Published in the Sunday Jakarta Post, 12 November 2006


The smell of burning shrimp paste

Last month, in his handsome magazine, the Hello Bali, the chairman of the Indonesian chapter of the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), Alistair Speirs, commented that “ Bali sure aint what it used to be.” My first reaction was “What would he know?” (Let’s face it: press barons lead sheltered lives) but then, in a more charitable frame of mind, I started to think about what today’s ‘ Bali experience’ must be for the tourists.
As an expat resident of the fabled island since 1973 I have seen enormous change, but not in the areas that matter to me – that is, in the passage of ceremonies and rituals that make up every islander’s daily life, be he a Barong dancer or a barman. But what does the average tourists see??
The New Asian Bali experience – marketed so expertly by villa vixens in form-fitting jeans at the arrival hall of Denpasar airport – is for the most part devoid of any Balineseness. Even shrines and associated offerings have become an embarrassment, it seems, to the modern tourism developer. “Available glamour” has replaced “World’s most gorgeous culture” on tourism brochures. Modern tourist hotel architecture is more Berlin than Bali .
But do the tourists mind?
It seems not. They continue to see the funk amongst the fusion, and find fake Balinese culture, weddings etc. more palatable than the real thing (unpunctual, unnecessary, spooky).
It is by no means a coincidence that not one of Bali ’s burgeoning bouquet of tourism related-magazines has featured anything Balinese on its cover for the past year – it’s all beach blanket bimbos and billiard tables.
Bali is the land of “Art Culture and Spa” bleated Michael Burchett, chairman of one of Bali ’s Hotel associations in a Spa magazine interview recently. I saw him later that week at the fake Balinese temple-style reception to welcome the new Australian consul Bruce Cowled. “Who would have thought,” Mr. Burchett was telling a fleet of Spa journalists, “That those mercy hand jobs on Sanur beach in the 1960s would have grown into a billion dollar empire!”
For many tourists the Spa experience is a big part of their Bali holiday.
I went to Bonita’s Spa in Seminyak last week to check out the latest entrant in the new wave of mini-Spas. They had mood lighting in the garden – gender confusion mood – and the sound track from “South Pacific” playing in the souvenir-strewn corridors. The masseur, from Blitar in East Java was excellent, particularly good at avoiding all 342 of my erogenous zones in keeping with the new “Bikini Bill” anti licentiousness laws.

• • •

“Enjoy Nyepi, the Day of Silence, next Thursday, 30 March,” boomed the Beat, the island’s most popular “bi-weekly entertainment gig guide,” which then listed all the “Escape from Nyepi – Smorgasbord Packages”.
“Nyepi, a holiday for the ears” was the title of writer Thomas Hogues’ enlightened piece in the International Herald Tribune. His article was a rare tribute to real Bali , and in a serious forum! Bravo!!
The Australian press have voted Bali “the best place to end up in jail on holiday,” reported the Beat. Subsequently Bali ’s Poleng magazine voted Australia the “Best country to drop its heroin traffickers on the island of the gods.”
And what about Balinese tourists? They continue to excel in everything they take on: the island’s contingent in last month’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras in Sydney for example, won first prize with their colourful float, entitled “Baris Binan and Legong Lesbong” (see photo left).
The Balinese are excelling in the international work place too. In Kochin, where I was working with a team of high-octane-fuelled master gardeners, I met a crew of Balinese from a luxury cruise vessel in Kochin for the day. They were easily the best fed and most buff amongst the motley bands of cruise ship personnel. Like tourists to Bali , tourist from Bali also tend to ignore the cultural attractions of a place and headed instead for the nearest nasi goreng (fried rice). From the hotel’s car park, they took one cursory look at the old fort across the dirty bay and raced inside the air conditioned lobby, making a bee-line for the Thai restaurant and the smell of burning shrimp paste.

• • •

Sunday, March 26 th, 2006 : to hell and back
Today I visit a building site on the bukit Jimbaran which is almost all black, and devoid of any Balinese. Balineseness is an affront to the modernist these days, it appears.
As I turn out of the project and into a real Balinese village, I spotted a band of Balinese youths at work on a giant Ogoh-Ogoh effigy. It has a huge penis driving out of giant VIACOM y-fronts. The blood surges back into my veins: Bali is alive and giving, like the Legong Lesbong!

Early morning, on March 27 th, 2006:
I go with the gods of Sidakarya, near Sanur, to Mertasari beach for the annual MELIS ceremony. The villagers have never looked more beautiful: there is a renaissance of classic temple dress, and of the rich North Coast style, now Bali ’s fashion favourite. Staged at dawn: the glittering grandstands of gods and offerings line the water’s edge. Gamelan plays. Priests waft the essence of truckloads of offerings. Row upon row of white-clad beauty warriors pray to Ratu Baruna, God of the Ocean.
It is quite easily the most gorgeous spectacle in the world.
And there is not one tourist here.
As the frenzied trance-ceremonies are winding up, one expat Australian real estate broker, in Bali on a senior’s visa, strides defiantly past the celebrants, dropped his dacks and waded into the sea in a black thong.

Back | Home | Next

Subscribe to the Poleng Magazine! Get your hard copy of the diary with large format photos and contributions from some of the island's more talented essay writers, cartoonists and photographers. E-mail your request, and kindly send letters or useful travel tips to: