Ubud, a town in central Bali of around 75,000 people (2020), is far removed from the nightlife bikini scene in Kuta and is regarded as the cultural center of Bali.
It is famous as an arts and crafts hub, and much of the town and nearby villages seem to consist of artists’ workshops and galleries.
There are some remarkable architectural and other sights to be found and a general feeling of well-being to be enjoyed, all thanks to the place’s spirit, surroundings, and climate.
While Ubud seems like a tiny town to outsiders, it is fourteen villages, each run by Banjar (village committee).
Ubud has overgrown, and some central parts are creaking under the strain of coping with the number of visitors.
That said, most development is sympathetic to the zeitgeist, if not explicitly designed in the local style.
Growth continues apace, but there are still terraced rice fields along the rivers, and away from the town center, regular, quiet village life carries on relatively undisturbed.
History of Ubud
In many ways, the history of the Ubud area (not so much the modern-day town) is the very history of Bali itself.
Ubud has a known history back to the eighth century when the Javanese Buddhist priest Rsi Marhandya came to Bali from Java and meditated at the confluence of the two Wos rivers at Campuan, just west of the modern-day town center.
A shrine was established and later expanded by Nirartha, the Javanese priest regarded as the founder of Bali’s religious practices and rituals as we know them today.
At this time, the area was a center of natural medicine and healing, and that is how the name Ubud originated: Ubad is ancient Balinese for treatment.
Other temples and monasteries were established over the next 400 years or so.
The temple complex at Gunung Kawi, and the cave temples at Goa Gajah (just east and northeast of Ubud), are architectural remains.
Many of the dances, drama, and rituals still practiced in Ubud today originated at this time.
King Airlangga ruled all of Java and Bali in this era, and his seat of government was located in what is now the village of Batuan, just southeast of Ubud.
The Javanese Majapahit kingdom conquered Bali in 1343, and the critical final victory was against the Pejeng Dynasty centered at Bedulu, just to the east of Ubud.
A great flowering of Balinese culture followed, and the ancestry of Ubud’s current day aristocratic families can be traced back to this period.
In the sixteenth century, there was a total transplantation of the Majapahit Kingdom to Bali as the Islamisation of Java forced them eastwards.
Power-flopped between various dynasties and feudal lords, but the Ubud area remained a vital cog in the multiple regencies that ruled the island.
In 1900, Ubud became a Dutch protectorate at its request, and the colonialists interfered little, allowing the traditional arts and culture of the area to remain relatively unchanged.
The modern era of Ubud perhaps began in the 1930s, when foreign artists were encouraged by the royal family to take up presence in the town.
From their Ubud base, the likes of Walter Spies and Rudolph Bonnet were instrumental in promoting an understanding of Balinese art and culture worldwide.
From the 1960s onwards, travelers arrived in earnest, primarily intrepid types, as the infrastructure was still minimal.
Since then, Ubud has developed rapidly into a high-profile, top-class international destination while maintaining its integrity as the center of Balinese art and culture.
Orienting yourself in Ubud is pretty straightforward.
The town sprawls for several kilometers in all directions, with all of the small villages within a five km radius of the central market being loosely referred to as “Ubud”.
If you choose a reasonably central place to stay, it is easy enough to get around on foot.
Central Ubud has three main streets: Jl Raya Ubud, Jl Monkey Forest, and Jl Hanoman.
At the intersection of Jl Raya and Jl Monkey Forest are Ubud Market, Ubud Palace, and the main bemo stop — unsurprisingly, there’s also a near-permanent traffic jam here.
Jl Monkey Forest, which runs south through town to the Monkey Forest, is a built-up area and home to a wide array of accommodation, art galleries, cafes, and several local services such as schools and a sports field, pharmacies, etc. travel agents.
Jl Hanoman, which runs parallel to Jl Monkey Forest just to the east, is quieter and makes for more pleasant walking.
To the immediate west and northwest are the villages of Campuan (Tjampuhan, Campuhan) and Kedewatan, home to some of the most upmarket hotels in the whole of Asia, with views over valleys sculpted by the Ayung and Wos rivers.
Directly to the south, past the Monkey Forest and still within a twenty-minute walk of the central market, is Padang Tegal which then runs into the southern villages of Nyuh Kuning and Pengosekan, about three km from central Ubud.
Directly to the east is the village of Peliatan, and then Teges and Bedulu, home of the ninth century Goa Gajah (Elephant Cave).
Climate in Ubud
Due to its elevation at about 200 m above sea level, Ubud enjoys cooler temperatures than the coast, and it is sometimes necessary to bring a pullover for the evening.
The midday sun can still be scorching, though, and the humidity often relentless; a lethal combination for an outing of ‘temple tramping’ which, in hilly Ubud, usually requires climbing up and down staircases.
(Head out early to beat the heat and the crowds) If there is a time to avoid, it would be the depths of the wet season in January and February — when it rains in Ubud, it rains.