The drive north to Ubud, Bali from the airport is barely 30 miles, but with the traffic going through Denpasar and the insanely narrow roads the journey take close to 2 hours. The experience of arriving in Ubud is a unique mixture of utter enchantment and complete chaos.
Less than a mile outside of town the narrow road winds through the village of Penestanan, past a few Warungs (Balinese restaurants), down a hill and takes a sharp turn right towards a bridge crossing a river that runs along the bottom of the Campuan ridge. Lush jungle surrounds the weathered suspension bridge, which sits high above the gorge and flexes up and down with traffic. Its creeks and groans under the weight of larger trucks and buses are drowned out by the sound of rushing water from the river far below.
The road turns steeply upwards and is lined by stone walls on either side holding back the hillside and shaded by trees overhanging the road that provide protection from the oppressive equatorial sun. Vines hang down from the trees so low that we hear them brushing against the roof of our van and so dense that it’s noticeably darker. The scenery is incredible and exotic, but it’s just after this point that things change.
The sound of the river is abruptly replaced by a jackhammer at the side of the road where sidewalks and drainage tunnels are still being constructed. The beautiful walls and vegetation that lined and canopied the road end and are taken over by shops. A few nice ones, but most are convenience stores, currency exchange and tour providers. The nice places are on the back roads anyways. Parked motorbikes line every free inch of space at the side of the road and the ones in motion speed through the streets making obnoxious, high-pitched exhaust noises.
Almost immediately after leaving the car we are approached and propositioned by basically everyone we pass for taxi rides, souvenirs, meals at touristy restaurants, massages – Anything and everything. Stepping around litter and through what feels like an open and continuous construction site, we make our way to the town of Ubud, the cultural, spiritual and artistic center of the island. At this point things start to change again.
The view of the Pura Saraswati temple from the road is modest and with all the activity in town we almost missed it entirely. On our way in a local tried to scam a few tourists by charging for “admission,” but we walked past avoiding eye contact. In front of us was one of the most incredible scenes from our travels through Bali – A group of smiling kids fishing in the ponds out front, casting their lines in the reflection of this staggeringly beautiful temple. The sounds from the street faded away and everything seemed to fall back into place.