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A four day itinerary for Ubud, Bali

First the pre volcano jitters

For days we waited for Mount Agung to erupt (yes, we the terrible people) because, while Mount Agung is some distance away from the main tourist areas, the fly ash from the volcano could cause flights to disrupt. Which means we are stranded in Bali. Which I wouldn’t mind, but not so much my employer.

But weeks and weeks of steam belching and earth quivers led to nothing. So, after much debate, we went anyway. On Diwali weekend. Praying hard, every day.

Please Lord, no volcano.

Please.

Puhleaze.

And…there was nothing. Yay!

Four days at Bali: What did we do?

A couple of us girlfriends had gone to Bali for New Year’s in 2010. Oh, and what a time we had. We stayed at Kuta and partied every day at Sky Garden or Club 666. Wild, hedonistic, amazing. The nights came alive with DJs, dancers, fire eaters, students, all in drunken revelry, and even the staid me partied till the wee hours of the morning. Wondering where to go for New Years? Cheap, fun and happening, Bali it is.

But this time, we were second timers. We picked.

“Not by the sea,” was R’s requirement.

“More experiential, less tick marks” was mine.

So, what did we do?

We went to Ubud, the art, craft and cultural center of Bali.

Two nights at Ubud

We stayed at the lovely Tegal Sari. Bali is not short of amazing places to stay, even on paltry budgets, but Tegal Sari was resplendent without making you dollars poorer. It’s fantastically located, right next to the Monkey forest, yet in a quiet, tucked in, interior. The rooms are aesthetically done up and spotlessly clean. We stayed in the suite room (East side) which had a view to the paddy fields (not too lush in October though), later moving to the Nyalian room, smaller but still good.

Tegal Sari: The room
Tegal Sari: The balcony
Things to do in Ubud

Shopping: Jalan Raya Ubud Street, Jl Monkey Forest and Jl Hanoman are the major shopping areas. I found a lot of stores selling subpar yoga clothes (Yoga needs to be done in breathable, loose, light fabrics). There’s a good choice of organic coffee, handmade soaps, and incense which make good gifts. It’s worthwhile to visit the Ubud art market (Pasar Seni Ubud) to carry home some amazing furniture and crafts. One day I am going to do exactly that.

This is a great link on Ubud and shopping in Ubud, specifically.

Yoga at Yoga Barn or Radiantly Alive: Yoga has been bastardized and commercialized in Ubud and how! The original tenets are so muddled. But we reasoned, what the heck! If it works, it works. We enjoyed the Kundalini Yoga class with Greg at Yoga barn. It was a great experience and recommended. R bawled her heart out at some song that was played and we sung along in the end. Costs about USD 10 for a drop in, and cheaper for packages.

Yoga Barn

Cafes, of course. Atman, Anomali Coffee, Kafe, Tukies Café (the coconut ice-cream, so yum). Pura Taman Saraswati has a great view, though the food and drinks are passable. The breakfast at Cafe Wayan & Bakery was great. Specially the black rice pudding. But our top picks were Habitat Café at the entrance of the Monkey forest and Monsieur Spoon on Hanoman road. Both so good! Seniman Coffee Studio is also very popular. Here is a list of coffee shops in Ubud, all really good.

Nasi Campur
Nasi Campur at Gedong Sisi Warung
Wayan Cafe
Black rice pudding at Wayan Cafe
Dessert at Habitat
Melting chocolate cake with vanilla ice-cream at Habitat
Melting Wok – A Wok for every palate

 

 

 

 

 

 

The delightful breakfast at Monsieur Spoon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Massages: We spoilt ourselves in a four hour massage at the Jelatik spa. Time flew and we came out spanking new. This was specially necessary given we had walked in to the spa fresh from Mount Batur with cakes of dust and grime on our body and hair. I did not really want to take the effort to clean up and was glad to have someone else do it, with a smile on her face. Cost me around USD 75

A few other things that are popular to do are: cooking classes, jewelry making, cycling tours, field walks and waterfall tours. Find an interesting list here.

And a few unusual things to do.

And then some coconut icecream

A night at Mount Batur

Sunset at Mount Batur

This was the unique experience I was seeking, and boy, oh boy, did it blow my mind. We used www.balivolcanotrekking.com, paid 130 dollars per head for a private overnight trek. You could also do a day trip to Mount Batur (start at 2 am return at 12 PM same day) but our experience of watching the sunset, eating freshly cooked fish and soup at 1717 meters, sleeping in the wildly flapping tent, and waking up at 5:30 AM with coffee in our hands, watching the sun rise along mount Rinjini and watch the sky change colors every few minutes while we wait with bated breath, was incredible. What I’d recommend is slowing the experience and actually feeling it rather than rushing because of lack of time.

