Insider’s Ubud

Spa Magazine – May-June 2005

The mere mention of Bali inspires bliss flashbacks from those who have sampled its sweetness, but there is one town where Bali’s essence is at its most accessible. Where everything great about it is magnified. This is your insider’s guide to the vibrant spiritual culture, delicious, healthy cuisine and mind-body indulgences not to be missed in Bali’s cultural heart: Ubud. Follow our lead and maximize your personal harmonic convergence without breaking the bank.

Culture, Ritual & Yoga

Surrounded by terraced rice paddies, set next to a lush river valley, Ubud simmers with culture and spirit. Traditional dances are offered nightly, entrancing Gamelan orchestras provide mystical lullabies, Hindu ceremonies form and dissipate on the streets and in ancient alfresco temples, and the people are open, warm, and joyful, because the Balinese value harmony.

Tri hita krana is the Balinese Hindu philosophy that one must continually strive for harmony between individuals, harmony between the individual and their environment, and harmony between the individual and the divine. They achieve it through Hindu rituals practiced on Bali for over a thousand years. Everyday, women make offerings to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva at family shrines, and if you get to town before the shops open you’ll see them kneeling with banana leaf prayer baskets, or canangs, filled with flowers and rice, trailing aromatic plumes of incense smoke. During devotional months there are evening ceremonies in neighborhood temples. The priest, or mangku, leads meditations in which four generations of revelers, dressed in sarong and sash, sit knee to knee and pray for harmony. Before and after, the mangku sprinkles the group with floral-infused holy water, which is sipped to drive away negative thoughts. Wayan Astra, 25, a local photographer, explained that nearly all Balinese participate in the rituals regularly because it helps them cultivate peace of mind. He says, “It’s a call, a connection.”

Ubud’s palpable spiritual core is what makes it the perfect place to develop or fine-tune a yoga practice. The Balinese are not hatha yogis. They do not practice asana, but their daily rituals are a classic example of bhakti or devotional yoga. And it’s that pervasive spiritual commitment that attracts Western yogis to Ubud in ever increasing numbers.

An internet search for Bali retreats reveals several options, but most are priced in US dollars and require a lengthy stay. Bali Spirit Yoga offers daily Vinyasa Hatha and Iyengar classes for about $6. Owned and operated by New York transplant Meghan Tappenheim, the spacious and earthy loft studio, redesigned by Tappenheim and husband Kadek Gunarta, overlooks a traditional Balinese compound and garden, has Indonesian hardwood floors with a Mandala in the center, and all necessary props. Bali Spirit Yoga also hosts inexpensive half-day workshops, presented by traveling instructors. Lance Schuller, of Byron Bay, Australia’s Inspya Yoga, teaches in Ubud three times annually and says, “This is the perfect place for yoga. The warm climate, loving people and spiritual culture enable my students to shed the layers created by Western culture, focus on their practice, and feel in harmony with nature and themselves.”

Day Spas

Wellness and harmony go hand in hand, and in Balinese healing tradition bodywork is considered vital to maintaining both. That’s one reason why Ubud, a town of 5 square miles, is home to dozens of day spas. Nur Salonfirst introduced traditional Javanese Lulur baths to tourists. The baths became a huge hit that inspired an island-wide industry, and lulur remains Nur Salon’s signature service. For $15 clients receive a relaxing, Balinese style therapeutic massage, followed by skin exfoliation, a yogurt scrub and a hot bath infused with tropical flowers.

Kenco Reflexology offers no frills service for less than $5. You know a place is really into foot massages when the photographs on the wall are of hands rubbing feet. Inside Kenco are 5 pleather recliners where therapists use seemingly double-jointed thumbs to hammer, drill, snap and rub the heel, arch and metatarsals for 30 minutes. While it may not feel great at the time, when you leave jelly legged and smiling, you will likely become another reflexology convert.

17 years ago Ketut Arsana, 43, opened Bodyworks in his family compound – a 15th century replica rife with tropical plants and flowing fountains. Before long it became the most popular spa in town. When he was very young Arsana shadowed his grandfather, a revered traditional healer or balion, while he treated villagers. As a teenager he perfected massage, energy balancing and chakra healing techniques and became a sought after healer in his own right. He began training local therapists after he opened Bodyworks, and his instruction runs deep. “I teach technique, but technique is just physical. Healers must meditate and trust in God. That gives you the power to heal,” he says.

