Wednesday 2 October 2013

Thoughts From Bali: Malaysia 2.0

by Chua Zi, Class of 2014, Form 4 Science 1

A few months back in June, I found myself aboard a plane to Bali. We landed reasonably late at night, not jet-lagged but still thankful to get off a plane (where there was a perpetually wailing baby seated a row behind us). Economy-class is so great.

At their quaint airport, we met Agung, our tour guide and a walking encyclopaedia of everything Bali. Tourism workers are obliged to be in traditional dress during working hours, or they’ll be pulled over. Agung calls these the police’s little ‘projects’ as bribery is left virtually uncontrolled in Bali. “We’re like ATMs,” he jokes. We were stopped by the police once while driving up Batur Volcano where they asked to see Agung’s driving license and he made some pretty witty remarks about how this ‘side income’ exceeded their salary and that the corruption here was like a culture, with my favourite being,“The darkness of justice,” which sounds suspiciously like a Batman reference.

We stayed in Ubud, the cultural heart of Bali, making it a hotspot for small-scale hotels. The streets are narrow and lined with uniformly spaced trees (chopping them down is illegal), restaurants, village houses and absolutely no streetlights. It’s where Eat Pray Love was shot, though it wasn’t that great of a film. Agung offered to take us to the shaman who predicted Julia Roberts’ character’s future but warned that (surprise, surprise) he only served a commercial purpose. We politely declined.

Food is plenty in Ubud. You’d think that with everything else in the area set on prioritizing tradition, the only food they’d serve would be local. Though it was mostly Balinese restaurants serving things like crispy duck and suckling pig, there was a Japanese restaurant, a Belgian cafe, a quaint little Italian bistro, a Pizza Bagus: ‘Ubud’s best pizza’, an ice cream parlour, and even a place that only served tacos. And in Ubud, everyone is always trying to sell you something, be it food, souvenirs or a taxi service. These people are known for their bargaining prowess, which often leads to outright haggling. It made me think about how the whole of Balinese culture and all its aspects had the potential to be capitalized on, but more on that later.

The food we’d had in Bali was delicious more often than not where meals are always accompanied by an interesting atmosphere. And while spending a ton of money on food happens to be my parents’ vice, the most expensive food in Bali isn't necessarily the most appetizing. We had two candlelit dinners; the first was an overpriced one by a beach shore while the second was in a simple BBQ restaurant named Naughty Nuri’s, which was the about the size of a sundry shop and the only reason it was candlelit was because there had been a power-cut. We also had lunch at the top of a cliff, at Single Fin, Blue Point which reminded me of Ben’s (or Plan B, Journal—they’re all the same) as the food was similar, just without the view and salty beach air. Surprisingly, I’d preferred the Western cuisine in Bali to the local cuisine.

There are places in Bali which make you forget that you're even in Southeast Asia, like Batur Volcano, the most active volcano in Bali. The weather up there was only slightly warmer than that of Cameron Highlands but the landscape could be compared to that of a Norwegian wood. The surrounding land, having been affected by previous eruptions, is characterized by its fertile, magnetic soil now strewn with flower beds (perfect for taking hipster photographs) and volcanic rock that the locals collect to use as building material for temples and sculptures.

Batur Volcano, Bali
Volcanic rock from Batur Volcano, Bali
There were also things we did in Bali that could be done back in Malaysia for a cheaper price. We visited an overcrowded beach for some disappointing water sports and to see turtles, where my surmise that all Bali’s beaches have white sands and clear water was proven wrong. We also went white water rafting, which turned out to be not as vigorous as I'd expected. I reckoned that these type of activities are for those who feign adventurousness but are really just looking to prove themselves.

But the one site that blows any other out of the water is the rice terraces, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Alas, it was just the terraces and not the village in its entirety so no, the bar we had lunch at was not a world heritage ‘The 69 Bar’. All jokes aside, the rice terraces were absolutely beautiful and as described less banally by my father, it was “like a painting come to life, it’s too good to be true.”

UNESCO World Heritage rice terraces in Jatiluwih, Bali
As for the Balinese, they seem to be genuinely amiable, though the only people I encountered were tourism workers and a few topless old women here and there. The children do seem to me an interesting lot—I saw a boy who looked around 10 years old zooming around on a motorbike at Batur Volcano. 

They are also a people who are distinguished by their creativity and who take pride in their work, be it their intricate stone carvings or their many depictions of Balinese gods on canvas. 

One thing I do know about the them is their strict adherence to tradition. The tourism laws are built around preserving it but I suspect the law has just taken advantage of the mentality of the locals who see it as a way of maintaining one’s pride. You can see glimpses of Balinese culture everywhere—from the offerings in front of every house, on every structure in every temple, in Agung’s car, to the black and white checked sarong tied to every pillar or gate.

Balinese offerings
Kechak performers chanting and dancing in a circle around a fire at Uluwatu Temple, Bali
Forced marriage is still practiced widely in the villages. It's the usual procedure—a family needs a son to pass the house and inheritance to, while daughters are sent to live with their spouse. Agung, whose family does not practice it, sees it in a satirical light,“No son, try another time. No luck, try another wife.” One of his friends has had 3 wives while Agung’s great grandfather, the village chief, had over 50. “Only one is enough for me. My wife is the most beautiful in the village, but I don’t know about other villages. We have no marriage with other villages. No transport,” said Agung, before laughing hysterically.

