Life in Bali revolves around ceremonies, and one of the major highlights in the Balinese Calendar is Nyepi, the Day of Silence. The three to five day period leading up to Nyepi Day is one of the most exciting, colourful and festive times on the island. However, from the stroke of midnight on Nyepi Day things change. No one is allowed out on the streets, except in special circumstances such as medical emergencies. Pecalang, or community police, patrol the streets and will escort anyone found outside back home – or to jail. Even the stray Bali dogs don’t bark and somehow disappear. At night no fires are allowed and all lights must be off. The dark night descends on the whole island.
If you are planning to experience Nyepi, then arrive before the day (March 7, 2019), as the airport and the port are closed on Nyepi Day. The Ubud area, which is a one-and-a-half hour drive from the airport, is a great place to be based for the celebrations that take place beforehand. It is widely recognised as the cultural heart of Bali. If you want an even richer experience of Nyepi, then I would suggest staying outside of the town of Ubud and finding a little hotel or villa in a small village nearby. Many village streets are buzzing with activity in the lead-up to the day and locals are very happy for you to be involved. Keliki Village has lovely accommodation options, as does Pejeng Village.
I was in Pejeng, located 4.5 km out of Ubud, during the week before Nyepi and observed industrious workers chiselling, sawing and glueing fantastic giant creatures on the roadsides. Preparations were underway to make the ogoh ogohs, which are very large, colourful, grotesque demon-like figures.
My experience of Nyepi is one I will never forget, and one of the most authentic cultural experiences I have ever had. I was the only foreigner in the crowd in the village on Nyepi eve as the excitement started to build. First came the boisterous sound of the gamelan orchestra, which heralded the start of the parade. Next, a large group of child musicians with clanging instruments made its way through the village, accompanying the ogoh ogohs. Their drums and symbols resounded at a fever pitch as fireworks lit up the sky. This loud noise was to lure lurking demonic spirits out of their hiding places. All these spirits were being summoned so they could be expelled from the island, with the help of special curses.
Most spectacular of all was the vibrant parade of scary ogoh ogohs which were raised high into the night sky on bamboo platforms, typically carried by strong adolescent boys. (The whole ceremony has a strong youth focus).
Witches with long protruding bloody tongues were perched on top of towers, followed by white ghosts balancing on swings and ugly babies with ghastly features staring at the crowds with slime dripping down from their bald heads. This string of monsters paraded through the streets in anticipation of the highlight of the celebration: the burning of the ogoh ogohs, which would take place later at the cemetery. I certainly did not stay for that, because I wanted to make sure I got back home to my villa before midnight. I had been warned.
The Nyepi ritual recognises the existence of negative forces and is seen as a way of sending them back to where they belong, ensuring harmony on the island. On the next day, the Day of Silence, Bali must look empty. The bad spirits have been rounded up and sent off the island. So, to trick them and prevent them from coming back, Bali must look devoid of all activity. It is a day of reflection, meditation and feeling gratitude. It is indeed, the silent day.
Peace and quiet really does indeed descend on Bali on this day. An extraordinary sense of calm comes with knowing no one is going about their regular business and that all public activity has simply stopped.
This Balinese ritual inspired the first World Silent Day in 2012, which is now honoured by many people internationally every year on March 21. Nyepi also inspired Earth Day, which is another worldwide celebration honoured in more than 193 countries, on April 22.
In the lead-up to Nyepi, I was talking with Nyoman, a local hotel worker. He told me, “If you have a special letter from the banjar (village council), you can, in fact, be out on Nyepi day.” Being a shift worker in the hospitality industry, he had a letter. At night, after finishing work, Nyoman had to walk two kilometres home. He confided to me, “I was scared. I could not use my motorbike as it is not allowed and, of course, the streets are incredibly dark. It felt eerie. I bumped into another person, and we both screamed. He was also out with a special permission letter, but we were both terrified. What forces made us collide, on this night?” He added, “I will never go out again on Nyepi. It really scared me.”
The many parades and other activities leading up to Nyepi make this a perfect time to visit Bali. Grand public events are held in Ubud central and other towns all over the island. At these big events up to 1,500 dancers and musicians perform, all dressed in elaborate costumes, some entering the stage on giant horses or dragon figures. Live music and fireworks finish off the evening.
The date of Nyepi changes every year, as it is set according to the lunar calendar and the time of the dark moon. In 2019, it falls on March 7. Bali is the only place in the world that shuts down its airport and harbour for 24 hours.
This is Indonesia – a land of many islands and a culture steeped in tradition, with events like Nyepi that should not be missed. Don’t think twice about it – jump on a plane, come and meet the ogoh ogohs and join this unique celebration of Balinese culture.
David Metcalf is hosting a Bali Nyepi Photo Tour March 4, 5 and 6, 2019. The three days before Nyepi are action-packed, full of colour and great photographic opportunities, including a ceremony called Melasti (on the beach). Non-photographers are welcome to join and enjoy the cultural festivities. The workshop is designed to challenge you as a photographer and teach you new skills and put you right in the action.
Pejeng Village – 5km out of Ubud, Bali
Keliki Village – 9km out of Ubud
Stephanie Brookes is a travel writer and blogger with tales from Indonesia and beyond.
Author –“Indonesia’s Hidden Heritage; Cultural Journeys of Discovery”
David Metcalf is a photographer and runs cultural photography tours in Bali, Kalimantan, Toraja, Mongolia, Alaska, Japan and Vietnam