Bali, soul of replenishment

Special to the Los Angeles Times

On a steamy, drizzly morning, my friend Alejandra Cisneros leads us on a narrow dirt path through the flooded rice fields.

A few yards away, a dozen ducks march single file across a dirt berm, tails twitching, looking very businesslike. Local farmers hire the trained ducks to eat pests and clean the recently harvested fields, Cisneros explains, as we settle on the bamboo deck of Sari Organik, an organic restaurant.

These carefully terraced rice fields and the surrounding rivers are sacred grounds for the Balinese, an integral part of the spiritual soup that attracts mystics, seekers and legions of yoga teachers to Ubud.

Ubud (pronounced OO-bood) is where "Eat Pray Love" author Elizabeth Gilbert famously found love, making the jungle-covered town a sort of mecca for divorced women. Promotional photos for the movie version of Gilbert's book, in theaters Friday, show a blissful Julia Roberts bicycling through rice fields not far from our breakfast spot.

Planning your trip


From LAX, connecting service (change of plane) to the Denpasar airport, about 15 miles from Ubud, is offered on China, Korean, Cathay Pacific, Singapore, Eva, Thai and Malaysia Airlines. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $840.

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"People are very concerned about the movie coming out," said Cisneros, as she raised her arm above her head, trying to get phone reception in the rice field.

Cisneros, a California native, has seen a steady increase in the number of suburban refugees in Ubud since she moved here in 2004, long before the "Eat Pray Love" phenomenon.

"Something happened a few years ago," she said. "It was no longer that adventurous to go to Ubud."

Some Ubud locals call the book, which has sold 7 million copies, "Eat Pray Gag." Many dispute the extent of its impact on tourism, but it's not hard to spot women of a certain age in town, hopping between spas and meditation seminars.

At Naughty Nuri's, a roadside bar outside town where travelers gather on picnic benches to drink martinis and eat slabs of barbecued ribs, a sign on the wall announces, "Eat, Pay, Leave." (It's posted next to a framed article quoting Anthony Bourdain praising the martinis.)

In fact, Ubud has lured searchers and wanderers for generations, long before Gilbert's odyssey. In the early part of the 20th century, Westerners such as artist Walter Spies and writer Noel Coward made the trek, looking for their own forms of inspiration in the lush hillsides.

Today the center of Ubud bustles with scooters and minibuses shuttling visitors from the local hotels. Streets are lined with designer jewelry shops, art galleries, clothing boutiques, yoga schools and readily available ATMs. It's rumored that Starbucks may be moving in.

Not long ago a barbecue stand specializing in duck was considered one of the best local restaurants. Now there are rows of pleasant open-air bistros with expansive ( English) menus offering a variety of "contemporary Balinese and Asian specialties."

During our stay in May, locals were debating the merits of a new restaurant, Clear Cafe, which features an ultracontemporary design with white stone and sedate mood lighting. "It could be in San Francisco," sniffed one British expat. "It has nothing to do with Ubud."

In many ways, Ubud is a blur of contrasts. Not far from the center of town, the hills are filled with luxurious villas and high-end resorts with expansive infinity pools. But there are still Javanese teak bungalows for rent in the rice fields, providing a simple (un-air conditioned) Bali experience for less than $30 a night.

My wife, Lietza, and I stayed at the Hotel Tjampuhan, an 82-year-old hotel with lineage to Bali's royal family, a short walk from the center of town. Moss-covered carved stones and jungle flowers cover the hotel's steep hillside, which drops off to the Tjampuhan River.

Our room, which cost about $100 a night, was at the bottom of the gorge, making every journey to the lobby a sweaty hike up stone steps. But at night the room was quiet, except for the sound of the river and the unknown critters scampering on the ceiling.

In many ways, connecting to nature is an essential part of the Ubud experience. Balinese practice a form of Hinduism steeped in harmony with the elements. It powers all aspects of their lives, from the arrangement of living quarters to the daily offerings at every shrine and temple.

For tourists, the streets and hillsides around Ubud are dotted with spas and retreats, each offering its own form of healing, enlightenment and/or cleansing. In Penestanan, a village in the rice fields, accessible only by trails, the community bulletin board is covered with notices for yoga sessions, cooking classes and aromatherapy treatments.

