Design is part of Bali's spiritual heritage and this heritage contributes to the look of traditional homes, temples and even modern buildings, such as the myriad resorts. Bali style is timeless, whether it is centuries old or embodied in a new hip villa. And it's not static – Bali is the site of world-renowned architecture made with renewable materials like bamboo.

Architecture & Life

Architecture brings together the living and the dead, pays homage to the gods and wards off evil spirits, not to mention the torrential rain. As spiritual as it is functional, as mystical as it is beautiful, Balinese architecture has a life force of its own.

On an island bound by deep-rooted religious and cultural rituals, the priority of any design is appeasing the ancestral and village gods. This means reserving the holiest (northeast) location in every land space for the village temple, the same corner in every home for the family temple, and providing a comfortable, pleasing atmosphere to entice the gods back to Bali for ceremonies.

So while it exudes beauty, balance, age-old wisdom and functionality, a Balinese home is not a commodity designed with capital appreciation in mind; even while an increasing number of rice farmers sell their ancestral land to foreigners for villa developments, they're keeping the parcel on which their home stands.

Preserving the Cosmic Order

A village, a temple, a family compound, an individual structure – and even a single part of the structure – must all conform to the Balinese concept of cosmic order. It consists of three parts that represent the three worlds of the cosmos – swah (the world of gods), bhwah (world of humans) and bhur (world of demons). The concept also represents a three-part division of a person: utama (the head), madia (the body) and nista (the legs). The units of measurement used in traditional buildings are directly based on the anatomical dimensions of the head of the household, ensuring harmony between the dwelling and those who live in it.

The design is traditionally done by an undagi (a combination architect-priest); it must maintain harmony between god, man and nature under the concept of Tri Hita Karana. If it's not quite right, the universe may fall off balance and no end of misfortune and ill health will visit the community involved.

Building on the Bale

The basic element of Balinese architecture is the bale, a rectangular, open-sided pavilion with a steeply pitched roof of thatch. Both a family compound and a temple will comprise a number of separate bale for specific functions, all surrounded by a high wall. The size and proportions of the bale, the number of columns and the position within the compound are all determined according to tradition and the owner's caste status.

The focus of a community is a large pavilion, called the bale banjar, used for meetings, debates and gamelan (traditional orchestra) practice, among many other activities. You'll find that large modern buildings such as restaurants and the reception areas of resorts are often modelled on the larger bale, and they can be airy, spacious and very handsomely proportioned.

The Family Compound

The Balinese house looks inward – the outside is simply a high wall. Inside there is a garden and a separate small building or bale for each activity – one for cooking, one for washing and the toilet, and separate buildings for each 'bedroom'. In Bali's mild tropical climate people live outside, so the 'living room' and 'dining room' will be open verandah areas, looking out into the garden. The whole complex is oriented on the kajakelod (towards the mountains–towards the sea) axis.

Homes from Head to…

Analogous to the human body, compounds have a head (the family temple with its ancestral shrine), arms (the sleeping and living areas), legs and feet (the kitchen and rice storage building), and even an anus (the garbage pit or pigsty). There may be an area outside the house compound where fruit trees are grown or a pig is kept.

There are several variations on the typical family compound. For example, the entrance is commonly on the kuah (sunset side), rather than the kelod (away from the mountains and towards the sea) side, but never on the kangin (sunrise) or kaja (in the direction of the mountains) side.

Traditional Balinese homes are found in every region of the island; Ubud remains an excellent place to see them simply because of the concentration of homes there. Many accept guests. South of Ubud, you can enjoy an in-depth tour of the Nyoman Suaka Home in Singapadu.

Typical Family Compound

The following are elements commonly found in family compounds. Although there are variations, the designs are surprisingly similar, especially given they occur thousands of times across Bali.

Sanggah or Merajan Family temple, which is always at the kaja–kangin (sunrise in the direction of the mountains) corner of the courtyard. There will be shrines to the Hindu 'trinity' of Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu, and to taksu (the divine intermediary).

Umah Meten Sleeping pavilion for the family head.

Tugu Shrine to the god of evil spirits in the compound but at the far kaja–kuah (sunset in the direction of the mountains) corner; by employing the chief evil spirit as a guard, others will stay away.

Pengijeng Small shrine amid the compound's open space, dedicated to the spirit who is the guardian of the property.

Bale Tiang Sanga Guest pavilion, also known as the bale duah. Literally the family room, it's used as a gathering place, offering workplace or temporary quarters of lesser sons and their families before they establish their own home.

Natah Courtyard with frangipani or hibiscus shade trees, with always a few chickens pecking about, plus a fighting cock or two in a basket.

Bale Sakenam or Bale Dangin Working and sleeping pavilion; may be used for important family ceremonies.

Fruit Trees & Coconut Palms Serve both practical and decorative purposes. Fruit trees are often mixed with flowering trees such as hibiscus, and caged songbirds hang from the branches.

Vegetable Garden Small; usually just for a few spices such as lemongrass not grown on larger plots.

Bale Sakepat Sleeping pavilion for children; highly optional.

Paon Kitchen; always in the south, as that is the direction associated with Brahma, god of fire.

Lumbung Rice barn – the domain of both the precious grain and Dewi Sri, the rice goddess. It's elevated to discourage rice-eating pests.

Rice-Threshing Area Important for farmers to prepare rice for cooking or storage.

Aling Aling Screen wall requiring visitors to turn a sharp left or right. This ensures both privacy from passers-by and protection from demons, which the Balinese believe cannot turn corners.

Candi Kurung Gate with a roof, resembling a mountain or tower split in half.

Apit Lawang or Pelinggah Gate shrines, which continually receive offerings to recharge the gate's ability to repel evil spirits.

Pigsty or garbage pit Always in the kangin–kelod (sunrise in the direction away from the mountains) corner, the compound's waste ends up here.


Every village in Bali has several temples, and every home has at least a simple house-temple. The Balinese word for temple is pura, from a Sanskrit word literally meaning 'a space surrounded by a wall'. Similar to a traditional Balinese home, a temple is walled in – so the shrines you see in rice fields or at 'magical' spots such as old trees are not real temples. These simple shrines or thrones often overlook crossroads, to protect passers-by.

All temples are built on a mountains–sea orientation, not north–south. The direction towards the mountains, kaja, is the end of the temple, where the holiest shrines are found. The temple's entrance is at the kelod. Kangin is more holy than the kuah, so many secondary shrines are on the kangin side. Kaja may be towards a particular mountain – Pura Besakih in east Bali is pointed directly towards Gunung Agung – or towards the mountains in general, which run east–west along the length of Bali.

Temple Types

There are three basic temple types found in most villages. The most important is the pura puseh (temple of origin), dedicated to the village founders and at the kaja end of the village. In the middle of the village is the pura desa, for the many spirits that protect the village community in daily life. At the kelod end of the village is the pura dalem (temple of the dead). The graveyard is also here, and the temple may include representations of Durga, the terrible side of Shiva's wife Parvati. Both Shiva and Parvati have a creative and destructive side; their destructive powers are honoured in the pura dalem.

Other temples include those dedicated to the spirits of irrigated agriculture. Because rice growing is so important in Bali, and the division of water for irrigation is handled with the utmost care, these pura subak or pura ulun suwi (temple of the rice-growers association) can be of considerable importance. Other temples may also honour dry-field agriculture, as well as the flooded rice paddies.

In addition to these 'local' temples, there are a lesser number of great temples. Often a kingdom would have three of these temples that sit at the very top of the temple pecking order: a main state temple in the heartland of the state (such as Pura Taman Ayun in Mengwi, western Bali); a mountain temple (such as Pura Besakih, eastern Bali); and a sea temple (such as Pura Luhur Ulu Watu, southern Bali).

Every house in Bali has its house-temple, which is at the kaja–kangin corner of the courtyard and has at least five shrines.

Temple Decoration

Temples and their decoration are closely linked on Bali. A temple gateway is not just erected; every square centimetre of it is carved in sculptural relief and a diminishing series of demon faces is placed above it as protection. Even then, it's not complete without several stone statues to act as guardians.

The level of decoration inside varies. Sometimes a temple is built with minimal decoration in the hope that sculpture can be added when more funds are available. The sculpture can also deteriorate after a few years because much of the stone used is soft and the tropical climate ages it very rapidly (that centuries-old temple you're looking at may in fact be less than 10 years old!). Sculptures are restored or replaced as resources permit – it's not uncommon to see a temple with old carvings, which are barely discernible, next to newly finished work.

Sculpture often appears in set places in Bali's temples. Door guardians – representations of legendary figures such as Arjuna or other protective personalities – flank the steps to the gateway. Above the main entrance to a temple, Kala's monstrous face often peers out, sometimes a number of times, and his hands reach out beside his head to catch any evil spirits foolish enough to try and sneak in.

Temple Design

Although overall temple architecture is similar in both northern and southern Bali, there are some important differences. The inner courtyards of southern temples usually house a number of meru (multitiered shrines), together with other structures, whereas in the north, everything is grouped on a single pedestal. On the pedestal you'll find 'houses' for the deities to use on their earthly visits; they're also used to store religious relics.

While Balinese sculpture and painting were once exclusively used as architectural decoration for temples, you'll soon see that sculpture and painting have developed as separate art forms influencing the look of every aspect of the island. And the art of temple and shrine construction is as vibrant as ever: more than 500 new ones in all sizes are built every month.

Typical Temple Elements

No two temples on Bali are identical. Variations in style, size, importance, wealth, purpose and much more result in near infinite variety. But there are common themes and elements. Use this as a guide and see how many design elements you can find in each Balinese temple you visit.

Candi Bentar The intricately sculpted temple gateway, like a tower split down the middle and moved apart, symbolises that you are entering a sanctum. It can be quite grand, with auxiliary entrances on either side for daily use.

Kulkul Tower The warning-drum tower, from which a wooden split drum (kulkul) is sounded to announce events at the temple or warn of danger.

Bale A pavilion, usually open-sided, for temporary use or storage. It may include a bale gong, where the gamelan orchestra plays at festivals; a paon, or temporary kitchen, to prepare offerings; or a wantilan, a stage for dances or cockfights.

Kori Agung or Paduraksa The gateway to the inner courtyard is an intricately sculpted stone tower. Entry is through a doorway reached by steps in the middle of the tower and left open during festivals.

Raksa or Dwarapala Statues of fierce guardian figures who protect the doorway and deter evil spirits. Above the door will be the equally fierce face of a Bhoma, with hands outstretched against unwanted spirits.

Aling Aling If an evil spirit does get in, this low wall behind the entrance will keep it at bay, as evil spirits find it difficult to make sharp turns. Also found in family compounds.

Side Gate (Betelan) Most of the time (except during ceremonies), entry to the inner courtyard is through this side gate, which is always open.

Small Shrines (Gedong) These usually include shrines to Ngrurah Alit and Ngrurah Gede, who organise things and ensure the correct offerings are made.

Padma Stone Throne for the sun god Surya, placed in the most auspicious kaja–kangin (sunrise in the direction of the mountains) corner. It rests on the badawang (world turtle), which is held by two naga (mythical snakelike creatures).

