That same afternoon on which V and I witnessed the tragic death of a dog on Sidemen Road, we sat on our hotel balcony, drinking beer. The image of the terrible accident was still fresh in our minds, but with some hours now having passed, a storm having come and gone, and several glasses of beer having passed our lips, the tension and horror had retreated somewhat. I still felt the occasional shudder when, inevitably, the image popped into my head, or I conjured it up in the perverse way one smells a bad smell again to see if it really is that bad. Yet, on the whole, we felt very calm and relaxed.
The surroundings certainly helped. Below us the pool and the maze of garden paths were empty – indeed, there seemed to be no other guests in our hotel. The hotel itself was a network of bungalows and two-story villas, terraced onto a gentle slope that steepened and dropped away into rainforest. Behind the lush trees in the mid-ground was a backdrop of wooded hills with rice paddies occupying their lower slopes. A few scattered clouds still lingered in the sky – the dark, bruised colour of storms – and the air had cooled significantly from the sticky heights of midday.
Both of us agreed that this place was heart-achingly beautiful, and more than that, it was serene. One might think such a place would cost an arm and a leg, yet in Bali luxury is very cheap. Our hotel cost a mere thirty-five Australian dollars a night, an astonishing bargain, but one that was repeated across the whole island, outside of the excesses of Seminyak and Kuta.
Not only is luxury cheap in Bali, it is, almost universally, surprisingly tasteful. Most “resorts” have achieved a harmonious balance of local architectural styles, modern amenities and lovely gardens. Having only spent a total of eleven days in Bali in two stints, I can hardly say my experience is comprehensive, yet judging from what I have seen, both on the ground and on the net, there is a surfeit of genuinely beautiful accommodation on the island.
The “resorts” often mirror the arrangements of a local family compound, but on a grander scale. Behind the decorated stone and brick walls lies a cleverly landscaped mix of flourishing, immaculate gardens, pools and water features and traditional stone and brick-built bungalows and standalone two-story villas, often with high, thatched roofs.
The buildings are rarely dull and blocky as so many hotels can be, but rather they have an elegant simplicity or sport the intricate busy-ness so apparent in Balinese religious architecture. This baroque, Hindu-influenced style combines the humble commonsense of the village house with the strident decadence of a palace and blends marvellously with the colourful gardens. Even where the adornments have been stripped back to a more minimalist presentation, the effect is still a pleasing marriage of the humble and palatial.
I don’t generally like overly busy architectural or decorative styles – take the Corinthian bombast of the later Antonine Pax Romana or the garish flounce of the Rococo, or, for that matter, the overwhelming intricacy of Hindu temples – but in Bali the rendering is apposite. It has an organic, natural quality, especially in its unpainted masonry, which, whilst texturally in contrast with the limpid green of the vegetation, rises from it like a finely crafted termite mound. This organic quality is also ever-present in the woodwork and thatching.
The floral and bestial carvings in the stone and wood – intertwined curlicues – run the eye gently round in the mesmerising manner of a celtic manuscript illustration, or indeed, an overgrowth of creepers. Inside, more often than not, the rooms lack ceilings and, rising above the high walls, the tall, pointed thatched roofs lend the rooms a sense of immense space, as well as keeping them cool in the tropical conditions.
For someone who prides himself as a lefty with strong socialist tendencies (though I don’t pretend not to be a bloody hypocrite at times), such luxury usually comes with the added moral and ethical price of guilt. It is a price all people with a social conscience pay when they travel in the “developing” parts of Asia, or indeed, any country where the locals earn considerably less money and have fewer opportunities. Yet, sitting there on the balcony that evening, drinking beer and watching the sunset sky, V and I both expressed the same conclusion – that in Bali, this feeling did not take hold as it did elsewhere. What seemed different about Bali, in comparison to, say, Cambodia, Vietnam or India, was that the locals seemed far more content and most people appeared to live well. The power relationship, so often dictated by money, was still to my advantage, yet I didn’t detect the same degree of envy, jealousy or desperation in exploiting the fact that I had money to spend.
