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Bali has been in the news countless times recently because of the disrespectful behavior of a minority of foreigners. While some worry that bad behavior is on the rise, those who know the island well will admit that it’s always been there. The fact is that instant exposure over the internet has made relatively rare incidents more noticeable than ever.
In May 2023, the Jakarta Post reported that 101 foreigners were deported in the past four months, including 27 Russians, eight British and six Australians, for infringements including overstaying visas, illegally working disrespectful behavior and pornography.
In some cases, foreigners were unaware that they were even causing offense: the two Polish tourists, who were deported for ignoring the island-wide Nyepi (Day of Silence) lockdown, were apparently unaware of the repercussions of their act; the Russian ‘influencer’ who posed naked next to a sacred 700-year-old tree apparently had no idea that the photo could have landed her with six years in jail.
Ignorance is no defense, however, and Bali’s Governor I Wayan Koster has now issued a list of rules that tourists should abide by. Here’s what you need to know if you intend to show respect…and not fall foul of Bali’s official restrictions on tourist behavior.
Always dress respectfully, with a sarong and shoulder-covering, at temples and religious events. (Temples that tend to be popular with tourists often have sarongs, sashes and shawls to lend/rent.)
In 2018, international media reported on what was said to be ‘the Bali bikini ban’. Rather than banning beachwear on what is, after all, one of the world’s most famous tropical islands, the ban was merely a proposed restriction on wearing bikinis beyond the beach. Balinese people are famously easy-going and even in rural villages you’re unlikely to hear anyone complain about what, to them must seem unforgivable rudeness when they see a shirtless foreigner.
One unusual aspect of Bali’s Hindu religion (now listed in the official rules) is that women who are menstruating must remain outside the temple and that the inner sanctums of Hindu temples are off-limits unless you’ve been invited inside. If in doubt ask a local: “harus pakaian adat?” (Is ceremonial costume necessary?).
When visiting temples, try not to disrupt people praying and don’t touch offerings, unless invited to during a ceremony. Keep voices low and at all costs avoid any aggressive (or overtly amorous) behavior. The Balinese hold modesty in high esteem and polite behavior is often rewarded with the honor of an invitation to join a ceremony (potentially a highlight of your trip to the Island of the Gods.)
If you want to take photos of people, always ask first. The easiest way to do this is simply to raise your camera and say “boleh?” (May I?)
Helmets have always been compulsory on motorbikes but these days the rule is being enforced more heavily and traffic police are also cracking down on motorcyclists without valid driving licenses.
If you choose to ride consider travel insurance and be sure to comply with its requirements, such as riding with a helmet and being appropriately licensed to ride at your destination.
Videos have gone viral of visitors arguing with traffic police. It’s not an argument they were ever likely to win, of course, and a few overly-entitled foreigners have been deported for their trouble.
Strict anti-corruption policies make it an offense to try to bribe a police officer.
Most travelers are aware that Indonesia has zero-tolerance drug laws (sometimes involving death by firing squad) but many remain unaware of the strict anti-pornography rules.
A few influencers who thought that a downward dog in a designer yoga kit at a temple gateway was the ultimate iconic Bali image have had rude awakenings when they realized that such images –defined as pornography under Indonesia’s strict laws – could land them in prison for six years or more.
So much of this ‘island of a million temples’ is considered holy ground that it would be smartest to refrain from posting photos in skimpy attire beyond the beach zone.
In December 2022, the Indonesian government ratified what the Australian press called the ‘Bali bonk ban’– a blanket ban on cohabiting, making it illegal for non-married people to share a hotel bed. Bali’s governor very quickly clarified that the law would not apply to tourists.
In June 2023, CNN reported that climbing would be banned on all of Bali’s 22 sacred peaks ‘with immediate effect’ but the Ministry of Tourism now says that it is only Mount Agung (the highest and most sacred mountain) that is off-limits for recreational climbing. The hugely popular sunrise hikes on Mount Batur continue with more than 200 people climbing on an average morning.
If Balinese people as a whole prefer that outsiders refrain from climbing their sacred volcanoes then that wish should, of course, be respected without question. Not so long ago a similar decision was reached on Australia’s Uluru: despite having been a sacred site for the Anangu people since time immemorial, it was only in 2019 that the traditional owners’ ongoing request to ban climbing was finally passed as law. Prior to that, there had been decades of bad behavior in the form of tourists literally tramping across local beliefs in their quest for a selfie on the summit of the world’s biggest monolith.
The average Balinese person seems to see nothing disrespectful about tourists climbing their sacred mountains and it seems that the only time when offense was taken was during nude (or semi-nude) photo shoots on the summits.
Just a few phrases of Indonesian (or, even better, Balinese) are likely to win a welcoming smile from the typically hospitable islanders. Om swastiastu is often translated as ‘peace be upon you’ but effectively it stands in as simple ‘hello’. In ceremonial or religious situations it should be accompanied with hands raised in prayer position.
The Bali Tourism Board is now promoting an ad campaign asking travelers to behave more respectfully. This was like the Thailand Tourism Board placing huge billboards along the highway near Bangkok’s international airport, asking foreigners to refrain from the sacrilegious practice of adorning themselves with Buddhist tattoos. (The signs were printed with the words ‘Buddha is not for decoration’…yet, 3,000km to the south in Hindu Bali hundreds of, supposedly culturally-sensitive, expat-owned yoga retreats are inexplicably decorated with giant effigies of Buddha. Some say that while respecting Hindu beliefs on the host island, these places would do well also to respect Buddhist sensibilities.)
If the new restrictions frighten a few ignorant tourists into realizing that they are guests in another country, then the result can only be a positive one.
The Balinese people are among the friendliest, most respectful people on the planet. They deserve to demand the same in return from their guests.
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