Since moving to Indonesia, I’ve had ample opportunity to visit some of the less salubrious hotels, nightclubs and even prisons in one of Australia’s favourite holiday destinations.
But I’ve always avoided Bali’s souvenir shops and the guys who aggressively promote their wares. On my most recent assignment, though, I decided to tackle them head on.
It was time to talk to some of the local shopkeepers about what Australians typically buy, and to (subjectively) figure out what was the tackiest souvenir I could (theoretically) purchase?
This is not to mock Indonesian workmanship. The hand-crafted furniture made by local artisans, for example, is of the highest quality. But it’s a little difficult to chuck a handmade bookshelf or outdoor table in carry-on baggage.
While batik, latex and agar wood products are cheap, popular items with Chinese tourists in Bali (who now outnumber Aussie visitors), the cheaper products pitched to Australians are a little more downmarket.
Wooden micro-surfboards with football club and alcohol brand logos, knock-off brand name sunglasses and expensive-looking over-ear headphones are common. So are custom-made stickers, 99 per cent of which carry messages so explicit I can’t print them in a family newspaper.
T-shirts that declare “I’m not gay, but $20 is $20” abound, as do baseball caps and basketball singlets.
And if I was the merchandising manager for the AFL, the NRL, or several other sporting codes I’d be screaming blue murder. Poorly made replica shirts and shorts are ubiquitous, and can be had for a fraction of the price of the official merchandise (particularly West Coast Eagles gear, given Perth’s proximity to Bali).
The shopkeepers are usually more than willing to talk to would-be customers, but many of those we approached did not want to talk when we explained we were journalists.
But Muhammad Bakri, who has run a shop on Jalan Raya Legian for years, was happy to chat. Business isn’t bad, he said, but it’s always better during Australian school holidays.
“Australians are good customers. The most popular thing is the Bintang t-shirt, it’s a favourite.”
Mostly his goods were made in Bali, he said.
“The sunglasses are imported from Jakarta, it has better quality than the Chinese-made stuff. That stuff you buy it and it breaks in a day.”
And the West Coast Eagles singlets and shorts?
“That’s made here. You get to know the local sides.”
A few doors down, at another stall, shop owner Ari said some of his products are locally made and some come from China.
“Our customers are Europeans, Australians, Americans. For them, anything with Bintang or Bali on it is the most popular thing,” he said.
“Australians are good customers, but they negotiate a lot.”
While people like Muhammad Bakri and Ari are the beneficiaries of Australians’ long love affair with Bali, both admit they are sometimes puzzled by their customers’ purchases.
I am too. After a couple of hours exploring the local shops, it felt like I was trapped in the place where good taste had come to die.
Who actually needs a foot-long wooden surf board that has the word “toilet” or “f*ck off” carved into it?
And the award for the tackiest souvenir?
For me, it was the collection of Viking and skull-themed motorcycle helmets, which looked like they would provide little actual protection in the event of a motorcycle accident. The wooden penis, which you can even have your name engraved on, was a close second.
And no, I didn’t buy anything. At least not this time.
– with Amilia Rosa
James Massola is south-east Asia correspondent, based in Jakarta. He was previously chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in Canberra. He has been a Walkley and Quills finalist on three occasions.