Ubud is Bali's monkey town; Bali's artsy town; Bali's temple town. It's a place where you can spy out the aging remnants of half-crumbled stupas in the jungles, sip mint tea with yogis, and spend your evenings haggling through frantic marketplaces bursting with Hindu trinkets and tidbits. I headed there to see exactly why people said it was so different to everywhere else on the Isle of the Gods. I discovered a place of culture and mystery and macaques…
It's midday as the mud-spattered 4X4 rolls up the zig-zagging tracks and into the hills that surround Ubud. I'm fresh from a week on the Gili Islands – the uber-relaxing, sun-soaked, beach-fringed Gili Islands – and so feeling a little averse to all the bumps and knocks this taxi transfer's involved. I have seen one darn gorgeous cross section of the Isle of the Gods, though. I've passed bamboo-built villages overlooked by mysterious stupas. I've wiggled through dense jungles where the hoots of god-knows-what echoed in the canopies above. I've rolled on the narrow lanes that cling to the edge of the rice paddies, watching from the car window as folk trawl, meticulously, through the regimented rows of little green sprouts.
Now it’s time to leave behind the taxi, and the smiling driver who's manning it. I thank him profusely for the sleight of hand that navigated the hair-pinning bends and got us here safely. He laughs and leaves, ready to make the rumbling jaunt back to Padangbai on Bali's eastern shores. He drops me alone at the end of Ubud's main drag.
I'm instantly struck by the looks of the place. Forget Kuta Bali, forget Kuta Lombok even, forget the Gilis and forget Nusa Dua, this one looks totally different. The houses are tile-topped and overhanging, like some sort of curious mashup of medieval York and the Shang houses of ancient China. The streets are dressed in a patchwork of uneven cobbles and stone, fringed here and there with a leaning palm tree. I can make out the eerie faces of glowering gargoyles and the carved effigies of animist sprits looking down from the alcoves and nooks of the buildings. It's a beautiful place, no question. But it's not quite what I expect from Bali.
I soon learn that my idea of what Bali should look like is based on the southern side of the island, and on the rickety shacks and cottages of Gili Trawangan. I'm told as I check into my little hotel that this town is much more traditional; much more like you'd expect of a place shrouded in the mysteries of the Isle of the Gods. I'm glad. And then I'm even gladder as I spy out a sparkling deep-blue pool hiding in the back garden of my digs. (Ubud is further inland than other hotspots here. There's no beach, no Indian Ocean – a pool will really come in handy, I think).
I drop my bags and arrange my face. I hit the main street of Ubud, which runs south to north right from the doorstep of the place I'm staying. It instantly becomes clear that this one's a totally different destination that the other places I've been staying and surfing and partying the nights away to medleys of dub and reggae. Instead of rowdy backpacker bars there are art galleries. In place of Bintang-bursting clubs, there are eco cafes and hippy hangouts laden with tie-dye vintage clothing. There are so many as I stroll up the central drag that I find it hard to resist a strong espresso and a shopping spree of elephant-print yogi pants. I manage it though, somehow.
I've settled on a place for lunch. It was a recommendation from my hotel receptionist. They didn't speak English, but those Francophone clicks of the finger and Italianesque delissimo movements are international gestures. I'm happy I'm heading somewhere that's said to have the best food in town – if you love a smorgasbord of Indonesian curries, stir fries, and sate, that it.
As I walk towards my culinary stop off, Ubud unfolds before me. One road is a narrow lane overtaken by fashion shops and touristy New Age gear emporiums. That runs northwards in front of me. Another has frozen yoghurt stands and a large green football pitch jostling with its sidewalks. I opt for that one to get to where I'm going, and I'm soon dodging the traffic past spice shops and meditation centers.
It's a much more pleasant place to walk than the likes of Kuta and Seminyak, I think. There are trees forever looming overhead, shading the paths and creaking in the lighter highland breezes. There are less hawkers. There are less market places. There's similar traffic but I can't help feeling the folk don't seem to be in the same hurry to get where they are going as on the south coast.
I finally reach my lunchtime haunt. It's a crooked place that pokes up ramshackle-like from the low-rise cottages and spa buildings that pepper the lanes just off Ubud's main street. I clamber up a steep set of timber stairs and settle in a small table. I can see the whole kitchen. It's just a stack of sizzling woks and aromatic ingredients. I can see piles of ginger, piles of chili, piles of what looks like thick tamarind paste, piles of lemongrass shoots, piles of grass-green limes, piles of crushed peanuts, piles of eggs ready for the fryer – the list goes on.
Soon I'm digging into a hefty stack of gado gado. It's an islander specialty from the Lesser Sunda Islands – the region Bali's a part of. It literally means "mix mix", which is a suitable moniker for what's essentially a medley of blanched greens, boiled eggs, crispy dough, deep-fried tofu, green beans and beansprouts. There's method to the culinary madness though, because the whole thing fits perfectly with the capsicum-infused tempeh sate I've gone for on the side. It all costs me just a handful of dollars, beer included, of course.
