If you are laboring in the context of unrequited ambition or some pent-up dream, living in Bali can be the perfect way to address The Project, however you define it.

A tropical vacation is fun and rejuvenating, but stay in a place like Bali long enough and it just might trigger a larger sense of perspective in you. Be warned: removing much of the pressing need for income and heavy clothing under which you have been been straining for a lifetime can have ontological ramifications.

Glimpsing a less-constrained you in very different circumstances, even if only for a moment, hints at a larger, fuller life that you might otherwise have lived. It suggests a life that you might–being still alive–still live.

For me years ago, the word ‘expat’ meant being Arthur C. Clarke in Sri Lanka, Graham Greene or Hemingway in Cuba, or even Bogart in a Casablanca nightclub. I have my moments but I never feel as distinguished or well-dressed as any of those guys.

But when an old friend came to visit us in Bali recently and mentioned with just a hint of fraternal sarcasm, “Hey you’re an expat now”, it got me thinking. I bought my little base here in 2005 and have been living in Bali nearly continuously since mid-2008. Had I passed some arbitrary time requirement? What does ‘expat’ mean in 2015?

A 21st century expat in Bali or elsewhere in Southeast Asia can enjoy the exoticism of his chosen location without many of the attendant inconveniences, deprivations or even dangers endured by those iconic figures from another time. OK, so call me soft. Still, talking to friends via free Google video chat or flying inexpensively to Singapore for a visa run and authentic masala dosa is something I wouldn’t swap for doing it the way they did 50+ years ago.

Being a Bali expat is an exercise in having it both ways, sometimes almost embarrassingly so. Having said that, the frustrations and negative aspects built into expatriate life in Bali keep me from getting too smug. Today I’ll just tell you about the good stuff, the 19 best things about being a Bali expat, according to me. In no particular order:
1) Getting laundry done by a friendly Balinese family, three minutes’ walk away. They charge 15 or 20 US cents per piece, folded and neatly bundled for next-day pickup.

2) Enjoying the melting pot that is Bali. Not only do people come from all of the world for everything from short visits to making a long-term base, people come from every corner of the Indonesian archipelago for the money-making opportunities in Bali, or simply to vacation.It’s hard not to feel stimulated by the sheer variety of people here–everyone seems to show up eventually!–there’s nowhere better to see it than on the beach at sunset time.

3) Balinese umbrellas and flags. Balinese Women Balinese Umbrellas

4) At night in the rainy season, sitting at the computer surfing the planet with my cat on my lap, or just sitting in warm humidity on the balcony, listening to the late-night torrents.

5) Having time to read every single book on the “must read” list.

6) Having time for my sunset walk on the beach every day. Funny how I never have to force myself to get a nice hour and a half worth of low-intensity exercise here. I know it’s good for me but I do it because I love it. Bali Sunset-Seminyak

7) Having time to reconnect with family and friends. It’s ironic that being so far away from home without a work schedule means that you have more time to spend with people than when you are geographically closer to them. It goes without saying that you have the technology in Bali. You’ll have a connection at home and there is free Wi-Fi in most of the restaurants, which means among other things that your VoIP telephone solutions work great internationally without ever having to involve a ‘service provider’. Also, when friends and family come to Bali to visit–a surprising amount do–we get to spend hours and hours talking as we rarely seemed to back in the realm of the busy. People are more interested and interesting without a schedule and so, most likely, are you.

8) Magnificent luscious fruit. I wouldn’t want the stellar vegetables to feel left out either, and one certainly will find both elsewhere in Southeast Asia, but I’m amazed still at the variety and freshness of mangosteen, papaya, pineapple, honeydew and watermelon, several varieties of bananas and mangoes, rambutan, snake fruit, dragon fruit, durian, etc. I always have fruit at home and indulge in a half-papaya every day. Bali Fruit  

9)Taking spur-of-the-moment flights to interesting places. I start every day in Bali knowing that if I got the urge I could wake up the following morning in any one of a hundred interesting cities, watching the world come alive in Chiang Mai, Kovalam Beach in Kerala, Ho Chi Minh City, Penang, etc. etc. If you’re coming to Asia from Europe or the United States it would be difficult to see too many of the places you’ve “always wanted to visit” without taking a six-month sabbatical and aggressively connecting all the dots. Lots of people buy a backpack and do this at some point, but having a base in this region means spontaneous explorations won’t break the bank, nor even require much planning. Led by Air Asia, the availability of cheap flights has increased dramatically over the past 10 years; more competition has meant that one is no more than US $100 or $200 from destinations worthy of checking out. Most days, I do not jump on that airplane. But I can, and that has made all the difference.

