Statue in Ubud

Backpacking Ubud – Exploring Bali’s Cultural Heart

The Indonesian island of Bali is hugely popular with tourists. It has a global reputation as a holiday island, attracting millions every year. Visitors to Bali often look at the island for two reasons. The first is the coastline beaches and party spots. And the second its culture and natural features. It is of course the second reason this post about backpacking Ubud shall focus on. The rice terraces in particular are a draw, as well as the unique Balinese temples following Balinese Hinduism. In this post we will look at what to check out when backpacking Ubud and what to expect in the area.

The Ubud area consists of a town and it surroundings countryside, villages and temples. The town tends to where most travellers backpacking Ubud base themselves, venturing out to the surroundings to explore. This has both advantages and disadvantages, as we shall examine.

When backpacking Ubud you will see that the town is also popular for it’s focus on the spiritual and healthy eating. The name Ubud actually comes from the Balinese word ‘ubad’ meaning medicine. I’ve personally never gotten into yoga and meditation, but I understand the appeal of Ubud to those who do enjoy it. You can find several retreats in the area and if your planning to do it take a look around online before committing to somewhere.

Ubud Town

The centre of Ubud town itself is rather packed with traffic. This being both on the road and pedestrian. The town is home to around 30,000 residents. There are over 74,000 in the local area. It feels a lot more than this though due to the number of visitors the town receives. There are countless restaurants here, as well as spas, hostels, hotels and guesthouses. These vary in luxury, everything from backpacker budget to 5 star accommodation is present. There are lots of shops here and a large market. If you need supplies or just want souvenirs then this is a good place to look for them.

There are several attractions in and around Ubud town itself. These are all within walking distance of the central area. This being focused around Jalan Raya Ubud with Jalan Monkey Forest being another main street running off of it. For reference ‘Jalan’ just means street or road in Indonesian.

As mentioned, most people backpacking Ubud will base themselves around here. Whilst going further out of town will mean nicer more peaceful accommodation, it generally can also increase the prices by a considerable amount. There is also the issue of what is walk able in the heat and how much you will have to pay the taxi drivers. Understandably it is Bali’s countryside that is promoted to visitors as a great place to explore and relax in. But the actual town of Ubud itself is a built up residential area.

In terms of shops Ubud has rather a lot of options, including plenty of fashion stores. You can find small convenience stores all along the main roads. The Ubud Art Market is large and regarded as one of the main souvenir shopping spots on Bali. If your looking for books I recommend Ganesha Bookshop.

Monkey Forest

One of the most popular attractions in the Ubud area is the Monkey Forest. Essentially it is a forest on the edge of the Ubud urban area that is home to over 700 monkeys. The forest contains 3 temples and other structures relating to Balinese Hinduism. The main one is Pura Dalem Agung Padangtegal. Aka the ‘Padangtegal Great Temple of Death’. It is used for worshipping the god Hyang Widhi in personification of Shiva.

A Monkey in the monkey forest in Ubud (backpacking ubud)
A Monkey

The Monkey Forest isn’t for the fainthearted, these monkeys know how to steal from your bags and get aggressive if you don’t let them. This tends to splits opinions about whether the forest is somewhere you should recommend or not. Personally I think it’s worth a look as long as you are sensible about it.

When I was there I had a large monkey jump onto my backpack. It unzipped it and took out a toilet roll that I had in there. I also witnessed several other people having their bags robbed by monkeys. So if you do go be sure to leave your bags back at your accommodation. If you have any water or food on display they will be on you as soon as they see it.

warnign about monkeys for those Backpacking Ubud
Even outside the forest area there are warning’s about the monkeys stealing your things….

What I liked about the Monkey Forest was the general feel to it and the scenery. It was interesting to see how the monkeys played with each other and the environment. I have seen monkeys all over Southeast Asia though and if your travelling the region you will too. So whilst I don’t think it’s essential for anyone backpacking Ubud to visit, it’s worth a look if you like monkeys and aren’t afraid of them getting up close.

Temples in the town

One of the main attractions of Ubud it is temples. There are several notable ones across the area. The town itself has a few that are well worth checking out. If like me you have seen Hindu temples in other Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Singapore you will note how different they are in Bali. The locals really have developed their own distinct cultural style. Even walking down the town’s street’s you can see this, there are statues dotted around everywhere.

