Ubud, known as the spiritual, cultural and arts centre of Bali, is where the island’s pilgrims have traditionally come to drink the holy water and bathe in the nearby holy springs of Pura Tirtha Umpul. These days, modern-day pilgrims from around the world also descend in droves, keen to tap into the mystical energy of Bali.
While Bali holidays have been more commonly associated with the Bintang-swilling, sun-worshipping, surf-seeking brigade, the gradual shift into the realms of spiritual tourism can be traced back to the bombs of 2002.
As mass tourism ground to a halt, island resident Megan Pappenheim and her Balinese husband, Kadek Gunarta, set up the website balispirit. Their aim was to revive Bali’s stricken industries, and to preserve its environment, culture and spirituality by attracting a different kind of tourist to the island.
In time they also opened a vegetarian café and yoga wear shop, created Bali Spirit Festival, and co-founded Yoga Barn. "We wanted to inspire other people to do the same," says Pappenheim. And inspire they did.
These days Ubud is brimming with yoga and healing centres, vegetarian cafes and inspirational wellness retreats. New age Western-style healers ply their arts alongside traditional Balinese priests and balians (healers), so you get your chakras tuned, have a ritual soul blessing, sign up for a crystal healing session, learn Buddhist meditation, detox, do a juice fast, lose yourself in ecstatic dance, have your colon irrigated, get some sound medicine, and delve into your past life.
"Its spiritual appeal means there are filters on tourism, so at least we don’t have drunk tourists tearing around on motorbikes."
Name a holistic therapy and Ubud’s got it. Throw in beautiful scenery, mystic traditions and the warmth and friendliness of the Balinese, and you have all the ingredients for the ultimate wellness holiday.
The book and movie Eat Pray Love, further consolidated Ubud’s holistic appeal, and created the phenomenon of what expats call ‘the eat pray lovers,’ who still appear in Ubud, book in hand, searching for Ketut, a Balinese healer and central character in the novel. It’s a far cry from the sleepy arts village of 15 years ago. Even enlightened tourists need transport and places to stay, and as buses jam the narrow streets and the footpaths heave with tourists, there are concerns that the once-idyllic village is being overrun.
Yet the Balinese are nothing if not resilient, and much as historically they took waves of foreign traders arriving on their shores, and the advent of Islam in their stride, so too they have accepted the dawning of the age of spiritual tourism.
"We have something very special that people are looking for, and we are happy to have the chance to share the energy of Ubud," says Gunarta, who was born and raised in Ubud. He adds, "Its spiritual appeal means there are filters on tourism, so at least we don’t have drunk tourists tearing around on motorbikes."
At the heart of Balinese Hinduism is the notion of duality; the sekala and niskala (the seen and the unseen), the darkness and the light. It’s all about balance, and maintaining a harmonious coexistence with the forces of both good and evil. "The dramatic transition from arts village to holistic mecca has been both good and bad," says Gunarta. Westerners have introduced different concepts, ideas and holistic practices which blend well with Balinese healing traditions. "It’s a good process," he says, "locals have become more interested in spiritual health, some are becoming yoga teachers, and bringing their teachings back to their own villages."
Yet, as traditional communities around the world have discovered, tourism is often a double-edged sword and not everybody is profiting from the economic boom. Rising prices mean many locals can no longer afford to live there. "Land conversion is the biggest problem," says Gunarta. The Balinese are married to the land, when the land is taken, so too is the culture."
For Westi and Lilir who run Bali Herbal Walks, the goal is sustainable tourism. The couple work hard to revive and preserve the heritage of herbalism, for the sake of the young generation of Balinese, and for the tourists who flock to the island."
As Westi says, "You must have an income, but it should be a positive income, whereby you also look after the environment and share ancient knowledge."
Your guide to Ubud
What The island’s original health food cafe has been serving up tasty vegetarian food in chilled out surrounds for close to 20 years. Spearheading the organic movement in Bali, they support local farmers, producers and artisans.
Why From nourishing soups and salads, to hearty wholefoods, gluten-free breads and nutritious treats, this is a one-stop holistic shop. Ethical, sustainable and community-oriented, Bali Buda is also the place to stock up on natural cleaning products, soaps and organic produce.
