Kuta is the proverbial jewel in Bali's crown in terms of tourist numbers and is a place where families, football teams and singles come for sun, surf and beer. It's a typical tourist resort town with cheap food, cheap booze and all night partying to keep the throngs entertained after having flown in for a week to let off steam. It's not for everyone, but it certainly ticks all the boxes for people wanting a cheap holiday by the beach while having fun at night.
Over the past 40 years, Kuta has transformed from quaint seaside fishing village with a magnificent palm fringed beach to bustling tourist haven with a good beach. The beach sweeps in a golden arc from the airport in the south all the way along the coast to the north for tens of kilometres.
On the beach are countless trinket sellers, masseuses, food and drink vendors and people renting surfboards. Away from the beach, things become decidedly hectic and the narrow streets are home to eager store owners selling everything from cheap clothing to locally-made handicrafts. Some people find the persistent nature of the salespeople more like harassment and avoid Kuta completely for this reason. Others take it all in good humour and offer a bit of banter in return.
Kuta attracts an amazingly diverse mix of people, but the largest group are probably Australians on all-inclusive packages looking for a cheap escape from the cold Australian winter. You'll see plenty of bars and restaurants obviously catering to an Australian clientele and don't be surprised when Balinese surfboard vendors greet you with a "G'day mate!"
Within the backpacker crowd, there is a diverse range of cultures represented and many use this area as a base for learning to surf. Most round-the-world travellers will choose to stay here for a few days to orient themselves and then head out to other areas to discover Balinese culture. Many are also attracted by Kuta's reputation for cheap hostels — while it is true you'll find some very cheap deals, the best ones fill very fast and those left, well, they're not always so hot. If you're arriving in the evening without a solid reservation, we'd suggest you take whatever you can get and look around the next day to find something more habitable.
Set to the north of Jimbaran and Bali's international airport and with equally busy Legian and Seminyak further still to the north, Kuta offers a lot in convenience and location but it isn't really at the top of our hit parade.
On Saturday, 12 October 2002, Kuta — and Bali — hit world headlines for all the wrong reasons. The radical Islamic terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) exploded two bombs on Jalan Legian, first at Paddy's Bar then at the Sari Club. The blasts killed 202 people, including 88 Australians. Many were subsequently arrested, with three men receiving the death penalty (carried out some six years later), though many were disappointed that Abu Bakar Bashir, the radical figurehead of JI and alleged brains behind the bombings, got off with a very light sentence.
Three years later, on October 1, 2005, JI struck again, with suicide bombers blowing themselves up at a Kuta Square restaurant and two Jimbaran beachside restaurants. That time they killed 20 people, 15 of whom were Indonesian.
The Monument of Human Tragedy, dedicated to the 202 killed in the first bombing, was built on the site of the original Paddy's Bar. A Peace Park has been discussed for the site of the Sari Club, but has been mired in politics and disagreements between the plot owner and the Australian group that want the park but don't have the funds to buy the land. For now nothing except for a parking lot and a small warung are there.
Kuta is also infamous for its Kuta Cowboys — freelance gigolos (though they reject the term) that work Kuta Beach. Female travellers should expect to be propositioned while on the beach and while they'll generally leave you alone if you make your lack of interest clear, they can sometimes become an annoyance.
A 2010 film, Cowboys in Paradise in which Balinese gigolos talked of the scene, brought it momentarily to the attention of authorities and arrests did follow, but the hubbub had largely dropped off the front page. Of more concern perhaps, the film talks of Bali's HIV rate as being 84 times that of Australia and some interviewed in the film had been neither tested for HIV, nor regularly used protection. So if picking up a bit of local talent is one of your goals while in Kuta, use protection.