I had heard that the best place to stay in Bali was not the beaches of Seminyak or Kuta, but further north in a wee little town called Ubud. The very place that writer Elizabeth Gilbert embraced the Love bit in Eat, Pray, Love. What I discovered though is that being asked to choose between Kuta and Ubud is an impossible situation. It’s kinda like Sophie’s Choice, except you hate both your kids.
Nicknamed the Island of the Gods, Bali has been a draw for backpackers, travellers, and expats for ages. I had been to Bali once before about 4 years ago. It was only for 4 days, and it rained relentlessly for every one of those 4 days, so I didn’t get to see many of the places I was keen to explore. And since I stayed in the Kuta Beach area, I didn’t have a great first impression. Kuta is party HQ on Bali, so I was endlessly hounded by touts asking if I wanted drugs or Viagra or massage or girls.
It really got under my skin.
Whenever a single guy travels solo, everyone assumes he’s there for sex or drugs or other “up-to-no-goodness.” You know what — some of us are there just to see stuff.
But I get it, the locals are trying to make a buck, and whiteys who’ve come before me have set a hard precedent to break. But that’s a rant for another time. So back to Bali.
Earlier this year I spent some time on the island — a whole month in fact, so I was able to see and do a lot more in round two. And I was finally able to investigate what all this Ubud fuss was about. I rented a villa with a shared pool about 2 kilometres north of the town centre. For the most part, it was pretty relaxing. Decent views, good internet, and cheap eats just around the corner.
Many locals in Ubud and the surrounding areas build these villas on the back of their property, seizing the opportunity to generate some extra income. The thing is, as a tourist, you’ll probably be staying in digs nicer than theirs, which doesn’t seem fair — but hey, if someone wants to put me in a sweet king-sized bed with A/C and mosquito netting while they sleep on a mattress on the floor, who am I to judge?
And those villas are popping up everywhere. Many mornings it was not the errant roosters that woke me, but the banging of construction workers on nearby developments. If villa life is not your style, there are plenty of Bali hotels for every taste to insulate you from the noise.
My villa was so new the owner was just putting out the sign the day after I arrived.
In Ubud, I rented a scooter to get around. Although both Uber and GoJek operate in Ubud, they’re often difficult to hail because there just aren’t that many of them around. A surprising revelation considering the amount of traffic there was. You’d figure at least one of the cars clogging Ubud’s streets would be an Uber every now and then, but no such luck.
If you’re going to be in Ubud for any amount of time, it’s worth your while to rent a scooter to see the area at your own pace, and avoid the price-gouging nonsense that taxi drivers here get up to.
Shop around because prices do vary considerably. I think I paid the equivalent of $60 USD for my scooter for a month for mine.
On my way back to my villa one night, a German guy asked if I could take his photo in front of a vintage car parked outside one of the temples. Innocent enough I thought. We got to talking about our travels and life and Ubud and he proudly informed me he was an energy healer, and a medium told him he had to come to Ubud to complete his training. He offered me some homemade liquor he’d acquired from a shop up the road, then commented on my “petrol slippers,” — saying my flip flops were negatively impacting my aura because they weren’t made of natural materials. “You’re walking on oil every day! Imagine what that’s doing to your body!”
Then he tried to sell me some crystals to remedy it.
That for me right there sums up Ubud. Instead of selling Viagra and massages like Kuta, Ubud is selling self-improvement and cleanses and meditation. Perhaps once it was a place for wistful reflection to get away from it all and do some serious self-examination, and maybe there are still pockets of that left, but I didn’t see any. Of course, I didn’t lose any sleep over trying to find it either. For me, Ubud is yoga studios and yoga gear shops and vegan restaurants trying to out-vegan each other.
An Israeli yoga instructor staying at the villa next to mine surprised me one morning when she left after only 3 days into her 2-week stay. “There’s no connection here, it’s too commercial,” she lamented.
Just like Kuta Beach and its party-party vibe, I had no connection with the yoga-vegan vibe of Ubud. It’s not that I have anything against vegans or yoga practitioners, but it’s just not my thing, and since there’s so much of it in Ubud, then logic dictates Ubud is not my thing either. I mean, there’s even a place there called Yoga Barn, which I assume is like Pottery Barn but with more bored housewives.
I mean, there’s even a place there called Yoga Barn, which I assume is like Pottery Barn but with more bored housewives.
So back to the point of this post — what is the best place to stay on Bali, Kuta or Ubud? Well that all depends on what sort of person you are, and what sort of people you’re aiming to meet. For partiers aiming for sex, booze, and drugs, or just plain unwinding, then Kuta Beach wins by a landslide. (Seminyak Beach is a little more upmarket if you want to avoid the party scene.) For those seeking in-your-face energy healers and commercialized yoga, then Ubud’s your best bet.
If you’re not looking for either of those things, you’re better off staying somewhere else. I know I will be next time.