The archipelago of Indonesia comprises of over 17,000 islands, and each one of those inhabited have their own customs, beliefs and values. There’s a range of more than 300 ethnic peoples all over Indonesia, with 700 different languages spoken. Bali sits uniquely amongst them all, with a population that hovers around 4.5 million, and around 80% of Balinese are of Hindu faith.
Being that Bali’s population is mostly Hindu, the way of life and openness towards other cultures has been enjoyed by visitors for many years. There are so many Balinese traditions that are fascinating, and if you take an interest, you’ll quickly earn the respect of the Balinese people. Music, drama and costumes become a feast for the senses during the many temple festivities.
There are rites of passage for many milestones in life, celebrating birth, children’s ages, marriage, death and rebirth. On any given day you’ll see the local people in traditional dress celebrating an occasion. The women carrying bright offerings to the local temples and the men playing the Gamelan music loudly.
Though different Balinese dialects exist, Indonesian is the most spoken language in Bali. In the tourist areas especially, most locals can converse with you easily, but not everyone speaks English so knowing a few words of Indonesian will help you communicate and make life easier. Even if you only speak the tiniest bit of the language, the Balinese will open their hearts to you very quickly, and conversing with the locals is the easiest way to learn, they love to teach you and you’re guaranteed some laughs along the way.
It’s important to remember the Balinese are very proud of their traditions and customs, and there are strict codes of conduct which they must follow within society and their families. While western ways and western food outlets are creeping their way into Bali, the Balinese culture is dominant and should be respected.
COMMUNICATIONThough modern Balinese shake hands as Westerners do, the traditional greeting is the “Sembah salute”. The palms are joined together and positioned vertically against the chest, and the words “Om Swastiastu” are normally said. “Swasti” means safe, and “Astu” means hopefully. So, by saying “Om Swastiastu” you’re wishing God’s blessing of safety and prosperity, and the greeting is returned, so the same blessings are given to you.
Smiling is the best invention ever: Balinese connect by smiling at each other. The Balinese aren’t normally wary of each other, and so they smile openly and often. So, if you’re in a group of Balinese, smile at everyone around you and you’ll be appreciated and accepted.
When it comes to communication, there’s a lot of difference between the Balinese and those in the West. Balinese people speak cordially, rarely bringing in any display of emotions into their conversations. Because Balinese dislike any form of confrontation they will use their smile to keep the situation calm. You will often a find a Balinese person will laugh rather than argue with you. They’re not dismissing you, they just really don’t like any conflict.
Balinese love to chat and it’s very common for a Balinese to want to know everything about you. “Where are you from?” “Where are you going?” “Where are your children?” “Where is your husband/wife?” They are not imposing, rather just being inquisitive. They love to find out more about you, and they’ll share their own stories too, just relax and enjoy the conversation.
GESTURES and HABITS
It’s considered rude to point a finger at another person, if you want to call to someone using your hand always wave your fingers downward. When you’re caught in a traffic jam, don’t offend by honking your horn, traffic will flow soon enough. Honking your horn could also be saying hello, or I want to pass you, or don’t forget I’m here. Island time sure does exist in Bali, it’s simply a way of life.
Indonesians will never be openly affectionate in public. Holding hands is seen openly, but intimate gestures are kept behind closed doors. From the navel down is considered the impure part of the body, never point to anything using your feet or sit with the soles of your feet pointing outward. The left hand is regarded as dirty, so you’ll find people will give and receive with their right hand and the top of the head is considered the pathway to the soul, so you shouldn’t rub the top of a child’s head.
You should always remove your shoes before entering a home, and even some shops will ask you to do so. If you’re visiting any government office, appropriate clothing is required. Shoulders and thighs must always be covered. If you’re visiting the north of the island where tourists are few, you should also dress modestly.
Watch out for daily offerings placed on the streets and beaches and don’t step on them! These small trays known as Canang Sari, are usually filled with flowers and other things, and offered to the God’s by locals in the morning and throughout the day. Stepping on one or over one will offend the Balinese. If you happen to do so by accident, simply apologise and keep moving.
RELIGION and CEREMONIES
While visitors are welcomed to the many ceremonies in Bali, they shouldn’t be seen as a tourist event and some simple rules should be followed. Men and women should wear a sarong that covers the legs and shoulders should be covered by a shirt. For some ceremonies such as a wedding or cremation, the traditional dress is required to be worn. A Udeng head-band for the man and a lace Kabaya blouse for the lady. When attending a wedding or a babies’ celebration, a gift of money is always well received, it doesn’t have to be a big amount.
You’ll see the Balinese taking photos at ceremonies, even at a cremation, but to be respectful ask first before you click away. If you happen to come across a ceremony when out and about, be considerate and stand back to allow the procession to pass and take photos where you’re not in the way.
Something that may seem strange to a westerner is the ending of a cremation ceremony. The Balinese believe the deceased should be cleansed by fire before being sent to the after-world, and this is always done openly. The families deem this as a joyous occasion and rarely will you see people mourning the dead.
There are many temples across Bali, some with historic significance and open to tourists. When you are entering a temple proper attire should always be worn, most places will rent you a sarong for a small fee. Be careful where you pose for photos when inside a temple. Anywhere where offerings are placed is seen as an altar of sorts and should not be accessed.
There are so many beautiful aspects of the Balinese culture and tradition, take time to learn and appreciate, as it’s all part of the experience of being in Bali.