Ubud’s Best Spa Retreats

Ok darlings, here it is. The ultimate spa retreat go-to guide for my favourite place in Bali. I invested a lot of time and it was super hard work to put this guide together, but I promise it was worth it 🙂

These days Ubud is the centre of alternative healing. From massage to reiki; from traditional balians to reflexology – the ability to heal oneself and find your centre is ridiculously easy in Ubud. I visited a LOT of spas during my last visit, and I did it all for you darlings.

BALI BOTANICA
Location: Jl. Raya Sanggingan

Located down a laneway is a pocket of tranquility known as Bali Botanica. It seems to just keep going on and on, definitely a property that is much bigger than it seems from the reception room. The staff are welcoming and exceedingly polite, the grounds are serene and nurturing. Bali Botanica is rated 8 of 176 wellness retreats in Ubud, and so it should be. I opted for the full day package, which included lunch at renowned restaurant Bridges. This is an expensive package, but I thought it was still good value for what I got out of the day. I started with a consult with the manager, where we selected oils and scents to fit with my ayeverdic profile. I was ushered into a change room and given a sarong to wear. From there I was taken to one of the most beautiful and tranquil treatment rooms that I have ever seen. I enjoyed a full body massage, scrub, chakra dara, hair spa, facial and lunch.

Bali Botanica treatment rooms

Bali Botanica treatment rooms

Lunch at Bridges

Lunch at Bridges

 

Fresh! Spa
Location: Jl. Dewisita, central Ubud

Fresh! is exactly that. It’s a new walk-in style spa, with small rooms and a hairdresser upstairs. The massage rooms are basic, with a simple table and curtain for  privacy. Not the best massage I have ever had though, my therapist didn’t listen to my preferences of strength, or where I felt I needed focused treatment. I visited twice, and on my first visit my pedicure was amazing. I sat and used the free WiFi while the girls got to work on my feet. When I came back the next day, they squeezed me in regardless of the problems they were having with the power. My massage was ok at best, but the scrub was AMAZING. There is a focus on natural products, and the chocolates and ginger tea at the end were very welcomed.

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Pedicure lounges at Fresh! Spa

Taksu Healing Haven & Spa
Location: Jl. Goutama Sel., central Ubud

Taksu have definitely got their name right. Located right in the middle of Ubud, off Jl Hanoman, it is a pocket of heaven. Taksu offer all the normal spa services, but also offer some alternative healing remedies such as somalogy, traditional Chinese medicine, past life regression, infra-red and ozone therapies. They have parking on site, so if you have hired a driver for a day he can stay close by. You can also wander down to my favourite vegan café, Down to Earth, for a pre or mid therapy snack that you can be sure won’t disrupt the balance you’ve manage to acquire during your time at Taksu. Taksu are also one of the few spas in Ubud to have Western healers on hand, some of whom specialise in the more alternative therapies on offer.

Sang Spa
Location: Jl. Jembawan No. 13B

Definitely Bali’s top low cost spa and wellness centre, Sang Spa was founded by local Balinese man Ngurah Sudarma in 2008. I’ve been visiting Sang Spa 2 since it’s inception, and have never been disappointed. The staff are welcoming and polite, but have a wonderful sense of boundaries. What I love the most about Sang Spa is that it is a locally owned and operated brand, unlike most of the businesses across Bali that are Western owned but locally operated. An award-winning spa, they have grown quietly and unassumingly through referral business. Once you visit, you’ll understand why – because you’ll want to send all your friends there as well! Sang Spa offer a variety of therapies, drawing from the techniques found in Indonesian, Thai, Swedish and other schools of massage. Of their three locations, my favourite is the Sang Spa 2 – this is the location on Jl Jembawan. Sang Spa 3 is located on Jl Monkey Forest, which Sang Spa 1 was closed for renovations at time of writing.