The camp site with a killer view
Fresh mountain (!) fish
Cold Bintang was the reward I was climbing for

The climb up Mount Batur is easy enough, and takes around 2 hours. You might be the only ones on top and hopefully you will come across Comrade Tibor, the shaggy dog who wants to play along the steepest inclines, jumping up and down while we protect our dear lives. Mornings on the mountain are busy and crowded when the rest of the tourists come in.

We passed the Tegallalang Rice Terrace and a coffee plantation on the way. Both are lackluster and worth skipping, to my mind. I’m sure there are better coffee plantations to visit. Also, a civet cat in captivity, for display and near dead, did not get me very excited.

Did I tell you I got mauled by monkeys?

Monkey Forest

Yes, exactly that. Monkey forest is a delight although I wasn’t expecting it to be. But the monkeys can be rowdy! Two young ones grabbed my long dress during my visit to the forest. I escaped them (the trick is to keep walking and not carry or wear anything long and grabbable) But the next day, as I walked home from Jalan Raya, armed with goodies, two of them jumped on me and ran away with a few of my coffee packs. I just about managed to save the rest and narrowly avoided a heart attack.

Lastly,

How Ubud has changed! From lush fields, home stays and temples, to ostentatiously hippie (but trying not to be) cafes and wellness retreats, now the town exclusively caters to foreigners, for better or for worse. You’ll love it, if you’re not a puritan, or haven’t been to Ubud of the past. It takes some getting used to. But if you are not the reminiscing kind, or simply do not care, it’s an awesome place to be.

Everyday everywhere every time healthy

Visit Ubud Now and Then, for more on the thriving region.

24 hours in Prague: By a frequent visitor, and hopeless romantic

Guest post by my rocking bro, Saurav, who travels more than I do these days (while I die DIE with jealousy)

Prague skyline at dusk
Why go?

Prague, the Baroque jewel in the heart of Europe, is one of the most romantic cities in the world. The city of a thousand spires—as it is so fondly called—has experienced contrasting historical periods, whose vestiges are visible even today. From centuries of Bohemian rulers to the Hussite wars and the invading Nazis and Soviets ruling the roost to finally the Velvet revolutionwhich imparted the sense of free spirit to the city that has survived till date—the city has in the recent times become a much sought after experience for tourists. The medieval cobbled streets; the hidden squares decorated with quaint cafés; arthouses and puppet shops; strolling down Karlův most (Charles Bridge) at dusk; holding a Trdelník laced with chocolate in one hand; whilst enjoying the beautiful skyline of the famous hill-top castle—umm…romantic much?

Top things to do

1. Walk down the Royal Way

Charles Bridge at night

The Royal way was the traditional route that the Czech rulers used during their coronation ceremonies. It starts off at the magnificent Municipal House at Republic Square that used to be the seat of the Czech kings. To the left of the Municipal House stands the Powder Tower, whose unusual name comes from the time it was used as a store house for gunpowder. Leading out from the Powder Tower is one of the oldest streets in Prague, Celetná, which is lined by beautiful gothic or Romanesque houses. This street then leads up to the Old Town Square, which features buildings of varying architectural styles depending on the period of history during which it was built. Notable mentions are the Gothic Church of Our Lady before Týn, the Hussite church, St. Nicholas’s Church and the Old Town Hall that houses the oldest functioning Astronomical Clock. Right at the center of the square stands the statue of Jan Huss, the founder of Hussitism, an important figure in the Bohemian Reformation, which laid down the foundations of Protestantism (Czechs are primarily atheists or Protestants). Moving out from the Old Town Square, one has to enter the narrow medieval street named Karlova, which leads straight into the Charles Bridge or Karlův most. Charles Bridge, the 14th century stone Gothic bridge, crosses the lazy Vltava river and connects the old town square with one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in Prague, Malá Strana or the Lesser Town.

Jan Huss at Old Town Square
Talented street artists at Charles Bridge

2. Visit the Prague Castle and Kafka’s house

The castle on a rainy night

The Royal Way further continues down and leads to the St. Nicholas Church of Lesser Town Square. Climbing up the hill leads to the charming Nerudova street that has a number of traditional Czech restaurants, cute shops selling beautiful wooden products, souvenirs and artworks, wooden puppets and the delectable Trdelníks. The street ends at the bottom of a flight of stairs that leads straight to the Castle entrance.

The Prague Castle, a UNESCO world heritage and the largest castle in the world, is an eclectic mixture of various architectural styles (Romanesque and Gothic influences) as it took several centuries to complete the castle as it stands today. The castle is home to one of the most beautiful and the most important churches in the Czech Republic, the St. Vitus Cathedral, the insides of which are decorated by beautiful stained glass windows dating back to the early 20th century and houses the tombs of Czech kings, queens and patron saints, most notably St. Vitus. Other places of interest inside the castle grounds are the Golden Lane and the Palace Gardens.

The Golden lane, which consists of diminutive brightly colored houses that once belonged to servants, goldsmiths and seamstresses, now act as museum shops and a museum of medieval armory. Most notably, the Czech writer Franz Kafka stayed in the house number 22 of Golden lane from 1916-1917, where he wrote many of his classics. The Palace Gardens are a manicured set of beautiful Renaissance gardens that overlook a wonderful panoramic view of the city.

Let me tell you, I am nobody’s puppet

3. More walking, but this time a somewhat devastating one: A walk in the Jewish Quarters

Etched out in golden blocks of stone in the different streets of Prague are names of persecuted Jews in front of the places where they worked before.

The Jewish Quarter or the Josefov is located in between the Old Town Square and the Vltava River. Although the Jewish Quarter today has become a fashionista’s paradise with high end brands, such as Prada, Gucci, Rolex, Cartier, it continues to hold the remains of centuries of Jewish persecution through the Prague Jewish Museum and the Old Jewish Cemetery, that now functions as a museum. Each misshapen tombstone in one of the oldest Jewish Cemeteries in Europe cries out different tales of fire, flood, disease and segregation. The Jews in Prague at the time were not allowed to bury their dead outside the ghetto and the Jewish faith prevented them to remove the already buried. This meant that the Cemetery is home to several thousand dead bodies that were buried in several layers one on top of each other, which explains the dense array of gravestones.

Moorish interiors of the Spanish synagogue

A moving experience is the visit to the Pinkas Synagogue, which was converted to a memorial for the deceased Jewish Holocaust victims after World War II. The synagogue also serves as museum for the drawings and paintings made by the Jewish children in the Terezín concentration camp. These children were given drawing lessons in secret by a women named Friedl, in order to give them an outlet to express themselves. What resulted were disturbing accounts of life in the ghettos from the childrens’ perspectives. All of these children were later sent to Auschwitz.

4. Markets and merry making

Easter merrymaking

The best time to visit Prague is spring, when the weather is inviting, the royal gardens are in full bloom and the Easter Markets are under way. The main markets are at Wenceslas Square and the Old Town Square (this being my favorite) and a smaller one in front of the St. George’s Basilica inside the Prague Castle.

Trdelníks

The markets consist of wooden huts that are colorfully decorated and that sell ceramics, wooden toys, scented candles, dolls, puppets, jewelry, embroidered laces and table clothes and the greatest symbol of Easter, the Easter eggs in different designs and colors. You may also get to see old Czech women dressed in traditional gowns hand painting the Easter eggs with a mixture of water colors, bee’s wax or stickers. Traditional foods, such as gigantic spit roasted hams, juicy barbecued sausages, cakes and the hot sugar coated pastries called Trdelníks, can also be seen on offer. Accompanying all these, are the famous Czech Beers, Pilsner or Urquell, which I believe are the best in Europe (Sorry, Germany!!).

An old Czech lady designing Easter eggs

However, if someone finds the air too chilly, a cup of hot mulled wine would do no harm.

