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My Bali Experiences - An island paradise for whom?

SuhartoMy history with Bali first started with a holiday there in 1998. It was a choice between a package holiday to Bali, Jamaica or somewhere else I forget; Bali won as the other possible destinations were going to be in the middle of their rainy seasons. After deciding on Bali I started to research the island and found the hotel options in the "bargain" packages I had discovered were reportedly tourist traps devoid of true Balinese influence (Nusa Dua) or endured hoards of drunken profane red necks (Kuta), so I booked the cheapest option (Wina Cottages Kuta) and decided to stay there only for the first night, then travel around the island to see the "Real Bali". I used what Internet resources existed at the time including a Bali Travel Forum and various hotel sites but had significant cause to question their authenticity and legitimacy, which gave me the idea to set up my own. In retrospect it is ironic though, I did not even think of Bali as part of Indonesia at the time and I had no idea the island was ruled over by a dictator who reportedly killed thousands of his own people. But then perhaps I wouldn't all the time world leaders like John Howard described Suharto as "a very skilled and sensitive national leader"; more of nasty Prime Minister Howard here: Australian Foreign Policy.

The more experience I had of Bali, the sader I became for the Balinese.

When I arrived in Kuta and had a chance to look around, I was very glad I had made plans already to get out of the area. Although many people enjoy the bars and shops of Kuta and I enjoyed a cold beer and walkabout somewhere completely different, it was ultimately as Balinese and tasteful to me as a McDonalds. It is kind of like the Spanish Balearic Islands in that the popular tourist towns are often pretty raucous while the remote areas actually relatively free from mass tourists, unspoiled and even Spanish. So the next day I set off around Bali to places and hotels there were scant information available for at the time. I loved the remote areas of Bali so much, was so amazed as to the contrast between what some people call “The Real Bali” and the tourist south (although I know all is not bad in the south) in terms of enjoyment, historical preservation, authenticity and value for money that when I returned to England I set up the Bali and Lombok Travel Forum and (then called) Bali Direct hotel reservation site as hobbies. With these I tried to focus on real Balinese hotels and culture in both the real Bali and even the mass tourism areas. I also tried my best to speak the truth which is not often appreciated in Indonesia.

My first major problem with the corrupt police of Bali came when two Javanese youths high on marijuana and on a stolen motorbike (they had stolen it on Lombok and were travelling back to Java) crashed into the back of my rental car as I drove legally, responsibly and normally along a straight section of the quiet North Bali coast road. These drug taking thieves hit the back of my car as they tried to overtake me straight into the path of an oncoming truck; if they had not hit the back of my car they would have surely died. Because their hitting my car delayed their bike by a split second they bounced into the side of the truck and then my car and then the truck again. I know they were on drugs because lying next to them on the roads were half smoked joints and because the police later told me so. They were carted off to the public hospital in Singaraja and the police arrived. The police said I had a "good accident" because the damage to my rental car was at the back, so I was proportionately less liable. The truck driver had a "bad accident" because the impact of the bike was at the front side of his truck, so he was proportionately more liable! Liable? Yes, even though neither I nor the truck driver could have done anything about these young men the way they were driving, because I was a foreigner / could afford a car and because the truck belonged to a business which must have money, the police were holding us liable! The police explained it that someone had to pay for the medical treatment and to pay for the two youths to get home to Java now but as they had no money, we had to pay because we were involved. I hear many foreigners talk about this aspect of liability by involvement as being a legitimate system; it is BS.

I was lucky, a local hotel worker I was friends with came with me to the police station. I was amazed, we were taken to the hospital to see the injured men and had to sit down and discuss matters! Actually we were not taken, I was asked to drive using my damaged rental car; the police did not want to use their own vehicles they said because they have to pay for their own petrol ! Then we had to go back to the police station and negotiate a "release fee"; how much "compensation" I would pay in order to be absolved of any liability ! This process took days, the police would comment on my watch saying how nice and expensive it was (it was not that expensive a watch); I had to counter that by explaining how expensive houses are in England so that my house was smaller than the police investigator's. What a "joke" and it became clear to me the money was for the police, not for the bike riders or the hospital (for medical fees which the police said had to be paid by someone). In the end we agreed a price and I asked to pay that directly to the hospital and to the two injured men, which really made the police angry. "You do not trust us?" they screamed. I said "I trust you, I just wanted to wish the hospital and injured men well". My friend said it was best to pay the police or the matter would not end. It was clear these police monkeys in uniform pocketed the release fee themselves. Since that time whenever I have seen Balinese police I have noticed them more. I have noticed how they are always asking for money under false "on the spot fine" pretences and how they never actually do any genuine police work.

