Village Life in a Traditional Balinese Family Compound

Several years ago, my father took us to his rural family village in Northern India, where he had grown up. We had revelled in the opportunity to witness the simple way of life that had defined his values, aspirations and beliefs, so far removed from the more privileged life he and my mother had carved out for us in a pretty suburban home on the outskirts of London, laden with the creature comforts and material goods that we just took for granted.

village life India
A rural village in southern India that I once visited (not my father’s village!)

My aunt had made us a nutritious meal, characteristically over-seasoned with her proud affection. She cooked it outside the house without electricity and with solid but basic utensils. It was one of the most memorable homemade meals I have eaten in India. We met my Grandmother’s elderly friends, who sat giggling like old school friends at a reunion. We knew it broke every rule in the avoidance-of-traveller’s-diarrhoea handbook to accept the milky sweets they offered us, turning under India’s stifling summer heat with flies hovering eagerly in an unwelcome orbit above the box. But to decline them for reasons they would never comprehend, to see the look of bemused hurt in the eyes of these elderly women, whose lives had demonstrated more resilience than I had ever known, that was an outcome too unpalatable for my conscience so I took my chances and accepted it gratefully. The taste was much the same as most other Indian sweets (I have never taken to them) but their look of joy was satiety enough.Balinese family priestEver since that village experience, I have had a newfound appreciation for understanding village life in different world cultures. When we see a nation’s capital, we skim just one layer of cream, the financial districts, the eager young professionals that have migrated to pursue career ambitions, to earn for their families far away, the hub inhabited by politicians and world leaders, by camera-wielding tourists. But grasping the true foundations of a country surely occurs at the grassroots level in the small towns and villages where the majority live and die.

A Balinese Family Compound

Nyoman was our guide for a day trip we booked with Bali Traditional Tours. The voracious monsoon rains had taken their toll on the day, nourishing the lime green plains of the Jatulawih rice paddies with a soggy glaze.wpid-img_20141228_182050.jpg As he navigated us through the bumpy roads that led back to Ubud, Nyoman announced that our last stop would be at a traditional Balinese village compound. What we didn’t know until then was that it was to be his own home and village. Most traditional Balinese families live within a family compound in villages that may have a population of around 700 – 800 people. Family compounds typically contain several homes for different members of the extended family. Nyoman’s home compound comprises three families and approximately 28 people. With three bathrooms between all of them, the queues for a morning wash can be long!traditional Bali family kitchenThe picture below gives you an insight into a Balinese village kitchen. They have no fridges – food is all made fresh, one day at a time and shared amongst the whole family. Ingredients never go to waste. It dawned on me that there was so much I could learn from this set up and I remained in awe of how delicious Balinese food is, stemming from these village kitchens, far out-flavouring anything I could ever whizz up with my food processor or hand blender.Balinese family kitchenWe walked in to the sound of children giggling, a little girl having her hair plaited and 2 young men helping with DIY. How simply these mundane daily sounds and sights transcend the boundaries of geography, language, income and culture. Most compounds contain a small family temple with a raised platform, which is separate to the village temple. The family temple is where family ceremonies and celebrations may occur such as those performed shortly after a new baby is born or a baby-naming ceremony that often occurs at the age of 3 months.Bali traditional tours family compoundNyoman’s Story

Nyoman would have had to participate in this ceremony twice over simultaneously, having been blessed with twins, one little girl and one little boy. We met them together with their cousins, all of whom seemed inseparable and each with their own unique individuality – a cheeky one, a quiet one, a playful and a ringleader of the group. They were so full of glee picking up flower petals, fallen from the trees that shade their homes, tirelessly running towards us and dropping them playfully in our palms.family home compound Bali In Balinese tradition, the placenta is given to the parents after birth for burial in the ground of the family village. A religious offering is kept above it, which is removed once children reach puberty.Bali traditional religious offeringWe felt blessed to have had a chance to meet Nyoman’s parents, his mother had been working hard that morning looking after the children, whilst his wife was out teaching traditional Balinese dance. Nyoman’s father is one of the few local village priests, blessing and overseeing religious ceremonies across the entire village as well as his own family compound. And it’s not just the sound of toddlers fighting and running around that liven up the compound. If you hear a pig in the distance, you’ll be led to the animals kept at home for rearing and selling.pig family compound BaliThe Balinese people would know without inquiry that Nyoman was the third born of all his siblings and we were to learn why. Balinese naming tradition dictates that each third born child is known as Nyoman, the fourth born son as Ketut, the first as Wayan etc. I was intrigued with this unfamiliar custom, in which so much history is embodied within one name, how large a family is, how many siblings, how busy their mothers must have been. In school, second names are used instead for ease as so many children inevitably have the same names!Bali traditional tours visit family homeIntrigued about his journey into the company, Nyoman told us he had been involved in the tourism and hospitality industry since the tender age of fourteen. He would return from school and then work at a small hotel in his village. There, his voyage would progress from gardener to driver to housekeeper with an insatiable enthusiasm to learn English.