Saraswati Temple

The temples found in the main Ubud town area include Saraswati Temple. It is a fairly new temple, having been constructed at the start of the 1950’s. It’s dedicated to Saraswati, a Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, art, wisdom, and learning.

It has a very scenic lotus pond which makes it one of the most aesthetically pleasing temples to visit. And one of the most well known. The lotus pond is a big draw for visitors to the town. I went in the morning around 10am and felt that was a nice time to visit.

Saraswati Temple. Visited whilst backpacking Ubud
Saraswati Temple

Pura Dalem

Pura Dalem is another interesting temple found in central Ubud. The ‘temple of death’ has some interesting statues. Particularly of Rangda, the Demon Queen in Balinese Hindu mythology. You can see all kinds of skulls and demonic figures here. I really liked this temple, it was my favourite from those inside the Ubud town area.

Statue of the Demon Queen in Pura Dalem. Visited whilst backpacking Ubud
Statue of the Demon Queen in Pura Dalem

And more…

When I visited the Ubud Palace was undergoing restoration work, so I can’t give a fair assessment of it. Its official name is Puri Saren Agung and it used to be the palace residence of the royal family of Ubud. As far as I know that family actually still owns the site. I did have a look at what I could there. There were some interesting statues (as with all the Balinese temples) and stonework.

Inside Ubud Palace - 2 Hindu statues either side of a door
Inside Ubud Palace

The temples in Ubud are a popular place to watch a traditional dance performance. Pura Dalem in particular hosts a well known performance. You will see shows advertised as you walk around the town. I actually watched one in Uluwatu instead but if Ubud is your only chance to see one then I recommend you take it.

You can also see other smaller temples and monuments around the town area. Keep your eye out and see what you can spot!

Rice fields

Although those outside the town area are more popular, there are some rice fields to be found here. It may not feel like it whilst walking down the busy streets, but head down some side alleys and you will be surprised at how quite it can get.

Rice field in the Ubud town area - backpacking ubud blog
Rice field in the Ubud town area

Campuhan Ridge Walk

The Campuhan Ridge Walk is a good way to get out of the town for awhile too. Its not that far from the centre and whilst it’s not the most mind blowing of walks its pleasant enough. I enjoyed it as a break from the busy roads in the centre of Ubud. You can see some good views of the countryside, including some nice rice fields. Just before sunset is a good time to go, so you avoid the heat. Or early morning, so you can be back before the midday sun. It doesn’t take too long to do and isn’t that strenuous. Take water as it can be hot though.

To find this walk head west along Jalan Raya Ubud. There is a turning into Warwick Ibah Luxury Villas & Spa. Look for the signs pointing towards the walk. they will say ‘going to the hill’ or similar. It’s marked on google maps so look for it there if you are having trouble finding it. Pura Gunung Lebah Temple is to the side of the walks entrance. It was closed when I visited but was nice to look around the outside and peer through the gates.

A view of the path and surroundings on the Campuhan Ridge Walk - backpacking Ubud (Bali)
Campuhan Ridge Walk

Eating out in Ubud

Food is a big deal across Southeast Asia, and Ubud is no different. You can find all different kinds of restaurants here. There are a high number of western restaurants which is no surprise given the amount of tourists the town gets. I had some particularly good pizza in a couple of places I found here. There is of course plenty of good Indonesia food on offer as well. And typical Asian standards like curry and rice/noodle dishes.

There are several good places along Jalan Monkey Forest and Jalan Dewisita. I recommend having a look along these 2 streets in particular when your out looking for somewhere to eat. Look down the side streets to and see what takes your fancy.

Ubud is of course famous for it’s focus on a healthy lifestyle and food is included in this. Look around and you will find cafes and restaurants dedicated to healthy eating dotted across the town. Earth cafe is a really good vegan restaurant here that has all kinds of different meals on offer. Check out there website to take a look at their menu. I ate here 3 times across 6 days (combined total) spent in Ubud as I wanted to try different foods out. It also has a grocery store underneath the restaurant which has a nice variety of stock for sale. I bought some chocolate from there which was nice.

In terms of drinking, as with the rest of Indonesia you can find Bintang on sale pretty much everywhere. It’s the country’s number 1 beer and all the restaurants will sell it.

