Situated amid verdant rice paddies, with grand temples and deep-rooted Hindu traditions, Ubud is renowned as Bali’s cultural apex and has long been a magnet for creative types, alternative thinkers, yoga-heads and healers. Tourist and expat numbers have soared in recent years due to high profile exposure in the book Eat Pray Love and location filming of the celluloid version. Despite the inevitable gridlock and commercialism that accompanies such growth, Ubud manages to retain its unique character and continues to inspire, making it a fitting milieu for the annual Ubud Readers & Writer’s Festival, one of the largest and most esteemed literary events in Southeast Asia.
Marking its 10th anniversary last October with a themed conference (“From Darkness to Light”) that honored Indonesian human rights pioneer R.A. Kartini, the festival gave voice to over 200 Indonesian, Asian and international authors, songwriters, poets, graphic novelists, journalists and playwrights throughout provocative panels, workshops and book launches. The four day affair also presented a dazzling selection of film and youth programming, music, art exhibits and spoken word performances for an estimated 25,000 attendees.
Audiences were regaled with courageous stories of escape and survival from Cambodia’s Carina Hoang, Iranian refugee Kooshyar Karimi and the anecdotal adventures of Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler. Adding to this famed Algonquin Roundtable were observations from best-selling Indonesian author Ahmad Fuadi, and the musings of Australian lyricist/performer and Rolling Stone “Woman of the Year” Clare Bowditch.
The venerable global lineup further spotlighted top UK author Sebastian Falks (Birdsong, Devil May Care), Lionel Shriver (We Need to Talk about Kevin), India’s ‘first literary pop star’ Amish Tripathi, two-time Miles Franklin winner Kim Scott (That Deadman Dance), and prolific French writer Alain Mabanckou. Indonesia’s (g)literatti was duly represented by preeminent poet/man-of-letters Goenawan and award-winning writer Ayu Utami, among others.
Personal highlights included the screening of Daniel Ziv’s illuminating documentary Jalanan and subsequent performances by the Jakarta street musicians the film portrays, the Betelnut Poetry Slam, a “Traveller’s Lunch” hosted by lauded travel scribe Don George, and symposiums featuring intrepid Mexican investigative journalist Lydia Cacho and Australian attorney/human rights activist/author Julian Burnside.
The lavish opening ceremony at the Ubud Palace (Puri Saren) offered insight into Balinese culture while the rousing closing fete showcased Australian-based Ghana singer/songwriter/instrumentalist Afro Moses within the spectacular environs of the Blanco Renaissance Museum. Special mention goes to young Bulgarian author Yordan Radichkov who charmingly befriended me, never mentioning that he was one of two winners of the Long Way Home Asia-Europe Short Story Contest. It’s well worth planning your trip to Bali around this compelling yearly event.
When in need of a respite after hectic days and sleepless nights of ping-ponging across Ubud, plan to land in the lap of luxury at the opulent Mulia Resort in Nusa Dua. Open in 2012, the Mulia triumvirate has received a slew of accolades and is named “Best New Hotel in the World” in Conde Nast Traveler’s 2013 Hot List. Three distinct properties comprise a mini city under the exclusive Mulia banner (flagshipped by Jakarta’s Hotel Mulia Senayan) over 30 hectares of prime beachfront property in southern Bali. Distinguished by muted tones and lots of marble, the 526 rooms at the Mulia Resort are kitted with 46-inch flat screens and heated toilet seats. A fitness center, tennis courts, spa, lake-encased chapel, ballroom and lavish international cuisine served in eight restaurants and bars further define this palatial spread, while four infinity pools (excluding those in private villas) and ubiquitous decorative water features imbue it with a welcome Zen quality.
Despite — or perhaps due to — its gargantuan size, one rarely encounters crowds. That’s the good news. The bad news is that in its zealous attempt to maintain a high standard of excellence, the occasional posted admonitions (“do not hang towels on terrace railings”) feel overly restrictive and dogmatic. Having said that, the spa — which proffers a mind-numbing array of exotic treatments — was superb (a 90-minute Balinese massage may render you serenely speechless). No detail has been left to chance at the trio of Mulia properties which encompasses the 111 unit all-suite Mulia that offers butler service and absolute privacy to heads of state, Gulfstream-owning CEOS and zillionaires (for a minimum $750 nightly tariff) and the luxurious 108 villa compound featuring one- to six bedroom self-contained houses starting at $980 per night).