I honestly may have a problem when traveling someplace new, in this case the town of Ubud on the island of Bali. I just find it impossible not to land without some kind of preconceived romanticized idea of what a destination will be like. As you can imagine, this has a tendency to sometimes leave me feeling disappointed after I’ve explored around a bit. Not that I don’t like what I find. Quite the opposite actually. It’s just different.
So when it came time to start planning for Ubud, thoughts of rolling rice fields, healthful organic cuisine, and endless yoga studios began to dance around my head. All very relaxing.
Call me an optimist. Call me a romantic. Call me a…sucker?
All of this took only a few minutes to dissipate as my taxi made its way through Ubud’s central streets. Or, more accurately, ATTEMPTED to make its way through streets clogged with cars, people, and those ever present motor scooters. Even with the skills of my taxi driver, who’s superhero ability appeared to be threading his car through the narrowest of gaps, we were moving as slow as molasses on a winter’s day.
Eventually we made it to Gusti’s Garden 2 Guest house, where I would be staying for the next few days. It’s a small family run establishment with large dingy rooms and strange noises coming from the walls. On the bright side though, they include a killer breakfast tray, brought to your deck overseeing the nearby rice fields. It’s also super affordable and located right in the center of Ubud! Total score if you ask me.
After introducing myself to the rough around the edges owner, I checked into the room, threw my backpack on the floor, and immediately passed out on my lumpy bed.
I was up bright and early the next morning though – right at sunrise even! It wasn’t the jetlag, which I always make sure to combat by popping a Unisom. It definitely wasn’t that I was fully rested after my 30+ hours of flights and layovers. No, it was a small rooster, ridiculously loud and incredibly close. At least I was up bright and early for breakfast, where I enjoyed a huge banana pancake, served with fresh fruit and black tea. As I gobbled everything up, I was able to look out over the rice fields and slowly adjust to my surroundings.
Yep, I certainly wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
Now that breakfast was out of the way, I got to doing what I always do when I’m someplace new: I went for a walk around town.
As I exited the ramp leading to Gusti’s, I could see the hustle and bustle of Ubud starting early. It was 9am and already the streets were lined with people, cars, and motorbikes. Tall bamboo penjor dangled overhead, still standing from the Galungan ceremonies that had occurred only a few days prior. The whole scene was both entirely familiar and completely foreign to this city boy.
It took only a few minutes before I came across my first Hindu temple. Not labeled outside of a small green entrance sign, it had a flight of concrete steps and multiple pairs of dvarapala guarding the entrance.
It was surprisingly empty, leading me to think that maybe I was somewhere that I shouldn’t be. When I eventually did pass by a few of the locals, they just smiled at me and kept walking, enjoying the tranquil climate.
Over the next few days it was impossible not to take in and be continuously amazed by all of the Hindu temples and Balinese architecture spread throughout town. Much of it accessible from right off the street, offering a peaceful breather from the hectic streets of Ubud.
Spread around each of these temples and all throughout town are little offerings left out by the locals. These organic containers are everywhere and all hold different colorful and textural pops that vary by the individual distributing them. Flower petals, fern bud shavings, fruit, rice, and lit incense are all examples of what you’re likely to see placed inside, but the combinations seem almost endless.
After all of this exploring, I was ready to dip my taste buds into some Balinese cuisine. Now, I’ve exclaimed my love of pork and how I believe it’s the king of meats before, so you can imagine my glee when I learned that roasted pig is a big deal here (known locally as babi guling). In fact, this is the only area in Indonesia where this is the case, as the other islands are predominately Muslim, whereas a majority of Balinesians are Hindu.
So when it came time to choose a restaurant, I had go with Ibu Oka, pretty much a local landmark that was jettisoned to stardom after Anthony Bourdain called it some of the best roast pork he’s ever eaten.
They’ve even carved a roasted pig directly into the wooden sign out front, as if to tell the world that they’re not screwing around.
I sat down and ordered the most porkified dish they had on the menu, including little bits of everything. We’re talking sliced meat, sausage, and crispy skin, all served over rice with vegetables.
Before I could really even get my salivary glands going, my plate of food arrived alarmingly quickly. Surely this meat wasn’t just freshly carved…?
I took one bite, which is all I needed to confirm my suspicion. The pepper sauce spread over top gave everything a nice spicy flavor, but the meat itself didn’t have much going for it. Just bland, lukewarm, and overall soggy. The standout was the small bit of pork skin, which was perfectly fatty and offered a satisfying crunch.
Total bummer overall though.
Continuing my walk, it became impossible not to notice the various storefronts along the streets. These appear to mostly target the cluster of visitors that pour into Ubud and range from touristy stalls, to small boutique clothing stores, to designer outlets.
Rolling on a temple induced Hindu high, seeing all of these stores just felt kind of… gross. I kind of get it. The locals running their stalls depend on the influx of foreigners to buy their goods. And not all vacationers are looking for the same thing when they travel. sometimes you just got to get your shop on! Really, who can say no to 50% off polo shirts? Nobody, that’s who. Might as well throw in that peaches and cream colored cardigan while you’re at it.
Speaking of westernized shops, there’s even a Starbucks placed right at the entrance of one of Ubud’s most amazing temples, Pura Taman Saraswati.
Once you get past the gong shaped logo, you’re presented with pure Hindu temple bliss.
Now THIS is the Ubud I had imagined while preparing for this trip! The colors, the atmosphere, the architecture incorporated into surrounding nature. All spectacular.
Sitting next to each one of the small statues on the walkway are small oil lamps, clearly showing their years of use.
To say that the entire scene had a real sense of wonder would be putting it lightly. I honestly didn’t want to leave, until a small dose of the real world slapped me in my daydreaming face.
I probably shouldn’t have been surprised to see something like this. Heck, Joshua the friendly barista was whipping up frappachinos and cinnamon toast crunch lattes all within spitting distance.
Still a rather disappointing sight given our surroundings.
Later that night, having indulged in some amazing grilled pork ribs, I made the walk back to my room along the dimly lit streets, continuing to buzz with traffic. Under my feet was a beautiful wooden bridge spanning a deep ravine. Overhead romantically lit lamps buzzed and crackled with the electrical currents being fed to them. On one side, a modern building unsuccessfully constructed to look in some way cultural. On the other side, dark endless jungle.
So Ubud, I’m still not fully sure of what to make of you. Has this mass tourism eroded your charming culture, or are you just sitting in perfect balance, offering equal extremes that span the spectrum?
That’s a tough question really. Who’s to say? I’ll just enjoy the wondrous side of Ubud while I can.