The last time I visited Bali was so long ago that it was getting less than 1/10 the amount of visitors it does now. The Indonesian island has become a digital nomad hotspot though, a prime choice for many who want to live abroad. Here’s a guest post from a reader who started traveling the world after reading one of my books. Take it away Victor Maxwell!
Although Mount Agung has been erupting now and then, scaring some tourists away from the island, the tens of thousands of expats who call Bali home have good reasons for staying. Bali offers a rare blend of great cultural and dining options, tropical scenery, friendly locals, interesting expats, and cheap prices that is hard to match. All that comes with an extra something that many call the “Bali magic.”
Island of the Gods
While Aussies can be in Bali in a few hours, and think of Kuta the way north Americans do Cancun, if you’re from the USA, Bali is just about as far as it can be and still be on the planet. Is it worth the thirty hours it takes to get there? There is definitely something not just exotic, but otherworldly about this place they call “the island of the gods,” and you just have to look a little past the clubs and traffic jams of South Bali to find it. Most of the island is still largely left alone by tourists, and a few places have a unique blend of Balinese and Western cultures that make them both otherworldly and very homey.
Part of the reason Bali might quickly feel like home is the profound welcome you’ll receive from the Balinese people. Even in tourist areas, the Balinese are warm and gently friendly. Many seem to feel it their duty to make everyone feel at home. They often attribute this to their religious beliefs; as Balinese Hindus, the majority believe “I am you” and act accordingly. Local people take their religion very seriously and spend a lot of time on religious offerings and ceremonies. The island is perfumed with incense, and you see (and step on) floral offerings everywhere, including all over the sidewalks. With a temple in every village and one in every family compound, much of the island has a spiritual vibe infusing its natural beauty, but the Balinese don’t hold visitors and expats to their standards of piety. This tolerance doesn’t extend to fully embracing the LGBTQ community, but the gay people from other Indonesia islands who frequently move to the largest city of Denpasar or Seminyak, a touristic beach town with a small but visible gay scene, find life much better on Bali, and many gay tourists enjoy visiting the island.
Living in the Ubud Region
Perhaps the best place to experience the deeper layers of Bali and still have a solid community of retirees, expats, and location independent workers, is Ubud. It is a place that is still very traditionally Balinese, but offers a great mix of East and West on a basic budget of under $1,000 month for a single person or $1,500 for a couple. This growing inland spiritual and creative heart of Bali surrounded by rice terraces had a history of welcoming foreigners long before Elizabeth Gilbert ate, prayed, and loved there, and continues to offer a wide variety of experiences to visitors and residents.
The Balinese arts, especially the hypnotically stylized traditional dancing with a gamelan orchestra are rooted in religion and viewed as an an offering. Most of the islanders, and especially those from the villages around Ubud, have studied and practiced an art, and the best perform at the major temples of Ubud nightly. You can relax on pillows at the swank Lotus cafe and watch performance of Kecak dancing at the Saraswati temple across the lotus pond. Visitors are also welcome at all the temples and holy sites: many even take a purifying dip at the Spring Temple or climb the holy Mount Agung or the less challenging Mount Batur, and when you make Balinese friends, they will probably invite you to their temple for a ceremony.
For more new age ceremony and dancing, you can check out the very popular weekly ecstatic dance on Friday nights at Yoga Barn where a DJ/meditation leader gets over a hundred open-minded types from 18 to 70 to drop their self-consciousness and move like no one’s watching. Or experience Mayan chocolate ecstasy at a cacao ceremony.
Those looking for more mainstream entertainment, can head to movie night at Paradiso, lounging on sexy, low couches while eating amazing vegan food ( including, of course, organic popcorn) from the adjacent Earth Cafe while watching documentaries and other films from around the world.
Other Balinese Areas for Long-term Stays
If you need to live and work near the beach, Canggu, just north of the crowds of Kuta and the more urban vibe of Seminyak, is emerging as the place to be for digital nomads, with co-working spaces popping up and a very hip young crowd drinking coconut milk lattes and eating in some great new restaurants that cater to them. The vibe feels a little protective if you have any doubts about your youth or hipster credentials, but Canggu has plenty of yoga, a small but emerging party scene in Echo Beach, and the chance to surf and sun on the beach.
