May 6, 2022

Couchfish: Get ya gear on

Does Bali need a Palau-style pledge?

Open in playerListen on);

Appears in this episode

Stuart McDonald
The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.
Episode details

A little to the north of Candi Dasa in East Bali the forest-lined road winds up a ridge, leaving the beach behind. Before you start down again, towards the turn-off to White Sand Beach, there’s a point over-run with macaques. To the east, a bumpy road runs out of sight.

Quite a few years ago, I followed the bumpy road as far as I could go. When the road tapped out, I parked and walked. After a bit of a stroll, I reached a small temple. I walked around to the back of it, hoping for an ocean view.

To be fair, there wasn’t a “no nudism” sign at the temple. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

It wasn’t a location designed for viewpointing, but, I scrabbled through the bush, holding out hope. In the end, I got what I came for, a decent view over the sea. Though that wasn’t all I got.

As I stood there, a Western guy emerged nearby. He was stark naked.

It was so many years ago I can’t remember if I asked him “how’s it hanging?” or anything like that, but I do remember moving on sooner than planned.

What is it with Bali and tourists wanting to get their gear off?

The view I was looking for. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

If you’ve missed the news over the last few weeks, there’s been three cases that have hit the dailies and done the rounds.

First, there was a Canadian “life coach influencer” who climbed Mount Batur, stripped naked and did the haka. He then posted a video of the performance on social media. No, I’m not making this up. He said he didn’t know the peak had a religious value—or something like that anyway.

Then, a few days ago, a Russian tourist/yogi posed nude at the base of a revered tree. Again, she posted the image to her social media account. The photo would have qualified as fine art—to my eye at least. The choice of location, however, among the enormous roots of a holy tree, was not inspired. It was a terrible choice.

Me looking for tree-nudists, near Labuan Pandan, Lombok. Photo: Samantha Brown.

Then we have another tourist, whose nationality is unknown (to me at least). He included a Balinese waterfall as one of the top places to masturbate outdoors. Again he posted it online. There is apparently a video of it, which I do not recommend you search for on Google.

In all three cases, social media exploded. Last I heard the Canadian was awaiting deportation, while the authorities were searching for a “nude Russian woman.” I have no idea of the status of the waterfall wanker, though I assume they’re coming for him too.

Stories of tourists doing dumb and offensive stuff are as old as tourism itself. Colonialists loved carting off ancient relics, and what are tourists but a 21st century take on the same? While these three cases might seem like a rash of idiocy, this is a scab scratched off with regularity in Bali.

Cultural sensitivity can be a challenge for some. Ko Samui, Thailand. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

One need not take their clothes off to create a stir of course. All sorts of social and cultural miss-steps can score what some might feel as an outsized level of outrage. Often—here and elsewhere—elements of the outrage turn to misogyny and racism. On one hand, this turns a mirror to some of the outraged, and nobody looks good. The underlying cause though, a seeming lack of awareness of norms, plays out over and over.

But is it a lack of awareness or a lack of a willingness to moderate one’s behaviour? When is it ok to drop your gear on the floor? While I don’t suggest turning to Instagram for educative purposes, in this case, it gives an assist. Look at how some Bali hotels represent themselves there. While it doesn’t swing a deal for me, it seems acceptable to get nude and cavort by your horizon pool or rice field view. The objectification of women in particular is often so over the top, I wonder who they’re marketing to. Not me I guess—bamboo lux joint in Sideman I’m looking at you. I guess it works for those who dig it, horses and courses etcetera.

Engage brain before lifting camera—or skull. At Trunyan on Bali, where some guides are known to encourage this sort of idiocy. Photo: Sally Arnold.

Posing nude by a holy tree, yeah not cool. Would she have reclined over the altar of an Orthodox church in Moscow? I’m not up on fine art nudism in places of religious importance, but I’d like to think she would have at least asked first.

I’d also like to think having a do’s and don’ts brochure, or a video on inbound flights might be a help. Then there are the decades of warnings about gem scams in Bangkok, and yet people continue to get sucked in. You can lead a horse to water but it can still strip naked and do the haka.

The underlying problem is not education. Rather it is a dismissive attitude towards the considerations of the local communities. Add to this the taking advantage of locals’ need (however choiceless it may be) to accommodate even the most unhinged.

How can one plead ignorance of the religious importance of a peak? Ascending Gunung Batur, Bali. Photo: Sally Arnold.

Take for example a beach bar I often write at. Almost every day over the last year, there’s been a woman sunbathing topless out front. In public places in Bali, this is not allowed, but it is often tolerated. Never once have I noticed the staff taking her coconuts suggest she put on the other half of her bikini.

It need not even involve nudity. Last night, at a nearby restaurant with my kids, six 20-something Australians walked in, full Bintangs on board. As they sat, a staffer pointed to the beers and said they don’t allow outside drinks. The Australians waved her off, saying they had almost finished them (they hadn’t). Later, when they had finished them, one dashed out to get another half dozen. The staffer, annoyed, pointed it out to the manager. The manager, rather than kicking them out, seemed to tell her not to worry about it.

The perfect place for a white Canadian life coach influencer to strip naked and do the haka. Photo: Sally Arnold.

Now more than ever they need more business rather than more scenes. Had he stepped in, would his restaurant have scored an outraged post on TripAdvisor? The power (for lack of a better word) rested with the tourists, and they wielded it without a second thought. I doubt they would have behaved in the same way in Oz.

This comes to the core of the problem. People with the financial power, how trivial it may be in their own country, lording it over people here. They can’t, or rather, they shouldn’t. Seeing this sort of behaviour, day in and day out, grates on me—and I’m not even from here! It’s a testament to the tolerance of the Balinese they put up with it. Then, as seen by the social media outrage, in some cases, they’re not.

New arrivals should have a spare 82 hours to watch cultural sensitivity videos here. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I’m not blameless, there’s no angel here tapping away. The other day I was riding my bike on the footpath due to the traffic gridlock. While paused at a jam (yes, a footpath jam), again an Australian, pointed at me, yelling “You should know better!” She’s right of course, I’d never ride a motorbike on a footpath in Australia, but hell lady have you seen the traffic?!

But yes, guilty as charged. At least I wasn’t nekid.

I don’t know what the solution is. I don’t think social media witch-hunts are the way forward, they’re unhealthy and often bigoted. Also, the fine print of what actually happened sometimes gets buried in the rabid foaming.

The only sort of foam you want to stir up. Batu Belig Beach, Bali. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

A brochure or video, or asking people to sign a pledge to be culturally responsible as in Palau, could all help. I should also turn the mirror to myself. I could have said something to the six Australians in the restaurant or the topless woman at the beach. The behaviour you walk by is the behaviour you accept and all that.

One thing I can do—and do—and you should too, is to make the effort to get educated about what is acceptable and what isn’t. If you’re not sure, ask. It isn’t hard.

Except when it comes to riding home from Batu Belig Beach at 4 pm, in that case, riding on the pavement is totes ok.

Couchfish is 100 per cent independent and reader-supported. If you’re not already a subscriber, and you’d like to show your support, become a paying subscriber today for just US$7 per month—you can find out more about Couchfish here—or simply share this story with a friend.

Don’t forget, you can find the free podcasts on Apple, Pocket Casts and Spotify as well as right here on Couchfish.