Meru A multiroofed shrine. Usually there is an 11-roofed meru to Sanghyang Widi, the supreme Balinese deity, and a three-roofed meru to the holy mountain Gunung Agung. However, meru can take any odd number of steps in between, depending on where the intended god falls in the pecking order. The black thatching is made from sugar-palm fronds and is very expensive.

Small Shrines (Gedong) At the kaja end of the courtyard, these may include a shrine to the sacred mountain Gunung Batur; a Maospahit shrine to honour Bali's original Hindu settlers (Majapahit); and a shrine to the taksu, who acts as an interpreter for the gods. (Trance dancers or mediums may be used to convey the gods' wishes.)

Bale Piasan Open pavilions used to display temple offerings.

Gedong Pesimpangan A stone building dedicated to the village founder or a local deity.

Paruman or Pepelik Open pavilion in the inner courtyard, where the gods are supposed to assemble to watch the ceremonies of a temple festival.

Top Temple Visits

Over 10,000 temples are found everywhere on Bali – from cliff tops and beaches to volcanoes – and are often beautiful places to experience. Visitors will find the following especially rewarding.

Directional Temples

Some temples are so important they are deemed to belong to the whole island rather than particular communities. There are nine kahyangan jagat (directional temples) including the following:

Pura Luhur Batukau One of Bali's most important temples is situated magically up the misty slopes of Gunung Batukau.

Pura Luhur Ulu Watu As important as it is popular, this temple has sweeping Indian Ocean views, sunset dance performances and monkeys.

Pura Goa Lawah See Bali's own Bat Cave at this cliff-side temple filled with the winged critters.

Sea Temples

The legendary 16th-century priest Nirartha founded a chain of temples to honour the sea gods. Each was intended to be within sight of the next, and several have dramatic locations on the south coast. They include the following:

Pura Rambu Siwi On a wild stretch of the west coast and not far from where Nirartha arrived in the 16th century. Locks of his hair are said to be buried in a shrine.

Pura Tanah Lot Sacred as the day begins, it becomes a temple of mass tourism at sunset.

Other Important Temples

Some temples have particular importance because of their location, spiritual function or architecture. The following reward visitors:

Pura Maduwe Karang An agricultural temple on the north coast, this is famous for its spirited bas-reliefs, including one of possibly Bali's first bicycle rider.

Pura Pusering Jagad One of the famous temples at Pejeng, near Ubud, which dates to the 14th-century empire that flourished here. It has an enormous bronze drum from that era.

Pura Taman Ayun This vast and imposing state temple was a centrepiece of the Mengwi empire and has been nominated for Unesco recognition.

Pura Tirta Empul The beautiful temple at Tampaksiring, with holy springs discovered in AD 962 and bathing pools at the source of Sungai Pakerisan.

The Birth of Bali Style

Tourism has given Balinese architecture unprecedented exposure and it seems that every visitor wants to take a slice of this island back home with them.

Shops all around Denpasar churn out prefabricated, knock-down bale for shipment to far-flung destinations: the Caribbean, London, Perth and Hong Kong. Furniture workshops in Denpasar and handicraft villages near Ubud are flat out making ornaments for domestic and export markets.

The craze stems back to the early 1970s, when Australian artist Donald Friend formed a partnership with Manado-born Wija Waworuntu, who had built the Tandjung Sari on Sanur beach a decade earlier. With a directive to design traditional, village-style alternatives to the Western multistoreyed hotels, they brought two architects to Bali – Australian Peter Muller and the late Sri Lankan Geoffrey Bawa – who took traditional architecture and adapted it to Western standards of luxury.

Before long, the design sensation known as 'Bali Style' was born. Then, the term reflected Muller and Bawa's sensitive, low-key approach, giving precedence to culture over style, and respect for traditional principles and craftspeople, local renewable materials and age-old techniques. Today, the development of a mass market has inevitably produced a much looser definition.

Contemporary Hotel Design

For centuries, foreign interlopers, such as the priest Nirartha, have played an intrinsic part in the island's myths and legends. These days, tourists are making an impact on the serenity of Balinese cosmology and its seamless translation into the island's traditional architecture. And while these visitors with large credit limits aren't changing the island's belief system – much – they are changing its look.

Most hotel designs on Bali and Lombok are purely functional or pastiches of traditional designs, but some of the finest hotels on the islands aspire to something greater. Notable examples include:

Tandjung Sari Located in Sanur, it is Wija Waworuntu's classic prototype for the Balinese boutique beach hotel.

Amandari The crowning achievement of architect Peter Muller, who also designed the two Oberois. Located near Ubud, the inclusion of traditional Balinese materials, crafts and construction techniques, as well as Balinese design principles, respects the island's approach to the world.

Oberoi The very first luxury hotel, located in Seminyak, remains Muller's relaxed vision of a Balinese village. The bale agung (village assembly hall) and bale banjar form the basis for common areas.

Oberoi Lombok Both the most luxurious and the most traditionally styled hotel on Lombok.

Amankila In east Bali, Amankila adopts a garden strategy, with a carefully structured landscape of lotus ponds and floating pavilions that steps down an impossibly steep site.

Hotel Tugu Bali In Canggu, exemplifies the notion of instant age, the ability of materials in Bali to weather quickly and provide 'pleasing decay'.

Four Seasons Resort A striking piece of aerial sculpture near Ubud, with a huge elliptical lotus pond sitting above a base structure that appears like an eroded and romantic ruin set within a spectacular river valley.

Alila Villas Uluwatu In far south Bali, Alila employs an artful contemporary style that's light and airy, conveying a sense of great luxury. Set amid hotel-tended rice fields, it embodies advanced green-building principles.

Katamama The same architectural derring-do that makes neighbouring Potato Head much copied is on display at the club's hotel. However, here the details are lavish and artful. Designed by Indonesian Andra Martin, it's a lavish confection of Javanese bricks, Balinese stone and other indigenous materials.

The Power of Bamboo

Bali has always had natural cathedrals of bamboo. In the dense tropical forests of the east and west, soaring stalks arch together in ways that lift the soul. Now bamboo, one of the world's great renewable resources, is being used to create soaring and inspirational buildings whose sinuous designs are simply awe-inspiring.

Much credit for the current bamboo revolution goes to famed jeweller John Hardy, who had bamboo used in the revolutionary structures that formed the landmark Green School southwest of Ubud in 2007. People took one look at the fabulous fantasy of its bridge and came away inspired. Since then bamboo's use in buildings has taken off across Bali and there are some beautiful examples of its use that go far beyond the old bamboo hut cliche of Gilligan's Island. These include the following:

Fivelements A health resort, not far from the Green School.

Power of Now Oasis A striking beachside yoga studio in Sanur.

Hai Bar & Grill A beachside bar on Nusa Lembongan.

Sardine The lauded restaurant on its own rice field in Kerobokan.

Finns Beach Club A high-style, upscale beach lounge and restaurant near Canggu.

Big Tree Farms A huge temple to chocolate that's also near the Green School.

Sidebar: 1

The rule that no building shall exceed the height of a coconut palm dates back to the 1960s when the 10-storey Bali Beach Hotel caused much consternation. However, soaring land prices in the south and ineffectual enforcement of building codes mean that this 'rule' is being increasingly challenged.

Sidebar: 2

Hard-wearing terracotta tiles have been the traditional roofing material since the Dutch era. Thatch in various forms or bamboo are now reserved for the most traditional and ceremonial sites.

Sidebar: 3

Look for carved wooden garudas, the winged bird that bears the god Wisnu, in the most surprising places – high up in pavilion rafters, at the base of columns, pretty much anywhere.

Sidebar: 4

The various open-air bale in family compounds are where visitors are received. Typically, drinks and small cakes will be served and friendly conversations will ensue for possibly an hour or more before the purpose of a visit is discussed.

Sidebar: 5

When you stay in a hotel featuring lumbung design, you are really staying in a place derived from rice storage barns – the 2nd floor is meant to be airless and hot!

Sidebar: 6

The gate to a traditional Balinese house is where the family gives cues as to its wealth. They range from the humble – grass thatch atop a gate of simple stones or clay – to the relatively grand, including bricks heavily ornamented with ornately carved stone and a tile roof.


Bali has rich and varied natural environments which belie its relative small size. Volcanoes, beaches and reefs are just some of the prominent features. Along with this are an array of creatures, from ducks in the rice fields to one of the world's rarest birds. Still, with record tourism, the threats to these unique environments are many, but there's much each visitor can do to lessen their impact.

The Landscape

Bali is a small island, midway along the string of islands that makes up the Indonesian archipelago. It's adjacent to the most heavily populated island of Java, and immediately west of the chain of smaller islands comprising Nusa Tenggara, which includes Lombok.

The island is visually dramatic – a mountainous chain with a string of active volcanoes and several peaks around 2000m. The agricultural lands in Bali are south and north of the central mountains. The southern region is a wide, gently sloping area, where most of the country's abundant rice crop is grown. The northern coastal strip is narrower, rising rapidly into the foothills of the central range. It receives less rain, but coffee, copra, rice and cattle are farmed there. Bali also has beaches in all shapes, characters and colours. From hidden coves to dramatic sweeps, from lonely strands to party scenes, from pearly white to sparkling black.

Bali's arid, less-populated regions include the western mountain region, and the eastern and northeastern slopes of Gunung Agung. The Nusa Penida islands are dry and cannot support intensive rice agriculture. The Bukit Peninsula is similarly dry, but with the growth of tourism, it's become very populous.


Bali is volcanically active and extremely fertile. The two go hand-in-hand as eruptions contribute to the land's exceptional fertility, and high mountains provide the dependable rainfall that irrigates Bali's complex and amazingly beautiful patchwork of rice terraces. Of course, the volcanoes are a hazard as well – Bali has endured disastrous eruptions in the past, such as in 1963, and no doubt will again in the future. Gunung Agung, the 'Mother Mountain', is 3142m high and thickly wooded on its southern side. You can climb it or its steam-spewing neighbour, the comparatively diminutive 1717m Gunung Batur. The latter is a geographic spectacle: a soaring, active volcano rising from a lake that itself is set in a vast crater.

Responsible Travel

To visit Indonesia responsibly, try to tread lightly as you go, with respect for both the land and the diverse cultures of its people.

Watch your use of water Water demand outstrips supply in much of Indonesia – even in seemingly green places like Bali. Take your hotel up on its offer to save water by not washing your sheets and towels every day. At the high end you can also forgo your own private plunge pool, or a pool altogether.

Don't hit the bottle Those bottles of Aqua (a top local brand of bottled water, owned by Danone) are convenient but they add up. The zillions of such bottles tossed away each year are a serious blight. Since tap water is unsafe, ask your hotel if you can refill from their huge containers of drinking water. Some businesses already offer this service.

Support environmentally aware businesses The number of businesses committed to good environmental practices is growing fast in Indonesia.

Conserve power Turn off lights and air-con when not using them.

Bag the bags Refuse plastic bags and say no to plastic straws too.

