Sex and Surfing in the Land of 1000 Mosques

In the stillness of the morning, just before sunrise, mosques blare the call to prayer from loudspeakers. As daylight emerges, the voice of the imam is muffled between the revving of motorbike engines and crowing roosters. The reggae bar finally shuts down for the day. Surf tourists donning bikini tops and board shorts set out to nearby waves – anxious to catch them before the wind switches and the crowds roll in.

Welcome to Kuta, a small surf town on Lombok, the Land of 1000 Mosques.

Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, hosting around 12% of the world’s Islamic population. The island of Lombok is a big tourism destination for Islamic travelers who love seeing the natural beauty and many mosques that Lombok claims as its own. The Sasak people are typically very conservative, modest, and dedicated followers of Islam — they also speak their own language in addition to Bahasa, the official language of Indonesia.

Interestingly, Lombok is also one of the biggest surf tourism destinations in Indonesia. Surfers from all around the globe head to Lombok in search of waves as well as the typical backpacker cravings — sex, parties, and cheap alcohol. And because there’s a demand, there’s a thriving market for all three vices.

The clash in culture is obvious in the little town of Kuta, Lombok. Beers sell for $2 a bottle and halal food can be found on every corner. Tourists clad in Bintang tank tops strut down the streets past locals wearing hijabs. Sasak men teach bikini-clad Western women how to surf while their wives stay ashore, fully clothed.

When tourists’ hedonism arrives, money follows.

The island of Lombok is still relatively undeveloped. There are frequent power outages, dirt roads, and a wage of $10 per day is considered decent. When I bought $200 worth of goods in Kuta, Lombok, the sellers told me that this purchase was larger than what they expected to make for the entire summer. Right now, chartering surf tourists around in the nearby fishing village of Gerupuk is often more lucrative than selling their catch of the day. Real estate developers are getting a whiff of what potential the island has for tourism, buying up land at insanely low rates in hopes of creating Bali No.2.

When I stepped off the plane and visited Kuta, Lombok a few months ago, I had one question in mind.

What do the locals think about this?

My first day back in Kuta, I walked to a local pizza joint and ordered a pie for myself. Business was slow so one of the workers sat down across from me. Within a few minutes, local kids trying to sell bracelets came by to see if they could strike a deal. I refused to buy a bracelet but offered them a slice of pizza. The oldest one took it happily and the littlest guy, maybe five years old, started slurping the rest of my iced tea.

I started my informal interview with the pizza guy and asked him if 1. he was Muslim and 2. whether he was from here. He affirmed both.

Every time I started this conversation, I prefaced it by saying something along the lines of, “Kuta is a Muslim and conservative community. The tourists who come to visit aren’t, right? The tourists drink alcohol, wear bikinis, and men and women travel together without being married. What do you think about the tourism that comes to Kuta?”

The pizza guy was about my age and started to talk openly. “I don’t think there’s a problem. Tourist and local live separately but it’s okay, we understand you come here with differences. There’s no issue here.”

He then went on to explain that he’s made money selling drugs to tourists — a crime punishable by death in Indonesia.

“I want to go off with Australian or Western women,” he mused.


“With Australian or Western women, you don’t have to see the girl’s father. You don’t have to see each other only around family. I want to go off with an Australian girl and not have to be married.”

I quickly picked up that go off with was an euphemism for “have sex with.”

Maybe he wasn’t my target participant — after all, a drug-dealing man with a penchant for foreign girls probably wasn’t ever too conservative in the first place.

“Let me know if you want to hang out tonight,” he added.

“Yeah, I’m busy.”

“Well call me Mr. Mushroom. Next time we’re together, I’ll put some mushroom on your pizza.”

I paid my bill and walked out.

A few days later, I hopped on the back of a motorbike with a surf guide named Ozzy. We rode to Ekas, a break about twenty minutes away from Kuta. In the water, he told me and a few friends where to sit as the waves rolled through.

I rehearsed my script and asked him if teaching Western women how to surf was considered shameful by his elders.

“Ten years ago, it was a problem. I couldn’t be teaching girls how to surf.” Ozzy gestured to his chest and groin.

“Of course, because of the bikinis.”

“Yes. The leaders of the mosque didn’t like that. Now, I can teach people how to surf. We now know that tourists are here for surfing – for vacation. It’s okay. We can live here.”

