I came to live in Bali in 2014 and stayed on Lembongan with friends who helped me settle into my new Bali life. It was here too that I had an experience that I think of now as my ‘official’ welcome to Bali and its spirit world.
My friends showed me how to make the most of island living, slowing down, getting in tune with the unhurried flow, and catching up on sleep. We had spent the day exploring the amazing beaches, and after a big dinner of locally caught seafood and a glass of wine, I snuck off to a nearby bed to give in to sleep. While dozing off, I had the sensation of someone standing next to my bed. I was comfy and snug, so I figured it was just one of my friends checking on me and kept on sleeping. Twice more during the night though, I felt the same thing, a sense of being watched and someone close by, and yet when I opened my eyes to check, of course there was no one there.
I checked with my friends in the morning, and they laughed and told me, no, they had in fact left me to catch up on sleep and been out for the night. The thing was, the way my friends laughed suggested less that I was ‘crazy’ and more that they weren’t in the least bit surprised.
That day I chatted with some of my Balinese friends about the experience, and again, they weren’t at all surprised, reassuring me that it was just a friendly spirit checking on me, making sure I was sleeping ok.
It didn’t worry me, I was relieved that everyone seemed so relaxed about it, but I was curious and wanted to find out more about my nocturnal visitor. And as I lay in my bed that night with my eyes and my mind wide open, I am sure that I saw ‘my’ ghost - an old man standing in the doorway. He appeared to be hovering about a metre off the ground, he nodded as if to acknowledge me, and then floated off into nothing. The next day when I told my friends, I expected them to laugh or look at me like I was completely crazy or worry that maybe we’d had an intruder. But again, not one of them was surprised and they seemed to feel instead that I was lucky to have seen him.
In Bali, it’s pretty ‘normal’ to have had ‘ghost’ experiences; it’s not considered crazy to shut down villas or resorts because the local ghost residents are getting a bit too rowdy. Ghosts in Bali are considered spiritually significant, a part of life, and not something to laugh off or ignore.
This was a big change in thinking for me, and since my ‘grandpa ghost’, I’ve had other experiences that I just can’t explain, things that make me feel like the spirits of Bali are in fact watching out for me.
In the house I live in now, I rescued and took in a stray, badly beaten and sick Bali dog (or Kintamani) - Zoey has become my loyal protector. Every day before I feed him, as I pick up his bowl he races to the temple at the back of my house. Known as the temple of Ratu Gede, this temple is for protection and safety, and Zoey stands in it for about two minutes, staring into space, then races back for food. He has never missed his ‘prayer’ time once. Not once! Wayan who works with me, believes that Zoey has some kind of connection to the land and one of the temples at my house; that perhaps Zoey sees things or spirits that we aren’t aware of. He is a Kintamani dog so I like to think that he does have an old spirit and was sent to protect me and the house - my Kintamani keeper.
Wayan also says that she has seen a female ghost with very long hair, wearing a green dress, surrounded by ghost children in my house. Being that I have long hair, don’t mind wearing green and am constantly surrounded by lost souls (street dogs) and my own fur children, it’s a comforting thought to think that maybe I have an invisible guardian at the house looking out for all of us.
There have been so many things for me to learn about faith and spiritual custom in Bali. A dear friend of mine here in Bali tells me that ghosts in your house can be powerful, protecting you from bad spirits, but only if you believe in them and allow them free access to your house without being scared. Some friends on Lembongan said if the ghosts you see are children, leave lollies out at night for them to let them know you are not afraid of them and that they are welcome to stay and play.
Many Balinese people believe in spiritual guardians, or a kind of guardian angel, a spirit or ghost who protects you from evil or bad luck. The Hindu faith believes in Niskala – an unseen white or black magic that explains many otherwise inexplicable situations. Nyepi is steeped in this belief, dharma versus adharma (good vs evil) and many ceremonies involving magic or the protection from black magic are performed. It’s not uncommon for people to go into a trance-like state during these ceremonies, the belief is that these spirits, ghosts or magic enter their body and take over for a short time.
The vengeful female ghost
The elders of Indonesia have always told stories about vengeful female ghosts. Movie director Joko Anwar’s popular 2017 horror film ‘Satan’s Slave’, features a terrifying ghost called ‘Ibu’ or ‘mother’, and is typical of the kinds of ghost stories that the people of Bali grow up hearing. Many of these ghosts and their stories may seem violent and gruesome when you first hear them, but in fact they are powerful and useful stories about women and their lives in Indonesia, and the need for women to ‘guard’ against evil. They’re part of a culture that believes that ghosts are able to teach people lessons, or provide them with important warnings to keep them safe.
Kuntilanak is the ghost of a woman who died during childbirth and is said to now haunt women during labour. It’s common practice in Bali that babies do not touch the ground or lose physical contact with another person for the first three months of their life, to protect them from ghosts stealing them or entering their bodies. Of course there are good practical reasons for this story as well, as Kuntilanak may encourage women to seek medical help during pregnancy and labour, and the practice of baby-wearing, and always keeping baby close makes for happy, contented and secure babies.
Another angry female ghost is Sundel Bolong who it’s said was raped and fell pregnant, dying during the subsequent childbirth. She is said to haunt men walking alone at night, reminding them to be respectful and nonviolent, and to remind women not to walk alone. Again, the story of Sundel Bolong serves a practical purpose, and it is common for Balinese people to walk in pairs at night, never alone. It also highlights the dangers that face Indonesian women and the culture of violence against women that the elders, and Sundel Bolong are warning against.
Nyai Roro Kidul is the ruler of the south sea of Java and a ghost or spirit. She is said to have been a beautiful woman who was damned in love, so her spirit lives in the ocean and she becomes the ‘wife’ of every king of Mataram, in a spiritual sense. In a similar way, the islands of Nusa Lembongan, Nusa Penida and Nusa Ceningan, celebrate Nyepi Laut every year. It basically means ‘silent ocean’. No person, boat, surfboard or paddleboard is allowed in the water on that day as they offer a day of rest and respect to the gods and spirits of the ocean and thank them for keeping the people safe from harm on the seas.
This belief in the spirit world means that there is less emphasis on the physical body and the importance of its final resting place. For this reason, cemeteries in Bali are often quite rudimentary, as they are not believed to be the permanent resting ground for the deceased. The headstone is just a simple marker, with umbrellas placed over each burial spot to protect the family during prayer and to protect the body where it lays. And if you see people honking their horns as they drive past a cemetery, it’s not to disturb the peace, it’s a common sign of respect and way of asking the spirits for permission to pass.
Throughout various times of the year, penjor, decorative bamboo poles, can be seen lining the streets and out the front of every home. Traditionally these penjor were created in the curved shape of mountains, with a candle at the very end to light the way for spirits and ghosts to pass over the mountain, leaving their bodily form and entering the spirit world. It’s a beautiful idea that we can help guide our lost love ones home to their spiritual resting place, and that we in turn will be guided by our loved ones.
Spirituality is an intricate blend of folklore and religion in Bali, and deserves to be treated as sacred and spoken about respectfully. These ghosts are the spirits of Balinese people who haven’t been able to pass over or who have chosen to stay on the earth; protecting, warning, or haunting the living to teach them a lesson. I’ve always been a fan of ghost stories, and love learning about Bali’s mystical culture, especially given my own ghost encounter. I respect the magic that these stories bring to every day life, but also, the practicality they bring, guiding the Balinese people through difficult times. I have learnt that their complicated spiritual faith means accepting and acknowledging that there are things we just don’t understand, and that everyone could do with a guardian angel – or a Kintamani protector – to keep them safe.
Written by Clare - The Travellist.