R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Respect (just a little bit)

September 7, 2009

I haven’t had a good rant for a while, and it’s time. Maybe I’ve gone native, but some of my fellow bules, here in Bali for their 10 day jaunts, are starting to bug me. What is it about visiting Bali that makes some people believe that ‘respect’ is a concept that is voluntarily surrendered somewhere just past the Denpasar Visa-on-Arrival counter and reclaimed once they have passed through Immigration back in their home country?

It’s certainly not the Balinese people, who are amongst the most respectful, beautiful, tolerant and patient people on this earth. It’s not the hotels and villas that provide a warm and welcoming environment for their visitors. No, it’s not Bali itself that is to blame – it’s the visitors themselves.

 It’s an age-old problem –  for some visitors, geographical and cultural displacement seems to trigger behaviour patterns  which are inappropriate, unseemly and downright insensitive. Much of this behaviour seems to flow from a belief that local cultural and social norms (and even laws) are irrelevant.  At the same time, there seems to be a parallel conviction that the mores and laws of the visitors’ home country should apply to the locals while the visitors are here. The paradox is that the worst offenders also believe that they are exempt from the social conventions of their home country during their stay.

When we have visitors who reject both the local customs and their own, yet demand total conformance to their own (albeit temporarily shelved) cultural values, we have a recipe for misunderstandings at best and social disasters at worst.

Seen recently:
A young lady, amply proportioned, wearing a tiny bikini top (which was a structural engineering marvel in itself), G-string and a transparent and very short sarong loudly berating a local who was reluctant to admit her to a temple in which people were praying. Now that may be decorative on the beach – if exaggerated gender markers are your thing – but totally inappropriate for a temple. Required reading: Temple Customs 101; Choosing the Right Clothes for You 101; Respect 101.

Then there was the overbearing ‘helpful’ visitor who barged in on two strangers who had just concluded a T-shirt purchase and dragged them away shouting “What? You just paid 90,000 for that?! Come with me and I’ll show you where you can get it for 30,000!”. The understandably upset vendor was summarily dismissed with a few choice Anglo-Saxon expletives, but still had the grace to keep his “Bloody bugil” response to a mutter. Required reading: Caveat Emptor 101; Bali Verbal Contracts 101; Keeping Your Nose Out of Other Peoples’ Business 101; Respect 101.

And of course, night-time brings out the the absolute gems. At a nice restaurant, the large, drunk, barefooted, sweaty, dirty-haired, singlet-over-huge-beer gut-clad lothario attempts to summon a waitress. As she tentatively steps forward, he raises his hairy leg to point past her with the sole of his foot, bellowing “Tee-Dack – not you fatso, the cute chick behind you …!” When the aforementioned cute one reluctantly comes over, he pats her on the head with one hand, on the bum with the other and loudly propositions her, taking offence when his romatic advances are rejected. Being of a somewhat decorous nature, your observer manages to prevent himself from vomiting in his scotch. Required reading: Hygiene 101; Balinese Taboos 101; Sensitivity 101; Travel Brochures to Anywhere but Bali; Respect 101.

I could go on; many of you will be pleased that I choose not to. Why do these eruptions of bad taste and cultural insensitivity happen? Is it that some people don’t see it as important to find out more about their destination before they leave home? Is it that they don’t care? Is it that the Westernised enclave of Greater Kuta promotes a form of tacky blindness that transforms normal people into cultural buffoons?

I don’t profess to know. But what I do know is that even if the perpertators of these disasters ignore all the required readings above, they should at least try to develop the most important quality one needs to survive and flourish in any culture – respect.

Then, and only then, in accordance with the best karmic traditions of this beautiful island’s culture, will I afford them respect in return.



  1. Sadly, I think this kind of behaviour perpetuates itself as more respectful tourists don’t really want to be near that. Hmmmm…

    • Exactly. So you see the development of ghettos of insensitivity. Unfortunately the oblivious then export their behaviour to those around them …

  2. Unfortunately this is so common in Kuta/Legian.

    Seems there are a lot of visitors who’s bad manners and lack of respect come on holiday with them .