What A buzzing raw food café and juice bar with self-serve breakfast parfait bar (think almond goji crumble, berry chia jam, cashew milk), salad bar and holistic healing centre upstairs. A cooking school is also in the works.
Why Alchemy has the best raw desserts in town. Raw chocolate not only tastes great, it is packed with Anandamide, known as ‘the love chemical,’ so makes you feel great too. Indulge in homemade bounty bars, heart-shaped M! LK bars, and the ‘orangutang’, a raw cheesecake made with a creamy blend of fragrant chocolate mousse, cocoa crust and essential orange oil.
Sakti Dining Room@ Fivelements
What Raw food gets a fine-dining makeover at Sakti restaurant housed in a soaring bamboo building on the banks of the Ayung River. Forget the raw/vegan label, this is world-class, stand-alone cuisine.
Why The seven-course raw degustation menu will set you on a culinary journey that is energising, restorative and quite frankly, amazing. Visit at full moon and join the agni hotra fire purification ceremony before or after your meal, or sign up for a raw food culinary retreat and learn the art of not cooking your food.
What The world’s first vegan/raw food cinema has popped up in Ubud, with an innovative menu and an eclectic array of films screened daily – from surf films, to documentaries, kids’ flicks and classics.
Why A fabulous retro setting lets you watch HD movies on the big screen while munching on a raw avocado soup, Mexican tacos and tulsi tea. You can also order from the macrobiotic vegan menu at adjoining Down to Earth café. Popcorn is, of course, organic!
What A vibrant, playful health food café overlooking the magnificent Gunung Lempah temple which nestles in a scenic valley amidst towering banyan trees. This is also a great place to stock up on homemade snack bars.
Why An extensive, mostly vegetarian menu spans the globe, with everything from enchiladas to curries to nasi campur, dragon bowls and raw pizza. Highlights include snow tofu with coconut crusted tofu, garlic mashed potatoes and tamarind sauce; and the green hornet, a divine mocktail blending raw cacao, coconut, cashew milk, spirulina and mint.
Reflexology at Kenko
What After a long day exploring the cobblestone lanes, or walking in the rice fields, sooth your tired feet with a therapeutic reflexology session in the tranquil surrounds of Kenko.
Why Reflexology is the application of pressure to the hands and feet, and relieves tension, improves circulation and encourages wellbeing. Longstanding Kenko originated in Singapore, and offers a signature blend of acupressure and foot massage that will send you floating into dreamland.
Where Jl Monkey Forest +62 366 975 293
Boreh Pijat Salon and Spa
What A traditional-style spa specialising in Balinese boreh – a warm and fragrant spice scrub made with ginger, cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. Boreh is a popular remedy used by fishermen and farmers on the island to ward off chills and ease aching muscles.
Why While many spas in Ubud are set up specifically for tourists, Boreh Pijat was created with locals in mind, and the salon provides a humble and very affordable traditional experience. The full package costs around AUD $20, and includes a massage, spice scrub and wood-fired sauna.
Where Jl. Gaotama Selatan +62 361 2021586
What Riverside spa pavilions at this enchanting, old school tropical resort provide a heavenly setting for lush spa packages. The sound of the flowing river will lull you into a state of absolute serenity.
Why Treat your lover (or a friend) to a ‘Riverside Special’ with signature massage, body scrub, facial and flower bath. Follow with a healthy lunch of "conscious cuisine’ at the River Café, where highlights include a vegan raw chocolate mousse made with avocado and cacao.
COMO Shambhala Estate, Bali
What A world-renowned health retreat with a 100 % holistic approach to wellbeing. The wonderfully secluded setting is ideal for those who wish to pamper themselves in reclusive celebrity style.
Why Signing up for a week long customised retreat is the ultimate wellness splurge, but if this is out of your budget, you can treat yourself to a day visit and indulge in signature treatments including Dead Sea mud therapy, Ayurveda, organic facials and hydrotherapy. Afterwards, replenish with nutritious cuisine at Glow restaurant.
Traditional Balinese healers
Ida Resi Alit
Who Bali’s only high priestess conducts ritual purification ceremonies from her family compound in Bangli, just north of Ubud.
