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Traveling the ‘Eat Pray Love’ way

Posted on 06 September 2010 by Joel Quenby

Elizabeth Gilbert’s autobiographical travel yarn is a literary showcase for Bali’s exotic tropical locations. Here is our guide to four of the tale’s Indonesia-related travel recommendations

Movie star parade. Javier Bardem and some Pretty Woman wander a Balinese market

Movie star parade. Javier Bardem and some Pretty Woman wander a Balinese market

American writer and Travel + Leisure contributor Elizabeth Gilbert authored a bestselling 2006 “chick-lit” memoir of post-divorce globetrotting: Eat Pray Love. Her yarn was adapted into a movie and is now an international box-office sensation.

The original Pretty Woman, Oscar-winning Julia Roberts, plays “Liz” as desperate to escape her miserable existence in New York as a respected, profitable writer. So the 34-year-old hits the global byways seeking enlightenment (a journey outside her comfort zone, she never hesitates to tell everyone).

After attempting to eat Italy out of pasta and then go spiritual in India, Gilbert/Roberts lands on the Indonesian isle of Bali, which she thinks is “a fairly simple place to navigate … It’s not like I’ve landed in the middle of the Sudan with no idea of what to do next.”

However, this once-carefree paradise was shattered by terrorist bombs killing more than 200 young Australian tourists in 2002. The hangover of terrorism persists. New York Times movie desk don A.O. Scott, among others, criticized Gilbert’s, “Western fetishization of Eastern thought,” concluding the flick was, “unlikely to change anybody’s life or even to provoke emotions anywhere near as intense as those experienced … by its intrepid heroine.”

Not many cared, if 170 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List means anything. The book resonated with readers to the tune of more than 1.35 million copies, after 15 printings. Gilbert was on Oprah, and her book translated into 40 languages. Now the movie has given rise to a new customer for Balinese tour operators: spiritual seekers.

Not that Bali Governor Made Mangku Pastika was complaining in 2009: “We have to be thankful, because the presence of the Hollywood movie star has given birth to Bali’s new title, ‘Island of Love,’” he said, “which will of course support our tourism.”

As for Elizabeth Gilbert, will Bali be forever in her heart? For those seeking a stretch, she recommends yoga tours of Bali with, “my sweet friend Mario at the Ubud Inn, at mariourip@yahoo.com.


“It isn’t near any beaches, so the tourists who come to Ubud are a self-selecting and rather classy crowd; they would prefer to see an ancient temple ceremony than to drink piña coladas in the surf.”

A view over Ubud, Bali's cultural hub (by Brian via Flickr Creative Commons License)

A view over Ubud, Bali's cultural hub (by Brian via Flickr Creative Commons License)

“This could be a lovely place to live for a while,” wrote Elizabeth Gilbert of Ubud, Bali’s arty cultural hub, where traditional painting, dance, carving, and religious ceremonies still thrive. The author spent four months cycling through quiet villages on the slopes of Mount Batur, sampling Indonesian food, acquainting herself with locals, taking yoga classes—and writing a certain book.

Ubud is famous for holistic traditions; here lie foundations upon which Bali’s thriving spa industry are mounted. Even its very name derives from the word ubad, describing the abundance of medicinal plants indigenous here. Rock-cut temples tucked into layered rice terraces also grace the landscape. The Balinese worship a unique composite of Indian cosmology, Tantric Buddhism, local animist traditions and ancestor worship.

Local medicine man (in reality, as in the film) Ketut Liyer claims Ubud is a rare tap of the earth’s healing energy. That is tricky to confirm, but the place is demonstrably removed from Kuta’s surfer scene and Seminyak’s trendy shopping. This is Bali’s hippie chill-out zone, where alternative lifestyles are staples. Ubud has twice hosted the Bali Spirit Festival—an annual celebration of yoga, dance and music.


“The medicine man, as it turned out, was a small, merry-eyed, russet-colored old guy with a mostly toothless mouth, whose resemblance in every way to the Star Wars character Yoda cannot be exaggerated.”

Julia Roberts cycles Penestanan to study The Force with Ketut Liyer

Julia Roberts cycles Penestanan to study The Force with Ketut Liyer

Just outside Ubud lies quaint Penestanan where a signboard indicates the Hindu-style compound where the small, weathered seer from Eat, Pray, Love lives. Gilbert learned meditation with this local balian (shaman).

