This is the third in Anthropologist Graeme MacRae’s series about Ubud. This time he looks at the special kind of Ubud jam that you can’t seem to spread out….


Once upon a time (which a few of us still remember) Ubud traffic meant tall, black, creaking Dutch-era bicycles, people walking to their ricefields or the market, bare feet padding on the damp brown earth, a few dogs and the occasional chicken, all in the shade of the huge lychee trees. The king had a car and Pak Pacung in Taman ran a bus to Denpasar – down in the morning and back in the evening – you could hear it coming from beyond Peliatan. A distant dream – sepia-tinted, magically misty like a Walter Spies painting. Were we dreaming? What happened?

In the 1970s, people started coming – people a bit like you and me. We brought money into the local economy, so people started buying motorbikes. More money came and they began buying cars. Cars take up more space and by 2000 the roads were full of them. The bombs slowed things down for a while, but by 2010 it had become impossible to drive, park or walk anywhere. Tourists complained and threatened not to come back. The last straw was the big buses full of Chinese tourists which brought the main street to a complete stop every afternoon.

COLLECTIE_TROPENMUSEUM_Markt_bij_een_puri_in_Oeboed_TMnr_10024054Above: Yep, this was Ubud in the early 20th Century, with a pop up market in the foreground and the Saren palace in the background. From the Tropen Museum Collection in Holland.                              

Below: Yep, this is more or less the same spot in the early 21st Century (well this week actually). photo©Rio Helmi


“Why?”we ask (on blogs, Facebook and everywhere else) “don’t they do anything about it?” Well some of them have tried, but who are “they” anyway? That’s part of the problem. The technical part is (usually) the easy part – it’s the “they” part that gets messy.

Around 2000, there was talk about converting the lapangan/soccer field at the top of Monkey Forest Road into a car-park. Others observed that this would be an excellent way of creating even more congestion. But the idea didn’t go away, and as late as 2012, the Bupati (district head) of Gianyar was still talking about preserving “village tourism” by building three stories of parking for 1000 cars under the soccer field.

It was obvious to clearer heads that the answer was the opposite – keeping vehicles out of town altogether, with parking areas on the outskirts, converting the centre of town to a largely pedestrian precinct and linking the two with a system of small-scale public transport. Of course, there were technical challenges and plenty of details to work out. But the real problem was how to make it happen.

Ubud is not a single, unified administrative unit. It includes (depending where/how you draw the boundaries), at least 3 customary villages (desa adat) and 9 banjar, crosscut by two levels of local government, with some functions (including roads) administered from Gianyar.

In 2012, a group of long-term expatriates and Indonesians living in Ubud, got together to develop a plan to fix the problems once and for all. They commissioned a survey that confirmed what we all know, then preliminary design work by specialist consultants in Europe. The plan was essentially to get the traffic and especially parking out of the centre, with a system of electric shuttle buses bringing people from four large “park and ride” stations and taxi stands on the outskirts, to an inner circle (Jalan Raya – Monkey Forest – Jl Hanoman) served by smaller shuttle buses and electric scooters. Residents would have special permits and any other parking in the centre would be strictly limited and expensive.

DSCF0557Above: The last straw – mass tourism, big buses full of Chinese tourists, and here in the middle of Ubud, no clear pedestrian area. photo©Rio Helmi

They knew that piecemeal approaches would not work – if you stop the parking or traffic somewhere, it will just move somewhere else – so all the villages and neighbourhoods of Ubud had to be part of it. They enlisted the support of businesses and leaders of local communities, and then the Forum Bendesa Adat (the heads of the customary villages) who agreed to support it and took it to the new Bupati (district head) in Gianyar. So far, so good, but it depended on continuing support at all levels and also on finding a whole new level of funding, firstly for design and development, then technology and management.

Two years on it seemed to be stuck in a mire of multi-level, inter-departmental bureaucratic stagnation. No-one was surprised, but (like the rubbish) these stories never quite end. Communities realised they had to start independently, if anything was to happen. In 2014, Ubud made a modest start with a parking area uphill from the crossroads, where small tour buses are required to park, and also restricted the large buses to an area in front of the higher-caste cremation ground at Tebesaya, so now the centre is jammed with cars and bikes instead of buses.

Padangtegal, who tend to be relatively innovative and energetic in such matters, used land east of the Monkey Forest to create a huge parking area for hundreds of motorbikes, cars and buses. The plan remains the same – to get rid of all parking on the streets apart from very limited areas controlled by (wait for it) parking meters! Most vehicles will have to park in the parking area and people will get to wherever they are going by shuttle buses around the inner circle. The plan is ambitious and it will not be cheap, but there may be central government funding from a fund for development of “National Tourism Areas”. Meanwhile, back in the government offices in Gianyar, the wheels are moving slowly. The bad news is that soccer field idea hasn’t been forgotten. The good news is that new regulations which empower the parking restrictions may be only weeks away.

It won’t be easy to get people (another “they”) off their bikes, but it may happen, maybe within a few months and it may even work. Getting the parking off the streets would get the traffic moving again. But will there be less or more of it? And will less parking and faster moving traffic make central Ubud a better place for us all – a greener, more pedestrian-friendly place?

I gave up trying to walk years ago (except early in the morning) but now I struggle to get anywhere, even on a motorbike. But a few days ago, I walked with a couple of friends, from Jl. Suweta, to lunch in Jl Dewi Sita. We walked down Jl. Karna behind the market. It was lined with stalls and umbrellas, full of pedestrians, free of cars, hardly even any motorbikes – quiet, safe, peaceful. A vision of what Jl. Gotama and Jl. Kajeng could be – what all the small streets of Ubud could be, perhaps even the beginning of a vision of what Ubud could become – again. If only “they” get it together.


Graeme MacRae, an anthropologist from Massey University, New Zealand,  first visited in Ubud in 1977. He lived here with his family for 18 months in 1993-6. Graeme did his PhD thesis based on Ubud research: “Economy, Ritual & History in a Balinese Tourism Town” at the University of Auckland, 1997.You will find most of Graeme MacRae’s writings at

featured image ©Rio Helmi