Sorry But Bali Isn’t Magical

What on earth is everyone talking about? Am I missing something?

Rachel Khona
Feb 10 · 6 min read
source: author

I’ve been drawn to the mystical since I had my first experience with manifestation, scoring a free 30-day unlimited Eurorail ticket. Since then I’ve watched my skin break out into a rash after a reiki healing, (apparently the toxins were leaving my body) had a psychic predict the rise and fall of a relationship (it happened true to form), and I had an aura reading with a woman who immediately saw my childhood issues within 30 seconds of looking at my photo. I dreamt that a friend was going to start a new relationship (he literally did that weekend), manifested a guy who looked like Jesus, and nine times out of ten I get free drinks when I go out with one friend in particular (maybe we could be the new Marvel heroes?).

So after years of hearing everyone tell me how “magical” Bali is, I finally booked my ticket excited for lush jungles, the answers to all of life’s woes, and the ability to finally shit rainbows.

That was not the case.

As my taxi drove me to the hotel, I found myself puzzled. More puzzled than when I attempt to listen to mumble rap. What I saw looked far from magical. Peering out of my cab window, I saw streets filled with trash, no sidewalks, air pollution, and street dogs. It reminded me of India where my family is from, albeit way less intense. I thought of all of the Westerners who go to India in search of enlightenment, a stark contrast to my experience visiting my family. What on earth is everyone talking about? Am I missing something? Poverty is not magical.

Canggu where I stayed looked as though Los Angeles had been airlifted and dropped in Asia. Shirtless men and women in bra tops and mini skirts (they looked good though, I’ve never seen so many six packs) wandered Canggu, while music blared from rowdy bars. Despite how “woke” everyone was, yoga class was filled with single-use plastic water bottles[1]. Bottles that would undoubtedly end up in the ocean adding to Bali’s problem of trash washing ashore.

After everything I heard about Bali, I would have thought mystics peppered the street handing out healings and psychic predictions as often as Americans order Amazon packages. That the Balinese don’t care about material goods because they are busy attaining enlightenment in between yoga class and drinking green smoothies.

Instead I met a proclaimed sexist who unleashed a torrent of derogatory comments in front of his girlfriend who conveniently didn’t understand English. I met a woman who after years of coming to Bali twice a year still suffered from anxiety attacks. I met old men who just came to find young pretty things. Men who only wanted to have a conversation if they could get laid. I met an Australian business owner who openly had little regard for the locals, verbally abusing them and proud of it.

And here I thought Bali was supposed to change one for the better.

The only Balinese I encountered were those serving me. The waiters, taxi drivers, and housekeepers. The locals can’t afford to eat or dine at the restaurants built by the Americans and Australians. The locals are more likely to go to a roadside warung, not the fancy restaurants like Penny Lane or the beach club La Brisa. Ultimately you’re socializing with other Europeans, Canadians, and Australians.

I went on a bicycle tour of the backroads of Bali, hoping to get more of a feel for how the locals really live. Led by a young man named Nyoman, we rode through the streets where no foreigners went. Whizzing through rice fields and banana trees, we visited a school, someone’s home, and a small farm. I learned that two doors can’t face each other hence you get cursed with bad luck, each home has a stone wall in the front to ward off evil spirits (maybe it could ward off my brother-in-law), and that placentas are buried in the yard as there are believed to be siblings. As in any Hindu temple, women are not allowed to enter when they have their periods as it is seen as unclean. Being homosexual is still frowned upon. School is only free until the age of 12. After that parents must pay for school. If they can afford it.

I also learned that the Dutch forced many Indonesians to toil away in the fields for next to nothing so they could benefit from spice trade. The colonizers also didn’t let anyone go to school during their 260-year rule. To put that into perspective, Indonesia just gained independence in 1945.

I recalled a story my mother told me. While in medical school in India, she had to go to rural villages to conduct exams while teaching them about healthcare and birth control. Women would refuse IUDs for fear their husbands’ penises in would become damaged. Years later my grandfather ignored my mother’s advice (though at this point she was a doctor), instead turning to a local ayurvedic doctor. He had a heart attack. Mom did not find any of this magical.

In vast swaths of the world, people resort to healers and superstition not because it’s “magic”, but because they’ve been suppressed by centuries of colonization and therefore have little access to education.

I don’t know a single person of color who described Bali as “magical”. And I asked at least 5 people. I couldn’t help but wonder what white people (some not all!) saw that I, a person of color, didn’t see. What I saw was masses of white people creating what they saw as “paradise” in a brown country, taking advantage of how cheap it was. It’s hard not to feel like it’s colonialism 2.0.

I’m not saying don’t go to Bali. Or that Bali isn’t beautiful. Or that there’s anything wrong with flying 16,000 miles to sit at a beach club drinking pina coladas. I had several. Or that the booming tourist industry isn’t a major boon to the economy. Tourism has lifted many people up providing them with the ability to create a better life for themselves, which will help generations to come and hopefully undo some of the effects of colonization.

But to simplify a country as magical, all the while enjoying a sanitized Westernized Goop-ified version without acknowledging its very real problems seems dismissive. Making $250 a month isn’t magical. Sexism isn’t magical. Lack of education isn’t magical. Working all day for a bag of rice isn’t magical.[2] What is magical is supporting girls’ education in impoverished countries. Supporting local entrepreneurs through Kiva. Sewing period kits. Giving to street dog organizations.

I loved my trip to Bali. The food, the culture, and the countryside were all well-worth exploring. The people were warm, welcoming, and kind. The best moment I had in Bali was when I spoke to a young woman who worked at a coffee shop I had frequented. She told me she was moving out of her parents house and on her own, something almost unheard of in Indonesia.

“I want to be free. I want my independence,” she said.

That was magical.

Follow me on IG because it’s fun to keep in touch @ rachelkhona

[1] There were signs posted everywhere discouraging people from using them.

[1] It took forever for my grandmother to understand that can’t happen.

[2] I learned on the bike tour that many women work for 10% of the rice they harvest. That’s it. No money. Just some rice.

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Rachel Khona

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I argued with a ghost once. Likes: singing off key, brie and wine. Credits: Playboy, Allure, Marie Claire, The New York Times, Cosmo, WashPo. IG: @rachelkhona


An honest travel magazine exploring the world one pin at a time.

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