Bali is magical. Bali is unique. Bali is exciting. Bali is beautiful.
But Bali is not paradise.
My partner and I have just finished a wonderful one-month stay in Ubud, with a side trip to Gili Air and a couple of days in Canggu on the coast of Bali.
We liked Ubud the best but the other places are well worth visiting also. This piece will give you a feel for what it’s like to visit Bali and maybe even to live here for a while.
Bali is the only Hindu-majority province of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country (240 million souls). It was a colony of Holland for much of the time from the 16th Century through to 1948, with some back and forth of control with the British Empire, and many military clashes between the Balinese and the Dutch, during that long period. Bali was part of the “Dutch East Indies” from the 19th Century onward.
Bali’s human history goes back far far longer, however. Homo erectus was the first human species to discover this area, between 1.7 and 0.7 million years ago. Yes, million. Modern humans (Home sapiens) replaced erectus populations about 45,000 years ago. Now that’s some history. It makes the four-hundred year history of Europeans in North America seem a bit shallow.
Tourism in Bali was first permitted in 1916 but really took off in the 1930s. Margaret Mead, the well-known anthropologist, stated her views about Bali as “an enchanted land of aesthetes at peace with themselves and nature,” and it hasn’t changed much since then, though the nature part of this statement is suffering from poor stewardship in some ways.
Balinese Hinduism is at the core of the Bali experience for visitors because it is at the core of Balinese life. Balinese social structure is rigid compared to Western social structure, with a caste system and pervasive religious customs, performances, rituals and holidays.
Our stay in Ubud
Ubud is a medium-size city in the center of the island known for its art, food, yoga, and relaxed lifestyle. The town was made famous by Elizabeth Gilbert’s international best seller Eat, Pray, Love, because she found love in this rice paddy town, along with a healthy dose of wisdom about how to live a good life.
We stayed at a two-unit villa a kilometer from the center of Ubud, literally nestled between rice fields. We loved it. The access “road” is actually a walking/moped path and is not wide enough for even small cars. Not far above our location the path gets even smaller such that even walkers can only fit one abreast.
The area where we stayed had many excellent restaurants and coffee/tea shops, but our favorite was the Dragonfly Village vegan and vegetarian restaurant. Gorgeous views and gorgeous food, with a friendly staff and nice quiet ambience.
We also enjoyed visiting Akasha restaurant and juice bar, with stunning bamboo architecture, 15 minutes north of town. This location is part of the New Earth Haven nonprofit group that is attempting to show how new economic and social models can improve our ailing planet. It’s well worth a visit either just for food and ambience or for a conscious dance party on Thursday or Saturday.
Dining is a dream in Ubud, whether you’re a meat-eater, pescatarian, vegan or vegetarian. Ubud is known around the world as a yoga, meditation and ecstatic dance haven, with the healthy food to accompany this lifestyle. Our problem was choosing where to eat each meal since there were so many good options. A few other favorites: Clear Cafe, Kafe, Alchemy, Atman, Yuga Warung, Sayuri.
Both Olive and I appreciate great food but we also found we appreciate it even more when it’s a really good deal. A lot of places in Ubud are very affordable. It’s not hard to find tasty entrees for $2–3 since the exchange rate right now is quite favorable (over 14,000 rupiah to the dollar for much of our visit). Even “expensive” places like Clear Cafe were $25 or so for a great dinner for two people.
As mentioned, Ubud is a yoga heaven. We tried out just two locations: the Yoga Barn and the Ubud Yoga House. Yoga Barn is a massive and beautiful complex of buildings located back from the main street in the center of town. They have tons of yoga classes, meditations, and also amazing ecstatic dances on Friday night and Sunday morning.
Be warned: it’s a scene, very popular, and you’ll need to get there early to get a ticket! For ecstatic dances you can buy an online pass that allows you to sign up for each dance online and thus avoid waiting in line or risk not getting a ticket at all.
The Yoga House is a smaller operation, five minutes walk from our villa, with two yoga shalas and just 3–4 classes each day. We loved the staff, the teachers, and the owner, and highly recommend checking this place out.
Prices for yoga are not that cheap — basically the same as US prices, at about $10 per class, with discounts for buying multiple passes.
Beyond the amazing lifestyle options for food and yoga, what makes Ubud really special is its people and its culture. And what is so special about its people and its culture flows from its Hindu art and traditions.
Besides the food, Bali is best-known for its crafts. The island is, as Mead pointed out almost a century ago, an island of “aesthetes.” Balinese handcrafts are part of the island’s DNA, as well as many other parts of Indonesia, and it is a feast for the eyes and other senses to witness the quality of craftsmanship that pervades shops, restaurants, homes and public buildings.
