The day following the dark moon of the spring equinox is the start of the Balinese New Year. Bali’s Nyepi period really begins with Melasti, three or four days beforehand, when worshippers flock from their temples to the beaches for a purification ritual. Then on the eve before Nyepi come competitive parades of ogoh ogoh, frightening papier-mache effigies that represent evil spirits. Lots of noise made by the crowds turning out to see the spectacularly ugly monsters is supposed to help rid the island of these spirits.
Nyepi itself is supposed to be spent in complete silence and contemplation. All traffic (bar emergency vehicles) is banned from the streets from sunrise to sunrise, and TV and radio stations cease broadcasts. Even the airport completely closes; Ngurah Rai is the only international airport in the world to shut for a religious holiday. During this period one is not supposed to turn on any lights, do any work, cook, leave the home or engage in anything pleasurable (no post-Nyepi baby boom nine months down the track).
Traditional Balinese security guards, or pecalang, patrol the streets to make sure everyone behaves, and at night you might have them tapping on your door asking you to turn off any lights they can see from the street. A few years ago we spent Nyepi at a guesthouse on Balian Beach and we were asked to cover up the clock lights on our DVD player by the patrol—this is taken very seriously. It is amazing how much light a powerpoint or a fridge button can actually cast when everything else is turned off.
Tourists are not permitted to leave their hotels—that includes for swimming on beaches—but some leniency is granted. Depending on the hotel's location, guests may swim quietly in pools and take part in some outdoor activities within hotel grounds. But at night, curtains are drawn and lights are not at full glare. If you can do so respectfully, from a balcony or enclosed area, it's worth getting outside after dark to peer up into the sky to see the stars. As there's no glare from lights on the island, it's an awesome sight.
Travellers beware: if you arrive late at the airport on Nyepi eve, you may have trouble getting transport to get you to your hotel, so do plan in advance with a transfer if possible.
The day after Nyepi is when the Balinese typically pay visits to their friends and relatives. And non-Balinese vow a whole bunch of new year resolutions that they failed to keep on January 1...
Stuart McDonald co-founded Travelfish.org with Samantha Brown in 2004. He has lived in Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia, where he worked as an under-paid, under-skilled language teacher, an embassy staffer, a newspaper web-site developer, freelancing and various other stuff. His favourite read is The Art of Travel by Alain de Botton.
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