Get to the Heart of Balinese Culture in Ubud

Tegalalang rice terraces

Detail on gamelan

Hanging out with traditional dancers at Tirta Empul

The smell of ash lingers in the air. Exhaust fumes wrestle with the smell of barbecue. The tinkle of the temple’s gamelan, traditional bronze percussion instruments, penetrates the smooth jazz tunes emanating from the café across the street. Balinese women in kebaya (traditional blouses) and brilliantly hued sarongs emerge from the royal palace in the center of town, while droves of tourists, many of whom are dressed in mismatched batik, spill into the street waiting for drivers to take them on tours of “the real Bali”.

“The real Bali” is how many describe Ubud, the central town sprawled on a hill and surrounded by quaint villages, away from the frenzy of busy and heavily commercial areas like Legian and Seminyak (and now Canggu). Over the years, Ubud — which famously played a starring role in Eat, Pray, Love, a bestselling book that inspired a movie (and many similar soul-searching trips) — has become congested as well; its narrow, stone-paved streets packed with solo travelers and tour groups. Still, with a profusion of Balinese Hindu temples, where the pageantry of ceremonial rituals plays out every day, and roads that lead to open landscapes lush with forests, it’s easy to feel closer to the heart of Balinese culture in Ubud.

Among the usual attractions that draw tourists to the town are the terraced rice fields of Tegalalang, one of the most recognizable images of Bali, which isn’t technically in Ubud but is well on the way. En route, the road is lined with arts and crafts stores stocked with items brought in from the villages where artisans have kept traditional crafting techniques alive — in everything from pottery to jewelry, wood carvings and batik, passing them down through the generations. After browsing the stalls, where you can negotiate for good prices, you can either make your way down to these emerald green terraces, or enjoy the sight from the deck of a row of eateries built specially for viewing the spectacular setting.

There’s also Gunung Kawi in Tampaksiring, about a half hour’s drive from Ubud. The sacred water temple, spread out over multiple buildings, is home to 10 huge candi, or shrines, carved directly into the rock. The staggering site is said to have been built in the 11th century in memory of a now-forgotten royal. Not far from there, and fed by the same sacred spring, is Tirta Empul. The waters are channeled through carved stone fountains into a large pool. Visitors are required to don a sarong and sash and enter the pool to be purified by the holy water. Closer to town is the Monkey Forest, a 12ha sprawl that includes a 14th-century temple complex, a forest sanctuary of sacred trees and a large primate population.

In the town of Ubud itself is Ubud Palace, where there are nightly performances of the graceful traditional dance called legong, once reserved exclusively for the viewing pleasure of the royal family. Although Ubud is no longer ruled by royalty, the influence of this royal house is as alive and vibrant today as ever. In early March, visitors in Ubud bore witness to one of the largest cremations ever seen in Bali. Over 5,000 Balinese joined the procession to bid farewell to the royal family’s matriarch, the 96-year-old Anak Agung Niang Agung, second wife of Tjokorda Gde Agung Sukawati, a leader of the royal household who died in 1978.

Tjok Gung, as the royal was known to those close to him, set up artist cooperative Pita Maha in the 1930s with two friends — the Dutch painter Rudolf Bonnet and German painter Walter Spies — and Ubud soon became a world center of art. Pita Maha is better known these days as a hotel in the beautiful valley of Campuhan. Here, traditional architecture meets luxury, and stunning gardens spill down the ravine toward one of Ubud’s defining rivers.

But back then, the cooperative was instrumental in telling stories of the beauty of Bali which quickly spread around the globe, drawing more artists to a mystical world, including the Philippines-born Spanish-American artist Antonio Blanco. His home is now the Blanco Renaissance Museum, which houses his works and is one of the usual stops on any art tour of Bali. Other impressive art museums like ARMA, Neka and the Puri Lukisan have staggering collections of important Indonesian and Western artists who were all enthralled by the island life and culture.

After you’ve ticked off the essential sights, try something more immersive with a local tour company. Kadek Krishna Adidharma is an environmental engineer whose company, Bali Eco Tours, offers much more than a simple hike or cycle through the stunning natural attractions Bali is famous for.

“Our staff is Balinese,” explains manager Bagus Lila. “We share our culture — our stories — and we are committed to preservation. Guests love it because the areas we visit come to life for them — it is more than just sightseeing.” With evocative names like “Morning of the World”, “Down to Earth” and “Reasons for Harmony”, the low-impact guided walking and cycling tours offer tourists a way of experiencing the connection that the Balinese have with their culture and their island. There are currently five tours operating around Ubud, taking anywhere from two hours to a full day.