DaLa Spa
Location: Alaya Resort | Jl. Raya Hanoman 

Now, normally I would recommend getting out of your hotel and finding an external spa for pricing reasons BUT the spa at Alaya Resort (just down the road from Yoga Barn) is actually unreal. Beautifully appointed treatment rooms, and wonderful packages – at a price. Book a Western spa, get a Western price point. There are actually three other locations for DaLa Spa, across Bali. Two are down in Kuta, and a second location will be opening when the new Alaya Jembawan Ubud opens in 2016. DaLa is another spa with an emphasis on locally made, all natural products so you know you’ll be getting quality. The therapists are well trained, and excel at all types of massage. You won’t be disappointed.

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Image via Bali Spa Guide

 

Returning to Ubud

I’m standing at the new Denpasar airport, everything is so sparkling and clean I could be in any other country in the world. Gone are the yellowing tiles and the stench of cigarettes from years of indoor smoking. Gone are the small nods to Balinese culture. Denpasar has achieved a sterile level of anonymity, blending with all the other airports of the world. Once I get past customs though, I remember where I am. The smells of South East Asia waft across me path, and the warm, sticky air smacks me in the face. Yep, I’m back.

I shove my way through the throngs of drivers from upscale hotels waiting for their guests and competing taxi drivers all scrambling over one another and into the warm embrace of my old friend Gede. In the chaos it is easy to spot him, he is like a drop of calm in an ocean of panic. The man just oozes chill.

“It is so good to see you friend,” Gede takes my backpack from my shoulder and saunters through to his car. It is amazing how quiet the other drivers have become in my presence now that they see I am spoken for.

Bali is dark, hot and it’s raining. Gede and I begin the long drive north, away from the lights and busyness of Kuta and toward the tranquil backroads of the villages around Ubud. Lights flash past me, Starbucks, KFC, McDonalds. “Are you hungry?” Gede asks, as always thinking of his stomach. “I have surprise for you.” I smile, knowing that no matter how tired I am from my flight, or how much I just want to have a shower, I will give in to Gede’s surprise.

“What surprise?” I ask, he just laughs at me.

Around an hour and a half later we arrive into a small compound, and it’s dark. I can hear movement though, and a child laughing quietly. A dog barks, somewhere close by. Gede smiles, and all of a sudden I am whipped into a group hug. It’s Gede’s family, and I haven’t seen them for three years.

After the excitement dies down, Gede’s wife leads me into the house where she has prepared dinner for us all. Among friends, I sit, laugh, eat and enjoy. This is what travel is all about, these connections that you make that last a lifetime. This is why we do this, to find this joy and love in an extended global family.

As I wander through central Ubud the next day, I note the changes. The increased traffic, the noise, the general hubbub. The market has also changed; the haggling is harder, the people more resigned. The locals have been robbed of their beautiful, peaceful natures due to increased demand from tourism. I note that while the Starbucks is packed with tourists, the local coffee places are pretty quiet. My favourite, Anomali, on Jalan Raya Ubud is no different. I am the only person with white skin as I sit down with my order. Throngs of tourists wander up and down the street, none stopping, all sweaty and most in yoga pants or carrying mats. The outside world has been well and truly established in Ubud.

As much as I want to hate all these changes to a place I have grown up loving, I understand that change is necessary. While they seem more resigned and embittered, the locals around the markets are still laughing and helping one another. The same sense of love and light permeates their every move, every whisper, every smile. The many temples are still busy with traditional ceremonies. The children still laugh and play in the back alleys and laneways.

The changes may be happening, and there is little I can do to stop it. But it is good to know that the essence of what I love about Bali, and in particular Ubud still remains.

rice fields

Why you should leave Bali on your bucket list

It’s true there is more to Indonesia than just the island of Bali, in fact there are more than 18,000 islands that make up the country. Recently though, I read this article, which outlines exactly why you should take Bali off your bucket list. While I can see their point, and as much as I think they probably should have done more research than just reading silly book by a self-indulgent woman (Eat, Pray, Love).

I wholeheartedly disagree that you should even consider removing Bali from your bucket lists.

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Firstly, Bali is an island with a population of over 4 million, and is the single largest tourist destination in Indonesia. The proximity to Western Australia means that the majority of these visitors are no only Aussies, but they’re from Perth. Being that Perth is my hometown, I cannot remember a single time I have been in Bali and not randomly met someone I know on the street.

