Kuta, the party beach on the island of Bali, might be the worst place I’ve travelled to.
Aggressive touts stalk people down the street, souvenir shops sell sexist and homophobic slurs on bumper stickers, and Balinese culture as a whole has been twisted into a sleazy, cheap, tourist-pleasing circus.
Before we start with Kuta – let’s say something nice about Seminyak
Suddenly we spotted a hawker that was selling something useful. A pineapple, expertly sliced by machete for us. Meanwhile, we were crackling in the supercharged Bali sun, on rented beanbags, with iced tea.
As the sun burned across the sky, we constantly re-positioned under the umbrella’s shade like some kind of human sundial. When the heat faded from the afternoon, the staff set up vast fields of coloured beanbags. They looked like giant jelly beans on the beach.
I was enjoying Seminyak.
A few hours earlier, we’d been dropped off by taxi in the middle of Seminyak’s suffocating traffic. Cars and motorbikes had clogged the main arterial road, and the symphony of car horns was making this small beach town feel urgent and stressful.
My first impression of the beach wasn’t good either; for such a popular tourist hotspot, I truly couldn’t see the appeal of the flat ocean and sticky black sand. “Is this it?”, I thought to myself.
In the distance we could see the beach extending to Legian and Kuta, and every inch was littered with coloured beach umbrellas, each attached to a bar.
But after spending a little bit of time, Seminyak wasn’t that bad in the end.
Of the three towns on that beach front, it is the most upmarket and expensive, with some pretty impressive luxury villas, nice massage parlours, and good food. There are a few budget places too, but in general, there weren’t many backpackers roaming the streets looking for cheap beer.
On to Kuta
OK. Kuta next.
A man with a bow and arrow was stalking Kuta beach. He had a backpack full of other weapons for sale, like blowpipes. He probably didn’t manage to sell many. Nor the salesman sailing a pirate ship-shaped kite through the air.
With a whole day to kill until our night flight, we walked to Kuta for the afternoon (the airport was just 15 minutes drive from Kuta). We planned to walk down the main strip, onward to the beach, and stay there until we took a taxi to the airport.
As an Australian, I knew Kuta by reputation before we arrived, and I was curious to see if the reputation was true; a messy, cheap, party destination, where people begin to act like drunken louts because the beers are so cheap.
The short walk between these two places had a noticeable change in the types of shops and eating establishments on offer.
Seminyak had some great souvenir shops, with interesting statuettes and hand made art. Kuta had ‘I love Bali’ t-shirts and stubby holders for sale. Consequently, the Balinese culture seems to have been blotted out, in favour of what the tourists want.
Kuta vs. Khao San Road
I was being realistic, and I was not looking for authentic Bali here.
But let’s compare Kuta to a similar location, Bangkok’s Khao San Road. This Thai street is a party and backpacker centre as well, with lots of bars, street food, alcohol and boisterous characters.
But there was still a definitive Thai character. I felt that even though backpackers were all around, I was still definitely in Thailand. The food, the smells, the language, the tuk-tuks, friendly people, and locals going about their day-to-day lives – all that stuff was there.
Kuta seemed like it had lost its Indonesian-ness. It was too heavily modified to please the visitors.
Where it all goes wrong
I didn’t like how shopkeepers bluntly yelled at me ‘Hey you!‘, and tried to follow me down the street. I didn’t like the Australian themed bars with terrible Australian names. I didn’t like seeing KFC and McDonalds and Subway on every corner. And I didn’t like seeing all the fast food garbage blowing across the street.
And we didn’t even see what it was like at night, when alcohol gets involved. I remember a TV show in Australia called ‘What really happens in Bali’, which documented the lives of Aussies that visit or live in Bali.
I had a pretty good idea of the nightlife scene from that documentary. One audacious character even declared himself the prince of Kuta.
I hated all the sexist, homophobic and xenophobic bumper stickers for sale. They’re disgusting. Do the locals even realise what they say?
(Seriously, do a Google search for Kuta bumper stickers to see some mysogyny).
But worst of all, I especially didn’t like the feeling that here, locals probably saw me as just another tourist sucker to sell stuff to.
And, well, it made me feel ashamed to be in this loathsome place.
The solution? We sequestered ourselves in the Hard Rock Café. We ate ice cream, talked about how good our trip to Sanur was, and ignored Kuta until our flight.
Bali is great. Other parts of Bali.
Ubud, Uluwatu, Sanur, Nusa Penida – all of these places are wonderful. Bali is a great place to visit; welcoming, gentle, with a rich cultural identity. Just don’t expect to find these things in Kuta.