The Plague of the Selfies in Ubud

I’m currently traveling through Bali with two friends. These friends rarely use Facebook, don’t have Instagram accounts, and gripe over the fact that Pinterest isn’t free to browse through if you don’t have an account. They haven’t grasped the concept of doing it for the ‘gram.

We woke at sunrise to visit the Tegallalang Rice Terraces, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The rice terraces embody the Balinese Hindu philosophy of subak that connects mankind to the natural and spiritual worlds. The water that runs into the rice paddies must first run through a temple. Then, harvest must occur on a day that coincides with an ideal day on the Balinese calendar.

At first light, there were few other tourists roaming through the rice paddies. We walked down a steep staircase and came upon a swing that overlooked the rice terraces. I’d never seen the swing in person before. But I’d scrolled past the Instagram pictures gracing my feed on a near daily basis.

The Shot – the one that people travel with backpacks filled with different outfits – consists of three factors:

  1. A beautiful woman with long hair that blows in the wind.
  2. A long, floral dress that flows from the back of the swing.
  3. Bare feet or strappy sandals.

Some men also make this shot, but they are usually wearing a Bintang tank top and a backwards baseball cap.

I’m no stranger to vanity and ego. My first thought when I saw the swing was, “I want The Shot.”

Though I was wearing jean shorts and a T-shirt, I could put my T-shirt over the harness and let my hair down to get a picture that looked somewhat Insta-worthy.

The swing master named a price that felt astronomical wouldn’t back down after a soft bargain. All you’re doing is sitting on a swing. I set down the safety harness and walked away from the swing.

I may be vain, but I’m also on a budget.

We looked up into the terraces. Every few hundred feet, we could see swing after swing after swing. Each one identical. There were a few other “selfie platforms” in the mix where you could take a picture with a heart, sitting in a nest, or with an I <3 Bali sign overhead. We walked past one woman who wore a long dress, curled hair, and a local holding her camera loyally trailed behind her. She described to him in detail how she wanted him to capture The Shot. Drones buzzed overhead and sounded like a mosquito infestation.

The rice terraces have transformed from an ancient natural wonder to little more than an amusement park for selfies. You can’t venture far before stumbling into someone’s photoshoot or ending up in a line for one of the photo areas. The terrace walkways are narrow, so it’s a challenge to pass people without splatting into a paddy.

This experience was vastly different to the others I’ve had wandering through the Tegallalang Rice Terraces with others. It seems like gone are the days where you can explore and simply enjoy. I think my friends wondered why I’d led them here, knowing that they don’t care for selfies or crowds.

While I’m not one to hate on a trend simply to hate on it, something about the whole ordeal of walking through the rice terraces felt gross and unoriginal. I kicked myself for wanting to be part of the trend and craving The Shot for myself.

On one hand, I see the benefits of a selfie amusement park. It does bring income to the locals, it keeps tourism relatively contained, and people leave with an awesome picture of themselves in a unique environment. One man who rode the swing yelled “Weeeeee” the entire time and genuinely seemed to enjoy himself.

But is it just a harmless photo?

On our next stop, at Puri Tirta Empul, we arrived ahead of the masses. We watched locals of all ages give canang sari, small offerings, and duck their head under the healing waters of Puri Tirta Empul’s fountains. One man collected water in a plastic bag from each fountain, presumably to take back to a sick loved one.

Then, the fellow tourists arrived. One by one, they piled into the healing waters. They placed their palms together, bowed, and dunked their heads under the fountain – but not without making sure that a friend was standing at the edge to snap their photo, first. One group bowed, got The Shot, and then took a picture of themselves floating with their feet up in the water. Meanwhile, a line of local Balinese Hindus waited patiently for the tourists to finish.

Travel is about understanding and appreciating other cultures. Where is the understanding when you bow without meaning? Could you name the entity who you are bowing to? Where is the appreciation in wasting the time of locals – who are willing to share their culture if you’d simply ask – when you use them as props rather treat them as people? Would these same tourists dare to go into a Christian church and get baptized while holding a selfie stick?

When an addiction to Instagram likes interferes and overpowers with people going about their daily life (especially in a religious sense), the obsession has gone too far.

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