In the dynamic, vibrant Asian region, the highlights are just the beginning. Beyond the UNESCO Heritage sites, the ancient monuments and historical landmarks, Asia’s top destinations are cultural hubs worthy of going beyond the surface. Joshua Zukas is a Southeast Asian destination expert with just the right insider knowledge behind Asia’s highlights. In this in-depth series, discover what’s waiting beyond the obvious in Asia’s top spots.
The enchanting island of Bali is in proud possession of such monumental tourist appeal that it easily overshadows the thousands of other islands that constitute the Indonesian archipelago. Bali has perhaps done more than any other island in history to paint the picture of paradise island exoticism: gorgeous white sand beaches with thundering surf, forested volcanoes that rise from deep blue lakes, and a unique culture that is welcoming, captivating and enigmatic in equal measures.
Ubud is the island’s geographical and spiritual heart. It has become as well-know as raucous Kuta and hip Seminyak down on the coast – and it is puzzling that the majority of visitors still only give Ubud a day before rushing back to the beach. If you only take one thing away from this article, make it this: spend at least one night in Ubud. The layers of intrigue in this gorgeous little microcosm of art and tradition are mind-boggling, and it’s easy to see why those in the know will migrate here from all over the world for several months of the year.
Ubud is nearly always teaming with tourists and doesn’t really have highlights in the traditional sense – the town itself is the highlight – but there are definitely sights and activities that see fewer visitors than others. In this article I want to focus on those parts of Ubud and the surrounding areas that are every bit as interesting as the top tourist hot spots but are not likely to be unpleasantly crowded.
Perhaps the main reason to stay in Ubud is that it gives you the chance to take advantage of the most enjoyable time of the day. Set your alarm for 6am, or earlier if you can manage it, and take a stroll around central Ubud and the bordering rice terraces – Bisma Street has plenty of beautiful views and is easy to access from anywhere. You’ll catch the traditional local residents making their morning offerings both at the shrines and outside on the street. Feel free to stop and chat to anyone you like- many Balinese speak good English and are more than happy to talk about what they’re doing to curious and respectful visitors.
I’m all about having local experiences, but when confronted with excellent coffee I just can’t say no. The sickly-sweet kopi susu packet coffee that is so popular in Indonesia is fine, but increasingly stylish Ubud is also home to some of the countries best modern coffee houses. Two favorites are Seniman Coffee Studio (5 Sriwedari Street) and Anomali (88 Raya Ubud Street), the latter also being a place purchase excellent quality Indonesian coffee beans from across the archipelago. Try either of these places to finish off your magical morning of discovery with an excellent cup of coffee made with Indonesian beans.
Onto the Galleries and Museums
Art, and the production of art, is one of the fundamental pillars of the Balinese culture and way of life, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Ubud has more than its fair share of spellbinding museums. Most tour groups will visit the Ubud palace and some of the surrounding temples, but the museums and galleries are sadly missed. ARMA (the Agung Rai Museum of Art) was set up by Agung Rai, who spent his life researching, preserving and developing Balinese art.
The grounds are stunning and in between the exhibition rooms it is worth settling into one of the garden chairs and taking in the calming atmosphere- this isn’t a place you will want to rush. ARMA has regular free community dance classes for Balinese children and it is definitely worth timing your visit to see this- check with your tour guide before you go. Perhaps more amazing than the dancing itself is the sheer number of kids that you’ll see learning how to dance, demonstrating the pride that even the young have for Balinese traditional art forms.
Another spectacular museum that inexplicably escapes most tour itineraries is the Setia Darma House of Masks and Puppets. Set amongst rice terraces and with gorgeous gardens, this museum may be a little out of town but it is absolutely worth the effort. There is an intimidating number of striking masks and intricately designed puppets here, not just from Bali and Indonesia, but from all over the world. The offerings from Balinese and Javanese culture are particularly intriguing, as they reflect the similar backgrounds of these now very different cultures.
Pray Like a Local
Last but not least, try your best to befriend a local and see if he or she can take you to pray. Alternatively, talk to your guide and see what religious events might be coming up. Balinese Hinduism is wonderfully open-minded and welcoming, even to those who only have a very basic understanding of the culture. There are large-scale community prayer events happening all the time in Ubud, and if you stay for more than a couple of days then you may have a chance to join. All you need to do is get yourself a sarong, wear a white shirt, and follow suit for an unforgettable spiritual experience.
Delve into the traditions and culture of Ubud on your adventure in Indonesia with Buffalo Tours! Create your own tailor-made tour and go beyond the highlights of the islands.