I love Bali: Urban tourism, Schoolies and Toolies

by Made Wijaya on 2012-12-29

Once famous for its pristine villages and natural scenery, Bali is now embracing a new form of tourism centered around increasingly popular bypasses and ring roads.

Enlightened developers, wary of the inconsistency of Balinese culture — once known as “Unity in Diversity”— are now putting their full weight behind a “cerebral neutral” culture that involves mindless “mallscapes”, sea horse motifs and fire dances modelled on the watered-down cultural shows of Waikiki.

Budget hotels are popping up on highway greenbelts like magic mushrooms. They guarantee a mediocre, culture-neutral experience with panoramic views of some of the best traffic snarls in Asia.

Just before Christmas I spent three blissful hours in the traffic on the way from Canggu to the airport and got to see so many exciting budget hotel bedrooms — glass curtain walls are de rigeur — and gatherings of my countrymen as they struggled along the fast-vanishing adventure footpaths.

Sydney at 7 a.m. the next morning was obscene — all green and glary with ocean views and a pathetic amount of billboards.

Funny enough, Sydney is regularly voted the best city in the world and Bali the best island, but Bali is doing more to upgrade.

To help promote urban tourism and the worship of the bypass, the local government has started decorating the median strips with tiered water features, arty black concrete stumps and souvenir-quality Baris dancer statues so that drivers can look straight ahead and still feel the thrill of dumbed-down Bali. And to make the duty free traffic circle underpass project more interesting the detours, signage and traffic police are moved every day.

On Jetstar, flights from Perth (and soon from Darwin, Brisbane and Sydney) one can pre-bead in the back three rows; and Bir Bintang tanktops are handed out to passengers in long sleeves or t-shirts.

So pervasive is the cry for neutrality in the hotel industry that the airport has followed suit with starfish and fern pavement motifs and leafleteers in satin voodoo girl miniskirts and exotic headdresses.

The Balinese guarding the tour buses in the airport carparks are not oblivious to the needs of the culture-neutral tourist — even though their own lives are still rich with Hindu rituals — and are careful to only offer Planet Seahorse type options to the pre-beaded, arm-hair proud arrivees. As a result, traditional tourism haunts such as the Sangeh Monkey Forest and the Batu Bulan Barong Dances are dying a slow death.

A recent survey discovered that most Australians now go to Bali to get drunk and see a fire dance or drag show in the Seminyak district that is known locally as the “Gaza Strip”. The Australian rev-head bikie gang, the Rebels, now has a chapter in Bali. Bali also has over 30 cricket clubs and an excellent new fish and chips shop in Mertasari, Sanur.

The great Australian Schoolies tradition held during the last week of November — started in the 1980s in the fiercely culture-neutral Gold Coast of Queensland — has also recently moved to Bali.

It involves teenagers indulging in alcohol-fueled rampages of hedonism and aggressive behaviour. A vigilante group of Australians called the Red Frogs now sends volunteers to Kuta where they annually set up red tents on the beach, to council those on the rampage and hand out condoms. A slightly less altruistic Australian group, the Toolies, consisting of an a more mature cross section of Australian alcoholics, now follow the Schoolies to Bali to prey on younger Schoolies.

“An island gets the tourists it deserves” a Sanur-based pundit recently opined, but I tend to disagree. Balinese culture is still magnificent. There are still lots of immaculate rice-field views and gorgeous villages, and a few fairly un-trampled beaches. In this current tsunami of the tasteless, lets not lose the original flavour.

Made Wijaya is a cultural observer and author of many books on Balinese architecture and culture.

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