Bali Blog

Laws vs Customs

“Laws are sand; customs are rock. Laws can be evaded and punishment escaped, but an openly transgressed custom brings sure punishment. The penalty may be unfair, unrighteous, illogical, and a cruelty; no matter, it will be inflicted, just the same. Certainly, then, there can be but one wise thing for a visiting stranger to do — find out what the country's customs are, and refrain from offending against them.” Mark Twain

In Bali we have two Laws, the Civil Law that governs your holiday here, it covers everything from Imigration to Drivers Licenses, liquor licences etc; and then there is Desa Adat Law (Village Customary law).


Desa Adat law is generally behind the scenes to the common tourist but after many visitors you may learn snippets about this law. If you live in Bali you will become far more familiar with Desa Adat Law and some people may choose to live in a Customary Village, like us where Desa Adat law is more prominent.

So, what is a Customary Village?

Well, in Bali there are actually Customary Villages and Administrative villages, these overlap each other in some places, when administrative villages and customary villages encompass the same area, they run smoothly side by side.

What is an administrative village? An Administrative village is a formal government-defined village that manages administrative issues, such as the issuance of ID cards, while a Customary Village is a unit for the purposes of Adat (customary laws).

What is a Customary Village? Customary villages can manage the village based on its origin and keep their customary functions; Customary Villages keep their tradition rights. Customary villages stay focused on culture and tradition.

So, how does that affect a tourist? Well, one thing that comes to mind is when a tourist finds themselves in trouble. Unlike in Western countries where you can go to the nearest police station, it does not work that way for the Balinese.

In Bali the need for tourist police has been around for many years, all to help tourists out when they get in trouble, for example robbed.

So, based on where you grew up, if you were robbed for example on your holiday here, you may just show up to the local police station next to where you are staying and they stare at you blankly. The Police will wonder why on earth you showed up there and then try and explain to you in broken English, please go to the Tourist Police.

In an Adat village no-one goes to the local police station if they are robbed, in fact many villages do not have police stations. We have traditional village guards called Pecalang (they wear the black and white checkered cloth Bali is so famous for), we have village heads, and we have a community.

It’s pretty hard for a strange person to enter your home in a community, everyone knows everyone by name, they know their children, their parents, their grandparents, their dogs names etc. So, if a complete stranger is seen climbing into your yard, the nosy neighbors will be there is a flash to ask this strange person very politely “where are you going?”

So, what is Adat Law? Desa (Desa means Village) Adat Law is the set of local and traditional laws and dispute resolution systems by which a society living in a village is regulated. These can differ from village to village but the same basic principles apply, some common principles are:

That the community has a greater right than the individual.
That there are obligations of mutual help and community service

One of the main factors of the Law is that religion will give its own defining rules and regulations.

So, what happens if you are not a Balinese Hindu, however you are living in an Adat village in Bali? Well, that is a choice you make, you would not have been born into that village, it was a choice to move there and as Mark Twain advised find out what the country's (Village) customs are, and refrain from offending against them.

One of the main things to note as a tourist is the “dispute resolution”; this is where Westerners may find it difficult if they do not understand the principles or the religion of the village they are in.

A Westerner certainly does not want to find themselves in a situation where they thought they would rent a nice house “out of the tourist” areas and then complain to the neighbor about the ceremony that kept them up all night or the fact that they couldn’t drive down their street due to a ceremony.. This is not in harmony with the community, and as the rest of the community would have been at that ceremony (regardless of their religion), why is your slight inconvenience at that time so important than that of a whole community?

What have we found when living in an Adat village? Well living in Kedisan, Kintamani was slightly different the Adat we are in now, but similar. The ties to the family in Kedisan Village are very close, everyone treats everyone like a family member (blood or not), so for example when a “grandpa” dies, everyone’s ‘Grandpa” has died. The belief also is that selfish behavior could be demonic, that you don’t put yourself before the village is a very strong practiced belief.

What else have we noticed….pretty much no crime, apart from one, it was shocking that a laptop was stolen from the school (through a window), the school being very close to a main road frequented by visitors passing through the village. This could not have been done by anyone in the village as you would stand out being the only one in the village to suddenly have a laptop in their home (being that we can walk into anyone’s homes freely). In 10 years that has been the only crime, very sad as the people have had such harmony for 100’s of years.

Many people from Kedisan village live down in Denpasar and work on the beach from Kuta to Seminyak or as freelance drivers.

Their strong connection to their original village means they simply cannot get a job in a high paying hotel as they must drop everything when someone dies in Kedisan village and make the 2 hour drive up to the village to take the body to the cemetery (as a whole village). It would be selfish to ring and say” Oh, I can’t make it I’m working”, so they give up income and drop everything to be there.

These people also know when they make more money than the ones left in the village that they must contribute more money, by the principles of their Desa Adat. They will also leave their successful beach bars or a good paying job, sometimes for as long as 6 months to do community service for the village as they have been away for so long.

Please take into consideration that you are a visitor to this Island and that your laws and even morals; or even logic do not always coincide with Balinese laws.

If you do find yourself in trouble, find a Tourist Police Station and take a local with you to do all the talking (this is very important as the way we talk to Police here is very different to it is in a Western country, and in a stressful situation you may find yourself coming across as rude to the Indonesian police and they will not help you), sometimes there may even be a fee for the police report etc, this is normal so please do not get upset, just understand it is different.

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