Why Gal Oya Is The Responsible Tourism Hot Spot Of Sri Lanka

Why Gal Oya Is The Responsible Tourism Hot Spot Of Sri Lanka

Gal Oya National Park is the perfect place to see elephants responsibly in Sri Lanka

A while ago I wrote a post about responsible tourism and the use of animals in tourist attractions. I feel that, as a travel blogger, I have a duty to influence people to travel in a way that is more respectful of the cultures of the countries we are visiting, of their nature, and also of their animals.

Unfortunately, too many people still think there is no harm in riding an elephant; no harm in tipping a snake charmer; no harm in swimming with whale sharks – as long as they are out in the sea – and so on.

Sri Lanka

A chained elephant used for Buddhist celebrations at a temple near Kandy

The Use Of Animals In Tourist Attractions In Sri Lanka

When I decided to visit Sri Lanka, I knew I would find myself in situations where animals would be exploited.

My first taste of it was in Anuradaphura. I was biking around the massive archaeological site and came across a large group of people, all standing in circle to look at something. I approached, curious to see what had captured their attention. I was horrified to see that it was a dancing monkey – in chain, dressed, like it would never happen in nature.

I filmed the entire scene including when people tipped the owner. They were rather amused by the fact that I was filming. I guess they thought I was just another tourist finding this a fun scene.

I was just as horrified when, towards the end of my trip, I saw a group of tourists in Galle Fort handing down a few notes to a snake charmer. I suppose that snakes aren’t considered as animals having feelings, or suffering. I thought of saying something to those tourists, but I know that I would have come across as intrusive, and eventually the conversation would have heated up and we would have had an argument. I left it, thinking that I may as well get my message across via this blog.

On one occasion, though, I completely lost it. I was riding a jeep in Sigiriya, another of the holy sites of Sri Lanka, and an area notorious for the presence of free elephants. I was going to the Rock Fortress. But as the jeep pulled across a junction, I saw a clearly western couple riding a chained elephant, the owner walking along with them, poking the poor giant.

I stuck my head out of the car, and I yelled at the two, saying that they should be ashamed of themselves. I am quite sure they heard me – they turned around to see where the crazy screams were coming from. I am not so sure they got the message. I hope they did, and I hope they felt ashamed.

Gal Oya

Gal Oya National Park is one of the biggest, yet least visited parks in Sri Lanka

Am I missing the point?

Maybe it is just me… maybe I am the narrow minded one.

When I was in Koh Chang, Thailand, I met other travelers that had gone on elephant rides and when I told them how irresponsible that was, they said things such as “elephants here are much like pets” (except they are taken from their mothers when they are still very small, and tortured in order to be trained, which isn’t exactly how I treat my beloved cats).

Others use the “local economy” argument: the “poor locals” are just trying to make a living, never mind if someone is suffering for this. And forget about the fact that responsible tourism can also ensure a large revenue, one that is way more sustainable in the longer terms.

Besides, can anyone help me figure out what’s the fun in riding a chained and poached elephant – especially in a country where elephants can be seen in their natural environment, wandering around freely and happily? Which is exactly what I did at Gal Oya National Park, a gorgeous 26000 hectare protected area around Senanayake Samundra reservoir, where over 32 species of mammals live.

Mind you, I didn’t see hordes of elephants. In fact, I only saw one, from such a distance that I had to use binoculars and I hardly managed to capture the moment on camera. But it was such a sight – that huge male (so the guide explained) chewing on grass (or so it looked from a distance), surrounded by nature and other free animals.

Gal Oya

Taking in the beauty of Gal Oya National Park

The Boat Safari at Gal Oya National Park

I was on a boat safari organized by Gal Oya Lodge, the only accommodation available that provides access to Gal Oya National Park, and for which responsible tourism isn’t just a brand, but a way of life and a mission.

Together with 5 more persons and Arun, the guide, I had left before dawn, boarding a jeep headed to Gal Oya National Park. Our mission was to spot animals. I had been told that I may be able to see crocodiles, lots of species of birds, buffalos, spotted dears and elephants. That’s it – that’s what I wanted to see. I was there to see elephants.

The staff at Gal Oya Lodge had made it clear that there was no guarantee I would see any elephant at all. They could not predict their movements in such a vast area, and sure enough they wouldn’t go about chasing them just so that I could get a photo.

I was happy to hear that, actually. Yet I kept high hopes I’d be able to at least spot one.

The incredible animal life at Gal Oya National Park

The incredible animal life at Gal Oya National Park

So we boarded a small boat, to go around the lake in search of animals. There were only two boats on the lake that day, aside from a few fishermen boats. Indeed, Gal Oya National Park doesn’t nearly get as many tourists as the more known Yala National Park.

The boat moved slowly, so that the accustomed eyes of the guide could spot animals. And he sure did! There it was, in the distance! I silently screamed (we had been clearly instructed not to make noise, so as not to scare the animals), so happy I was when I finally managed to focus my eyesight and see it too.

The morning continued with more animal sightings and a fabulous pic-nic on the shores of the lake, from where we could enjoy the nature and the silence surrounding us.

Gal Oya

A storm is approaching the lagoon near Gal Oya Lodge

Gal Oya: A Place To Unwind

It is places like Gal Oya Lodge and Gal Oya National Park that make me hopeful that something can be done, and something is indeed being done, to protect the environment we live in and to make sure that both humans and animals can make the most of it.

The lodge is completely immersed in nature. A short and easy walk from the lodge takes to a beautiful lagoon. The scene is as rural as it gets: the odd motorbike or bike slowly pushing along the path; children playing in the water – some of them are actually bathing! – calling on passersby to join them; the odd cow chewing on the greenest grass; and a few simple houses scattered around.

Simple houses near Gal Oya Lodge

Simple houses near Gal Oya Lodge

The only noise to be heard is that of the wind, and of the animals that live freely in the area. It’s blissful at night. It had been a while since I could sleep so peacefully, and not having any phone reception or any internet access made me finally unwind from all the stress that owning an online business implies.

Bungalows are beautifully rustic: large, cozy rooms with incredibly comfortable beds, open air bathrooms, and in line with the policy of environmental respect and protection, no air conditioners. Furthermore, in an effort to reduce plastic waste, only purified water is provided, instead of bottled water.

There’s only an onsite restaurant, that serves delicious food prepared using local ingredients. The tilapa fish is caught in the nearby lake!

There is only one thing I regret about Gal Oya National Park and Gal Oya Lodge: not having stayed longer! Having spent 3 full weeks in the country, I can say it was by far my favorite place and I would love to visit again.

For a comprehensive guide to Sri Lanka, read my post The Nicest Touristy And Not So Touristy Places To Visit In Sri Lanka. 

Legal disclaimer: I was a guest of Gal Oya Lodge during my visit to Sri Lanka. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.

 

Don’t ride that elephant

Don’t ride that elephant

The sad truth about the use of animals in tourist attractions

A few months ago, when my trip to South East Asia was still in the preparation phase, my sister (the only person I really enjoy traveling with) and I started browsing any possible material we could find in search of information about places to visit and things to do. Travel blogs, travel guides, travel magazines, travel diaries published by online travelers communities, in Italian and English – whatever it was, we wanted to read it.

