Bali Beach Gigolos Under Fire

They are muscular, dark and handsome, with shoulder-length hair, surfing skills and winning smiles. And they are readily available to the tens of thousands of single women who throng the beaches of Bali in Indonesia every year. They take their name "Kuta Cowboys" from the tawdry Kuta Beach tourist district, which teems with tourists out to have a good time – which for some includes time on the mattress, both for boys and girls.

For decades, young Balinese men have taken advantage of the louche and laid-back atmosphere to find love and lucre from female tourists – Japanese, European and Australian for the most part ‑ who by all accounts seem perfectly happy with the arrangement. But now, "Cowboys in Paradise," a film by Singaporean director Amit Virmani documents the relationships between foreign female tourists and the local gigolos, causing seeming shock and amazement among officials in Bali. Authorities appear to be astonished by something that is about as common as coconuts on Indonesia's self proclaimed "paradise island." The film has become big news recently, following a YouTube video trailer and its premier at a South Korea film festival late last year.

The reaction of the Balinese police to news of the film last week was to immediately patrol the beaches of Kuta and bring in 28 of the cowboys for questioning. Their second reaction was to announce an international hunt for Virmani, ostensibly for making the documentary without a permit to film in Bali.

"One wonders where all the Balinese officials have been for the last 30 years," wrote Thomas Hogue, a local commentator. "It does not appear that they have been on the island. Maybe they just have not ventured out in a good long while."

"We have alerted NCB-Interpol to track (Virmani) down in Singapore," a police spokesman told local media. "Every single witness we have questioned said that when Amit shot footage of them, he said it was not for the purpose of making a documentary or film. That's trickery." The police said on Friday that the director would likely be named a suspect in the next few days although on any given day hundreds of people can be seen with video cameras all over Bali, none of them with a permit.

The film, which has yet to be released commercially, was reviewed by the Jakarta Globe, whose reporter also met Virmani, who is hardly in hiding. It offers a peek into the minds of the cowboys, from lessons in how to woo women and a rather naive outlook on sexually transmitted diseases, to unusual sex tips, like tying horse hair to the tip of your penis for enhanced pleasure. The film is essentially a tale of struggle and survival with a twist: While the cowboys admit that they benefit from women financially, they refuse to be called gigolos.

Tucked in between the personal testimonies are beach scenes of tanned young men with Western women engaged in activities like playing cards and volleyball, as well as kissing and cuddling. "There's a lot of frustrated western women out there," says a European woman interviewed in the film. "I can understand why they come here searching for something and suddenly this environment provides it."

According to the men, they work on the beach. Most of them are self-taught surfing instructors, while some got their start selling cold drinks. They smile and laugh at the camera, even calling out to passing tourists. "You can come with me tonight," says one laughing man with long hair, deep muscles and sunglasses.

Virmani's film also offers the secrets of the trade when the cowboys talk about what women want. One tip is: "Shower them with attention." As one cowboy explains, "Ask them how they're doing, how their day was, what they did last night." Most important, he adds, "I make them laugh."

The interaction is not so different from male tourists seeking the pleasures of bar girls and go-go dancers throughout Asia. Starved for love back home, the tourist finds himself – and herself – suddenly desirable to a younger, sexier companion. That this comes with a price tag – implied or explicit – is just part of the deal. "I don't think they are gigolos. I think they just love women," says a young German woman on camera. "When you are here and you have a boyfriend, it's for real."

"The women pay for the food and drinks every day during their vacation," one cowboy says. "When they leave, they usually give us enough money to pay for a few months' rent."

One gigolo met during a trip to Bali – and he introduced himself using the term – explained that the tourist van he was driving and the house he lived in were bought with money provided by one of his three regular women – a German, an Australian and a Japanese. Each visits twice a year and pays him a monthly stipend, the young man explained. The man explained that it was culturally off limits for Balinese girls to sell their favors – most female prostitutes on the island are from Java, where no such prohibition applies to the sex trade ‑ but there was no restriction on the men. "It's better than growing rice," the young man laughed as he showed off pictures of his "girlfriends."

His parents, he said, knew about the arrangement and accepted it. In the film, a woman says she is married to a gigolo and accepts the arrangement. When he has guests, she says, I just don't sleep with him for a few days.

Virmani told the Globe he agrees that the boys are not gigolos, while acknowledging that this is not always clear-cut. "You can find all kinds of articles calling them gigolos," he says. "But I'm with the cowboys on this one. I see a distinction and the film does what it can to make the point. Simple reasons. They have primary jobs, usually on the beach or as tour guides or whatever. And they never charge for sex. So they're not sex workers to me. But they are part of the male sex trade in Bali for a host of other reasons. Academics and health officials have started to regard them as such. Not just the cowboys, but beach boys in different countries. They are a high-risk HIV group.

The film is not without serious moments, particularly when it discusses HIV/AIDS. Aside from having multiple sex partners, the cowboys also admit to not always using a condom. "I usually wear a condom, but sometimes when my partner and I are too drunk, we don't use it," one beach boy says. "But I'm not worried because Europeans are cleaner than Asians. They are also disciplined about medical checkups."

"Cowboys in Paradise" premiered at the DMZ Korean International Documentary Festival in South Korea last October. The film has had limited special screenings in Singapore. It is also scheduled to be part of the Melbourne International Film Festival in July. Virmani says that so far, the audience response has been "very gratifying." It has not been released in Indonesia a but if past reaction to embarrassing documentaries and films is any indication, officials in Jakarta are likely to ban it, meaning that it will circulate widely in pirated DVD form before long.

For now, Bali officialdom is continuing to fume. "This community conducts its activities in a secretive manner or through covers, like acting as a food or drink seller or providing other services on the beach," said police spokesman Gusti Ketut. "Raids will continue. If we find anyone on the beach who has no business there, we will process them."

It sounds like some embarrassed police officers even want to ban hanging out. That would really put a dent in the Bali lifestyle.