Some expats have also made their way down to the island’s stunning southern tip, the Bukit Peninsula, previously well-known only to intrepid surfers who scramble down the dramatic cliffs for some of the world’s biggest waves. A few have chosen to live in traditional villages in North or East Bali, but the communal nature of village life requires a good deal of sensitivity to, and even love for, the Balinese customs, which revolve around temple ceremonies and family gatherings.
Visa Rules for Living in Bali
Many people living in Bali for a time, including digital nomads, do so on 30- or 60-day tourist visas or sometimes social/cultural visas, which require a sponsor, but can be extended for up to six months. Work visas are notoriously difficult to get; starting your own business requires a very big investment of time and money, so many people just make visa runs to Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, or Singapore, often returning the same day.
While making visa runs isn’t always convenient, shopping or doctor visits can be taken care of on the same trip. If you’re 55 or older, the government of Indonesia is a bit more Balinese in its welcome. As long as you can show retirement income of $18,000 US per year, you can live in Bali if you agree to hire a maid or butler (less than $300/month) and live in a place that costs at least $500/month.
Places to Rent in Bali
Although many traditional Balinese homes are rather basic, the architecture of Bali is distinctive and quite beautiful. The aesthetic is rooted in spirituality, and there is a temple vibe to many traditional Balinese homes, many of which are room-sized buildings grouped inside a walled compound with a family temple. Their structure reflects the way the spiritual world is ordered, and the result is quite beautiful and peaceful. The bedrooms are inside, but the kitchens and dining areas are often open-air, and sometimes even the bathrooms are partly open-air.
Traditional homes use a great deal of beautiful tropical hardwoods, and the increasingly common Western-style villas use stucco over concrete, often with elements of wood and bamboo incorporating the spa-like tranquility of Balinese architecture. Both types are often placed in a rice field, a lush, jungly area, or in their own walled gardens, so that there is a sense of peace and quiet, even inside the relatively bustling center of Ubud. A budget room with a private bath in a “home stay,” inside a compound, starts at around $12/night including breakfast. A two-bedroom villa with a small plunge pool averages about $700/month.
Healing in Paradise
While Indonesia is by no means a medical tourism destination, and many Bali expats still fly to Bangkok or Singapore for Western-style medicine, a growing number of visitors and long-term visitors do spend time in the Ubud region to heal in more spiritual and holistic ways, and the array of options comes at a price that is a fraction of the price at home. For starters, there are some really good massages to be had for under $5 an hour, and for a little more you can have it done at a fancy spa. Traditional Balinese medicine people, called ” Balians,” use trance states to unlock spiritual energies and induce healing. Most will happily see Westerners. A big number of Western healers in a range of traditions—life coaches, astrologers, shamen etc.—have been drawn to the island and practice their forms of healing.
Being a Hindu island, Bali is a natural place to learn or practice yoga at beautiful, well-equipped studios like Yoga Barn as well as explore more esoteric Hindu practices like he Ayurvedic cleanses and colonics. The well-heeled pay as much as $180 a day for instructions to fast on clarified butter for a detox which includes consultations. Alternatively, you could learn yoga and meditation with Balinese high priest and yoga master Ngurah Sudarma for a fraction of the price of the big classes at expat-run yoga businesses which thrive in Ubud. He teaches in a small, pleasant studio attached to Sang Spa, a nice mid-range sauna group he owns with his wife, Asti.
People seeking recovery from addictions have discovered Bali’s healing energy, and there is a burgeoning recovery community and business. For those looking to get clean and sober in paradise, Kembali Recovery Center’s 28-day program with staff from Canada, the US, the UK, and Australia gets raves and costs far less than a week at home might cost; there are a handful of other centers that are well-regarded. Those who are into healthy living, yoga, and living on a higher plane consider this one of the best places to live in the world.
