Throngs of upscale fashion boutiques, fancy restaurants, and trendy clubs fill the streets of Seminyak – one of Bali’s liveliest areas north of the raunchy scenes of Kuta and Legian. However some might find it hard to feel the tranquility and the laidback atmosphere of Bali which drew the first tourists to the island decades ago as the island is now a popular holiday destination. Many choose to go to Ubud for its bucolic ambiance, surrounded by rice terraces and calm-flowing streams, to get the authentic Balinese experience they dream of. But as is the case with other places, the once quiet streets of Ubud is now studded with shops and restaurants, often conspicuously located right next to Hindu temples, palaces, or local traditional houses.
This time my coworkers and I head further northeast to find a relatively untouched and secluded patch of beach, far from the crowds and the hype in the southern part of the island. The waves are calm, the water is clear, and the skies are blue. Virgin Beach, as the name indicates, is a beautiful and quiet stretch of white sand beach, tinted with black volcanic ashes from the past eruptions of Mount Agung. A stark contrast with Kuta, business in Virgin Beach – or Prasi as locals call it – only consists of several modest restaurants and t-shirt shops.
A lonesome old man with an unusual hairstyle sits under a blue beach umbrella, too focused on his tiny dictionary to care about what happens around him. Meanwhile a model sits on a nearby rock, striking poses you would only see on a swimsuit calendar. The combination of her flashy white bikini, tanned skin, blonde dyed hair, and erotic poses is such an absurd scene amid the calm-seeking sun-bathers on the beach.
On our way back from Prasi, I notice one thing that I have never seen before on my previous visits to Bali. A middle-aged lady walks on the street side nonchalantly bearing her breasts. Alexander who lived in Bali for 7 years during his childhood explains to me that the Balinese culture dictates all women to not cover their breasts once they have got married, contrary to many other cultures which require married women to wear more modest clothes.
Our search for a true Balinese village, off the trails of most tourists, finally brings us to Sidemen in the eastern part of Bali. Terraces of rice paddies and other vegetables lie on our left side, sloping down to a river. While on the right side a dense forest provides shade to the sleepy road on which local residents lay coffee beans over mats made from plaited dried leaves. Going deeper into the countryside, we cross a bridge painted in bright yellow, exuding liveliness to this serene part of the island. Two foreigners with bottles of mineral water on their hands are walking down the road with a local guide, and they are the only visitors to this area other than us.
“This is how Ubud was like in the 70s,” Alexander describes.
The serenity of Bali – the island of gods – was shattered in 2002 and 2005 following a series of deadly bombings, bringing a deep social and economic impact the island has never experienced before. Tourist numbers plummeted, hotels were deserted, businesses went bankrupt. Governments all around the world issued travel warnings to their citizens, further curbing foreign tourists from visiting the island. In a desperate attempt to restore the economy of Bali, the Indonesian government issued an unprecedented holiday policy. National holidays which fell on Tuesdays automatically made the Mondays holiday as well, also with holidays on Thursdays which made the Fridays holiday. In a way it did affect the productivity as people got more days off. But in the other hand it encouraged people to travel more, especially to Bali.
Domestic tourists gradually brought back the economic pulse of the island back to normal. But it took a few more years until the foreign visitor numbers returned to the pre-bombing level. Visiting one of the locations where the 2005 bombings occurred, I find it hard to imagine that in a crowded seafood restaurant in Sanur dozens of lives were lost almost eight years ago.
Today the island’s tourism industry is thriving even stronger than ever. New hotels and restaurants have been built and more are still under construction – many of them are owned by foreign nationals. Unfortunately some turned breathtaking beaches into private properties which can only be accessed by paying exorbitant entrance fees.
Vital infrastructures have been modernized, including a new airport terminal with the roof resembling the sea waves which is slated to be fully operational later this year. A new highway is also under construction which solves the issue of land acquisition – which hampers many infrastructure development projects elsewhere in the country – by building it over the sea. However that sparks another controversy over the environmental impact to the reef ecosystem. The spokesman of the state-owned enterprise which leads the consortium of the project stated that they have conducted a proper analysis of the environmental impact of this project. They made sure that there is no species in the IUCN Red List lives in the area and they are committed to reforesting the lost mangroves due to the construction of the highway. A commitment we all hope to be fulfilled.
Bali, as it has always been for centuries, will always be a fascinating and thriving place, attracting new waves of people from all over the world to come and even live in the island. People will come and go, businesses will flourish and fail, but the unique Balinese traditions will live on, hopefully.