I’m on my penultimate day in Bali before moving on to Java and beginning my trek all the way back up to Bangkok. This is the first time I’ve been back to the island in 5 years. A sobering thought is that I first came here as a solo overland backpacker way back in 1992, 25 years ago! Part of me wished that I’d brought my old diaries with me, but as they’re not digitised, they’re too valuable to risk. This trip has made me resolve to remedy that – as well as concentrate getting the hundreds of slides from the trip scanned. I left the UK in October 1991 and didn’t return until a year later. I spent five months in Indonesia, island-hopping from Sumatra to East Timor via local buses and ferries. In these days of cheap flights (and more onerous visa restrictions) it’s a feat no-one attempts anymore. I came back & repeated the trip as far as Flores with my late partner, Lynn in 1998 but we also came to Bali a couple of times on holidays. Those experiences have given me the perspective to see how much Bali has changed in a quarter of a century.
Admittedly, this isn’t the same island-ranging trip as before as my primary reason for visiting was to come and see Alison, an old Australian friend whom Lynn and I first met in India in 1998 and who now lives here. Alison accompanied the pair of us on chunks of our 18 month trip around the world onwards from that point, sharing many of our adventures. So, most of my time here has been spent in the Ubud area where Alison has a home and business, Mingle Cafe. To say the place has changed since 1992 is an understatement. It’s grown hugely as money, tourists and expats have flooded in. Traffic is a bit of a nightmare too. Roads that used to be reasonably quiet have become sclerotic with parked cars & scooters. Suicidal tourists on scooters don’t help. Some of them insist on driving down one-way streets or weave in and out of traffic as if it really matters that they get somewhere a couple of minutes quicker (this is Bali, for God’s sake, they taught the Spanish the meaning of ‘Manyana’!)
Some of the places I had fond memories of have gone, others remain. Sadly one of my favourite restaurants serving authentic Balinese veggie dishes has disappeared since 2012, There’s a few new eyesores in Ubud (especially on Monkey Forest road, where there’s some monstrous but half abandoned buildings), but there’s also some attractive additions as traditional buildings have been expanded in a tasteful and respectful manner. That said, there does seem to have been a bit of a ‘building boom’ that’s outstripped demand. I passed quite a few shops & showrooms that have been built speculatively, without any thought to location or commercial need. Most (but not all) of the building is ribbon development. It’s filled up the spaces along the roads but the rice paddies behind largely remain intact as I saw for myself when I flew in from Thailand.
What hasn’t changed is the Balinese people. They’re still as friendly and welcoming as ever, and their unique culture survives, seemingly unscathed. I’ve always thought the Balinese were object lessons in how to hang on to your culture despite mass tourism – even with the latest human waves to hit the island (first the Russians, now the Chinese). Religious ceremonies and practices that have endured for centuries are still part of daily life here – even if some have been updated to reflect the modern age. I took part in one example shortly after arriving. Tumpak Landep is the day to pay homage to metal heirlooms (such as old daggers handed down through the generations). Nowadays its expanded to include blessing everyday items such as cars and scooters! Nonetheless, it’s taken seriously, families don their traditional clothing as always for such occasions and the blessings are performed. I can’t help but admire the Balinese for this. Their religion still has such a big part to play in their everyday lives that we in the West can’t really imagine it unless we experience it. Here’s a selection of pictures from Tumpak Landep;
I’ll be sad to leave as I’ve always loved Bali. Plus, it’s been a joy to catch up with Alison and it’s been an interesting time being part of an expatriate community intertwined with the local Balinese music scene (something I rarely experience on my travels). I’m determined that won’t be another five years before I return.
Next, I move on to Java, somewhere I’ve not been back to since 1998. I’m starting the trip in a city I’ve never experienced before – Surabaya, so that should be fun…