I have a love-hate relationship with Ubud.
It all started three years ago, when I first had the idea of traveling solo. Everybody knows Elizabeth Gilbert and Eat, Pray, Love. A bunch of other solo female travelers went the same way, pretending to be Elizabeth/Julia Roberts and hoping to bump into their own Felipe/Javier Bardem while biking along the rice fields of Ubud, Bali.
I know there was some part of me hoping for that.
So off I go, at 25, fresh from making important changes in my life. My plane flies over the island and my heart surprisingly jumps in joy upon seeing the turquoise sea and crashing waves. I arrive in the huge but strangely empty Ngurah Rai International Airport, amazed at the functioning walkalators and brand new floor carpet. The heat is pressing into me and surprise, surprise, the airconditioning is barely working. I see a bunch of foreigners getting held up past immigration, where the customs officer is opening “suspicious” luggage. Past customs are different taxi companies and mobile carriers waiting to make business with you. Stress!
Go through that previous paragraph and commit it to mind because that’s how it’s going to be in Ubud: you’ll be blown away by its beauty and mystery, then someone will cut into your moment by shoving something in your face.
Ubud is the heart of Bali’s culture and the locals wish to leave it this way. You won’t find any of the chain hotels here – it’s all small, family-owned guesthouses or luxury spa resorts. I obviously can’t go for luxury, so I went for a midrange guesthouse far from the chaos: Narendra Guesthouse.
It’s fully fitted with amenities: a comfy bed good enough for two, a huge private bathroom with hot shower, shampoo, shower gel, toilet and towels; an airconditioner and Wi-Fi connection. It doesn’t have TV (but c’mon, why watch TV) and it lacks a closet, but it comes with a desk and a chair, enough to lay out your stuff for a couple of days.
You also get free breakfast every morning, served on your own porch. I enjoyed sitting there every morning in my sleepwear (yes, no shame at all), eating the homecooked breakfast, smelling the incense permeate the air and watching the chickens run around the garden.
I liked coming home to a typical Balinese family gathering: the grandmother and the other females in the family preparing offerings, the owners’ son running around with his toys, his parents asking me how my day went. They go out of their way getting to know their guests without being intrusive, a perfect balance for introverts like me.
Ok, this area will be sorely lacking and I apologize. I had an issue with the locals pushing their goods and services that I was a wee bit turned off. Add up the fact that I had to either walk under the confusing weather of extremely warm or harsh pouring rain versus signing up for a tour and hiring an expensive car service… Well, I was left with not much enthusiasm.
I initially set out to explore a couple of temples within Ubud, doing the Campuhan Ridge Walk, maybe even signing up for a yoga class or a cooking class. The only attraction I ended up seeing? The Pura Taman Saraswati. It was, surprisingly, enough for me.
Maybe because it was the last leg of my trip and I’ve seen enough temples to last me a lifetime. Maybe because when I thought of Ubud, it was exactly this temple I was picturing in my mind. But I really think it’s this: that it’s the temple that represents the Hindu goddess of arts, knowledge and wisdom, things that I hold in high regard.
The weather in Ubud is very, very warm. I didn’t think it would be a big deal because I come from a neighboring tropical country, but it was too much even for someone who regularly deals with a 39C summer. This is where the ubiquitous gelato comes in. Seriously, there’s a gelato shop every fifteen steps or so. My favorite one is Gaya Gelato, with two branches located along Jl Raya: one in the tourist center and another outside Pura Taman Saraswati. Definitely get the pistachio!
Going out for a meal in Ubud is a little more expensive when compared to its neighbors but now that I think of it, it’s actually one of the places where I enjoyed eating even if I didn’t necessarily enjoy the cuisine.
Jl Raya is one long stretch of restaurants and shops, so it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Fortunately, there’s Nomad, an institution in Ubud. The FOH here is quirky and funny – he likes greeting the guests with much gusto and hands out frangipanis to everyone. Imagine a busy restaurant filled with people with flowers tucked behind their ears, males included.
If you’re looking for something low-key and more local, head to Babi Guling Ibu Oka for some spicy roast sucking pig. I have to note though: low-key doesn’t necessarily mean cheap, as a simple meal will set you back around 100,000IDR including drinks and taxes.
Jl Goutama is also a good spot for foodies. Warung Siam is underrated – maybe it feels counterintuitive to eat another Asian cuisine while in Asia, but I have a soft spot for Thai food and I’ll always find myself craving for it. Get the satay plate and Thai milk tea, then take a seat outside facing the street.
Further down the road is Melting Wok, an expat-owned restaurant. I braved the rain to beat the lunch rush hour and managed to snag a seat overlooking the busy Goutama. I had one of my best meals here: a huge serving of chicken curry, with a wonderful mix of fresh vegetables and spices then topped with nuts. My taste buds needed to cool down after the fiery dish, so I ordered their coconut creme custard which I’m still dreaming about until now.
Watch a Balinese dance. There are different performances each night, held in different temples. You can get a ticket at the tourist center or at the temple with no price difference. Some are intense, involving fire, trance and mystical chanting, while others are more about myths and storytelling through dancing. I highly recommend the one held in Ubud Palace, the Legong of Mahabharata.
Visit the Ubud market even if you don’t intend on buying anything. But let’s be honest, you will buy something. Learn the art of haggling because the sellers definitely overcharge – trust me on this, as I pretty much paid double the price for some items. Walk away if they don’t give in to a discounted rate… But also remember that they’re making a living out of selling these goods. Don’t be so stingy that you’ll be fighting off a one dollar difference.
Wander around aimlessly. Maybe it will lead you to Confiture de Bali, a charming shop that sells homemade jams and sauces. If you find yourself purchasing the small bottles of jam, take note that they’re way over the 100ml liquid allowance for check-in luggage. Don’t be the fool who forgets to check it… aka, don’t be like me. I had to leave two bottles of these babies at the airport because they’re 115ml each. 🙁
You might also get the opportunity to watch a local ceremony unfold. It’s hard to pin down especially if you don’t have insider info, but I saw one on my last day in Ubud. Keep your eyes peeled out for a massive parade of locals! Sometimes it’s all about being at the right place at the right time!
I’m probably the only one who will recommend visiting a bookstore, but if you love reading as much as I do, go to the Periplus further down the road from Pura Saraswati. They have a decent collection of books in various genres, plus some fun toys for the kids. Don’t miss out on the shelves that feature Asian authors or books that feature Asia. I managed to snag a copy of Vicky Baum’s Love and Death in Bali, which tackles the island’s history and relationship with Dutch colonizers and the infamous puputan. Not for the weak of heart, but I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about Bali.
Are you heading out to Ubud anytime soon? I’d love to hear your plans!