Ubud. Bali. The words alone connote scenes of lush greenery, zen yoga activities, and crashing waves during sunset. I’m not sure if this is all I hoped to find when I flew into Bali for the beginning of my few months in Southeast Asia (the insanely cheap flights probably had a little more to do with it than anything), but unfortunately it’s far from what I found when I landed there in February 2016.
Landing in Indonesia was at least much easier than expected. Fears of being turned away for lack of a visa and no ongoing flight had forced me to frantically book a random flight onwards to Singapore before I boarded the plane, but it turns out none of this mattered. Arriving at the immigration counter in Denpasar, the attendant no more than glanced at my passport, asked when I planned to leave, and sent me on my way. No visa charge. Getting out of the airport was easy and I managed to get a taxi for 300,000 rupiah (about $24 USD), too tired after 31 hours of travel to figure out any other cheaper method. An hour and a half later of Balinese music and a pretty straight shot down a 1-lane “highway” lined with silver and stone shops, I was in Ubud.
Ubud is often referred to as the “arts, cultural, and religious center” of Bali, and it definitely has the temples and history to back up that claim. Everywhere I walked, I had to be careful not to step on the prayer offerings – usually flowers wrapped in palm leaves and left on sidewalks in front of homes and businesses. Bali, after all, stands out from the rest of mostly Muslim Indonesia as home to most of Indonesia’s Hindu minority. The offerings are not made pompously or in a regimented fashion, but instead seem organically interwoven into daily life in Ubud, as women place them carefully outside their doorsteps in between store transactions and weave together the leaf baskets during downtime, as Americans might check their phones between projects.
Traditional Balinese dancing and Kecak dances are also very popular in Bali, and I wouldn’t recommend leaving Bali without taking in at least one performance first. The traditional Balinese dancing is heavily performed with the hands and often connected to Hindu rituals as it puts the dancer in a sort of trance. These dances are so intertwined with Balinese culture, in fact, that in 2015 UNESCO designated three types of Balinese dance as “Intangible Cultural Heritage. Kecak dance on the other hand, hugely popular at the Uluwatu Temple in the southwest part of Bali, has a bit of a different background. Also known as the Ramayana Monkey Chant, the dance originated when, in the 1930s, a German painter living in Bali became interested in a ritual trance and combined it with dance to represent the Hindu Ramayana story in a performance for Westerners. One scholar called it “modern art-culture,” whereby Westerners take traditional cultural elements and create their own art form out of it. While a group of women has apparently started performing Kecak in 2006, it is traditionally performed only by men, and involves a circle of men dressed in checkered cloths, chanting and moving around a few performers in the center.
The Kecak Fire & Trance dance that some hostel friends and I saw in Ubud combined fire and the traditional trance elements for a dark, fiery evening performance. As it was the only one I saw, I can’t speak to its authenticity, but one of the “highlights” was a performer stepping barefoot through the embers of the burning structure at the end of the show, garnering many pained but awed looks from the audience.
Walking around even on my first day, I had been struck by just how many tourist shops blanket Ubud. Unlike in most heavily-touristed cities, where it seems you can find some smaller alleyways or back streets to escape the major tourist fares, Ubud didn’t seem to have anything of that. Some shops were evidently more upscale, and accepted Visa and sold handcrafted textiles or clothes for slightly below average compared to American prices (but still far above typical prices for Asia), and the rest were mostly just knick-knack shops, with Tshirts and sarongs hanging from each shopfront.
If you’re looking for cheap and colorful rompers, shorts, dresses, or sarongs to manage the heat or just add color to your wardrobe now that you’re in Bali, head to the Ubud Market. I picked up some cheap, lightweight shorts and long pants, determined to survive the heat and humidity.
