Why did you decide to leave Jakarta?
I still love Jakarta with all my heart, and I’m back there at least once a month to spend quality time in traffic and 7-Elevens. But after a decade in the city I wanted to try something new. I missed open spaces and clean air; I missed freedom of movement and grew tired of malls. I always loved Ubud as a visitor, so when an opportunity arose to edit my film Jalanan in Ubud, it felt like what new age yoginis would call ‘a sign’.
Why Ubud, specifically? What is so special about Ubud?
I love Ubud for many reasons, despite the fact that I’m not a hippie, a yoga freak or even lactose intolerant. The best thing about Ubud—and this is rarely mentioned in guidebooks—is our community. For all of our different backgrounds and perspectives, everyone seems to aspire to a quality of life in the most beautiful sense: A pursuit of creativity, an appreciation for nature and a refusal to have our heads spun around by brands or materialistic benchmarks.
We host an annual literature festival, a spirit festival (don’t ask) and a TEDxUbud conference. We actively support homegrown businesses and we know most shop owners in person. Ubud still feels a bit like 1950s small town America, but with Wi-Fi and tropical scenery and far better coffee. My commute to work is through rice fields and takes just six minutes; I buy my bread at one place, vegetables at another, cheese somewhere else. If they ever build a shopping mall here, I don’t know many neighbors who’d choose to shop there. I see kids here playing outside in fresh air all day and figure that’s got to be worth more to young families than having a Burger King or Starbucks every few hundred meters.
Some people sneer at Ubud, calling it pretentious or a bourgeois bohemian place.
I think any place that becomes popular naturally gains a few detractors, and Ubud certainly has its bohemian and bourgeois sides, which mostly amuse me. But Ubud’s not pretentious—I think the fashion and wealth and posing of Bali is neatly gathered on the south coast. I visit Seminyak now and it feels like this strange hybrid of Jakarta and Miami Beach.
What are your favorite places to eat in Ubud?
For all-day all-type dining, try the tasty and reliable TutMak Café, also the best coffee in town. If I’m going healthy, it’s usually at KAFE, because they manage to make organic food taste delicious.
For an anti-vegan binge, I frequent Naughty Nuri’s, where you can gorge on delicious BBQ ribs and dangerously strong martinis until they close at, errr, 10 p.m.
Ubud is a great place to spend hours driving a scooter in the countryside, getting lost through villages along the rice fields. It’s as beautiful and raw and real as Bali gets these days. None of that has changed in the 20 years I’ve been visiting.
What are your recommendations for off-the-beaten tracks?
An easy hike up Campuan ridge. Enter beside the parking area of IBAH resort, cross the wood footbridge, then ascend the trail through elephant grass for stunning lush valley views on both sides. Easy haf-hour walk, best in early morning or late afternoon.
Sari Organic café, nestled in the middle of rice fields, is well worth the beautiful, leisurely 800-meter walk along a village path that leads to it. Smoothies, salads, pizzas, organic rice dishes. A special place.
You travel extensively, which place(s) impresses you the most recently?
India is always at the top of my list, because it’s like 10 countries in one, and it’s always an assault on the senses. Last year I went to Kashmir and Amritsar and was totally blown away. Dal Lake and the Sikh Golden Temple are among the most magical places I’ve ever experienced.
Closer to home, I visited Flores recently and fell in love with its gorgeous marine life, secluded beaches and crazy sunsets. Eastern Indonesia is totally underappreciated.
More and more people, like Jodi Ettenberg of Legal Nomads fame, make it look easy to just pack up your bag, leave your full-time job and travel around the world.
It’s certainly a lot easier to make radical lifestyle changes now than it was even 20 years ago. The world is a more flexible place, jobs and skills are more transferable, industries are less rigid and the Internet allows people to reach audiences and customers while bypassing traditional gatekeepers.
But to do what Jodi or other friends like Dan and Audrey from Uncornered Market do—to travel full time and make a living from blogging it—you need to be incredibly skilled and focused and disciplined, because it’s very hard work and the competition is fierce. It’s easy to leave your job and hang out at traveler cafes and blog or instagram it, but try getting someone to pay you for that, and you’ll discover how amazing you need to be. On the other hand, if you’ve got what it takes, it’s not that hard to find an appreciative audience.
Lately, I’ve met a lot of young families who’ve quit routines and successful careers in big cities and risked it all to relocate to other parts of the world. They’ve reinvented themselves through totally creative, entrepreneurial new endeavors. I have huge respect for people like that. They understand what it means to live deliberately. And they are the ultimate role models for their kids.
Travelling is such a trend right now. What are your advise/suggestions for the ‘rookie’ travellers?
The way we travel keeps evolving but what makes a unique, meaningful travel experience remains the same: Lose yourself. There is no ‘correct’ way to travel or even must-see sights. Be spontaneous and open. Let instinct and human encounters lead you, not boxes in a guidebook begging to be ticked.
I learned far more about India by following a stranger on a Varanasi street to his sister’s wedding than I did touring the Taj Mahal. I learned far more about Thailand by joining my drunken guesthouse owner for Karaoke than I did by visiting the Grand Palace. Eat street food. Don’t be afraid of anyone. Don’t be afraid of yourself.
Who is your favorite travel writer?
Travel writing is one of the trickiest literary genres because it’s so easy to fall into cliché or to over-exoticize or to make it all about yourself rather than the place you’ve gone to discover. I grew to love Norman Lewis and Jan Morris and Bruce Chatwin, and as a young backpacker discovered Asia through the quirky eyes of Pico Iyer and the historical novels of Amitav Ghosh. Indeed, some of the best travel writing is fiction: A beautifully-crafted tale set in a particular time and place is often a more illuminating and honest and penetrating guide to a destination than even the finest travel essay.