Top 9 Highlights of Ubud, Bali
As the cultural heart of Bali, Ubud is a truly special place that combines the best of Balinese hospitality with a spiritual ‘discover yourself’ vibe.
Hot Take: Ubud gets under your skin and makes you understand what the hype about Bali is all about. (4.5 stars)
Pro Tip: Not a place for partying, open yourself to the experience of moving with deliberate intention.
Nestled amongst rice paddies and steep ravines in the central foothills, Ubud lays claim being the arts and culture center of Bali. But Ubud’s charm goes far being the practical and the whole city exudes an air of personal healing and self-discovery (after all, Ubud gets its name from the Balinese word for medicine). ‘Discovered’ by Westerners in the 1960s, Ubud today is a busy place where the locals seem to be equally numbered by tourists and yogis. Don’t expect something sanitized (or Disney-yoga’), Ubud is real and (like much of Bali) is where the past meets the present with (mostly) positive results.
We (especially Kelly) had been looking forward to visiting Ubud . We enjoyed our time so much that we kept extending our time…eventually ending up spending 4 weeks there (which is about the strongest vote we can give a place). This extended time allowed us to really explore the city and its surroundings as well as to see many cultural festivals (though our running joke became is that there is ALWAYS a Hindu festival going on). Ubud’s photos really don’t do it justice, so if you just want jealousy inspiring Instagram fodder then you will probably have to look outside the city. But, (at the risk of sounding like flakes) Ubud gets into you (if you let it) and changes the way you connect. For us, our year of travels had begun 2 months earlier, but in Ubud it became real.
Highlight: Monkey Forest
As the most visited (for good reason) but least spiritual (unless you have a weird thing for monkeys) part of Ubud, Monkey Forest should be on anyone’s highlights list. We won’t get into the endless debate in this post about the ethics of animals as tourist attractions (our personal philosophy is ‘yes’ to wild or sanctuaries; ‘no’ to cages or most zoos), but the animals of the Ubud Monkey Forest seemed to have a pretty great life (though they have definitely been mostly domesticated).
Even without any monkeys, the Monkey Forest itself would be a wonderful place to visit (neat architecture, amazing plant life, and great shady respite from the heat and hustle of Ubud’s core). However, there are LOTS of monkeys and you will start to find monkeys even before you arrive as they like to solicit foreigners (and get into the shops) along the road outside the park. After each paying a 50,000 IDR (about $3.50) fee, we were granted access to the grounds after being warned to keep our possessions well-hidden and backpacks well-guarded (as the monkeys are better than most people at operating zippers!). We found that the monkeys really engage with visitors and will climb on you, but don’t worry, while tales of monkey bites float around the internet, most of the monkeys behaved like curious cats (they will approach you, jump on you, maybe see if you have any food, then move on…so unless you do something to provoke them, you will be fine). For the 1 or 2 day visitor to Ubud, Monkey Forest is the most guaranteed way to take home a lasting memory (and a great photo).
Highlight: Campuhan Ridge Walk
Every city needs some free green walking space to reconnect with nature, Ubud just does it better than most. Located just 10 minutes walk from the Ubud Palace, the Campuhan Ridge walk (or just “the ridge walk”) is a wonderful trek on a paved path over a set of hills lined by 2 deep ravines on Ubud’s Northwest side. Sunset is the best time to go, but there will certainly be others on the trail who had the same idea. That said, the trail didn’t feel overly crowded (especially the further North you go). The exertion level was just right to build up a healthy hunger for dinner, but it was not a grueling experience (unless you want to be like one of the numerous trail runners who were covered with sweat). We loved the dense greenery and the feeling of being above the jungles below. As an out-and-back trail, the hike can last anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours. We hiked for about an hour and felt that was a good amount of time for the experience (we also didn’t want to get caught out after dark). Pro tip: bring water with you as you will sweat and watch out for massive centipeeds!
Highlight: Cultural Events
The citizens of Ubud (assisted by what must be a very holiday heavy Hindu calendar) always seem to be celebrating something, which added immensely to our impression of the place and its people. Every morning there is a celebration of sorts in blessings and offerings placed all around the city. When we say everywhere, we mean it! They placed offerings in virtually every doorway, in shops, in restaurants, on the doorsteps to our bungalow, and they even placed offerings on our scooter every morning (we think that they could tell we needed extra help to survive the crazy Indonesian driving). In addition to the daily routine, there were many celebrations (lunar cycles, gratitude events, because it’s Tuesday, etc) that occurred more than once a week and were highlighted by ornate decorations, lively parades and festive music. However, we were also lucky enough to be in Ubud for two very special events: Nyepi and a royal funeral cremation procession.
Nyepi, the Balinese "Day of Silence,” falls on new year’s day (for the Balinese calendar) and is a BIG deal in Bali as the spirit world is believed to be closer at that time than other times of the year. The day itself is proceeded by a weeklong set of celebrations which are highlighted by the Bhuta Yajna ritual, which seeks to vanquish the negative elements through symbolically parading then burning 10 to 20 ft demonic ‘ogoh-ogoh’ statues made of richly painted bamboo, cloth, and tinsel. Nyepi itself involved the absolute silencing of Bali and her people. Lasting from 6a to 6p on Nyepi Day itself, the day is reserved for self-reflection and distractions are eliminated, meaning no working, no traveling, no going outside, no talking, and no eating. Although Nyepi is primarily a Hindu holiday, non-Hindu residents and tourists are not exempt from the restrictions and the only people to be seen outdoors during Nyepi are the Pecalang (traditional security men who patrol the streets to ensure the prohibitions are being followed), so from the beaches to the airport there is nothing but silence. We decided to experience our own modified version of Nyepi, where we didn’t speak a word and did a digital detox for the day (though we did eat and watch a movie). It was GREAT and we think we are going to start this as an annual tradition.
