The never-ending saga of Bali’s international airport, gateway to surfing paradise

Your blog correspondent, who was recently in Singapore, checked out early from his hotel, preferring instead to spend three hours at Changi Airport, one of the travel wonders of the world. Indeed, you can holiday in Singapore without ever wandering out of Changi.
At the Pizza Hut by the Malaysia Airlines check-in counter, a group of thirty or so excited children about 9 years old were having lunch, twitching with excitement, obviously off on some grand trip. They were from a Muslim school, neat and tidy and scrubbed, the boys in their peci caps, the girls in their white robes and headdresses. Several adult women in full Muslim dress supervised them. The European man in the check-in queue front of me eyed them sourly. You could tell what he was thinking, his brainwaves molded by media, how Muslim schools teach their students to pretty much hate everybody and everything Western, except maybe pizza (the latest headlines from Indonesia were of hardline Muslim groups threatening Lady Gaga’s planned concert). Soft rock played on the restaurant’s music system, and then Adele came on. Without warning, these Muslim kids spontaneously started singing along, loudly too, a bunch of the girls doing that Adele swaying-arm thing: “We could have had it all, rolling in the deep….” The man in front of me blinked in utter confusion. He wasn’t computing this. He couldn’t wrap his brain around what he was seeing and hearing. Muslim children singing and swaying to Adele? It was as unreal for him as a water buffalo grabbing a karaoke mike to sing along to Barry Manilow.

Anyhow, a few hours later your blog correspondent was navigating the chaos of Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport, undergoing yet another renovation/expansion. When we disembarked, we went up and down stairs, hiked along endless corridors, squeezed through narrow openings, to finally reach Immigration and Customs, the latter akin to one of Dante’s Levels of Hell. (One flight some years ago, in the absence of directing ground staff, a friend of mine told me that they all followed the first guy off the plane who seemed to know where he was headed, and got lost in the bowels of pipes and machine rooms. The airport had to send a rescue party)

Ngurah Rai is for many traveling surfers their first introduction to Indonesia. Actually, it’s fairly accurate one, too, because the traffic that the traveling surfer will soon encounter is pretty much more of the same. Sometimes the surf line-ups, as well.

I’ve been travelling out of the Tuban airport since I was a little tyke. Apart from the early sixties, when it was just a strip with a shack, and sirens sounding to warn away cows when a plane came in for landing, that airport has always been under expansion/renovation. And each time it’s completed, the airport is already too small and cramped.

The photo below (a scan of a PDF scan) was taken in 1968.

Your correspondent is in there—I wouldn’t see my first surfboard at Kuta for another year or so. This group was probably the majority of all bulé kids living in East Indonesia, from Bali to Timor. We were off to Djakarta (as it was then spelled) and boarding school. Two flights a week. The four-engine Electra DC-4 was a heck of a lot quieter and quicker than the old DC-3s and their canvas seats.

Departures were often delayed as we waited for pilots to finished their shopping in Denpasar, where food was much cheaper than the Big Mango. We often flew with trussed, live chickens chucked into the back of the plane.

What the first photo doesn’t show (in the background) is the cable car system that hauled down buckets of limestone from the Bukit for a runway extension. The first major expansion of the airport, as I recall, funded by the Japanese. It’s never stopped.

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2 Responses to The never-ending saga of Bali’s international airport, gateway to surfing paradise

  1. robert says:

    I first came on a DC3 out of Darwin and so also experienced some quite early versions of Denpasar Airport. I am and will always be a ‘ Bule ‘ .. I can say however that after all this time I feel connected and consequently so deeply embarrassed by what a ‘ crappy ‘ job they have made out of this new airport. The design and quality is absolutely below par and those responsible should feel pretty embarrassed but I’m sure they remain oblivious. They even raised the departure tax no less, Ha ! Check out the new airport in Surabaya, even the new one in Komodo ! Nice to see some areas have some notion of cleanliness and style..

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