23Oct2012

What is Ubud Like? A Few Perspectives

Flower seller at Ubud Market

Embarrassingly for someone who writes for a living and has spent months in Ubud, I spectacularly failed the other night to answer the question “What is Ubud like?”

Because the answer really does depend on your perspective. So here are a few perspectives on Ubud, the Balinese town where Elizabeth Gilbert found the “love” in Eat, Pray, Love.

Spiritual Centre

Ubud is a spiritual centre for truth-seekers from all over the world. There are yoga classes, health food stores, healers, natural beauty therapies, and tens of arts classes, all amid the serenity of the ricefields and the village temples where Balinese practice their unique Hinduism.

Tourist Hell

Ubud is over-developed. During the day, tour buses, tacky ethnic clothes stores and souvenir shops clog the main streets. In the centre, even the traffic noise can’t drown out the touts offering “transport” and “accommodation”, while Balinese cremations have become tourist events.

Cultural Destination

Ubud has a vibrant art and literary scene. The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival is known around the world, and the town is packed with galleries. There are some great restaurants in Ubud, as well as an excellent deli, fantastic coffee and even decent cocktails.

Third World Hell-Hole

Ubud is a small town in a developing country. Open drains line many streets, narrow roads can degenerate into dirt tracks without warning, and beggars plead for money, babies in arms. Most Balinese drive without a helmet or a license, often on the pavement, and show flagrant disregard for Indonesia’s limited road rules.

Tropical Paradise

Ubud is blessed with a tropical climate – even at night the temperature almost never drops below 20°C (70°F). The Balinese are warm, kind and friendly, the people are beautiful, and you can drink green coconut juice fresh from the palm beside the pool.

Full of Beauty

The Balinese love of beauty is evident in Ubud. Wood and stone carvings decorate traditional houses, gateways and temples; women in neat lace blouses and sarongs work to create beautiful offerings of flowers and woven leaves; hibiscus, orchids and bougainvillea flourish; and lotuses grow around the fountains.

Hellish Climate

Ubud is humid and sticky. Even the rainstorms that obliterate the road and send streams of filth washing down the drains barely dent the tropical heat. For all their smiles, the Balinese are private people and foreigners will always be outsiders here.

Rural Idyll

One hundred metres off the main street of Ubud is an agricultural landscape evolved over countless centuries, with dragonflies flitting from pool to pool, egrets feeding in the rice fields, children splashing naked in the irrigation streams, and jungle teetering into vertiginous gorges.

Unique Traditions

Balinese culture is unique in the world, and Ubud is Bali’s cultural heart. From their unique Hinduism to Balinese dance, art, music and literature, not to mention dishes like babi guling, Ubud remains distinct both from Indonesia and the West.

But none of these different perspectives answer the question.

So, what is Ubud like?

Well, I’m sitting on my second floor balcony in an alley in the centre of town, surrounded by gilded carving and soft brickwork. I’m looking out over the rooftops — there’s only one building higher than me — watching swallows flit through papaya trees and palm trees.

I can hear gong and drum music from the temple, the squeals of excited children finishing school and – yes! – one of the kids from the guesthouse trying to start his motorbike.

The clouds are closing in, and it feels like rain, but I still quite fancy a swim.

Did I mention I like it here?

I’ve written a lot about Bali over the last couple of years. You can read more here.

14 Comments

  1. Liv says:

    Nice observations. I loved Ubud too when I made a trip there last year. I was surprised how charmed I was by it, despite some of the more scary aspects (by which I’m mainly meaning the terrifying motorbike driving!) The texture, colour and life of the place really seduced me.

    • Theodora says:

      Thanks, Liz. I’m a huge fan of Ubud, and I’ve done a LOT of bike driving in Indonesia now, which means I’m typically blind to the grungier aspects of it. This was kind of an exercise in seeing a place I really, really like from a different perspective, or several…

  2. lola says:

    Great list, Theodora. I made my first visit to Asia in August/September going to Cambodia and really fell in love. I cannot wait to return & explore more. I hope that Bali will be one place I’ll get to soon.

  3. Ahhhhh…this brings me back. I just spent 4 months in Bali earlier this year, and I have to say I fell in LOVE with Ubud. My husband and I spent most of our time in Nusa Dusa and surfing around the south Bukit, but Ubud stole my heart — I think mostly because there were lots of parts just outside of Ubud that were ‘peaceful’ and quiet, with no traffic or tourists or touts. Thanks for sharing and bringing back memories! I miss it already and ready to go back!

    • Theodora says:

      So glad you recognise it…. I love the place, and when we’re finished being nomadic, this is almost certainly where we’re going to settle…

  4. I am sitting in Ubud right now, enjoying my morning coffee while looking at the rice fields in front of me.

    I’ve been spending a lot of time of Bali – also writing, but this is the first time I’ve been spending a longer period in Ubud. It is already one of my favorite places – if not THE favorite place – I guess it is the tranqulity I like so much.

    I can relate to all the perspectives above, but luckily the “negative” ones are easy to escape.

    • Theodora says:

      Yes! I’m absolutely blind to the negative perspectives. I just… don’t see ‘em, unless I’m trying to. I like the tranquility of it, also. And the way that it does, somehow, preserve some of its original spirit even amid the carnage.

  5. kiky says:

    u and ur son are amazing!!!

  6. merantau says:

    The one thing that ensures Ubud will retain its identity is the strict control over the type of businesses that can be operated – no discos, no beer barns, no kareoke, no nightclubs … and may these controls ever remain in place. Your list of Ubuds is excellent. Here’s another – massage and spa central!

    • Theodora says:

      YES! I always forget the massage and spa element.

      And… I love the fact that everything shuts early apart from the sneakily, cheekily open late places. You’re making me miss Ubud!

  7. Sofia says:

    I agree with all of the above. What I liked about Ubud is that it was a great place to use as a base for exploring other nearby places and small villages.

    • Theodora says:

      I tend to count most of the villages around Ubud as being part of it, which perhaps I shouldn’t — but part of the magic of it is that you are, basically, in the countryside.

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