The first time I went to Ubud, I spent less than an hour there before deciding that I needed to leave as soon as possible. I’m not sure if it was the Eat, Pray, Love mentality, the overpriced organic restaurants, or the plethora of yoga studios, but after spending only 24 hours in the city, I made the hasty decision that Ubud just wasn’t for me.
I was surprised that I had such an immediate and negative reaction to Ubud, which is highly regarded as the cultural capital of Bali. Everyone I’ve ever talked to gushes about the city’s hip cafés, international eateries, and lush countryside. I actually don’t think I’ve ever heard a bad thing about Ubud. That being said, everyone’s travel tastes are different. And the things that draw most travelers to Ubud aren’t necessarily selling points for me. Most tourists visit the city to strike a downward-facing-dog pose at the Yoga Barn, get a rub down in one of the town’s famous spas, splurge on chic boutique hotels, or shop at the traditional art markets.
It sounds pretty awesome, right? But there’s just one problem – these things don’t appeal to me.
I’ve never actually done yoga, though I would like to try it. And thanks to a very awkward massage experience in Mexico, I don’t tend to get massages. I’m too broke to treat myself to a night at an expensive boutique hotel. And I just so happen to be the only girl in the world who loathes shopping.
Six months after my short-lived backpacking trip to Ubud, I came to realize that I had been too quick to judge this much beloved city. As a seasoned traveler I know all too well that it’s impossible to get an accurate understanding of a new city in a day’s time. And the fact that I hadn’t even given Ubud a chance meant that I was doing myself a disservice. What if I would have loved it there?
As some of you might remember, I decided to take a spur-of-the-moment trip to Bali last month. I had no real plan other than getting in some beach time in Kuta. But after reading some very convincing blog posts about Bali’s stunning rice terraces and the thrills of motorbiking around Ubud I quickly decided that I needed to go back and give Ubud another chance.
This time around I was determined to let Ubud work its magic on me. I had a few goals – I would stay longer than one day, I would wander around the markets and temples, and I would motorbike to the famous rice terraces. And hopefully Ubud would charm me as much as it does everyone else.
The second I arrived I had an intense moment of déjà vu. And I experienced that all-too-familiar urge to flee. I really don’t know why Ubud has this effect on me. As I walked along the main drag of Jalan Hanoman I was still less than impressed by the city’s relatively ritzy storefronts. There were trendy wine bars, organic cafés, and luxurious spas – nothing about it felt like the Indonesia I know and love. Walking around the city center felt a little bit like hanging out in one of the swankier areas of San Francisco.
This is not a knock against San Francisco, a city that I adore. And it’s not to say that I don’t appreciate Ubud’s hippie mentality, because I do. After all, I did attend UC Santa Cruz (for those who don’t know this is the hippie university in the US), and I’ve been a vegetarian since high school. I am the textbook definition of a hippie. Yet, something still rubs me the wrong way about Ubud. Walking around, it all just felt so cool, so gentrified. And, I have to say, I much prefer the grit of dirty and raunchy Kuta Beach.
One thing I do love about Ubud is that it’s the one place in Indonesia where being a vegetarian is not only understood, but it’s embraced. There are dozens of vegetarian warungs (local eateries) sprinkled around the city and almost every restaurant has a plethora of veg-friendly options. My first night in the city I decided to take advantage of the fact that I was not in Jakarta anymore and that I was finally among people who could relate to my quirky eating habits. I was delighted when I stumbled across the Vegan Warung. As I happily stuffed my face with sweet and spicy tofu, I finally felt a tinge of excitement about being back in Ubud. Satisfied and still determined to keep an open mind, I went to bed excited for what the next day would bring.
I’d been dreaming of motorbiking to the Tegalalang Rice Terraces since I’d arrived in Bali. That morning, after I savored the world’s most amazing free breakfast (courtesy of my $15-a-night budget hotel), I lingered over a cup of Balinese coffee and mapped out my route to the rice terraces.
I have to admit that I was slightly apprehensive about driving a scooter on my own. As I’ve mentioned before, motorbiking is by far my favorite way to experience new cities. I had a fantastic experience motorbiking around Nusa Lembongan (a tiny island off the coast of Bali). But considering Lembongan barely has any cars on it, and Aaron did most of the driving, I figured navigating Ubud’s crowded roads would prove much more challenging. Renting a scooter is always thrilling and terrifying, which is all part of the appeal. But I usually have Aaron there to help me from veering in the wrong direction. And if I were to breakdown or – knock on wood – take a spill, he’d be there to come to my rescue.
In spite of my nerves, I rented a scooter for 50,000 ($4 USD) from my guesthouse. After a few moments of hesitation I finally mustered the courage to start the engine. I nervously lurched onto one Ubud’s congested thoroughfares and clumsily merged into traffic. My nerves waned almost immediately as I went speeding through dusty towns, snaking up mountainous roads, and passing by intricate Balinese temples. And it didn’t take long for me to start understanding why travelers rave about the countryside’s beauty.
I chose to go to the Tegalalang Rice Terraces because they are supposed to be some of the most beautiful in Bali. However, that also means they’re a huge tourist trap. I’d read some not-so-flattering stories about busloads of camera-toting tourists, ultra-aggressive hawkers, and surly Indonesians demanding tariffs to walk around the terraces.
I was pleasantly surprised to find the terraces to be nearly empty when I visited. There were just a few other tourists quietly exploring the vibrantly green paddies and, at times, I felt like I had them all to myself. The setting was just as remarkable as I’d imagined. And I had a blast getting muddy and taking way too many photos.
After motorbiking around the countryside all morning I felt like I finally understood why people are so charmed by Ubud. I spent a total of three days there, wondering around, people watching at the Traditional Art Market, and marveling at the city’s ornate Balinese temples.
After three days I’d had my fill of Ubud. I still can’t say that it is my favorite place in Indonesia, but I am glad that I made the decision to go back. When it comes to beautiful landscapes and intricate temples, Ubud is a pretty special place. I can see why people go there and never leave. If I were a spa-loving yoga fiend with a little more money I probably wouldn’t leave Ubud either.
Have you been to Ubud? What were your impressions? Have you ever had mixed feelings about a place everyone else raves about?