Leave the animals be Reconsider swimming with captive dolphins, riding elephants and patronising attractions where wild animals are made to perform for crowds, interactions that have been identified by animal-welfare experts as harmful to the animals. And don't try to pet, feed or otherwise interact with animals in the wild as it disrupts their natural behaviour and can make them sick.

Animals & Plants

Since Bali is geologically young, most of its living things have migrated from elsewhere and true native wild animals are rare. This is not hard to imagine in the heavily populated and extravagantly fertile south of Bali, where the orderly rice terraces are so intensively cultivated they look more like a work of sculpture than a natural landscape.

In fact, rice fields cover only about 20% of the island's surface area, and there is a great variety of other environmental zones: the dry scrub of the northwest, the extreme northeast and the southern peninsula; patches of dense jungle in the river valleys; forests of bamboo; and harsh volcanic regions that are barren rock and volcanic tuff at higher altitudes.


Wild Animals

Bali has lots and lots of lizards, and they come in all shapes and sizes. The small ones (onomatopoeically called cecak) that hang around light fittings in the evening, waiting for an unwary insect, are a familiar sight. Geckos are lizards often heard but less often seen. The loud and regularly repeated two-part cry 'geck-oh' is a nightly background noise that many visitors soon enjoy.

Bali has more than 300 species of birds, but the one that is truly native to the island is the Bali starling. Much more common are colourful birds such as the orange-banded thrush, numerous species of egrets, kingfishers, parrots, owls and many more.

Bali's only wilderness area, Bali Barat National Park (West Bali National Park), has a number of wild species, including grey and black monkeys (which you will also see in the mountains, Ubud and east Bali), muncak (barking deer), squirrels, bats and iguanas.

Bali Starling

Also known as the Bali myna, Rothschild's mynah, or locally as jalak putih, the Bali starling is perhaps Bali's only endemic bird (opinions differ – as other places are so close, who can tell?). It is striking white in colour, with black tips to the wings and tail, and a distinctive bright-blue mask. These natural good looks have caused the bird to be poached into virtual extinction. The wild population is thought to number under 100. In captivity, however, there are hundreds if not thousands.

Near Ubud, the Bali Bird Park has large aviaries where you can see Bali starlings. The park was one of the major supporters of efforts to reintroduce the birds into the wild. Efforts to reintroduce the species include a breeding program run by the NGO Friends of the National Parks Foundation on Nusa Penida.

Marine Animals

There is a rich variety of coral, seaweed, fish and other marine life in the coastal waters off the islands; in fact Indonesia's entire marine territory has been declared a manta ray sanctuary. Much of the marine life can be appreciated by snorkellers, but you’re only likely to see the larger marine animals while diving.


Dolphins can be found right around the islands and have been made into an attraction off Lovina. But you’re just as likely to see schools of dolphins if you take a fast boat between Bali and the Gilis.


There are very occasional reports of large sharks, including great whites, throughout the region, although they are not considered a massive threat.

Sea Turtles

Both green and hawksbill turtles inhabit the waters around Bali, and both species are supposedly protected by international laws that prohibit trade in anything made from sea turtles.

In Bali, however, green sea turtle meat (penyu) is a traditional and very popular delicacy, particularly for Balinese feasts. Bali is the site of the most intensive slaughter of green sea turtles in the world – no reliable figures are available, although in 1999 it was estimated that more than 30,000 are killed annually. It's easy to find the trade on the backstreets of waterside towns such as Benoa.

Still, some progress is being made, especially by groups like ProFauna (, which is raising awareness on Bali about sea turtles and other animals across Indonesia.

A broad coalition of divers and journalists supports the SOS Sea Turtles ( campaign, which spotlights turtle abuse in Bali. It has been instrumental in exposing the illegal poaching of turtles at Wakatobi National Park in Sulawesi for sale in Bali. This illegal trade is widespread and, like the drug trade, hard to prevent. Bali's Hindu Dharma, the body overseeing religious practice, has decreed that turtle meat is essential in only very vital ceremonies.

Some turtle hatcheries open to the public do a good job of educating locals about the need to protect turtles and think of them as living creatures (as opposed to satay), but these operations have their own complexities, and many environmentalists are opposed to them because they keep captive turtles. There are also hatcheries that are ostensibly conservationist, but in reality are run as commercial tourist attractions with little concern for the welfare of the turtles. Environmental groups recommend you do not visit certain hatcheries in Tangung Benoa and around Sanur.

Two that win praise are the Bali Sea Turtle Society in Kuta and Proyek Penyu in Pemuteran.

On Nusa Penida, volunteers can join the efforts of Green Lion Bali, which runs a turtle hatchery.


Smaller fish and corals can be found at a plethora of spots around the islands. Everybody’s favourite first stop is Bali’s Menjangan. Fish as large as whale sharks have been reported, but what thrills scores daily is the coloured beauty of an array of corals, sponges, lacy sea fans and much more. Starfish abound and you’ll easily spot clownfish and other polychromatic characters.



Much of the island is cultivated. As with most things in Bali, trees have a spiritual and religious significance, and you'll often see them decorated with scarves and black-and-white chequered cloths (poleng, a cloth signifying spiritual energy) signifying their sacred status. The waringin (banyan tree) is the holiest Balinese tree and no important temple is complete without a stately one growing within its precincts. The banyan is an extensive, shady tree with an exotic feature: creepers that drop from its branches to take root to propagate a new tree. Jepun (frangipani or plumeria trees), with their beautiful and sweet-smelling white flowers, are found everywhere.

Bali's forests cover 127,000 hectares, ranging from virgin land to tree farms to densely forested mountain villages. The total is constantly under threat from wood poaching for carved souvenirs and cooking fuel, and from development.

Bali has monsoonal rather than tropical rainforests, so it lacks the valuable rainforest hardwoods that require rain year-round. Nearly all the hardwood used for carving furniture and high-end artwork is imported from Sumatra and Kalimantan.

A number of plants have great practical and economic significance. Tiing (bamboo) is grown in several varieties and is used for everything from satay sticks to hip and stylish resorts.

Flowers & Gardens

Balinese gardens are a delight. The soil and climate can support a huge range of plants, and the Balinese love of beauty and the abundance of cheap labour means that every space can be landscaped. The style is generally informal, with curved paths, a rich variety of plants and usually a water feature. Who wouldn't be enchanted by a frangipani tree dropping a carpet of fragrant blossoms?

You can find almost every type of flower in Bali, but some are seasonal and others are restricted to the cooler mountain areas. Many of the flowers will be familiar to visitors – hibiscus, bougainvillea, poinsettia, oleander, jasmine, water lily and aster are commonly seen in the southern tourist areas.

Less-familiar flowers include Javanese ixora (soka, angsoka), with round clusters of red-orange flowers; champak (cempaka), a fragrant member of the magnolia family; flamboyant, the flower of the royal poinciana flame tree; manori (maduri), which has several traditional uses; and water convolvulus (kangkung), whose leaves are commonly used as a green vegetable. There are thousands of species of orchid.

Bali's climate means that gardens planted today look mature – complete with soaring shade trees – in just a couple of years. Good places to see Bali's plant bounty include Bali Botanic Garden, Bali Orchid Garden and the many plant nurseries (north from Sanur and along the road to Denpasar).

Feature: Growing Rice

Rice cultivation has shaped the social landscape in Bali – the intricate organisation necessary for growing rice is a large factor in the strength of community life. Rice cultivation has also changed the environmental landscape – terraced rice fields trip down hillsides like steps for a giant, in shades of gold, brown and green, green and more green. Some date back 1000 years or more.

Subak, the village association that deals with water rights and irrigation, makes careful use of all the surface water. The fields are a complete ecological system, home for much more than just rice. In the early morning you'll often see the duck herders leading their flocks out for a day's paddle around a flooded rice field; the ducks eat various pests and leave fertiliser in their wake.

A harvested field with its leftover burnt rice stalks is soaked with water and repeatedly ploughed, often by two bullocks pulling a wooden plough. Once the field is muddy enough, a small corner is walled off and seedling rice is planted there. When it is a reasonable size, it's replanted, shoot by shoot, in the larger field. While the rice matures, there is time to practise the gamelan, watch the dancers or do a little woodcarving. Finally, the whole village turns out for the harvest – a period of solid hard work. While it's only men who plant the rice, everybody takes part in harvesting it.

In 1969, new high-yield rice varieties were introduced. These can be harvested a month sooner than the traditional variety and are resistant to many diseases. However, the new varieties also require more fertiliser and irrigation water, which strains the imperilled water supplies. More pesticides are also needed, causing the depletion of the frog and eel populations that depend on the insects for survival.

Although everyone agrees that the new rice doesn't taste as good as the traditional rice, the new strains now account for more than 90% of the rice grown in Bali. Small areas of traditional rice are still planted and harvested in traditional ways to placate the rice goddess, Dewi Sri. Temples and offerings to her dot every rice field.

Recently, a few farmers have been trying to grow organic rice and you may see it on menus in top restaurants and at better markets.

The Wallace Line

The 19th-century naturalist Sir Alfred Wallace (1822–1913) observed great differences in fauna between Bali and Lombok – as great as the differences between Africa and South America. In particular, there were no large mammals (elephants, rhinos, tigers etc) east of Bali, and very few carnivores. He postulated that during the ice ages, when sea levels were lower, animals could have moved by land from what is now mainland Asia all the way to Bali, but the deep Lombok Strait would always have been a barrier. He drew a line between Bali and Lombok, which he believed marked the biological division between Asia and Australia.

Plant life does not display such a sharp division, but there is a gradual transition from predominantly Asian rainforest species to mostly Australian plants, such as eucalypts and acacias, which are better suited to long, dry periods. This is associated with the lower rainfall as one moves east of Java. Environmental differences – including those in the natural vegetation – are now thought to provide a better explanation of the distribution of animal species than Wallace's theory about limits to their original migrations.

Environmental Issues

Fast-growing populations, limited resources, pressure from the increasing number of visitors and lax or nonexistent environmental regulations mean that Bali is under great threat. And some of Bali's environmental worries are larger than the island: climate change is causing increased water levels that are damaging the coast and beaches.

Meanwhile, a fast-growing population in Bali has put pressure on limited resources. The tourist industry has attracted new residents, and there is a rapid growth in urban areas and of resorts and villas that encroach onto agricultural land. Concerns include:

  • Water Usage A major concern. Typical top-end hotels use 1000L to 1500L of water a day per room, and the growing number of golf courses – the ones on the arid Bukit Peninsula in the Pecatu Indah development and at Nusa Dua, for example – put further pressure on an already stressed resource. The many huge new resorts on the Bukit's south coast are also massive water users.
  • Water pollution A major problem, both from deforestation brought on by firewood collecting in the mountains, and lack of proper treatment for the waste produced by the local population. Streams that run into the ocean at popular spots like Double Six Beach in Legian are very polluted, often with waste water from hotels. The vast mangroves along the south coast near Benoa Harbour are losing their ability to filter the water that drains here from much of the island and are themselves threatened with development.
  • Air pollution As anyone stuck behind a smoke-belching truck or bus on one of the main roads knows, south Bali's air is often smoggy. The view of south Bali from a hillside shows a brown blanket hanging in the air that could be LA in the 1960s.
  • Waste The problem is not just all those plastic bags and water bottles but the sheer volume of waste produced by the growing population – what to do with it? The Balinese look with sadness at the enormous amounts of waste – especially plastic – that have accumulated in their once pristine rivers.