I immediately noticed that a few of the travel diaries published by the biggest online travel community in Italy, as well as a number of travel blogs, mentioned visiting the Tiger Temple in Thailand, not too far from Bangkok and supposedly a conservation centre run by Buddhist monks with the aim of saving tigers and re-introducing them into their natural environment. Attached to the diaries and posts, a series of pictures, testimony of the activities that go on in this “temple”: a tourist with a tiger pup being fed on a baby bottle; with a tiger enjoying being pet as if s/he was an overgrown cat; with a tiger on a leash, being taken for a walk (as if s/he was a dog!) and the never-missing selfie.

The unmissable selfie with a tiger - photo courtesy of xiquinhosilva (flickr)

The unmissable selfie with a tiger – photo courtesy of xiquinhosilva (flickr)

I thought it looked a bit odd that tigers – wild animals by definition – would allow people to feed them with a baby bottle. And in fact, taking a closer look at those pictures, I could see that the tigers were always chained, and they had a bit of an absent, sleepy expression on their face.

Using animals as tourist attractions

I was not born yesterday and I know that lots of attractions and shows exploit animals. Some are even considered part of the cultural heritage of a country (what with the corrida, or bull fights, in Spain and in Latin American countries) – though I can’t understand what’s cultural in killing a bull just for the sake of it.

But while some shows such as bull fights are visibly and vividly cruel, other shows or attractions look more innocent, there is no violence in them – at least none that is immediately visible. Tourist are inevitably attracted to them. They want to go on that romantic ride through the city, on a carriage pulled by beautiful horses (that have likely been under the scorching sun all day and that are stressed because of the traffic and noise); parents want to take their children to the circus; people want to see those animals that they otherwise may only see on tv, or in pictures.

All countries in the world are involved at some level in the ill treatment of animals for the sake of the tourism industry.

Indeed, as Mike Huxley, of Bemused Backpacker, says,

A huge amount of greenwashing is employed to prey on the naivety of tourists and travelers alike who think it is okay to ride on an elephants back, get a selfie with a tiger, cuddle a baby orang utan or swim with a dolphin, despite all the evidence that states these actions cause irreparable harm to the animals involved. Unfortunately too many people put their desire for a once in a lifetime experience with their favorite animal above any ethical concerns, and are either unaware of, or don’t care about the abuse and exploitation that occurs just so these wildlife tourism companies can turn a profit.

I hoped my gut feeling that the Tiger Temple was just another horrible tourist attraction to be linked to animal abuse may be wrong. I told myself I may well be paranoid for doubting one of the best known online travelers’ community in Italy. Surely, they would have made a clear statement against such tourist attractions if they really were exploiting animals, and invited their members not to pay for them, right?

I decided to investigate a bit. After all, I am terribly curious (I may well qualify to be a CIA agent). I did a very basic search on the web by inserting a few simple key words on the search engine. If I managed to clear all my suspects and doubts, my sister and I may well be able to pet a tiger and scratch her behind the ears, and spend the money we had been working hard to save for a good cause.

A bit too sleepy not to raise suspicion. And on a chain - photo courtesy of Nick Hubbard (flickr)

A bit too sleepy not to raise suspicion. And on a chain – photo courtesy of Nick Hubbard (flickr)

A few clicks and a whole bunch of information popped up – without really having to put much of an effort. Right there, available for anybody to read, was a piece on the Tiger Temple by National Geographic (not exactly comics or tabloid, in case anybody doubts its reputation) where the journalist told of a series of “bizarre” events in the conservation centre. Nothing to worry about (*sarcasm*) other than the fact that the tigers are “beaten, fed poorly, in need of veterinary care, and housed in small concrete cages with little opportunity for exercise or time outdoors,” and that they are likely drugged so that they wouldn’t be aggressive and the visitors would be able to pet or take the unmissable selfie without risking their life; or the sale of tigers to the Chinese black market where they’d be used to extract a little bit of everything. All in the name of conservation and protection.

The same issues had been already denounced in 2008 in a report by Care for the Wild International, which concluded that an attraction like the Tiger Temple was not only not contributing to the conservation of the species in the wild, but it in fact increased the illegal trafficking for the sake of keeping the captive population.

It looked like we wouldn’t be going to the Tiger Temple, after all. Because as long as tourists make it profitable for the monks to run such an attraction, they will continue in their abuse.

But we didn’t despair. We’d spend a month traveling across Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia and we would surely come across the possibility of living unique experiences.

So we left. And we saw some amazing places and lots of weird things too. And we got confirmation that this part of the world isn’t exactly a champion in environmental protection (I don’t think I have ever seen so much garbage as I have in Vietnam) and animal welfare and protection, including that of species that are at risk of extinction.

I had noticed this already during my trip to Indonesia, where the horses meant to carry visitors to the crater of Mount Bromo looked malnourished, sick and distressed. And already then I understood that for any one tourist that refuses to ride the horses because they are ill treated (guess who that was?) there’s at least 50 who don’t care at all. I was so angered by that situation that I even wrote a post about it.

Read more about my experience on Mount Bromo on my post “Ring of fire or circle of hell?”

Mount Bromo

If horses on Mount Bromo look like this, refuse to ride them.

I should have been prepared for more of this kind of scenes on my second trip to South East Asia. Yet, I was deeply saddened to see that the gorgeous complex of Angkor Wat was packed with elephants used to take around groups of tourists – in the scorching 40 degrees Celsius (plus the unbearable humidity). In a place where there hardly is any want for tuk tuk and bikes are easy to use, as the terrain is almost entirely flat and easy to ride, what is the exact need to ride an elephant? Oh right… people do it for fun. I am not really sure where the fun is in riding elephants, but hey different people have different tastes, right?

Read more about my experience in Angkor Wat and get some good tips on how to make the most of it on my post “Visiting Angkor Wat and other things to do in Siem Reap.”

Too bad that some of these “tastes” have a negative effect on animals. But not everyone thinks of these effects, not even well-meaning people. Mike recalls how during one of his first backpacking trips, he joined an elephant safari – something he is now ashamed of and an experience which he used to change his way of traveling altogether, now having become an advocate for responsible tourism.

What NOT to do in Siem Reap

Tourists riding elephants in Angkor Wat. I was hoping not to see such things…

Since riding an elephant is not to my taste, but I do love the idea of seeing them up close, I thought that I may be able to find an elephant camp in Koh Chang, to have fun in a more responsible way. I know that a few recovery and conservation centers have opened in South East Asia, so I was hopeful. Besides, Koh Chang is packed with “elephant camps,” so I figured at least one of them would be a conservation centre. I started enquiring about them, and concluded that I would not see elephants on this trip. All these camps would offer are elephant safari. Fun! (more *sarcasm*)

Read more about my experience in Koh Chang on my post “Why Koh Chang is one of the best islands in Thailand.”

Evidently, though, the revenue such businesses generate is still quite big, since they continue existing. And it didn’t take me long to meet people who had enjoyed such attractions. I would have thought that in 2016 getting online would be enough to be literally bombarded with news just about anything, including those about animal abuse in attractions where animals are involved.

