Ubud, Bali. A small town known to the western world as part 3 of Eat, Pray, Love. Home to hordes of touts, legions of knick-knack stands and ephemera stalls, swarms of massage parlors and yoga studios, and ground zero for an invasion of jean short wearing Bintang beshirted European and Australian tourists. Would you like a carved, wooden penis incense holder or keychain? Great! They have all kinds on Monkey Forest Road.
This might sound like the 9th level of tourist hell, but it somehow…..isn’t. The touts are generally polite, the food is good and reasonably cheap, and the tourists aren’t really of the belligerent sort. Ubud is quiet, affordable, walkable; existing in perfect harmony between charm and kitsch, natural scenery and human construction, authentic and commercial goods. It is a very nice place, with lots to do and see, although staying longer than a week would probably start to wear Ubud’s idyllic charms a little thin.
Tourism has been a central and deliberately emphasized component of the Balinese economy for decades. There’s an entire academic literature devoted to finding a line between ‘authentic’ Bali and ‘scripted’ Bali that I won’t go into, but just accept the fact that you are unavoidably, unchangeably a tourist on the island. Which doesn’t mean you can’t have fun and can’t take part in rewarding cultural experiences, I’m just suggesting that dreams of assimilation by local society and getting to know ‘real’ Bali are a little too ambitious.
Don’t hide out in a resort, even if it promises to banish anxiety and rejuvenate your spirits with traditional aromatic baths and potions. Guesthouses are plentiful, cheap, and centrally located. Stay on Jalan Hanoman and walk all over town. One of your first stops (after eating) should be Monkey Forest, a temple complex full of old growth jungle and fractious Macaques hinting at what the island looked like before explosive growth in tourism and extractive industries. Throw bananas to the monkeys and take lots of pictures.
Don’t step on any Canang Sari, or at least try not to. Small baskets of rice, flowers, and other gifts the canang sari are placed everywhere, on statues, on shrines, above doorways, in front of doorways, on the sidewalk – where you’re most likely to stumble over one. They’re a Balinese way of expressing gratitude to spirits for the richness of life, so don’t piss off the gods ok?
Do take a tour. You can book at dozens of places around Ubud and most offer nearly identical packages. About forty US dollars will get you and a friend to a half dozen attractions, most of which are legitimately interesting, including a meal overlooking Mt. and Lake Batur from the rim of a massive caldera. The Elephant Cave temple and Gunung Kawi temple are must sees, and warm up your panorama skills for the Tegallalang rice terraces cut into the steep sides of a just a half hour outside Ubud.
Side note: One of the most fascinating things about Bali is the sheer amount of rice cultivation packed onto an island about the size of Anchorage, Alaska. Produced exclusively for domestic consumption, rice is grown on every available piece of land. Between buildings, beside roads, terraced into the sides of steep ravines; rice is a dominant feature of the Balinese landscape.
If you stay in Ubud there is one thing you should unquestionably do: climb Mt. Batur or Mt. Agung, or both. Standing almost 10,000 feet Mt. Agung is by far the tallest, but usually takes two days to climb. Ascending Mt. Batur’s 4,000 foot tall peak begins at 4am and returns hikers to the parking lot by noon. The climb: intense. The view: incredible. Sunrise on an active, smoking volcano: unbeatable. So go and eat banana sandwiches at dawn with a couple hundred other shivering tourists and watch the morning sun burn off mist and set the Indonesian sky on fire.