Oct 25, 2011

The Age goes to Bali: the worst travel article ever published?

Amber Jamieson

Freelance journalist in New York

There’s a nauseating article all over the Fairfax press today titled “Bali: why bother?“. In it Age journalist Carolyn Webb talks about her recent holiday to Ubud, Bali, where touts harassing her to buy things and offering her transport on their motorbikes ruined her holiday. The souvenirs were too tacky, the streets were too noisy and the sales people too desperate in their poverty, says Webb.

In essence, all the very typical things that make up a holiday in a developing country.

Webb’s article is probably the worst travel article I’ve ever read.

But don’t let me convince you, read a few lines of her writing for yourself:

“In short, Ubud would be a great holiday destination, if they removed the frankly terrible street touts, and the tacky souvenir shops.

I am not exaggerating to say that vendors of transport and souvenirs harass tourists from morning to night.

Single women, especially, cannot walk more than 10 metres without being shouted at, approached, pleaded with, harangued and harassed with the words, “Miiisss, miiisss, transport, taxi, where you going … miiiisss?” I thought my name had been changed to Miiisss.

I was once strolling along one of Ubud’s main roads when a young man drove his motorbike across the footpath, blocking my way so I had to stop. (The word “taxi” is used loosely in Ubud – they’re not regulated, nor do they have meters and anyone can call their motorbike or car a taxi.)

This tout smiled and asked if I wanted “transport”. I smiled and explained very politely that, in Australia, if a woman gets on a motorbike with a stranger, that is called prostitution.

He looked as though I’d just told him the sun was a balloon. I don’t think he honestly had a clue what I was on about.

So why did I decline? Umm. Apart from possible serial killer issue, how about the strong likelihood of falling off the unregistered and possibly unroadworthy bike with no safety gear or helmet on to the crappy roads, well beyond the reach of any known travel insurance policy?

I often wondered what these touts would think if their sister or mother got on a motorbike with a strange man.”

And on and on it goes. No surprise that it’s pissed off many people, with a debate on Twitter about the article this morning. As @msmaddiep tweeted: “Someone should tell all the prostitutes here they have really been going above and beyond.”

A woman getting on a motorbike with a stranger in Australia is not called prostitution. That’s when you get paid in exchange for sexual acts. Plus, the touts calling out “transport” want tourist’s money, not to pay the tourists for sex.

It’s very common in developing countries to travel by motorbike as an alternative to public transport or taxis. It’s also very common for young men in developing countries to make a living by shepherding tourists around on the back of their bikes.

I’ve travelled to several developing countries, although I’ve never been to Bali. Last year when I was in Vietnam, my boyfriend and I had hired a motorbike from our hotel and rode it into the middle of Hoi An. We left it there for a few hours while we wandered the beautiful streets and ate dinner.

By the time we went to leave it was dark and bucketing down with rain. The motorbike wasn’t where we left it. As we started walking the near-empty streets panicking, the only people around were touts on motorbikes offering us lifts home. We explained what had happened and that our bike must have been stolen. A group of touts told us that actually parking was banned in the city centre after certain hours and that the police would have confiscated the motorbike. One young driver said he knew where they took the bikes and that he could help us out.

My boyfriend jumped on the back of this young guy’s motorbike, while I was left waiting in a bar and with no way of contacting him. After about 15 minutes, the tout stopped at the bar to tell me that everything was OK and that my boyfriend was just filing out the police forms. Ten minutes later my boyfriend returned with the story of how the driver had helped translate with police and convince them to give the motorbike back, although the bike was supposed to be kept confiscated until morning.

So give me a break that these guys trying to make a living ruined your holiday Carolyn. Maybe our incident was some elaborate ruse with police and touts to move tourist motorbikes and then split the money paid to the driver (because my boyfriend, of course, gave him a tip for his trouble). But I see this to be unlikely.

Don’t want to be hassled by touts? Ignore them. Say no. Move on. Get on to enjoying everything else in the location that you’ve chosen for your fancy holiday. Take a moment to reflect on the rich foreigners enjoying indulgent hotels, cocktails and massages and getting waited on hand and foot by locals in a country where minimum wage is $100 per month.

Yes, travelling in developing countries isn’t easy. People are poor. Sometimes building regulations or safety regulations aren’t the standard you’ll find at home. Locals will beg for your money, because you have it and they don’t. I’ve seen foreigners — including myself, it must be said — haggle relentlessly with locals in developing countries because we want and expect things there to be “cheap”. But if you drop the lazy, racist stereotypes and instead meet people and try to learn a little about the culture, you are likely, of course, to have a most wonderful adventure.

Alternatively, our local tourism industry is suffering. Perhaps stay home and shut up?

