The island of Bali, floating in aquamarine waters, its interior filled with intense green rice paddies and volcanoes, has long been an exotic dreamscape for many an expat. It’s the most visited island in all of Indonesia…and with over 17,000 islands in the archipelago, that means something.
The Balinese practice a tangled blend of Hinduism and Buddhism that is unique to the island. It enchants the senses; it’s everywhere. Gamelan music floats from the temples like a lullaby. Incense wafts from colourful offerings dotting the pavements. Women in traditional garb saunter to their temples with tall baskets of handmade offerings on their heads. The mysticism is magnetic and it is beautifully Balinese.
Expats here enjoy life’s little luxuries at a fraction of the cost. Where back home can you get a massage for $6, a maid for $11 a week or a large bag of fresh local produce for $5? Spas are part of the lifestyle. At such low prices, it would be preposterous not to contribute to such an important aspect of the culture! It’s possible to find rentals as low as a few hundred dollars a month but in the more upscale expat towns expect to pay at least $500.
Bali is only eight degrees south of the equator so you can count on most days being between 26-32 C with 75% humidity. The mountainous regions get some slightly cooler temperatures and the monsoon season is from October to April. But even the rainy season has plenty of sunny days.
I’ve travelled all over the island and without a doubt the three towns below, although vastly different, are my favorites for expat living.
1. Sanur: Laidback and Charming Beach Town Bali
Sanur was one of the first towns in Bali to see tourists but somehow it isn’t overrun by development and tourism. It was a sleepy little fishing village, often referred to as S’nore, but that reputation is long gone. Now it’s a sophisticated town with a great food scene, a laidback lifestyle and a very local feel.
Sitting on the south-eastern coast of the island and only 30 minutes from the airport, Sanur has all the Western amenities needed to make moving there an easy transition. Loads of expats are already calling Sanur home. You’ll find two major grocery stores there. Makro, the largest and most modern, is 15 minutes away by car or scooter. It’s more of a superstore and a great place to get all the housewares you need when moving to a new home; dishes, pots and pans, cleaning supplies, wine and groceries. Hardy’s, right in the heart of town, is smaller and slightly cheaper. The least expensive and freshest option is the local market which is held every morning; offering local produce, eggs, fish and chicken.
In Sanur, it is easy to be part of the local community and the Balinese are a welcoming bunch. The town itself is small enough to ride a bicycle from end to end. We heard more bike bells than car or scooter horns which just adds to the mellow and European flair of Sanur. I could picture myself riding my bike, kitted out with a big basket in front, to the market every few days to get my veg and chicken from the local ladies and then to the fishermen along the shore to see what they’ve caught.
After that it’d be hard to resist a quick stop at Stiff Chilli, an Aussie pub on the waterfront, for a cold beer and a green papaya salad loaded with shrimp and squid, mint and cilantro in a spicy lime dressing. Delicious.
I love Sanur for its laidback atmosphere but also because it still feels like the Bali of old. It’s Western enough to make life easy but Balinese enough to still feel exotic Sanur is a fascinating blend of traditional meets modern; it’s common to see men on scooters wearing the traditional sarong paired with a Ramones T-shirt and Converse on their feet.
The beach is calm, just like the rest of the town. The pale green water is bath-like and a perfect place to learn to stand up paddleboard. It’s warm, shallow and flat so if you are looking to surf, Sanur isn’t for you. It is, however, ideal for snorkelling, or learning to scuba dive because there is a reef right off shore teeming with fish and coral. A paved boardwalk that runs the entire length of the beach, over four-and-a-half kilometres, is perfect for a sunrise stroll or jog. It’s lined with dozens of restaurants, local warungs, cafés at every price point and a few larger hotels.
The food scene in Sanur is thriving. Along the boardwalk are loads of seafood warungs that serve what was caught that day and cooked in traditional Balinese flavors. But beyond seafood, there is Asian fusion at Lilla Pantai, Mexican at Jalapeno where prawn fajitas large enough for two people will set you back just $8. And Mediterranean fine dining at Three Monkeys, think miso glazed monkfish ($12) or spiced New Zealand rack of lamb ($20).
After dinner wander the streets and you’ll find all the stores open late. There are more gelato shops than bikini shops and everyone gathers on the street in front of them to chat about the day’s events. There is not a huge party scene, but there are plenty of live music and late night bars open to the wee hours of the evening. Try Linga Longa or Casablanca if you want to keep the party going.
