Bali is called the Land of A Thousand Temples. No, really, it is. I didn’t just make that up. The folks over at The Culture Trip even suggest that the number is really closer to 5,000. This guy says 20,000. Who knows? But in any case, that’s pretty crazy for a tiny island of only 2,232 square miles.
Most Bali villages have at least three temples, which you can read about in greater detail here. In addition, you’ll find lots of smaller, private temples, like a family-owned temple. And then there’s the big holy ones, like pura tirta, which are water temples, and pura segara, which are built by the sea to appease sea deities.
Then there are six Supremely Holy Temples on the island, which is just a whole other level of religious contemplation for this supremely non-religious woman. (We did visit one of the SHT’s however, Uluwatu, which I describe further down).
We did not visit 5,000 temples. We didn’t even visit 1,000. We were lucky to cram in three, frankly. So here are the three temples we saw during our visit to Bali (and one that we really, really wanted to see, but didn’t get a chance to go to).
Pura Tirta Empul – Temple of the Holy Water
This was our first temple stop after a bit of a yawn-inducing visit to a dance school. I think this temple was near Ubud, which is sort of east-central of where we were staying (we were in Nusa Dua, down south along the coastline).
We pulled up and our driver informed us that we needed to wear a sarong into the temple. That would require a donation, of course. Also, he would not be accompanying us into the temple. And, he warned us not to pay for a guide. Waste of money, he said. Nor would there be any audio guide, or really, anything.
Suitably armed with a total lack of guidance or knowledge, we walked into the temple and were met with this sign:
That would be the only signage throughout the temple. A sign telling breeding ladies to stay out.
So here’s my best guess at what the heck this temple was. It appeared to be some sort of water temple, with fountains of water that folks could take a dip in. I’m sure jumping around in the shared public pools are supposed to bring good fortune, or health, or love, or maybe just a nice, cold Bitang beer at the end of the day. I have no idea. I did not jump in the pools, but I did get a beer later that day so, yeah Tirta temple!
There were raised wooden platforms that seem like they might be stages or maybe places where ceremonies took place. Or where sleepy swimmers took naps.
There was lots and lots of gorgeous stone carvings of very scary animals. Maybe they were demons, who knows.
We did see a fenced off area where there were people being led through a worship ceremony. We just peeked in and then left them to it.
We were probably at the temple about 30 minutes, just enjoying the peacefulness of the area, but basically ignorant on what we were supposed to be seeing. The self-guided tour ended at a maze of stalls selling all sorts of tourist swag. Which you HAD to walk through to get back to the parking lot. All told, I believe the part-you-with-some-money stall maze was larger than the temple. There were certainly more people willing to explain to you what you were seeing (including penis bottle openers, interestingly).
Pura Gunung Kawi – Valley of the Kings
This was our second temple and wasn’t too far from the first.
Again, we were told to borrow a sarong in exchange for a suggested donation.
In a unique little twist, this temple featured the tourist swag stalls at the beginning of your visit. So you get a Walk of Shopping Shame right at the beginning of your experience.
This temple appeared to be some sort of royal temple overlooking a very pretty and lush river, and surrounded by rice fields. A quick Google search confirms that this temple is known as the Valley of the Kings. And, that it’s not really a temple or a tomb, but just a spot to honor Balinese royalty.
We walked around and took pictures, enjoying the scenery, and speculating on the scaffolding and other signs of work that were scattered around. No workmen or anything, so I don’t know if it was lunch, or a luwak coffee break, or prayer time or what.
We also got to experience the Walk of Shopping Shame on our way back up the steep, 200 or so stairs that took us back to the parking lot. (Oh sorry, 320 stairs according to this poor blogger who was recovering from a twisted ankle).
Pura Luhur Uluwatu
Disappointed by our first round of temple experiences, we tried again with a different driver. I knew that Pura Luhur Uluwatu was fairly close to our hotel (the St. Regis in Nusa Dua), so we asked to go there. We actually had to pick between Uluwatu and Tanah Lot because apparently they both get very crowded with tourist buses around the same time, so we had to pick just one (since staying away from touristy crowds was very high on our wish lists).
All I really knew about Uluwatu was that it was on an ocean cliff and it had a lot of monkeys.
The same routine repeated itself: driver would not be going in, but he warned us against hiring a guide. Our driver added a new warning, however: no jewelry, no sunglasses, nothing that dangles because the monkeys will rip it off of you and steal it.
There was an entrance fee, and a donation to borrow a sarong. No shopping stalls though, so Uluwatu for the win!
You could, however, buy fruit to feed the monkeys. To which I say, yeah, no, that’s ok.
There’s another interesting money-making opportunity at work at Uluwatu. If a monkey does snatch your goods, they generally take those items to one of the vendors, who is happy to give your item back to you in return for the purchase of some fruit for the monkey-thief.
Luckily for us, the monkey gangs were sparse. My super-sexy travel manpanion and personal comedian speculated that the monkey gangs were at their morning meeting, saying things like “OK guys, look: we’ve got a lot of hoop earrings, but we’re low on studs. So today, I want you to focus on getting stud earrings. Also, our sunglass supply is looking a bit thin, so if we could put the young guys on that, I think we can bring our numbers up significantly. And Stan, we’ve had some complaints that you’re getting a bit too grabby with the lady tourists. Keep your paws to yourself, or else I’m putting you on garbage can duty.”
Uluwatu is very, very beautiful and we were among the few people there early in the morning, so we had the run of the place. The location is breathtaking and there are walkways along the cliffs so you can turn around and get some great pictures of the temple and cliffs.
And the one that got away.
Pura Tanah Lot
We’d seen pictures of Tanah Lot, which sits on a rock just off shore. Access to the temple is limited to low tide; even so, we were told the temple is barraged by visitors, and surrounded by crowds and vendors.
The temple’s construction was supposedly inspired by the priest Nirartha in the 15th century; after spending the night on the rock outcrop where the temple now stands, he instructed local fishermen to build a temple on that site. Today, Tanah Lot is regarded as one of Bali’s most important directional temples. A multimillion-dollar restoration effort in the 1990s saved Tanah Lot from falling into the sea.
I wonder if that multi-million dollar restoration includes stalls selling penis bottle openers.
And now, a bad picture of your author in one of her many donation-funded sarongs.