Canggu: Smoothie Bowls, Surfing, and the Steep Price of Tourism Development
I originally wanted to wax poetic about Canggu, my favorite spot in Bali. This post started out as a homage to my favorite smoothie spots and bars in Canggu, but I couldn't deny that something else stood out in my mind when I thought about Canggu: its rapid development and the steep price that Canggu and its people are paying on behalf of Western backpackers and tourists like me.
The day I landed in Bali, I skipped the pulsing, popular spots of Semniyak and Kuta to grab a taxi to Canggu, a beautiful beach town 45 minutes away from the airport. And in the month that I traveled throughout Bali, Canggu became the spot that I kept coming back to.
The road into Canggu is off a busy, packed main street full of motorbikes and cell phone shops. But a quick left turn brings you down a dirt road with lush rice terraces on either side. And towards the end of that road, with the ocean in view, lies Canggu.
Canggu, admittedly, is a Westerner's paradise, and I won't hide the fact that the town has been quickly cultivated to meet Western expectations of hipster shopping, smoothie bowls, and iced coffee. Those conveniences are what makes Canggu so popular as a surfing spot, a digital nomad hub, and a yoga haven. I remember one particular evening sitting in Deus Ex Machina's open bar, a hip spot dedicated to custom surfboards and motorbikes, with a glass of red wine, live music, and a breeze coming off the ocean. For all I knew, I could have been in Malibu or Miami.
Canggu is one of the fastest growing expat spots in Bali, as digital nomads scramble to pick up a piece of land adjacent to a rice field and overlooking the ocean. Five-star resorts sit further down Canggu beach, and a new restaurant, bar, or nightclub seems to be opening every week.
And Canggu's rapid development makes sense: one of the reasons it's become so popular is because tourists are now avoiding Kuta and Seminyak for being too touristy, overdeveloped, dirty, and congested. So, they move out of those areas in search of a more "authentic" Balinese experience, and find themselves heading south as Canggu's appeal spreads by word-of-mouth and travel bloggers. And development has followed.
It was in Canggu that I first wrote about consumerism, Western influence, and extreme tourism development in my journal, because I could see it happening before my eyes. And it was also the first time I understood how I, as a Western traveler, contribute to that tourism development, for better or for worse.
The Balinese don't eat $9 organic smoothie bowls, nor do they eat $13 avo toast with poached eggs. But you can find both in Canggu, along with Scandinavian, French, and Mexican restaurants; vegan, paleo, and organic cafes; and hipster coffee shops — all of which I spent my money on at some point or another during my stay there.
In fact, this became more clear to me when I realized that Canggu does Mexican food extraordinarily well, which was a welcomed sight for me in month eight of my travels. I splurged and sat down at Taco Casa, a restaurant chain. The wifi password was printed on the table tent. Symbols on the menu denoted vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free options. An asterisk stated that the water served is filtered and that all vegetables are washed with purified mineral water. The food was organic. The waitress, a young Balinese woman, attentively took my order and asked if I had any allergies. She then came back over to let me know my food would be arriving soon. When my food arrived, she waited several minutes before asking how everything was. She refilled my water glass often, but not too often. When the bill was ready, a 15% tip was included in the price. The staff had been impeccably trained to serve Westerners. And it made a difference.
And it's not just the restaurants. Canggu has some of the most exclusive surfing camps, yoga retreats, and spas. The Chillhouse, which bills itself as the Bali "yoga, surf, and lifestyle retreat" offers yoga, surfing, and biking lessons with villa-like accommodations and organic breakfasts and lunches.
For every new taco shop or surf camp that opens, a Balinese family's rice terrace has to give way.
And there's the oxymoron when it comes to development: backpackers and expats love Canggu for its still-present rice fields, but the onslaught of tourism demands more accommodation and more restaurants, with another rice field being filled with concrete every other day. Each time I came back to Canggu — three times in one month — there was a new resturant nearing completion on the corner of a rice field.
But while tourism development eats away at the local way of life, it is also providing jobs for the local people. Another oxymoron. It is the Balinese who are constructing these new restaurants, serving as baristas, waiting on tourists, and often working as managers (but they are not the owners — the people building these places are Australian, English, American, and Dutch entrepreneurs). The booming tourism provides job infrastructure and economic stability to the local people, which should increase their quality of life. That's a good thing, right?
And yet, Canggu's current rush of tourism development is not financially or socially sustainable; I think most people who spend more than a few days in Canggu will see that for themselves. And again, there's another oxymoron: people like Canggu because it offers up Western conveniences. That's one of the many reason I like Canggu! But people begin to dislike these places when the "authentic" culture becomes harder to find and the place feels too Westernized.
Tourism development walks a fine line, and more often than not, that line disappears. So, tourists go in search of another up-and-coming haven, leaving behind the now congested beach towns that molded themselves to fit a golden, Western standard. As for that next up-and-coming haven? My bet is on Uluwatu, the next stop on the Southern beltway of Kuta, Seminyak, and Canggu.
Yet despite the growing presence of Western influence, Canggu maintains its charm and character, which is what makes it such a special place to any surfer, backpacker, or expat who comes here. The Bali culture continues to be omnipresent: Hindu temples loom before surf shops and offerings sit on the steps to the beach each morning, only to be washed away by the incoming tide.
One of the reasons Indonesia is one of my favorite countries is because of the kindness of the Balinese. No matter where I went in Bali, the Balinese were so friendly, helpful, and eager to help me learn about their culture and customs. In Canggu, Augus was the manager of the hostel I stayed at. He had worked for several years on a cruise ship and like many Balinese, he had quite good English. Augus took my questions in stride, explaining the purpose of the Hindu altars and his perspective on the rapid development of Canggu. He took me across town on his motorbike to a local artist who drew me two beautiful Balinese Hindu designs and he helped me out when I attempted to get an Uber in Canggu.
The Balinese's kindness made Canggu even more beautiful with its soft sand beaches, stunning sunsets, and green rice fields. A day in Canggu could easily be spent with a morning surf session, an organic smoothie bowl for fuel, a blogging session in a co-working space, a quick journey to Tanah Lot temple, sushi for dinner, and a night out at a beach club with an international DJ spinning. I loved Canggu because of its Western conveniences and Balinese hospitality; I was often reminded of home in a little corner of Bali.
It is this eclectric mix of Balinese Westernism (is that a thing?) that makes Canggu my favorite spot in Bali. But we have to acknowledge that if developers aren't careful, and if expats and locals don't take a stand to protect Canggu, this beautiful coastal town will meet the same overdeveloped, touristy fate of Kuta. And that would be a hard hit for Balinese and Westerners alike.
Where to Stay: I stayed at Canggu Surfing House for $10/night. It was easy to meet people with the outdoor garden and the location near Echo Beach was great. It looks like management may have changed, however.
Places to Go: Old Man's or Finn's Beach Club for a night out; Nalu Bowls for smoothie bowls; any one of the local warungs for a super cheap, all-you-can-eat dinner buffet; the morning Saturday market for hippie jewelry and clothing
If I'm being honest: The taxi mafia is strong in Canguu: Uber drivers can drop you off outside of Canggu limits, but don't expect to be picked up by an Uber. The Uber driver — and you — may be chased off by taxi drivers. Your best bet is to make friends who are going in your direction and share the cost of a taxi with set prices to get out of Canggu.