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Update: August, 2019. This continues to be one of our most visited posts, and also one of our most controversial. Updates from readers (along with our 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 in 2013 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.

kuta beach bali trash

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.

are bali beaches dirty

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?

Pin it!Believe it or not, the tropical paradise of Bali has a "trash season." Do your research to avoid spending your holiday on a trashy beach in Bali.

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We really looked forward to visiting Chiang Mai in northern Thailand. Travel writers outdid themselves crafting clever similes to describe its ethereal beauty and local color. Others used one word repeatedly to describe it: amazing. That overworked description should have been our first clue that it would be anything but.

Just another tourist ghetto?

Perhaps Chiang Mai was once a magical place for a visit. But whatever attracted those early tourists has morphed into what our Canadian friend Markus calls a “tourist ghetto,” places where the visitor and their wallets are fresh meat. The amenities of such a place are usually no different from hundreds of other similar towns around the globe.

Chiang Mai

In Chiang Mai each block takes on a monotonous sameness: hostel, laundry, pub, souvenir shop, 7-11, cross the street and start over again. One sign of a tourist ghetto is a locale where the burger and fried chicken joints outnumber places offering the local cuisine, which in Thailand is a real sin.

Adding to the atmosphere, quite literally, is the incredible air pollution hovering over Chiang Mai. After spending a week hacking and wheezing through the gray air of Hanoi, we looked forward to finally getting out in the country and giving our overworked lungs a break. That was not to be.

Burning season in Chiang Mai

As our flight from Bangkok descended into the muck of Chiang Mai we noticed a change in the cabin air quality, as if some long-lost “Smoking” sign had turned on and the first twenty rows obliged. A view out the window revealed sporadic fires spewing various shades of gray on into the horizon. Farmers here engage in a form of slash-and-burn agriculture that creates a burning season as predictable as spring or summer. Add to this the local custom of burning trash wherever it sits and it appeared that we were descending into Dante’s Inferno.

When we got off the plane we noticed that the air was actually worse than Bangkok, a crowded city of 18 million people. Chiang Mai sits in a bowl formed by the nearby mountain ranges. All that smoke has to go somewhere but it can’t. Instead it gets breathed in and filtered by the people trapped below.

Chiang Mai street scene

The sex trade in Chiang Mai

On the ground our impression of the place didn’t improve. We knew that Bangkok had a notorious red-light district and was a world leader in sex tourism. We didn’t think that Chiang Mai, a city with over 300 Buddhist temples also offered its own tawdry side.

One night after dinner we strolled a few blocks from our hotel. We came upon a street that appeared to be the type of pub row found in many tourist areas. Upon looking in the open-air bars a little more closely we noticed that the typical male tended to be a Westerner in his 60s, gray-haired and paunch-bellied.

Sitting out in front of the pubs were clusters of understandably sullen twenty-year old Thai women available for the hour, the day, the week; legs splayed provocatively to show off their wares. Their lips were painted such a bright scarlet they practically glowed in the dark, as if they were each advertising their own personal red-light district. Now that’s a simile the writers never use to describe Chiang Mai.

What places have disappointed you in your travels?

Click on the link for our candid review of a rubbish-filled beach in Bali. Instead of a burning season this one has a “trash season.”

Chiang Mai air quality update

One of our readers suggested we do a bit more research on the air quality in Chiang Mai. We did and found this interesting story in the Bangkok Post which addresses some of the deteriorating air qualities issues in Northern Thailand. It looks like we were sort of fortunate because the air got even worse during the month after we left. Lesson learned here, even if a place sounds great do your own thorough research before going there. Since we’ve been traveling for so long we got a bit careless and didn’t do so.

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We’ve all fallen for them; food places the guidebooks say you absolutely must try when visiting a certain city.  So we join all the other tourists who’ve read the same guides and wait on long lines for what turns out to be overrated, mediocre, and often overpriced food. Here are the top ten food tourist traps we’ve come across in our travels:

1)  Peter Luger Steak House, Brooklyn 

We love traveling to off-the-beaten-path locations for great food. Too bad that was not the case at this Brooklyn institution where we were served a rather pedestrian steak.  Afterwards we asked the waiter which was his favorite and he replied that he was a vegetarian. Maybe we should have followed his example and stuck with the salad.

2)  Berthillon Ice Cream, Paris

Located on the chic Ile Saint- Louis in the heart of Paris, this establishment isn’t terrible, but it does nothing to justify its consistently long lines. Paris is not a big ice cream town so in the land of the blind the one-eyed man is king. In any other city Berthillon would not stand out.

3)  The “Original” Starbucks, Seattle 

Located in the Pike Place Market, it’s actually the second Starbucks, but the oldest remaining. Passengers disgorge from the nearby cruise ship terminal and create lines that stretch up the street for the same beverage that can be had around the block with no wait. (Shown above.)

4)  Pat’s/Geno’s Cheesesteaks, Philadelphia

These two cheesesteak vendors in our home city are able to survive by selling less than mediocre cheesesteaks to out-of-town visitors and post-game Flyers fans. This is a case where a tourist is better off asking a local where to get the best cheesesteak. Be prepared though, ask ten Philadelphians which is their favorite and you might get ten different answers. We’re partial to John’s Roast Pork and the Fire Steak at Jake’s Sandwich Board.

5)  Singapore Sling, Singapore

This drink was invented at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore. They charge $20 for the concoction, which isn’t even made by hand anymore. Tourists pack the place by the busload to fork over their money, down the drink in about five minutes and leave. To show how marked up the price is, the Raffles in Siem Reap, Cambodia charges $9 for the same beverage.

Singapore Sling

We admit we fell for the $20 Singapore Sling, but afterwards Michael said he felt dirty

6)  Pink’s Famous Hot Dogs, Los Angeles

Catering to hungry Los Angelenos since 1939, it’s street cred has kicked up a notch with its appearance in the opening credits of Entourage. We waited in line for 45 minutes before even getting to order. The hot dog was good but not worth the time spent.

7)  Ted Drewes Custard, Missouri 

Famous among food writers who recommend the “concrete,” basically a really thick shake that is handed to you upside down to show it is so thick that it won’t fall out of the cup. The only thing they forgot to pack into it was flavor.

8)  Any Chicago-style pizza, Chicago

It’s not pizza. Change the name to Chicago-style casserole and we’ll give it a another try.

9)  Skyline Chili, Cincinnati

This one pains us because we have family we love very much in Cincinnati who eat this stuff all the time and we hope they’ll still talk to us. For a better example of this regional favorite head on over to the original Camp Washington Chili.

10)  Pizza and steak, Buenos Aires

We were so excited to go to Buenos Aires based on the reputation of its Italian food, particularly pizza, and steak. Sorry to report that neither was any good. The pizza has a puffy, doughy crust, way too much cheese and a bland sauce. It looked just liek frozen pizza. The steak is served well-done. We tried to order it rare at several places and it still came well done. I don’t care how good the beef is if it’s cooked into submission.

Pizza Buenos Aires

Disappointing pizza in Buenos Aires.

If you’re looking for recommendations for a city try going to Chowhound. It’s a place where foodies are not shy about cheering, or jeering, their local establishments.

What overrated food places can you add to the list?