WATERY: The regions plentiful rainfall makes rice a crop of choice. Paddies… (Katja Kuusikumpu )
Reporting from Ubud, Bali — On a steamy, drizzly morning, my friend Alejandra Cisneros leads us on a narrow dirt path through the flooded rice fields.
A few yards away, a dozen ducks march single file across a dirt berm, tails twitching, looking very businesslike. Local farmers hire the trained ducks to eat pests and clean the recently harvested fields, Cisneros explains, as we settle on the bamboo deck of Sari Organik, an organic restaurant.
These carefully terraced rice fields and the surrounding rivers are sacred grounds for the Balinese, an integral part of the spiritual soup that attracts mystics, seekers and legions of yoga teachers to Ubud.
Ubud (pronounced OO-bood) is where "Eat Pray Love" author Elizabeth Gilbert famously found love, making the jungle-covered town a sort of mecca for divorced women. Promotional photos for the movie version of Gilbert's book, in theaters Friday, show a blissful Julia Roberts bicycling through rice fields not far from our breakfast spot.
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THE BEST WAY TO BALI
From LAX, connecting service (change of plane) to the Denpasar airport, about 15 miles from Ubud, is offered on China, Korean, Cathay Pacific, Singapore, Eva, Thai and Malaysia Airlines. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $840.
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"People are very concerned about the movie coming out," said Cisneros, as she raised her arm above her head, trying to get phone reception in the rice field.
Cisneros, a California native, has seen a steady increase in the number of suburban refugees in Ubud since she moved here in 2004, long before the "Eat Pray Love" phenomenon.
"Something happened a few years ago," she said. "It was no longer that adventurous to go to Ubud."
Some Ubud locals call the book, which has sold 7 million copies, "Eat Pray Gag." Many dispute the extent of its impact on tourism, but it's not hard to spot women of a certain age in town, hopping between spas and meditation seminars.
At Naughty Nuri's, a roadside bar outside town where travelers gather on picnic benches to drink martinis and eat slabs of barbecued ribs, a sign on the wall announces, "Eat, Pay, Leave." (It's posted next to a framed article quoting Anthony Bourdain praising the martinis.)
In fact, Ubud has lured searchers and wanderers for generations, long before Gilbert's odyssey. In the early part of the 20th century, Westerners such as artist Walter Spies and writer Noel Coward made the trek, looking for their own forms of inspiration in the lush hillsides.
Today the center of Ubud bustles with scooters and minibuses shuttling visitors from the local hotels. Streets are lined with designer jewelry shops, art galleries, clothing boutiques, yoga schools and readily available ATMs. It's rumored that Starbucks may be moving in.
Not long ago a barbecue stand specializing in duck was considered one of the best local restaurants. Now there are rows of pleasant open-air bistros with expansive ( English) menus offering a variety of "contemporary Balinese and Asian specialties."
During our stay in May, locals were debating the merits of a new restaurant, Clear Cafe, which features an ultracontemporary design with white stone and sedate mood lighting. "It could be in San Francisco," sniffed one British expat. "It has nothing to do with Ubud."
In many ways, Ubud is a blur of contrasts. Not far from the center of town, the hills are filled with luxurious villas and high-end resorts with expansive infinity pools. But there are still Javanese teak bungalows for rent in the rice fields, providing a simple (un-air conditioned) Bali experience for less than $30 a night.
My wife, Lietza, and I stayed at the Hotel Tjampuhan, an 82-year-old hotel with lineage to Bali's royal family, a short walk from the center of town. Moss-covered carved stones and jungle flowers cover the hotel's steep hillside, which drops off to the Tjampuhan River.
Our room, which cost about $100 a night, was at the bottom of the gorge, making every journey to the lobby a sweaty hike up stone steps. But at night the room was quiet, except for the sound of the river and the unknown critters scampering on the ceiling.
In many ways, connecting to nature is an essential part of the Ubud experience. Balinese practice a form of Hinduism steeped in harmony with the elements. It powers all aspects of their lives, from the arrangement of living quarters to the daily offerings at every shrine and temple.
For tourists, the streets and hillsides around Ubud are dotted with spas and retreats, each offering its own form of healing, enlightenment and/or cleansing. In Penestanan, a village in the rice fields, accessible only by trails, the community bulletin board is covered with notices for yoga sessions, cooking classes and aromatherapy treatments.