UBUD, BALI-Travel Agent's Mark Rogers sends his report from Bali, the location of PATA Travel Mart 2007, where he soaks in the people and culture of Ubud, only stopping to take part in some monkey business.
As the minutes tick by towards the opening of PATA Travel Mart 2007, I continued to explore the island of Bali. I have made friends with the woman behind the currency exchange store next to my hotel and I asked her if Kuta had recovered from the tourist bombings of 2002. She shook her head: "Business is down 30 to 40 percent." I continued this unofficial survey on the street, asking taxi drivers, restaurant owners and vendors if the city had recovered and with each person, the 30 to 40 percent figure was repeated. It appears my positive assessment on arrival wasn't being supported where it counts-on the ground.
Today I planned to visit Ubud, the cultural and artistic capital of Bali, which lies 33 miles inland from Kuta, about an hour drive. I arranged for a driver and was amazed at the rate I was quoted. My English-speaking driver would take me to Ubud and sites along the way, in an air-conditioned vehicle, wait as long as I wanted, and then drive me back to Kuta-all for $27. If Bali wasn't such a long-haul journey for Americans, they would be flocking here in huge numbers.
On the drive to Ubud, we passed through Denpasar, the capital city of Bali; past brilliant green rice paddies, and numerous family temples adorned with offerings. My first stop was the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, where ancient temples are set in a deep, cool forest, with 400 macaques monkeys. Admission was one dollar, and a bunch of dwarf bananas cost only two dollars. Then it was a stroll along stone walkways as dozens of monkeys watched warily for a glimpse of yellow banana peel. All you had to do was hold up a banana and a monkey would instantly climb your leg and take it from you. Some guidebooks warn against feeding the monkeys by hand, citing their aggressiveness. I found that as long as I held the banana loosely everyone was happy. I was warned to put my glasses in my pocket-the monkeys are attracted to bright objects.
Continuing to Ubud, I noticed numerous open-air art galleries along the road selling hideous paintings. Luckily, once in Ubud, the quality of the art and antiques surged upward. Ubud has similarities to other destinations that have tourist-focused neighborhoods with numerous galleries, cafes, restaurants and boutiques. What sets it apart is the unique Balinese aesthetic, which combines the discipline of Japanese art with a sensuousness all its own. You'd also be hard-pressed to find friendlier people.
To get my bearings, I visited the main art museum, Museum Puri Lukisan, and learned about the influence various European artists had on young Balinese artists during the 1930s.
Back on JL Raya Ubud, the main drag, I dropped into Toko Antiques and was impressed by the quality of the items for sale. I passed Ary's Warung, a restaurant having a lounge so chic that it wouldn't be out of place in South Beach, and explored the market. I then stopped into the fascinating artist's home of I Gusti Nyoman Lempad, who lived an astounding 114 years. I was the only visitor. I strolled along the flower-filled courtyard examining the artwork as roosters in high bird cages crowed, laundry dried on bushes and a young Balinese man in sari and head scarf lounged on the verandah watching satellite TV.
Ubud is worthy of a longer visit than mine. There are some truly upscale resort hotels in the surrounding countryside, including Four Seasons Resort Bali and COMO Shambhala Estate, where I'll be staying the last night of my visit.