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Four-Hour Queue to Enter Paradise: Bali Airport Goes Kafkaesque

by Susi, 4 May 2010

Due to convoluted immigration and security procedures, passengers arriving at Bali’s airport are now forced to queue for up to four hours before they are finally released from its insalubrious underbelly. Ours is now surely the worst airport in the world in terms of user satisfaction. Only the Russian communists during their heyday, or the Chinese during the Cultural Revolution, ever orchestrated queues like this. I think I heard someone say, “It’s like waiting to buy meat in Minsk back in the bad old days.”

I went to the Bali airport last Friday to fetch a friend at 10pm. Her flight was on time (9:58 from Sydney), but she did not emerge until 12:40, a full two hours and 42 minutes after she got off the plane. The experience for both my friend and I was as surreal as an episode from The Prisoner.

On arrival at the airport I was surprised to find the entire parking lot full beyond bursting, something I have never seen in my fifteen years living here. I didn’t yet know that the parking crisis was caused by a backlog of drivers waiting to fetch guests who were basically being held hostage inside for hours. I was mystified. I was slightly amused by the mayhem even – – until it took me twenty minutes to find any kind of parking space, legit or otherwise, in which to abandon my car and run for it. Hotel vans were double- and triple-parked on every visible speck of tarmac. Cars choked the aisles between parking rows, blocking others from passing. Minivans were sitting willy-nilly in the middle of the airport’s main traffic arterials. It was parking bedlam, in other words.

The parking problems were nothing compared to what I encountered at the arrivals area (above) – – which even in quiet times is already inadequate for its purpose, badly lit, dirty, cramped and seedy. I have rarely seen such a density of bodies crushing against one another in Bali. Only at the gate into Batur temple during the odalan after purnama kadasa. And at the Golkar campaign rallies I attended over a decade ago, back when Golkar was really popular. So I drifted aimlessly in confusion, hoping to find a stance from which I could catch a glimpse of arriving passengers in hopes of finding my friend. From the midst of the throng, I was hailed by an old Balinese buddy from Ubud, Wayan Elly, the son of Murni of Murni’s warung, shops and bungalows fame.

Elly grinned woefully (as only a Balinese gent can) and blurted out, “I’m so embarrassed! It’s just like a night market here! Not like an airport! Like a village night market! Dirty! Crowded! Third World!” He was understandably apologetic, although he had no need to apologise to me for Bali’s failings. I’ve been here long enough to see  and to tolerate cheerfully all manner of inconveniences, without gnashing a tooth or biting a nail. Then Elly explained to me that new arrival procedures had been introduced at the airport, which include fingerprinting (??!?!?) and photographing (?!?!?!?). As a result, the arrival process for guests in Bali was now taking two to four hours. The poor fellow had been waiting two hours already for his arriving friend, and there was still no sign of the guy, nor of any other passengers with baggage tags from his flight.

At this point, the arrivals greeting zone was nine-deep with drivers from hotels, resorts and bungalows, mashed in with an assortment of Indonesians and expatriates waiting for homeward-bound friends and family. The Balinese hotel drivers, I must say, although looking sweaty and exhausted, were somehow (as only the Balinese can be), still cheerful and rambunctious in a good way. To alleviate the boredom, they had spontaneously taken up an “audience” attitude, and were cheering and hooting, and giving “applause-o-meter” ratings to every emerging passenger and stewardess. The sexy girls got rounds of applause or catcalls or “woo-woos” in unison. The hip dudes in outfits with attitude or with surfboards and smiles, got cheers and “allez-allez-allezs”. Exhausted French executives with cute collapsed children got sympathetic, “awwwwws”. And the stewardesses got standing ovations. It was spontaneous play, involving hundreds of men, with no spoken or written rules of the game, but complete consensus.

I am grateful to these impromptu entertainers, because it certainly kept me from being too angry or overly bored during the hours and hours I waited. I finally gave up craning my neck from behind a phalanx of placard-waving drivers, and strolled through the security barriers separating arrivals from arrivees, to plop down on my bottom  on the floor along with a host of other foreign and Indonesian guest-picker-uppers who had vaulted the barricades also. We were all simply looking for a place rest our weary feet, while still being able to see and be seen by passengers as they emerged. And they emerged slowly, one by one, by two, by one, over the interminable hours.

Basically, what we had here was a volatile situation, but this being Bali, it didn’t explode. We had thousands of frustrated people crushed together en masse outside the terminal waiting for their arriving guests, friends and family. We also had thousands of people en masse standing in queues inside, waiting and then waiting again. They waited first to pay for their visas on arrival, then again to have their passports and visas checked, then again to have their fingerprints taken, then again to have their portraits taken, then again to have their carry-on bags x-rayed to screen for who-knows-what (as if they hadn’t already been fine-tooth-combed three times by far more competent security squads at the airport they had departed from), then again to collect their bags, and finally, yet again to pass customs and get out of the Kafkaesque nightmare that is Bali’s Ngurah Rai Airport today.

