Should I set up a base in Ubud or Canggu?
I have been asked that question numerous times and dealt with the dilemma myself. The two are currently the most popular places to live and work in Bali as a digital nomad.
Well, after living in both Ubud and Canggu during different stays in Bali, I’m armed with some insider insight. I bounced between both places, going from Canggu to Ubud to Canggu, then back to Ubud. In doing so, I accidentally unearthed a barbed-wire debate!
Time to do the unthinkable to help anyone (especially fellow remote workers) wondering whether Ubud or Canggu is better for living and working in Bali.
Warning: This post is chock-full of cliches, generalizations, and opinions, but hey—I’m a grizzled, OG blogger from the days of LiveJournal. I know no other way. Besides, it’s been too long since I opened the hellgates for some good old-fashioned hate mail. This post probably won’t give you a concussion, but if you do choose to mail me a sea urchin at some future time, please put a warning on the package for the postman. He’s a friendly fellow.
Living in Ubud and Canggu in Bali
First things first. No matter if you choose Ubud or Canggu, you’ll get to experience the kindness of Balinese people and their beautiful culture. Please be nice. Try not to screw up a good thing for the rest of us.
Canggu is pronounced like “Chang goo”—same as what mostly makes up the intestinal contents of backpackers on Khao San Road. Ubud is “ew-bood.” The latter is most famous for Julia Roberts’ bout of eating, praying, and loving in 2010 to earn Elizabeth Gilbert a fortune. One of my favorite places was ruined in the process.
If you haven’t yet traveled to Bali and don’t know what I’m talking about, understand that Ubud and Canggu are separated by one stressful hour of driving. Culturally, they are days apart. Like siblings with a vast age difference, the two couldn’t be any different.
They like to squabble a bit. For instance, Canggurians accuse Ubudians of poor personal hygiene. They insist the last time some Ubudians washed themselves was during the water ceremony under the watchful eye of Ganesha and a full moon. Ubudians purportedly brush their teeth with only a sprig of rosemary and clove of garlic.
On the other hand, Ubudians accuse Canggurians of applying makeup to go to the beach. The truth is, many do—seriously. You can spot their boyfriend-photographers dutifully following behind to capture their Instagram stories for the day.
To Beach or Not to Beach
That is the question. Overall, the choice of where to stay in Bali, Ubud or Canggu, boils down to if you must have a beach within walking distance.
Ordinarily, that’s a very easy choice for me to make. Yes! The beach is one big, beautiful, free place for socializing, exercising, and entertainment. I can sit to write in a journal without needing to buy something in a cafe with bad music.
That said, Ubud actually has enough charms to lure me into Bali’s interior for long stretches at a time. Few other islands in Southeast Asia I know of can do that.
Canggu has several wide beaches; all are infested with surfers. On the other hand, Ubud is in the interior of the island and lacks a beach. Instead, it has a forest infested with rude macaques. Whether bitten by Canggu surfer or Ubud monkey, you’re going to need some shots.
Ubud is old. You often can’t tell the difference between a cafe, guesthouse, and Hindu temple. The whole damn town feels like an ancient place of worship. Canggu, on the other hand, is new. It wasn’t even a thing 10 years ago. Frankly, it’s ugly, and the growing pains continue. A cacophony of construction is the soundtrack from morning to dark.
But, hey, did I mention that Canggu has a beach? Several, actually!
The Food: Ubud or Canggu?
You can find superb food no matter if you’re in Ubud or Canggu. The same can’t be said about Kuta where you’re lucky to stand up and walk away at the end of a restaurant encounter.
Gastrointestinal injury is a real possibility in Kuta.
As expected, Ubud has a greater focus on all things organic. Vegans may actually outnumber their carnivorous counterparts. I come from Kentucky, a place where animals (and sometimes vegans) are consumed for sport. But I still accidentally ended up leaving Ubud as a vegetarian after only three weeks. No idea how it happened, but I’m hopeful this dreadful condition will clear up soon.
The food in Canggu has a decidedly European flair with a sprinkle of American hipster MSG on top. Craft burger and poke places abound. So do tapas, sushi, brick-oven pizzerias, and high-quality food from all cultures. Among others, I thoroughly enjoyed authentic experiences at a Greek restaurant and a Georgian restaurant.
