Pleased and Appeased: Bali’s Gods and Spirits

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As a tourist destination, Bali is an island of superlatives. Whether you’ve been to Bali or not, it seems to show up on most wish lists for a first visit or a return.

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Balinese Cremation Tower

Of course, Bali is included in the book 1000 Places To See Before You Die, and the authors say of the idyllic island:

“Serendipity will lead you to the haunting rhythms of a practicing village gamelan orchestra, past a procession of lithe women carrying impossibly high baskets of fruit offerings on their heads to the local temple, to preparations for a celebration that turns out to be a cremation.”

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The island is world-renowned for its transcendent beauty, but the people and their fascinating culture also draws visitors from around the globe.


Bali is a tiny dot of Hinduism in Indonesia’s far-flung Muslim archipelago. The version of Hinduism practiced in Bali is unique, and it plays an important, integral part in daily life. In addition to the normal pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses, beliefs have been incorporated from Buddhism and Animism (every living thing has a soul), as well as ancestor worship.


The Balinese faithful believe that on any given day, the world around their house or business is awash in spirits, both good and evil. And they’re devoted to daily rituals and ceremonies that ensure these diverse gods and spirits are either pleased or appeased. These daily rites add an exotic mystique that permeates the place and captures most visitors’ hearts.

Family Shrine

Spirits and ancestors are revered, and a sacred place is made for them inside the family’s compound in an altar and shrine.

These steps mark a clear path to the household altar…


…where Canang Sari, offerings of flowers, food, and incense, are placed daily.


Intricate, flower-festooned shrines stand prominently in front of businesses, no matter how busy the road. They’re the Balinese equivalent of Thai Spirit Houses, and serve the same function: a home for the protective spirits that watches over things.


A deep respect for nature and the spirit world inspires craftsmen to build the shrines from all natural elements – bamboo, palm fronds, banana leaves, and flowers.


Lining the streets in front of home and businesses alike are penjors; ornate bamboo poles which are constructed by the men in the house. The height of the penjors ensures that their fronds wave in the gentle breeze as a reminder, as well as a celebration, for the victory of Dharma over Adharma – basically, good over evil.



The level of religious devotion in Bali and its pivotal role in daily life allows visitors a peek into a complex society. The ceremonies and the sheer number of ritual displays around town makes even a casual walk a study in culture, as well as a reminder that some people give religion more than lip service.


Our friend Tricia Mitchell at Travels With Tricia spent a wonderful time in Bali and captured the essence of one of our favorite rituals in her post An Offering Basket Procession. You will be charmed by her stunning photos.

Happy Trails,
James and Terri


Photo Credits:
1. Graham Crumb via Wikimedia Commons
2. Guillaume via Wikimedia Commons
3. VasenkaPhotography via Wikimedia Commons


We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at

28 thoughts

  1. Knowing gods are all around and making them part of one’s daily lives sounds like a highway to good and peaceful lives and societies. Is that reallly the case?

    1. On both our trips, we spent all our time in Ubud, and it seemed harmonious when we were there. Of course, as in all societies, there are believers and non-believers, good and bad, and I’m sure that it’s no different in Bali. But as an outside observer, it certainly seemed a peaceful place. ~James

    1. Peggy, we had read about Kuta, and knew in advance that we wanted no part of that scene. We spent all our time in Ubud, and hopefully, on the next trip we can get around the island a bit more. ~James

    1. Thanks Susan. Bali is one of those places where I wouldn’t hesitate being an ambassador. Maybe I should send a link to this post to the Ubud Chamber of Commerce for a reduced hotel rate on the next trip. 😉 ~James

    1. Thanks David. Bali is a very photogenic place. As you can tell from the photos, some of the interesting sights are large and obvious, and some are in the details. It also helps that Ubud is the artistic center of the island. ~James

  2. Without meaning any disrespect, the cremation tower, from a North American eye, reminds me of a circus scene. It looks as though some wild party is going on inside and perhaps in a sense there is. I imagine should I get to Bali I will walk around open mouthed bumping into people on the street. Yes I think I would blend in beautifully. 🙂

    1. Sue, we didn’t see a cremation while we were in Bali, but we’ve seen the end result on the banks of the Ganges River in the holy city of Varanasi, India. I respect the HIndus for their beliefs, and in fact, I plan on being cremated myself. But it’s not necessarily a process that I want to observe. But these ceremonies are deliberately planned to be a public display – a celebration really. So, no disrespect taken. ~James

  3. Balinese really know how to embrace modernity without discarding their centuries-old customs and traditions, and that’s the very reason why I love the island. I always enjoy watching women carefully arranging the elements of a canang sari and making this hand gesture in the air before they move to the next spot. You brilliantly captured the beauty of Balinese culture, James and Terri.

