Stepping off the plane in Denpasar and climbing into our driver’s car, the smells and sounds of the island enveloped me. The humid, sticky air smelled of savory charred chicken and chiles mixed with sour smoke from trash burning in roadside fires, those smells wafting through the high-pitched buzz of hundreds of motorbikes. Small children clung to the backs of their parents as they casually weaved their bikes in and out of the nonexistent lanes.
You should know that Bali—or more specifically, Ubud and its surrounding villages—is not paradise. At least, not in the way you may think about paradise. Yes, you will be awed at the towering palm trees framed against blue skies on the edges of gleaming rice fields. And you may float blissfully in a glimmering infinity pool beside flowering frangipani trees. But after that, erase images of the quaint tropical village you may have pictured as you read Eat, Pray, Love and replace it with disheveled, glorious chaos.
Like many before me, I fell in love. I fell in love with the broad smiles, the generous hospitality, the eagerness to please, the culture of faithful giving and the unerring belief in the power of spirits. Ubud is magic.
Originally, Elie and I had planned to spend longer than a few days. We went to visit his cousin Daniel, who has lived in Indonesia for over a decade. As we planned our trip, Daniel’s recent film, Jalanan, about street musicians in Jakarta, was accepted into the Vancouver film festival (along with many other festivals). So Daniel ended up a few miles away from Bellingham and we made ourselves at home in his new house in Ubud.
Our first morning, we woke early to an orchestra of roosters, frogs and the distant lilting melody of morning prayers. We found helmets for Daniel’s motorbike, and with me holding tightly to Elie’s waist, we headed past the rice fields towards town.
As we rode towards town that first morning, I tried to imprint the sights and smells on my brain, to try to capture the marvel of experiencing this culture for the first time.
Their religion is fascinating.
The Balinese practice their own form of Hinduism, which I learned about from our driver one day as he drove me to and from my half-day at the spa. As we swerved a little too close to the edge of a particularly precarious curve to avoid an oncoming truck, I grabbed for the inside of the door—as if that would help. Nyoman noticed.
“Evil spirits there,” he said. “We leave offerings so they don’t tempt people over the side. Well, not really evil,” he went on to say. “Like the bad spirit on your shoulder.”
“Mischevious?” I asked.
I had a bit of a hard time understanding all of Nyoman’s history lesson, but the gist of the story is that evil—or mischievous—spirits hang out at that corner. And if you’re not careful (or they’re not happy) they may tempt you to go over the edge. Evidently, many people have died there. That’s one of the reasons the Balinese people give their flower offerings each day—to honor the good spirits and to appease the bad spirits, so that you will be blessed with good fortune.
Everywhere you walk in Ubud, you will see the flower offerings—outside your front door, in front of businesses, even among the licorice in the candy section of the health foods market. Flower offerings are big business in Bali—every day, several times a day, the offerings are delivered to the spirits.
Nyoman told me that Hinduism came to Bali from India many years ago (5th Century, I found out later). The religion had survived in Bali even after the rest of Indonesia became predominantly Muslim. Bali is called the island of a thousand temples for good reason. There are several temples in every village and a temple inside every home. When I asked Nyoman why Bali had managed to remain Hindu, he shrugged. “We held on more strongly.”
I was captivated by Ubud, as you can see in this Steller story. We’ll be back.
Here are a few recommendations for what to see and do, and where to eat in Ubud.
Where to Stay
Elie and I stayed at his cousin’s house, in the rice fields outside of Bali. However, we have several friends who have used VRBO and airbnb to find wonderful places within the city limits. I would start there for affordable choices. While most things in Ubud are inexpensive, hotels can be pricey.
How to Get Around
If you have prior experience with a motorbike and are a smart, defensive driver, it’s a great way to get around. Elie is a very good driver—and fearless—but even we didn’t drive the motorbike at night. It’s not for the faint of heart, as you can see here. If you’re not comfortable on a motorbike, hire a driver. Your hotel or host can get you set up with one, and it should cost less than $40 a day. You can also find a driver within seconds just by walking on the street. You’ll have a dozen men asking you if you want a “taxi.” It seems sketchy, but it’s the way things work.
What to Do
Visit the food market across from Ubud Palace. For the most authentic experience, be sure and go in the morning while the locals are shopping.
Take a cooking class at Paon Bali, including the tour of the food market. Puspa and her husband Wayan are charming and entertaining hosts. Not only will you learn to cook traditional Balinese dishes, you’ll also learn about the Balinese culture and way of life. I highly recommend it.
Spend a half-day at a spa. It will cost you less than $50 to be completely pampered. There are dozens of spas to choose from, and you probably can’t go wrong if you just walk into the first one you see. Karsa Spa, located in the rice fields near Campuhan Ridge, was perfect for a lazy and serene afternoon. Skip the mani-pedi (it’s not their specialty) and choose the massage, body scrub and soak and facial. I feel relaxed just thinking about it.
Don’t miss an entertaining walk through Monkey Forest where you can get a kick out of watching both the monkeys and the shrieking tourists feeding the monkeys. It’s also quite beautiful.
Another lovely walk is along the Campuhan Ridge trail. Go early in the morning before it gets hot, and be sure to bring plenty of water with you.
Lastly, we just love to walk and explore. Peek into temples, stop and talk to shopkeepers, and just wander. You never know what you might find.
Where to Eat
You can eat well in Ubud, from traditional Indonesian dishes to multi-course prix fixe dinners.
Elie really loved the yogurt and granola bowl at Down to Earth Café, but I don’t recommend it for coffee.
Coffee lovers, go to Tutmak.
Stop at the Bali Buda market for organic produce, fresh breads or baked goods, or a snack.
I love when a chef makes something I can’t make at home, and his or her joy of cooking shows up on the plate. That’s how I felt about Locovore. Every playfully plated dish was delightful.
Sometimes fancy food isn’t delicious, but Mozaic serves fancy food made from local fruits, vegetables, fish and herbs that’s still soulful. And their outdoor dining room is perfect for a romantic dinner.
If you’re looking for a more intimate but casual dinner, Pica is perfect. You can’t go wrong with anything on the South American menu, and the grilled rib eye was one of the best steaks we’ve ever eaten.