The tourist’s guide to Bali, tempo dulu

I’m going to Bali again. For the third time this year. Leaving behind me the turdgit waters of Jakarta’s Venetian canals and exchanging them for the clear, aquamarine seas of North Bali. Not a bad deal huh? But there’s a catch. Because just as Cinderella couldn’t stay at the ball, I can’t stay forever in Bali. That’s just the way it works. The clock strikes midnight and before you can say “Schapelle Corby” you are in the departure hall of Bali’s Ngurah Rai International airport and carefully nursing an overpriced can of warm Beer Bintang…

Tourists have been going to Bali for ages now, of course. But that sort of got me thinking – exactly how long? Now I know the hippy dudes first set up camp in the small village of Kuta in the ‘70s (yep just imagine that, Kuta as a small village!), but that hardly marks the beginnings of tourism in Bali.

For that, you have to go back much further.

To the 1920s and 1930s, and even before.

A time when the Yanks banned booze, the term for a loose woman was “charity girl”, and cigarettes were 10 cents a pack.

Anyways, here’s me guide; now “only” about 90 years out of date :)

The tourist’s guide to Bali, 1920

Getting there. Well, you can forget about a nice easy trip on some budget airline for a start. Tourism in Bali really owes its beginnings to the creation of an official government Tourist Bureau in 1908 in Batavia – now Jakarta of course – which sold Bali as the "Gem of the Lesser Sunda Isles”. But it wasn’t until 1924 that the Royal Packet Navigation Company (KPM) laid on a weekly steamship connecting the capital with Bali's north coast port of Buleleng (Singaraja). Traveling this way must have been a lot like traveling on one of today’s huge Indonesian PELNI passenger ships I guess – but without the millions of mattresses laid out everywhere (including under the stairs). Once in Bali, you’d probably rent a car – much like you would today. Except that it wouldn’t be Japanese of course, but some huge old banger that you have to wind up by hand. Wonderful!

Bali Tourism Poster issued by the travelers official information bureau of the Netherlands Indies Batavia
They certainly knew how to promote Bali in the old days!

Where to stay. There certainly weren’t many hotels in those days. As for the first ever tourist hotel in Bali? Well, it was built in Denpasar and some highly imaginative Dutch chap named it “Bali Hotel”! Even more preposterous was its location: on the site where the puputan massacre and mass suicide took place in 1906! Another hotel was built in Kintamani - the perfect location to take in the spectacular vistas around Lake Batur.

But by the 1930s, Sanur was the place to be. It attracted expats, artists with a fondness for painting nude Balinese women, writers and other luminaries, as well as its fair share of degenerates such as pedophiles and other unsavory types (much like today, really). One of the most famous painters was a Belgian chap called Le Mayeur (1880-1958). He married a Balinese dancer called Ni Pollok and for some reason or another painted her nude as often as he possibly could, with one of his paintings of her recently selling by auction at Christies for the cool sum of US$22,682.

 Ni Pollok
Le Mayeur could certainly paint (although he’d probably be arrested in today’s less enlightened Indonesia)

Wildlife. Incredible as it may seem, early tourists to Bali still had a chance of seeing a real Bali tiger - in the wild!!! Now of course the only tigers in Bali are gonna be in the Bali safari zoo – and they aren’t gonna be Bali tigers either. The last confirmed sighting of a tiger in Bali was in 1937 when some idiot decided to shoot the rare beast. Shame the WWF was not around back then. Amazingly, the Balinese tiger was never captured alive on film and neither was it ever displayed in a public zoo. All we have now is a few skulls and bones and some old photos of the dead cat.

 Panthera tigris balica, Bali Tiger
Some hunter types have just shot dead a Bali Tiger. Twats.

Beer. Ever wondered what tourists used to guzzle before Beer Bintang, Anker Bir or the incredibly insipid Bali Hai beer? Well it was something called Java Bier, and it was brewed under the name of NV Nederlandsch Indische Bierbrouwerijen.

 drinkt java bier Heineken became the major shareholder in 1936 but in the backlash against foreign companies following independence, the state took over the company and it was given a new name: Perusahaan Bir Bintang!

Celebrity tourists. Old Mr big lips himself (Mick Jagger) and David Bowie are both said to love Bali. Michael Jackson also visited on a number of occasions. But possibly the first ever celebrities to visit Bali were funny man Charlie Chaplin and his traveling companion Noel Coward, who wrote this pretty much unknown yet rather witty ditty:

As I said this morning to Charlie,
There is far too much music in Bali.

And although as a place it's entrancing,
There is also a thought too much dancing.
It appears that each Balinese native
From the womb to the tomb is creative,
And although the results are quite clever,
There is too much artistic endeavor.

Which pretty much sums up the place today.

Some things never change, eh?


  1. Very nice article and info. thanks for share. keep update

  2. never knew about it before. Good post.

    May i share the link?

  3. I found a great book about Bali written by a fellow called Miguel Covarrubias who lived there in the 1930's with a balinese prince in Denpasar and was friends with Walter Spies
    "The Island of Bali" published by PT Java Books,Berkley Books

  4. very good blog now the history long time ago



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