Ubud is a town on the Indonesian island of Bali in Ubud District, located amongst rice paddies and steep ravines in the central foothills of the Gianyar regency. One of Bali’s major arts and culture centres, it has developed a large tourism industry.
Ubud has a population of about 30,000 people. Recently, it has become difficult to distinguish the town itself from the villages that surround it.
8th century legend tells of a Javanese priest, Rsi Markendya, who meditated at the confluence of two rivers (an auspicious site for Hindus) at the Ubud locality of Campuan. Here he founded the Gunung Lebah Temple on the valley floor, the site of which remains a pilgrim destination.
The town was originally important as a source of medicinal herbs and plants; Ubud gets its name from the Balinese word ubad (medicine).
In the late nineteenth century, Ubud became the seat of feudal lords who owed their allegiance to the king of Gianyar, at one time the most powerful of Bali’s southern states. The lords were members of the satriya family of Sukawati, and were significant supporters of the village’s increasingly renowned arts scene.
Tourism on the island developed after the arrival of Walter Spies, an ethnic German born in Russia who taught painting and music, and dabbled in dance. Spies and foreign painters Willem Hofker and Rudolf Bonnet entertained celebrities including Charlie Chaplin, Noël Coward, Barbara Hutton, H.G. Wells and Vicki Baum. They brought in some of the greatest artists from all over Bali to teach and train the Balinese in arts, helping Ubud become the cultural centre of Bali.
A new burst of creative energy came in 1960s in the wake of Dutch painter Arie Smit (1916-), and development of the Young Artists Movement. There are many museums in Ubud, including the Museum Puri Lukisan, Museum Neka and the Agung Rai Museum of Art.
The Bali tourist boom since the late 1960s has seen much development in the town; however, it remains a centre of artistic pursuit.
Town Orientation and Tourism
The main street is Jalan Raya Ubud (Jalan Raya means main road), which runs east-west through the center of town. Two long roads, Jalan Monkey Forest and Jalan Hanoman, extend south from Jalan Raya Ubud. Puri Saren Agung is a large palace located at the intersection of Monkey Forest and Raya Ubud roads. The home of Tjokorda Gede Agung Sukawati (1910–1978), the last “king” of Ubud, it is now occupied by his descendants and dance performances are held in its courtyard. It was also one of Ubud’s first hotels, dating back to the 1930s.
The Ubud Monkey Forest is a sacred nature reserve located near the southern end of Jalan Monkey Forest. It houses a temple and approximately 340 Crab-eating Macaque (Macaca fascicularis) monkeys.
Ubud tourism focuses on culture, yoga and nature. In contrast to the main tourist area in southern Bali, the Ubud area has forests, rivers, cooler temperatures and less congestion although traffic has increased dramatically in the 21st century. A number of smaller “boutique”-style hotels are located in and around Ubud, which commonly offer spa treatments or treks up nearby mountains.
The Moon of Pejeng, in nearby Pejeng, is the largest single-cast bronze kettle drum in the world, dating from circa 300BC. It is a popular destination for tourists interested in local culture, as is the 11th century Goa Gajah, or ‘Elephant Cave’, temple complex.
The Blanco Renaissance Museum is also located in the town.
Things to Do in Ubud, Bali
The laid-back town of Ubud is considered by many to be the epicenter for arts and culture in Bali. Ubud (pronounced “Ew-bood”) has developed a reputation as a place with a positive vibe, possibly explaining why so many artists and naturalists have settled in the lush, green areas around town.
Although tourism in Ubud is growing faster than the town can keep up, there is still a certain tranquility and happiness to be found in the clean air. The town has become a popular and peaceful retreat from the parties and crowded madness of Kuta just two hours away.
1. Get Lost in the Ubud Monkey Forest
The shady, green Ubud Monkey Forest is the most popular stop for tourists in the town of Ubud itself. Hundreds of playful and interactive Macaque monkeys call the sacred forest home and roam freely around the tree canopy and temple complex.
Walking around the winding, moss-covered brick paths of the Monkey Forest is a great way to escape the heat of the afternoon, but mind your belongings. The steady stream of tourists has made the monkeys bold enough to even reach into pockets in search of something interesting!
Before visiting, read about the Safety, How to Avoid Monkey Bites and Attacks
The influx of tourism in Ubud mixed with the proximity of so many artists has caused a great deal of unique boutiques and shops to open. Unlike the tacky, beach-tourist feeling of shopping in Kuta, Ubud provides a much more sophisticated experience.
Local shops are filled with unique and beautiful crafts, art work, carvings, jewelery, and gifts to take back home. The sprawling, indoor Ubud Market caters mostly to tourists in search of cheap souvenirs. Be sure to haggle prices – negotiation is expected – or you may end up paying triple what something is worth.