On the upside, there is a nascent effort to grow rice and other foods organically. A sewage treatment program in the south is operating in a certain areas though some businesses still refuse to connect in objection to costs.

In Pemuteran, artificial reef-growing programs have won universal praise. This is important as a study by the World Wide Fund for Nature found that less than 5% of Bali's reefs were fully healthy.

National Parks

The only national park in Bali is Bali Barat National Park. It covers 190 sq km at the western tip of Bali, plus a substantial area of coastal mangrove and the adjacent marine area, including the excellent dive site at Menjangan.

Sidebar: 1

The Indonesian Ecotourism Centre ( is devoted to highlighting responsible tourism; Bali Fokus ( promotes sustainable community programs on Bali for recycling and reuse.

Sidebar: 2

One hawksbill turtle that visited Bali was tracked the following year. He travelled to Java, Kalimantan, Australia (Perth and much of Queensland) and then back to Bali.

Sidebar: 3

The plight of Bali's dogs and the irony of the important role they play in island life is captured by filmmakers Lawrence Blair and Dean Allan Tolhurst in Bali: Island of the Dogs (2010).

Sidebar: 4

Balinese Flora & Fauna (1999), published by Periplus, is a concise and beautifully illustrated guide to the animals and plants you'll see on your travels. The feature on the ecology of a rice field is excellent.

Sidebar: 5

A study showed that the average occupied hotel room in south Bali accounted for 1000L to 1500L of water a day for use by its occupants and to service their needs. In contrast the average local required less than 120L a day for all needs.

Sidebar: 6

Despite water shortages, villa construction and other loss of rice fields, Bali's rice production hit a record in 2013 (the last year with detailed records available) of 822,115 tonnes. With island consumption at 455,000 tonnes, that keeps Bali as a rice exporter.

Local Life & Religion

So many seem so relaxed on Bali. There is a gentleness to people that easily obscures their deep cultural heritage and belief systems. Balinese Hindus live lives deeply entwined in their belief systems. And on Bali in particular, religion plays a role in so much of what makes the island appealing to visitors: the art, the music, the offerings, the architecture, the temples and more.

The Balinese

Ask any traveller what they love about Bali and, most times, 'the people' will top their list. Since the 1920s, when the Dutch used images of bare-breasted Balinese women to lure tourists, Bali has embodied the mystique and glamour of an exotic paradise.

For all the romanticism, there is a harsher reality. For many Balinese, life remains a near hand-to-mouth existence, even as the island prospers due to tourism and the middle class grows. And the idea of culture can sometimes seem misplaced as overzealous touts test your patience in their efforts to make a living.

But there's also some truth to this idea of paradise. There is no other place in the world like Bali, not even in Indonesia. Being the only surviving Hindu island in the world's largest Muslim country, its distinctive culture is worn like a badge of honour by a fiercely proud people. After all, it's only in the last century that 4000 Balinese royalty, dressed in their finest, walked into the gunfire of the Dutch army rather than surrender and become colonial subjects.

True, development has changed the landscape and prompted endless debate about the displacement of an agricultural society by a tourism-services industry. And the upmarket spas, clubs, boutiques and restaurants in Seminyak and Kerobokan might have you mistaking hedonism, not Hinduism, for the local religion. But scratch the surface and you'll find that Bali's soul remains unchanged.

The island's creative heritage is everywhere you look, and the harmonious dedication to religion permeates every aspect of society, underpinning the strong sense of community. There are temples in every house, office and village, on mountains and beaches, in rice fields, trees, caves, cemeteries, lakes and rivers. Yet religious activity is not limited to places of worship. It can occur anywhere, sometimes smack-bang in the middle of peak-hour traffic.

Balinese Tolerance

The Balinese are famously tolerant of and hospitable towards other cultures, though they rarely travel themselves, such is the importance of their village and family ties, not to mention the financial cost. If anything, they're bemused by all the attention, which reinforces their pride; the general sense is, whatever we're doing, it must be right to entice millions of people to leave their homes for ours.

The Balinese are unfailingly friendly, love a chat and can get quite personal. English is widely spoken but they love to hear tourists attempt Bahasa Indonesia or, better still, throw in a Balinese phrase such as 'sing ken ken' (no worries); do this and you'll make a friend for life. They have a fantastic sense of humour and their easygoing nature is hard to ruffle. They generally find displays of temper distasteful and laugh at 'emotional' foreigners who are quick to anger.

Small Talk

'Where do you stay?', 'Where do you come from?', 'Where are you going?' You'll hear these questions over and over from your super-friendly Balinese hosts. While Westerners can find it intrusive, it's just Balinese small talk and a reflection of Bali's communal culture; they want to see where you fit in and change your status from stranger to friend.

Saying you're staying 'over there' or in a general area is fine, but expect follow-ups to get increasingly personal. 'Are you married?' Even if you're not, it's easiest to say you are. Next will be: 'Do you have children?' The best answer is affirmative: never say you don't want any. 'Belum' (not yet) is also an appropriate response, which will likely spark a giggle and an, 'Ah, still trying!'

Family Ties

Through their family temple, Balinese have an intense spiritual connection to their home. As many as five generations share a Balinese home, in-laws and all. Grandparents, cousins, aunties, uncles and various distant relatives all live together. When the sons marry, they don't move out – their wives move in. Similarly, when daughters marry, they live with their in-laws, assuming household and child-bearing duties. Because of this, Balinese consider a son more valuable than a daughter. Not only will his family look after them in their old age, but he will inherit the home and perform the necessary rites after they die to free their souls for reincarnation, so they do not become wandering ghosts.

A Woman's Work is Work

Men play a big role in village affairs and helping to care for children, and only men plant and tend to the rice fields. But women are the real workhorses in Bali, doing everything from manual labour jobs (you'll see them carrying baskets of wet cement or bricks on their heads) to running market stalls and almost every job in tourism. In fact, their traditional role of caring for people and preparing food means that women have established many successful shops and cafes.

In between all of these tasks, women also prepare daily offerings for the family temple and house, and often extra offerings for upcoming ceremonies; their hands are never idle. You can observe all of this and more when you stay at a classic Balinese homestay, where your room is in the family compound and everyday life goes on about you. Ubud has many homestays.

What's in a Name?

Far from being straightforward, Balinese names are as fluid as the tides. Everyone has a traditional name, but their other names often reflect events in each individual's life. They also help distinguish between people of the same name, which is perhaps nowhere more necessary than in Bali.

Traditional naming customs seem straightforward, with a predictable gender nonspecific pattern to names. The order of names, with variations for regions and caste, is:

First-born Wayan (Gede, Putu)

Second-born Made (Kadek, Nengah, Ngurah)

Third-born Nyoman (Komang)

Fourth-born Ketut (or just Tut, as in 'toot')

Subsequent children reuse the same set, but as many families now settle for just two children, you'll meet many Wayans and Mades.

Castes also play an important role in naming and have naming conventions that clearly denote status when added to the birth order name. Bali's system is much less complicated than India's.

Sudra Some 90% of Balinese are part of this, the peasant caste. Names are preceded by the title 'I' for a boy and 'Ni' for a girl.

Wesya The caste of bureaucrats and merchants. Gusti Bagus (male) and Gusti Ayu (female).

Ksatria A top caste, denoting royalty or warriors. I Gusti Ngurah (male) and I Gusti Ayu (female), with additional titles including Anak Agung and Dewa.

Brahman The top of the heap: teachers and priests. Ida Bagus (male) and Ida Ayu (female).

Traditional names are followed by another given name – this is where parents can get creative. Some names reflect hopes for their child, as in I Nyoman Darma Putra, who's supposed to be 'dutiful' or 'good' (dharma). Others reflect modern influences, such as I Wayan Radio who was born in the 1970s, and Ni Made Atom who said her parents just liked the sound of this scientific term that also had a bomb named after it.

Many are given nicknames that reflect their appearance. For example, Nyoman Darma is often called Nyoman Kopi (coffee) for the darkness of his skin compared with that of his siblings. I Wayan Rama, named after the Ramayana epic, is called Wayan Gemuk (fat) to differentiate his physique from his slighter friend Wayan Kecil (small).



Bali's official religion is Hindu, but it's far too animistic to be considered in the same vein as Indian Hinduism. The Balinese worship the trinity of Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu, three aspects of the one (invisible) god, Sanghyang Widi, as well as the dewa (ancestral gods) and village founders. They also worship gods of earth, fire, water and mountains; gods of fertility, rice, technology and books; and demons who inhabit the world underneath the ocean. They share the Indian belief in karma and reincarnation, but much less emphasis is attached to other Indian customs. There is no 'untouchable caste', arranged marriages are very rare, and there are no child marriages.

Bali's unusual version of Hinduism was formed after the great Majapahit Hindu kingdom that once ruled Indonesia evacuated to Bali as Islam spread across the archipelago. While the Bali Aga (the 'original' Balinese) retreated to the hills in places such as east Bali's Tenganan to escape this new influence, the rest of the population simply adapted it for themselves, overlaying the Majapahit faith on their animist beliefs incorporated with Buddhist influences. A Balinese Hindu community can be found in west Lombok, a legacy of Bali's domination of its neighbour in the 19th century.

The most sacred site on the island is Gunung Agung, home to Pura Besakih and frequent ceremonies involving anywhere from hundreds to sometimes thousands of people. Smaller ceremonies are held across the island every day to appease the gods, placate the demons and ensure balance between dharma (good) and adharma (evil) forces.

Don't be surprised if on your very first day on Bali you witness or get caught up in a ceremony of some kind.


Islam is a minority religion in Bali; most followers are Javanese immigrants, Sasak people from Lombok or descendants of seafaring people from Sulawesi.

Most muslims on Bali practise a moderate version of Islam, as in many other parts of Indonesia. They generally follow the Five Pillars of Islam; the pillars decree that there is no god but Allah and Muhammad is His prophet; that believers should pray five times a day, give alms to the poor, fast during the month of Ramadan and make the pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lifetime. However, in contrast to other Islamic countries, Muslim women are not segregated, head coverings are not compulsory (although they are becoming more common) and polygamy is rare. A stricter version of Islam is beginning to spread from Lombok, which in turn is being influenced by ultra-conservative Sumbawa.

Showing Respect

Bali has a well-deserved reputation for being mellow, which is all the more reason to respect your hosts, who are enormously forgiving of faux pas if you're making a sincere effort. Be aware and respectful of local sensibilities, and dress and act appropriately, especially in rural villages and at religious sites. When in doubt, let the words 'modest' and 'humble' guide you.

