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Bali is a land of contrast

Bali, Wu Wei and Cultural Relativism

Bali is a land of contrastWithin the first five days of being in Bali, I have had more than a  few amazing experiences.  I am staying in Canggu (Chong-goo) a beach town just north of Kuta.  The city itself is one of great contrasts. Rice fields with traditional shelters for the workers are intermingled with expensive villas and new developments, against a backdrop of a stunning uninhabited 10 km stretch of beach that would simply take your breath away.

The place that I am staying is a wonderful zen-like group of villas called Bliss Sanctuary, where the food is fabulously Balinese at every meal, there are massage people on staff at all hours of the day, there are drivers to take you wherever you may wish to go all included in your price. Outdoor ensuites with rain showers, fabulous rooms, zen-like grounds, local cell phones provided and a cultural eye-opening, five-minute walk to a fabulous beach.

I have visited a Balinese healer named Sami, walked the 10 km beach, taken yoga classes in a world class outdoor studio, tasted kopi luwak coffee ($700 per kilogram for the real thing), wandered around Ubud and watched Hindu ceremonies with awe. I have met some amazing people here and made some friendships for the future.

The roads are bumpy and unfinished in parts of the town. There is an inordinate amount of garbage that would seem to have been dumped into whatever area is not being used. Any garbage that has washed up on the beach remains in the high tide line, which is far enough away so as not to be visible when enjoying the beach. Older structures are falling to ruin and look abandoned where they fell. Crazy traffic plagues the city center.

But it all doesn’t matter.

Yesterday my North American point of view fell away.

I stopped seeing Bali as a tourist center that under delivered on its promises in so many ways.

I stopped wondering what all the hype around Bali was about.

Because I suddenly knew what it was about.

It is about the cultural contrast on the island.

New and old, urban and rural, strict Hinduism and commercial enterprise.

The tacky tourism amid the ornate historically significant temples.

Hindu offerings to the gods burning outside the storefronts every day.

The beach bars, the street food flourishing alongside high-end restaurants (still inexpensive).

The cheerful people who welcome tourism because it gives them a livelihood.

The endless sunshine and easy climate.

The friendly happy people who still give with no expectations.

The endless serene beaches a harsh contrast to the chaotic city streets.

I fell in love with Bali.

I asked our driver how he knew when to go, when approaching an multi-road intersection, where there were no obvious indications of right of way. He said that they just go when it is their turn. OMG! And it works. People drive in those chaotic streets with a civility that is incomprehensible. Horns are used not as an aggressive sound but rather as an alert that your car is changing course for whatever reason. Nobody is angry or gesturing…they just drive when it is their turn. Families of four on one scooter, underage kids on scooters all politely mingled in with the trucks, cars and pedestrians.

This brings me to the concept of cultural relativism. Cultural Relativism is defined as ‘the view that all beliefs, customs, and ethics are relative to the individual within his own social context. In other words, “right” and “wrong” are culture-specific; what is considered moral in one society may be considered immoral in another, and, since no universal standard of morality exists, no one has the right to judge another society’s customs.” That is my learning curve. To not see the Balinese through my north American lens.

I would like to be a little more tanned, yet they see whiter skin as a sign of affluence. The low paid workers in the rice fields are weathered and tanned and represent an undesirable skin tone. The Balinese who do not work in the fields protect their skin from the sun and use lighteners to alter their skin color. Maybe I should reconsider that tan. Tans are a sign of leisure time and therefore affluence in our culture.

Their dogs run free on the streets and beaches (fully vaccinated compliments of the government) and ours must be leashed. Better or worse? Who can say except from their own unique vantage point.

Garbage and traffic that overwhelm our precious vision of Bali. Both are part of the growing pains that still need to be addressed as tourism explodes. 2.7 million tourists descend on Bali each year. Population without tourists is about 4 million.

Happy, peaceful people. Effortless flow. Wu Wei.

Wu Wei. It is a basic tenet of Taoism and worth a second look in the context of what I see in Bali and how we act in our daily lives. Wu Wei is non-action according to the old texts but in a modern interpretation it is the difference between struggle and effort.

Effort is natural. It is action to attain what you need. Struggle is action laced with emotion. Struggling to pay the bills, struggling to win people over, struggling to get what you want. Struggle is not Wu Wei. Moving from resistance and struggle to effortless action is Wu Wei.

And the Balinese are great advocates of Wu Wei. They trust their god to make the right thing happen. They live peacefully and happily in a country where the average wage is $70/month.

We could use a little more Wu Wei in how we live our lives.

It is a simple mental adjustment to move from struggle to peaceful effort. Effortless flow. It is about how you view the task and how emotionally tied to the outcome you are. With emotion comes struggle. Without emotion, there is peace.

It is easy for me to do here. It remains to be seen if I can keep it alive when I return. For now, while I am here, I will focus on the concept of cultural relativism as my opportunity for growth.

Life in Bali is driven by Tri Hita Karana or a tripartite concept that honors the spiritual relationship between human and God, and their environment.

I caught the Bali vibe and I know it is a place to which I will return.










  1. Hi Kelly…. OMG! You and I definitely have the same focus as far as travel goes….We haven’t been to Bali yet but we are considering it for our very next trip next year….I will so be picking your brain about more details if we settle on it….and this post was such a lovely way to explain the experience. Thank you! And if you go to Vietnam and Cambodia next I will think you are reading my mind :-) keep enjoying the journey…. ~Kathy

    • Kelly says:

      Hey Kathy. If you decide on Bali it will definitely be worth it….I could be your tour guide if you wish. :)
      Since I am such a Bali expert after 10 days there!
      No really though the Bali part of the trip is great and all that much greater because of the super people I met while there.(Australians)
      Also, the Balinese people are genuinely happy to see you in their country. Which makes the experience a genuine one.

      Next is Bangkok, Cambodia, Vietnam and then back to Chiang Mai in Thailand for maybe a month or so. Some vague thoughts on Phuket but not sure.
      I left the return trip open to stay flexible for new opportunities but also in case I reach a point where I am ready to go home then I am free to do that also.

      Anytime I can offer my insight into your planning, I am happy to do so!

  2. PCgal says:

    Sounds like the transition has begun. It must be difficult to filter their culture through our lens without evaluation. No doubt you will want to apply some of what you are learning to your modern life upon your return. I will be interested in knowing what translates forward.

    • Kelly says:

      It is true that you see it all and compare it to how we live at home.But there is no right and wrong in this.
      Just a great growth opportunity.
      I like your idea to apply the learning when I get back. No judgement. No comparison.
      I can work on that!

  3. Hey,great post! you really seem to be enjoying your stay. Sounds like an experience worth taking.

    • Kelly says:

      This is a great trip and far less scary than I had thought it would be!

      I am meeting fabulous people who do this kind of thing all the time so it makes me fearless. Almost. :)

  4. nancytex2013 says:

    My cousins in Australia travel to Bali several times a year, and tease me with their gorgeous photos on Facebook. Definitely on my wish list of travel-to places! It sounds like this experience is providing tons of learning and growth, which is always one of the biggest gifts that travel abroad gives us. Have a wonderful time Kelly. Can’t wait to hear more.
    p.s. Friends who have travelled all over the world list Vietnam as their absolute favourite place. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts.

    • Kelly says:

      Bali is full of contrast…the beautiful and the less beautiful…definitely should be on your list Nancy. The vibe there is what you will love.

      You are so right…learning and growth are why we travel. Nice to know you are with me on this journey.

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