Photo: Chilling out at the beach.

Introduction

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Popular Kuta is Bali’s most (in)famous destination. Streetside and beachside, Kuta is a cacophony of brash over-developed commercialism. Cheek-by-jowl stalls and incessant hawkers peddle all manner of tourist tat, and along with the traffic-clogged streets there’s cheap food, cheap booze and all night partying side-by-side a palm-fringed arc of golden sand with barrelling surf and gobsmacking sunsets.


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Bali’s first (and only) stop for many travellers, Kuta ticks all the boxes for folks wanting an undemanding and relatively cheap holiday by the beach while enjoying a bit of nightlife. For others, a barge pole away is way too close—Kuta is not everyone’s cup of Bintang. Whichever way you swing, Kuta is far from dull. Travellers may well look down their noses, eschewing Kuta for being “un-Balinese”, yet step into any back lane and the culture is alive and healthy. You’ll see offering-filled shrines, temples and may even encounter some genuine Balinese hospitality.

Catch a wave. Photo taken in or around Kuta, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Catch a wave. Photo: Sally Arnold

Before tourism, Kuta was one of Bali’s poorest villages, home to farmers and fishermen and in its early history known as a slave market. The 19th century saw Danish entrepreneur Mads Lange grow Kuta’s reputation as an international trading port. Kuta’s first hotel was opened in the 1930s by American surfers Bob and Louise Koke. Their story is recounted in Louise’s book Our Hotel in Bali, although some (likely inaccurate) accounts dispute that there may have been an earlier hotel run by Glasgow-born Muriel Walker, known as K’tut Tantri, later nicknamed “Surabaya Sue” and accused of collaborating with the Japanese during World War II. Her book Revolt in Paradise mentions the hotel. It’s possible K’tut Tantri and the Kokes were partners and had a fallout; Bali’s first expat spat.

The Japanese invasion put tourism on hold, but by the 1960s, Kuta was a well established stop on the overland hippy trail, with travellers drawn to the lazy beach lifestyle staying in simple bamboo homestays. Kuta’s tourism development continued exponentially, sponsored by former President Suharto’s government with little responsible planning or regard for the local community; most of the profits ended up in the coffers of his cronies in Jakarta. The area’s reputation as a playground for “debauchery by infidels” led to the 2002 terrorist attack by radical Islamic group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). A series of bombs detonated in popular nightclubs killed 202 people, the majority Australian holidaymakers, and injured many more. This hit tourism hard, not just in Kuta, but across Bali and the whole of Indonesia.

Fly a kite. Photo taken in or around Kuta, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Fly a kite. Photo: Sally Arnold

Just as visitors started to return, three years later, JI struck again, with suicide bombers blowing themselves up at a Kuta Square restaurant and two Jimbaran beachside restaurants. They killed 20 people, 15 of whom were Indonesian. A monument in central Kuta pays tribute to the victims. Today tourist numbers are again booming with not only growth in foreign tourism—including an increasing number of Asian travellers—but a heavy helping of domestic visitors.

Kuta Beach sweeps from the airport in the south all the way along the coast to the north for kilometres until it joins Legian, which then becomes Seminyak and then Canggu. The sands are crowded with a barrage of trinket sellers, masseuses, manicurists, hair plaiters, food and drink vendors and beach chair, umbrella and surfboard renters. Depending on which way the wind is blowing (literally), the sands and waves can be filled with plastic litter (and worse), and other times it’s relatively clean. The beach is patrolled by lifeguards, so do swim between the flags.

Have a bite to eat. Photo taken in or around Kuta, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Have a bite to eat. Photo: Sally Arnold

Kuta’s even rolling waves are perfect for beginners and many travellers take the opportunity to learn to surf here. Sunsets from this west-facing stretch of sand are legendary, and this is when the beach gets really crowded. Beware the selfie sticks and pull up a spot on the beach to enjoy a cold Bintang or fresh coconut from one of the beach bars. Female travellers may well encounter the charms of the Kuta Cowboys, the “gigolos” who work the beach. It’s not a straight cash-for-sex exchange scenario, but involves more the hope of gifts (often monetary) for a bit of a romantic holiday fling. If you’re not interested in their proposition, they’ll generally leave you alone if you make your lack of interest clear. Be warned that HIV is rife in Bali, so if picking up a bit of local talent is one of your goals while in Kuta, play safe.

A sandy beach massage is still a relative bargain (although watch how many hands or you may have to pay for each person’s services at the rate you thought you had agreed as a total amount) and cheap and cheerful spas offer “mass-arse darling” at every turn. For a more upmarket spa experience, step into one of the larger resorts.

Pay your respects. Photo taken in or around Kuta, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Pay your respects. Photo: Sally Arnold

Off the beach, things become decidedly hectic and the narrow streets and lanes are home to eager store owners selling everything from cheap T-shirts and “genuine fakes” 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.

Aside from the beach and shopping, Waterbom Park offers a fun day out if you have kids in tow, or are just a kid at heart. Unlimited rides on the water park’s fun slides for a single entry fee is expensive by local standards, but good value if you spend the whole day, especially considering the excellent standards at the park.

