Before our two week Bali honeymoon, we read a lot about the Balinese culture and local customs. We knew that there would be a lot of cultural differences in Bali and we didn’t want to risk upsetting anyone.
I’m glad we did read up on it but we also learned a lot during our time in Bali as well.
From tipping and what to wear in Bali to temple etiquette and what you need to know about Balinese offerings, this guide to Bali’s culture for first time visitors is a culmination of everything we’ve learned. I hope it proves useful!
Balinese Culture & Etiquette: A Guide for First Time Visitors
Money and Tipping in Bali
The currency used in Bali is the Indonesian Rupiah (Rp). The exchange rate is pretty crazy so expect to feel like a millionaire when you get given your bank notes.
In Bali, cash is most definitely king. That’s not to say that no one accepts credit or debit cards in Bali; most modern hotels for example will.
But you’ll definitely want plenty of cash for things like eating out at local restaurants, having a traditional Balinese massage and buying souvenirs at a local market.
Tipping in Bali will probably be different to what you’re used to. This is because service charges are usually automatically added to your bill, which go to the government and/or the running of the hotel, restaurant or service you’re paying for.
These extra charges are anywhere from 5-20% of your total bill.
However, individual staff members often do not see any of this service charge, so if you do want to tip extra then this is always greatly appreciated.
It can be tricky to know exactly how much to tip but rounding up is usually the most common approach (e.g. if something costs Rp38000 then you could round up to Rp40000).
Bali Dress Code
Although Balinese people are conservative, Bali is also one of the most relaxed Indonesian islands when it comes to dress code – apart from when you’re visiting temples (more on that in the next section as it’s important).
Balinese locals will never berate you for your clothing. They are such polite people that they’ll try to overlook something they disapprove of.
That said, we feel it’s important to not offend in the first place so take note of these Bali dress code tips.
As a guide, you shouldn’t be bathing nude on beaches but bikinis and swim trunks are perfectly acceptable.
When strolling through town, you’ll probably see plenty of tourists and locals (particularly teenagers and young adults) wearing clothes you’d expect to see at home – think shorts, t-shirts, mini skirts etc.
You may even see a few topless boys and young men. I personally would advise men against going topless as a tourist as it can offend the older generation in Bali.
Bali Temple Etiquette
You will need to cover your knees and shoulders when visiting Balinese temples – men included.
This is usually done with a sarong although trousers and long skirts negate the need to wear one. The larger more touristy temples will provide you with a sarong to borrow but you’ll need to bring your own to smaller more local temples.
Menstruating women are not allowed in the temples. You’ll likely spot signs outside the entrance of all large temples but don’t be surprised if a local also asks you directly about this as well.
They won’t feel any embarrassment about asking you so try not to be too surprised if it does happen!
Something that tourists can often forget is that this menstruating rule actually also applies to any type of bleeding for both men and women. So if you’ve cut yourself, you also shouldn’t go in.
Likewise, women who are more than seven months pregnant or have given birth within the last six weeks will also need to sit this one out.
I know, I know. This seems ludicrous in this day and age with modern tampons and whatnot but it’s important to the Balinese people.
Most would argue it’s actually the most important rule of etiquette within the entire Balinese culture.
The idea behind it is that they don’t want to risk people leaving behind a “piece of themselves” at their place of worship.
There was once a time when even long hair was frowned upon as individual strands of hair could easily fall on the temple floor. Thankfully this is no longer the case today.
But the bleeding, menstruating and pregnancy part of all this is still very important.
Bali Rules for Couples
As the Balinese culture is a conservative one, PDAs should be kept to a minimum in Bali. Holding hands is probably the max level you want to get to in public.
Again, because Balinese people are inherently polite, you won’t be berated for kissing in public. But you would be quietly offending someone so just don’t do it okay? 😉
The only time we kissed in public was at the Bali Swing – and that was because we were instructed to by the local photographer.
This turned out to be one of our favourite photos from the trip but it did feel a little wrong at the time.
Now… something that really hit headlines recently is that the Indonesian government seriously considered passing a law stating that unmarried couples (locals and tourists alike) would be jailed for a year if caught having sex – whether in public or not.
Thankfully, they came to their senses when they realised that this would probably have a major impact on tourism.
But I think this does set a precedent for possible future changes to Indonesia’s criminal acts so this is one to keep an eye on in future years (just in case).
Balinese Offerings (Canang Sari)
All throughout Bali – in temples, by the side of the road, at rice terraces, even on the beach – you’ll see little baskets of flowers, food, money and incense. These are Balinese offerings (Canang sari) and are put out daily by the local Balinese people.
Our tour guide told us all about them explaining that they’re put out everyday without fail as a way of thanking the Gods for peace and honouring the demons in hell (so that they stay there). It’s all about balancing the good with the bad.
The most important part of these offerings are the flowers. Each colour (white, red, yellow and blue or green) represents a different major Hindu God.
You should NEVER step on them! This is considered super offensive to the local people, so watch your step when walking anywhere in Bali!
Most Balinese people are bilingual or trilingual with Bahasa Indonesia, Bahasa Bali and English spoken the most widely.
Restaurants and hotel staff all speak excellent English and locals will often speak broken English too, which is pretty easy to communicate with – or they will gesture a lot to make you understand.
That said, it’s always polite to learn a few common phrases in a foreign language when travelling.
