Despite what you might see on Instagram, Bali is more than just one gigantic infinity pool. It is an island rich with culture and tradition. Throughout the year, you will stumble upon dozens and dozens of religious processions, traditional performances, and cultural events. All of those culminate in the two most important days of the Balinese calendar, Nyepi and the Ogoh-Ogoh Festival.
What is Nyepi?
Nyepi is the Balinese New Year and a day of silence observed by the entire island. Following the Ogoh-Ogoh Festival, the Balinese people believe that by staying silent the entire day and refraining from leaving the house or turning on any lights, the demons will leave the island. Nyepi is the most important day in Bali, and no matter who you are, you must observe at least a few of the laws and restrictions.
What is the Ogoh-Ogoh Festival?
The Ogoh-Ogoh Festival is kind of like Balinese New Year’s Eve. It is a massive celebration that takes place throughout the entire island. Each village has their own celebration, one that involves a lot of dancing, drumming, and parades. The name comes from the massive structures they build out of various materials, ranging from weird to terrifying. These structures are demons, or Ogoh-Ogoh, and will be set on fire at the end of the night before the New Year begins.
The burning of the Ogoh-Ogoh represents leaving your demons behind in the past year. Everyone gets a fresh start without having to worry or stress about things that happened in the past.
When do Ogoh-Ogoh and Nyepi Take Place?
Nyepi is the Balinese New Year and Ogoh-Ogoh always takes place the night before the Balinese New Year. Usually, this is in March of the Gregorian Calendar, but the actual date varies. This year, 2019, Nyepi lands on March 7th, but last year, it landed on March 16th. When I have Internet again, I will look up exactly when Nyepi takes place. But right now, it is Nyepi and I have no Internet.
Okay, Wikipedia didn’t really answer my question but Nyepi always takes place according to the Saka Calendar. It always happens in March but the dates vary.
Where to Celebrate the Ogoh-Ogoh Festival
Every part of Bali celebrates the Ogoh-Ogoh Festival. However, the celebrations will vary depending on the size of the village and how popular it is among tourists. My first time going to the Ogoh-Ogoh Festival, I was in Ubud and while crowded, it felt authentic. The most recent time I went to Ogoh-Ogoh, I was also in Ubud but it felt far less authentic and felt like it catered a lot to the hordes of tourists that came to observe this beautiful tradition. They even had an English commentator encouraging the crowd to cheer and asking corny questions like “ARE YOU READY?!” as if it was Pacquiao-Mayweather Part 2.
Hobbling around on a bum leg after getting hit by a car two days prior, I couldn’t last long in the crowd and had to ask my friend to scooter me home. Through a series of road closures and ill-advised detours, we found ourselves passing by many smaller, more local celebrations. The difference I noticed most was that the Balinese people seemed to be genuinely having fun as opposed to the bigger celebration I witnessed at Ubud Palace where they could hardly walk or celebrate due to the crowds and chaos in the area.
I can only imagine how much worse it would be in a place like Kuta or Seminyak. However, most people may not have a choice where to celebrate and it definitely is worth going no matter where you are. If you have any local Balinese connections, they would always be more than happy to invite you to where their celebration is, or at least know of a more local celebration or two.
It is worth witnessing one of the smaller celebrations because you get to see how it is meant to be celebrated. I was trapped in the Ubud Palace area feeling a bit sorry for the Balinese celebrators. As a Filipino, there are more than just a few similarities between our two island cultures. The biggest is our positive approaches to life and how we can find fun in every situation. I had just been to two similar Filipino Festivals, both very local, where I had some of the most fun of my life. There were drums, costumes, beautiful floats, and a lot of dancing. It was what I felt the Ogoh-Ogoh should have been like but the crowds at Ubud Palace were very resistant to the drum beats and dancing.
The local celebrations we accidentally drove through were far different. No matter how small the procession, they were dancing and twirling. Even if it was just one Ogoh-Ogoh, the people were truly enjoying themselves. You could see a much less overwhelming microcosm of the larger Ogoh-Ogoh Festivals where I noticed some things I didn’t notice before, especially from several people deep in the crowd.
If this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip for you, then seeing the biggest and baddest Ogoh-Ogohs should be your decision. At the crowded and chaotic celebration by Ubud Palace, I was painfully reminded of my fourteen-hour wait in the cold for the ball to drop in Times Square. It sucked. But again, if it is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, it is something you might just have to brave. If I was in New York for New Year’s and had the opportunity to see the Times Square ball drop, I wouldn’t miss it just because some blog said it wasn’t “local.”
Ogoh-Ogoh is probably the biggest cultural event of the year. You can’t go wrong with any celebration. However, if Ogoh-Ogoh and Nyepi are a relatively common thing for you, you probably already know that it might be better to step away from the extravagant made-for-tourist celebration and take you and your crew to a smaller, cozier, more traditional experience. The Balinese people are more than happy to welcome you, and every local celebration or parade we ran into, we were met with smiles and waves and laughs.
