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Under a starlit sky, in the crumbling Ubud Palace, two girls danced the classic legong to the xylophone clangs of a Balinese gamelan orchestra. Wearing gold bodices and flower headdresses, they fluttered their fingers and gracefully contorted their bodies. Other dancers in glittering costumes and ogre masks enthralled us by enacting the Hindu epic, “Ramayana,” woven through much of Balinese art and dance.
Located in Bali’s lush jungle interior, Ubud is the place to experience the island’s thriving culture. No longer an undiscovered destination, Ubud was made famous by “Eat, Pray, Love,” and today, it buzzes with activity. Scooters and tourists jam its narrow streets, and throngs of five-star inns and simple guest houses spill out into the surrounding countryside.
Alongside garden restaurants and trendy boutiques, visitors will find an array of galleries and shops selling original artwork, sculptures, mother-of-pearl bowls and glazed ceramics. And dances such as the legong and the trance-like kecak fire dance are performed nightly.
The Neka Art Museum is a compelling site for art lovers. Its collection of more than 400 pieces explores the history of painting in Bali. Old paintings in traditional wayang shadow-puppet style, oil canvasses depicting Balinese scenes and works by European artists are showcased. The Puri Lukisan Museum also has a terrific fine-art display.
Also popular is the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, home to three 11th-century holy temples and more than 550 long-tailed macaques. Monkeys are important in Balinese culture and are portrayed in the “Ramayana” as well as Balinese carvings and art. But hang onto your things — these cheeky devils have been known to snatch earrings and camera lens caps. Laughter erupts as they jump up onto visitors who have brought them bananas.
For a more spiritual activity, travelers can visit Ubud’s many temples and shrines. Stone temple guardian statues wrapped in gold or black-and-white-checkered cloth are said to ward off evil spirits. Each morning, offerings of plumeria blossoms and rice in tiny palm baskets, sprinkled with holy water, are placed in front of every temple, house and shop.
During our visit, on a walk to a nearby village, we came across colorful bamboo decorations at a temple gate. In preparation for a festival that afternoon, women carried fruit stacked high on their heads, while cheerful bantering men, sitting cross-legged around open fires, grilled satay sticks of pork and chicken — all as ceremonial offerings.
Placing sashes around our waists, they invited us into the temple for a peek. It was a warm gesture, typical of the friendly Balinese, who welcome all visitors fascinated by their rich cultural heritage.
From the West Coast, EVA Air flies to Denpasar on Bali, via Taipei. Delta Air Lines and China Airlines also connect through Taipei; Cathay Pacific connects through Hong Kong.
Deluxe hotels in Ubud offer airport transfers (90-minute drive) and frequent complimentary daily shuttle service to Ubud center.