Our 10 day beach holiday in Kuta and Seminyak had come to an end and with renewed excitement we left the southwestern shores of Bali and headed towards the heart of the island, Ubud. We asked our accommodation in Ubud to send a taxi for us, it cost 300000 rupiah (£13) to drive to Ubud, which is about an hours’ journey. This certainly isn’t the cheapest way to get to Ubud from Kuta – there is a shuttle bus that goes between the two towns quite regularly, however this is something you weigh up for yourself – this seemed like excellent value to us. We did not have to pay the driver as he was working for the hotel, so we paid the hotel at the end of our stay.
The drive to Ubud was uneventful, however it amazed me how busy this part of Bali actually is. We sat in traffic jams for the most part getting out of Kuta and the traffic only eased up about halfway when we started driving on country roads, amongst small villages and further and further into the jungle.
Here is a map of Bali, as you can see Ubud lies at the heart of the island. (And not just geographically speaking, it is literally it’s beating heart. But more on that later.)
Ubud is not by the beach and so many tourists don’t actually come this far inland. They may visit for a day or two. Most tourists come here off the back of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. The film adaptation of the book of the same title (with Julia Roberts in the starring role) was filmed here and since then the town has exploded with tourists and has a huge population of long-stay travellers, expats and nomads. Some of those travellers would probably say that its recent popularity is damaging to Ubud – this eventually happens everywhere that is popular with tourists. I wouldn’t know, I had never visited Ubud before the masses of tourists arrived. But to me, Ubud still is as authentic as you imagine, as you really imagine Bali to be. It’s magical.
If you are lucky enough to spend some time in Bali, the best advice I can give you is to make Ubud your base and explore the island from here, or to spend half your time by the beach if you are after a beach holiday, but spend the other half in Ubud – you will not regret it! Staying in Ubud for 5 days made me fall head over heels in love with Bali (which after Kuta and Seminyak I was worried would never happen).
So what was so special about Ubud for me? What did I find here that I did not find in the other areas of Bali that I visited? What was it about Ubud that now once I’d left made it the number 1 place that I would like to return to on my next visit to Asia?
1. spirituality and religion
Throughout our South East Asia travels, Bali is the only place where Hinduism is the main religion practiced. Indonesia itself is the world largest muslim country by population and Bali is the only island out of the almost 14000 Indonesian islands where Hinduism survived and is practiced daily. Although we started our time in Bali by spending time in Kuta and Seminyak, it was really upon arriving in Ubud that the presence of Hinduism really became prominent to us. Its manifestations are unavoidable and I loved that. What you will notice first is the little offerings of food, flowers and incense that appear on the floor regularly throughout the day, everywhere you go, in front of doors, on statues, spirit houses and basically everywhere. You have to be careful as you are walking around not to step on them. These offerings are a daily gift that are meant to please and appease the various gods and demons of Balinese Hinduism. The offerings are made by women throughout the day. You can observe women placing these everywhere, dressed in their beautiful traditional Balinese sarongs and lace or embroidered fitted blouses. Spirituality is so strong in Bali, it is almost touchable and Ubud is often referred to as the spiritual centre of Bali. People here believe in an invisible force that is both good and evil and controls all living things.
The people of Bali are the warmest, nicest, gentlest people you could ever meet. Our hosts at the bungalows we were staying in in Ubud were just lovely lovely people, so helpful and kind and gracious, always with a smile on their faces. When you first arrive in Bali and you visit the touristy areas of Kuta and Seminyak, like we did, you may get a bit overwhelmed by the constant touting of the locals there. It can be a little bit frustrating at first, because it is literally constant. However, we tried to look at it like this: in the most touristy areas locals livelihoods depend on ‘harassing’ tourists. For them, giving you a ride, or selling a T-shirt with a vulgar slogan, or flogging a wooden carved penis (really, you can buy these on every corner) is what will put dinner on the table that evening. In Ubud, this is more subtle. It is still there – of course it is, locals will take advantage of the tourist market wherever you go, but in Ubud, I found it a lot easier to say ‘No thank you’ with a nice big smile and a tip of the head. And they would smile back at me and accept it with an ‘OK, have a good day’.
Ubud is the cultural heart of Bali. Wherever you go in the town you happen upon museums, workshops, art studios, galleries, craft industries, temples, beautiful architecture and dance shows. Balinese dance performances are an amazing spectacle for visitors, you cannot miss going to one of these while you are in Ubud. Tickets are sold for evening performances through hotels, but also just on the streets, so it is really easy to come across them. We went to see a Kecak dance performance – tickets cost 75000 IRD per ticket and the performance sold out! It wasn’t even high season when we visited, and there are several performances at different locations in the city every night, and it still sold out, that’s how in demand these performances are. All proceeds go directly back to the community, which is fantastic. For the Balinese, dance is a part of their religious traditions and is as important as visiting a temple. Each dance tells a different story in Balinese Hinduism and the kecak type of dance is the most popular out of all of them. It is basically a group of 50-100 men chanting a hypnotising ‘chak achak achak’ song meanwhile forming a circle around the centre, throwing their hands up in the air, swaying, almost in ecstasy by the end of it. In the centre of the circle the theatrical dance performance happens with elaborate costumes worn by dancers who dance the Hindu story of Ramayana.
The dance lasts about 1 hour and it is spectacular.
Ubud is in the middle of the jungle. It is surrounded by lush trees and rice terraces. Rice is grown everywhere. If there is a tiny slither of land in between two houses, rice will be grown there. If you drive or ride a scooter out of Ubud town, the surrounding countryside and villages are just a stunning landscape of jungles, hills and valleys and rice fields and rice terraces carved into hillsides.
