The island of Bali is nestled in the Indian Ocean only 3km off the eastern tip of Java and some 30km off the western tip of Lombok. With a land area of about 5780 sq km (8x the size of Singapore), it is small by global standards. Despite its size, Bali attracts more foreign tourists than any other destination in Indonesia. Its international airport is second only to Jakarta’s.
Bali is blessed with spectacular natural scenery. Size notwithstanding, it boasts many breathtaking mountains and beautiful beaches. In spite of the overwhelming Muslim majority in Indonesia, 90% of Bali’s residents adopt a modified form of Hinduism rubbed off from the ancient Hindu/Buddhist empire of Majapahit. Apart from its natural landscape, Bali is also a land of temples and gardens, bizarre performances, customs and rituals. Its exotic culture and practices appeal to many curious foreign tourists. Not surprisingly, Balinese (arguably) speak the best English in Indonesia. Tourists with absolutely no knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia have managed to breeze through Bali with English alone. From 5-star hotels/resorts to simple homestays, English is widely spoken.
But mass tourism has also brought about rampant inflation and racketeering. Prices in the tourist areas now cost more than Jakarta and even Malaysia. Many services in the less governable areas are controlled by local mafias. Worst, are the crowds and traffic jams. Nevertheless, Bali is still charming and some parts which are not so instagramable, still see few tourists.
And Instagram is one of the factors that has turned Bali into a mere backdrop for showy youngsters who form long queues at stunning landmarks. Even Mt Everest is not spared the onslaught of “influencers”. What more can we say of far more accessible places like previously off the beaten track places in Bali.
Sadly, there are no more secrets on the island. Even a place like Wanagiri (often off the tour companies’ radar) is now decked with selfie platforms and dining tables. There is only one way around the problem. Stay overnight and visit in the early morning before the fashionistas from Kuta can reach these destinations. They’re done once their foolish followers have liked their photos; they won’t stay for long.
Of course, besides the influencers who now know how to make their way to the far-flung hideouts once known only to backpackers, there are still many “conventional” travellers out there. I was talking to a typical Singaporean auntie. I told her that I was going to Bali for only one week and her reaction was “one week is too long for Bali!”. I was like yao mo gao chor ah? One week is barely enough to scratch the surface in Bali and she thinks its too much?
Like many who have been to Bali, this auntie stayed in a hotel in Kuta and was brought to see sites like Tanah Lot, Bedugul, Pura Taman Ayun, Ubud and Kintamani over a period of 3 days. You should know how she saw Bali – in the most efficient and cost-effective way which also happens to defeat the purpose of travelling.
As I shared my pictures on social media, another auntie shouted out that she wanted to go and urged me to organise something for our mutual friends. I was glad that someone could appreciate the charm of meaningful travel, but organising a trip for folks with expectations is another thing altogether. Then, as I was leaving Bali after a week, I overheard an ang moh telling an airport staff that he will never go back to Bali again.
Just as the first auntie’s experience of Bali is very different from mine (I honestly think you need at least 2 weeks), the ang moh must have been expecting a Bali that is very different from the one he actually saw. I’m not surprised. The Bali today is very different from the one I visited 26 years ago. And it’s only faintly recognisable from the one I saw 9 years ago. Different parts of Bali are also likely to offer a different experience. I have no idea what your Bali is like, but here is mine.