Jun 14, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Waiting for Ngaben

Published: Sep 30, 2007

Kuta Beach ceased some time ago to be what the brochures say it is. For Robert Goodfellow, the piles of plastic rubbish are signs of a deeper malaise.

Rob Goodfellow

Between the early 1970s and the mid 1980s, the area around the Balinese seaside village of Kuta Beach, from Bemo Corner to the coconut groves of Legian, reached its zenith as a bottom of the market tourist destination. For hippies, surfies, travellers and tourists, Kuta and Bali were either 'The Morning of the Earth', the perfect wave or the ultimate escape. With other points of reference on the backpacker's list of must see destinations, Kuta offered some of Indonesia's most inexpensive, uncomplicated and unpretentious accommodation. It was the first port of call for young Australians setting off on the well-worn track across Southeast Asia. It was the jumping off point for travel weary Americans or Europeans on their way to Sydney. It was an obligatory destination for generations of young men and women intent on doing Asia.

In this article I want to look briefly at some dramatic physical and social changes that have transformed Kuta Beach into something very different to the image so carefully crafted by the tourist brochures. I want to argue that the development, or rather decline, of Kuta into something of a tourist ghetto is, superficially, a symptom of cultural change. However, I suggest that on a deeper level what is happening in Kuta is a metaphor for modern Indonesia as a whole, a society in which the trauma of nearly 350 years of colonialism and exploitation of one form or another has come home to roost.

Cat urine

It is extraordinary what distorted images can be conjured by a clever photographer. The tourist literature that catalogues a whole range of hotels across Kuta and Legian depicts scenes of outstanding tranquility. The collage creates a mirage of exclusive and luxurious opulence. While this may be true of the inner sanctum of a few five star hotels, the actual state of most budget losmens, and the reality of street life in the back lanes, is very different.

The slow equatorial rot, the piles of plastic, the overflowing open drains, the mildewed ceilings, toilets that don't work, rooms that smell of neglect and cat urine, the noise and danger of speeding motorcycles, the thump of the empty discos, the offensive outbursts of drunken Australians, the prostitutes, petty drug dealers, bag-snatchers, pickpockets, pimps and gigolos, the thousand 'hey! You want transport?', the poisonous clouds of diesel exhaust, the dust, the heat and humidity, the unrelenting hordes of cheap watch sellers, the merciless hawkers of poor quality 'real silver' jewellery, the pathetic peddlers of meaningless bric-a-brac, the sharp tongued street salesmen of doubtful l'objet d'art, the relentless 'hello mister' and 'I lub you', and the inevitable smutty curse rendered incomprehensible by the use of Balinese or Javanese or Madurese, remind one more of the tormented subjects of a Hieronimus Bosch painting than a taste of the last tropical paradise.

The hassled expressions on the faces of the Smith children from Sydney as they flee the hawkers like prey from a hunter, or the heavily hair braided and severely sunburnt semiotics of newly married Mr. and Mrs. Munz from Dusseldorf, pathetically clutching their abdomens while searching for the public toilet that doesn't exist, begs the fundamental questions: When does the fun start? Is the welcome drink now a poison chalice? At what point did the free transport transfer make a terrible detour?


Change in Kuta has been swift and relentless, even brutal. Twenty years ago Legian was a coconut grove, now it is a city. Billions of tourist dollars have siphoned through Bali, turning rice farmers into millionaires, petty merchants into owners of conglomerates, irrevocably altering the social order. Now everyone wants a piece of the action. And why not? In the artificial world of mass tourism with its five nights package (plus breakfast and welcome drink), wealth, for most ordinary Balinese, is at once highly visible and practically unobtainable. This relationship is now fruiting as frustration and violence. In recent months there have been reports of heated verbal and even physical confrontation as tourists and hawkers play out their mutually created antipathy. The more aggressive the hawkers, the less likely they will make a sale. With diminishing business comes an even more desperate approach, and so on.

The word is out that Kuta is no longer in. A sumptuous platter of alternate destinations is seductively offered to the budget tourist, promising other last paradises that are 'just like Bali (read Kuta) used to be'.

On a superficial level Kuta's rise and fall is easy to explain. As Denpasar-based anthropologist Degung Santikarma explains, 'you can imagine what agony goes through the mind of an Indonesian wage labourer who earns Rp.3000 (Aus. $1.20) a day when a tourist pulls out a roll of banknotes equal to that person's entire year's income, and then, just orders and cheese and tomato jaffel. Consciously and subconsciously the aggressive behaviour of the hawkers is either their way of taking back some control in a world that is out of control, or it is their own private form of revenge'.

Perhaps like the fathers before them, a new generation of colonised Indonesians are fighting a guerilla action. This time it is not against the Dutch but against the late Twentieth Century, which has punched and brawled its way into their lives like a violent drunk. This time, the fight is neither heroic nor hopeful.

One of my Balinese friends, a high school teacher, reminded me of the delicate balance of Kuta's high wire act. 'All it will take is a tidal wave, a major eruption of Mt. Agung, a world recession, another Gulf War or national instability, and the whole circus will collapse. Then what will the Kuta traders do? They will be back in the padi with their feet in the mud planting rice again!'. While this may be the case, this statement betrays a deeper symptom of Indonesian modernity - a weary acceptance of the way things are, a perceived inability to confront change and make an individual and moderating contribution to it. It shows dullness of spirit. Because of this, at least in Kuta Beach, there appears to be none of the nationalistic idealism that inspired a previous generation to confront European colonialism.


However, perhaps of more relevance to Kuta's hospitality industry, this malaise is compounded by the fact that there is no contemporary tradition of popular critical thinking. Most young Indonesians have not been trained in lateral or independent analysis. There is little initiative. Rather, everything isbapakism, an officially encouraged paternalism that produces automatic deference to a higher authority.

Bapakism ensures that decisions are rarely made. Even the most minor concession to protocol is unthinkable. This results in human programming rather than training. No one can authorise the fixing of the leaking toilet, replace the broken fan or alter the breakfast menu to adapt to individual tastes. No one can act outside rigidly set parameters. Nothing can be done without permission. This frustrates Western tourists accustomed to the cult of the individual, who cannot appreciate the nuances of Indonesian social history and adjust their expectations accordingly.

What then will keep the tourists coming back? Obviously owners of capital and the governments' central planners believe that more five star hotels and elite tourism are the answer to occupancy rates of around 40% or lower. This bizarre reinvention of the cargo cult produces an unwanted commodity (luxury hotel rooms) and then patiently waits for the customers that will never come, while, clearly, the greater need is for good one and two star accommodation, the sort that Kuta Beach was well known for. And even when they do come, the elite tourists are easily frightened away. This became clear when the recent 'cholera' scare (Bali belly) resulted in the cancellation of thousands of Japanese bookings.

But with the appeal gone, the spirit broken, perhaps what the battered body of Kuta is waiting for is ngaben, ritual cremation. Perhaps what Kuta desperately needs is physical and spiritual reincarnation.     ii

Rob Goodfellow is a PhD student in the Department of History and Politics at the University of Wollongong.

Inside Indonesia 46: Mar 1996

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