Balinese is more commonly spoken than the Indonesian language in Bali, so here are a few common Balinese phrases to learn ahead of your trip:
Hello: Om swastiastu (om-swas-ti-as-tu)
Good morning: Selamat pagi (s’lah-mawt pag-jee)
Good afternoon: Selamat siang (s’lah mawt see-ung)
Good night: Selamat sore (s’lah-mawt sore-eh)
Good bye (to someone leaving): Selamat jalan (s’lah-mawt jah-lahn)
Good bye (if you’re the one leaving): Selemat tinggal (s’lah-mawt ting-gahl)
Thank you: Terima kasih (te-ree-ma ka-see)
You’re welcome: Kembali (kem-bay-lee)
Yes: Ya (ya)
No: Tidak (tee-duck)
Excuse me: Permisi (per-mee-see)
There are lots of different types of Balinese dance but the Kecak Fire Dance is likely the one you’ll see the most as it’s the most popular among tourists.
Kecak is an iconic Balinese dance that takes its name from the chants you can hear as a story unfolds among the dancers.
The dance tells the story of Sri Rama, Prince of the Ayodhya Kingdom, who was cast into exile by his father following an evil trick from his stepmother. Rama’s wife Sita and brother Laksamana accompany him but the evil King of Lanka Rahwana sets out to kidnap Rama’s wife. The two brothers, along with the Monkey King Hanuman and his monkey troops, seek to rescue the Princess and reunite the young lovers.
Uluwatu Temple in southern Bali is home to the most famous Kecak Fire Dance show – so do make it your mission to go if you’ve never seen a Kecak performance before.
Balinese New Year (Nyepi – The Day of Silence)
The Balinese New Year known as Nyepi (the day of silence) is an intriguing part of the Balinese culture – but is also the most problematic to your trip.
The date of the Balinese New Year changes from year to year because it’s based on the Balinese Saka calendar, which follows the lunar phases. But as a guide, Nyepi usually takes place in March or April.
Wherever you are in Bali or on the nearby islands such as Nusa Lembongan, participation in Nyepi is compulsory. And it lasts for a full 24 hours from 6am to 6am.
So why would it be problematic for your trip? Because during this 24-hour period, you’ll be expected to stay within your hotel’s grounds and keep talking (and other noises) to a minimum.
If you want to get out and about to see the island then you’ll need to wait until Nyepi is finished. And don’t even think about flying into Bali on Nyepi Day – the airports and flights shut down for 24 hours too!
If you are visiting Bali during this time then don’t be surprised if you hear A LOT of noise the day before Nyepi begins.
This is when the locals “get it out of their systems” by making as much noise as possible like banging pots and pans, throwing firecrackers and parading the streets with gamelan instruments.
Balinese funerals are nothing like ours. Instead of being a sombre event, they are a true celebration of someone’s life and are full of colour, music and laughter.
Balinese Hindus believe that people are made of both spiritual and physical parts. Although the physical part has died, the spirit (or Atma) lives on and is soon to reach another life.
Friends, families and local communities help free the spirit by cremating the physical body. This is known as Ngaben, which literally means “turning to ash”.
This cremation process is preceded by a huge parade through the streets. You’ll know you’re seeing one during your trip if you see a group of men carrying a large ox.
This is the ‘Lembu’, which is actually a coffin carrying the person’s body. It’s this that you’ll see getting burned during the actual act of Ngaben.
When befriending Balinese locals, you’ll probably notice that you hear the same set of names over and over again.
Balinese names follow a strict set of rules to indicate caste, birth order and gender. But a whopping 90% of the Balinese population all belong to the Sudra caste. Hence the same names appear again and again.
As an example, first borns within the Sudra caste are called Wayan, second borns are called Nyoman or Nengah and the youngest are called Ketut. After the fifth child, it goes back to Wayan.
Last names, however, differ. Although the Balinese don’t have common family names passed down the generations or by marriage, parents do give last names to their children based on the type of person they want them to grow up to be or a name that is linked to a particular quality they admire.
Bali Etiquette: A Few More Do’s & Don’ts To Remember
There’s so much to say about the Balinese culture so here are a few more Bali etiquette tips to take note of ahead of your trip…
Don’t use your left hand
In the Balinese culture, the left hand is considered to be dirty so people will usually give and receive something with either the right hand or both hands.
You’ll see this when exchanging money or being given the menu in a restaurant for example. Try to remember to use your right hand, or if you get stuck, then using both is a sign of great respect.
Do use the Sembah salute
Although modern Balinese people will shake hands with you, such as your tour guide or someone like that, the traditional Sembah salute is more commonly used in public.
This is when the palms are joined together and placed vertically against the chest – think Namaste in yoga. This is usually done at the same time as saying “Om swastiastu” or “May peace be with you”.
If you’re struggling with the language, the Sembah salute on its own is enough to show gratitude, respect and kindness.
Don’t touch anyone’s head
Of all the things not to do in Bali, this has to be the most important one.
According to the Balinese culture, the head is sacred as it’s where the soul enters and leaves the body.
So never touch someone’s head in public. Probably best to avoid touching your spouse’s head in public too.
Don’t show anger in public
The Balinese dislike confrontation and they actually believe those who show anger have lost control. You should try to remain calm and centred when in public so as not to upset any locals.
Don’t point at people
This is considered rude. If you need to call or beckon someone over, it’s best to use your full hand with your fingers pointed downward – much like a King or Queen would do.
We hope this guide to Balinese culture and etiquette has been useful! Is there anything else you want to know to help you prepare for your trip? Just let us know by jotting a note down in the comments below and we’ll reply back to you asap…
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