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Far Eastern Paradise

Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

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Perched in the foothills of the mountains of central Bali, Ubud is the centre of cultural tourism in Bali. Although the crafts, music and dance have become an important part of the tourist industry they're still routed in the religious rituals and ceremonies that are the key to community life. As well as marveling at the temple complexes you'll learn about the preparation of offerings and the peculiarly Balinese flavor of Hindu worship. Ubud also offers world pleasures aplenty, with the island's best cuisine and some luxurious spas for pampering and indulgence.

There numerous temples in and around Ubud, but it's well worth taking a trip out of town to the Gunung Kawi complex, nestling in the bottom of a river valley and reckoned to be the most impressive ancient monument on the island. There are ten candi, or shrines, carved out of the rocks in imitation of statues. They stand in sheltered niches cut out of the sheer cliff face. These strange stone sculptures and believed to be memorials to eleventh century Balinese royals, but exact information is hard to disentangle from legend. After all, myth has it that all the memorials were carved using only fingernails, and in one stupendous night of creativity. In Ubud itself the Pura Marjan Agung, the private temple for the Ubud royal family has one of the finest entrance gates you'll come across. Temple gateways are always intricately carved, and a sequence of demon faces overlooking it supposed to provide supernatural protection. Hands reach behind the monstrous faces to catch any evil spirits trying to sneak past. Several stone statues acting as guardians provide defensive backup. The Pura Taman Saraswati is very pretty, with waters from the temple feeding a pond which overflows with lotus blossoms. The carvings honor Dewi Saraswati, who as goddess of wisdom and the arts clearly smiles on Ubud. There are sometimes dance performances at the temple. When you're visiting the temples, remember to follow the etiquette. You'll need to wear a sarong, and perhaps also a temple sash - selandong - around your waist. There can sometimes be hired at the temple. The Sacred Monkey Forsest Sanctuary is a swathe of jungle providing a home to a troupe of greedy macaques and a temple of the dead, Pura Dalem Agung. There are statues of the fearsome witch Rangda devouring children at the entrance to the inner temple.

The real joy of Ubud is the entertainment. Balinese dance is a blend of comedy and high culture. Movements are jerky, jumpy and dramatic rather than the smooth flowing style familiar in Western dance. You'll be able to see all the main forms of traditional dance: Kecak, to the accompaniment of male choir chanting, Barong, a duel between good and evil personified, and the graceful young girl's dance of Legong. The main venues include the Pura Dalem Puri temple, the Ubud Palace and the ARMA open stage. ARMA even offers courses in Balinese dancing and music if you're staying any length of time. You might also like to sample a shadow puppet show. Performances in the villages are very traditional and tend to be all-night affairs - if you have the stamina tickets, which usually include transport, are sold in Ubud. Alternatively, go for the abbreviated version on offer in the city. Balinese music will sound strange to Western ears, as it’s based on intricate rhythms rather than any kinds of melody. A full gamelan orchestra consists of between thirty-five and forty musicians, mostly playing different sized xylophones, although there are also drum and cymbal players. It's exciting to watch - the players have to have quick hands and keen ears to follow the interwoven rhythms.

Don't spend all your time in the city. A walk in the countryside is a great way to get more closely acquainted with Bali. You'll often see artists at work, and wherever you go, you'll come across people engaged in the seemingly timeless task of rice cultivation. The Sungai Ayung river valley, with its lush tropical greenery is a good choice. The river is also Bali's most popular whitewater rafting destination, so Ubud is a good base for a rafting trip.

As a contrast to the religious culture, indulge could yourself with a massage at one of Ubud's salons or spas. Ubud is also a good place to try authentic Balinese cuisine. Satays, rice dishes and the ubiquitous gado gado salad are widely available. If you're feeling adventurous rice cultivation also provides a plentiful supply of eels, frogs and dragonflies that locals enjoy, often roasted. For a real treat go to Mozaic, where the chef serves up a magical fusion of French and Indonesian cuisine.

As an introduction to Bali, Ubud would be hard to beat. In and around Ubud are temples, traditional villages and ancient sites, and out in the countryside you feel a million miles from the urban sprawl of Ubud itself, surrounded by lush green rice terraces and stately coconut palms.

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