- While most people know about the Indonesian island of Bali as a beach paradise, I found the interior jungle, and specifically the city of Ubud, to be a far more interesting place to explore.
- Ubud has a bustling community of local Balinese, digital nomads working on startups, and vacationers exploring Ubud’s mix of rice terraces, temples, spiritual retreats, yoga and meditation classes, and villas set into the countryside.
- Ubud would be easy to make fun of due to its proliferation of New Agey seekers, vegan and raw food establishments, and more, but it’s the earnestness and positivity that permeates the city that makes it a place you want to experience and return to.
Bali is the kind of place you visit more than once.
When my driver, a burly man named Wayan, picked me up from the airport during a trip to the island this past May, the first thing he said to me was, “Welcome back. So, how many times have you been to Bali?”
In most places, I’d think he was making a joke. It was my first time to the island, after all. But, in Bali, the vacationers, expats, and travellers always seem to come more than once.
From a Filippino yoga teacher to a German programmer to a Australian cafe owner and countless others I met, again and again, I heard a similar refrain: I came here the first time not knowing what to expect, but after being in Bali for a few days, I knew I’d be back. Now it’s my fourth, fifth, or tenth time.
It didn’t take me long to figure out why. While Bali has become known for its endless parade of Instagram influencers, honeymooners lying in infinity pools, and beach sunsets to end all beach sunsets, I think it’s the city of Ubud and the jungle interior of the island that keeps people coming back.
Ubud has been known as a spiritual and mystical center to Balinese for centuries – Ubud means “medicine” – but, over the last few decades, it has sprouted a community of New Agey seekers and expats seeking to live the good life.
Add in a new generation of digital nomads working on startups by night and yoga during the day and you have the mix for a dynamic community that keeps people coming back.
While overtourism is a problem – the number of annual tourists has jumped from 2.2 million in 1990 to 13.7 million last year – many foreigners are beginning to work with locals to build sustainable tourism businesses and many of the best guesthouses, shops, restaurants, yoga studios, tour companies are run by local Balinese or Indonesians.
In May, I spent a week in Ubud and never even bothered to hang out on the beach. I didn’t need to. There was far too much to do in Ubud. Here’s what I did:
I arrived on the outskirts of Ubud late one evening in May. While Ubud has been known as a spiritual and mystical center to Balinese for centuries, it grew in popularity among Westerners starting in the 1960s, but has really picked up since Elizabeth Gilbert set part of her best-selling book, “Eat, Pray, Love” in the area.
I decided to stay at Roam, a co-working/co-living concept started in Bali in 2015 to cater to digital nomads. Ubud has recently become a haven for digital nomads, with numerous businesses set up to serving new population of travelling programmers, freelancers, and entrepreneurs.
Roam combines the best aspects of a backpacking hostel (communal vibe, instant friends, weekly events) with that of a boutique hotel. Roam has been critiqued for allowing residents to have little to no interaction with Balinese or their culture, with some likening it to a “bubble,” but I can’t see why it’s any more like that than any other hotel or hostel. Personally, I think the critiques have more to do with perceptions about what kind of people might stay at Roam and who owns it than what it actually is.
With restaurants closed by the time I got in, I headed to the kitchen to cook up some eggs. Roam provides a few communal ingredients for the kitchen. While I cooked, Roam residents milled through. There was a Sri Lankan anthropologist, a German travel blogger, an American accounts manager for a tech company, the founder of a European human-resources software and his new Ecuadorian employee — he offered to train her in Bali because the visa was easier and it would be fun — a German programmer, a middle-aged Canadian couple running a boutique in Toronto, an Australian-Chinese entrepreneur, and a Singaporean flight attendant.
A bunch of the Roamers (as Roam likes to call them) had just come back from Hubud, a co-working space in Ubud that is something of a hub for digital nomads. Hubud had been hosting a local edition of F—kup Nights, where people get up and tell stories of their professional failures. The most poignant speech of the night, however, wasn’t about work. A young gay Indonesian man stood up to talk about the physical dangers he had faced in coming out to his predominantly Muslim community.