    Another good reason to avoid these areas, as we do when we visit Bali.

  3. Very well written and well done, I think. Unfortunately, I think you will find that respect wasn’t surrendered at the VOA counter, but was never part of the baggage. You only need to look at airline reality shows to see that.
    And the rudeness and lack of respect is not only towards the locals, but also to westerners who choose to live and work in Bali. I remember my western friend who was in Customer Relations in a nice boutique hotel who was abused then when rebuked gently replied, “You’re in Customer Relations, you’re PAID to be abused.”

  4. I live in the Netherlands and I will be visiting Bali this september for the third time since 2006. Unfortunately, what you described, me and my sister whitnessed this type of behaviour a lot, coming from Australians. I travelled all over Europe as well, and I can tell you that we have the same kind of traveller over here. The “beautiful people” of the United Kingdom…..
    We always try to be extra, extra, friendly, respectful and support local business, just to let the beautiful balinese people know, we’re not al the same!

  5. Yes we all see these displays of rudeness and vulgarity whilst on holiday and no i don’t agree with this behaviour at all, but seriously you could argue that keeping your nose out of others business 101 may work against you here as well as fat drunken tourist propositioning poor waitress could be looked at like if you chose to except the money and work in the sleaze pits of kuta and legian these are some of the downsides that come with the job much the same as some days you get tipped more than a weeks wages that you’d never see working in the kampung etc etc
    I have lived in Bali for a few years and my wife is
    Javanese and the amount of problems we have had from indonesians who think that a 35 y/o Australian with a 30 y/o Indonesian are a Aussie surfer and his holiday rental so therefore treat you like a tourist and her like julia roberts in pretty woman far outweigh the negatives i’ve had from tourists

  6. Dear Borborigmus, I’m a javanese living in Bali for almost 9 years, and would like to Thank You big times for writing this post that I found from Twitter (yes!! we’re twitter buddy!), I need you all westerners/BULE’ : expats or tourists know that we, the locals have the SAME thought like you that’s been bothering us since long long time, but there’s little we can do because first our character & culture is : welcoming, excepting whatever ‘Tamu’ does to us aka too kind, too passive, and also because of we work mostly for ‘bule’ here.

    My russian neighbors in Jimbaran here gives me nerf everyday, by being super annoying with their daily scream to each others, dog poops in front of my gate, never say hi back to us the locals (yet they decided to live among us!), and stubborn when we urge them to walk their dog to the park.

    And about aussie & the singlet & Bintang? (many of them are EXPATS not only tourists)! Hmmm..speechless, one of them scream in drunk : DUDE! Indonesia is a country of NO RULE and everything is CHEAP!Let’s PARTY!….

    At the end of the day I just want to say to these people : DUDE! Can’t you find a decent job in your country and stop ‘polute’ Bali with your horrific virus!

    Thank you again for writing this post!

    • Thanks gabybali. Maybe the solution is in education – some sort of cultural shift is definitely needed. The Bali Times people where my blog posts are often published even suggested that this post be printed as a leaflet and given to every visitor (male and female) arriving in Bali!

  7. Sorry, but I find the use of the word bule pretty offensive too. I’m a long time Indonesia resident and it’s often not used as a term of respect, rather derision by Balinese, and is only one step away from calling someone a nigger. That it is so widely used, even in the local media, as I guess the N word was in the US 70 years ago, makes it even worse.

    • Interesting point. Yes, it is a mildly derogatory term, and its use by Indonesian locals – about us – can carry negative connotations. However, I feel that it’s use by the target group about themselves – that’s us – is far less loaded. I used it in this post to highlight that an epithet like ‘bule’ is often appropriate. Maybe our behaviour is the driver that generates the language used to describe it. So maybe changing behaviour, rather than avoiding the words is the key here 😉

      • I disagree that it’s only mildly derogative. It is often used with fairly substantive negativity in the Balinese community.

