Exclusive club was a must for western tourists

LIKE many people who have taken the tourist trail in Bali, I spent a number of evenings mingling among the throngs in the narrow back streets of Kuta. The Sari Club was a regular stopping-off point for young people touring the bars, myself included.

My own visit to Indonesia in April this year coincided with Nyepi, the Balinese New Year celebrations, and as I arrived, the streets were awash with huge, colourful papier-mch effigies of Hindu gods. The spectacle had attracted tourists from around the world - Scandinavia, the UK, Italy, North America, Japan and Australia.

A year earlier, as I travelled to the remote diving resort of Sipidan, on the outer fringes of the archipelago, I had experienced the darker side of life in Indonesia after I was forced to re-route my trip when trouble flared in Kalimantan following terrorist insurgencies.

I held no such reservations about visiting Bali, and was completely stunned by Saturday’s atrocity.

The Sari Club, known to locals simply as SC, has been an institution in Kuta since it opened two decades ago and was clearly pinpointed as a western target; no Balinese are allowed in.

The club serves as the centrepiece for partying in Poppies Gang 2, a narrow lane just off Jalan Legian, the main shopping street.

The club is flanked by other bars, shops and restaurants open late into the night. The narrow streets around it are busy; there are also several popular youth hostels nearby.

Poppies Gang 2 is also the site of Poppies restaurant, regarded as one of the best on the island. At the beach end of the lane, hawkers set up night stalls selling fake Rolexes and surf gear.

In the high season, the lane is packed from dusk till dawn and Australians love the area’s informality. Many return year after year, even bringing their own beerholders, to take advantage of the cheap, giant Bintang beers on sale for less than $3 during happy hour.

The Sari Club and the restaurants and watering-holes lining the claustrophobic lanes around it were packed to the rafters with student backpackers from Melbourne, Sydney and Perth.

Kuta is widely known as a surfing hot-spot and, for the tens of thousands of Australians who regard the town in the way many young Britons treat southern Spain and the Balearics, the resort is a haven for hedonism.

Although it is fashionable to disparage Kuta for its rampant development, low-brow night-life and crass commercialism, the cosmopolitan mixture of beach-party hedonism and entrepreneurial energy is intoxicating.

The town isn’t pretty, but it’s not dull either and it has the best beach on Bali, with the only surf which breaks over sand instead of coral.

In Kuta these days, even the tourists themselves have become an attraction, with visitors coming from Java to ogle the topless bathers, and from other resorts to scorn the tackiness of it all.

But despite all the excesses, away from the traffic-clogged streets, at its heart Kuta is still a Balinese village: a place of quiet compounds and narrow alleys, where devotional offerings to the gods are placed in front of houses and workplaces.

In the wake of the bombing the famous sea temples that dot the island will be over-run with worshippers. The Balinese will know more than most that the scale of the bombing will change things forever and their lifeblood, the tourist industry, may drain away before their eyes.

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