I am fortunate to have been able to organise my life so that I have been able to travel extensively for parts of every year since 1967 and I have never been to a place that has changed as much as one of the worlds iconic destinations Kuta Beach in Bali, from where I am penning , sorry tapping, these words.
When I first came to Kuta in 1972 it was after a journey through Asia, that had began four months earlier at London’s famous Victoria Rail terminus. At that time travelling overland through Asia to India or South East Asia was growing in popularity and indeed Tony and Maureen Wheeler followed an almost identical route to myself six months later. They realised that an overland trip through Asia was becoming a rite of passage for many and secondly that there was a demand for a decent guide regarding both the challenges to be faced and the accommodation and transport options that might or might not be available. They used their personal experiences to produce two excellent Guidebooks ‘South East Asia on a Shoestring’ and ‘Across Asia on the Cheap’ which became the foundations upon which the Lonely Planet Publishing Empire was based. Lonely Planet revolutionised the approach to writing and researching guidebooks and made travel easier and accessible for a generation.
As the initial overland crowd made their way across Asia in the late 60s and early 70s we followed a fairly well worn route through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan to the Indian Sub Continent and most of us were thinking that the never ending challenges of travelling across a largely undeveloped Asia would all be justified when we reached one of two meccas that we had all heard about – the former Portuguese colony of Goa in India and/or Kuta Beach on Bali.
Kuta in 1972 consisted of a beach access road with small lanes leading off it where amongst the trees one could find scattered losmen – cheap boarding rooms and bungalows. The main unsealed access road to the beach was unpaved, rutted and had a number of stores, restaurants and hawkers stalls. The locals occasionally put on Kecak and Barong Dances at one of village the crossroads that I seem to recollect were free of charge. I returned to Kuta in 1976 and noticed there were a lot more accommodation options and in 1981 it when I visited again it was a small town. On my last visit in the mid 80s it had developed some more and I have had no reason or opportunity to visit Kuta since other than when I visited Bali on a cruise with my mother some 10 years ago and we ran out of time on our ten hour taxi tour of the island before we could get to Kuta.
But last week I needed to do a visa run to extend my stay in Thailand. Rather than a day trip to Cambodia, the easiest option or a visit to Myanmar after the recent elections (I am not sure I was ready for full on sightseeing in a new country) I decided on Bali – a few days relaxing at a hotel in Kuta, a few days exploring and revisiting other parts of the island seemed like a good compromise and so I settled on an 8 day visit to Bali and although I don’t normally do nostalgia, I decided to turn the clock back and stay at Kuta.
I can only say ‘Wow’ and repeat that I have never been to a place that I has changed so much and let me add that I do not have a problem with change or development so these words are not a criticism but rather prompting some observations. The best description I can come up with is Pattaya is like Bangkok (or rather Djakarta) on the Sea. It makes Pattaya appear sedate!
Kuta now extends on an unbroken ribbon of development from the airport through Taban, Kuta, Legian to Seminyak and beyond with wall to wall shops, restaurants and hotels for miles. Neon lights proliferate and I managed one photo which managed to include Pizza Hut, Burger King and Starbucks in one frame. There is a Boardwalk and a giant Mall that fronts the beach with an impressive range of retail and dining options within. From my hotel to the Central part of the beach is maybe a mile and I am fairly adept at manoeuvring a motor bike /scooter between the cars in most places where they provide a low cost rental option for getting around but it took me 25 minutes one evening – I have seen gridlocked traffic before but never gridlocked motorbikes as well!
