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Bali: This is why you bother

Yesterday the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age ran a piece titled “Bali: why bother?” by staffer Carolyn Webb. It’s obvious from the story that Webb didn’t especially enjoy her time in Bali — that’s not at all unusual and thankfully Bali isn’t for everyone. What was unusual was that the piece got a run in “serious” newspapers. Was it just linkbait? Probably, which is sad. But it has got people talking, so let’s go through it, piece by piece.

Another painful day in tourist hellhole Ubud.

Another painful day in tourist hellhole Ubud.

“I once vowed never to go to Bali. The drunk Aussie tourists! The traffic! The noise! The tacky souvenirs! I mean, why would you go?”

Why indeed Carolyn?

“Well, earlier this month I caved in. They were holding a writer’s festival at Ubud, the bustling town in the hills, well north of both the smoggy capital Denpasar and the beachside tourist trap of Kuta.”

It’s also about an hour southeast of Jatiluwih rice terraces and 90 minutes’ south of the glorious beaches and snorkelling at Amed.

“I wanted warm weather, and it was cheap. Wasn’t Ubud full of temples, verdant rice fields and friendly people?”

I wanted a cheap holiday awash with cliches. And yes, Ubud is full of temples, verdant rice fields and friendly people.

“Well I went. And I wasn’t greatly impressed.”

Sorry to hear that.

“First the good points. Perfect weather, lovely countryside once you get away from the towns. Fantastic, fresh cuisine including home-grown fruit, meat and coffee. Sumptuous but cheap hotels. Beautiful culture with Hindu temples every 20 metres, lovely dancing and artwork.

The Ubud Writers’ and Readers’ Festival, starring singer Paul Kelly and novelist Alexander McCall-Smith was great, staged in laid-back tropical cafes and function centres.”

Sounds familiar. We hear this frequently.

“In short, Ubud would be a great holiday destination, if they removed the frankly terrible street touts, and the tacky souvenir shops. I am not exaggerating to say that vendors of transport and souvenirs harass tourists from morning to night.”

Ubud is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the island, but there are touts and tacky souvenir shops. Welcome to Asia, Carolyn.

Bali: Where children walk through verdant fields to attend tout school.

Bali: Where children walk through verdant fields to attend tout school.

“Single women, especially, cannot walk more than 10 metres without being shouted at, approached, pleaded with, harangued and harassed with the words, “Miiisss, miiisss, transport, taxi, where you going … miiiisss?” I thought my name had been changed to Miiisss.”

This statement is simply rubbish. Single women? What? How can you speak for people who are not single women? Many people get harassed. Most people ignore it.

“I was once strolling along one of Ubud’s main roads when a young man drove his motorbike across the footpath, blocking my way so I had to stop. (The word “taxi” is used loosely in Ubud – they’re not regulated, nor do they have meters and anyone can call their motorbike or car a taxi.)”

Rubbish. There are private cars for hire and there are taxis. Motorbike taxis are very rare in central Ubud — I don’t ever remember seeing one downtown.

“This tout smiled and asked if I wanted “transport”. I smiled and explained very politely that, in Australia, if a woman gets on a motorbike with a stranger, that is called prostitution. He looked as though I’d just told him the sun was a balloon. I don’t think he honestly had a clue what I was on about.”

I’m not surprised — I have no clue what Carolyn is on about either.

“So why did I decline? Umm. Apart from possible serial killer issue, how about the strong likelihood of falling off the unregistered and possibly unroadworthy bike with no safety gear or helmet on to the crappy roads, well beyond the reach of any known travel insurance policy?”

Well, the simple response is not to get on the motorbike. Travel insurance companies have heard of Bali.

“I often wondered what these touts would think if their sister or mother got on a motorbike with a strange man.”

Nothing. It’s normal. It happens all the time. What does your family think when you get in a taxi in Australia that is driven by a man?

“On another occasion, I had slipped away from the noisy, dusty main streets into the countryside and was happily walking past rural villages and fields (which are quite lovely) when another young motorcyclist stopped and approached me.

“You want transport, miiiissss?” he yelled. “No thanks,” I smiled and kept walking. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer, following me on his motorbike. “Where you staying, miiisss? You must need taxi.” This went on for about five minutes, with me walking away from him until he left.”

One day, in Asia, I was harrassed by a persistent motorcycle taxi driver. Quick, send a missive to the SMH.

Sex on wheels, Kuta.

Sex on wheels, Kuta.

“In the space of a week I started to hate walking the streets of Ubud – a bizarre thing when you’re supposed to be relaxing on holidays. I would cross the road if I saw a gang of young men sitting on a stoop but they still would yell out ‘MIIIISSSS, TRANSPOOOORT!!!”

I hated it so much I spent a week there.

“I once saw a Western tourist with a T-shirt that said “no transport, no massage”, which I laughed at, but I later seriously wished I had my own.”

Versions of these are available across Southeast and South Asia — depending on what the most commonly spruiked goods are. In Nepal they tend to include “No hashish”. I hate to think what frenzy that would have thrown you into.

