Warung Bintang is an unassuming bamboo restaurant in the outskirts of Ubud, Bali, about 15 minutes away from the hilltop tourist town. It boasts rice paddy views with 50 shades of green, but it isn’t the kind of place you just stumble upon. It’s the kind of place you have to know about, and the four individuals that just marched past my table, I decide, are clearly in the know.
They speak a little bit of Bahasa Indonesia, come armed with cell phones and laptops, and don’t even bat an eye while parking their motorbikes along the hectic street out front. If you’ve been in Bali for more than a week, you know that these are telltale signs: The expat community has arrived.
These particular expats hail from Australia, New Zealand, Christmas Island and Dubai (via the Philippines) and are friends with the owner Kadek on Facebook. As they colonize the table beside me, they explain that they rushed over for dinner after Kadek posted pictures on his “wall” of the two bug-eyed tuna he’d caught on a morning fishing trip.
Kadek’s tuna is what I’m here for, too. I already know from a week of dinners that the tuna steaks at Warung Bintang are spectacular -- even more so because they cost about $2 and come with organic vegetables from the owner’s own farm.
Within minutes of arriving and ordering their tuna, the expats work their way over to my table for an experiment. They’re planning, of all things, a party themed after the 2000 romance film “Chocolat,” and want to know how many people could fit at each of Warung Bintang’s five picnic tables. Some say eight. Others say six. The consensus is mixed.
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The Kiwi and Aussie invite my friends and I to the “Chocolat” party and wander off to do some more planning as the other two expats switch the conversation to housing. Where are we staying? And for how long?
I tell them I’m at Kishi Kishi just up the road, and both light up with big smiles explaining that they’d lived in my same apartment a few months back. I lament that I’ll be leaving Ubud in a few days, but introduce my friend Megan and tell them she expects to be here for about a month.
“I’ve heard that one before,” the woman from Dubai says with a laugh. The expats share a knowing glance. “I can’t tell you how many people come here ‘for a month’ and never leave.”
Tuna diner quickly morphs into an expat seminar on ways to circumvent visa issues, where to eat and avoid tourist prices, how to drive a motor bike and who to speak with to secure a villa with Wi-Fi, a view and a pool (“the essentials”) for less than $500 a month. The man from Christmas Island agrees to pick Megan up the next day for a trip around Ubud to look for apartments, and everyone exchanges phone numbers with hopes of meeting again.
My friend (who I am now entirely envious of) has been in town for less than 72 hours, and she already has a community, she has housing prospects, and she has all the vital know-how to stay in Bali for as long as she wants. You could call it serendipity, but this is simply what Ubud is known for and why it has garnered a reputation the world over as the ultimate expat haven.
About an hour and a half removed from the sleazy beach scene of Kuta and an hour north of Bali’s frenzied capital Denpasar, Ubud is a laidback slice of tropical paradise where location independent workers and professional vagabonds gather en mass to get back in touch with nature, retreat into yoga and gorge on fresh fruits and vegetables for a fraction of the cost back home.
Ubud offers a style of life many here will tell you is simply impossible in their homeland. And while it may have been a secret enclave for the select few a decade ago, that’s certainly not the case anymore.
“Eat, Pray, Love” might have had something to do with it. Fans of Elizabeth Gilbert’s self-absorbed prose flock to Ubud each year in search of a prince, a medicine man and a remedy for their own idiosyncrasies. Locals here jokingly call them EPLs, and they’ve made Ubud something of a sponge soaking up lost souls.
There aren’t any official estimates for just how many expats now live in Ubud (the umbrella name for what is, in reality, a collection of many villages), but the Canadian owners of a local co-working space known as Hubud (an amalgam of “hub” and “Ubud”) put the figure at between three and five thousand, with Americans being the most visible nationality of the bunch.
They have an online community forum, frequent gatherings and even schools for their “third culture kids.” Suffice it to say, the expats of 21st century Asia (Bali in particular) can enjoy the exoticism of their surrounds without the deprivations of their historic predecessors.
That’s not to say that there aren’t inconveniences. Several of the streets and sidewalks here have perilously deep holes, traffic rules are nonexistent and the eventual stomach bug is par for the course. Moreover, Indonesia doesn’t exactly make it easy to stay long-term with its stringent 30- or 60-day visas, though money-grabbing “travel agents” are said to work magic on extensions.
At the end of the day, the $6 massages and holistic treatments surely help to ease the anxiety when things go awry. Ubud, after all, is where Western stress ventures East for relief.