If your idea of holiday heaven is to be packed onto a beach with thousands of like-minded souls, knowing that MacDonald’s tastiest treats and a Starbucks Latte are only a stagger away, then Bali is the place for you. Even if days of sun-drenched inertia raise a twinge of guilt you could always go for a day trip to something cultural to justify your sandy stasis. Or, you could just say, “fuck it! I’ll have another beer”. After all the enterprising locals have saved you the arduous hike across the road to a bar by selling it ice-cold from the beach, complete with coldy holder, should you rashly have decided to drink it insufficiently quickly.
Before you accuse me of snobbery, let me make it quite clear that I am the last person to deny anyone the myriad pleasures of package holiday bliss: a cheap, beer sodden blow job on the beach at midnight or a celebratory uploading of your stomach’s contents to the roadside, to commemorate that big screen sports fixture result, with the inevitable photographic evidence being posted on Facebook for all the world to see. These are the things that cherished vacation memories are made of, when their inebriated retelling will serve fogged minds for many soirees to come. So dear holidaymakers, I salute your right to cast aside the dreariness of full-time employment, abandoning all but the most primal circuits of the brain and to reject the ancient serenity of Hindu temples in favour of another rousing chorus of Village People’s crowning achievement, YMCA. It’s just such a pity that to achieve this Bali had to reject much of the fulsome welcome, characteristic of less visited parts of the country. Such is the poisonous interaction of long-term tourism and local populations the world over.
Naturally, I never expected the taxi drivers to present the nicer face of Bali but their levels of cynical exploitation had me wishing the arrival of a plane load of Ebola cases on them. Even the sea front pimps seemed incapable of the charm I would have thought of as a prerequisite for the job. Besides, if the one lady I saw perched on her shiny scooter was anything to go by, the working women of Bali don’t need agents to promote their sumptuous assets. Which is more that can be said of the wrinkled crones on the streets of Yogyakarta, who would have needed more than a major rebranding exercise to render them suitable for public consumption.
With Indonesia and the region riddled with the kind of tropical beaches that make those unlucky enough to not be there seethe with envy, why may I ask do more people not lie on some of the less densely occupied ones instead of Bali. Why not, for instance go to East Timor.
Only a plane hop away, East Timor lies on a different spectrum of the beach holiday experience, albeit still a pleasurable one. Despite the brutal events leading up to independence in 2002 this is no Somalia-by-sea and the locals are only too happy to welcome a new visitor. Luxuriating in its position of number 8 in the Least Visited Countries in the World Chart, you will never be wondering which bit of the beach to lay your towel on. Quite simply, at no point did I suffer the intrusion of actually having to look at another person laying on a beach. At peak times you could just about spot a villager hunting for shellfish or casting a net. Once I did see a handful of local children enjoying a good frolic in the waves which, quite understandably, left me so traumatized that I had to lie in the hammock with a beer to recuperate.
However, given the number of NGO’s and foreign professionals in the country you need not be too far out of reach of a pizza and a cold beer, should you so desire. Also, that icon of all that is great and good in western civilisation, Burger King, has just opened a branch in Dili Plaza, the capital’s temple to modern shopping practices. As East Timor Backpackers Hostel is the obvious place for travelers to stay in the capital, if you hang out for a few days you will undoubtedly meet every other tourist in the country. I did and thankfully they were both very nice.
Admittedly there is little of cultural interest to see, unless like me you are fascinated by the grim details of the country’s fight for independence from Indonesia. Happily for proper tourists there is an abundance of great diving and snorkelling sites to keep you occupied when you are not getting a sun tan or eating pizza. If you are feeling energetic you could always go trekking or cycling up in the highlands.
Whereas in Bali you don’t have to make any pretence about learning the language, the linguistic landscape of East Timor is something of a muddle. Portuguese and the indigenous Tetun are the official languages but the former isn’t widely spoken and the latter is one of many local languages. Indonesian is probably more useful for tourists, as even kids have often picked it up from the TV but English is regarded for its international value and may even surpass Portuguese in usefulness one day. To add one final complication, as the medical system was almost entirely rebuilt with the aid of the Cubans, anything medical could well be in Spanish.
So, ladies and gentlemen, I have laid out the evidence for both destinations and I leave the choice up to you but I may have left a few subtle clues as to which one I prefered.