It’s not difficult to see why Bali is a very popular tourist destination: the landscapes are often very beautiful with rice fields and terraces everywhere, traditional Balinese compounds and temples lining the streets, and beaches that stretch endlessly along the coastline. It also feels like a place of concentrated culture, where despite their long-running contact with Western tourists, the local people still seem intensely and specifically Balinese. Women dressed in sarongs tend to the temples multiple times per day, balancing offerings of fruit and incense on their heads as they walk. Business owners and shop assistants can be observed constructing little baskets, placing offerings on the pavement outside, or erecting decorations for one of the many religious holidays. All of this is lovely.
But Bali’s popularity is also it’s downfall, at least for us. The island is very crowded, with a population approaching 4 million, and around 2.5 million tourists every year. The island’s narrow roads are constantly buzzing with traffic – on the day we arrived, the trip to Ubud (which we were advised usually takes about one hour) took two and a half due to the traffic conditions, and the late afternoon traffic jams in Ubud town were far worse than those we experienced in Bangkok. The density of people cannot but make an impact on the landscape, and we noticed this most while staying at the coast, where thick piles of rubbish are strewn for miles along the high tide line.
Colin and I realised quite some time ago that we prefer to travel in places with an under-developed tourist industry. In Battambang, Cambodia for example, we were able to amuse ourselves for hours, just observing people going about their everyday lives: a man delivering big chunks of ice to shopkeepers who placed them inside giant chilli bins full of cold drinks; a street vendor doing a roaring trade in fresh sugar cane juice; a thin elderly woman with her arms covered in yellow dust from the incense she was making. None of this was enacted for the eyes of tourists, and if anything, we felt like we were the curiosity. In Bali, however, 80% of the island’s economy derives from tourism, and some of what’s on offer is downright cheesy. In Ubud, which is widely touted as the cultural hub of the island, we went to a performance of the Kecak, or Monkey Dance. The dancers could not have looked more bored and uninspired, apart from two or three who actually put some energy into their performance. Interestingly, Balinese dances were traditionally performed only within a sacred, ritual context, and never for a paying audience. But it seems that now everything is for sale in Bali.
It was quickly clear that Bali was not going to provide us with the kind of travel experience that we had enjoyed elsewhere, but Bali is great for a ‘holiday’. I now think of a holiday as distinctly different from the traveling we have done, which hasn’t always been easy or comfortable. Last year Colin and I went to Phuket for seven days. With only a short time away, we wanted to get straight down to business: lazing by the pool, partying at nightclubs, eating lovely food, and being ferried around to pre-booked tourist attractions. But during our recent three-month trip, our most memorable experiences have been those that were as far as possible out of this tourist-bubble. Our Bali-stop was meant to be 10 days of comfort and relaxation at the end of a long and often-challenging trip. It was this, but although we still enjoyed it, both of us would have traded it in a second for 10 further days in Laos, or Myanmar, or the northern hills of Vietnam…