by Cat Wheeler

It’s a radiant morning after a night of rain as I stroll through the grounds of my banjar’s Pura Dalem Puri.  Beside the temple is a large paved area where the cremation ceremonies take place, and in the middle of this is a raised platform about two metres high.

I perch on a step nearby and watch Pak Mangku sitting on the grass high above a praying family, immaculate in his white priest’s garb.  He is deep in his devotions.  The rhythmic peal of his bell sheds shards of sound, the brilliant hues of the offering flowers punctuate the grass.  Incense smoke coils up to shimmer away in the clear morning air.  For me, this is the essence of Bali.

The bell stops.  The prayer ends, the family stretches, gathers its children and rises.  Just as the priest is packing up, the first tour bus of the day rolls in to park beside the platform.   By noon the area will be solidly packed with buses.  They leave their engines running to maintain the air conditioned comfort of the interiors; the drivers gather to smoke or they doze in the luggage compartments under their vehicles.  On weekends and holidays the temple yards on both sides of the street are full of buses, disgorging hundreds of North Asian tourists who trail into town behind their guides.

A few hours later they return.  I often watch them climb back into their buses; clearly they are not shoppers.  Very few have bought anything at all, perhaps a cheap sarong or some fruit.  Meanwhile the smoke of dozens of buses coils up to shimmer away in air that is no longer so clear.  For the use of the parking area, the wear and tear on the road and paving stones, clearing the rubbish tossed by drivers and tourists, the cumulative effect of air pollution on the temple and the perpetual traffic jams at the corner, the banjar receives Rp 5,000 per vehicle. And the town of Ubud has profited by the sale of a few rambutans.

Across the street from the parking lot, a desperately needed hotel and convention centre is under construction. Relays of dump trucks alternate with the buses on Jalan Sukma to haul away the dirt extracted for the underground parking.  They are digging pretty deep, and there’s a pile driver.

I try to remember the location of the subterranean irrigation channels that run under Jalan Raya Ubud at intervals.  One was a tributary of the river that runs north of the town and what is now the main road in front of the market.  Diana Darling opined that the Dutch constructed a bridge over it in order to build and pave the main street.  Kadek Gunarta claims that it was a subak irrigation tunnel carved out many years ago by Balinese farmers to emerge south of the market and run past what is now the Batan Waru restaurant.  In 2009, the vibrations of heavy traffic created sufficient stress to collapse the roof of the waterway and the whole thing fell in, leaving an absolutely enormous hole that closed the main road to all traffic for months.

When researching that story, I learned from Dek that there are at least six old irrigation tunnels running north to south under what is now the main road between Campuhan and the Arjuna statue at the eastern end of Jalan Raya Ubud.  Long forgotten, none of these have been reinforced to bear heavy weights.   He thinks that two or three of the larger ones are in similar condition to the tunnel that collapsed in front of the market.  The run-off from heavy rains continues to widen the channels between ancient earthen walls. Heavy traffic continues to weaken the roofs.

“The collapse of the tunnel in front of the market was a wake-up call for Ubud; it’s a symptom of too much traffic,” Dek said then. “Now we have a reality check. We need to limit large vehicles in Ubud, not just because the infrastructure can’t cope, but to maintain the integrity of Ubud as a village.”

Far from being limited, five years later traffic has increased dramatically, especially at the east end of town.  As I watch the bulldozers pile tons of rich clay soil into the dump trucks I try to remember the location of those old tunnels.  It seems to me there is one close by.  All of this traffic and digging and pile driving might be compromising its ancient walls even as I write.  It’s quite possible that a giant hole could devour a chunk of Jalan Ubud Raya and close down the east end of Ubud indefinitely.  That would be interesting.

Changing times.

On my first visit to Ubud in 1969 the town was a dusty little street or two amid the rice fields, without electricity or telephones and very few cars to disturb its rustic peace.  We arrived at dusk just as a procession was making its way down Campuhan hill and into the temple by the river. We crouched in the shadows by the road, delighted by the gamelan and the parade of women bearing tall offerings in the flickering light of what must have been kerosene lamps. We slept at a place near Campuhan Bridge that was so new the little room still reeked of wet cement.  The next morning we breakfasted on kopi susu and duck eggs beside an open fire with puppies and tiny swayback pigs underfoot.

My next visit to Ubud was in 1992. There were several restaurants by then but life was still very quiet.   In those days the few phones rarely worked, which made it almost impossible to confirm return flights and necessitated noisy arguments at the (computerless) airport check-in counter in Denpasar.    Fast forward to 2000 when I moved to Ubud from Singapore.  Delta supermarket had just opened.  Ubud was far from stylish or trendy; it was just soporiphically laid back. This was long before cappuccino, air conditioning, swimming pools and wifi.   Most of us — expat and Balinese alike — didn’t have much money and life was slow, sweet and sleepy. Then the terrorist bombing in 2002 shook our little world to pieces.  It was a defining event for both the Balinese and the foreigners living here, a loss of innocence on many dimensions.

Things went very quiet indeed after that.  For several years visitors were few.  A handful of tourists and Ubud’s then-small expat population kept a few shops and restaurants ticking over, but many locals muttered, “Bankrupt…” as they gloomily dusted their sun-bleached wares on the sidewalk.   Buses were banned from Ubud’s narrow streets in those days, but it didn’t really matter as there were so few tourists coming to the island anyway.

It’s really been in the past five years that the world has discovered Ubud.  The sidewalks heave with tourists as never before.  Along with prosperity come shops with plate glass windows, a lot more vehicles and cement.   The trucks and buses are a daily event at my corner, and my neighbours now sport bright green vests as they direct them.   Between traffic jams they discuss the price of real estate.  Their children play with iPads and work in spas or restaurants.  The family rice fields are covered with villas and hotels.

I believe we’ve reached the tipping point.  One more truck, one more hotel will tip us right over into another reality, a new identity that is neither slow nor sweet.  And through the roar of dump trucks I’ll strain to hear the clear peal of Pak Mangku’s bell, a timeless beacon in a changing world.

Our thanks go to Cat Wheeler, author of the popular ‘Greenspeak’ column in the Bali Advertiser as well as a charming collection of stories and personal anecdotes called ‘Bali Daze’, for penning this piece for Ubud Now & Then.