My first serious encounter with the equally nasty business culture of Indonesia came when the General Manager of Waka Shorea Hotel on Menjangan Island (Bali Barat National Park) posted a spam “come and stay with us” message on the forum I run. Coincidentally I had only been discussing his hotel a few days before with friends in nearby wonderful Pemuteran; you see the park authority had closed their own small hostel on the basis no accommodations could be located on park grounds as that is unlawful, just before Waka Shorea got their building permit! The locals were furious about this and said Waka had bought their permit from Suharto's son. Anyway, when I replied to his posting “Aren’t you the hotel with an unlawfully gained building permit” he responded by email that he would sue me the Indonesian way, by slashing my throat from behind! When I complained about his threat to the Waka Group, owned by a very influential Balinese family, of course I got no apology and no action was ever taken against this man. I even filed a police complaint about his very clear threat, but nothing happened. Foolishly I did not see the woods for the trees or the writing on the wall about Indonesia. Sure I was being stopped once every two days or so by bent traffic cops alleging ridiculous motoring offences against me to extort 50,000 Rupiah from me, sure I heard Indonesia was a very corrupt country, but like most foreigners at this stage I still had my rose coloured glasses on; this was Bali after all.

I invested large sums of money into a small Balinese and environmentally friendly beachfront villa project which friends and relatives basically own and operate. I can say with pride these villas do everything to bring foreign tourists into contact with the real Balinese, that the villas were only built after a properly / legally obtained building permit was issued (unlike many perhaps most villas in Bali), that the villas are 100% legal (fully licensed, etc.), 100% Balinese friendly (the staff were not sent home after the 2002 bombings and they get an equal share of all the service charges paid by guests), 100% community friendly (the villas paid for local electricity to come to some villagers, maintain the public beach access road and built steps down for the locals to access the beach with safety) and 100% environmentally friendly (the villas even have an Indonesian Ministry of Fisheries backed coral protection and development project running).

I did not just invest in commercial projects I also helped foreign bomb victims with free accommodation plus Balinese hotel worker families desperate after family members were sent home without wages in a country with no social welfare system. I started to set up classes for Balinese children in computer and internet literacy, I was also planning the formation of a small International IT service company and an olive grove test project in one of the poorest areas of Bali which had its citrus plantations destroyed by blight. I had even applied for and been granted a KITAS work permit to come and live and work some of the time in Bali and was starting to look at houses to buy with my wife. Thank God we had not already made any such move when I found out the hard way what Indonesia is all about. You see, because of my legally exercising my freedom of speech rights (outside Indonesia) and due to increasing connections with Bali, I was overdue becoming a victim of the hate and extortion that prevails there; my rose tinted glasses were soon enough to come off.

My then girlfriend (now wife) Suci and I lived in Thailand. We lived there for a number of reasons; because I also had business there, to be candid I much preferred the food and other resources there (such as quality hospitals), we also also both much preferred the atmosphere in Thailand. In Bali, girls who date foreigners are often branded “whores”; not surprising for an island where many young men stone girls while shouting “lesbian” at them simply because they are trying to protect their virtue. When I witnessed such things first hand I started realizing Bali was not the paradise for all I had once thought it was. When Suci and I travelled together once in Bali, Indonesian men would come up to her behind my back and ask her "How much?". As is normal with the Balinese and other Indonesians, my wife did not reveal much of the problems of life in Bali for many years. It was only after she had become a little bit more worldly, confident and secure that she told me what goes on in Balinese villages. Believe me, decent everyday Balinese have little to smile about.

Business wise I saw that the small truly Balinese hotels offered not just a better, more genuine taste of Bali to guests, but that they paid my company the money they owed it; many large hotels cheated us. In Thailand we started going to an Indonesian expatriate group thing and I actually met the former general manager of one of the island's most prestigious hotels, the Bali Padma. I told him they were not paying my company the money they owed us and he asked who I was dealing with there. When I told him he advised me that person had left long ago but they kept his name and email address going to avoid giving out genuine names to suppliers, and that they cheated many people. During my travels around Bali, I tried out many hotels to experience them for myself. I was amazed that hotels like the Nusa Dua Beach Hotel had such a large following; I was actually looking forward to staying there but can say hand-on-heart it was by far the worst so called luxury 5 star hotel I have ever stayed at. It was not just the hotel (rooms, service, food, etc.) quality, it was the fact I was lied to and cheated over my hotel room (I had paid for a sea view but got dumped into a garden room which the hotel insisted was a suite when it was not) and they lost my laptop and luggage; my laptop having been deposited with reception to keep in a safe area. Compared with places like Thailand, I found so many of Bali's so called luxury hotels really terrible value for money, and said so of course. I was also amazed that people posted travel forum messages such as "The Nusa Dua Beach Hotel is the best hotel in Bali if not the world. I have been going back for the last 14 years"; who were these people, travel agents? I slowly began to realize many western tourists were not interested in the real Bali so much but safety in fellow tour group numbers, familiarity and self-vindication of their location choice. That is fine, people are entitled to no brainer package holidays; they deserve their breaks along with the next guy. I am just an avid independent traveller and want to experience the local culture, not an entertainment program for tourists and can honestly say that guests of these concrete blocks get mostly that, concrete.