He paddled for a wave and left me to think on my own.

I proposed this question to over fifteen locals during my stay. Oftentimes, locals changed the topic to vent about the rate that their land is being developed by foreign investors. They liked the economic aspect, but hated that the landscape is changing at breakneck speed. In town, Sasak businesses struggled while foreign ones thrived.

Australian-owned cafes and businesses in Lombok know how to appeal to tourists with trendy decor, acai bowls, and free wi-fi. Surf tourists flock here in lieu of the Sasak owned warungs serving nasi campur or mie goreng. Every time I walk into a cafe serving perfectly frothed cappuccinos or browse the clothes of a Western boutique, I hate myself a tiny bit.

I popped into a carpenter’s shop and asked the standard questions. He ignored the reference to bikinis and alcohol and solely focused on the tourism aspect.

“It’s good and bad. I create the furniture for the new resorts, hotels, and homestays. But Lombok is not going to belong to the people from Lombok much longer.”

I started a small business in Lombok with a handful of Sasak women and we quickly became friendly with one another. They often joined me for my meals and we spent hours chatting on the beach.

One of the girls tugged at my tank top with an elephant printed on the front.

“Can I have this?” She asked.

I looked at her long-sleeved top, ankle-length skirt, and hijab. “Yeah. Will you wear it?” I winked.

She picked up a piece of long fabric and wrapped it around her chest, “Western girls like to wear this cloth like this.” She mimicked a strapless bikini top.

“How do you wear it?” I asked.

“We use it as a table runner!” She laughed and playfully shoved my arm, “It’s too hot in Lombok to wear a scarf.”

“Is it weird that Western girls go around wearing it like that?” I asked the group, running the fabric between my fingers.

“No, tourists are tourists. They live like tourists and we live how we live,” One said and the rest nodded.

“Why don’t any of the local girls surf in Lombok?”

“How!? I have five kids!” A girl chimed.

“Why doesn’t your husband take care of the kids, and you go surf?” I teased.

One of the women laughed and yelled to a local man in Sasak. He came over and caught up on the conversation.

“There is one girl who surfs in Lombok. She’s very good. And a few surf guides are teaching their daughters how to surf. The problem is — there are so many kids at home.”

Down the beach, a two women splashed with a girl in the sea.

The general consensus: women didn’t surf because they either helped their siblings, or were busy raising kids of their own.

And when we talked about tourists mingling with locals, the two lived harmoniously.

I can’t buy it. Surf tourists and backpackers are notorious for being rowdy and constantly on bad behavior. Is all of that just ignored by the Sasak locals in Kuta? Has the tourism been so constant here that they are completely desensitized to foreign mischief? Or are they censoring themselves in my presence, afraid of offending me or driving away my business? Surely there was some conflict between younger and older men, as the older men watched Sasak teenagers drink and sleep with foreign women. I wonder how they’d answer these questions if I asked as a Sasak man. Or, am I looking for tension that’s just not there?

Despite these sunny conversations and people’s pleasant demeanor, I sometimes felt the pulse of animosity. I’ve been scammed in the past by Kuta locals and crime is semi-common after dark. On my second to last day in Kuta, a miscommunication occurred with a local shopkeeper. He yelled in my face and threatened to hurt me if he ever saw me again. Sweat poured down his forehead as he yelled, “Tourist is supposed to be smarter than local!” I felt scared and double checked my door that night to make sure it was locked.

“Don’t send anyone up who asks for me,” I told the bartender at my guesthouse.

Every night, I walked back to my rooftop room and was met with a chorus of, “Welcome home!” by the guesthouse employees. Sometimes, a few of the girls would climb up to my patio, sprawl out on the floor, and play Indonesian pop music — humming along to the tunes while I pecked away at a document titled “Kuta Notes” on my laptop.

On the last night, my cursor blinked at the end of a sentence that read, “After this short chase for answers, I’m confused.”

In Lombok, Indonesia, often called "The Land of 1000 Mosques," surf tourists come looking to surf and party. This post answers one question: What do the locals think about this?In Lombok, Indonesia, often called "The Land of 1000 Mosques," surf tourists come looking to surf and party. This post answers one question: What do the locals think about this?