We all talked late into the night in the way that itinerant travellers tend to: comparing favourite destinations, sharing intimate details of one’s life far too quickly and so on. I woke up late the next morning with the hazy sun already high. I finally got a look at Roam’s surroundings, a gorgeous mix of slatted roots and greenery.
While Roam is technically located in a village outside Ubud, it’s hard to tell where Ubud ends and the villages begin. I took a walk outside Ubud to a Warung Menedez for Bebek Goreng, a classic dish of deep-fried duck. Warungs, or small family-owned restaurants, are the best places to try Balinese food.
The best way to get around Bali is via scooter, which costs around 250,000 IDR ($US17) a week to rent. I got a quick lesson in how to drive from one of the other Roamers, who I must mention learned how to drive two weeks prior.
But, to be honest, if you’ve driven a car, it’s not rocket science. Keep to a speed you are comfortable with, be mindful of the hundreds of scooters blowing past you, and pray you don’t lose your balance.
The center of Ubud is a bustling place, particularly by island standards. And May, when I visited, was only the very beginning of peak season. I was told repeatedly not to bother coming in August. The town is overrun with tourists. But I got a chance to peruse the various markets, filled with traditional Balinese bead and wood crafts, oils, incense, tinctures, and organic beauty products. There’s plenty of cheap, imported crap, too, but you can avoid it if you do a little research.
The next day, I woke up early with my new Roamer friends to head to an estate in the countryside of Bali. We went to a restaurant called Akasha, located on rice paddy fields. The scenery was some of the most stunning I’ve ever witnessed.
Like a lot of places around Ubud, the food tends toward vegetarian and vegan. The natural juices, like the Gaga Green (cucumber, kale, celery, bok choy, parsley) are delicious and run for 35,000 IDR to 45,000 IDR ($US2.40 to $US3.10).
My companions had convinced me to go to Akasha to attend a full-day spiritual retreat that included yoga, “ecstatic dance,” a cacao ceremony, and workshops of “authentic relating.” I was very sceptical, but that’s kind of the way it goes in Bali. Someone suggests some activity that sounds far out of your comfort zone and you just shrug and go, “Why not?”
By the time it was over, I had cried twice. It was an intense experience that involved opening up deeply to complete strangers, The retreat ended with a dance party and a sound healing ritual. There was no need for alcohol at this party; everyone was already buzzing
The next morning I wandered a bit aimlessly around Roam. The world (i.e. my anxieties) felt quieter, as it often does after a long meditation session.
The co-working space at Roam is big and airy, with solid Wi-Fi and pitchers of cold water. I got set up and worked for a few hours — I am a digital nomad after all — but it gets a bit lonely up there. I was told by some long-time Roamers that there used to be a lively cafe adjacent to the space, but Roam closed it several months prior to my arrival.
The area around Ubud is bursting with restaurant and cafe options. Around the corner from Roam, I found Gratitude Cafe. It had a pleasant, open setup that was nice to both eat and work in.
The menu at Gratitude is a mix between a traditional warung (satays, crispy duck, etc) and hipster fare. I think I reached peak millennial that morning when I ordered the avocado toast with poached egg.
The Roamers from the retreat invited me for some grub. I had already eaten at Gratitude, but it seemed like fun to head into Ubud. The ride to town is short, but takes you through a thick green forest. The town and its surroundings is a jungle, giving it an otherworldly atmosphere.
Try riding into town at the wrong time, however, and the roads are choked with traffic. It can be pretty gross to suck down the gas fumes of dozens of motorbikes, but it’s worth it for the convenience.
Spend an entire day emptying out your spiritual baggage and you might find yourself with some new friends, too. We went to Seeds of Life, a vegan cafe in the heart of Ubud.
