The Balinese are used to tourists and it takes a lot to offend them. While locals are held to certain expectations when it comes to customs and rituals, they are very forgiving when it comes to foreigners. This doesn’t mean that you should abuse their hospitality.
There’s nothing worse than getting yourself into trouble when all you want to do is enjoy your well-deserved vacation, that’s why it’s important to get familiarised with the basic dos and don’ts when you’re visiting a new place. As the proverb goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”.
1. Disrespect Objects Wrapped in Cloth
You will notice that there are objects such as trees, statues, temples and even gamelan sets draped with cloths, which can either be black and white checks or yellow in colour. This indicates that the inanimate object is inhabited by some sort of a spirit and therefore has the distinction of being sacred (pelinggih in Balinese). So please take a hint, if a water spout is draped in yellow cloth, it might not be a good idea to wash your behind with the water. Yes, we’re talking about the boorish ‘Instagram influencer’ couple from the Czech Republic who faced backlash for washing their privates with holy water. You DON’T want to end up like them.
2. Step on Offerings
Visitors to Bali will notice daily offerings made by the Balinese Hindus scattered across the island. These are called canang sari, which consist of a coconut leaf tray called ceper, representing the physical body; wija or rice, representing the soul; porosan – a set of base (betel leaves), pamor (lime slakes) and buah (areca nut) – representing the Hindu trinity of Lord Vishnu, Lord Shiva and Lord Brahma; and four different colours of petals dedicated to each of the cardinal directions. As they are dedicated to the divine, try not to step on them.
3. Dress Indecently When Visiting Religious Sites
Indonesia is sprawled across the equator, so Bali is warm and humid all year thanks to its tropical climate. There is no strict dress code here, but you do need to cover up when you visit religious sites. Locals take the effort to dress up for the temple (pura in Balinese), and visitors are expected to follow the basics – Both men and women should wear tops that cover their shoulders and their upper arms. The lower part of the body needs to be covered with a sarong and a sash tied around the waist. Some religious sites provide sarongs and sashes for visitors, but it’s better if you come prepared with your own.
4. Enter Temples During That Time of the Month
One of the most common signs outside of Balinese Hindu temples is the one that forbids women from entering if they are menstruating. Some might find this offensive and sexist, but actually the concept of ‘spiritually unclean’ (or cuntaka in Balinese) actually applies to both men and women with open wounds or those excreting any kind of bodily fluids (including breastfeeding mothers). Why menstruating women are singled out is anyone’s guess and while they can’t and won’t be able to confirm your period, please respect this rule.
5. Stand in the Way of Religious Processions
Tradition is alive and well in Bali, where religious processions occur fairly regularly. You will definitely bump into a procession, even outside of the big holidays like Nyepi, Galungan or Kuningan. If you’re driving (with your legitimate international driving license, of course) and you’re stuck behind a religious procession, do not honk if you don’t want to get into trouble. Instead, take your time to enjoy the beauty of the local culture. You are, after all, on a holiday.
6. Step in Front of Someone Who’s Praying
Most Balinese temples welcome visitors, even at the busiest times of the year. As a visitor to their places of worship, you should observe the proper behaviour and keep a respectful distance. This should be standard everywhere in the world: do not step in front of people who are praying as you’d be interfering with the connection between the devotees and the divine. Don’t be intrusive, and avoid using flash photography. When taking your photos, be mindful to never be in a position that is higher than the priests, offerings and sacred paraphernalia.
7. Use Your Left Hand When Interacting with the Locals
This applies to most of Indonesia and some Asian countries as well. As the left hand is traditionally used for cleaning oneself after going to the bathroom, it is frowned upon to use your left hand to indicate something, hand over or accept an item, or to touch someone. If for some reason you have to use your left hand (because of injury or you’re just left-handed), explain beforehand to avoid offense.
8. Use Your Feet
This applies to some parts of Indonesia and most of Southeast Asia. Feet are considered to be the lowest and filthiest part of the body, so avoid using your feet to kick or point at anyone. If you’ve made local friends, avoid getting their attention by touching them with your feet. It’s also considered rude to put up your feet on a table when you’re in a local setting. In addition, you are usually required to take off your footwear before entering a home.
9. Touch the Head
Conversely, the head is considered the highest and the most sacred part of the body. You should avoid patting locals on the head, no matter how friendly you think the gesture is. Just to be on the safe side, you might also want to refrain from patting a child’s head although most locals might not care about a foreigner doing this. If you observe, locals would also lower their heads when interacting with those who are older than them. You don’t have to follow this, but this should tell you how important it is to respect the head. This also applies to some parts of Indonesia and most of Southeast Asia.
10. Disrespect the Day of Silence
Bali has many festivals, but one holiday that you need to get familiar with as a foreigner is Nyepi. During Nyepi, the island goes into a complete silence for 24 hours, with no fires or electricity, no traveling, no work and no entertainment. Foreigners are not exempt from the restrictions. Read this article for more info on spending Nyepi in Bali.
Check out the wonders of Bali in this video:
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