Indonesia’s island of a 1,000 temples has a magical quality, drawing me out into the dawn to watch the mists unfurling from the tropical canopy or to swim in the languid ocean as the sky shifts into daylight. The Balinese seem to celebrate life for life’s sake, in fact the island’s symbol is the key to life. But at the root of their spirituality is a deep belief in the intrinsic links between humans, nature and the creator, and the importance of fostering harmony between them.
Indonesia’s only Hindu island, famed for its spiritualism, temples and scenic beauty, has been attracting people in search of karmic balance for centuries. Aside from six keystone sea temples and stunning stupas studding the lush highlands, in Bali each village has three temples; each home a shrine. Anyone can visit them, whether public or private, so long as a sarong is worn around the waist to pay customary respect to the gods.
It would be almost impossible to visit Bali without setting foot inside a pura (a Balinese Hindu temple) or shrine of some sort, but there are a handful of heart-stirring places on the island that travellers really should see. Here’s a round-up of the five best.
- Pura Tanah Lot, Tabanan
Tanah Lot is like a scene from a mystic eastern myth. Pointy thatched tiers and thick foliage cling to a rocky pinnacle amid the wave-cut stacks and arches of Bali’s western coastline. Glass-cut waves curl towards the shore, crashing over the natural causeway that links the temple to the land. I watch as a monk waits for a break in the surf and dashes across the bridge and up the winding stairway etched into the cliffside. At low-tide it’s easier to get across to the temple’s base where sea snakes are said to guard the natural fresh water fountain, but the best views of the temple are from the far shore.
Visit early in the morning to avoid the crowds, but if you happen to be in Bali on 15 November 2017 or 13 June 2018, make sure you stop by for the temple anniversary celebrations that happen roughly twice a year owing to the Balinese 210-day calendar.
- Pura Luhur Uluwatu, Bukit Peninsula
Standing on an immense stratified sea cliff at the tip of the Bukit Peninsula, Uluwatu is one of six sea temples guarding Bali’s coastline. The ancient stone shrine is shrouded in thick jungle inhabited by grey long-tailed macaques, who have the run of the place and aren’t shy about helping themselves to your belongings.
Stay for the traditional kecak fire dance held at the clifftop amphitheatre just before sundown. Sunsets from here are as bewitching as it gets – a startling rainbow of colour shifts across the sky, almost upstaging the performance and providing an amazing backdrop.
- Pura Ulun Danu Bratan, Bedugul
Like enormous conifer topiaries, the thatched tiers of Pura Ulun Danu Bratan are a magical sight rising from a misty lake in Bali’s central highlands. A Shaivite water temple, dedicated to a branch of Hinduism that reveres the god of creation and destruction Shiva as the supreme being, it’s perhaps appropriate that it sits beside the still crater lake of a once fiery volcano.
On the way up, the road climbs 900 metres through vivid green rice paddies to Bali’s second biggest lake, rimmed in dense cloud forest. Around the shrine there are pretty manicured gardens and the tinkling sounds of gamelan, and many choose to follow hiking tracks through the forest to discover hidden waterfalls and revel in the stunning natural scenery.
- Puri Saren Agung, Ubud
Part of a royal palace that’s still home to the local royal family, Puri Saren Agung was built in one of the most sacred spots on the island, above the viridescent banks of the Wos River in Ubud. This heartland is regarded by the Balinese as a special place of light and healing attracting generation after generation of pilgrims. Today the area is a hub for yoga and meditation retreats.
The entrance to the temple is through a stone courtyard intricately carved with round faces, gargoyles and lotus shapes. Inside it’s a garden of eastern delights with banyan trees, boughs laden with bright blooms, frangipani, a coy pond and delicate flower arrangements. Wander the beautiful grounds down to the rushing stream in the valley below and take in the distinctly serene atmosphere. Stay in the evening for the mesmerizing dance to gamelan music performed by the King of Ubud’s granddaughters.
- Pura Besakih, Mount Agung
Bali’s “mother temple” is actually a complex of Hindu religious shrines that’s the largest in Bali. Spires of all heights rise from Mount Agung’s green-shrouded slopes in the east of the island – a place best appreciated at dawn.
You could spend hours perusing the ornate stone temples and pretty pogodas, and studying their intricate symbolism and carved images, but the view across the island from 1,000 metres up is also a wonder to behold. Every year there are dozens of colourful celebrations held here honouring each temple’s anniversary, making visits particularly enthralling.
That’s the spirit!
So powerful is Bali’s pull that it was recently voted top destination in the world by TripAdvisor’s network of travellers. Although it’s a beautiful tropical island, the scenery simply provides a backdrop for an immersive spiritual experience. Even beyond Bali’s temples, across the island you can find floral tributes and little woven parcels of rice and petals giving thanks and placating the gods, plus an always-harmonious and warm welcome from islanders. If you’re fortunate enough to visit, you’ll likely leave with a fragrant frangipani necklace and a serene smile on your face.