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Ubud, Bali: an artist’s dream

Downtime at Ubud Palace

In the darkness, Made’s wide grin glowed brightly, a perfect set of teeth bathed by the soft light from a nearby lantern. He had driven us the 90 minutes from the airport to the four-bedroom hotel owned by his brother off Jalan Bisma, a porous boundary between a legion of tiled red roofs and a swath of paddy fields plunging into a steep ravine.

The name Ubud comes from the Balinese word ubad, or “medicine”, and the burgeoning town is now the source of a modern-day variety peddled by Elizabeth Gilbert. I came to Ubud not to find inner peace, or love, or a sense of enlightenment, but I came in pursuit of beauty. And within the first few moments of stepping out of Made’s van, it was there, heard but not seen under a darkened sky.

It was an impromptu night orchestra of critters in the paddy fields, with chirping crickets and lizard calls which I mistook for birdsong. I stopped and listened intently to these echoing, unfamiliar noises. Bama pointed out the low, nasal “Bu!” and “Beh!” of toads, then the clipped “Ep! Ep!” of frogs – a vocabulary that he knew well from his childhood in the countryside of West Java. But the dominant voice in all this was the comforting sound of clean, running water in an open ditch by the roadside, gushing south towards the Indian Ocean.

Long before ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ came onto the scene, Russian-born German artist Walter Spies had fled post-World War I Europe and found inspiration in Java and then Bali. From 1927 Spies would live in Ubud, spending the next 11 years documenting Balinese art and culture along with Dutch painters Willem Hofker and Rudolf Bonnet. The artist himself played an important role in developing new forms of Balinese music and drama, including the Kecak fire dance.

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The gardens within, Ubud Palace

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A guardian statue’s sarong, Ubud Palace

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Vintage lamp and bas-relief, Ubud Palace

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In the grounds of Museum Puri Lukisan, the “Castle of Painting”

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Lotus pond, Museum Puri Lukisan

Spies is also credited with alerting Western audiences to the singular beauty found on the island. Ubud in the 1930s was a gathering place for the best local artists, and it has remained the cultural heart of Bali ever since. More recently, the town has found itself in the middle of a tourism boom, its popularity buoyed by the success of Gilbert’s 2006 memoir.

Some complain about the weekend traffic jams, the tour buses too large for its streets bearing flocks of day-trippers, and the overpriced clothes for sale in its boutiques. But Ubud is still a local town full of local people going about their daily business, with elements of the sacred in every aspect of Balinese life.

On Ubud’s pavements we tiptoed around the ubiquitous canang sari – a miniature basket of woven palm leaves, filled with petals in four colours and fern tips, then topped by several incense sticks, sprinkled with holy water and laid twice a day outside homes, shop fronts, restaurants and guesthouses. We saw them being carefully prepared early in the morning at Ubud Market, before its daily transformation into a bazaar selling art and handicrafts.

Bama guided me through the maze of wares, spread out on the paving stones bathed by the previous night’s rain. I was most fascinated by the hidden “understory”, where the golden morning light illuminated stacks of dried goods, bananas, baskets of fish, and a roasted suckling pig.

But of all the blissful moments in Ubud, which were many, I cannot forget how it was to arrive that very first night, as we entered a lush garden whose winding pathway led up to our small hotel. A single firefly circled languidly in the humid night air, and the fragrant smell of Balinese incense, crafted from cempaka blossoms and cendana, Indian Sandalwood, wafted into our nostrils.

It was here that Made looked at me and smiled, the skin around his eyes creasing as he remained silent. I wondered what it meant, if it was his personal welcome for a first-timer to Bali, a reaction to the many questions I had posed to Bama en route, or perhaps a blend of both.

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Mother and son en route to a ceremony

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Spirit house on the main street

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Canang sari at Ubud Market

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Ingredients of canang sari

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Chillies for sale

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Holiday villas from Campuhan Ridge

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Gathering clouds on the paddies

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A white crested duck

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Rural retreat

45 Comments Post a comment
  1. I went to Ubud several years ago and it was my favourite place in Bali. The art galleries were full of beautiful things and I bought some hand printed fabric, which I still love.
    I thought Eat, Pray, Love was an awful book that did a disservice to Italy, India and Bali. It is incredible how a book full of ridiculous cliches appealed to so many people.

    January 1, 2014
    • The art galleries were one of the first things I noticed on arriving – there were so many of them, and a sign that I had chosen the right place to stay!

      I can just imagine how indignant you were at Elizabeth Gilbert’s portrayal of Italy… I only got as far as the first chapter online and even that in itself was self-indulgent.

      January 1, 2014
  2. I’m glad we stayed in Ubud which enabled us to explore more of what this beautiful corner of Bali has to offer. I was so excited to spot that firefly as I hadn’t seen any in probably more than 10 years. The sound of the trickling water, the fragrant burning incense, the view of Mount Agung from afar, the traditional dances, the rice paddies, I don’t think I will ever get bored of Ubud. Beautiful photos, James!

    January 1, 2014
    • Absolutely, Bama! Ubud was a natural first choice from the start; being surrounded by all that beauty was such a treat, and I loved the magical atmosphere after sunset.

      January 1, 2014
  3. Beautiful images. It’s so colorful out there.

    Many images remind me of my native Kerala.

    January 1, 2014
    • Ubud – and Bali in general – is one of the most photogenic places I’ve ever been to. It sounds like I would love Kerala!