Where to stay when backpacking Ubud

The centre of Ubud really is crowded with hostels and guesthouses. There is a lot of choice for those backpacking Ubud. Don’t expect to find big party hostels here like you might in other parts of Southeast Asia. These are more orientated towards relaxation and chilling out.

Personally I decided I want a small hostel with privacy curtains. And I didn’t want to pay any more than a few pounds for a night. I actually ended up staying in Ubud twice. I went for a different hostel each time, both of which adhered to my requirements.

The first was Dewa hostel. This is located along Jalan Monkey Forest, tucked away down a small courtyard. The second time was Kayuni hostel, located along Jalan Dewisita. Both of these are great options for anyone backpacking Ubud. They are on the cheaper side of the prices in town. And both have good staff members who can help you out with booking tours and transport. The facilities are basic but good enough.

Excursions from Ubud town

Throughout Ubud there are tourist agencies offering day tours. Hostels and guesthouses here will usually be able to book a tour for you too. They usually have contacts of the agencies and go through them. You could also rent a scooter and visit them yourself, if your a confident rider. Personally I can’t ride one, so I chose to to a day tour which took in some of the highlights. Its a good way to see several of the highlights for anyone backpacking Bali.

A Day Tour

The day tour I took part visited 6 sites around the Ubud area. I chose one that covered what I thought to be the standard sites. I would say this is a really good tour for anyone backpacking Ubud. It allows you to see a nice variety of sites in the Ubud area. Negotiate the price with your tour company. Hostels will normally have set prices they offer it at. The price is just for transport, you will still have to pay the entrance fee’s at each attraction.

Goa Gajah

The tour I took started at the ‘Elephant cave’. This is Goa Gajah, a sanctuary dating from the 9th century. There is both Hindu and Buddhist imagery here, reflective of the regions religious make up at the time. The cave entrance is the main attraction here. You can enter and look around but it’s the outside that gets most of the attention. Look for the bathing temple too. Its statues of women holding water pitchers represent 7 holy rivers of India.

Goa Gajah tempel entrance with mouth as door (Explore whilst backpacking Ubud)
Goa Gajah

Gunung Kawi

Gunung Kawi is an 11th century Hindu temple. It also serves as a funeral complex for a past Balinese Monarch, believed to be of the Udayana dynasty. It has some very impressive carvings here, cut into 2 cliff faces. There are also some spectacular views to be found here. Look out for them as you head down towards the temple area. The lush green side of Bali is definitely on display here.

I found this temple to be very peaceful and it was interesting to explore. I think the carvings are very impressive, they really stand out. Additionally the way the temple is set out across a river at the bottom of a hill definitely adds to it’s appeal. This gives it a very green feel, with the sound of water adding to the atmosphere.

Gunung Kawi stone cravings in walls. A highlight for those backpacking Ubud
Gunung Kawi

Tirta Empul

At Tirta Empul you can bathe in is holy water, which Balinese Hindus do for ritual purification. I didn’t choose to do this but you have the option if you wish. From what I saw it seems many people backpacking Ubud do chose to join in with the locals. The temple itself was founded in 962 CE and is dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu. It also has a scenic fish pool and other Hindu decorations. I enjoyed just looking around the temple complex.

The bathing area at Tirta Empul
The bathing area at Tirta Empul

Coffee Plantation

After Tirta Empul we visited a Balinese coffee plantation. Alas I do not know the name, and there are several in the area. We were given samples to try and had some of the coffee making techniques explained to us. It was interesting and nice to try the different drinks offered.

Free samples of Balinese Coffee and Tea
Free samples

However one of the big things here is Luwak coffee. Aka Kopi Luwak. This essentially is coffee made using coffee beans that have poo’ed out by a ‘Luwak’. These are small mammals known as the ‘Asian palm civet‘ and commonly called Luwaks. Some of the plantations use Luwaks which live and roam freely, which In theory I would be fine with. They can’t digest coffee beans so defecate them, which are then collected to make coffee. Unfortunately other plantations keep Luwaks in cages to do this. To me that’s not ok and there are huge animal welfare concerns here.

