In Ubud: not much to eat, a lot of prayer, no love


UBUD, Indonesia – My first visit to Ubud, in 2006, coincided with the launch of “Eat, Pray, Love”, the bestselling memoir of American traveler Elizabeth Gilbert, who finds inner peace and love. in this idyllic temple town. in the river valleys of central Bali. A place of moss-grown Hindu temples, winding alleys, verdant rice paddies and hidden waterfalls, Ubud was as enchanting as the book suggested.

Coupled with a Hollywood blockbuster (“Eat Pray Love”, 2010), the story helped make Ubud, long known to locals as the spiritual capital of Bali, one of the wellness travel capitals of the world. Backpackers, yogis, hippies, foodies, travel writers, billionaires, movie stars, rock stars, presidents – they have all come to Ubud.

By 2018, the number of visitors had reached 3 million per year and Ubud had become a city. Shops and hotels have sprung up like mushrooms, accompanied by a food scene comparable to that of Jakarta. There were food festivals, book festivals, a live music scene, an art scene, a thriving community of digital nomads and Balinese culture and color everywhere.

But there were also problems. The traffic was horrible. Every afternoon the main roads were getting blocked and the city never knew what to do with all the plastic garbage.

Fifteen months after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and 15 years after my first visit, I returned to Ubud to see how the tourist town fared.

Before the pandemic, Ubud’s arts market was a hive of activity. Today, only a dozen traders still trade. Among them is Made. “I haven’t sold anything for two weeks,” he said. “No tourists, no food,” said the merchant next to him.

The food industry has also been hit hard. Bali’s Gianyar Hotel and Restaurant Association reported in March that 90% of restaurants in Ubud have closed.

“I would say that number is about correct,” said Janet DeNeefe, an Australian restaurateur who has lived in Ubud since the 1980s. Formerly the head of a thriving event and hospitality business, she now sells baked goods to survive. “Strategically, the right thing to do when the trade is bad is to close,” she said. “But I refuse. It is important that we generate some sort of salary for our staff.”

The Monkey Forest, a sanctuary and natural habitat for more than 1,000 Balinese long-tailed macaques managed by the local community, was Ubud’s most popular attraction before the pandemic, attracting up to 3,000 visitors per day . It was closed for most of 2020 and reopened in November, but visitor numbers remain low. “About 50 people now come every day,” said Lilit, one of 75 employees working for half the salary. “Because there are so few tourists, the monkeys get bored and leave this place. But they always come back at mealtime.”

The Campuhan Ridge Walk, a scenic hiking trail that climbs and descends a wooded ridge, had become increasingly popular before the pandemic. As the sun set, the path was often crowded with hundreds of Instagramers trying to snap the perfect shot. Now the ridge is silent again except for the cries of birds in the jungle, the chirping of insects, and the water rushing down the valley below. There are a few Instagrammers left, like tourists from Jakarta spotting photos with their phones. An artists’ village at the top of the ridge is also nearly empty.

Ubud is home to 12,000 people going about their daily lives. A thousand more foreigners live in the region and a few dozen tourists circulate there every week. But to anyone who remembers the hectic crowds of the past, it can look like a ghost town. “We’ve been to Ubud before and now it’s scary, almost like a dead city, like it’s haunted,” said Natasha Situmorang, a visitor from Jakarta. “All the stores are closed. It’s the saddest thing for people.”

In the central market is a billboard featuring a photograph of an impoverished Balinese man wearing a mask, surrounded by more than 100 photos of foreigners without a mask. A nearby plaque claims that 95% of Balinese wear masks in public, as required by law, while many foreigners do not. Ironically, the billboard, which aims to shame transgressors, was made by a foreign artist.

The Balinese are known for their tolerance and only a few tourists were deported during the pandemic. But there is a growing desire among the islanders to move away from mass tourism strategies towards more sustainable and softer models of tourism.

In 2019, Bali welcomed 16.2 million national and international visitors, nearly four times the local population. But the island has never lost its authenticity or its charm. This is because the Balinese live, eat and sleep according to their Hindu culture and religion. There is still a ceremony, wedding or funeral going on, and these events have continued, albeit reduced, during the pandemic.

Many locals believe Bali escaped the worst of the pandemic through prayer, and worshiping their ancestors and gods will help bring good luck to revive the economy. It is a poignant illustration of the deep spirituality of the Balinese who have made their island a major asset for people seeking healing. So is their belief in how faith can overcome adversity. Or, as Gilbert said in his book, “God never slams a door in your face without opening a box of Girl Scout Cookies.”


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