Surf, beaches, nightlife, and shopping — these are perhaps the most gravitational of pulls that entice visitors to make the sojourn to the small equatorial island of Bali, but behind Bali’s tourist-geared façade are a number of effulgent cultural and religious detours that are brimming with beauty. And, after a few too many stays by the beach and quiet getaways to Ubud, I think it’s my turn to weave and wind my way through Bali’s lush interior to track down some of these mesmeric destinations. With well over a thousand puras, or temples that dot the island where does one begin though?
At about 1,000 metres up Bali’s holiest mountain, Mt. Agung, Pura Besakih, or the Mother Temple of Bali, is perhaps the most well-known of temple complexes on the Island of the Gods, and for good reason. The crown of the largest and holiest temple complex in Bali, Pura Penataran Agung — the sanctuary which houses the main meru (spire) of the 22-temple complex — sits shrouded in mist overlooking the lowlands of eastern Bali.
A maze of staircases, gates, and towering spires that sit quietly behind the snaking trails of incense, this at least 2,000-year-old temple has an aura of something otherworldly, and in 1963, it was almost proved as much when Mt. Agung erupted, destroying everything in its path except for Pura Besakih. Now a bookmark in Balinese history that locals often refer to as the showing of the gods’ might, but also their mercy, this event has cemented the legendary status of the temple that sees flocks of Balinese worshippers daily.
If you can, your best bet is to arrive at this temple early in order to avoid the mist and fog that inevitably roll in around lunch time. However, walking through this ancient environment in the mist does add another dimension to visiting the temple that you may very well enjoy. With an entrance fee of IDR 15.000 (~ US $1.25), this temple is one of the cheapest you can visit on the island, and the fee is a steal considering the stunning architecture, aura, and views that you’ll be treated to in Mt. Agung’s rolling foothills.
(Pura Besakih is two hours from Seminyak and one hour from Ubud, both by car or motorbike.)
PURA ULUN DANU BATUR
Bali’s second most important temple is that of Pura Ulun Danu Batur. Often confused for the more visible Pura Ulun Danu Beratan, this oft-overlooked temple offers visitors one of the most secluded temple escapes on the island.
Located in the chilly Kintamani region of Bali, Ulun Danu Batur was originally constructed in the bottom of the caldera of Mount Batur, an active volcano, but after an eruption that destroyed much of the temple and the surrounding village in the early 20th century, both the village and temple were moved and reconstructed at their current location on the highest ridge of the caldera.
Featuring a cache of colours, this temple, while relatively low-lying, presents not only one of the most expansive colour palettes of the temples in Bali, but also a myriad of hand-carved doors that are transfixing in their beauty. With an entrance fee of IDR 35.000 (~ US $3.00), it is one of the more expensive temples in Bali to visit, but when you are inside walking through the fog that silently rolls through the all but abandoned temple, you will be hard-pressed to feel disappointed.
(Pura Ulun Banu Batur is two hours from Seminyak and one hour from Ubud, both by car or motorbike.)
PURA ULUN DANU BERATAN
The most recognisable of Balinese temples, Pura Ulun Danu Beratan does not only make its home on the banks of Lake Bratan in the mountains of Bedugul, central Bali, but also on the back of Indonesia’s IDR 50.000 bank note. Constructed as a water temple for Dewi Danu, the goddess of the rivers and lakes, Pura Ulun Danu Beratan sits on one of the most important bodies of water in Bali, and one that is integral in the UNESCO World Heritage-recognised Subak system of irrigation.
On a sunny day, the view can be stunning, as the temple sits, quite literally, in the lake, though on foggy and misty days (which can be many), the temple takes on an image that is equally as powerful. Much like Pura Ulun Danu Batur, the area that this temple calls home can get quite chilly, so remember to pack a sweater. With an entrance fee of IDR 30.000 (~ US $2.75), this temple is also one of the more pricey visits in town, but with a sprawling series of lawns and various temple sanctuaries that fringe the banks, a couple of hours can easily be spent relaxing and picnicking by the lake at Pura Ulun Danu Beratan.
(Pura Ulun Danu Beratan is one hour and forty-five minutes from Seminyak, and one hour and fifteen minutes from Ubud, both by car or motorbike.)
About an hour’s drive from Amed sits Pura Lempuyang, one of Bali’s holiest temples, and a temple that gets very little foreign foot traffic. A complex that is made up of seven different sanctuaries, this temple offers visitors one of the most breathtaking views from any of the temples in Bali, and it’s no surprise when one considers the hike that is needed to visit. Not a trip for the faint of heart, the apex of the temple, Pura Lempuyang Luhur, sits over 1,800 steps from the base of the temple complex, which is already firmly planted in the middle of steeply sloping foothills. I reached the top in an hour and a half (a total round trip journey of three hours), and I would consider myself quite active, so be prepared for a gruelling workout if you are set to visit this stunning temple.
