Magnificent shades of orange and purple fill the sky as the sun sets over sandy, white beaches and jade-green rice paddy fields. After dark, the quiet Zen of Bali transforms as tourists flood the streets and push into roaring nightclubs and bars.
A Brit shamelessly dances shirtless and barefoot in a crowded bar with a strip of cloth tied around his head. The good-time scene he has created is one he’s doubtful to remember in the morning. Scantily clad foreigners dash in and out of crowded streets like a game of frogger — barely missing the taxis, carriages and motorbikes that drive by. The honking and exchange of yells washes away any attempts at detox from earlier in the day.
This is, after all, Kuta and Legian where tourists flock for the night life and guide books issue warnings.
“Immodest tourists — topless, bottomless, witless, brainless and hopeless,” reads LUXE City Guides. “Show some respect, please.”
Most understand that travelers come here from around the world to get away from it all and that the tourists drive the economy.
“[Kuta] has everything a tourist looks for, i.e. white, sandy beach, rows of excellent bars and restaurants, discotheques and entertainment spots for an enjoyable night life,” reads the Bali Tourism Board Web site. “Rows of kiosks selling souvenirs and everything a tourist need[s] such as garments or latest CDs and cassettes are available along the main road with reasonable prices.”
“Tourists are good. Many tourists come to Bali. Make money,” said taxi driver Nyoman. “The Australians are always tipping.”
This year the number of foreigner visits to the island, population more than 3 million, is on the rise, the majority of them from Japan and Australia.
Travelers from the United Kingdom make up nearly 4 percent of visitors while Americans make up 3.6k percent of the more than 1 million Bali tourists.
Visitor numbers dropped considerably after the 2002 bombing and then again after another explosion in 2005, expanding the heavily populated tourist areas from Kuta.
“Before [the] bombings there were more Americans. Not so many anymore,” said local Gede nodding toward where one of the explosions went off up the street. “Australia is close, so they come.”
Today, just in front of the 2002 memorial, waves of tourists cross the busy street with beers in hand.
A shirtless Australian down the bar tells crude jokes loud enough to hear over the Eagles songs “Hotel California” and “Tequila Sunrise” that blast in the background.
Unfazed, local woman Nyoman stands behind the bar. “No problem for me because at home my husband also [wears] no shirt,” she said, adding that there are times when tourist behavior is a problem.
“Sometimes they get drunk and think they pay, but they don’t,” she said. “They get drunk and angry.”
Outside a tourist talks about exactly how drunk he was the night before, dissipating any air of magic on the Hindu island.
“The Balinese don’t hang out here,” said Gede referring to the night life on Jalan Raya Legian.
Nonetheless, the two worlds appear to co-exist, and even depend on each other. The Balinese rely on the economics of tourism, and the tourists, the need of the escapism Bali has to offer.
“Life in Bali is always related to ‘Tri Hita Karana’ or a tripartite concept that include[s] the spiritual relationship between human[s] and God, and their environment,” reads the Bali Tourism Board Web site.
Small ceremonial offerings made of palm leaves are placed on the ground in front of stores and restaurants each day by the Balinese. They are later crushed by tourists who pass without noticing, grains of rice and flowers scattered across the sidewalk.
In a place famous for tourists kicking back and letting loose, the locals are tolerant and more reserved — their smiles welcoming and nonjudgmental.
Partyers are left to enjoy the quiet beaches to recover and are served fresh fruit juices to rehydrate.
Many Balinese speak English and ask tourists the standard questions, “Where are you from? How long you stay? Are you married?”
Some learn just the basics. “Hello honey,” “cheap price” and “transport” as local hawkers call out during the day.
The Balinese offer what they think tourists want and sometimes join in on what they see.
“If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair,” sings the local disc jockey at a popular bar when asked about foreigners in Bali.
An Indonesian band belts out classic American tunes requested by the crowd. Tourists grab the microphone and sing along. Others stand by and balance bottles of beer on their heads. Local groupies jump up and down, blending in with the mass.
“I think they are like that at all bars,” said Ketut of foreigners. “They are happy and having fun.”
Night after night, new tourists arrive — and add to lasting impressions foreigners before them may have left behind.