You’ll find plenty of excellent options for eating in both Canggu and Ubud. None of the food I saw made my list of horrific travel foods.
The People: Ubud or Canggu?
Where to start? After doing a lot of people watching this year and on my last trip to Bali, I’ve determined that both Ubud and Canggu are home to some of the most beautiful humans I’ve seen during my 15 years of vagabonding travel.
Really. It doesn’t matter if you go to Ubud or Canggu, the hotties will be there. Maybe it’s the yoga, or maybe it’s the drinking coconuts and sunshine. Electrolytes? I don’t yet know what, but something does the trick. Even my Himalayan-bitten, 44-year-old skin looks a decade younger in Bali.
The health effects aren’t just external. On any given day, I feel like superman here. Sans inflammation, my body bends in ways that would incapacitate me at home. It’s scary but exciting.
The Ubudians are inclined toward au naturel. They glide along like gypsy specters with flowing hair and garments blowing in the wind. Beads and bangles adorn petite wrists and ankles. Many Ubudians jangle as they walk, a throwback to their ashram days in India. The soft scents of essential oils and biodegradable soap follow behind. Pouches hang at the hips, much like a wizard’s. The compartments presumably contain herbs and extra essential oils.
In Canggu, the beauty of some strangers can make you instinctively freeze in place like a deer on a highway. The Instagram celebrities and soon-to-be-famous people take their looks seriously. Thankfully, it’s not all about fake glam. They’ve figured out how to look good subtly with high-end organic makeup purchased through crowdfunding.
Long, sea-styled hair prevails for men. Torsos are chiseled. I’ve spotted Fabio at least twice; he surfs now. Beaches are littered with some of the sexiest, sun-blessed bodies I’ve seen in the real world. By day 10, you become numb to the whole scene, but damn.
Getting Around in Canggu and Ubud
The roads in Canggu were designed to maximize mayhem. Whether walking or driving, they seem purposely planned to hurt you.
Driving is dangerous, but life as a pedestrian is worse. Walking one mile in Canggu takes approximately 30 minutes, if you arrive at all. Canggu has no sidewalks, only an open drainage sewer on both sides of the jammed roads.
While walking my busy street, I had the mirrors on delivery trucks slap my arm at high speed more than once. It was like a gentle kiss from Satan reminding me death was only a minor miscalculation away. Something to ponder while walking home from the beach, a place most people leave with a sunburn rather than a shattered collarbone.
Even more peculiar, Canggu has “shortcuts” that are actually traps. They’re narrow roads sliced through rice terraces meant to lure unsuspecting drivers to their doom. These shortcuts appear as logical routes on Google Maps. But once you enter the dusty maw, there is no escape. I sat roasting in the afternoon sun during hopelessly irreparable situations. Two cars often meet head to head in the narrow shortcut. Reversing isn’t an option, so all sit for hours. They may still be sitting there now, for all I know.
Driving in Ubud is also a do-si-do dance with the Devil, but the karma-inclined Westerners there sometimes smile and allow you to pull out. Not the case in Canggu. The busy, young entrepreneurs on motorbikes may smack you with a selfie stick if you pull out in front of them. Many are running late for a Zoom conference call.
Unlike Canggu, Ubud actually has sidewalks, but walking them requires a reliable travel insurance policy. The broken tiles and hidden holes take a toll on tourist’ limbs. I saw dozens of people limping around town with bandaged arms and legs. Carnage was everywhere. The few on crutches I asked had fallen victim to these tourist traps hidden on dark sidewalks. I have to wonder if the nurses in clinics aren’t secretly gathering to bust up sidewalks with sledgehammers at night. It’s good for business.
The Problem With Canggu
Both Ubud and Canggu are awash with digital nomads. I shouldn’t bite the PayPal hand that feeds me, but 3 of 5 people you meet here have an online hustle. There’s more MailChimp than Mumbai, and probably as much promotional SPAM to match.
Canggu has a lot of co-working spaces and cozy cafes. I visited a hip one where avocado-fueled millennials were diligently pounding away on their Apple devices. Maybe some successfully wrangle money from the internet to pay their daily co-working dues. At least, I hope. Regardless, I have now seen with my own eyes where hashtags are born.
