Bali is a culturally diverse island, rich in languages, cuisine, traditions and ceremonies. Although it’s one of Indonesia’s most touristy islands, there is plenty of culture in Bali – if you know where to find it.
Through building a life with my Indonesian husband and living alongside Bali’s kind-hearted people, I’ve learnt a lot about community and tradition. And, no matter how many times I visit the ‘Island of the Gods’, I always come away with a deeper understanding of Balinese culture.
If you want to do more than just scratch the surface of this island, you’ll be rewarded. Learning about Balinese culture will result in a more enchanting and fulfilling trip.
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A Guide to Understanding Bali Culture, Indonesia
Bali Etiquette, Customs and Traditions
In Bali, approximately 90% of the population follows a form of Hinduism known as Agama Hindu Dharma. Alongside religion, tradition and customs play a role too, and tourists should take a moment to learn what is considered appropriate before they visit. This is important for a number of reasons. By being clued-up about Balinese culture, you will avoid offending any locals and also hugely enrich your trip to the island.
Traditional Balinese Clothing
The local Balinese are modest in their approach to dress and women will often be seen covering their shoulders and knees.
Traditional dress code has been passed down through generations. Many items of clothing have a symbolic meaning. For example, the colour white symbolises purity, and women will wear white and yellow frangipani flowers in their hair as a symbol of Lord Shiva.
The following items of clothing are examples of traditional Balinese dress:
- Safari Shirt: Customarily worn by men, the safari shirt is white with a collar and pockets.
- Balinese Kabaya: Traditional attire for women, comprising a sarong and lace blouse.
- Udeng: A head covering often worn for religious ceremonies.
- Kamen: A sarong-style cloth worn by both men and women.
Dress Code in Bali
Tourists are not required to adhere to a strict dress code in Bali. However, it is customary to cover your shoulders and knees if you want to be respected within the culture. If you are visiting traditional villages outside tourist hotspots, you should wear modest, comfortable, loose-fitting clothing as a sign of cultural respect. The more touristy areas are used to visitors wearing casual summer clothing. There are many fashion boutiques, shopping malls, and international brands in these areas.
When it comes to religious ceremonies, temples and other places of worship, there is a strict dress code for both men and women. This includes covering both your shoulders and knees. Sarongs (which sit around the waist) and temple scarves can both usually be rented at the entrance of the temple.
Menstruators take heed! When visiting temples or holy places of worship in Bali, those who are menstruating are not permitted to enter. This rule also applies to anyone with a bloody wound. In traditional Balinese culture, menstruation is still a taboo and people are not considered clean and pure during this time.
Haggling in Bali
When you’re visiting traditional Balinese markets, it is common to negotiate prices when the price is not advertised or fixed. It is important not to raise your voice or lose your temper during negotiations, as this is frowned upon by the Balinese, who don’t express anger in public.
Even though haggling is commonplace, you shouldn’t drive too much of a hard bargain. It is important that both the seller and the customer feel satisfied with the deal. Read this post for more information about haggling in Southeast Asia.
The prices will be fixed in restaurants, cafés, shops, and salons. It is polite to tip service workers such as waitstaff, massage therapists, motorbike taxis, etc., but it is not required. Between 5%-20% is customary.
Alcohol in Bali
Bars openly serve alcohol in Bali, and local shops also sell a selection, including imported beer and wine. This is great news for backpackers – nothing is more refreshing than a cold Bintang beer on the beach at sunset!
If you are visiting Bali for the first time, you might come across the local rice wine arak. Travellers should heed warnings about consuming arak as it has caused methanol poisoning in the past. To keep yourself safe, do not accept arak or other home-brewed alcohol and only purchase drinks from licensed bars and liquor stores.
Eating in Bali
In Bali, the locals eat with their right hand. You should avoid eating or drinking with your left as this is traditionally used for the bathroom and is considered unclean. This rule also extends to passing items to another person, including food or money. Everything should be exchanged with the right hand.
Gestures in Bali
In Bali, It is considered impolite to point your finger at someone in public. In addition, you should refrain from touching people’s heads; including those of children. Public displays of affection are generally discouraged.
Greetings in Bali
The Balinese people are always ready to welcome you with a smile. When it comes to traditional greetings, you may be met by someone placing their palms together in front of their chest. Another popular greeting is for the Balinese person to extend a gentle handshake followed by raising their hand to touch their chest as a sign of respect.
Canang Sari in Balinese Culture
The Canang Sari is a daily offering made by the Hindu population of Bali to thank the gods for peace and balance. You can see the beautiful baskets of offerings, often filled with flowers, incense, and rice, placed close to people’s homes. Avoid stepping on or moving the Canang Sari, as the local community find this disrespectful.
Language in Bali, Indonesia
On the island of Bali, locals predominantly speak Bahasa Indonesia and Balinese. Whilst many people working in the tourism sector can communicate in English, you will be sure to make friends and receive a warm smile if you use some local phrases. To get you started, try with a few of the local lingo below.
Hello (formal): Om Swastiastu (place your palms together at your chest)
Hello (informal): Halo or Hai
Goodbye: Rahajeng Memargi or Sumpai Jumpa (see you later)
Thank you: Matur Suksma or Suksma
You’re welcome: Mewali
Religion in Bali, Indonesia
Indonesia is a secular democratic society which recognises six religions. These are Islam, Protestantism, Hinduism, Catholicism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. In addition, while not officially recognised, forms of Animism still exist across some regions.
