I completed the first edition of The Practicalities of Moving to Bali five years ago in 2008 while I was living and working in Sumbawa. Most of the book was written in 2007; I updated some of the material in 2010 for a second edition. It’s almost 2014 and well past time for an update because Bali has gone through some significant changes during this time period. The traditional ceremonies remain the same but the island is rapidly developing a new identity, although what it actually is remains anyone’s guess, (some say the island is sinking under the weight of four million residents, millions of tons of concrete and millions of tons of garbage).
The southern sprawl continues to eat up villages moving outward from the original tourist/expat focus of Kuta and Legian. With the decentralization of political power that followed the fall of former President Suharto, each region of Bali is basically free to do what they want. The impotence of the governor can be see when he asks Bupatis to follow new building regulations. The local papers regularly run stories announcing that a new luxury hotel is being built in violation of these regulations.
Academics, activists, politicians and scientists call for an end to the ceaseless construction in light of an impending water crisis, but then the government proudly announces the impending construction of a new international airport on the north side of the island, which will supposedly bring prosperity to the residents of Buleleng – not to mention more traffic, more pollution and more crime.
The main street of the “cultural center” of Bali now has a Starbucks and glizty fashion designer shops. Jalan Raya Ubud, once a sleepy street filled with small locally owned restaurants and shops selling paintings, carvings and t-shirts, now is jammed with ATMs, fancy restaurants, gelato joints and Circle K’s. The famed rice fields are being plowed under to build luxury villas with a view (of the vanishing rice fields). Chi-chi raw food and vegan restaurants are filled with the New Age spiritual crowd competing to sell their quick (and expensive) fixes to existential angst. But, get back off the main drag and the Ubud that I fell in love with decades ago is still there. Even in the center of town, the homestay where I stayed on my first visit to Ubud is still there seemingly stuck inside a time warp buffeted from the winds of change that have swept through Ubud over the past 24 years.
Sleepy little Tulamben on the east coast only 20 years ago was just a day stop for divers to view the sunken shell of a Liberty ship. Today it has dozens of tourist accommodations catering primarily to diving enthusiasts. Padangbai, Amed, Candidasa, Lovina all have their tourist scenes and expat enclaves and these continue to spread like an uncontrollable virus.
But, it’s still possible to get away from the maddening crowds and find that village life goes on seemingly untouched by modernity. Well, with the exception of handphones and satellite dishes.
Life as it was 24 years ago when I first arrived here was simpler and foreigners could build businesses and lives without the red tape and hidden costs of today. However, in many ways, life has become easier for foreign residents in Bali as of 2014.
Immigration can still be a maze of regulations with individual offices interpreting governmental regulations in their own unique way, but at least those rules are now spelled out. Visas for retirees and spouses of Indonesian citizens, as well as dual citizenship for children of mixed marriages are the positive changes that we’ve see here over the recent past.
Prices rise regularly although until the last few months inflation has generally stayed relatively consistent. While the rupiah seemed to find its level at around 9,000 to one United States dollar; 2013 has seen the rupiah reach its lowest level in the past four years. Land prices may or may not be in a bubble – depends on who you talk to – but the reality is that the price of land around the island has reached the level where the average Balinese/Indonesian newlyweds will be hard pressed to be able to purchase a few hundred square meters to build a new house. Much of this crazy increase in land prices can be attributed to speculators – both foreigners and Indonesians from other islands – who plow over the rice paddies that tourists love to photograph and throw up a few luxury villas with the hopes of making outlandish profits. And there seems to be no end to new arrivals who must have a villa to live in and who have hundreds of thousands of dollars to use in their pursuit of owning a “piece of paradise.”
The lack of infrastructure development in the face of the population boom is a pressing problem that gets little more than lip service. Despite warnings of an impending water crisis, development continues unimpeded. The fact is that the water crisis is here. Around the island residents report difficulties with getting adequate water during the dry season. The regency of Buleleng this year asked residents to restrict their water use during peak periods. This is a problem that will not go away. Electricity is also an issue that will continue to worsen as the rising population consumes more electricity on a daily basis. The island has already gone through a series of rolling brownouts. New power plants are needed but no one wants them in their backyards. And, obvious to both residents and tourists, transportation woes have resulted in gridlock in the south of Bali – on a recent visit I spent an hour in traffic to go just a few hundred meters in Kuta: a similar situation exists in Ubud where expats regularly complain of the difficulty of driving short distances due to massive tourist buses clogging up the narrow roads. While the roads are generally in much better condition than they were years ago, there just aren’t enough of them to accommodate the increasing number of vehicles. The governor has recently discussed banning the importation of new vehicles to the island and requiring vehicles visiting from other islands to be registered. That most likely will be an uphill battle. Road carnage continues due to the congestion on the roads and the lack of enforcement of basic traffic regulations.
