Is it just an island from the fantasies of many, perceived as an illustrious jewel of unimaginable beauty? A place of legend, where myths are then born, held dear in the minds of men. A litter strewn has-been paradise sorrowed by the destructiveness of tourism. A playground of liquor and drug induced debaucheries raping the land of its charm. Bali… my mind conjures all this and more and I believe it all to be true in its own way. Aiming to avoid as best as possible the less attractive side of this island, I headed for the cultural hub of Ubud, centrally located I used this as my base.
What to See – Here for a while with no real clue what to do in the area, I checked out a handful of tour operators. Collecting brochures on anything of interest and picking apart day trip itineraries to then develop my own personalized tour of the area. While putting together my basic idea for the days ahead, I spent the first couple days in the actual city itself as there is tons to stay occupied. First up, for my love of monkeys, I had to take a stroll down to the famous Ubud Monkey Forest and snap a few pics of the infamous long tailed macaques. A place of chaotic tranquility where the gated temple and mythical statues provide a presence of sacredness contrasted with a slur of people feeding mischievous macaques.
To get a feel for the city, I spent the remainder of the daylight hours wandering the streets and alleys primarily around the rectangle formed by the main streets of Jalan Monkey Forest, Jalan Hanoman and Jalan Raya Ubud. Lined with shops, stalls, restaurants and cafes, this place is a shopping mecca for those souvenirs and tourist garb. Days could be spent just window shopping if that’s your thing.
Tip – Get initial quotes on anything you like from the streets, then make your way to the congested Ubud Market where things tend to be cheaper on Jalan Raya Ubud. Find what it is you wanted as everything is ‘same same, but different’ and make use of and practice those bartering skills. I was able to cut every price nearly in half or more of the original asked price. The best times are right after opening as the first sale is believed to bring good luck for the day or before closing as a final sale of the day is desperately wanted.
Hearing about the traditional Balinese dances, I thought this would be a cultural must see. Picking up a ticket sold in the streets, there is a handful of theaters in Ubud. The two most popular being the Ubud Palace (80,000 IDR per ticket) which has a different performance daily and the Kecak Fire and Trance Dance which is a few days a week at the Pura Dalem Taman Kaja. Happening to fall on one of those days, I bought a ticket for the Kecak Fire and Trance Dance (75,000 IDR) which depicts a section of the Mahabharata. While the story can be difficult to follow I found the dancing, costumes and music absolutely captivating. An excellent way to spend the evening.
Ubud is the best place on Bali to dive into a cooking class. Being the cultural hub of Bali and cuisine playing such an important role in any cultures identity there are multiple options to choose from. My suggestion is to gather pamphlets on different courses and choose the one most suitable to you. Dishes, extra activities and prices vary, but haggling the cost is not out of the question. I went with Bali Manggang which starts with a short market tour and coffee plantation visit before settling into the kitchen making a variety of local dishes. Not only a fantastic lunch and learning experience, these classes gift you with something to take home besides memories. Recipes that transport you back.
Day Trip 1 – Generally avoiding the jump on and off photo bus tours and there are many, I dissected a few and created my own. I rented a scooter and took off. This is where I saw much of the Bali that’s debatably missing now, the true beauty in between the tourist hotspots. Small villages filled with temple architecture and local shops. Lush rice paddies, forest and streams canvasing the landscape. Heading northwest of Ubud, it was about 1.5 hour ride to the UNESCO site, Jatiluwih Rice Terraces. An astronomical display of manmade architecture as the paddies and irrigation were carved from the valley and a vivid green carpeted as far as I could see. Taking the longest trail of three around the terraces, I somehow never get sick of seeing these.
On my way back passing through the village of Sangeh, of course I had to stop at the less touristy Sangeh Monkey Forest. Another too many shots of macaques and darkness began to set in.