      January 1, 2014
  4. Gorgeous photos. I took me right back there even though it was more than a decade ago.

    January 1, 2014
    • Glad it stirred up some memories – thanks for that!

      January 1, 2014
  5. Beautifully shot, James – and I’m soooo pleased you found part of the island’s soul. Happy New Year, by the way, and best wishes for a joyous 2014. 🙂

    January 1, 2014
    • Thank you, Meredith! Staying in Ubud (and avoiding the south) was a really good decision… and I had Bama to help me with the language and cultural customs. Happy New Year to you too, I wish you many blessings, good health and plenty of adventures to come. 🙂

      January 1, 2014
  6. MaldivesDreamer #

    Wow those are some great pictures! So full of color and life! Happy New Year and happy traveling in 2014 🙂

    January 1, 2014
    • I wish you the same, Irene – best of luck and may you have many trips back to the Maldives this year! 🙂

      January 1, 2014
  7. Very good series of photos!

    January 1, 2014
    • Thank you, Bente, and Happy New Year!

      January 1, 2014
  8. Beautiful, James. You took me right back there. It’s such a beautiful place. I think we must go back there again.

    January 1, 2014
    • Oh Alison, Bali was just like how you and Don described it… if I had the chance I wouldn’t mind spending two or three weeks based in Ubud. Did you watch the Legong dance by the palace? That was jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and I’m now sorting through the hundreds of photos I took for the next post!

      January 1, 2014
      • Yes we saw the Legong dance! Amazing, and beautiful. I think we went to about three dance performances. I hope you didn’t miss the Kecak dance.
        Happy photo sorting 🙂

        January 2, 2014
  9. Very beautiful photos. Your skills are inspirational

    January 1, 2014
  10. Beautiful, as always! Another destination I wish I’d discover, especially more so now with such vibrant colors and tales. Thanks for taking us to the dream!

    Happy New Year!

    January 2, 2014
    • Thanks and Happy New Year, Juls! You really must go to Bali… I’m already thinking of going back later this summer!

      January 2, 2014
      • It won’t be for this year as we’re wandering South America again but it will definitely be for later on! I’ll be looking forward to more beautiful pictures from your end!

        January 3, 2014
  11. The colors are so vivid! I’d swim in that sea of chilly! haha 😀
    Have a wonderful year!

    January 2, 2014
    • Those small chillies are pretty dangerous, there were a few times I ended up sweating profusely over a meal. 😛 Hope you have a fantastic 2014!

      January 2, 2014
  12. The pic reminds of the scene in Eat, Pray and Love. The combination of brick and color and the flowers in the background has such a calming and touching effect…thanks for sharing the story and pic with us!

    January 2, 2014
    • You’re welcome! I couldn’t think of a better way to kick off the new year on the blog.

      January 2, 2014
  13. Reblogged this on zhellebour.

    January 2, 2014
  14. Crazy. I think we were in the same place at exactly the same time. I was staying in Bisma from 24th – 28th Dec!

    January 2, 2014
    • Almost! I was in Ubud from the 18th – 22nd, then I headed off to East Timor for Christmas before coming back to Bali on Boxing Day. Where did you stay on Bisma? I was at Frangipani Bungalow.

      January 2, 2014
      • That was about a 5 minute walk from the place we were at! I stayed at a place called Putri Ayu, a little further down the track.

        January 2, 2014
  15. Beautifully written. The lush greenery and the richness of the culture totally want me to visit Ubud.

    January 3, 2014
    • Thank you, Shikha. I’d recommend staying there rather than going just for a day trip – Ubud really comes into its own early in the morning and at night.

      January 3, 2014
  16. What beautiful pictures, and a rich history. I’ll add this to places I MUST visit. Thank you for sharing!

    January 3, 2014
    • You’re welcome! Before I went someone commented that Ubud and its surroundings was one of her favourite places in the entire world… now I can clearly see why!

      January 3, 2014
  17. Wonderfully descriptive James. And gorgeous images, particularly of the museum grounds. It has been aeons since I have heard all those typical village sounds 🙂

    January 4, 2014
    • Thank you, Madhu. 🙂 All those sounds were a novelty for me – ever since we developed our rice paddies for factories and housing estates, you almost never hear them in Hong Kong.

      January 4, 2014
  18. Love your photos with references to natural beauty and cultural aspects in Ubud. Best wishes, for great travels and learning, James.

    January 4, 2014
    • I wish you the same for this year, Jean. Bali could well be an island you’ll enjoy; apart from the rich artistic culture it looks like a great place for cycling.

      January 4, 2014
  19. Hat dies auf clairvoyantaway rebloggt und kommentierte:
    Great Article!

    January 5, 2014
  20. Reblogged this on Just Go Places.

    January 13, 2014
  21. I loved Ubud in Bali! Beautiful scenery, great food and lovely people. Loved the spiritual side as well

    January 16, 2014
    • Couldn’t agree more – I would go back in a heartbeat!

      January 17, 2014
  22. Margaret Jintoni #

    Hey there James, I’m from Sabah Borneo planning to live in Bali for quite some time to do my art there. Is Ubud the best place to do it there ? 🙂

    December 13, 2015
    • Hi Margaret, I can say that Ubud is a great choice for all kinds of artists, but I don’t know Bali well enough to comment on whether it is the best place. Perhaps it is if you are looking for an environment that fuses traditional Balinese arts with a certain degree of internationalism.

      December 15, 2015

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