by Diana Darling
By the latest count, there are now 17.5 gazillion villas in Greater Ubud, meaning that part of Bali with no beach. The villa is the new homestay.
Homestays were the response of local people to the demand for cheap accommodation in the olden days, before 1989 when the Amandari introduced the idea of luxury under a grass roof. People would build a little bungalow on some spare land behind their house and rent it out without bothering to even mention the word ‘authentic’. At best, they’d mention ‘hot AND cold water’. Tourists who stayed there felt like they were part of the family and experiencing the real Bali.
Homestays still exist in Ubud, and these days they are likely to offer air-conditioning and Balinese cooking classes. But the trend now is for local people to build villas, usually with capital from foreigners wanting to build a dream home that they can rent out when they’re not staying there and working on their yoga.
Most villas are nicer than most homestays. Many of them have swimming pools, big flat-screen TVs, numerous bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms, Wi-Fi internet, smart modern kitchens, and baronial dining spaces. Without exception, they have ‘lush tropical gardens’ and are furnished with ‘carefully selected Indonesian art and textiles’. Without exception, the blurbs assure you that ‘our gracious staff will look after your every need’.
Almost without exception, villas have views of rice fields. If a villa is actually in the midst of rice fields, it should not be there. Balinese custom has strong restrictions against building in rice fields, which are supposed to be sacred. That a Balinese farmer, or more likely his children, have overcome this little obstacle is probably because they couldn’t afford not to, or couldn’t resist the avalanche of cash for the lease of their land. Permits aren’t a problem in Bali’s flexible bureaucracy, apparently.
The jury is still out on whether villas are a great idea or a plague. For a family or group of friends, staying in a villa offers a way to economize and still have the experience of living like lords. For Balinese young people, employment in a villa is an alternative if you can’t get a job in a hotel. For wannabe architects, villas are a chance to flaunt your imagination without the hindrance of building codes. For thieves who aren’t afraid of snakes, villas are a plentiful and convenient terrain. The only one not doing well out of villas, it seems, is the rice goddess.