Bali is a truly amazing island in so many ways. It can be a lovely place to live and is a great vacation spot. We had the privilege to live and work there for 8 incredible years.
For anyone coming from the western world life in Bali is very different. We had never lived nor travelled in Asia before moving there. Our first month on the island was all bliss until the routine of everyday life began and the culture chock kicked in. We were lucky to have friends giving us a great introduction to the people and the culture, however it still took us a good 6 months to get used to things and navigate through our new life.
In this first part of our blog about Bali we have prepared an introduction for you to the balinese, their culture and beautiful island. Whether you are planning a vacation or thinking about moving there, getting an understanding about the place and the people is really helpful.
- Bali is one of 17.500 islands in the Indonesian Archipelago
- It is part of the Coral Triangle, the area with the highest biodiversity of marine species. In this area you can find over 500 coral species.
- Bali’s mountains include several tops over 2,000 metres and active volcanoes like Mount Batur and Mount Agung. The highest is Mount Agung at 3,031meters known as the “mother mountain”.
- The beaches in the south tend to have white sand while those in the north and west have black sand.
- The largest city is the provincial capital called Denpasar
- The whole island measures 5,780 km2
- The population is currently 4.2 million people
- The main spoken languages are Balinese, Indonesian and English.
- The main religion is Hinduism practiced by almost 85% of the population. The other main religions are Muslim, Christians and Buddhism
- The climate consists of 2 seasons — the rainy season and the dry season. The dry season should start around April and last until September/October and the rainy season from October/November until March but over the past years the seasons have blended together more and more and the weather has become less reliable.
- Tourism makes up for 80% of the economy, making Bali one of the richest islands in Indonesia.
- Bali is filled with breathtakingly beautiful rice fields. The tradition of cultivating rice has been practiced for more than a thousand years in Bali. Most balinese won’t feel full unless they have eaten rice with every main meal. The rice plantations are used almost exclusively to fill the local populations daily needs rather than for export. When passing by the fields you often see women and men with traditional rice hats and tools working. Among the most astonishing ones are the Tegallalangterraces in Ubud and Jatiluwih in the center of the island which offers a jaw dropping scenery that can be admired from a pathway that passes all the way through the area. The balinese irrigation system of the rice fields called Subak is considered a UNESCO World Heritage site.
- Other agricultural means of income comes from the cultivation of coffee, cacao, tobacco, fruit, vegetables, salt, seaweed and flowers.
- Being on an island there is of course fishing.
- The balinese are world famous for their handicraft, batik, painting, furniture and door making, essential oils and candles, accessories, jewelry, stone and wood carving.
- There are also several small chocolate factories around the island, making organic produce.
- The minimum salary in Bali today is 2.300.000 Rupiah per month (about 162 USD)
- The Balinese are very friendly and soft spoken. They absolutely detest when people raise their voices and loud confrontations. Balinese are more sensitive than people in the western world in this sense, something to be mindful about.
- Many love to laugh and tell jokes, children as well as adults, with a big sense of humour.
- The balinese are very polite and many will go out of their way to help you. Believing in Karma they are always careful about what they do and how they treat others.
- They are curious by nature and will ask complete strangers personal questions like are you married?, do you have children? and where are you going? For them this is polite cit-chat like saying hello, how do you do?
- The balinese are world class artisans with talents that cover everything from incredible skills in arts and crafts to music, dance and performance. This brings beauty all over the island.
- Most love children, making it a real paradise for tourists with small ones.
- There are no actual last names in Bali, but each family selects the last name of their children within 3 months after the birth of the child. Some names are based on what the children look like and some on what features they want their children to have, like being smart or strong, etc.
- The first names in Bali are based on the ranks of birth. Most of the names are used for either boys or girls. The first child will be called Wayan, Putu or Gede (only if a boy), The second child Made or Kadek, the third child Nyoman or Komang and the forth one Ketut. If a family have more than 4 children they start from the beginning of the name list.
- Sending their children to school is expensive for many balinese with salaries being low compared to the cost of life. Families especially in rural areas sometimes need to choose which child to send to school.
- The most common use of transportation for the balinese is the scooter. The entire family gets onboard (it’s very common to see up to 5 people on a bike) Women when in ceremonial dress ride on the bikes side-saddle, like women on horses in the old days. It’s an effective and economic way to get around since cars are too expensive for many. It’s also the most convenient way to travel because of the heavy traffic.