Working and Co-working in Bali
If you get around to working, there are some great co-working spaces. According to Alex, creator/editor of Homegrounds, a popular blog about coffee while traveling, young location indies can usually be found where there are great co-working spaces. There, location indies can find not just high speed internet, but also colleagues, conversation, and even inspiration, and all on their own terms and timetable. Alex’s Amazon Affiliate business makes him money while he sips coffee in cool Canggu cafes like Canteen, which are for him probably a tax write-off. For those whose online business or freelance work pays pays in dollars or Euros, small income streams make a big difference on Bali. One of the most justifiably well-regarded around Southeast Asia co-working spaces is Hubud (hub in Ubud), a tropically-styled bamboo place with lightning fast internet, and more are on the way.
For your own internet, 3G and often 4G SIM connections are cheap with pretty good coverage. Cards with 4GB of data loaded cost less than $10. You can generally expect 1 mbps to 15 mbps download speed. Not terrific, but better than it was just a few years ago. Faster home connections are more common, but far from universal and take a long time to install. Do a speed test while you’re checking out places to live if you’re going to work there.
Although the term Bali Belly usually refers to the traveler’s diarrhea that many travelers experience, the reality is that after spending some time on island you’ll probably be closer to a six-pack abs than you’ve been in awhile, and it won’t be from starving. Whether or not you’re healthy when you come to Bali, it will feel easy to get and stay healthier on the island. The year-round warm temperatures and access to aquatic activities make it easy and pleasant to get lots of exercise, and the fresh food grown on traditional farms in the rich, volcanic soil help a lot, too. Bali is rapidly becoming a food destination, with over 570 restaurants featuring many of the world’s cuisine around Ubud alone and plenty of hip and local places in popular beach towns like Seminyak.
The local Indonesian cuisine, though less famous than Thai, is very tasty, and not all of it is spicy. Peanuts, tempeh, and a delicious blend of spices give it a unique flavor. Standard simple meals are nasi goreng (fried rice) and nasi campur (a kind of sampler of rice served with a variety of meats and vegetable dishes). These can be a dollar or two where locals eat. Padang-style restaurants allow you to point at the delicious meat and vegetable dishes you like from a white-curtained buffet, and the bill will rarely top $3, even if your eyes are bigger than your stomach. (Some people prefer to only eat at these places for lunch, as the unrefrigerated food will likely be fresher.)
The reality for many expats and long-term visitors abroad, though, is that sometimes a daily diet of very unfamiliar flavors paradoxically gets tiring. Even an inventive cuisine like Indonesian can turn into an awful lot of the same local fried rice plate. (Ask a Central American transplant about black beans.) And it’s not just a matter of taste, but often of health. While people have different ideas of what makes for healthy eating, almost everyone agrees that it involves eating a lot of fresh vegetables. In many countries, this is not a norm, and it can be tough to get big vegetable portions in restaurants, even in Western Europe. In Asia, vegetables are often treated like a flavoring for the heaps of white rice or noodles that start most plates of local food.
In Bali, though, especially in Ubud, the health-conscious types have shaped the expat and tourist food, often to great effect. Organically-grown vegetables abound and the offerings at many restaurants geared for tourists and expats are reminiscent of the best of Berkeley at a fraction of the price. If you’re a vegan, a raw foodist, a vegetarian, pescetarian, or flexitarian, you’ll be delighted at the freshness of the abundant organic veggies brought the 20 miles to Ubud daily. Kafe offers burgers and fries in addition to more plant-based options. A fresh tuna steak over an organically grown green salad is under $6. For that money you could also get a nice all-you-can-eat vegetarian buffet at Taksu Spa.
Balinese Cuisine Choices and Coffee
Much of food in the expat- inhabited areas falls somewhere in the middle, much more yogi than paleo despite lots of free range chicken. Beef, often imported from New Zealand, is pricier.
Seminyak’s restaurants tend to be more expensive than their Ubud equivalents, but still a lot less than you’d pay at home. Many expats don’t mind paying a bit more to be in a place that feels like it dropped out of hipster Los Angeles, whether it’s high-end Vietnamese street food at Saigon Street or tacos and margaritas at Motel Mexicola in a town with a gorgeous beach. While neighboring Kuta is absolutely overrun with spring-break style tourists in a way that might make living there unpleasant for all but the most diehard partiers, Seminyak has a much more livable blend At sunset there are plenty of bars on the beach. Nearby Canggu is rapidly catching up to Seminyak, but the vibe is more digital nomad or flashpacker than Aussie tourist.
