“It was crazy,” says Dylan Kaczmarek, seated in the sun-drenched courtyard of Deus Ex Machina, an all-in-one café, clothing store and custom motorbike and surf shop in Canggu, Indonesia. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
The craziness to which Kaczmarek is referring is Canggu itself. More specifically, the speed at which the once sleepy surfer spot in Bali, 30 minutes north of the upscale tourist area Seminyak, has morphed into a millennials’ must-visit spot in the space of just seven years. And all because of Instagram.
Canggu’s story begins with Deus where Kaczmarek, an Australian-American who grew up in Bali and first visited Canggu in 2000, works as an assistant manager. When Deus opened in 2011, it was the first venue in the village. Apart from a few straw hut warungs (local Indonesian restaurants), and a café called Betelnut, Canggu was just paddy fields and private homes.
Today, it has close to a hundred cafés, restaurants and bars. On any given day, you’ll find them packed with young people mostly from Europe, Australia and the US snapping and sharing. Eye-catching and colourful interiors are admired through phone screens, along with images of colourful breakfast bowls, elaborate lunch spreads and cocktails with infinity pool backdrops.
Indonesia has always had its popular tourist spots – from the picturesque Seminyak to the jungle-fringed town of Ubud. Then, around 2011, photos of Canggu’s cafés began drawing eyeballs on Instagram. The pictures underlined that the previously unheard of town was being frequented by trendy young travellers. This, in turn, attracted more tourists.
The millenials stay in Canggu’s villas, homestays or hotels, most often using them as a base for their trip. In between day trips to Ubud or Seminyak, they spend their time here dining, surfing or, if they’re working remotely, using a co-working space. Though these draw visitors to Canggu, it’s the eateries on Instagram that can stake claim for its incredible popularity .
The scenes aren’t unique to Canggu. Instagrammable venues are everywhere these days. Since Instagram’s launch in 2010, the photo-sharing platform has changed the face of travel. And it’s easy to see why.
“We get joy in sharing and showing off an image of somewhere beautiful,” says Dr Lauren Rosewarne of University of Melbourne. “We get to potentially show people something they have never seen before, and we get affirmation through likes or follows.”
Venue owners around the world have capitalised on this, striving to make their places as Instagram-friendly as possible. But Canggu had the advantage of access to the affordable and creative talent of Balinese craftsmen. Bali has always been known for its striking traditional arts and crafts, and that, coupled with venue owners’ imaginative ideas, resulted in picture-perfect destinations.
Josephine Sandberg is one such owner. Co-owner of café The Loft, which opened in November last year and features a pink feature wall with the words “You’ll see it when you believe it” stencilled across in capital letters. Sandberg says the café’s design was carefully curated.
“We really wanted to have an Instagram wall so that was the main thing,” Sandberg says. “The decorations and the design were made for Instagram. That’s why we picked marble tables. They look really good in the photos. Everything that we picked, we did so it would look good in photos.”
For Australian Adrian Reed, co-owner of Luigi’s Hot Pizza, making his venue Instagrammable was a must. “It’s one of the keys to any successful business,” he says.
The hashtag #Canggu now boasts 1.1 million posts, an impressive number considering #Pondicherry and #Kovalam have 367,000 and 83,000 posts respectively.
“I have travelled to a few places that were in the early stages of tourism. They’re developing but at a slow pace,” Kaczmarek says. “Whereas Canggu, because of that hipster café culture and being on Instagram at the right time, it was just a conduit for it to kashoo — expand.”
And the kashoo -ing shows no sign of slowing down. As a result, many locals are moving elsewhere to escape the mayhem. Sandberg and her husband recently moved to Uluwatu on the island’s Bukit Peninsula in search of quiet. “Canggu’s changed a lot,” says Sandberg. “It’s pumping out new cafés almost every day. I didn’t go there for a week and then there were two new cafés.”
Sam Nursant, a surfer born and bred in Canggu, says the locals don’t mind the influx of international visitors, but they are wary of the area becoming too developed.
“Ten years ago, [there was] nothing here,” Nursant says. It is still a village, he adds. “The money for locals is good for sure.” Tourism translates into income, but he fears foreign investors may come to Canggu and eventually control its economy.
Whether the investors will set their sights on Canggu remains to be seen. Kaczmarek says in the next five years he sees the town continuing to grow at the same rate, but at a cost to its surroundings. “People came here for all the beautiful views, cool restaurants and stuff like that,” he says. “I think the cool restaurants and the shopping will continue but the views will disappear.”
Sangeeta Kocharekar is a freelance journalist based in Sydney