Wednesday, May 22, 2013


I spent my last day in Bali chatting with friends and shopping for pirated DVDs in Bali's remarkable pirate DVD supermarkets. Pirate cinema is such an organised industry in Bali that it makes legitimate businesses look shoddy by comparrison. The supermarkets are clean, orderly and airconditioned. The prices are set and there is no haggling. You can get a basket in which to collect your merchanise as you browse, and once you pay you get a receipt. If it weren't for the fact that the DVDs only cost a dollar, and some of the special features don't function properly, you'd think that this was some legitimate form of retail.

I also took one final opportunity to simply walk around and do some exploring. The back streets of Bali follow the same random urban planning principles as the main streets. When I wanted to reach my friend's luxury villa, the instructions were, "walk down this alley, past the garbage dump with feral dogs living on it, next to the open sewer, and then around the corner and over the road from the unlicensed scooter repair place."

But soon enough it was time to leave. One of the things that impressed me about the hotel was the fact that they took care of their guests even after they'd checked out. They had a lounge tucked away at the rear of the site, with couches, a TV, bathrooms, showers, storage areas, and even a minibar and hot snacks, all free for guests waiting for a late flight. Unfortunately while it was empty when I dropped my bags there at midday, by the time I returned from shopping and exploring it had been taken over by a large family of bogans. There was Overweight Dad, Overweight Mum who kept nipping outside for a smoke or eleven, and several Overweight Kids who whined constantly at Overweight Dad about getting Foxtel. They were slumped over every available seat, so I grabbed some spring rolls and a Diet Coke and returned to the pool bar, so that I could spend the last of my rupiahs on a mojito and update my travel journal in relative peace and quiet.

Grumpy Sumo was sad to leave cheap booze, and so was I. But we had to get to the airport for our evening flight.

The new Denpassar Airport is a vast, brilliant, billowing white cloud of glass and steel. But until it opens in 2014, we're stuck with the old Denpassar Airport, which is ugly, rundown, smelly, badly lit and poorly serviced. It doesn't help that it's packed with the feral Australian tourists I've managed to avoid since arriving in Bali.


Ugh, I'd only been at the airport twenty minutes and I’d had enough of noisy Australians, their hair braided into cornrows and their fresh Bali tattoos bleeding out from under the bandages.

Still, bogans notwithstanding, it was a very enjoyable trip. Except for the humidity Bali is lovely, with beautiful landscapes, an exciting design aesthetic, affordable luxury at every turn, and more cheap booze than you can poke a cocktail umbrella at. As I told the ever hopeful taxi drivers, I'll be back. If only to replenish the duty free essentials.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


I have no idea how the Balinese people ever get things done in the heat and humidity. It’s bearable when your agenda for the day consists entirely of wallowing about in swimming pools and drinking. But for anything else, it’s horrible. I guess that everyone simply adapts to being sweaty and clammy all day and night. Or they just die. Which at least will cool them down.

Monday, May 20, 2013


In my continuing mission to keep the hell away from authentic Balinese culture, I spent most of the day at Waterbom, a modern, high-tech water park in the middle of the busiest part of Bali. It could be anywhere in the world.

Even so, there was one thing that struck me. It occurred when I was recuperating on a lounge next to the children’s area after my sixteenth or seventeenth screaming plunge down a waterslide. As I lounged, I watched one of the male, 20-something lifeguards playing with the children. He had a three year old tourist boy in his arms and was tossing him into the air then catching him, both of them laughing delightedly.

Something seemed wrong about this scene. And it suddenly occurred to me… why wasn’t there a mother having hysterics somewhere nearby? Why weren’t there people calling for the police to arrest this obvious pervert who was actually touching another person’s child? Heck, where were the park’s OHS officers to discipline him for risky behaviour?

