The History of Surfing in Southeast Asia



Southeast Asia is known as one of the world’s major surfing hubs, but how did it get to be that way? Surfing didn’t always exist there, despite the killer conditions. But in a way, the sport owes its existence to the region. We can trace the roots of surfing back to Polynesia, where travelers from Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, landed tens of centuries ago.

1930s in Bali
Despite tracing its ancestry to the island-rich region, surfing, as we know it, wasn’t officially brought to Southeast Asia until the 1930s, when it was introduced to the iconic islands of Bali. During that time, surfers from the United States who had picked up the sport in Hawaii brought it with them to the Asian islands. Photographer and surfer Robert Koke opened the Kuta Beach Hotel in Bali in the 1930s and infused his establishment with the character of a Waikiki surf paradise, a major step in the sport’s introduction in Southeast Asia. This imported Hawaiian surf sensibility created an odd circle, because the Hawaiian Islands were originally founded by peoples from Southeast Asia, and the sport was now traveling back to their ancestral lands.

In spite of this relatively early introduction, the chaos of World War Two and Indonesia’s struggle for independence stunted the growth of popular surf culture. The sport did not take roots in the region until it began establishing itself as an internationally viable and recognizable sport in the 1960s, this time via reintroduction by Australian surfers.

Indonesia is the Center of Attention
Indonesia stands at the epicenter of Southeast Asian surfing, and while some visitors complain that prolific tourism has hardened popular areas into mass-appeal caricatures of westernized party culture, Indonesia remains a world renowned bucket-list surf region. The Indian Ocean boasts a famously consistent swell season from April through September. Add favorable southeast trade winds to the mix, and you have a recipe for perfect conditions.

While Indonesia serves up its share of exhilarating waves, beginners are advised to stick to areas such as Kuta, which offer plenty of year-round surf schools. Begin comparison shopping with this quick guide to Bali surf schools.

Beyond serving up surf for the waves of international visitors who now recognize Indonesia as a major destination, the country’s surf legacy is best maintained by its corps of home-grown wave shredders. The Indonesian Surfing Championship (ISC) gives native Indonesian surfers a platform for developing their skills. The Facebook page of the ISC summarizes the championship’s guiding philosophy: “Organized surfing competitions have historically been the best medium for the development of surfers and for the sport of surfing. Learning how to compete fairly and to being disciplined in training and competition key assets needed not only for surfing but also for life.”

One truth is certain: Surf culture is a great medium for connecting people, both with other cultures and with the environment. And it travels well.

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