As we planned our Indonesia trip, we were looking for a place to visit between our stays in Java and Lombok. It goes without saying that Bali was a quite inevitable destination: it is neighbouring both islands and almost all our friends and acquaintances advised us, by no means to miss out on Bali. Both were decisive ingredients to our planning! Funnily, I also noticed that there wasn’t a single person who hadn’t already been, or wasn’t planning a trip to Ubud. Yeah, Ubud was literally on everyone’s lip! So, even though Bali was no bucket list destination for us, we just decided to go for it.
Ubud, enlightenment for the masses?
Everyone agrees: Ubud is THE place you should visit if you’re in pursuit of spirituality or on a quest to find your inner peace. Well, this might be true if you stay at a retreat or hotel outside of the buzzing town center. As for me, from the moment on I set a foot into the town centre, my inner peace went into hiding, far away from the zillion honking tour buses or revving scooter engines and it somehow never showed up again.Ubud is THE place you should visit if you're in pursuit of spirituality Click To Tweet
Today I still don’t know exactly what to think about Ubud. Unlike all my friends, I was not so much in awe about the place and all infatuated with the ambiance, the temples and the healthy food. I even think it was one of Indonesia’s destinations on our trip I talked the least about when we got back home. Let’s say my opinion is divided.
What made me cringe in Ubud
So, here’s news for those who haven’t been to Ubud yet and are still dreaming of some miraculously preserved and idyllic small town: Ubud IS mass tourism!
Every sight to see in, or around, Ubud that is featured in a travel guide inevitably leads to a lot of queuing up. And this to such an extend, that it even becomes a contest to outrun the other travelers with wit and tricks. Your perpetual quest is to get the best shot of the best sight with the least tourists on your camera.
The ever-congested roads
Traffic jams: Everywhere. Every Day. At Every Time. I still don’t know how it is humanly possible to create that much congestion in the streets with the majority of the vehicles being scooters… I mean, how? Driving on the main traffic arteries quickly becomes a never-ending nightmare.
Eat.Pray.Love-Wannabes & disrespectful tourists
Pilgrims searching for spiritual enlightenment come to Ubud en masse just like Julia did in the movie. Some of them dress up in sarongs, wear dreadlocks and walk bare feet; they are selfless and on a serious spiritual quest or just on a fun and not so serious break. They love nature, smoke the occasional joint and tell you they are totally detached of material things, while playing with their iPhones or surfing on their MacBooks. I mean, I totally understand that you want to become a spiritual person but don’t be someone you are not and for god’s sake, don’t dress like Captain Jack Sparrow or Janis Joplin!
The other type of people who made me cringe even more, were the bare-chested half-naked, lobster tainted posses, who were screaming and pushing their way through the crowds just to meet up at the next Starbucks. Their pilgrimage is often accompanied by the reckless trashing of the offerings, which the locals put out in front of their homes. I mean, come on, what happened to the when-in-Rome attitude?
What I love about Java and Indonesian people is that they always have a smile on the corner of their lip. There’s always time for a chat or a joke. I guess that this got a bit lost along the road in Ubud. But seeing how some of the visitors behave I can totally understand that too.
Organic food is great. Unfortunately in Ubud compared to the great local cuisine it comes sometimes with a (ridiculously high) price!
What I really liked about Ubud
The awakening of the senses, no joke!
In spite of the congested streets and the hassle with overcrowded sights, there is something graceful about Ubud, something that awakens your senses. Drop dead gorgeous surroundings, lush nature, wonderful Hindu temples, fresh and scented smells emanating from the flowery offerings and incense, pleasant temperatures… what more could anyone want? With a little help of your imagination you can even guess that before the advent of mass tourism Ubud must truly have been an idyllic place to stay.
Spirituality, health & body balance
With the ancient Hindu culture and that graceful, harmonious ambient, I can understand why people are coming to Ubud for a spiritual retreat. With all the meditation classes, Hindu rituals and holistic lifestyles, there’s definitely something special going on!
Although there are a lot of expensive places, it is a foodie haven for vegans, vegetarians, people suffering from food intolerance or naturopaths. Yoga is very big in Bali.
Ubud is definitely the spiritual and cultural heart of Bali Click To Tweet
Visiting Ubud without the masses
A great way to pull away from the hordes of tourist is by scooter (125 cc) which costs the equivalent of 30€ for 2 full days and nights. Head out on the smaller roads and enjoy the amazing nature. You can also stop at small Warungs (restaurants) or temples and get to know the locals for more authenticity.
Be aware that weather changes quickly in Bali. So, you’re likely to be surprised by a massive shower. But hey, that’s just part of the game!
Don’t forget your international driver’s license, though, otherwise you might have to buy an authorization to drive if the police pulls you over. They charge around 30€ for it (not so cool, especially when your international drivers’ license is happily waiting for you in your suitcase at the hotel where you left it). Another driver’s advice: try to adapt to the Indonesian style on the road… you’ll see for yourself what this entails, but don’t be too hesitant. Tourists cause the majority of collisions.
Another great way to discover the island is by bicycle.
Bali Animal Welfare Association
In Ubud I discovered BAWA, the association trying to help not only stray dogs and cats, but tries also to grow awareness about animal abuse due to tourism. If you have a heart for animals you can contribute. Here’s more information about BAWA.
My top pick in Ubud: The Gajah Biru Bungalows
One of my best experiences of Ubud are the Gajah Biru Bungalows, where we stayed. It’s a privately held compound of homely and cute bungalows in an absolute Zen ambiance. They are situated in the young painter’s village of Penestanan. That’s only a 20 minute walk away from the buzzing town center. The bungalows are true hideaways from the hustle and bustle of Ubud. Your nights’ sleep will only be disturbed by the occasional mosquito!
From the moment we set food inside that harbor of peace, we were welcome and treated like family or long-lost friends. The staff was extremely friendly and genuinely caring for its guests. We had the best night in Bali with the owners (a very laid back Indian guy called Surinder and his beautiful wife Sumi who’s from Bali) and other guests at a diner they’d organized. The Balinese food was just exceptional – Sumi is a fantastic cook – the local wine was delectable and the conversations were interesting, funny and at the end of the night quite blurry.
The next day, walking through the center of Ubud under the scorching heat was a little harder, visiting the market was a little tougher and driving the scooter was nearly impossible. With a cheerful hangover and already a hint of melancholia, we hugged our new family to say good-bye… They truly made my Ubud stay unforgettable!
Would I go back to Ubud?
Although Ubud didn’t sweep me off my feet, I would return for 2 or 3 days. I’d be happy to stay at The Gaja Biru Bungalows again and say hi to Surinder and Sumi. I would definitely rent a scooter again to discover the remote corners of the island we left out. This time, though, I’d make sure to have my international driver’s license with me at all times.
What was your Ubud experience? Do you have some great advice on what else to discover?