But there wasn’t any of that. There was just a guy making life more fun for the little kids under his supervision. Whether it’s the humidity or just the culture, people don’t get all precious and prissy about things here. Getting upset takes energy better directed to fanning oneself and sipping ice-filled drinks.

Lord Vader took the opportunity to catch some sun and work on his tan.

I'd already had enough sun at this point and was turning an unfortunate shade of pink, so I just snapped some photos of the oversaturated colours of Bali - the BLUE sky, the GREEN trees, and those ubiquitous RED beach umbrellas.

Sunday, May 19, 2013


Whenever I get into a taxi in Bali, it's always the same. First come the pleasantries - exchanges of names and places of origin - then comes the inevitable upselling. It's not enough for you to want to pay them to drive you from Point A to Point B. You have to be keen to want them to drive you from Point B to Point C, then Point D, then Point E, and so on down into the nether regions of the alphabet.

“You been to Ubud? I take you to Ubud," they invariably say, as Ubud is both a) beautiful and b) a long taxi ride from the urban sprawl. "Very traditional. I take you to see the real Bali.”

My internal response is, "But I don’t want to see the real Bali... unless the real Bali has $7 cosmopolitans. Which seems unlikely, if only for the fact that the cosmopolitan wasn't invented until 1986."

My external response is to simply smile and nod, as the internal response, spoken aloud, would probably paint me as some sort of shallow, selfish alcoholic. And that would never do.

However, even shallow, selfish alcoholics are occasionally dragged off the broad and winding road of shallowness, selfishness and booze and forced onto the straight and narrow path of cultural exploration and insight. And so it was this afternoon that I found myself at Tanah Lot.

Of course the straight and narrow path here is figurative. The path to Tanah Lot was like all roads in Bali - convoluted, slow, and choked with minivans and scooters. Unlike the roads in Australia, which are ruthlessly monitored for any transgression of the innumerable rules, Bali roads are cheerfully chaotic. There may be laws governing helmets, seatbelts, loads, numbers of passengers, right of way and lanes, but there is no evidence of them ever being enforced. The minivans plough along with a posse of scooters surrounding them on all sides, like thoughtful, lumbering whales accompanied by shoals of darting fish. The vans have a certain priority due to their bulk, but the scooters make up for it by being able to slip through tiny breaks in the traffic. It's traffic management by social consensus, and I find it perversely appealing.

Tanah Lot, when one eventually gets there, turns out to be a Hindu temple built into a crag of rock the size of a couple of tennis courts, sitting a just a few dozen metres offshore. At low tide it's possible to wade across to it, but it was high tide when we visited, and apparently the monks aren't too keen on tourists at the best of times.

This is understandable, as Tanah Lot is a pilgrimmage site, and there were literally thousands of people bustling around outside it. Apparently the Thing To Do at Tanah Lot is to watch the sunset, so the shore was crowded with Balinese, other Indonesians, and a handful of confused white people, all jostling to find the best place to watch the sun sink into the sea.

At one point an Indonesian girl approached my friend and me and made a gesture with her camera and pointed at a group of her friends. We assumed she wanted us to take a picture of all of them, and we obliged. But we'd got it wrong. She wanted us to be in the picture with the friends. And so we found ourselves surrounded by giggling Indonesian Muslim girls, while the original girl, and her friend, and someone else who was possibly her dad, all snapped merrily away. I wondered if random white guys really so rare and fascinating that it’s worth inserting them into your holiday snaps, but I can't see any other reason for it.

The Sumo regarded it all with a resigned belligerence that suggests that his spirit animal is Grumpy Cat.

Lord Vader, however, found his blackened heart warmed by the sight of the amber sun sinking through grey and white clouds.

And eventually the two of them discovered a degree of fraternity in the twilight's evanescent glow.

Until the Grumpy Sumo discovered Bintang.

Then it was all over for the night.