        Personally I find it offensive when used by any group although I understand your ‘less loaded’ argument, and African-Americans use of the N word is a case in example, but that use also, by implication, accepted that it was a term of derision and many African Americans find the word offensive no matter who uses it.

        Many Balinese I know are also uncomfortable with the word, as they are with the widespread racial slurs against Chinese and Malaysians (even though they are racially the same as many Indonesians) and the way they appear, without criticism in the populist and tabloid Indonesian media. I wonder how the Sun-Herald would fare if it had a headline that went “Four Niggers Arrested”? Because that’s the way the word is used in Bali.

        Balinese (and this is a huge generalisation) have their qualities but respect for other races is not one of them and I’m uncomfortable with helping to perpetuate this.

        Incidentally I find that I’m rarely called a bule in Java (although once again the media does use it) where there is generally more tolerance of other races or creeds than on this island.

        I thoroughly agree with the bulk of your post though, and I’m often very ashamed of my fellow non-Balinese, most especially those from the Great Southern Land, who take crass to a new level. And it’s not always tourists.

      • Thoughtful and thought-provoking comment.
        Thank you.

      • It’s interesting to note how all my Australian friends call themselves bule around their Indonesian friends, in Australia at least. And it’s used somewhat among their Indonesian friends as well. In either case it is used with ironic/positive connotations. It seems equivalent to calling yourself “honky” among Maori, or “whitefella” among Aboriginal Australians.

        I doubt they’d use it in the same ways in Indonesia, however, for the reasons snig mentions.

  8. Hello, awesome post. I just found your website and I’m already a fan. :]

  9. Really nice posts. I will be checking back here regularly.

  10. Generally I do not post on blogs, but I would like to say that this post really forced me to do so, Excellent post!

  11. if i may leave my two cents, (qualification) I’ve been in Indonesia for over 4 years, a couple in Jakarta, and a couple in Bali. The conclusion I have come to is that, for better or worse the Indonesian people have been accelerated from forest dwelling villages to city living far too quickly. The western world has had hundreds of years to argue, fight and compromise over correct behavior in public. Compared to the single generation it took here in Indonesia, where values of western society are being imposed without the backing of the support systems westerners take for granted.

    Without doing away with religion as we have mostly in Europe the only hope to find any neutral ground is in the education of the people here in Bali and in Aus.

    There is no excuse for ignorance in this day and age, that said my personal values are wildly different to an Indonesians values, and who should be the arbitrator to say which is correct?

    Everyone has to agree that the current generation in power has to start thinking radically about the proper education of the next…

    • That’s the most concise, accurate assessment most likely ever written! I couldn’t agree more.

  12. Delightful to read!

  13. I agree 100% with snig27.

    I have been living in Indonesia for more than 6 years and am also married to an Indonesian lady from Medan.

    I find the use of the word ‘bule’, in whichever context, highly offensive as do I the word ‘mister’.

  14. I found you on a bali forum and I thought I would take a look at your rant as I tend to enjoy them. I have been playing around on the online expat communities and I just feel that a lot of the expats are so rude and “knowledgeable” of Bali that is reeks with arrogance. I honestly feel a bit nervous moving to Bali and it has nothing to do with that it’s Indonesia. I’ve lived in Batam for a few years because my father is Indonesian! It’s the expats that make me feel that I may end up regretting being around them.

    Last time I was on Kuta Beach some tourists or extremely rude expats were yelling at me something I could not quite understand because of their accent. No matter what it was they were hollering I found it rude.

    • It’s those cultural differences again, I suspect. What some Western expats find good humoured and fun-loving, others find insufferably rude and loud. What some locals see as friendly and socially-acceptable curiosity, Westerners find invasive and smothering. Some places in Bali seem to attract extremes of behaviour from just about everyone. But I think this is true of any place in Asia that has a tourist and expat population.

      Luckily Bali is so varied that you are sure to find areas where you will feel safe and comfortable. And as for the few arrogant idiots that are around? Do as you would anywhere – just ignore them. Crass people feed on their ability to get you to respond to them, so don’t!

      Enjoy your move to Bali – for all its flaws, it’s a wonderful place!

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