Mark Rogers visits two very different Balinese cities—frenetic Kuta and serene Ubud—and finds that the two add up to one complete getaway, punctuated with a few hundred pushy monkeys.
Yin and yang. Sweet and sour. Shy and bold. You can add the Balinese cities of Kuta and Ubud to this list of coexisting opposites. Both places have a lot of appeal: Kuta is a motorbike sputtering along a coastal road; Ubud is a dimly-lit massage room and the sound of wind chimes. Since only an hour’s drive separates the two, it’s easy to plan a Balinese getaway that includes both cities.
While Bali is a long-haul destination from the U.S., it’s a feasible and desirable add-on for travelers who regularly fly to Asia on business. Although locals have been welcoming Australians for decades, thus learning English in the process, it is high time for it to be a discovery of the seasoned American traveler.
Bali’s natural beauty—a collage of gorgeous coastline, swaying palms, and soaring volcanoes—has led to it being called the “Island of the Gods.” As the tagline promises, the lush landscape will make an instant first impression. Immediately afterward, you will come to the realization that you’ve arrived in one of the friendliest places on the planet. Exchanging smiles is great, but meeting a Balinese native and being able to carry on a conversation in English is a big plus when it comes to understanding the local culture.
CUTTING UP IN KUTA
My first stop was Kuta. I was booked into the four-star Mercure Kuta Beach Bali, right across from Kuta’s main beach and only a ten-minute drive from Bali’s international airport. Almost next door was the Hard Rock Hotel Bali, and a quick peek inside confirmed that the scene was expectedly lively.
If a traveler has his or her heart set on soaking up iconic, authentic Bali—the land of rice paddies and verdant jungle—Kuta will be a disappointment. The city has a bristling, seaside, tacky vibe and is packed with surfers, food vendors, tourists on package plans, roaming mutts, massage therapists, and champion beer drinkers. However, if the traveler is willing to go with the flow, Kuta is great fun, with a lively beach scene, lots of shopping, and pumping nightclub action. Massage enthusiasts will find Kuta a paradise, since there’s an abundance of legitimate and strictly therapeutic massage shops offering a competent hour-long massage for as little as $10.
Genuine glimpses of Balinese life do mix in with a ramble around Kuta. On my early morning walks, I was enchanted by the custom of placing daily Hindu offerings on the sidewalks. These are handmade creations not much bigger than the palm of a hand, made of natural materials—often a banana leaf containing a bright flower, bits of food, or perhaps a coin and a lit stick of incense. A sharp-eyed traveler will notice such beautiful offerings in the yards of houses or even being cast into the sea—mostly in the mornings. It’s a transitory moment of beauty; by noon, the offerings will most likely be trampled as the city goes on about its business.
One night in Kuta will be enough for some folks, while others will find it difficult to pry themselves loose from the town’s sybaritic surprises.
ON THE ROAD WITH BANANAS
While Kuta has the reputation of being a beach resort playground, Ubud is considered the cultural capital of Bali. Visitors can immerse themselves in Balinese culture here, attending live gamelan music concerts, viewing traditional dance recitals, indulging in spa treatments amid tranquil settings, and shopping for high-quality arts and crafts.
The 33-mile drive north from Kuta rolls out past rice paddies—green and sparkling in the sunshine—family temples, and deeply forested areas. I’d arranged with my driver to make a stop at the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, home to hundreds of crab-eating macaques. I’m a sucker for observing monkeys in the wild (and semi-wild), and I’d been told that this attraction would be right up my alley.
On arrival at the 27-acre sanctuary, I purchased a bunch of dwarf bananas from a vendor and set off along stone steps, wending my way past the colorful Pura Dalem Agung Padangtegal temple.
I didn’t have to look for the monkeys: They found me. They’ve been habituated to associate humans with food. I was told to be careful. Monkey bites are common occurrences, especially when a visitor is slow in producing a banana. Foolish or not, I soon had monkeys perched on my shoulders and pulling on my trouser legs as I offered up one dwarf banana after another.
Should you visit the monkey sanctuary, be sure to stow away your eyeglasses and cell phone, since monkeys have a predilection for snatching up bright objects. In my case, as soon as my supply of bananas was finished, the monkeys set off in search of another tourist.
UBUD’S SERENE DELIGHTS
A room in one of the small hotels and guesthouses in the center of Ubud will put a visitor within walking distance of a multitude of dining, shopping, and entertainment options. Jaylan Raya, Ubud’s main street, is filled with art galleries, antiques shops, and boutiques. There’s a sense of enlightenment in the air, as if most visitors were on a quest for self-betterment. Indonesian cooking schools, yoga studios, and art workshops abound. A visit to town can include: a tour of Museum Puri Lukisan, with its displays of Balinese art, a stroll along the grounds of the Ubud Palace, a dip into the lively local market, and a relaxing hour or two at Botanic Garden Ubud.
Ubud has plenty of restaurants specializing in Indonesian cuisine. Signature Balinese dishes include the omnipresent satay, as well as babi guling (roast pig) for more special occasions. At least one evening in Ubud should include a live performance of traditional dance and music. One of the most popular is the Legong of Mahabharata Epic, held each Sunday at Ubud Palace.
A popular Balinese proverb sums up the best approach to a Balinese adventure: “If you are happy, you can always learn to dance.” It can be applied equally to the diverse pleasures to be found in Kuta and Ubud.
Some tips from the concierge desk at the Viceroy Bali in Ubud: With Ubud being the center for fine arts, dance and music, we would recommend that visitors not miss seeing one of the many traditional Balinese dance performances, as well as making sure to visit an art village (e.g., woodcarving in Mas Village and paintings in Batuan Village).
For a more active day, visitors could take a hike or hire a bike to cycle around the beautiful rice terraces of Tegalalang or visit the famous Monkey Forest on Monkey Forest Road. No need to worry about how to get around Ubud, as Ubud is only a small town and much of it can be covered on foot.