Image source: Black Tomato

Image source: Black Tomato

While Indonesia as a whole is not really a tourist destination or even on international radar most of the time (as I discussed in my previous blog post, “Asia’s Sleeping Giant“), Bali is an exception. Foreigners have long flocked to Bali, mostly to visit but some to live: it’s a lush tropical island, small enough to tour on a relaxed vacation yet big enough to give the tourist plenty to do and see, framed by stunning beaches and turquoise sea, easygoing, and boasting a unique culture with vibrant art forms. Unlike some of the larger islands of Indonesia, with their big cities, traffic jams, millions of locals and calls to prayer, Bali is relaxed and laid-back, with a culture shaped by decades of nearly unrelenting foreign tourism. It is for many the archetypal tropical idyll.

Of course, it wasn’t always so. Historically Bali was essentially a small version of the kind of country found everywhere in Southeast Asia: an agricultural economy based on rice farming that supported a kingdom, army, and Hindu religious establishment. It has a caste system rigorously separating lower caste workers and traders from upper caste warriors and priests. These inequities were justified by Hinduism, imported from India and bent a little to fit Bali’s peculiar situation (Balinese Hinduism likes to emphasize the struggle between good and evil, for instance), but still largely recognizable. Its kings fought wars and conducted trade with other islands, even gaining influence over the somewhat smaller island next door, Lombok, as well as part of Java, a much, much bigger island.

What made Bali unique is that by the 1500s Hinduism was out of style across the region. Islam gradually spread across the Indonesian archipelago in the Middle Ages; Buddhism supplanted Hinduism on the mainland. Although the Indian epics (Mahabharata and Ramayana) remain popular on Java, the Hindu belief system they spring from is a faded memory. The artists and priests of the Javanese court fled eastwards after losing the battle with Islam and preserved their traditions in the temples of Bali, which remained Hindu even when the islands around it converted to Islam (and later, when Christianity appeared).

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One thing Bali couldn’t resist, of course, was colonialism. The Dutch, through their East India Company, devoured Java during the 16 and 1700s, but Bali didn’t prepare for the oncoming attack. Instead, it shattered itself through internal warfare, splintering into 9 small kingdoms, each vying for supremacy over the others. They even provided the Dutch with slaves won from their conquests (or seized for owing debts); they were taken to Java to help build the Dutch colonial empire. In return, Bali got opium.

In the 1800s, the wave finally broke. The catalyst was shipwrecks: the Dutch would demand cargo salvaged from ships wrecked off Balinese shores, which the kings refused. As a result, northern Bali was annexed to the Dutch Empire. More preoccupied with other islands in the archipelago, the Netherlands didn’t conquer the rest of the island until 1908. Their conquest was marked by puputans, a mass ritual suicide or virtually suicidal charge into Dutch guns by the floundering Balinese courts as a last hopeless gesture of defiance.

Although they had stigmatized the Balinese as “fierce, savage, perfidious, and bellicose people, loath to do any work” and given to barbaric practices like widow suicide (masatia, another custom imported from India), after their conquest the Dutch, perhaps out of some feelings of guilt for the horrible bloodshed they had caused or wanting to put a positive spin on the island, reinvented its image. The depth and complexity of Balinese Hinduism came to be appreciated: here were court records dating back to medieval times, here were temple rituals and dances centuries old. Bali became promoted as a tourist paradise with an interesting Hindu backdrop, and foreigners (especially from nearby Australia) came to visit. Many of them were probably just interested in spending time with pretty topless ladies on a breezy beach, although some were seriously intrigued by Balinese culture and art and settled permanently, documenting its culture, singing the praises of its (suddenly hardworking) rice farmers and painting intricate works of art.

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And thus the notion of Bali as Indonesia’s answer to the sunny isles of the South Pacific came to be. Genuine interest in Balinese art as a repository of a culture extinct in the rest of Southeast Asia led to international fame for its music, theater and paintings. Ubud, an inland town in south Bali, became the island’s artistic capital, catering to Western demand for massage, alternative medicines, fortune-telling, yoga and meditation, as well as for pottery, metal percussion instruments and women with stacks of fruit on their heads. Meanwhile, on the beaches and in the busy town of Kuta, a different Bali emerged: a heavy drinking, hard-partying backpacker hangout.