Why Be prepared to get wet! It’s a water blessing and you will be doused with icy holy water scented in jasmine and frangipani while Ida Resi Alit recites soothing mantras. It’s all about letting go, so as well as feeling spiritually cleansed you will also feel lighter and energised. Make your donation to the small temple afterwards.
Cokorda Bagus Astawa
Who Working from his humble home on the outskirts of Ubud, this powerful traditional Balinese healer specialises in readings and mystical illnesses.
Why A very Balinese healing experience, Cokorda will ‘read’ your energy and then treat you according to your ailment, perhaps with wise words and deep insight, a massage to remove energy blocks and release emotions, or a special tincture. Visitors need to wear a traditional-style sarong and long sleeved shirt. Take a sarin canang (offering), with your donation tucked inside.
Where Banjar Mukti, Singapadu, Gianyar +62 81338533037.
Who A renowned energy healer/taksu who treats everything from depression to diabetes, drug addiction, broken bones and black magic.
Why Pak Man treats a variety of ailments on the emotional, physical and spiritual level, mostly using massage with hand crafted medicinal oils. His main focus is to shift perspectives, and to help patients find the root cause of their suffering and thus cultivate their own healing power.
Where Ubud. +62 81338935369.
Yoga and healing centres
What Offering a full ‘yogic buffet’ with three yoga pavilions, yoga shop, vegetarian café, guest house and array of special evening events from kirtan to concerts and movie screenings.
Why Yoga classes run the gauntlet from Hatha to Anusara, to Vinyassa Flow. Regular meditation and pranayama classes are also offered and guest practitioners stage all manner of holistic workshops. The healing centre specialises in Ayurvedic programs, CranioSacral Therapy, Kinesiology, Chinese Medicine & Acupuncture and more. Don’t miss the Sunday morning dance sessions!
What Taksu translates in Balinese as "the indescribable essence of spirit," and provides a serene haven to relax and unwind with yoga classes, healing workshops, spa and two health food cafes.
Why Alongside daily Hatha and Ashtanga Vinyassa yoga classes, Taksu offers wellness workshops in various modalities, as well as Reiki, Kundalini healing, Traditional Chinese medicine, past life regression and ozone therapies. Spa treatments include reflexology, Thai massage, body scrubs and organic facials.
What Founded by acclaimed yoga teacher and human potential coach, Daniel Aaron, this popular studio offers an eclectic daily schedule of yoga and dance classes, as well as teacher training, and healing workshops.
Why Classes range from Tibetan-heart yoga, to Iyengar-inspired, Pilates, FlyHigh, Astanga Mysore and Yoga dance. Holistic therapies include Tibetan singing bowls, Colon Hydrotherapy and Intuitive Massage therapy. Month-long yoga teacher trainings and Living Food Chef Certification are also offered.
Bali Herbal Walk
What Westi and his wife Lilir have been leading guests on herbal walks through the rice fields and ravines of Ubud for 15 years and know everything there is to know about herbal lore.
Why As well as enjoying magnificent scenery this highly informative nature walk provides a fascinating insight into traditional Balinese medicine. You can also sign up for a jamu class at their small shop, Nadis, and learn to make health elixirs, herbal scented massage oil and body scrubs, and stock up on handcrafted organic beauty products.
Bali Spirit Festival (March 29 – April 3 2016)
What A true celebration of mind, body and spirit, the annual festival draws over 200 presenters and teachers from around the world for five days of yoga, music, dance and movement.
Why An holistic extravaganza the festival brings the spirit of yoga and world music to Indonesia, while showcasing the culture, music and spirituality of Bali with a global audience. Days are filled with inspirational workshops, offering everything from yoga to martial arts, tribal fusion belly dance, crystal bowl sound healing, ecstatic dance, acro yoga and meditation, while evenings concerts feature electrifying world music performances.
Eco Educational Cycling Tour
What Bali eco cycling was recently taken over by a vibrant young Balinese couple firmly dedicated to sustainable tourism. Their motto for the business is, "Environment friendly, culture friendly and indigenous friendly."
Why The aim of these tours is to reveal and share the real Bali. Being on a bicycle lets you enjoy the scenery from a different perspective and riding downhill makes it easier in the tropical heat. Friendly guides will lead you from the island’s mountainous peaks through coffee and spice plantations, a walk in the rice fields and on to a Balinese lunch feast of epic proportions.