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Travel Lessons from UBUD

Updated: Sep 15, 2020

Transport? Transport? No thank you…. Terima Kasih....

We’re just walking, walking. And people watching and eating and drinking and chatting.

Ubud is like any village or city. If you go to the main drag it’s great for the first 20 minutes but it’s not until you venture out a little further that you get to see the real magic. Without a doubt, the worst way to experience Ubud is as a day trip. It's not only missing the best of it, it's actually adding to what people don't like: the traffic. After sunset the town is a completely different place with a much more relaxed vibe – loads of great restaurants, candles and pretty lights come out, it's cool in both senses.

Rice paddies around Ubud

We had just returned from the Gili Islands and found Ubud a great spot to base ourselves for a few days and arranged for a scooter to make it easy to explore the area. Due to the gridlock traffic in Ubud, it can be nightmarish during the day though and this is NOT the place for your first scooter ride. Unless you stay further out of town it’s perfectly possible to make your way around on foot but be aware that the sidewalks are notoriously cluttered and can be quite a hazard to navigate in places.

By day, you can visit and admire the Balinese architecture of the Puri Saren Royal Palace in the town centre and right across the road from the palace is the souvenir shopping haven that is the Ubud Art Market. A walk down the boutique-lined Jalan Hanoman leads you to the well-know Ubud Monkey Forest. In the evenings, you can watch traditional Balinese dances on an open stage.

Ubud, which was once a mostly “hippie” destination for travellers interested in exploring alternative lifestyles, practice yoga, healthy food, and fresh air, has grown into one of the busiest and most popular destinations in Bali. It is often considered Bali’s artistic and cultural heartland and a treasure trove of cultural landmarks, ranging from ancient temples and majestic age-old royal palaces to wonderful panoramas of green hillsides and rice terraces.

There’s plenty of upmarket retreats and hotels to choose from but even on a tighter budget, it’s easy to find an oasis of quiet where you can float in a pool and relax to the sound of the wind whispering through palm trees and rice fields.


Venturing north of Ubud on our rented scooter, we had our first run-in with the law and were stopped at a road-block manned by Indonesian police. Sadly, this felt like a shake-down from the start as they were not interested in my foreign driver’s license at all and only demanded the “International Driver License” as well as registration papers of the scooter. As luck (or stupidity) had it, I neglected to take my IDL that morning and it was left lying in our room in Ubud.

This proved a silly and potentially expensive mistake as the policeman started painting a dark picture of court dates and huge fines. We pleaded ignorance and just played it cool - we've long since learned from previous trips it’s mostly about being patient and friendly. Sure enough, another vehicle was pulled over and the policeman lost interest in us, gave back our papers and waved us past. Phew!

That was the good news. :-)

Upon our return journey from the north we decided on an alternative road to make sure we missed the roadblock but unbeknown to us there was ANOTHER one on the parallel road! I tried to ‘hide’ our scooter by driving extra close behind a big truck and almost caught the policeman unaware but he wanted nothing of it and pulled us over. These guys were a LOT more serious and they immediately confiscated our scooter papers and threatened to take me into custody. Of course(!), they asked when we will be departing Bali and then proceeded to state that a court date will be set for a few weeks after that. No amount of smiling, joking and pleading helped this time - it came down to “how much money do you have on you” for “the fine”. Wink wink.

Annoying as this is, one has to remain cool and friendly under these circumstances. Oh, and carry a second wallet as we do. Stash your cash in your sock if you have to but always be prepared for a shake-down if you self-drive in foreign countries. We seemed to have just enough cash (IDR 200 000) on hand to keep them happy - although the demand was for IDR 1 000 000 (!) - and, in the end, it was smiles all round and waves goodbye. We even got a “notice” to prove we had paid our “fine” – you know, just in case we got stopped again.

Anyway, the main reason we drove north was to see the crater lake Danau Batur. As you follow the main road out of Ubud past the Dewa Indera Statue it brings you right up to the well-known Tegallalang Rice Terraces.

Tegallalang Rice Terraces

This high roadside location is cool and breezy and it is a well-known spot for tourists to stop and take photos of the terraces. There are numerous art kiosks and cafes near the ledge offering their wares - some souvenir sellers are a bit pushy, but this is a popular tourist spot so remind yourself that you are just there for the picture. The stop offers a scenic outlook that spreads down before you and away to the rice paddies on the slopes across the valley.