The party was crashed a few times in the 1900s. First were the 1940s: Japan invaded in 1942, chasing out the Dutch and other whites. When the Dutch tried to make a comeback in 1946, Bali fought back hard, charging the invaders in a battle that amounted to another puputan. A bloodier, if quicker, episode came in 1965, when as part of a nationwide purge of Communists, Communist sympathizers, and alleged Communist sympathizers, at least 80,000 Balinese (or about 5% of the island) were slaughtered, wiping out the Communist Party as a political force on the island, as in the rest of Indonesia. The old guard, anxious about the Communists’ calls for getting rid of caste and carrying out land redistribution, justified it as a preservation of Bali’s unique way of life.

More recently, Bali’s party scene was disrupted by Muslim terrorism. The Jemaah Islamiyah, a terrorist group in Java linked to al-Qaeda, was naturally drawn to Bali because of all the infidels there. A bomb in a crowded Kuta nightclub in 2002 put a serious damper on tourism for a while, along with a series of less deadly attacks in public in 2005. The terrorism heightened a fear among Balinese that had built ever since Indonesia’s independence that their bastion of Hinduism was doomed to be subsumed into Indonesia’s overall Muslim culture. In the short term, of course, it damaged the local economy, which is mostly dependent on tourism. Luckily, Jemaah Islamiyah and militant Islam have not proved to be very popular in Indonesia, and the tourists have come back — although the lurking Balinese anxiety over their Muslim neighbors persists.

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With thousands of hotels ranging from dumpy guesthouses to five-star luxury resorts jutting out over the beach, restaurants serving good Western food, widespread English, performances tailored to tourists’ tastes and attention spans, and businesses cashing in on the smash success of Eat, Pray, Love (a book & movie about finding love and spiritual fulfillment in Ubud), it’s worth asking how much of Bali’s rich culture is preserved under the tourist deluge. It is true that many Balinese now spend their lives serving richer foreigners, often white ones, in an echo of colonial times. Prostitution and sex slavery are rife in Bali as they are elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Most tourists probably don’t give a fig about Sang Hyang Widhi Wasa (the supreme god) and his relationship with the Hindu pantheon and would much rather just lounge on the beach with a cocktail, go surfing and snorkeling, or grind at a rave. In this way Bali closely resembles other vacation islands like Hawai’i, Phuket or most of the Caribbean.

But the Balinese are a proud people; they didn’t maintain their religion in a Muslim and Christian sea without being stubborn. Religion and tradition still infuse Balinese life. Walk any street in Bali and you’ll see many little offerings along the sidewalk — flowers and fruit artfully arranged in palm leaf baskets. Tourists wandering Bali’s interior have a good chance of coming across a religious procession or temple dedication ceremony. For one day a year, the entire island’s economy shuts down as everyone stays inside and keeps quiet so the demons won’t notice them. A big part of Bali’s appeal comes from its enchanting dances, its intricate paintings, its haunting gamelan music, its picturesque towered temples, its shadow puppet plays. Tourists help foster these traditions and encourage local pride in the culture. And although the southern part of the island is overdeveloped and full of foreigners, it’s not hard to find an authentically Balinese village if the island’s interior is explored.

Bali presents a classic quandary that challenges tourist sites all over the world. It has a distinctive culture (as well as beautiful scenery) that attracts tourists, but the attention from tourists shapes the culture in turn. In reality, it’s pretty much hopeless to expect culture to exist in a vacuum, frozen in time; that’s probably not healthy anyway. Every culture is the product of the interaction with surrounding forces. Balinese Hinduism, after all, is very different from Indian Hinduism, thanks to the interaction with Bali’s indigenous traditions. Tourists should be respectful and mind local customs, and they should never act like they own the place, no matter how much money they pour into it. Learning the local language and adapting behavior to suit the local culture also helps. But Bali is a relaxed place, and the locals are easygoing and forgiving, especially considering their violent past. Tourists probably shouldn’t worry too much about the impact their presence causes.

And having been to Bali myself, I can attest that the beaches and rice terraces are as inviting as they say.

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