I WAKE UP to the bus conductor yelling where we are. “Ubud! Ubud!” he wails, as the passengers get off the bus. During the early afternoon drive to this bucolic town in the middle of Bali, all image of paradise I had in my mind of this Indonesian island were quickly replaced by grinding traffic and unremarkable city structures, and before I knew it, I was asleep. After yesterday’s trip to Mount Bromo, I backtracked in the afternoon to Surabaya, where I took a short flight to Bali, the last leg of my (ill-advised) whirlwind trip.
I had actually scheduled an early morning walking tour that would have taken me across Ubud’s rice fields, local villages, and possibly a Balinese dance school. But during my last night in Yogyakarta, a blackout hit the city, which prevented me from using my credit card and forced me to pay the guest house in cash. As a result, I’m now left with only a few thousand rupiahs. I had to cancel the walking tour (because it was payable only in cash), and I was in fact resigned to the idea of spending my last days of the trip just hanging around the beach in Kuta.
But curiosity and Mark Twain’s “you’ll regret more the things you didn’t do” aphorism won over me, and after tweaking my budget, I booked a ride to Ubud. Even if it was the overcrowded site I fear it would be, I thought I could surely find an intimate corner somewhere and claim it as my personal space. I managed to get a discount on a round-trip bus fare that would take me to the town after lunch and return to Kuta in the evening. I also decided to skip dinner and tomorrow’s breakfast to compensate.
And now I’m here. I watch as the green fields sway to the gentle breeze blowing, while somewhere in the streets beyond me, a gamelan echoes through the air. Busloads of tourists stream through the sidewalks going to the Monkey Forest Road and I figure the easiest way to dodge them is to take a different road. With only a little less than four hours to spare and a guide book to help me navigate, I’m going to do my own walking tour.
But first, I need a large bottle of water.
I HEAD TO a supermarket just south of the bus station and I’m immediately greeted by wide swathes of rice fields dotted by Hindu statues and with ducks waddling around. A group of supermarket employees dressed in traditional Balinese-inspired uniforms are gathered around the side entrance in a meeting with their manager. As soon as I make my purchase, I quickly pass by the Monkey Road, turn right, and head north.
For much of its recent history, Ubud has been the heart of Balinese arts and culture, drawing artists and creative minds who look to the town’s mystical aura for inspiration. And after serving as the final stop of American author Elizabeth Gilbert’s journey towards self-fulfillment, Ubud has become some sort of a pilgrimage spot for the lovesick as well. Now, the town has seen a dramatic increase not only in the number of penny-pinching tourists, but also with well-off types, as evidenced by high-end villas at the outskirts of town.
In the midst of this boom, Ubud has managed to retain its character. Instead of succumbing to the external influences of the outsiders who flock into it, it not only adapts but also transforms anyone who visits through the magic of the local people and the gentle vibe of its nature.
I walk past Hindu statues, art shops, and spas. I come across a large football field where local children are spending the Friday afternoon playing or chatting under a tree. A young man tries to sell me tickets for a dance show but sneers when I tell him I’m leaving at six. He does allow me to explore the stage where the performance will be held and take a picture of the girls if they’re inside practicing. I get in but aside from a few other tourists, no one’s there.
I return outside and resume walking until I reach the Ubud Palace at the northern end of the town’s central part. The most prominent of the town’s landmarks and still a resident of the local royal family, the palace is housed in a compound filled with intricate decorations and serves as a venue of one of the many dance performances in town during the evening.
Across the road lies the Ubud market, where I browse through the paintings and other articles displayed.
Yet as with most memorable trips, the landmarks are merely footnotes compared to spontaneous detours.
Carrying my guidebook, I turn west from the palace and walk for a few kilometers along the main thoroughfare of Jalan Raya Ubud until I reach the Ibah Luxury Villas. I hesitate about entering the compound, though when I sense that the security guard doesn’t mind my presence, I press on. Following the path, I eventually find myself in a scenic ridge that snakes through tall grass on a hill, overlooking gorgeous river views on both sides.
I then walk as far as I can.
IF ONE THING has become clear after a few hours, it’s that even in an oft-exposed town like Ubud, there’s plenty to discover – both outside and within you – just by veering off the main roads. I realize now that this is why this place is such a magnet for those who are trying to find self-fulfillment, and I begin to think about daring to stay for the night, looking for a cheap place to sleep in, and risking running out of cash.
I finally have the sense to listen to my more practical side and at 4:30, I retrace my steps to the town center.
At 5:30, while the tourists are increasingly flocking to various sites where the evening performances will be held, and restaurants are slowly filling up with diners, I walk back with a heavy heart to the bus station. As I watch the emerald rice paddies bathe in what’s left of the late afternoon’s light, I picture those Balinese dancers fidget in the backstage of a theater while preparing for tonight’s performance. In a few moments, they will emerge, dazzling audiences with their graceful movements.
A popular guidebook describes Ubud as a place “where days can become weeks and weeks become months.” In my case, I wish I can make it even just a few more hours.
Maybe next time, Ubud. Maybe next time.
First published in TravelBlog on September 17, 2013.