The fact that elephants are subjected to any sort of abuse to be trained to carry people isn’t exactly recent news – but a fact that has been known for a while now. In order to be trained to carry people, elephants go through a training known as the Phajaan in Thailand, or more colloquially as ‘the crush’, which has the aim of crushing the elephants’ spirits and forcing them to be more pliable and submissive. They are then confined in small cages or pits, so small that they can’t move around. Finally, they are tortured and beaten constantly for a long period of time with bull hooks, bamboo stick and even cattle prods. Elephants are starved, they are not allowed to sleep, they are tortured and abused both mentally and physically.

All those elephants seen carrying around tourist have gone through this process. Furthermore, carrying people actually causes the elephants a lot of harm and physical pain. As Mike explains, their spines were never built to take the weight of carrying people all day, even less so when they have to do it all day long, every day, without the chance to rest and eat. Yes, they are huge but despite their size their backs hurt when they carry people as well as the wooden saddles strapped to their backs, causing skin and tissue damage. Elephants can end up with permanent spinal injuries and crippled as a result of these activities. Not to mention the emotional pain of being abused, the fear they feel constantly, and the stress that such a social animal – used to living in groups – feels when forced to live alone.

All in all, a tourist that decides to take part in an elephant safari is in a way stating that no, s/he really doesn’t care if his or her actions lead to the atrocious suffering of an animal. Or to death, even – just as it happened a few weeks ago in Angkor Wat, where an elephant died due to exhaustion.

PETA

Baby elephant chained by all fours, men pulling on his/her legs – this is how elephants are trained for circus or to carry humans – photo courtesy of Sam Haddock (PETA)

It isn’t just elephants that are trained to do things that don’t come to them naturally just to entertain people. The same sad fate is faced by dolphins who work in dolphinariums. Giulia, of Travel Reportage, shares her experience:

As a person who had the chance of working with dolphins in captivity but also of encountering them in the wild, I have learnt about the way these beautiful beyond words animals are treated and threatened so that they will keep performing and entertaining the human spectators. Dolphins are trained to follow their trainers’ instructions, and if they don’t they will get no food or some other kind of punishment. They are very stressed as they have to work continuously, every day and many times a day.

Giulia used to work in dolphinariums and knows what goes on behind them

Giulia used to work in dolphinariums and knows what goes on behind them

But, as Giulia adds

Most people will take part in the so called “dolphin encounters” and “dolphin shows” without knowing nor asking themselves what is behind this reality.

I only know too well. Years ago, as part of a tour I was doing, I was taken to a dolphinarium. I don’t even know why or how I ended up there. The show kind of made me sad – seeing those gorgeous animals in a tank, and the entire environment around. But when I was approached by a member of staff asking whether I’d want to swim with the dolphins, I was happy to do it. I don’t know what had gotten over me, I can’t really explain why I did it, even though I had a gut feeling that it was wrong. I just did. Years later, I am still ashamed of what I did.

Giulia underlines the importance of raising awareness when possible, and of

Encouraging others to take some important factors into consideration: No dolphin (or any other animal) would choose captivity over freedom (so simple right?). Furthermore, it is possible to meet dolphins in their natural habitat. They come close to the boats out of curiosity, following them, jumping, playing with people, disappearing and reappearing, often in large groups formed by old and young individuals – so obviously families! – speeding just below the water surface… This makes us understand how the vastness of the oceans is where dolphins belong; no tank, of no size, will ever replace the sea.

What about seeing animals in their natural environment?

After my shameful experience of swimming with dolphins in a dolphinarium, I have seen dolphins in their natural habitat, in many countries – Peru, Panama, Argentina above all, and recently even in my very own hometown. Seeing them in their natural habitat is an incredible experience, and every time that happens, I get very emotional and tear roll down my cheeks, expressing how thankful I am to see them and how sorry I still feel for having contributed to their ill treatment in the past.

Yet, the fact that it is possible to see animals in their natural environment doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not being endangered.

Emily, of the incredible duo Along Dusty Roads, regrets her experience with whale sharks:

We still feel ashamed. A quick survey of the options down by the beach and we all too quickly agreed to meet a man at 5 a.m. the next morning. “And we’ll definitely see them out in the sea?” “100%”, he told us. And the price was cheaper than we had expected.

We first thought something may be amiss when the boat had been going for a couple of hours without a word from our captain. However, we were on holiday in the middle of the ocean with some serious sun-bathing to be done. Why stress?

Once land came into full view – plus dozens of other boats and tourists – it was clear that our request to see whale sharks swimming in the wild was not really understood. Instead, huge majestic creatures, doped up on constant food chucked from rowing boats, surrounded by far too many snorkeling humans and penned into a small section of water was the “attraction”. We too went in the water, but the guilt was already weighing us down.

Whale Shark Watchers

Did you know that whale sharks are attracted with food? – photo courtesy of Klaus Stiefel

Jules, one of the two bloggers behind Don’t Forget to Move, stopped himself short of doing the same:

When I first heard that you could swim with whale sharks in Cebu, Philippines I was set on making the experience part of our itinerary. The thought of being able to experience the world’s largest fish up close is just incredible! But, like any animal tourism activities that you come across during your travels, it’s always best to do research to make sure that engaging in an activity that doesn’t have a negative affect on the animals.

Unfortunately, the more research we did the more we learned that the whale shark experience in Oslob isn’t an animal-friendly activity. After speaking with marine biologists from the Philippines we discovered the tour guides actively feed the whale sharks to encourage them to stay in the area for the tourists. This may not seem harmful at first, but the practice is having detrimental effects on the whale sharks. It is changing migratory patterns of the whale sharks, which may alter their breeding habits in the future, as well as providing them with an insufficient diet for repopulation.

When we passed through Oslob on our trip, after deciding not to participate, we could see the scene from shore. All of our lingering regret for not doing the activity faded then and there when we saw snorkelers crowded in a small buoyed area, crammed in with dozens of other boats, all vying to get up close with these majestic animals. All unknowing that they could actually be contributing to the decline in their species.

And even the places that feign a responsible tourism badge are not entirely trustworthy. Michaela, of Travel Intense, remembers her negative experience in Dominica:

During my trip to Dominica I stayed at a resort that claimed to take part in sea turtle conservation. Their beach is a major nesting ground for leatherback and green turtles. So, they created a small group that is supposed to save the eggs and turtles from local hunters and at the same time educate visitors and let them experience the nesting and hatching process. During our stay, a couple large leatherbacks came ashore; the resort notified me and some other guests, and we all headed for the beach. However, we did not receive a briefing on how to behave around turtles. Originally, I thought this was because the staff knew it wasn’t my first turtle-nesting encounter.

Not exactly the quiet environment turtles need - photo courtesy of Michaela

Not exactly the quiet environment turtles need – photo courtesy of Michaela

But when I saw the crowd around me taking pictures with flashes and using flashlights without red filters (even when the turtle wasn’t in “trance”), and chatting away like they were at a beach party, I realized that none of the guests had been briefed, and they had no idea about how to safely watch turtles lay eggs.

Too make matters worse, the staff even allowed people to touch the turtles. I started to really feel very bad about this uncontrolled frenzy and retreated under a palm tree down the beach. While lost in thought, pondering how people could show such interested in wildlife and nature and yet be so careless, I suddenly heard a tired sigh just a few feet away. Another leatherback had made its way to this quiet part of the beach and started to dig a nest.