My next stop is the Monkey Forest of Ubud. I've been hearing about this place in whispers since my arrival on the Isle of the Gods. It's certainly the main attraction here, and everyone who goes to Ubud can't miss it – it sprawls out at one end of the town's central street. I make my way there as the lunchtime traffic begins to die down.
The Monkey Forest, officially known as the Monkey Forest of Padangtegal, is a place unlike any other on the island. I can tell that as soon as I walk in. I pass between two hulking teak trees, their gnarled roots twisted and wreathed around the moss-clad stone walls that encircle the woods. There are vines hanging everywhere, like theater curtains hiding the main act. I push behind to discover what's going on and it's a smiling, swinging, cheeky-looking macaque that greets me. I suddenly realise why the place has its name.
During my time in Asia I've become suitably wary of these little creatures. Some are cautious and nervous of humans. Others don't give a hoot. They'll steal your water, nab your bag, and pull your pants down all in one go, often just for kicks. I've seen it happen, and it's bred a certain distrust for Bali's resident primates in me.
Apparently, there are hundreds of these tiny crab-eating macaques in the Monkey Forest of Padangtegal. They've been here since people can remember, but have almost certainly stayed thanks to the regular daily feeding session that see oodles of sweet potato husks, papaya leaves and bananas come their way. Oh, and they are protected from the marauding stray dog packs that roam the streets of Ubud at night. Locals see their presence as sacred, and it's not long before I spy out one of the many stupas that peppers the gardens of the Monkey Forest.
It looms high above me, soaring in stepped cuts of lichen-clad rock atop the green boughs of the great giant fig trees that encircle it. It's one of the clearest pictures of a traditional Balinese temple I've seen. Totally different to what I'd encountered on Lombok and the Gilis, these worshipping houses are Hindu, not Muslim – one of the nuances that sets the Isle of the Gods apart from the rest of Indonesia. They date all the way back to the 14th century, the locals say. It's easy to believe, what with all the layers of moss and grass and lichen that dots their stones, adding a venerable character, a dash of wisdom, to the whole effigy.
I encounter the sprawling Pura Dalem Agung Padangtegal. This is the great shrine to Shiva, one of the most important deities revered at the site. It's got bulbous carvings of anthropomorphic figurines adorning each of its gates, stone-cut and glaring. There are eerie cut outs of human figures screaming. There are hunched soldier-like statues, and others writhing in what looks like the height of an epiphany. I spy pockets of fig leaves holding incense sticks, and that familiar smell of temple offerings rises and mingles with the organic aroma of the wild bog that is the Monkey Forest.
I spend some hours wandering the place. There are murky pools where babbling fountains emerge from enigmatic statues. There are old, old fig trees that lean like geriatric wizards over the pathways. There are rare deer from Timor hidden in one enclosure. There are monkeys everywhere, too. They scurry this way and that through the undergrowth. They swing like Tarzan through the low-lying boughs. They even take a fancy to my sunglasses at one point. Then I think it's time to leave.
In the early evening, I make my way to the far side of town to where the Ubud market sprawls out. I'd heard it was a backdrop for filming in Eat, Pray, Love – so, naturally, inundated with travelers these days. (Cheers, Julia Roberts). It's nevertheless an enthralling place to be. There are phallic keychains and multicolored sarongs, Indo-flag headdresses and incense kits, carved Hindu masks (a Balinese specialty) and jangling necklaces with forest carvings on them.
I get talking to one vendor who starts trying to sell me some particularly potent local coffee beans. He tells me they are the (in)famous kopi luwak and that I won't get them anywhere in Bali – let alone Ubud – for a better price. Later I learn that the kopi luwak is a coffee bean that's passed through the body of a wild jungle weasel to intensify its flavor. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realise how that's harvested. I'm glad that I didn’t go for them.
I move through stalls touting football shirts and handmade reed sandals. Some folk offer trips to go rafting on the wild rivers of central Bali. Others hawk excursions to the glowing green rice paddies that unfold in the farms of this regency. Others offer me a jaunt to the intriguing Elephant Cave. I make a note of all the possibilities as I stroll – I still have a few days in the mysterious, monkey-spotted town of Ubud, and the whole lot sounds awesome.
Ubud is just one of the awesome places we visit on our trips to Indonesia's mysterious, majestic islands. If you want to seek out wild macaques and discover your inner yogi here, we'd love to have you on board. Be sure to head over to LBW and check out our Blissful Bali, Bali Discovery, Bali NYE, and other combined Southeast Asia tours.
"Rich is a traveler, writer and filmmaker who's always after somewhere new to go. He's been hopping around the globe since 2011, from Poland to Paris, Mumbai to Ho Chi Minh. He runs several travel sites of his own, from Ski Eastern to Live Krakow to Crabs Move Sideways. When he's not planning his next trip, he's usually listening to 50s jazz, surfing in Wales, skiing in the Alps, or just swigging (too much) great craft beer."
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