The fliers you see posted around town advertise nightclubs, SEO training, and entrepreneur networking sessions.
The Problem With Ubud
After three weeks of embedded field research, I felt the need to flee the New Age scene at Ubud with haste.
Don’t get the wrong idea. I’ve studied martial arts and chi energy for decades. The Celestine Prophecy changed my life in 2008 (thanks, Andy). I firmly believe in subjective reality, mindset, and all that. Some of these aforementioned attributes could get me ejected from some circles on my next visit home. But they take the “woo-woo stuff” (I’ve always hated that term) to the next level in Ubud.
After three weeks, I felt an audible snap! come from somewhere inside and had to get my head out of the clouds. I considered running to Kuta to hug a McDonald’s sign for grounding.
At first, I was enthralled by Ubud. Self growth is my favorite thing. I may single-handedly support the genre with my book purchases. My Kindle is quietly becoming self aware. But…damn it. After three weeks in Ubud, I got tired of hearing how someone cried with orgasm as she was handed the cacao bowl at a sound-healing ceremony. How it was amaaaaaazing… People don’t pray before meals here; they hold crystals and chant. Meanwhile, their bearded baba gurus in India sense a disturbance and get erections.
Kundalini is ubiquitous in Ubud, but group breath-work sessions are just as popular. Paying for visions (or in my case, giggles) brought on by oxygen saturation due to hyperventilation is very much a thing. Come on…I was already doing that free of charge with a brown bag of Testors model cement when I was 13. Maybe that’s what’s wrong with me.
I do believe we are all on life journeys (that’s a very Ubudian thing to say). But I prefer to keep my journey discreet. Sharing it in a room full of sweaty, tattooed people in fisherman’s pants feels perverse. But if you prefer group healing, get to Ubud—stat.
Whether by water, sound, fire, ice bath, meditation, music, energy, or breath, there is a workshop here that promises to cure you. The fliers advertising them are posted everywhere. There is often a local Westerner behind the workshop who desperately needs to earn some money to fix his didgeridoo.
After a combined six weeks, I may have left Ubud with a brain tumor. Sure, it’s shaped like a sunflower, but it’s a tumor still the same. That’s okay, they have a workshop for that.
What About Going From Canggu to Ubud?
To reconcile the vast differences between Ubud and Canggu, I’ve turned to my Eastern thinking. I’ve decided that Ubud is the yin, and Canggu is the yang. Both combine to make a whole, to make Bali the beautiful creature it is. Experiencing both is easy and necessary. I decided to start my returns to Bali on the beach, then from from Canggu to Ubud once my skin needed a break.
Also, in another ponderous moment, I contemplated whether or not Canggu sprouted up as a form of balance to Ubud. The ethereal pendulum tends to right itself. Kuta was too hungover to notice.
I mean, Bali isn’t all soft. This is still an island bobbing around in the Indian Ocean. It’s home to no less than four volcanoes, one of which is active and wants to blow Ubudians, Canggurians, and everyone else to Sumatra some day.
There’s an average of two insects on my body at all times. I typically notice the joyriders while I’m on the motorbike. They cling to my arms, their feelers blowing in the wind. At sunset, the mosquitoes whisper sweet dengue nothings as they buzz softly in my ears. Horny feral cats howl nightly from outside my gate.
When Canggu’s post-industrial hipster cafes begin to make me forget I’m in Southeast Asia, something comes along to remind me. For instance, a family of five zips by on a single motorbike. The toddler gleefully stands in front with no helmet as the mother holds a rooster.
Whether you fall to Ubud’s spell or Canggu’s seduction, get here and have a look at both for yourself. You’ll find that one suits you more, but that can change over time. When it does, make the move! Get healed. Do yoga. Launch your online store. Learn to surf. Avoid the shortcuts. Avoid monkeys.
The end goal: to be healthy and happy.
Life can be good in Ubud or Canggu. Just choose one and go see for yourself.
Note: This would go over much better as an Epic Rap Battle of History (YouTube it), but I’m not qualified and would probably hurt myself trying.
Not a creature from Star Wars. There is a man beneath this motorbike shop on wheels!