Blend in with the crowd. Photo taken in or around Kuta, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Blend in with the crowd. Photo: Sally Arnold

Kuta attracts a diverse mix of people, but one of the largest groups are Australians on all-inclusive packages. Kuta is to Aussies what Majorca or Ibiza is to Brits or Cancun is to the US. You’ll see plenty of bars and restaurants obviously catering to an Australian clientele and don’t be surprised when Balinese vendors greet you with an affected “G’day mate!”. Being conveniently close to the airport, many travellers stay in Kuta for a few days to orient themselves and then head to other areas in search of the mythical “real Bali” (hint: it’s under your nose).

Kuta abounds with family orientated resorts and comfortable midrange hotels but its reputation as a cheap backpacker destination is changing, with the increasing number of budget chain hotels, many catering to domestic and Asian tourists, overtaking the traditionally cheaper guesthouse market. Budget hostels however, are mushrooming, offering a dorm bed often at prices equivalent to basic homestay rooms. Faced with the choice of a clean comfortable hostel bed with air-con and a hot shower and sometimes a pool and free breakfast, over a dirty basic room with a fan and cold water, it’s not surprising which is doing better business. There are however still plenty of family-run joints in the back lanes around Poppies I and II.

Or just enjoy the beach. Photo taken in or around Kuta, Indonesia by Sally Arnold.

Or just enjoy the beach. Photo: Sally Arnold

You can eat anytime of the day or night in Kuta. Head down the gangs for local warungs or to the malls for recognisable chains. Everything in between is available too, from the ubiquitous pasta-pizza-nasi-mie-with-Bintang-happy-hours to modern international-style cafes and fine dining.

Kuta’s nightlife is loud and boozy. The kids have come to party, and that’s what they’re going to do. Look for promos and flyers around the streets and follow the crowds. The party starts late and finishes early. Have fun, but stay safe. Beware of cheap cocktails: Methanol poisoning is not uncommon and can lead to death. Avoid arak or arak-based drinks and don’t leave drinks unattended. Date rape and robberies have been reported caused by spiked drinks. If you have difficulty breathing or feel dizzy (more than you should) get help.

Rubbish can be a major problem in west season. Photo taken in or around Kuta, Indonesia by Stuart McDonald.

Rubbish can be a major problem in west season. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Kuta isn’t for everyone. It isn’t our top pick for a holiday in Southeast Asia, but as Balinese culture is based on balance, it fits perfectly into the Balinese way of thinking: It keeps mass tourists (generally) contained and happy with sun, surf and beer, while the rest of Bali can get along with more cultural pursuits.



Best places to stay in Kuta

A selection of some of our favourite places to stay in Kuta.


Orientation

For our coverage we’re designating Kuta as the area from Denpasar airport north until Jalan Melasti. The southern airport side is sometimes referred to as Tuban, and many businesses closer to the northern border use slightly more upmarket Legian as their address.

Jalan Pantai Kuta skirts a two-kilometre stretch of beach from the heart of Kuta through to Legian in the north. Parallel to Jalan Pantai Kuta and the beach and 500 metres inland is the main commercial artery Jalan Legian which eventually morphs into Jalan Seminyak. The area bounded by these roads is a tangled web of lanes chockers with accommodation options, restaurants bars and spas. There’s little breathing space as the endless traffic tries to push its way through the narrow roads. Running from Jalan Legian to the beach, Poppies Lanes I and II, named for one of the original hotels along the strip (and still one of the best), Poppies Cottages, is the seething heart. From the centre of Poppies II, Jalan Benesari joins Jalan Melasti in the north, with more vine-like laneways gnarling their way off either side. It’s easy to get lost in this area and just as easy to pop back into civilisation again as most roads lead either to Jalan Legian, Jalan Pantai Kuta or one of the Poppies lanes.

Beach too dirty? There is always Waterbom. Photo taken in or around Kuta, Indonesia by Stuart McDonald.

Beach too dirty? There is always Waterbom. Photo: Stuart McDonald

ATMs and moneychangers are found every few hundred metres around Kuta, but beware of scammers. ATM skimming happens regularly—cover your PIN and give the base plate a wobble to make sure it’s not fake. At moneychangers, count your money when they hand it to you and then again before you leave the premises (be the last person to touch it); sometimes the sleight of hand would be impressive in a Las Vegas show.

Free WiFi is available in all accommodation and most cafes and restaurants, but the signal can be iffy at times. You may be better off popping a local SIM card in your phone and signing up for a cheap data package.

International medical clinics, BIMC and SOS, both have reasonable reputations and English-speaking staff. They are located on Jalan Bypass Ngurah Rai, the main road from the airport. Serious medical concerns should be referred to Sanglah Hospital in Denpasar.

BIMC Hospital Kuta: 100X Jalan Bypass Ngurah Rai, Kuta; T: (0361) 761 263; (0361) 300 3911; info@bimcbali.com; bimcbali.com.
Rumah Sakit Umum Pusat Sanglah: Jalan Diponegoro, Denpasar; T: (0361) 227 911, (0361) 227 915; sanglahhospitalbali.com.
SOS Medika Klinik: 505X Jalan Bypass Ngurah Rai, Kuta; T: (0361) 720 100; bali.clinic@internationalsos.com; internationalsos.com.

What next?

 Browse our independent reviews of places to stay in and around Kuta.
 Check prices, availability & reviews on Agoda or Booking
 Read up on where to eat on Kuta.
 Check out our listings of things to do in and around Kuta.
 Read up on how to get to Kuta.
 Do you have travel insurance yet? If not, find out why you need it.
 Planning on riding a scooter in Kuta? Please read this.





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