In the last couple of years, Nyoman and his cousin set up Bali Traditional Tours, now one of the most highly rated tour companies in Ubud and in Bali overall, a huge achievement for a company so new.

I received no incentives, sponsorship or request from the company to write this post but every so often, you come across a group of individuals, who overwhelm you with their work ethic, welcoming nature and huge smiles and after the special day we spent with Nyoman, I wanted to share that with you all. We took the Bedugul tour but they offer a range of tours, depending upon your interests.

Seeing his village was one of the highlights of my entire trip to South East Asia. There was nothing staged about it, no ploys for donations, no gift shops that they want you to buy from. They are truly passionate about their culture and way of life and want visitors to have an insight into that. We were at the family compound less than an hour and that hour was worth weeks of education.

Have you visited a traditional family compound in Bali or elsewhere in the world?

35 thoughts on “Village Life in a Traditional Balinese Family Compound

  1. I just need to tell you how much I love your blog! You are always going on such unique adventures, and I love your writing style too. I’ve never done anything like this so I really appreciate hearing about it – I think it’s something I would love to do one day.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) March 18, 2015 — 6:55 pm

      Carolann,I really can’t tell you how much you made my day when I read this comment – I think it’s one of the nicest comments I’ve ever received on here so thank you ☺ I just loved hearing and seeing that family-life side of Balinese culture. They are such warm people. Thanks so much for reading!

  2. How interesting about the placenta burial – I can’t wait to go to Bali later this year, everyone says how lovely the Balinese people are

    Suze | LuxuryColumnist

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) March 18, 2015 — 6:58 pm

      Yes and everyone is absolutely right Suze! I’m sure you’ll see for yourself later this year! It gets a mixed reputation as a destination but I completely fell in love with it ☺

  3. Wow, what a moving story. I love the way you introduced it with your account of visiting your father’s village, too. I visited a family compound in Zambia a couple years ago and really enjoyed learning about life there.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) March 18, 2015 — 7:10 pm

      Thanks you Julie! I was so moved by Nyoman’s commitment and journey and one of the first things that came to mind when I was there were the similarities between that and my Dad’s village. I have never been to Zambia but I’d love to see a traditional village in Southern Africa one day too. Thank you for reading ☺

  4. Katie@From Shores to Skylines March 18, 2015 — 1:13 pm

    I absolutely loved the Balinese culture, and one of our highlights was walking through the small villages near where we stayed in Tabanan. The Balinese people are so welcoming! 🙂

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) March 18, 2015 — 7:15 pm

      I couldn’t agree more Katie! The people were some of the warmest and friendliest I’d met anywhere in the world! Walking through the villages must have been so lovely! I’d absolutely love to return one day ☺

  5. Great post! I’ve yet to visit Bali but I’ve spent time in a few family compounds in West Africa where extended families live together much like this.

    Hopefully I’ll visit Bali one day and I can’t think of a better way to experience it than on a tour like this one.

    And by the way, in the Mandinka tribe in West africa, first born sons are called Lamin but I think the tradition ends there wth no particular name thereafter.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) March 21, 2015 — 9:02 pm

      Thank you so much Kat – so delighted you enjoyed the post ☺ Fascinating to hear there is some similarity with the naming tradition with the Mandinka tribe. I had only really seen the family compound set up in my extended family homes in India and it was intriguing seeing not just the similarities but particularly the differences in Bali.

  6. I love how you connected your own very personal experience in India with your experience in Bali. You definitely have a way with words – it felt like I was there experiencing it all with you. It is usually the things that are unique and different that stand out when traveling and these are two great examples.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) March 21, 2015 — 9:11 pm

      Constance, I really am grateful for your very kind comment – thank you so much ☺ You are completely right about these unique experiences. The areas of Bali that Nyoman showed us were beautiful but it really was his tales of his experiences and his home that we found so fascinating.