- The balinese believe in healers called Balians and many times prefer to go to them than to regular doctors. The Balians often treats their patients with jamu (a traditional drink), oils, natural herbs, massages and prayers. They are also able to heal fractures. From a practical aspect since hospitals are quite expensive the Balians are a more affordable option.
- Even though they live on an island the older generation of the balinese are afraid of the sea. There are a few different reasons. They believe that an evil god sometimes visits Bali arriving by sea, and throughout history enemies arrived from the ocean, making the shores and beaches areas to stay away from.
- In spite of being blessed with a beautiful colour most balinese prefer to have white skin so they stay away from the sun. Historically being white meant that you were of a higher cast and could afford to stay inside. The supermarkets are filled with a variety of whitening creams and soaps — something to avoid if you want to work on your tan so pay a little extra attention to the labels. Because of the tourism some balinese work on the beach renting sunchairs, offering massages, selling fruits and drinks or offering surfing lessons. When the sun goes down the beaches fill with locals strolling, hanging out with their families and friends, playing football, taking a bath or burying each other in the sand, especially during Sunday afternoons.
- Most balinese buy their groceries and clothing at the traditional markets. The food sections are covered with a distinctive smell of durian or fish. Besides clothing and food you can also find pets, plants, jewelry, magical potions, gardening tools, rice hats, etc. Most of the time when we went to the traditional market in Tabanan we were the only foreigners there.
- The mother or grandmother in the family prepares food in the morning for the whole family which is then eaten throughout the day. Most families don’t have the tradition of sitting down and eating together but eat when they are hungry. Traditionally the balinese don’t eat at a table but sitting on the floor of a pavilion. They eat with their right hand and hold the plate with their left hand (the impure one that is used for washing themselves). Knives are never used, only forks and spoons to divide meat or fish.
- One of their favourite dishes is Pork — Babi Guling which is a festive meal. There is a lot of breeding of Pork on the island.
- The balinese tradition since ancient times has been to package and serve food inside leaves. Once the meal was eaten the leaves were thrown on the ground, returned to earth. When food started to be wrapped in plastic the population had to get used to not throwing the plastic on the ground but in trash bins. This is a habit still being reinforced today, with education about the damage plastic does to the environment.
- It’s not uncommon to see people bathe, fish and go to the bathroom in the rivers surrounding Bali, especially in the rural areas.
- Bali is a very spiritual island, called the island of the gods. The majority of the population is Hindu who believe that the island belongs to several gods and the spirits of their ancestors who allow humans to live there in exchange for keeping the balance and harmony.
- Since Hinduism is the main religion which colours most aspects of life in Bali we have concentrated on this part of the culture.
- The balinese believe that it’s important to pay their respects not only to the gods but also to the demons. Good and evil creates balance. The offerings you see on Hindu shrines in Bali are for the gods while the offerings on the ground are for the demons. If you accidentally step on an offering don’t worry, for the Balinese the important thing is that the offering has been done.
- Each offering consists of a basket called a canang sari which must contain flower petals, incense and sweets splashed with holy water. Most of the time they also contain a balinese coin called Pis Bolong, believed to have magical powers. The smoke from the incense makes the offering reach the gods and the demons. In the past women used to make the offerings completely by themselves but in recent years more and more are working so most offerings are bought.
- The Hindu’s pray at least 3 times per day. All over Bali you hear the prayer chants from temples and the radio at 6am, noon and at 6pm. Usually the women are in charge of making the morning offerings. In a traditional family about 15 offerings are put out every day.
- Volcano Gunung Agung is the place where the balinese believe that the Gods and Ancestors live. The villages, temples houses and furniture inside the houses are positioned towards the top of the volcano to create a good energy in life.
- Traditional Balinese houses have a wall just behind the front entrance. The major reason for this is to avoid demons to enter the home. They believe that demons only travel straight, so the second door blocks and prevents them from entering since they are unable to turn and pass around it. The house is made up of different pavilions, most of which are raised from the ground — away from where the evil spirits are hanging out.
- The house consists of a temple, the living space and then the area where the animals are kept. The family temple is always placed facing the east.
