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Bali is dirty.

There, I said it. It’s the conclusion that I have come to after about five weeks on the island, which, in glossy travel magazines, is often described as “the island of the gods”, with accompanying pictures of pristine beaches, lush rice fields and women in traditional dresses. What I have found, especially in the south of Bali, is something in between a tourist trap and a dump. The north is slightly better. There are beautiful places – green rice terraces, charming little mountain villages, colourful temples and some fairly interesting wildlife – but the south will always be etched in my memory as one of the places, you’d probably have to pay me handsomely to go back to. Above all, even the most beautiful places in Bali are overshadowed by a gigantic public waste disaster.

It’s time to talk about my love-hate relationship with Bali.

The beauty of Bali outside the tourist-zone.

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan: the beauty of Bali outside the tourist-zone.

Kuta: probably one of the most touristy places on the planet.

Kuta: probably one of the most touristy places on the planet.

The Good: Beautiful Nature and Interesting Temples

Bali has a lot of potential. The island is covered in impressive rice terraces with women and men working in the fields wearing colourful clothes and the traditional conical hats, the temples and the ceremonies are beautiful and the accompanying religion is fascinating. There are three volcano’s on Bali – Batur, Bratan and Agung –  and quite a few mountain ranges, which rise up from the lush green land in impressive peaks and can be hiked alone or with tours. There are serene lakes, winding mountain roads and waterfalls in rainforests, such as Gitgit and Munduk.

Green rice fields up around Ubud.

Green rice fields around Ubud.

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan - the famous water temple on Lake Bratan.

Pura Ulun Danu Bratan – the famous water temple on Lake Bratan.

Little shrine on Lake Bratan.

Little shrine on Lake Bratan.

As soon as I got out of the touristy centers, I found several beautiful places and I enjoyed just taking the scooter and going exploring. Being a fairly small but popular island, most of the attractions, such as Tanah Lot and Uluwatu are busy, with lots of tour busses showing up and usually a big parking lot and a tourist market out front. As long as you don’t go in the middle of the day on a weekend, even those places are very enjoyable and beautiful. But if you come to Bali looking for deserted beaches and quiet towns, you will have long drives and lots of searching ahead of you.

Munduk Waterfall on the north side of the island.

Munduk Waterfall on the north side of the island.

The Bad and the Ugly: Bali is a Public Waste Disaster

Obviously the Kuta/Legian/Seminyak region is a touristy hell and absolutely not my thing, but it being meathead territory wasn’t even the biggest issue I had with the place. I tried to give the area a chance. I have forced myself several times to go back to a beach that was covered in trash and to swim in a sea of plastic, in hopes of finally getting where all the ravings about Bali are coming from. And I’m not talking about the occasional wrapper being thrown into the water. At times it was so bad, that all I could see in the water was an endless carpet of trash. Wading in there, I could feel it brushing against my legs and tangling in my fingers. Combined with the “hello daaaarling” comments whispered in my general direction by creepy dudes in the streets, the constant offerings from shady men to buy some magic mushrooms and the army of party tourists wearing “I fucked Rhonda” shirts, I just kind of gave up and decided to get my nature-fix with long trips into the backcountry and to spend the rest of the time binge eating on street food and staying on my couch.

Trash on Seminyak Beach.

Trash on Seminyak Beach.

Attempted clean up at the more touristy and hip Kuta Beach.

Attempted clean up at the more touristy and hip Kuta Beach.

The pollution going on in some areas of Bali is so bad, that it will give everyone who isn’t completely inebriated or passed out in some side street the urge to gag and drown themselves in a bucket of delicious peanut and chilli satay sauce or to jump on the next plane leaving the island. The disgusting condition that the beaches and the water is in at that time of the year between December and March, is attributed to the winds and currents of this particular season, which end up washing ashore all the trash coming from the direction of Java.

