It wasn’t so long ago that Ubud was a calm and somewhat laid back hippie destination where you could enjoy yoga, vegan food and shopping for harem pants. Certainly this was the Ubud of ten years ago that I remember.
You can still do those things, however these days it’s clogged with traffic (as is the whole of this part of Bali) and also clogged with people. It’s a victim of its own success really; some call it the Eat Pray Love effect. A place that people visited precisely because it was a calm oasis of peace has now become chaotic and overrun.
The town is not prepared for all these people; it doesn’t have space for them all to walk side by side with the traffic. It gets particularly bad in the afternoon when tour buses arrive from the coast and even more people swarm into the town.
There are no real sidewalks to walk along, just a very narrow pavement area with broken and uneven concrete slabs and sudden holes dropping down to the sewers beneath, which can easily catch out the unwary. Then there are little metal handles sticking up, just waiting to trip you up.
Add to this the people touting taxi rides taking up space on the pavement and the little baskets containing offerings to the gods that need to be stepped around (stepping over them is a big faux pas). This leaves very little room for the multitude of people trying to walk around the town, meaning you are constantly forced off the pavements and into the line of oncoming traffic.
Things to do
Having said that, Ubud is still an amazing place. It has some fantastically talented artisans selling their products in the town (it’s not all cheap tourist crap), there are restaurants that cater for all tastes, budgets and fad diets plus enough yoga classes and spa treatments to keep even me busy.
There are a plethora of courses you can take, from cooking to balinese dancing to silversmithing to batik (I did this when I was here before, mainly because it rained solidly for six days and so I was looking for something to do inside). People come here to train as yoga teachers. You can learn woodcarving, kite-making and all kinds of art.
There are nearby walks to do, through rice paddies. The taxi drivers are always eager to take you to nearby temples, waterfalls and other local attractions, many of which are just a fifteen to twenty minute ride out of town (i.e. just that bit too far to walk). You can rent a scooter and go by yourself, but there are a lot of accidents; I certainly didn’t have the nerve to do it, and I’m pretty sure my insurance wouldn’t have covered me.
It’s also not unknown for the police to hang out just a little out of town giving ‘fines’ for foreigners without proper documentation. How much are the fines? Well how much do you have on you…?
There is no shortage of Hindu temples to visit in and around Ubud. If you plan on visiting temples you need to be properly dressed. Mostly you will need to wear a sarong (this applies to both men and women). Generally you will be able to hire a sarong at the temple and often this is free or included in your entrance fee.
When you first arrive you will be besieged by women selling sarongs and insisting that you need one in order to enter the temple, however you don’t need to buy from these people.
Along with people improperly dressed, other undesirables forbidden from entering the temple is menstruating women. It’s not entirely illogical. In the days before we had maxi-pads and all the rest, women were a liability; they would just bleed over everything. This little remnant from the past is still very much in the present when visiting the temples.
There is a lot of art to see in Ubud. If you enjoy galleries there are three in town (i.e, you can walk to them) that I visited. Expect the unexpected with modern Balinese art.
My favourite was the Blanco Museum, the former home and studio of flamboyant beret-wearer Antonio Blanco. It is full of his artwork. Mr Blanco must have been a boob man, as naked breasts feature largely in his paintings. However even if you don’t go for his artwork the house itself is magnificent.
Puri Lukisan is probably the most conveniently located gallery, situated on the main Jalan Ubud Raya next to Starbucks (yes you did read that right, should you need further evidence of just how much Ubud has changed, there is now a Starbucks).
Also worth visiting is ARMA, set in magnificent grounds and housing a building for modern art and another for ‘fine art’. It costs 100,000 rps to go in (about £5.50/US$7) but you get to walk around the extensive grounds plus enjoy a fee cup of coffee at their cafe.
There are ample shopping opportunities, although I don’t shop. I’m already wheeling 21.5 kilos around with me, so the last thing I need is anything more to carry. The shops are full of clothes, jewellery and small household ‘gifts’. Prices are reasonable but not super-cheap like years ago. There is a market where prices are lower, but you do have to haggle. If you enjoy haggling that’s fine but personally I hate it. They say it’s easier to nab a bargain in the morning; by afternoon it gets crowded with out-of-towners and the stallholders are less inclined to give low prices.
I do also think it’s worth remembering that the $2 you’re arguing to save on the item you don’t really need would have much more buying power in the hands of the seller than it would for you. But that’s just me; too guilty about my White Western Privilege to haggle with a Balinese stall holder.
Anyway, after two weeks in Ubud it is time for me to move on, and I am going to attempt to track down some of the more unspoilt places on the island of Bali.
Some people say the whole of Bali is ruined now, but most tourists visit this little triangle in the south. I am hoping there are still some much less crowded areas, and hopefully I shall be visiting some of those over the next two weeks.