Bali is an interesting place. It’s a land of contrasts, chaos, religion, and culture. There is a lot packed onto this little Delaware-sized island and after living here for nearly a month, I am still having a hard time deciding how I feel about it.
This is my attempt to formulate and organize my initial observations from my time spent in Indonesia’s most popular tourist destination. Here go seven unique aspects that I’ve noticed:
1. It’s cheaper paying for services than doing it yourself
I know Southeast Asia in general is one of the cheapest regions of the world, but what has surprised me most is how you go about living on a budget here.
Pretty much everywhere I’ve been in the world, including my home of the US, you save money by doing things yourself: cooking your meals at home or washing your own clothes, for example.
Here in Indonesia I’ve discovered there is little incentive to do these things on your own because it’s more expensive.
Eating out at a local Indonesian-style restaurant will cost between USD $1-2. Going to the store and buying the ingredients necessary to make that same meal will cost exponentially more. I’ve noticed, probably for this reason, that many accommodations do not even have kitchens.
I recently got my clothes washed at a laundry service place for less than a dollar. It would cost me more to go buy soap at the store to wash the clothes myself.
It’s an interesting paradox that goes against what I usually find to be true.
2. Contrast between tourists and locals
I’ve been to plenty of developing countries around the world and I know foreign tourists have a much different experience than the locals that provide the services for them, but something about Bali has just made this contrast feel particularly extreme.
On an island where the minimum wage worker brings in about USD $170 per month, there is just such an abundance of luxury to cater to the visitors.
Luxury spas abound and there are loads of fancy restaurants and cafes that trump even most eateries that we have at home in California. There are loads of fancy Aribnb’s that come with staff and infinity pools. And it’s all very affordable from a western perspective.
I know this does not make Bali unique, but I just have felt that contrast to be rather strong here compared to the 20+ other countries that I’ve traveled to.
3. Religion is a key part of daily life
While Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, Bali is actually a Hindu majority island, with 84% of the population practicing.
Hinduism is a huge part of day to day life for the Balinese. Every house has a shrine that is given meticulously arranged offerings in the morning. As I eat breakfast every day I watch them splash holy water around the driveway, place the offerings, and light incense.
As the biggest swell in weeks was bombing at Uluwatu a few days back, I noticed that none of the photographers that usually line the cliff were present. When I asked them where they were, they said that they took the day off because of a religious ceremony.
Aside from Hindu, Islam is the next most practiced religion in Bali. While I did take World Religions 101 in college, I am still a bit ignorant to all the practices, but it seems like the Islam practiced on Bali, or Indonesia in general, is a more ‘liberal’ take on the customs and rules. You’ll often see the women wearing their hijabs, but I’ve also seen them nonchalantly take them off in public, which I imagine would not be allowed in a more conservative interpretation of Islam.
4. (Almost) no homeless, beggars, or crime
I haven’t explored the entire island, but I have been to various regions now, and not once have I seen someone living on the streets or begging for money. I am sure it exists somewhere, but it certainly is not as prevalent as in most western countries I’ve been to.
Also, I’ve noticed that crime does not seem to be much of a worry. For example, everyone leaves their helmet on their parked scooters, and no one takes them. Try that in the US and see how long your helmet lasts. Even with a lock it might disappear!
I can only speculate why Bali has these qualities… Sorry I don’t have the answer for you now.
While there are no beggars, the Balinese are certainly good at nickel and diming where they can find money to be made. There are always informal parking lot attendants collecting money at the beaches and many of the tourist activities have lots of hidden (reasonable) fees, i.e. entrance fees, locker fee, guide fee, etc. The most popular hikes ‘require’ a paid guide to be on the trail.
5. Tourist traps
As such a touristy island, naturally, tourist traps abound. Some of these tourist activities are actually pretty cool, like experiencing the water purification ritual at a thousand-year-old temple in the city of Ubud. Others just feel like cultural Disneyland.
I went to the recently constructed ‘cultural park’ on the Bukit peninsula that boasts a 400-foot Hindu statue. While the engineering of such a statue was impressive, the park itself was giving off Disneyland vibes. Trams took you from the parking lot to the ticket line at the gate as voices on the loud speakers instructed you where to go next and where to spend your money. You had to be there to get it…
6. A multilingual island
I am fascinated by language and always love picking up new words when I am surrounded by a new tongue. However, it’s tricky in Bali because you have to learn two languages at once: Bahasa Indonesian and Balinese.
Indonesian is the language that is spoken throughout all the islands and the language you will see used for official purposes, like at the immigration office when I was extending my visa. But the people of Bali speak Balinese, which comes from an entirely different language family.
When the locals speak amongst themselves, they usually speak Balinese, and most are bilingual in both languages.
It creates a challenge where you have to learn two languages at once, and you often forget which word you learned belongs to which language. I must say, the locals always crack a smile when you are able to say suksma (thank you) in Balinese, as opposed to terima kasih in Indonesian.
7. Scooters are life
I know scooter traffic is not unique to Bali, but it’s still worth mentioning how important scooters are in Balinese life.
The cities themselves are designed more for scooters than walking. Sometimes I just want to walk down the street, but there is no sidewalk and it turns into an adventure, walking zig-zag patterns around obstacles and dodging traffic. I’ve noticed the locals usually just hop on their scooter and, even for short distances, that’s how they get around.
Driving a scooter is generally faster than driving a car, as the cars get slowed down on the narrow roads and the scooters just pass them.
I’ve rented a scooter here and gotten the hang of the unwritten traffic rules (driving on the left side of the road), such as where you can pass when traffic is heavy (sidewalks are fair game), when to use your horn, how to make right-hand turns, and what is an appropriate place is to park.
Three more weeks left in Bali
I’ll still be in Bali for three more weeks, giving me plenty of time to build on this initial set of observations that I’ve made.
Bali is a great place to live if you are on a budget, which is partly why it has attracted so many digital nomads who now call the island home. It also has great access to a range of activities. You have all the ocean sports, like surfing, mountains and volcanoes in the interior, and all the restaurants and nightlife that your heart can desire.
Like I said, I am still trying to wrap my mind around living in such a crazy tourist destination, but by no means have I had a bad time. I think I will grow to appreciate Bali, especially when I leave. Maybe it will yearn for me to return. Who knows?