Dos & Don'ts

  • You'll see shorts and short skirts everywhere on locals but overly revealing clothing is still frowned upon, as is wandering down the street shirtless quaffing a beer.
  • Many women go topless on Bali's beaches, offending locals who are embarrassed by foreigners' gratuitous nudity.
  • Don't touch anyone on the head; it's regarded as the abode of the soul and is therefore sacred.
  • Do pass things with your right hand. Even better, use both hands. Just don't use only your left hand, as it's considered unclean.
  • Beware of talking with hands on hips – a sign of contempt, anger or aggression (as displayed in traditional dance and opera).
  • Beckon someone with the hand extended and using a downward waving motion. The Western method of beckoning is considered very rude.
  • Don't make promises of gifts, books and photographs that are soon forgotten. Pity the poor local checking their mailbox or email inbox every day.

Religious Etiquette

  • Cover shoulders and knees if visiting a temple or mosque; in Bali, a selandong (traditional scarf) or sash plus a sarong is usually provided for a small donation or as part of the entrance fee.
  • Women are asked not to enter temples if they're menstruating, pregnant or have recently given birth. At these times women are thought to be sebel (ritually unclean).
  • Don't put yourself higher than a priest, particularly at festivals (eg by scaling a wall to take photos).
  • Take off your shoes before entering a mosque.

Ceremonies & Rituals

Between the family temple, village temple and district temple, a Balinese person takes part in dozens of ceremonies every year, on top of their daily rituals. Most employers allow staff to return to their villages for these obligations, which consume a vast chunk of income and time (and although many bosses moan about this, they have little choice unless they wish for a staff revolt). For tourists, this means there are ample opportunities to witness ceremonial traditions.

Ceremonies are the unifying centre of a Balinese person's life and a source of much entertainment, socialisation and festivity. Each ceremony is carried out on an auspicious date determined by a priest and often involves banquets, dance, drama and musical performances to entice the gods to continue their protection against evil forces. The most important ceremonies are Nyepi, which includes a rare day of complete rest, and Galungan, a 10-day reunion with ancestral spirits to celebrate the victory of good over evil.

Under their karmic beliefs, the Balinese hold themselves responsible for any misfortune, which is attributed to an overload of adharma (evil). This calls for a ngulapin (cleansing) ritual to seek forgiveness and recover spiritual protection. A ngulapin requires an animal sacrifice and often involves a cockfight, satisfying the demons' thirst for blood.

Ceremonies are also held to overcome black magic and to cleanse a sebel (ritually unclean) spirit after childbirth or bereavement, or during menstruation or illness.

On top of all these ceremonies, there are 13 major rites of passage throughout every person's life. The most extravagant and expensive is the last – cremation.

Birth & Childhood

The Balinese believe babies are the reincarnation of ancestors, and they honour them as such. Offerings are made during pregnancy to ensure the minideity's well-being, and after birth, the placenta, umbilical cord, blood and afterbirth water – representing the child's four 'spirit' guardian brothers – are buried in the family compound.

Newborns are literally carried everywhere for the first three months, as they're not allowed to touch the 'impure' ground until after a purification ceremony. At 210 days (the first Balinese year), the baby is blessed in the ancestral temple and there is a huge feast. Later in life, birthdays lose their significance and many Balinese couldn't tell you their age.

A rite of passage to adulthood – and a prerequisite to marriage – is the tooth-filing ceremony at around 16 to 18 years. This is when a priest files a small part of the upper canines and upper incisors to flatten the teeth. Pointy fangs are, after all, distinguishing features of dogs and demons. Balinese claim the procedure doesn't hurt, likening the sensation to eating very cold ice: it's slightly uncomfortable, but not painful. Most tooth-filings happen in July and August.

Another important occasion for girls is their first menstrual period, which calls for a purification ceremony.


Marriage defines a person's social status in Bali, making men automatic members of the banjar (local neighbourhood organisation). Balinese believe that when they come of age, it's their duty to marry and have children, including at least one son. Divorce is rare, as a divorced woman is cut off from her children.

The respectable way to marry, known as mapadik, is when the man's family visits the woman's family and proposes. But the Balinese like their fun and some prefer marriage by ngrorod (elopement or 'kidnapping'). After the couple returns to their village, the marriage is officially recognised and everybody has a grand celebration.

Marriage ceremonies include elaborate symbolism drawn from the island's rice-growing culture. The groom will carry food on his shoulders like a farmer while the bride will pretend to peddle produce, thus showing the couple's economic independence. Other actions need little explanation: the male digs a hole and the female places a seed inside for fertility, which comes after the male unsheathes his kris (knife) and pierces the female's unblemished woven mat of coconut leaves.

Death & Cremation

The body is considered little more than a shell for the soul, and upon death it is cremated in an elaborate ceremony befitting the ancestral spirit. It usually involves the whole community, and for important people, such as royalty, it can be a spectacular event involving thousands of people.

Because of the burdensome cost of even a modest cremation (estimated at around 7,000,000Rp), as well as the need to wait for an auspicious date, the deceased is often buried, sometimes for years, and disinterred for a mass cremation.

The body is carried in a tall, incredibly artistic, multitiered pyre on the shoulders of a group of men. The tower's size depends on the deceased's importance. A rajah's or high priest's funeral may require hundreds of men to tote the 11-tiered structure.

Along the way, the group sets out to confuse the corpse so it cannot find its way back home; the corpse is considered an unclean link to the material world, and the soul must be liberated for its evolution to a higher state. The men shake the tower, run it around in circles, simulate war battles, hurl water at it and generally rough-handle it, making the trip anything but a stately funeral crawl.

At the cremation ground, the body is transferred to a funeral sarcophagus reflecting the deceased's caste. Finally, it all goes up in flames and the ashes are scattered in the ocean. The soul is then free to ascend to heaven and wait for the next incarnation, usually in the form of a grandchild.

In classic Balinese fashion, respectful visitors are welcome at cremations. It's always worth asking around or at your hotel to see if anyone knows of one going on. The Ubud tourist office is a good source too.


No matter where you stay, you'll witness women making daily offerings around their family temple and home, and in hotels, shops and other public places. You're also sure to see vibrant ceremonies, where whole villages turn out in ceremonial dress, and police close the roads for a spectacular procession that can stretch for hundreds of metres. Men play the gamelan (traditional Balinese and Javanese orchestral music) while women elegantly balance magnificent tall offerings of fruit and cakes on their heads.

There's nothing manufactured about what you see. Dance and musical performances at hotels are among the few events 'staged' for tourists, but they do actually mirror the way Balinese traditionally welcome visitors, whom they refer to as tamu (guests). Otherwise, it's just the Balinese going about their daily life as they would without spectators.

Bali Plays Dead


This is Bali's biggest purification festival, designed to clean out all the bad spirits and begin the year anew. It falls around March or April according to the Hindu caka calendar, a lunar cycle similar to the Western calendar in terms of the length of the year. Starting at sunrise, the whole island literally shuts down for 24 hours. No planes may land or take off, no vehicles of any description may be operated, and no power sources may be used. Everyone, including tourists, must stay off the streets. The cultural reasoning behind Nyepi is to fool evil spirits into thinking Bali has been abandoned so they will go elsewhere.

For the Balinese, it's a day for meditation and introspection. For foreigners, the rules are more relaxed, so long as you respect the 'Day of Silence' by not leaving your residence or hotel. If you do sneak out, you will quickly be escorted back to your hotel by a stern pecalang (village police officer).

As daunting as it sounds, Nyepi is actually a fantastic time to be in Bali. Firstly, there's the inspired concept of being forced to do nothing. Catch up on some sleep, or if you must, read, sunbathe, write postcards, play board games…just don't do anything to tempt the demons! Secondly, there are colourful festivals the night before Nyepi.


In the weeks prior to Nyepi, huge and elaborate papier-mâché monsters called ogoh-ogoh are built in villages across the island. Involving everybody in the community, construction sites buzz with fevered activity around the clock. If you see a site where ogoh-ogoh are being constructed, there'll be a sign-up sheet for financial support. Contribute, say, 50,000Rp and you'll be a fully fledged sponsor and receive much street cred.

On Nyepi eve, large ceremonies all over Bali lure out the demons. Their rendezvous point is believed to be the main crossroads of each village, and this is where the priests perform exorcisms. Then the whole island erupts in mock 'anarchy', with people banging on kulkuls (hollow tree-trunk drums), drums and tins, letting off firecrackers and yelling 'megedi megedi!' (get out!) to expel the demons. The truly grand finale is when the ogoh-ogoh all go up in flames. Any demons that survive this wild partying are believed to evacuate the village when confronted with the boring silence on the morrow.

Christians find unique parallels to Easter in all this, especially Ash Wednesday and Shrove Tuesday, with its wild Mardi Gras–like celebrations the world over.

In coming years, dates for Nyepi are 7 March 2019, 25 March 2020, and 14 March 2021.

Village Life

Village life doesn't just take place in rural villages. Virtually every place on Bali is a village in its own way. Under its neon flash, chaos and otherworldly pleasures, even Kuta is a village; the locals meet, organise, celebrate, plan and make decisions as is done across the island. Central to this is the banjar (local neighbourhood organisation).

Local Rule Bali-Style

Within Bali's government, the more than 3500 banjar wield enormous power. Comprising the married men of a given area (somewhere between 50 and 500), a banjar controls most community activities, whether it's planning for a temple ceremony or making important land-use decisions. These decisions are reached by consensus, and woe to a member who shirks his duties. The penalty can be fines or worse: banishment from the banjar. (In Bali's highly socialised society where your community is your life and identity – which is why a standard greeting is 'Where do you come from?' – banishment is the equivalent of the death penalty.)

Although women and even children can belong to the banjar, only men attend the meetings where important decisions are made. Women, who often own the businesses in tourist areas, have to communicate through their husbands to exert their influence. One thing that outsiders in a neighbourhood quickly learn is that one does not cross the banjar. Entire streets of restaurants and bars have been closed by order of the banjar after it was determined that neighbourhood concerns over matters such as noise were not being addressed.

Rice Farming

Rice cultivation remains the backbone of rural Bali's strict communal society. Traditionally, each family makes just enough to satisfy their own needs and offerings to the gods, and perhaps a little to sell at market. The island's most popular deity is Dewi Sri, goddess of agriculture, fertility and success, and every stage of cultivation encompasses rituals to express gratitude and to prevent a poor crop, bad weather, pollution or theft by mice and birds.

Subak: Watering Bali

The complexities of tilling and irrigating terraces in mountainous terrain require that all villagers share the work and responsibility. Under a centuries-old system, the four mountain lakes and criss-crossing rivers irrigate fields via a network of canals, dams, bamboo pipes and tunnels bored through rock. More than 1200 subak (village irrigation associations) oversee this democratic supply of water, and every farmer must belong to his local subak, which in turn is the foundation of each village's powerful banjar.

Although Bali's civil make-up has changed with tourism, from a mostly homogenous island of farmers to a heterogeneous population with diverse activities and lifestyles, the collective responsibility rooted in rice farming continues to dictate the moral code behind daily life, even in the urban centres. Subak, a fascinating and democratic system, was placed on Unesco's World Heritage List in 2012.