Just as mindful of the environment is the Green School, where innovative bamboo architecture promotes a no-walls education, and Bambu Indah, a boutique eco-resort with a similar take on building with bamboo. Both are the ongoing projects of jewelry designer John Hardy and his wife, Cynthia, the couple that set up the global John Hardy jewelry brand based on the jewelry-making techniques they picked up from local Balinese artisans. They have since given up their stake in the business that still carries John’s name and have focused instead on promoting an eco-friendly lifestyle on the island. The whole family is in on it — daughter Elora started Ibuku, a design and architectural firm that focuses on natural materials such as bamboo, and son Orin set up the Kul Kul Farm, which specializes in permaculture (a sustainable agricultural system based on natural ecosystems). The farm and the school are within the Green Village, half an hour from the Ubud town center, and if you want to learn more about sustainable living, the village offers hour-long tours of bamboo houses and a bamboo factory (IDR270,000 per person; book online at greenvillagebali.com).

Ubud has one of the most diverse and sophisticated food scenes in Asia, and it’s about to get even buzzier. “We have so much talent in Ubud; there are some amazing chefs and restaurants,” says Janet DeNeefe, founder of the annual Ubud Food Festival. “Indonesian chefs are working in some of the world’s top restaurants and it’s great to welcome them home.” Taking place from April 13 to 15, this year’s festival will have an area dedicated to young, local street food chefs (a way for the festival to “support these guys to follow their dreams and become part of a bigger network of cooks, chefs, farmers and food producers”, Janet shares).

Janet, who moved to Bali from Australia as a young woman — marrying a local Balinese man and starting a family in her new home — also founded the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival back in 2004 as a way of reviving tourism on the heels of the deadly bombings of 2002, and of promoting Ubud as an arts and cultural center. The Ubud Food Festival, which came into being years later in 2015, promotes the local culinary heritage through a weekend of cooking demonstrations by Indonesia’s leading chefs, special tasting menus at partner restaurants and other side events.  

But any culinary journey in Ubud must begin with the Balinese ceremonial dishes such as babi guling, or spit-roasted suckling pig stuffed with a variety of herbs and spices including turmeric, coriander seeds, lemongrass, black pepper and garlic. While locals differ on where to sample the best of this local specialty, in Ubud, the most popular is Ibu Oka, near Ubud Palace, where the turnover during the four-hour lunch service is pretty brisk.

If you don’t care for queues at tourist hotspots, head over to Jalan Goutama, a narrow road of small, quirky shops that runs parallel to Jalan Monkey Forest. Here, alongside little pizza parlors and vegetarian restaurants, several warung, or local eateries, specialize in nasi campur (pronounced “champoor”), or white rice served with several other dishes, from meats to vegetables.

The famous Naughty Nuri’s, renowned for its Balinese pork ribs — meat so tender it slides off the bone and melts in your mouth — began 17 years ago as a small warung set up by Indonesian Isnuri Suryatmi and her American husband Brian Aldinger. The little roadside café quickly became a favorite hangout for its Bali-meets-New York flavor, serving dry martinis along with fragrant and flavorful barbecue, among what was then a small expat community in Ubud.

Just next door to Naughty Nuri’s is dessert powerhouse Room 4 Dessert, by one of the world’s leading pastry chefs, Will Goldfarb. The El Bulli-trained pastry chef from New York moved to Bali along with his family following a challenging episode in his life, and now he’s training young Balinese chefs to pursue their own dreams. A cookbook and a TV show are due out soon, and both are expected to add to his credits.

The vegetarian food and café culture owe a lot to the never-ending stream of yoga and retreat enthusiasts who flock to Ubud. Among these is the latest export from down coastal south, Milk & Madu, a popular café in Canggu. The soaring glass and brick café opened last year on Jalan Suweta, offering great coffee, healthy café fare, and delicious pizza. Another vegetarian pizza place, Dumbo, also opened in March.

Finally, if you’re the sort of devoted foodie who travels armed with a where-to-eat checklist, you’ll be pleased to know that at least two of Ubud’s numerous dining establishments have made Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list — Locavore (number 22 on the 2017 list) by Indonesian chef Ray Adriansyah and Dutch chef Eelke Plasmeijer, and Mozaic by French-American chef Chris Salans (which featured on the 2013 list). Locavore specializes in Western and Indonesian cuisines using local ingredients and, true to its local bent, serves them in dinnerware crafted in nearby villages. Mozaic, which was also acknowledged by World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2009 (they ranked 84th), is one of Bali’s most decorated dining establishments and possibly among the priciest, offering a tasting menu which presents the best of French gastronomy and choice ingredients from the island in a romantic, lantern-filled garden.

While the high profile restaurants are adding a glamorous sheen to Ubud’s otherwise earthy appeal, the influence runs both ways — the fact that these chefs have set up shop in town and use local produce and cooking techniques demonstrates a sense of local life moving into the global sphere.