I left my flashlight and camera where they were, enjoyed Mother Nature’s show under the moonlight, and decided to keep my little secret and not risk letting anyone potentially disturb this already exhausted mother (even though the staff was supposed to take measurements and bury the turtles eggs in a different place). I simply felt that sitting there in the dark and letting the turtle do what her ancestors have done for countless generations without man’s interference was the best call.

The duty of travelers and travel bloggers

What can we do to make sure that animal abuse and practices in the tourism industry that have an adverse effect on animals stop for good? It actually is more simple than we think. We must read. We must ask ourselves questions. And we should never participate in activities that have a negative impact on animals.

Emily has learnt from her mistakes, and now makes it a point to show other travelers the way to become more responsible tourists:

Since , we’re happy to say that we haven’t actually visited an attraction like that; the lesson has been well and truly learned. Our golden rule now is that if animals are involved in an attraction, it’s likely something that we shouldn’t be doing. And, if we want to see them in the wild (the proper wild), we do our research online to ensure that the tour is done in a wholly ethical, responsible and safe manner – unfortunately, the majority are not. 

As Mike puts it, travelers should

do research before travel, take the time to educate elves on the issues involved, don’t support organizations that profit from animal cruelty and abuse, and instead search out and support the truly responsible wildlife tourism activities. Watch and observe from a distance instead of getting up close and personal, walk alongside elephants instead of riding on top of them, support good zoos, not unethical ones.

Travel bloggers in particular should never miss the chance to educate other travelers on responsible wildlife holidays, especially when it comes to tourist activities that involve animals.

Hoping that within the next few years all dolphinariums and other kinds of animal confinement will not exist anymore, Giulia says that

In order to reach this very important goal everyone can do their part, first of all by not paying for such shows and encounters, but also by educating the new generations teaching them the true value of nature, whose beauty reaches its greatest expression only when far away from our exploitation.

Similarly, Jules points out the importance of educating the wider public about the consequences of irresponsible tourist practices. He adds:

That’s why we prioritize responsible tourism practices in our travels and articles that we write. Not to make people feel bad about their choices, but to educate them. Little by little we can all start to shift the tourism industry to become more responsible. 

Thankfully, more travelers, more people working in the tourism industry and even more authorities are now understanding that responsible tourism isn’t just a trend. As Mike points out,

It is still possible to have an awesome experience, and at the same time help the animals instead of contributing to their abuse, exploitation and ultimate extinction.

Some may argue that local communities still need these kind of attractions to make a living, but indeed, local communities can still earn a living and the tourism industry profit if attractions involving the use of animals are run in an ethical way, that emphasizes the need of caring for them and if they actually offer tourists the chance to interact in an actually constructive way.

Soon enough, responsible tourism will be the only way to travel – or else, we should be ready to say goodbye to dolphins, elephants, tigers and so many other species that make this world a wonderful place.

Pin It For Later

Find out how to be a responsible tourist - via @clautavani

 

 

 

 

Has Bali lost its magic?

Has Bali lost its magic?

I am really bad at keeping secrets, so before the word gets out and someone else says it for me and there is a huge misunderstanding, I suppose it is better that I actually say what I have been holding down for a while, since the day I got back from my trip to Indonesia. The truth is that I really didn’t enjoy Bali. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think I spent nearly long enough there in order to develop a proper, informed opinion on it.

I went to Bali as part of a very large press trip to Indonesia where I did not get to establish the itinerary (or else, I would have never picked to stay in Kuta Beach) let alone the food I ate, and I stayed along a little longer after the trip was over, to explore on my own. To be fair, I have seen a thing or two that were quite nice and I have actually enjoyed. And had I researched a bit more, I would have found good alternatives to the most touristy attractions in Bali. But that was definitely not enough to make me fall in love with Bali and make me want to go back. It was more like a good and welcomed distraction from all the things I did not like.

Read more about the Indonesia on my post “Fantastic things to do in Indonesia.”

Living up to the “Eat, Pray, Love” legacy

It would be fair to assume that I arrived Bali having in mind the images of tropical paradise as portrayed in Eat, Pray, Love. That very popular movie (and book) has fed a lot of people with beautiful sights of empty tropical beaches, interesting traditions, and an overall peaceful place.

Panorama of Mount Batur and Lake Batur

Eat Pray Love picture-perfect Bali – photo courtesy of Anna and Michal (flickr)

Or so I have been told, because I haven’t watched the movie and I haven’t read the book, and so I had no Eat, Pray, Love – induced expectations to meet. In fact, I have never really had Bali in my bucket list, so I did not have in my mind the fantasy of a location I would have to look for to quench my thirst for something beautiful and take that exact same perfect photo. All I had were recollections of some friends who had been – some coming back very enthusiastic (but they are into surfing), other a bit less so. I had not even seen their pictures. If anything, what I have learned in Bali is that it is actually fairly easy to take the perfect photo even in what may be the most imperfect place (more of this later).

Monkey Forest

Capturing the perfect shot in Monkey Forest

The whole problem is that I am all about first impressions, with people and even with places. I either love something or someone at first sight, or I don’t. There is either an immediate spark, or there isn’t. There is either a special chemistry, or none at all. And if there isn’t that famous chemistry, the only thing I can hope for is a honest friendship. It is not even a matter of how beautiful a place is. It is a question of vibes. And it hasn’t happened often (although it has, to be fair) that I went somewhere for a second time and finally, magically liked it and enjoyed it. And Bali really didn’t spark in front of my eyes. It’s like I went on a date with a man and he put up his worst attire for the occasion, stick his fingers up his nose, burped loudly and talked on the phone during dinner – that is how Bali was to me.

Bali

Relaxing at the pool – the only way to escape the heat in Bali

I may even try to justify the fact that I didn’t like Bali by saying that the extreme heat killed whatever little energy I had in me at the end of a very demanding and at times truly exhausting trip. I may say that the persistent stomach bug that caused me a lot of discomfort did not exactly put me in a good mood to let myself be infused with the magic of Bali. But really, that is not the case. I have still managed to enjoy Cartagena, in Colombia, or Leon, in Nicaragua, despite the suffocating heat. I have been sick all over the world (now, that is something to be quite proud of!) and it has hardly put me off a place (unless there were other reasons involved, obviously). What happened in Bali is that the first impression I got of it is that of an extremely congested, incredibly polluted, very dirty, truly commercial and way too crowded place for me to be able to enjoy it. I am not even sure it is fair to talk about “impressions” because, I’d dare to say, Bali is congested, polluted, and crowded. I really couldn’t wait to get out of Bali. So much so that the Eat, Pray, Love fantasy to me was more like a “Fast, Wish for the best and Get Out ASAP”.

Bali is too congested and polluted for my taste

The impression I got in Bali is that nobody likes the idea of walking or biking. I like walking, and I tried to do that. But the minute I stepped out of the hotel, I was invested by a stream of cars and motorbikes, none of them taking notice of me, unless it was to honk loudly so that I would move out of their way. Each and every person in Bali – locals as well as tourists – moves around by car or, even better, by scooter or motorbike. All I saw were scooters and motorbikes: entire local families jump on one, keeping the Indonesian tradition alive (they take bonding really literally) and making the most of the gasoline. It was quite common to see 4 persons riding the same tiny motorbike, none of them wearing a helmet and a small child literally tied to the chest with a rope, to hold him tight while zipping through traffic. I stared at them, curiously and, at the same time, terrified of what may happen if a stray dog crossed the street all of a sudden and they had to break. Those drivers do have skills, because (as anybody who holds a motorbike license would say) keeping a balance when carrying that much weight is no easy task. I guess they were just as curious to see my stare, as they often smiled back at me as they passed (but never stopped, God forbid!).