In Bali, Agama Hindu Dharma, also referred to as Balinese Hinduism, is the dominant spiritual ideology. Balinese Hinduism blends elements of Animism and Buddhism. It is essential to understand the concept of Dharma and Adharma because keeping this in balance is part of daily life in Bali.
Dharma is best described as one’s purpose or path in life, led by moral and religious laws. Adharma is essentially the opposite, occurring when life is not in harmony. Maintaining this delicate balance is a prime concern for the Balinese and plays out in everyday life on the island. To keep things in check, the locals bring offerings to the many temples and participate in traditional rituals and ceremonies.
Balinese Festival and Ceremonies
If you’re hoping to time your visit to Bali to coincide with some traditional festivals and events, check out the following celebrations:
Nyepi: Also known as the ‘Day Of Silence’, Nyepi takes place on the third day of Balinese New Year celebrations. This public holiday embraces a day of meditation, fasting, prayers, and self-reflection. Everything stops on the island during Nyepi and everyone is expected to follow this important festival’s rules and traditions.
Ngrupuk Parade: This event takes place at sunset on the eve of Nyepi. During this time, the locals scare away evil spirits as they march in street parades. Expect loud music, large statues called Ogoh Ogoh, and drums. The statues are burnt at the end of the ceremony as a symbol of self-purification.
Odalan: These Hindu rituals are called Odalan (Balinese Temple Ceremonies), and they take place at over 4500 temples around the island, nearly every day of the year. They are performed to balance harmony and honour the deities. Traditions such as this keep the religious customs of Balinese Hinduism alive. This is especially important in this increasingly globalised world, as the island is faced with mass tourism and urbanisation.
Galungan: This festival symbolises the victory of dharma over adharma, which means victory of good over evil. For ten days, the spirits of past loved ones return to the earth, during which time local families cook bananas, make fried rice cakes, and prepare an animal sacrifice (pigs or chickens). These take the form of offerings to the dearly departed. The festival is characterised by prayers and quality family time.
Kite Festival: This annual event takes place in July as a thank you to the Hindu Gods for a successful harvest. Kite flying on the beach in Sanur is a colourful sight and visitors enjoy seeing the sky filled with flying shapes, in the form of fish, leaves, and birds.
Bali is home to hundreds of traditional dances. However, there are three main genres of traditional Balinese dance which have been recognised by UNESCO.
- Wali: These are sacred dances performed at religious events, ceremonies and celebrations. They have long been a part of the Balinese culture.
- Bebali: These semi-sacred dances are commonly used to tell a story and are performed at rituals.
- Balihan: These entertainment dances are often performed for tourism purposes. They are used to tell stories and highlight the Hindu culture.
UNESCO recognises nine Bali dances as Intangible Cultural Heritage.
- Barong Ket Dance: This is the most popular type of dance that tourists will find in Bali. It tells the story of good versus evil in a dramatic display of costumes, dance and music.
- Joged Bumbung Dance: The word Joged in Indonesia means Dance, indiciating that this performance style is not sacred or connected to Hindu ceremonies. It is performed purely for entertainment. Bamboo instruments accompany the routine and dancers wear a traditional sarong or kebaya.
- Legong Keraton Dance: This beautiful dance tells the story of a princess who was kidnapped. It is historically performed by women and involves complicated footwork and specific facial expressions.
- Wayang Wong Dance: Historically, this dance drama comes from the island of Java. While it is now considered to be a dance for entertainment, it is still semi-sacred due to the story it tells of Ramayana, one of two important legends in Hindu Sanskrit.
- Gambuh Dance: A historical and traditional dance that is highly complex. Gumbuh is based on a series of poems that tell the story of Javan Prince Raden Panji, who was an incarnation of Wisnu. Unfortunately, these days, this dance is rarely performed.
- Sidakarya Mask Dance: Taking place just before an important religious ceremony, this dance is performed to ensure that the subsequent service goes smoothly. Yellow rice and Kepeng coins are scattered before the end of the performance to symbolise prosperity.
- Baris Ceremony: The Baris dance is sacred and is only performed at cremation ceremonies, temple anniversary ceremonies and other holy events. Also known as the War Dance, men wear traditional warrior attire. The outfit colours and head ornaments change depending on the region.
- Sanghyang Dedari Dance: A sacred Balinese dance that is reserved for religious ceremonies only. It happens when a spirit or Hyang has entered the dancer’s body. It is said that the dancers go into a trance during the experience and that they cannot remember the dance when it is over.
- Rejang Dance: Recognised as one of the most impressive and beautiful forms of dance in Bali, Rejang dance is performed at temples to entertain visiting gods and spirits. Dancers are highly skilled and are known for their delicate and intricate movements.
Where to See Balinese Dance Performances in Bali
- Balinese Dance Galore at Made’s Warung Seminyak
- Legon On Sunday at Manisan Bali Ubud
- Kecak Dance at Uluwatu Temple Pecatu
- Seaside Theatre at Alila Manggis
The Balinese have a strong connection to their beliefs and traditions. This is vital to their overall happiness and well-being. Locals trust that their rituals bring harmony to the island and deliver good fortune to those around them, including Mother Nature.
If you have the chance to visit the ‘Island of the Gods’, take some time to learn about the Balinese culture. Having an understanding of the religious customs and how they are still integral to modern-day society, will only enhance your visit to this wonderful island.