The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival is one of Southeast Asia’s largest and most popular literary events. The festival is usually held in October, and in 2015 it kicks off October 28 and runs till November 1. Here are our suggestions for getting the most out of the festival, which can be a very intense, fast moving four days and nights of panels, events and fun.
First up — try to volunteer! It’s getting more competitive to win a spot, but loads of volunteers are needed so it’s worth giving it a shot. Volunteers usually work four four-hour shifts. This may seem a lot, but it’s spread across days and evenings, so in the end volunteers still have loads of time to attend other stuff. Choose an area to volunteer that you’re interested in and you might get better access to authors and events than you would as a paying guest. And depending on what you’re doing, you may be able to swap shifts if you’re rostered on during an event you really do want to see. Volunteering gives you a free pass to the normal panels held each day — not the paid for events. You’ll be given a free meal for each shift you do.
Whether you’re volunteering or not, it’s never too early to start your planning. Pay attention around August when the programme is released to see which authors are confirmed so you can read their works ahead of time — obviously, it makes a real difference if you know the works that are being discussed. Though don’t be disappointed if writers flagged early on drop out at the last minute — schedules change.
Once the programme is out, act fast! Events, particularly for children, book out quickly. You may want to see what events you simply must attend first to snap up tickets, then carefully plan what panel sessions you’ll attend around those. Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone and go see authors you’ve never heard of before — at least on the panels, perhaps less so the paid events — and attend at least a few panel topics you aren’t so sure about. These can turn out to be some of the best experiences you’ll have.
It really is worth splashing out for the some of the paid events, especially for an author you love. We saw Lionel Shriver in conversation with Jennifer Byrne one year, at what was an amazing candlelit evening at Indus. Yes, you could have seen her with Chip Rolley the next day, but it wasn’t as special as a tete-a-tete led by one of Australia’s best interviewers after they’d both enjoyed a glass of wine or two. And I still remember a pricey but fabulous lunch (or was it afternoon tea?) a few years ago at the stunning Maya with Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil author John Berendt.
When it all gets too much — and it can be a bit intense — take a break. Do research ahead of time on where to have a good massage or perhaps a yoga class. Last year we popped into a place opposite Indus that was way expensive and not that special — we would have been better off heading up to Spa Hati.
If possible, stay close to the venues to minimise time in traffic, which can get pretty hideous in Ubud. But do pay attention to where the shuttle bus routes are, so you don’t have to exclusively limit yourself to the area directly around the venues. Usually the shuttle picks up and drops off at Casa Luna — we stayed at one of our favourite Ubud cheapies, Ubud Lestari, which was perhaps just a bit too far to walk, but manageable. Anywhere along the Casa Luna end of Monkey Forest Road works well.
What should you budget to spend? Once you’ve covered the cost of your ticket, you can get away with spending from around 150,000 rupiah and up per night for basic accommodation — of course you can go way higher than this and splash out on a villa or fancier hotel with stunning views and sumptuous surrounds as well, but really, you won’t spend much time in your room. Consider tacking on an extra night or two at the end of the festival to stay somewhere special — no doubt you’ll have bought a whole stack of new books, so why not spend a few days by the pool reading them?
Food can be very inexpensive and plenty is available near the festival venues — it’s alcohol that does the budget in. (If you like to drink, make sure to bring in a bottle of duty-free spirits to keep you going.) As with hotels, when it comes to restaurants you can live large, as Ubud plays host to several of Southeast Asia’s best restaurants, we reckon. We would not miss Locavore, while Mozaic is an institution and if you’re going to splurge somewhere, well worth it. You’ll have to book ahead for each. Other Ubud restaurants we love are Naughty Nuri’s (watch out for the martinis), Japanese-focused Minami and Will Goldfarb’s superb Room4Dessert.
Of course Ubud offers plenty to see, but we’d suggest again allowing a few days pre- or post-festival for this.
In short, planning is key. Get in early to volunteer, book accommodation well ahead of time, work out what restaurants you want to try, what sights to see, and study, study, study that programme!
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 21st April, 2015.