Ubud is the cultural capital of Bali, an artist's town set amongst the rice fields and hills of central Bali. It's a place we planned to unwind and catch some culture like Balinese dancing, and although I had a couple of locations researched I wasn't really planning on much photography here.
One of the things that Ubud has is a wide range of incredibly stylish, sophisticated, but affordable accommodation. We'd booked 5 nights in a place called Alam Indah, on the outskirts of Ubud next to the famous monkey forest. It didn't disappoint, the room was beautiful with great views out over the forest and proved to be a fantastic place to relax (and write this blog).
I'm visiting friends in Nottingham in September and staying one night in a small city centre hotel. This amazing room in Bali is half the price of that!
The hotel is right next to the famous monkey forest where troops of monkeys live wild. They come into the hotel property most days and after getting over a bit of fear we both felt comfortable to carefully approach them and get some portraits. We were very careful not to get too close and be as non threatening as possible. Having such great live view on the back of the Fuji cameras made it easier to hold the camera at arms length meaning I didn't have to get too close to them and didn't have my eye up against the eye piece, which reduces awareness of what's going on around me. I really wanted a portrait with a shallow depth of field, which made focusing pretty hard on something that was constantly moving, but it was fun being surrounded by the monkeys, watching them play and the mothers look after the babies.
On the second evening we went to see a Balinese dance performance at the central palace in Ubud. It was a full moon and sitting outside in the temple the atmosphere for the dance was brilliant. There were hundreds of people there but we managed to get right at the front of the stage by getting there 30 minutes early. It was fascinating to see, the technique and skill of the dancers really makes you think "how do they do that?" The costumes, make up and music are all amazing and it was a great way to spend an hour or so (despite the discomfort of sitting on the floor).
The following evening we went to the temple of Tanah Lot, about an hour and a half away on the south coast. It's one of the most popular tourist attractions on Bali and while I expected it to be touristy, I was surprised at quite how many people and how much of a carnival it was. I went there to photograph sunset, not actually at the Tanah Lot temple but instead the neighbouring Pura Batu Bolong temple which also projects into the sea across a natural rock bridge. At this time of day there were thousands of people and hundreds of stalls surround the location selling souvenirs and you simply can't feel any spiritual connection there. As well as that, on our journey there all the clouds had disappeared leaving a clear sky that offered nothing for landscape photography and the beach that I wanted to photograph from was impossible to access. The steps down were closed off with a "Dangerous cliffs" sign, and there were too many people around for me to hop over and risk it. So we kept walking along the cliff tops and after about 10 minutes we came to a rocky beach which had local people bathing in the rock pools and old men collecting sea urchins. It had some great rock formations, so I decided to set up on the edge of the incoming waves to try to make a photo there. After the chaos of the temple the atmosphere on the beach was really pleasant, the waves were gentle as they came over the rocks and despite the complete lack of interest in the sky it was a pleasant evening working with the camera making long exposures.
The next morning I was up at 6am again, and as Teresa had a bit of a sore throat I set off alone for the 30 minute drive to the temple at Tirta Empul. This is another incredibly popular location, not just for tourists but also for Balinese people who come here to bathe in the spring water fountains. I knew the tourists buses got there at about 10am so I decided to arrive as the temple opened at 7am. I'd arranged for a driver to get me there and when we arrived the place was empty. We spent 15 minutes walking around the place and unlike Tanah Lot on the previous day there was a calmness and peacefulness about the place that wasn't just caused by the lack of people. Amik, the driver suggested we go for a coffee to wait, and he took me to a local place where they grow their own coffee beans and make the coffee there. As we sat looking out over the rice fields he told me that he was a keen photographer and showed me some of his work. He had lots of advice for great locations all over Bali but unfortunately we were at the end of our trip and didn't really have time for any of them. It would have been great to speak to someone like him before we came and I spent a while trying to persuade him to have a go at being a photography guide. So, if you're ever heading to Bali, get in touch with Amik through his Facebook page. He's a great guy, knows a lot about great locations and the best times to shoot particular ceremonies, and had his own 7 seater van for transport.
Anyway, after the coffee we headed back to the temple and a few people were arriving to bathe there. Amik spoke with them to ask if they would mind my photographing them, and also let me know that it was OK for me to go in the pool to photograph them. Things like this are a huge help when photographing in a country with very different customs and without Amik's advice I would never have got into the water which was by far the best place to shoot the scene from.