Although it should be pointed out that The Age probably only published this because it’s clear click-bait and they knew people would get up in a huff about it. Annoyingly, they were 100% correct. Perhaps that makes me as guilty as them.

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30 thoughts on “The Age goes to Bali: the worst travel article ever published?

  1. Miles’ Blog » Blog Archive » The Two Faces of Bali

    […] And don’t get me started on the target article of a Crikey post from a few months ago, entitled The Age goes to Bali: the worst travel article ever published?. […]

  2. Rereaders Podcast: The “Rewilding” Issue – The Rereaders

    […] We basically refused to link to the original click-bait article by Carolyn Webb, titled “Bali, Why Bother” but the commentary around it is essential, including Amber Jamieson at Crikey. […]

  3. Sheeple Liberator

    I understand why Bali is unappealing to many (myself included), but it is possible to write a critical travel review without being culturally insensitive. That bit about pontificating to the local man about prostitution? Anyone who actually thinks that’s the way to behave in another country shouldn’t even be a travel writer. The article is an embarrassment.

  4. A ‘Bali: why bother?’ media retrospective « .ReviewMania.

    […] a tiny mention in The Australian but Crikey went in for the kill, publishing an article entitled ‘Is this the worst travel article ever published?’ Writer Amber Jamieson lets rip, calling Webb’s article ‘nauseating’ and wondering whether […]

  5. Archer

    Life is to short to bitch about what is basically a perfect job.
    She strikes me as a journalistic version of Patsy out of Absolutely Fabulous.

  6. Venise Alstergren

    ORION63: First I am criticised by Malcolm-the inherent message being I haven’t travelled enough or I would know and understand the locals and that I should stay home if I don’t like them.

    Now you weigh in with a gratuitous slap on the basis that I’m hopelessly out of date. Why didn’t you call me a fogey and really round out my CV? You then go on to make the comment that Bali is “”(much like Australia)””.

    It is precisely because the place is full of Australians that I’ve had no interest in going there. You would have known this had you done me the courtesy of actually reading my comment before weighing in.

    You must be incredibly knowledgeable about medical matters-far more so than the doctors I know. When I go for my injections I practically have to beg them to give me a rabies shot. They don’t think it’s all that necessary because it cuts the amount of rabies injections to the six you mention. I’ll take your word that the shots are intramuscular. Obviously I go to the wrong doctors because they seem to think through the stomach wall is the way to go.

    Of course I know that rabies can be found in developed countries. WHERE YOU ARE DESPERATELY WRONG “”. Australia (from bats here… we just choose to call it by a different name)””. Rabies is one of the reasons the Australian quarantine laws appear to be draconian to the layman. These people fear that an outbreak of Rabies might occur and cause devastation to our rural areas.

    It is precisely because Bali is stiff with the Oz knockers and ockers; hoons and goons that I have never been and do not intend to go to there. As I said in my comment why would I want to go to Bali when I can stay home and be revolted by enormous beer-gutted, loud-voiced, thong-wearing Australian males?

    I often wonder why it is that Indian, Thai, Omani, Egyptian, Iranian, Syrian and New Zealand males can be so very, very yummy and Australian men are so banal and uncouth?

    PS: ORION63. Your pathetic call on Australian bird-eating spiders is just that-pathetic. Why don’t you take three to six months off work and travel up to the Amazonian headwaters; you may just discover the size and shape of the Brazilian ones. Hopefully you will be bitten by a few of them.

    And another PS to MALCOLM: You are, of course, completely correct I don’t mix with the locals which is why I found myself caught up in a protest march in Cairo a month ago. No it wasn’t one of the ones forming part of the ‘Arab Spring’. It was a protest about the impoverished school teachers of Egypt and how they would like to be paid more money. I was roped in by an Egyptian acquaintance of mine.

  7. Margaret Kerr

    Think the reaction to the article is over the top. Having experienced similar harassment in Morocco, I wouldn’t want to repeat the experience. I’d love to go to Indonesia one day, it sounds amazing. Although there are a lot of people who don’t mind 24/7 touting, I’m glad to have had the heads up, and I’ll avoid Ubud and Kuta.

  8. mikeb

    The hysteria about Carolyn Webb’s article amazed me. I’ve never been to Bali and probably never will, but her reactions resonated wih me as someone who also hates being harangued – justifiably or not. Yes I know we are comparatively rich & they are poor but is that supposed to make me happy about being continually hassled? My last significant overseas trip was to Western Samoa which was a delight because we were left relatively alone while the locals did their own thing & we joined in when invited or if we asked. It was a situation of mutual respect & consideration – & it was heaven. That was a few years ago and I hope it hasn’t changed too much.

