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Deep in the mountainous centre of Bali, among hanging banyan trees and lush rice paddies, is a small town thought to be the Indonesian island's spiritual and cultural heart. With a name that comes from the Balinese word Ubad, which means medicine, Ubud has long been known as a mystical place, rich in healing powers.
Legend has it that as far back as the 8th Century, royal families from across the island sent their ill to Ubud to be healed, and the tradition continues today – with people from all over the world arriving in hope of curing what ails them. In the intervening years, the region has also become a sought-after destination for spiritual tourists, as savvy yoga teachers brought students to find serenity in what was then a sleepy village.
But following the release of Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, and subsequent movie Eat Pray Love (one woman’s story of finding happiness and love in a year of travel ending in Ubud), a full-blown health and wellness mecca has sprouted up, offering services and experiences that go well beyond mastering crow pose.
From sound healing and primal screaming to colonic irrigation and liver flushes, if you have heard of it – or more likely never dreamed of it – Ubud has it.
In Bali, there is a belief that gods and goddesses exist in the elements of nature, so for Balinese, the spirit world and the human world are constantly interacting. More than 90% of the population practices Balinese Hinduism (the rest of Indonesia is Muslim) and everywhere you look, women are making offerings of rice and brightly coloured flowers, blessing the things they interact with.
The people of Ubud are incredibly open, and foreigners are welcomed into the local religious world. If you have the opportunity to participate in some of the spiritual rituals, such as the elaborate cremations and traditional purification ceremonies, you absolutely should.
Bathing in the pools at the sacred water temple Tirtha Empul, for example, is an unparalleled experience. The temple, built in the 9th Century, has 13 ornate spouts, and each stream of cool fresh water represents a different type of purification, from fertility and love to protection from evil spirits. But you will need a guide in order to enter the temple.
In fact, throughout Bali, a knowledgeable guide will help you understand local rituals, put things into historical context and avoid faux pas. Dewa Nayoma offers everything from airport runs to full-day excursions and downhill biking tours. He knows practically everyone in Ubud and has a deep knowledge of Balinese history and culture.
Agung Pacung is another fantastic guide who can offer local insights you will not find in a book. Whether you want to go to the beach, explore the island or tour Ubud’s spiritual sights, Pacung will help plan your trip and provide an insider’s perspective.
It is common practice for Balinese to visit a healer – or Balian – before, or instead of, seeing a Western-style medical doctor. Each village has healers who use medicinal herbs and ancient teachings to treat their patients, and most Balian specialise in a specific type of healing; from organ and bone health to emotional well being and combating black magic.
Pak Man is a highly regarded healer who treats emotional, physical and spiritual problems in Kutuh Kaja village, less than a kilometre from the centre of Ubud. He sees patients in his home, and his British wife Lucinda translates (call 62-13-38-935-369 for an appointment). Expect to leave with a shifted perspective on your problems and possibly a few sore muscles – no one said the path to enlightenment is painless.
Starting at the very affordable price of 70,000 rupiah per hour you could – and many do – have a massage every day of your trip. At Ubud’s beautiful Tjamphuan Hotel Spa, massages cost slightly more – 288,000 rupiah per hour – but the intricately carved stone structure is worth a visit in itself, with pools, waterfalls and outdoor massage rooms looking out onto the Camphuan River.
With more understated surroundings, Iman Spa in central Ubud offers utterly sublime massages in a simple, clean space. The spa is run by Nyoman Suparsa, who is thought to be one of the best massage therapists in the village. He specialises in intuitive body work, which combines deep tissue massage, reflexology and acupressure. A one-hour massage costs 165,000 rupiah.