I just completed three weeks of living in Ubud and three weeks in Canggu. The two are the most alluring places to live and work in Bali. Now, time to do the unthinkable to help anyone trying to choose between Ubud and Canggu.
Warning: This post is chock-full of cliches, generalizations, and opinions, but hey—I’m a grizzled 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. I’ll try to keep eyeball injury to a minimum. If you 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.
Canggu and Ubud: The Backstory
First things first. 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.
Obvious observations first. Canggu has several wide beaches; all are infested with surfers. 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.
Like siblings, the two 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.
The Food: Ubud or Canggu?
The food in both Canggu and Ubud is superb. 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.
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 the 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. But 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.
The People: Ubud vs Canggu
Where to start? After a combined six weeks of people watching this year, and a month my last trip, I’ve determined that both Ubud and Canggu are home to the most beautiful humans I’ve seen on my 13 years of world travels. No exaggeration necessary. Maybe it’s the yoga; maybe it’s the drinking coconuts and sunshine. I don’t yet know what, but something does the trick. Even my Himalayan-bitten, 44-year-old skin looks a decade younger here. 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.
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 the sexiest, sun-blessed bodies I’ve seen in the real world. Forced to resort to the 1-to-10 rating system, you see so many 12s on an average day in Canggu that you become numb to the whole scene. The women here would cause motor-vehicle accidents anywhere else in the world. Fortunately, us drivers are accustomed to the sight in Canggu. We manage to keep our eyes on the road as some dream-come-true flashes Slavic or Scandinavian eyes toward the road with a mischievous twinkle.
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 with the Devil, but the karma-inclined Westerners 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. Walking them requires a good 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. 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 and where the Law of Attraction intersects with quantum physics. Some of these aforementioned attributes could get me ejected from some circles on my next visit home. But they take this stuff to the next level in Ubud. 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.
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 Both?
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. In one epiphany, 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 cats howl from outside the gate. When Canggu’s post-industrial hipster cafes begin to make me forget I’m in Southeast Asia, something comes along to remind me. 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.
Note: This would go over much better as an Epic Rap Battle of History, 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!