With five main islands and about 30 smaller archipelagoes, Indonesia consists of over 17,500 islands and islets –6,000 are inhabited.
Bali is one of those islands and stands out for many reasons. Located in the Lesser Sunda Islands, east of Java, it’s the country’s main tourist destination. It’s also the only Hindu island in the predominantly Muslim Indonesian archipelago.
It’s no surprise that tourists from all over the world flock here. The Balinese culture is incredibly special – like nowhere else we’ve experienced.
We first came to Bali in 2011 as part of a year-long backpacking sabbatical. When deciding where to go for a winter sabbatical, Bali checked all the boxes: Warm weather. Cheap living. Friendly locals. Safe environment. Delicious, fresh food.
Bali’s popularity exploded in 2006, after American author Elizabeth Gilbert came out with her book Eat, Pray, Love.
After selling millions of copies, the book became a blockbuster movie in 2010 starring Julia Roberts. Soon it seemed every 40+ woman in the western world was flocking to Bali to have a spiritual awakening.
Ubud is the spiritual and cultural center of Bali. It’s here where many people (including Elizabeth Gilbert) begin their Balinese adventure. Just as we did so many years ago.
Many people envision Bali as a quiet, tropical and untouched paradise. And while you can find areas in Bali to have to yourself, Ubud is not one of them. We recall the shock from our initial visit to Bali – specifically, our arrival in Ubud. It wasn’t what we expected at all.
Endless traffic. Treacherous sidewalks. Nonstop requests from taxi touts.
Admittedly, we didn’t really understand the hype about the jungle town of Ubud. Sure, the architecture of Puri Saren Palace (“Royal Palace”), Saraswati Temple, and countless others are gorgeous. Ancient holy sites like the fantastical Goa Gajah (“Elephant Cave”) and holy springs of Pura Tirta Empul are certainly intriguing.
Whether it’s shopping at the Ubud Traditional Art Market, browsing The Blanco Renaissance Museum, or visiting the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, there’s no shortage of sights to see – or things to buy.
And then there’s the overwhelming presence of yoga. Every type of “yogi” imaginable is in Ubud, from the lululemon 20-something year old to the tattooed, barefoot hippie. Big, commercialized places like Yoga Barn and Radiantly Alive offer classes beyond yoga. Take your pick: Ecstatic Dance, Crystal Bowls Meditation, Cranio Sacral Acupuncture, Reiki Vedic Astrology, Qi Healing, and much more.
From our initial trip to Ubud, not much has changed – except more development and more tourists.
In fact, the central area of Ubud “desa” (village) receives more than three million foreign visitors each year.
Those we dubbed the “EPL ladies” are still here living their best life at their Juice Fasting / Detox Retreat. Others are attempting to find themselves in a fruit smoothie bowl. Wannabe influencers zoom around on motorbikes looking for the next Instagram spot – either a cliffside swing at Tegalalang Rice Terrace or a human-sized bird’s nest at Tegenungan Waterfall. And many a pioneering family look to live out their expat dream of raising kids in an affordable private villa.
While these individuals are quite disparate, what the have in common is Ubud. There’s something about being part of the controlled chaos, amidst the magical Hindu temples, lush foliage, and humid heat, that makes people feel alive.
While Ubud can sometimes feel like a caricature of an island paradise, authentic Balinese culture is still very much present.
In fact, it’s everywhere you look (as long as the Polar Alignment class doesn’t overtake you at Pyramids of Chi.)
One of many favorite aspects of Bali is the offerings that locals present multiple times a day known as “canang sari.” These small, handwoven bamboo baskets consist of rice, flowers, fruits, spices and incense. Sometimes a cracker, piece of candy or even a cigarette is added.
Locals put out these offerings as a gesture of gratitude to thank Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa, the Supreme God of Indonesian Hinduism, for their many blessings.
The Supreme God has many personifications – the most popular is the manifestation of the holy three-dimensional figure: Brahma as creator, Vishnu as preserver, and Shiva as destroyer.
Most any hour of the day, you’ll see individuals en route with their tray of offerings.
They look to place their gifts in auspicious areas: Balinese temples, entryways and small home shrines. As part of a larger offering, they also put offerings on the ground or in public spaces such as bridges. The canang sari ritual involves dousing a flower in holy water and sprinkling it over the offerings. The slow, intentional gesture each person makes, as if summoning the spirits, is hypnotic to watch.
There’s something grounding about observing this act in the middle of Ubud’s chaos. It’s a reminder that ultimately, we can create the peace we’re seeking – even in the most frenetic of places.
Like the gods, offerings are created, preserved, and eventually destroyed. Birds or stray dogs pick away at them or they become a victim of the incessant foot traffic. But it makes no difference. The cycle repeats itself within the same day, the next day and so on.
Yet another beautiful aspect of Bali is the friendly, welcoming locals.
Despite the shenanigans of so many foreigners, particularly in Ubud , the Balinese people constantly extend kindness. They are grateful for the life they live. And they see tourists as helping to make Ubud, and Bali as a whole, such a prosperous place.
We suspect their openness has a lot to do with their belief in the concept of “karma.” The Sanskrit word means “action” and essentially acts as a law of cause and effect. Think of it as the familiar Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In other words, good deeds bring goodness while bad deeds bring disaster.
Regulating the life of all beings in the universe, karma is the reason why things are as they are. It’s why Hindus believe some are born prosperous and with good luck, while others are born poor and have to struggle.
Good acts means good karma. If only everyone subscribed to this ideology – what a world we’d be living in!
Ubud comes from the Balinese word “ubad” meaning medicine. Well before Eat, Pray, Love, many have regarded it as a mystical place of healing.
And perhaps that’s why people come here. It says a lot when affluent westerners flock to a poverty-stricken country to better understand the world, and themselves. Solace, enlightenment, peace – whatever you want to call it – people are clearly searching for something.
The Balinese people seem to have that wisdom ingrained in them from the time they are born (maybe that’s the reincarnation taking place.)
For many travellers, reaching Bali is a long, 24+ hour flight. The time difference, especially if working in Europe or the United States, is particularly challenging. Extending our visa involved finding an agency to make arrangements, a harrowing motorbike ride to Denpasar, and a hefty fee.
And yet, even with all the hassle, visitors do it time and time again. Perhaps they know the value they’re getting.
They’re paying for peace – and peace of mind.
We get it. After our hosts welcomed us at their homestay, we sat on our balcony in the stillness of Ubud’s rice paddies. We listened to birds chirping, roosters crowing and of course, the rumble of a motorbikes out in the distance.
And then, a local Balinese man appeared with a basket of offerings. Thoughtfully, he placed each basket on to the family temple. Adding a stick of incense, he doused the display with holy water. We watched as he held up a flower, gesturing with care, intention and kindness.
Simply witnessing this ritual – one that we wish was part of our culture – is indeed, an act of healing.