To see, hear, and feel the locals’ emotional, cultural and spiritual connection to the land allows the Balinese personality, character and essence to shine more than any destination branding or marketing efforts.
I’m in two hearts over Bali, where I just spent a four-day break last month. I could easily see why this famed vacation island is a darling among travellers, with its beguiling charm and cultural energy, the people’s easy smiles and warm hospitality, lush rice terraces, and astounding temples dotted across a volcanic landscape.
Yet I couldn’t help but feel a tad miffed at the congestion on the roads as well as in the many hip lifestyle cafes and restaurants mushrooming across the island. In Ubud, Bali’s cultural heart, I was disappointed to find snaking traffic, tour buses emptying day trippers onto the narrow streets and terraced paddies, and macaques and humans jostling for each other’s attention in the Monkey Forest.
The Klungkung regency in eastern Bali, on the other hand, where I stayed at the newly opened Wyndham Tamansari Jivva Resort for two nights, offered a rustic sense of solitude. Come evenings, locals are seen relaxing on the black sand beach, some playing a game of football, others line fishing for snappers, while laughing kids lunge into the breaking waves.
Klungkung’s vibe is still palpably raw, honest and not yet pandering to the mass preferences of tourists. But for how long, I wondered. The plot of land adjacent to Wyndham is already marked for a Marriott.
But I could also see how the foray of an international hotel into a previously undeveloped area for tourism also brings with it economic and employment opportunities for the locals. Several hospitality staff I spoke with told me they no longer had to make the long daily commute to resorts in southern Bali, as the new Wyndham property offers work closer to their homes, something they very much prefer.
Although the effects of mass tourism on Bali are undeniable, what I also find remarkable is its unique culture and artistic way of life which, like the omnipresent Hindu gods overseeing the island, is still alive and thriving.
Balinese’ personal lives still appear to be very much influenced by local customs and Hindu traditions. While sharing about our personal lives, my driver Goesmank told me expenses was a major deterrent for him in not wanting more than two children. “Balinese have too many ceremonies each month, during full moon, no moon, and we still need to offer special black ducks too. I have no money left!” he exclaimed. We all laughed.
Now, that’s the real Bali for me – to see, hear, and feel locals’ emotional, cultural and spiritual connection to the land, which allows the Balinese personality, character and essence to shine more than any destination branding or marketing efforts.
And no doubt, it’s also this rich, complex and diverse nature of South-east Asia’s people, geography, history and culture that compel visitors to return to South-east Asia time and again, a constant theme for the 50 tour operators who share their most memorable travel experiences in ASEAN (see pages 9-12). This marks the first of our dedicated ASEAN@50 features in each issue this year to commemorate ASEAN’s golden jubilee in 2017, so look out for other interesting stories to come!