Ubud, Bali, is a big enough town to allow for many different experiences: There’s the health and fitness Ubud, with yoga and Pilates classes, Reiki healing energy sessions, vegan cafés, and “detox” drinks. There’s the adventure-travel Ubud, with excursions for whitewater rafting, sunrise hikes up 6,000-foot volcanoes, and bike tours through the blazing heat. There’s the happy-hour and late-night partying Ubud (although there’s much less of that here than in the resort areas in southern Bali). There’s also Ubud the historical center of Balinese traditional and evolving art forms. That’s the one we ended up focusing on (not surprisingly).
During our nine-day stay in Ubud, we visited two art museums and saw some of Bali’s best paintings and wooden sculptures from the past two centuries. We went to a textile museum and shop full of gorgeous woven fabrics from around Indonesia. There, we watched a fascinating film about how the museum had organized a series of conferences for indigenous weavers from different Indonesian islands to help them share knowledge about dye plants and techniques, document and encourage their traditional designs, and learn skills to help them organize weaving coops in their communities. (It prompted us to add several other islands to our travel wish list.)
Ubud is a center for traditional Balinese dance, and performances take place every evening. We saw one of the most dramatic: the kecak, or monkey dance. It enacts scenes from the Hindu epic the Ramayana and combines vocal music, dance, and drama. It’s performed by firelight, with the score coming entirely from intricate, percussive chanting by the male chorus. We found the performance hypnotic and beautiful; it felt both intricate and very primal. We also watched boys and girls practicing traditional dances at the palace (see our Ubud galleries for photos). And at a temple ceremony across the street from our guesthouse, we saw a traditional barong dance, featuring a mythical Balinese creature that looks like a cross between a Chinese dragon and a pantomime horse.
At workshops around town, we talked to painters, wood carvers, batik artists, and makers of traditional palm-leaf books. Many expressed pride at passing their craft on to their children and grandchildren, but they lamented the toll that tourism has taken on the arts around Ubud. Mass tourism has encouraged a flood of mass-produced souvenirs, with many visitors more interested in getting something cheap than in paying more for work that displays traditional craftsmanship and might take days or weeks to complete. As a result, demand at the quality galleries has declined, and it’s harder for artists to get the galleries to take their work. At the same time, opportunities for tourism-related income—such as running a guesthouse or driving a taxi—have expanded, so fewer people are working as artists.
Besides looking at and talking about art, we tried our hands at making things ourselves. We took a class at one of the museums in making the kind of small woven mats, trays, and cones used in offerings and decorations for shrines (it was origami with palm and banana leaves). Melissa also took a batik class and spent a day learning how to draw on fabric with wax and paint. We both love the colorful painting she made, of leaves and flowers and an orange phoenix. And we discovered that there’s no nicer way to spend a hot afternoon than to sit on a shady, breezy veranda making something with your hands.
Most of the rest of our travels in Bali will be focused on scenic places—mountains and lakes, beaches and coral reefs. But we plan to return to Ubud for a few days at the end of our time in Bali to buy a few examples of the artwork we’ve seen and ship it home to hang on our walls someday (when we have walls again)!