I first went to Bali in early or mid eighties. Its beaches then were already festive and packed with tourists from every corner of the world, I actually saw a woman in cowboy hat and boots traipsed along sandy Kuta strip under the glaring midday sun.
But Ubud was the true enchantment. A small town tucked in the middle of vast paddy fields, home of farmers and artisans, with the sacred Monkey Forest and museums as main attractions. The tourists were much fewer than the beach flock and, if I may say, showed keener interests in knowing Balinese unique, multi-dimensional culture. Many were honeymooners wanting an intimate vacation. Its expat community seemed intending to blend into local traditions than painting the bar-free town with their colors, as commonly found in expat enclaves worldwide. School-children populated the streets by 7am, while noise and light went out by about 8pm. Soft breeze often billowed around I got a feeling that time was ticking in a different pace—savored, rejoiced, as it went slowly by. I wouldn’t exactly call it Bali’s best kept secret, but certainly Bali’s best kept jewel.
So I kept returning. Stayed in locally-owned inns sans AC or TV, facing paddy field and at times within earshot from a duck farm, to momentarily rest my burdened body, heavy heart, meandering mind, and searching soul. A vortex of energy, as I later learned from yoga.
Like a particularly memorable trip at the end of summer 2000. I’d had endured two semesters in a US-based business school, with a Latin-American winterim program in between, before toiling for a summer internship in Jakarta. Not having been on a break for a year with only a week left before starting another grueling school year, Ubud was the perfect option. I flew with college pal Indy who’d just finished graduate school overseas, and we went swimming, shopping, and strolling around whenever we weren’t sleeping in. The town was still relatively quiet we couldn’t find a full-service spa. After a hearty grilled duck dinner one night, we decided to follow the lovely sound of gamelan music in the banjar (community center) up on Hanoman Road, yet twice almost walked back because the road was getting darker and buildings getting scarcer amid paddy fields.
How different a half decade makes. Regularly returning to Ubud since 2005, the changes I see have taken an accelerated pace. Every single time, I’d spot a paddy field disappearing into a café, or dress shop, and anything in between. Gone were the duck farms, and dirty ducks became an exotic symbol only found near the iconic restaurant that’s rumored to have bought paddy fields AND the ducks around its vicinity to preserve the picturesque view.
Then, Eat Pray Love happened.
First, let’s be clear that I’m no EPL basher. I loved the book and I’m not going to dispute what Elizabeth Glibert lived through, because it was her personal experiences. I’d read it a year even before it was on Oprah. Intrigued by the word ‘Indonesia’ on the hardcover of a book that surprisingly wasn’t saying bad things about the country, I decided to buy one of the two copies found under the self-help section in Kinokuniya Plaza Senayan.
The book reinforced my understanding of Ubud as an energy vortex that draws in individuals, either to channel for brand new energy or replenish their deflated state. It’s no surprise that a healing community rapidly grew. I am, after all, a devotee of the annual Bali Spirit Festival since it started four years ago and have discovered, by way of the Festival, and I don’t mean shaman Ketut Liyer here, healing channels that helped me processing a lot of fogs and rocks cramming inside this little old me. Having said that, I also believe that any spiritual path is highly personal it’s different for each individual, and may not even involve Ubud at all, so one shouldn’t assume that because one has been granted an audience with certain shaman one will run into Javier Bardem at the end of one’s journey.
A similar realistic view is desperately needed among Ubud authorities. It’s no secret that in society tightly bound in traditions like Bali, local aristocrats have as much a say as public officials. Instead of being sucked into the euphoria of Ubud becoming Asia’s top destination, authorities from both sides should seriously sit down to formulate a master city plan to, not only accommodate present and growing situations, but also regulate developments for the next couple of decades.
Let’s start with road facilities, especially around the downtown triangle of Hanoman-Monkey Forest-Ubud Raya, where tourists and locals mostly travel within. The sidewalks aren’t well built, often uneven-sided, and are dotted with street hawkers or a gaping, straight-down-to-sewer hole in every few blocks. More lampposts won’t hurt either. And big buses shouldn’t be allowed onto any road beyond Ubud Raya and Monkey Forest streets because they’re simply not built for those buses.
Next, public facilities. Instead of turning that landmark soccer field on the corner of Dewi Sita and Monkey Forest roads into parking lot for big buses, as has been rumored, why not building the lot outside the downtown triangle and let tourists to walk around in better-facilitated roads? The soccer field not only brings much-needed breeze during hot summer days that many will sit to enjoy lunch in, it serves as after-school playground for local kids. Authority should even re-grow the grass, repaint the goalposts, add some benches, and make that soccer field a town park for all to enjoy.
As much as I’m thrilled for the bustling economy, shouldn’t business permits be controlled? How many bistros, kiosks and private villas Ubud needs? Ubud that normally would retire by 8pm now boasts at least one 24-hour minimarket on each side of the downtown roads. And don’t get me started on how Starbucks, a banal of global mass product, managed to snag a spot in town. Or, how I, a years-long trained brand manager, couldn’t understand, for the life of me, the relevance of a marketing museum there while Jakarta the metropolitan hasn’t even been graced by one. The morning after the Earth Hour evening I woke up to watch a tree cut down since its roots had grown to disrupt, oh, parking space for motorcycles. Should we wait until all the paddy fields, the prime reason tourists trekked to Ubud in the first place, are gone?
Then, trash! I’m thrilled that the small market has grown into a bustling two-story full of locally-owned kiosks, but does that mean the stinking trash that’s piling up everyday should just be shrugged off as a professional hazard? The market is only a stone’s throw from the royal family compound; can’t they see or smell the trashy reality already?
There have been too many examples. Kuta and Sanur have been inundated by trash, of any kinds, that they’ve turned seedy more than sandy in recent years. Jakarta has the once-chic Kemang area that’s now just as messy as Tanah Abang.
We all love Ubud. But it takes more than love, a spot on regional travel magazine, a bestseller book, or a Hollywood movie, to earn Ubud the rights to go global. As of right now, Ubud is not ready, and its shine isn’t glistening anymore. But it’s not too late. I’m calling for Ubud public officials and royal family to please get your act together, before Bali’s best kept jewel are ruined forever beyond repair.