As with most things in Bali, the cost of quality handcrafts is surprisingly low. Some of my favorite furniture was Timorese in tradition but made in Bali. This gorgeous four-poster bed below (at a warehouse store in Ubud), all hand-carved, was the equivalent of about $1,000, probably 1/5th or less of what you would pay for this kind of quality in the U.S.
Smaller and more accessible handicrafts are also everywhere. I particularly liked the grass and wooden lampshades that are made by hand at the shops often before your eyes. Another great feature of the artisan culture is that prices for your own designs are the same as pre-made prices for equivalent products.
Religion pervades Balinese life, socially and physically — and, as far as we can tell, also mentally. It’s just a beautiful place to be because of the pervasive temples, statues and shrines, as well as the beautifully-dressed men and women attending the very common ceremonies.
Balinese will dress up trees with sacred checkered cloth (saput boleng in Balinese) and make a shrine out of a small tree next to or in a rice field, or pretty anything that looks a saput boleng could be hung around it. The Balinese make small daily offerings, including rice and/or candy in the offering, along with flowers, at these shrines and often burn incense to make their offerings more impactful.
The net effect of the pervasive Hindu culture is a gorgeous and mystical environment, whether it’s in the city, the country or the rice paddies, and a constant reminder of the vast and rich history of Hinduism in south Asia.
I had the honor of some dialogue with a yoga and spiritual teacher, Shila Badra (he goes by Ketut normally and teaches at Yoga House), and he recommends the almost universally known book, the Baghavad Gita, as a good explanation of Balinese spirituality. This book is part of the massive Indian epic, the Mahabharata, which has no historical Balinese involvement. However, Shila and other Balinese Hindus, argue that their spirituality transcends time and place, even though the Balinese version of Hinduism is remarkable for the degree to which it pervades daily life and includes so many beautiful temples and shrines.
Acintya sits atop the Balinese Hindu pantheon and is equivalent to Brahman in Indian Hinduism. Acintya/Brahman is the creator of the world and chief of all the gods. So while there is a bewildering number of gods and demons in Balinese Hinduism, all of these are but aspects of the one source of it all: Brahman. In this manner, Hinduism is as much a monotheistic religion as Christianity — think of all of the saints, angels, etc., depicted in the Christian tradition, with God the creator of all of it.
The daily offerings and prayers, as well as almost daily temple ceremonies, etc., are hard for the agnostic or atheist Western traveler to get their head around in terms of taking them literally, but whatever flavor of spirituality you prefer you will almost surely enjoy the beauty of the temples, shrines and statuary.
Ubud is beautiful and appealing for all the reasons listed; alas, it has no coastline and thus no beach. We checked out one of Bali’s beach communities, Canggu (“the Gu” for those trying to be hip), for a couple of days. It was nice, but like many beach communities it lacked the soul that Ubud has in so much abundance, mainly because it’s obviously a new community created for and by tourism.
The same can be said for Kuta and other beach communities south of Canggu — perhaps more so because the closer you get to the airport the more the massive clubs and nightlife catering to drunk Aussies and other westerners come to dominate.
Living and working in Bali
This was our first time traveling together as “digital nomads.” I’ve been a bit of a digital nomad for years now (I usually travel at least a few months each year, working as I go) but it’s Olive’s first time. As digital nomads it’s hard not to think about putting down roots in the various communities we visit. Ubud appealed in this regard and we looked into the visa and work permit issues a little on our visit. It’s possible to get a long-term visa if you get a work permit, but this costs a few thousand dollars and is not guaranteed to be renewed each year.
There are plenty of Westerners starting businesses and living in Bali and Indonesia more generally but the business investment climate seems to be getting more difficult due to political changes in the wind (Pres. Wiwodo recently proposed that all foreign companies must demonstrate that their workers attend Bahasa language classes, a move that was widely condemned by the foreign business community as anti-business).
Personally, I don’t see a problem with a nation requiring that foreign workers in that country require those workers to learn at least some of the nation’s language, even though English is used widely.
Ubud and many other Balinese cities have an increasing number of co-working spaces for traveling business people or, more generally, for the growing numbers of digital nomads who want a change of pace and have realized that they can work pretty much anywhere since their jobs are on their computers and phones anyway.
Why not live like a prince or princess in Bali while working remotely? That’s a topic for a future blog…
In sum, Bali is amazing in many ways. It’s gorgeous, has amazing and affordable food, a great climate, nice lifestyle, friendly people, and a rich and interesting culture and history. But like every place, there are some downsides, and Bali is no exception. Traffic is crazy. Air pollution is bad from scooters and cars (they have yet to pass air pollution exhaust limits like in Western countries). The political culture is arguably unfriendly to foreign investors or expats, at least to a degree.
So while it may not be the best place in the world to hang your shingle as a digital nomad, it’s well worth a visit and an extended stay.