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A Bali Perspective

INDONESIA | Sunday, 13 December 2009 | Views [1476]

Bali – an unsteady balance.

(These are some impressions gained from a 4 weeks visit to Bali and living in a Home Stay in the Rumah Roda family compound in Ubud Bali. I have not studied Bali culture and am certainly no expert – these are impressions of a temporary visitor to the Island – Peter Johnstone)


An ‘ecosystem’ happens when a place or a geographical region evolves over time and the various competing elements achieve a state of dynamic stability.

Bali has often been described as a ‘tropical paradise’ – a kind of ecosystem of legends.

At some time in Bali’s mythical past, with its tropical climate, the rich volcanic soils and high rainfall, the demons and gods, the competing villages and compounds and the winners and losers achieved a balance – a symbiosis with each other. The island and all in it - the way people related and interacted with each other and with their environment, supported by extensive religious and cultural rituals - achieved a mythical state of dynamic stability. Losers either became extinct or took their accepted place in the community as a reincarnated spirit in a gecko or street dog.

This powerful myth and belief system and the need to maintain balance and harmony, underpins Bali’s cultural life.

Wayan Darthe, the elder from Rumah Roda family compound outlined Bali’s key philosophy of life – Tri Hita karana ‘The Sacred Balance’.

The philosophy teaches that every person in their every action should always heed their impact in 3 main arenas:

  • Their fellow being, the other;
  • Their natural environment;
  • Their God/gods, their morality.

In all that a Balinese person does, he/she should seek and maintain harmony, should seek reconciliation (where there is tension/conflict) and should maintain a balance in such a way that the needs of others, of the environment and of the gods are not impaired.


Sitting on the verandah of the Home stay in the Rumah Roda compound or taking a quiet walk among the rice paddies away from busy central Ubud, it is easy to suspend rationality and get a sense of living in harmony. The balmy weather, the brilliant colours of the flowers and plants, the sounds and smells (especially the seductive scent of the Champaka) and those spirits in the gecko or the mangy dogs that cast an indifferent air to what is going on around them; the meditative scene of the elderly woman cutting grass on the edge of the paddy with nothing urgent in her movements and who seems to blend into the peaceful environment. There is a beautiful balance that can be appreciated by most visitors to the island. Wherever you go, rice paddy, market and even in the taxi, there are the carefully crafted offerings and a temple not far away.

Within the context of maintaining harmony, Balinese people are eclectic and open to influences and changes. This is the  Desa Mawacara belief system/framework.  Balinese seek stability and balance - however, if Desa (place), Kala (time) or patra (conditions) demand it, Balinese will adapt and change. As a result there is wide diversity in dance, ceremony, customs, art, dress, food and so on from one village to another. The Desa Mawacara, the ‘Balance of Life’ has, so far, enabled the culture to remain strong and yet adapt to the many influences, be they such things as tourism, life style, technology or education. Bali has survived Dutch colonization, the inroads of Javanese culture and the allure of the West.

However, if I leave the rice paddies or the Home stay verandah and walk 50 metres down Jl. Kajeng toward the centre of Ubud, there is a very different reality.

Near Ubud’s market there is frenetic busyness. There are tourists everywhere and taxi drivers touting their ‘hello transport’. The mayhem is compounded by traffic congestion caused by a huge hole in the main street (big enough to swallow a locomotive).

Tourists have had a long affair with Bali. For Australians, it is an easy place to get to; Bali offers a contrast in culture, it is sub tropical and warm all year and it is cheap. Western tourists like the deferential attitude of Balinese people to foreigners.

The rest of Indonesia gains huge benefits from tourism to Bali and the Indonesian government is continually promoting a greater numbers of tourists.

Wayan Darthe is sanguine about  tourists believing that tourism has helped Bali’s economy; it has given people an opportunity to improve their standard of living and has lifted many people out of poverty.

There is also a large expatriate community who are buying up huge tracts of land and establishing a variety of businesses across Bali.

While I was in Bali, Dr. Anak Agung Gde Agung wrote an opinion piece in The Jakarta Post (The Sunday Post, 9/8/09).

I want quote him extensively because my observations support his comment:

“The erosion of Bali's, tradition, culture and natural environment as a result of massive efforts to boost tourist numbers has occurred in a number of ways. The most visible is the overload in infrastructure and overuse of precious natural resources. Roads have become cramped with cars at all hours of night and day, while farmlands have disappeared at a rate of around 1000 hectares per year to make way for hotels, villas and malls.

All of Bali's 37 beaches and eight rivers have undergone serious transformations from their original states through development activities that have illegally violated building codes. Water levels at various points are so low they risk drying up altogether, inviting sea water to seep in. This problem and many more like it were foregone conclusions when the number of hotel rooms, set by French tourist company Sceto at a maximum 22,000 for Bali, exceeded the 70,000 mark. This excludes villas, home stays and condominiums which have mushroomed in quantum leaps these past few years.

The more fatal effect of this overload of tourists lies in the impact it has culturally. As farmlands are converted into tourist infrastructure, alienation not only occurs with the land but also to the temples, rituals, ceremonies and communal life - the essential lifestyle of the people who used to live on that land. The Balinese way of life, culture and tradition has been displaced in the blink of an eye.

Worse still, the hotels that have come to replace the indigenous farmers bring in their wake western values of individualism, meritocracy, efficiency and other modernist traits. These exist in stark contrast to the previous Balinese symbol-oriented society. Needless to say, rapid transformations occur wherever the Balinese language is abandoned for English as a sign of advancement.”

I did not visit Kuta or parts of Bali popular to tourists, but the sheer number of tourists arriving is turning much of Bali into a place that tries to provide everything to everybody. There are now tourists who visit Bali to go on elephant rides (elephants were imported and were never indigenous to Bali), for white water rafting, to get married, to participate in a Writers festival or go on a yoga retreat. The local Ubud and Balinese administration (as opposed to the Indonesian government) are trying desperately to protect Bali’s cultural uniqueness and environment. The administration is promoting the idea that tourists be encouraged to travel to Bali to experience its unique cultural and natural environment rather than Bali providing specific experiences for tourists.

Travelling across the island I wonder if this is too little too late. In many ways it seems the degradation has gone too far. Has Bali reached a tipping point?

I felt invigorated after my 4 week visit but am left with an uneasy question – As a visitor, am I in a small way, also contributing to the erosion and demise of Bali’s unique culture, traditions and environment? To its legendary ‘eco system’?


September 2009.

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