Thirty years ago, the main economy in Bali was agriculture, namely rice. Today rice cultivation is still the island’s biggest employer, but tourism has overtaken as the biggest source of income. This huge amount of income is primarily focused in the southern beaches of Kuta, Legian, Seminyak, Nusa Dua, Jimbaran Bay and Sanur. Recently, the Indonesian government spent a huge amount of money upgrading and extending Denpasar airport to cram even more tourists into this area.

Now, all this money and all these people visiting would generally mean an increase in the local class system. While Indonesia as a whole does have an emerging middle class, it seems that for the poorest of the poor cannot get a foot up. Open your eyes and you will see it, the beggers in the streets, the grubby children playing on the beaches when they should be in school. Almost 93% of Bali’s population are peasants. The people you see working in your resort, and the lady who gives you your massage, they form part of this new middle class.

Now given all these statistics, do you not think you should still be spending money here? The immediate argument to this is always going to be “But how much of my tourist dollars end up in the pockets of the poor?” and you’ve got a valid point. But what I can guarantee you is this: If you stop going, Bali will die. If Bali dies, these people will have no hope. Right now, they have a little hope. Don’t take that away from them.

Let me prepare you for the reality of Bali, without all the gloss and fakeness of Eat, Pray, Love.

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You will arrive at Denpasar. Now, the last time I was in Bali was 2013, and the airport hadn’t be upgraded yet. But from what I have heard the initial landing is the same. Confusion, a heap of people, zero aircon, and that smell. You know the smell that means you’ve landed in Asia. The one that has curry, sweat, smoke and humidity in it? Bali has that smell, and the airport is the worst for it. The good news is that once you’re out of the airport, the smell goes away.

Now, once you’ve cleared through customs you’ll need to get into a taxi. This is the only way to get from the airport to where ever you are staying. Welcome to the onslaught of drivers, taxis drviers, hotel shuttles and other random people waiting to collect someone from the airport. Thankfully, I now have a permanent driver in Bali, and I don’t need to deal with the ruckus. But go ahead, get yourself a cab. Enjoy.

Once you’re through all the madness and you’ve got yourself checked in at your hotel you can relax. Chances are, 99% of the people at your hotel will be Australian, Chinese or Japanese tourists. Aussies will befriend anyone, so chat to them. The Chinese and Japanese tourists tend to favour the bigger, more luxurious resorts on the south coast of Nusa Dua and Jimbaran Bay.

Go for a wander from your hotel, and you will find dusty, dirty streets – typical of the third world. Now, I don’t care what Elizabeth sodding Gilbert says in her book about the beaches of Bali, the reality is Bali is a volcanic island, the massive volcano in the middle should really give that away. Therefore you cannot expect the powdery white sand beaches of Thailand or the Philippines here. And know, Eat, Pray, Love is full of lies and you CANNOT ride your bicycle from Ubud to the beach. It takes an HOUR to DRIVE there…. don’t be ridiculous.

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Bali’s volcano. As seen from nearby Gili Islands.

But, if you’re prepared for all of that – what you won’t be prepared for is the warmth and hospitality of the Balinese. Now, there are a LOT of Javanese islanders living in Bali now, hoping to make money from the tourist boom. But if you manage to find yourself a Balinese family, stay with them. Get to know them. You will never find yourself smiling more, and wanting for less.

Now that we’ve got the money stuff out the way, and you know what you’re really in for…. I should tell you the REAL reason I think you should keep Bali on your bucket list. And I’m sorry, but it’s 100% selfish.

I love Indonesia. I love the people, I love the beaches, I love the weather. I plan on retiring to Ubud and being a vegetarian, meditating, yoga-going hippy in my old age. If you take Bali off your bucket list, then you will start discovering the other islands around close by, and then I will have to hate you, and I don’t want to do that because I love you all really. Because those are the best parts of Indonesia, and those are the places that stole my heart, and those are the places you all will ruin if you leave Bali.

