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 ice cream 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.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN BALI
I’ve got some tips here, based on what area you want to stay.
To be in the heart of the action, you might like Kuta.
For the trendiest bars and cafes, you can stay in Seminyak.
For something a bit more chilled on the coast, try Canggu.
Or for the mountains, the obvious choice is Ubud.
If you’re looking for something affordable in Kuta, I would recommend Green Garden Hotel.
And, even though it’s got a central location, Amnaya Resort offers peaceful affordable luxury.
When it comes to Seminyak, I would suggest CR Tris Rooms for an affordable hotel.
And for modern luxury, Kanvaz Village Resort is wonderful.
For Canggu, a lovely hotel at a reasonable price is Perissos Echo Beach.
For some stunning accommodation, the Haven Suites in Canggu is fantastic.
And in Ubud, I would recommend Ubud Tropical Garden 2 for an affordable hotel.
Or, for a really special boutique place, have a look at Calma Ubud.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.
31 thoughts on “The good and evil of Bali”
Very interesting read Michael, I think you could say the same about much of Southeast Asia, it’s progress vs culture.
True… there are a lot of places in SE Asia that would have a similar situation. But Bali has always felt a bit different for me. I think it’s because the culture was so strong and so unique and confined to this small island. To see parts of it ripped up for tourism is sad. Luckily there are still plenty of areas around the island that are beautiful and have a strong heritage they still embrace.
Yeah, it’s a shame, tourism eventually destroys the things which once made a place so appealing. Let’s hope that the national parks and heritage centers are maintained.
Hopefully. There’s still plenty of time to keep Bali as an attractive destination without compromising its soul.
Great post…I feel somewhat the same about Florida, and how much I’ve seen my home change over the last 2 decades. There are whole cities where there was once nothing but orange groves, and resorts built in places that long ago would have been a pipe dream. It mixed feelings really…
I guess you can’t argue with the power of the dollar. My biggest concern is when the tourism infrastructure actually becomes so unwieldy that it starts to impact negatively on the experience of the visitors. When it gets to that stage they are shooting themselves in the foot.
With great power comes great responsibility. And other film quotes. The world, from what I can tell, is rapidly homogenizing. There are differences, but these are largely of a historic nature. In a few thousand years, maybe we’ll all just be one race of jump suit wearing shaven headed people of a similar mind. Then again, we might stop fighting over pointless stuff, so maybe it’s not all bad. (Great article, my rambling comment aside!)
Ha – I like the rambling comment, because I think you’re probably right. There’s definitely a homogenisation going on that would have been unthinkable a hundred years ago. Technology is making the world so small that it’s also making it so similar. The battle to keep your culture pure is a hard one.
Great insight into the advantages and costs of tourism. After reading about the explosive growth and traffic jams, I am relieved to learn there are still places and villages that embrace traditional Balinese culture. Hopefully, authorities will someday follow you suggestion and add cultural regulations to preserve the heritage.
I think they are starting to address this issue now that it’s so clearly got out of hand. The problem was that they didn’t have the foresight to do it a bit earlier. It was tough for them, to be fair, because of the volatility of the tourism market after the 2002 bombings. Let’s reassess the situation in another decade, shall we?
Wonderfully in-depth piece Michael. I grew up in Bali and can certainly agree that it’s a very complicated place walking a fine line. But, the balance is really interesting and I could certainly talk (and write) for hours about it!
I would love to hear your thoughts sometime! I definitely don’t want to be all negative because I love the place. But I’m glad you agree that the fine line exists there. Moreso than many touristy places I’ve visited, the culture is so strong and I wouldn’t want it to be lost in the commercial push.
Yeah I definitely agree the culture is very strong. But funnily enough I’ve noticed that in some places where there isn’t the tourist influence and there’s only the media influence (TV and internet etc), the culture is starting to lose traction. It seems to me that there’s a kind of ‘power to the people’ happening with the Balinese, especially with the youth, at seeing so many travellers coming to Bali to experience and learn about the Balinese culture…
Just a thought 🙂
That’s a really interesting point! I guess globalisation is affecting local cultures, regardless of whether tourists are coming or not. At least when there are foreign visitors, there is another good reason to keep a part of the culture – for tourism.
I feel like I’ve been chasing authenticity for a while. Another backpacker tonight said “anyone saying they came to Thailand just for the culture is full of shit” and I think he may be right. It’s hard to find places that aren’t rapidly changing. It’s sad on one hand, but it’s part of globalization, I guess. Inevitable.