Saturday, May 18, 2013


1. Architecture

Bali seems to have recovered well from the devastation wrought on its economy by the nightclub bombing in 2002 that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians, and nearly killed the tourist industry. The new airport being built at Denpassar is titanic, and every vacant lot seems to have construction work going on. However there doesn’t appear to be any large-scale planning or logic to development. Walking down the street you see a slum, then a shed, then a gleaming Ralph Lauren store, then another slum, then a minimart, then a Paul Smith outlet, then an upmarket day spa, and then a stray dog puking next to a line of dirty motorscooters.

The interesting, and from my perspective completely unexpected, thing about these new buildings is how cutting-edge they are architecturally. They are bold and confident, made from unusual materials and boasting exciting forms and spaces. But this exuberance is limited to the bones of the buildings – unlike many other Asian cultures, they don’t tend to slather the surfaces with a lot of gaudy bling. It’s like Danish Minimalism after it’s dropped a couple of Es.

A friend suggested that one of the reasons for the exciting cutting edge architecture and design on display has its roots in Bali’s traditional cultural mindset. They are a race of natural decorators and designers. Even in the slag-heaped, rubbish-strewn back streets, there are shanties with roofs of corrugated iron sheets of different colours laid out in clever patterns.

Old Balinese design, on the temples and pre-tourism buildings, is fiddly and intricate. But the modern Balinese simply like to go big. Soaring walls of plate glass, coffee tables the size of a car space, pendant lights as big as a Japanese hotel room. One can’t help but look at all of these things and think that the Balinese are taking control of their environment in a way that Australians don’t have the confidence to do.

2. Lighting

Bali is lovely by day, when you can see the riotous colours of the trees and flowers. But it’s a different kind of beautiful at night, at least where I’m staying. I’ve never been to a place that had such a comprehensive appreciation of good lighting design. It’s like an entire civilisation said, “Shall we have safe drinking water or pick out these frangipanis with mini-spotlights? Woo-hoo! Spotlights!”

The trees are full of fairy lights, the stone walls have their rugged textures picked out with discreet spotlights, and even mundane things like back fences and beach umbrellas have recessed mood lighting. The beach restaurants have floodlights directed out into the sea, purely to highlight the waves as they break and roll into the shore, in such a subtle way that you don’t even realise they’re doing it until someone passes in front of them and throws a vast shadow over the ocean.

Such things would never happen in Australia. I could imagine all of my eco-conscious friends having conniptions about waste and greenhouse gases and light pollution and disoriented sea turtles. But it is cool and it is beautiful.

3. Privilege

At my workplace, which is in a modern, politically correct organisation, we get occasional workshops about “white privilege” from the Diversity Office. But you really don’t know what white privilege is until you’ve been somewhere like Bali. The security guards glare at the locals, but smile and murmer, “Good evening, sir” as I stroll through their checkpoints. They have no idea if I’m a guest of their hotel or resort – the colour of my skin is all the proof they need that I belong.

The weird thing about some of the places I’ve been is that under normal circumstances there’s no way in hell they should be letting me into their establishments. These beautifully lit, decadent designer bars with head-spinning cocktails and chill dance remixes are the natural home of the rock star and the model, not fat unkempt slobs like me. Tonight I had dinner at Ku De Ta, the most celebrated and most expensive restaurant/club on the entire island. At one point, around midnight, I was standing on their terrace overlooking the sea, sipping my umpteenth mojito, listening to DJs mashing techno beats into late 70s pop songs, and I suddenly thought, “Wait, what am I doing here? Do these people not realise who I am… or rather, who I’m not? Shouldn’t Security have bundled me out of here by now?”

But all I got was more deferential smiling and bowing, and, eventually, a $5 taxi ride back to my resort.

Friday, May 17, 2013


On my last international holiday I was accompanied by Admiral Ackbar, who, as you'll recall, shamelessly hogged the camera.

This time I left the Admiral at home, and opted for the only companion I could find with any sort of Asian sensibility.

As you can see, there was also a stowaway. No wonder the Sumo is grumpy.

