How to behave in a Balinese temple

Ceremony in a Balinese temple; photo: leramulina

Apparently not all tourists know how to behave in a Balinese temple. Just recently, a couple from the Czech Republic dishonoured the holy temple and holy water in Ubud.

A Czech couple is being criticised for inappropriately playing with holy water at the Beji temple near Ubud. A fitness model, posted a video, where she stands at the altar, bends down and lifts up her skirt, and her boyfriend splashes water from the temple on her. She jumps and giggles.

Lots of people online got angry at their tour guide: "Why didn't their guide tell the couple about the etiquette in Balinese temples?

Firstly, we do not know for sure whether the official Indonesian guide was present at that time. Many tourists visit the temples on their own without guides, and even if there is one, the guide does not necessary follow the actions of his "wards" every minute. 

Secondly, it is unlikely that a local Indonesian or Balinese guide could have thought of such an act, which was quite out of line. 

Czech violators during a purification ceremony at the temple on August 15; photo:

First of all, if you are thinking about going to a Balinese temple, remember that it is a religious object. The temple is neither a museum with secular rules, nor a set design for photographs, nor an amusement park. It is a place with certain sacred features that impose serious rules and obligations on visitors. 

It is unacceptable to consider a visit to a temple as an attraction, entertainment or a "joke".

Tourists at the Lempuyang Temple; photo: leramulina

If you do not intend to follow the religious rules of the Bali Temples because they seem too strict to you, then DO NOT go to the temple. After all, if you are not a religious person and such a visit to a temple is just a tick-box trip, then you will not lose anything.

If you consider a visit to a temple as a conscious cultural experience, please read the rules of visiting Balinese temples before you go.

These recommendations primarily apply to Balinese Hindu temples.

1. Dress modestly

-  Men and women should wear shirts or T-shirts to cover their shoulders. 

- Below the waist, both men and women should wear:

1). a sarong (also known in Bali as kamben or kain kamben). If you don't know how to tie the sarong correctly, ask a local person for help. A properly tied sarong should cover your legs and have no opening underneath it. In some temples, men don't need a sarong if they already wear long trousers.

2). a belt (known as a selendang or senteng) that looks like a sash or scarf and is tied around the waist above the sarong (kamben).

This is a simplified Balinese costume, which is enough if you are a tourist and want to visit a Balinese temple.

A tourist wearing inappropriate and open clothing at Gunung Kawi Temple

It is not allowed to take off a sarong or belt during a visit to the temple. It is also unacceptable to lift up a sarong and bare your legs even if it is necessary for taking a photo.

Proper clothing for the temple. Traditional kebaya blouse is not necessary though. The most important is to cover the shoulders; photo: ANTARA FOTO/Nyoman Budhiana

You can get a sarong and a belt at most temple entrances. You can use your own as well. It is very convenient to have a sarong with you when you travel in Bali. Sarong is a very multifunctional thing, and it is also a great souvenir to bring to your home country. 

There are two types of sarongs, one is for the beach (sarong pantai) and another one can be used for ceremonies (sarong/kamben upacara). You can purchase a sarong at a souvenir store, clothing store for ceremonies or simply at any morning market in almost any Balinese village.

A beach sarong, often made of thinner fabrics and often made with "tassels"; such a sarong is not suitable for a temple visit

Sarongs for ceremony; photo: leramulina

Sarongs for ceremony; photo: leramulina

Sarongs suitable for ceremonies are made of denser materials and have traditional patterns with geometric and plant patterns. They are made without fringe and tassels. If you're not sure if your sarong is a beach sarong or a ceremonial one, ask Balinese people about it, they'll be happy to help you.

- Flip-flops are acceptable. Balinese people do not take off their shoes in the temple.

compare: Balinese women (with T-shirts covering their shoulders); photo: baligetaway

and foreign women in inappropriate clothes; photo: tehsusu

2. Be modest

- Do not show any public signs of passion such as hugs and kisses.

- You may find it superfluous to advise you not to have sex in temples, but this is sometimes done by tourists. Please have sex in other places.

- Do not shout or speak too loudly.

- Do not climb temples, altars or statues.

A Spanish journalist climbing the altar of a padmasana in the temple; photo: Tribun Bali

- Use holy water only for drinking or splashing face, head and shoulders.

- Do not sit on your foot or stretch your feet towards the altar.

- Turn off the sound of your mobile phone before entering the temple.

- In some temples, it is not acceptable to pose for yoga poses in the photo.

3. Do not interfere with a religious ceremony

- If you plan to film the ceremony, get a permission from the organizers first. Oral permission is sufficient.

- Do not stand higher than the head of the priest conducting the ceremony.

- Do not stand in front of the praying person or between the praying person and the priest.

- If everyone is sitting in the temple during the ceremony, do not stand beside them, sit down too. If you need to get out of the temple urgently, walk down politely pointing by your hand in the direction you are going.

- When photographing or filming during the ceremony, do not make excessive noise and do not use a flash.

- During the ceremony, women sit on the heels and men can sit with their legs crossed.

- If you have been invited personally to the ceremony by someone you know, try to stay at the ceremony until the end. It will be rude to leave before the end of the ceremony.

4. Follow religious prohibitions on entering the temple

Balinese temples are forbidden to enter for:

- women during menstruation

- pregnant women

- infants younger than 42 day; in some cases infants younger than 105 days; or sometimes even older children; women who have recently given birth. The exact period of prohibition should be checked with your guide who will take you to the temple or a priest who knows the rules of the temple.

- people with bleeding wounds (regardless of gender)

- people who recently had a close relative die. Please check with with a particular temple 

Tourists at Lempuyang Temple; photo: leramulina

5. General courtesy rules applicable also outside temples

There are also general rules in Bali, which apply to temples as well as outside. These rules will be useful both in visiting religious sites and in your daily life.

- Do not touch the head of a Balinese, even children. A Balinese's head is considered sacred. Be prepared that if you have a small child, Indonesians may try to pinch it gently by the cheek.

- Do not use your left hand to pass on or touch a person. The left hand is considered unclean because it is used for hygienic purposes. The only exception is when you need to pass something on with both hands. 

- Do not use your index finger to point out. If you need to pay attention to someone, reach out and make a wave gesture down with your hand. If you need to point at something, point at it with your thumb, without gently squeezing your other fingers into your fist. Use your right hand to do this.

- Don't lose your temper and don't shout. Balinese people think it's vulgar to raise your voice. Calm and patience will help you to achieve better results other than shouting and aggression.

- Don't step on the offerings canang sari, lying on the ground, especially there is still a scent stick in there. 

- If you're driving down a road and see a religious ceremony, make sure that the village's guards pecalang (guys in black and white sarongs) allow you to pass the convoy of people. If you don't speak Indonesian, try to understand this through visual contact.

In general, Balinese people are very tolerant. In most cases, if you do something wrong, but you are polite, then they will understand and forgive you. 

There is a very minimal chance that when they see you doing something wrong, a Balinese will correct you or make a comment. They will only do so in some very egregious cases. 

Most likely, if you are seen as being obscene or inappropriate, they will videotape it, post it online and laugh at you with comments about your country of origin. In doing so, you will spoil your country's reputation and become the victim of a joke, which is not very pleasant.

It is much better to study in advance the traditions and culture of the country you travel to, so the vacation would go enjoyably and without conflicts. 

Enjoy Bali and its culture!