Family Travel: Ubud, Bali

By 2018-12-20 23:26:08

Dive into the artisan's paradise

By Lisa M. Mulvey

From surfing to sunbathing to snorkeling, families flock to the coastline for Bali’s beaches. For just a few days though, set aside those swimsuits and head towards the island’s central foothills to discover the town of Ubud. Nestled inland among rice paddies and ravines, Ubud – known as Bali’s “soul” – is a mecca of art and culture.

Into the green

Driving north from Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport (DPS) in Denpasar – direct flights from Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG) are available and take a little under seven hours – through the villages that surround Ubud, the lush green jungles and intricately terraced rice fields with integrated water management systems of canals and weirs (subak), that date back to the ninth century are as impressive as they are serene. Only 90 minutes away from the crowded coast, Ubud offers a more authentic experience from unique museums to local dance performances and temples guarded by monkeys. Meditative jaunts through the postcard-perfect rice paddies to switch off from the hustle and bustle of city life also await.

Passion for the arts in Ubud is undeniable. As recently as the 1930s and 40s, artists in Ubud initiated a movement within the country that allowed for the painting of themes outside of religion. Creative freedom blossomed with zeal and Ubud instantly became the heart of Bali’s arts scene. Nowadays, Ubud boasts five art museums, a bevy of galleries, an iconic art market near the Puri Saren Agung Royal Ubud Palace, several wood carving studios, as well as gold and silversmiths.

Art, tradition, culture

One of the most unique art museums showcasing the vibrancy and heritage of Balinese art is tucked discreetly within the neighboring village of Mas. The Setia Darma House of Mask and Puppets is sprawled out in a collection of buildings surrounded by tropical gardens. With free entrance, but the option to leave a donation, you should plan to spend an hour or two meandering about. Kids will be enchanted by everything from gargantuan costumes to interactive shadow puppets, not to mention the intriguing tales associated with each mask, costume or puppet. Some of the country’s most established puppeteers hail from nearby villages with memorable shadow puppet plays held in Ubud. After, catch a Wayang Kulit (Shadow Puppet Play) at the Oka Kartini Gallery. Half the fun is finding it though, as it lays hidden beyond the Gallery.

Another hidden jewel within Ubud is the secret performance theater that can only be reached through the gardens of the Agung Rai Museum of Art (ARMA). Exclusively held under the light of the moon, ARMA hosts an awe-filled children’s performance of the traditional Balinese Legong dance. Be mesmerized by the intricate finger movements, fascinating footwork, hypnotic gestures and facial expressions. The whole family will be captivated by the intensity of the performers, the vibrant costumes and makeup, as well as the arresting sounds of Balinese instruments. After perusing art museums, sharing in the celebration of Balinese dance, music heritage and experiencing an array of traditional costumes and storytelling, take a stroll through Ubud’s most popular art market. Known locally as Pasar Seni Ubud, it’s located across from the palace – which is also worth a quick visit to snap some photo’s of the historical local architecture (free entry during the day). Most treasures found at the market are crafted in the neighboring villages of Pengosekan, Tegallalang, Payangan and Peliatan. Silk scarves and hand-woven baskets are particularly worthy of friendly bartering with local shop owners. Aim for about a third of the initial asking price.

Bookworms and snacks

The merciless sun requires careful attention to potential sunburn and dehydration. After wandering through the marketplace, head out at the intersection of Jalan Raya and Jalan Gootama for refreshing snacks at Tukies Café. This teeny shop is packed with tasty handmade treats from creamy coconut ice cream to mouthwatering mango creations. Fresh spring rolls and sticky rice pudding are also among the favorites here, but expect to stand in line as Tukies Café is a not-so-secret-gem in the area.

After refuelling, continue walking east on Jalan Raya until you bump into one of Bali’s elusive book sellers, Ganesha Bookshop. Owned by a famous Balinese actor and his wife, this modest shop started as a second-hand bookstore – curated entirely of the couple’s private collection. Over the past two decades, it has expanded to offer a vast selection of second-hand books; a collection of antiquarian publications focusing on Indonesia. You can also find new items covering topics such as Balinese cuisine, literature, language, arts and crafts and a reading nook for children. Ganesha Bookshop donates books to local schools, libraries and charitable organizations throughout Bali. A rarity, indulge in this charity-minded literary establishment.

Monkey business

Walking southward through the neighboring village of Padangtegal, travelers will soon stumble upon another of the area’s unique attractions – The Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary. Known locally as the Ubud Monkey Forest, it’s owned, supervised and maintained by the village. Around 700 Balinese long-tailed macaque monkeys, 186 species of trees including a century-old banyan tree and three distinct temples can be discovered among its 30.8 acres of forest. The forest is a place of spiritual and economic importance within Padangtegal, serving also as a site for research and conservation efforts. Guidelines are quite strict within the sanctuary and for good reason. Visitors need to be forewarned that these Balinese long-tailed monkeys have been desensitized to humans over the years and can be quite aggressive. Visiting the Ubud Monkey Forest with small children may be a frightening experience or it may be quite exciting. It’s worth noting that the endeavor is unpredictable – as are the behaviors of the monkeys that call it home – so keep your wits about you.

Upon leaving the sanctuary, head back north towards the center of town and Jalan Raya along the Jalan Monkey Forest. This heavily traversed road is saturated with boutique shops, galleries, yoga studios, spas and cafes. Pop in for lunch at the Three Monkeys Café located almost exactly at the halfway point. This open-air restaurant is sandwiched between the hustle-and-bustle of pedestrians and the tranquil rice paddies that lay behind the café. Only fresh organic ingredients give life to the eclectic menu. Ask for a tall glass of banana juice – it’s a fan favorite here!

For a more meditative adventure (and to lower one’s blood pressure after visiting the monkeys) escape to the rice fields for a peaceful day of trekking or cycling. Daily happenings within the rice terraces of Ubud reflect the slower pace of Balinese life. Farmers, artists and wildlife coexist in authentic beauty and have done so for centuries. Spas, shrines, eateries and art galleries dot routes that can be accessed via Jalan Raya near the town center. There are several paths within the rice paddies to explore independently, or led by guides found through hotel services and venues around town. If roaming solo isn’t appealing, choose a guide that can share local lore, is friendly with farming families in the area or can offer a more intimate approach to learning about life within the rice fields, rather than merely pointing out the most popular sights.

Whichever path you travel on your Bali adventure, make sure you save this gem for the last stop. With rich culture, a passion for the arts and a meditative vibe, it’ll be the Bali that you will want to remember most – truly the “soul” of the island

Good to know

• 100,000 Indonesian Rupiah (IDR) is approximately the same value as ¥51.

Useful websites: