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There’s more to Bali than just the beach
Once a sleepy humble fishing village before surfers and beach lovers discovered its white sand shore and its white capped waves in the 1970s, the town of Kuta has since become famous as an international surfing destination for globetrotting backpackers. But Kuta’s attractions extend far beyond the surf and shore. In between the band of turquoise that is the sea, and blankets of verdant green that are its expansive patchwork of rice fields, is a throbbing hive of glass and concrete, painted and lit in colors that go far beyond nature’s spectrum.
For decades known as budget destination, today, Kuta sprouts world-renowned resorts, hotels, restaurants, and art galleries that are rapidly transforming it into a sophisticated and glamorous destination even as they retain and further develop Bali’s unique island aesthetic and tropical seaside lifestyle.
Truly global and worldly, yet adamantly laid back and traditional, Kuta is like no other town because people here are not themselves. Here is where the world comes to escape, be someone else, if only for the span of a vacation. Kuta thrives to afford not for one’s daily existence, but to provide for the best times of one’s life.
Rapture for the five senses
New arrivals in summer wear, sandals and towering backpacks prowl the streets looking for budget hostels while blond beauties with translucent sarongs or overly loose muscle shirts that barely conceal their bikinis and sun kissed bronze bodies weave through the slow moving traffic in rented scooters, with specially built holsters on the side for their surfboards.
Everywhere, vermillion, scarlet and primrose colored petals litter the streets—remnants of traditional Hindu offerings wrapped in palm leaves placed lovingly on walkways daily. Overhead are the towering new luxury resorts that are fast transforming this budget backpacker’s paradise into a glamorous and glittering hotspot.
The air vibrates with the cacophony of car horns, rock, reggae and traditional Balinese gamelan music as well as the chatter from a dozen languages and accents that range from Australian to French, to Spanish to Russian, even as invisible vibes of a different kind—half a dozen WiFi signals at any given point and international roaming mobile phone networks—connect these wayfarers to the world.
The briny fresh scent of the Indian Ocean mixes with the aroma of Balinese cuisine, the incense and flowers of Hindu temples, the smell of tanning oil on smoldering bodies baking in the sun, and the hot exhaust of so many air conditioners and car engines idling in traffic jams.
Tattoo parlors advertise tribal, floral, gothic, celtic, Balinese, Chinese, kanji, Hebrew and even cartoon character designs, while art galleries present sublime and innovative pieces by notable artists from as far as Vietnam and Thailand. And then there’s the highly intricate and florid Balinese wood and stone carvings that entice collectors to bring home entire hardwood door and frame sets and even hulking garden stone statues. On one’s palate one travels the world, savoring the taste of Chilean pinot noir with their bebek betutu, a flightless duck endemic to the rice paddies of Bali, or wolfing down grilled barramundi (ikan bakar) with an ice cold bottle of Bintang beer, the local brew. From Balinese street food like bakso (meatball soup) to the finest foie gras, it’s all available here at Kuta.
Indonesian school girls in hijabs stroll past topless sunbathers at the beach while bars featuring scantily clad pole dancers are just a stone’s throw away from backyard Hindu temples. The whiff of pleasant cool air from sprawling airconditioned malls beckons globetrotting pedestrians to peak at the luxury designer brands nestled inside, while the street stall vendors entice onlookers with rockbottom prices for knock-off shirts, trinkets, and even lingerie.
Surfers shops offer everything one could possibly need to surf—gear and clothing from brand names such as Quicksilver, Roxy, Ripcurl, Reef, O’Neill, Bilabong—as well as surfing lessons for beginners and surf safari tours. And at night, Kuta explodes with dazzling neon light, thumping dance music, and the aroma of truly global cuisine that combines continental and Asian culinary traditions. This is Kuta right now; a rare delicate creature in the midst of a spectacular and speedy metamorphosis. Close one’s eyes for but a moment and one will gaze at a new town altogether. In truth, Kuta is not one town but several: the Kuta of past, present, and future.
The island of Bali is an outlier—a freewheeling Hindu enclave in conservative Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation. It blends Malay, Indian, Chinese as well as Dutch colonial cultural influences in its cuisine, sculpture, dance and architecture.
Though today’s backpackers know it as an affordable destination for surfing, it was an earlier generation of westerners in the 1930s that established Bali’s international repute as an island of peace loving artisans and aesthetes in harmony with nature. Even its picturesque landscape consisting verdant rice paddies, tranquil beaches, and majestic peaks evoke serenity and calm. From its carvings to its music and its dances, Bali presents a rich cornucopia of artistry. Anthropologists and artists of the time such as the American Margaret Mead and the Mexican Miguel Covarrubias raved about discovering a paradise unspoiled by Europe’s colonial confl ict or commerce. Even today, Kuta’s countless traditional Hindu sculptors carry on the artistry of their ancestors, which combines intricate Hindu motifs and the fl orid styles of European rococo. Appreciating such artisanship is an essential experience. Modern day pop culture—as evidenced by movies and books as Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love”—still fawns over Balinese creativity and spirituality in much the same way the European culturati did a century ago. Many who travel to Kuta engage in yoga classes and indulge in Balinese seaside spas, imbibing the laid back tropical island lifestyle and Hindu beliefs.
