Bali has always held special meaning to me and my wife. It was on this tropical island that we had our honeymoon way back in January 2003. Back then, I was so inspired by the holiday experience and customer encounters that I wrote an article that was published in the Straits Times on the legendary hospitality of Balinese.
Sadly things have changed, even at Ubud (Bali’s cultural heart) which is supposedly less mercantilist than Kuta, Uluwatu or the coastal cities. While its verdant and pastoral landscapes have largely remained, the ugly effects of commercialisation and gentrification have left major scars on the island.
For a start, the traffic was horrendous! There are so many cars, coaches, vans and motorcycles – especially motorcycles – crawling around the island that even crossing the tiniest lane can be a hazardous experience. In fact, the gridlock was even worse than Singapore’s city centre during our morning rush hour!
With a six-and-a-half year old in tow, my wife and I had to be perpetually watchful of the endless flow of vehicles. Oh, I forgot to add that driving here (like many Asian cities) probably requires one to have a stint in Hollywood as a stunt driver.
I’ve also noticed how much more mercenary the folks on the island are now. Asking for directions anywhere often result in an instant sales pitch by the person providing the information. Taxi touts are everywhere.
Hailing a cab – licensed or otherwise – now comes with having to endure an almost predictable series of questions from the driver which goes like this:
Driver: “Where do you come from?”
Driver: “Ahh, Singapore. Beautiful country. How long will you be in Bali?”
Us: “We’ll be staying for another two nights in Ubud.”
Driver: “Good. Have you been to _____, ______ and _____?”
Us: “Yes, we have. We have also hired a driver for the next few days.”
Driver (slightly miffed): “Ohhh.” (pauses before continuing) “how much did he charge you?”
While most Balinese are warm and friendly, F&B service levels have largely stagnated – even at the leading/award winning restaurants in Ubud where we dined!
On a few occasions, the waiters and waitresses forgot to set the table for my son (probably because we did not order a main for him) and had to be gently reminded. They also lack initiative in providing us with extra sets of bowls or plates even after knowing that we intend to share our food.
Perhaps the most glaring incident occurred at the Tsavo Lion’s Cafe in Bali Safari Park. My son Ethan was feeling a little unwell (probably carsick) during dinner and ended up vomiting. Being quick thinking parents (who learnt from painful experience), my wife and I shoved an empty plate under him so that he can regurgitate with minimal “collateral damage”.
When we asked the waitresses for help, the expressions on their faces were ones of disgust and distaste. One of them even tried to shove a plastic bag to us (probably with the assumption that we will bag the mess ourselves). I insisted that they should clear the plate of unmentionables and they did so rather begrudgingly. It was only a few minutes later that a male waiter came to ask how our son was.
Finally, pollution appears to be the order of the day. The endless streams of motor vehicles result in permanent fumes cloying one’s nostrils. Littering is also fairly rampant, even in rice fields and farms, and cigarette butts are strewn everywhere.
Having said all the above, Bali does have its saving graces. Much of its cultural heritage, artisanal traditions and warm hospitality has remained. The island also possesses breathtaking natural and rural environments that are largely pristine.
Unfortunately, crass commercialisation has reduced the natural charm of the island and its inhabitants. Many things are tagged with a dollar – or rupiah – sign. While its tourism infrastructure has modernised and improved, service standards have unfortunately not progressed at the same pace.