Travel writer Ryan Ver Berkmoes is the coordinating author of the newest Lonely Planet guide to Bali and Lombok. We caught up with him to ask him what's new on the islands.
So are you still in Bali? We're jealous.
No, I'm currently on my next assignment in Banff, in frozen Canada! A slight contrast from Bali. I would happily throw in this frozen place and only wear shorts, a T-shirt and sandals forever if I could.
Being paid to travel around Bali sounds like a dream job to most people! Is it as good as we imagine?
Yes, well, obviously I get paid to sit in the shade of a palm tree, adjusting the temperature of my cold Bintang beer while my team of bearers run around doing research for me! Alas a daydream is all that will ever be. The life of a travel writer is a lot less cushy than most people imagine. I was actually there for about two months and during that time had to drive on almost every road the island had that's not a lot of time to get around.
So what are the downsides to your job?
Well not every place you go is very nice! When you spend the day looking around 40 cheap, shitty places to stay in Kuta, they all start to look the same after a while. Another downside is that you have to keep moving around and don't really have the time to relax and enjoy any one location. The best you can hope for if you find a lovely beach, village, hotel or whatever is that you'll manage to get back there on holiday one day.
What do you love most about Bali?
What I guess I like the most is the atmosphere. It's a combination of the climate, the friendliness of the people, and little details like the flowers they leave by the roadsides as offerings. It's one of those places that no matter how hung-over I am in the morning, and however tedious the day ahead looks, I'm always in a good mood by nine o'clock in the morning, just because everyone I've talked to has been so lovely. In other places it takes until 12 to achieve that! I'm never in a hurry to leave at the end of my assignment, which again isn't the case everywhere.
And what do you really hate?
The fact that so much of the island is getting so damn crowded. The traffic on the roads, especially in the south, is getting more and more congested every time I'm here. Then there are the unfettered developments that are springing up in so many places. There's a wonderful tradition of architecture in Bali, but it seems as if this is being lost with some of the new developments they're just so ugly.
Most Balinese agree that it's a shame to allow development without any standards at all, but it's the one percent who profit from them that of course don't agree. I understand that people need to make money and the country needs to develop, but not at the expense of not preserving Balinese culture and their heritage of beautiful buildings.
If there was one thing you'd tell us to do in Bali, what would it be?
I'd say go to Ubud, and wander around, and watch traditional dance performances. There's lots of things in Bali you can get in other places too beautiful beaches, palm trees, tropical bars, cheap beer but Balinese music and dance is something that's really completely unique. And what's so great about Ubud is that it's not confined to those dreadful "cultural shows" you find in the big hotels. It's a matter of just wandering around and going down these little dark lanes, then you'll come to a public stage and hear beautiful Balinese music playing and come across people dancing and practising. It's really part of their livelihood and that's just magical.
Bali is still a hugely popular destination for Australians. Is there a problem with how Australian tourists are perceived over there, considering their numbers?
No, not at all. There are two kinds of Australian tourists, for the most part, in Bali. There's the ones that just want to stay in Kuta and Legian and have a cheap, fun, sun holiday with clubs, beer and surf. They're not particularly interested in Balinese culture but just want a nice holiday and are unlikely to leave the Kuta/Legian area for their whole 10-day stay. And the Balinese are fine with that they have a lot of Balinese in Kuta and Legian very cheerfully making a living, and when the Aussie tourists dry up, like they did after the bombings, people almost literally starved. Then you have those who spend more time exploring the island and the culture, and they are more or less indistinguishable from the Americans or Brits or Europeans doing the same thing. I call some of them the Eat, Pray, Love crowd.
You mean the book?
Don't get me started! Sooo tedious and self-absorbed! I sit in a cafe with my beer and watch the parade of kaftans go past, hoping to meet the love of their life. Still, it's quite refreshing in other parts of South-East Asia you get middle-aged men and their 17–year-old Asian girlfriends, whereas in Bali it's the other way round. Since that book came out there's been a plague of middle-aged, divorced women looking for love!
You should watch out you don't get caught!
Nah, they're not interested in me. I remind them of the husband who divorced them.
Seriously, though, is sex tourism an issue in Bali?
It's much less of an overt thing that it is in other parts of South-East Asia. That's not to say there is a problem: there are some Australians in prison here for sex offences. But in general it's nothing major compared to places like Thailand. If you're looking for it, you can find it in the clubs of Kuta, but if you don't want to see it, you don't have to see it it's not out on the street like it is in Bangkok.
Having visited before and after the bombings, can you see any differences?
This safety issue since the bombings has changed people's perceptions everywhere. But Baliis still Bali. There's a bit of window dressing in terms of safety it could still happen, like it could happen anywhere but you just have to say "What are the odds it's going to be me?" And the odds are small. The big hotels have gates to keep truck bombs from driving in the entrance but not the exit. That's typical of the level of security.
But bad things can happen anywhere look at what's happened in Australia, in Victoria. Horrible shit happens but I would say go there, don't worry about it, enjoy what the place has to offer. Bali is still a place where there's always a beach that hasn't been discovered yet, where you can find good surfing, a couple of cafes, 10 buck-a-night hotels. You can always find whatever dream it is you're looking for. It's not all ruined, by any means.
Lonely Planet's Bali and Lombok guide is published in April 2009.