Customs and Traditions in Bali
Indonesian traditions comprise the nation’s beliefs, values and customs practised by its people. Indonesia isn’t just an island nation–it is a vast country comprising several archipelago and a varied demographic range of more than 300 ethnic peoples. These people speak over 700 living languages, and although there are some general underlying rules on how Indonesian communicate and behave among each other, some islands have their very own customs. Bali is no exception. The fact that Bali’s population is mostly Hindu, their way of life and openness towards other cultures differs from their Muslim neighbours significantly.
There are many distinguishing features of Bali traditions which are exciting, and by playing along with some of the rules, a visitor will quickly gain the respect of the Balinese. Also, if you manage to speak even the tiniest bit of Indonesian, the Balinese will open their heart to you very quickly. Just a few words of kindness works wonders. Here’s a snapshot of some of the customs, which will help you not only to understand the Balinese better but also to interact with them respectfully. Balinese are incredibly welcoming and appreciate much any effort made by visitors to respect some of the customs they deeply value.
An important fact to remember here is that the Balinese are incredibly proud of their customs and traditions, and stick strictly to their codes of conduct within their society and families.
The Balinese speak Bahasa Bali among each other, a language which is quite different from Bahasa Indonesia. In this language, one should address others respectfully, and distinctions are made between the social status. For foreigners, it is best to address ladies as Ibu and men as Bapak (or Pak).
Though modern Balinese shake hands as Westerners do, the traditional salute is the Sembah salute as in the Indian Namaste where the palms are joined together and placed vertically against the chest. In this position, Indonesians should say, “Om Swastiastu” or “May peace be with you” to each other.
Smiling – the best invention ever: Balinese connect by smiling at each other. The Balinese aren’t wary of each other, so they smile openly and often. Perhaps, as some say, they could be the ones who smile the most in this universe. So, if you are in a group of Balinese, smile at everyone around you, and you will be appreciated and accepted.
Smiling at women: The women here are as eager to smile as their male counterparts. However, if a Balinese woman smiles at you, don’t mistake it for anything else, except her friendly nature.
When it comes to communication, there’s a lot of difference between the Balinese and those in the West. People speak genially, rarely bringing in any display of emotions into their conversations. Because Balinese dislike any form of confrontation the use their smile to keep the situation calm, or only by ignoring the topic they manage to take the steam out.
It is, therefore, also considered bad manners to argue with others. If you get emotional, you actually “lose face”. For this reason, when visitors argue or discuss matters in public in a “loud” way, or even get angry, the Balinese won’t respect you much and see you as somebody, not in control of their emotions. It’s always advisable, to stay centred and calm at all times, even within a conflict situation. It will get you further than shouting or let alone insulting your counterpart. Angry tourists at receptions or in restaurants will not get far with whatever they feel they complain about.
Good to Know
Gestures & habits:
One shouldn’t point the finger at another because it’s considered rude. Also, standing akimbo gives the impression of being ready for a fight or shows aggression. If you want to call out to someone using your hand, remember to have your fingers downward.
As a foreigner, you may be surprised to see that people here may not queue up in the lines or allow pedestrians to cross the road either, or give you the right of way in traffic. It’s just a way of life here, and people do not see this as rude. They don’t feel offended.
Something that often irritates visitors and foreign residents alike is the not unnoticeable lack of punctuality. Jam Karet (Rubber Time) stands for this relaxed handling of time. When somebody arrives late to an appointment, and in the rare case, he or she feels to come up with an explanation, more often than not, bad traffic will be used as an excuse whether it is true or not, and everybody will nod and go on with it. Jam Karet is ever-present, and in a way, it’s merely an aspect of life and can feel quite relaxing at least if you are not short in time or need to do business.
Before entering a home, you should take off your shoes. If you enter a government office wearing sandals, you might not be allowed in, although this happens rarely.
Indonesians and the Balinese, in particular, are incredibly friendly and will start with a conversation with a stranger after a few seconds. In the north and the less touristy areas, you could find yourself in an hour-long discussion followed by invitation for dinner.