10) One-hour massages priced from US$5.

11) Seeing at every turn the amazing, usually functioning blend of Balinese tradition combined with all the modern world has to offer. Balinese Ramones Fan

12) Good quality DVDs and CDs of recent film/music releases on every corner for US$1. I know that no one is getting paid but the people from whom I buy them, most of whom make less in a month than Johnny Depp slips the valet.

13) Having time for leisurely two- or three-hour meals in restaurants, depending on the conversation and who might show up. Never will there be an insinuation that you should order more or perhaps free up the table. This is not unique to Bali of course; budget travelers in the region know the Asian informality that blurs the line between eating and socializing. I’ll admit that I have sat for so long after a meal that I get hungry again and order another meal.

Well, I’m not the only one.

Since Internet access is a given at Bali restaurants, it’s easy to combine the additional dimension of working, alone or together with friends on the Project. Or not.

14) Not spending time trying to convince myself that to defer life is to live.

Get ready, here’s a heavy idea I didn’t invent: in dreams begin responsibilities.

Execute and come to a place where you are (finally) without reasons why you can’t act, today, and you will find if you are worthy of this dream of yours, and all the effort that it took to get you here in the first place.

You can fall into a deserved retirement when some arbitrary timetable finally says it’s OK, invented by people who never considered any other way.

But there are other ways.

And if you’re brave enough to decide not to defer living but to live sooner, to live today, you make an (equally) arbitrary decision which is fundamentally different because it is of you.

And if you’re brave enough to decide you deserve to pursue living as you define it, the onus will be on you to act.

I think of it as having time to pursue my projects, explore possibilities for making money online, and simply to breathe. Of course you can do these things anywhere–you can take action anywhere.

Being in Bali was a catalyst for me, a freedom metaphor. It was also a much cheaper place to test ideas than California.

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15) Losing weight with no effort. Yep, you read that right. Don’t call me if it doesn’t work for you, but the warm climate in Bali makes me less focused on food. Portion sizes at restaurants reflect a culture not obliged or intending to feed the insatiable. I also have more interesting activities on which to focus. I tend to eat to live in Bali rather than the other way around. It sounds pretentious so let me elaborate: I have no fixed schedule in Bali, so I’m without the scheduled mealtimes on which I fixated back in the salt mines, for lack of other immediate satisfactions. Engagement in activities that interest me has added up to shedding at least 40 lbs. I’m sure the walking doesn’t hurt either; out of 24 hours in the day it’s easy to make time for it.

16) Bluebird brand taxis cost no more than $1-$2 for just about everywhere I want to go. Air-conditioned, pleasant drivers who turn the meter on every single time without having to be asked.

17) No problem getting around with English, though if you’re a Bali expat you’ll pick up at least basic Bahasa Indonesia, as it’s one of the easiest languages to learn: no verb tenses, a Roman alphabet with no difficult pronunciations, etc.

18) Arriving back at my condo in the afternoon hours on a steaming hot sunny day to the pleasure of the cool air in our little place. Add the right beverage and you can go from wilted to refreshed in about 10 seconds. If I feel like getting especially decadent I can pop a DVD in and watch it during the midday heat, until 5 PM or so when it becomes much cooler and time to hit the beach for sunset.

19) Meeting interesting long-term expats, most of whom seem to have biographies worthy of a movie.

Think you’ve been around? In the market last night I run across an acquaintance in the produce section. He’s a charming fellow with a US accent in his early 60s (I guess) who has been in Bali and elsewhere in Asia for most of the last 40 years, and always looks as though he’s heading to an after party in the Hollywood hills. My understanding is that he has been a collector of Dayak art since he was a hippy, and that he’s made countless trips up rivers in Borneo in his day.

He tells me he has nearly 5,000 Facebook friends now, and very little time for anything other than keeping his active online and off-line social life organized. He allowed someone to place an ad to sell a house on his Facebook wall and to his surprise it sold very quickly; he sees this as an enormous online business opportunity–not that he particularly that needs the money-and feels like the future is wide open, full of possibilities.

I’m not sure if he has ever had a “real job” back in the United States, but no mention is made of impending retirement and Social Security compensation. He is clearly not waiting for anything. I imagine he never has. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Being a Bali expat has been an adventure in living for today without sabotaging tomorrow.

We are taught that there is a natural dichotomy between enjoying oneself and doing what it takes to pay for or even deserve that enjoyment.

