I've decided to post a little more here on the general topic of travel. While I've written a few articles about some of the places that feature in my books, I haven't talked about travel in general, which is, after all, what I write about for a living (a very, very modest living, I might add). I've been thinking about this for a while, but this particular article was prompted by an article on Huffington Post asking, “Is Bali a Lost Cause?”
The article goes on at some length about the author's trip to Bali, and how awful it was. For me, the story hits on two big issues that affect a number of people and probably result in a lot of grief: 1) Failure to research a destination, and 2) Planning a trip with “gay blinders” on.
[caption id="attachment_1439" align="aligncenter" width="600"] A lone traditional fishing boat at anchor off a deserted Bali beach.[/caption]
Researching your destination is critical these days. It's all very well to consider yourself a free spirit who picks up and goes where the mood strikes you, but, well, look at this guy. Seriously, you went to Bali based solely on seeing “Eat, Pray, Love”? Who does that? If the author had done just the tiniest bit of research, he would have found any number of articles decrying the cesspit that South Bali had become. The stories from one major news outlet or another are almost a daily occurrence now. I've visited Bali more than twenty times in the last seven years, and never have been very fond of South Bali - the areas commonly known as Kuta and Legian. For me, they have always represented the very worst that mass tourism brings: touts who accost you with offers of transport, t-shirts, massages or whatever at every step, along with a creaking infrastructure that seems constantly close to collapse from the weight of over-development.
But you know what? Bali is a big island. It takes about two days, at least, to drive all the way around it. There's a lot more to the place than just Kuta, Legian and their neighbors. There are dozens of other places that have nice little resorts, a good stretch of beach, and few if any touts. One of my current favorites is Candidasa, pictured above. It's near the eastern tip of the island, about an hour or two's drive from the airport. The beach there is not great, I admit, but there were a few dozen resorts in many different price ranges, and a frankly unbelievable selection of really good restaurants. There are other destinations I know of but haven't had a chance to explore, like Amed and Pemuteran.
People seem to associate Bali almost exclusively as a beach destination, when in fact there is some truly spectacular scenery and some great cultural attractions in the mountains of the interior. The island's “cultural capital” of Ubud can be over-run with tourists, but somehow I still manage to enjoy it, at least for a few days. I've had some very memorable times there over the years, and there are some fantastic resorts in the countryside around it, with amazing views.
Restricting yourself to “gay” places is another potential problem, especially in Southeast Asia. It seems the author of the article went directly to some web site and picked one of the few exclusively gay resorts in Bali. Now, there's nothing wrong with Spartacvs, I've visited there although I haven't stayed there, and it looks like a nice place, but if you're looking to see the 'real' Bali, you're not going to find it at an all-male, clothing optional hotel in the middle of one of the most built-up areas of the island. Apparently, that seemingly obvious conclusion was lost on the author.
Although most of my visits to Bali have been business related, in one way or another, and thus usually made alone, I have still managed to bring my boyfriend along on a few trips. We have never stayed in a gay resort, or even one overtly identified as gay friendly. The thing is, in most of Southeast Asia, including Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia, and totally homophobic Singapore, two men can share a room - with a king size bed - without hardly raising an eyebrow. While you still want to do your research, there's no need to go out of your way to stay at gay-owned or even overtly gay-friendly accommodations. One of the fond memories I spoke of above was three nights at a resort outside of Ubud with my boyfriend. We had a private villa all to ourselves, where we could lounge naked inside or out, have a little afternoon nookie on the big daybed outside, and then roll into our own little pool, where we could sit and look out over deep valleys terraced with rice.
The sad fact that I almost hate to admit is that I actually tend to avoid gay hotels and resorts in this region. In most cases, there just isn't even an option. Outside of Bangkok, Pattya, Phuket and Bali, there are almost no gay accommodations in Southeast Asia. Even in those places, I often find that the gay places don't offer the best value for money, or the best locations. I like to explore places on foot, so that is perhaps the single biggest consideration when deciding where I'm going to stay.
Over the years, I've also found that a lot of businesses that fly the rainbow flag aren't really that gay-friendly. If you run a restaurant on Pattaya's gay beach, you're going to make more money if you put the flag out than if you don't. These places do offer some support to the community, but that's only because that's where the money is coming from. I'm not going to give my custom to a business just because it's gay-owned or gay-friendly, they have to earn my business just like everyone else, by giving me value for money.
The last line of the article is really rich, where he says “I hear Phuket is better.” Believe me, if Mr Schrader approaches planning a trip to Phuket with the same lack of thought he put into Bali, he'll find it's an even bigger cesspit. The gay hotels on the island are all concentrated in the sleaziest area of Patong Beach, which is an area just as bad as South Bali, with the added problem of a rather high crime rate. It will be interesting to see what posts come out of that trip, assuming he makes it out alive.