I Moved to Bali to Live and Work for a Month. Here's How It Went

Making the leap upgraded my quality of life and lowered my cost of living

A villa for living and working in Bali

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Back in 1964, when computers were the size of refrigerators, Arthur C. Clarke predicted that portable technology would one day enable people to live and work in Bali.

His prediction proved accurate, and more remote workers (also known as "digital nomads") than ever have escaped the constraints of geography without becoming unemployed backpackers.

I, too, armed myself with a VPN and swapped the sullen walls of my cubicle for views of the Indian Ocean. Making the leap upgraded my quality of life and lowered my cost of living, but I learned some lessons along the way.

Moving to Bali certainly isn't only about cutting costs. Along with the apparent benefits of island life, I also experienced a pleasant, unexpected surge in productivity. Changing to a novel environment, swapping artificial lighting for natural sunshine, walking to work, drinking coconuts, eating fish and fresh fruit daily—all these things lit my brain up and doubled creativity. I felt a bit like Bradley Cooper's character in the movie "Limitless." Anything was possible.

But this newly unlocked potential depends on your discipline. Can you resist the siren calls of surfing, diving, or hopping on a scooter to see an ancient Hindu temple? The daily temptations in Bali are many. Learning a little about Balinese culture was the best perk of them all. Indonesia's "Island of the Gods" turned out to be one of the friendliest places I've lived and worked during more than a decade on the road.

A temple in Ubud, Bali

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Choosing a Base

Although anyplace with Wi-Fi is fair game for living and working in Bali, remote workers gravitate en masse to two hot spots: Ubud (“oo-bood”) and Canggu (“chahng-goo”). You’ll meet an abundance of people working online in both places, sometimes a few too many. Being asked, “so what do you do?” on a volcanic island more than once a day begins to feel awkward.

I couldn’t decide between Ubud or Canggu, so I decided to sample each for three weeks. The two are only an hour’s drive apart but separated by a vast cultural chasm.

Canggu is on the coast and popular for surfing; it has an abundance of cafes, clubs, and traffic. Ubud, situated in the island interior, is better known for yoga, spirituality, and healthy food. On a full moon in Canggu, you may get invited to go dancing. On the same night in Ubud, you’re more likely to end up at a sound healing or water ceremony. I accidentally left there as a vegetarian, if that tells you anything. These are rough generalizations, of course, and you can find all options in both places.

Ubud has more real estate, so I found more choices for villas there within my budget, but Canggu has the beach—it’s a tough choice to make. Canggu has many more coworking spaces; Ubud has more temples.

Finding a Place to Live in Bali

I highly recommend you test drive your accommodation for a couple of nights before committing to an extended stay. Use a guesthouse as a temporary base, then scout out potential places to live. You need to see them in person. Essential details such as noisy construction projects or sewage smells tend to get left out of online listings.

I learned this the hard way when the villa owners in Ubud failed to mention they excel at breeding the meanest, loudest roosters on the island. Forget everything you think you know about roosters and sunrise. The Balinese roosters begin crowing around 3:30 a.m. and don’t stop. Their efforts have been recorded at 130 decibels. For comparison, a Boeing 747 produces around 140 decibels at takeoff, and only 10 more decibels can rupture a human eardrum—you’re not going to sleep through it.

Although having a kitchen seems like a nice perk, I rarely used mine for anything more than peeling fruit. No chance I could outdo the local cooks preparing food, so I didn’t bother trying. A delicious Balinese meal in a warung can be enjoyed for $2 or $3. With temptations in Canggu such as poke bowls, sushi, brick-oven pizza, Greek, Georgian, and every other craving imaginable, I looked forward to going out for meals.

Facebook groups, not booking sites, turned out to be a goldmine for finding long-stay villas. The choices are exciting, and the swimming pools are alluring but remain vigilant. You never know which ones include a complimentary rooster.

Cafe table with a view for working in Bali

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Setting Up to Work in Bali

Mixing work and play looks good in stock photos and Instagram posts, but don’t believe for a minute that a digital nomad working poolside or on the beach is getting anything done.

Bali isn’t far from the equator—both you and your laptop are guaranteed to overheat. Besides, do you want to risk sand, sunscreen, and errant splashes from the pool destroying your ability to produce an income? That said, having a pool comes in handy when temperatures hover near 90 degrees F, and you’re too far inland to catch a breeze.

Fortunately, Bali is blessed with an abundance of cozy, open-air cafes for working travelers. Many have peaceful views of rice farms. If you’ll be spending a lot of time on calls, working from your hotel or villa is probably best. I have tasted the guilty pleasure of letting workmates back home overhear tropical birds and macaque screams on our conference calls. This isn’t a way to get on their good side, especially if they happen to be weathering winter at the time.

Entrepreneurs and freelancers who need the fastest internet connections (or printers) may want to consider joining one of the many coworking spaces. You can network with other freelancers and regularly ask, “So what do you do?” Memberships aren’t cheap, but connection speeds are unmatched. A one-day pass can be as much as $20—more than enough to eat and drink to your heart’s content in cafes. I tried a coworking space, but as a writer, I preferred the anonymity and freedom of working in different cafes.

Driving in Bali during rush hour

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Driving in Bali

You’re going to want a scooter while in Bali. This may be a terrifying prospect, especially after seeing the chaos and congestion on major roads. Push through the fear, and you’ll be rewarded with intoxicating freedom. Besides, passable sidewalks are a rare luxury on the island. I love to walk but not in Bali.

Driving in Bali differs from driving at home in three major ways:

  • Sidewalks are fair game.
  • Using your horn is more often a courtesy than rude. The number and ferocity of beeps from a horn matter, but you’ll quickly learn the local code.
  • The right of way is determined by vehicle size. Pedestrians rank at the bottom, where they often scramble to survive. When driving, you must yield to all vehicles bigger than yours or face the consequences. A truck driver may not think twice about pulling out in front of you. They have the right of way and expect that you’ll stop, one way or another.
Balinese woman smiling

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The Most Important Thing to Know About Moving to Bali

Bali is indeed an oasis for remote workers, but you’ll have to share it. More tourists, honeymooners, backpackers, and digital nomads than ever before are competing for space on the island—especially during the high season. A lot of them will probably be on scooters and bumping legs with you in roundabouts. Bali remains at the top of my list for places to live and work in Southeast Asia despite its widespread popularity.

Whatever you do, don’t relegate yourself to only spending time with other remote workers. Instead, get to know the Balinese people and learn a few things.

Learning some Bahasa Indonesia, the lingua franca of the archipelago, made my interactions even more enjoyable. The pronunciation is relatively straightforward, but on my first trip to Bali, I went around mispronouncing siang (afternoon) with a long i, making it sound like sayang (darling/sweetheart).

I spent a week confusing taxi drivers, construction workers, and hotel staff by calling them “sweetheart.” Try not to do that.