Asia: Island of the gods

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The Independent Online
What happens to a tourist resort when troubles miles away cause customers to leave abruptly? Last week Mark Elliott found himself almost alone on the enchanted island of Bali

Nearly a decade ago I met an American couple holidaying, unexotically enough, on the Isle of Wight. They liked it well enough, but abruptly went home when the poll tax riots broke out in London. "But that's a hundred miles away," I exclaimed, suppressing a mocking chuckle. Their B&B was less amused at their departure.

Being in Bali this month was a distinct case of deja vu.

As fireworks started fizzing in Jakarta's political tinderbox, phone offices and e-mail lounges were full of travellers reassuring friends and families. But as newspapers bubbled with awful news of riots, shootings, casualties and embassy airlifts from Jakarta, the hotels began to empty. "But Jakarta's more than 500 miles away." Notwithstanding, tourist numbers slowly but perceptibly started to decline, ignoring their own observations of Bali's obvious calm. Thousands of newcomers failed to arrived as tour groups cancelled.

The Balinese, said to have a smile for every emotion, found one of their more ironic grins as they watched their business dwindle. "This is Bali. No trouble here," every local reminded us with gentle urgency. Throughout the riots elsewhere, the most newsworthy event in Bali was the Kuta Beach opening of the world's first Hard Rock Hotel. The giant guitar and amp standing sentry at its foyer door had no mobs to deter.

Those who retreated should turn around: Bali genuinely is the island of the gods. While the populous west of Indonesia turned to Islam centuries ago, the Balinese still revere the Hindu manifestations brought to the archipelago in the 5th century by Indian traders. Gods here are rather playful and need daily appeasing to avert such obvious disasters as the eruptions of the volcanoes which form the island's very fabric.

Every day, homes, businesses and even the most tawdry tourist hotels deck their shrines, steps and swimming pool edges with dozens of attractive offerings - small handfuls of flowers, along with freshly boiled rice and burning incense in little hand-woven leaf baskets. In Bali there are more shrines than homes. Each village has at least three temples, and since so many flowers are required for devotional offerings, almost every home is set amidst drooping fronds of orange and violet bougainvillaea, scarlet hibiscus, spiky frangipani trees and palms sprouting parasitic orchids.

Even the most "ordinary" Balinese villages shine with a photogenic tapestry of colours and a timeless Indiana Jones film-set quality. Add the volcano peaked horizon and dramatic rice terraces, and it's not surprising that the island is a long term haunt of artists and travellers. What is more surprising it the obliging way in which most of the package tourists seem to stick to the prescribed day trips from the unappealing beach hubs of Kuta, Nusa Dua or Sanur. At least that was while there still were tourists.

In Ubud, the island's artist colony and cultural showcase, the nightly legong dances continued in the royal palace courtyard, wayang kulit shadow puppets still strutted before oil lamps and as ever the flower strewn village was peacefully sleeping by 10pm. The only sign of trouble on the whole island came on 20 May. The day before President Suharto's resignation, the proposed national day of demonstration (called off at the last minute) did result in a vague sense of tension in the bigger Balinese towns (Denpasar, Singaraja). Hundreds of troops and police guarded businesses and posed smiling for our photos. Dozens of townsfolk looked on, bemused. For tourists, the only inconvenience was the lack of transport - buses and mini-vans stayed off the streets and ferry services to Java were interrupted to prevent Javanese agents provocateurs coming to stir up trouble.

Nothing else happened. Everyone went home early and the restaurants extended their happy hours in the evening. This was not so much in celebration as to lunge for the dwindling group of remaining foreign customers.

Even if the tourist numbers do make a miraculous recovery, Indonesia is likely to remain a bargain for at least a few months if not years. In 1997, the Indonesian currency, the rupiah, traded at around 4000 to the pound. Now pounds 1 is over 16,000.

Meanwhile the price rises that have caused widespread hardship for the locals have come nowhere near a comparable four fold increase. The result is that for tourists, everything seems shamefully cheap. But if travellers feel guilty about profiting from the misfortunes of others, they should remember that much of the Balinese economy is built on tourism.

Even without bargaining, pounds 1 was enough to charter an outrigger canoe, rent mask/fins etc and pay a two-man crew to drive me out on a snorkelling trip from the ghostly quiet minor resort of Candi Dasa. Another pound paid for a sunrise cruise to see the dolphins at Lovina - breakfast thrown in - with money back if the dolphins didn't show up (they did). Accommodation in the pounds 1-2 range includes quite passable double rooms with fan, attached bathroom and the obligatory fresh fruit, coffee and toast breakfast. For pounds 5-pounds 7/double the beds get bigger, the bathrooms have hot water and there's a fair chance of air conditioning and/or swimming pool.

All prices are negotiable. And far from adding tax and the usual summer high season supplements to your bill, hotels are presently offering discounts to make up for dwindling numbers.

Bali may be the island of the gods, but its public transport system sold its soul to the devil. Departures are regular in the mornings and fares are cheap, but even medium sized towns tend to have more than one bus station, and vehicles can get pretty full, especially when a goat or two get on board with their masters. Travellers can get around these inconveniences with a system of shuttle buses and mini-tours. But with the prices so reasonable, there is every incentive to rent your own Jeep. "Hello Mister, Transport?" touts hiss from many a street corner, but small car-hire agencies are better value from only 60,000rp (pounds 4) per day with chauffeur.

Petrol is extra, but costs only 7p per litre. Self-drive may save you a pound per day (an international drivers licence is required) but employing a driver saves you a lot of worry avoiding pot holes, pedestrians, chickens and oncoming vehicles and leaves you a chance to enjoy the scenery.

Liberated from the constraints of the dreaded bemos mini-vans it is easy to reach idyllic but lesser known villages like Ipeh, Jegu or Jatiluwih where the stacked emerald rice terraces are at their most spectacular. A Jeep also makes it easier to descend the rough road into Mt Batur's volcanic crater, or to reach the delightfully forgotten ruins of Ujung water palace near the quaint royal city of Amalpura. And however you travel, with fewer tourists, even the great, hawker blighted temples at Besakih and Mengwi regain their charm.

At any time, Balinese smiles seem remarkably immune to the tourist borne infection of cynicism. But now, more than any time in decades, you'll have much of the enchanted island to yourself.

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Getting there

There are no direct flights between the UK and Bali; the quickest route, avoiding Jakarta, is via Kuala Lumpur or Singapore. Discounted fares are widely available; for example, Quest Worldwide (0181-547 3322) has a London- Bali return fare of pounds 443 on Singapore Airlines, pounds 445 on Malaysia.

Red tape

No visas are required for short-term visits by British passport holders.

Tourist information

Indonesian Tourist Office, Second Floor, Whitehall House, 41 Whitehall, London SW1A 2BY, 0171-493 0030.

Government warnings

Earlier this week the Foreign Office softened its travel advice for Bali: "As the situation in Bali has been relatively calm, and tourist services are operating normally, the Embassy has at present no basis for advising against the resumption of tourist visits to Bali (transitting Jakarta as necessary)."

For the country as a whole, the FO line for travellers is that "We recommend for the time being that only those with a pressing need should visit Indonesia."

For the latest Foreign Office advice, contact the Travel Advice Unit on 0171-238 4503 or 4504, or fax 0171-238 4545; on the Internet, at or on BBC-2 Ceefax from page 470 onwards.

The US authorities take a sterner line: "The Department of State warns all U.S. citizens to defer travel to Indonesia and strongly urges those Americans in Jakarta and Surabaya to depart as soon as possible. Americans in other parts of Indonesia, including Bali, should consider departing the country at this time.

Simon Calder