Compared with most tourist spots, a nurturing experience in Ubud is a bargain, which is why many Ubud visitors quickly sink into a daily sloth of hot body rubs and banana wraps. Beautiful spas set in serene jungle environments charge $10 to $30 for treatments that would cost hundreds at a Palm Springs resort.

Lietza decided to stick to the hotel's spa, a grotto of carved stone with open-air treatment rooms overlooking the river. A 90-minute body scrub and massage session cost $33, which we were assured was extravagant, by local standards.

In almost every way, Ubud is a deal (except for alcohol, which is expensive because of a new tax). Without wine, dinner for two in a garden restaurant with fresh seafood and a chef willing to experiment with sauces can easily be found for $20. It cost us $3 to have a large bag of clothes washed and crisply folded at one of many spots on the main street offering laundry service.

To get around, we hired a driver for about $30 a day. His name was Wayan, which is not unusual — Wayan is one of four names used by most adults in Bali. (The names are based on birth order; Wayan is usually the first born.)

Our Wayan was a new father in his late 20s, who often showed up wearing a cockeyed yellow-and-red baseball cap and wide black-rimmed glasses that went out of style with George Burns. He wasn't much of a tour guide — he handed us a book whenever we asked a tough question — but he always appeared on time, with a wide smile.

The biggest tourist attraction in Ubud is the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, not far from the center of town, where pampered long-tailed macaques scamper the grounds working tourists for snacks.

Like many sites around Ubud, the monkey forest is a place of spirituality and worship for the Balinese, not a simple theme park. Once past the gantlet of squealing crowds, the trail leads through the dense forest to ancient temples paying tribute to an array of mischievous demons, known as barongs, which the Balinese believe inhabit the forest.

At Cisneros' suggestion, we bypassed some of the larger temples on Bali and instead visited Gunung Kawi, about 15 miles from Ubud. Wayan led us down the stone steps through a landscape of jungle and terraced rice fields to the bottom of the gorge, where huge monuments to Bali royalty were chiseled out of the stone peaks in the 11th century.

Another afternoon we visited Goa Gajah, a 10-minute drive from Ubud, a dramatic example of Bali's early connection to Buddhism. The centerpiece of the site is a stone cave with an ornate carved entrance depicting the mouth of an angry spirit.

Outside the cave, an ancient stooped man eagerly urged us to follow him down stone steps to a pile of huge rocks in a narrow ravine. Looking closer, we realized the boulders were the remains of an ancient Buddha, which had been lying in state for a thousand years.

When we weren't temple-hopping, Lietza was shopping. Outside the galleries and trinket shops of Ubud, many of the villages in the area offer their own specialties. Pengosekan is known for intricate baskets made of palm fronds; Sukawati is famous for leather puppets and gold-leaf fabrics.

One day Lietza grabbed Wayan and headed for Celuk, a village clearly geared for tourist groups, complete with demonstrations of artisanship and what Lietza recognized as inflated tourist prices.

When she complained, Wayan quickly took her around the corner to a less-traveled, smaller shop. She bought a pendant with a mother of pearl bas-relief image of a hummingbird, encased in sterling, for $20, one of her favorite finds of the trip.

While she shopped I settled into Tutmak, an open-air coffee shop in the center of town with comfy pillows, free WiFi and an assortment of international newspapers. In one corner an elderly Scandinavian couple studied Bali maps; nearby two Indian women hovered over a laptop, working on a flier for an Ubud yoga studio.

Tutmak is one of several gathering spots for expats in Ubud, which remains remarkably free of raucous bars and discos. At night there is little to do except hunker down in the restaurants or join the tourists for the traditional Balinese dance performances in the temples.

One night we met a half-dozen expats on the rooftop deck of an Italian restaurant, Black Beach, near the center of town. It was movie night; a TV at one end of the deck showed a DVD of a film by Italian director Luchino Visconti.

The covered patio appeared to be the highest point in Ubud, offering a cool breeze and wide views of the lush landscape. But as the movie began the sky darkened, the humidity rose and the air grew sticky.

A few minutes later a squall hit, pelting the deck with heavy rain, ensuring no one was in a hurry to leave. As we silently ate our pizza and watched the Italian movie unfold, the rain pounding on the roof, there was a sense of convergence and harmony, and for a moment the demons of Ubud were at bay.

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