Update: January, 2017. This continues to be one of our most visited posts, and also one of our most controversial. Updates from readers in the comments below (along with continued research) indicate that Bali’s beach/trash situation has unfortunately not improved. While we typically seek out the good in any destination, we felt compelled to share this disturbing story 4 years ago–and still do.
On our first day in Bali we headed for the famed Kuta Beach. The current Lonely Planet guide offers a list of “Top 25 Experiences” in Bali, with Kuta Beach right up there. According to their experts, “Tourism on Bali began here and is there any question why? . . .Kuta Beach was and always will be Bali’s best beach.” At least that’s the Lonely Planet version.
An unhappy discovery
If our experience today is anything to go by, we can pitch our Lonely Planet guide in the trash. Or perhaps just pitch it on Kuta Beach. Because when we got there all we saw was trash, lots and lots of trash: on the sand, in the water and even clinging to the stray ankle. Plastic bags, bottles, cans, papers and heaven knows what else. It was downright filthy. This is the dirtiest beach we have ever seen, anywhere.
Our research told us that Kuta was one of the more built-up areas of Bali. Therefore, we were expecting crowds, but what we saw was not the detritus of a few too many holiday merry-makers. This was a public sanitation disaster.
It’s not surprising that the beach was practically devoid of people, though there were a few intrepid souls sizzling away on the sand. They were lobster-red and had the look of folks who had come to Bali to enjoy the beach, and were damn well going to, regardless of the rubbish. One sad-looking girl sat at the water’s edge amidst sodden debris, a lonely mermaid washed ashore from the sea of litter.
Trash walking on Kuta Beach.
Trash on Kuta Beach: the explanation(?)
Surely this couldn’t be the normal state of affairs–there must be some explanation. Perhaps a garbage scow had recently overturned? Maybe the beach patrol was on strike. Bali has a reputation for being one of the most beautiful places on earth, so how could this be happening?
Unfortunately the explanation is not a good one. After further research we learned that this is an annual event at Kuta Beach. According to the Jakarta Post, “Beached garbage is an annual problem for Kuta. From early December to late March, strong wind and powerful currents send waves of garbage from the ocean onto the beach.” Locals even refer to it as the “trash season” and say the debris comes from the nearby island of Java.
But we’re not so sure we accept the “Let’s blame Java” approach. You see, the sides of the roads in this part of Bali are convenient open-air trash receptacles piled high with the same stuff we saw on the beach. In the rainy season (which we were well into) storms wash the trash into gutters, out to sea and then back onto the beach . . . where it waits to be washed out to sea again. It’s not quite the recycling system that Bali needs.
An alternative (and deceptive) viewpoint
We left the beach via the grounds of the nearby Patra Resort. Almost immediately we were amidst manicured lawns, trickling fountains and a sparkling pool. We glanced back at the beach where we saw lounge chairs nestled on gently raked sand, with nary a speck out of place.
This is a view of the exact same beach taken from the shore side. (These chairs are visible in the photo of the woman on the beach at the top of this post.) From here the trash is hidden from view.
Because of the slope of the shore, the garbage wasn’t visible from here. But we wondered how many of the hotel’s guests actually venture down to the waterline. We saw one family do so. Then, in a few seconds they came scurrying back like sand crabs escaping the tide. We bet they won’t go back for a second look.
Overall we loved the Balinese people; they were warm and welcoming, and much of the island was beautiful. But visitors should be aware of the trash situation on Kuta, along with other beaches on the southern part of the island. You really need to do your homework before visiting a place. With Bali, we thought we had.
If you’re interested in cleaner beaches, check out “Activist Abby,” a remarkable teenager from Illinois who is trying to rid the world of plastic bags: Activist Abby on Facebook
What places in your travels have not lived up to your expectations?