A haven of traditional culture, Ubud is an hour's drive but a world away from the bustle of Kuta, writes Tamara McLean.

There's nothing like a rowdy sacrificial rooster and some fat squealing piglets to wipe thoughts of poolside cocktails from your mind.

After a week immersed in Bali's sun-drenched coastal club scene, we have escaped to the island's cultural capital Ubud for a healthy dose of real local life.

Just two hours after unloading our bags at the Four Seasons in Sayan, we're scrambling through the jungle with hotel guide Wayan, not a Bintang T-shirt or infinity pool in sight.

Ubud, a one-hour drive from the heaving streets of Kuta and Seminyak, offers much that the busy coastal centres cannot.


First up, it's positively peaceful.

From our lush Four Seasons villa, we see nothing but a vista of tropical jungle nestled against the Agung River.

There's not a smelly scooter or tourist bus in sight. Instead, motorised golf buggies quietly whisk guests between their ultra-private abodes and the grand stylised pavilion that is the resort's central hub.

Then there's the cultural exposure.

Without the city bustle, it's easier to get a taste of real Balinese life, as the hotel's free village tour makes immediately apparent.

Just a few turns into the jungle and we encounter a row of roosters crowing fiercely inside cages.

"For eggs?" I ask naively, not seeing the cockerels' spiky red comb between the bamboo bars.

"Cockfighting," Wayan says brightly, before describing the ancient religious purification ritual still popular in Balinese Hinduism.


Flicking his fingers upwards to depict spurting, our guide explains how the blood lost from the weaker rooster is an offering to keep evil spirits at bay.

"Their blood keeps us safe," he says, matter of factly.

We cross to a rutted village track where our close encounters continue, this time a stall of piglets being fattened for Babi Guling, the region's famed dish of whole roasted suckling pig.

We find a cacao tree, the source of all things chocolate, and watch in awe as monkeys leap through the vines above our heads.

Stray dogs shelter from the heat and a group of men gather to cut down young coconuts.

This morning stroll has shown us far more real Bali life than a whole week spent poolside in Seminyak.


The Four Seasons Sayan Resort is situated amidst tropical jungle, overlooking the Agung River.

On the return leg, we stop by a local house where an elderly woman toils over a huge pot in a soot-smeared kitchen.

"Rice and curry," she says when I ask what's on the menu.

Wayan laughs. "No surprise there. Rice for breakfast, rice for lunch, rice for dinner. And for dessert, rice pudding!"

Indeed, rice is not just a food staple but an integral part of the Balinese culture.

And there's nowhere better than Ubud to see that on show.

Beautifully-sculpted rice field terraces are never far from view, each ceremoniously planted, perfectly irrigated and harvested in an age-old system dating back to the 11th century.


Back at our resort, we try our hand at planting, digging our bare heels into thick mud and bending down to press clumps of young stems into the paddy.

Ketut, a local farmer turned guide, smiles encouragingly at our wobbly rice rows. He's being polite, of course. He plants with a stealth-like speed and artistic flair that makes our efforts laughable.

Diners enjoy a meal at the Four Seasons Sayan Resort. Photo / Supplied

With creativity on full display in the rice fields, we weren't surprised to see it offered up in other guises everywhere else we looked in Ubud.

Arts and craft are the region's other big drawcard, with lovingly-decorated shrines and handicraft stores dotting streets around the town.

Galleries tout the wares of local artists; other artisans offer classes to tourists keen to learn their trade.

For our arty fling, we enlist the help of batik artist Nyoman to try our hand at creating a colourful sarong in the traditional Balinese style.


It's quickly apparent we're not creating any masterpieces here but the process of scraping out a design and carefully tracing it with hot wax melted over a small fire is one of our most memorable yet.

Nyoman's wife offers encouraging comments, occasionally tut-tutting when I veer off track.

I might be making beachwear but this experience, like the rest of our time in Ubud, couldn't be further from sun baking and cocktail-swilling.


For a few days every year, the unhurried cultural heart of Bali races with the excitement of cosmic ideas, raucous laughter and feasts that stretch on to dawn.

The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival was designed by its creator, Australian food writer Janet DeNeefe, to be a festival in the true sense - a village-wide celebration.

This year, 150 writers from 25 countries join the party, which started out in 2004 as a response to the Bali bombings.


Ubud doesn't just benefit from the economic boost, she says, but from a surge of creative energy that's tangible at festival time.

"It's kind of: 'Whoa, totally exciting'. Like everyone is plugged into the same great force."

The 2014 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival will be held from October 1-5.

- Gabrielle Dunlevy, AAP
Getting there: Air New Zealand operates a seasonal service to Bali with direct flights from Auckland three times weekly until October 12. Ubud is a one-hour taxi ride from Denpasar airport.

Accommodation: The Four Seasons at Sayan has luxury accommodation.

Further information: The hotel can organise a free tour of a local village. Visit Batik artist Nyoman for a sarong-painting lesson for $20 per hour. The resort is a 15-minute shuttle from Ubud town. Visit Mozaic Restaurant, on Jalan Raya Sanggingan, for the best fine dining experience in town. At the Elephant Safari Park, visitors can feed and ride 30 Sumatran elephants.


The writer travelled as a guest of Four Seasons at Sayan.