(Almost) The Only Tourists In Bali

We honeymooned in Bali ten years ago. It was a couple of years after Eat, Pray, Love had hit the bestseller lists, and the island was exploding with activity. Ubud in particular – a village mentioned in the book about an hour from the coast – was such a zoo that we bailed out after a few days and went up to the mountains to the village of Munduk, where we stayed at the Puri Lumbung Cottages and spent every day hiking and every night goggling at the evening light show from their aptly named Sunset Bar.

But that was ten years ago, pre-pandemic. In 2021, Bali saw a total of 45 international visitors. The first international flight in nearly two years arrived in February. We arrived on April 15, just over a month after tough quarantine requirements were relaxed. You still needed a negative PCR test (not a rapid test) to get in, so they were slow-walking it. Our flight from Sydney was almost full, but it was the only flight that day; in high times there would be several dailies from every Aussie airport.

But any which way, we were so excited to be back. When we got to Puri Lumbung this time around, I asked the owner if the Sunset Bar was open.

“Oh, no,” he said, a little sadly. “Not yet.”

And, honestly, I was a little put off by that. I mean, the Sunset Bar was the most wonderful thing… why wouldn’t they prioritize opening it?

We went up there and saw why. The grass was growing wild, the chairs were all stacked, and random creepers were growing everywhere. I took a longer walk around the hotel, where some of the rooms were in the middle of being taken back by the jungle, and that’s when it really hit me. There hadn’t been any tourists in Bali for two full years. Which meant that there hadn’t been any money. Which meant that there was no way to maintain a hotel with sixty-odd bungalows in the middle of a cloud forest. 

Sunset bar, in mothballs.

Nature wins, folks.

We felt terrible and sad, and even worse after we learned two things:

  1. Puri Lumbung wasn’t even technically open – they’d brought on staff for the few days we were there after we’d emailed asking for a reservation. After we and the two Danish women who were also there left, they would close again until someone else asked.
  2. The owner had died late last year, and he had not only built the place but basically started the tourist industry in Munduk.

Yeah… not opening the Sunset Bar? I felt like a heel for even asking about it.

Still, that sunset. Ten years ago this photo would have been full of people.

On our hiking day in Munduk we saw the same waterfalls as before, but two of the three ticket booths where you pay a few dollars park fee were deserted. The stairway to the falls was mostly overgrown, and the bridge across the river below the falls was gone, taking away the easy way back to town. We had to walk back up 350 stairs to get back. Fiona was a champ, but it was eerie. If nobody’s hiking, nobody’s maintaining.

The strangeness continued in West Bali – our first time to that area. It’s more Muslim than the rest of the island, and less touristy. For our three days at Kelapa Retreat, we were the only guests. As such, we felt like billionaires. Upgrade to a room with our own little plunge pool! A huge infinity pool all to ourselves! Two special dinners, set up on a beach table, just for us (seriously, the fish was incredible). There were perhaps fifteen staff, all for the three of us.

But, we’re just us. I’m not used to being fawned over, or even being taken particularly seriously. It’s just weird to have people paying attention to your every move, reacting even if you don’t need anything. Fiona made friends with Clive, the son of the owners, who was both shy and aching for someone to play with; home school for two years and no families visiting had made for a tough combination.

Fiona and Clive exploring a temple

Bali is wondrous. Big temples, little shrines – the gods are everywhere you look. Folks make offerings of incense and wound bark each morning, and every shrine in every building gets a fresh offering, every day. The offerings burn down and blow away, and new ones come in again tomorrow. The water is warm, the beaches wide, the mountains huge and steamy, the food spicy and fresh… being there gives me a feeling of awe. I’m not the only one; people come here in droves because it’s such a gorgeous place. 

But this time, all of the wonder was tinged with sadness – and just a little bit of hope. 

“Americans?” One local restauranteur asked us – we were the only lunch guests he’d had all day in a pizza place in Sanur.  “Are the Americans coming back?” He hoped so. We were greeted this way by pretty much everyone we met – people whose jobs had disappeared, whose restaurants were mothballed, who had gone back to work in the fields or just stayed home for two years. 

Tourism gets a sometimes-deserved bad rap, but… when people depend on something and it goes away, it’s devastating. Seeing and hearing the hope people had that tourists would come back to Bali and the way they had kept themselves going was heartbreaking.

And inspiring.

Our first and last stay was at Tandjung Sari, which was the first boutique hotel on Sanur beach, and perhaps the first on the island. The place is more than a hotel – it’s a community hub. While we were there, only a few other overnight guests trickled through, but the restaurant was always full of locals having birthdays, special occasion meals, or just a bite.

Dinner at Tandjung Sari. It’s impossibly romantic.

Kelapa Retreat found a way to host off-site government meetings after the full lockdowns eased up – that kept them just enough above water to get through two years. Little Clive gave us a tour of the place, and much of it was of things that were works-in-progress – the second restaurant they were going to open on site, the suites they were going to renovate. Even way out in less-traveled West Bali, there were these nuggets of optimism.

This beach, this swing. You can’t find this anywhere else.

People were firmly focused on the road back. Everyone, everywhere, had different estimates as to when Bali would see a real tourist bump – we heard everything from June of this year to 2024 – but everyone was looking forward, not dwelling on the past.

We love Bali. We hope to come back again, in less than ten years. It’s a wonderful, special place – reverent, beautiful, without taking itself too seriously. Thanks for having us.

Sign in the departures area of the airport in Denpasar. Kinda captures it all, I think.

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