- I left New York a year ago to travel around the world as Business Insider's international correspondent.
- While it would be impossible to pinpoint my favorite place, the place I want to return to soonest is the city of Ubud, on the Indonesian island of Bali.
- Ubud has a bustling community of local Balinese, digital nomads, and vacationers exploring rice terraces, temples, spiritual retreats, yoga and meditation classes, and villas set into the countryside.
A year ago, I left New York to travel the world. In that time, I've visited over 20 countries and dozens of cities — everywhere from China and Russia to Spain, Portugal, and Bulgaria. Each place had its joys and its frustrations.
In Tanzania, I experienced some of the most beautiful nature in the world, but it was extremely difficult to get to. The azure waters of the Atlantic in Portugal were possibly the most beautiful place I've ever gone swimming, but it came at the price of milling through hordes of British tourists. And when I visited Egypt, I got to fulfill my childhood dream of seeing the Pyramids, the Sphinx, and the ancient Egyptian temples, but I felt like I had to always be on guard from getting cheated.
As I look back now, while I can't pinpoint my favorite destination of the bunch, I do know which place I would like to return to soonest: Ubud, Bali.
Ubud is a place that could, on paper, be easy to make fun of. While it has been known as a spiritual and mystical center to Balinese for centuries — Ubud means "medicine" — it has sprouted a community of New Agey seekers and expats looking to live the good life over the last few decades.
On any given day, you'll encounter digital nomads working on startups, Westerners taking sabbaticals to join spiritual retreats, Australians starting cafes or co-working spaces, and locals living their life amidst it all. A significant percentage of the people I met had been to Ubud two, three, or four times. Many come every year and some have moved there permanently.
Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider
When I was there last May, I attended a full-day spiritual retreat that included yoga, "ecstatic dance," a cacao ceremony, and workshops of "authentic relating." If you can get past the privilege that comes with being able to take a few weeks off for "self-improvement," it's kind of beautiful how many people come to Ubud earnestly to work on themselves and improve their lives at retreats like the one I attended.
For my part, I was skeptical, scoffing at the retreat even as I took part in it. But the more I let down my guard and met the retreat on its own terms, the more I was rewarded. By the end of the day, I felt like I had shaken off a long-held resentment, cried twice, and made a few friends that I'm still keeping in touch with today.
That's kind of the way it goes in Ubud. Someone suggests an activity that sounds far out of your comfort zone and you just shrug and go, "Why not?"
Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider
Best things to do in Ubud
One of the joys of visiting Ubud is seeing how Indonesians, local Balinese, and expats use the city as their canvas to create unique places and experiences.
One night while in Ubud, one of my newfound friends suggested we go to Bali Dacha, a Russian-style spa club built around a villa estate in the jungle outskirts of Ubud. Set in what feels like a giant treehouse, Bali Dacha has multiple saunas, steam rooms, pools, and bonfires to hang in and around. The crowd is mostly Russians (a dacha is a Russian cottage), with some Europeans, Americans, and Aussies mixed in.
When I visited, there was a dance party going on, but few people were drinking. It's one of those Ubud places where, at certain points, say, when discussing the rise of global fascism by a bonfire with a stranger, making dirty jokes in broken English with a group of naked Russians in a sauna, or meeting a model in a darkened pool, you ask yourself: Is this real? The blasting psychedelic trance music and the Russian guy dancing with a Native American headdress does nothing to clear up the confusion.
Then there is the Yoga Barn, a popular retreat center that offers comfortable, accessible classes ranging from every kind of yoga discipline to sound healing. To give you an idea of the kind of place Ubud is, the most difficult place to get into isn't a swanky nightclub, it's the Yoga Barn. During peak months, classes like "sound healing" can have lines to get in that wrap around the block. I never took it, but every person I met that had said the sound healing class was "life-changing."
For outdoorsy folks, there are tons of gorgeous hikes, like the Campuhan Ridge Walk, which takes you along a high ridge between two rivers, or a night hike up Mount Batur to see one of the most spectacular sunrises in the world.
For history buffs and spiritualists, there are tons of temples spread across Ubud and the surrounding areas. Some are in the central town, while others are hidden in small towns, mountain valleys, and the jungle.
One of my favorites to explore was the Sacred Monkey Forest, a nature reserve housing hundreds of wild monkeys. The gorgeous forest and temple complex have been home to monkeys for hundreds of years, and the area is considered a holy place on the island. When I went, I came within feet of dozens of monkeys — and I saw monkeys actually land on top of other visitors.
Ubud is known as a paradise for vegans and raw food eaters, but that mostly comes from the expats who have made the city their home. The Balinese cook up fresh fish and Indonesian specialties in warungs, or family-owned restaurants, throughout the city. They're worth sampling.
Ubud travel tips: Avoid peak tourist season and eat local
A word of warning to would-be visitors: Over-tourism is a major problem — the number of annual tourists has jumped from 2.2 million in 1990 to 13.7 million last year — and the city buckles from the weight of it in the peak summer months. The traffic of thousands of mopeds and motorbikes chokes the city's jungle-lined streets to the point where it can take an hour to move a few miles.
Many foreigners are beginning to work with locals in response to the over-tourism to build sustainable tourism businesses.
To mitigate the over-tourism when I visited, I came during an off-peak month, stayed a short motorbike ride outside the city in an adjacent suburb, and tried my best to eat and shop at the various local Balinese owned eateries, cafes, and shops.
An acquaintance of mine who recently visited the city for a few weeks posted a sentiment on Facebook that I feel perfectly captures Ubud: "It's so easy to get sucked into the Vortex of Ubud. To wonder if you ever need to leave this place again. It feels like you don't need to do anything except for [sic] wander around just have nice conversations with people about how to live a healthier, happier life."
After the week in the city, I was no longer questioning why the first thing a taxi driver just outside the airport said to me was, "Welcome back. So, how many times have you been to Bali?"