Traffic in Bali

As rural as it gets – photo courtesy of Josh (flickr)

My first taste of Bali’s extreme traffic was the night I landed in Denpasar, its main city. I hopped on the bus, hopeful for a short ride to the restaurant in Jimbaran, right by the beach. I told myself it couldn’t take that long – it looked quite close on the map. I soon realized that I could have not been more mistaken. It took the bus I was on a good hour to get out of the airport terminal (a total of, perhaps, no more than 500 meters). Scooters zipped through the buses and the cars, left and right, in those narrow streets, careless of pedestrians and other vehicles coming from other directions, causing the bus driver to hit the breaks all the time (forget about being car sick!) and to press that horn at regular intervals. Too bad I did not have my iPod to listen to some music, so that loud horn noise was as close to music as it got for me. Not pleasant, especially for someone who is very sensitive to noise.

As I got off the bus, I tried to cross the street. Nobody (cars, motorbikes and buses alike) would ever stop to allow me and other pedestrians to cross. Scooters would rather drive around me than stop. I was pretty certain that they would have hit me had I not run, screaming in terror, to get to safety. No distraction was allowed, unless I wanted to risk my life. I have later on tried lots of tricks to demand drivers to stop – including putting my arm out, rigidly – with little or no success. The only thing that worked when I wanted to cross the street was finding a policeman or even a hotel employee that, whistle and torch in hand, would stop the traffic so that I and other tourists could cross the street.

Safety first

Safety first – photo courtesy of Simon_sees (flickr)

I found it really hard to get away from traffic in Bali. If Denpasar and the nearby Kuta – which didn’t take me long to realize that is not another city, or a resort: it pretty much is just a huge neighborhood of Denpasar, and there isn’t any city interruption, let alone traffic break – are the most congested places on the island, I didn’t exactly have a joyride when I tried getting to other parts of Bali. In order to get from Kuta to the theoretically more rural Ubud I had to fiercely haggle a taxi which would have gladly ripped me off (although I had a very clear idea of the price I would have to pay). I was told it would take about 1 hour, I expected the ride to last about 90 minutes, and it eventually took 2 hours. I guess by then I was used to the different perspective on timings that Indonesians have compared to Europeans.

As if the traffic was not a problem in and of itself, I was exhausted by the pollution that plagues the most crowded destinations in Bali. I spotted several locals and the occasional tourist wearing a mask to block the exhaust smoke and the bad smell coming from the piles of garbage being burnt, but I have doubts that it helped much. I was surely disappointed at this. Again, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Bali, but sure enough, coming from a city, I would never pick to go on holidays to a place that is seriously polluted and where traffic is a huge issue – it just isn’t my idea of a relaxing time.

I found Ubud a bit better in terms of traffic and even more so Bedulu, a smaller city right next to it where traffic seems to slow down at least at night, and there are a few and very welcomed oasis of peace where I could enjoy some much needed silence.

The Bali I saw is dirty, crowded and commercial

Locals took over Kuta Beach at sunset

Not exactly a secluded beach – photo courtesy of Aaron Toth (flickr)

Bali isn’t nearly as rural and pristine as I imagined it would be. I had to check a few facts when I got there, because I could not really understand what I was seeing unless I put it in perspective. So, what I have discovered, is that it is a rather small island (a little over 5600 square km) inhabited by a whopping 4.5 million people. That isn’t a small number for such a small place. Just to give you an idea, I come from Sardinia, which is 5 times as big in size and has a quarter of the population. Not exactly crowded!

I then added to the already large population of Bali the huge intake of tourists that visit the island all year long and I got a better understanding of how crowded it was. Most of the time I just felt that there were people everywhere and it was hard for me to get away from them, and from an urban area altogether (because these people do have to live somewhere, so houses and apartment buildings have to be built).

Bali sunset

A gorgeous sunset in Kuta Beach – it doesn’t show what’s behind the scenes

For each postcard picture of Bali that circulates on the web, showing a tropical beach, a perfect sunset and a beautiful rice field portraying a lost paradise, there should be one that shows what is going on behind the scenes, and what the rest of the landscape really looks like. Admittedly, I could not resist the temptation of making Kuta Beach look way better than it really is, to get all my friends back home a bit jealous in front of the magic I was experiencing. But that was just a perfectly concocted show, where I waited for the perfect time to take a shot. I took a few pictures at sunset and the light was lovely and looking at the waves breaking on the shore was quite an impressive show. But as I looked back, right behind me, all the magic was gone and I could once again see Kuta Beach for what it really is: not a lovely, white, sandy and secluded beach, but one where the sand is dark, there is garbage all over and right behind it there is mall after mall, shop after shop, chain restaurant after chain restaurant.

Kuta Beach

Try and find a quiet spot there – photo courtesy of Surf 30 (flickr)

And, just to make it even less appealing to me, there were the crowds. Not just the crowds there are on a Sunday in any popular Sardinian beach. I am talking about so many people that I thought I would never find a spot to sit and relax, and just stare at the ocean. I am talking about crowds that exasperate the desperate conditions in which the island verses. I am talking hordes of drunk tourists that find it ok to casually forget plastic bottles and bags on the beach, as if it wasn’t dirty enough already and Bali wasn’t struggling with its garbage. So much garbage there was, that when I saw rats roaming among the piles of trash I was actually not that surprised but just a bit disgusted.

Bali

This isn’t exactly my idea of pristine – photo courtesy of Jon Rawlinson (flickr)

So many people there were on that beach, that I just wondered how they could surf without risking hitting others in the water.

It was not a pretty view, at least not to me.  And between all the garbage, the dark dirty sand, all those people everywhere and the vendors who tried to push flowers, trinkets and what not on me, I just thought I’d better leave and go back to the hotel and find tranquility in the privacy of my room.

I am not sure where the image of a lost tropical paradise comes from, because the more I saw Kuta, the more I thought it looked like the Benidorm of Indonesia.

Had I been a shopaholic I would have seen the benefit of visiting a huge mall-city. Bali surely is a shopping paradise and one could spend days browsing through the shops and the market stalls in search of a good deal, which inevitably implies the ability to haggle fiercely with the vendors in order to avoid being ripped off (the same goes for taxi rides, by the way). Too bad I can’t be bothered with shopping!

I may have noticed all of this because I am a spoiled girl from Sardinia, used to beaches that despite getting crowded in the summer months, never get dirty and most definitely never get commercial (it is actually forbidden to build anything even just close to the beach, that is how much we value our territory). I do understand that being from Sardinia is at times a limit, as I can’t help compare whatever place I visit to my beloved homeland. Perhaps someone who isn’t as spoiled as I am is able to enjoy the beaches in Bali.

