Bali, silence is golden on New Year’s Day
I steered a rented motorbike along the narrow road, sputtering
past costal villages and gawking at giant Ogoh-ogoh monsters that
lurked beneath the palm trees. Sporting elongated fangs, bulging
eyes and wild scary hair, these 15 to 20-foot papier-mâché effigies
are perhaps the most important part of Nyepi, the Balinese New
Following the Lunar, or Saka, calendar by which many Balinese rituals
are set, Nyepi Day falls between mid-March and mid-April, the day
after tilem (the new moon). In the month leading up to Nyepi Day,
neighboring villages compete to build the scariest, most disgusting-looking
Ogoh-ogoh imaginable. The monsters symbolize evil spirits that
surround daily life.
I saw a colossal green-skinned demon battling a red devil that
burst from the demon’s own torso. One Ogoh-ogoh sported the
head of a dragon with foot-long fangs and spiked bracelets. Another
had its fanged mouth open and claws raised, as if ready to devour
In order to start the new year with a clean slate, tradition demands
that evil spirits are destroyed and banished from the island. On
Tawur Kesanga (the day before Nyepi), therefore, Ogoh-ogohs are
paraded through villages. As gamelan musicians pound out a disjointed
beat on traditional metal xylophones and gongs, spectators are
encouraged to stomp their feet, beat on drums and scream as loudly
as humanly possible. It’s all part of a carnival-like exorcism
aimed at driving the evil spirits away.
Four days before Nyepi, I set out from southern Bali with plans
to motorbike around the island. From my hotel on Legian Beach,
I headed north to Ubud, the artistic heart of Bali. I then drove
east to the coastal road that led to Candi Dasa, Amed, Kubu, Tejakula,
Bukti, Singaraga and ultimately Lovina, where I saw bottlenose
dolphins leaping playfully offshore.
In villages large and small, I also saw local men standing on bamboo
scaffolding. Wielding paint brushes dipped in a variety of bold
colors, they put finishing touches on their beloved Ogoh-ogohs.
Early in the afternoon on Tawur Kesanga, I checked out of a Lovina
losman (guest house), hopped on the motorbike and headed to my
starting point at Legian Beach. I sped along banked mountain roads
that snaked past tranquil lakes and emerald rice paddies. At villages
along the way, Ogoh-ogohs reared their ugly heads.
I reached Legian just before sunset. At the main intersection,
huge crowds had already gathered. As golden light drained from
the sky, a procession of young men marched up the street carrying
enormous Ogoh-ogoh floats. Seemingly moved by the loud gamelan
music accompanying the parade, the Ogoh-ogohs jerked spastically,
like giants with no rhythm. Children looked at the fanged creatures
and screamed. Adults did too. I let loose a full-throated roar
that was lost in the cacophony of banging, stomping and shrieking
that continued until the procession moved on.
Nyepi literally means “silence.” Beginning at 6:00
a.m. on Nyepi Day and continuing for 24 hours, all business except
hotels are closed. Balinese Hindus dedicate the entire day to spiritual
purification and silent introspection. No one is allowed on roads
or beaches. In fact, it is forbidden for residents to leave their
homes. While inside, they must adhere to strict rules: no TV, no
work, no lights, no loud talking.
Tourists are allowed a tad more freedom. On Nyepi Day we we’re
permitted to move quietly around the hotel grounds but could not
step outside the property. We were allowed to watch TV but told
to keep the volume to a minimum.
When I woke on Nyepi Day, I walked past the deserted pool area,
poked my head through the bushes and looked up and down Legian
Beach. The wide strip of sand stretches south all the way to Kuta
and north to Seminyak and beyond. Normally, the beach is packed.
But as I scanned the shore on Nyepi Day, not a single soul could
For one split second I felt an urge to sprint along the sand and
revel in sweet desolation. Out of respect for the Balinese culture
and fear of the Pecalangs, the urge faded fast.
Pecalangs are traditional Balinese security men. They’re
responsible for crowd control at the Ogoh-ogoh processions. On
Nyepi Day they roam the island, enforcing the curfew and chastising
anyone careless enough to let light or sound escape through an
I spent the entire day in a hammock, dreaming of beaches and bright
green Ogoh-ogoh monsters.