Island Wars: Bali vs Koh Tao

This year has seen me doing a lot of new and exciting things; I started my Masters in Canada, did my yoga teacher training in South Africa, moved to Thailand, started working as a full time ESL teacher there, made media along the way and managed to visit two islands somewhere in between. These islands have been fascinating trips, the first to Bali and the second Koh Tao – from where I have recently returned. Whilst similar in the sense that both islands rely primarily on tourism to support their economies, they have gone about structuring their tourism in two completely different ways. Visiting them this year has given me some great photo opportunities, chances to recentre and hone in on some of my priorities and experience or compare sustainable conservation practices on islands and the role of me as a tourist in them… but I digress. Let me begin by telling you about Bali.

For as long as I can remember, Bali has been talked about as a paradise filled with beaches and relaxation. During school years in South Africa it was always the coolest kids who went to Bali on holiday, and it was always pictures of Balinese beaches and rice fields in travel magazines and in-flight entertainment. So when a best friend and I discussed a reunion holiday, we decided on this tropical land of mystery and wonder as a our destination, a place that was conveniently located equidistantly between our current locations of Australia and Thailand. After a few hours talking over Skype and Facebook, we had our holiday booked and our itinerary typed out: she was there primarily for wildlife photography with a focus on birds and reptiles and I was there for landscape photography and relaxation in a place I have been dreaming about for years. Upon arrival, we hit a bustling airport with what felt like hundreds of taxi drivers and hotel transport drivers trying to capture the attention of the arriving tourists, despite it being around 3am. Some confusion later we found our transport to the hotel, and promptly passed out for some much needed rest after checking in. The next morning we awoke to a beautiful scenic image of hundreds of little boats in the a bay and the sea breeze wafting in the air on Serangan Island in Denpasar.

We had just under two weeks in Bali and plans to get across more than 2 thirds of it. Starting in Denpasar we got our bearings and switched time zones whilst visiting a resort beach, getting our currency sorted, checking out birding sites and visiting the turtle centre just down the road from where we were staying. 2 days later saw us cramped into a tiny mini-bus that had arrived at the pickup location almost an hour past it’s expected time on our way to Ubud. Our time in Ubud was interesting and surprisingly saturated with pizza; I ambled around the markets and shops for hours whilst Paula did birding tours and reptile searching. It rained quite consistently whilst we were in town which was unusual for that time of year, but likely due to water molecules attaching to the ash particles in the sky from the recent volcano eruption on the far North East of the island. Despite the weather, we managed to do a decent bit of exploring around town: we tried green juices and marvelled at the endless gem stores, had massages, walked through yoga centres, ate at restaurants and browsed the market stalls that this vibrant city had to offer. After Ubud, we did a whirlwind tour up to the mountain peaks of Bedugul where we were once again rained out of an activities but offered some incredible Balinese experiences, including but not limited to one of the best curries of my life. After a brief sleep in a freezing bed in a rather dreary room, we were back at the bus stop waiting for our ride back to Ubud and on to Gilimanuk, the undisputed highlight of this trip. Gilimanuk is a tiny port town, responsible only for transporting people off to Java next door or housing people who want to visit the Bali Barat National Park. The latter was our reason for being here, Paula and I had scrounged together the cash to be taken on a tour of the park by one of the head rangers, who was well-known for his knowledge of the park and birds and had a reputation for being very good at showing photographers around.

We had a day in Gilimanuk before this tour and spent our time doing laundry, dealing with breakfast woes and walking along the beaches. We spotted our first tokay geckos for the holiday, marvellous creatures that they are, and were challenged to find food for the first time since arriving on the island (especially without transport). Soon though, our 5.30am alarms went off and Hery was waiting with two other park rangers in a small 4×4 outside our accommodation. We set off into the sunrise, ready for the long and exciting day ahead of us. Giving you a blow by blow break down of our day in and around Bali Barat would take hours as it was one of our richest and most enthralling days on the island. Having guides with such a wealth of knowledge and a shared love for nature, conservation and the environment and tons of patience for photographers meant that Paula and I spent from dawn till dusk in our element. We drove from place to place, stopping for every bird and walking through dense bushes to find monkeys and other living things. Seasides, monuments, rice paddies and riverbeds were explored and by the end of the day we had seen long tailed macaques, jungle fowls, the critically endangered Bali starling, Timer deer, Plantain squirrels, giant squirrels, elusive blue banded pittas, barking deer, black leaf monkeys, toads, scops owls, kingfishers, flycatchers, bee eaters, nightjars, egrets, herons, swifts and barbets galore. If you want to see any pictures of these, or other animals, please check out Paula’s incredible instagram.