I suppose the question is ‘what is culture?’. The world is changing and cultures change with it. We can’t expect every country to be how it was 20 years – ours certainly aren’t. But the problem I think comes when you give in to the mass tourism so much that you not only lose any connection to the local customs, but a place just becomes unpleasant and difficult. The key is to keep it all in balance.
I would say tourism almost a form of modern day colonization. Beautiful unspoilt places attract the masses, the masses are catered for by modern hotels, then condos, then houses, then expat villages.
Then a slow process of westernization begins when the expats decide paradise would be even better if it was more like back home.
Well put. I think that’s exactly what happens in a lot of places! Quite sad.
Very interesting post, Michael! I love how the photos perfectly illustrate your points.
Thanks, Lillie. It’s an interesting thing to think about. As others here have said, this kind of thing is not isolated to Bali, but it’s certainly more noticeable in some places compared to others.
Interesting points, I have read often about how tourism risks to spoil Bali’s original spirit. Sad..
And it’s not just the ‘spirit’. One of the biggest problems, as I mentioned, is just the infrastructure. The roads can’t handle the visitor numbers that come through these days. The new highway will help, but comes with its own problems.
I have the same love/hate relationship with Bali and have often pondered ways of writing about it. I think you captured it perfectly, esp comparing it to the spiritual beliefs. Many travelers shy away from Bali because of the over-tourism, but there is so much more! I love that you mentioned the North. My advice is always to get on a motorbike and head away from Kuta, Seminyak and Ubud. Don’t write off the whole island! Very-well written, Michael!
Yeah, there are some amazing places around the island. I don’t understand why more people don’t want to explore them. Surely I’m not the only one who feels a bit claustrophobic in Kuta or Seminyak?
Bali is such an amazing place to go on holiday. Its one of those places that have maintained its culture despite being part of a Muslim country. The credit goes to the people of Bali. Great post on Bali.
Good point. We can’t take anything away from the strength of the Balinese culture which has stayed pure for so many centuries while life changed on the islands around it. I don’t think it will ever disappear – which is a credit to the people, indeed.
The development aspects of tourism and “opening up” of tour destinations is an often overlooked thing. It is quite interesting to hear that much of the island has remained the way it has for generations. This is a good sign in some ways.
There was a twitter chat a while back asking about sustainable tourism, what it meant. My answer was something to the effect of “making sure the visitors do not ruin the reason for visiting”. I hope Bali is able to keep the charm that makes it a destination without succumbing to it.
That’s a great definition of sustainable tourism. I also think that the number of tourists should be an issue of consideration. One of the biggest problems for Bali is just the sheer scale of the tourism industry and the pressures that puts on all the infrastructure.
Being a big Bali fan myself, I often thought that it was tourism that was the big thing affecting Bali’s culture and more recently its infrastructure. But after living in Java for a while now, I see many of the exact same issues and they aren’t caused by tourism. Clogged roads, electricity issues and polluted rivers are all part of the infrastructure problem here too. Culturally, the different ethnic groups of Java are traditionally very similar to the Balinese but traditions such as wayang, the dress and music have all waned over the past 40 years due to local people thinking it is old-fashioned.
As much as anyone else in the world, Indonesians want to modernise and many practices tied to religion and village-living simply don’t gel with going to the mall, shopping with friends, having a full time job etc.
Which then leads to all the infrastructure problems we see in Indonesia. The country is growing rapidly and the Government is just not capable of keeping up.
The best way to have an ‘authentic’ experience in Indonesia? Visit rural areas where the predominant form of income is farming or fishing. These people usually follow the old ways and provide a much more interesting experience for the visitor.
All that said, I love Indonesia and Bali in particular. There are great things ahead for the country despite the obvious infrastructure problems.
Thanks so much for your insightful addition to the conversation. It’s a really good point that you see this across other parts of Indonesia as well. Jakarta, for instance, has such terrible traffic there. You wonder whether anyone thought ahead when they were building the infrastructure and why they’re not making more of an effort to improve things.
Modernisation is a problem for traditional cultures all around the world, no doubt about that. I love your suggestion to visit some of the farming and fishing areas. I got a glimpse of some of them and they were fascinating.
I can’t wait to get back to Indonesia again soon!
Interesting article. We are about to visit Bali and a few surrounding Islands for a month. We already have some perceptions of ‘super touristy spots’ and more natural, culture focused areas. We will most definitely travel through a variety of these places and hopefully soak up as much tradition and Balinese life as possible. Thank you for the insight.
(English/Primary school teacher based in France.)