Vegan restaurants are usually the kind of thing you’d have to drag me to at gunpoint. But I was just going with the good vibes, man. It helped that the food was actually incredible. I ordered the “Buffalo Wings” (cauliflower marinated with tomato hot sauce and served with harissa and garlic mayo) for 30,000 IDR ($US2) and a green smoothie (apple, orange juice, ginger juice, and greens) for 35,000 IDR ($US2.40).
I finished with the “immunity-building” brownies with raw coconut ice cream, “choctonic” fudge, and berry ganache for 55,000 IDR ($US3.77). Was it actually healthy? I have no idea, but it was a perfect melange of rich, creamy fudge and fruitiness.
I got lost on my scooter ride home. Which begs the question: What does being lost actually even mean? I took out my camera and snapped a few photos of Ubud’s many alleyways and fields and didn’t worry too much about the fact that I had no idea how to get back.
Drive long enough, and in enough circles, and it’s practically inevitable that you’ll find where you’re going. These are the kinds of brilliant philosophical thoughts you might have during a trip to Ubud.
After doing a few more hours of work at Roam, I decided to head out for a walk. The sun was setting and I’d been told the area around Roam is full of little walkways that take you through rice fields and small estates.
Every moment and place on the island is full of wondrous beauty. Most places look more beautiful on Instagram than in real life. Bali is the opposite.
The next morning, I walked in to another neighbourhood warung for brunch. I ordered the nasi campur, an Indonesian dish consisting of a scoop of white rice, and then small portions of various side dishes like vegetables, fish, and meats.
I found a few days later, however, that the best place to try nasi campur was a roadside van. It was cheap and tasty and you could pick the side dishes you wanted to go with your scoop of rice.
One of my favourite things to do while travelling is browse through a foreign supermarket. You inevitably find interesting bits, like these Oreos. I think they were ube-flavored. Ube is a purple yam used in many Southeast Asian desserts.
There were tons of fresh tropical and Asian fruits like papaya, dragonfruit, and pineapple going for dirt cheap.
There were more than a few fruits I had never seen before, like the starfruit (second from the right). I bought a package. Starfruit tastes like a cross between an apple, grapes, and citrus fruits. Unexpected, but delicious.
The supermarket turned out to be a great place to pick up souvenirs. There were all kinds of natural soaps, beauty products, and oils, all for much more reasonable prices than in the dedicated shops.
That night, one of the Roamers suggested we check out a party at Bali Dacha, a Russian-style spa club built around a villa estate in the jungle outskirts of Ubud. Getting there is an adventure. Even with Google Maps guiding, I got lost trying to find my way down a series of dark side streets.
But it was worth it. Set in what feels like a giant treehouse, Bali Dacha has multiple saunas, steam rooms, pools, and bonfires to hang in and around. The crowd is mostly Russians (it is called a dacha, or Russian cottage, after all), with some adventurous Europeans, Americans, and Aussies mixed in.
It’s one of those Bali places where, at certain points, say, discussing the rise of global facism by a bonfire or meeting a Russian model in the darkened pool, where you ask yourself: Is this real? The blasting psychedelic trance music and the Russian guy dancing with a Native American headdress does nothing to clear up the confusion.
I was very hungover in the morning and started my day with a whole coconut from Alchemy Cafe, a vegan spot that happens to be directly in front of Roam.
It was a rainy morning so there was little do in the way of hiking, swimming, or otherwise enjoying the weather. I laid in a lounger underneath the overhang and pretended to read a book for a while.
Everyone else went off to Yoga Barn, a popular retreat center in Ubud that offers comfortable, accessible classes ranging from every kind of yoga discipline to sound healing. I hear the sound healing classes are “life-changing,” but I cannot confirm.
When the weather cleared up, I went for a quiet walk through the neighbourhood instead and met this adorable pup.
Roam keeps a schedule of events each week that include a community dinner, talks held by other Roamers or speakers, and a walk through Ubud’s rice fields.
Later that day, Tankred Hase, a lead engineer for Bay Area crypto startup Lightning Labs, did a workshop on cryptocurrencies.