To be fair, I found Ubud to be better than the rest of the Bali I saw. It has a bit more of a genuine feel and a bit more of character. But I can see that the impact of mass tourism and commercialization is seeping deeper and deeper here too, with more“high street” and chain shops opening to replace the smaller boutiques and the local businesses. I saw taxi drivers becoming more aggressive – they would not take a “thanks, I do not need a ride”. But at least, it was not as loud, not as “right in my face” and not as tacky as Kuta. Here’s a guide to Ubud with plenty of things to do.

Is Bali really that bad?

I don’t like being completely negative. And I would lie if I didn’t point out that Bali actually does have its charms and that there are a few cool things to do in Bali. I saw some really beautiful sunsets and sunrises – so gorgeous they were, the light so beautiful, that for a while I forgot about all the other things I did not like about Bali. I thought that seeing the traditional boats as they navigated the ocean, at sunset, from the view point of Ulu Watu temple, was a mesmerizing view.

Read more about Bali on my post “Things to do in Bali in one week.”

Bali sunset

The striking sunset seen from Ulu Watu Temple

The rice fields took me to a world that I hardly knew existed, with their bright green color.

Bali

The gorgeous rice fields in Bali – photo courtesy of Juan Jerez

I was captured by the traditional dances such as the Kacak – yes, it is mostly a show for tourists but it was fun to watch and experience, it was engaging and I really laughed hard at the jokes. I enjoyed spots such as the Elephant Cave. And I had a blast in Monkey Forest, where monkeys always put up a good show and I had to fight with a naughty one who thought it would be ok to steal my sunglasses (I got them back, I won!).

I found a few good restaurants in Bali – from the most traditional Balinese and Indonesian cuisine, to other international cuisine, I could have a different meal every day (that is, as soon as the trip was over and I could actually make my own orders!).

I saw some gorgeous resorts and hotels in Bali where I managed to relax and unwind for a real steal.

Ubud Dedari Villas

Bali has some fantastic resorts

And, when I looked around, asked and haggled, the prices were really convenient and it was a real budget destination where it was easy to splurge without breaking the bank.

All in all, my impression is that tourism has had an overly negative impact on Bali and I am afraid that this once beautiful island has lost much of its character and its uniqueness for the sake of mass tourism. While I understand that tourism can give the local economy a huge boost (again, I shall point out I am from Sardinia and tourism is the biggest revenue here), I appreciate the need to protect the environment, the authenticity of a place, its culture and traditions.

I would have liked to see a more traditional, more slower pace, more cultural Bali – where people, locals and visitors alike, can still appreciate the little things in life. I would have liked to have more interaction with the locals, one that involved more than begging them not to hit me with their scooters while I tried to cross the street. I am sure there is a better Bali – I just did not get to see it, and that is a shame because it should be everywhere and not just in the hidden spots.

I really hope that the Balinese people can take the protection of their culture, traditions and environment a bit more seriously and invest in them, even as a way to attract a more responsible kind of tourism, one that has less impact on what could otherwise be a really nice place. Till the day this happens, I will prefer to stay away from it. And perhaps travel to Raja Ampat, where apparently my friend Margherita found plenty magic.

Have you been to Bali? What were your impressions on it?

 

Ring of Fire or Circle of Hell? Crossing Dante’s Inferno on Mount Bromo

Ring of Fire or Circle of Hell? Crossing Dante’s Inferno on Mount Bromo

All hope abandon, ye who enter here! (Dante Alighieri, Inferno)

Limbo: forgive me for I am a pagan

Mount Bromo is located at about 4 hours drive from Surabaya, the capital of East Java, in Indonesia and it is part of the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. It is considered one of the top bucket list destinations in Indonesia, one of the places to visit in Indonesia. I suppose it deserves to be one of them.

Read more about Indonesia on my post “Fantastic things to do in Indonesia.”

But despite my best efforts and almost complete lack of expectations, I could not warm to it. In fact, I doubt I will ever want to give it a second chance, not until I know for a fact that things over there have changed, that this attraction is managed differently and in what to me is a more enjoyable way.

Don’t get me wrong, Mount Bromo is a site of amazing natural beauty and I think in the right conditions it would be quite enjoyable, but as things stand at the moment, and based on my experience, I did not enjoy it one bit.

visit Mount Bromo

This pretty picture is pretty much the only good memory I have of Mount Bromo

What I faced in Mount Bromo was the biggest cultural and personal clash I have ever experienced in my many years of living abroad and traveling to countries near and far (actually, very far) from home. I do believe that traveling is much more about self discovery than about the actual discovery of a destination. Sure enough, I understood many things about myself when I visited Mount Bromo.

It has been an enlightening experience as it made me come to terms with some aspects of myself that I did not know where so deeply rooted, and it made me realize that I am much more sensible than I perhaps like to show. It made me understand that different people will see the same thing differently. It also made me understand how important responsible tourism is to me and that it is the only way I want to travel, and that I want to become an advocate for it. And it finally made me decide that I can’t and won’t ever tolerate animal cruelty, no matter what, no matter where, no matter the excuse.

You see, I am an atheist and hardly a believer that heaven and hell exist. Yet, if I have to describe my experience in Mount Bromo, the first thing that comes to my mind are the Nine Circles of Hell of Dante’s Inferno. Much like Dante’s journey through hell, accompanied by his guide Virgil, I felt that I was also going through the nine circles, although in my case there was no real guide in sight but just other members of the tour group.

Each step that took me closer to the crater of Mount Bromo was a step into one of the nine circles, each nastier, scarier and more painful and sorrowful and than the previous one. My first circle was Limbo, the one that pagans, non-believers, deserve – for a pagan I was, as (shame on me!) I had close to zero knowledge of Mount Bromo before visiting. But that was soon to change, as I made my way through the other circles.

Lust: or, rise and (don’t) shine

My visit to Mount Bromo was included in a guided group tour of Indonesia to which I took part. I was glad it was one of the included destinations on the tour, because I really do enjoy volcanoes and generally they are the highlight of any of my trips. Little did I know that this time it would be the other way around. The night before visiting the trip organisers gave us instructions to wake up at 2:00 am and told us that, as this was a popular attraction among Indonesians, there would be even more people on a Sunday. I had no idea what to expect – but I soon learned that my definition of “a lot of people” surely isn’t the same as that of Indonesians.

Read why I like taking guided tours on this post.

I didn’t mind having to wake up so early though. In fact, I remembered the many early rises during my long term travels, to see amazing places, and I was greateful I’d get to experience this. There is a special light at sunrise. There is the feeling of exclusivity, of being one of a few that has the chance to enjoy something special; that of being close to nature as the day starts and the first rays of light come through the sky, finally making the surroundings visible and glowing.

It was pitch dark when at 2:30 am I met the rest of the group and left to reach Mount Bromo so that we could admire the sunrise. I was sleepy and a bit lost – most of us were – but eager to go. As soon as I got to the meeting point, together with other 4 persons I got wisked on a jeep, although we eventually only left at 2:50 – not bad given the relaxed standards of Indonesia that are so hard to deal with for us Europeans. The minute we left, I knew that this would be a long day. I kept my thoughts to myself and tagged along, trying to push any negativity away. 