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40 Responses

  1. Charly says:

    This is a great article! It’s so interesting how there’s such a clash of cultures but seemingly everyone gets along quite well with each other. Much different to how it is portrayed in much of the big media lately. Very well written. Looking forward to read more in the future.

  2. Katie says:

    This one’s for sure another favorite for me! And I’m definitely keen to read more…especially from the women’s POV. Any plans to be back soon? 😉
    Katie recently posted…Three Must-Do Hikes in Karijini National Park For When You’re Short on TimeMy Profile

  3. Richelle says:

    This is such a great article! I definitely felt a bit awkward diving in Pulau Weh just off of Sumatra in Aceh province which practices sharia law. I only wore a one piece and went diving, but I still felt awkward walking through town in a swimsuit and long sarong when everyone else was in hijabs. Quick question though – what’s the business you started??

    • Chantae says:

      Oh wow, yes — Sharia law is much more strict and I can totally relate to the feeling of feeling awkward. It’s best to cover up in these circumstances, I think! Just to avoid discomfort for everyone involved. I started a little shop for textiles called Rinjani Threads 🙂

  4. Kevin says:

    Good article although it seems like you were looking for a particular answer before you even started writing this article. Namely, that the locals don’t like the culture that the tourists bring. Which seems to actually be untrue.

    Yes, tourism is affecting the culture and the local people but maybe the reality is that people don’t dislike the change as much as you’d think. Sex and money trickles down to the local people as well. When they’re living difficult lives and they see foreigners coming and bringing their money and hedonism and culture with the possibility of sharing that with them, why wouldn’t they want to be a part of it? Why don’t the western tourists wear hijabs and live simple lives? Because there are certain things that are unappealing about it. Why do people like you go to a place like Kuta where your money is worth a lot and you can surf all day? Why wouldn’t the local people want the same thing?

    I think the real issue here is that you feel a certain sort of guilt about what is happening. You even mentioned it when you talked about walking into the coffee shop. That’s why you wrote this article and that is the feeling you had going into this whole situation.

    This is the issue with western culture. There are many good things which come with freedom, open mindedness and capitalism but all good things come at a cost. Massive consumption, hedonism, overdevelopment, loss of culture. And these things negative things are inevitable. This is western culture. But ultimately what happens comes down to what the people choose. Maybe the tourists and the locals are more alike than you think. I think ultimately this becomes a question of human nature. We are all humans, we are all more alike than we are different. If things are changing, what does that say about the average person? Maybe you expect too much from the locals? Maybe you think too lowly of the foreigners?

    Or maybe that’s just the danger of westernization? Maybe the so called negative aspects like hedonism and money are actually what makes it attractive – especially to those that have neither? If you think about it, in many extremely conservative cultures, the punishments for transgressions are extremely severe. How else do you forcefully keep people in check?

    I do agree with you though. I do think something is wrong. Maybe that’s the reason people like us seem to need to get away from civilization and go somewhere more remote, with fewer people – and that’s why it can be disappointing to find the same negative things that you left behind at home no matter how far you travel. Human nature. I think that’s the real issue here.

    • Chantae says:

      Hey Kevin!

      I think you’re totally right in that I was looking for/expected a specific response. As much as I want to be objective and unbiased, my understanding of culture in general is that people don’t like when their own is infringed upon or changed in a very big way — so I was expecting this to be reflected in all of these conversations. Also, Bali is one culture that once accepted tourism and now there is a massive movement to “reclaim Bali” from developers. Which I guess there are multiple issues going on 1. change in culture and 2. change in property ownership. Locals seem to care more about point 2 than point 1 from the limited perspective I’ve gotten (and I’d love to hear more POVs).

      I really like the insight about why wouldn’t the locals want to participate — hm. But I think to admit that or think that is sort of saying, Western hedonistic traits are better and that’s why the locals accept it so quickly. I can’t put my finger on it, but it feels uncomfortable (guilt talking? colonial taste in my mouth?). Also, tourists love local experiences as long as it’s not *too* local and then they want to bail as soon as it gets overly tainted with souvenir shops and Hilton hotels. Maybe Kuta is in this sweet spot at the moment and that’s why I didn’t have any negative comments.

