Jeremiah Rogers

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How Tourism Eats Culture

Jakarta and Bali, Indonesia.

Indonesia is a giant. The country has over 240 million people, making it the fourth most populous country in the world. It has 13,466 islands. Almost every one of those islands has a distinct culture, and almost every one of those islands has a local language. The official Bahasa Indonesia language is a standardized language that a lot of residents don’t even speak.

Indonesia has volcanos, it has jungles, it has gorgeous beaches, tiny uninhabited islands and major cities. Indonesia has a variety of religions: Java is mostly muslim, Bali is mostly hindu with a mix of buddhists.

In the less traveled parts it is one of the most wonderful countries I’ve ever visited.

What to see

If you can get off the beaten path a bit, or if you aren’t afraid of getting ripped off a few times, there’s something in Indonesia for everyone. It’s a shame that the standard visa for Americans is only 30 days. The Lonely Planet book for Indonesia, which is free on Kindle Unlimited, also had trouble planning itineraries under 30 days. Worry not: a questionably legitimate visa extension can be had in almost any major tourist town for $100.

There’s so much in Indonesia that with better knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia I could spend a year here exploring. I also think that Indonesia deserves to be considered on the same itineraries as China, India, and the United States. That said, without knowledge of a local language I often found myself stuck in tourist destinations.

Various sights from Mount Bromo, Gili, Ubud, and the Ijen volcano.

Being seen

One of the most pleasant things about Indonesia is the reaction to the arrival of a white guy. In the less travelled cities like Bandung, Jakarta, and Surabaya people approach me giggling and asking to take a picture. Children chased me down the street laughing. It’s incredibly pleasant to be such an unusual sight that people would want to pose with me. It’s even awkward when young women want to pose with me and make their boyfriends take the pictures.

Arriving in Bali

My travels took a much different turn in the travelled towns like Bali and the Gili islands where locals approached not for a picture, but to to offer prostitutes, magic mushrooms, cocaine, marijuana, and taxi cabs. What’s most disheartening to me isn’t that tourism makes cultures capitalist — it’s the things that people are moved to sell and the way they do it1.

In Bali getting incorrect change and incorrect information was common. In Ubud one guy told me that buses weren’t running for the rest of the day and I should take a taxi for $20. One hundred meters down the road I found a bus for $5. Another guy told me I could never find a room for under $10 and I was welcome to sleep in the street for that price. I found a perfectly fine room for $8 a few minutes later.

I tried to remain level headed and remember that these are all individual people I’m dealing with, and that they aren’t ambassadors of a whole country. The tourist industry in the United States can be equally nasty. But it’s hard. By the tenth time someone shoves a joint in my face or says “Yes please, taxi!” or asks “Where are you going?” my guard goes up for the rest of the day. It becomes hard to enjoy the country. It becomes difficult to trust a local to just talk with me and not try to sell me something. A few times we made good progress and before a sales pitch arrived 20 minutes into the conversation2.

Tourism cuts both ways. The Indonesians I talked with seemed to almost universally dislike Australians. Gili Trawangan, Indonesia.

At the same time I saw little in Indonesia other than spectacular volcanos that would make it to the top of my tourist list3. Much of South East Asia has temples, monkeys, beaches, and relatively similar food. If you visit Cambodia, Thailand or Malaysia there’s not a strong reason to extend your trip to the Bali area as well. Mainland Java was an adventure, but the well worn parts of of Bali come across as mostly places for tourists to do yoga and party4.

As far as price, Indonesia is often a bit cheaper than Thailand. Mass tourism can push prices down, especially in out of style hotels. I wish I’d spent more time on the island of Java which is the most foreign culture to me — Bali is well travelled, even trampled, by tourists. When I was in Ubud, Kuta, and the Gili Islands I had a hard time remembering that I wasn’t in Thailand.

Mass market yoga and spiritualism in Ubud, Indonesia. That water has healing powers. Maybe hopping in would have cured my cynicism.

What I would do next time

If I could do this again I’d spend more time in Jakarta and the rest of Java to see uninhibited culture. I’d talk to the locals, eat the local food, and try to absorb the little details that make life different here.

Then I would come to the Bali area for a week to see the beaches, temples, and go snorkeling and scuba diving. Bali is comfortable but it’s not really traveling. It’s a westerner’s playground.

P.S. You might also like the other side of this article: How being a traveler on the road changes the cultures you visit.


  1. In a nutshell: where tourist money goes determines which parts of a culture you see and which you don’t. I like seeing all parts of a culture including the warts. It’s sad when the pleasant things are pushed so strongly and the quieter things are let to fade away because no one will pay to see them. It’s sad when the warts come out in angry sales pitches. [return]
  2. Some of this may be my own cultural expectations. In the United States we often treat friendship and business as separate things and are shy about bringing up sales to friends. We admit defeat quickly or at the least offer something while not really offering it. Doing this social dance in a foreign language must be hard, and with the amount of money at stake to come from a tourist I don’t blame the locals for trying. It still sucks on a day to day level. [return]
  3. The only tourist sights in the world that I unequivocally recommend are Angkor Wat and the Grand Canyon. Everything else can be missed and you’ll do just fine. [return]
  4. The WikiTravel page for Ubud specifically calls out Eat, Pray, Love for turning Ubud into town of heavily marketed spiritualism. [return]