Gluttony: it’s so slushy out there

The mayhem began immediately afterwards. A rather silent driver joined a race we didn’t know we were taking part in, against any other jeep also going to Mount Bromo. It felt like being on the Paris-Dakar, with the difference that we were not in the desert, breathing just dust and clean air. We were somewhere in the middle of Indonesia and the dust was mixed to the exhaust fumes, making it hard to breathe. The jeeps sped like mad in the foggy and pitch black night, passing each other on all sides, making many of us think that at each turn we’d actually go on a straight line and that would be the end of our visit to the country.

Then, our jeep stopped. In a broken English the driver told us he would not go any further and we’d have to just walk our way to the entrance of the site. There was too much traffic for him to keep going and he’d be unable to park. He told us he’d wait for us, no indication of an exact time (not that it would matter). So we started making walking.

What I happened next was so intensely scary, so frustrating, so thoroughly annoying that at the end of that misadventure I was ready to leave the country for good, never to return again.   Masks on our noses and mouth in a failed attempt to protect ourselves from the thick fumes, we started walking up, trying to keep an eye on each other so as to not get lost in that madness (there was no way we’d find each other again, in the dark, among thousands of other people); not sure which direction to go but relying on the flow which was only going one way.

Mount Bromo

Is the view of Mount Bromo really worth going through all that trouble?

It was pitch dark. It was noisy. It was frightening. Traffic was mad. In what could be best described as a scene of Apocalypse Now, oblivious to the traffic and the pedestrians, jeeps kept making their way to the top, dropping people off and then coming down again. They were everywhere. They completely disregarded the pedestrians who had to jump on the side of the road, in the very limited space (and remember, it was dark!) to avoid being hit.

To add to this already burning hell, a multitude of motorbikes kept zipping their way up and down the hill, again hardly bothered by the presence of pedestrians unless it was for stopping them to offer a ride for as cheap as 10000 Rupiahs, no helmets involved, no guarantee of survival, no strings attached. So unbothered were they by the people that in fact a few times they just about hit us, and we had to scream from the top of our lungs to be heard above the loud noise so that they would avoid us.

I felt hopeless. I could not understand why human beings could be so careless and uncivil to the environment; so disrespectful of human life. I was angry at them, for killing every little bit of positive energy I had when I woke up. Energy that I had to use in order to stay alive, to yell at them to move away, to scream to please leave me alone, to please not hit me with their motorbikes. I could only see unsensible, unreasonable people that, for the sake of (actually very little) money, were ruining the environment and what was meant to be one of the most beautiful natural sights in Indonesia. And they were doing it with the tacit consent of the authorities.

Greed and anger: because after going through the slush, I really really wanted to see that volcano and not just more slush

Then, we finally made it to the pedestrians only area. What literally were hordes of people were all going up, to the view point, to see the seeminly amazing sunrise on Mount Bromo. We eventually made it to the top to just find out that the actual smart ones had taken all the best front row “seats” – they had camped there the night before. Selfie sticks out, these multitudes all waited cheerfully (and noisily, so as to kill any magic left in the air) as we on the other hand tried to find a spot were we could stand and brace ourselves against the bitter cold (now, being cold is actually as unique an experience as one gets in Indonesia!) till the sun would come out and showed us Mount Bromo in all its mighty beauty.

Visit Mount Bromo

Bracing ourselves against the cold during our visit of Mount Bromo

So we waited. And waited. And waited. And theoretically the sun came out, but some thick clouds covered Mount Bromo so we did not get to see it. There is nothing one can do when nature rebels against his or her wishes, so we just decided to leave, cameras safely stored again and eyes unsatisfied as any hope of getting a view of the sunrise on Mount Bromo had now gone.

The mayhem started again. The crowds that a couple of hours earlier were all trying to reach the viewpoint now all moved towards the improvised parking lot, aka the road where the jeeps had casually dropped us off. Once again, we had to put our best efforts to avoid the jeeps and motorbikes that risked hitting us; we had to stop and jump for our lives to the side of the street, in the little space that was left among the parked jeeps. The noise was deafening, the exhaust fumes once more thick. The only difference was that now we were at least able to see where we were going.

Heresy: I should have seen this coming

After miraculously finding our jeep and silent driver among what seemed to be like a million jeeps, we started making our (much too fast) way down towards the desert, from where we were meant to ride horses up to the crater of Bromo. However, a quick turn and the view opened up for us. There stood Mount Bromo, in front of our eyes, mighty and spiteful and making fun of us and of all our efforts – the early wake up call, the walk through “the slush”, the risking our lives, the screaming, the anger, the fright, the tripod placing, the hopeless waiting.

There was our opportunity to shoot a good photo, to have proper proof that yes, we had been to Mount Bromo. We could not miss it. We jumped off the jeep, and, used to the noise, the traffic, the pollution, the cars and motorbikes’ careless driving, we crossed the road to fight our way among the (actually lesser) crowd, to get to a good spot where we could finally catch on camera the spectacular view and hope that nobody else but us and Mount Bromo would be in the picture. It took quite a bit of effort, but I must admit that it worked. Mount Bromo looked pretty. I almost bought it. Almost.

Mount Bromo

Signs of distress are already showing on my face after I had to go through a lot of trouble to get to Mount Bromo

Violence, Fraud and Treachery: if it seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t

My love affair with Mount Bromo was not meant to be. I should have known it, since our relationship got off on a really bad start and it did all it could to put me off. And I felt a bit cheated. I soon learned that what I thought was Mount Bromo was in fact Mount Batok. Mount Bromo was right behind, having a good smoke.

Getting back on the jeep once again, we finally set off to cross the sand desert. I was baffled. I could not fully grasp what I was seeing. Among the jeeps that sped their way through the sand, lifting a great deal of dust to mix in with the exhaust fumes, the last thing I expected to see were motorbikes. Not cross country motorbikes, though. Not the kind that can go on any sort of terrain. Proper, small city motorbikes. And each of them carried two and even three persons, in proper Indonesian style. None of the passengers wore helmets but “bravely” fought the forces of nature, sliding in the sand, lifting more dust as they tried to push the motorbike (which unsurprisingly silted) forward.

At this point, I did not let the dust, the noise and the once again almost apocalyptic scene bother me. I was just amused by it, and at most puzzled. I suppose I got it figured out then: people in Indonesia have an idea of fun which consists in challenging life as often as possible, that involves motorbikes and which implies having as many people around as are available. Talk about cultural differences.

Mount Bromo

Our jeep crew. There were many more around, all set to visit Mount Bromo – photo courtesy of Kuan Ju

Despite the mask, the thick sand got in my throat, causing me to cough strongly. By then, my throat was hurting. But the pain in my throat, the difficulty to breathe were soon going to be the least of my problems. According to the program, we were meant to ride horses to the top of Mount Bromo, so that we’d be able to see the crater and the thick sulfuric smoke coming out of it. Horses had already been arranged for the group. On paper, this sounded like an amazing experience.

Pity is that the minute we got off the jeep, in the middle of the sand desert, I saw the horses that we had been provided. I immediately felt that what had so far been a challenging day was taking a turn for the worst. To anybody that has an even minimum interest in animal welfare, it was easily visible that those horses were not exactly cared for. There was no mistake that those animals were malnourished; there was little question that they were distressed. They showed all signs: ribs painfully sticking out of the thin bodies; foam at the mouth; chewing the bridels; stamping nervously.

visit Mount Bromo

I was supposed to ride this horse to the crater of Mount Bromo – I refused

I had tears in my eyes; my throat tightened; my stomach tensed. It took me about a split second to decide that I would not contribute to their suffering and that I would not ride any of those horses. Only 3 others refused to ride the horses. The rest of the group, on the other hand, went on the ride on those very same horses that were unfit to carry heavy weights, and although they did notice that the horses didn’t look too well, they didn’t make much of it and joyfully rode them (to then realize that the poor animals could not carry them all the way to the top and that, when they summoned the owner to get down and just walk, this whipped the poor animal harder so that it kept moving).