I believe these self interested self-perpetuating myths illustrate how Bali can be somehow presented as an island paradise when it is not. For me Nusa Dua is easily proven factually to be devoid of Balinese authenticity and being the opposite of a paradise for the people of Bali. After all, the Balinese's legal right to access to all beaches, which are all public, clearly is being abused by token of the fact there are not many "hawkers" on Nusa Dua's beaches and those that are have license ID's! Where some tourists may exclaim "Good, I hate hawkers", that does nothing for Balinese legal rights or for reality, after all the reason there are so many hawkers in Bali is because the islanders are so impoverished. It is relevant to look at the history of Nusa Dua in that the land was compulsory purchased at below market rates from the Balinese owners in order to build expensive hotels almost all part-owned by members of the Suharto family; the Nusa Dua Beach Hotel for example is owned by the Sultan of Brunei and "Tutut" Suharto, through front companies of course. Also unlike many other hotels in Bali you will see more Javanese names on Nusa Dua hotel staff name badges then you do Balinese. Finally, when I stayed at each of the main hotels in Nusa Dua their weekly "cultural performance" almost to a hotel was the Kecak Dance; the Kecak Dance being a German resident's invention in the 1930's, not a cultural Balinese dance at all. Please tell me how Nusa Dua is either Balinese or somehow helps Bali.

Of course my saying these things does not just upset the large hotel owners but the loyal band of no brainer holiday makers that show allegiance to one hotel or another. I did not criticize for the sake of it, I told it as it was. An example of what many tourists hold important and caused a few on another travel forum to "hate" me came from what I said about the beer in Bali; I said "Bintang", the favorite beer of tourists by far and regarded to the point of extremism, sucked. But I am entitled to say and can even prove Bintang sucks, so why did so many western tourists to Bali "hate" me for saying such things? Like all beer in Indonesia, they rely on imported hops and I do not suppose they get the best by token of commercial necessity. Secondly, take a look at how the Balinese / Indonesian shop and restaurant owners store their beer, in sheds which get very hot inside. Then look at the "sell by" date on a bottle of beer and wonder what magical ingredient they put in it that it can last so long in hot sheds? Just get a glass of water and turn a bottle of Bali's "best" beer upside down so it is just beneath the water surface and wait; What you will see is an oil slick! So how is the beer in Bali so great and why does it invoke such an aggressive response when you demean it. By understanding that I believe you begin to understand the false myths about other aspects of Bali.

Do not get me wrong, I think that Bali can be a wonderful holiday destination. I believe however it only becomes wonderful when you take the time to get past the suffocating weight of mass institutional tourism and find what is truly Balinese and Bali friendly. I actually sadly believe there is very little that is so great and so ethical, but it is there if you make the effort (please see my page on Bali's ethical tourism). Being in the business I got to see much more of the ugly truth of Bali than regular tourists. I started to find out about how hotels en mass cheat their staff and Bali generally by unlawfully retaining tax and service charges as profit. I started to find out how travel related businesses cut corners which impacted the health, safety, physical and financial security of their customers. I saw how too many uninsured Indonesian travel agents and tour operators committed credit card fraud, plus used "bait and switch" by advertising a low rate at a popular hotel they could not honour only to report to potential guests that hotel was fully booked, when it was not / they did not even ask, but they had something "better". I got tired of the crime and fraud on the island, all due to the fact the police are out to make extortion money, not uphold the law. I got tired of being offered drugs on the street by pushers working with the police. I got tired of being offered young women and men for rent. I got tired of hearing western tourists swear at the Balinese. I got tired of food from large packets with copious amounts of MSG added in large tourist area hotels and reheated leftovers from last year with copious amounts of MSG added in small tourist area hotels. But I also knew and loved certain areas of Bali, outside the zoo zone, and I had every admiration for many traditional Balinese.

After the October 2002 Bali terrorist bombings I went to Bali as a sign of support and after receiving assurances from many business contacts on Bali that the authorities had now made Bali one of the most secure places in the world. When I arrived at and looked around however I was shocked, became very nervous and then very worried at what I saw. Far from tight security, I saw nothing had changed; laziness and inability prevailed. For me I could not accept this situation for the sake of the safety of future potential visitors to Bali and for the sake of the Balinese themselves. I was sure the recipe was there for another bombing which would take yet more lives and money from the Balinese. So I sent a well intentioned, 100% honest and accurate email to many of the people I did business with in Bali warning them of what I had seen and my fears; you can read that email here. The email was exceptionally well received with many people asking if they could bring it to local security meetings in Bali, etc. to which I said “Yes” as my wish was to protect Bali and its visitors. Unfortunately this act of sharing my email meant a copy of it fell into the hands of a business competitor I had two months earlier caught and stopped offering false hotel rates on the Internet.

You can read about the man that works unlawfully with corrupt police here" Jack Daniels Bali Mice.

You can read about his nasty Indonesian travel agency here: PT Bali Discovery Tours of Sanur.

You can read specific details with evidence of how senior Balinese police officers acted unlawfully against my civil and human rights here: Corrupt murderous Balinese police.

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© Copyright 2006. Mark Austin / Nasty Bali Org. All Rights Reserved.