Sure, the Balinese can’t control the weather, but I don’t quite buy into the “let’s blame Java” approach they have going there. Even when I went out of the touristy centers and big cities to the beautiful, postcard perfect places, there was always trash. The garbage out in the backcountry is just an extension of the disgusting mess that can be found on the beaches. Just like on the neighbouring island of Java, a lot of people seem to show a complete disregard for the planet and their home. Some make a weak attempt to hide their trash behind trees or in ditches, as if that makes everything better, but more often than not, it is just carelessly strewn on the ground. Heck, even the national parks are littered with plastic.

Trash hidden beside a building at the Uluwatu Temple.

Trash thrown beside a building at the Uluwatu Temple.

It’s the attitude held by a lot of locals, that it’s perfectly okay to chuck absolutely everything into the nearest river – out of sight, out of mind style – that is the true root of the problem. Why is it, that the locals don’t seem to see or care what is happening to their beautiful island? Is it lack of education? An incompetent government? It’s probably a combination of both and the idea, that it’s socially accepted to just chuck everything into the nearest ravine seems to go a long way back. There isn’t even a sewage system in place in Bali, everything goes into the rivers and consequently into the ocean.

Fact is, the place is a disaster and it needs changes fast. But so far, everybody seems to be busy blaming each other or the wind and the population is living in a complete state of denial. Bali has the potential to be a beautiful island, but it has to get its act together, or it will see its popularity diminish rapidly as the travellers of the world start catching on. The glossy magazines can only cover up so much.

About The Author

Tiffany is a Swiss travel writer, digital nomad, and photographer, who, after a fateful journey through Africa, has decided to get her passport renewed, sell all her junk, and live out of a suitcase in various corners of the world, as well as share the experiences with other travel enthusiasts. This blog is intended to inspire you to pack your bags, leave everything behind for a while, and make you go discover the world. Check her out on .

27 Responses

  1. Lourika Reinders

    SHOCKING!!!!!! I lived in Phuket for 2.5 years and it was just as bad!! The expat community were the ones that tried to hold regular ‘clean up days’ – it really saddens me that it is the COUNTRY’S OWN PEOPLE that often are the ones polluting their own islands. Would you still recommend any one to actual go see Bali??? I’ve never been, but I’d love to go dive there still…..

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      I’ve never been to Phuket but heard before that it’s bad – it’s terrible how all these beautiful islands get completely covered in trash. It makes me so sad seeing how people have no regard for the environment, but not being able to do anything to help apart from writing about it. I can recommend some places in Bali, I enjoyed the center of the island around Ubud and the north was ok as well, but I wouldn’t specifically recommend going to Bali, unless you’re already in Southeast Asia and just dropping by. While diving in Bali is good, there are also the Gili islands, Lombok or the Komodo Islands, which are in the area and have great diving spots – and they are way less touristy and much cleaner.

      Reply
  2. Travis

    Great post Tiffany. Definitely a side of Bali you don’t hear much about. I don’t know if it is because Calli and I are from Canada, but the one thing that never fails to put us off a place is garbage. It’s just not accepted back home. Once, at home, I saw someone throw a McDonald’s bag out their car window while stopped at a traffic light, only to have a passerby pick it up and throw it back into their car.

    I also don’t understand how people can think that throwing their garbage into a river or ditch is ok – then again at home we bury it in the ground so perhaps it’s no better. As tourists in a place like Bali, it’s really frustrating to see something like this and not be able to do anything – the garbage that you properly bagged in your hotel/hostel is likely going to be thrown in a ditch somewhere after you leave.

    However what is even more frustrating are the tourists that simply show up, lay on the beach, get drunk, go on a few guided tours (if they even leave the resort) and leave with no idea there is even a problem. Good on you for writing so honestly about your opinion of Bali!

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      Thanks Travis. It was incredibly shocking for me to have that image of a beautiful island completely shattered in my head. I had a cup of instant noodles thrown at me in the middle of Kuta traffic – while I wish I could have picked it up and thrown in back, I had to be satisfied with speeding up and yelling at them through their car window. I think they were surprised at someone calling them out, but in the end all I got was a blank stare. It is completely socially accepted and rooted in their culture to chuck everything on the strees, if you confront someone about it, they won’t get it.