With my feet going numb from sitting on the tile floor, I watched elderly and disabled people limping through the exit doors looking like the followers of Moses on the brink of collapse after the arduous tortures they had just survived during their journey to the promised land. I wanted to shout “Let my people go!” but I restrained myself. I saw parents dragging, hefting, and pushing on trolleys their heaps of unconscious offspring, drenched in sweat. I saw formerly fresh-and-chicissime elites from the first-class front rows emerge with looks of utter mortification, eyes rolling as if to say, “I will never, ever, ever even think of visiting Bali ever again as long as I live, and I will immediately phone all my friends and colleagues and travel consultants and senators and congressmen and their aides to warn them off!”

Hauling themselves forward like oasis-seeking survivors on a desert death march, the arriving guests emerged one by one, in a slo-mo sequence from behind the glass doors. It was like a sick parody of a catwalk, or a prisoner parade in a gulag. I saw mothers holding howling, crimson-faced infants, their formula and their patience exhausted long ago. I saw business-class arrivals from Singapore with bugging eyes, and tightly pursed lips, supressing the shock, horror and anger of having spent far more time queueing to arrive in Bali than they had spent flying there from Singapore in the first place.

As for the drivers waiting outside, some were asleep on their feet, flopped forward on the steel railings, their placards drooping. Others were sitting on the filthy floor forming impromptu support groups, heads in hands, wishing away the heat and crowds. I saw a tall and handsome expat father with his two children waiting for their mum. After looking perky for two hours, they encamped themselves on the floor at the base of a concrete pillar amid cigarette butts and ashes, the two girls flopped in the dirt like dolls in dreamland, legs akimbo.

My own arriving friend is a Scandinavian noble who long ago saw the far side of sixty. I salute her fortitude. I would not have been surprised if she had emerged on a stretcher with medics, after having been forced to stand and shuffle forward inch by painful inch, in no fewer than four different queues, for the better part of four hours, in the middle of the night without water or food. Or cigarettes. It evokes the re-education programmes that certain totalitarian states imposed on their elites and intellectuals during the darkest days of the 20th century. I am happy to report that my friend survived without irreversible damage and hauled herself forth at last from the hungry maw of Ngurah Rai Airport.

The Balinese hero Ngurah Rai himself, after whom this pathetic excuse for an international airport was named, would be rolling in his grave, except for the fact that the Balinese cremate their dead so he has no grave to roll in. I certainly would not consider it an honour to have such a substandard airport named after me, I would consider it posthumous humiliation and my soul would be restless, feeling the sufferings of these people being held against their will without rights or remedies for hours on end.

What shocked me perhaps the most, was my arriving friend’s revelation during our drive home. She explained that during the entire ordeal she had witnessed within, no airport official or other person in any capacity had explained a thing, nor had anyone offered any kind of assistance to those who needed it most (mothers with babes in arms, families with wee ones in states of hysteria, pregnant ladies, elderly guests with flagging stamina, the mobility-impaired, the distraught, the weeping, the moaning, the despondent). Nobody even offered these people a drink of water, a seat, or an explanation of what was happening to them, why, and which queue to queue in next. In fact, the situation inside was not like a queue at all. There was no room for queues. The arrivals area was a mass of seething bodies, a bedlam. A Led Zeppelin ticket line circa 1974.

And these people paid good money, serious money, to come to “paradise”. I feel very sad about this situation. Very sad indeed. And angry, after having seen all of those miserable people.

Shame on you. Shame on Bali. Shame on Indonesia. Shame on the Ministry of Tourism. Shame on the management of Ngurah Rai Airport.Shame on the Immigration Department. Shame on you all. How can this happen on an island that is awash in money, talent, charm, kindness and compassion? There are only two possible answers. One is malice. The other is incompetence.

Many people arriving around the time my friend did, had booked hotels for that night, and paid no small sum for their rooms. I saw exhausted guests of the Four Seasons, Bulgari, and Aman Resorts. And I observed some guests of Como Shambhala Estate at Begawan Giri (an über-luxe, uber-expensive, ne-plus-ultra resort near Ubud). They were remarking to their tired greeter-driver who after hours waving a placard still looked like a rotund laughing Buddha à la Bali (blessings of the Buddha upon him), that they had booked for six nights, but would in fact only stay for five, having in fact emerged from the airport, one whole day later than their booked arrival date. Having landing on time at 9:43pm on Friday, they had expected to be at the Begawan Giri by 11:15 Friday night at the latest, in time for a moonlit dip, a sip of organic juice and a good long sleep. As it turned out, they emerged from the airport on Saturday morning, and realized they would not be at Begawan Giri until after 2:00 in the morning – – and in a very foul mood and a compromised state of wellbeing. That’s a fine how-do-you-do for people expecting a luxury healing retreat on the so-called “Island of the Gods.” These earnest and polite visitors also put forward a not entirely unfounded case for suing the responsible Indonesian government departments for the cost of one night’s stay at Begawan Giri for the lot of them. That’s several thousands of dollars.

