When an Island Goes Dark

I didn’t plan it, exactly, but I am somehow following New Year’s celebrations around the globe.

I joined old friends in Florida to ring in 2019 over champagne and laughter in January; lunched with new friends in Chiang Dao to celebrate the Chinese New Year over long noodles and warm red wine on the first New Moon of February, and I will celebrate the Khmer New Year in Cambodia next month.

While that was all mostly accidental, I did plan to be in Bali for Nyepi or “the Day of Silence” on purpose. Intrigued by the way the Balinese celebrate their new year with a day devoted to silent reflection, I booked my flight to Denpasar and made the trek to the town of Ubud, arriving two days before Nyepi – and two days before the airport would close completely for 24 hours.

(For a quick description of what to expect on Nyepi Day click here. For my personalized story, read on.)

Ubud, a jungle town in Bali
Ubud is a jungle town in Bali, Indonesia.

And it isn’t just the airport that shuts down. Radio and Internet providers shut down services, lights remain off across the island, ATMs are turned off, nobody drives, nobody works, in fact, nobody leaves their village compound. Tourists are asked to stay within the grounds of their hotels and they are escorted home by community police if they venture onto the streets or the beaches.

It is truly a day of silence.

Before the quiet, though, as is true for nearly all New Year celebrations that I’ve witnessed, there is, naturally, a huge party. And, as my yoga instructor told our class on Nyepi Eve, Bali is the only place in the world where you can party with spirits.

Ngurupuk Parade
The Ngurupuk Parade on Bali’s New Year’s Eve.

Did you say party with spirits?

For weeks leading up to the big day, villagers work together to create ogoh-ogoh, which are large monsters made out of paper, bamboo and wood. The towering creatures are made to be light for carrying in the traditional Ngurupuk Parade – and made to be scary for attracting evil spirits.

Ogoh-ogoh monster
This ogoh-ogoh is carried by one village’s boys who helped create the monster.

The ogoh-ogoh are fixed to large bamboo holsters on Nyepi Eve and, as the sun sets, it is time to make noise. I mean a lot of noise. Evil spirits are chased from homes with the banging of pots and pans. Bamboo cannons are deployed, and the sound of drums reverberate across the island.

Ngurupuk Parade
The village girls participate in the Ngurupuk Parade festivities, too.

With the evil spirits chased out, and presumably housed within the ogoh-ogoh, villagers now carry their monsters throughout their towns.

Ogoh-Ogoh Monster
My favorite Ogoh-Ogoh

In Ubud, there are 13 distinct villages, and each held a procession, creating a loud, chaotic and absolutely delightful feast for the eyes. Embracing the cacophony and the chaos was part of the fun.

Listen to that noise!

After the processions, the weeks of hard work go up in a fiery exorcism of evil spirits as the ogoh-ogoh are burned, leaving the island cleansed of evil for the Day of Silence and the beginning of the new year.

Ubud in Bali, Indonesia
Westerners stay out late on Nyepi Eve, preparing for an entire day confined to the hotel grounds.

The merriment throughout Ubud feels much like a New Year’s Eve celebration anywhere, even on Monkey Forest Road where Westerners tend to stay. With the mandated-by-law nothingness of the next day looming, the bars are jamming, and arak – a Balinese moonshine – is thrown back at little pockets of parties found on stoops and street corners throughout the city.

New Year's Eve (Nyepi Eve) in Bali
Locals join with their fellow villagers, toasting with arak, a Balinese moonshine.

And then there is silence

Ubud on a day of silence
Ubud goes quiet.

Starting at 6 in the morning, all is quiet for a complete 24 hours. It is a time for silent reflection and for contemplating the year to come.

Bali is the only place in the world that celebrates Nyepi – a Hindu holiday – this way. While the day is a public holiday for all of Indonesia, Bali is the only place in the country where Hindu is the majority and, therefore, where the Day of Silence is strictly enforced.

I fully embraced a day of enforced resting. I felt no guilt about staying in bed for the entire day, emerging only for the food prepared for all of the Westerners holed up on hotel compounds for the day.

And, perhaps most refreshing for me, was the idea of allowing the earth to re-set for a day. With no lights, traffic, travel, or activity, the planet enjoyed a much-deserved day of rest in this little corner of the world.

The scariest monster yet.

I made a Balinese New Year’s resolution to stop using plastic water bottles for good. When I explained this to my hotel the day after Nyepi, they immediately brought me a reusable water-cooler jug.

No more plastic!

Now…what will I resolve for the Khmer New Year?

For a quick description of what you can expect on Nyepi Day in Bali, click here.

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    2 Comments on “When an Island Goes Dark”

    1. Pingback: Life in the Monkey Forest: Survival Guide | The Lens of Jen

    2. Thanks for this blog. I loved all of the details and the pictures and video. It was hard to imagine what you were experiencing from our brief conversations but this is so descriptive and interesting and I think that the whole idea of a day of silence is wonderful for everyone! Glad you have given up plastic water bottles. Franny and Franny influenced us this summer and we’ve been VERY strict! Keep these beautifully crafted accounts of your travels coming. We love them all!!

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