Essential phrases & etiquette when travelling in Bali
When you’re craving magical island vibes of healthy food, yoga, tropical scenery and perfect weather, it’s easy enough to hop on a flight and book your luxurious Bali accommodation.
Bali is so wonderful it’s almost like an adult playground, sometimes it’s easy to forget that it is home to over 4 million people, most of whom are native to the land.
While the Balinese people seem inexhaustible in their warmth and friendliness towards foreigners, they certainly don’t mind a little respect for their culture, which is rich in tradition. In some cases, it is merely courtesy to learn certain phrases or customs, but during some instances, it is essential that tourists know the correct customs. We’ve put together a little cheat sheet of helpful hints for anyone thinking of staying in a Bali villa. This will make your stay safer, more enjoyable, and you’ll definitely impress the locals!
It’s easy to feel at home in Bali given how many Indonesians have learned to speak English, and how many other tourists you’ll see walking around the streets or staying in Bali villas near you. It’s good to remember though that Balinese culture isn’t the same as it is in Australia, and some of the more traditional behaviour can come across as confronting Westerners while they are simply normal in this country. For example, there are recognised gender norms here that understand the woman’s role to be cooking and cleaning and making offerings as well as looking after the children. The men may be more involved in working and the more traditional “masculine” tasks. Balinese also still have a caste system in place which means that there are some rules about who can marry whom as well as indications for the right type of respectful behaviour that is given to higher castes (i.e. bowing). This may be unfamiliar for Westerners but it’s completely natural in Bali. You may be able to relate to it in the West like paying respect to elders, perhaps giving up a seat on the tram, or using polite language.
Behaviour and Interaction
It is customary for Balinese people to be extremely polite and kind when talking to one another, which you will surely notice during your stay in a Seminyak or Canggu villa or in any other popular area you visit. They generally show that they are listening intently and indicate when they agree with you or like what you’re saying. It is great to show your own kindness when talking with Balinese people and one of the best ways to do this is by smiling!
Religious culture is rich and alive on the island and you will have several opportunities to visit beautiful ancient temples during your stay. Temples are not simply historical monuments for the Balinese, they are used for daily worship and for the many spiritual events and holidays that occur throughout the year. It is important to follow any indicated rules when entering a temple. As a general guideline, women need to wear a shawl or a shirt that covers the shoulders, men need to have a sarong, and you will likely need to remove their shoes. Some popular temples offer shawl hire but it’s best to have your own just in case. It is also customary that women do not enter temples during their monthly cycle.
Eating and Hand Gestures
In Bali, it is important that you try your best to eat with your right hand only. If you have trouble remembering at first, you can try sitting on your left hand during meal times! And while we’re on the topic of food, if you’re eating with Balinese people it is polite to accept all food and drink that is offered to you, good practice in letting go of chosen habits and diets, temporarily.
It is also customary to use your right hand when greeting someone and to be safe, for just about everything else as well. If you need to point at something, use your right hand but try to use your thumb rather than your first finger, or use the whole hand. If you are trying to get the attention of someone, simply call out their name rather than waving your hand in the air. Another important thing to note is that it is considered disrespectful to pat anyone on the head, even children.
Unlike in Australia, tipping in Bali is definitely welcomed as a sign of respect and appreciation for someone helping you. In restaurants, the tip is often factored in, but considering the prices compared to Australia, it isn’t a bad idea to add five to ten per cent. The times that tipping is expected the most is when it comes to public service providers such as drivers, tour guides, massage therapists and hair stylists, or hotel employees. It is customary to keep tipping somewhat discrete, such as during a handshake while you are saying thank you.
It is almost impossible to explain every religious circumstance you may encounter as Bali has a religious event nearly every day of the year. There are, however, a few important things to keep in mind. During Nyepi, the Balinese New year and one of the most important days of the year, everything shuts down including electricity, and even conversation comes to only a whisper. Even as a tourist who may not believe in or understand the holiday, it is an important sign of respect to keep your own lights and electronics off during that day and to keep your voice low. Better yet, try out a day in silence with the locals and connect to the land you are in. Learn more about these traditional holidays here.
Something else you will almost certainly encounter, perhaps on the front doorstep of your very own Bali villa, is the Canang Sari offerings. These are small parcels, often made of bamboo leaves with flowers and other materials, that are placed outside of all dwellings and even along the roadside. It is good practice to be aware of these and to make sure you don’t tread on any of them. If it happens by accident you can always apologise!
You will also likely come across Balinese people in times of prayer in either public places or in temples that you would like to enter. If this is the case, you can show respect by walking quietly, avoiding using bike bells or car horns, and trying not to take pictures with flash. While it can be unusual and unique for tourists to look at, prayer is sacred and essential to Balinese culture and should be respected.
In addition, sculptures and other sacred structures should definitely not be climbed, even for an Instagram picture! These usually have extremely important history and symbolism that most tourists may not understand.
A few handy phrases…
Balinese people don’t expect travellers to speak their native tongue (although that would be an incredible surprise!) but they certainly appreciate it when people take the effort to learn a few basic greetings or terms. And don’t worry, it isn’t offensive if your pronunciation isn’t perfect, it truly is the thought that counts. So here are a few phrases you can try out next time you book in to stay in a Bali villa. They are spelled phonetically in most cases, so just sound them out.
Selamat Pagi is ‘Good Morning” in Bahasa Indonesian. (Sub pagi for siang-afternoon, sore-evening, or malam-night)
Om Suastiastu is a beautiful Balinese greeting essentially asking for God’s peace and blessing to be bestowed upon the receiver.
Terima Kasih or matur suksma are ways to say “Thank you” in Bahasa Indonesian and in Balinese respectively. Both are acceptable. If someone says one of these to you, you can also say sama sama as a form of “you’re welcome”. Also, a good thing to note is that tidak means “No” and that is often used in front of terimah kasih in Bali!
Dah is like saying ‘bye’ rather than ‘goodbye’ while Kalihin malu is much more formal.
Maaf is a way to apologise. This could be saying sorry that you cannot understand the language, or perhaps if you’ve stepped onto a Canang sari offering. In any case, it is a good one to know.
Just remember, Balinese people, are friendly and extremely polite. If you don’t remember the proper words you can still shake hands, try the words in English, and always smile! Hopefully, by now you’re feeling a little more prepared and a lot more excited for your next stay in a beautiful Bali villa.