Since the 1920s the spin of Ubud has been that of a natural, cultural and artistic paradise, Bali at its most seductive, and although the dirt tracks and coconut groves have long given over to traffic-clogged streets and glass-fronted chain-stores, this Balinese global village still manages to retain the lure that first charmed the international glitterati.
On first impression it’s hard to see past the rapid and (mostly) unplanned development that has resulted in a centre teeming with tourists, but the underlying conservative village social structure is fundamental to the essence of Ubud: just when you think it’s lost in a sea of commercialism, around the corner with a clash of gamelan, time (and traffic) is stopped as a temple procession of exquisitely dressed Balinese, heads piled high with offerings, weave their way along the street. The magic is restored.
Lontar books tell the tale of the eighth-century wandering sage, Rsi Markendya being drawn to the confluence of two rivers at present-day Campuhan (literally river confluence, from campur “mix”). After meditating on this spiritually significant spot, Pura Gunung Lebah was established. The temple, and indeed the swirling waters beneath remain important for Balinese Hindus. Over time, the area became recognised as a source of healing herbs and plants, and came to be known as “Ubad” (obat), Balinese for medicine. Contemporary Ubud is touted as a centre where today’s ailing souls can be rejuvenated with all manner of curative offers from yoga and meditation circles to raw food restaurants and colonics, culminating with the annual Bali Spirt Festival.
Over the next few centuries, the areas northeast of Ubud were the focus for now forgotten civilisations, and saw the building of several monasteries and temple complexes along with the development of rituals and dances. Today travellers can visit the archaeological remains of the cave temple, Goa Gajah, nearby Yeh Pulu and the magnificently enigmatic Gunung Kawi. The world’s largest Bronze-age relic known as the Moon of Pejeng rests in a nearby temple, and the holy springs at Tirta Empul continues to draw worshippers. An archaeological museum, Museum Gedong Arca offers an overview and in Ubud, any night of the week you can be delighted by the colours, movement and sounds of traditional dances and drama.
With the expansion of the Javanese Majapahit kingdom, in 1343 Bedulu, the site of Goa Gajah, and Yeh Pulu near Ubud was conquered. Powerful aristocratic families moved in establishing feudal kingdoms and Balinese culture blossomed. The influential house of Sukawati (now a town south of Ubud) began in the 17th century when a rebellion in Bali’s then capital, Gelgel fractured and expanded the feudal lordships. Exchanges of power, battles tinged with magic and further expansion saw the emergence by the late 1800s of Ubud as a sovereignty.
The area prospered, and the royal house became less interested in military matters and more in the spiritual and creative affairs and was famed for attracting Bali’s most skilled artists, craftsmen and dancers. In the early twentieth century, Tjokorda Gede Agung Sukawati (1910–1978), the then prince of Ubud (later Ubud’s last King), and his brother Tjokorda Gede Raka Sukawati invited foreign artists to live and work in Ubud. The creative flow was no longer just internal, Ubud became known internationally, more foreigners arrived influencing and embellishing the local art scene (and vice-versa). Books were written, films were made — Ubud had a new cosmopolitan identity.
World war II interrupted Udud’s development, but by the 1970s international travellers again sought exotic adventure in Bali. This new generation of visitors was not the likes of the rich and famous of tourists past, but low-budget travellers who were searching for a taste of “the real Bali”. Locals opened their homes, and warungs sprung up at the front of family compounds. The art scene continued to develop and Ubud fostered the somewhat snobbish image as the (highbrow) arty hill retreat, different from Bali’s (lowbrow) commercial beaches that were the new marketing tool internationally. Steady development saw homestays adding western toilets, hot water and air-con; warungs turning into restaurants; artshops becoming galleries; and more and more ricefields being swallowed up. Terrorist bombings in the south of Bali in 2002 and 2005 again halted growth, and among projects designed to entice tourists back, Ubud Writers and Readers Festival was born.
The release of Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, Eat Pray Love, with the love bit set in Ubud saw another influx of (mostly middle-aged female) tourists, growing exponentially with the release of the film staring Julia Roberts in 2009. The same year Ubud was voted “Top City in Asia” by Conde Nast Traveller, a little farcical at the time for it was essentially still very much a village. Ubud continues to expand, and is perhaps creaking under the strain, however its very essence remains as a centre of culture, spiritual and artistic pursuit.
