I visited Bali 20 years ago and I was deeply affected by my visit. I hadn’t traveled very much outside of the US at the time but I felt like it was a special place.
My general feeling at the time was that there was something about the people there which – even those who were impoverished – lived life to a different level of for lack of better words ‘goodness’ – I use a really odd word because it was a combination of friendliness, happiness, a lower level of hostility and negativity that could be felt. I also knew that they were interested in the dollars of tourists, that they could at times pester me with constant attempts to sell me things but I felt like there was an underlying level of “goodness” that made it really easy to deal with the second part of that sentence.
When Katie and I were deciding on countries and places for this trip Katie was extremely interested in Bali (as I would guess most people would be) and I was a not completely on board. I felt like 20 years of rampant tourism would have changed Bali in ways that would be mainly negative. I had felt like it was already a crowded, sometimes crazy place 20 years ago and I thought that the extreme westernization was already having a large negative affect on the underlying good feeling that I found there. Stories from other travelers and postings on line made me think the worst.
Arrival in Bali was entering an entirely, 100% different place. The beautiful, world class airport with top level shops, air con, brightly colored graphics, clearly marked signs, western toilets and an overall feeling of … organization had replaced the ramshackle, non-airconditioned and run down couple of buildings with a single snack stand that served rice and noodles at plastic stools. Please note, I hadn’t expected anything else but it was a primary validation of the radical difference. For what it’s worth the new airport is fantastic if I didn’t make it sound that way … and the old one was a pit (where I once got stuck for 10 hours).
Heading out of the complex I tried to recognize anything. The airport is very close to the beach town that used to be “surfer central” and when I was here last I actually walked to the airport on my final day instead of spending money on a cab. in 2014 there is no walking to the airport. There are multi-lane roads, security fences, a major roundabout, etc. It would be like walking to San Diego Airport or JFK for that matter at this point. Again – nothing that I wouldn’t expect, just that it was unrecognizably changed.
The taxi ride to our first hotel showed again – a different planet. For what it’s worth although the traffic was horrible, the traffic always had been horrible. 20 years ago the infrastructure wasn’t set up for the amount of traffic present at that time. The reality is that the infrastructure has been improved – now it’s at a point that it would probably work really great with the amount of traffic … from 20 years ago – doh! One thing that had notably changed is my memory of constant horn honking. When I was here last everyone would constantly honk the horn – most of the time for no reason. I had told Katie to get ready for a cacaphony of horns and to prepare to force yourself to get numb to the sound. As it turns out this behavior has stopped! People use the horn in the fashion that it’s used when needed. This was one of many happy surprises as life in Bali has evolved.
Additionally, as noted, the infrastructure has significantly modernized. Not everything – many roads are still small and in tough shape – but there are a lot of places with much better, larger, wider roads. There are a couple of highways which never existed. In addition there are many constructions that are in better shape.
Still, what used to be surfer central is basically unrecognizable. It used to be small cottage style places, street level basic stores with a few boutiques in between. One KFC and one McDonalds at that point in time. Now it looks more like a modern street mall. All of the major chains that you know and __________ (fill in the blank) are represented in multiples. Where it used to feel like 60% non-surfer and 40% surfer tourist with the streets crowded with motorbikes with board racks, nowadays the surfers are hard to even spot. It’s not that it isn’t still a surfing tourist place, it’s just that the non-surfing tourism has increased exponentially and maybe more surfers are going elsewhere – anyhow, point is that the surfer vibe has really been pretty much replaced with something else.
We didn’t actually stay in that part of Bali right away though – we headed to the village of Ubud which is slightly inland and slightly up towards the higher elevations. It’s surrounded by green of rice paddies. There’s a monkey forest right in the center.
It’s famous for it’s artists and westerners have been going there forever in search of meditation, yoga and those types of pursuits. It was made famous by “Eat, Pray, Love” but it’s been westernized since before I was there in the 90’s.
I visited in the 90’s. In the 90’s Ubud was truly a “village”. There were couple of western coffee houses, art galleries and yoga was already a major draw. Now however – as Katie put it – “it’s like being in Santa Monica but the staff is Indonesian instead of Mexican”. Please note – A) She said it not me and B) It wasn’t intended to be an insult. We both enjoyed our time there very much but the point was that it was much more familiar than it was foreign and for what it was that was actually nice to feel in such a Western comfort setting for a bit. What this entails is the ability to east in western style cafes and restaurants with western cleanliness and western sound and feeling dishes – although frequently missing is the western level of service – but hey – some things are hardest to change …. and the one thing that is very much missing is the Western price. Bali is notably incredibly inexpensive. For what you get while you are here it is unbelievably affordable and it doesn’t seem like anyone is suffering for it.
Let me add this here because it seems to fit. One of the things that has definitely gone hand in hand with all of this influx of tourism is that the level of living standard all over Bali is improving. I have many reservations about many aspects of modernization but I will never argue that living in a complete building with clean water, clean clothes and education is better than living in a shack. There is more opportunity in a lot of ways for many of the Balinese and since overall prices are low in this country it appears that a lot of people are getting paid fair wages and a better middle class is evolving from it. I believe that here in Bali the Balinese on the whole have bettered from the expansion in their country.
And that dovetails into the next positive thing that I found – and that is this – that despite the influx of western money, western fast food and high quality food, western business owners, western roads and everything else that has come with the flood of westernization – despite all of this I found personally that whatever that spirit, that feeling, that attitude, that way of living that I tangibly felt in 1994 – it still exists very deeply within the Bali way of life (and note – I don’t even use the word ‘Balinese’ because at this point in time you encounter so many people here who are not Balinese – it’s like many of them seem to have be ‘infected’.
To add to all of this, in truth the “old Bali” is still 100% present on the island. Unlike most tourists I rented a motorbike and took off across more or less the entire island and what I found was that once you leave the main tourist areas that much of Bali has hardly changed at all. Literally 5 minutes from the center of Ubud I found myself driving on a quiet road that passes through rice paddies, into actual villages and up into gorgeous green mountains. Just like the rest of the world every person owns a cell phone and as noted the living conditions seem vaguely better than before but there are still lots of smiling people working in fields, lots of small shop owners, lots of food carts and still – lots of traffic (but the horn blowing did stop island wide!).
Anyhow, it was a great trip all in all. Some people might come and express horrors about how the touristic world of Kuta Beach isn’t the idylic surfer’s paradise that it once was, some people might talk about more traffic but at the end of it all it used to be a bit of work to find a quiet place on Bali and in 2014 you still can find one and from the way it looks like the development is focusing in specific areas I’m guessing that might be the case for a decent amount of time in the future.
Enjoy a few more photos from Bali below!