My first visit to Indonesia was in April 2015. I flew from London to Bali to report a business story for The Guardian newspaper. My assignment was to dig into a new trend popping up all over the internet: coworking retreats. Two young entrepreneurs, one American and one Israeli, were making waves with a new kind of travel company. They organized trips for a niche but growing demographic of remote workers, freelancers, and digital makers—people who had the freedom to work from anywhere.
The startup was called Hacker Paradise, but their definition of “hacker” went beyond code. Soon, I’d find out they used the term to refer to people seeking financial independence, creative freedom, and the ability to work on their own schedule. Business was booming, yet my Guardian editor was unconvinced. She just couldn’t believe that people were traveling to faraway, exotic destinations only to work on a laptop for the whole of their stay. Why would anyone choose to do that?
It wasn’t so difficult for me to imagine. I’d spent the few years prior hopping around the world as a journalist, first as a travel writer and then as a foreign reporter. With a passport covered in stamps, combined work and travel was already my reality.
I arrived at Bali’s Ngurah Rai Airport and haggled with a taxi driver outside. We drove north, away from the airport and towards the town of Ubud. As we reached the first intersection, giant billboards advertising cheap flights, hotel deals, and mobile data towered overhead. A few roundabouts later, they were replaced by enormous, ornate statues of Hindu gods. This is the contrast of Southeast Asia: the old and the new coexisting, but in a constant battle for space.
After a while, there is just one, single-lane road to Ubud, so the journey can take anywhere from an hour to three hours, depending on traffic. My driver explained that there’s always a lot of traffic in Bali, though I shouldn’t worry, because they have ways of dealing with this. “Sometimes people drive slow so we beep, beep, beep to make them hurry,” he said. “Other times, though, it’s monkeys or fallen tree. Then we just have to wait until fixed.”
Ubud is the part of Bali that featured in Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling book Eat Pray Love in 2006, and in the Julia Roberts movie based on it four years later. By the time I got there, it was a town brimming with hippies left over from a wave of European and American migration in the final decades of the 20th century. The island of Bali is also Australia’s favorite holiday destination, so you can’t go far without encountering the shrill laughter (and spilled drinks) of Aussie tourists.
More recently, a new wave of foreigners—bright young things hoping to self-actualize through yoga—had arrived in the town. Their presence meant all sorts of fresh businesses were popping up along the main thoroughfare: hipster coffee shops, vegan brunch cafes, and artisan ice cream parlors. It occurred to me that Ubud looked a lot like Shoreditch or Brooklyn—if you plopped one of those places down in the middle of the jungle, that is.
I reached my guesthouse and was greeted by a smiling receptionist decked out in traditional Balinese style: a local batik sarong, a white tunic, and a headdress known as an udeng. His colleague, who was wearing exactly the same outfit, insisted on carrying my bags. The villa was simple: a bedroom, a bathroom, and a front porch. The staff told me about the air conditioning, the wifi, the yoga, and the massage services, and that I could come back to the front desk if I needed anything.
It was only 6 p.m. local time, but my day was done. I collapsed into bed and slept for 12 hours.
The next morning, the guesthouse staff served me banana pancakes and fresh mango juice on the porch. The room price was just $30 per night including a hot breakfast. In London, you’d be lucky to get some sad-looking eggs and an instant coffee for that price, let alone somewhere to stay for the night.
The Hacker Paradise founders chose my guesthouse for its proximity to the coworking space they were based at. After breakfast, I double-checked the location on Google Maps and set off in that direction.
The air was thick with humidity and pollution from the burning off of fields and trash. Bali is celebrated as a paradise and has been known as “the land of the gods” for decades, but that reputation refers to a previous iteration of the place. While still seeped in natural beauty, it’s also been full of traffic, noise, and smog since the 2000s.*
A non-stop procession of motorbikes screeched down the road and monkeys sprang along the power lines like gymnasts, stealing snacks from Chinese tourists whenever the opportunity arose. I thought of friends working office jobs back home in the UK, and wondered if they’d prefer to dodge monkeys instead of navigate tube trains on their way to work each morning.
I arrived at Hubud (pronounced who-bood; a portmanteau of Ubud, the town, and hub, a gathering place), the coworking space I would work from for the next few weeks. The building, made primarily from bamboo, sat opposite Bali’s Sacred Monkey Forest, on a street aptly named Jalan Monkey Forest.
“Hey, how can I help?” asked the receptionist, a Balinese millennial with a flawless undercut and an international school accent. I told him I had a workspace reservation and a meeting, then handed over my laptop so he could set up my wifi.
Hubud was Bali’s first coworking space when it opened in 2013,* and its founders were responsible for bringing high-speed internet to Ubud, fronting their own cash to create the infrastructure necessary for remote work.
The investment paid off.
By 2015, Hubud had become one of the world’s most renowned coworking spaces, featured in the pages of Lonely Planet, Forbes, Huffington Post, CNBC, and others. Increasingly, nomads were coming to Bali specifically to work from Hubud, where they were sure to connect across cultures and meet interesting people.
Hubud’s atmosphere rivaled a hip college hangout in a global city like London, Amsterdam or New York. People of a dozen different nationalities were chatting, coding, working, and gesturing towards video calls. The man-buns, spaghetti straps, and flip-flops gave the appearance of a hippie squad let loose in an airport business lounge. This wasn’t a space for tourists or locals. It was a space for a third kind of people: globals, whether they came from Indonesia, America, or Africa.
“Who’s your meeting with?” the receptionist asked.
“Casey and Alexey from Hacker Paradise.”
“Out back,” he said. “But you need to take your shoes off.”
I stared at him blankly for a moment. He stared back.
I removed my shoes, put them on a wall rack with everybody else’s, and headed “out back.”