A GUIDE TO UBUD, BALI: THE ARTSY SIDE OF THE ISLE OF THE GODS
Ah, Ubud: the jewel in the jungle. Set high in the misty hills above Kuta, a long way from the rolling shores of the Indian Ocean and the surfer towns of the Bukit Peninsula, this magical place of Hindu totems and twirling incense smoke is steeped in mystery and history.
Thousands of folk head here every year to get their fix of culture on the Isle of the Gods – you know, to balance out the unbridled hedonism of the south coast, or to case out the long and fascinating story of Buddhist and animist and Hindu religiosity. Who can blame them?
Ubud rarely disappoints. It's got lichen-spotted temples by the bucket load. It's got countless little bamboo warung (traditional Indonesian eateries) which ooze with the scents of peanut sate and suckling pig. It's got bustling market bazaars and woodwork workshops. It's got jungles filled with monkeys and ancient animist shrines. It's got palm-shrouded back alleys and smiling locals. And it's got a clutch of great backpacker jazz bars which bustle with international chatter into the evening.
So, if you fancy adding a spot of something more cerebral to your LBW Bali itinerary, why not consider tacking on a trip to this rice-paddy town in the higher regencies? Filled with culture and tradition, it's easy to get to and unforgettable to the T. Cue Ubud, Bali…
How to get to Ubud
Like most all places on the Indonesian Isle of the Gods, Ubud is really easy to get to. It's connected to the major towns of Seminyak, Kuta, Denpasar and Legian on the south coast by regular bus services, but most travellers will opt to engage a private-hire driver to take them into the hills. These offer connections to the jungle town from all over the island, and it's possible to haggle down prices in an air-conditioned vehicle virtually wherever you are, whether its Padangbai in the east or Nusa Dua in the south. Some operators will even combine transfers to Ubud with boat services, so don't be surprised if you see locals on the Gili islands or Lombok offering direct routes to the city.
These private taxi routes might not be as cheap as going it alone and sorting all the connections yourself, but they do offer great value for money (providing you attempt to haggle), and are sure to take the stress out of it all. That should leave you plenty of chillax time for watching the rice paddies and forests roll by!
What to do and see in Ubud
Ubud is steeped in awesome things to do and see. It's famed as one of the religious centers of the isle, and it's instantly clear to see just how zealous the locals are in their pursuit of the Balinese Hindu faith. You'll weave between lotus flowers as you wander the backstreets, and be greeted with religious processions on the corners virtually everywhere you go. But that's not it: Ubud is also arty to the core. It's one of the hubs of crafts on Bali; particularly famed for its mysterious woodworking, sculpture, dance and performance. It's hardly surprising that many totemic (no pun intended) artists from the 20th century decided to relocate to Ubud!
However, there's really no better place to start in Ubud than at the attraction everyone has to see: The Monkey Forest. This vast and sacred reserve lingers between the looming teak trees and ancient vines on the south side of the town. It's packed with 12th-century Hindu temples, which are now dressed in canvasses of moss and lichen. And while the mighty stupas and shrines are a wonder to behold, it's the crab-eating macaques that really steal the show. These little fellows swing between the boughs of the trees and can be spotted crawling all over the ancient ruins. It's possible to feed them and wander between packs – just be wary of stepping on any little monkey toes!
Ubud Market is another real treat. A traditional Balinese bazaar that bursts with everything from Javanese coffee to age-old batik fabrics, it's a great place to feel the local pulse. It's also far more authentic than its counterparts in Kuta and Legian, and perfect for haggling away for those much-needed souvenirs.
What to do and see around Ubud
Ubud is famous for its wild location. Just break away from the city for a day and you'll find yourself immersed in the misty jungles and cascading rice paddies that define the volcanic hills in the heart of Bali. Bicycle tours are one of the most popular ways to explore the area, and excursions will often encompass the enticingly traditional town of Pejeng. Alternatively, you could opt for something a little more adrenaline pumping: whitewater rafting on the Ayung River; canyon-climbing in Gitgit; ATV journeys over the muddy roads.
Next up is another temple, this time lurking just outside of the town to the south-west. Known to locals as the Goa Gajah (though more popularly known as the Elephant Cave Temple), the spot is famed for its mysterious cave shrines, all carved meticulously into the likeness of Hindu gods and daemons throughout the 13th and 14th centuries. Take some time to walk around and delve into the jungle tracks that weave between the forests nearby, spotting giant lizards and monkeys as you go.
Where to eat in Ubud
Ubud continually competes with Bali's other towns for the title of the top culinary destination on the Isle of the Gods. That means there are plenty of places to eat. Most of the best options are traditional Indo warung taverns, but there are a number of international eateries and cafes peppering the streets close to the Monkey Forest too.
It's difficult to decide which is the best budget tavern in town, so be sure to head for either of Warung Teges (think hearty Indonesian rice dishes served on sprawling banana leaves) Ayu's Warung (uber-friendly locals with a love for fresh mango juices – check out the awesome garden out back), or Bubu Warung (a little more upmarket, and a spot that has great views of the surrounding rice paddies).
Where to drink in Ubud
Don't come to Ubud expecting the same hedonism as Kuta and the south. It simply doesn't exist. Instead, here, between the age-stained temple tops and the swaying Monkey Forest, the name of the game is chilled out music bars and small art cafes. If that sounds like your kind of thing, then be sure to check out the Jazz Café on Jalan Sukma, where local bands serenade the evenings to ditties a la Miles Davis. Or, go for Rendezvousdoux, to hear the expat troupes strum rock classics and Indonesian folk tunes alike. Finally, there's The Melting Pot, which is the top place to mingle and mix with other travellers – oh, and a couple of pool tables can't hurt matters, right?
Obviously, this guide couldn’t outline everything there is to the mystical town of Ubud, Bali. If you've been there and have anything to add or comment on, we'd love to hear about it below. Or, if you're taken by the idea of the Isle of the Gods, then be sure to head over to our Indonesia itinerary page. See you in the jungles!