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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.