The Monkey Sanctuary, which I hadn’t planned on visiting, provided an unexpected afternoon of solace from the hawker tourist shops. For $3, it is absolutely worth it. The Balinese monkeys run wild in the sanctuary (and actually make it out of the walls of the sanctuary into neighboring streets and parking lots, followed by guards with sticks trying to wave them off of people’s backs and from the middle of the street and back into the sanctuary). It’s worth spending at least an hour or two walking around the sanctuary, even if it’s pretty small. The animals are great entertainment and I had fun watching them pick bugs out of each other’s hair, chase each other with bananas, or just sit on a rock yawning about the long morning. Be careful if you bring food in, however, as the monkeys are not afraid to come up and grab anything they deem edible, scaring unsuspecting tourists in the process. I later heard horror stories of girls being attacked by monkeys who smelled their coconut shampoo or of visits to nearby hospitals after a monkey bite. Just being careful and following all the rules will most likely spare you any hospital visits or unhappy moments, however.
From the Sanctuary, I walked around the rest of the city, taking in a tempeh peanut curry at an organic cafe full of digital nomads and expats, and later a yoga class in a semi-blissed out studio up in the trees. Ubud has a huge expat community, so it’s not uncommon to see Westerners zipping around on motorbikes or to pass lots of organic fresh juice shops with people sitting outside typing away on laptops in the breeze. I know the Eat, Pray, Love saga had a huge impact on the community here, which I guess is either fortunate or unfortunate. A staff member I met later on told me the place had changed drastically since 10 years ago, when it was an artist’s haven for seeking inspiration in the beautiful setting. There is definitely a sense of L.A. Urth Cafe-meets-busy Balinese community. The Yoga Barn, where I took my yoga class, sadly had construction going on while I was there, but it seemed the perfect metaphor for the drastic changes that have been taking place in Ubud due to the “EPL phenomenon.”
The rest of my short time in Bali was mostly spent by the pool at my hostel, where I quickly plotted my “escape” from Ubud via a quick flight over to Yogyakarta. There, I figured I’d be able to take in the Borobodur temple before exploring to Mount Bromo, which had been on my must-see list ever since I saw the stunning pictures months earlier.
Overall, I wish I had enjoyed my time in Ubud and on Bali more, but it just didn’t click with me. It happens. I’m afraid the increased tourism since the Eat, Pray, Love saga has destroyed some of the charm of the town, which is now filled with calls of “Taxi? Miss? Where you going? I take you!” and “Sarong? Good price for you! How much you want? More elephant pants?” The natural beauty of the setting is hard to find until you get out of the city. That said, there are plenty of other backpackers and expats to meet if you plan to spend some time there.
If I were to recommend a better way to do Ubud and Bali, based on stories I heard from other travelers, I’d say…
-Stay in a smaller village outside of Ubud or Kuta. I’ve heard good things about Legian and some other towns up north. If you have more time to spend here, I would seek out these smaller places for a more “authentic” experience on Bali. It’s also easier to seek out the natural beauty of Bali, which is basically what it’s about right?
–Rent a motorbike, but not in Ubud. I know everyone will tell you it’s easy and safe as hell to rent a motorbike in Ubud, but I chose to hold off. The streets are just too crowded and the “tourism police” too prevalent (even if they can be bribed off with just a 50,000 rupiah cash payment usually). Another great reason to stay outside of Ubud, where you can feel more comfortable renting a motorbike to make it to the main sites. Which leads me to…
–Head to the Tegalalang rice paddies by motorbike. I sadly didn’t feel it was worthwhile to take a tour here, but if I had stayed outside the city and rented a bike, I would definitely have made it here.
My time in Bali was a good wake up call and reminder to just how much I prefer small cities or villages and nature, where each interaction with locals is usually pleasant, more sincere, and more impactful. I was also reminded that a big reason I travel is to find some kind of peace in the quiet nature of a different part of the world- in the erupting volcanoes, the tall snowy peaks, or the bright green fields that just can’t be found back home. And I sadly didn’t find that in my first few days, so I was excited to redirect a bit and find that as I kept going.
Note: I did make it back to Bali for my outgoing flight back to San Francisco a few months later, and had a slightly different experience. I stayed in Kuta the second time around and, while I will surely garner tons of disagreement for this, I almost found that a bit more relaxing. Maybe I came in with fewer expectations, but I was able to make some genuine connections with some motorbike taxi drivers and found quieter alleyways where I enjoyed the best and cheapest gado-gado I’d ever had from a streetcar vendor (10,000 rupiah or 75 cents).