From Here to Oblivion (and Back Again)
Category: Newspaper / Magazine Columns
Sitting on a big, red AirAsia flying cigar on the way back to Phuket from Bali, the silence of my mobile phone is comforting.
Budget airlines in the region have yet to install on-board Wi-Fi and the deep blue skies remain one of the last great getaways of the mind. That will change sooner rather than later, without a doubt.
A week in Bali has flown by like a speeding bullet. News on the ground had surfing legend Kelly Slater tweeting around the world that if the island didn't do something about the rising tide of floating garbage then riding the waves may become a thing of the past.
Hotels in Kuta, Legian and Seminyak remain under scrutiny for flushing waste directly into the sea. A crumbling infrastructure of public utilities is finding its task a mission impossible.
For all the gridlocked traffic, motorcycle mayhem and development, Bali still remains a happy place for me. Whether it's the more temperate climate, or the hospitable Balinese culture and art, it continues to somehow define the word 'exotic' for many.
Rarely a day passes when hotel staff or taxi drivers do not say warmly - thank you for coming to the island and please come back. I can't recall the last time I heard this in Phuket. Customary politeness and respect for visitors seems to have vanished despite what you see in brochures and advertisements.
Is comparing the two a matter of "same same but different" or are both magnificent island destinations headed into a mass-market oblivion? These days it's a popular topic in both places and voices are growing from whispers to a dull roar.
A burgeoning hotel pipeline ignited by Indonesia's economic success is showcased everywhere you go. From the mega 800 room and villa Mulia project in Nusa Dua to branded offerings by Ritz-Carlton, JW Marriott, Sheraton, InterContinental, Westin, Holiday Inn and Regent.
Battling budget brands are popping up and multiplying from Tune, Fave, ibis, Whiz and Amaris, while monsters of the midway or mid tier properties by Aston, Swiss-Belhotel and Harris see clusters of critical mass offerings that you can count on all your fingers, toes and those of your next-door neighbor.
The famed Bali Golf and Country Club at the integrated destination resort Nusa Dua is closed for upgrading and a new layout will feature a beach-front luxury Shangri-La property. In the coming months the Legacy Sanur Hyatt Regency will shut down for renovation and expansion.
Whether it's the creeping shadow of construction cranes working overtime on a new international airport terminal, or a massive mangrove toll road linking Bonoa and the gateway aviation hub, work is speeding ahead with the goal of finishing for APEC 2013.
I ran into architect Fredo Taffin recently who splits his time between upscale villa and hotel projects in Bali and Phuket. He commented that more and more work is on the horizon in the former versus the latter, as both domestic and international investors continue to flock to the 'Island of the Gods' in droves.
Yesterday I met with former banker Stuart Hall, who together with his wife and creative partner Melanie, developed the trendy private hotel Luna2. Next up is a large complex named Luna2 Studios, while on the horizon is a project coming up in Phuket on Kamala's Millionaires Mile.
As business blooms, a growing number of longtime local residents are speaking up about concerns of overdevelopment and the huge looming question mark of a sustainable future.
South Bali remains the epicenter of what is becoming tourism's Central Business District. What many visitors don't realize is that the other 70 per cent of the island remains rural, and lacking in economic prosperity.
Rumors of a second airport up north continue to be exactly that.
This sounds similar to the plight of Phang Nga although, when comparing Phuket and Bali, a key difference on the Thai side is the existence of world class medical centers, schools, shopping malls and yachting. Bali on the other hand remains massively dependent on tourism and highly leveraged into the Australian market.
Curses, challenges and the clatter of discontentment rise high above the din in both of our key headliners I'm afraid. Are Asia's two leading resort brands on the verge of self-destruction or is this simply the new world order and the way things will go during Asia's golden age? We've hit cruising altitude and I've gulped down over-toxic sticky and sweet 3 in 1 coffee. My mind is slowly going numb so while I can chronicle these tales of the two islands, the future remains clouded in a complex web of 'what if's.
I'm not sure if oblivion is a good place to visit but it is somewhere we might all be headed to in the not too distant future.