“Then I started pretending to use my mobile phone as I walked, which oddly enough actually worked, save the odd, determined “Miiiisss … “”

Translation: I started to talk to non-existent people rather than just saying no thanks or ignoring the person who was actually talking to me.

“I developed a resentment of locals, which I’m sure is undeserved. I just wish they could see how bad their touts are and lock them away in a dark room.”

Yes, it is undeserved.

“Tourists are similarly harassed in Ubud if they go shopping in the kilometre-long retail love-in that is Monkey Forest Road. Picture walking down Chapel Street and being constantly screamed at from each doorway to buy things. Should I have enjoyed this?”

I’ve walked up and down Monkey Forest Road perhaps fifty times and have never, ever had a shop owner yell anything at me. To be clear though, I do always speak to imaginary people on my phone when in Ubud to avoid contact with other humans.

The wooden penises are kept out back.

The wooden penises are kept out back.

“As I walked along this thoroughfare, I started to notice ever-cheaper and more tacky souvenirs – wooden penises, plastic skeletons having sex. I mean, who buys these things?”


“Imagine the conversation with the quarantine officer at Melbourne Airport: “Aah, thank you sir, we’ll have to get your wooden penis irradiated but otherwise, it’s all fine.””

Knowing Australian customs, they’ll probably confiscate it.

“More to the point, who makes these souvenirs? Are there entire villages near Ubud that make wooden penises?”

Well, there are entire villages across Bali making all manner of tourist knick knacks out of wood. This is how they make their living. The wooden penis you’re fixated on is actually a phallic symbol to do with other-worldly matters rather than the carnal pleasures you’re on about. They also make lots of beautiful wooden treasures — not surprisingly you don’t mention them — you must have been on the phone when you walked past.

“Occasionally in Bali, itinerant hawkers would bail you up. One of the most disturbing incidents was the day I went on a half-day bus tour of the countryside taking in a spectacular volcano north of Ubud. We stopped on the rim road to view the distant volcano and on the way back to the bus an elderly man shoved a wooden statue of a Hindu god in my face, babbling in a very agitated way “You BUY?’, pleeeese Miiiiss!!! You buy!!!!”

I made the mistake of touching the sculpture and he shoved it further towards my face, screaming at me. I knew it was an act he put on for every tourist so I didn’t get too upset. It was just absurd. And really rude. Then he blocked the path to my seat. My tour guide watched on benignly. In the end I edged into my seat, stared straight ahead and the hysterical hawker went away.”

One day, in Asia, I was harrassed by a persistent wooden Hindu God vendor. Quick, send a missive to the SMH.

Gratuitous beach shot. Uluwatu.

Gratuitous beach shot. Uluwatu.

“Many times, with the “transpooort” guys and hawkers, I wondered: do the locals have any idea how their treatment of tourists comes across?”

This is probably the one valid point in the entire story: touts really are annoying. But I can say that in a sentence, not a rambling piece in one of Sydney’s best newspapers.

“Then I thought, is it just me? Do other Australian tourists find the whole tout behaviour thing charming or amusing? I mean, do they see it as part of a carnival atmosphere that you just laugh off?”

It’s just you, Carolyn.

“I thought it was vile. It didn’t reflect well either on the Balinese or on the tourists; it was a lowest common denominator tourist hell.”

You went to one of the most popular tourist destinations in Indonesia and it was a tourist hell.

“Maybe I’m uninformed.”


“Maybe the locals are so impoverished they adopt desperate measures to grab cash when they can, and we as rich Westerners should feel glad they are making a living. We should thus smilingly welcome the overt rudeness and invasion of privacy and lack of respect.”

The locals are just trying to get by. They work in restaurants, hotels, as drivers, artisans — all sorts. It’s called making a living.

“(Bad behaviour does go both ways – I equally would condemn those frightening Aussies overseas who urinate in the street and wear bikinis into temples. I was gobsmacked to see one topless young white guy at 11am one day strolling down Monkey Forest Road, open stubby in hand, his shorts almost down to his thighs to reveal his underpants).”


“My point is, aren’t there better ways of doing business? If a tourist is treated so badly they don’t want to ever return, isn’t that a bad thing for Bali? Or do tourists not care how basely they’re treated as long as they get a cheap flight, room and meals?”

My point (mine, not Carolyn’s) is, aren’t there better ways to have a holiday? Bali is a big place. It has magnificent beaches, stunning countryside and much of it has an utterly untouristed appeal. There are hundreds of villages and destinations that see a fraction of the visitors Ubud does.

But you didn’t bother to make the effort to see or experience any of this, Carolyn. You visited Ubud across the Writers and Readers Festival, when, not surprisingly, there are a lot of visitors. You didn’t like it. But rather than get up and find some of the gems that have had people falling in love with Bali since the 1920s, you decided to opt for a lazy cheap shot raving about dildos, touts and serial killers.

Yes, Bali faces challenges. Traffic and the environment in particular require urgent attention — I’ll be the first to volunteer that. But opportunistic rants like that above, which offer zero in the way of constructive criticisms really do nobody any favours.

Hope you enjoyed the Festival.

About the author:
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
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