  9. Orion63

    Also an edit, again for Venise:

    we also have so called bird-eating spiders in Australia, just google it (we call it the Eastern Tarantula).

    *shakes head*

  10. Orion63

    Venise Alstergren:

    You are either very ill-informed, or your friend was bitten by dogs in the late 80’s 😉

    The treatment for rabies changed over two decades ago.

    It now consists of only 6 single injections into a large muscle (thigh, arm, buttocks) over a 28 day period. It is very successful, and not any more painful than any other intramuscular injection.

    The injections to the stomach ended over 20 years ago.

    As for rabies, it can also be caught in developed countries such as the USA, the UK … and believe it or not .. Australia (from bats here… we just choose to call it by a different name).

    As for your hysteria about Bali – well, I wouldn’t judge it until you have been there. It’s a lovely place, full of friendly people… if you go to the right places (much like Australia).

    Happy travels!

  11. Venise Alstergren

    PPS: It’s late. I’m tired. Hence my error in naming SHINEYBUM as the culprit. It should have been MALCOLM:-

  12. Venise Alstergren

    With apologies. Last line in para one should have read ‘Back in a Bit’.

  13. Venise Alstergren

    SHINEYBUM: I wasn’t suggesting the Indonesians of Bali were at fault. If you care to re-read my last comment you will notice that I added it as a post script, not as the main event-an aside if you prefer. Throughout my travels I’ve probably been to more third world countries than you have. Three of my major fears are being bitten by a rabid squirrel, cat, dog, monkey, etc because of the injections into the stomach wall which follow. Another fear is being bitten by a Brazilian bird-eating spider, and/or one of the giant tarantulas which infect the upper reaches of the Amazon river. They cling to the sides of canoes and brushing them back into the water is not for the faint-hearted. Not to mention the bloody great cobra I nearly stepped on in India last January. I wrote about it in ‘Bit in a Bit’ in Crikey.

    Why do you assume that other people are deficient in travel experience just because you’ve been to another country? It pays not to assume.

  14. malcolm

    Shineybum, I’ve been to that volcano both times I’ve been to Bali and never had the hassle you claim to have suffered. I’ve had people try to sell me stuff who withdrew as soon as it was obvious I wasn’t interested.

    Venise, rabid dogs exist throughout most of the undeveloped world, that is just bad luck, not the fault of the country. I’ve been bitten by monkeys in Zimbabwe, they too carry Rabies, though fortunately not the ones that bit me, but I ‘m not blaming the country. Go to Cairns you risk getting Dengue fever, is that the fault of the locals? These are facts of life if you travel to interesting places that are not like it is at home, accept them or don’t go. It’s simple.

  15. Venise Alstergren

    POST SCRIPT: The friend of a friend three months ago went to Bali where he was bitten by two rabid dogs. 16 injections through the stomach-wall later…….I’m not sure if 16, but huge amount of injections. It is said that this cure is worse than the disease itself.

  16. Shineybum

    Further again, in the last 12 months, we’ve been to Vanuatu, Vietnam, Greece, Malaysia, Sumatra, most of Europe, and this time last week we were in Turkey. Nowhere else hase we encountered hawkers as aggressive and unpleasant as those in Bali. Never again will I go there. Pity, ‘cos it was paradise in the 70’s.

  17. Shineybum

    Further to my post above, I’ll tell you this: we had a hire car and drove to the volcano near Ubud. We got out at the lookout and then went back to the car. As we were getting back into the car we were surrounded by about 30 people who wouldn’t let us close the doors of the car but kept reaching in and tried to take our bags and feel us up and try to put their hands into our pockets. My wife started crying and screaming at them them to leave us alone, which only incited them further. It lasted for half an hour before we were finally able to close the doors of the car and it was probably one of the most harrowing experiences of our lives. We tried being polite and trying the tidak thing, but the more upset we got, the more aggressive they became. It was bad enough elsewhere in Bali, like Kuta, but nothing like the volcano.

  18. laurakneen

    One positive aspect of the article was that the author was honest and prepared to be critical. Most travel articles are basically advertorial, with the writer banging on about how wonderful the place is – with the small disclaimer that he/she travelled as the guest of that country’s tourism department.

  19. malcolm

    Want to avoid touts in Bali, go the the north coast, beautiful and quiet. Loved it

  20. Pippa Davie

    I read this article this morning and was fuming for a while, decided it was pointless engaging in the debate and gave up. A few hours later, I went on twitter and to my delight saw the reaction wasn’t mine alone – thank goodness.