Be sure to check out the Ganesha Bookstore, considered the best second-hand bookstore in Bali, if not all of Indonesia.
3. Visit Ubud’s Art Museums & Galleries
Ubud is known as a hothouse for fine art in Bali. It’s all down to the town’s royal family, which has traditionally patronized artists. The King of Ubud himself co-founded the Pitamaha Artists Cooperative in 1936, which was responsible for the cross-pollination between traditional Balinese art and Western art (represented by the expat artists Rudolph Bonnet and Walter Spies, two westerners who settled in Ubud).
You can see the development of Ubud fine art through its collection of museums: the Blanco Renaissance Museum (pictured at the left) and the Museum Puri Lukisan, among others, feature two visions of Balinese art, the former a one-man perspective, the latter a more general overview of the 20th century and its artistic output.
4. Walk Through Ubud’s Rice Fields
Ubud has spilled out into its tiny surrounding villages, but the growth has not ruined the natural setting of the beautiful surroundings. Green rice fields still blanket much of the area and can easily be reached by foot or on bicycle.
The fields may be hiked along a twisting path for miles through tiny, thatched-roof villages. You will find the start of one of the trails just past the small market outside the “top” entrance of the Ubud Monkey Forest.
Hiking these tranquil fields in the morning to the sounds village life beginning is something you will never forget.
5. Get Holistically Healed
With scores of holistic medicine practitioners now living around Ubud, it is no surprise that so many spas and meditation centers have opened up. In town you can easily find all types of Eastern and Western massage centers, reiki healers, herbal medicine shops, and even acupuncture practitioners.
The Bodyworks Healing Centre was the first of such places and has been providing natural healing to the local people long before Ubud was on the tourist map. For a more upscale wellness experience, check out the Spa Alila at the Alila Ubud just ten minutes’ drive out of town.
6. See the Cranes of Petulu
A strange, natural phenomenon occurs each evening just north of Ubud in the village of Petulu. Thousands of white herons arrive here around 6:00 p.m. and prepare to roost for the night before flying off again in the morning.
The birds first began coming here after a communist massacre in 1965 but no one is sure why they continue to return. Local lore holds that these are the souls of those that were killed. Such a predictable gathering of these large and beautiful birds is a spectacle not to be missed.
7. Watch Balinese Dance Performances
No visit to Ubud is complete without seeing at least one traditional dance performance. Although the performances are very tourist-oriented, this is a great opportunity to see classic Hindu legends being told through dancers in colorful, traditional costumes.
Ubud Palace is a popular place providing shows nightly as well as Pura Dalem which has twice-weekly shows and fire dances performed outside.
8. Visit a Hindu Temple or Two
Ubud and the villages in the surrounding area contain dozens of examples of beautiful Hindu Temples. Most temples are free to visit or ask for a small donation. Proper attire is required, although many temples will loan or rent a sarong for your visit.
Pura Penataran Asih in nearby Pejeng is a charming temple containing the largest bronze kettle drum in the world. The Bronze Age drum is known as the “Moon of Pejeng” and dates back to 300 B.C.
Pura Besakih on the slopes of Mount Agung is Bali’s most sacred temple site. A complex of 23 temples can be explored on a day trip from Ubud.
9. Enter the Elephant Cave
Only 10 minutes south of Ubud lies one of the most sacred sites in Bali: Goa Gajah. Also known as the Elephant Cave, this Hindu site dates back to the 11th Century and was nominated as a tentative UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The cave is believed to have been home to Hindu priests and the entrance is carved with menacing figures from Hindu legend. The interior of the cave is dark and contains a few religious relics. The site is still used for worship by locals so proper dress is required to enter.
At the façade of the cave is a relief of various menacing creatures and demons carved right into the rock at the cave entrance. The primary figure was once thought to be an elephant, hence the nickname Elephant Cave. The site is mentioned in the Javanese poem Desawarnana written in 1365. An extensive bathing place on the site was not excavated until the 1950s. These appear to have been built to ward off evil spirits.
World Heritage Status
This site was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List on October 19, 1995 in the Cultural category.
10. Scale Mount Batur in Kintamani
Although technically an hour north, many people visiting Ubud make at least a day trip to the Kintamani region. Kintamani in North Bali is home to Mount Batur and some of Bali’s best scenery. Mount Batur is an active volcano that regularly smolders and surprises visitors with minor eruptions.
The largest crater lake in Bali fills part of Mount Batur’s caldera while small villages cling to the rim. The views of Kintamani from the nearby village of Penelokan are well worth getting outside of Ubud for a day.
For those with lots of energy, a beautiful sunrise can be enjoyed from the summit of Mount Batur. Travel agencies around Ubud provide early pickup and a guide for the two-hour trek to the top of the volcano.
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