‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’
That is a saying you may have heard.
And it's true, putting forth an effort to fit in in Bali will enrich both the quality of your life and help you gain respect from the locals.
So follow the tips below to help you make the most of your time in beautiful Indonesia.
If you’re at all like me you’ll likely end up with a priceless experience that is both culturally rich and adventurous- something that no tour guide could ever replicate.
An example: my story
I was fortunate enough to make some Balinese friends who are total motocross addicts.
On one of their Sunday circuits they happily invited me along with my trail bike. We started the day with the staple Balinese food called babi guling, or suckling pig. After finding some tracks through the jungle in Kintamani and posing for some epic photos with some local kids and farmers we found our next snack of sate babi, or pork satay.
We followed trails until we reached one of the most magnificent vistas I have ever seen with views of both Mount Batur and Batur Lake.
It was a rush riding through the jungle, mud and sand, often passing narrow single tracks with 20 meter plus drops on either side.
And as the day neared the end, we completed our track by playing around on the loose volcanic ash hills beside Mount Batur.
Exhausted and famished we found our next Balinese meal with more delicious babi. That day was as much of a food tour as it was an adventure track 🙂
Villagers couldn’t get enough of seeing a single white face amidst the local trackers. They were further shocked when I spoke to them in Bahasa. At that time I spoke a very basic level but still, the feeling made me extremely eager to keep on learning.
And that brings me to the first point of our 6 tips:
1. Make an effort to learn Indonesian, known as Bahasa Indonesia
Bahasa Indonesia is the national language of Indonesia and therefore more versatile than any other provincial language, such as Bahasa Bali. It’s also much easier. You’ll hear people refer to it as just ‘bahasa’, which is the word for language in Indonesian.
Talking to locals in their national language gains immense levels of respect and opens the door to forging relationships with interesting locals that you would have not been able to communicate with otherwise.
Try to follow the accent and tones of locals as to not sound like a complete newbie. Many Indonesian words have what’s called a glottal stop. You can find videos online that can help you practice the glottal stop and it will greatly improve the quality of your bahasa.
It is also very useful to download a translation app for your mobile phone and anytime you hear a word you don’t know just search for it. Eventually that word will become familiar and you’ll start to incorporate it into your daily vocabulary- both written and verbal.
2. Adjust to the pace of Bali
Whether you’re coming from New York or London or Hong Kong, odds are the lifestyle in Bali is probably one of the main reasons you want to escape your current city.
But the relaxed island mentality is awesome just up until the moment you want or need something done urgently. Getting angry and impatient with locals gets you absolutely nowhere.
Maintain both your smile and your cool and things will happen as quickly as they can. Try to explain the urgency with words instead of negative energy.
You’ll start to hear the term ‘Bali time,’ which implies the relaxed attitude regarding meetings and events.
Fashionably late is acceptable in most cases and the party that you think starts at 6pm probably doesn’t really start picking up until 8 or 9pm. It is not uncommon for someone to say they will show up in the morning but actually they arrive in the afternoon, if at all.
For important tasks, it doesn’t hurt to call or text the relevant party to reconfirm everything. If you have a bad experience with one shop or worker simply find another.
Generally, people hear of reliable workers and shops via word of mouth from friends and friends of friends. Online forums for expats can also help you find much of what you might be looking for.
3. Be generous
You’re already quite fortunate to be in Bali. Most locals may never get a chance to leave their country or even their hometown. The fact that you have enough money to fly here indicates a certain amount of wealth.
Make their life a little bit easier, especially when it’s deserved, but don’t go overboard as to spoil them too much. This can raise their expectations to unrealistic levels for the rest of us and drive inflation.
4. Research cultural norms for both Indonesia and Bali
Learn what is rude and what is polite.
- There are proper greetings and hand gestures.
- Never pass anything with your left hand.
- When eating food without silverware always use your right hand.
- Never touch someone on his or her head.
- Never point the bottoms of your feet at someone or put them up on something high.
- Don’t sit on desks or tables, it is considered unsanitary.
- Learn about proper attire and behavior- especially in places of worship.
This should be quite a start but make sure you do your research and also ask friends, both local and expat, to point out any cultural faux pas that you may commit.
5. Be aware that Bali is a bit of a melting pot
You will meet people from all over the world. There are large expat communities from France, Canada, Japan, and other countries.
Balinese are predominantly Hindu but there are plenty of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Catholics, and more on the island.
It will benefit you to understand and respect people of all religions and walks of life- their cultures, values, and principles. The more you understand all of that the better you will fit in and experience greater enjoyment from your time here.
6. Respect the law
It is a known fact that corruption exists in many parts of Asia. Protect yourself by not breaking any laws.
For example: make sure that, when you drive a scooter, you have an appropriate international driver’s license (that means having an endorsement on the license for two-wheeled vehicles in addition to cars), and always wear a helmet.
Don’t give police or anyone else an excuse to extort money from you. If you have done wrong, try to ask for the proper ticket and pay it in the courts as opposed to perpetuating the corruption. Not all police are corrupt but you should always show them respect as you would in your home country.
There are certainly many more things you can do to ‘fit in,’ but never stop trying to embrace the local culture for all it has to offer. Follow the recommendations in this article and you too will open the realm of possibilities.
With any luck, you'll gain your own priceless memories on the Island of the Gods.