Perhaps a good international lawyer could pitch a tent in the arrivals hall at Ngurah Rai airport in Bali and trawl for clients, offering to sue the responsible agencies for the wasted hours in line due to malice or incompetence. He could encourage them to join a class action suit to be reimbursed for one-tenth of the cost of one-day’s accommodation according to the daily rate of the place they’d booked to stay. Plus compensation for pain and suffering. With many thousands of people arriving daily, that would certainly be a rather large stick to shake at the malicious or incompetent parties.

And what about the complete lack of basic human rights and freedoms extended to the thousands of people who are imprisoned at Ngurah Rai airport at any given moment, including now? No information. No basic necessities. No escape. It’s positively Kafkaesque.

Images by yours truly.


      • Renee Burns
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      • June 23, 2010

      I arrived in Bali on Tuesday 15/6 at 2.30pm and found myself in utter chaos! I was saved by a corrupt official who happily to a cash foreign currency bribe to get us through. I had been queing for over an hour! The guide who met us told us all to complain as it is now taking between 2 and 4 hours to clear customes from 12noon to 6pm each day and no-one knows why this is happening. I understand that people were fainting and older people like my self were really suffering and after they saw me go through heaps of people all opened their wallets and flashed currency. It is shameful. Shame on the Indonesian government for allowing this to happen.

        • Susi
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        • June 23, 2010

        Thank you for taking the time to write. I'll see what I can find out about this. What an awful experience. Compared to most other Asian travel destinations the arrival process in Bali is a disaster. I certainly haven't had any such trouble entering Burma or Cambodia, and those are places where one might expect a few glitches or delays. The only reason I can imagine for the delay you experienced is that a number of flight schedules arriving at Bali have changed in the past month. JAL has stopped flying here. KLM has just begun (again) flying to Bali. And two budget airlines to Australia have also just started flying to Bali. Additionally, regional budget carriers have added flights, and a number of airlines have recently changed schedules. Probably, the HR people at our pathetic excuse for an international airport haven't changed staffing schedules to reflect the new patterns of heavy and light arrival loads. That wouldn't surprise me one bit. It's very likely. Additionally, the unrest in Bangkok has caused many people to alter their travel plans, and some have chosen to holiday in Bali instead of in Thailand as a result. I'm just mentioning some factors that may have made arrival-jams happen at the Bali airport in mid-June. I'm not making any excuses for the inadequate management at the airport, gross lack of customer care, and rampant corruption. You and I certainly both know that changing flight arrival schedules is something that is announced sometime prior to its implementation, and would have been anticipated by a professional airport management team elsewhere. Staffing would have been adjusted to accommodate the fluctuating arrival load levels so everyone could enjoy relatively speedy processing on arrival. Here . . . uh uh . . . it's a stretch to even call the airport management "management" . . . better to call them the "mismanagement team." It's appalling. But they don't seem to care, as long as money keeps flowing across their desks . . . and it does. They are unlikely to realise and accept that there are problems that demand solutions until the day that people stop coming to Bali in preference to other more welcoming destinations which provide a more pleasant holiday experience for their arriving visitors. Ultimately, the customer will decide. And if Bali can't provide a pleasant experience, the customer will decide against coming to Bali.

          • Susi
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          • June 23, 2010

          I might also mention that anticipation and pre-adaptation to expected change are not a strong skill sets among Indonesians in general. That's just the way it is. For a good illustration of this lack of anticipation of predictable outcomes just look at the habits of drivers and motorcyclists on the roads in Bali. No one anticipates an accident could occur is they rush headlong into moving traffic without looking left or right. No one anticipates that a bus or truck might be coming around the blind bend ahead of them when they decide to overtake. They simply do not anticipate possible outcomes, or predictable ones. No one expects an accident will happen, no matter how reckless their road habits are. Then they find themselves in hospital in pieces, and are very, very surprised! There is no concept of "potential accident" . . . nor is there anticipation of what is likely to occur if one does something suicidal on the road. It's like "wait and see". Nothing is possible until it happens. Then . . . ouch. So, say based on new schedules announced weeks ago, 49 flights are going to start arriving in Bali between 1pm and 4pm daily, as of next week. Nobody anticipates anything. Nobody even thinks to anticipate anything. They just potter along as usual and then WHAM it's a disaster, and everyone looks around wildly like rabbits in the headlights, and points their paw at the next guy, until eventually somebody somewhere starts to lumber towards the obvious solution that could have been implemented in advance of the problem and precluded it happening! And they don't lumber towards that solution until somebody somewhere else higher up calls and shouts at them threatening loss of face, loss of employment, and so on. Welcome to paradise!

