What going to Ubud taught me

If Bali is the jewel of Indonesia, then wait till you discover the jewel of Bali. Source: Lainey Loh.

EAT, PRAY, LOVE tells the story of a quest of self-discovery.

Set in Ubud, as well as two other locations, the Ryan Murphy-directed 2010 film features the laidback vibe of the paradise island of Bali heavily. In the movie, Ubud was painted out to be a mystical destination, complete with lush green rice terraces and relics of migratory Hinduism.

But was it all I had expected it to be? I will have to say no.

Wait, stay with me and I will explain why.

Bali is one of Indonesia’s thousands of islands – the Southeast Asian country has over 18,000 counted islands, by far the largest and most varied archipelago on Earth.

The island has seen a significant rise in tourists since the 1980s and makes up for most of the tourist numbers to Indonesia. In fact, tourism-related businesses make up 80 percent of its economy.

In part due to Julia Roberts in Eat, Pray, Love, of course.

But ask anyone about their most basic impression of Bali, even those who have not been there, and you will likely hear that Bali is a “party island,” thanks to its clubbing central destinations like Kuta, Seminyak, and Legian.

Is that all there is to Bali, though?

Indus Ubud Bali

Ubud offers sweeping scenes of green valleys and rivers filled with flora and fauna. Source: Lainey Loh.

One thing is for sure; it is truly bursting at seams with activities to do, places to see, things to eat, and tourists from just about anywhere in the world – even the most far-flung destinations.

And whether these tourists are on their very own Eat, Pray, Love mission is another thing altogether.

On a more personal level, I was shuttled off to Bali for the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2018, an annual pilgrimage that saw a gathering of more than 150 writers, artists, thinkers, and activists from across the world.

For somebody whose bread and butter is writing about all things travel, it was my first time in Ubud (I have only ever been to Lombok and Gili Trawangan) and boy, was I ready to be pleasantly surprised.

Ubud Palace

Ubud Palace, officially Puri Saren Agung, is a historical building complex that was the official residence of the royal family of Ubud. Source: Lainey Loh.

I have heard much about Ubud, and it is hands down, the alluring core of Bali.

Located in the uplands of Bali, about an hour and a half’s drive away from the airport, it is the hub for traditional crafts and dance, boasting the island’s most famous landscapes, dotted with ancient Hindu temples and shrines.

Surrounded by trees and greens for miles and days, Ubud is famed for being relatively cooler in temperature than the rest of the island – perfect for relaxing and recharging.

And do not be surprised by the occasional spurts of rain in the mornings or the late evenings, for that is totally normal, adding to the mystical atmosphere.

In Ubud, it is never too early to rise. Source: Lainey Loh.

The sun rises relatively early in this part of the world, so you can expect the soft light streaming through your curtains to wake you from your slumber as early as 6am.

But that would just give you more hours for things that you want to do and places that you want to see.

If you are planning on heading out to hunt down the gorgeous villa that Julia Roberts stayed in, sorry to break it to you but it was a set built for the movie, and hence, it does not exist.

That having said, the atmospheric Ubud prides itself in being a hub for health, wellness, and traditional Balinese culture, so it is really not hard to find a similar villa.

Personally, I loved the enchanting Pramana Watu Kurung, which is situated right next to the magical beauty of Ayung River and offers all the trimmings that you would need for your Ubud getaway.

The elegant resort was designed to honor Indonesia’s rich artistic heritage, featuring a collection of handcrafted Javanese wooden joglos (a type of traditional vernacular house of the Javanese people) that have been cleverly repurposed to create 18 guest suites and villas.

Through its use of natural materials, Pramana Watu Kurung is bonded to the surrounding environment and a place where travelers can slow down and experience the harmony of Balinese life in all its simplistic glory.

While guests will appreciate the luxurious home away from home, they can also enjoy an hourly shuttle (except 12pm and 5pm) to central Ubud, just a 15-minute drive away from the charming resort.

If there is anything that you should not be missing out on, it is a leisurely stroll in and around central Ubud, starting from the landmark Ubud Palace.

If Bali is the jewel of Indonesia, then Ubud is the jewel of Bali – a little rough on the edges but beautiful nonetheless.

Ubud is a winning combo of food and arts, and this is particularly evident all around you in the vibrant Ubud town, where activities start from as early as 6am.

It is not bustling or rowdy enough to turn you off the idea of spending an afternoon in the area yet not quiet enough to incur mind-numbing boredom.

Sure, it is littered with local and Australian tourists but it also has a spot of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean travelers who are all keen to discover this hidden gem.

From curious backpackers to honeymooners, to packs of giggly girlfriends and groups of families, Ubud hosts travelers from all walks of life.

Ubud Art Market

Find yourself spoilt for choice at the Ubud Art Market, where you will be greeted by rows upon rows of colorful, locally-made craft goods. Source: Lainey Loh

Some may appreciate the local art and culture so Ubud’s handful of museums and temples are not to be missed while the bona fide shopaholics would enjoy picking out souvenirs and handmade crafts at the scented streets of the Ubud Art Market.

Self-professed hipsters are not forgotten as well as the town is dotted with quaint standalone cafes roasting the most robust Balinese coffees (just skip the luwak ones).

Hardcore foodies, on the other hand, will love savoring Naughty Nuri’s trademark succulent pork ribs, Ibu Oka’s babi guling (roasted pork), or Bebek Bengil’s crispy duck – all within walking distance of each other.

They are so good, you may even go back for seconds. Or thirds, for that matter.

And above all, a day in Ubud town will afford you a life-changing discovery of how nature and culture have shaped its people.

Ibu Oka Babi Guling

Ibu Oka’s babi guling, a spiced roast suckling pig served with a portion of carved off meat and a bit of crispy pig skin. Source: Lainey Loh.

The locals are warm, caring, and some would really go out of their way to help you. This stems from them wholeheartedly taking pride in providing good service.

From the well-trained resort employees to the ibu cooking up a storm for your delectable lunch at a streetside warung (a small restaurant), everyone is ever ready to approach you to ask, “Hello, where are you from?” with a welcoming smile and even make an effort to speak in your language.

Speaking of language, they are always very excited when you can drop a word or two in Bahasa Indonesia or Bahasa Melayu so it would help to learn the basics.

Words such as selamat pagi (good morning), selamat siang (good afternoon), apa khabar (how are you?), and terima kasih (thank you) will get you a long way.

They are also particularly handy if you are planning to work your haggling skills at the Ubud Art Market. Just remember to politely toss in a bisa murah? (can I get a discount?) when you do.

Want to put your haggling skills to the test? Remember to politely ask, “bisa murah?” Source: Lainey Loh.

Explore the hidden nooks and crannies of Ubud town and chat up the locals for priceless tips on things to do and places to go. They are the best people to ask anyway.

Alternatively, enjoy a quick reprieve from the tropical warmth as you sit in an airy bar to sip on a refreshing glass of local wine or rum and watch the world go by.

In Ubud, there is nowhere to rush off to and there are enough daylight hours in a day for you to discover all that it has to offer at your own pace.

If there is anything that Ubud has taught me, it is that sometimes, it is okay just to sit back, relax, and take a moment to exhale.