But as inclusive and multicultural as Balinese culture is, western naivety often fails to appreciate how torturous the path to harmony has been for the Balinese.
This tranquil and fertile island was wrought of fi re and devastation. The intricately carved black stones used for temples and statues, the sparkling black sand to the north and west of the island, and the fertile black earth that sustains such agricultural abundance are all remnants of the destructive power of its volcanoes, the largest of which is Mount Agung at 3,031 meters above sea level, itself an attraction. Many visitors to Kuta take side trips to climb Mount Agung, beginning their ascent at around 2:30 AM to reach the summit by dawn and marvel at the majestic panorama. A less strenuous way to appreciate Bali’s volcanic origins is to visit any of the countless temples in and around Kuta, most famous of which is the picturesque seaside isle temple of Tanah Lot—another pilgrimage site for travelers—which is but an hour’s ride away from Kuta.
Bali’s peaceful and inclusive culture has survived a tumultuous and bloody history. Founded by the Hindu Majapahit Empire in the 14th century, the island ironically rose to prominence as artisans and royalty migrated from Java to Bali with the empire’s decline. These same royalty perished in repeated valiant yet suicidal attempts to repel Dutch colonizers in the 16th century. History repeated itself shortly after the Second World War when Balinese guerrillas, battle hardened by their fight against the invading imperial Japanese military, were wiped out attempting to repel the returning Dutch. And after independence, Bali endured Indonesian strongman Suharto’s iron rule that saw bloody purges against political opponents. That Bali retained its rich culture despite its history attests to its people’s strong sense of identity.
Even the bombings of 2002 and 2005 perpetrated Muslim extremists, which killed 202 and 26 people respectively, failed to ruin Kuta’s charm and character. Today, the Bali bombing memorial now stands on Legian Street at the site of the original Paddy’s Pub across where the Sari club once stood—the locations where suicide bombers detonated their explosives. The memorial, an intricately carved Hindu monument that commemorates all the victims on a plaque that bears their names, has been a must-see site for travelers since its dedication on October 12, 2004—the second anniversary of the attack. Visiting the memorial pays homage to the event’s heroes and the victims as well as reassures visitors that Kuta’s peaceful character remains unchanged by violence.
Savoring a global town
Now that Bali, as epitomized by Kuta, rapidly modernizes and transforms from a budget backpacker’s haven to a glamorous and sophisticated destination, one can be rest assured that its culture and identity will remain distinct and intact. One only has to look to the past for reassurance. Behind their gentility is a resilience that has withstood the test of time.
Modern day attractions include world-renowned luxury resorts such as the Sheraton and W Hotel, and sprawling malls such as Beachwalk and Discovery tower of the white sand beachfront of Kuta and adjoining seaside areas such as Seminyak and Legian.
Visitors from across the globe flock to restaurants and bars that illuminate the night. Ask any local sophisticate where to go at night and they will consistently mention the following bars and restaurants: Mama San, Sarong, Ku De Ta, Rock Bar, Naughty Nuris, Karma Beach Club, and the Woo Bar. From gourmet treats to intoxicating cocktails and thumping electronic club music, it can all be found in Kuta.
Dine and party at clubs at night, indulge and luxuriate at spas in the morning, explore the culture and artistry during the day: there’s so much more to Bali than sand and surf. One only has to explore Kuta to experience the other side of Bali.
Urbane dining at Mama San
The task of uplifting Kuta to a new level of sophistication does fall solely on the shoulders of five star hotels. Ask any resident culturati of Bali on where to dine and two restaurants are constantly mentioned: Mama San and Sarong.
These restaurants offer what its chef Will Meyrick calls “Cuisine Culture.” The menu is nothing less than a travelogue of his discoveries and the culmination of his constant education in Southeast Asian culinary arts. To taste their menu is to journey Asia with one’s palate. A look at the menu reveals Thai, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Sri Lankan, and even Indian cuisine. Mama San’s menu spans far and wide: from Steamed barramundi with ginger and shallot, to Lamb martabak with curry powder egg leek with pickle cucumber relish and tamarind dressing. Sarong’s cuisine is no less expansive, ranging from Grilled scallop with sweet crispy duck Thai basil young coconut and peanut nam jihm to naan bread stuffed with lamb and yoghurt.
“With Sarong you find a lot of classic dishes such as curries with bolder, more robust flavors. The idea behind Mama San is that it offers dishes authentic to their country of origin but in a market style of dining,” I Kadek Miharjaya explains.