As mentioned in my Denpasar post, prior to my arrival to Bali I’d seen films like “Legong, Dance of the Virgins”, “Baraka” and of course the annoying love story “Eat, Pray, Love”. These films’ depictions had formed my vision of Bali up to that point. Everything, from locations to the culture were stamped in my mind and I was eager to see it in action. Of Bali I had heard only fantastic stories, seen images of verdant natural landscapes, tranquility and beautiful people in a lovely peaceful culture.

This place seemed to have everything you could ask for — spirituality, art, culture, beautiful landscapes, you name it, Bali’s got it.

Flooded rice terraces amongst the local houses.

The reality I found in Denpasar was brutally opposite to my preconceived vision and slapped me back to reality. However, I was told that just 20km north of Denpasar there was total proof of what I had imagined I’d find when I came to Bali. So I went to Ubud.

People on a truck give hens water.

Ah, marvellous Ubud, you truly are Bali’s cultural heart. Today it’s almost impossible to think about Ubud without considering the enormous success of Eat, Pray, Love. Which has become the main form of promotion used by local travel companies selling Eat, Pray, Love experiences.

The Kamandalu Resort has an Eat Pray Love package from $298 a night. “No fucking way” I imagine Elizabeth Gilbert would say to this offer. For the price of this two night package the average traveller could travel for two whole months. Instead, this $600 can be spent in just two days on a cycling tour following Julia Roberts’ bike tracks around the movie’s locations and a visit to Gilbert’s palm reader, Ketut Liyer. You fucking kidding me! No, seriously? I can just imagine the perplexed locals’ confusion at the appearance of white people at these locations after the film’s release. Although, why am I so upset? The Taiwanese visit Jiufen just because it featured in the anime movie Spirited Away. Zhangjiajie mountains is the great Chinese Avatar experience, being there is like being in the film. People in South Korea follow the TV drama series in Jeongdongjin. And so on.

Flooded rice paddies.

As you might have guessed I wasn’t attracted to anything the tour agents had to offer in Ubud, from monkey sightseeing, rice paddy cycling or meditating to visiting a fortune telling medicine men. Although, the last one might have been interesting as it’s unique to this area.

Ubud has a history traceable back to the 8th century, before Hinduism spread across Bali, when a Javanese Hindu priest came here from Java and established a shrine. The religion was later expanded by another Javanese priest who is regarded as the founder of Bali’s religious practices and rituals as they are known today. At this time the area was a centre for natural medicine and healing, which led to the origin of the name Ubud — ‘Ubad’ in Balinese stands for medicine.

Ubud may seem like a small town to many visitors, but in reality it’s fourteen villages combined, each of which is controlled by its own committee.

Balinese might have been isolated for centuries however now they practice european sports. Volleyball playground.
The Balinese might have been isolated for centuries, however now they practice European sports. Volleyball playground.

These villages are developing rapidly, but in doing so are also respecting the spirit of a certain period of history — everything around is developed in the local style. However, the town’s development also means that central parts of Ubud are now bending under the weight of such large visitor numbers.

Balinese are great wood carvers. Wood carved dildo beer-openers.
The Balinese are great wood carvers. Wood carved dildo beer-openers.
Quiet street of Ubud.

While central Ubud is swarming with tourists and commerce, the outskirts are fairly quiet and relatively untouched rural places. Here people have managed to preserve the jungle and terraced rice fields and still use manual labor and cattle.

Deep jungle.

Ubud remains a spiritual and calm place, where people come to gain self-insight. This has brought an abundance of Yoga practitioners to the area and its even become a centre of International Yoga Communities. The town’s calm, laid-back atmosphere has also attracted loads of writers here. Oh yeah and the dogs too.

Stray dogs aren’t a novelty in Asia, as well as Russia and China they can even be found in Taiwan. It might seem unusual for those who see or portray Bali in its most glamorous light, but these fellas are found almost everywhere on the island.

The story goes back some 30,000 years, way before dogs were bred as a pedigree handbag accessory to display your social status. Back to when people domesticated the dog to dispose of human garbage (scavenging) and to scare off wolves (guarding).

Dog on a temple porch.

Over thousands of years the human-dog relationship around the world has been taken another level. Dogs have become dependent on humans and their goodwill. However, this transition hasn’t occurred with the Balinese dog. While the Balinese dog relies on human help for one source of its food, it remains highly independent and is not reliant on humans for survival.

Today the Balinese dog performs only one task — scavenging. The dogs eat human’s leftovers, including any holy offerings left at statues or shrines, as well as surviving occasional human attacks, just like thousands of years ago.

Dog eating leftovers at the market after it's closed and everyone's left.

Like hyenas and vultures, dogs have served the local community by cleaning up food waste to prevent the spread of vermin. In performing their simple, eco-friendly task they have coexisted with humans here on win-win terms, that is until a rabies outbreak in Bali in 2008. This brought increased aggression towards the island’s dogs and led the government to carry out a mass slaughter, especially focused on tourist areas like Kuta and Denpasar. With the proliferation of dog slaughtering, demand for dog meat, along with the establishments selling it, grew rapidly. The reduction in number of dogs has led to an explosion of the rat population, causing rice crop failures and the introduction of rat-borne diseases.

Like the Japanese horses in Nishinoshima, Balinese dogs are by nature free-roaming animals, having inhabited the island for thousands of years. They aren’t aggressive but are unused to direct human contact, if you try to come close to one of the dogs it will most likely run away. Owners of Balinese dogs might not necessarily feed or care for them. Just like the Nishinoshima horses, they are attached to an owner but scavenge for food outside the home. They are not owned as it’s understood in Western context of the word; where ownership implies care and responsibility for the animal.

More Ubud photography