Bodyworks’ menu includes three massage types, lulur, seaweed, and milk baths, and yogurt and body scrubs. All for under $15 each. Arsana has worked on celebrities like Mick Jagger, David Bowie and Richard Gere, yet despite his packed schedule continues to counsel and heal locals for free. “I do it for love not money,” he says. “When you have a spiritual practice, you channel energy and love and people are attracted to that. That’s why everyone comes to Bali. There is a lot of love here. The energy helps you grow and open, and feel beautiful because you can connect with your heart and soul.”

Organic Dining

Ubud is a great eating town where culinary harmony, in the form of spicy Indonesian dishes, outstanding seafood, abundant, succulent fresh fruit, and spectacular fusion cuisine, is easy to find. But there are two places that stand out, and for different reasons.

When Paolo Righetti, a green entrepreneur from Switzerland, bought the struggling Bali Buddha Café, he expanded and remodeled it to look and feel like a living room, built a bakery, and developed relationships with local, organic farmers. Four years later, he serves backpackers, traditional tourists, and local expats regularly. The café is managed, per Balinese tri hita krana tradition, to remain in harmony with nature. They only use organics, and Righetti even started an island-wide recycling program to manage his waste sensibly. “I believe we can all make a difference and have a responsibility towards that,” he says. Bali Buddha is the only place in town for herbal supplements, vitamins, organic Italian coffee, spirulina, and healthy, world-class baked goods. Their best dish is the Multi-Vitamin Nasi Campur created by local herbalist and chef, Wayan Nuryasi. This potpourri of red rice, tofu, tempe, mung beans, greens, sprouts, and seaweed, accented by spicy peanut sauce, is exquisitely presented on a banana leaf, and it’s the best vegetarian lunch around.

Naughty Nuri’s is not exactly a health food restaurant. It’s a barbecue joint owned by a Brooklyn-born Peace Corps vet and his Javanese wife, Nuri. There is sawdust on the floors, and patrons eat New Zealand beef family style at long wood tables. It deserves mention because on Thursday nights Nuri serves up top quality yellowtail sashimi – the same catch destined for high end sushi spots in New Zealand and Australia, but fresher. Each plate comes with a dozen thick slices of mineral rich dark red tuna that melt in your mouth. In the US the same plate would cost $25. At Nuri’s it’ll cost you $4. Come before 8pm because sashimi night always sells out.

Ubud has abundant lodging for all price ranges, and even $20 rooms can have incredible rice patty views (check for recommendations). Three nights should be plenty of time to enjoy all of the above. In fact, you will probably discover your own Ubud jewels. Because in Bali even wrong turns are right, and the best experiences – the ones that clue you in to the benevolent oneness of this chaotic universe – are often those least anticipated.

Sidebar: Into the mystic…

You’ve tasted Ubud’s sensual gifts, now its time to go native. During devotional months (check the Balinese calendar on men and women parade to temple nearly every week, carrying baskets packed with fruit and flowers. The temple shrines literally overflow with the colorful offerings. Smaller scale New Moon and Full Moon ceremonies are held in temples throughout the year. Balinese invariably welcome Westerners to their temple gatherings and will explain the ritual in detail. Don’t be intimidated. Wear the required sarong and sash, enter the antiquated courtyard, and enjoy a singular experience.

Cremations are also worth seeking out. If you see paper machie floats being constructed, chances are there will be a cremation in the area within days. Ask locals for the date and time, wear a sarong (that’s a must), follow the entrancing gamelan rhythms, and witness a soul send off that would make a Western funeral blush.


Bali Spirit Yoga: 44 Jalan Hanoman

Nur Salon: 36 Jalan Hanoman

Kenco Reflexology: Jalan Raya, across from the central market

Bodyworks: 25 Jalan Hanoman

Bali Buddha Café: Jalan Jembawan, opposite the post office

Naughty Nuri’s: Jalan Raya Sanginggan