Kuta Cowboys
Asia's single females are reportedly a hit for Kuta's male gigolos, who can say "I love you" in seven languages. Greg Cruey, Asia For Visitors, checks it out.
Jan 2, 2004

You won't find many cowboys in Southeast Asia. But on one small stretch of beach they have become infamous.

If you're a woman in Bali on your own, you can expect to meet a Cowboy, or a gigolo - which ever you want to call them. The Kuta Cowboys don't like that "G" word. They'd rather be your boyfriend, your lover, your companion, or whatever.

But marketing is half the reason they don't like the word "gigolo". Kuta's cowboys think they have figured out what women want. Kuta Beach on the southern coast of Bali has them. Lots of them...

Judging from the stories available, a female travelling alone in Bali will probably be "hit on" at least a few times a day. And if she simply goes to Kuta Beach, picks a spot and stretches out in the sun, someone will propose marriage before the day is out.

These young "cowboys" of Kuta come by offering free samples of conversation, then selling romance at bargain prices, and soon afterwards selling themselves (in whatever sense you wish to take that).

One author called Bali the land of the "bronzed gigolos".

Age seems to be irrelevant; if anything, girls in the 18 to 25 age bracket are neglected a little in favor of women who may have more resources, or may be more emotionally vulnerable.

In a 1996 article on Kuta's boys, author Denise Dowling relays this story:
"Sally is a married 36-year-old nurse from Queensland who brought her teenage daughter to Bali as a graduation present. She and the daughter were at a local disco one night when the singer came over and sat with them after a set. She thought the 26-year-old musician was after her daughter until he invited her to his room that night."
Six months later Sally had dumped her husband and spent over $7000 on a relationship with this Balinese boy. She'd brought him to Australia and was still living with him.

The beach and the town

Kuta Beach is by far the most popular strip of sand on the island of Bali. Its three and a half miles of white sand and rolling waves provide a good practice spot for beginner and intermediate surfers to practice their skills.

Volleyball games and other sand sports dot the beach and the barrier reef gives snorklers a degree of protection

The town of Kuta, though, is a touristy mess. Just a few miles outside of the Balinese capital, Denpasar, Kuta's main drag is a couple of miles of jam-packed commercialism designed to prey on travellers.

Kuta has changed little since it was discovered by tourists in the 1960's and absorbed the atmosphere of those times.

It is a tie-dyed dump full of t-shirt outlets, tiny restaurants selling health food and booze in a society that was already largely vegetarian, cut rate (or cut throat) travel agencies, and stores selling bootleg music tapes.

In December and January, Kuta becomes very Aussiefied. Most restaurants offer vegemite (a totally disgusting black yeast extract that Aussies smear on bread) and cater to the Australian school break crowd.

The surf crowd grows and Kuta begins to resemble Fort Lauderdale, Florida, at spring break. During the Northern Hemisphere's summer Japanese, Germans, French, Spanish and other tourists flood the beach.

If you're looking for paradise, Kuta ain't it. By early evening (if you don't choke to death on the smog first) you will have been asked one hundred times or more to buy something.

As night falls the items sold on the streets get darker, too. Boys on motorbikes dressed as a cross between James Dean look and Fonzi from "Happy Days" will try and sell you oregano and tell you it's hashish; or perhaps offer to find you a girl for the evening.

The beggars who asked for money during the day are replaced by Indonesian transvestites after dark. The Western gay scene develops at the beach itself.

If you're looking for some place on Bali to soak up the sun, drink beer 'til you're pickled, surf when you're hangover wears off, watch the hardbodies boil in their sun tan oil, or maybe be flattered nearly to death by the attention of a much younger male with good muscle tone and better manners, I have just three words for you: Kuta, Kuta, Kuta!

You don't have to worry about being bothered by artsy dance performances. No one will ask if you want to visit a temple or watch a Hindu religious ceremony. Shadow puppets and strange sounding music is definitely out.

The tone of life bounces back and forth from the Beach Boys to the haze of Hendrix to the malaise of Jimmy Buffett.

The nightlife is non-stop and everyone expects a little hedonism.

In short, Kuta is the armpit of Bali. But hey, some people don't mind the smell and others even seem to like armpits

Are they gigolos?

Guys go to Bangkok or Pattaya, or maybe Olongopo in the Philippines. Girls go to Bali...

Have Kuta's cowboys have figured out what women want? Dowling puts it this way: "The story might have a happier ending if sex was the only thing the women wanted.

But, you know women...some of us think sex should be wrapped in love. That's the package these women buy, and the cowboys have learned to sell it that way.

It may be a shoddy parcel in the cold light of reality, but Indonesia is a Third World country with poor electricity, so it's hard to see what you're getting. Bali is seductively dim; even when the power's on, it's the flattering flicker of candlelight."

Maybe generalising too much makes the situation sound more simple than it really is. Not every guy on the beach is a complete leech or a cynic looking to sucker a foreign woman. But then, some of them have enough of that in them to make up for the more tender-hearted cowboys out there.

The cowboys sell romance, but falling in love is a hazard they try to avoid until after the marriage license has been signed.

And marriage - a way off of the island with the possibility of life as someone's boy-toy (or maybe even partner) in a more prosperous society - is the ultimate goal of the guys on the beach.

Most don't see much hope of achieving that goal; for now they'll settle for a vague relationship where they make a foreign woman feel good about herself (or just plain feel good) and get a little extra cash (or something) in their pockets.

