Ubud is one of several cities on Bali that tourists use as a base. As it's the only one I have stayed in, I’m not about to claim it's the best city to use for this purpose. But I will say that it’s hard to imagine somewhere better to stay on this Adventureland-y island than a city where every building “looks like it’s out of Indiana Jones”, as my travel companion Alyssa commented. If there was ever a city that oozes culture, this is it.
Ubud is about a 90 minute taxi ride north of the Denpassar airport (the cab ride is 300,000 Rupiah, which is about $20). We stayed at the Puji Hostel, one of the most comfortable hostels I’ve had the pleasure to sleep in. The beds were massive for a hostel, as were the lockers. They also offered free breakfasts of varying Indonesian fare. I especially loved the banana pancakes, which had full pieces of cooked fruit in the middle of the pancake - think upside-down cake style - that made the pancakes quite pretty as well as delicious.
Our hostel was tucked away on a beautiful side street, which provided a sense of calm away from the hectic main street. This was similar to all of the side streets we explored – the main streets were crowded with tourists and vendors, while the side streets were quiet, filled with adorable restaurants (of the Indiana Jones/Adventureland vibe mentioned above) and cheap spas (hour long massages are just $6. We may or may not have taken advantage of that…twice…a fair warning: a Balian massage involves a stomach rub which, uh, anyone bigger than a size two might find slightly self-conscious. We also ended up in a couples massage setting, so thank god I had practice with naked friendships back in Tunis).
We also decided (ok, I say “we”. I was very enthusiastic and Alyssa, bless her heart, finally agreed begrudgingly at the last minute) to try a fish pedicure. I’d seen this years ago on an episode of the ill-fated Juan Pablo season of The Bachelor and had wanted to try it ever since. There were several places that offered this around the city, though the one we decided to go with was kitty-corner from the Ubud Palace (more on that below). It was attached to a gift shop that required you to input your nationality for each purchase. After telling the workers that we were American, we purchased a ten-minute pedicure and were then examined for any open sores that might bring infection to the tank. That made me feel a bit better, as the one concern I had was the cleanliness of the pedicure. It was good to see that there were standards!
As soon as we put our feet in the water the fish swarmed - it was like an actual feeding frenzy. Their mouths are tiny so it doesn't hurt but it was definitely one of the strangest sensations I have ever experienced, especially knowing that the ticklish feeling was coming from animals who were literally eating me. I liked it though. Hilariously, the fish enjoyed Alyssa more than me so I spent most of our ten minutes laughing my ass off at her quite obvious discomfort as they completely covered her feet and lower legs – she had about 70% of the fish on her, whereas 30% were with me. They can smell fear, I tell ya!
In regards to actual touristy things to do, Ubud doesn’t disappoint. As I quoted Alyssa above, the entire city looks straight out of some adventure story. It seemed as though every third building was a historic temple! I’ve never been anywhere like it and I’ve been a fair few number of places. Before we arrived in Bali, Alyssa and I marveled at the fact that very few tourists visit the rest of Indonesia. “Why do people only go to Bali?” we kept asking ourselves. But upon arriving in Bali and Ubud, it was easy to see. The rest of the country is great and I recommend going, but Bali really is something incredibly special.
Case in point: on the small street that our hostel was on, we walked past several small temples on the way to the main street which was only 1,000 feet (300m) away. For lunch one day, we stopped in at Ary's Book Cafe, a little restaurant with Indonesian fare. We sat in their lush back garden, sipping coconut milk and taking in the temples and back porches of the nearby buildings. It was the day before my 30th birthday and between the coconut, the curry, and the views, I cannot imagine a better way to have said goodbye to my 20s.
In addition to the seemingly thousands of small temples that are literally everywhere, Ubud also has the Ubud Palace, which is an absolute sight to behold. While it was originally built in the early 19th century, an earthquake in 1917 destroyed a lot of the structures and they had to be rebuilt. This was by far the busiest place in Ubud so I didn't take many pictures because they would have just been full of people. But here is a snapshot of the main gate, which is representative of the entire palace. Apparently the same family still lives there, the lucky bastards. We spent about 40 minutes exploring the rather compact site, craning over the heads of the other tourists in order to gawk at the incredibly Balian architecture.
Finally, if you ever find yourself wanting to escape the hectic nature of the city, there are plenty of options. Of course there are many day trips from which to choose (see my other posts from Bali), but even in the city itself there are respites. Our first morning we were exploring the city when we came across a sign that said “this way to the magical rice field!”, pointing down a small alleyway. Never ones to pass up adventure, we followed the little path. About a kilometer later we were in what felt like the middle of nowhere. A narrow dirt path lined with palm trees led us through a large rice field, flanked by a palm-filled jungle and colorful houses. It was so calm and lovely - especially considering we were so close to the very busy city center. Bali is one of the most densely-populated places that I have been, so to stumble across a small patch of nature in the middle of such chaos was really revitalizing.
As I said at the beginning, I have only ever stayed in Ubud so cannot tell you whether or not it is better or worse than any other city on Bali. But I would absolutely recommend making it your base for the island. It’s touristy and crowded, so be prepared for that, but the locals are kind, everything is cheap as hell, and the Adventureland-vibe is to die for.