Like it or loathe it, Bali’s bustling capital doesn’t care what you think of it.
Bali’s capital, Denpasar, is untamed. There’s something about it that sets it apart from Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh, Phnom Penh et al… cities which, over the last fifteen years, have become firmly established on the tourist trail. These cities, once exotic, are now epicentres for the travel industry, with virtually all foreign visitors on the SE Asia loop passing through them. As a result, travelling in these hubs, while fun, can be slightly predictable. There are English signs everywhere and plenty of tourists about. Khao San Road in Bangkok is a prime example of what can happen when tourism invades like a flesh-eating virus, consuming its host and taking over to unimaginable proportions. Is this the ‘real’ Bangkok now? It’s hard to tell.
Denpasar is different. Despite millions of visitors pouring into Bali each year, almost everyone heads straight to the beaches of Kuta or Sanur from the airport, or up north to Ubud. No one stays long in Denpasar and it’s easy to see why. It’s a chaotic shambles, a mess of a city. From a traditional tourist standpoint there’s no reason to be there: you can either stay deep in the city and be surrounded by rats and pollution, or drive 40 minutes in either direction and take your pick from any number of world-class resorts on white-sand beaches. The majority unquestionably choose the latter. However, with 800,000 people now living in Denpasar, this city is as much a part of Bali’s identity as the idyllic resorts of the coast and the traditional culture found in the country’s mountainous core. This is how the majority of Balinese live: away from the tourist industry. Normal day-to-day life. If you can call it normal.
The lack of tourists did surprise me. There were none on the streets at all. I wanted to change money but no one could help. I got perplexed looks and lots of extended “hmmmms…” combined with intricate beard strokings. “Have you tried the bank?” people would ask me. Ask someone where to change money in Bangkok and you’ll be whisked away in a tuk-tuk before you’ve even finished your sentence. In downtown Denpasar I hopped on the back of a motorbike and it took 30 minutes snaking round potholed backstreets to find somewhere. In the end we actually had to drive out of Denpasar and head towards Kuta. Point being, tourism just isn’t prevalent here. There are no moneychangers because there are no tourists wanting to change money. Comprende?
It’s rough around the edges. Traffic snarls, while ominous 6ft-gaps in the pavement invite you to take a dip in the black, putrid water that lies below. Women scurry between speeding cars, carrying huge bags of fruit and vegetables on their heads. It has that smell. The smell associated with all big Asian cities. But despite it being a bit of an ugly duckling, people are eager to say hello (the Indonesian word for hello is hello, no confusion there). I ate beef satay by the side of the road with a few Balinese kids who were in a pop punk band. We talked about bands we both liked. I watched old timers play chess and laughed as school kids threw bags of flour over each other. People seemed content. Happy. The city’s charming Puputan Square is an oasis of calm. But for me, night time brought a different vibe. I was tired and the area I was staying in was remote. Street food looked stale and uninviting. People looked at me strangely. Those 6ft-gaps in the pavement now invisible, hard to spot.
Denpasar isn’t a place defined or ruled by tourism. Unlike so many other towns and cities in the country that rely on incoming visitors, it really doesn’t give a shit whether you like it or not. It has its own identity. Yes there are glitzy resorts just up the road, but they may as well be a thousand miles away. ‘Tourists’ belong on the beach, but they don’t belong in Denpasar. Maybe that’s what makes it so exciting.
Denpasar is the capital of Bali, Indonesia. Standard fare from the airport to the centre is 100,000 rupiah, slightly less if you can be bothered to quibble over pennies. Accommodation can be hit or miss. In this respect don’t pay in advance with sites like Agoda. Better to use booking.com which allows you to reserve a room without paying. That’s your insurance policy: at least you know you have a roof over your head for the night. But it also means if you turn up and hate the place you’re not obliged to stay. It is better to have somewhere lined up though. It’s a sprawling city, you can’t just walk about and expect to find somewhere in an instant.
Food prices downtown are considerably lower than the rest of the tourist spots. Street food such as Nasi Goreng starts as low as 6,000 rupiah ($0.60) while I got 15 satay sticks and of rice for 15,000 ($1.50). Bring a torch for night and I’m serious about the potholes at the side of the road, some are large enough to throw a shopping trolley into. You generally have to be careful when walking about, especially cycling. The city has an awkward one-way system and if you choose to avoid it you need to have your wits about you. My advice is to go to Puputan Square at the weekend and just people watch. Say hello to the locals and laze about while kids fly kites high overhead. You’ll have a great time.