Looking back is fraught with pitfalls which is why I try to avoid it – the problem being that my ‘I remember when…………. ’ is almost certainly going to have a different base than yours. I started this article with a reference to Kuta in 1972 but I am certain there will be some who will say ‘’1972? The place had gone to the dogs once those damn hippies started arriving – you should have been here in the early 60s’ whilst in the 60s there would certainly have been people bemoaning the discovery of Bali by any visitors and looking back at the post war period when the Dutch colonial influence was still pervading. And certainly in the 50s there would have been some expatriates here looking back fondly to those times before the Second World War when Indonesia was a Dutch colony. The problem of looking back and lamenting about changes since our first visit when we consider a place to be ‘unspoilt’ is that our first visits were all at different times and our visions of what was ‘unspoilt’ correspondingly varies. And whilst I thought that Kuta in the mid 1980s had lost much of the quaint charm that I had enjoyed in 1972, a first time visitor from the frequently demeaned western suburbs of Sydney might be forgiven for thinking they had arrived in Shangri La.
But one thing has not changed at Kuta. The Beach is still spectacular and the sunsets are magnificent – I am not sure what combination of topography and location is responsible but most evenings it is like having a ringside seat for a Sound and Light Show although any sound will be from the thousands of tourists who like me have made the evening pilgrimage to the beach to watch the sunset. That has not changed – if one is not away exploring the island it is still de rigueur to go the beach and watch the sunset.
Like most of us I do not like being in a crowd but I really don’ have much sympathy when I hear tourists complaining about crowds. I have lost track of the number of people I have heard complaining about the crowds at Venice each summer. Well excuse me but why are you there? Everyone else is a tourist but you on the other hand are a traveller I guess? It’s the same at the Eiffel Tower and Empire State Building – everyone else is there for the same reason as you. If you make one visit to Paris in your life there is a 99% chance you will want to go up the Eiffel Tower and understandably so.
And to be honest the crowds on the beach at Kuta do not dilute the nightly spectacle of a sky streaked with vibrant colours but rather provides a communal atmosphere and with over 5 miles of sands it is really not too difficult to find your own quiet spot. However it must be said the only places where I have ever seen so many people on a Beach is at Mumbai and Chennai in India where at the end of the day the beach develops a life of its own after being far too hot for bathing or walking during the day. Another busy beach is Bondi – which neatly brings us on to the main explanation as to how and why Kuta has changed. Let’s blame it on the Aussies!
Low cost air travel means that Bali is very inexpensive sun sand and surfing destination for package tours from Australia and Kuta has transformed itself to be Blackpool or Benidorm and Bali has reinvented itself as Majorca or Ibiza primarily to meet the needs of Bruce and Shelia from Perth. It finally dawned on me that this was why every shopkeeper in Kuta insisted in calling me ‘Boss’ and that when they were offering me prices in dollars (despite my indignant response that ‘I am not American’) they were talking Australian Dollars!
You may think my comments are designed to lead into ‘Isn’t it a shame how Bali has changed’ but not so. I hear similar comments whenever people return to places they had visited decades earlier as if the local population was expected to remain in a time warp for the benefit of occasional visitors. Just because we like to discover an unspoilt commercial world when we travel does that mean the locals cannot aspire to accumulating the same worldly possessions that we enjoy at home?
And at the end of the day it is the local’s island – Bali for the Balinese and Indonesia for the Indonesians. If they wish to develop their island or local areas to attract the tourist dollar who are we to say they should not. Communities and governments around the world are usually capable of making decisions that they believe will benefit their communities. Raising the per capita income in an area from $2000 to $4000 per head over a generation brings more benefits to the locals even if building hotels on top of one another is not particularly attractive and if we do not like an area – move on and leave it to some other tourists who will get something out of their visit.
So Yes in many ways Bali has changed and even if I do not like many of the changes I see them as inevitable as the world truly does become a global market – over the last 40 years travel has become far less expensive in relative terms and more accessible as we have more disposable income and increased leisure time. My mother never went overseas until 1972 at the age of 56 but travelled overseas for most of her remaining 40 years and over the last 15 years the Internet has made the term Global Village an accurate description rather than an economists or sociologists pipedream.
And what about Bali beyond Kuta?
The island is famed as a reservoir of Temples, attractive villages, spectacular Paddy Fields, and magnificent vistas encompassing 10,000 ft mountains and volcanoes and I guess the fact that many visitors post ‘You should really make a trip around the island’ in guest books and on the internet reveals that the typical visitor is here primarily for sun and sand rather than to discover and explore this unique Hindu community in the midst of the world’s most populous Islamic nation.