Gilbert describes Ketut Liyer as “a priestly figure, somewhat mystical.” Nobody knows Ketut’s age, but his business card offers health, meditation, palm reading, astrology, painting, woodcarving, homestay … Plus a map to his front porch.

Many Indonesian communities prefer traditional healing to science. Medicine men address spiritual as well as physical needs, blending massage and meditation with herbal recipes. Ketut hails from long line of mystics; his grandfather inducted him into the family trade—after he had died, incidentally. That’s right, the deceased man apparently mentored his grandson via the medium of dream.

After the movie’s release, Time said, “his bamboo mat is an almost necessary stop on Bali’s increasingly popular spiritual tourist circuit.” The Yoda-alike’s bank account is no longer empty. Ketut charges almost the average weekly wage, US$25, to read your palm. For that price, though, he will say you are smart—and live to be 110-years-old.

Traditional Balinese Healing

“Thank God my best friend in Bali is a healer,” and I ran into Wayan’s shop … She took one look at me and said, “You sick from making too much sex, Liz.’”

Wayan Nuriyasih's Traditional Balinese Healing: a small clinic, home and restaurant

Wayan Nuriyasih (top left) in Traditional Balinese Healing: a clinic, home and restaurant

To Gilbert, Wayan Nuriyasih is a “strikingly attractive Balinese woman with a wide smile and shiny black hair down to her waist.” She can be found in Traditional Balinese Healing—“a very small medical clinic and home and restaurant all at the same time.”

The gentle herbalist speaks proficient English, although, “because she is Balinese, she immediately asked me the three standard introductory questions,” according to the writer. “Where are you going today? Where are you coming from? Are you married?” (Despite this stock-standard patter, Gilbert lingered five hours on her first visit and later raised $18,000 to build Wayan a better house.)

Wayan treated the author’s urinary tract infection with strange noxious potions. “In less than two hours I was fine, totally healed.” After that, Gilbert “would trust Wayan with any illness whatsoever,” reckoning her “one of the most successful businesswomen in Ubud.” (In fairness, bloggers also rave online about Wayan’s miraculous abilities.)

Gilbert had previously noticed Wayan’s shop’s blackboard with a curious handwritten advertisement for the Multivitamin Lunch Special outside a nondescript building behind a restaurant garden of ginseng, aloe vera and jasmine. The “delicious and nutritious” concoction of water spinach, ginseng, salty seaweed and spicy tempeh comes with each ingredient carefully labeled with its healing properties:

Red rice: for a healthy heart
Grilled coconut: relieves rheumatitis
Tomato chutney: healthy for gums
Mutabilis leaf: relieves stomach gas
Bean sprouts: strengthens weak muscles

Maya Ubud Resort & Spa

The grand Maya Ubud - where Elizabeth Gilbert wrote sections of 'Eat, Pray, Love' in 2006

The grand Maya Ubud - where Elizabeth Gilbert wrote sections of 'Eat, Pray, Love' in 2006

Where better to base a pilgrimage than the very hideaway where Elizabeth Gilbert wrote the Balinese section of her memoirs back in 2006? (Maybe you can even reserve the exact room occupied by the author in her moments of literary inspiration.)

Set amid 10 hectares of landscaped garden enveloped by steep valleys, the layout of Maya Ubud Resort & Spa flows from its hilltop vantage point down to rice paddies besides the Petanu River 30 meters below. Pitching itself as a “spacious, stylish, luxurious environment in which to enjoy some of life’s better moments,” the resort has won loads of awards. VIP International Traveller readers voted it Most Beautiful Wellness Resort Worldwide in 2006.

“The task in Indonesia was to search for balance,” wrote Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love—a balance between pleasure and devotion, specifically. Well, Devotion To Pleasure Leaving One Balanced is probably the mandate of the therapists at Maya Ubud’s riverside spa, who cater to romancers in customized couples’ thatched treatment pavilions.

The resort’s website convincingly essays its spa’s sensual wares: “soothing hands … aromatic herbs, oils and lotions … flower-filled baths … treatments that smooth, stimulate, and pamper … private treatment pavilions provide individual oasis in which refreshing and aromatic oils sooth and relax.”

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