By Alex H. Pflaum

The 8th Gunung Lebah Temple in Bali

The 8th century Gunung Lebah temple is believed to have been built by the figure who introduced Hinduism to Bali.

More than ever, digital nomads are flocking to Bali on the promise of modern comforts and affordable luxury. Unfortunately, what’s left behind in this frenzy of familiarity is the experience of what made this island extraordinary to begin with, its culture.

Shifting Interests

Crafted by centuries of isolation, Balinese Hinduism is an outwardly stunning show of faith that doesn’t quite resemble anything else in this world. A melting pot of artistry, ritual, and community that set Bali apart from the 17,000 other islands of Indonesia. The religion is not only beautiful but also fosters a culture of genuine hospitality that has seen Bali grow into worldwide fame. Today, lush villas, fine dining restaurants, and co-working spaces have been established around every tourist riddled corner of the island.

Naturally, this advertised life of luxury was never a part of the original Balinese culture. Yet, more and more, it is the reason that foreigners find themselves rushing to this island. Many of them doing so without ever stepping foot in a temple, eating at a local warung, or putting on a sarong. This in itself is not necessarily an issue, but the ever increasing demand for this lifestyle means that more Balinese people are having to distance themselves from their own.

For an island with an economy dominated by tourism, could a continued push for western demands lead to a dismantling of traditional Balinese culture?

A philosophy of leniency and trust

In an attempt to better understand this dynamic, I met up with Pedanda Idu Bagus Alit, one of the 400 royal high priests of Bali. Before his rebirth into his current religious role, Idu Bagus Alit spent 30 years working within the tourism industry. Discussing the relationship of his religion with tourism, I asked about his thoughts on whether foreigners, digital nomads or otherwise, immerse themselves in Balinese culture enough.

“There is no ‘enough’ or correct amount. We call it Rua Beneda; The Good and the bad. We cannot force foreigners to come to Bali to enjoy the culture. Because when people come to Bali, they have many different aims and purposes. If you love going to the party, going to the beach, then you go to Kuta. We must respect that.”

The philosophy of Rua Beneda, one that is echoed by a large portion of the local population, shines a light on what makes this place ideal for the digital nomad. Bali offers an ultimate sort of freedom where locals will both cater to your need, and leave you alone as you please. A culture that is overwhelmingly present, yet somehow elusive on command.

High Priest Pedanda Idu Bagus Alit

Pedanda Idu Bagus Alit

Have we reached a tipping point?

On the other hand, this philosophy does not seem to bode well for the preservation of Balinese culture. With a western presence continually growing, should there be a point where the Balinese abandon Rua Beneda to put their own interests first? If so, have we reached that point?

For now, Idu Bagus Alit believes there to be no cause for concern, citing two reasons for his optimism. The first is the strength of the Banjar, the cultural and religious government of village communities. The Banjar is an incredibly rigid governmental system that demands extreme dedication from its constituents. In return for their loyalty, it provides a deep sense of community that leaves many found wanting when away from home.

The comfort of tradition

Kartika Agung, a Balinese social media consultant, considers herself a little more distanced from her culture than most. Yet, even she spoke to the power of the Banjar in regards to her childhood friends. “The funny thing is, with my friends that go abroad or live further from the culture, they become more religious. Often praying more than they ever did before.” The Banjar, even for those who did not grow up so closely tied to one, has an innate ability to draw the people back in.

Idu Bagus’ second reason for optimism is the successful separation of Balinese and Western cultures within the island.“For me, it’s good that Kuta is prepared only for the tourists who love to enjoy those Western things. As long as we can keep the separate areas, then we can maintain the culture.”. So far, Bali certainly has done a great job at keeping areas of varying interests separated.

Fruit offerings at the Samuan Tiga Temple

Fruit basket offerings made for the birthday of Samuan Tiga, a 10th century Hindu Temple near Ubud

A possible case for tourism

Not only that, Idu Bagus seems to go beyond optimism to a blunt awareness of Bali’s current situation. Wholly aware of the economic importance of tourism, Idu Bagus noted that “without tourism, I could not afford to be a Pedanda, I would have to move to Sumba or Java to find another job.” Interestingly, Idu Bagus seems to suggest that the culture remains strong because of tourism, not in spite of it. Perhaps a co-dependency has evolved to the benefit of locals and foreigners alike. Personally, I have my doubts. Yet, if there is one thing that can definitely be said about this island, it is that the culture is here, and the culture is strong.

Enter as you please

So, where does that leave us, the foreigners of this island? Taking a page out of the Balinese book of philosophy, I have to say that I am in no place to dictate. However, for those of you looking to buy a slice of what made this island special, the culture is out most definitely still out there. So, put on your sarong and wander into a few local temples. Enter in as a silent observer or an eager participant, the choice is yours. Either way, you will be made welcome.

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