  7. He he love the pig photo! I really loved the Jatiluwah rice terraces area and it sounds like the village tour added to your experience in a very personal way! The Balinese people are so lovely, I met quite a few in villages while walking out and about around Munduk.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) March 21, 2015 — 9:15 pm

      I remember you recommending Munduk to me before I went Natasha. I’d have loved to have made it there and to several other parts of Bali for that matter if we had a bit more time out there. I completely agree about the Balinese people. I try not to generalise but honestly, I don’t think I met one local person there who wasn’t welcoming and sincere. I’d really like to return one day! And yes, the pig is so cute ☺

  8. It sounds like a really unique experience to see how people live in a traditional Balinese village. The children are adorable and it’s nice to know that they are growing up happily in such a simple environment. I’ve stayed in quite a few little villages in South America and it’s always very interesting to see how people are living without all the modern utilities and mod-cons. Makes you realise how over complicated our lives can be!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) March 21, 2015 — 9:28 pm

      That’s so true Katie. These children (and adults for that matter) were just so content without any of the gadgets and gizmos that so many of us think we could never manage without. And their way of cooking, sharing and avoiding waste just filled me with so much respect. We could all learn a thing or two from that. It must have been a real eye -opener having a chance to stay in some of the small villages in South America and getting an insight into their day to day life. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences.

  9. This is such a great story, thank you so much for sharing. The picture of the pig is so cute. I have only ever seen pictures of the beach from Bali, really great to see another part of Bali.

    Ash | Liakada Travel

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) March 23, 2015 — 8:47 am

      Thank you Ash! For many years, I’d also thought of Bali as being a kind of textbook beach /honeymoon destination but it just oozes culture everywhere you look and the kindness of the people was just astounding. Definitely worth a visit one day if you get a chance ☺ And yes, the pig is just adorable!!

  10. What a captivating account of life in rural Bali – absolutely fascinating. You’re right about those smiles 🙂

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) March 23, 2015 — 8:49 am

      Such a lovely comment Suzanne, thank you ☺ It’s those smiles that were so sincere that I think I’ll always treasure most from the visit.

  11. What a touching and descriptive account of your local village visit! Your vivid narration makes me feel as if I’d been there myself. I wish we’d done this when we were in Bali. We’d been hearing about the local families’ lifestyle and home set up from hotel employees but could only imagine it. We never thought there’s such a thing (local tour to see how families lived.) this is so interesting.
    We had the great opportunity to be invited to a local home in Bora-Bora when my husband and I befriended the captain of a boat that transferred us in between islands. He invited us to his home, alas I was stricken by the dreaded colds that evening so my husband went and I could only go by his photos videos and accounts- they welcomed him at their humble but happy home and even took him night fishing (which is not a recreation for them but actually how they hunt for food). I would love to experience another encounter one day and be sure not to pass up the opportunity whether I am sick or not!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) March 26, 2015 — 9:31 pm

      Thank you so much for your lovely words Jean. I’m so pleased you liked reading this post and hearing Nyoman’s story. I can imagine it must have been really disappointing not to have been able to visit the captain’s home on Bora Bora but it’s nice that your husband was still able to go and it sounds as if they showed him so much kindness and hospitality ☺ Sometimes that utter warmth of local people is just the most heart warming aspect of travelling. Really appreciate you stopping by!

  12. I love this post Shikha, and the intro story about visiting your dad’s village! What a special experience! It’s so true that we take the comforts that we have for granted. When I see rural families, I often wonder if they are happier than us? If they are happier having just enough to survive, rather than like us, with all our toys and cars to maintain and always wanting more. I loved the visit into the Balinese compound. This is so beautifully written as well. And that picture of the pig is just adorable! I think understanding how the mass majority of the people live is important to understanding a culture.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) March 26, 2015 — 9:36 pm

      The pig is so cute right?! I just loved its little expression! I have often wondered the exact same thing about whether we’re more likely to find true contentment in these small villages where such small joys bring so much pleasure as compared to the more materialistic lives so many of us are used to and still not satisfied with. I always find my Dad’s stories about life in his childhood village so fascinating ☺

  13. It sounds like your Balinese village visit was quite special. We just returned from a visit to Myanmar (Burma), and as 75% of the country still doesn’t have electricity, most of the people there don’t have fridges and their food is all fresh each day too.

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) March 26, 2015 — 9:43 pm

      How incredible that you’ve been to Myanmar – it is somewhere I would love to visit one day and I imagine it must be so unlike any other country I’ve ever experienced. I had no idea it was as much as 75% that live without electricity. I look forward to reading more about your Myanmar tales on your blog.

  14. Interesting article. Bali has always been keeping me fascinated with their culture. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Shikha (whywasteannualleave) April 3, 2015 — 7:57 am

      Thank you so much for the kind comment! I’m really pleased you found it interesting ☺ This was my first trip to Bali and I loved having an opportunity to get a bit of insight into their wonderful culture.

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