Visiting Bali, Indonesia
There’s a dichotomy to Bali. It’s all, ultimately, about belief and perception. It’s about how you see the world, how you see your place in it, and how you judge the reason for it all.
On this Indonesian island, there is a pervasive spirituality. The Hindu doctrines which have influenced it for centuries (while the rest of the country has moved towards Islam) remain today. In fact, in some ways, never more in history have they been more important to the identity of this special place.
I’ve written about the spirituality of Bali before. The basic idea around the beliefs of the locals here is the acceptance that the same force that does good also does evil. The two, according to the philosophies, are inseparable because to understand one, you must have experienced the other.
On this trip, probably my fourth of fifth to Bali (I seem to have lost count), I’ve seen this ideology as more than just a religion. It’s the best way to describe the whole place, to understand what is happening to the tourist mecca, and to decide where you fit in. Here, this time, I see the whole island and its tourism sector in a different light. There is a good and an evil to this island resort.
Over the years, tales of the island have spread out across the oceans and, as the messages have hit the shores of other countries, the reverberations have brought tourists back.
They came for the Island of the Gods, the special getaway with the mysticism of the jungles and the serenity of the beaches. What they created, with their endless planes of arrivals, was an urban chaos. Traffic, development and overt commercialisation have not only clogged up the infrastructure, they have suppressed much of the culture.
Traffic in Bali
I sit in the bus, watching the shops on the side of the road. It’s been almost an hour but we’re only just getting close to the hotel. Stuck in traffic, my mind wanders to the first trip I made to the island, more than a decade ago. I remember somewhat rustic streets outside of the capital Denpasar. The kind of roads where a taxi driver would have to swerve around an animal pulling a cart. Even in the more-developed areas closer to the beach – Kuta and Legian – cars would bump along badly-paved and narrow alleys, twisting through a scattering of cheap DVD and t-shirt shops.
And yet here I am in 2012, stuck in a traffic jam at ten o’clock at night, looking at the new concrete buildings that have sprung up here by the side of the road. A hotel halfway between the airport and the beach, with little other commerce around it looks a bit strange at first. After another twenty minutes of the slow-moving traffic I understand why it might have been an attractive option for some.
At Kuta Beach, the hub of the waterside activity in Bali, a large shopping centre has taken over the ocean-facing street. It’s new and flashy – brandishing the names of some of the world’s top companies from signs on its exterior. It looks very nice, to give it credit. And it looks air-conditioned, which is always nice after a couple of hours in the sun. But it doesn’t look Balinese… or even Indonesian. It looks like a Bangkok supermall has been merged with an Australian beachside shopping centre. Sunglasses and icecream outside, high-end fashion and fast food inside.
All along the beach strip, international chains are increasing their dominance. The shops which have remained independent are even falling into the homogenous tourist pool, though. Beer can holders with Australian football team logos; phone covers with the same glitzy designs I saw in Singapore just days earlier; clothing intended to survive just as long as the holiday. The generic rules supreme in the domain of the tourist masses.
This is what I perceive as the evil of Bali. A selling of a beautiful soul to hordes who come to ravage, not appreciate. It’s a shortsightedness that has allowed the rampant expansion without the thought of infrastructure investment or cultural regulations to preserve the heritage.
Which is sad, because there is a good to Bali still. Ironically, perhaps, the concentration of visitors to the beach areas around Denpasar has meant that much of the rest of the island has escaped the cultural vandalism.
Getting away from Kuta
Head up the eastern coast, or along the southern, or cut through Ubud and cross the mountains up to the northwestern, you’ll find some stunning beaches away from the maddening crowds. Even close to the airport – the main transit point for most – you’ll find a fascinating surf culture and a vibrant spiritual embrace in places like Uluwatu. Or head further afar to discover Padang Bai, Amed, or Lovina.
The Balinese, for the most part, seem to be quite content balancing their own beliefs and heritage with the influx of foreigners. Their offerings to the gods can be seen on the footpath in the front of shops on Kuta. Outside of that populated areas, it’s even more obvious, and you don’t need to spend too long to see a street shut off for a religious ceremony, notice the flags hanging from the buildings in a village, or meet someone who will speak to you about their religion (although this is rarely volunteered).
The architecture in much of the island is how it would have been generations ago, there is a simplicity to many lives despite the influx of Western influences, and the calm that many tourists describe as ‘friendliness’ – although peacefulness might be more appropriate – is omnipresent. The perceptions of those who fly in for a week may be impacted by a disguise, but the core of the locals has not changed.
Meanwhile, back in Denpasar, the development of Bali continues. A new airport, to cope with increasing demand, is due to open in 2013. And a complicated highway system, straight out of Los Angeles, is being constructed to feed drivers out from the capital to different parts of the island.
It will have a positive effect on a lot of the traffic congestion that visitors and locals currently suffer. But it will also mean it will become easier for tourists to get to some of these further away locations. Perhaps they will bring the commercialisation with them and the corruption will just spread.
As with all on this island, the good and the evil continue to reside in balance with the future as much as the past.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.
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