Bali’s brand name as a tourist mecca continues to draw the masses despite some negative press reviews that highlight the problems that I’ve discussed above. It’s unclear as to just why Bali seems to exert such a powerful draw on Westerners: it could be the relatively inexpensive luxury accommodations, the wealth of restaurants offering a range of international cuisines, the dream of hanging out on white sand beaches while enjoying a tropical drink, or maybe even something as simple as wanting to sample the unique offerings of Balinese culture. Take a look at this link for an interesting article on the Bali brand and make sure you pay attention to the last paragraph.
In the first edition, I suggested that potential expats needed to do their homework and move slowly before making the big move here. That advice is more relevant now than before. Expats in Bali are almost increasingly becoming perceived as wealthy, spoiled carpetbaggers. While this is obviously a stereotype, there are a few nuggets of truth there. For every dedicated expat working to improve life for the Balinese like Robin Lim with her Yayasan Bumi Sehat, there are dozens of hucksters selling New Age spirituality or trying to flog off a villa or some land for twice the price that they paid.
It’s our job as guests of this island and country to learn the laws and culture and follow them, meet our new neighbors and get to know and share knowledge and experiences. A Balinese friend of mine recently asked me quite seriously why wealthy foreigners would want to move here. And indeed this incredulity is, I believe, spreading as expats become more than just the amusing curiosities that we once were decades ago. We now compete for jobs, housing, land, hospital beds and space on the congested roads.
It’s clear that there is a growing divide between local residents and expats. Take a look at the comments inIndonesian language news sites when they cover some problem between expats and Indonesians: there’s plenty of anger about what some locals see at a sense of entitlement in the expat community. Talking to an old Balinese friend the other day who has long had dealings with the expat community, he noted that, “…things were better in the old days. Maybe we’re just getting older, but it seems that the new arrivals have no sense of wanting to integrate into the community. They see all of us as wanting to get something out of them for nothing.”
As waves of foreigners take up residence here, they appear to be increasingly ignorant of the country’s/island’s history, languages and cultures. Rather than treading lightly, the arrogance of economic power often leads us to assume that we can and should have things done our way, on our time schedule and according to our cultural rules and norms. Far too often, I hear the refrain, “let them try to do that in my country.” The thing is – we aren’t in our country and it’s we that need to adjust not the Balinese. If I was to suggest anything to help bridge the gap between the expat and Balinese communities, it would be to make it mandatory for new KITAS holders to take a class in the language, history and culture of the island. It might help to make them more aware of where they are and what’s acceptable and what isn’t.
So, looking over what I’ve written, it seems pretty negative about what’s happening on the island. And accordingly, I’m not really interested in more updates. A lot of the information – travel, internet technology, construction costs, visa regulations and procedures – changes more rapidly than ever before. I wrote in the first edition that an e-book would be more up-to-date than the traditional guide books, but that was before the explosion of social networking. The fact is that the forums and Facebook pages on Bali offer information that is often only hours old. Sure, there’s a lot of trash and a lot of misinformation on these venues, but for people interested in moving here taking the time to do the research to separate the wheat from the chaff shouldn’t be a chore. For information on visa issues the best forum that I’ve found is the Living in Indonesia Expat Forum and for information about Balinese culture the Home in Bali Forum.
What I’ve written here about the history, culture and daily life of Bali still stands, but for the rest it’s becoming outdated, and I’m just not that interested in trying to keep up with all those things. Life where I live on the island (a small kampung in Singaraja) is still pretty much the same as it was 24 years ago – we don’t have crime, we don’t have problems with foreigners moving in and upsetting the local ecology and folks just focus on raising families and getting by as they have for hundreds of years. I spend most of my time with the few kids still at home and with the next generation that’s going to need to learn about life here.
For those still interested in this book, it is now available as a free download. I hope that you find something in it to help you integrate into life on the island. For folks who bought this book, many thanks, I hope that you found it helpful.
I’ll end my final comments in this book with something a bit more upbeat. Last year I moved down to Denpasar to live with my daughter for a few months. We lived in a banjar not far from Udayana University: our neighbors were a mix of Balinese and Indonesians from other islands. I didn’t know anyone there, but I began wandering around the neighborhood everyday when my daughter was out at school. Far from the expat ghettos and tourist strips, people were invariably lovely: friendly greetings, offers to sit and chat, information on where to buy the things that I needed to equip our new house, and just the give and take of people from different cultures discovering something new. It was this that drew me here and has kept me here for all these years. That magic of Bali still survives; it’s just a little harder to find it these days.