Money and Poverty
Even though, Bali is comparably wealthy compared to other islands of Indonesia, most Balinese you will encounter particularly shop attendants, hotel and restaurant employees live a very modest life. The average income among the hundreds of thousands of workers within the hospitality is not more than USD200-300. They will never make enough money to visit another country, some of them can’t even afford to visit their villages on other islands, that they left to find work. Often they don’t understand that back home, many of the tourists that come to Bali also live a middle-class life without bathing in money and luxury. It’s merely a perception based on lack of knowledge and experience.
But when a visitor pays per night for a hotel more than what they make in a month, it explains their perception. Therefore it is a nice gesture, when visitors don’t necessarily show off, or waste, or handle big amounts of money openly. Being modest and humble shows respect to the people who live and work in a developing country where low wages are standard, and the social welfare system is barely existing. Therefore any visitor is still regarded as rich, very rich, and to serve
Nudity & dress-code:
Even though you might find people bathing nude in a river in Bali, you’re well advised to wear a swimsuit at the beach. Topless is not allowed in Bali, even if Bali is probably the most open society in Indonesia when it comes to dress-codes.
Particularly in Kuta, many youngsters and even the older lads run around topless in the streets or even go shopping or visiting bars and restaurants. For them, it’s one of the liberties they enjoy here that they can’t do at home. However, even though Balinese will rarely complain, it’s regarded as rude, and quite frankly they will laugh about you. We would advise you to wear at least a t-shirt when leaving the beach or poolside.
Balinese girls often wear shorts and clothes that are regarded as “sexy”. Bali is probably the only island in Indonesia, where Indonesians can feel the most free when it comes to dress-code.
The Indonesians may well be “physical” during social interaction, but there are a few things to know. According to them, the body is both pure in some parts and impure in others. It defines a particular set of behaviours. The head is the most sacred body part as it contains the door of Siva or the Fontanel through which the soul enters the body. It would be best if you do not touch the head of a Balinese.
Romantic gestures or emotions are never displayed in public, except lovers holding hands is something the Balinese do openly. However, this is not done in most parts of Indonesia or the villages. Lovers don’t kiss in public either, and visitors should also respect that for the Balinese, those intimate gestures are. The middle part of the body is considered “natural”. So, it was customary for women to be topless, as it is till today still portrayed in art. However, due to national pressures, Balinese women were forced to wear bras and cover their bare chest.
From the navel downwards, the body is said to be impure. So, to show something using one’s feet is, for example, regarded as an insult.
The left hand is regarded as “dirty”. Usually, people give and receive either with the right hand or with both hands, while the left hand is kept slightly behind the right hand, without touching the other person.
Religion and Invitations
Attending religious events
In Indonesia, religious ceremonies are not tourist events; visitors are n many occasions welcomed but need to know and respect some simple rules when attending. For one, attendees should dress appropriately. You need to wear at least a sarong covering your legs fully, and preferably cover your shoulders (no tank tops). Sarongs can usually be borrowed or rented at the temple entrance. Or you can buy one in the many shops around for 5-10USD and take it home as a nice souvenir.
For some special ceremonies that you are invited to, such as cremations of family members, it would be appropriate for you to wear the full religious dress. It comprises a sarong covered with a selendang girdle and a udeng headdress. When a ceremony takes place in front of you, linger behind instead of passing between the devout, the priest or the shrines. Also, don’t use flashlights in the temple; you are usually allowed to take pictures, though. And yes, to conform to Balinese culture, remember to smile if you have any doubts on how to behave, smile at those around you and ask what you should do.
Social Customs & Eating
Balinese often take a “shower” (mandi) twice a day, early in the morning and late in the afternoon. People retire early, so a social visit is appropriate between sunset and 9 p.m. On formal occasions like weddings and tooth filing ceremonies, it’s nice to bring small gifts along, called oleh-oleh. Cookies are usually considered adequate.
In ceremonies, the position people occupy mirrors their social status. Quite often in a casual setting, Balinese particularly in the villages eat with their right hand and don’t use any cutlery. If cutlery is used, it’s most often only the fork and the spoon, and no knife.
When guests arrive on a visit, they are offered usually a cup of tea or coffee and a few cookies. The correct etiquette is that you should neither eat nor drink until the host invites you to. Don’t be surprised if you find your Balinese friend keeping silent through a meal. The Balinese usually sit cross-legged and love the floor more than chairs, except in modern homes.
If you visit Balinese at home, they may want to give you a gift. Usually, it is expected that all gifts need to be returned, and the more generous you are in this, the higher your social status.
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