Its difficult to tell which plantations do and don’t use these cages. In fact it seems rather impossible for a visitor to really get any idea about whether the Kopi Luwak being offered them is ethical or not. So personally I won’t drink Kopi Luwak and I would urge you not to either.

Lunch – view of Mount Batur and Lake Batur

Travelling into the Kintaminti highlands we stopped for lunch at a buffet restaurant that had some spectacular views. It opened out onto a platform looking towards Mount Batur and Lake Batur. This really was an amazing view and a great setting for lunch.

View of Mount Batur and Lake Batur (backpacking Ubud)
View of Mount Batur and Lake Batur

My understanding is that there are several restaurants that offer this experience. No doubt your tour agent will have an agreement with one and take people there. We had to pay our-self’s for lunch, it wasn’t included in the tour. The price was reasonable for what we got. The buffet had a great choice and as a vegetarian there was plenty for me to choose from.

Plate of food on tour of Ubud area (Backpacking Ubud guide)
I piled vegetarian food onto my plate!

Tegallalang Rice Terraces

Perhaps one of the biggest draws for those backpacking Ubud is the chance to see Bali’s famous rice terraces. The Tegallalang rice terraces are perhaps the most iconic of these. These are the ones that fill Instagram feed’s and often show up when you search for ‘Ubud’ or ‘Bali’. How they work are that different owners own different pieces of the land. Your tour will take you to the land they co-operate with. You will then need to pay a small ‘donation’ to enter onto the land. In hindsight this seems fair given how many people visit this place – it’s a lot to maintain!

It does feel all a bit artificial. You are essentially herded in so you can walk around and take nice photos. then you are herded out. But thinking of it practically it would be hard for the farmers to cope with tonnes of tourists just tuning up and trekking all over the place without some organisation. So ultimately it’s a trade off that has to be accepted. Anyhow, it’s very beautiful and I can see why so many people backpacking Ubud are keen to come here and take photos!

The Tegallalang rice terraces - highlight of backpacking Ubud
The Tegallalang rice terraces

Oh and take note. If you want a photo with a local that will be extra. But can you blame them? There are also swings you can go on too. You have to pay big to get a photo on those.


Climbing Mount Batur

Along with a day tour, this is one of the most popular excursions from Ubud. I did it myself, booking through Kayuni hostel. Its an active volcano, and a trek up for sunrise is a great experience. It takes a morning to do, you are picked up at around 2am and get back around lunchtime. It can also be done from elsewhere, such as Kintamani. I have written a separate post to describe my experience climbing it. So pop over and take a look if you’d like to know more.

Mount batur is a great place to visit whilst Backpacking Ubud
Mount Batur

Going further out

There are some more interesting temples outside the Ubud area that could be visited from the town on a day trip. Pura Taman Ayun and Tanah Lot in particular are 2 that really impressed me. Personally I actually stayed closer to these temples to visit them. But if your backpacking Ubud and don’t have time to stay elsewhere in Bali then I would recommend a day tour to check these 2 out. As with Mount Batur I have written a separate post about these temples so take a look.

How long you will need when backpacking Ubud

For those backpacking Ubud I would recommend at least 3 full days in the town. This would be spending 2 days exploring the town and 1 day doing a tour. I also highly recommend a trip to climb Mount Batur. If you wanted to do this from Ubud then add at least 1 more day here. This is as the tour leaves at 2am and gets back around lunchtime. If you choose to visit Taman Ayun and Tanah Lot from here then add another full day and night on for that.

To break it down this is how I spent my time backpacking Ubud:

  • 1st day arrived late at night
  • 2nd day Monkey Forest and Campuhan Ridge Walk
  • 3rd day tour of the local area (the 6 spots listed under the above ‘A Day Tour’ section)
  • 4th day explored temples in the town, looked around the town’s market.
  • (I then departed Ubud to explore elsewhere, returning to trek Mount Batur from here)
  • 5th day arrived back in Ubud, looked at local rice fields and relaxed
  • 6th day Mount Batur trek. Departed the next morning.

It should be noted that I visited Taman Ayun and Tanah Lot from Cannggu. But you could also visit them from Ubud and they are really worth it. If your Bali trip is taking you along the west coast then I would say save them for a day trip from there. But if it’s not and your based in Ubud then check them out.

Backpacking Ubud in summary

Overall I definitely enjoyed my experience backpacking Ubud. However I would say that honestly I think it can be over rated by some people. There is a lot to see in the area and I think it’s really worth a visit. But unfortunately it can be over glamorised as a haven for peace, mindfulness and arts. Which can mean it’s disappointing to arrive to the reality that it is a tourist town. But get past that and you can find some really nice spots.

What i’m really getting at is that so many people talk about how chilled out and laid back Ubud is. And yes, they are right, you can find that here. But first you have to get past the crowds and the taxi drivers shouting ‘taxi?’ at you every 5 steps. Once you find some good spots and get into the flow of things it’s a nice place to stay in.

As a solo traveller Ubud isn’t the most social of places. Which was fine as I kept myself busy exploring. I talked to people on the tours I took and in Dewa hostel I did meet a couple of people to chat to. I actually saw one of them again on Gili Air so that was good. And the 2nd time I was in Ubud at Kayuni hostel with a friend i’d made in Amed anyway. I’m sure there are ‘social’ hostels in Ubud that you can stay in if you want that vibe. But the rest of the town doesn’t really have any backpacker bars or hangouts. Not that I could see anyhow. There are bars here but more orientated at those who want to sit at a table with their partner or friend.

The trouble with Instagram…

All those beautiful spots you are seeing on Instagram? They take some effort to find. And often you have to pay. And follow the ‘rules’. My point being Ubud has these nice spots but they can often be crowded and include an entrance fee. Of course this is no different from from many tourist spots across the world. However Ubud particularly stands out to me.

If your seeing these amazing images of hotel pools in the jungle and so forth on Instagram then you will know what I mean. These pictures just aren’t the reality for 99% of those backpacking Ubud. This is where I think there a problem. The image of Ubud being projected and the reality of when you are there just do not match. Sure, you can find these places. But they cost way more than the average backpacking budget and are located out of Ubud town. Not ideal for backpackers!

Its not the hotel pics, it’s the way Ubud is portrayed as being very green and lush too. Yes there are plenty of areas like this around. But the town itself is covered in concrete with cars and motorbikes everywhere. And even heading out into the greenery your going to see lots of tourists and your not going to be far from a road.

In all honestly you could probably talk about this problem in relation to a whole host of spots across Southeast Asia. Thailand seems to get a lot of this, particularly it’s more popular islands. But honestly Bali tops it for me, and Ubud is centre of that. So I just say please, don’t have expectations based on photos that are obviously taken at resorts. They don’t reflect what the area is really like. They create unrealistic expectations which only result in disappointment.

Self awareness (a disclaimer?)

Understandably I am looking at backpacking Ubud, rather than visiting as a relaxing holiday. Its my general style of travel and what this blog is about. Even when I stay in hotels etc I am generally doing backpacker type things. I like to be active rather than lazing around a pool. Not that backpackers don’t do that from time to time, I just mean as a general focus. Therefore my opinion of Ubud is based on it’s appeal as backpacking destination, rather than a relaxing holiday spot. This no doubt effects my perception of the place for which I am aware. For those that can afford it there is definitely luxury to be found in Ubud. And for some holiday makers it will of course work out quite cheap compared to their own country.

Should you go?

Personalty I think Ubud makes a great addition to any trip to Bali. I would say it’s actually one of the best places to visit on the island. It’s well worth adding to any longer Southeast Asia trip too. A nice stop on any journey through Indonesia for sure. Just temper your expectation with the realism of what it being a popular tourist destination translates into. It is a nice place that suffers from over glamorisation. It is a tourist focused area that is worth exploring. It’s a nice place to visit for a few days and has some great spots.

I loved the temples in Bali and especially in Ubud. I think the Balinese Hindu imagery is really interesting. Taking a day tour and visiting Mount Batur were two of the highlights of Bali for me. And I enjoyed the food! So yes, I recommend visiting Ubud. Just be aware when looking through social media of what is and isn’t realistic for your trip. And if you do backpacking Ubud, I hope you have fun!

Posing at the Tegallalang rice terraces
Me posing at the Tegallalang rice terraces

Thanks for reading this post about backpacking Ubud. I hope it has given you an understanding of the area. If your planning a visit yourself I hope it has helped you out.

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Backpacking Ubud - Exploring Bali's Cultural Heart

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