by Graeme MacRae

When I arrived in Ubud a few weeks ago, after a gap of three years, I thought I was prepared for the changes but I was taken by surprise.

The first thing I was told was that all the new shops and restaurants were owned by foreigners, and nobody was very impressed except the people who were leasing them the street-front space (instead of using it for off-street parking).

Then I noticed all the young foreigners riding around town on motorbikes, either in flowing robes or in not much at all, least of all helmet or shoes, with yoga mats or didgeridoos over their shoulders. My wife saw them coming a few years earlier, but I told her not to worry, it must be a passing fad (is that really what we used to look like?) But now thousands of them come every year to the Bali Spirit Festival and hundreds stay on, for weeks, months or years. A similar process, but with a rather different style, happens at the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival.

But there are other less visible people too – digital nomads and cyber-entrepreneurs sitting in an unassuming but hi-tech bamboo building at the bottom of town, designing, programming, writing or running businesses all over the world via their laptops. Their “co-working space” (Hubud) has some 250 active members, but there are hundreds more working at home or in other offices. They run a series of interesting talks, films and other activities, and between them and other venues there is something on (in English only) nearly every night of the week.

And tucked away in villas outside of town are the retirement people. There are supposedly 10,000 Australian retirees in Bali, of whom at least 10% must be in Ubud, together with at least a similar number from other countries.

So the change is firstly one of sheer numbers. Over the past three years, the number of foreign tourists staying in Ubud has risen from less than 70,000 to nearly 240,000. If they all stayed for the average of 3 nights, this equates to some 2000 foreign visitors at any one time in a town of some 11,000 residents. Total expat numbers are not easily extracted from official statistics, but they must be also in the thousands. This is a lot of people for a fairly small community to absorb and large parts of the town have become total restaurant/retail zones in a way they never were before.

The second change is in the relationship between this new tourism/expat system and the local community. People of various persuasions come to Ubud for various reasons, but the reasons they say they come are mostly to do with it being a nice place to live: a benign climate, (slightly) less traffic and better environment than Jakarta or New York, shops and restaurants where you can get anything from anywhere, cheap reliable servants, a generally affordable cost of living, the Green School for their kids, yoga and music if you want them, fast reliable internet (the bottom line) and most of all “community”, by which they mean plenty of people not unlike themselves. The things which attracted earlier tourist and expat communities, local culture and community, do not seem to rate highly in the Ubud of the new expat imagination.

But what do the locals think about all this? Most that I speak to have no complaints – as long as it is good for business and as long as “they don’t interfere with us”.  A minority of older, more reflective people who have seen the changes over time are more skeptical.

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One of them, who has been closely involved with both expat and tourist communities for decades, explained how the new expats differ from those of earlier decades: first they come because they like Bali, then they buy a ricefield and build a villa on it, then they need a swimming pool, so they buy another ricefield for that, then they are worried because people can see them swimming, so they build a tembok (wall), then another even higher one, because now there is another villa on the other side, then they complain because there is not enough water and all the ricefields are gone and there is nothing but tembok everywhere.

I’m not sure how fairly this represents the wide variety of expat lifestyles, but what it does reflect is the way it looks to (at least some) locals. I asked her if this budaya tembok (tembok culture) was a kind of metaphor for relationships between people and communities and she said it was: Balinese have always had walls around their compounds, but everyone helped build them and they were low enough to see and talk over, so people were not cut off from each other.

Long-term expats likewise link the uncoupling of the expat and local communities to the spread of the freestanding villa, prior to which foreigners had few options but to live with local families and few options for communication other than learning local language(s).

Some leaders (or at least spokespeople) for the new expat community are aware of their separation from the local community, and are not sure whether it is a good thing. At recent meetings of expats in response to a growing spate of violent crime against foreigners, some wondered whether maybe they need to understand a bit more about how the local community works.

Here we are, among one of the most beautiful, resilient and hospitable traditional cultures in the world. If we really need tembok, should we perhaps build them together, low enough to see and talk over or even better, should we ask the locals what sort of tembok they would like.

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Graeme MacRae is an anthropologist from Massey University, New Zealand, who first visited in Ubud in 1977. He lived here with his family for 18 months in 1993-6.  Since then he has been back most years for 6-8 weeks. Graeme did his PhD thesis based on Ubud research: “Economy, Ritual and History in a Balinese Tourism Town” at the University of Auckland, 1997. 

All photos ©Rio Helmi