Fingernails, Luwak and Temples: My Impressions of Bali’s Tourism Industry

Do not stare at the man’s nails. Do not stare at the man’s nails. Do not stare at the man’s nails, I told myself silently over and over again.

“I notice you have a scar on your head. Me, too,” I share, not at all silently.

Yeah, much, much better, Poe.

We are in a small air conditioned van bumping along a congested road near Kuta in Bali. Scooters loaded with people and goods zip around us. A young girl rides right alongside of us with her motorcycle helmet perched perilously on the back of her head, a collection of small offering baskets in a container attached to the front of her scooter.

Our driver today, who the St. Regis arranged for us, is a devout Hindu, which is apparent by his bindi on his forehead and the offering on the dashboard of the van. His religious leanings, do not, however, explain his long fingernails on his left hand. That is apparently just for style.

Balinese dashboard offering
NOT Mr. Nails, but an example of a dashboard offering (Photo: GreenerBali.com)

Mr. Nails is our second driver in Bali. We have not had the best luck with being tourists in Bali.

Our first driver was a last minute sub – the original guy we’d been emailing with had to cancel for a family ritual of some sort (the Balinese are way into rituals, I learned from a book by Australian author Cameron Forbes called “Under the Volcano.” There are a total of 13 ceremonies concerned with life from conception until, but not including, death, which is a whole other big, amazing cremation ceremony altogether.)

In any case, we had a backup. And Mr. Backup had a very clear agenda on what we were going to see that day.

I suggested a couple of temples that were near our hotel. He suggested we drive over 45 minutes to catch the barong dance performance at a local dance school. The dance was….nice, I suppose. A bit long and confusing. The production values were low. Some of the dancers appeared quite bored, as did many of the members of the completely tourist-filled audience. All of the drivers who had dragged us here hung out by their mini-vans in the mini-van clogged parking lot, smoking clove cigarettes, and waiting for us tourists to get our culture on.

Balinese barung dance
This was right at the start of the dance, and that guy on the left is already over it.

I asked our driver if we could get babi guling – roasted pig – but was told that the place our driver “likes” was out of the way and not possible. Meanwhile, we passed about 50 roadside places advertising their babi guling. My travel buddy XFE leaned over and whispered that our driver must have a special babi guling guy that he gets a kickback from, and we weren’t in that guy’s neighborhood. Instead, we had lunch at a horrible touristy restaurant overlooking Gunung Batur volcano.

Our driver asked us if we liked coffee. When I said yes, he insisted we visit another tourist trap selling $5 cups of kopi luwak – a coffee made from coffee berries that have been ingested and passed, so to speak, by Asian civet-type animals. Knowing some of the PETA complaints against the practice, I tried to defer, but our driver was insistent. I took the path of least resistance and drank the damned coffee. It tasted just like every other coffee I have ever had. Nothing special at all.

luwak and rice terraces
The luwak was meh, but the views of the rice terraces were pretty amazing.

And now our second driver – the guy with the long nails — was finally taking us to one of the temples we had asked to visit on our first excursion. But not without trying to get us to stop and visit some of the many local woodcarvers and silversmiths he could get us access to.

Here is my problem with Southeast Asia, in general: everyone appears to be on the make. There is a huge emphasis on showing you only what they want you to see, and a concerted effort to take you to total tourist traps and getting you to buy stuff.

Balinese still life.
Carved Balinese bench, stumbled upon all by ourselves. Notice lack of price tag.

Look, I get it. Tourism is the major industry in lots of Southeast Asia, and certainly Bali. And I really, really loved Bali — the deliciously spicy food; the sweet, kind people; the amazing scents of frangipani wafting in the air. But if you are the tourist in Bali, or Bangkok even, you end up just feeling like a mark. Or, an ATM. And, in my case at least, it totally puts me off from buying anything at all. The harder someone presses me to buy something, the more resistant I become. And that’s saying a lot for someone who considers shopping a sport.

We did end up buying a couple of souvenirs, including a $15 kite we bought on the beach one morning. We also bought a lovely copper lined, wooden bowl for our living room. But it was at a small, unassuming shop that we stumbled upon on our own in Seminyak, with a sales person who was practically invisible during our visit.

I don’t remember if she had long nails on her left hand, but I do know that she didn’t try to upsell us.

sarongs drying in Bali
My favorite moment, un-orchestrated by any mini-van drivers: colorful sarongs drying on a clothesline.
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