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
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
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
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
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
If you want to rid your body of toxins, break down emotional barriers, heal the
wounds of love… or anything else really, Ubud might just be the world capital
for spiritual retreats, some of which include Balinese rituals and spirituality
into the curriculum.
Adventures, for example, was founded in part
by Kok Ratih, one of Ubud’s remaining royal princesses. With her as a guide,
programs include access to sacred temples, spiritual sites and ceremonies that
are not normally open to foreigners.
retreats focusing on love and writing, which incorporate sessions with Balinese
healers, treks to the ancient stone temple carvings at Gunung Kawi, full moon purification
ceremonies at Tirtha Empul, as well as performances by gamelan orchestras and
the beautifully costumed Barong dancers,
who act out stories from the Ramayana
through traditional dance.
Retreat Center in Tegallantang
village, about 1.5km south of central Ubud, feels like a futuristic utopia for
the holistic living set. The centre has a yoga space, seven stylish hotel
rooms, a crystalline swimming pool and unobstructed views of bright, terraced
rice paddies. Guests can relax in the infrared sauna – which uses radiant heat,
thought to be effective at purging toxins – and the Oxy-bounce stations – a system
where you jump on a mini trampoline while breathing pure oxygen, which some say
helps put oxygen back in the cells. There are also martial arts
instructors, masseuses and raw food chefs on hand.
Raw food, juice cleansing and detox retreats are on the rise in Ubud, with raw
food preparation seminars and certification programs on offer as well. Kate
Reardon, a naturopath and nutritionist who runs detox retreats at Ubud’s Natural Instinct
Healing said cutting out solid foods from
time to time is essential for good health.
“When not digesting properly, disease and malfunctions can happen,” she said.
“A liquid diet for a little while can create excess energy for your body to
Ubud is also home to a local hero of sorts, known as the Colon Whisperer. Suki
Zoe has been practicing her craft for more than 15 years, and said that a clean
colon can help with everything from serious digestion problems to better sleep
habits and clearer skin. “You change your oil and clean your teeth, why not
clean your colon?” Zoe asked. Her services are in hot demand and can have a
waiting list of up to three months, so book
early if you want an appointment.
In the past few years, Ubud has become something of a raw food capital, with
more vegetarian, vegan and raw food restaurants per square kilometre than New
York or Los Angeles. Local favourite Clear Café on Ubud’s main drag, Jalan Hanoman, attracts travellers
and expats with their extensive menu of fresh juices and healthy dishes ranging
from curries and fish, to raw tacos and salads. They also have fantastic raw
For a tasty meal in a sublime setting, try Sari Organik, set in the middle of a rice paddy behind Ubud’s main
road. The family-run, open-walled restaurant has spectacular panoramic views of
the terraced rice fields and serves healthy versions of traditional Balinese
food, such as gado-gado, a cold vegetable dish with peanut sauce and nasi campur,
a common Balinese dish with rice, vegetables, eggs and
peanuts. They also have an organic farm next
If staying in and drinking coconut water is on your personal path to
enlightenment, a savvy local businesswoman known as Wayan Coconut has a coconut
delivery business. Give her a call (87-861-135-698) and she will zip over
on her scooter with fresh coconuts (and straws for sipping) in tow.
Relatively new on the scene, Alchemy in Penastanan village,
about 2km south of central Ubud, is a raw salad bar and community meeting point
that specialises in mouth-watering vegan and raw desserts. Their raw
chocolates, pies and cakes are so rich and smooth, it is hard to believe they
are made without refined sugar, dairy or gluten.
Where to stay
If you need utter seclusion and five-star luxury to achieve Nirvana, book a
room in the Como Shambala Estate
overlooking the Ayung River in Bagawan village, about 12km northwest of Ubud.
One of the area’s most exclusive and expensive hotels, guests are treated to
stunning views, private swimming pools and handsomely appointed private villas.
There are also nutritionists, raw food chefs, yoga teachers and masseuses
on hand to help you along your journey.
If you want luxury at a significantly lower price, book one of the modern rooms
at the Infinity Villas in Tegallalang village,
about 7km north of Ubud. Surrounded by peaceful rice paddies, the modern,
two-storey suites are simply designed with beautiful teak furniture. Rooms are
equipped with a private infinity pool, well appointed kitchens, indoor and
outdoor bathrooms, and a fresh organic breakfast is served in your room each
So, will a trip to Ubud change your life? Kadek Gunarta, was born and
raised in Ubud and is now a co-owner of the Yoga Barn. He can remember when the village first got
electricity in the 1970s, and he has seen all of the changes since.
“People say coming to Ubud changed their life,” he said.
“I think coming here changes their perception.”
Correction: A previous version of this
article incorrectly identified Indonesia's most populous island. This has been corrected.