"Behave, stranger, this ain’t your home!” cautions the graffiti on Jalan Legian, the main artery of Bali’s Kuta- Legian-Seminyak beach strip.
The advice comes about four decades too late. Ever since the mid-1930s when a remarkable Englishwoman, Muriel Stuart Walker — but known variously as Manx, K’tut Tantri and Surabaya Sue — built the first bamboo and thatch hotel here, Kuta’s grand sweeping shoreline has been a magnet for all sorts of strangers and misbehavers.
Coconut groves, wayang kulit shows, morning roosters, midnight dogs, trance dancers and gamelan music — all these were common in Kuta even in the late 1980s, but are now mostly gone. The change was inevitable as we, the leisured classes of the world, blew in, turned on and overstayed, seduced by Bali’s mix of exotica and art, warm surf and bargain labour.
With seven million annual visitors — three million of them foreigners — parts of Bali are choking on their own success. Kuta, as Indonesians joke, is now an acronym for “Kampung Untuk Turis Australi” — Village For Australian Tourists. Others describe it as “Phuket-on- Bintang”.
Meanwhile, Kuta culture, in the form of resorts, hawkers, beach bars, surf schools, sun chairs, motorbike jams and transport touts, has spread for some 5km along Bali’s west coast, from Tuban to Seminyak and far beyond. Construction cranes and new resorts are jutting above the treetops all the way to Canggu — now nicknamed “Cang-gone”. An Asian Cancun rises before our eyes.
Each time I come to this sunset coast, I like it less — and yet I still love it. This contrarily glorious strand is like Heaven’s Zoo, a Fellini-esque parade of wanderers, poodle walkers, New Age colonials, joggers, gigolos, yoginis, tattoo tragics, remittance men and nondescripts, dressed or undressed in every fashion from hot-pink tudungs to topless. And that’s just the morning constitutional. Come sunset, the promenade is even more theatrical, with the full royal flush of dusk colours drenching it all.
When darkness falls on “the Yak”, diners sprawled on beanbags spill across the sands. Outdoor flood lamps and music amps crank up, and the Bali Marley in front of one beach restaurant is soon out-shouting the Seminyak Santana next door. It’s ironic to think that K’tut Tantri named that first hotel just down the beach as Suara Segara — the Sound of the Sea.
Bali’s governor, I Made Mangku Pastika, predicts five million annual foreign visitors by 2015. That’s on top of an ever- (burgeoning local population of 3.9 million. Sixty new hotels are under construction — despite a supposed moratorium on building any more resorts in southern Bali. Adding to the tsunami of existing motorcycles, 100 new ones are registered every day.
The good news is that Bali can be a tale of two coasts (or more) if you want. I take my leave of the western shore and head north-east to Gianyar regency, bypassing the millionaire enclave of Jimbaran, manicured Nusa Dua and Sanur’s restaurant rows.
At Keramas, half-an-hour north of Sanur, we turn towards the sea, down a sidetrack that skirts brilliant green sawa rice fields and the first holiday villas that, as elsewhere in Bali, will eventually engulf those fields. If the west coast can seem like Paradise Googled, then this shore is Paradise Recouped.
Keramas looks east across black volcanic sands and all-day reef surf. This is still a coast of Hindu temples and flower offerings along the shore. Villagers crouch all day picking tiny black pebbles from the beach to sell for garden decorations.
There are no beach hawkers. Instead, I see a farmer herding his fluffy fleet of 50 ducks along the sands. They rush on in an urgent phalanx — stand in their way and it might be like being trampled by feather dusters. Beyond them the skyline of palms and temple spires is still devoid of preying mantis construction cranes, while the seaward view is of Nusa Penida, not jumbo jets floating into Denpasar airport.
I’m staying at Keramas’ very new, Australian-built resort called Komune. The clientele is mainly 20s-30s surfing couples, here for the cranking right-hand reef wave that breaks immediately out front, plus the tranquil location.
The morning of the earth here smells just like Bali mornings used to — clove cigarettes, salt spray, last night’s rain, a whiff of incense. The sacred mountain, Gunung Agung, hangs above the land like a sentinel, its conical tonsure right there, and then, with a shift of clouds, suddenly gone.
The day passes in a welter of excellent early waves, then increasing crowds in the break, followed by onshore winds. Time for the great nasi goreng or eggs benedict from Komune’s beachfront restaurant; later, an afternoon siesta. Sunset’s soundtrack is a toccata of 10,000 cicadas plus the sea’s thumping backbeat, even if it is swamped by the doof-rap-techno wash from the resort’s sound system.
“Keramas locals don’t want to see their place end up like Kuta,” says Australian Phoebe Clarke, manager of nearby Moonlight Villa. Their wish to see their kids in local employment is already reflected in the make-up of Komune’s bright young staff, drawn principally from surrounding villages. As well, Komune’s owners — including pro surfer Luke Egan — are determined to set a benchmark for responsible eco-practice via their installation of world-class wastewater and garbage systems, solar power and vegetable gardens.
After a week of good waves, beach hikes, photography, scrumptious gado-gado, warung jaffles and the leisure to read two thick novels (Frederick Forsyth and Barbara Kingsolver, by way of contrast), it’s time to head back to the ‘Yak. Here, from the fine Anantara Seminyak resort and its rooftop bar, I have a dress circle view of the cocktail sunset and all who promenade before it.
The ‘Yak booms on, a democratic mixture of beach vendors and bling boutiques, of day spas, gay bars and massive hotel and condo developments. If my trip has been a tale of two coasts, my conclusions are appropriately ambiguous, almost Balinese — after all, this is the land of “poleng”, that symbolic, checkerboard-pattern cloth you see draped on Balinese statues everywhere, signifying that all things can be simultaneously black and white, shadow and light.
An early Sanur resident, the late Australian painter Donald Friend, foresaw our tourism juggernaut coming and didn’t much like the prospect. Back in 1970 he picked that a visiting team of international advisors and bankers were there to “convert villages, forests and mountains into vast, profitable jukebox alleys”. He was right on the money — and so were the bankers, quite literally.
Today, another long-term Australian resident, Bali cultural expert and landscape designer Made Wijaya, aka Michael White, views Bali’s “development” differently but with reservations: “The Balinese have a wholesome, no-nonsense attitude towards nature: worship it, emulate it, but don’t let it get in the way of progress.”
A 30-day Indonesian visa on arrival costs $US25 and can be paid in Australian dollars. Keep 150,000 rupiah ($14.85) for your departure tax. The dry season (June to September) is hot, the wet season (December to March) is also hot, but with the disadvantage of much beach debris. Keramas enjoys year-round waves.
At Keramas, the excellent Komune Resort and Beach Club has an opening special rate of $45++/night (minimum, three nights); komuneresorts.com. Nearby, the three-bedroom Moonlight Villa is available from $220/night; email@example.com
At Seminyak, the five-star, beachfront Anantara resort has online rates from around $350+/night (breakfast included); bali.anantara.com