“Have you ever seen a ghost?” I asked the gatekeeper. “Everyday,” he replied nonchalantly, gesturing to the bench he was sitting on. “Sometimes the kid ghost sits with me.”
If Disneyland and Stranger Things had a child, the result would be Taman Festival: an abandoned Balinese theme park that nature has beaten into dilapidation since its closure in 2000. With a fake volcano, a pit full of crocodiles, and the world's first entirely inverted roller coaster, the park was constructed at a cost of around $100 million and was anticipated to change the face of Balinese tourism.
Sadly, it didn’t. Today, jungle vines lock the crumbling buildings in a chokehold. The crocodile pit has run dry under the sun, and the wedding chapel is coated in graffiti.
I wanted to know what had happened to this failed dream, so I asked a local friend of mine if he’d talk me through the story. My friend wanted his name left off the article, but as he’s worked as a Balinese tour guide for most of his 50-something years and knows almost every part of the island, he gave me directions to the place—and recommended I return home before dark.
“The atmosphere gets more mystic after sunset,” he advised solemnly.
The park sits on Bali’s east coast, up against Padang Galak beach in Sanur. We arrived dripping sweat and the park’s gatekeeper greeted us with an outstretched hand. Without question, I handed over a muggy wad of bills amounting to 25,000 Indonesian rupiah (roughly US $1.75). He told us how some try to dodge his entry fee, but said he knew the park’s secrets and catches anyone bypassing him. We believed him.
Walking inside the first thing we noticed was the sheer size of the park. Taman Festival is huge, but all thoroughly broken. Piles of glass coat the ground and swarms of mosquitoes fill the air; sunshine pours through sunken roofs, while the sound of crashing waves gives the place an oddly serene backdrop.
So what went wrong? The story goes that Taman Festival quietly opened its doors in October of 1997. According to those who witnessed its brief heyday, the park was both beautiful and cutting edge. A few attractions were still under construction at its opening, notably an arsenal of lasers to light up the night sky, but the park was nonetheless larger and more lavishly financed than any other on the island. But its timing was terrible.
Just a few months earlier, in July, the Thai government had inadvertently crashed their national currency, forcing a chain reaction that was dragging down the whole Southeast Asian economy. The now-called Asian Financial Crisis was also affecting the Indonesian rupiah, just at a time when political unrest was tanking tourist numbers.
As a result, the park fell dramatically short of its original projection of 1,200 visitors per day, only drawing about 200 on the weekends. It managed to limp on for around six months, until the park’s much-lauded $5 million laser equipment was struck by lightning on Friday, March 13th, 1998. When insurance coverage fell short, the park’s doors were officially closed in 2000.
Today, this is how the park looks after 20 years of abandonment. The so-called crocodile pit looks like more of an unkempt soccer field, an oasis of pure nature within its concrete confines. Most of the jungle-shrouded structures look like they’ve withstood some sort of apocalypse.
Nonetheless, the park’s gatekeeper has looked after the grounds for the past five years, despite never being on their books when it was open. “I clean every day from 4 o’clock in the morning until 8,” he explains while showing me a dusty, laminated copy of the park’s former price list.
My friend later tells me that it’s each village’s responsibility to take care of their land. From what I understand, this is a role of community service, which the gatekeeper takes seriously.
Even though most locals won’t come around, the gatekeeper and a few others still place offerings throughout the grounds every single day. These offerings, called canang sari, are said to please the gods and appease the dead. While the rest of the park deteriorates, the small shrines remain well-kept.
Soon enough, the gatekeeper is telling us stories of tourists whose cameras mysteriously stopped working when they arrived at the park. Then he pauses, seemingly interrupted by something outside my line of sight. After a moment he grins and looked back at me.
“She talked to me—you’re good,” he says, gesturing to some ghost he’d apparently been conversing with.
There doesn’t seem to be any plans to demolish what’s left of Taman Festival, because as my tour guide friend explained: “It’s just too complicated and expensive to remove it. Far simpler to let it sit.”
So if you’re in Bali anytime soon, and have a spare $1.75 for the gatekeeper, you’ll find it’s a pretty good way to spend an afternoon. Plus, you’ll be keeping him in a job.