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Bali. The island paradise with cancer

Waking early to the sound of the cockerel in our beautiful new home, we soon began to enjoy the relaxed pace of life in Penestanan on the outskirts of Ubud in Bali. Intimate visits with our host family to local temples, traditional community street theatre and the insatiable beauty of the surrounding countryside were real highlights our time there, but amongst all of the beauty and traditions, we discovered that Bali has a dangerous cancer that’s growing from the inside out.

During April 2013 we spent 3 weeks living in a beautiful house in the quiet village of Penestanan on the outskirts of Ubud, a small town in central Bali. Ubud retains much of the traditional Balinese culture that makes the island so wonderfully unique, however the town does suffer from its own hype, which has led to an overly populated tourist destination, with aggressive overpriced taxi drivers, beggars and touts. We found sanctuary just a few kilometres out of the town centre in Penestanan, where we were able to find a more subdued and original slice of rural Bali and all of its beauty.

Rice paddies around Ubud
Rice paddies around Ubud

Ubud continues to be a place of many layers and communities, with expats rubbing shoulders with local Balinese as well as many Indonesians coming from all over the country to make a living from the tourist trade. With a firm focus upon the arts, creativity, well-being and religion, life here is very different to other parts of Indonesia and is about as modern as you will find anywhere else in the entire country.

For the locals, day to day activities are focused around the Balinese Hindu temples dotted amongst the local streets and gangs (alleyways), colourfully decorated with intricate sculptures and Hindu offerings. For the long-term expats, life seems to be more focussed on yoga, well-being and an organic way of life.

Offerings made to the Gods
Offerings made to the Gods

On the outskirts of town stretching in all directions, workshops producing quality carvings, bespoke furniture and trinkets in wood, glass, pottery can be found everywhere, their products sold not only locally, but internationally too.

Entrance to a traditional home, Ubud
Entrance to a traditional home, Ubud

The centre of Ubud around the infamous Monkey Forest Road, is a draining experience and it doesn’t take long for the first chorus of ‘taxi’ ‘massage’ ‘where you go?’ to hit you as you wander around – an annoyance so incessant and irritating that we knew we couldn’t stay in that area any longer than we had to following our arrival.

Like any beautiful town that draws large groups of tourists, it becomes a breeding ground for those looking to make easy money from wealthy tourists, and Ubud is dripping with them.

During those first few days in the centre, we organised a motorbike and did some research on which of the local areas would be the best place for us to stay for a few weeks – and eventually we settled on a brand new house in Penestanan, (how to find a place in Ubud) located down a quiet street and owned and run by a local shopkeeper, in fact the house was so new, they were still planting the grass in the garden!

Once settled in, we had to focus on work and the new projects that had come in, so all we could do was enjoy the simple pleasures that village life could offer us, where the day starts early with the call of the cockerels and ends not long after sundown. We enjoyed the easy flow and got into a good rhythm, the one thing that lacks when travelling quickly.

Silke working in our home in Penestanan
Silke working in our home in Penestanan

We spent most of our time working, shopping at the local supermarket, hanging out in the local coffee shops and cooking in our new kitchen, but there was also much more to explore. Surrounded by greener than green rice paddies and overlooked by the mighty Gunung Agung (Bali’s highest volcano at 3142m) we found plenty of time for trips into the countryside in order to experience some the more untouched Bali.

The stunning rice paddies around Ubud
The stunning rice paddies around Ubud

Central to local life is religion, and Balinese Hinduism is about as unique as Bali is itself. An invitation from our landlord to visit a local temple with them became one of the highlights of our stay in Penestanan, an intimate experience and an insight into real-life at this local ceremony where we could listen to gamalan (local music) played on the street and watch a thrilling street theatre performance.

Silke at the local Temple, Penestanan, Ubud
Silke at the local Temple, Penestanan, Ubud
Artist at the open air performance, Penestanan
Artist at the open air performance, Penestanan
Enjoying the show – the audience
Enjoying the show – the audience

Such experiences would be so hard to find when just ‘passing through’. Staying long-term, really allowed us to build up a relationship with our hosts, explore deeper and further away than we would normally plus we enjoyed a brilliant day trip to Pura Tirta Empul, a holy water temple which offered stunning landscapes and a refreshing dip in a sacred bathing pool.

Pura Tirta Empul
Pura Tirta Empul

Of course we couldn’t have left Bali without hitting the beach, and so towards the end of our stay, we took our rented motorbike for a 3 day drive down to the beaches of the south. There, we relaxed a lot and sat on our balcony perched in the rocks sipping cold beer overlooking the ocean watching surfers catch huge waves as the sun set in the distance.

Watching the surfers…
Watching the surfers…
… and the sun …
… and the sun …
from our balcony, Bingin Beach, Bali
from our balcony, Bingin Beach, Bali

Of course as tourists on a motorbike it was inevitable that we would be stopped by the corrupt police force – well we did run a red light! We dutifully handed over 100,000 Rupiah (US$10) to the officer so that he wouldn’t send us to court.

We found Bali to be an island that is not only sublimely beautiful but extraordinarily unique in its people, its traditions, its landscape and fashions. But we also found it to be a victim of its own success, an island being raped due to its beauty.

Like an ever growing cancer, the on-going development of more and more big hotels and resorts meant that roads were often crammed with dirty, smoke chugging trucks, carrying rocks, sand and stones – blackening the air as they went. Farmers and rice paddies are losing vital water supplies used to build hotels for pampered tourists as plastic waste mounts up all around.

We also found the intense and pushy nature of beggars (we only experienced begging in Ubud throughout our 3 months in Indonesia) and touts on the streets of Ubud to be such an annoyance that we couldn’t bear to stay there, and it seemed to us that if the expansion of ugly concrete resorts and hassle continued to grow and grow, then what would be the reason to visit?

The very essence of Bali – it’s culture, it’s beauty – is being choked by the sheer popularity of itself. As tourists, we don’t have control over what the local people do and how construction continues to grow, but what we must do, is limit what we use and throw away, think about where we stay and how us being there affects Balinese life.

We pray that Bali soon starts to beat that cancer.

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