It’s no surprise that Ubud is busier than the last time we were here. It’s not even surprising that the number of businesses appears to have doubled. Ubud has a reputation of being artsy, cultured and ‘right on’ – the hippy capital of Bali. What is surprising, then, is that the visitors who throng the streets looking for a taste of the ‘real’ Bali are now mainly offered cocktails, toasted sandwiches and the chance to shop until they drop. Many behave as if they were at a beach resort, including walking about shirtless or bikinied, which is a bit shocking when you need not pay too much attention to see how modestly everyone dresses. We’re all for wearing what you want but when in Rome and all that.
Given the heat and humidity, we decide to be realistic about what we’re likely to achieve while we’re here. Even a relatively short walk tends to be accompanied in short order by the need to lie down under a fan. Luckily for us, there are a few interesting things to do nearby.
For a start, our hotel is on a pretty little side street. Its start is unpromising, a slightly bleak concrete road up the side of Starbucks, but it soon gives way to little houses, warung (local restaurants), B&Bs and other businesses. As it narrows, temples punctuate its length and tall bamboo ‘penjor’, put up during the latest Galungan festival, overhang the road. The only sensible vehicle here is the motorbike, but that does’t stop the unaccountably wide tourist taxis from giving it a go.
Our street is so quiet that, on our balcony, we are treated to a constant soundtrack of birds, drums and gamelan music. The wildlIfe even seem to have a schedule: first are tiny swifts scooping up the early morning insects, then the cicada chorus begins and the larger pigeons start to coo, dragonflies and massive wasps get their hour at about 10am. As evening draws in, moths and mossies appear along with their natural predator the gecko, while bats dart among the trees.
A little further up the street is Ubud Botany Interactive, where we take a class in ‘botanicals’, essentially how to make our own shampoo and deep heat out of local ingredients. In a town full to brimming with a lot of nonsense, its founder is a science graduate. She wanted, she says, to find out whether there was evidence to support the efficacy of traditional preparations used here for centuries. The answer is sometimes ‘partly’ and sometimes ‘definitely’ – she will make no unsubstantiated claims. However, beyond efficacy there is a conversation to be had about economic, social and environmental sustainability. All ingredients grow locally, all are safe to eat and none will tax the local infrastructure to breaking point. Besides which, we got to squeeze aloe, pound galangal, sniff essential oils and generally make a right mess!
Just past the end of our road is the Ubud Art Museum. As we walked into the gardens, more like a palace grounds dotted with various mini galleries, our visit seven years ago all came back. No photography is allowed, so you’ll have to take our word for it that there are magnificent examples of Balinese art here, largely from the mid-20th century onwards but with enough older pieces to help us understand how styles and techniques have developed. Chloe remembered a particularly arresting sculpture of rice goddess Dewi and (hoorah!) it was still there, so we looked our fill and tried, tried, tried to fix it in our brains. Imagine the sculpture on the left reimagined by Rodney Matthews drawing Michael Moorcock’s Elric.
And the Starbucks? We won’t lie, we purchased lattes with extra shots a couple of times. But at least Allan had the decency not to wear a bikini when he went in…