      All the party tourists are probably too drunk to notice or care, but I did try my best to dispose of my trash properly. Then again, I guess you’re right: whenever it rained you could see the locals sprinting to the rivers with their garbage, so the water would flush it away quickly. I have a feeling this is what happened to our apartment garbage bag as well. All we can do really is write about it and hopefully people will stop going there. The only thing that will force change is the absence of tourist money – or some new government programs implementing sewage infrastructures, but I’ll guess we’ll go vacation on Mars before that ever happens.

      Reply
  3. katie featherstone

    Really interesting and honest post- it’s always good to read about the negative of a destination from an unbiased source. I love your photo- ‘Little shrine on Lake Bratan’.

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      Thanks Katie. There are some pretty spots, like the shrine on the lake. But behind me in that photo was a swampy field littered with trash. Can’t be avoided sadly.

      Reply
  4. Caro

    THANK YOU for this post. Throughout our travels, I often found that it’s foreigners caring for litter, etc. What really angers me is how countries such as America or Canada get lots of blame for the pollution but if you take a look so many other, smaller, countries contribute greatly to it. A sad tale. Where in Indonesia do you recommend going?

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      Thanks Caro. Anywhere but Bali really – although there is trash throughout Indonesia on basically all of the islands to some extent, some of them are definitely better than others. Komodo, the Gili Islands and Lombok are much better and are in the same area.

      Reply
    • Amelia

      Hey i’m from Indonesia 🙂 If you want to go to Bali i recommended you to go Seminyak and Jimbaran. The place is still clean. And Lombok, Sumatra it’s a perfect place 🙂

      Reply
      • Tiffany

        I’ve heard great things about Lombok and Sumatra and will definitely give those islands a chance next time I’m in the area. I did go to Seminyak Beach a couple times but it was equally dirty – I think it’s just that side of the Islands that’s pretty bad at this time of the year. Thanks for the tips!

  5. Thibault

    Hi Tiffany,
    First, congratulations on your post. I live part of the year in Bali and it breaks my heart to see so much waste scattered on the beaches. This is all more true during the rain season (December – February): like a giant toilet bowl, storms flush down the rivers all kind of rubbish. As your pictures show, from flip flops to plastic bags, this is a disaster.
    It is hard for me to explain the matter to Balinese locals who throw this stuff in the rivers. First, who do I think I am to tell what to do? Second, even if they were collecting their garbage, there is no infrastructure to take of it (no garbage trucks, for instance).
    Now, Bali is developing really fast. Infrastructures need (and will) catch. But in the 5 to 10 years to come, I am not sure that it will be resolved.

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      Thanks for your comment Thibault. There being no infrastructure in place is probably one of the main problems – if they started building that up, I’m sure the mindset of the people would gradually change as well. I hope you’re right and they do resolve it soon, even if it takes 10 years.

      Reply
  6. Dave

    Have seen the same most everywhere in my travels. Remember being on the bridge watching the sun rise over the “East Sea” in Nha Trang, Vietnam and having a well dressed office worker pull up beside me on an luxury scooter, getting off with a large plastic bag full of rubbish and throwing it into the river on the outgoing tide.

    Remember being on a boat in Vanuatu and after being out for a week getting the NeVan crew to clean up the boat – we had large rubbish bins on deck for rubbish disposal ashore.
    Looks back in the wake 20 minutes later and see a stream of rubbish out the back, boat was clean and bins were empty.

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      Sadly it does seem to be a trend that can be observed in many (or even all) developing countries. Your boat story is just unbelievable… I fear the same thing basically happened to me in Bali. We rented an apartment and had a big trash bin, but I’m afraid it probably went into the rivers as well.