 

How to haggle and not be a douche

I know that there are a ton of articles online that will tell you that haggling is important to the local culture and that if you do it properly then both parties should walk away happy and satisfied.

I disagree. Haggling over a price is a business transaction; therefore it stands to reason that one person is usually going to feel ripped off. Either you’re going to feel like you paid too much, or the local vendor is going to feel like you’re a giant, first world douche.

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So how do you haggle, and keep it fair? Few long-term travellers have an unlimited amount of money, and so we take it kind of personally when we pay too much for things. This is completely understandable; however let me lay some perspective on you.

Let’s say that beaded bracelet you’re about to buy costs $3. And of that $3 that local vendor on the beach has to give about 50% to the artist or factory owner. That leaves him with around $1.50. These figures are complete bullshit, but you get the gist. Now let’s add the fact that this vendor, much like yourself, has a family. But he happens to live in a country where women aren’t encouraged to pursue professional careers, in which they earn their own income (which even in Australia isn’t equal to men, but that’s a whole other ranty story.) No, these women are only encouraged to look after the family, and clean (I’m sure their lives are more complex than this, but I’m simplifying. I definitely do not mean to offend.) Given the average size of families in most third world countries, this $1.50 per bracelet has to feed, clothe, school, and otherwise care for a large number of people. Take into consideration that in a lot of these countries, families share their good times with others around them, so you’re not just feeding a child, but a village. Doesn’t look so expensive now, does it?

souk.jgpOn the flipside, I do believe that in overly touristy areas, vendors are starting to take the mickey a little. I get it – rich tourist, you can afford it. You can afford to fly here, stay in a beautiful resort, eat so much food, etc. You can definitely afford to buy this $3 bracelet. It makes me irk a little inside when people have this assumption of me. I am by no means rich. I live in one of the most stable economies in the world right now, and in a state where mining is HUGE money. But I’m a travel agent, and while I’m pretty great at my job, I make less than half the average in salary for where I live. I object to paying the asking price on a trinket I know is going to break in a few days anyway. So yes, I will haggle.

Generally, with me it goes something like this: I walk down a market street and see something I like. I ask how much, and then offer half. Half is a good starting point. Cue despondent tutting and fussing and exclamations by the vendor, because he couldn’t possibly give it me for that much. Back and forth we go until we reach an agreement wherein I end up paying around 75% of what he has asked for in the beginning. I feel good because I’ve kept the price down, he feels good because now maybe his daughter can go to school as well as his son.

All done with a smile.

I cannot emphasise the importance of a fucking smile. Seriously, you’re supposed to be HAPPY. You’re in this wonderful new place you get to explore. You’re relatively wealthy, and you live in first world luxury. You’re educated, loved, and have civil rights over and above those of whom live in the country you are now haggling in. The more you smile the more you will get away with when it comes to getting the price you want. Worst case, you’ll pay a little more than what you intended and you’ll end up with a new friend.

There is also something to the theory that if you shop early in the morning, or later at night then pricing will be better. I’ve certainly found that you will be offered a “morning price” if you’re one of the first into a shop in the morning. But given trading hours in places like Bali, Thailand, Malaysia et al, shopping later at night will tend to only mean you will have to contend with tired vendors, who are just as sick of haggling as you. They have families, they just wanna get home!

Hey lady! You buy! Special morning price! Hey lady!

Hey lady! You buy! Special morning price! Hey lady!

And, although it should go without saying, consider the quality of the product you’re buying. Locally made Batik cloth in Indonesia takes hours of hand weaving, hand dying, and then the cloth must be dried, washed, and if it’s then made into clothing, thats even longer. Consider that many hours of labour went into what you’re buying. On the other hand, if it’s a “genuine fake” watch you’re after, haggle that guy down as low as you can get away with.

If you approach your bargaining as though you are out to make a new friend, respect the vendor and his background and what that extra 50 cents will mean to him and his family, then you’ll come out like a champion. Charge in there and expect everything for nothing, and you’ll come out feeling like a champ, but looking like a douche. Up to you, but you should probably aim for champ, rather than douche.

