Nyepi Day in Bali: Still. Slow. Soft. Gentle. Easy.

As an American living in Bali, I sometimes wonder how incongruous my personality is with the Balinese way of doing things. Our son’s babysitter comes over sometimes at night to babysit when we go out. And you know what she does while she waits for us? She sits outside and looks out into the night. She’s perfectly happy sitting and being in her own thoughts. I have to fight the urge to hand her magazines and a TV remote control. Me, on the other hand, I’m a multi-tasker. I read books about how to do more with less time (and re-read them, frequently). I judge each day by how much I got out of it, whether it be work, fun, pleasure, happiness or accomplishment. That is just my nature.

Our family’s goal is to live all over the world and to really experience it, so we try, as best as possible, to maintain a “when in Rome” type attitude. In London, we ate steak and kidney pies and drank ales and spent lovely long afternoons at pubs talking about rugby and the weather; in Ipanema, Brazil, we cheered along to the football games and listened to bossa nova. But, when Nyepi Day – a day of silence which marks the start of the Balinese Year – came around in Bali we sort of hummed and ho’ed about what to do.

On Nyepi Day, Bali literally goes silent. It is hoped that the evil spirits will be tricked into believing that the island is deserted and leave. On Nyepi there are four key rules that must be followed: no work, no entertainment or pleasure, no travelling, and no fire. The airport is closed. No one is allowed to leave their homes – this rule applies to everyone; even tourists have to stay in their hotels. Some Hindus even practice fasting and total silence (no talking at all).

So we had two options. The first (the easier, perhaps most sensible one): we could rent a bunch of DVDs, keep the TV low, take advantage of what must be super fast internet (no one else is using it right? And it goes through the phone line, which won’t be shut off…) and Skype with everyone we know. Finally get to that to- do list. Sneak out to the back and play in the yard out of view. Keep the lights on all day but tape up the windows so no one can see. The second: Do as the Balinese do on Nyepi Day. No electronics, no internet, no entertainment. No work. No fire. Stillness.

We chose option 2.

In the absence of a guidebook to Nyepi, we made up our own rules (we asked around and got many different answers about what was and wasn’t allowed). We made exceptions to the electricity rule by using fans/air conditioner to sleep (and justified it by saying that with this heat, there was no way to keep a toddler relatively silent if he was also hot and bothered). We talked but kept our voices low. We didn’t use the phone but didn’t shut it off either in case of emergency.

In the days leading up to Nyepi Balinese Hindus carry out melasti, a purification ritual, which involves taking effigies of gods to the beach or river and cleansing them before returning them to the temples. The day before Nyepi, the villages come alive in anticipation. Villagers make “Ogoh-ogoh” out of bamboo, paper mache and bags of cement. “Ogoh-ogoh” are monsters which symbolize the evil spirits that the Balinese want to rid themselves of. Some examples of the “ogoh-ogoh” that were in our neighborhood were a giant green frog on a motorcycle (which I interpreted as being a symbol of the many motorcycle accidents in Bali); looters and robbers and a crazy looking man drinking alcohol. The “ogoh-ogoh” are paraded through the village the night before Nyepi, and at the end of the evening a small part of them are set on fire symbolically with torches. The idea is that on the night before Nyepi, the evil spirits will be aroused and drawn to the island by all the noise and activity. Then, on Nyepi day itself, all is silent.

The void of sound is something I have never experienced before. We live in a pretty quiet place anyway, so I didn’t expect it would be that different. But it really was. What we think of as “quiet” or “silent” actually already incorporates the hum of daily life- cars, people, motorcycles, airplanes, appliances… When all of that is removed it is almost unnerving- so quiet that when you hear a bird chirp or the rain, it is almost as if it were a brand new noise. It is hard to put into words how it sounds, how it feels. Amazing can’t even cover it. Where else in the world can you go to hear no modern mechanized noise?

What did I learn? Being still in your own thoughts, letting your mind wander wherever it wants to or needs to, grounds you. You have this sensation of having a conversation with yourself for the first time in a long while. Going slowly and quietly is an art to master, one that the Balinese for the most part have perfected but most of us Americans don’t even strive to achieve. The day after Nyepi, walking on the streets, I felt like I understood the Balinese way just a little more, like I was a little more connected to the local way of life.

Read more:
What question do Indonesians often ask travelers?
An Indonesian wedding with a difference
Art, fire and noise: Las Fallas festival in Valencia, Spain

About the author

Carrie McKeegan
Carrie is an American who just moved from Bali to Mendoza, Argentina. Carrie caught the wanderlust bug early on from her parents, who raised her in Mexico City. Carrie and her husband David have lived in New York, London, Barcelona, Costa Rica, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, and Bali before moving to Mendoza. They are actively working to pass on the travel bug to their young son Timmy, who has already been to twelve countries.
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8 Comments

  • Lovely writing, Carrie:) This day sounds like the antidote to hectic modern life. I could cartainly use a little of this!

  • That was fascinating Carrie. I’d never heard of it before but it sounds like such a brilliant idea. Much better than chatting about rugby over steak and kidney pies!

  • I too am American and have lived in Bali for a few years now. Nyepi is not that bad and just plan your schedule around it. Get your food and water before the sun sets that day find a nice view of the stars get a cold drink(nothing with alcohol) and just sit still. If you must do something, grab a book and go to and inner room of your house with flashlight to read. The little government in your neighborhood will have Balinese men walking around watching for noise and lights so be respectful. The Balinese take their beliefs and traditions very seriously and disrespecting Nyepi is not a good idea.

    • carrie

      Hi Jon- Thanks so much for your comments. Absolutely agree that honoring Nyepi is important and the cultures and traditions of the society in which you live should be respected as you would want your own to be. Enjoy Bali!

  • siavash

    Ok I am living in Bali too but as an Asian which who tasted many traditions and try many way of religion I believe that this day for tourist or some western people can be a good and magnificent idea but how in bali force you to be a silent is so rude and not that much polite you know when they shut down the satellite radio signal and tv plus to day I was search for ATM I wanted cash my card and most of them was shut down so I had to go to carrefour for buy just small medicen this is one of trouble and more make me down is force me to do some things yes sure I am as respect wont go out and wont make noise and wont make light on out side all those things are my respond to their request from respect but how they force me wont watch tv wont use internet wont listen to radio is too ugly for me any way I like how the way writing so simple and complete and on advantage of this force day I visited your blog thank you for your share

    • carrie

      Hi Siavash- Thanks for reading and for your comments! I remember how hard it was too to refrain from the daily usual activity, but was so glad afterwards that I was able to experience it too. Hope you enjoyed Nyepi Day in the end!

  • I would love to live there but would need some multisport athletes/runners/cyclists to coach so that I could be there on a work visa. I am also an xray tech., so I could do that. Is it difficult to find a job in order to “live” there?

    • carrie

      Hi Andrea! I run my own business so didn’t have experience looking for work, but from what I have heard it is quite tough to make a living in Bali and find a job as a foreigner, plus wages are very low. Most of the expats I knew came with their own source of income from abroad.