From Upper East to further East

The poached salmon we were eating in New York was perfectly edible. But, enhanced by the fiery sambal with its chili, garlic and cumin ingredients we had enjoyed on holiday in Bali, it would have been sublime.

In the Manhattan drizzle, my wife yearned for that condiment while I longed for a house in Bali.

We’d stayed the year before where Mick and Jerry were married, at the sumptuous Amandari resort in the arty hamlet of Ubud in central Bali. There, amid the verdant rice paddies, we died and went to heaven, which is how the 5,000 or so foreigners with Balinese houses have long regarded this exotic Hindu redoubt in Indonesia’s Muslim sea.

But, as any vacationer knows, there is a vast gulf between buying a holiday and buying a holiday home. And money is just one difference. It would have been impossible for us to buy in Bali five years ago, for instance. Indonesia was then Asia’s boom economy and, with an exchange rate of Rp2,500 to the dollar, everything was as expensive as New York. A year later, the rupiah plumbed as low as 17,000 and has seldom topped 8,000 since. An Indonesian tragedy had become a buying opportunity for foreigners.

Our idea, spawned over a plain salmon, was alive again. After moving to Singapore in 1999, we took our first long weekend to Bali in search of sambal and paradise. Ubud was as we remembered and we sought out some local property-owners and their foreign agents.

A British friend based in Jakarta was building her own villa in the local vernacular style. It was an exciting project but our enthusiasm dimmed when she told us she had first to build a large concrete bridge over a deep ravine because her grumpy Japanese neighbour refused to let her share his.

And then she explained the legalities. Foreigners can’t own land in Bali – they just lease from reliable locals and hope that no one seizes it. There are local lawyers who specialise as foreign proxies but we didn’t know any, reliable or otherwise, and had often read or written about Indonesia’s eccentric legal system, so it seemed the great Bali dream would remain just that.

The idea lay dormant until we revisited our friend in late 2000. Her place was barely 20 per cent started and she was complaining about Bali’s myriad festivals – the very aesthetic that drew her to the “Island of the Gods” now offended her practical side when workers downed tools to don festive gear.

While we were having lunch in Ubud, a man stuck up a “House for Rent” notice in the cafĂ©. A fiftysomething photographer from Stuttgart, Wolfgang too had nursed a Bali dream and decided to act on it. With his wife Ute, he found the land after a long search, negotiated terms with the owner and then built a two-storey house.

The place was stunning; 1km out of town, 500m off the main road and nestled in 10ha of rice fields with magnificent views and a garden bursting with palms, frangipani, papaya and breadfruit all complemented by a small Hindu temple and a houseboy, Ketut. Just three years old, the house was delightfully Balinese but also very Teutonic: the workmanship was of the highest quality.

But after three years in Bali, Dieter and Ute had had enough. We negotiated a nine-month lease with them and started coming once or twice a month for three or four days at a time from Singapore, or dropping in from assignments in Jakarta or East Timor. We fell in love with it.

Then we got lucky. Six months into the lease, Dieter asked if we wanted to buy the place. He was a seller, at the cost of construction. It was too good a deal to pass up.

So how good? Well, it wasn’t six figures, though some estates in the coastal Sanur area or Ubud’s Sayan Ridge run into six figures and, occasionally, seven. Not only is the neighbouring anthropology decidely more interesting than yuppie playgrounds in Europe and the US, but the two-hour flight from Singapore and a fascinating hour’s drive through ancient villages is an antidote to the four hour-plus crawl along Route 27 to The Hamptons or England’s A11 to the Norfolk Broads.

Which brings us back to the fact that, as a foreigner in Bali – and this is the case in many Asian countries – one gets to own the physical house but the land it sits on is leased, in our case for 25 years: Wilfgang had three and the remaining 22 were transferred to us.

Moreover, the rule of law can sometimes be quixotic. It would be a brave punter who backed a foreigner over a Balinese in an Indonesian court.

The most effective comfort is probably the most attractive one – your relationship with the local landowner. Get along, and you will be rewarded with a hassle-free tenancy and an enriched experience.

Thus, our elegant slate patio is a crossroads of Bali life; Made, the padi owner; his amiable wife wandering through with sacks of her husband’s rice harvest piled on her head; their daughter chasing ducks in their padi. None speaks a word of English but their ready smiles suggest our lease isn’t heading for the courts yet. And our Bahasa gets better every visit.

Our buying experience was rare. More common is our British friend’s experience. She ended up spending twice as much time and cash as she first expected. It was, however, thoroughly instructive. Made Wijaya, an Australian designer once known as Michael White, who has lived in Bali for 25 years, says: “Bali house-buying is a tortuous process and the Bali-besotted are determined to go through burning hoops.”

The besotted in Wijaya’s PalmPilot include Julio Iglesias, David Bowie and Donna Karan. “Richard Curtis and Francis Coppola are more than happy renting,” he says casually. “If you are a celebrity and want to build a house in Bali, my advice is don’t – there are too many expat dream homes already sitting empty for most of the year.

“The chances of your getting what you really want, such as hassle-free privacy and exclusivity, are slim to none.”

His conclusion? “Go to Hawaii.” But he’s jealously lived in Bali for decades – he would say that.