Bali ruined, again

Monkey Forest Road in Ubud 1989-2016, photo by Sean Rocha

The first time I went to Bali was in 1989, when I was twenty, and I thought it was magical. When I returned two years later, in 1991, I thought everything I loved about it had been destroyed and the place was ruined. But I knew, even as I wept, that the Bali I first loved had already seemed ruined to almost everyone who had been there before me, that this cycle of judging as authentic and transporting whatever the traveler first encounters and debased and degraded whatever follows had been going on a long time.
Still, something specific had changed between my visits: the government had declared 1990 “Visit Indonesia Year” and reportedly given out interest-free loans to anyone who opened a tourist shop. If you’re wondering when the majority of the residents of Ubud stopped being artisans and craftsmen and started being shopkeepers selling trinkets or real estate developers tearing up rice paddies, that was the year it took off. I didn’t vow never to return after 1991, exactly, but I recognized there wasn’t much urgency to going back.
Well, time passes, the longing for lost love grows more intense, and so a few months ago I went back to Bali to see what had happened to it in the quarter century I’d been away. Specifically, that meant Ubud. I’d spent nearly three months in Indonesia between those first two visits, much of it traveling around Bali, and Kuta was a place to be avoided even in the 1980s while Seminyak, if it existed as a separate district then, was not one I went to or recalled hearing about. But I’d spent a lot of time in Ubud. I stayed on Monkey Forest Road that first visit and wrote in my journals that the garden made it feel “very removed from the hustle and bustle of Ubud, which only consists of about 20 motorcycles all day anyway.” Let’s allow that this claim about the scarcity of traffic (practically inconceivable today, given the constant honking on Monkey Forest Road) was likely an underestimate even then, but it still gives a sense of scale broadly confirmed by a photograph I took in 1989 — it is in the inset above, and larger below. It is of the bend just before the entrance to the forest which was then an unpaved road with a partially covered drainage channel to one side, a few small buildings mostly with thatched roofs, two parked motorcycles, one small truck pulled off to the side and no visible traffic at all. There was a lot of green then but two years later, in 1991, it was all filled in, which is when I wrote in my journals “Ubud is revolting” and that “For about 1 km along Monkey Forest Road straight down to the forest, it is – quite literally – uninterrupted Kuta-style shops.” By this I meant the sort of spare concrete shells with a narrow street frontage but often running back some distance, usually one or two stories and hanging its crappy wares out on racks to entice tourists. This was a change in two directions: density, as almost every single inch of roadside space was filled in; and composition, as a retail mix that had included at least a few places addressing local needs shifted entirely to the tourism trade. Today, a quarter-century later, the subsequent changes — visible in the photo above — are mainly ones of scale and degree, though these are profound: the shops and hotels are bigger and brighter, the road paved, the drainage channel unimproved but now entirely covered, and the sum generally lacking in anything that can be particularly thought of as Balinese. There are other charms, newly introduced: Ubud went dramatically upscale in the intervening years — I’d once estimated I could live there a year on under $3,000 which seems improbable today — so the food improved, as did the coffee, and there’s a lot of wellness about if you’re into that sort of thing. So, I’m not vowing now never to return again this time either but I suspect I’ll be very old when it happens.

Monkey Forest Road in Ubud 1989, photo by Sean Rocha

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