I started the next day with another round of Gratitude Cafe. Why go somewhere else when you can get chicken curry, crispy duck, satays, and dragonfruit juice for less than $US15?
A few people were heading to the Bali Swing, the swing made famous by a thousand Instagrams. But I had no interest in getting this photo taken of myself, which is the only reason to go. Later on, people told me the line was two hours long. Yikes.
Instead I opted to do the Campuhan Ridge Walk, one of the most popular hikes in the Ubud area. It takes you along a high ridge between two rivers.
The walk isn’t more than an hour long, but it gives stunning views of Ubud’s natural scenery. There are some hotels at the top of the hike that offer beautiful swimming pools (for a small fee), but since it was starting to rain, I headed back.
The following morning, I headed to the center of Ubud to visit the Sacred Monkey Forest, a nature reserve and temple complex that houses about 600 wild long-tailed macaques, a type of monkey.
The monkeys are everywhere: perched on stones, hanging in the trees, taking naps in bushes, or attempting to crack open coconuts. Be careful, though: They might steal your phone.
That night, Roam held its weekly community dinner. While sometimes, everyone cooks together, Roam brought in Fu Shou Noodle Club, a local restaurant, to cook up some tasty Chinese food.
The recipe for the Chinese hand-pulled noodles with chicken is one passed down in his family, Chef Pak Dwi Perkasa, a Chinese-Indonesian, told me.
My favourite part of staying in Bali was simply riding the scooter along the windy roads. I’d never had the opportunity to ride a scooter before and I found it thrilling, peaceful, and an ideal way to discover new places to photograph. One day I took the scooter out to see how far I could go without consulting a map.
I drove east on the island, far from Ubud and the southern beaches where tourists usually go. Doing so gave me a view of the parts of the island where life goes on without benefits of the boom. I learned a lot, like how to pass through a Balinese intersection. The traffic is constant, but somehow everyone knows whose turn it is to go.
Eventually, I hit Lebih Beach, a black sand beach facing the Indian Ocean. I paid a few rupees to park the bike and walked out to the water. The sun was setting.
Lebih Beach is more of a locals’ spot. There were tons of Balinese having picnics with their families, performing religious ceremonies, and enjoying the weather.
There I met Pak Colt, a spear fisherman who runs a warung near the ocean. He told me that everyday he gets up at 4:30 a.m., fishes until 3:00 p.m., and then opens his restaurant. He’s also a scuba diving instructor.
His wife cooks the fish in a metal barbecue cage over a charcoal grill with traditional Indonesian spices, including ground shallot, garlic, chilli pepper, coriander, tamarind juice, candlenut, turmeric, galangal, and salt.
The dish is called Ikan Bakar, which translates literally to “burned fish.” The idea is to make the charcoal flames burn a char on the skin. It was the freshest and tastiest fish I’ve ever had — no exaggeration. The flavour was both spicy and sweet.
By the time I got back from my sunset ride, Ubud’s Documentary Film Club had already started their screening at Roam of “King In The Wilderness,” a moving, complicated portrayal of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the challenges he faced in the final year of his life. The night ended with some casual discussion about the film.
On one of my last days on the island, I decided to do a sunrise trek up Mount Batur, an active volcano that most recently erupted in 2000 and is one of the holiest sites on the island. You start the hike up a volcanic rock-laden path in pitch black.
After about two hours you reach the sunrise viewing platform (not the summit, but a ridge below). I had perfect conditions for an unforgettable sunrise. It had rained the night before, causing a blanket of fog and mist to cover Lake Batur below us, but the sky was remarkably clear. Some clouds in the distance caused this sunburst pattern, which I’d forgive you for thinking was photoshopped.
By the time I had to leave the island, I felt like I had only scratched the surface of what Ubud, and Bali, had to offer. There was still Pura Taman Kemuda Saraswati, a beautiful Hindu temple, to see, dozens of hikes to do, fellow seekers to meet, and overwrought discussions on the meaning of life to have.
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