Life

'Kuta Cowboys' strutting
their stuff for lovelorn
visitors

Claire Harvey, Contributor, Denpasar

When night falls over Bali, the bule-hunters come out in search of prey.

Flicking their long hair and displaying their pumped-up chests, the handsome young men swagger along the crowded streets and lean with studied nonchalance against the bars of Kuta's seedy dusk.

""Do you like me?"" one says suggestively to a young Western woman walking past. ""Hello darling,"" leers another, ""want gigolo?""

These glossy-skinned boys of the Balinese night take pride in the name.

Their seduction routines might not be particularly sophisticated, and most look like they have just stepped out of a early 1980s soft-porn flick, but they take their work -- and their paypackets -- seriously.

""Kuta cowboys"", they are called by the tourists. The gigolos call themselves Pemburu-Bule or ""whitey-hunters"", but in fact the key targets, and the biggest spenders, are wealthy Japanese women.

""The Japanese ladies, they love Balinese men,"" says ""Donny"", a 25-year-old man who has worked the streets of Kuta for six months.

""The first woman who took me back to her hotel, she said Japanese men were not sensitive, not caring. She comes to Bali every year for the Balinese boys.""

Donny, who spoke to The Jakarta Post on the condition of anonymity, works three or four nights a week and earns enough to live comfortably. He has bought his own motorcycle and his neck sparkles with expensive-looking jewellery, although he still lives with his parents in a village two hours from Denpasar.

Donny divides his time between the Kuta beach-front and the ritzy bars which cater to big-spending tourists. Sometimes women approach him, but he says more often he has to do the asking.

""If I see a Japanese woman come in by herself, or two Japanese women, and they are looking around, you know, at the men, I will go and sit with them and start talking,"" Donny says.

""It's very quick to tell if they are interested.""

Sex tourism is nothing new in Southeast Asia. Bored-looking bar girls, some very young, perch on stools in every flashy establishment in Bali and clamor for the attention of Western and Japanese men. They strike up conversations with any man who approaches, laughing flirtatiously at every remark and leading their prey to the dance floor for a seductive shimmy.

The male sex workers employ a different routine.

Instead of coy giggling and flirting, their manner is cocksure, even arrogant. Chests flung forward and shirts unbuttoned to display their rippling pectorals, they stroll up to a likely customer and give a knowing smile.

American writer Denise Dowling, who has researched the ""Kuta cowboy"" phenomenon, says it is no mystery why western women like Bali boys. The tourists are in a alcohol-lubricated holiday euphoria, and the constant offers of no-strings-attached sex with handsome young men are hard to refuse.

""The combination of heat and anonymity is a powerful aphrodisiac,"" she says, adding the atmosphere in Kuta is not so much sleazy prostitution as ""humid hedonism"".

""Agung,"" 33, has been doing this for years, but it's more of a hobby than a job, he says.

""It's fun, you know,"" he says on a quiet night at the Hard Rock Cafe, sipping a Jack Daniels' and Coke. ""I meet a nice lady, she takes me home, I get a night in a five-star hotel room and then I get paid.""

Agung is married with a young baby, and works at a tourist agency in Denpasar during the day. He earns between Rp 600,000 and Rp 800,000 for each night he sleeps with a woman, but now it is a rare event, he says. ""Maybe once a month. My wife doesn't like it.""

Some gigolos charge as much as Rp 2 million for a night with a tourist, and some cater exclusively to gay tourists. Agung sneers at that. ""I don't sleep with men,"" he says. ""Sometimes men approach me, but I wouldn't do it -- not even for money.""

At another of Kuta's expensive bars, single Japanese businesswoman ""Naoko"", 39 and her friend ""Kanako"", 42, are clinking the ice in their gin-and-tonics.

The women, both from Okinawa, have been in Bali for a week. ""I come here maybe every three years,"" Naoko says. ""In the past, when I was younger, I slept with gigolos, but not any more. It's too dangerous.""

Kanako, who is married, nods. ""Even if I wasn't married, I wouldn't do it. I'm worried about AIDS.""

Both women say there are vast numbers of Japanese women who come to Bali solely for sex.

""It's so common that when I tell my friends at home I'm going to Bali, they laugh at me,"" Naoko says. ""And when I walk down the street here or sit at a bar, gigolos approach me all the time -- everyone thinks, if you are a Japanese woman, you are here for the boys. If I was going to take a Balinese man back to my hotel, I'd want to be sure he wasn't doing this all the time. I'd only want someone who was really interested in me, you know?""

The Japanese government is also concerned about its women in Bali. Last month, following reports that several Japanese women had been raped or sexually harassed on the island, the Japanese consulate in Denpasar issued a travel warning and banned organized tour groups coming to Bali.

The ban doesn't seem to have dented the market, however.

Kuta taxi driver ""Hendro"" says every night he takes Japanese women back to their five-star hotels with men whom he suspects of being gigolos.

""Hendro"" should know -- he is a former gigolo who gave up the scene when he was married six years ago.

""I never told my wife. It was never a serious thing for me, just a way to earn some money. It started when I was young, I would go out in Kuta to meet foreign girls, and one night I slept with a Japanese woman. In the morning she paid me -- I was surprised but I didn't tell her that!""

Hendro says most of the men who have sex for money are happy with the term ""gigolo"".

""No, they're not embarrassed. They earn a lot of money, why should they be embarrassed about it?""

-- Claire Harvey is an Australian journalist working at The Jakarta Post as part of a Medialink fellowship, sponsored by the Australia-Indonesia institute.

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