At the risk of sounding like a simpleton or making anyone uncomfortable who spends time employed in a job he or she doesn’t like, let me speak plainly. This distinction is a delusion, played out on a mass scale by good people who too often don’t even question their participation in it.

Life doesn’t have to be win lotto/nose to grindstone, holiday/work, or retired/not yet retired. If one embraces today there are other ways to live! I know too many people whose lives are evidence of this not to believe it.

What about you? Have you always wanted to be a person who writes, paints, sculpts, makes furniture, designs clothes or leather goods, designs shoes, jewelry, or toys? Are you interested in being an Internet entrepreneur, making a real difference at an orphanage, being a freelance travel consultant, a wedding planner, a documentary filmmaker, or building your own home? Do you just want some time to study something new, for all the right reasons?

Redirection may be too expensive for you to consider ‘back home’, but It’s cheap enough in Bali to pursue even a vague interest, and I will bet you that it results sooner or later, directly or indirectly, into a means of paying the bills. It won’t take much.

If you have an idea for a better purpose that won’t let you go, living in Bali (or many other places in Asia) will give you time to work on your project. This means you’ll have time to step back from your life and a schedule that has turned somehow from being a comfort and an acceptable price to be paid to being a soul-killing drag, short and simple.

You can step toward a better plan of your own devising.

If you look your dream in the face, even if it’s just a vague desire for more, and tell yourself that only people with trust funds, or those somehow ‘chosen’ can escape, you’re half right. None of my friends in Bali have trust funds as far as I know, but we were in fact all chosen for something different. But here’s the secret: it was we ourselves who did the choosing.

Hey, remember the quote about the devil finding work for idle hands to do? It was handy for people who wanted you to keep your nose to the grindstone, toward an end they’d supply, that would in turn profit them. Those devils found work for you to do in return for concepts like security, and the satisfaction of small desires. Shed this ah…arrangement.

Having time to be self-directed, possibly for the first time in one’s life, is the basis for a profound transformation for many people.

Not everyone has a hole in their life which can be filled only by taking action which might seem imprudent to others. But if you do, don’t kid yourself in an effort to placate ‘others’. Your friends will cheer you on, and the other folks don’t really care that much anyway.

By the way, you don’t become a Bali expat and ‘never go back’, unless you really don’t want to. Chances are that the same flexibility that made it possible for you to live or retire in Bali in the first place will take you back to where you’re ‘from’, though you’ll probably return without the person you are now.


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273 thoughts on “The 19 Best Things About Being A Bali Expat

  1. Hi Dan, and thanks for your comment. I think there’s no substitute for legwork as far as locations and opportunities go; it will take a few days on a motorbike or in a taxi no doubt but if you’d like to circumvent agents it’s the only way. Definitely take a look around in Ubud and surrounding areas– you’ll find plenty of kindred spirits there!

  2. Hi Katie and thanks for your comment– yeah I’ve heard the horror stories too. Here’s what I’d suggest: Google for Bali forums online and ask around because in this case it’s imperative to have up to date info. The last time I heard it was sill not possible to bring dogs or cats into Bali at all, but it’s possible the rules have changed.

    As far as schools go, from what I hear there are certainly great schools in Bali. The Green school is one, and I’ve also heard good things about the Australian School and the Montessori Academy here. My friend in Ubud sends his son to the Gandhi School outside of Ubud and he loves it.

    I hope that helps Katie, good luck, and if you have a minute I’d love to know what you find out about the pet question.

  3. Hi I enjoyed your thoughts and philosophy about living in Bali. I work in a stressful job in a cold Northern town in England and dream of upping sticks and moving out to Bali. I am a qualified nurse which I guess would give me an income. Anyone out there got any hints or tips for my potential future?

  4. Hi Joy, thanks for the kind words.

    You could start by contacting Bali International Medical Center (BIMC) and Siloam Hospital here in Bali to get an idea how they bring foreign staff on. If you do that please drop me a line, I’d love to know how that works.

    What I have seen here is that it’s possible to come with some savings and basically buy some time to discover/create the next phase of you life. It may sound laughably, horribly impractical to some but it costs very little to live well here, and if you’ve had a desire to test a new direction and you bring some motivation, several months is probably enough time to get going.

    As a nurse you’re starting with far more marketable skills than many people I have seen come and make new lives for themselves in Bali.

    You might also take a look at a couple of articles I’ve written on the topic of making money online: Good ways to make money online in 2015 and Making Money Online with few tech skills. Legions of ‘digital nomads’ wandering Asia (and the rest of the world frankly) prove that it is a viable lifestyle for many, and not just the young and irresponsible either!