Populated more with worshippers than with tourists, this temple is a beautiful and serene escape that offers unobstructed views of Bali’s east coast, the lowlands, and the adjacent Mt. Agung. Entrance here is by donation, as such, you pay what you see fit, but don’t feel pressured, as the staff who works the front gate is warm, smiling and approachable. Hiring a guide is also possible for a more thorough history of this roughly 1,500-year-old temple, but again, isn’t a necessity.
Make sure to bring a change of clothes for after, as sweat becomes a close friend as you make the hike, and keep your camera ready if you are a fan of Bali’s mischievous monkeys, which you will find a fair number of here on your hike.
(Pura Lempuyang is two hours and thirty minutes from Seminyak, and two hours from Ubud, both by car or motorbike.)
The temples listed above all offer something different, and I felt myself both re-energised and enthralled by each of them. However, for a traveller planning to spend only a short time in Bali, it may be wise to pick one or two to knock off the list, and save the rest for next time. For those looking for a rollicking ride through Bali’s winding interior, however, leave yourself a week to hit all of these temples and still find some time for sleep in between. To visit each of these you can do it either in a car, or on a motorbike, both of which can be hired all around the island for relatively low prices.
As for me, I would be happy enough to call Pura Ulun Danu Batur, my last stop, home. Here, the cold weather, zig-zagging mountain roads, and serene yet vibrantly colourful escape is making itself a special place in my heart. And with its relative ease of access to the surf, beaches, nightlife, and shopping that Bali is so known for, I know if I stay here I won’t be missing out on much. But as it goes, the travel must continue, and I’ve only got about 900-some-odd temples left to go on the Island of the Gods. Lucky for me, something tells me continuing to visit these cultural enclaves won’t get old anytime soon.
A FEW MORE WORDS OF ADVICE
- As temples in Bali are still very much active religious sites, there are certain respects one should honour when visiting these holy sites. On the whole, the Balinese are extremely friendly and accommodating, and won’t shy away from striking up conversations with you, asking for their picture to be taken, asking to take a picture with you or anything in between, but it’s wise to have a lay of the land before one barges into these temples as though they were Indiana Jones
- Always keep a sarong handy as it is the expected covering one should wear when visiting a temple. Buying your own elsewhere will end up being cheaper than buying or renting an overpriced rag from the touts or the knick-knack shanties that line many of the nearby roads, so get one earlier rather than later. Additionally, women aren’t required to cover their shoulders at many of the temples, though it can be good form to bring a shawl or sweater that you can toss over your shoulders to show proper respect
- Make sure to bring a bag with you to store rubbish that you may produce on your visits, as not all of the temples are lined with rubbish bins — when you see some of the trash floating around, you’ll realise why this is important
- Keep the volume to a minimum. As at any active religious site, there are many times worshippers are in the middle of prayer when you are visiting. Keep their practises in mind, and try to keep the outside disturbances to a minimum. When it comes to photography, it is mostly acceptable to snap pictures of anything, but when it comes to those praying and making offerings, stay behind those who are practising, as it is both offensive and inappropriate to do so from the front, especially without asking. If you have obtained permission from parties involved, then snap away, but do ask first
- Many temples have areas that non-worshippers aren’t to enter, if you are unclear where these areas are (usually the highest platforms in any sanctuary or temple), don’t hesitate to ask any of the colourfully clad Balinese who are present
- Keep in mind the prices listed above, and don’t pay any extra, unless you’re willing to. Pura Besakih is not only one of the most frequented temples by foreigners, but too by local touts who worship not in the temples, but at the gates for your money. The worst of the lot in terms of scams and trickery, be sure to pay only the admission fee of IDR 15.000 at a post that has a number of green and brown-clad park officials who will give you an entrance ticket in exchange. You need not hand this ticket over to anyone, make the ‘voluntary’ donation to the white-clad Balinese man showing you a book with exorbitant prices that supposedly other tourists paid (left hand side of entrance road, just smile and continue walking), hire a guide to get you special access, or hire a guide for a modest ‘tip.’ Of course you can pay for any of these services if you so choose, but the people claiming to work at the temple (aside from the park officials you will pay the entrance fee to) are phonies, and you’re better off bringing a guide of your own, or reading up on the layout and history of the temple before you go, and meandering solo through it
(Featured image: Pura Lempuyang)