The next morning we had packed up and stood on the side of the road for a while until we flagged down the correct Bemo bus to take us to our next stop, Medewi. This tiny town consisted of nothing but cafes, bikinis, surfboards and pebble beaches making it beautiful but unfriendly to anyone wanting to sunbathe rather than surf the giant swells. We took a final day or two to cool down and unwind here after the odd-week of near constant movement and exploring, before heading back to Denpasar where Paula caught a flight back home and I stayed an extra two nights for the basil pesto pastas and the beaches. Soon though, it was the final few hours and a last sunset before finding a cab that was willing to use a meter to get to the airport to catch my flight back to Thailand. Here’s a short clip that gives you a visual vista of my adventure across Bali:

There is, however, a bigger story to tell here. Despite all the beauty I found there and the experiences I had, there is a really big plastic plight in Bali that made itself exceptionally visible from the first day we arrived until the day we left, in all environments across the island. Our first days in Denpasar left me cautious, as we noticed trash on the beaches outside our hotel and on the sidewalk in the cities but I brushed it off, thinking that we were just in the polluted capital and that we would see the prevalence of trash reduce once we left for smaller towns. I had my doubts though, especially as I spotted the massive landfill on Serangan island that was trying to hide behind a line of trees but towered far above them, with tiny bulldozers trundling around on top of the trash mountain. Unfortunately, these doubts were confirmed. Even on the resort beaches with their cordoned off “for guests only” chairs and paid beach cleaning staff, I swam amongst floating plastic and cut my toe on glass in the sand not even a metre from the shore. Ever river, every roadside gutter, every beach shore was covered in plastic. This was not “covered in plastic” in the sense you had to look for it, but “covered in plastic” in the sense that it was hard to spot natural substances like sand and rock in between the trash. Don’t get me wrong, there is beauty in Bali, but these are places that have to be searched for and often only exist in small pockets. Even Ubud, hailed since the fame of Eat Pray Love as a shrine to self-discovery, strength and enlightenment was a place that felt like everyone was trying to sell off spirituality at whatever price they could get. I had headed off to the markets eagerly seeking to uncover the hidden gems of the town but instead found hundreds of stalls that sold carbon copy plastic items, emblazoned with ‘Bali’ across most of them, without local craftspersons in sight. Despite all of this mass production being delivered to bewildered eyes and burned shoulders across this rock sticking out the plastic-suffocated sea, things didn’t come cheap. Having read tons of blogs on the affordability of Bali, I was dumbfounded a few times at the price of things there which were easily 3 to 4 times what the same items cost in Thailand’s tourist areas. A disappointing reality when there are no local or eco-friendly alternatives to choose from either.

Let me go into a little more detail though, because the reasons behind this are far more interesting than it’s current realities and they offer us more insight into what we can possibly do about it.The prevalence of pollution from single use plastics is something I tried to figure out whilst there, making observations and asking questions to anyone who had the time or inclination to discuss the topic with me. I think, after some time reflecting, that my conclusion is this: the affordability of plastic as a material and resource in a country that does not have a strong economy, and the pressure that the tourism industry is putting on the island to provide services and resources means that even more plastics are used on a daily basis. In this sense, tourism is essentially exacerbating an already existing plastic problem and since the island runs on a tourism based economy, the plastic is there to stay until massive changes are made to resource material access.

So, let us move on to Koh Tao!