Keeping Track of Time

Wondering what day of the week it is? You may have to consult a priest. The Balinese calendar is such a complex, intricate document that it only became publicly available some 60 years ago. Even today, most Balinese need a priest or adat leader to interpret it in order to determine the most auspicious day for any undertaking.

The calendar defines daily life. Whether it's building a new house, planting rice, having your teeth filed or getting married or cremated, no event has any chance of success if it does not occur on the proper date.

Three seemingly incompatible systems comprise the calendar (but this being Bali, that's a mere quibble): the 365-day Gregorian calendar, the 210-day wuku (or Pawukon) calendar, and the 12-month caka lunar calendar, which begins with Nyepi every March or April. In addition, certain weeks are dedicated to humans, others to animals and bamboo, and the calendar also lists forbidden activities for each week, such as getting married or cutting wood or bamboo.

Besides the date, each box on a calendar page contains the lunar month, the names of each of the 10 week 'days', attributes of a person born on that day according to Balinese astrology, and a symbol of either a full or new moon. Along the bottom of each month is a list of propitious days for specific activities, as well as the dates of odalan temple anniversaries – colourful festivals that visitors are welcome to attend.

In the old days, a priest consulted a tika – a piece of painted cloth or carved wood displaying the wuku cycle – which shows auspicious days represented by tiny geometric symbols. Today many people have their own calendars, but it's no wonder the priests are still in business!

Sidebar: 1

A great resource on Balinese culture and life is, the website for one of Ubud's original restaurants. Find explanations on everything from kids' names to what one wears to a ceremony, to how garments are woven; see the 'Culture' section.

Sidebar: 2

The Balinese tooth-filing ceremony closes with the recipient being given a delicious jamu (herbal tonic), made from freshly pressed turmeric, betel-leaf juice, lime juice and honey.

Sidebar: 3

Huge decorated penjor (bamboo poles) appear in front of homes and line streets for ceremonies such as Galungan. Designs are as diverse as the artists who create them, but always feature the signature drooping top – in honour of the Barong's tail and the shape of Gunung Agung. The decorated tips, sampian, are exquisite.

Sidebar: 4

Motorbikes are an invaluable part of daily life. They carry everything from towers of bananas and rice sacks headed to the market, to whole families in full ceremonial dress on their way to the temple, to young hotel clerks riding primly in their uniforms. You'll even see school children as young as six years old riding solo in small villages.

Sidebar: 5

Black magic is still a potent force and spiritual healers known as balian are consulted in times of illness and strife. There are plenty of stories floating around about the power of this magic. Disputes between relatives or neighbours are often blamed on curses, as are tragic deaths.

Sidebar: 6

Balinese culture keeps intimacy behind doors. Holding hands is not customary for couples in Bali, and is generally reserved for small children; however, linking arms for adults is the norm.

Sidebar: 7

The ancient Hindu swastika seen all over Bali is a symbol of harmony with the universe. The German Nazis used a version where the arms were always bent in a clockwise direction.

Sidebar: 8

Although illegal because it involves gambling, cockfighting is the top sport on Bali. It's easy to spot one when you know the main clue: lots of cars and motorbikes parked by the side of the road but no real sign of people. Or, just go to Pantai Masceti in east Bali where there is a huge cockfighting arena.

Sidebar: 9

The Ubud tourist office ( is an excellent source for news of cremations and other Balinese ceremonies that occur at erratic intervals. Another good source is

The Arts

Bali's vibrant arts scene makes the island so much more than just a tropical beach destination. In the paintings, sculpture, dance and music, you will vividly see the natural artistic talent inherent in all Balinese, a testament to the legacy of their Majapahit heritage. The artistry displayed here will stay with you long after you've moved on from the island.

Influential Western Artists

Besides Arie Smit (who died on Bali at age 99 in 2016), several other Western artists had a profound effect on Balinese art in the early and middle parts of the 20th century. In addition to honouring Balinese art, they provided a critical boost to its vitality at a time when it might have died out.

Walter Spies (1895−1942) A German artist, Spies first visited Bali in 1925 and moved to Ubud in 1927, establishing the image of Bali for Westerners that prevails today.

Rudolf Bonnet (1895−1978) Bonnet was a Dutch artist whose work concentrated on the human form and everyday Balinese life. Many classical Balinese paintings with themes of markets and cockfights are indebted to Bonnet.

Miguel Covarrubias (1904−57) Island of Bali, written by this Mexican artist, is still the classic introduction to the island and its culture.

Colin McPhee (1900−65) A Canadian musician, McPhee wrote A House in Bali. It remains one of the best written accounts of Bali, and his tales of music and house building are often highly amusing. His patronage of traditional dance and music cannot be overstated.

Adrien Jean Le Mayeur de Merpres (1880−1958) This Belgian artist arrived on Bali in 1932 and did much to establish the notions of sensual Balinese beauty, often based on his wife, the dancer Ni Polok. Their home is now an under-appreciated museum in Sanur.

An Island of Artists

It's telling that there is no Balinese equivalent for the words 'art' or 'artist'. Until the tourist invasion, artistic expression was exclusively for religious and ritual purposes, and was almost always done by men. Paintings and carvings were purely to decorate temples and shrines, while music, dance and theatrical performances were put on to entertain the gods who returned to Bali for important ceremonies. Artists did not strive to be different or individual as many do in the West; their work reflected a traditional style or a new idea, but not their own personality.

That changed in the late 1920s when foreign artists began to settle in Ubud; they went to learn from the Balinese and to share their knowledge, and helped to establish art as a commercial enterprise. Today, it's big business. Ubud remains the undisputed artistic centre of the island, and artists come from near and far to draw on its inspiration, from Japanese glass-blowers to European photographers and Javanese painters.

Galleries and craft shops are all over the island; the paintings, stone ­carvings and woodcarvings are stacked high on floors and will trip you up if you're not careful. Much of it is churned out quickly, and some is comically vulgar (you're not thinking of putting that 3m-high vision of a penis as Godzilla in your entryway, are you?) but there is also a great deal of extraordinary work.


There are more than a dozen different dances in Bali, each with rigid choreography, requiring high levels of discipline. Most performers have learnt through painstaking practice with an expert. No visit is complete without enjoying this purely Balinese art form; you will be delighted by the many styles, from the formal artistry of the Legong to crowd-pleasing antics in the Barong. One thing Balinese dance is not is static. The best troupes, such as Semara Ratih in Ubud, are continually innovating.

You can catch a quality dance performance at any place where there's a festival or celebration, and you'll find exceptional performances in and around Ubud. Performances are typically at night and last about 90 minutes, and you'll have a choice of eight or more performances a night.

With a little research and some good timing, you can attend performances that are part of temple ceremonies. Here you'll see the full beauty of Bali's dance and music heritage in the context of how it was meant to be seen. Performances can last several hours. Absorb the hypnotic music and the alluring moves of the performers as well as the rapt attention of the crowd. Music, theatre and dance courses are also available in Ubud.

With the short attention spans of tourists in mind, many hotels offer a smorgasbord of dances – a little Kecak, a taste of Barong and some Legong to round it off. These can be pretty abbreviated, with just a few musicians and a couple of dancers.


Probably the best-known dance for its spellbinding, hair-raising atmosphere, the Kecak features a 'choir' of men and boys who sit in concentric circles and slip into a trance as they chant and sing 'chak-a-chak-a-chak', imitating a troupe of monkeys. Sometimes called the 'vocal gamelan', this is the only music to accompany the dance re-enactment from the Hindu epic Ramayana, the familiar love story about Prince Rama and his Princess Sita.

The tourist version of Kecak was developed in the 1960s. This spectacular performance is easily found in Ubud (look for Krama Desa Ubud Kaja with its 80 shirtless men chanting hypnotically) and also at the Pura Luhur Ulu Watu.


Characterised by flashing eyes and quivering hands, this most graceful of Balinese dances is performed by young girls. Their talent is so revered that in old age, a classic dancer will be remembered as a 'great Legong'.

Peliatan's famous dance troupe, Gunung Sari, often seen in Ubud, is particularly noted for its Legong Keraton (Legong of the Palace). The very stylised and symbolic story involves two Legong girls dancing in mirror image. They are elaborately made up and dressed in gold brocade, relating a story about a king who takes a maiden captive and consequently starts a war, in which he dies.

Sanghyang & Kecak Fire Dance

These dances were developed to drive out evil spirits from a village – Sanghyang is a divine spirit who temporarily inhabits an entranced dancer. The Sanghyang Dedari is performed by two young girls who dance a dreamlike version of the Legong in perfect symmetry while their eyes are firmly shut. Male and female choirs provide a background chant until the dancers slump to the ground. A pemangku (priest for temple rituals) blesses them with holy water and brings them out of the trance.

In the Sanghyang Jaran, a boy in a trance dances around and through a fire of coconut husks, riding a coconut palm 'hobby horse'. Variations of this are called the Kecak Fire Dance and are performed in Ubud almost daily.

Other Dances

The warrior dance, the Baris, is a male equivalent of the Legong – grace and femininity give way to an energetic and warlike spirit. The highly skilled Baris dancer must convey the thoughts and emotions of a warrior first preparing for action, and then meeting the enemy: chivalry, pride, anger, prowess and, finally, regret are illustrated.

In the Topeng, which means 'pressed against the face', as with a mask, the dancers imitate the character represented by the mask. This requires great expertise because the dancer cannot convey thoughts and meanings through facial expressions – the dance must tell all.

Monkeys & Monsters

The Barong and Rangda dance rivals the Kecak as Bali's most popular performance for tourists. Again, it's a battle between good (the Barong) and bad (the Rangda).

The Barong is a good but mischievous and fun-loving shaggy dog-lion, with huge eyes and a mouth that clacks away to much dramatic effect. Because this character is the good protector of a village, the actors playing the Barong (who are utterly lost under layers of fur-clad costume) will emote a variety of winsome antics. But as is typical of Balinese dance, it is not all lighthearted – the Barong is a very sacred character indeed and you'll often see one in processions and rituals.

There's nothing sacred about the Barong's buddies. One or more monkeys attend to him and these characters often steal the show. Actors are given free rein to range wildly. The best aim a lot of high jinks at the audience, especially members who seem to be taking things a tad too seriously.

Meanwhile, the widow-witch Rangda is bad through and through. The Queen of Black Magic, the character's monstrous persona can include flames shooting out her ears, a tongue dripping fire, a mane of wild hair and large breasts.

The story features a duel between the Rangda and the Barong, whose supporters draw their kris (traditional daggers) and rush in to help. The long-tongued, sharp-fanged Rangda throws them into a trance, making them stab themselves. It's quite a spectacle. Thankfully, the Barong casts a spell that neutralises the power of the kris so it cannot harm them.

Playing around with all that powerful magic, good and bad, requires the presence of a pemangku (priest for temple rituals), who must end the dancers' trance and make a blood sacrifice using a chicken to appease the evil spirits.

In Ubud, Barong and Rangda, dance troupes have many interpretations of the dance, everything from eerie performances that will give you the shivers (until the monkeys appear) to jokey versions that could be a variety show or Brit pantomime.