To a Westerner, a funeral might not feel like a celebration, but in the Balinese culture, the passing of a meaningful person is marked by a parade and funeral pyre. Just before we arrived in Ubud, the 96 year old widow of the “King of Ubud” (who ruled from 1931 until 1978 and put it on the tourist map) passed away. To celebrate her life, a 75 foot tower sarcophagus was constructed then paraded (it required 30 men to hoist the platform for short distances) through the streets before being set alight for cremation. Indonesian royalty and current political leaders were on hand (in addition to throngs of tourists), but what stands out in our memories were the faces of the Balinese people as they bid farewell.
Highlight: Cooking Class
Maybe more than most people, we connect to a place through food. Since we were going to be in Indonesia for a while, we wanted to try our hands at cooking some of the meal staples that we have gotten to know so well. There were many choices in Ubud, but we chose Ketut's Bali Cooking Class which included the preparation of 9 local dishes, a food market tour, and transfer service for 300,000 IDR each (or about $22 each). It was a great 5 hours of entertainment and we really enjoyed rolling our sleeves up and learning about the dishes that we were enjoying.
Highlight: Ubud Palace
Another top highlight of Ubud, Puri Saren Agung (the main palace in Ubud) is actually a sprawling complex with residences, temples, and a theater for traditional Balinese dances that anchors the downtown core of Ubud. Although the most sacred parts of the complex are off-limits to Westerners, the attention to detail in the stonework and wood carvings is amazing. We also went to a traditional dance here (100,000 IDR each or about $7 each) and it was quite an experience that we suggest everyone do once while in Bali. The performance itself was most like a classic ballet in which the characters dramatically dance out a story intended to teach a story to the audience (but, just like for ballet, if you don’t read the program then you will have little idea what is going on). Our show included 3 different dances on themes that would be recognizable morality lessons in any culture, but it is the dancing and music itself that makes this experience unique. The dancers mostly danced about with bugged out eyes while the percussion orchestra banged out notes and the narrator bellowed…the combined effect was quite memorable (though Matt wouldn’t exactly call it pleasurable). Each movement to the dance, the way the eyes move or the way the finger tips pulse all have a symbolic meaning. The makeup and costuming was a huge highlight for Kelly that made the experience even more memorable. Pro tip: you can (and probably should) bring drinks/beer in with you…trust us, it makes it better (and yes, we know we are terrible people).
While there are many forms of lodging in Ubud, we loved the bungalow hotels. Ranging from quite basic to fabulously luxurious, the bungalow resorts of Ubud generally featured 4 to 8 bungalows with a resort pool, restaurant, and temple area. The bungalows themselves usually consisted of a main bedroom (generally with AC), an open-air bathroom, and an outdoor sitting area. Breakfast (often delivered to the room) was included in room prices that varied for us from $30 to $60 per night. After spending a month in these bungalows with their offerings, incense, and swim up pools, it is hard to stay in regular/boring hotel rooms.
For a city of only 30,000 residents, Ubud has amazing food across a variety of price points and cuisine types. We will write up our best food experiences in another post, but Ubud provided a variety and quality of meals that kept us going well past when we would usually burn out on the local cuisine. Healthy and vegetarian options were a particular focus in Ubud, though many high quality ‘sinful’ options were available as well. Prices in Ubud were 25-50% higher than in other parts of Bali, but the difference is quality was noticeable.
While in Bali it's an absolute must for any visitor to enjoy the balinese style of spa treatments especially because many of these treatments and massages are really inexpensive. Kelly purchased one package (at Putri Ubud) for a little under $100 for what she called "the works." It included: A two hour massage, herbal scrub followed by a yogurt moisture treatment, a floral bath, a "V-steam", an hour long facial, hair cream bath with scalp massage and a mani/pedi that included a one hour foot and hand massage. It was a full day of total bliss and every penny spent was more than worth it.
The second spa Kelly visited (Bali Botanica Day Spa) she purchased a smaller package that cost slightly under $20. It included a full body hour massage, followed by the "Mandi Luhlur treatment" a Javanese Royal treatment that includes a spice scrub (turmeric, sandal wood and rice powder) exfoliation with yogurt for moisturizer and a fragrant floral bath. Yes all of that for under $20USD! Kelly was wondering why she didn't get a treatment every week for that price. At both spas all of the spa technicians were well trained and gave better massages than the ones Kelly had in Spain, Mexico and even the USA. While we're by no means spa regulars we've only ever had massages a handful of times in our lives we could tell that these spas were of high quality even though they were very inexpensive. It's a must do activity for anyone visiting the area.
Matt even put the crowbar to his wallet to come up with 70,000 IDR (or about $5) to get an hour long massage. The massage itself was great, though at that price he had to live with a few down-market features such as no AC and no English communication (good thing that pointing is a fairly universal form of communication).
Yoga options abound in Ubud as it has become an international destination for yogis of all types. Ranging from $3.50 to $15 per session, the yoga studios are basically just for foreigners and are largely the reason why there is a higher percentage of female travelers in Ubud then any other place we have ever been. The studios themselves offer a wide variety of yoga, though all we could locate did not have AC so the experience became ‘hot yoga’ whether you wanted it to or not. Class sizes also ranged from the very intimate to 50+ (not including the mosquitos). We can’t say that Ubud is the most enjoyable place for yoga we have ever been, but some people say that fighting through the heat, sweat, and mosquitos makes the bliss even sweeter.