It’s Melbourne, October 2020, six months into the city’s seemingly endless lockdowns. The kids are practising their trumpets — without the sound mufflers. My partner, Phil, and I are bearing the noise alongside the grinding weight of urban living, home-schooling, home offices and night curfews. We decide then, talking among ourselves, that the only way any of this COVID business could make sense would be if we could find meaning in it. But how?
Our conversation turns to Green School in Bali, the jungle school near Ubud we heard about during a two-week holiday in Bali back in 2014. Its buildings are made entirely of bamboo and a river runs through the campus. The school’s curriculum, built around sustainability, nature and the outdoors – is exactly what our two kids Digby, 10, and seven-year-old Etienne need. That Bali is a destination known for its healing and rejuvenation seals the deal. “Let’s do it! Let’s move to Bali.”
Given its magnitude, this big life decision was surprisingly easy to make. Nine months later, in July 2021, after a punishing schedule involving packing up our house, applying for the school, finding appropriate exit visas, and booking flights, we arrive in Bali.
From our beachside quarantine hotel — the bridge between our old life and this bold new one — our driver picks us up to take us to our new villa. Ours is the only car on the road between Sanur and Canggu, a sign of the Indonesia-wide lockdown that came into play during our quarantine period. (Meanwhile, Melbourne has gone back into strict lockdown too, further vindicating our decision).
Canadian Tim and Korean Insook are our new landlords. Their joglo (a traditional Javanese-style house) is now our joglo, a beautiful building with a peaked tiled roof and century-old teak columns. Jackfruit trees crowd the unruly tropical garden, dropping fruit into our pool with a plonk that scatters the lizards. It’s a long way from Melbourne.
These first two months in lockdown are an awakening. We balance our digital nomad work lives with the adventure of being in a new place, zig-zagging around on motorbikes, marvelling at rice paddies and shrines, the incense wafting into the sky. We start to live more sustainably, working in Tim’s vegetable garden and building a chicken coop out of bamboo. We buy four red chickens: Salsa, Chili, Sriracha and Sambal.
Dozens of kites flying in the windy skies, become symbols of companionship from a community in lockdown.
The year progresses in fast forward and Digby and Etienne start Green School. With its wall-less classrooms and huge open spaces, it is the only campus allowed to open during lockdown in Indonesia. The kids climb coconut trees, build river rafts and meet students from Bali and around the world. We are enveloped in a mutual love for the planet.
As the lockdown eases we explore Bali’s corners at ridiculously affordable prices with no tourist queues, blessed with alone time in impossibly paradisiacal locations. The beaches, shut for social distancing measures, start to reopen and the kids learn to surf.
We have our dramas, like any family. Over the course of the next few months, Digby manages, through child’s play, to fracture his arm, then his wrist. We all get head lice, then staph infections (but no Bali belly). Our garden is home to a spitting cobra one week, then a similarly venomous green viper moves in. We are vaccinated against COVID but I contract dengue fever and COVID simultaneously and end up in hospital. We recover, still smiling.
Softly, softly, at the turn of the new year, tourists start to return. Once-shuttered shops, warungs, even beach clubs cautiously open. A hint of the busy Bali to come.
Everything continues to grow. Our minds, our hearts, our ideas, our love for the planet, the banana palms and papaya trees. And in this way our year in Bali passes.
So here is my month-by-month diary of our experiences and lessons learned. I hope it offers inspiration for plotting your own year-long escape or insights for planning a more meaningful and sustainable holiday in Bali.
JULY 2021 – LIVING SUSTAINABLY
Living more sustainably is easier in Bali. We’re growing our own eggplants, tomatoes, beans and herbs and getting daily fresh eggs from our chickens. Our food waste is composted in our permaculture-derived banana circle that produces excellent finger-sized bananas. The things we can’t grow are easily delivered, whether you’re living here or renting a villa. Fresh fruit and vegetables come thoughtfully wrapped in banana leaves from Island Organics (www.islandorganicsbali.com). Consciously-sourced groceries, produced right here in Bali, come sustainably packaged in returnable glass jars from Bali Direct (balidirectstore.com/).
AUGUST 2021 – GREEN SCHOOL
Green School is as ground-breaking as we’d heard. It opened 10 years ago, but it feels like its time is now given the ever-increasing awareness about climate change. The kids are introduced to Balinese culture and Indonesian language classes. They go barefoot, and come home muddy. Every day creates awareness and appreciation for nature and the environment. Marvellously, it’s not just for people living in Bali. Tourists can have a taster of Green School at the campus’ Green Camp (www.greencampbali.com), which offers overnight camps for visiting families.
