Glitz and squalor in Bali

Property 1194 – Cultural Landscape of Bali Province, Indonesia

Bali is an awful place. Or at least it is if you ask a certain proportion of Australians. For them it represents crowds of football players drinking biblical quantities of Bintang beer and generally behaving like inbred louts. For the same louts, Bali is like some kind of paradise – sunshine, good surfing, cheap beer and good times. That is, if you can look past the shifty Indonesians trying to sell you an overpriced sarong.

Of course, both of them are simultaneously wrong and right. But leaving aside the promise and failure of modern mass tourism, an ancient and highly sophisticated culture lies underneath Bali’s glitz and squalor. I was there for a wedding, but I managed to convince the family to take a day trip with me to visit part of this property.


UNESCO make a big deal about the idea of a cultural landscape, that is to say a part of the world that has been produced by the interaction of human and natural elements. This certainly includes the cultural landscape of Bali province. Settled since ancient times, the island has been deeply modified and managed for human habitation, and particularly for rice production. This is visible everywhere you go in Bali – stunning green terraced rice paddies line the side of hills. There are no shortage of hills either, given that geologically Bali is an accretion of several volcanoes. The key element is water, and it is water management that underlies the World Heritage classification.

Balinese culture is unique –  an island of Hindu practice, surrounded by majority-Muslim territories.  In this, it superficially resembles the Hindu legacy of Angkor Wat. Ancient Hindu beliefs imported from India are reflected in the system of subak, or collaborative management of water for the benefit of all. Subak ties together water catchments, reservoir systems and distribution to agriculture in a complex and egalitarian system which mirrors the Hindu conception of the universe. The beauty of the subak system is that it allows rice cultivation to be co-ordinated across whole watersheds, minimising the risk of pest infestations and allowing for optimisation of nutrient and water supplies for all producers. Interestingly this approach has been formally incorporated into the management of the region – this property is the only UNESCO site in the region which is managed by its traditional owners along traditional lines, rather than by a top-down government. Subak is visible in the system of water temples, in which priests control distribution, and it was two of these that I intended to visit.

DSC_0181I went on a particularly warm and humid day. To be honest, they’re all warm and humid, but my companions Mrs World Heritage and Daughter Number One weren’t coping with it overly well. There were howls of protest each time I opened the doors of our guide’s air conditioned car. I felt they lacked a spirit of adventure, but I kept that to myself.

I was able to visit two main parts of this larger property during my visit. I would have tried for more but I was concerned that my family would mutiny and would leave me broken on the roadside as they went in search of icecream.

The first, and certainly less impressive part was closest to the tourist areas of Bali – Pura Taman Ayun, the Royal Water Temple. This site is involved in the ritual management of water supplies, but to be honest I didn’t understand the finer details of the system. It is a well-maintained, regularly mowed, somewhat worn down Hindu temple. I wandered around for a while and took some photos, but nothing really captured my imagination. This may be my well-attested lack of knowledge of Asian religious architecture, or perhaps it was that this is an element of a working system. You don’t tend to embellish the things you use every day. It’s surprisingly modest for a royal temple, made of simple red brick with some decorative stone work.

More impressive was the site of Pura Ulun Danu Batur (the Supreme Water Temple). This temple has a dramatic setting on the side of a lake which acts as a reservoir for rice agriculture in the lowlands. Along with the glitz of a functional Hindu temple, I couldn’t stop looking at the dramatic backdrop of the nearby volcano. It seems like the kind of thing that appears on tourist brochures. Either that, or the volcano may hide the lair of a Bond villain. The lake is considered to be the origin of all the streams in Bali, and therefore is a critical part of the hydraulic/religious amalgam of subak.

As chance would have it I happened to visit at the time of a religious procession. I’m fond of Hindu religious pomp because of the sheer joyfulness – all that colour and movement.

One day I would love to walk or cycle all the way around Bali. Short time frames are the curse of many modern travellers, myself included, but I wish I could have absorbed a bit more of what this site really means to the locals. The cultural landscape of Bali province is, I think, something to be lived rather than admired.

I didn’t completely miss out on the Australian experience of Bali though. I attended my friend’s buck’s night and drank an astronomical amount of booze, and one of our party vomited in our mini bus. Then on the day of the wedding everyone, including the bride and groom, got a vomiting illness.


* Interestingly under Indonesian law it is only possible to get married in a Hindu or Muslim ceremony. My friends had actually gotten married in Melbourne the week before – the trip to Bali was basically an extended and lavish party. I am not one to complain.

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