So in time honoured tradition I rented a motor scooter for £3/$5 a day and set off to the nearby (well 20 miles) temples of Uluwatu and Tanah Lot where the temple spectacularly located on an isolated cliff outcrop is perhaps the defining image of Bali. I was prepared to get lost in Kuta and I never did get to grips with the one way system taking me 40 minutes one evening to drive back to my hotel (a distance I could have walked in 10 minutes) but I did not expect to quite literally experience wall to wall traffic all the way to both temples as I passed a never ending succession of Burger Kings and MacDonald’s mixed in amongst villages, shops and with signs of more building and encroaching urbanisation everywhere.
I had quite forgotten how magnificent the setting was at Uluwatu although I seem to remember the 15 miles after the airport being a pleasant rural ride last time rather than
wall to wall development and I chose to go to Tanah Lot in the morning (Fewer crowds advised Lonely Planet) and yet the entire complex was still overrun by thousands of visitors so I dread to think what the busy evening sunsets are like. Nevertheless a walk along the cliff tops to some additional temples yielded some magnificent coastal panoramas.
Despite feeling quite proud of myself to have somehow managed the most challenging traffic I have ever experienced I realised that this was no longer 1972 (and people now primarily restricted Motor Bike hire for getting around Kuta I decided that a lifetime which has yielded significant wealth had little purpose if I was not prepared to splurge £30/$50 to rent a driver and car (minibus actually) for the day and off I went for two additional days. I made a list of the 12 attractions I most wanted to visit in the north and east of the island and aimed to visit six on each day and hired the car for 9 and 12 hours respectively. None of the destinations were more than 50 miles from my hotel at Kuta.
The bottom line was even in an air conditioned car with a local driver the traffic was a nightmare usually taking at least 90 minutes to get out of Kuta, around the capital Denpasar and to the first stop. I returned to my hotel quite tired at the end of each day and never did manage to complete the itinerary that I had planned but nevertheless explored the temples at Klungklung, visited the Bat Cave and Temple, the gardens at Amlapura, and the 20th century Water Palace at Ujung .
On my second day I started at the massive temple complex at Besakih, the mother temple of Bali which was a sea of colour, offerings and activities as It was a Festival Day with at least a couple of thousand visitors all with offerings. After shooting a few hundred images we continued to admire the spectacular views of the active volcano Mount Batur from the surrounding caldera at Penelokenand Kintamani where visitors should be prepared to repel the entreaties of the legendary vendors who are working hard to maintain a tradition by maintaining an aggressive attitude quite at odds with the atmosphere everywhere else on the island. I photographed the beautiful and lush terraces and the royal tombs at Tampaksiring and Goa Gajah (the Elephant Cave) and the Monkey Forest around the formerly tranquil artists’ colony of Ubud which is now very much an inland version of Kuta, despite it’s apparently idyllic representation in the film Eat Pray Love.
I never did get back to the Palace at Mengwi or to the lakeside temple at Bedugal but for sure Bali still has many attractive destinations that are well worth visiting and if you have ample time and avoid the hotspot Beach Resorts I am sure it is still possible to have a relaxing and rewarding visit.
And as for Kuta – it is a community and village transformed. The sunsets still almost make it worth staying there but its not really for me. The locals seem happy and are still building apace. The visitors are happy as the Aussies are still flocking here so all is well in Paradise but its a different world than 40 years ago – and a different paradise.
As I write these words I suspect I will not be back to Kuta and that is a new feeling for me as I have always suspected I will return to most places at some time or other. But now at the age of 63 there is only so much sand left in the egg timer and I can think of many more priorities before I plan another return to Kuta.
Visiting several times over 40 years is an informative exercise and I also have some great memories from my visits in the 70s and 80s and many shared experiences with close friends with whom I am still in touch.
So thank you Kuta for some great memories. I tip my hat to you and wish you well.
© Michael Bromfield 2012