Immerse yourself in Bali culture and traditions

For 3,000 years, Bali has been the home of the Gods. Now this rich and colourful history can make your holiday heavenly.

It doesn't matter where you go or what you do in Bali, the past plays out in everything you see. From highly-carved temples and artisan fabrics to the beautiful canang sari offerings left at shrines for the Gods, the intricate details of Bali's living culture make everyday life beautiful.

Bali's culture is steeped in Hindu tradition. Even the name - Bali Dwipa - is Sanskrit for 'Island of sacrifice and reincarnation'. Take your time to scratch below the surface and you'll have a travel adventure that's much more meaningful than a straightforward holiday.

Discover Balinese food

Apart from in Ubud, which has a lot to offer vegetarians and vegans, Balinese traditional food is generally meat based. For example, a typical lunch meal is rice, chicken skewers with satay sauce and vegetable side dishes. While this sounds like simple fare, it has the salty/sweet/hot balance that makes Indonesian cuisine so delicious. Here are some other dishes you have to try:

  • Mie or nasi goreng, which is fried noodles or rice with vegetables and chicken, shrimp or pork. Poppies in Kuta is a great place for nasi goreng, but you'll find it on almost every restaurant menu
  • Bebek betutu is another mainstay of Balinese cuisine. It's roast duck dish with crispy skin, infused with loads of flavour. Try Murni's Warung or Bebek Bengil in Ubud
  • Babi guling is a whole roast suckling pig, which you can find in Kuta at Marung Babi Guling
  • For dessert or a snack, try pisang goring - deep fried banana fritters or pie Sssu enaaak - milk pies. Vegetarians will love tempeh, the Indonesian version of tofu. It's got a texture and flavour that's not unlike peanuts

If you want to learn how to cook any of these amazing Balinese delights, there are cooking schools everywhere. Try Paon Bali in Ubud, Anika Balinese Cooking in Kuta or Chef Bagus Balinese in Seminyak.

Admire traditional architecture

Buildings in Bali are designed to create a harmonious and balanced energy for the spirits. They face the rising sun, the ocean or the local volcanoes. For a structure to be legal in Bali, it's not allowed to be taller than a coconut tree (15m), so the overall built profile doesn't drown out nature.

Traditional Balinese homes are designed around Hindu beliefs and traditions. There are generally several structures built within a walled enclosure. As a result, the homes look a lot like temples, especially with the pendulous penjors lining the roads (a penjor is a tall bamboo pole decorated with coconut leaves and triangular boxes).

Bali temples, and there are hundreds of them, make a massive visual impact. The most memorable feature for many travellers is the candi bentar (split gate), which resembles a mountain that has been cut down the middle. The two sides represent the importance of maintaining a balance between dark and light forces. Here are some of the best temples in Bali:

  • The Mother Temple 'Besakih', on the side of Mount Agung, is more than 1,000 years old. It's a showstopper
  • Ulun Danu Beratan Temple has a beautiful lake next to it, reflecting the temple set amidst beautiful gardens
  • In central Ubud, the Pura Taman Saraswati Temple is just behind Starbucks. It's a peaceful spot to meditate among the lotuses
  • Lempuyang Temple is the oldest and most Instagrammed temple in Bali
  • Tanah Lot Temple is on a tiny island north of Kuta. Visit at sunset for exquisite photos

Enjoy dancing, theatre and music

Balinese culture is full of colourful costumes, fascinating legends and intriguing ceremonies, so make sure you catch a live production while you're visiting. There are three main types: Wali performances, which are sacred and performed inside temples; Bebali performances, which are ceremonial entertainment for deities; and Balih-balihan performances that tourists can watch. Here are some of the best balih-balihan shows to look for:

  • The Kecak culture dance is based on the story of Ramayana, the Hindu story of a woman stolen from her husband by a demon. Colourful and intriguing, this will be a highlight of your trip
  • Barong Waksirsa use traditional musical instruments, such as chimes and bells, to create the discordant noises that accompany beautiful dancers. In their sparkling costumes, the dancers tell the story about the goddess Durga who came to earth
  • Gamelan Semara Ratih is a collective of musicians, dancers and composers. They perform all over the world, but have a weekly performance in Ubud
  • Also in Ubud, the Oka Kartini Shadow Puppet Performance has been running for over 20 years. It's a show that many rate as a 'must-see'

Shop for art and handicrafts

Bali has a profusion of artists who work across a range of different mediums - painting, sculpture, carving and multi-media. Many artworks are available to buy, just make sure you're buying the real deal and not a mass-produced factory item.

Keep your eye out for a finely woven cloth called wastra endek, which is covered in motifs and used for special ceremonies. Sideman Village is the best place to find this fabric at the right price. Tenganan, near Candidasa, is a village that specialises in finely-woven basketry that lasts for years. The Balinese village of Celuk is famous for beautifully made silver jewellery, while Batubulan village is known for wood and stone carving. Wherever you roam in Bali, it's easy to find wonderful arts and crafts to take home.

To get a historical understanding of Balinese art and culture, visit Bali Museum in Denpasar. There are buildings devoted to music and theatre, sculptures and painting, textiles, and archaeological finds. You'll find another glimpse of the past at Agung Rai Museum in Ubud.

For something completely non-traditional, Blanco Renaissance Museum is where Don Antonio Blanco lived and painted his erotic, slightly-unhinged masterpieces.

Get your head around the language, customs and etiquette

There are three main languages spoken in Bali - Indonesian, English and Balinese. Most people who live in Bali speak two or three languages, often more. Indonesian is a recent language, created to bring the entire country together. In Bali, Balinese is still used.

  • Om suastiastu = hello (Balinese greeting)
  • Suksema (informal) or Matur suksema (formal) = thank you
  • Tempat= please
  • Enak sekali = very delicious
  • Warung = small family-owned store
  • Bebek = duck
  • Jalan jalan = walking (good to say to tuk tuk/taxi drivers who are bothering you)
  • Kamar kecil = toilet
  • Hati-hati = be careful/ warning

You will find that there are a lot of repeated names in Balinese culture. Generally, a firstborn is called Wayan, Putu or Gede, second child is Made or Kadek, third is Nyoman or Komang, and the fourth is Ketut. Then, the cycle begins again, with a fifth child being Wayan Balik (another Wayan). As a result, there are many people who simply go by their nickname, especially if they are another Wayan!

Bali has a number of cultural etiquette guidelines you should follow while you're visiting, for example:

  • Dress modestly in town or at markets. Hinduism is a conservative religion
  • Take your footwear off when entering a temple, house and even some shops
  • Cover your shoulders and legs when entering a temple, and behave respectfully
  • Never touch someone's head - Balinese believe the soul resides in the head, so it's a holy place.
  • Don't point at people using your index finger
  • The left hand is considered dirty, so try not to use that when paying for something or interacting with others
  • Don't point your feet at someone. When sitting, don't put your foot on your thigh or knee
  • Don't step on the food/flower offerings (canang sari) that the Balinese leave out for the Gods
  • If eating at someone's home, leave some food on the plate as an offering to the Gods (it also shows you've had enough to eat)
  • Don't argue with people in public, if you must, take them aside
  • Above all, Balinese are genuinely warm and welcoming, and will smile at you. Make sure you smile back!

Keep exploring Bali