Ubud is also famous for its monkeys! One of the most popular tourist attraction in the whole of Ubud is the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary. It is a nature reserve and a Hindu temple complex. The forest is home to a population of about 600-700 cheeky macaques monkeys. Now you can hear good things and bad things about visiting the forest, as the monkeys can be intimidating, so it is a personal choice you have to make if you want to visit the Monkey Forest (please also get your rabies shots before visiting Bali as it’s well know its monkeys and street dogs can bite). Of course the monkeys are not just confined to the forest and they do go on walkabouts on the streets of Ubud, on rooftops and into gardens. Every morning at around 7am I went out in the garden of our bungalow and watched the monkeys play around in the garden, looking for food and just generally doing their daily rituals and patrols. We also had lizzards and geckos visiting our rooms regularly, they are cute little creatures and with the amount of mosquitoes in Bali, you really don’t mind these little guys hanging around, that’s for sure 🙂
People from all over the world travel to Ubud to be rejuvenated, to reconnect with themselves, to re-energize, to get fit, healthy and happy. The spirituality of the place is palpable and there is no shortage of activities, holistic treatments, workshops and healthy eating restaurants that take advantage of this to cater to all visitors looking to be pampered or find themselves. You walk down the streets and the town is full of people in their yoga pants with a yoga mat under their arms, heading to the various yoga centres for their daily yoga session. Every other shop is a massage parlour (you will get the best massages and spa-packages in Ubud). There are so many restaurants specializing in vegan, raw, clean food, it is really easy to be on holiday and stay healthy instead of overindulge! There are also many many practicioners (locals and expats) offering crystal bowl tuning, tarot card readings, raw food courses, chiropractic and a vast array of healing practices, and if you have serious health issues, you can also seek out a Balinese healer (balian). Remember Eat, Pray, Love?
Ubud is ideally located in Bali to serve as a base from where you can explore from. Apart from the various art classes you can do in town, and all the yoga you can take part in, the massages you can enjoy or the dance performances you can attend, there are activities round here that will also satisfy those other than the art-lovers and those seeking self-discovery. You can go on bike-tours around the town and around surrounding villages as well as rice fields and jungles. You can go river rafting and tubing , canyoning and rock climbing if that’s what takes your fancy. One of my favourite day out was when we hired a scooter and braved the crazy roads around Ubud to ride to the Tegalalang Rice Terrace. It’s not too far, only about 10-15km, but the roads can be very busy driving in and out of Ubud. Once you leave the outskirts of the city though, it’s going to be the most memorable ride of your life. We had a crappy little scooter, awul helmets, I clung unto Adam as tight as I could, but we still had the best ride – we passed by little Balinese villages, craft markets, locals dressed in their beautiful regalia, gorgeous rice fields and terraces, waterfalls, all the while surrounded by jungles and hills and valleys… I can’t even describe it. (no pictures I’m afraid, clinging unto Adam with all my might at this point :-)) When we arrived at Tegalalang Rice Terrace (you cannot miss it by the way, it is by far the most popular tourist attraction in the area) we were awed by the beauty of the emerald green terraced hillside. We walked down, then up, then down and then up again to walk along the ridges, investigate the way the locals grow this vital grain – who knew the humble rice can looks so spectacular? Unfortunately the biggest torrential rain came down in the middle of our visit and we got soaked to our bones! I had never ever seen that much rain before in my life and it didn’t stop until we got back to Ubud. Our little scooter just about managed to get us back to town, but let me tell you it felt pretty much like riding in a bathtub! We managed to get some lunch in before we had to leave though and we had this for our view (in torrential rain, still pretty amazing though):
My other favourite activity while we were here was climbing Mount Batur. Check out this site for details:
We got a pick up from our accommodation at 2 am and drove over an hour to the foot of the volcano. Our group was made up of 10 climbers including 2 guides – one leading us, one following us, but there must have been hundreds climbing that mountain on that morning. The climb started at 3.30am in complete darkness and we climbed and climbed and climbed for 3 solid hours before reaching the summit to watch the beautiful sunrise. We had hot tea in the guides’ hut on the top of the mountain and had bread and boiled egg given to us by our lovely guide Ketut all the while trying to chase away the cheeky macaques monkeys who were desperately trying to steal our breakfast..! 🙂 If you are here and possess relatively good fitness, you cannot miss this, it is so worth the effort! It was hard work, I won’t lie, I almost gave up at one point. But at the same time it was an incredible achievement for both Adam and I as all of our group apart from us decided to stop at the lower crater while Adam and I did not want to stop there and went all the way to the summit with Ketut! I will never forget climbing that volcano in darkness, just a line of torches in front of us, all the way up the mountain, like little glowing ants in the distance, showing the way to the top. Amazing.
7.east meets west
Ubud offers the perfect mix between East and West. We experienced the awesome culture and beauty Bali has to offer yet we had our neat little veggie restaurants and other creature comforts too.
If you arrive in Bali and Ubud after having visited other countries in the South East Asia region, the architecture of Ubud will be so strikingly different to anything you had seen before! The first things you will notice are the walled residences – walls all along the streets outside homes, designed to keep evil spirits outside. A Giant gate and statues to greet you each side of it. Beautiful terracotta, red and brown colours, intricate stone and wood carving, temples with black thatched roofs – really special designs that I have never ever seen anywhere else in my life.
You know that feeling you get when you are in a place that wows you so much, it intrigues your every sense and your every feeling and you just know you will be back? You haven’t even left yet, you’re still there, but you just know you are going to have to leave and you don’t want to, oh if only you could stay, just a little bit longer, or maybe forever…?! Ubud is one of those places. To me Ubud is Bali. And I know there is a lot more to this island, but I found what I was looking for in Bali – a place so magnetic, so full of energy that draws you in and you will never forget it.