It’s often said of Kuta that it isn’t the real Bali. My only response to this is that it felt quite real to me and, unless there’s been a gaping error with the maps, I’m pretty sure that it is in Bali.
Of course, I’m being facetious but only so as to play devil’s advocate to a level of snobbery that can often be detected in such remarks. It strikes me as arrogance to presume that places like Kuta Bali have sacrificed their soul in order that they might lay prostrate before us. Traditional values remain but sometimes we can’t see them (or don’t want to) amidst a hastily cobbled together culture of entrepreneurialism, mutual exploitation, hedonism, capitalism, booze, shopping, and spas.
But all this detracts from what put Kuta on the map in the first place. Its beach. This great swath of sand rises above the din and development to be enjoyed by locals and visitors alike. It was, and is, the primary reason to come here. And once you’ve sampled one of its legendary sunsets or those super fun waves, you’ll surely understand why.
Out on the Streets
Inland most of the Kuta action is hemmed in by two main streets, Jl Pantai Kuta and Jl Legian. Both are heavy in traffic (lots of scooters) and the narrow sidewalks can make for slow progress on foot. The southern end of Jl Legian is where you’ll find most of Kuta’s nightclubs. With boring predictability female promoters decked out in Lycra and heels offer (probably false) promises about the nights to be had in these establishments.
Jl Pantai Kuta runs along side the beach but thankfully a wall and a row of palms protect the beach from the noise. This is where Kuta tries to put on its best show of prosperity with fancy looking bars and the new Beachwalk shopping mall. The latter is popular with local teenagers and visitors from Java.
Stepping off these two streets is to enter a Narnia of impossibly narrow lanes (gang) packed with accommodation, restaurants, travel agents and surf shops.
In typical Indonesian style life is lived openly and spills onto the streets. Shop owners lounge on the sidewalks and take naps on parked-up scooters. Groups of women catch up on the corners breaking their chat to offer passing tourists a massage or some fake Von Zipper shades. And those tourists, sorry, we tourists. What a clumsy looking bunch we are. A ridiculous contrast to the lean and dark Balinese. A parade of cleavage, muscle and bums, bulging, baggy, saggy, wrinkled, taught, tanned, burnt, slippery and tattooed. We come in all shapes, sizes and age and have a representative from every ‘developed’ nation on earth.
Errm. Everything?! Yes, everything from fine dining to fast food. There are so many places to choose from in Kuta it can be overwhelming. At the cheaper end of the scale are those restaurants aimed at the backpacker/surfer crew that serve a mix of Western, Indonesian, and Balinese standards. Many establishments screen movies, surf flicks or European soccer matches and rugby from Australia. Classic Indonesian dishes like nasi goreng/mie goreng start from around 25,000 Rp. Fresh seafood cooked to your taste starts at around 100,000 Rp. For more authentic eats there are one or two open-air food courts where you can enjoy a more robust atmosphere with the locals (probably your only chance in Kuta to do so). Check out the Balinese classic nasi campur.
There are also some Padang restaurants in Kuta. They originate from Sumatra but if Bali is your only stop in Indonesia it’s a good opportunity to give them a try. Be warned though, at a Padang restaurant there’s a high chance that you’ll be eating someone else’s leftovers!
Some restaurants in Kuta call themselves warung. This refers to road-side eateries that are popular across Indonesia. However, in central Kuta it’s nothing more than a name. You don’t have to head too far away from the action before you’ll find real thing.
On the streets you’ll see plenty of Aussie dads sporting ‘Bintang’ vests – Bintang being the name of Indonesia’s national brew. It’s the cheapest and most popular beer in town.
Many of Kuta’s streets are certifiably bonkers so pointing out the peculiar is rather tricky. However, despite all the noise, people and traffic it’s remarkably easy to find a quiet spot. Just turn a corner and head down some of the narrow gang and it’s as if everyone has suddenly disappeared. The same can be said of many of the hotels and restaurants. Even in the central areas they can offer surprising tranquility.
A lot of locals will address male visitors as mite (the Australian pronunciation of mate), reflecting the large number of visitors that come from Down-Under. A personal quirk, being a resident of Tokyo, is that many locals speak Japanese and I sometimes found it more convenient to communicate in that language rather than my native English or, indeed, in Bahasa Bali.
Head to the beach around sunset and you’ll be sharing the sands with, among others, school trippers from neighboring Java. High on their list of souvenirs is a group photo with a Westerner. It’s the closest most of us will come to feeling like a movie star (although it’s not peculiar to Bali as it can happen across Indonesia).
Kuta is more a place for ‘doing’ (including ‘doing’ very little) rather than ‘seeing’.
The waves on Kuta beach offer epic fun for all levels of surfer and there are plenty of schools around to help you with those first tentative steps. If you’re into your surf brands then all of the major labels have stores here (selling the real thing). Whilst I found them to be a little cheaper than in Tokyo (not hard), they’re still not as cheap as you might think.
From Kuta it’s easy to organize trips to places such as the Gili Islands, the G-Land surf camp on Java, and Lombok.
Bali isn’t a huge island and a day trip from Kuta can cover a lot of ground. Popular sights nearby include the temples of Uluwatu and Tanah Lot which can be visited in half a day.
Offering a sombre contrast to the nightclubs on Jl Legian is a memorial wall listing the names of the 202 known victims of the 2002 bombings. Many visitors come here to pay their respects.
Kuta caters to all budgets and, despite Bali’s popularity, still remains good value.
At the time of writing $1US = 11000Rp (Indonesian Rupiah). Reflecting this author’s ability with math, the latter has been rounded down to 10,000Rp.
One night on the cheap in a room with shared/cold water shower – from 50,000Rp ($5US).
Double room in a hotel with a pool and all the trimmings – from 400,000Rp ($40US).
A bottle of Bintang beer – 16,000Rp ($1.6US).
Cheap plate of food at a budget restaurant – 25,000Rp ($2.5US).
Tailored day trip for two people with car/petrol/driver/guide – 500,000Rp ($50US).
Author’s note – things like budget accommodation/day trips are open to haggling. However, I’m useless at this so stronger heads might be able to bring some of these prices down.
A Final Word on Kuta Bali
There’s a lot of fun to be had in Kuta. One can also relax here, too. For those doing a full Indonesian extravaganza it’s a great place to rest up and refuel for a few days. But it is true that Kuta’s energy can be as irritating as it can be infectious and at times it just doesn’t help itself. (The Hard Rock Hotel?! I mean, really?!). However, whatever your opinion of the place, remember that it’s us, the independent traveler, that bear some of the responsibility for Kuta and places like it. I’m not sure it’s enough for us to cut and run and pretend like it never happened or sneer that it’s ‘sold out’.
On the contrary, I would implore the responsible traveler, if you find yourself near a Kuta or a Khao San Road or a Goa, Boracay, Panajachel (it’s a long list), to pay a visit and show the rest of us how it’s done. And please, please keep your shirt on when you’re away from the beach and only rent a scooter if you really have to!