Barong masks are valued objects; you can find artful examples in the village of Mas, south of Ubud.


Balinese music is based around an ensemble known as a gamelan, also called a gong. A gong gede (large orchestra) is the traditional form, with 35 to 40 musicians. The more ancient gamelan selunding is still occasionally played in Bali Aga villages such as Tenganan.

The popular modern form of a gong gede is gong kebyar, with up to 25 instruments. This melodic, sometimes upbeat and sometimes haunting percussion that often accompanies traditional dance is one of the most lasting impressions for tourists to Bali.

The prevalent voice in Balinese music is from the xylophone-like gangsa, which the player hits with a hammer, dampening the sound just after it's struck. The tempo and nature of the music is controlled by two kendang (drums), one male and one female. Other instruments are the deep trompong drums, small kempli gong and cengceng (cymbals) used in faster pieces. Not all instruments require great skill and making music is a common village activity.

Many shops in south Bali and Ubud sell the distinctive gongs, flutes, bamboo xylophones and bamboo chimes. Look online for downloads.

Wayang Kulit

Much more than sheer entertainment, wayang kulit has been Bali's candlelit cinema for centuries, embodying the sacred seriousness of classical Greek drama. (The word drama comes from the Greek dromenon, a religious ritual.) The performances are long and intense – lasting six hours or more and often not finishing before sunrise.

Originally used to bring ancestors back to this world, the shows feature painted buffalo-hide puppets believed to have great spiritual power, and the dalang (puppet master and storyteller) is an almost mystical figure. A person of considerable skill and even greater endurance, the dalang sits behind a screen and manipulates the puppets while telling the story, often in many dialects.

Stories are chiefly derived from the great Hindu epics, the Ramayana and, to a lesser extent, the Mahabharata.

You can find performances in Ubud, which are attenuated to a manageable two hours or less.


Balinese painting is probably the art form most influenced by Western ideas and demand. Traditional paintings, faithfully depicting religious and mythological subjects, were for temple and palace decoration, and the set colours were made from soot, clay and pigs' bones. In the 1930s, Western artists introduced the concept of paintings as artistic creations that could also be sold for money. To target the tourist market, they encouraged deviance to scenes from everyday life and the use of the full palette of modern paints and tools. The range of themes, techniques, styles and materials expanded enormously, and women painters emerged for the first time.

A loose classification of styles is classical, or Kamasan, named for the village of Kamasan near Semarapura; Ubud style, developed in the 1930s under the influence of the Pita Maha; Batuan, which started at the same time in a nearby village; Young Artists, begun postwar in the 1960s, and influenced by Dutch artist Arie Smit; and finally, modern or academic, free in its creative topics, yet strongly and distinctively Balinese.

Where to See & Buy Paintings

There is a relatively small number of creative original painters in Bali, and an enormous number of imitators. Shops, especially in south Bali, are packed full of paintings in whatever style is popular at the time – some are quite good and a few are really excellent (and in many you'll swear you see the numbers used to guide the artists under the paint).

Top museums in Ubud, such as the Neka Art Museum, Agung Rai Museum of Art and the Museum Puri Lukisan, showcase the best of Balinese art and some of the European influences that have shaped it. There are more noted galleries as you go south of Ubud to Mas.

Commercial galleries such as Ubud's Neka Gallery and Agung Rai Gallery offer high-quality works. Exploring the dizzying melange of galleries – high and low – makes for a fun afternoon or longer.

Classical Painting

There are three basic types of classical painting – langse, iders-iders and calendars. Langse are large decorative hangings for palaces or temples that display wayang figures (which have an appearance similar to the figures used in shadow puppetry), rich floral designs and flame-and-mountain motifs. Iders-iders are scroll paintings hung along temple eaves. Calendars are, much as they were before, used to set dates for rituals and predict the future.

Langse paintings helped impart adat (traditional customs) to ordinary people in the same way that traditional dance and wayang kulit puppetry do. The stylised human figures depicted good and evil, with romantic heroes like Ramayana and Arjuna always painted with small, narrow eyes and fine features, while devils and warriors were prescribed round eyes, coarse features and facial hair. The paintings tell a story in a series of panels, rather like a comic strip, and often depict scenes from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Other themes are the Kakawins poems, and demonic spirits from indigenous Balinese folklore – see the ceilings of the Kertha Gosa (Hall of Justice) in Semarapura for an example.

A good place to see classical painting in a modern context is at the Nyoman Gunarsa Museum near Semarapura, which was established to preserve and promote classical techniques.

The Pita Maha

In the 1930s, with few commissions from temples, painting was virtually dying out. European artists Rudolf Bonnet and Walter Spies, with their patron Cokorda Gede Agung Surapati, formed the Pita Maha (literally, 'Great Vitality') to take painting from a ritual-based activity to a commercial one. The cooperative had more than 100 members at its peak in the 1930s and led to the establishment of Museum Puri Lukisan in Ubud, the first museum dedicated to Balinese art.

The changes Bonnet and Spies inspired were revolutionary. Balinese artists such as the late I Gusti Nyoman Lempad, I Wayan Ketig, I Ketut Regig and Gus Made started exploring their own styles. Narrative tales were replaced by single scenes, and romantic legends by daily life: the harvest, markets, cockfights, offerings at a temple or a cremation. These paintings were known as Ubud style.

Meanwhile, painters from Batuan retained many features of classical painting. They depicted daily life, but across many scenes – a market, dance and rice harvest would all appear in a single work. This Batuan style is also noted for its inclusion of some very modern elements, such as sea scenes with the odd windsurfer.

The painting techniques also changed. Modern paint and materials were used and stiff formal poses gave way to realistic 3-D representations. More importantly, pictures were not just painted to fit a space in a palace or a temple.

In one way, the style remained unchanged – Balinese paintings are packed with detail. A painted Balinese forest, for example, has branches, leaves and a whole zoo of creatures reaching out to fill every tiny space.

This new artistic enthusiasm was interrupted by WWII and Indonesia's independence struggle, and stayed that way until the development of the Young Artists' style.

The Young Artists

Arie Smit was in Penestanan, just outside Ubud, in 1956, when he noticed an 11-year-old boy drawing in the dirt. Smit wondered what the boy could produce if he had the proper equipment. As the legend goes, the boy's father would not allow him to take up painting until Smit offered to pay somebody else to watch the family's ducks.

Other 'young artists' soon joined that first pupil, I Nyoman Cakra, but Smit did not actively teach them. He simply provided the equipment and encouragement, unleashing what was clearly a strong natural talent. Today this style of rural scenes painted in brilliant Technicolor is a staple of Balinese tourist art.

I Nyoman Cakra still lives in Penestanan, still paints, and cheerfully admits that he owes it all to Smit. Other Young Artists include I Ketut Tagen, I Nyoman Tjarka and I Nyoman Mujung.

Other Styles

There are some other variants to the main Ubud and Young Artists' painting styles. The depiction of forests, flowers, butterflies, birds and other naturalistic themes, for example, sometimes called Pengosekan style, became popular in the 1960s. It can probably be traced back to Henri Rousseau, who was a significant influence on Walter Spies. An interesting development in this particular style is the depiction of underwater scenes, with colourful fish, coral gardens and sea creatures. Somewhere between the Pengosekan and Ubud styles sit the miniature landscape paintings that are popular commercially.

The new techniques also resulted in radically new versions of Rangda, Barong, Hanuman and other figures from Balinese and Hindu mythology. Scenes from folk tales and stories appeared, featuring dancers, nymphs and love stories, with an understated erotic appeal.

Today's Balinese Painters

Numerous Balinese artists are receiving international recognition for their work, which often has a strong theme of social justice and a questioning of modern values. Still, being Balinese and all, the works have a sly wit and even a wink to the viewer. Some names to watch for:

Nyoman Masriadi Born in Gianyar, Masriadi is easily the superstar of Bali's current crop of painters, and his works sell for upwards of a million dollars. He is renowned for his sharp-eyed observations of Indonesian society today and his thoroughly modern techniques and motifs.

Made Djirna Hailing from the comparatively wealthy tourist town of Ubud, Djirna has the perfect background for his works, which criticise the relationship between ostentatious money and modern Balinese religious ceremonies.

Agung Mangu Putra This painter from the deeply green hills west of Ubud finds inspiration in the Balinese being bypassed by the island's uneven economic boom. He decries the impact on his natural world.

Wayan Sudarna Putra An Ubud native, Putra uses satire and parody in his works, which cross media to question the absurdities of current Indonesian life and values.

Ketut Sana A resident of Keliki, a village near Ubud, Sana knew noted artists Gusti Nyoman Sudara Lempad and Wayan Gerudug when he was young. He started his impressionistic work by adapting scraps from their work.

Gede Suanda Sayur Sayur's works are often dark as he questions the pillaging of Bali's environment. He joined Putra to create an installation in a rice field near Ubud that featured huge white poles spelling out 'Not for sale'.


Bali is a showroom for crafts from around Indonesia. Nicer tourist shops sell puppets and batiks from Java, ikat garments from Sumba, Sumbawa and Flores, and textiles and woodcarvings from Bali, Lombok and Kalimantan. The kris, important to a Balinese family, will often have been made in Java.

On Lombok, where there's less money, traditional handicrafts are practical items, but are still skillfully made and beautifully finished. Finer examples of Lombok weaving, basketware and pottery are highly valued by collectors.


Traditionally, many of Bali's most elaborate crafts have been ceremonial offerings not intended to last: baten tegeh (decorated pyramids of fruit, rice cakes and flowers); rice-flour cookies modelled into entire scenes with a deep symbolic significance and tiny sculptures; lamak (long, woven palm-leaf strips used as decorations in festivals and celebrations); stylised female figures known as cili, which are representations of Dewi Sri (the rice goddess); and intricately carved coconut-shell wall hangings.

Tourists in Bali may enjoy being welcomed as honoured guests, but the real VIPs are the gods, ancestors, spirits and demons. They are presented with these offerings throughout each day to show respect and gratitude, or perhaps to bribe a demon into being less mischievous. Marvel at the care and energy that goes into constructing huge funeral towers and exotic sarcophagi, all of which will go up in flames.

A gift to a higher being must look attractive, so each offering is a work of art. The most common is a palm-leaf tray little bigger than a saucer, artfully topped with flowers, food (especially rice, and modern touches such as Ritz crackers or individually wrapped lollies) and small change, crowned with a saiban (temple or shrine offering). More important shrines and occasions call for more elaborate offerings, which can include the colourful towers of fruits and cakes called baten tegeh, and even entire animals cooked and ready to eat, as in Bali's famous babi guling (suckling pig).

Once presented to the gods an offering cannot be used again, so new ones are made each day, usually by women. You'll see easy-to-assemble offerings for sale in markets, much as you'd find quick dinner items in Western supermarkets.

