Right now I am near Kuta, the tourist capital of Indonesia. So far I have survived. My nice hotel is thankfully not in the tourist epicenter (allowing me to hide from the madness), but I did scooter and walk through the main area. It features all the worst aspects of tourism. Thousands of white visitors. Thousands more local vendors selling sunglasses, hats, t-shirts and massages. Name brand stores as far as you can see. A McDonalds on one corner, a Starbucks on the other corner and a Hard Rock Cafe in between the two. My first reaction was “why the fuck would anyone choose to come and spend a holiday here?” Then it hit me- Bali is Australia’s version of Mexico for Americans. Or for your SAT test, Kuta: Australia, Cancun/ Cabo: America.
The difference between Indonesia and Mexico is that in Indo there are magnificent, beautiful and barely visited areas within an hour or two of Kuta. Sadly, once you leave the main resort areas in Mexico, it is mostly a desert wasteland with drug cartels shooting each other by the hundreds.
I am not judging anyone for choosing to spend their time in Kuta, it is simply a shame to come all this way to sit on the beach to drink beer with thousands of other visitors while locals bother you every three seconds to buy something. If that is your idea of a perfect getaway, have at it. I’m not here to try and stop anyone from having the most tourist-tastic vacation possible. At the same time, I would never subject myself to such insanity for more than a scooter ride. It is stressful. You can’t walk 5 feet without someone asking you to rent a surfboard or buy a t-shirt. I have a scooter rented, but anytime I am not on said scooter there are dozens of people trying to rent me one. The taxis all honk at me to see if I want a ride. While I don’t want knock off Ray Bans or a henna tattoo, I would buy a sign that says “I DONT NEED A FUCKING TAXI.”
Worse than the shop vendors, beach hawkers or taxi men is when someone will grab my arm to sell me a massage. That has happened to me a few times which I hate. I don’t like being grabbed by strangers, especially when they only want to sell me something. Or even worse than everything I already mentioned, a ladyboy will make a blow job motion to his/ her mouth, inquiring if I would like his/ her oral services. Yes, that happened. I could not sprint away fast enough. My legs were like a whirling ball of dust in a cartoon. Seeing a ladyboy offering a BJ will provide plenty of nightmares for god knows how long. Overall, a place like Kuta isn’t that different from being home, albeit with much warmer weather, lots of annoying hawkers, cheap food, more ladyboys, and a bigger beach.
Standing on the beach with tourists packed in as far as I could see, while I got harassed to buy shitty sunglasses or get a henna tattoo, stood in stark contrast to many of the places I have gone during my time in both Indonesia and Thailand. Not too far from Kuta is one of my favorite places (not only in Indonesia, but anywhere) Nusa Lembongan. For some people I realize a holiday means checking into a hotel close to the beach, never leaving that square block, drinking dozens of alcoholic beverages, slamming a few hamburgers and pizzas, doing some shopping, taking some selfies, then getting on a flight back home with a tan and telling everyone how amazing Indonesia is. If that is your idea of fun, knock yourself out. That type of holiday is very easy. There isn’t much planning involved besides getting on a flight and taking a taxi from the airport to your hotel, then reversing the same process on the way out of town.
The beaches north of Kuta, closer to my hotel, are at least more relaxed and not quite as crowded as the main epicenter of tourist activity. Although "crowded" is a relative term. Nearly every square inch of sandy beach for miles is filled with big lounge chairs and umbrellas. It is still the beach, and eating $5 meals, drinking copious amounts of booze, reading some books, and soaking up the sunshine is a great week for many a traveler. I can understand how people enjoy it, especially if they only have a week off from work life and they don’t want to to do any planning or thinking for their vacation. For the people who have plenty of money to burn, it makes even more sense. You can stay in a luxury hotel right on the beach and take a week off from normal life. It’s comfortable. Pizza, pasta, and hamburgers can be found everywhere, so you never need to worry about ordering local food.
With all that said, tourist hubs are far from my favorite places. I will take the empty beaches in Nusa Lembongan, Ko Muk, Pulau Nias or anywhere every time over somewhere like Kuta. Being in a crazy place like this made me appreciate the less crowded locations off the main tourist path that much more. I am glad that I saw the craziness of Kuta to know what it is like, and know I don’t need to be back. There have been multiple stops along this trip where I had an entire beach to myself. No one else in sight. There wasn’t anyone checking their iPhone, or offering me a henna tattoo. For most people, they would rather be where all of the tourists gather. It validates the location. “Hey, this place may be crawling with other tourists, and goddamn those vendors sure are annoying, but hey we’re all in this together! Everyone goes to Kuta!”
Not surprisingly, a crowded area has horrendous traffic. The narrow streets in the area crawl to a standstill every day to the point that my scooter can’t even squeeze past it. It is the exact opposite of the sparsely populated islands I have visited, where I might not see another scooter or car for 10 minutes or more. Driving a few blocks can take an eternity.
While the insanity of Kuta is not ideal, I still enjoy it here. Even though there are too many tourists here, it is still Bali- how bad could it really be. And, as I mentioned, I can always hide away in my sweet hotel. I also went on a fun scooter ride to Tanah Lot, which is a temple on a tiny island immediately off the coast of Bali. Like most places, once you get a mile away from the beach, the amount of tourists drops exponentially. Not many people visiting Kuta on holiday rent a scooter and go for a drive, so getting away from the insanity was a nice change. The roads, as everywhere in Indonesia, are winding and confusing. Luckily there were a few signs to Tanah Lot so I miraculously didn’t get lost.
It was high tide when I was there, which meant no one could actually walk to the temple. I did get to witness some more exploding waves that I enjoyed. Standing there among hundreds of tourists at Tanah Lot made me think back to a few short weeks ago when I was all alone on a cliff in front of an abandoned villa, watching waves that were twice as big. Those moments spent alone, enjoying the scenery, will be some of my fondest memories from this trip. Doing something similar with countless other visitors made those past experiences that much better.
At this point, there is less than a month left in the Ring of Fire World Tour. I feel like I have been on the road for a year, so having it “only” be 3 months is crazy. Another few days of avoiding the ladyboys in Kuta, then a week in the southern tip of Bali (the Bukit Peninsula) before flying to Australia to box kangaroos and save koalas from falling out of trees.