Day Trip 2 – Usually I feel templed-out, but Bali sparked a new interest as they were a different style to what I’ve seen so much before. I thought why not start with the biggest so I headed for Besakih for my first taste of Balinese temples. About another 1.5 hour ride in a northeast direction and it loomed overhead. A small parking fee and stopped by many claiming I need a ‘guide’ to enter past the first level I worked their ‘suggested’ price down some and bit the bullet. I wasn’t not going to go in after driving here, but ask around to see if this is avoidable. While the temple complex is extravagant I didn’t necessarily find it worth my time and extra money if riding there yourself. Returning to Ubud, I made a quick stop at the Goa Gajah (Elephant Cave, entrance fee 15,000 IDR).
Day Trip 3 – Another day of temple exploration and I had three on the agenda for the day. In the morning I took a short 25 minute ride northeast again to Tampak Siring, this time visiting the Holy Water Spring Temple and Gunung Kawi (Rock Temple). The main event for the day though was the long 2 hour journey into the hills northwest of Ubud where a temple sits on Beratan Lake. The water temple, Pura Ulun Danu Bratan rests not far from the edge of the lake, the mountains picturesquely in the background, hordes of tourist buses make their way here. Entrance fee – 50,000 IDR.
Where to Eat – Ubud is a wall to wall haven for restaurants and cafes. It would take months just to try each one let alone have an educated opinion of each. From local Indonesian food to just about anything else you might desire can be found here being the tourist hub that it is. While it is easy to be overwhelmed by the selection, here is a few amongst the many I would highly recommend.
Warung Ibu Oka – A well-known and established restaurant ever since Anthony Bourdain visited many moons ago, this restaurant sells one thing. Babi Guling. Open from 11 am to 6 pm they spit roast 4-5 suckling pigs a day and more often than not sell out. Tip – Stop in for lunch because within the first couple hours the crisp bronze skin is gone too. Only a short walk from the market, it’s a must try while in Ubud. For more information on Babi Guling or Warung Ibu Oka… click here.
Warung Ijo Ubud – A tiny little restaurant hidden away on Jalan Raya Ubud. This became a favorite of mine for their buffet style lunch. For only a few dollars, 20,000 – 30,000 IDR I would assemble a custom plate of Nasi Campur, rice with a handful of other side dishes. Open for dinner with a regular menu as well it is popular among locals and budget travelers alike. For more information on Warung Ijo Ubud… click here.
Umah Pizza – Being one of few who don’t eat pizza frequently, when I do I want wood fire oven and a thin crust. On Jalan Bisma, this small place does it right. Always busy, there is often a couple waiting for take out too.
Naughty Nuri’s Warung and Grill – An expat favorite, they are famous for their ribs slathered up in sauce on the open grill at the front of the restaurant as well as, surprisingly enough, their martinis.
Local Market – About an hour walk or 10 minute drive the local market isn’t exactly the most convenient place to go for dinner. That being said, it is worth the journey at least once as there are very few foreigners and it is a great way to see what the locals eat on a daily basis.
Where to Stay – I tucked into the Puji Bungalow for the length of my stay here. Located on Jalan Bisma, a quiet street only a 10 minute walk to Ubud Market it is quite centrally based. There are large 10 bed dorms for 100,000 IDR with comfortable curtained bunks, 2 bathrooms and lockers. This is at the cheaper end of scale with smaller dorms to privates available too. A cheap breakfast is provided or included with the private rooms. A small pool overlooks rice paddies next to beach chairs and lounge area perfect for socializing and beating the heat. Tours and day trips are on offer at the front desk and for 60,000 IDR a day they will rent scooters. Laundry on property.
There are countless hostels, guesthouses, homestays, hotels and resorts catered to all walks of life and budgets in Ubud and surrounding area.
Places I Missed: Mount Batur sunrise hike (usually beginning around 2 am, returning around 11 am.
Tegallang rice terraces are incorporated in multiple day trip itineraries, but Jatiluwih remain the more extravagant.
What else did I miss while in the Ubud area? Let me know any other suggestions for when I return in the comments below.