Ceremonies and celebrations are taken very seriously. Even those working in the city return to their villages to attend them, in the fear of being ostracized by the villagers. The most important of these is Silent Day, the Balinese New Year. It’s 24 hours indoors with no lights, radio or television. The airports are closed, leaving passengers stranded for no apparent reason. The police don't go against it either, afraid of exile. This is all in the belief that the evil spirits will be tricked by the island’s silence and be led somewhere else. It’s also to embrace nothingness and the renewal of oneself for the year to come, a concept my Taoist dad agrees vehemently with. I would argue that while it may be a way of maintaining one’s pride, the effects of ostracism are devastating for victims and could carry on for generations.

Bali does share some social similarities with Malaysia. During our hour-long drives (not uncommon on this trip), my parents and Agung would exchange opinions on the politics in our respective countries, something I hold an irreverent disregard for. I guess that’s where my father finds his sense of familiarity away from home (while I found mine at the Starbucks in Ubud). They exposed Agung to some Malaysian culture and hoping to participate, I offered a Kopiko to Agung, which everyone likes.

We listened to stories about the corruption in Bali, in the case of President Suharto whose kleptocratic ways were widespread and the many changes to the parliamentary system ever since his resignation in 1998. Corruption is still rampant in the police—remnants of the legacy of Suharto's reign—despite efforts by the KPK(Komisi Pemberantasan Corupsi). Agung mused about the difficulties of being the president; there were too many cultures to keep track of, too many protests, too many bombings (on the 2002 bombing in Kuta and the 2005 suicide and car bombings) and no sleep.

Like Malaysia, the locals are worried about the fading Balinese language among the younger demographic. Agung’s children attend an English school even though the fees are admittedly expensive, especially in private schools. His children go to school from 7.15AM to 12PM or 1PM from Monday to Saturday. They do not speak a word of Balinese.

Throughout our trip, the one thing that bothered me was the ubiquitous influence of a mass capitalization of culture, which is common in Southeast Asian tourism. It can be seen in Ubud, where the hotels located in the area are of higher value, Ubud being the cultural heart of Bali. It can be seen in the architecture, all that red brick and lava rock sculptures which are exported and become the coveted feature of millionaires’ homes. It can be seen in the craftwork which is mass-produced; local artists spend hours a day reproducing artwork over and over again for distribution; in Kuta, the row of glassblowing, woodcarving and sculpting workshops stretches a mile long—all their products merely replicates. It can be seen in the tourism laws, which are based on prohibiting the fading of the culture; the village houses along the roads in Ubud which cannot be sold and must always be occupied by a family member; the tourism workers who are legally required to be in traditional dress while working.

Old stone carvings in a temple in Ubud, Bali
Balinese woodcarvers at work
In spite of that, Bali’s culture is unique in that it’s almost matured to the point where it’s like an all-permeating force field that interacts with everything in the island, unlike in Malaysia, where's it's only concentrated in certain areas or states. The tourism in Bali is of the kind that the tourism in Malaysia strives to be, probably. You don’t need to visit a temple or a village hut in the woods to experience its culture, there’s no need for Bali to put on a face in front of the tourists. Bali’s people, in collaboration with its tourism sector have overcome the paradigm of that kind of tourism that sells the fallacy of an ‘authentic’ experience where people seek to live life in the forest with the indigenous peoples, life before the Industrial Revolution, life before electricity, the Internet, brick houses, that sort of thing. That experience can be acquired by just staying in Bali itself. It may be because of the laws enforced or maybe Bali has just been a tourist destination for so long that it doesn’t have to try anymore.

My favourite spot was Blue Point, because it displays this perfectly. People went there to appreciate the beauty of its nature, and not its ‘untarnished heritage’. It was there that I first experienced that quintessentially touristic urge to take a picture of everything I saw. The water at Blue Point is of such a bright blue that it almost looked artificial, and it was specked with surfers. The face of the cliff above it is crammed with cafes, pubs, souvenir shops and surfboard workshops. There were people riding motor bikes in here, where the paths were the about 25 inches wide, maximum. It was also teeming with blonde, bright eyed, Australian surfers, walking around with surfboards tucked under their arms (how casual). It brimmed with life, with paths that begged to be followed and which led you to new places at every turn.

A shack for storing broken surfboards at Blue Point, Bali

At the same time, the surfers were interacting with the locals not as customers but as acquaintances. We stumbled across many surfboard workshops where we saw them chatting with the locals while their surfboards were being customized, using computer software to create their designs. They sat in front of the television watching football and drinking that famed Bintang beer together. I guess it’s this nature of interaction that drives many Australian visitors to continue live in Bali, with the locals, renting motorbikes and staying for more than 3 months and a time.

Our last stop was Kuta. It’s obvious that Kuta caters to the city-dwellers, with hotels with familiar names and malls with familiar luxury brands. Kuta is a happening town, with the restaurants busied at every hour of the day, and an even wilder nightlife. It’s as if Bintang Walk relocated to a beach. The beach was dirty and crowded with Australians but that didn’t stop little kids from freely surfing in the waves, proceeding to lower my self esteem. 

Being in Kuta called to mind the kind of life we led back in the city of Kuala Lumpur and made me realize how I didn’t really miss it that much (excluding the WiFi). Bali is a lot like Malaysia in that it’s what Malaysia had or still has the potential to be. I came to this conclusion at the end of our trip along with the awareness that it had both positive and negative connotations. As we bid farewell to Agung at the airport, I thought about how we’re likely to never see him again and I wished that we had more time to enjoy Bali with his guidance. It’s been one of the more enjoyable trips I’ve been on and I feel like there’s just so much to see that we couldn’t have possibly covered in the span of just 4 nights.

Best solution, come to Bali again! - Agung


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