I was so excited about Bali. The stories and pictures of natural beauty, serenity and the wonderful people and their culture. I only heard fantastic things about this little island in Indonesia. It seemed it had everything that you could ask for: Beautiful nature, spirituality, art, culture, you name it, Bali got it.
I should have known better. It's the favorite exotic destination for millions of people every year. Everyone wants to go to Bali, and with traveling prices never been as cheap as now, everyone can. And I should have figured that out.
The myth of the untouched paradise is well and alive. Even the most renowned travel bloggers praise Bali and it's almost like it's the holy grail, forbidden to criticize. Bali, paradise on earth. M'kay.
Well, to be fair, parts of Bali can be really beautiful. But it's not all flowers and love. So I'm going to be the grumpy old person here and tell you a different tale. If you want to keep dreaming, stop reading now.
After months on the gorgeous beaches in the Philippines, I didn't have a strong urge for more beach bumming so I decided in advance that my stay in Bali would mostly be in Ubud. I wanted some culture and spirituality for a change. I mean, Ubud is supposed to be the number one spot for reflection, soul searching and tranquility, right? But what do you think happens if you gather all these people with desires of the above in one little town of 30.000 inhabitants? Exactly the opposite of course! Here's what I found in paradise:
The hordes of socks-in-sandals
There. Are. Tourists. Everywhere. Entering Ubud, I saw the sidewalks overflowing with pale legged tourists wandering around on what seemed a confused hunt for amazement. Or high heeled ones looking for shops. And there are traffic jams. A lot of them. In this little town. Really?!
But back to the tourists. At some point I had to laugh about how they got herded around like sheep to see all the attractions like the Monkey Forest, Hindu temples and Dunkin' Donuts. But I didn't laugh that much when I couldn't get a single moment of peace, a picture or just enjoy the actual beauty without getting constantly bumped into.
The yogi wannabes
I consider myself to be a little bit of a hippie by heart, but have no desire to wear clown pants and an alpaca poncho to prove that. But in Ubud, that's the uniform of the yoga lovers, and there's a lot of them.
But the issue is not about people's interests or dress code, of that I couldn't care less (except that it sometimes is entertaining to see, no?). The issue is that it feels fake. You have yoga retreats. By westerners for westerners. Healing. By westerners for westerners. Organic markets. By westerners for westerners. The list goes on. There's so much going on in Ubud where no locals set their feet, and it's still called authentic.
It is sincerely sad to see how almost all the locals in Ubud seem to have been sucked into the tourism carousel. Everyone wants to sell you something. I mean, EVERYONE. I still haven't had a single normal chat with a Balinese that didn't end with her or him wanting me to buy whatever. And in Ubud the most common conversation is "How are you doing? Where are you going? Taxi? No? What are you doing tomorrow?". It is simply exhausting.
What about the prices?
Compared to less touristy areas, the prices in Ubud are high. And on top of that, you will be exposed to the fact that those prices will be salted. A lot.
Take transportation for example. I don't know how to drive a scooter so I had to use taxis to get around. I always try to use public transportation, but it's non existent in Bali. Anyway, it cost me around 150,000 IDR (~$12) going from Denpasar to Ubud in a metered taxi, about a 45 minutes ride. Going back would put me back 300,000 IDR (~$23)! And in town, the price starts at 50,000 IDR (~$4).
I try to minimize my food expenses by going to supermarkets and in Ubud I did the same. Bintang supermarket was compared to any supermarket in Denpasar almost twice as expensive. Why? One reason is because a lot of the products are imports, and the reasoning behind that is of course the demand from westerners to get the stuff they're used to from home! And finally, if a supermarket is mostly frequented by said westerners, why not raise the prices on the rest of the stuff?
I know some people thinks the prices are fair, even low, because they're about the same as in Europe, the US or Australia, for example, but we are not in Europe, this is SE Asia where you usually get a three course meal for about $5. And as the locals could never afford this, it's a perfect example of a place where the economy is being corrupted by mass tourism.
And speaking of getting from A to B, the only reasonable way to travel in Bali is on a motorcycle or a scooter. As I mentioned before, public transportation is more or less canceled and a balinese homestay employee told me that it was easier to find and use before, but since everyone has a two-wheeler nowadays, it doesn't make sense to maintain the public transportation system.
A home away from home
I don't know about you but when I travel, I love the feeling of being mesmerized and astonished by what the local culture has to offer. That things are completely different from my life back home. Since Ubud is a small town, I guess I assumed that I would experience this beautiful, authentic Balinese way of life. So it was quite a shock to see the streets full of gringos and aussies, going shopping in a Marco Polo store and having coffee at Starbucks. I almost expected an IKEA around the corner. And then I almost became a little sad that I couldn't have my Swedish meatballs.
Finally, some useful tips
Now that you have been a good reader and endured my whining, I'll leave you with some useful tips if you still want to go visit the scenes of Eat, Pray, Love (you knew the reference would come, didn't you?).
- Get a scooter.
You won't save the environment, but you will save a ton of money.
- Eat in Warung Dewa.
It's one of the few good and cheap spots for local food right in the center of Ubud. And don't forget to try their rice wine!
- Have a drink in the area at the football field.
It has a nice vibe and you can usually catch a live band playing.
- Wear headphones while walking around.
It doesn't matter if you're actually listening to something or not, the peddlers and taxi drivers will bother you less.
- See the rice fields.
Get out from the center and you will be greeted by amazingly colorful areas (and occasionally bare-chested older women working the fields).
- Join the expats for the quiz.
In Fly Café, there's a friendly competition going on every Friday and since it seems to be the hub for expats, which is an interesting experience.
- Visit the Monkey Forest.
It's monkeys, how can you not want to go? Entrance fee is around 30,000 IDR (~$2).
In the end I'm sure it's about expectations. While I might be greatly disappointed with Ubud being a Disneyland in Bali, others might enjoy the carousel. While I am feeling sick of the exploitation, others will find comfort in the five star resort pool.
Anyway, before signing off I can recommend another place in Bali that did catch my heart, and more about this place in another post. The name is Amed. Look it up and just go there.
What was your experience of Bali and Ubud? Did it match your expectations? And if you go there again, would you do it differently? Let me know in the comments below. And as always, thanks for taking time to read my rants!