During Easter, makeshift stages are set up in the Old Town Square where folk singers and dancers, who’ve traveled to Prague from all over the country, perform. Finally, the celebrations end on Easter Monday, when men come out with their Easter whips or Pomlázka—willow twigs that are braided together with colorful ribbons. They roam around the streets gently tapping women on the back, which is said to bring good luck and health to the women. In return, the men are gifted Easter

Easter Monday Traditions

eggs that the women have made beforehand and carry around with them. (Institutional flirting? Bride hunting expeditions? You don’t fool us)

5. Eat and Stay

Prague is a haven for food enthusiasts with restaurants that serve traditional bohemian dishes as well as modern cuisines located in an around the Old Town Square, the Wenceslas square and all the narrow streets that radiate out from these. But the best and the more pocket friendly options would be in Malá Strana – be it the  succulent beef cheeks and the beef goulash with bohemian dumplings at U Zlaté Podkovy or the roast duck and the roasted pork ribs in plum sauce at U Tří jelínků or the traditional Czech dish Svíčková, which is beef baked in cream sauce and served with bread

Beef Goulash in Bread

dumplings, wild cranberries and whipped cream, at Malostranský Hostinec. The chocolate and vanilla Trdelníks or the blueberry variants are also a must eat.

Beef Cheeks

The best location to stay in Prague would be on the Nerudova street which lies exactly half way between the castle grounds and the Charles bridge, with the Old Town Square being just a 20 min walk away. My personal recommendations would be Little Quarter Hostel and Hostel Santini.

More on 24 hours in Prague.

Kumarakom: Top five experiences

We were in Kumarakom (Kerala) this rain soaked weekend and even as I write this—from a staid, cloistered hotel room—I yearn to be back…to feel the silky-soft green of the leaves, marvel at the nodding lotus stalks and other indeterminate undergrowth on the undulating backwaters, protest at the resounding scream of the Cicadas, savor the mildly sweet-pungent taste of the roadside Toddy, bask in the warm afternoon sun in the slowly cruising houseboat…

Kumarakom is a village on Vembanad Lake (the longest in the country) in the backwaters of Kerala. Located in district Kottayam, it is filled with canals, migratory birds and rich foliage. The closest airport is Kochi, 2 hours away by car. Kochi can be reached by a 55 minute flight from Bangalore.

Things you can do here:

  1. Stay at a houseboat/ lakeside resort
Taj Vivanta

We stayed at Taj Vivanta but there’s also Zuri and Coconut Lagoon, all highly rated. KTDC runs a resort on the same stretch of road. The hotels have private villas and organize their own sightseeing, cultural programs and houseboat cruises. It is well worth your money to stay in one of them.

A houseboat on the Vembanad lake as the sun sets
  1. Have Toddy by the road
A glass of Toddy
A Toddy joint

Kerala used to be the highest consumer of alcohol in the country, but after the government alcohol ban last year, it’s quite a task locating a beer & wine store, and harder still to find a hard liquor store. I think only a few registered stores sell them anymore. We had a mini adventure though, locating Toddy to taste. Toddy or Palm wine is an alcoholic beverage created from the sap of various species of palm tree such as the Palmyra, date palms, and coconut palms. Roadside shacks give you a bottle of Toddy for around 100 bucks, and you can buy some spicy, yummy food to go along with it. An experience not to miss.

  1. Eat well and eat a lot

Seafood overload. Karimeen pollichathu, or marinated pearl fish wrapped in banana leaf and grilled, is a specialty of the region, an exotic freshwater fish dish. Also to savour are Appam (rice bread), Avial (mixed vegetables in coconut curry), Paruppu payasam, Kerala Matta rice, Bittergourd thoran. Chillies, curry leaves, mustard seeds, and coconut are frequently used to make the local cuisine, which makes their food sharp tasting and piquant.

  1. Take nature trails
Walking through the Kumarakom bird sanctuary

If you can wake up at 6 AM to go to the Bird sanctuary, you might get to see a few exotic birds, but while we did not see any birds (‘coz, obviously, we were late waking up), we did hear them (sigh). The walk itself, under a canopy of drizzle laden trees, was an interesting one. Entry ticket: INR 50 per head. A guide is available at INR 300

  1. Visit the Bay Island Driftwood Museum
Raji Punnoose and the Lord in her Driftwood Museum

We were in two minds whether or not to enter (it looks like a home artifact display from the road), but once the proprietor Raji ushered us in, we were hooked. She turned out to be as fascinating as the displays themselves, about a hundred in number. She had set up the whole place herself and modeled the driftwood sculptures, collecting driftwood from Andaman where her husband was stationed, over a period of thirty years. The museum is the outcome of her tenacity and imagination, though she attributes this to (and in every second sentence) to the Lord’s glory. She takes visitors around herself, talking about each sculpture and it was well worth the hour we spent. Entry: INR 80 per head.

Just two days and I was sufficiently impressed with God’s own country.