Soul need a little soothing? Happen to be in South East Asia? Well, the town of Ubud could be the destination for you. Considered by many to be the cultural heart of Bali, Ubud pumps with art and activity. The Bintang swigging surfers of the coast are replaced by Bintang swigging artists, poets and spiritual searchers and from the moment we stepped off the bus into a wonderful, local procession of traditional costumes and vibrant offerings to the gods, we were hooked.
Few come for the nightlife (although there are plenty of places to grab a beer and catch some live music if you know where to look – we liked Napi Orti on Jalan Monkey Forest) but the serene pace of life in this town actively encourages you to embrace the day… And here are a few ways I reckon you should do it.
1) These boots were made for walking
Views, schmiews – seen one field, you’ve seen them all, right? Wrong! The land around Ubud is famed for its magnificent scenery and just the place to jalan-jalan (take a stroll) amongst the elephant grass, coconut trees and pristine, glassy rice paddies.
The luscious greenery and vivid blue skies reflected in these natural mirrors are beautiful. As in jaw-droppingly, startlingly beautiful. A simple glance is enough to give you that buzzing, ‘it sure is great to be alive’ feeling that if we could only bottle and sell to summer festival revellers, we’d make a tidy sum.
The visages in the south and south-east of Ubud are particularly neat and to the north-east the countryside becomes more undulating, allowing the construction of alluring terraces that are definitely worth a look-see.
2) Monkey around
I can’t exaggerate the fun to be had watching the crazy critters at the Sacred Monkey Forest (we wrote about it before). There are some 340 long-tailed macaques residing in the forest, all believed to be an intrinsic part of the spiritual life of the temple Pura Dalem Agung (Great Temple of Death) situated amongst the trees.
The presence of sacred forest is apparently a demonstration of the harmonious coexistence of human beings and the natural world; although try telling that to 22-year-old Taiwanese student, Charmian Chen, who had her bikini top ripped off and her dress pulled down by a pair of cheeky monkeys determined to fish out some corn that had dropped down her top. So ladies, be warned!
You can buy food to feed the monkeys but remember the cute babies are often followed up by big mommas and poppas with rather large teeth. These pesky creatures have no qualms about unzipping bags to get at the contents, making off with sunglasses and generally grasping anything they can get their greedy little mitts on.
One little blighter seized a handful of my friend’s maxi-dress, clinging on just long enough for us to watch her face turn from, “Ah, monkey! Great! Good. Wait, no. This is actually terrifying and not OK. I am not OK with this.” If one of your party falls prey to a similar situation, cheerfully point out the official advice spelled out in large, red letters on a notice-board: STAND STILL AND WALK AWAY SLOWLY.
3) Have an art attack
Ubud is a magnet for artists. Even the roads that lead to neighbouring towns are littered with workshops and studios, canvases propped up by the roadside or hanging amongst the trees, as though the artists discarded them whilst being dragged further into town by some kind of centrifugal force, leaving a trail of arts and crafts in their wake. A stroll around the centre reveals teeny doors (guidebook maps show some venues but keep your own eyes peeled) leading to interesting free galleries displaying all sorts from paintings to carvings to shadow puppets to batik.
We paid a visit to the Neka Art museum to ogle the collection of fine art inspired by the beauty, people and culture of Bali. The great stories and fab work made for a fantastic experience whether you consider yourself to be art intelligent or not. I felt a shot of nostalgia when I spotted a painting of a Balinese girl and boy admiring each other through carved frames resembling the intricate doorways of the country. Eight years ago, while staying on my own in Kuta, a local boy gave me his rough but sweet rendition of the girl and I hadn’t realised it was a famous painting until coming face-to-face with the original.
4) Take in a show
The traditional dances of Bali have slightly misleading names. The Legong is nothing to do with legs (or gongs for that matter) but is rather a celebration of feminine grace and beauty performed by girls using intricate hand and eye movements; the Trance Dance is nothing like those moves that guy with the really huge pupils showcased for you at that free party last year; and the Kecak dance is really pronounced the ‘ke-chak’ and has something to do with monkeys.
With the abundance of performances going on in and around Ubud, we got our cultural hats on, perused the list of dances on offer and decided we had to go check out this dancing monkey. The Kecak was performed along with the fire dance (yep, that one really is as cool as it sounds) and tells the epic Hindu story of star-crossed lovers Rama and Sita and their encounters with the monkey king and some evil dude who wants to wreck the party.
I was a bit apprehensive when I discovered it was 3 hours long but I needn’t have worried. The show was atmospheric and ablaze with torches and before I knew it, the grand finale of bare-foot fire dancing was in full swing. I’d advise reading a summary of the general story first or it’ll seem even more mental than it already is but either way, prepare for a brilliant experience.
5) Shop your socks off
The streets of Ubud are paved in shopaholic gold – boutiques selling products like gorgeous musical instruments and unique jewellery with varying flexibility on the prices. Before you’re ready to drop, make sure you get yourself over to the big market on Jalan Raya Ubud to check out this labyrinth of quilts, tea-lights made out of sheet metal and countless other goodies.
We shopped our little socks off, delighted at the abundance of great quality crafts to browse as opposed to the mostly tacky tourist tat we found on the coast. To get the best prices, even in the shops, always try to barter, barter, barter and avoid visiting workshops with a driver or guide that takes commission from your purchases.
6) Take a five star siesta
If you find yourself in need of shelter in Ubud, take a jaunt down Jalan Kajeng. This short street is chock full of friendly guesthouses, most with just a handful of rooms giving you a feeling of being almost part of the family.
After trying on probably every single one for size and experiencing the bad (a room in a half-finished building with a wall of sheet plastic); the worse (a leaking pipe and no mosquito netting beside a muggy, backyard pond); and the ugly (a land-lady dressed up to the nines with a rather manly voice and quite large hands); we found the hands-down, runaway award winner for best accommodation of the whole summer: Keprabon.
It was enough to make us grasp hands for a celebratory jig of delight. Amazing four-poster bed; shady little garden complete with koi pond and statue of Ganesh standing guard; delicious breakfast on our porch every morning; huge bathroom with hot water… at this point we started throwing shimmies into our jig. And all for the bargain price of under 150,000Rp per night.
The sweet and hospitable owner, Kadek, is the icing on the proverbial cake. She surprised us with a celebratory bottle of vodka kick alco-pop and two glasses at breakfast on my boyfriend’s birthday. Bottle of the blue stuff first thing in the morning? Ah, this is the life.
Alex Saint is a writer based in Bristol, England – a place she calls home due to its friendly, diverse atmosphere and never-ending list of fun things to do. She loves tattoos, quirky fashion, pugs and, of course, travelling.Tweet