Offerings to the gods are placed on high levels and to the demons on the ground. Don't worry about stepping on these; given their ubiquity, it's almost impossible not to (just don't try to). In fact, at Bemo Corner in Kuta offerings are left at the shrine in the middle of the road and are quickly flattened by cars. Across the island, dogs with a taste for crackers hover around fresh offerings. Given the belief that gods or demons instantly derive the essence of an offering, the critters are really just getting leftovers.

Textiles & Weaving

Textiles in Bali and Lombok are woven by women for ceremonies, as well as for gifts. They are often part of marriage dowries and cremations, where they join the deceased's soul as it passes to the afterlife.

The most common material in Bali is the sarong, which can be used as an article of clothing, a sheet or a towel, among other things. The cheap cottons, either plain or printed, are for everyday use and are popular with tourists for beachwear.

For special occasions, such as a temple ceremony, Balinese men and women use a kamben (a length of songket wrapped around the chest). The songket is silver- or gold-threaded cloth, handwoven using a floating weft technique, while another variety is the endek (like songket, but with predyed weft threads).

The men pair the kamben with a shirt and the women pair it with a kebaya (long-sleeved lace blouse). A separate slim strip of cloth known as a kain (or known as prada when decorated with a gold-leaf pattern) is wound tightly around the hips and over the sarong like a belt to complete the outfit.

Where to Buy

Any market, especially in Denpasar, will have a good range of textiles. Often groups of stores will cluster on one street, such as Jl Sulawesi across from the main market in Denpasar and Jl Arjuna in Legian. Threads of Life in Ubud is a Fair Trade–certified textiles gallery that preserves traditional Balinese and Indonesian handweaving skills. Factories around Gianyar in east Bali and Blahbatuh southeast of Ubud have large showrooms. For exquisite work, seek out Gusti Ayu Made Mardiani's home and workshop Jepun Bali in south Denpasar.


Traditional batik sarongs, which fall somewhere between a cotton sarong and kamben for formality, are handmade in central Java. The dyeing process has been adapted by the Balinese to produce brightly coloured and patterned fabrics. Watch out for 'batik' that's been screenprinted: the colours will be washed out and the pattern is often only on one side (the dye in proper batik should colour both sides to reflect the belief that the body should feel what the eye sees).


Ikat involves dyeing either the warp threads (those stretched on the loom) or weft threads (those woven across the warp) before the material is woven. The resulting pattern is geometric and slightly wavy. The colouring typically follows a similar tone – blues and greens; reds and browns; or yellows, reds and oranges. Gianyar, in east Bali, has a few factories where you can watch ikat sarongs being woven on a hand-and-foot-powered loom. A complete sarong takes about six hours to make.


Woodcarving in Bali has evolved from its traditional use for doors and columns, religious figures and theatrical masks to modern forms encompassing a wide range of styles. While Tegallalang and Jati, on the road north from Ubud, are noted woodcarving centres, along with the route from Mas through Peliatan, you can find pieces in any souvenir store. See beautiful work and possibly try your hand at creating some of your own at the workshop of Ida Bagus Anom in Mas.

The common style of a slender, elongated figure reportedly first appeared after Walter Spies gave a woodcarver a long piece of wood and commissioned him to carve two sculptures from it. The carver couldn't bring himself to cut it in half, instead making a single figure of a tall, slim dancer.

Other typical works include classical religious figures, animal caricatures, life-size human skeletons, picture frames and whole tree trunks carved into ghostly 'totem poles'. In Kuta there are various objects targeting beer drinkers: penis bottle openers (which are claimed to be Bali's bestselling souvenir) and signs to sit above your bar bearing made-to-order slogans.

Almost all carving is of local woods including belalu (quick-growing light wood) and the stronger fruit timbers such as jackfruit wood. Ebony from Sulawesi is also used. Sandalwood, with its delightful fragrance, is expensive and soft, and is used for some small, very detailed pieces, but beware of widespread fakery.

On Lombok, carving usually decorates functional items such as containers for tobacco and spices, and the handles of betel-nut crushers and knives. Materials include wood, horn and bone, and you'll see these used in the recent trend: primitive-style elongated masks. Cakranegara, Sindu, Labuapi and Senanti are centres for carving on the island.

Wooden articles lose moisture when moved to a drier environment. Avoid possible shrinkage – especially of your penis bottle opener – by placing the carving in a plastic bag at home, and letting some air in for about one week every month for four months.

Masks used in theatre and dance performances such as the Topeng require a specialised form of woodcarving. The mask master – always a man – must know the movements each performer uses so the character can be accurately depicted in the mask. These masks are believed to possess magical qualities and can even have the ability to stare down bad spirits.

Other masks, such as the Barong and Rangda, are brightly painted and decorated with real hair, enormous teeth and bulging eyes.

Puaya near Sukawati, south of Ubud, is a centre of mask carving. You can visit workshops there and see all manner of ceremonial art being created. The Museum Negeri Propinsi Bali in Denpasar has an extensive mask collection so you can get acquainted with different styles before buying.

Stone Carving

Traditionally for temple adornment, stone sculptures now make popular souvenirs ranging from frangipani reliefs to quirky ornaments that display the Balinese sense of humour: a frog clutching a leaf as an umbrella, or a weird demon on the side of a bell clasping his hands over his ears in mock offence.

At temples, you will see stone carving in set places. Door guardians are usually a protective personality such as Arjuna. Kala's monstrous face often peers out above the main entrance, his hands reaching to catch evil spirits. The side walls of a pura dalem (temple of the dead) might feature sculpted panels showing the horrors awaiting evildoers in the afterlife.

Among Bali's most ancient stone carvings are the scenes of people fleeing a great monster at Goa Gajah, the so-called 'Elephant Cave', believed to date to the 11th century. Inside the cave, a statue of Ganesha, the elephant-like god, gives the rock its name. Along the road through Muncan in east Bali you'll see roadside factories where huge temple decorations are carved in the open.

Much of the local work is made in Batubulan from grey volcanic stone called paras, so soft it can be scratched with a fingernail (which, according to legend, is how the giant Kebo Iwa created the Elephant Cave).


Pejaten, near Tabanan, has a number of pottery workshops producing ceramic figures and glazed ornamental roof tiles. Stunning collections of designer, contemporary glazed ceramics are produced at Jenggala Keramik in Jimbaran, which also hosts exhibitions of various Indonesian art and antiques.


Silversmiths and goldsmiths are traditionally members of the pande caste, which also incudes blacksmiths and other metalworkers. Bali is a major producer of fashion jewellery and produces variations on currently fashionable designs.

Very fine filigree work is a Balinese speciality, as is the use of tiny spots of silver to form a pattern or decorative texture – this is considered a very skilled technique because the heat must be perfectly controlled to weld the delicate wire or silver spots to the underlying silver without damaging it. Balinese work is nearly always handmade, rarely involving casting techniques.

Expat John Hardy built an empire worth hundreds of millions of dollars by adapting old Balinese silver designs along with his own beautiful innovations before he sold his company and started building bamboo buildings. Ubud has numerous creative silver jewellery shops, especially along upper Jl Hanoman.

Feature: Kris: Sacred Blades

Usually adorned with an ornate, jewel-studded handle and a sinister-looking wavy blade, the kris is Bali's traditional, ceremonial dagger, dating back to the Majapahit era. A kris is often the most important of family heirlooms, a symbol of prestige and honour and a work of high-end art. Made by a master craftsperson, it's believed to have great spiritual power, sending out magical energy waves and thus requiring great care in its handling and use. Many owners will only clean the blade with waters from Sungai Pakerisan (Pakerisan River) in east Bali because it is thought to be the magical 'River of Kris'.

Balinese men will judge each other in a variation of 'show me your kris'. The size of the blade, the number owned, the quality, the artistry of the handles and much more will go into forming a judgement of a man and his kris. Handles are considered separately from a kris (the blade). As a man's fortunes allow, he will upgrade the handles in his collection. But the kris itself remains sacred – often you will see offerings beside ones on display. The undulations in the blade (called lok) have many meanings and there's always an odd number − three, for instance, means passion.

The Museum Negeri Propinsi Bali in Denpasar has a rich kris collection.


The Balinese language has several forms, but the only written kind is 'high Balinese', a form of Sanskrit used for religious purposes and to recount epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Illustrated versions of these epics, inscribed on lontar (specially prepared palm leaves), are Bali's earliest books.

One of the first Balinese writers to be published in Bahasa Indonesia was Anak Agung Pandji Tisna, from Singaraja. His second novel, The Rape of Sukreni (1936), adapted all of the features of traditional Balinese drama: the conflict between good and evil, and the inevitability of karma. It was a popular and critical success; an English translation is available in bookshops in Bali.

An important theme of modern Balinese writing is tradition versus change and modernisation, often depicted as a tragic love story involving couples of different castes. Politics, money, tourism and relations with foreigners are also explored. There are several anthologies translated into English, some by renowned author Putu Oka Sukanta. Other writers of note include Oka Rusmini, whose book Tarian Bumi follows the lives of generations of Balinese women; poet and novelist Pranita Dewi; and author Gusti Putu Bawa Samar Gantang.

It's striking how much has been published about Bali internationally, and (until recently) how little of it has been penned by Balinese – it says much about the Western fascination with the island.

Sidebar: 1

Treasures of Bali, by Richard Mann (2006), is a beautifully illustrated guide to Bali's museums, big and small. It highlights the gems often overlooked by group tours.

Sidebar: 2

Preserving and performing rare and ancient Balinese dance and gamelan music is the mission of Mekar Bhuana (, a Denpasar-based cultural group. They sponsor performances and offer lessons.

Sidebar: 3

Balinese Dance, Drama and Music: A Guide to the Performing Arts of Bali, by I Wayan Dibia and Rucina Ballinger, is a lavishly illustrated and highly recommended in-depth guide to Bali's cultural performances.

Sidebar: 4

A carefully selected list of books about art, culture and Balinese writers, dancers and musicians can be found at, the website for the excellent Ubud bookstore (with a branch in Sanur).

Sidebar: 5

The Bali Arts Festival ( showcases the work of thousands of Balinese from mid-June to mid-July in Denpasar. It is a major event that draws talent and audiences from across the island.

Sidebar: 6

The magazine/comic Bog Bog, by Balinese cartoonists, is a satirical and humorous insight into the contrast between modern and traditional worlds in Bali. It's available in warungs (food stalls), bookshops and supermarkets or online at

Sidebar: 8

An arja drama is not unlike wayang kulit puppet shows in its melodramatic plots, offstage sound effects and cast of easily identifiable goodies (the refined alus) and baddies (the unrefined kras). It's performed outside and a small house is sometimes built on stage and set on fire at the climax!

Sidebar: 9

Women often bring offerings to a temple while dancing the Pendet, their eyes, heads and hands moving in spectacularly controlled and coordinated movements. Every flick of the wrist, hand and fingers is charged with meaning.

Sidebar: 10

Colin McPhee's iconic book about Balinese dance and culture, A House in Bali (1946), has been made into an opera of the same name. It's the creation of Evan Ziporyn, a composer who spends much time in Ubud.

Sidebar: 11

The nonprofit Lontar Foundation ( works to get Indonesian books translated into English so that universities around the world can offer courses in Indonesian literature.