    Good luck and let me know how it goes Joy.

  5. Hey There Tom,
    Coming to just outside Ubud on 01/08/15. Staying for a month and looking to enjoy all that Bali has to offer. I’ll be coming to regain my creative muse. Where are the places to go for that? Where do the other expats hang out?

    Kevin K

  6. Hi there Kevin– well honestly if you’re going to Ubud and looking for other creative expats, don’t worry because you’ll have a hard time avoiding them! There’s plenty of tourism in Ubud but so many visitors who stay for a longer time too.

    One of my favorites places in Ubud is Delicious Onion, run by my old buddy Mark. Lots of travelers, digital nomads, expats and artists. Terrific food and lots of events at night too. Right near Monkey Forest Rd. and a great place to start. Mark knows everyone and can point you in lots more directions in Ubud than I can. Don’t miss it.

    You’ll find a huge concentration of digital expats/creative types at Hubud, right up from the monkeys on Monkey Forest Rd. Also for example Yoga Barn is a place to start.

    Very easy to meet people in Bali Kevin, it’s a social scene and you’ll love it. Good luck Kevin.

  7. Hey Tom , I have recently finished massage school in Merritt Island Fl. I am excited about learning how to transition to becoming a expat. I would like some info on who to talk to or send a resume and how to set up a small place to live. Or to room with someone I can trust until I get my own place. I feel my heart and soul says Bali is the place I need to be to grow spiritually. Please tell me this is very much possible.
    Thanks so much, Jeannette
    Aka Jenny Hope

  8. Hi Tom
    My husband and I are planning to enjoy the ex pat experience from December 2015. Only concern is I am in my late 60s, my husband early 70s. What is it like for people in their senior years. We are in relative good health but need to know about medical services.

  9. Hi Tom,

    Very interesting read! I am hopefully moving to Bali for at least 6month for an internship. Do you have any recommendation for budget accommodation and potential ways of making money in Bali? I am 23, a student so will be having to support myself and the internship is unpaid.


  10. This was really reassuring for me to read. I am in a transition-place after being in Manhattan for 7 years. I at least have partial location independence for a few months and then looking to take ‘the plunge’ and focus on entrepreneurial endeavors and base myself out of Asia somewhere. Bali seems like a really good option… and I was concerned about connectivity (wifi) but seems ok? How easy is it to meet people out there for a 30-something woman?

  11. Hi Abby and thanks for your comment.

    Anyone who’s been to both places would probably agree it’s much easier to meet people in Bali than Manhattan! : ) Seriously though, it couldn’t be easier to meet people of all ages, and long-term westerners are here not in the hundreds but the thousands. All age groups well-represented.

    More importantly maybe, you’ll find like-minded people with similar interests and priorities, especially if you’re reassessing.

    Device-wise, I have a 1.5 GB data plan for US$4 a month; you’re as connected as you want to be. Virtually all restaurants have free wifi that’s certainly fast enough to use for your digital nomad/digital expat activities.

    One more thing: I see some people ‘plunging’ but few if any who have ‘moved’ in the way expats did decades ago. It’s easy to keep a foothold in two (or more) parts of the world and most people do that. Flying is so easy and cheap today that paying for a base–esp. in a time of personal transition–isn’t necessarily the way to go.

    Good luck Abby. —Tom

  12. Hello Tom, I have just finished reading the 19 reasons to live in Bali, beautiful reading , it made my heart soar. I have been constantly searching all websites and information regarding retiring to Ubud with my husband, always some what if? fears. We are in Australia and have viisted so many times, thinking of maybe staying 6-12 mths first? We have a 7 year old dog, from what I can understand she would get in but not out again without months & months of quarantine. Any thoughts on this? Also where are the best sites for long term leases or properties for sale. Someone mentioned Sanur was very good value ?

  13. Hi Tom,
    I’m thinking of applying for a long term visa to go live in Bali. I have an old classic car, do you know if it’s possible to bring my car along with me?

  14. Hi Dan,

    it is so reassuring to read this. I am planning to move to Bali (Ubud) in the near future. I lost my 25 year old daughter suddenly last year and ran to Bali about 6 weeks later and received the comfort I seriously needed. All I can think of is going back to stay. My concerns with leaving Melbourne is that I will be leaving my 29 year old son and ? my 13 year old cat. You did mention that you have a cat…..and I would like to know the difficulties involved with bringing a cat to Bali?