SEPTEMBER 2021 – MOTORBIKES
Motorbikes in Ubud. Photo: iStock
Getting around on motorbikes is a big part of the Bali lifestyle. I practise riding my Scoopy in Canggu’s empty streets and around the rice paddies near our house. I’m okay on the open road but heavier traffic is scary and dangerous. I invest in a two-hour motorbike lesson (Kadek Scooter Lessons Whatsapp +62 8199-972 2992) to help navigate the roads, and am grateful for having brought quality, safety-regulated helmets from Australia. Motorbikes are easily rented long-term (Bali Car Rental Whatsapp +62 812 8483 3818) or pillion passengers can get around on GoJek (gojek.com), Indonesia’s answer to Uber. GoJek drivers are regulated and carry spare helmets.
OCTOBER 2021 – CEREMONIES, BLESSINGS
Bali has one of the most intact traditional cultures in the world with blessings and ceremonies intricately woven into daily life. We are becoming familiar with the meditative moments that accompany these ceremonies — sarongs tied around our waists, heads bowed, petals between our fingertips in prayer. Our housekeeper Ibu Komang blesses our house daily with flowers, incense and little offerings to protect us. Pak Wayan, our driver, presents the kids with ceremonial clothes to wear to school on full moon days. Our favourite ceremony is the water blessing ceremony known as “melukat”. At idyllic Taman Beji Griya in Badung Regency the blessings and purification rituals take place in mystical creeks and caves and culminate in a waterfall immersion to clean and purify the body and mind. There’s a helpful guest desk for foreigners.
NOVEMBER 2021 – GIVING BACK
The culture of giving back to the community is a lifeforce, one made stronger by COVID. We get pulled along in the current of good will, helping pack ”bungkus” lunch packages at Prasad food relief kitchen (instagram.com/prasadfoodkitchen), and on beach clean-ups run by sustainability gurus Sungai Watch (sungai.watch). Both encourage holiday makers to drop by. Astungkara Way (www.astungkaraway.com) is another worthy social enterprise promoting regenerative rice farming. In the spirit of immersion, I get my hands dirty on an eight-week course, planting rice by hand and ploughing fields (with the help of a cow). Tourists can too on half-day or staycation experiences or the 10-day pilgrimage connecting guests with rice-farming communities across Bali.
DECEMBER 2021 – GET REGIONAL
Being able to explore the island while there are so few people is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In regional communities — the first to struggle when tourism declines — our tourist dollar is much appreciated. I marvel at how little coverage Bali’s interior gets. Sideman in East Bali sits in hilly country amid rice paddies in the shadow of mighty Mount Agung. In central Bali, the highland town of Kintamani is on a natural volcano caldera where day trip hikes up Mount Batur are popular. (Later in the year, we take this experience a step further and camp overnight (www.balisunrisetrekkingandtour.com) near the summit, waking with sensational sunrise views stretching all the way to Lombok). The village of Sebatu, north of Ubud, is known for its wood-carving shops and magical waterfall walk, featuring Japanese caves from World War II. Menjangan on the northwest coast boasts Bali’s only national park and a marine ecology ideal for scuba diving and snorkelling.
JANUARY 2022 – SUSTAINABLE STAYS
Many of the bigger hotels and resorts remain open, albeit in a reduced capacity. The onus has been on keeping staff and helping local communities but sustainability remains on the agenda too. Seminyak’s Potato Head Studios (pictured above, potatohead.co), which has a “good times, do good” philosophy aims to be zero-waste-to-landfill by the end of the year. Nirjhara (www.nirjhara.com) eco resort, in Kedungu, west of Bali, is surrounded by rice paddies with a natural waterfall pounding metres from its main pool and restaurant. The suites combine recycled wood, traditional grass roofing and natural stone with Balinese-made fabrics and crafts. Aussie co-owned Tira Vilagna (www.tiravilagnabali.com) resort, in Kintamani, nurtures its guests in 22 eco-respectful rooms nestled in a natural pine forest.
FEBRUARY 2022 – F&B IS BACK
Ubud’s Room4Dessert (www.room4dessert.com) and Locavore (www.locavorenext.com) offer pared-back dining experiences during the lockdown. And slowly Bali’s eateries and bars start to open with our Canggu neighbourhood leading the way. We’re spoiled for choice: Rize cafe (no website) for chai and dahl; Mosto (mostobali.com) for natural wines; Uni (unibali.com) for Japanese fusion and killer cocktails; Kong (kongbali.com) for a long lunch with a Nordic twist. In Seminyak, Will Meyrick’s Mama San (mamasanbali.com) continues to master Asian street food and Mauri (mauri-restaurant.com) gives us a taste for special occasion Italian.