A few more weeks of work went by and then came along my October holidays and I decided it was high time for the beach holiday I have been craving for years. After a lot more research and some suggestions from key friends (Thanks, Sarah), Des and I had booked our tickets to, and accomodation on, Koh Tao. You can understand why I went with without any high expectations of an idyllic tropical paradise and instead just went to see what the place had to offer. I had absolutely no reason for concern though, as Koh Tao turned out to be such an extraordinary place that I’m considering going back and living there for a while, documenting the ethos of the island with a short film and tons of photos whilst possibly yoga teaching on the side. We arrived and checked in to our hotel, and spent the follow days doing not much more than eating, swimming in the ocean and doing a few hours of yoga daily. We kept spotting “no plastic bag” signs on shop windows, including the supermarkets, and a large majority of the restaurants provided metal straws with beverages (as well as hordes of vegetarian and vegan food options!). Some shops had boxes next to the registers where plastics or fabric bags for reuse could be donated. There was a beautiful weigh-and-pay-bring-your-own-packaging shop called Gaia that also sold locally made chemical-free beauty and personal hygiene products as well as metal straws, glass bottles and jars and fabric bags in all shapes and colours (handmade on the island, of course). The big supermarket warehouses had entire isles filled with eco-friendly packaging and single use items like plates, containers and cutlery made out of unbleached papers, wood and bamboo. Even the free guide books for the island included pages about the island’s biodiversity and information on efforts to protect the environment and the organisations responsible for them.

Obviously, this gave a fantastic first impression but what was great was that these surface level tendencies stuck around when I began to dig a little deeper. I met John, the owner of an eco-friendly hostel with a vegan cafe, at yoga and he joined us for dinner and was kind enough to entertain me and all my questions over some delicious curries and soups. Apparently, the reality of the eco-friendly Koh Tao that we see today is the result of nearly a decade of work by locals and organisations, all starting with the work done by Save Koh Tao a few years earlier. These efforts were then picked up by Co-Exist and with the collaboration of locals and companies on the island, reform toward greener practices began. Shops began shifting away from plastic and the many diving centres on the island, as well as tour groups, began addressing eco-friendly practices in their information sources and business pamphlets. We saw this in our day-tour with the Oxygen Snorkelling Tours company that not only discussed the topics of turtle threats and plastic pollution with their guests but also used only re-usable materials on their boat and asked guests to refrain from bringing plastic water bottles along for the day. Other companies like Master Divers and New Haven have been rebuilding reefs with artificial structures for coral to grow on and offer free dives to anyone willing to partake in a reef or beach clean up for a day. The reality of Koh Tao’s eco-friendly tourism is that it hasn’t happened overnight but that has been a cohesive effort building for years, starting with a few people and now encapsulating the entire island. Sure, some organisations may be jumping on the bandwagon for the sake of the financial benefits of ecotourism but at the end of the day, the result is the same. Witnessing this and hearing about the island and it’s practices in ecology and community has been a really inspiring case studies which, I would like to think, can be adopted in other areas and communities willing or needing to make the same shifts.

Either way, on both islands, tourism was the interesting factor at play, acting as influence and motivation in two very different ways. Bali is in a situation where it would be facing plastic and pollution challenges even without the additional pressure of tourism. Tourism however, is now an even larger contribution to a pre-existing challenge. Tourism’s function as a primary income source for many on the island results in a paradigm in which Balinese survival relies on them intensifying already destructive practices in order to satisfy tourist needs and fuel the industry on the island. Koh Tao is working off a slightly different model. At a local grassroots level, individuals and organisations on the island have been making efforts and subsequent slow progress over the last 8 years to work toward creating a sustainable living environment; a tenant of which is being plastic free. Tourists who come onto the island then become immersed in this environment as the infrastructure already exists independent of the tourist presence and related income. This has then taken a new turn where tourism increases due to interest in a sustainable and plastic free mentality, creating incentive for any business not involved in sustainable practices take them on in order to benefit from the financial input going toward this tourism allure. At the end of it all, it was a fantastic learning experience travelling to both places and I hope that there is some benefit to sharing this story of two islands with others.

Koh Tao