Few will rob you, some won't even ask for anything, but most are very good at begging once the relationship has a little depth to it.

You can end up buying him the motorbike he needed, the new surfboard he wants, or clothes to wear for the next woman - and you can walk away thinking it was your idea.

Some Tips

I've yet to stumble across an explanation of how the young men of Kuta came to be called "cowboys". How you think of them depends on your perspective. One sources explains that the phrase Kuta Cowboy is a euphemism for "beach bum".

Others are more generous, describing the sparseness of the local job market and the desperation of young men in Bali; a college education in the field of business or economics will set you up with a stall selling beads to the Finns and Swedes who visit the island.

One expose on Kuta's cowboys is insightful: our paradise is their purgatory. I don't think Hinduism has a purgatory, but the image communicates the feel of life on the island pretty accurately. The cowboys want to escape.

Australian women are the way out. Or maybe Swedish women, or Canadian women, or Italian women, or Japanese women, etc. Most cowboys can say "I love you" in seven or eight languages...

As a woman travelling alone on Bali you can feel relatively safe. Rape is an uncommon event in Bali. Your pocket might get picked. You will probably get some unwanted attention (and some of it may be crude). But physical harm (or any kind of confrontation over sex) is unlikely.

Having said this, you should realise that if you ask someone to walk you to your room, they will think it is an invitation because they know you are unlikely to be harmed on the way to your room (or the beach, or wherever).

You should also keep in mind that Balinese women just don't travel alone, so Balinese men don't know what to make of it in Western women.

And even lovers in Balinese culture do not touch each other in public. Men touch men, women touch women; but for a woman to touch a man in public is very confusing, sexually, in Balinese culture and is usually taken to be a strong message to the Balinese man that the woman is attracted to him.

You can minimise the amount of unwanted attention you get by dressing conservatively in town.

You should also keep in mind the most obvious, yet obscure, threat to your safety while in Bali: AIDS is as common on some parts of the island as it is in Thailand.

What others think

If you're looking for some first hand conversation on the subject of the Kuta cowboys (or most anything else to do with Bali), the Bali Travel Forum has a huge searchable archive of messages.

How common Balinese guy-tourist girl romance have become is clear from reading the board.

One girl recently posted this question to the board: "I was wondering if any Aussie girls have Balinese/Indonesian boyfriends or if anyone knows of someone who does. I met a nice guy in Bali and I wondered if they work out, but I've never really heard of many girls having Balinese boyfriends, or am I wrong?"

Oh yes, she was wrong...

The board's contributors on the subject of Balinese boyfriends, or Kuta cowboys, can be divided up into three main groups:

1. Women who have recently found a Balinese boyfriend and have questions about the relationship.
2. People who want to warn such women about the hazards of such a relationship.
3. Women who have had a positive relationship with a Balinese man and want the forum to know that not all Balinese men are "cowboys".

One contributor from category two advised women with new boyfriends from Bali to evaluate them in much the same way they would a guy back home because (according to her) they don't change much once you get them out of Bali:

Does he work (very important, that he has a fair work ethic)? Is he self-sufficient (to show he's not a free loader)? Have you met his family (mother, father, etc)?

Do you pay for everything (or does he sometimes buy you things)? She also advises taking a look at his passport before buying him a ticket to anywhere.

If he's been telling you he's just an average Balinese guy who happened to see you on the beach and thought he'd stop to talk, and then you look at his passport and figure out that he's been to Stuttgart, Helsinki, Vancouver, and Auckland in the last three years, well... ask questions.

Whether the cowboys of Bali are gigolos or not is really something that gets determined, in part, by you the tourist.

Generally speaking, if you meet a Balinese guy who is brave enough to try and start a relationship with you, he was looking for you (whether he manages to make it look like an coincidence or not).

Chances are, you aren't his first tourist. Is that okay with you?

A Balinese guy is probably hoping to get something out of the relationship, but that doesn't necessarily make him a leech or a parasite; you'll have to decide for yourself what he has to give in return.

There's a good chance that he hopes to profit from your relationship; but in the framework of a third-world economy, that hope does not necessarily mean he's a scam artist.
Ultimately, he probably has a fairytale in the back of his head - only he's the damsel in distress and you're a frog he's kissing; he knows you probably won't rescue him from his island-prison, but if he doesn't kiss you, he'll never know.

I'll leave you with a few more comments from people who have "been there":

(From the Bali Travel Forum)...
* Most of the so-called "boyfriends" are only opportunists looking for a ride on the"gravy train" from a naive woman who will pay his way out of the country and to a better life in the West. There is no true love on the part of the guy in most of these relationships. Of course there is the rare exception, but the exceptions are very, very rare.
* I once had a Balinese boyfriend and now he is my husband. We often visit Bali but live in Europe. At least our relationship has worked out very well...
* I really loved mine. We were together for 6 months and I gave him 2,500 Swiss Francs so we could buy land and build a house. Then I found out he was married. I don't think they are much different from the female Thai prostitutes we read about in the news who steal their Western boyfriends' money.
* I confronted my Javanese boyfriend on the phone with the stories you have of your bad experiences. He seemed genuinely hurt that I could think he was the same as these other Indonesian men. I have to believe can I throw in the towel when I truly believe we are in love and that this could really work?
* I am married to a Balinese and we have a son as well. I have never been happier in my life. Good Luck. Just trust your instincts. Don't try not to sugar coat anything and you should be alright...They really know how to treat their women; at the worse you will come home with heaps of great memories, and photos.
Greg Cruey