      I also am not sure if it was the language barrier that prevented me from going into “tourists bring a lot of things into town that your religion doesn’t support” OR if they separated that thought OR if they didn’t answer because I’m an outsider. Like I say in the post, I would love to ask as a Sasak man :D.

      & maybe it is that everyone just wants in the end to have enough money to take care of their family and enjoy themselves – human nature. Anyways, this has given me a bit more to think about and stew over. Thanks for taking the time to respond and bring new perspectives.

  5. Nice post. I am amazed that people go there and just don’t want to know or fail to see what tourism is doing to the local population both good and bad. It is true that it is a complicated issue and that tourism is also essential to the survival of the local population. I was saddened personally about what poor tourism practices are doing to the culture, traditions and happiness of many locals. This is largely due to the huge difference in the finances of the local people and the tourists. It is recipe for corruption, exploitation and temptation of the local people. I personally did not want to even go but was persuaded by a friend who needed help. I was shocked to find that now they need to import rice because tourists have bribed officials to build villas in rice fields. The poorer people cannot afford to buy this imported rice so now they eat bread which is changing the very diet of the local population. If things do not change and the choices keep being made for money over nature, I believe it will ultimately destroy itself 🙁

  6. Collette says:

    Loved reading about this. It does make you sit back and think about how you affect locals when you travel. keep writing these great reads. ?

  7. Gokul Raj says:

    Is there a place called Kuta in Lombok. I thought is was on the island of Bali. I am visiting Indonesia in July and I am planning to stay in Kuta for a few days.
    Gokul Raj recently posted…Cycling through the Jungle Trail in Khao ThongMy Profile

  8. Jenna says:

    Very interesting perspective–I love how you posed these questions to locals. It’s hard to see a place develop and change so much especially when it goes against the local culture–it always seems to be a bittersweet situation. Kuta looks like a gorgeous spot though and great for surfing!

  9. Sara Essop says:

    Interesting perspective. I was in Kamala Beach, Phuket recently and there are similar issues there. Most of the locals are Muslim, who eat halaal , dress conservatively and go to mosque, however the tourists aren’t. There is a clash of cultures but it doesn’t seem to bother the locals. I guess they’re just glad to benefit from the tourism revenue.

  10. Meg says:

    What an interesting read! I enjoyed being made to think more about my cultural and economic impact on the places I visit. This was particularly relevant to me right now as I am travelling in Malaysia where there is also a large Muslim population. I often wonder about how I’m perceived by the locals. I’d like to think that I am as respectful as possible but I guess I won’t realise the true extent of their feelings.

  11. Gabby says:

    I really appreciate that you wrote about this topic. I was in Bali and Lombok in December – and I was a surf tourist in Kuta! I also wondered a lot about what the locals think. For me, one of my biggest worries was not necessarily the local culture since many people seemed happy for the tourists, but more about the growth of big tourism in Kuta.

    Did you also notice the cultural differences between Bali and Lombok?

    I’ll be posting about it on my blog soon, but haven’t gotten around to it yet :-/

  12. Really interesting read! I was just in Bali and was questioning the same things that you talk about in this article. Glad you were able to get some answers!

  13. Alex says:

    What a fascinating and well-written article. I suppose you did go in seeking a certain answer that you didn’t find, but then again, all of the people you’re asking encounter or work with tourists on a regular basis. The older generation staying at home or working elsewhere might have a different perspective… as elderly are wont to do. But it’s cool to see that everyone in the tourist areas is so practical about the rise in tourism.

    The infiltration of foreign-owned and -oriented businesses is what’s a real shame. It frustrates me to see people travel to the other side of the world, just to hide out in foreigner enclaves slurping smoothie bowls, eating pizzas, and drinking cappuccinos day in and day out. There’s no shame in a bit of variation, especially if you’ve been traveling for a while, but when it starts to eradicate other, more local, businesses….

  14. noel says:

    Very Interesting, I think basically it’s the cost of doing business and the foreign dollar that makes the locals accept this way of life. In any case it really is two different worlds and typically there’s not to much interaction outside of the tourist trade.