    Kind Regards,


  15. Thanks so much for this list. I’m an entertainment and media exec in NYC and want a radical life change, burned out by the city and the corporate rat race. Bali seemed like a great place to figure out next steps, despite my never having visited there. Your piece, particularly #14, tipped the scales. I quit my career, am packing my bags, and hope to be on the ground by May 1 2015 for a year stay! Thanks for this piece, can honestly say it really influenced and informed a major life decision for me.

  16. Hi Lynne– thanks for sharing your story and I’m sorry about your daughter….glad to hear Bali can provide you some of what you need. I’m afraid I can’t give you good news regarding bringing animals to Bali Lynne. As I understand it, no cats or dogs are allowed in. Do dig around online, it won’t be easy but if you can find someone in a position of authority to speak with I’m afraid they’ll tell you it’s not possible, but you never know.

    Another place to check is pets shops in Bali or maybe Jakarta. I suspect pet stores bring animals into Bali one way or another and maybe you can find someone to give you advice. Please let me know if you find a method; I’d be very curious to know.

    Our cat was born on the side of the road here in Bali–must have really stellar karma this guy, the way he’s pampered now–otherwise we’d be without a pet. It’s really too bad, I certainly know how animals become family.

    Good luck to you there Lynne.

  17. Hi Chuck– I know people bring cars in but I think the customs fee could be substantial. I would look for an agent in Bali (or Jakarta, may be cheaper?) who handles this, and I’d also check with people who have actually done it. I’d be afraid of unplanned-for charges in customs, after the car is offloaded, but with some planning it might not be prohibitively expensive. Good luck there Chuck.

  18. It’s possible Jeanette, for proof you need look no further than the thousands of people who have done it, with no two stories being alike.

    Come and bring you and your story to Bali, there’s room.

  19. Bali is an excellent place for retirees–imo the sweet spot for low prices and amenities/infrastructure in all of SE Asia, especially if you want to be near a beach–but you’ll want to do some planning as to insurance to make sure you’re covered.

    If not, you can get expat insurance, which often includes provisions for evacuation to hospitals in Singapore or elsewhere. It won’t be cheap. For minor problems places like BIMC, Siloam, Kasih Ibu are good options in Bali.

    My opinion is that it’s easier to build a healthier lifestyle in Bali than many places in the West, that should be factored in too. Good luck Kerry.

  20. Hi Leona, and thanks for the kind words.

    I just answered another reader’s comment about bringing pets in, unfortunately it’s actually difficult and maybe impossible to bring in dogs and cats into Bali. I’d suggest calling pet shops in Bali and maybe Jakarta to see what the latest rules are, and if they have any suggestions….

    As far as areas to live it’s really about your own preference. Expats are all over the south end of the island and Ubud, as you know. Sanur is very popular, less busy than the west side of the island. Seminyak is pretty crowded nowadays but it has amenities/infrastructure on par with lots of cities in the West. It’s worth taking your time and driving around, from Legian all the way up to Canggu and beyond if you want to be near the beach. Ubud is good because you can choose just how far you’d like to be from (semi-)civilization, and prices are probably lower, being further from the beach. I’ve always though I could easily live outside of Ubud, it’s nice!

    Best of luck to you Leona!

  21. Hi Eric– it’s comments like yours that make it hard to stop writing for this site. Thanks very much, I’m flattered.

    When the forces of inertia get overwhelmed by our dissatisfaction we know what to do. I guess it’s easier to resist the dissatisfaction than it is to fight the inertia.

    Wage freedom Eric. In the end there’s really little to lose. But at least for a while we can live, man.

  22. Done! Got social visa today and booked my one way ticket to Bali from NYC! Nerve-wracking and exhilarating at the same time. Will arrive May 2, will look to rent a villa upon arrival and set up shop for a full 12 months. Maybe we can connect for a beer and swap notes sometime. Thanks again for such an influential piece.

  23. Hi Tom, my husband and I arrived yesterday in Ubud for our third visit to Bali from California. We decided to leave the rat-race in the U.S. and we sold our house in Santa Barbara two months ago, retired and set off to S.E.Asia to look for a new home.
    Just spent only two weeks in Vietnam and crossed that off the list and arrived in Ubud last night. It felt like coming home to us!
    We’s like to rent a small house for about three months to see how we feel about being here on a semi- permanent basis but it seems like the visa issue is a problem.
    Do you suggest paying someone to help us or can we do it alone?
    Also where would you suggest looking for house rentals in Ubud?
    Thanks for your help Tom.
    Sonia Harris

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