Last Stand in Paradise

Life on the Island of the Gods – what Nehru exclaimed when he visited Bali for the first time in the 1960s – is a unique and enviable experience. A growing number of foreign retirees are choosing this balmy tropical land of palm trees and clanging of xylophonic orchestras as a place to live off their pensions at a higher standard of living and quality of life that they would ever realize in their home countries.

A Hindu speck in a Muslim sea, Bali is located in the middle of a string of 17,000-plus islands 4200 km long – one-sixth of the earth’s surface. Measuring only 150 km wide and 110 km from north to south, the island is about the same size as the state of Delaware in the U.S. but has 4.5 times the population. You can drive from one end to the other in a day.

Drawn by its stunning variety of landscapes, real estate bargains, warm and friendly people, theatrical culture and religion (Bali Hinduism, a sort of frontier Hinduism), healthy and salubrious weather with 85-degree F. year-round temperatures prized by North Americans and Europeans, a well-established and cosmopolitan mixed-age community of expats from all over the world have settled far and wide in Bali. These overseas transplants occupy villas, apartments, condos and bungalows for months or years at a time, often with household staffs and swimming pools included. Bali is a land of ludicrously miniscule property taxes, labor costs and jam karet (“rubber time”) where being punctual is considered amusing.

Australians are the most numerous retirees because they are able to travel back and forth so easily and cheaply between their home country and the tropical island. Australians are even able to do a “trial” retirement, a test run of six months or so to see how they acclimate. The other big retirement groups – gathered anecdotally, because there are no official figures – are Europeans, mainly UK residents, Dutch, Italians, Spanish and Germans. Asian retirees – Japanese, Singaporeans and Taiwanese – have also established small colonies. A great number of foreign residents who had retired to another Asian country, like uncomfortably-sticky Thailand or overpriced Beijing, pulled up stakes and have relocated to Bali.

But whoever it is that makes up the ever-swelling expat population, they exert an influence on the island’s daily life way out of proportion to their numbers (about 30,000). Bule, the Indonesian word for foreigner, have their own clubs, cafes, charities, blogs, websites, newspapers and magazines. This guest population has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in boutique hotels, lavish rental properties and have vigorously entered the small-scale business sector which had traditionally been run only by Balinese. The dietary needs of foreigners have generated vegan, ethnic, Asian fusion, delis, specialty producers, imported groceries outlets and farmer’s markets selling garden fresh organic vegetables.

Another irresistible attraction for retirees are the health dividends derived from leading a wholesome lifestyle. Balinese live much of their lives outdoors and don’t place as much emphasis on interior spaces as denizens of cold climates do. With so much time spent in outside gathering places such as beaches, pools, open-air cafes, terraces and pavilions, activities like reading, gardening, walking, cycling, beachcombing, painting, watching movies and birds, stargazing or doing yoga, the big ultra HD flat-screen TV and the luxury high-end SUV somehow seem redundant and unnecessary.

At ripe old ages when you normally start seeing lots of obituaries, the low-stress tropical island rhythm has coalesced to give expats a new lease on life. To keep themselves busy, maintain a sharp mind and give their lives purpose, many expats volunteer for humanitarian charitable organizations that support orphanages, rescue animals, remove cataracts or eradicate poverty. Others give free English or yoga lessons to village kids or become involved in the Rotary Club’s many programs such as beach cleaning drives and establishing libraries in schools in Bali’s poorest rural districts.

A Place in the Sun

Of Bali’s eight regencies (kabupaten), only Badung, Denpasar and Gianyar occupy the southernmost portion of the island. It’s puzzling why 95% of Bali’s expats are concentrated in this crowded and congested portion of Bali, with all its noise, population density and high cost of living. Perhaps because of its proximity to the ocean, to the capital, to Bali’s economic pulse and to all the First World comforts and services that the island has to offer, the overcrowded resorts of Kuta, Legian, Seminyak and Canggu are the most popular places for Westerners to settle. Yet the whole island has essentially become an expat ecosystem where the like-minded can share experiences and expertise with others.

Six other regencies – Karangasem, Buleleng, Tabanan, Bangli, Jembrana, Klungkung – which wheel fan-like around southern Bali – are each in different ways eminently suitable for foreign residence. Firstly, because businesses in these “outlier” regions cater overwhelmingly to the Balinese themselves, the cost of living is 20%-30% lower than in the island’s more developed southerly areas. Of the six regencies, only remote Jembrana to the west – basically a cultural and religious extension of Java where the mosques outnumber Hindu temples 5 to 1 – offers the fewest attractions and amenities for expats. This is changing as new villas seem to appearing every month along the long empty black-sand shores of the Jembrana coast.

Sizeable expat pockets are the inland town of Ubud in Gianyar, the art and cultural hub of Bali; the scenic Candidasa/Amlapura area of the eastern Karangasem; the quieter northern coastal strips of Lovina-Tejakula-Amed in Buleleng and Karangasem. The capitals of all the outer regencies offer all the basic services, Internet, supermarkets, lively night markets (pasar senggol), outstanding restaurants serving full meals for US50 to US$1; laundry service for 15¢ apiece, neatly folded and wrapped for next day pickup. Professional rates for doctors, dentists, masseuse, plumbers, bricklayers and carpenters are far lower than in the overpopulated south.

But no matter which part of Bali you choose to live in, you’re still in the wonderful sunny tropics. There’s something extraordinary about being able to wear a t-shirt every day of the year through the island’s eternal summer, gaze out your window at mighty volcanoes and gigantic billowing cumulous clouds, look up at the night sky filled with millions of stars, bite into an exquisite tropical fruit, hear the soft dreamy sound of a faraway gamelan, the inexplicable tinkling of bells from a distant temple ceremony and lounge on beaches within earshot of waves lapping lazily on the shores of the Indian Ocean.

By Pak Bill Dalton

The Boomer Corner is a column dedicated to people over 60 living in Bali. Its mandate is to cover topics, practicalities, activities, issues, concerns and events related to senior life in Bali. We welcome suggestions from readers.
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