    1. Thanks for your kind words Bama. A compliment like this from someone who knows Bali as well as you do is high praise indeed. It’s funny that you mention the hand gestures of the women arranging the canang sari. One of the pleasures we enjoyed each day was watching the woman in our hotel compound going about her daily canang sari routine. She was so graceful and a joy to watch. ~James

  4. I found true magic out on jungle walks around Ubud. Don’t know if it has all developed out, James. But we would be walking along a trail and suddenly spy a statue of one of the Hindu gods hidden back among the vines, possibly having been there for hundreds of years. –Curt

    1. Curt, our trips to Bali were 10 years apart, and as you can imagine, things have changed. In these days of low cost airlines and package tours, how could a magic place like Bali not be discovered? But what I say when people ask is that, even with this caveat, it’s still a magic place. From what we saw, most of the tourism is focused in a few spots and the rest of the island gets on with life. Far and away, I’d rather see it with a few more tourists than to miss it altogether. ~James

      1. No disagreement there, James. In fact I am jealous. I would love to get back. I can always figure out methods to get away from the crowds. 🙂 –Curt

    1. That it is Laurie. It’s a lush, green place with every tropical flower imaginable. And to this mix, the Hindus add their love of bright colors – a photographer’s dream come true. ~James

  5. Bali sounds like a fascinating place to visit. From the UK it is a long haul to get there and although I have many times considered it for our holidays I feel it would be great to spend longer than 2 weeks there. How long would you recommend?

    1. Gilda, it is a long haul from the UK, so you’re wise to plan your time accordingly. Bali is a small island, and depending on how much relaxing time you want, you could certainly spend 2 weeks there. We spent a week in Ubud each time we visited, and that was enough time. However, there are other areas on the island to explore, that we would consider on our next visit. But, chances are that you’ll fly through a hub city before flying to Denpasar, Bali; possibly Bangkok, Singapore, or Jakarta. My personal recommendation, if you can swing more than 2 weeks, is to reserve a few days to stop in one of these 3 cities – and I’ve listed them in order of my personal preference. Bangkok is a big, noisy jumble of humanity, but it’s very cool. ~James

  6. Bali sits at the top of my list of places that I want to visit! I can feel it in my soul… it will be a place that touches my spirit, I just know it. Thanks for all of the inspiration! (As if I needed more!) 🙂

    1. Liz, simply put, Bali is the place for you. As you may have read, it’s a very spiritual place and there’s a mystical feel that permeates their daily lives like nowhere else I know. If you can swing it, I’m sure it would be a life memory. I hope that you can. ~James

  7. Terri & James, thank you for your thoughtful mention and for transporting me back to our own special moments in Bali. Were Shawn and I ever lucky to spend 3 weeks there! Like you, we steered clear of Kuta, opting instead to focus upon Ubud and Jimbaran. I hear the latter may have become much more developed in the years since our visit. We were welcomed into the homes of some wonderful Jimbaran locals, and I hope that they are well. They invited us to participate in a ritual ceremony for one of the infant members of their extended family, and even took us to a dance class where elementary school-aged Balinese girls practiced the art of traditional dance. I still remember the young dancers’ graceful arm movements, their expressive faces, and the vibrant costumes that sat on a table in their classroom, awaiting a formal performance. I miss Bali, and carefree days spent dodging the ubiquitous Canang Sari, so as not to crush those beautiful offerings underfoot.

    1. Thanks Tricia. You’re so right about dodging the canang sari. We were surprised that they were scattered all over and we felt almost guilty when we saw one crushed. But the ones we saw were all biodegradable, so instead of litter it was “dust to dust” for the offerings. Also, we watched a dance and gamelan practice in one of the parks there, and it was as good as an any opera. We also took a cooking class that was very cool. It included a trip to the market, which was just as much fun as cooking and eating the meal: coconut sambal – yummy. Yep, Bali is one of a kind. ~James

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