Escape to Ubud, the Heart of Balinese Culture and Art
The artistic, cultural and spiritual heart of Bali for centuries, Ubud is serenely located up in the hills in lush jungle, surrounded by rice-paddies. Lined with galleries, cafés and craft shops, its narrow streets are a delight to wander — just watch out for those drains!
There’s no denying that Ubud has become increasingly commercial and its economy is more tourist-focused than ever. And it does get crowded. But at least many of its shops specialise in textiles and crafts rather than Bintang t-shirts and stubby holders as they do down in Kuta.
Be enchanted by the tranquil gardens and sublime Balinese art — from the Pitamaha school to the naïve style of the Young Artists (my favourites) at Agung Rai Museum of Art (ARMA). Art buffs should also browse Museum Puri Lukisan and Neka Art Museum. Everyone else can go mosey the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary to spend time with the cheeky Balinese Macaques, stroll the rice terraces, take a bird-watching walk, pamper yourself with a spa treatment, or enjoy a dance performance after dark.
Learn in Ubud
A major centre of learning, Ubud is paradise for experiential travellers. You can learn almost anything here, from playing in a gamelan orchestra (see this video of Terence’s lessons!) to learning how to make offerings as I did. There are courses on Balinese painting, architecture, dance, drama, cooking, woodcarving, and yoga. ARMA has a popular and affordable program of cultural workshops though not all instructors speak English; check before signing up. Travel blogger Kasia swears by the batik course at Nirvana.
Volunteer in Ubud
The not-for-profit Bali Animal Welfare Association (BAWA) supports a vet clinic at Ubud, where they welcome volunteers to help care for animals — they need people to do everything from cleaning duties to dog walking. Not far from Ubud, the innovative Green School — built from bamboo! — welcomes helping hands in the classroom, as well as donations. The excellent Bali Spirit website also lists non-profits that need volunteers. Do you know of other opportunities? Let us know below.
After putting your bargaining skills to use haggling at the already ridiculously cheap and crowded stalls at Ubud Markets (best for sarongs, cotton dresses, baskets, carvings), clear your conscious by buying traditional Balinese textiles at Threads of Life, or handicrafts, postcards and prints at the fair-trade Kafe Kares (formerly Bali Cares) shop. Scores of art galleries and craft shops are dotted around Ubud, but we liked Tony Raka’s gallery for tribal and contemporary art and the The Seniwati Gallery of Art by Women, which supports local women artists.
Local specialties include suckling pig and crispy duck. Overlooking rice paddies, Bebel Bengil (Dirty Duck) is way too famous for its deep fried ducks — we far preferred the delicious BBQ pork ribs (the duck was unpleasantly crispy and practically burnt) and their Pavlova-style coconut cream cake. A better choice is The Pond, also set on rice paddies, and (as you’d expect) a pretty lily pond. We loved their scrumptious duck spring rolls, tasty pork satay, and, once again, wonderful pork ribs.
The best sources of information on what to do, eat, drink, buy, and learn in Ubud are not the guidebooks (all terribly disappointing and out-dated), but two free locally produced magazines (no surprise): Ubud Life and The Bud, which has a brilliant listings section with detailed reviews.
Stay in Ubud
We didn’t stay in Ubud (although HomeAway Holiday-Rentals does list lots of beautiful properties there) but instead drove the one-hour drive along the backroads through fascinating villages from our villa in Tumbak Bayuh. When we return to Bali, we’ll split the time between Ubud and some place on the coast so Terence can get in some surfing — suggestions?
Did we miss some great spots in Ubud? Why don’t you let us know in the Comments below?