I've been in Ubud for the last three weeks, just relaxing, doing a lot of yoga, meeting people from all over the world, and thinking about what it would be like to live here. For those of you who have never been here, Bali has a lot of natural beauty and a very unique culture. The people here are almost all Hindu, but have temples, ceremonies and practices very different from other Hindu cultures. This is one of Bali's main draws for Westerners. There are temples scattered all over the island, much like Buddhist temples in Southeast Asia. There is also art everywhere, especially sculptures of gods and heroes from Hindu and Balinese mythology. Balinese Hinduism is a mixture of Indian Hinduism plus animism, spirit worship, and local customs. Every doorway will have sculptures of demons or heroes to keep out evil. There are even evil spirits who are there to keep out other evil spirits. There are also many music and dance performances every night in Ubud, taken from the Hindu Ramayana myth or from local mythology. (The Balinese also have a story about a frog who magically gets turned back into a prince--some themes are just universal). If you are fortunate enough to be in Bali during a temple festival, you are invited to take part in all the ceremonies; all you have to do is dress properly. Balinese people are among the friendliest on Earth. I had the good fortune of staying with a prominent Balinese family during my first visit to Ubud, and I got an instant immersion into their culture. They now have turned their family compound into a center for Balinese arts, crafts and music.
The drawbacks? There is no real city life in Bali. Even Ubud is really a large village, even though it's the center of Balinese culture and spirituality. It's become over-touristed, and it's getting harder to meet Balinese natives who aren't trying to sell you something. You're pretty much limited to small town community life: open mikes (better than in Bangkok), yoga-centered activities, and the occasional club gig. You'll meet great people here from all over the world. If you are into the Yoga Barn type of activities, then you can form a sort of community of friends. If not, you're more or less on your own. It looks like a great place to be a thirty-year-old yogi or yogini; but the over-fifty expats I've met who have lived here for years--those who are not involved in the yoga community-- say they feel either isolated or bored much of the time. Most people come and go throughout the year, and there are a lot of flakes here--people who never answer the phone or respond to emails, or who just disappear in the middle of a conversation. You can start to feel a connection with someone, a terrific person from some other country, and then never see them again.
Bali is also not diverse--everything revolves around Balinese Hinduism, and yoga if you are in Ubud. If you are Buddhist, Jewish, Christian...you're not likely to find many others like you. Not a good place to study dharma.
All in all, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Life is pleasant here, it's very safe, you can meet a lot of interesting people just by sitting next to them at a cafe, and there are things to keep you relatively busy, if you're not expecting too much. Rents are unbelievably low. Freedom and democracy are also on the rise here, after many years of dictatorship. You can also use Bali as a stepping off point for travel to other parts of Indonesia, other parts of Asia, or Australia and New Zealand. As a place to consider living, it's a good Plan B, depending on what happens in Thailand. The real draw for coming here as a tourist is the endlessly fascinating culture. For those of you who have never been here, your first visit will be full of amazement and wonder. Try to get here before it's been totally overcrowded, and don't come in July or August. But don't just go to the beach and do yoga. Try to find the real Bali.