- When the Balinese build a house for the family the architect decides on the dimensions of the different pavilions depending on the physical dimensions of the head of the family. Before moving in a ceremony is held to bless the house.
- It’s offensive to the balinese if you touch their head and before entering anyone’s home take your shoes off since shoes have been in contact with the dirty earth. One of the reasons why many balinese houses are one story is because they don’t like the idea of having anyone walking on top of their heads.
- There is a huge amount of temples on the island which are the places of worship. Each village has at least 3 temples — one for each god. The most important temple in Bali is called Besakih. The temple here below is by the Lotus Pond up in Ubud
- The swastika cross found in Bali, mostly in temples, looks similar to the Nazi symbol. The history of the balinese cross is older and has several beautiful meanings, contrary to the German version. If oriented to the right it means prosperity and if oriented to the left it means Affection.
- Bali is covered with large, tall trees with bold roots called banyan treeswhich the Balinese consider sacred. Next to the trees they place small shrines covered with black and white checkerboard fabric called poleng. The contrast between the black and white symbolizes the opposites between good and evil.
- There is a lot of competition between families on who has the most beautiful decorations for their ceremonies. People spend large amounts of money and sometimes take bank loans to make really special decorations.
- Bali has its own calendar. One Balinese year is 210 days. They don’t keep a count of the years, the important thing is to follow the traditional ceremonies and holidays based on this calendar.
- For the balinese weddings the date must be set by the high priest in the village. The bride and groom are adorned with traditional golden or brass jewelry and are dressed in traditional clothing in yellow and red symbolizing beauty. Both the bride and the groom wear heavy makeup. No one can get married before having gone through a tooth filing ceremony, which is done to help people avoiding to act on bad behaviour and instincts.
- Polygamy is still legal in Bali. Our Balinese friend and driver’s father was a priest and had 10 wives.
- By tradition the youngest son in the family stays with his parents, where he will live for the rest of his life caring for them. Once married his wife will move in too.
- The balinese are convinced that their spirits will be reincarnated. By cremating the body it helps to free the spirit and to leave the body. The cremation ceremonies are the most spectacular of the Balinese ceremonies. Only people of a very high rank have the right to a personal funeral while regular people are cremated during a collective ceremony. The funerals are held in each village and happens about once every 3 years, so most dead are buried while waiting for the date. During the ceremony the dead are put inside a beautiful coffin in the shape of an animal like a bull or a lion, etc. On the day of the ceremony the whole village participates, dressed in traditional clothing. In the end the ashes are collected and spread out in the sea.
- Bali is full with dogs and cats — most families have at least one. The cats look a bit different from Western cats. They are smaller built and their tails either look like they’ve been broken with a bend towards the end or curled up to a swirl like a pigs tail. Cats are sacred animals in Bali. We brought our beautiful balinese cat Olivia back to Italy with us where she’s settled in just fine. The balinese also keep roosters as pets which are also used for cockfights where bets are put on the winner. The cockfights have officially been banned but still happen anyway.
- From June to September, October there is a windy season in Bali. The balinese are excellent craftsmen and love to build things. In preparation for the windy season the men in the family build kites, often huge ones. Each year there is a competition in Sanur where many villages participate. The kite tradition is ancient in Bali and believed to be sacred.
- The Gamelan is the traditional orchestra of Bali. Each Banjar has its own orchestra and children start to learn how to play at a very young age.
- For the balinese their traditional dance has several purposes. It’s for entertaining people and the gods and it allows them to be closer to God.
- for the balinese theatre masks (topeng) hold magic powers. It is believed that when an actor/actress wear a mask he inhabits the spirit of the character he’s playing. Topeng shows are performed for several reasons, both to entertain as well as part of religious ceremonies.
- The Barongs are believed to be very powerful. They represent a king and his wife as well as several different animals where the head is the most sacred part. The mask of the barong is carved in wood from a tree that derives from a sacred ground. The barong ceremonies are very popular amongst children. You can see processions of the Barong in the streets of the villages.
