I spent 10 glorious days in Ubud, Bali this year for a meditation retreat, and I almost broke the internet scouring for packing lists in anticipation of my trip.
Once I arrived, I laughed at how my preparations had missed the mark in so many ways. Sure, I had plenty of clothes and toiletries, and on a very basic level I hadn’t forgotten a thing. But I had lost so much in the translation from here to there.
Being prepared for a trip to another country is so much more than a packing list and an itinerary. And although this list is about Bali, it’s true for any trip that knowing about the people, their customs and the culture will get you a lot farther than the perfect resort wear.
These are the things I learned, and what wish I would have known before going to Bali:
1. Dress respectfully.
Bali is a mostly Hindu country, and they are devout in their faith. It is part of what makes this little Indonesian island so magical. At any time of day, the streets and doorsteps are lined with colorful floral offerings and aromatic incense as signs of gratitude and reverence for the gods who bless this people.
Part of their tradition is modesty, and you will be hard-pressed to find a Balinese woman with her legs or shoulders showing. Even in the height of humidity and heat, women find ways to dress coolly, comfortably and modestly.
It’s as easy as carrying a lightweight shawl when you’re out and about or wrapping a sarong around the waist to cover your legs. No no one is going to verbally abuse you for showing skin (they’re way too polite for that), but you just might feel more in sync with the sacred energy of this magical place if you cover up a bit.
2. Temples have rules—follow them.
The Balinese economy relies heavily on tourism, so of course they are happy to welcome visitors to their many exquisite temples. But it isn’t just about the money for them.
The temple is the center of Balinese culture, and it is a place to treat accordingly. Men and women alike are required to cover the legs before entering, and even as a tourist, you will be expected to wear a sarong tied at the waist with a sash.
Menstruating women are asked not to enter (as well as anyone bleeding), so you’ll just have to follow the honor system on that one.
There are many other rules, but they boil down to common sense and common courtesy. Don’t interrupt prayer. Don’t step on offerings. Don’t be loud and obnoxious. Basically, slow down, speak less and observe more.
3. Don’t raise your voice, and do use your hands mindfully.
The Balinese are a gentle and polite people, and they take offense to raised voices. Again, they probably won’t call you out on it, but it’s respectful to keep your voice down.
This doesn’t just apply to arguments or heated exchanges. It means remaining calm and good-humored during any haggling or negotiation, and no yelling at your travel companions to get their attention down the road.
Likewise, the Balinese culture calls for mindfulness of the body. The body is broken into three zones with the head being the most sacred, the torso second and the feet the most unclean. For this reason the Balinese never touch anyone on the head (which includes no hair-tousling of cute knee-high kiddos).
Other important hand and noise rules include no pointing, no handing over money or items with your left hand (it’s generally the hand used for personal washing and is considered unclean), and no laying on the horn in traffic. A quick, friendly beep will do.
4. When in doubt, take your shoes off.
It is customary to remove the shoes in most establishments in Bali—definitely in temples and homes. Most shops along the main touristy roads (like Hanoman Road in Ubud) are a little more lenient, but when in doubt, err on the side of caution.
I got in the habit of looking down before I entered anywhere. If there was a line of flip-flops at the door, I chucked mine too. Mindfully, of course.
5. Drink in moderation and avoid drugs.
No matter your personal views on drugs and alcohol, it’s a good idea to follow the Balinese way when visiting. While there is certainly alcohol available (a frosty Bintang beer, perhaps), it is not as customary to drink there as in the Western world.
Just as with their dress and demeanor, the Balinese are modest and respectful and don’t look highly on the debauchery of drunkenness. Plus, because almost everything is imported, it’s not exactly cheap to drink.
As for drugs, just don’t do it. No matter what is legal wherever you come from, it’s not legal here, and it could land you in jail for an extremely long time. Simple possession could mean jail time of 4 to 12 years, and foreigners are not immune from prosecution.
6. Open your mind and enjoy a new experience.
I admittedly felt an urge to judge when I learned about some of the more striking cultural differences (no oral sex of any kind!), but when I relaxed my monkey mind, I found beauty in the delicate nuance in their traditions.
While it may seem like there’s a lot of dos and don’ts, the truth is that the Balinese culture is what makes the experience of visiting so rich. If Bali were like the United States, it wouldn’t hold the same allure and intrigue as it does.
It is the reverence and devotion of this friendly, mindful people that makes the air thick with magic and the experiences deep with meaning.
Author: Kayla Floyd
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina
Photo of the author: via Ashlie Woods, used with permission.