I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t plenty of people in Bali who are struggling to make ends meet, nor that there aren’t people out to make a buck from the tourists, for there certainly are, yet the living standards and way of life seem adequate to allow for contentment and harmony. I come to this question from a completely amateur sociological / anthropological perspective, yet my encounters and observations suggest that generally people are happy in Bali. This might be a consequence of their religion, rituals, close family relationships and their solid, largely village-based social framework, yet I suspect it is also on account of the beauty of the place and the constant climate. That both V and I had arrived at the same conclusion independently could purely be a misleading coincidence, but it gave me some confidence that there might be at least some truth in this.
When I travelled in India for the first time in 2010, I also encountered many people who seemed content in getting on with their lives. Yet there was the unmistakeable feeling of being constantly pursued and receiving constant attention. It is understandable in a country where the gulf between rich and poor is so much greater than in Bali, and where the sheer size of the population dramatically increases the competition for resources, but the end result is that simply by being there, I felt I had in some way destroyed the equilibrium of the place. Poverty is very relative and people don’t want things if they don’t know about them. They are also less likely to feel jealous or in anyway inferior or inadequate if not exposed to the wealth of others. Yet, even when travelling on the cheap with a day-pack and a pair of thongs in India the amount of money I had to spend on luxuries and services far exceeded the capacity of most of the locals and I was constantly aware of this fact. Without trying to cut too many corners, nor deny myself too much, and yet, trying to stick to a pretty decent budget, I would end up spending around twenty dollars a day – a thousand rupees then, and now almost 1200. Consider, however, that those lucky enough to get the minimum wage receive roughly 160 rupees a day for skilled labour and a mere 100 for unskilled labour, and you get some idea of the vastness of the chasm between even a poor tourist like myself and the local people.
On this note, I once had a conversation with a man in India where I tried to explain that although I came from one of the richest countries in the world and was far wealthier than he was in real and relative terms, back in Australia my income placed me in the bottom fifteen percent of the population and I could afford neither a house nor a car. It took some time to get the message across, but we got there in the end. Even bearing this in mind, however, which, for simple practical reasons, meant I couldn’t afford everything India had to offer, it never stopped me feeling guilty about how much easier life was for me.
In Bali, however, despite a relatively similar disparity in spending power, I never felt the divide as greatly. Again, I must reiterate, this is not because there are not poor or desperate people in Bali, there certainly are, yet their lives don’t seem anything like so harassed and stressful as the lives of poor people in India.
One thing V and I had noticed was the apparent contentment of the rural population. Despite rural areas often being poorer in real terms, in Bali the rural population appeared mostly happy. The locals certainly worked hard in the fields and in many and various other manual tasks, yet the villages were clean and organised, with good housing, nice gardens, easy access to running water etc.
On the first trip I took to Bali with my brother, we drove through countless villages as we cruised across the island, and we were constantly impressed with the quality of the houses and how attractive these small urban environments were. So much so that I kept thinking how wonderful it would be to live in such a house for some time and write a novel.
This was in contrast to the experiences I’ve had elsewhere. One thing I’ve noticed over the years, about the difference between rural and urban areas in poorer or developing countries, is that whilst in cities people will offer services simply because they can, in rural areas, they are more inclined to ask directly for money. I first noticed this in Turkey back in the nineties, where, outside of the cities, children would often approach me and asked for what sounded like “Boom boom”, whilst rubbing the forefinger against the thumb. The expression itself might be misconstrued! though there was no mistaking the gesture. Some children actually used the word “money”, saying nothing else. “Money?” “Money?” This was repeated in Cambodia and India on many occasions, but only very rarely in Bali. It could simply be a consequence of greater comparative wealth, in which case, I’m not entirely sure what my point is, but either way, the absence of this direct appeal for money help to ease any possible sensation of guilt.
This was the subject of our conversation, sitting there watching the sunset. It wasn’t the most impressive of sunsets, but the beauty and serenity of our surroundings hardly needed the help of an elaborate lightshow on the horizon. It is worth pointing out that V’s observations and opinion on this front were founded on greater travel experience than my own. Having been to South and Central America five times, often for lengthy periods, having travelled extensively in Asia, India, the Middle East and the poorer parts of Eastern Europe, I trust her opinion and judgement. She had also spent more time in Bali than I had, visiting the place, as I had, just a few of years before. The people of Bali, we both agreed, had a softness, warmth and generosity of spirit that stood out.