While the rice terraces rightly serve as a highlight in the Tegallalang area a quick side-trip to Pakudui village is well worthwhile. Pakudui is reachable after a taking a right turn just up from Tegallalang where you will find magnificent carvings and wooden art forms lined up along the small and winding village road. Amongst the many carved mythical figures, the Garuda (a bird creature from Hindu mythology that has a mix of an eagle and human features) seems to be majestically ever present amongst the creations.

A fantastic sight greets you as you come over the ridge at Penelokan and gaze down in wonder at the twin caldera of Lake Batur. But contain your enthusiasm as the further you descend into the crater, the more you will encounter dilapidated accommodation, poor service and unpleasant run-ins with hawkers. Surely this should be one of the greatest, most spectacular natural vistas anywhere, with such a beautiful lake and magnificent walking trails, and yet the whole experience is sadly enough to turn anyone off the tourism trade. This is a side of Bali that you might almost wish to give a complete miss – the best way to do some trekking might be to come from outside for the day with an established trekking company and reduce your interaction with local offerings.

Lake Batur

As you enter Penelokan you have to pay for a ‘permit’ (IDR 30 000 per person). The town has a magnificent view to Mount Batur and, across the lake, a collection of restaurants and market stalls. Fortunately, it was not a busy season and we found a pleasant spot for a quick bite and a drink.

After all the road-block excitement we continued south down the road past Pura Gunung Kawi and also took a look at Yeh Pulu - an interesting archaeological ruin with an elaborate wall of carvings surrounded by scenic farmlands.

For first-timers, the premier of all things to do in Ubud is to visit - and possibly get robbed in - is the popular Monkey Forest. This green area occupies the southwest corner of Ubud where resident macaque troops roam freely. The forest is positioned right near Ubud Town Centre and within easy walking distance from most other attractions. Besides watching bored and at times playful monkeys in their natural habitat, with them swinging through canopies and feeding on bananas, the forest site offers shaded walks along paved pathways with beautiful ancient temples and guardian statues covered in moss abound.

Monkey Forest Ubud

Deep inside the centre of the forest, you will find the 14th century Pura Dalem Agung Padangtegal. Most of the mossy relics and statues in this area are under dense foliage and receive little to no sunlight, giving the smaller sites a mysterious and ancient feel.

The monkeys can be rather intimidating and will take any food that’s visible whether you agree or not. A curious and somewhat bored monkey decided to spend time on Lisa’s shoulder and it took some serious convincing to get him to move on. There is definitely a risk of rabies if you get scratched or bitten so it’s probably not a good idea to let them too close to you.

You can watch the video to see how much we struggled to get the monkey off of Lisa's head:

Twenty-five minutes by scooter south of Ubud and we found ourselves in the small town of Abiansemal to visit the Big Tree Farms Bamboo Chocolate Factory.

By pure chance, we drove by the roadside Umanyar Restaurant on the edge of rice fields and stopped for lunch. Although one would guess that they’re more tourist-focused we found the food rather good and great value. Our meal with drinks came to IDR 118 000.

If you plan to go to Ubud to find calm and serenity you might have to reconsider. In the end, it's about expectations.

If you're a high-end, luxury traveller you will find plenty of comfort in your five-star resort pool - places for massages, facials, yoga and meditation; no shortage of places to eat amazing food, have a quick or slow drink; see wonderful art and talented artisans and of course some amazing shopping.

That said, if you're closer to the budget side of travelling you should brace yourself for a different onslaught. Ubud is expensive and somewhat exploitative. You might struggle to have a conversation with a local which does not include an offer for goods or services.

You might think prices are fair, even now, because they're about the same as in Europe - but this is not Europe, this is South East Asia where you usually get a proper meal for $2. As the locals could not afford this European price inflation, it's a perfect example of a place where the economy is being corrupted by mass tourism.

Yes, there is plenty to see and do in and around Ubud but if you want a peaceful Bali to go to Ahmed. Or anywhere in the North of Bali really.

If you are interested - this is what we ended up spending for our short 3 night, 4 days stay in Ubud for the 2 of us. The accommodation was mid-range with air-conditioning, swimming pool and breakfast included at Nyoman Karsa Bungalows.





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