I'm staying at a very nice and comparatively expensive resort. I say "comparatively" because for the same price in Australia I'd be stuck in a mouldy box at a motel on a major highway in a bad neighbourhood, but in Bali I have a beautiful room with french doors leading onto a balcony overlooking gardens and a swimming pool. The resort is in Seminyak, one of the more upmarket areas of Bali, and agreeably removed from the bogan hoardes and cut-price tourism of Kuta.

It's the sort of place where the staff slip unobtrusively into your room while you're out drinking $5 mai tais at the pool bar and restore pristine order... and create the occasional work of art.

I loved it. But Lord Vader is not impressed.

Thursday, May 16, 2013


When the opportunity came up recently for me to go to Bali, I decided to take it. This came as a surprise to some people who know me well, since I am not really a tropics kinda guy. Normally, I'd much rather stomp about in the snow than broil on a beach. But it seemed like a good idea to step outside my normal choices and try something a bit different.

And let's face it, it's Bali. It's different for me, but it's not exactly unprecedented for the average Australian.

The funny thing is that whenever I tell people I'm going to Bali, I get one of two responses:

1. You? In Bali? In the hot, humid, bogan-infested island to our north? That's... unexpected.

2. You're going to Bali? Awesome! Just remember that you can't drink the water. And don't eat fruit or vegetables that might have been washed in the water. And don't drink at the bars because they might put methanol in the cocktails. And watch out for the bats and dogs, because they have rabies over there. So as long as you don't eat, drink or go near any mammals, you'll have a ball!

So, that's where I'll be for the next few days. Unless I die of heat stroke, giardia infection, methanol poisoning, rabies or bogan-related shock.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013


Everyone else: Ah, the quiet majesty of nature.


Friday, May 03, 2013


I finally found an image that sums up how I feel most of the time.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013


A couple of weeks ago I went to see the new science fiction movie 'Oblivion'. There has been a certain amount of buzz about this film, particularly since it's one of the very few films released this century that isn't a sequel to another film, or a TV show, or a comic, or a line of toys, or a ride at Disneyland, or all of the above.

Furthermore, as some pundits who should know better have argued, it's great science fiction.

But they're wrong. Actually it's terrible science fiction.

It is visually enticing, with beautiful, otherworldy Icelandic exteriors. The actors did a good job of doing what actors do. But it was so derivative that I knew what the entire plot was going to be literally within five minutes of the opening credits. And, at its core, it didn't make sense. The science part of science fiction went right out the window in the first draft of the script, and no one could be bothered considering any ways to get it back in. Presumably they didn't think anyone would care.

My central problem is with the fundamental motivation of the villain, which, I'm sure you'll agree, is part of the bedrock of a story's believablity. If you haven't seen 'Oblivion', be aware that the rest of this post is one huge spoiler and also won't make sense.

So, to the basic problem...

Let's say you are the Tet. You arrive in a new solar system and need to plunder it for vast amounts of power. Do you,

a) exhaust a large amount of your existing energy reserves in blowing up Earth's moon, then expending even more of it creating thousands of clones, drones, hovering fusion reactors and cool poletop yuppie pads, all so that you can suck up Earth's water and convert it into electricity.


b) ignore the Earth and park yourself next to the MIND-BOGGLINGLY ENORMOUS NATURAL FUSION REACTOR at the centre of the solar system and harvest its energy in ways that the natives won't even notice, much less cause you trouble trying to prevent.

That's what makes 'Oblivion' bad science fiction. There are many things an alien being might want from our planet - water, oil, biomass, genetic data - but energy isn't one of them. We want energy from our planet, but that's because we're stuck on it. Out in space, where there's no night, no clouds and no distorting atmosphere to offer drawbacks from solar energy, it's an entirely different story.

But science is hard. It's much easier to say "Meh", and just film Tom Cruise running about randomly yelling and shooting at things.