Ubud is Bali’s cultural hub, a seductive town set amid terraced rice paddies and known for its talented classical dancers and musicians, and for its prolific painters and craftspeople. Tradition is particularly important here and temple festivals happen almost daily. However, although it’s fashionable to characterize Ubud as the real Bali, especially in contrast with Kuta, it’s a major tourist destination and bears little resemblance to a typical Balinese town.
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Arty, high-minded Ubud has the best art museums and commercial galleries on the island and is also a recognized centre for spiritual tourism, with many opportunities to try out indigenous and imported healing therapies. Organic cafés, riverside bungalows and craft shops crowd its central marketplace, while the surrounding countryside is ideal for walks and cycle rides, and there’s easy access to the northern volcanoes.
There is major (mostly tasteful) development along the central Jalan Monkey Forest, and Ubud’s peripheries now encompass the neighbouring hamlets of Campuhan, Sanggingan, Penestanan, Nyuhkuning, Peliatan, Pengosekan and Padang Tegal.
Campuhan and Penestanan
Extending west from central Ubud, the hamlet of Campuhan is famous as the home of several charismatic expatriate painters, including the late Antonio Blanco, a flamboyant Catalan (“the Bali Dalí”) whose house and gallery on Jalan Raya Campuhan has been turned into the enjoyably camp Museum Blanco.
Across the road from here, the track that runs north along the grassy spine behind Pura Gunung Lebah forms part of the very pleasant ninety-minute circular Campuhan Ridge walk, taking you around the rural outskirts of Campuhan via the elevated spur between the Wos Barat and Wos Timor river valleys. You leave the ridge at the northern end of the village of Bangkiang Sidem, taking a sealed road that forks left and continues through Payogan and Lungsiakan before hitting the main road about 1.5km northwest of the Neka Art Museum.
The side road that turns off southwest beside Museum Blanco leads to the charmingly old-fashioned village of Penestanan, a centre for beadwork. The more scenic approach to the village is via the steep flight of steps 400m further north along Jalan Raya Campuhan. The steps climb the hillside to a westbound track that passes several arterial paths to panoramic hilltop accommodation before dropping down into the next valley and reaching a crossroads with Penestanan’s main street. Turn left for the 1500-metre walk through the village and back to Museum Blanco.
The Neka Art Museum
The Neka Art Museum boasts the most comprehensive collection of traditional and modern Balinese paintings on the island. It’s housed in a series of pavilions set high on a hill in Sanggingan, about 2.5km northwest of Ubud central market; all westbound bemos from the market pass the entrance. The pavilions include exhibits of Balinese painting from the seventeenth century to the present day, an archive of black-and-white photographs from Bali in the 1930s and 1940s and contemporary works by artists from other parts of Indonesia.
The Agung Rai Museum of Art (ARMA)
Ubud’s other major art museum is the Agung Rai Museum of Art, or Arma, in Pengosekan, on the southern fringes of Ubud. The upstairs gallery of the large Bale Daja pavilion offers a brief survey of the development of Balinese art, while across the garden, the middle gallery of the Bale Dauh displays works by Bali’s most famous expats, including Rudolf Bonnet, Arie Smit and, the highlight, Calonnarang by the German artist Walter Spies.
Ubud Botanic Garden
Lush, tranquil Ubud Botanic Garden (wwww.botanicgardenbali.com) occupies five hectares of a steep-sided river valley in the banjar of Kutuh Kaja, 1.7km north of Jalan Raya Ubud (30min walk), and includes fine heliconia and bromeliad collections, an orchid nursery, an Islamic garden and a meditation court.
Chipped away from a cliff face amid the rice fields, the 25-metre-long series of fourteenth-century rock-cut carvings at Yeh Pulu are a bit of a hidden treasure, without the hordes of visitors one might expect and all the more pleasant for it.
The story of the carvings is uncertain, but scenes include a man carrying two jars of water, and three stages of a boar hunt. To reach Yeh Pulu, get off the Ubud–Gianyar bemo at the signs just east of Goa Gajah or west of the Bedulu crossroads, and then walk 1km south through the hamlet of Batulumbang. You can also walk (with one of the ever-present guides) through the rice fields from Goa Gajah; guides also lead four-hour treks from Yeh Pulu through nearby countryside.
Dance and theatre in Ubud
Up to nine different traditional dance and music shows are staged every night in the Ubud area; the tourist office publishes the weekly schedule (also available at wwww.ubud.com) and arranges free transport to outlying venues. Tickets can be bought at the tourist office, from touts, or at the door. If you have only one evening to catch a show, either choose the lively Kecak (Monkey Dance), or go for whatever is playing at the Ubud Palace (Puri Saren Agung), central Ubud’s most atmospheric venue.
The Monkey Forest Sanctuary and Nyuhkuning
Ubud’s best-known tourist attraction is its Monkey Forest Sanctuary, which occupies the land between the southern end of Jalan Monkey Forest (fifteen minutes’ walk south from Ubud’s central market) and the northern edge of Nyuhkuning. Although the forest itself is nothing special, the resident monkeys are playful and almost alarmingly tame. Five minutes into the forest, you reach Pura Dalem Agung Padang Tegal, the temple of the dead for the Padang Tegal neighbourhood. Pura dalem are traditionally places of strong magical power and the preserve of evil spirits; in this temple you’ll find half a dozen stone-carved images of the witch-widow Rangda sporting a hideous fanged face, unkempt hair, a metre-long tongue and pendulous breasts.
South from the temple, the track enters the village of Nyuhkuning, a respected centre for woodcarving – you can buy carvings and take inexpensive lessons at several workshops – and site of a few cafés and small hotels.