  15. Jen Joslin says:

    This was such an interesting read Chantae, and loving these thoughtful comments too. This is a tough topic to tackle, and there isn’t necessarily a ‘right’ answer to what’s happening. I like that you brought in multiple perspectives from people you met. It’s interesting that the locals are generally okay with the increased tourism and the behaviors of those tourists. It sounds like they have a ‘live and let live’ mentality, and many locals will continue to value and live their way while tourist are free to do the things they want to do too. Seeing if the two different worlds can continue to coexist as tourism no doubt increases will be another story. Sounds like you visited at a good time!

  16. Vrithi Pushkar says:

    Such an interesting post! I had never heard of Kutta. It is sad sometimes that tourism changes everything about a place but hey that’s their bread and butter. I have a personal experience as I come from a small touristy town in south India and tourism has completely changed its face. We cry about it but all of us depend on tourists to make money. But with the country being Muslim and tourist coming there to surf. It’s really interesting.

  17. Sanket D. says:

    Interesting to read this in a time where intolerance is so commonplace. I’d love to know if the two communities actually manage to co-exist without too much effort. Did you finally find out?

  18. Such an interesting read, and the detail is fascinating. It’s true that as cultures come together that they are clashing, and I get the sense that there was something underlying here that perhaps has not yet surfaced. Perhaps it never will. I do believe we all have a responsibility to respect home cultures which sometimes I see tourists not doing. It is such a hard balance!

  19. Elena says:

    The impact of tourism on local way of life is a tough topic. I appreciate that you touched this subject. Too often, visitors simply do not care. However, it would be unrealistic to find an answer that easy. What I mean, is that there are many different aspects ranging from cultural differences and ethical questions to business relationships and economic impact. Moreover, there is a philosophical side to it too. Asking a set of straightforward questions couldn’t (and shouldn’t) be taken as a measurement of such a complicated process. Also, in some cases, a quick-witted interviewee would prefer to provide a narrative that pleases interviewer instead of honest, thoughtful opinion.
    Elena recently posted…Balik Pulau Street Art: A Tiny World Hidden In A Narrow AlleyMy Profile

  20. Cat says:

    Thanks for the great article! I was just in Lombok a few months ago, but didn’t travel south to Kuta (we were staying in the North where all the resorts are) – so it’s interesting to read about your interactions with the locals and their thoughts on foreign tourists. As a foreigner who had lived in a Muslim country for 10 years (I used to live in Penang, Malaysia), I can see how Muslims live harmoniously with the tourists – the younger generation sees it as an opportunity to be in contact with foreign cultures, and older generation sees it as business opportunities. But as you mentioned in the article, with the economic impact (land development and such), will the island still belong to the people of Lombok? That’s a question worth thinking.

  21. Megan Jerrard says:

    Sorry to hear about your run in with the local shop keeper at the end – I haven’t traveled to Lombok before, but I would happily believe that the general consensus is that the locals live harmoniously with the tourist population – yes, they’re probably generally rowdy and practice ways of life which are outside of Islamic beliefs, but Islam is a very tolerant religion (as opposed to what the media would have us think), and the majority of Muslims I have met have been very accepting of the way that other people live.

    I think you’re going to run into issues of animosity in any country with some people if there’s a culture clash – no destination is rid of it, these people exist in every culture. And I also think that yes, the elders probably have less tolerant views than the next generation, but that’s everywhere to, and I think is natural and to be expected.

    When it comes down to it, I think the current generation has probably realized that the tourist trade provides their income, so tolerance or not, if you’re not willing to embrace it it would be a lot harder to live.

    Thanks for the though provoking article

  22. Indrani says:

    I like how the locals are open minded about accepting tourists and teaching them even though they have different dress.
    It is sad however that developments are taking place to increase tourism, I just hope nature isn’t disturbed too much.

  23. Francesca says:

    Even though you did go in with a few preconcieved ideas about how locals would feel and their responses, I have to say that I respect the fact that you even bothered to ask them in the first place. So many people travel with their assumtions and never bother to sit down and actually have a conversation with the people that live there. Getting an inside scoop on a place is one of my favorite things about travel!