Don’t get me wrong though. I don’t blame the others for not behaving like I did. In fact, in a way I envy them for being able to toughen up, block any negative emotions, put up a brave face (something that I was completely unable to do – in fact, I cried for about one hour) and manage to appreciate the beauty of Mount Bromo and understand the cultural differences between their country and this one.

I couldn’t and my experience was pretty much ruined, as now whenever I think of Mount Bromo all I can see are the images of those poor horses, whipped and starved; of the immense crowds, selfie sticks out, oblivious to the pollution and the damage to the environment they were contributing to. And all I can remember was hiking up to the crater, seeing the poor horses around me, pushing my way through the crowd, tears rolling down my cheeks.

Mount Bromo

The smokey crater of Mount Bromo – I got to see it even without riding a horse: the walk is perfectly doable.

I know I am perhaps overly sensible to animal welfare issues. I have been since I was a child, since that time my elementary teacher took my class to the circus and I thought it wasn’t really that much fun watching lions in cages being forced to act unnaturally. As I got to my room that night after visiting Mount Bromo, and for the following days (actually, for the following weeks and even now, as I write), I have tried to make sense of what I saw and of why I have felt that way. The words “culture” and “poverty” have come up often in conversations, with people telling me that some countries don’t have such a great culture in caring for animals, or it is their culture to behave in a certain way.

But I don’t think that culture should be used as an alibi for the mistreatment of animals or for the fearceless exploitation of the environment. You see, I have spent most of my previous working life researching and writing on topics such as culture and cultural identity. While I have been an advocate for the protection of the right to cultural identity and the right of people to live their lives according to their (more or less) traditions, I can’t in any way use the cultural argument to justify cruelty and suffering, whether it is referred to human beings or to animals. I refuse to label an activity as cultural and then just accept it as it is, if the results are hurtful. I find it unethical. And I know through years and years of studies that culture is not a fixed, never changing concept.

Indeed, culture changes with time, it evolves, and that doesn’t in any way make it “less cultural”. Traditional activities and occupations remain traditional even when they are practiced through modern means. One good example is that of people whose traditional occupation is in sheep-farming. Nobody expects them to still milk the sheep by hand for the activity to remain traditional. Not even the United Nations Human Rights Council, which has taken a clear stand in saying that culture is not static and it may actually develop without losing its protected character. So really, there is no way that I will ever justify the mistreatment of animals by saying that “it is the culture of the country”. I won’t just close my eyes, shut my mouth and pretend that all is good and move on with my life, because my conscience won’t allow me to and I feel I have a duty to inform, for as small as my voice is, and to contribute to change.

The road to redemption: a few tips for visitors and management

I would like to stress that the way each one of us experiences a place is always a matter of his or her own personality, and many other factors are involved. I have indeed said on another post of mine that what may be hell to some of us, may well be heaven to others – and the fact that some of the others on my group truly enjoyed their experience on Mount Bromo, taken on the exact same day and exact same means, is proof of this. All in all, I think that each experience we have as we travel is enriching, even the ones we consider bad – because in a way they lead us to understand more about ourselves, to question ourselves, to test our limits.

I don’t want to entirely rule out Mount Bromo from the list of places to visit in Indonesia. And But I would like to see changes before I recommend it to other travelers, and before I ever give it a second chance. Many things can be done to make sure that tourism in the area becomes more responsible and sustainable and some of them are fairly easily enforceable. Mount Bromo, indeed, although at the moment is so mismanaged that it makes various travelers end up holding horrible memories of it, has the potential of becoming an iconic attraction of Indonesia, and of South East Asia as well.

visit Mount Bromo

This pretty picture is pretty much the only good memory I have of Mount Bromo

If things stay as they are, my recommendation for anybody who is keen on visiting Mount Bromo is to make sure not to go during the weekend and to take alternative tours that don’t go to the viewpoint at sunrise, as this is what most people do. This is an extremely popular attraction among the locals, and they crowd the place in such a way that it completely loses its wild character and charme. Going during the week may be a better option, as it is bound to be at least less crowded.

Picking a good tour operator to organize the guided tour is also a key factor. It is important to have a good guide that speaks English (or whatever other language one may understand); that fully explains how the activities will evolve throughout the day; that will follow the group at all times and guide it through the crowds so that it doesn’t get lost and that can provide meaningful insights on the attraction, on its significance in natural and cultural or religious terms.

When picking the operator that will provide the services, it is important to make sure that the cars used are properly kept and equipped, and that if riding horses is an option, they outsource to locals who do feed their horses well and properly provide for them and don’t abuse them.

Ask questions, such as: Are we going to have a guide with us at all times? How does the day develop, and what does the tour include? Is there a meeting point in case we get lost? Who should I contact in case of emergency? Are the horses we are going to ride well fed? Where are they kept? How many hours per day do they work? Try to make sure that the answers are not evasive, because that may well be a sign that the operator isn’t reliable and that it is outsourcing its services to the cheapest provider, which will keep the costs down at the expenses of the environment and the animals.

Mount Bromo

If horses on Mount Bromo look like this, refuse to ride them.

A more sustainable and responsible approach to tourism in Mount Bromo may imply limiting the number of daily visitors, something that has been done to several key attractions around the world, in order to protect their cultural, natural and historic relevance and uniqueness. It may be necessary to implement a system of online reservations to access the attraction, but nowadays setting up a website and a reservations system is easy and the benefits for the preservation of the natural beauty of Mount Bromo would be countless: cleaner environment including cleaner air; less people and thus less cars meaning less pollution and traffic; and the fewer visitors could count on a more thorough, enjoyable and all encompassing experience.

Another advice would be that of closely monitoring the horse dealers at the feet of Mount Bromo, and require that before providing their services of renting horses they meet at least some minimum standards in terms of animal welfare. Horses need to be properly fed and must have plenty of water when working; the number of working hours should be limited and even the amount of weight they can carry should be based on their own size.

The main point here is trying to ensure that Mount Bromo is not completely exploited and consequentially ruined by mass tourism for the sake of easy and short term money, but that it becomes the avant-guarde in terms of careful management of a natural attraction, one that should be proudly protected and that will eventually lead to a more steady, durable revenue. The authorities of Indonesia have proved on other occasions, in other places (such as on Komodo National Park) that if they want they can take responsible tourism and protection of the environment and the wildlife of the country quite seriously. It would be good to see that the same is being done on Mount Bromo. It would be great to see its real beauty blossom.

Read more about Komodo National Park on my post “How to find Heaven on Earth.”

Legal Disclaimer: This article was written in partnership with the Ministry of Tourism of the Republic of Indonesia as part of the #WonderfulIndonesia campaign. All the views and opinions expressed are my own and based on my personal experience. The views expressed are honest and factual without any bias.