This cafe does the best flat whites in town. They’re so good, the cafe doesn’t need to sell any food. It just sells a lot of flat whites and something called bulletproof coffee – which is a disgusting combo of butter and caffeine; the keto equivalent of the speedball that killed John Belushi.
We’re in a developing country though – it’s a cafe for white people.
Canggu, Bali: the couple next to me are in his ‘n’ hers yoga gear. She’s complaining that there’s “too many tourists, and they’re building too many hotels”.
He’s nodding and saying, “yeah, yeah, Canggu’s destroyed”.
Everyone in Canggu moans about the pace of development, even as they voraciously consume the fruits of that development.
Do a yoga class, have a massage, hang out at one of the beach clubs and there’s the constant teeth-clacking vibration of jackhammers and metal grinders. Having reflexology next to a Canggu building site can actually be quite a tense experience.
As can walking … anywhere.
In Canggu last month, I feared for my life as I walked into town on the road and narrowly avoided getting hit by cars. There’s long stretches of main road with no footpaths, despite a huge increase in traffic. Public infrastructure has not kept up with private growth.
And the growth, in a short space of time, has been staggering.
In 2016 a British luxury travel magazine sent me on assignment to Canggu. It was the latest hot destination, they said.
I met various marketing people from Canggu on that trip. It was after all, a press trip. But more than one of them, in the lobbies of boutique hotels, confessed their fears about the future of Canggu.
One Brazilian expat working for a hotel chain said the problem with all the development was that water was running out in southern Bali. You could build on every last rice field, but there wasn’t enough water to go around.
It turns out around 60% of Bali’s water is used by tourists, according to research by a British academic, Stroma Cole. Her research shows tourism operators with deep pockets can drill further underground for water and “literally suck[ing] up their neighbours’ water”.
The remaining water supplies are dwindling; “Water tables across Bali have dropped up to 50m in the past 10 years in parts of Bali and 60% of its watersheds are declared dry. The damage could become irreversible once aquifers suffer saltwater intrusion, rendering the groundwater useless for domestic purposes.”
Bali relies heavily on tourism, and I have clocked up around 20 trips in 10 years for a mixture of work and leisure. I love Bali and the people. I am fascinated with how their social and religious structures coexist with such an overwhelming amount of western tourists, seemingly with little friction.
But that was deluded, wasn’t it, to think there was no friction?
I left Canggu after a week, and filed my story. As is the way of such luxury magazines, it focused on the positives. I talked about the coffee.
Three years later the streets of Canggu are unrecognisable, and much of the beachfront has been blocked out by development. So many new landmarks have been erected that my bearings have vanished.
As Canggu morphs from a sleepy fishing village and surfing spot into something more global, the aesthetic is remarkably similar to other hipster hubs around the world. The street art around Canggu looks similar to the street art in Bushwick and Kreuzberg (and in fact could be the same street art, as these dudes fly around the world accepting commissions and projects). The cafes have a similar fit out to a Melbourne laneway cafes (in fact one such cafe is actually called Little Flinders, after a Melbourne laneway).
We could be anywhere – but we’re in Bali – and all of this is new. The rice paddies have been gobbled up, and this sprawling replica hipster-urban village has sprung up in their place, like the saloon set on a Western movie. It all looks great on Instagram.
On the way from the airport during this visit my driver was as close to angry as I’ve seen a Balinese person get. We took a back road into town and it was much changed since my last visit.
“The farmers sell the rice paddies to the foreigners and they build their villas, and then the farmers sit back and they spend all the money, and then struggle when there is no land left to farm,” he said.
Much of the growth and appeal of Canggu centers around the wellness industry – yoga studios, day spas, surf schools, vegan restaurants.
Yet there is, of course, a disconnect in this. In tending your own garden – nurturing your own personal wellness at the expense of mother nature – you are engaging in cognitive dissonance on a grand scale.
What’s the point of a healthy cholesterol reading and a low BMI if there’s no drinking water?
As a travel writer, I am complicit in the problematic loop that Canggu is caught in. We write about a spot that is on the verge of becoming hot, and those articles can add to the hype of a place, attracting more people, putting more pressure on the already stretched natural resources.
A hundred places to get a good flat white is just a distraction from the reality: we’re killing Canggu.