      Reply
  7. Amber

    Thanks for sharing this. I generally refer to Kuta as the armpit of Bali and don’t even attempt to go to Seminyak. I live in Ubud, which has its own challenges, traffic and trash being just two of them. There really is no comprehensive trash policy on the island. The government does nothing about it and the general population is just not use to the volume and type of trash that exists now, loaded with plastics and other non-biodegradable items. Their trash used to be predominantly food type waste and burning the trash worked fine. Now, it is just different. I love it here, and enjoy living here, but I do see a lot of things that break my heart.

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      Definitely a fitting term, you nailed it. I enjoyed it a bit more in Ubud, as at least there weren’t any hordes of party tourists. Do you live in Bali all year round?

      Reply
  8. janice healy

    I have been living in ubud for 7 years.
    There is so much to enjoy and respect here.
    I am being driven out by my neighbours who burn their garbage. In the Ubud area most banjars charge 50.000 rp a mo:nth and have areas to leave garbage in their village where it is collected by goverment trucks fairly regularly.
    Some ofvthe villagers still burn their waste rather than paying the required amount to have it disposed off correctly.
    Or which is now common my neighbours comprising of 3 houses and 2 kos (cheap housing for workers from Java, are creating a toxic nightmare for me because they want me to pay them to stop.
    I have spoken to the Kilian Dinas of Sayan he has spoken to them 4 times still they burn. I went to BLH the enviormental office told to write report give to the Bupati in Gianyar and BLH head office they spoke to the offenders and yet still they burn.i gave a report to the police in Ubud they went to speak with them all 3 times and yet still they burn.i went to see them and said i would pay for the 4 houses garbage collectiom each month they said yes we burn so people give us.money to stop but we want much more!

    So yes lack of understanding how deadly burning plastics can be for everyone and everything can be a reason they continue with this vile habit.
    Limited resources is another so burn rather than pay 50,000 to the banjar each month.
    The most offensive motive of all is intentionally causes harm to people to try and extort money from them.
    I have given them written information about this deadly habit but to no avail.

    People say to me oh just give them money to stop but my morality will not allow me to be held randsom like this.

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      Wow Janice this is awful to hear – I have noticed that greedy mentality as well. Paying a fair price or paying to take care of something isn’t enough, they always want more and are never satisfied. I didn’t even know there was some kind of government waste disposal in place at all, I figured everyone was just dumping their trash in the rivers because there was no other option. I’m glad you’re not giving in to their ridiculous demands, although it must be horribly annoying to watch this going on daily. Hang in there and I really hope the situation will get better for you.

      Reply
  9. Ben Alcock (@DisarmDoors)

    There’s been a lot about the litter washing up on the beaches from Kuta to Seminyak and beyond recently. Personally, I’ve never seen it that bad but it must really be awful….you reap what you sow, right?

    Bali’s a funny destination. As someone who works in the retail travel industry, I know how important it is that it’s “sold” right. You could EASILY put someone in the wrong place. It’s such a well-0visited place, but you really need to know your Sanurs from your Kutas, and your Alilas from your Stones.

    I love and loathe Bali in equal parts. I get the appeal. It’s a place that offers something for everyone. But, incongruously, it’s not for everyone.

    Great post.

    Happy travels,

    Ben

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      Yeah you have to be a bit of a party tourist to really enjoy the south of Bali. I mainly stayed there to be a bit in the center of things and to have good internet. Still, I would have liked it much better without the trash, that’s for sure. Thanks for you comment!

      Reply
  10. Elena's Travelgram

    Can’t agree more about Kuta, it has no identity at all. It could be copied and pasted somewhere in touristic Turkey and no one will notice the difference.

    And that guy on the photo with rice terrace – I’ve seen him too this summer 🙂 Trying to sell that grass hat to some tourist and asking money for taking a pic of him.

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      Haha yeah he’s always there, I was sneaky and snapped a photo when he wasn’t looking. Otherwise he’d always ask for money or hide his face behind the hat.

      Reply
  11. Scott West

    First I`d like to inform any readers that want to travel towards Lombok, it`s arguably one of the most polluted places on earth. They use mercury for the mining of gold, one of the most toxic substances in existence.