The Customs of Nyepi
So there are a few things that are usually observed during Nyepi and a fair amount of rules to follow. However, with Bali becoming less and less traditional, a few of those rules have become suggestions. For example, you aren’t supposed to work during Nyepi. But for the tens of thousands of tourists staying on the island, you can’t exactly just abandon them to fend for themselves. So the hotel and villa workers are more than likely still happy to work.
Here are the Balinese Nyepi commandments.
Non-Optional Participation Rules
Thou Shall Not Leave Your Accommodation
The craziest thing about Nyepi is that literally no one is on the streets. The crowded sidewalks and alleyways that you found yourselves fighting for real estate on are completely desolate. Not a single motorbike horn can be heard, not even in the distance. Not a creature is stirring, not even a mouse.
The only exception to this rule is in case of emergency and you need to go to the hospital.
Thou Shall Not Have Wi-Fi
Wi-Fi is shut off on the entire island. That might be the hardest thing for most people to accept. You are cut off from the world for an entire day. No contacting your friends back home, no posting on Instagram, no crazy Snapchat stories. For a whole day.
Thou Shall Not Have Cell Signal
Cell signal is also not available on the entire island. So again, no posting on Instagram for a whole day. You are completely detached from your world back home, which is how traveling should be for the most part. It might seem hypocritical coming from a guy who makes a living off of posting his travels on the Internet but do as a I say not as I do.
Optional Participation Rules
Thou are recommended not to eat
It is meant to be a day of fasting as well as silence but hardly any travelers follow this rule. I mean, Balinese food is delicious and the Balinese people understand that if you don’t follow the religion of the island, then that’s not their place to force you not to sustain yourself.
Thou are recommended not to speak
This is a day of silence after all. The whole purpose of the day is to convince the demons to leave the island by tricking them into thinking that no one is here. However, not speaking is almost as hard as not eating and this practice has seemingly become a suggestion as opposed to a hard restriction. It is a nice way to challenge yourself, though. You’ll be amazed at the things you can do without speaking.
Thou are only allowed one bedside lamp for electricity
For most of the day, your hotel or wherever you are staying will have electricity. However, at least at the place I always stay at, they do turn it off around 7 PM at night.
Thou are not allowed to entertain yourself
Take this as you will but it seems like the Balinese people draw the line at reading a book. You technically aren’t supposed to watch TV, movies, or do anything that anyone would consider particularly fun, really. Again, just a suggestion but with extra blurred lines as far as specificity goes.
How To Be Respectful During Nyepi
Just follow these rules and do your best to encourage other people to follow these rules. My first time experiencing Nyepi, there was a guy in my friend group who was trying not to speak for the day. And of course, there were a few people in my friend group who took it as a challenge to get him to speak. Let people do their thing. Obviously, it wouldn’t be a big deal as my friend was a white American who had no real reason to stay silent aside from personal reasons, but that attitude is more admirable than those who took it as a challenge to get him to speak.
Understand that you literally have no choice but to participate. No matter how much you cry or complain, your hotel staff will not just give you Wi-Fi because that power is out of their hands. The Balinese hotel and villa workers are already breaking away from tradition by being forced to work on Nyepi so take it with a smile and be respectful of them. The power is out of your hands but it is out of their hands as well. No amount of tantrums and tears will change that.
Tips On Making It Through Nyepi
The first thing you should do is check with your accommodation about how things are going to work during Nyepi. Check if their restaurants will remain open, what time their facilities will close, and so on. Where I usually stay, the restaurant remains open but at limited hours. Hotel restaurants are also typically more expensive, so if you want to save money and buy groceries yourself before Nyepi, that is definitely recommended. My first Nyepi, I raided Coco Mart and stocked up heavy on a bunch of stuff that ended up not even being used. The way our squad rolled through Coco Mart, you would think we were preparing for apocalypse instead of being stranded for one whole day. Some fruit, a few bags of chips, and a couple of drinks should get you through the day.
As far as entertaining yourself goes, I shouldn’t even have to be typing this out because come on, it’s 24 hours without Internet. However, I have heard a ton of tourists complain about how inconvenient it is to have Nyepi. I understand but also I don’t. You don’t just come to a country and complain about how inconvenient their millennia-old traditions are to your vacation.
Download a bunch of movies off of Netflix. Learn how to play chess. Paint some pictures. Buy a few coloring books. Read an actual book. Sleep. Work. Write. Eat. Pray. Love. Discover the antidote to an incurable disease. Do whatever you want, really, as long as it doesn’t interfere with how other people are spending their day.
Participate as fully as you can and use the day to reflect on the past year and the coming year in silence and solitude. Or a combination of all of those things.
Beyond the infinity pools and five-star resorts and booming nightclubs, Bali is also a cultural powerhouse of a destination. Many travelers choose to ignore that aspect but Nyepi is one that you will just have to deal with. In all of my travels, Nyepi was one of the most unique traditions I have ever encountered. If you learn to see it as a cultural event to be embraced rather as an inconvenience to your travels, then you should have no problem making it through Nyepi.
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