Another difference we noticed in Bali was the high quality of customer service. Certainly at times things are a bit ad hoc – which is fine with me as I don’t like formality and fawning attention – yet nearly everyone in Bali that we had any dealings with – drivers, waiters and waitresses, hotel staff, shop assistants, ticket vendors, you name it – were polite and attentive and professional, or enthusiastically and charmingly amateurish. This seemed to be the case even when there was no direct incentive to be so – no commission, expectation of a tip, etc. One thing I was later to notice when we arrived in India was that the service varied wildly, and often veered into total rudeness and indifference, depending on the degree to which the person with whom we were interacting was to benefit from it. In the first six outlets of Café Coffee Day which we were to visit in India – so desperate were we for espresso coffee that we kept going back – the staff practically ignored us completely, even when standing at the counter, and then were surly, unfriendly and not especially professional. It must be said that we were to have a very different experience in Kolkata, where we found very lovely people who were totally on the ball, yet by this stage the damage was already done. I’m not sure what it was, but despite our cheery hellos and attempts to be friendly and engaging ourselves, the staff were almost universally indifferent and acted as though they had been massively put out by our coming into the café in the first place.
Customer service is not the most important thing in the world by any means, and while it is unreasonable to expect a certain standard of professionalism, friendliness and politeness leave a lasting impression and have a universal appeal. The way one is treated by people makes a huge difference to how the experience is remembered; rudeness and negativity can sour the memory of a place. If there is one thing that seems to truly stand out about Bali, it’s how bloody nice everybody is when they don’t need to be. This friendliness goes a long way towards creating a much more equal relationship, rather than one that is all about extracting money, which is too often the case elsewhere and which creates a very uncomfortable situation. Some of the few other places in developing countries where I’ve had such a sense was Darjeeling in northern West Bengal and in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
Was it culture? Was it religion? Was it the environment? Or were their lives simply full enough and rich enough not to need much more than what they could afford and had available to them already? In these places I didn’t feel the resentment and envy that tourists in poorer countries will almost inevitably attract.
I don’t doubt that people will have had very different experiences and I repeat that these are just casual observations that are in no way scientific. It also must be said that in and around Denpasar, as in many big cities, the pace of life is faster and business a little more cut-throat, so here one might find a very different vibe.
It is also necessary to point out that when we went to the temple complex at Pura Besakih the day after having had this conversation, we had a pretty unpleasant experience. The Lonely Planet had forewarned us that the hawkers here were most aggressive and that tourists were often subjected to scams wherein local men would tell them that they were not allowed into the site without a guide, despite having already bought a ticket.
It seemed as though this might be quite easily gotten around, but when we arrived at the place we were not only lied to by a number of people at the entrance, but they were very aggressive about it and even tried to block our path. When we decided to ignore them and push on through they still didn’t drop the ruse, but continued to shout rudely at us. This might have been amusing if their tone wasn’t so ugly and aggressive and instead it made me so angry that it spoiled the experience of the place, which was pretty unfortunate. Though, to be honest, so far as temple complexes go, it’s not that much to write home about.
This negative experience, however, was an isolated one. During both of my visits to Bali I have found the people to be very friendly indeed, as has V on both of her trips. It is a gross generalisation, but I was left with the impression that people live happy lives and they are mostly content just to get on with things. Whilst going there in the first place is a somewhat disruptive thing in itself, so far as local balance is concerned, the overall feeling we had was not one of guilty privilege and yawning disparity, but one of more equal interactions. All of which makes travelling there more relaxing and fulfilling.
We finished our beers as the light vanished from the sky and the mosquitoes began to close in. Below, under a thatched canopy, on a beautiful deck beside a patch of jungle, calmed by the trickle of a fountain, the smiling staff were waiting to serve us, the only guests. It all seemed so utterly decadent and quite ridiculous for the price, but at least we didn’t feel guilty in allowing ourselves this indulgence. And, as is so often the case in Bali, precisely because there was no pressure to do so, we were happy to leave a generous tip.