    It’s too bad that foreign developers are coming in and buying up property. The quote where the man said “Lombok is not going to belong to the people from Lombok much longer.” made me a bit sad. Hopefully they’ll be able to walk that fine line so locals can still benefit from the changes in their economy and culture.
    Francesca recently posted…7 Easy Ways to Afford Study Abroad – Even If You’re Broke!My Profile

  24. Anette says:

    Great article Chantae, I really enjoyed it and am looking forward to reading more of your travel musings. Had to laugh at ‘Mr. Mushroom’ – ha! x

  25. Nisha says:

    I guess at the back of it all is the money that comes in and that sort of dilutes whatever culture they’d been practicing. I also think the misunderstandings and fights breakout because of difference of opinion and one trying to enter anothers realm. This is true all over the world (emphasis on world) .
    I personally think that Indonesians are far more progressive in their thinking.

  26. Joanna says:

    It’s actually very sad to hear the impact tourism has had over this Indonesian island. I have visited Malaysia a few years ago and I chose to go to the Perhentian Islands. I found a totally different scene that what you have experienced in Lombok. It was true I was there at the end of the season but nowhere on the island alcohol was sold and the tourists seemed to respect the local way of life.
    Joanna recently posted…Seeing the world from the top of Puy de DômeMy Profile

  27. Bhushavali says:

    Interesting read! I can relate to this to some extent. Being from India which has throngs for western tourists, sometimes situation does get weird, esp when it comes to clothing and currency conversion. Esp like the carpenter said, some places here like Goa, don’t belong to Indians anymore. Yes, its good and bad!!!
    Bhushavali recently posted…Hampi – Achyuta Raya & Varaha Temple (Ballari – Karntaka)My Profile

  28. I didnt even know about Lombok. Hope tourism helps the place positively. It is really nice to know how a small place like Kuta with major muslim population is so open and warm to tourists. 🙂

  29. It was very interesting to read about the clash of cultures in Lombok. I experienced this on a slight level in Morocco, but I feel tourists in Morocco are less different from the locals because I was not in any beachy areas. I think it’s great that you spoke to so many Indonesians to get their perspective on things.
    Stella the Travelerette recently posted…A Perfect Travel Itinerary for Hiroshima, JapanMy Profile

  30. blair villanueva says:

    Great post! We live in different culture and us tourists have to respect the local values, traditions and cultures. Its not because they don’t want to leave tourists thats why they are acting shy or reserve. Western tourists or non-Asians must understand that this is the way Asians do. Our reservations are inborn, we are are naturally timid, and always set boundaries.

    Sometimes it hard to touch that area. Asians including Muslims are delicate. Constant observation of respect is very important.

  31. Amazing photos and what a place! The culture differences seem so huge though! It’s a bit sad that in such beautiful places, it’s so difficult to interact with the locals. I experienced that in Thailand and it wasn’t too nice. I hope, with time, it will change and all people will have respect to one another and not judge others because of their religion etc…

  32. Suruchi says:

    It is such an interesting read and a perfect example of culture clashes. The locals might not be happy with the tourist culture but they have accepted it because of the cash flow. The carpenter really made an interesting statement this land doesn’t belong to locals now and I could witness the same in Koh Phi Phi Island, Thailand.
    Suruchi recently posted…Review of Monal Tourist Home UttarkashiMy Profile

  33. Miriam Ernst says:

    I loved reading your post I thought it was very interesting. This is really cool that you don’t hesitate to talk to locals, ask them your questions because it’s how one can really learn about a culture, I’m sorry for your bad experience (the guy yelling at you threatening you) it must have been frightening!
    Miriam Ernst recently posted…Fashion Trends SS2017My Profile

  34. Mike McLeish says:

    This is a really interesting article. I’ve lived in Malaysia for 6months in total, and at first, it seemed that all religions got on well with one another.

    However, the more time I spent there, the more it became apparent that this was not the case.

    I’m not sure if it was because people began to let their guard down around me or if I became more aware of people’s actions.

    I also find it hard to believe that there is not a little tension in Lombok, but like you said maybe we’re looking for something that’s not there. I’m a little confused too!

  35. Great article. It is interesting to read about the locals perspective on bikini clad tourists. Mr. Mushroom sounded creepy. Good to know that there is harmony and tolerance. Lovely photos, btw!
    Siddharth and Shruti recently posted…Xi’an Food TourMy Profile

  36. Julianne says:

    I expected lurid tales and instead found myself captivated by your story the whole way through. Wow. So much to think about after reading your post. Can’t wait to read more of your posts.

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