Ubud lies about one hour north of Sanur or an hour-and-a-half from Denpasar airport but this can double as the midday traffic clogs with tour buses. Slightly cooler than the southern seaside resorts, with an elevation of 200 metres above sea level, it can get decidedly crisp at night in the cooler months of July and August.
Since its feudal beginnings a number of surrounding villages have been engulfed under the “Ubud” umbrella, with central Ubud defined as the area around Ubud Palace and busy Ubud Market on Jalan Raya Ubud and running perpendicular, Jalan Monkey Forest down to (obviously) Ubud Monkey Forest, looping back along Jalan Hanoman. Jam-packed with shops, cafes, restaurants and all standards of accommodation, the hubbub can overwhelm, but a short wander down a side street can lead to seemingly endless vistas that are the stuff of National Geographic photos.
Ubud offers plentiful ways to fill your stay: You could spend days gallery hopping at various museums and commercial galleries — learn about the history of Balinese art at Neka Art Museum, Museum Puri Lukisan, ARMA and Museum Rudana. See what drew one foreign artist at The Blanco Renaissance Cultural Museum and learn about the arts and culture of Indonesia at Setia Darma House of Masks and Puppets and Threads of Life textile gallery. If you’re inspired, take a course at Pondok Pekak Library or learn to cook Balinese style.
Get out of town and explore waterfalls: Tegenungan, Tibumana, Goa Rang Reng and Kanto Lampo all offer cooling cascades, and for more adventurous folk, Hidden Canyon Beji Guwang is a fun river trek. There’s mountain biking, bird-watching at Bali Bird Park, Petulu Heron Colony, or Bali Bird Walk and butterfly encounters too.
Feed your soul at one of Ubud’s many temples: beautiful Pura Taman Saraswati with its stunning lotus pond is right in the centre of town, or near Sangeh Monkey Forest you can visit the serene Tirta Taman Mumbul Sangeh and to the north of town, Gunung Kawi Sebatu is near nature’s own temple, Tegallalang Rice Terraces. Have a stretch in a yoga class, get your Eat Pray Love on and visit a traditional healer, or just relax and be pampered in a spa.
Days can run to weeks and you still won’t have tried all the choices in Ubud’s superb food scene — there’s everything from finger-licking local warungs to Michelin-star gourmet fare, and if it’s gluten-free-detox-cashew-mylk-raw-vegan you desire, you’ve come to the right town. Accommodation in Ubud can be just as mind-boggling. Homestays may be simple backpacker digs in family compounds, or morphed into something more akin to a midrange hotel. There’s a growing number of hostels, but it’s still often more economical for two people to share a homestay room. Cookie cutter chain hotels are popping up quicker than the next crop of rice (well, there’re literally replacing the crops), and for the well-heeled, a choice of top-notch luxury resorts.
Every day Ubud fills with day-trippers, but it’s well worth more than a day and many a foreigner has found it too hard to leave — the perfect place to finish that novel, paint that masterpiece or compose that symphony, or just join in with the locals and get under the skin of village life.
Ubud’s ATMs are located throughout town. The post office is on Jalan Jembawan, and the police station is on Jalan Raya Andong.
The Ubud Clinic located 1km west of the Ubud market on Jalan Raya Ubud is available to assist with minor medical complaints although serious issues will need to be referred to Sanglah Hospital in Denpasar.
Reduce plastic and refill your water bottles at Pondok Pekak Library near the football field, or Kafe in Jalan Hanoman. If you plan on a longer stay — buy a water filter from Kopernik on Jalan Raya Pengosekan, and donate it to a local when you leave.
Other ways to help the locals is to consider leaving excess clothes at The Smile Shop, (you can shop there too) sales support Yayasan Senyum, an NGO who bring health care to people with craniofacial disorders. If you have room if your backpack bring something over from Bumi Sehat’s wishlist, an NGO working to reduce maternal and child morbidity and mortality or make a difference to a person with disabilities and shop for crafts at the Kupu-kupu Foundation shop on Jalan Kajeng. Check the Bali Sprit festival listings for other ideas.
Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Ubud or check hotel reviews on Agoda and Booking . Hungry? Read up on where to eat on Ubud. Want to know what to do once you're there? Check out our listings of things to do in and around Ubud. If you're still figuring out how to get there, you need to read up on how to get to Ubud.
By Sally Arnold.
Last updated on 21st February, 2017.
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