adventure, so we hopped back on the bike and went to visit the last two remaining iconic cultural sites in Ubud: Tirta Empul and Tegallalang Rice Terraces.

First up was Tirta Empul, a Hindu Balinese water temple about 30 minutes from Ubud Valley. The temple pond has a spring which gives out fresh water regularly, which Balinese Hindus consider to be holy and able to cleanse the souls of and ward off evil for those that bathe in it. There was a line of about 60 people, both tourists and locals, waiting to refreshed in the blessed water, and I won’t get near water that a lot of people are in anyway (water parks were my childhood nightmare). The whole thing was a bit of a circus. Luckily, the surrounding area was pretty enough, so we walked around the other temple structures, shopped the local art market, and rolled out of there.

Next were the Tegallalang Rice Terraces, the more popular of the two major rice terraces in Ubud (the first being the Jatiluwih Rice Terraces we visited on Saturday). The vista sprawls down and away to the rice terraces on the slopes across the valley, and offers a nice, cool breeze because of its high, roadside location. It’s a site you’d likely recognize if you’ve seen any photos of Bali online. The problem is, it’s recognizable because it’s chock-full of tourists taking shots to post online. (Unlike me, who exhibited a high degree of editorial integrity with the blog in mind the entire time Zé was snapping photos…of course). The terraces themselves weren’t incredibly crowded, but they’re surrounded by older farmers pushing photo opportunities, and souvenir shopping along the roadside. It’s definitely worth a stop because it’s visually jaw-dropping, but be prepared to be inundated by Bali tourism. 

Following our little adventure, we stopped at Mr. Wayan, a restaurant known for Balinese cuisine and a beautiful view overlooking the rice fields. We were quite disappointed when we arrived, though, because the menu was very (very) local, contained no vegetarian options outside of pizza, and the view was not as good as online photos suggested. We ended up ordering tea and simple satay, and heading back to Ubud Valley to grab a bite, after showering and washing up before our flight.

December is a wonderful month, and an especially crazy time for people like me living abroad, who need to travel far distances to attend the many festive celebrations and reunions with family and friends. In a way, this trip was particularly well timed for that very reason. Though it was just three days, visiting Ubud meant there was nothing and nobody demanding anything from us, no responsibilities, and no scheduling to do. It gave both Zé and me the chance to switch off, reconnect and reflect on the year, e.g., what we learned, the ways we grew individually and together, and what we want to change for 2020. We left the trip feeling refreshed, recharged, and reenergized to take on the final month of the year. 

Some photos from our trip to Ubud (which I am particularly excited to post, thanks to our new GoPro toy):