With reports from Sarah Dougherty. 

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Where to eat, where to stay, what to do, and what to learn

Food for the soul

MozaicDate night? Splurge on the dégustation menus created by chef Chris Salans. Modern French techniques plus Indonesian ingredients equals heaven. Jln Raya Sanggingan; +62 361 975 768; mozaic-bali.com

Riverside WarungCatch the cliff-top bamboo lift to a riverside wonderland with natural swimming holes, then feast on organic set menus from the permaculture garden. You’ll need a reservation for the half-day experience. Bambu Indah, Banjar Baung, Desa Sayan; +62 812 3834 3174; bambuindah.com

Nusantara. Locavore’s offshoot Nusantara does authentic Indonesian cooking exceptionally well. The menu changes every couple of weeks but there’s always a pork dish to love. Jln Dewi Sita; +62 361 972 973; fb.com/nusantarabylocavore

Milk & Madu. From the team who brought you the Canggu original comes another casual dining affair that’s perfect for lunch. Come early to make your own salads from their bar. 3 Jln Suweta; +62 812 3673 6733; fb.com/milkandmaduubud

Payangan Market. Got wheels? Head out to this very traditional morning market and feast from the stalls across the street. Expect Balinese classics from babi guling (suckling pig) to sate and lawar (a dish of minced meat, vegetables and coconut). The stalls typically open from 7am to noon. Jln Raya Payangan

Check in at these hip hotels

Plataran Ubud. View the night sky through a telescope or savor views of rice fields at this contemporary hotel that stretches far back into the countryside. There’s a gym and all mod cons. From US$120. Jln Raya Pengosekan Ubud; plataran.com

Sri Bungalows. Booked online, the classically Balinese rooms at this town-center location are excellent value. Deluxe rooms have curtained beds plus views over rice fields, rivers and pools. From US$40. Jln Monkey Forest; sribungalowsubud.com

Taman Indrakila. Come festival time, these simple bungalows are at the heart of the action. The volcano views, gorge-side pool and fab vegetarian food from Elephant Café are worth it any time. US$30. Jln Campuhan, off Jln Raya Sanggingan; tamanindrakila.net

Jukung Hostel. Hostels don’t come much cuter than this one, lovingly assembled from bits of antique Balinese boats. The beds are comfortable, bathrooms are clean and it’s in the heart of town. US$10.14 Jln Monkey Forest; fb.com/jukunghostel

Feel good Ubud: indigenous healing arts and wellness centers

Flying YogaIf you can splurge on one yoga activity in Bali’s yoga capital, choose AntiGravity yoga at a stunning outdoor yoga shala. It’s set in rice fields beside a river for pure tranquility. Dharma Shanti Bale, Four Seasons Resort Bali at Sayan, Jln Raja Sayan; +62 361 977 577; fourseasons.com

Beauty Workshops. Join Ketut Jasi at her rustic spa in the village of Penestenan. You’ll learn how to make your own all-natural beauty products from her garden, using avocado, aloe and more. Cantika Zest, Jln Raya Katik Lantang, Penestanan Kelod; +62 851 0094 4425; cantikazestbali.com

Ecstatic Dance. Who says you need stimulants to dance? Ecstatic dance is an Ubud specialty: shake your thing at Yoga Barn on Friday evenings and Sunday mornings. Yoga Barn, Jln Sukma Kesuma; +62 361 971 236; theyogabarn.com

Healing Massage. Massages come ten a penny in Ubud, but at this veteran establishment, run by a Balinese healer, the hands have a very special magic. If stress or injury is an issue, head to Ubud Bodyworks, 25 Jln Hanoman; +62 361 971 393; fb.com/ubudbodyworkscentre

Natural Jacuzzi. On a budget? Treat yourself to a riverside spa day at the historic Hotel Tjampuhan, where hot and cold springs create natural jacuzzis. The carved grottos are magical. Jln Raya Campuhan; +62 361 975 368; tjampuhan-bali.com

Learn something: a new skill makes for the best holiday souvenir

Jewelry making. Craft your own silver necklace and rings at Pondok Pekak Library and Learning Center. Jln Dewi Sita; +62 815 5813 7648; fb.com/pondokpekak

Wood carving. Lessons at Museum Puri Lukisan take a full day and come with materials. Jln Raya Ubud; +62 361 975 136; museumpurilukisan.com

Balinese cooking. The Balinese Farm School will teach you how to navigate local markets and pick produce at their own organic farm, before you whip up classic Indonesian dishes. Banjar Patas, Desa Taro; +62 812 3953 4446; balinesecooking.net

Listings by Theodora Sutcliffe.

This article first appeared in the April 2018 issue of Smile magazine.

Photographed by

Francisco Guerrero

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