    Anyway, always happy to hear of people who are seeing when they are looking, though my primary concern like Janice is what I am smelling when I`m breathing… I`m a concerned expat living in Kerobokan and my issue with Bali thus, is the air quality. There are no regulations on the exhausts from vehicles, not only does this effect the levels of ozon on those rare sunny days “detect sarcasm”, but the particles of fine dust and the aftermath from the slowly phasing out of leaded gasoline is surely something worth considering for those people who like to breathe regardless of being concerned with the overall levels of oxygen dropping, worldwide. In regards with the dust I have no affiliation with Totobobo, but I never leave the house without wearing one. The amounts of dust in the air is easily seen but also felt in ones eyes and is exponentially getting worse with every new project that pops out of the ground, leaving piles of matter on the road that gets aerosolized with every other passing gust of wind or vehicle.

    My biggest issue regarding air quality in Bali is “the poison” or rather burning of trash, there really isn`t a remedy unless you`d like to walk around with a gas mask and sleep in a hermetically closed oxygen tank. They burn everything and anything and I can already differentiate when they are burning more plastic, tin cans or styro foam in their trash mix of the day. The hint of poison is prevalent on most parts of the island. People here heat water in plastic bottles above a bonfire made from old tires while carrying a baby in one arm and inhaling the thick black smoke, totally oblivious. Mind boggling. Ignorance is bliss. Take care Tiffany.

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      Thanks for your comment Scott, your story really is an eyeopener and a great contribution. You’re right about the air quality, which is pretty bad across Asia. I saw them burning the trash too, when they weren’t chucking it into the nearest ditch or river. The smell of plastic was often prevalent when driving and walking around outside.

      Reply
  12. Shikha (whywasteannualleave)

    Such an interesting read because most posts I have read about Bali portray a very one sided approach though a lot of people I know who have been there have, like you, had very mixed opinions.It’s always so sad to see beautiful places get ruined for simple, preventable reasons like littering.

    Reply
  13. kirsten

    we just got back from Bali. Oh my goodness never again.
    it was not our bucket list. Some good friends got “married” there.
    We had made a promise that we would go to their wedding what ever their choice.
    The resort we stayed at was terrific!!! The Intercontinental. Which we know is first class. We are fortunate that we can afford it and are very appreciative.
    The wedding was held at a lovely home/ for rent in Sanur. It was beautiful! No problem.
    There were 2 major problems that truly impacted our trip.
    1. The traffic!! The insane scooters! We later read that they add 60 scooters a day and 300 cars a day to an already clogged place.
    Most of the time I had to just look down to save my heart.
    In our opinion they are their own worst enemy! We feel that they are choking themselves. We never drove ourselves and always used a cab.
    2. UBUD. Everything we read was how meditational it was. Wrong.
    Maybe there are some places but they overall experience in the city core was clogged with traffic. You could walk faster and then you had they “joy” of breathing the exhaust. It took any fun for treasure hunting away. Speaking of that in our opinion there was just a lot of stuff and more stuff. They Monkey forest was the highlight! But I can’t say it was worth the mad drive to Ubud.
    I am a very positive person and LOVE experiencing new places but this was not the place that the guide books raved about.
    Also while we were in Bali we saw a documentary on Bali and it’s dark side. Very scary!

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      Thanks so much for your comment Kirsten, I always find it really interesting to hear peoples thoughts on places I have visited and written about. You are right, the resorts are pretty good in Bali and of course they all try to clean up their stretches of beach so the tourists won’t notice how dirty the island really is. Outside of the hotels, it’s a whole other story. I only was in Ubud for a few hours to visit the monkey forest and after a few days in hell in Kuta, it seemed like a pretty decent place 😉 – then again, by then I was used to the chaos and didn’t really expect peace and quiet anywhere. I’m very glad you still had a nice time with your friends at the wedding, despite Bali’s darker sides.

      Reply

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