Conventional wisdom is to stay away from Bali on Nyepi. Nyepi, which this year falls on March 9, is a national day of silence, the start of the Hindi new year and so a time to reflect on the year past and plan for the year ahead.
90 percent of the Balinese are Hindu, and they take Nyepi seriously. No cars or residents are allowed on the street, and anyone found engaging in any activity of the sort can be arrested. Hotel services are generally limited, as hotels have to make special arrangements for certain staff to sleep over so they can be present to work on Nyepi. While hotels can operate with electricity, the Balinese can not use it. Hotel guests are not allowed to leave their properties. There's no escape: even the airports are closed.
Which suited me just fine.
Last year on Nyepi I was at the gorgeous Viceroy Bali in Ubud, the town famous as the setting for the film of Elizabeth Gilbert's best-seller Eat, Pray, Love. I spent the day soaking in my private infinity swimming pool and sunk into the plush cushions on my private thatch-covered pagoda, gazing at the lush Lembah Maharajah -- the valley of the Kings, or Viceroys -- surrounding me. Silence was the perfect accompaniment to let the whoosh of a gentle breeze or trickle of water work their soothing magic.
The Viceroy Bali's restaurant was up and running throughout the day, serving its teriyaki grilled tuna and lemongrass crème brulee with a view of hills thick with palms and bamboo and banana fronds, and off in the distance, terraced fields growing rice. The spa was open, too, so I booked a Balinese massage. As fragrant ginger oil was smoothed all over my thirsty skin, I gazed out the open window at flaming red hibiscus flowers and violet bougainvillea. As if on cue, a butterfly flitted by. Bliss.
One perfect reason to spend Nyepi at the Viceroy Bali is to experience all the preparations and rituals that occur in the days before the day of silence The hotel is right up the hill from the small village of Nagi which lies between the hotel and the town of Ubud.
Tradition maintains that villagers throughout Bali spend the weeks leading up to Nyepi making huge creatures of papier mache and fabric called ogoh ogoh. That may be where the word "ogre" comes from, for ogoh ogoh are made to look as terrifying as possible, their bodies deformed and the faces distorted, with eyes that glow red. Ogohs ogohs represent evil spirits.
On the day before Nyepi the ogoh ogoh from villages surrounding Ubud are paraded through the town's streets and gathered in the school yard for a prize ceremony. At night they return to their villages to be ceremoniously burned, symbolizing ridding the village of evil for the upcoming year.
In the village down the hill from the Viceroy Bali, the tradition takes an unusual turn. At nightfall a heap of coconut husks are burned in the village square. The young men from Nagi, wearing only sarongs and headwraps, throw glowing embers of burning husks at each other, while a crowd that includes hotel guests stand around and cheer, and try to stay out of harm's way. I never could figure out how the winner was determined, or even if there was one; my hunch is that this was Bali's version of Pamplona's running of the bulls, a display of pure machismo. But it was conducted all in good fun, with the crowds of bystanders cheering with a great spirit of camaraderie, villager and visitor alike.
The day after the day of silence, the ceremonies continue. I had plane tickets to leave the island, so I missed the "smooch" ritual, described as a tug of war with young men of the village on one side, and young girls on the other, with everybody getting smooched in the process.
My conventional wisdom is that if you can, DO stay in Bali for Nyepi. For purely practical reasons, Nyepi falls at the end of the rainy season, right before prices are raised for high season. But in our multi-tasking, high-tech lives, a day of silence can be rare and wonderful. Experiencing Nyepi could be a once-in-a-lifetime chance to participate in an age-old ritual that combines colorful spectacle and quiet contemplation, in some of the most beautiful landscape on earth. And that's priceless.