Blog & News

Life in Ubud, Bali

  • Posted on: 15 April 2016
  • By: Joe

 

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. 

Life in Ubud, Bali

  • Posted on: 15 April 2016
  • By: Joe

 

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. 

Tokyo, Burma and Sri Lanka

  • Posted on: 17 March 2016
  • By: Joe

Based in Bangkok, it's easy to travel throughout Asia--cheap too with low airfares on Air Asia and other discount airlines.  It's fascinating to see so many cultures so close to each other.  Despite what many Westerners think, Asia is not one culture, but many. 

I've traveled to Japan twice before, but always avoided Tokyo, as being overcrowded and expensive.  Now that my Zen friend Marcus is living there, I decided to visit him.  He's an expert on temples, so we spent our time together visiting unusual Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. I also saw a great Kabuki performance, visited the nightlife areas, and saw some park areas.  I enjoyed Tokyo much more than I thought I would, and with a friend to steer me to the right hotel and restaurants, it was not that expensive.  (Still not cheap). People in Tokyo are exceedingly polite, everything is clean and efficient, everyone waits their turn at the train stations.... It's all too perfect for me, a bit too cold.  I was glad I live in the turbulent, sometimes chaotic, sometimes messy, warm and friendly city of Bangkok.

This was my first trip to Burma, along with my San Francisco friends Mike and Nic. We were there for only a week but had a great experience.  Having been warned by others about how third-world Burma still was, and how the food would make us ill at first, we were pleasantly surprised by the huge city of Yangon, which mostly looks better than Bangkok.  THe Shwedegon temple was the highlight--a massive complex, equalled for beauty and majesty in my experience only by Bangkok's Emerald Buddha Temple. The famous Bagan area is even more amazing--comparable only to Cambodia's Angkor Wat.  To think that these hundreds of temples have survived for nearly a thousand years!  But the best part, as foretold by friends, was the people.  The people we were able to spend time with were unfailingly warm, gracious, helpful, kind.  The highlight for me was spending a day with a 70-year-old native of Bagan, formerly an English teacher, now a guide.  He knew every place and person in the area, so instead of seeing tourist sites, I asked to visit scenes of ordinary life.  We went to two farming villages, where the people were again very friendly.  We watched them harvest sesame seeds, black eye peas and corn.  We also visited a third-grade class in a local school.  The kids sang songs for us and did a little dance.  I returned the favor by singing "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," and then taught them how to do the Hokey Pokey.  They were delighted, as was I.  

The people of Burma are now very excited and hopeful, now that they have democracy for the first time in so many years.  But we were told that outside of the tourist areas of Bagan and Yangon, there is still massive poverty,  and many political problems still need to be worked out.  It will not be easy.

The purpose of the Sri Lanka trip was to attend the INEB Conference (International Network of Engaged Buddhism), which I've recently started volunteering for.  There were people there from all over the world, people who see Buddhism as a vehicle for helping others, and do this through education, environmental activism, fighting for human rights, fighting poverty, and peacemaking. We visited minority villages, met with political leaders, and tried to understand the political and social problems facing Sri Lankans after their long civil war.  The most disturbing part was hearing some "militant Buddhist" political figures defending the unfair treatment of minorities, a situation that also exists in Burma.

I'm off to Bali in another couple of weeks, to escape from the heat for a while, and to escape from the madness of the Songkran (New Year's) "water-throwing festival," where everyone gets completely drenched every time they go outside.  I'll be there in time for the Bali Spirit Festival.

More to come soon....

 

 

Back to Banglamphu

  • Posted on: 31 January 2015
  • By: Joe

25 September 2015

I'm back in Bangkok, and planning to live here indefinitely, with Thailand as my home base.  Of course, I'll continue to travel the world and write poems and stories about my experiences.  I'll be posting more poems and travel stories in the coming months, and the coming years.  I'm living in my favorite neighborhood again, Banglamphu, the oldest and most Bohemian part of Bangkok.  It's full of history, and there are old temples, and many restaurants, cafes and clubs.  There are always plenty of writers, artists and musicians from all over the world to meet here.  It's also easy to find Buddhist meditation and yoga groups. (Check out littlebang.org for meditation in English). I'll be traveling in early October, first for one week in Tokyo, then for ten days in Chiang Mai.  I recently attended the International Women's  Buddhist Conference in Indonesia in June, and spent a week in Bali.  I'll write more when I come back from Japan.