 

 

Cokorda Rai

The cool compound is a welcome space – away from the heat and the noise of the street. Nearby chickens wander past, followed by a cat on the prowl. I can hear children giggling from far away, and all I can smell is a beautiful jasmine and frangipani combination. This will always be the smell of Ubud to me.

I am just outside the town centre of Ubud, about 15 mins drive to the west. I have come to see a healer.

I can hear a woman crying out in pain, and then very quiet but stern muttering in Bahasa Indonesian. Gede, my friend and driver, tells me Cokorda is with someone at them moment. As we round a corner I can see a beautiful local girl laying on a straw mat on the ground. An ancient man, whom I can only assume is Cokorda Rai, is kneeling next to her, eyes closed, waving a stick over her while rubbing her sternum. Gede explains she has a problem with her heart, and she comes to see Cokorda every week for healing. Cokorda takes the stick and presses on her toes. She lays calmly for most points, but when he presses her middle toe she cries out. Cokorda nods and leans down to murmur something in her ear. I feel like I’m invading her space, but Gede assures me that this is a very normal consultation. There are some healers that see people in private, he says, but this causes problems. He doesn’t elaborate on what those problems might be, so I don’t ask.

It’s my turn. I’m very nervous. Outwardly there is nothing wrong with me, I’m relatively fit, I eat well, I’m physically quite healthy. Cokorda smiles at me, and I feel my heart swell with anxiety and worry. I breath in and remind myself that nothing will hurt me. He won’t hurt me with all these people around. I step up and kneel in front of him, and he smiles kindly at me.

cokorda

“What can I do for you?”

In all of my planning and emails to Gede I have not thought about WHY I wanted to see this man. I didn’t realise I needed a physical reason, and since I don’t have one I am suddenly very shy. I give him a slight smile, and say “I’m not sure. Maybe you can tell me?”

He laughs, and says something to Gede in Indonesian. They both laugh, and Gede winks at me. I’m not sure what has just happened but it must be good. I think the old devil likes me

I turn an kneel with my back him, he pulls my shoulders back and rests them heavily against his knees. His hands are soft, the skin like tissue paper while he runs his fingers over my scalps, down my cheeks, over my forehead, my eyes – “Eyes not ok, migraine? Glasses?” – then he presses behind my right ear, hard. I squirm. “Yes, migraine, sometimes. I wear glasses all the time”

“Yes, and maybe hormones not ok.”

I look to Gede for a translation, and he just shrugs. My left ear is now being squeezed, but this side with minimal pain.

Cokorda asks me to lay down on the mat, and he repeats the same poking in my toes with his stick.

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“Heart ok, kidney ok, liver ok, blood ok, mind -” OUCH. FKN OUCH. Seriously, dude. Back off with your stick. I tear up, the pain is so intense, but it’s not coming from my toes. It’s coming from my head. Not my head, my MIND. He’s tapped into the pressue point in my toe that reflects my pain in my mind.

“Mind not ok ha ha ha ha” Cokorda laughs. Gede smiles. Everything in Bali is done with a smile. I am laying there with tears in my eyes, and this man is smiling at my pain. He leans in close and whispers to me that I need to learn to quiet my mind and once I learn this my heart will fill with joy. He also tells me that the sickness that surrounds me that causes me to worry is no longer something I need to give so much energy to.

“You worry too much. You need to let go and forget the people who don’t appreciate. She will be ok. Nothing to worry about. You have lymphatic blockage, partly from worry. You visit hospital, take one tablet per day. You hip also cause you pain, can fix with yoga.”

This is better advice than I could have possibly hoped for. I have put a lot of my travels on hold because my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two years ago. This has been the hardest two years for my family, but particularly for my mother and me. I have been her carer, sitting by and watching her suffer through chemotherapy, and knowing there was nothing I could do to take it away. There is nothing that compares to watching someone you love go through the cancer journey. Worry doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Gede gives my offering to the ladies waiting around, and ushers me from the complex. I am in awe, trying to process how someone who just met me could know me so intimately.