- The Banjar is the smallest formal entity of local government in Bali. It stands above the police and watches over the cultural values of society. You can recognize the Banjar from their black and white sarongs. The Banjar gets together at a place called banjar pavilion, a place where community meetings and other activities take place. At the head of each Banjar is a Klian elected by the General Assembly of the family heads. The Banjar is a very old establishment which dates back to ancient times. The villages in Bali consist of several Banjars. A new one is founded when 500 inhabitants are exceeded. Banjar means neighbourhood. After marriage the membership of a balinese man is mandatory in the Banjar. If he rejects it he can be called as riot in the village. All family members are part of the Banjar but in a passive way. Men can raise their voice on behalf of their wives while women act as support. Non-balinese and foreigners cannot be members.
- The concept of time is a bit different in Bali from the Western world. The word yesterday (kemarin) means any day from yesterday to any other day back in time while the word tomorrow (besok) means any day from tomorrow onwards.
THE MAJOR HOLIDAYS
- Nyepi is probably the most particular of the Balinese holidays. It is believed that the king of hell releases demons over Bali that day. To protect the island people prepare huge monsters in papier marche, fabric, fur, etc, beautifully done and put together months before the Nyepi day. At nightfall the huge statues called Ogoh-Ogoh are brought into the streets all around the island. There are amazing light, sound and smoke effects, all to scare away the bad spirits. It takes many men to carry a single Ogoh-Ogoh and the streets fill up with people watching. From midnight on Nyepi day every person in Bali needs to stay inside and no sound can be made. Guards patrol the island to make sure the rules are followed. Even the airport and all tv channels shut down this day. No lights can be lit, only a candle is allowed to help to cook if absolutely necessary. Nyepi is for the Hindu’s a day of prayer, reflection, meditation and fasting. By being quiet the people of Bali fool the demons to believe that everyone is gone so they leave the island.
- Melasti is a purification ceremony and ritual, which is held several days before Nyepi. Melasti is meant as the ritual to cleanse the world from all the filth of sin and bad karma. It’s held on the edge of the beach with the aim to purify oneself of all the bad things in the past and throw it to the ocean. In Hindu belief, the source of water is considered as the source of life. In addition to praying all sacred objects which belongs to a temple and all sacred equipment’s are cleaned and purified.
- Galungan is a holiday celebrating the triumph of good over evil. It is the time when ancestral spirits of deceased relatives visit the earth. The last day of the celebration is Kuningan, when they leave earth. The spirits of dead relatives return to visit their old homes and the balinese have an obligation to be welcoming to them through prayers and offerings placed in the home. The most outstanding symbol of the celebrations are the penjor which are bamboo’s with offerings suspended at the ends. During this holiday you see them lining the roads, one more beautiful than the other.
- Pagarwesi is the day when the Balinese strengthen their minds and souls against evil forces. It’s celebrated every six months according to the Balinese calendar, the celebration is usually three days after Saraswati.
- Tumpek Landep is a ceremonial day when offerings are made for objects that are made of metal. The ceremonies start in the morning at the village temple where people gather for prayers and blessings. Afterwards more ceremonies and blessings follow at which offerings are made for the holy family keris that most families own, but also for cars, motorbikes and computers, etc. Most Balinese people believe that these ceremonies and blessings will bring them luck and keep them safe in traffic.
- Odalan is the celebration of each temple’s anniversary. Temple festivals are held on the anniversary of the temple consecration and usually on a new or full moon. In Bali there are over 4,500 temples so you can imagine the amount of ceremonies. The usual Odalan ceremony lasts for around 3 days while the ceremony for an old, large temple can last for around 11 days. During Odalan the balinese honour the gods that rule over the temple with offerings, music and performances.
- Tumpek Kandang is the day to worship the God of animals. The household animals like cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, dogs, and birds are all highly valued. During Tumpek Kandang pigs are usually decorated with a white cloth. The animals are fed with special foods, sprinkled with holy water and prayers are done.
- The Full Moon is believed to be the time when God answers prayers and it is considered to be a favourable day to plant things in the garden, The prayers this day include honouring the shadow and light that help to find balance in life.
Of course there is a lot more to learn about Bali, the balinese and their culture, but we hope this has provided you with a helpful first introduction, peaking your interest about this extraordinary island.
In the next chapter we will prepare a list of our top suggestions of things to do when you vacation in Bali.
On our website kirschon.com and in our Como showroom you can find a variety of beautiful, artisan crafted pieces from Bali, like our limited edition frame collection of the sacred pis bolong coins or Balinese wedding bangles.
Have a wonderful week and thanks for reading!