When the opportunity to fly to Bali on a cheap flight out of Singapore came up I jumped at the chance. My wife Patricia and I had first visited together twenty two years before with an eighteen month old infant son in tow. We were stoked to go back on our own as fancy free adults and perhaps relive a few of the fantastic experiences we had wrought in the past. A S$-70 dollar return fare from Singers to Denpassar on Jet Star Air was the only catalyst we needed. Although we hadn’t planned to go to Indonesia the temptation was just too great. We were too far down the rabbit hole of close conversations over Masala Dosa about the ancient temples, beautiful beaches, enthralling culture and the magical Monkey Forest Road of Ubud and quickly talked ourselves into buying the tickets on a whim. If nothing else, Pat and I are whimsical travelers. As Oscar Wilde said “The only thing I can’t resist is temptation”.
The Mandarin Oriental hotel in Singapore we stay at as regular guests was happy to accommodate us by rearranging our reservations at no extra cost. They also offered to store our excess baggage in their left luggage closet for the week we would be away. My wife sometimes accuses me of being too chatty with every one we meet along the way, but I have found that by meeting people on their own terms and recognizing every person as a human being brings great rewards. The main benefit of being easily recognized and generally well thought of is that most people will go out of their way to do special favours for you if they like you, so be nice to the staff fellow travelers, you may need a favour sometime. It’s OK to talk to strangers when you travel, within reason. I find great people everywhere we go. Being a loyal guest at hotel chains will also get you great upgrades and free breakfasts etc. I nurture my professional travel relationships for this reason.
Patricia and I still get excited when we travel. We still fight over the window seat, she always wins. The process of travel has become slightly more arduous because of security and immigration concerns, but we turn a blind eye to all that and stay keen on the destination and never dwell on the hassles of getting there. When we’d last visited, Bali had been a highly spiritual place with peoples main focus being on their daily rituals. This was one of the main reasons the environment had been so endearing to us, it had been like living in a dreamworld of chanting, incense and flowers. Even further back, when I had first been there in the 70’s as a hippie trader, Bali had been an island of villages barely connected to one another let alone the pathways to the modern world. At the time we had last visited these neo-Hindu-Buddhist people had managed to escape the ravages of the twentieth century by some cultural miracle. To the relatively few spiritually sensitive westerners who had visited up until then, and I’m talking 1975, it was a heaven on Earth.
Until the age of guide books and the mass tourism that was created by their publication, Bali was a retreat for a few off beat surfers from Australia and California. Later came the routards who had chanced upon the stunning textile design, silver work and abundance of decaying wood sculpture by accidental cross cultural exchange between surfers and the road warriors in spots like Oahu and Peru where meetings of travelers and surfers were common for the time. I started hearing of this fantastically creative place while traveling in India from other traders who were collecting goods for sale in the west as I was. Stories spread and attracted the guide book writers leading to the devastation of once pristine places every where.
Bali in the 70’s consisted of a few surf shacks bunched together along a pristine stretch of beach known as Kuta. The hippies had trekked into the hill country where the Ubud Balinese had established communities of traditional carvers, stone smiths, jewelers and textile weavers, all for use a ritual items in their ceremonies. The coolness factor was admired in the west as fashions were based on the display of oriental finery at the time. Anyone who got their hands on the products of Bali found themselves able to make easy money as these were the first Balinese offerings being made available and the styles were much more spiritually resplendent than the Indian wares had become. Families that had been producing traditional ritual finery from tiny jungle villages were finding that the hippy travelers were seeking them out and beginning to live among them.
Patricia and I were fortunate to see the last of that traditional Balinese culture as it had been practiced for centuries before tourism overwhelmed the island kingdom. Within five years of the Lonely Planet guide being published thousands upon thousands of mainstream backpackers had descended on Bali. In a very short time foreigners began buying land and building guest bungalows for the invading hordes of magic mushroom and suntan seekers attracted by the prospect of piggybacking a spiritual experience for the duration of their package vacation. Balinese culture kept the facade of ‘cool’ flowing for a short while, but soon the Balinese were pushed out of the traditional village life by another group, the Javanese, who brought mainstream business from the ruling Indonesian culture to displace the old ways with commerce.
Bali in the year 2012 is not the funky traditional village culture it once was. So what was the draw for us now? A S$70 ticket was one thing, another was the idea that we could possibility relive a past experience if we got off the beaten track and away from the tourist rut. This proved impossible, Bali has become a mere caricature of what it once was, scratch the surface and only tourist infrastructure remains. Kuta has become a bar zone and disco hovel for sex tourists and boozers of all ages from any number of countries. Gone are the quaint ceremonial customs replaced by hotel tourism and heavy traffic. Ubud’s Monkey Forest Road is now an end to end trail of exhaust belching tour buses filled with giddy tourists. There was a sweet fragrance to the island thirty years ago, now the sewage overflow stings the air and permeates every aspect of ones day.
Once pristine beaches are now dark with pollutants from the restaurants and hotels that have been piping them a short way out into the surf only to have the sewage wash ashore with the next high tide. The water is so thick with raw sewage effluent that it is impossible to imagine swimming anymore. In heavenly Ubud the same problem exists where the tourist structures all pipe the untreated effluent into streams running in the ravines behind the hotel strip but the water run is insufficient to carry the volume of muck away and the banks are layered with stinking toilet waste. In the upscale beach resort of Sanur I watched as the hotel staff had to continually rake the tidal sewage off the beach so that the tourists wouldn’t see what had come ashore. The water however was a grey greasy pulp in the same way as other beaches around the island. I found that the design world of the Balinese had been hijacked and has become boring and predictable, no longer driven by spirituality, but by commerce alone. In fact, one Australian ‘entrepreneur’ has legally copyrighted all the traditional designs so that no one can produce authentic pieces anymore. He lives in splendor, close to Ubud, in a spiritual graveyard of his own making, the master of nothing.
Anyone could argue that the tourist trade has increased the standard of living for the Balinese. Who am I to argue against these people joining in the rush towards modernity? Patricia and I continued to look for any signs that Bali was still alive under the thick blanket of mass tourism. The culture remains although barely noticeable. People have in fact joined the modern era, working seven days a week to pay off banks loans they have taken out towards mod-con appurtenances. But there is nothing of the Bali I knew left to make me want to visit again. After searching for something real we were left with the impression that an old friend had died. Rest in Peace Bali, we will never go back, as far as tourist destinations are concerned , there are much better preserved in the world. Bali has become a choice made available by ultra cheap air fare offerings. It is not a magical magnet that one must see.It is one of the most extreme examples of how the destructive power of the guide book culture can literally tear the soul out of a beautiful place and leave it unalterably changed.
International tourists come to Bali in droves, sold on the cheap tickets and the dreams that guide books still falsely perpetrate. These people see a sham of what the business community has designed for their temporary pleasure. I have gone on to seek my pleasures elsewhere.