Transcending the Bank Note: Striving to Be a Good Tourist in Bali

Art by Sanle Yan

On my recent trip to Bali, I heard Balinese Poet Pak Putu Oka Sukanta’s voice echo in my ears.

In his poem bali dalam puisi, Pak Putu longs for his home, “the island of bali”. Yet, after his decade-long imprisonment on the island of Java, he confesses that Pulau (‘Island’) Bali is a fairy tale that he “doesn’t really believe in”. Pak Putu laments upon his return, for he observes “a bank note / flying right across your sky / and the arms of the kecak dancers / as their arms reach out and sway / never quite get hold of it”.

As I explored and tried to connect deeply with Bali, as Australians are prone to do, I was often reminded of Pak Putu’s resonant yet transient image of bank notes flying across the Balinese sky. I also found resonance in the latter part of Pak Putu’s observation: those kecak dancers whose arms were outreached, whose bodies swayed, but could never quite grasp hold of the bank notes.

Was I a walking bank note when I became one of the millions of visitors who flew into Ngurah Rai airport in January? Was I a walking bank note when I explored the streets of Singaraja? Indeed, was I still a walking bank note when I ordered tahu tempe goreng at a small warung using Bahasa Indonesia (‘Bahasa’)? And if I was a walking bank note, how could I opt out of this? How could I instead make meaningful connections? Is it possible, as someone who is inescapably an outsider?

As a Bahasa Indonesia student, I tried to use Bahasa (and a few words of Basa Bali) in every taxi, with every shop assistant, at every warung and restaurant. I caught local buses, texted my Gojek drivers exclusively in Bahasa, and covered up as much of my body as I could. Despite my best efforts to repudiate from tourist stereotypes, I was still a bule (pale-skinned foreigner). A label which didn’t feel nearly as loaded when I was in Java just before going to Bali. In taxis, drivers would talk to me about Bule Gila (literally crazy foreigner), which is sadly a common sight in Bali. The kind of bule that perpetuates the Bule Gila image is a reckless and obnoxious motorcycle driver, a bintang-and-babe-loving beach club goer. Behind this stereotype is the unspoken reality that they lack respect for traditional practices, often fail to engage meaningfully with local people and sometimes don’t even acknowledge locals at all.

The existence — and pervasiveness — of Bule Gila in Bali is a deeply saddening sight. Set against a backdrop of unbelievable natural beauty and thousands of sites of historical, cultural, religious and political significance, I was struck by the transactional and superficial nature of tourism in Bali. Once again Pak Putu’s voice echoed in my ears. We can see from his poem that culture has become a spectacle for tourists. He asks his fellow Balinese artists, when he visits their shops: “What do you have left for yourselves?” He “gapes” when he realises that everything has been put out for the visitors.

What Pak Putu is able to verbalise in his poem is an undeniably striking image. It reminds me of a beautiful house, each room delicately curated and tended to. And as tourists in Bali, we often walk through these houses, with a lack of courtesy and respect for those who live in these spaces and who maintain them for us to see. I hope that in sharing this piece, we as bules in Bali will better enrich ourselves and our own cultural knowledge, and that together, we can improve the culture of respect when we are in Bali.

Balinese history and especially Balinese tourism history has existed since before Indonesia even existed (when Indonesia was still the East Indies) and is thus implicated by a series of cultural trends and moments. I must concede that I am certainly no expert on Indonesia, and especially not an expert on Bali. I also wish to note that in writing this article for Woroni, I feel a great sense of responsibility in how I represent the archipelago of Indonesia in this piece and do not intend to consider Bali as a mere place for study, for it is the home of my friends, and a place rich with beauty and human life. To suggest otherwise would be to deprive millions of their world.

In the summer of 2023, I went to Indonesia for an almost two-month exchange program which contained study at a University in Jakarta as well as an internship at an NGO. At this time, I first read the work of Clifford Geertz, who presents a “to-know-a-city-is-to-know-its-streets approach to things”. I felt that when I was in Jakarta for those two months, that I got to know the streets of Jakarta and in doing so, at least in my own heart, I felt that I had truly transcended the tourist label. Yes, I was still a bule, but I had a strong awareness of my place within Jakarta. Comparing my experiences as a student and worker in Jakarta with my experiences as a tourist in both Java and Bali has led me to feel that tourism in its current form is not the best way to engage with Indonesia, especially Bali.

How should we transcend the bank note and strive to be better bules in Bali? This is something I am still grappling with, but I am certain that these three strategies will maximise your experience and what you learn:

  1.     Use local language wherever possible. This is not to say that you need to study courses on Indonesian Language, but rather research greetings, like selamat pagi (good morning), selamat siang (good day from approximately 11-2pm), selamat sore (good day after 2pm) and selamat malam (good evening). Especially in Bali, it is important to try and implement Basa Bali into your speech — even using “suksma” for thank you, in the place of “terima kasih”.
  2.     Learn about terms of respect; the use of Pak, Ibu, Mas, Mbak (father, mother, brother, sister in place of Mr and Mrs) in Bali it is Bli, Mbok and addressing people correctly is an important sign of respect in Indonesia. Doing this is a great way to set you apart from other tourists.
  3.     Politely look people in the eye and acknowledge them when you walk past (using Bahasa and correct terms). Finding ways to engage with locals will maximise what you can learn about Bali, as well as help challenge stereotypes that exist about Balinese people.

In my experience, these are all things we can do to get to know a place and become familiar with its streets. Using these tips, I hope that you’ll be able to move beyond the tourist stereotypes and become more familiar with what Bali actually looks like. I hope that one day, Pak Putu can visit Bali again, and he will return to a place of spirituality, art and natural beauty, which in no way resembles a fairy tale, but is real and authentic and true to itself.

We acknowledge the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which Woroni, Woroni Radio and Woroni TV are created, edited, published, printed and distributed. We pay our respects to Elders past and present. We acknowledge that the name Woroni was taken from the Wadi Wadi Nation without permission, and we are striving to do better for future reconciliation.