    I’ve spent many years in and out of Bali and while it’s certainly busier these days, I don’t think the number or behaviour of ‘touts’ has changed much – nor has the way they should be responded to, which is (if you don’t want their services of course) a friendly smile, ‘terima kasih’ with a shake of the head, and keep walking straight ahead. If they’re persistent, add a ‘tidak mau’ or firm ‘no’. Not once have I ever had these tactics fail or felt remotely harrassed. As Amber points out, they’re just trying to make a living the best way they can and tourists are it! I’ve used this all over South-East Asia (in local languages obviously – never hard to learn please, thank you and no) and have had the same experiences. My advice to anyone I know who is going to Bali is simple – smile lots, bargain hard, be friendly, and you’ll have a great time.

    I have to admit I do avoid Kuta like the plague (but spend most of my time in Ubud, which is the focus of the article).

  21. Venise Alstergren

    Meant to read. How on earth can you get from one side to the other side of Bangkok in peak hour traffic?

  22. Venise Alstergren

    How on earth can you get from one side of Bangkok in peak hour traffic if not by motorbike? Phnom Penh is very spread out and it still has huge pot-holes in the near country-side=motorbike travel is a necessity. Vientiane-if I remember correctly-is another place where motorbike travel is all the go (no pun intended).

    Fortunately I have never been to Bali. Nor do I ever intend going there. Why travel to a place which is wall-to-wall Ockers and hoons? There are more than enough right here in Oz.

  23. Shineybum

    Sorry, but there’s a lot of truth in this article. I’ve traveled extensively, and too many developing countries. I’ve been to Bali 4 times between 1975 and 2006. I will never go back. The hawkers there are now just over the top. They seem to take particular delight in harassing foreign female tourists until they break down in tears. I have never been to another 3rd world country anywhere near as bad. I note that the Age journo ‘Amber’ has never even been to Bali, so I wonder how she’s qualified to comment.

  24. paddy

    Dear me. When rich tourists go to poor countries, they get the benefit of cheap prices.
    They pay for that privilege, by being exposed to the (often intense) competition for their business by the local touts.
    It’s hardly rocket science, but Webb’s piece certainly demonstrates one of the least attractive things about visiting Bali.
    Crass, ill-mannered Australians, with an overwhelming sense of their own importance and a stunning inability to just chill out.
    Hopefully, Fairfax will send her somewhere more “exciting & colourful” next time.

    I hear Chihuahua in Mexico is “nice” at this time of year. 😎

  25. Mark Duffett

    Yes, the Webb piece contains much that is remarkably ill-informed, even insulting. But it nevertheless contains information that will be useful to a lot of people, namely that if you don’t like being hassled by touts, don’t go to Bali, or at least avoid the population centres there as much as possible. I don’t know that having ‘sympathy for the locals’ really helps in this regard (not liking touts), rather it makes them harder to ignore.

  26. Siobhan Argent

    I thought the reaction to Carolyn Webb’s article was completely ridiculous. Basically, she’s saying that the nastier elements of a tourist-popular location ruined her ability to actually see the place. That’s not uncommon. I agree that she could have been a little less harsh and done some ACTUAL travel writing (it was one massive b~tch, that article). However the stupid article that was published on the Age a few hours later by Richard Woolveridge was basically him reimagining a day in Bali where he got ripped off. You can either be lucid and honest about the repercussions of tourism (people go after tourists for their money, fair enough) or you can trick yourself into thinking they want to offer you a great experience and then perhaps get some money off you later.

    For my part, both sides were equally repulsive.

  27. Gerry Hatrick, OAP


  28. Anna Maguire

    Having been in Ubud at the same Writers and Readers Festival I’m pretty horrified at her comments in such a high profile online newspaper. I didn’t feel harassed, I merely smiled and told them I was walking OR actually used their services which were very handy. Admittedly I used cars not motorbikes, but they were how I got around. The locals were merely trying to make some money and Caroline Webb should think about the difference in our incomes and try to have some sympathy in a country were (as I understand from a conversation with one of my taxi drivers) there is no support if you don’t have an income.

  29. That Chatfield Fellow

    That article in one line:
    “Naaaaw I went somewhere not Australia and it wasn’t Australia. Naaaaawwwww.”


  30. Michael Vaughan

    nice rant, aj, you’re on the money. recently in vanuatu,a well-heeled tourist skipped on his bar bill … about 120 bucks … and the bar staff were told that they’d have to work for nothing until the amount was made good. thank god for a benevolent aussie, who paid it. the bill skipper had been drinking cocktails, worth more each than the bar staff made in a week. to carolyn webb, lighten up and get on with enjoying yourself … and spare a thought for the locals … a bit of sympathy to their cause wouldn’t go astray.

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