Where Amed is a sleepy stretch of towns connected via small roads and strings of simple, local warungs, Ubud is something else. It is an at times rather absurd mix of the locals and their rituals, the new age crowd that comes in droves to do their yoga and spiritual healing and a younger generation that seems to have a hard time getting the more established artists to understand their work.
In the south of Ubud is the Monkey Forest, a sacred nature reserve in a small stretch of woods which houses a temple and hundreds of macaque monkeys. I start chatting to some guys that turn out to be part of a camera crew of four and have been traveling through many of the places I’d like to visit in Indonesia. They’re based in Jakarta and are shooting footage for a new television station.
We talk a bit about the places they’ve been too and how it compares to Ubud.
Inevitably, the subject of the yoga tourists comes up that seem to come to Ubud to get spiritual guidance, crystal bowl sound healings and some chakra fluffing done. The Indonesian guys laugh and teach me an Indonesian slang word: lebai. It means overacting and is promptly demonstrated by two passing tourists who are discussing how they can feel the ancient spiritual power flowing through them in this sacred Monkey Forest. I mean, like, can you feel it? My chakras are, like, wide open!
The camera crew treats me to lunch, I treat them to ice-cream and I am once again reminded of just how friendly the Indonesians are. There seems to be a genuine interest in people from other cultures and, unlike in other places where I’ve traveled, it doesn’t revolve around trying to sell you stuff.
Later, at my home stay, I speak with the head of the family about Ubud and tourism. He’s lived here his whole life and says it’s grown steadily since around 1995. It’s changed a lot too though, more and more people seem to come for the kind of new age spiritualism that none of the locals seem to have any interest in at all.
In Denpasar, some refer to Ubud as Kota Bule Bule, or ‘the white city’ which is clearly visible when I attend a poetry slam evening. The only locals present were serving out the food and drinks and just one local painter took the mic. Ubud is littered with ‘organic’ restaurants with high prices that are in stark contrast with the small warungs in other places. In Amed, the fish was caught fresh each morning and most produce came from the surrounding farms for about a third or a quarter of the price, making you wonder just how much more organic one can get.
Ubud seems to be as much an industry as it is a town. I am reminded of Daniel Dennett’s excellent talk on TED about memes, how they spread and how they can take over local culture and ideas. The Western new age meme seems to be quite infectious indeed. There are however, still plenty of local artists in and around Ubud as I was to discover in the following days.