It’s impossible these days to think about Ubud - Bali's cultural heart - without also considering the enormous success of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. While you’ll find no shortage of local travel companies promoting EPL ‘experiences’, there’s more to Ubud than spirituality, rice paddies and fortune telling medicine men.
Unless you have the luxury of endless time, you might find that a trip to Bali can only include a few days in Ubud. For that purpose, here are some handy suggestions for activities during a four day stay in this breathtaking location.
Getting there and settling in:
If travelling directly from the airport, make sure you use an official metered cab. A one-way trip to Ubud will cost around 100,000Rp and will drop you straight to your hotel or guest house. There is no shortage of these around, with many nestled right in the midst of rice paddies. Nick’s Pension is a popular choice, with reasonable rates. If you’re after a little more seclusion and some killer views, I like Villa Indah. It’s a little pricier than a homestay, but with significantly more privacy and a small staff on hand 24 hours a day.
Day one: getting the feel of the place
The most touristy part of Ubud can be found at Monkey Forest Rd, where touts and hawkers line the streets offering transport or entry into their stores. While it can get a little overwhelming, the best thing to do is relax – most people are just trying to make a living, and they’ll leave you alone if you politely refuse their offers. Remember that the first sale of the day is considered lucky, so salespeople will be more willing to give you the best price. Don’t blow your shopping fund on the first day though – while the lure of a giant wooden penis bottle opener might seem too great to ignore, remember that you’ll have to declare it at customs. Besides, you’re bound to find a better price somewhere else…
Head to the Sacred Monkey Forest at the end of Monkey Forest Rd. A lush jungle sanctuary, the forest is full of cheeky little macaques all vying for your attention (and food). Be warned that they WILL come after any treats you have on you, so check your bag and pockets for any food before you enter. Similarly, the macaques are invariably protective of their young or competitive with them. If they perceive you’re giving too much attention (and food, again) to them, they may be tempted to snarl and hiss at you, sometimes even attacking. Be careful.
Personally, I’m a big fan of streetside warungs where the food comes on plastic plates and there’s only one kind of beer – cold. But if you like to ease into your culinary adventures, Ubud has no shortage of delicious restaurants serving both traditional and western food. Australian Janet de Neefe has built a small empire of restaurants in Ubud since her arrival in 1974, and any one of them is well worth a visit. Try Indus or Casa Luna, both located on Jalan Raya and enjoy exemplary service, the freshest of ingredients and delicious Balinese cuisine.
Day two: culture meets bliss
In addition to her restaurant ventures, Janet de Neefe has been offering cooking classes in Ubud since 1987. With a different class offered daily, visitors can choose anything from a beginner’s class to a market tour or the very special Sunday evening smoked duck twilight class. A cooking class with de Kneefe is a must-do on your stay in Bali, and will take you through until the early afternoon.
You might like to visit one of Ubud’s many spas to ‘unwind’. Although you’ll have no trouble finding one along the shopping strips of the town centre, for a little bit extra you can double your experience. I like Bali Botanica on Jalan Sanggingan. Tucked away in the folds of the jungle, clients can finish full body massages and scrubs by luxuriating in a rose petal bath looking out into a hot mess of greenery. Bookings are essential but your hotel can arrange this for you.
If you’re after somewhere stunning for dinner, you can’t go past Murni’s Warung. Ubud’s first real restaurant, Murni opened the warung in 1974 and has been operating it ever since. With four stunning levels overlooking an intimate river setting, the food is sensational and the service extremely charming. Take a stroll along the bridges after you’ve finished and wander back to your hotel with a full belly and a happy disposition. Alternatively, try local legend Naughty Nuri’s. It’s a must-do in Ubud, famed for its pork ribs and brutal martinis.
Day three: adventure
Although Ubud has a reputation as a place of relaxation, there are actually a number of activities on offer for thrill seekers. Bali Adventure Tours operates different options for those wanting to really earn their massage. From white water rafting along the Ayung to downhill mountain cycling, river kayaking and a trip to the elephant sanctuary, there’s plenty available here to get your heart racing. Even those after just a smidge of exhilaration can head to the elephant sanctuary 16km north of Ubud at Desu Taro – although, I’m a big advocate of hiring a scooter and zipping your own way there through the winding back jungle roads.
An adventure tour will take around half a day, but you’ll probably want to relax a little after this. I suggest a nap and another massage followed by cocktail happy hour at Bar Luna. The latest feather in the cap for de Neefe, Bar Luna has only recently opened and is already attracting praise for its embrace of writers, performance and music in the small open setting. With cocktails a steal at two for one between half and 8pm, Bar Luna is a place to get nicely squiffy with some satisfying food options before heading out to a traditional Balinese dance performance. Ticket vendors sell along Jalan Raya all day, and there are a number of dances available. Ask around for advice on the best ones to see.
Day four: winding up and saying goodbye
This is the time to do all the last-minute shopping you thought you’d get done throughout your four days here. There are some wonderful shops along Monkey Forest Rd where you can purchase beautiful batik sarongs, brooches and mementos of your stay. Just because you’ve been in Bali doesn’t mean you have to purchase some kind of hideous Bintang singlet – check out some of the stores selling paper goods and hand-made jewellery, the profits of which go to support small villages in the region.
If you have a few hours, the last stop you need to make for lunch is at Sari Organik. Located off the main road in Ubud in the middle of a rice paddy, it’s about a 20-minute walk through an Ubud you might not have seen yet. Instantly rural and picturesque, Sari Organik is an experimental organic farm in Ubud that practises fair trade and the promotion of local produce. Owned by a local Balinese woman named Nila, it’s a truly unique experience and is the perfect way to end your time in Ubud. Relax on a pile of cushions while drinking organic beer and eating the freshest of produce and reflect on the magical four days you’ve just enjoyed; squeeze every last second out before you have to jump in that car back to the airport, or your next location.
Oh, and don’t forget to buy that wooden penis bottle opener. You’ll thank me when future dinner guests come over.