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Greg Rodgers

Ubud, Bali - A Little Too Popular?

By January 14, 2013

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Ubud Bali Hindu Temple

Photo by Greg Rodgers

From celebrities hiding in private, million-dollar villas to backpackers and surfers who pay less than $10 per night for bamboo bungalows, Bali attracts the crowds.

In 2010, an estimated 2.57 million travelers from all budgets visited Bali; not bad, considering that the population of the island is less than 4 million.

Bali is simply gorgeous, no denying that. Being a bastion of Hindu culture in Islamic Indonesia gives the island a completely different vibe. In fact, an estimated 80% of all visitors to Indonesia only see Bali. A crime; Sumatra, for example, is simply astounding.

And when young travelers finish destroying brain cells in Kuta, the surfing beach nearest the airport, or couples get too sunburned in Seminyak, they flock in droves to Ubud -- Bali's cultural center.

Ubud is a place where green rice terraces give way to bookshops, cafes, boutique shops, and holistic healing centers. Artists mingle with tourists in spas, and let's not forget about the famous monkey forest in the middle of town. The little town has an unforgettable vibe.

The price for making a great vibe too accessible? Unfortunately, Ubud has gone the way of Goa in India, or Pai in Thailand: Both were quiet, beautiful hippie havens that eventually became the victims of demand. Word spreads quick about relaxed, natural paradises.

As the crowds roll in, the original folks that made a place so special head out. Family-run hotels are squashed by high-rise resorts. Wood gives way to concrete, and then there goes the neighborhood.

Even with Ubud's scores of gorgeous cafes serving up Balinese and Sumatran coffee, the new Starbucks in town stays perpetually busy.

With Ubud already on wobbly legs, Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love book turned even that many more people onto the town. The book remained on top of the New York Times bestseller list for 57 straight weeks; seeing Julia Roberts cavorting around Ubud's verdant backdrops when the movie released in 2010 convinced even more to head that direction.

So should you skip Ubud on a visit to Bali? Certainly not! The magic is still there, somewhere between grinning tourists pointing cameras at monkeys. You'll just have to share it.

But perhaps add an extra day to travel north of Ubud -- preferably by motorbike -- into Bali's Kintamani region. The rainforest scenery and Mount Batur are volcanic and beautiful. Penelokan is the hub for the area, and the many unknown little villages barely notice Bali's 2.5 million visitors per year.

Have you lived in Ubud or traveled there recently? Weigh in on my Facebook page with what you think about the explosive growth there.

January 16, 2013 at 8:00 am
(1) Jack Armstrong says:

Spot on.

I’ve been coming here for 15 years. Ubud was sleepier, now it’s a bit more twee. It’s been gradual, and some of the changes have to be seen as improvements. Especially if you’re a caffeine addict.

I’ve motorcycled north and around the east side of the island maybe half a dozen times. There are a couple beautiful resorts, right next to the pebbly beach, a personal favorite being near Tejakula. Poinciana. But there are others, some oriented toward scuba divers but available for anyone. Some are purely gorgeous. Follow signs down unpromising looking roads. You may be amply rewarded.

I usually come in the rainy season, (Dec, Jan), but the mountain stops the rain, largely, and the NE section of the island seems surprisingly dry.

January 16, 2013 at 4:35 pm
(2) goasia says:

Thanks, Jack!

Have driven a loop but didn’t get to Tejakula area. I’ll drive up that way the next time that I’m on the island.


January 17, 2013 at 12:21 am
(3) Jerry Januar says:

For over a century, since becoming a Dutch protectorate in 1900 at its own request, Ubud has been a centre for traditional arts and culture. In the 1930s, when foreign artists were encouraged by the royal family to take up residence in the town, Ubud became a base for the likes of Walter Spies and Rudolph Bonnet, who were instrumental in promoting an understanding of Balinese art and cultural heritage worldwide. From the 1960s onwards, intrepid travellers began to arrive in earnest, drawn by its hive of creative energy. Since then, Ubud has developed into a world-class international destination while still maintaining its integrity as the centre of Balinese art and culture.

January 24, 2013 at 11:34 am
(4) Stefan Russel says:

Certainly Ubud has changed. I suppose – like you mention – that it is the inevitably truth for all small places becoming popular. The same thing is happening on the Gili islands and I suppose even Kuta started out as a laid back hippie paradise.

Whether it is for the better or worse is a never ending discussion, which doesn’t have a right answer – An answer that also depends on the eyes that sees – the tourist or the local for example. Saying that the process is inevitable doesn’t mean that you can’t influence the process and hopefully Ubud will develop in a way where things that made Ubud popular to begin with will continue to flourish.

Anyway, I still find Ubud to one of my favorite places in Bali. Ubud is definitely still Bali’s cultural mekka, nowhere in Bali can you eat as well on a budget and you don’t have to go exploring much to find “the old Ubud”.

January 29, 2013 at 4:11 am
(5) Monico says:

Ubud is also still one of our favorite places to go to in Bali. Whenever we are in Bali we always spend a couple of days in Ubud. But yes we are always shocked to see dozen of big busses squeeze themselves through the narrow streets of Ubud and little restaurants and shops being replaced by characterless restaurant chains and famous international surf shops. Doesn’t Bali have enough of those in Kuta and Seminyak?

But luckily if you avoid the big main streets such as Monkey Forest Street and Jln. Ubud Raya you can loose the crowd and find places where you are the only one there.

The hamlets surrounding Ubud are also still able to maintain their unique atmosphere. People who visit Ubud longer then just a day usually find these nice locations, such as Campuhan, Penolakan, Nyukuning etc. All in walking or short driving distance from the hotpots in Ubud.

And as you mentioned, if you do want to discover Bali the way it was before it became mega-popular then you just need to drive a little bit further north or east.

In my ipinion East Bali is very under appreciated yet there are so many great places to visit in order to experience how Bali used to be many years before. O.k there might be less fancy restaurants and no big shopping streets. Instead you will find culture, nature and the Balinese still surprised to see a foreigner. Hopefully the majority of the travelers to Balinese do still come to this amazing island for at least that…

January 29, 2013 at 3:25 pm
(6) Greg Rodgers says:

Hi Monico, couldn’t agree more. Thank you for your insight. East Bali is still relatively untouched compared to the rest of the island. Love it there!

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