Indonesian coffee is some of the world’s best due to the climate and volcanic soil of their mountains (Java, get it?). The local version, Bali Kopi, is ground very fine, mixed with hot water, and served in a glass. When it settles, it’s heavenly and strong, and costs 50-70 cents. There is a dynamic cafe scene where you can get perfect espressos and organic coconut milk lattes that will set you back $2. It’s worth a visit to one of the plantations which dot the hills up from Ubud.
Drinking and Nightlife
Although Bali isn’t a Muslim region, Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country, and that usually means alcohol is no bargain. What’s worse, if it is cheap, there’s a chance it’s a potentially lethal concoction being passed off as booze. Although rare, every year there are some serious and even fatal cases of tourists being poisoned by fake alcohol inside some of the sketchier nightclubs and bars. Stick to established places.
Expect to pay what you would at home for a local beer, like $1 each in a store and three or four times that in a bar. Cocktails can be a bit less than home but just because of labor costs: prices in the stores will be higher than you can find at Duty Free. Most beach towns have some kind of beachfront nightlife, and the clubs of Kuta can make you feel more like you’re in Southern Thailand than Bali. While many drugs might be on offer, partaking can land you in giant trouble that there’s no way out of, especially if the drug dealer is working with the police. The views are not so nice from Bali’s notorious Kerobokan Prison, and your embassy will be powerless to help.
Language in Bali
While many locals speak Balinese to each other, it’s a complicated language with a lot of variations across regions of Bali and rules of formality that are daunting to most outsiders. Nearly everyone on the island speaks Indonesian, though, as do the other 257 million Indonesians. (The 31 million Malaysians speak a variant that is mutually intelligible.) Learning Indonesian is not too difficult–there are no tones like many Asian languages, the grammar is pretty simple and straightforward, the pronunciation is easy, and it’s written in the Roman alphabet. It will take a bit of effort to memorize the words, which are mostly unrelated to European languages, though.
In areas with a lot of tourists and expats, you can get by with English, as the people are very helpful, and more and more Indonesians are learning English.
Fellow Travelers in Bali
While digital nomads tend to be younger and a bit more party-oriented, the expats who make Bali their home for a time tend to be an adventurous, well-traveled, independent lot, many of whom are pursuing a life of creativity and/or spirituality. Polly Green, a psychic medium and counselor from the US by way of New Zealand, practices shamanic healing on the island after enough adventures around the world to last her many lifetimes. She not only enjoys the vibe of Bali, but she’s studying in the local spiritual tradition with a Balinese priest, as well as writing and making documentary films about her experiences.
Beth Rosselle, a Californian freelance writer and jewelry maker who is learning to surf the world famous Bali waves, says, “Ubud is a great place to be an artist — it’s a supportive community of creative expats and locals, and it’s also a place where you can actually afford to be an artist. She’s paying $500 a month for a small villa, and about $35 to rent a motorbike (the standard, if somewhat hair-raising, mode of transport for expats and many visitors.) The tank takes a buck worth of gas. Long term leasing owners will generally knock at least 15% off if you pay upfront for a year, and many rent out their homes on sites like Airbnb to generate extra income. After years of coming to Bali, she decided to let go of her LA home and car. She earns $250-$2500 per project writing web copy and features, so she can work when she wants. She makes a little extra from Punk Sophisticate, her jewelry line.
While Bali’s charms are far from a secret, as the summer traffic will attest, the presence of so many interesting expats and digital nomads contribute a great deal to the inspiring and beautiful blend of cultures in Bali. It’s easy to find a community, and they tend to be a fascinating group. Bali is a great place to heal, relax, retire, or maybe even work a little in between those yoga classes.
Want to compare living here to other options? See a detailed post on the cheapest places to live or retire around the world.
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Victor Maxwell is a writer, theater-maker, and teacher who was inspired by Tim Leffel’s World’s Cheapest Destinations book to travel often and cheaply. With the help of lots and lots of airline mile credit card bonuses, he’s traveled to over 70 countries, most of the time spending far less than he would staying at home. Writing this article convinced him to spend much more time in Bali.