Like the rest of Bali, Sanur has its share of spas to luxuriate in. A basic Balinese massage starts at $6 and can be found throughout town. Pay $28 a year for a “membership” at the Aussie owned Aroma Spa right on the beach in front of the Prama Hotel and you can get a myriad of luxury treatments at deep discounts.
2. Seminyak: A Beachside Shopping Haven
Seminyak is one of the most popular expat choices in Bali. There are expats from all over the globe here, many of them Aussies. It’s also only 30 minutes away from the airport but in the opposite direction of Sanur, on the south-western coast. Seminyak is a shopper’s paradise with every kind of boutique imaginable. It’s not the usual beach hawkers trying to sell you elephant pants and sarongs; its high-end bikini and clothing stores, alongside Balinese furniture, jewellery and art. Wedged in between the rows and rows of chic stores are hundreds of bars and restaurants. It’s stylish, trendy and the whole vibe is frenetic.
There are numerous beaches to choose from in the area, each catering to a different crowd from young backpackers to yachties. All are ideal for learning to surf or just to find a long fine stretch of light tan sand to lounge upon. As the sun sets, the party begins. My favourite spot is Mano Seaside where you can sit at a table or on a beanbag in the grass and watch the sky turn ruby red, prosecco in hand…
After dark, there are restaurants galore to choose from; you won’t have a hard time finding your cuisine of choice. Mouthwatering tacos… robust Italian… Spanish tapas… swanky French… you’ll never tire of all the options. Prices range a couple of bucks for a local dish at a warung to white tablecloth, five-star cuisine if you’re happy to splash the cash. Whatever it is you’re after, you can find it in Seminyak.
Seminyak is known for its sizzling nightlife. Places like Potato Head and Ku De Ta are see and be seen beachfront parties that don’t stop until you do, but if you’re in a mellower mood check out the Japanese restaurant cum jazz lounge Ryoshi.
The biggest shopping centre here is the Bintang Supermarket. It’s perfect for picking up the essentials, but upstairs you’ll find housewares, candles and Balinese trinkets. In the car park, you’ll find a few restaurants, a bar (yes, in the car park), a DVD store and a great French bakery. It will be your one-stop shop. At times, it seems like there are more expats and tourists than locals so making friends and mixing into the expat scene will be easy.
3. Ubud: The Heart and Soul of Bali
If Seminyak is Bali’s shopping mecca, then Ubud is its spiritual heart. It is the cultural and art epicentre of the island with an authentic Balinese ambiance. It’s teeming with expats who’ve moved there for an alternative lifestyle, more out of the norm and spiritually rich than either Seminyak or Sanur.
It is bordered by lush emerald rice paddies and at times a little cooler than Seminyak, but still only 30 minutes to the nearest beach. It’s an hour’s drive from the airport.
Nature plays a major role in Ubud, the locals embrace it and wouldn’t dream of cutting down a tree to put up a home, they’d just build their home around it. In the middle of town is the famed Monkey Forest where you can mingle with the cheeky little macaques in their habitat. Be warned though, they are used to human interaction and don’t think twice about stealing your sunglasses or anything that could provide entertainment for a moment or two.
Ubud is chock full of temples and palaces where you can watch a different traditional dance performance every night of the week. There is a large artist community of locals and expats with gallery openings throughout town weekly. It is where some of Bali’s most famous artists have made their home and you’ll find plenty of museums showcasing their work.
In Ubud, it’s more about wellness therapy than retail therapy. Think yoga retreats, meditation lessons, vegan cooking classes and places to balance your chakras. If you have a little inner hippie dying to get out, Ubud is for you! Its mystical side harmonises effortlessly with the world of today. It’s not uncommon to see women in traditional dress, flowers in their hair, on the way to the temple chatting away to an expat in the latest yoga gear. It’s this blend that makes Ubud so unique.
Ubud’s devotion to health and wellbeing carries over into the food scene. There are fantastic farm to table restaurants like Locavore and plenty of organic cafes to choose from. Just because there is a profound focus on wellness and health doesn’t mean you won’t find decadence and self-indulgence. It is just as easy to find tofu and chia seed breakfast bowls as it as to find lychee and lemongrass mojitos. The lifestyle in Ubud is balanced, and you don’t have to be a health nut to live there.
There are three large superstores in Ubud: Bintang, Coco’s and Delta Dewata. Shopping there is easy and convenient; they aren’t just for groceries, but it’s where you can pick up everything from home goods to bikinis for your day out at the beach. Of course, just like everywhere in Bali, the local morning markets have all the freshest and cheapest produce.