A farmer wades thigh-deep across his paddy field behind a pair of puffing, mud-spattered buffalo. His wife groans as she shoulders a bundle of firewood and makes her barefoot way back to their bamboo shack. The scenario is increasingly rare in Bali these days – in Kuta and Ubud electricity, mechanical rotovators and cable TV are already the norm.





The Asia of yesteryear is fast disappearing though and for the paddyfield peasant labourers this is no bad thing. What right have we to turn our nose up at the ‘progress’ that made it possible for us to travel halfway around the world to watch peasants toiling in the same sorry conditions that they did two centuries ago?




But progress and development are not always for the best. The town of Ubud has a way of highlighting the fact. About a decade ago I lived here for a while but every time I return I realize that Bali’s so-called spiritual heartland is fast losing its soul. In a couple of day the sixth BaliSpirit Festival will be opening here. Billed as a ‘spiritually charged event’ (charged at USD800 if you really want to know), this is five days of eat-pray-love decadence under the banner of the usual catchwords and marketing slogans revolving around words like retreat, sanctuary, well-being and eco-anything. As I overheard one successful yoga ‘mogul’ explaining it recently: “Ubud probably has two good years left in it…by that time I will have taken what I can out of it and will have moved on somewhere else.”




One place in Ubud that still had some old-time character was the dilapidated old market. It was a labyrinthine warren of shacks and stalls on two floors. The building was so overgrown with moss and ferns that, in places, it looked like it could have been a Jungle Book backdrop. It was a place where you could spend a pleasant morning browsing, shopping and chatting with the vendors…even if the haggling was not quite as light-hearted and cheerful as it is in the rest of Bali, it was still as well stocked with Balinese charm as it was with barong masks, Bintang stubby-holders and bottle-openers in the form of penises.




Ibu Puspa had her sarong stall on the second floor, overlooking the old temple. I went there this morning: the temple was packed with worshippers but the stall was gone. A ceremony was underway to bless the new market buildings. In place of the wonderful old ‘souk’ there is now a brand-new, air-conditioned, beige-painted complex that looks like a clinic. Each stall-owner has a little wire-framed compartment inside that is about the size that a changing room would be if this really was a clinic.




“They’re much smaller than our old stalls,” Ibu Puspa said when I met her in the backstreet shack that she has moved her wares to. “We get charged much more there now but get much less space.”




It is the very first day that the new market has been opened and, for Ibu Puspa’s benefit, I tried to sound upbeat about the development; just maybe this bright new, neon-lit space will attract all the tourists that the old buildings did. In any case the spiritual heartland of the Island of the Gods has probably sold its soul already – within a five-minute walk of Ibu Puspa’s stall you can find the local outlets of Starbucks, Crocs, Paul Smith and (even here, an hour from the beach) Billabong and Quiksilver. The tour buses continue to arrive and this week thousands of tourists will come in search of spiritual bliss. So maybe they won’t even notice the ugly market.




Ibu Puspa might have summed the entire attitude up when she told me what she really thinks of the new building. “It might not be as beautiful as the old market,” she admitted, “but at least it looks a lot more Australian and a lot less Balinese.”




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Published by Stuart Lodge