    • Your blog is awesome was just doing google search and found you. I will most defrss you so I can stay up with your new posts. Hope all is well with you and keeping posting as often as you can. Me and my family are currently on 3 year trip around the world. We have had a lot of crazy adventures and now on month 18. Come check us out Unstoppable Family Brian and Rhonda Swan

        • Susi
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        • June 27, 2010

        Here's to the unstoppable family! Hooray! Raise your glasses, all - - no one excepted. Hear hear! Bravo! Salut! Mazeltov! Cincin! Let's give respect and cheers to the unstoppable, eternally curious, nomadic family, long may they wave! Also let's appreciate their kind-hearted prodding to post well and often, and acknowledge that this in input is well heeded and will obeyed. We all are waiting with bated breath to have regular reports of the unstoppable family's crazy adventures. Do give us a blog URL please, so we can all keep tabs on this renegade, devil-may- vagabond family through high and low, through freezing and baking, through waiting and rushing, and all that and more! On, on, on, Unstoppable Family! Lots of love and well wishes to Brian Rhonda and the vagabond clan. x x x S

    • Hi Susi Just found your blog and will be taking some time to read thru your posts. I'm an Australian who has been living in Ireland for over 17 years and at 51 [yesterday!] am planning my next adventure. I was thinking of going back to Oz [Freo in WA] but my brother who lives in Singapore said he saw me in Bali! I've been reading many blogs and info sites about Bali and particularly the Ubud area ... and I like the good, bad and ugly that people describe ... sounds like life. I'm planning to visit in the next year and get a sense of the Ubud area before making any final decisions. Marc [brother] and I are developing an online business [with offline activities] so I can live anywhere. Time for a new adventure and from this post I see that getting through the airport will be the first challenge ... and I thought Dublin airport was bad! I'm off now to have a happy read of your posts Susi. Good luck with all you enterprises. Liz

      • Susi
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      • August 24, 2010

      Bali Update updates us on this situation, which hasn't improved appreciably. I've pasted the full text below. Alternatively go direct to: Is there a Waiting Line for Paradise? Despite Promises from Jakarta, Little Has been Done to Reduce Long Lines and the Resulting Complaints at Bali's Ngurah Rai Airport (8/21/2010) confirms that foreign tourist continue to complain bitterly about long lines encountered upon arrival at Bali's Ngurah Rai International Airport. The CEO of the Bali Tourism Development Corporation (BTDC), I Made Mandra, on Monday, August 16, 2010, told the press that many foreign tourists are unhappy with visa-on-arrival service at Bali's airport, saying "many foreign tourist complain that they must stand in line for long periods in front of the immigration desk at Ngurah Rai Airport." Blaming the lack of sufficient immigration counters at the airport, Mandra continued, "we hope that the DPRD-Bali (Bali House of Representatives) will join in considering the condition of Ngurah Rai International Airport which is the main gateway for foreign tourists." The man charged with managing Bali's largest tourism enterprise at Nusa Dua, Mandra said the traffic jams along the Ngurah Rai Bypass, particularly around the Dewa Ruci monument and the airport's entrance, also represent genuine impediments to the development of the island's tourism. "If these traffic congestion problems are not urgently addressed, the tourism sector in Bali could decline in the future," he warned.

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      • April 6, 2011

      Great post! Terrible airport!

    • This is not really attractive to Bali tourists. We know that Westerners hate long lines; they easily lose their patience. I hope the government will do something about this.

        • Susi
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        • March 4, 2012

        Hi Raymund, Thanks for your comment! The Government did do something about it. The wait is not so long anymore. It's usually "ok" except when many large airplanes arrive at the same time (afternoons). It's much, much better now. And the staff who process the visas are much more efficient and polite than they were before. There is still a long way to go, before Bali's airport and international arrivals process is up to international standards. But at least it is getting better, slowly. You're right, it is important. Not only Westerners, but everyone, feels unwelcome when they arrive somewhere very tired, and are not welcomed kindly and compassionately, but made to wait and wait, and treated impolitely, without comfort or courtesy. It is not a question of Westerners vs. Asians. It is simply human care and compassion, which is the same everywhere in the world. Hindu and Buddhist principles teach us that one of the most meritorious things we can do in life is to welcome visitors with warmth and courtesy, kindness and hospitality. Many visitors to Bali are very surprised and disappointed when they arrive here (starting out with happy smiles and high hopes, but tired), only to find that they are treated very badly. This is not the way it is in other countries in Asia. It's very sad. Let's all work together to make the situation more amenable for everyone. Cheers, Susi

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