The temple has a natural spring in it and you can see the pool where the water comes up from the ground. It's then channeled into lower pools through a line of fountains which people bath under. They move along each spout, praying and bathing in each one, and I positioned myself in the water at the end of the line and photographed people as they moved along.
Everyone I photographed smiled and was extremely happy with having their picture taken. It was a really great morning but as time moved on the contrast between the highlights of the water and the shadows of the pool made it harder to shoot and from about 9h30 the place started to fill up with more and more tourists. As we were leaving I spotted this old man waiting by the desk where they give out sarongs. It's funny, as I usually find asking permission to take a portrait to be quite a nerve racking thing to do but the morning had gone so well that I didn't hesitate and straight away he said yes. It's one of my favorite portraits of the trip!
Later that day Teresa was feeling better and we went for a walk through some of the quieter streets in town. We stumbled on what seemed to be a ceremony where all the woman were turning up in their best traditional clothes with offerings of fruit balanced in baskets on their heads, and the men were all in sparkling clean whites. Following them we discovered that they were going to a temple, which we were told was a celebration of the birthday of the temple celebrated every 420 days. By borrowing a sarong, a sash, and some headgear we could go inside, which was fantastic, there was so much colour and as usual everyone was so friendly and open. I'd only taken the small Fuji X-T10 and a couple of short primes with me but the 35mm f1.4 is superb for portraits. I asked a few people if they minded posing for me, and every time they were willing to oblige.
It was lots of fun, and the kind of glimpse into Balinese culture and life that really makes you feel as though you've experienced something special.
The next day was our final full day in Bali, and indeed of the trip. We got up early again and headed to the market at Ubud. Until about 8h30 the market is very much a local one where people buy food and essentials and we wanted to have a wander around before these people packed up and the market area was taken over by stalls selling souvenirs a little later in the morning. Places like this are always interesting and give a great idea of what local life is like beyond the tourism.
After a couple of hours we were hungry as we'd left before breakfast so we headed back to the hotel through the Monkey Forest. Previously when moving between town and the hotel we'd used the motorcycle/scooter path that runs though the trees next to the closed off section of the forest, but this time we decided to buy a ticket and have a look inside the enclosure. Lonely Planet doesn't have much good to say about it but we quite enjoyed it because there are some fantastic trees there and some of the wooden walkways between them are really pleasant. Of course there are hundreds of monkeys and you can see them anywhere near the forest without actually buying a ticket, but walking between the trees makes getting a ticket really worthwhile.
In the afternoon we went for a walk along the Campuhan trail, which is a ridge between two rivers that starts in the northwest of town and leads out into the countryside and some small villages. It's a very easy, very pleasant walk through fields of <em>alang</em>, the grass used for thatching roofs and making the sweeping brushes that are so common here.
At the end of the trail we reached the village of Kedewatan where we came across a large group of man standing outside a temple. As we got closer I realized it was a cock fight which are legal in Indonesia. The actual fight itself wasn't something I had a burning desire to photograph but some of the men there, many of whom had their own birds, made for some great portraits. After money swiftly changed hands the cocks were eventually let lose on each other. It was pretty bloody and over pretty quickly.
We headed back into town, had a fantastic final meal and then went home. The next morning was spent getting some gifts for people back home, which meant some hard bargaining in the market. Then it was time to head for the airport and a final chat with Amik, who drove us there. He drove us through more artisans villages and we arrived at the airport feeling that we'd barely scratched the surface of Bali, let alone Indonesia, and vowed to be back. We've already started researching other places in this vast country; Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Raja Ampat and Papua, and we'd love to use Bali as a base to explore some of these places. Next time I'll get in touch with Amik before we go and arrange to see some other places in Bali and some local ceremonies.
As we took off from Denpasar headed for Jakarta we flew over some of the landscape of Eastern Java that we'd travelled through two weeks before.
We gazed down into the maw of the active volcano Raung, which had so recently grounded so many flights, and passed by Mount Bromo seeing the same collection of peaks that I'd photographed at sunrise from a different perspective. Java lay beneath the cover of low cloud with just the peaks of the volcanos poking through like an archipelago of islands in an ocean of white. It was one of the best views I've ever had from a plane window and a great way to say goodbye to Indonesia until the next time we return.