MARCH 2022 – DENGUE FEVERED
On an ayurvedic retreat in Ubud I start to feel ill, but blame it on the coffee detox. By day three I’m home in bed. On day four I’m in hospital diagnosed with COVID and Dengue fever. When the medical bill comes to $35,000 we pat ourselves on the back for taking out appropriate health insurance. Despite some of the stories, Bali’s health system is well set-up for foreigners. Roadside clinics are accessible for common problems including ear ache, broken bones and Bali belly. Hospitals including Siloam (www.siloamhospitals.com), in Denpasar, and my life-saver, BIMC (bimcbali.com), in Kuta (also in Nusa Dua and Ubud), provide 24-hour service for accidents and emergencies. Home or villa GP visits and call-out rehydration IV drips are available from Siloam and BIMC too. Canggu’s Dr Ristie Family Clinic (Whatsapp +62 812 3903-3318) is a Western-style GP service.
APRIL 2022 – BEYOND BALI
There are fewer hoops to travelling domestically around Indonesia. Earlier in the year, when the borders opened, we took a five-hour ferry ride to the neighbouring island of Lombok, and road-tripped on motorbikes along the winding south-coast road. Now we are ready to go further and tick the bucket list in the north of Indonesia. With the help of Bali-based travel specialist Fabrice Abbey (fabriceabbey.com), who helps us navigate flights, accommodation and the unexpected, we fly up to West Papua in Indonesia’s north to spend two weeks exploring the Raja Ampat archipelago, one of the most biodiverse marine environments on the planet. The first week we are on a live-aboard boat, the second week in wooden guesthouses with sandy floors. We’re inspired to put Komodo and Sumba on our “beyond Bali” travel list for 2023.
MAY 2022 – WELLNESS FLOW
Four Seasons Sayan.
We moved to Bali for rejuvenation and renewal because wellness and healing are a natural part of living here. From the weekly $10 massage at a streetside spa, and villa-delivered detox drinks (www.facebook.com/healthytribesbali), to luxury day spa immersions at Four Seasons Sayan (fourseasons.com/sayan/spa) and week-long retreats at Escape Haven (escapehaven.com) and yoga and meditation already part of the daily routine, we’re starting to open up to more wellness experiences. Phil upsizes his daily Wim Hof routine to breathwork (www.breathworkbali.com) workshops and I go in for all-out relaxation at vibro-acoustic light therapy (pyramidsofchi.com) sessions. Miraculously, I am free of life-long lower back pain after osteopath sessions at Bali Healing (balihealing.org).
JUNE 2022 – BALI LIFE
The kites are back in the skies, the weather is cooler, our year in Bali is almost over just as we are starting to settle in. Phil and I are using the Duolingo (www.duolingo.com) app to learn Indonesian, but it’s time to dig deeper. We employ guru Ibu Kadek to come to our villa for lessons each week. I am smitten with new Balinese cook book, Paon (www.hardiegrant.com/au), and have started delving into the local cuisine, making my own sambals and stocks. The kids talk about Green School like it’s long-term. For the first time, we are invited to the home of Balinese friends for a baby blessing ceremony. Perhaps we can stay a little longer. Kita lihat saja. We will see.
FIVE OF BALI’S BEST NEW OPENINGS
Banyan Tree Escape (escape.banyantree.com), in Buahan, is a game-changer for big brand hotels. This 16-suite-only resort capitalises on its stunning jungle surrounds with wall-less pavilions and a kitchen and bar focused on locally foraged ingredients.
The funicular-accessed Karma beachfront of Ugasan’s Karma Kandara resort (karmagroup.com) has been revamped after a fire to dreamy effect. From the seafood bamboo barbecue on Friday nights, to the beach shack chic of Le Club 22 restaurant, this is Bali beachfront at its best. Read our review of the resort here.
RECYCLED PLASTIC FANTASTIC
With a facade made of 200,000 recycled plastic bottles, Canggu’s latest museum and retail space, Museum of Space Available, in Canggu (us.spaceavailable.tv/pages/museum), uses post-consumer plastic waste to make modern recycled pieces fit for design-forward interiors.
Rumari, the headline restaurant at new Bali Raffles (www.rafflesbali.com/), in Jimbaran Bay, features the delicious Discovery degustation menu, a five-course journey around Bali exploring local ingredients and cooking techniques.
Talise Spa (www.jumeirahbali.com) at new water palace-inspired Jumeirah Bali resort, in Uluwatu, combines Bali’s wellness traditions with the island’s first Turkish hammam to wondrous effect.
Penny Watson (pennywatson.com.au) is an Australian travel writer currently in Bali.
Traveller’s guide to Bali:
Bali’s best places to stay
Bali’s best places to eat
Twenty things that will surprise first-time visitors to Bali
The best time to visit Bali