I was still in Japan when a good friend told me about his upcoming trip to Bali and the seductive villa they had rented, so I decided to make this my next stop. As I was departing from Japan I met a Japanese man conducting a survey, he was surprised by the list of places I’d managed to see during my time in the country, saying that he’d never heard of half of them. It made me think about all those dedicated Japanese, suit-wearing, salarymen and their short holiday allowance that remains untouched at the end of year. I felt grateful for knowing more places in Japan than that Japanese man and even for the fact that I’d visited more places in Japan than in my home country.

Before I got to Bali, the fact that all the people I know who've been are crazily obsessed with it made me sceptical about the place.

I am not a fan of touristic destinations, especially those which inspire people to spend lots of money to get shit-faced and ignore life around them. My scepticism made me question the reputation of the island. My friend met me at the airport and took me to his place. At night the main streets of the city are dimly lit, making it was impossible to walk through them. Some streets had no light at all, with only the sound of croaking frogs to help you avoid the ditches and stay on the road.

Swimming pool at the villa.

The next day we rented bikes and went around the city. I had already seen films like “Legong, Dance of the Virgins”, “Baraka” and of course the annoying love story “Eat, Pray and Love” and these films’ depictions had formed my vision of Bali up to that point. Everything from locations to the culture were stamped in my mind and I was eager to see it in action. However, in Denpasar the reality was brutally opposite.

Pollution and intense traffic congestion made Denpasar look like a big developing Chinese metropolis, such as Huaihua or Anshun, but without the skyscrapers. Denpasar is Bali’s only real city, but the word Denpasar actually means ‘by the market’. It’s home to Balinese people from all over the island who come here, and to Kuta, to work, so in the late afternoon the roads leading to Denpasar are choked with traffic. One of the most difficult things to come to terms with is the Balinese driving style, which is fluid, instinctual and initially quite alarming. The roads in Bali are generally far too narrow to fit everyone in and so sometimes drivers will drive against the flow of traffic, meaning that you’re expected to move over when something comes towards you, regardless of whose lane and right of way it is. Evasive action is an everyday aspect of driving here.

First impressions of Bali were similar to this woman's appearance. She wears a traditional batik sarong over jeans and a top with an American flag inside a Mickey Mouse head, while carrying a tray on her head.

Stone tools and human artefacts discovered on the island indicate that Bali has been inhabited since early prehistoric times. Written records show agriculture with complex irrigation systems dated to 9th Century and these can be traced to the present day. In 11th Century Javanese Hinduism spread to Bali and remained until the present day. Today 90% of Balinese are Hindu and around 5% Muslim. The remaining 5% shared between Buddhism and Christianity.

Orange tiled roofs of Denpasar's outskirts.

The influence of Christianity on Bali may have been small but since the Balinese had no religion and traditionally practiced shamanism, they were always influenced by outsiders. Actually the whole of Balinese history has seen them influenced by outsiders. One group of outsiders who had a history of violence and destruction wherever they went were the Europeans, and it was the Dutch who brought Christianity to Bali.

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They first set foot on the island in 16th Century, and colonised Bali followed by the rest of Indonesia in 18th Century. This led to great outside influence on the local culture and significantly changed the island’s art and architecture. The Dutch’s main interest in the island was in trade rather than the spread of their religion, so Christianity developed slowly here. Today Hinduism stands strong and is the lead religion in Bali. It came to Indonesia from India in the fifth century (common era), it was gradually replaced by Buddhism, the main religion of Sumatra and Java at the time, before being displaced by the arrival of Islam in the 14th century. But not in Bali, the Balinese culture of isolationism and the island’s commitment to Hinduism has seen the religion remain on the island up to this day.

Statue with food and flower offerings to appease demons and please the gods of Balinese Hinduism.

Despite the islanders’ belief in dharma, it couldn’t protect them from the Dutch. One of the bloodiest events in Balinese history occurred in Denpasar in 1906, when three rajas of Badung (the southern regency in Bali), came to the conclusion, that their court could no longer suffer under Dutch rule and ordered a mass suicide — the ritual puputan — a fight to the death. The Dutch pleaded with the Balinese to surrender rather than make this hopeless stand, but their pleas went unheard and nearly 400 Balinese walked towards death.

Today Bali has evolved and accepted the tourism industry in order to survive, bringing with it many changes, from roads to education and health. Tourists here are the “first citizens”, you can feel it once you land on the island — the always smiling Balinese faces make you feel special. They cherish and adore you, they help you to discover their island. When in Bali you don’t need to worry about crossing a traffic-filled road, because all the traffic will stop for you to cross the road, and the waiting car drivers will smile widely. The idea of “first citizens” has made young people, Aussies in particular, come here to sample a taste of local culture, good beaches and booze, just what Denpasar provides.

Entertainment in bar filled with tourists.
Local diner.

On the other hand, as a “first citizen”, every cab will overcharge you. Local eateries and fruit stalls, without prices displayed, will overcharge you. Every police officer will try to fine white faces, with or without a reason.

Over time tourism has influenced local culture and become responsible for certain environmental and social changes. Tourism has pulled people from across Bali to work in Denpasar and Kuta, which has raised concerns over pollution, trash and congestion and has created the current conditions of life for the working proletariat here.

Bridge opposite the Dam Tukad Unda in Klungkung.
Girls with biscuits.

The outskirts of Denpasar are far from a tropical paradise, but together with temples and rice paddies they represent the true side of Bali. Among the worn tiled roofs and penjor poles, life goes on around the river where the locals swim, bathe and wash their clothes.

More Denpasar photography