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'Beach Blanket Babylon' of the East

Kuta BeachKuta/Legian beach is living proof that one man's hell is another man's paradise. This bustling beach resort has in the short space of just two decades spontaneously burst onto center stage in the local tourist scene. It is here that many visitors form their first (if not only) impressions of what Bali is all about. Many are shocked and immediately flee in search of the "real Bali" (a mythological destination somewhere near Ubud).

The truth is, nevertheless, that certain souls positively thrive in this labyrinth of boogie bars, beach bungalows, cassette shops and honky tonks - all part of the Kuta lifestyle. What then is the magic that has transformed this sleepy fishing village overnight into an overcrowded tourist Mecca - with no end in sight to its haphazard expansion?

Before tourism came to the area, Kuta was one of the poorest places on Bali plagued by poor soils, endemic malaria and a surf-wracked beach that provides little protection for shipping. In the early days, it nevertheless served as a port for the powerfull southern Balinese kingdom of Badung whose capital lay in what is now Denpasar.

Rice, slaves and booty

Though Bali was never very trade-oriented, it did supply neighboring islands with several commodities - mainly rice, and notably slaves. Also, the booty salvaged from shipwrecks provided an occasional bonanza for the hardy inhabitants of this coastal outpost.

After an earlier Dutch trading post had been abandoned as commercially unviable (even the illegal trade in slaves proved disappointing), there arrived in Kuta a remarkable Dane mounted on a proud stallion, the likes of which the Balinese had never seen. Mads Lange, as he was called, had the audacity march straight to the palace of the raja of Badung and demand an audience.

Despite his bravado, Lange had in fact recently been a victim of his own intrigues on the neighboring island of Lombok, where he had aided the wrong raja in a war and lost all. As fate would have it, Lange not only survived his move to Bali, but prospered building here an extensive new trading post coconut oil factory and luxurious residence stocked with wines and other delicacies.

Within the walls of his fabled Kuta residence, Lange wined and dined a succession of visiting scholars, adventurers, princes and colonial officials. During the tumultuous 1840s, moreover, he repeatedly played a critical role in mediating between the Balinese rulers and the Dutch. Today, his grave can be seen in a Chinese cemetery at the center of Kuta, not far from a Buddhist temple and the crumbling remains of his once-regal house.

A tourist caravansary

It took a young Californian surfer and his wife to first notice Kuta's tourism potential. The year was 1936. Robert and Louise Koke decided to leave Hollywood and start a small hotel in Bali. They describe their discovery of Kuta as follows: The next day we cycled ... to the South Seas picture beach we had been hoping to find. It was Kuta ... the broad, white sand beach curved away for miles, huge breakers spreading on clean sand."

The hotel they founded was called the Kuta Beach Hotel, naturally. It was a modest establishment but things went reasonably well in spite of an occasional malaria attack and a run-in with a young and fiery American of British birth by the name of Ketut Tantri, who managed to stir up controversy wherever she went during her 20-odd years in Indonesia.

After the War, tourism in Bali all but disappeared. And when the first tourists began to trickle back during the 1960s, Kuta was all but forgotten. Suddenly and without warning, however, a new kind of visitor began to frequent the island during the 1970s, their preferred abode in Bali was Kuta Beach.

Nobody quite knew what to make of the first long-haired, bare-footed travelers who stopped here on their way from India to Australia - nobody, that is, except for the enterprising few in Kuta who quickly threw up rooms behind their houses and began cooking banana pancakes for this nomadic tribe.

The main attraction here was and still is one of the best beaches in Asia - and the trickle of cosmic surfers and space age crusaders in search of paradise, mystical union, and good times soon turned into a torrent, as tales of Bali spread like wildfire on the travelers' grapevine. Stories of a place where one could live out extravagant dreams on one of the world's most exotic tropical islands - for just a few dollars a day - seemed too good to be true.

Within the space of a few years, Kuta's empty beaches and back lanes began to fill up with home stays, restaurants and shops. Most visitors stayed on as long as the money lasted, and many concocted elaborate business schemes that would enable them to come back, investing their last dollars in handicrafts and antiques before leaving.

In Kuta and Legian, the clothing or "rag trade" developed rapidly. Fortunes have been made and a handful of young entrepreneurs who began by selling batiks out of their backpacks have made it big. With the new affluence has came a lifestyle of flashy villas and sultry tropical evenings beneath moonlit palms.

By the end of the 1970s, nobody knew quite what was going on. Up-scale tourists were mixing in increasing numbers in among the "hippie travelers" and deluxe bungalow hotels were popping up between US$2 a night home stays. With them came the uncontrolled proliferation of shops and bars and tourist touts lurking on every street corner. By the 1980s, Kuta was no longer an underground secret.

Kuta's reincarnation

Many changes, good and bad, have come to Kuta over the past several years. These range from traffic jams and pollution to excellent food, great shopping and a vibrant nightlife. Australians once dominated the scene, but today Kuta is truly international the spectrum of visitors ranging from macho Brazilian surfers to prim Japanese secretaries. Tourism, however, is the common denominator for everything that happens here.

There has been an equally rapid rise in domestic tourism, with western tourists and their curious ways becoming an attraction for Indonesian visitors from the neighboring island of Java. Large numbers of out-islander have also settled here, opening businesses or simply hanging out in this Indonesian version of a gold-rush boom town. At times, one has the impression that the local Balinesee have become a minority in their own community.

For many, this litany of change reads as an indictment of yet another paradise lost Certainly for those of us who knew Kuta in an earlier, more innocent state, the new Kuta is often difficult to accept. But what of the local Balinese what do they think of all this? The most common answer is that despite the changes, the Balinese community remains strong, if wary. The traditional ceremonies are still being held, so there is as yet no need to worry, they feel. One need only witness the powerful calonarang dance in Kuta beneath a full moon to understand this. While we despair the loss of Kuta's village past, we cannot condemn all that is new. Infect, goods and services have improved and Kuta enjoys a standard of living higher than almost anywhere else in Indonesia.

Above all, though, Kuta/Legian beach has become a major cross-cultural international meeting spot with few peers. Love it or leave it, only one thing is sure - the old Kuta has passed away and nobody knows what the future may bring.


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