All that talk about driving in Bali the other day was a set-up for bringing you along on some of our road trips across the island, beeping cars, swerving motorbikes, hired drivers and all. The first of our day-long road trips was meant to bring us from the city of Denpasar, where Bali’s largest airport is located, up to the northwest corner of the island, to the region of Buleleng. We targeted the area primarily for its access to the blue-fire volcano of Ijen in the east of Java, and for the renowned snorkeling off the little sacred island of Menjangan. Also because it was in keeping with our goals of mostly heading places in Indonesia that had a reasonable infrastructure for handling foreign tourists while still not being big tourist destinations. However, we knew there were some spots along the way that were tourist targets for a reason, and although they might be too bustly for us to want to stay overnight at them, we decided to check out these Balinese icons anyway.
The most famous of these was the temple complex known as Pura Tanah Lot, whose name meaning “temple of the land of the sea” refers to the most sacred part of the complex: a series of tiered buildings perched atop a rocky outcropping made inaccessible by each day’s high tides. This site is super important to Balinese religion, as it is reportedly where a major Hindu teacher first came to the island from Java in the 16th century, and is believed to be a place of connection with the ancient Hindu god of the sea, Baruna.
This charming and sacred spot is close enough to the tourist-favored Denpasar suburbs of Kuta and Seminyak that it is well attended by visitors from all over the world. (As a side note, our first stay in Bali was on the other side of the city, in the more mellow suburb of Sanur, since we weren’t aiming for the expensive night-life and shopping Kuta and Seminyak are known for.) As a result, the locals know a captive market when they see one, and the primary entrance to the temple complex not only requires payment for entry, but also leads you through a mess of densely packed shops with cheaply-made goods: bright colored thin fabrics marketed as sarong wraps or beach blankets, straw sun hats, shirts and skirts with tropical designs, and countless little wooden carvings or mass-produced metal sculptures, often of the Buddha, Ganesha, or other Hindu or Buddhist figures. All complete with women, young and old, insisting that you will like their products and should buy them, voices pushy, desperate, or resigned.
Somehow, we got lucky enough to have a driver for the day that voluntarily brought us to a side entrance (without us even asking or knowing that it could be otherwise). We eventually noticed the overwhelming market from the side, but were able to avoid walking straight through it and being accosted by its noisy sellers. (Some of our other temple visits in Indonesia were not so hawker-free, though. When we visited Candi Mendut, a Buddhist temple on the pilgrimage route to Borobudur on Java, we were followed and harassed by several women shoving their sarongs and fans in our faces with great determination and an endless stream of begging and cajoling in thickly accented English. We must have said “no thank you” and “tiduk, terima kasih” a dozen times each before we left their territory, starting out politely, becoming forceful, and eventually just awkwardly ignoring them as we strode out of the market zone.) In retrospect, our driver to Tanah Lot, knowing we had a number of hours of traveling left to go, probably didn’t want us getting trapped in the market there for too long…
Anyway, he had clearly been there many times before, and was no longer as impressed as the people he delivered to the temple. Rather than go in and look around with us, he decided to just hang out in one of the little shaded pavilions that dotted the landscape just within the grounds (thatched roof, four-posts, and a floor platform raised off the ground with no walls – we saw many of these around Balinese villages) and to perhaps chat with other drivers waiting similarly for their charges. First, though, he told us of how one of the little temples there was currently closed off, as it was normally accessible only over a natural rock bridge that reached into the sea – and a Chinese tourist had recently died by falling off the edge when trying to take a selfie! He kept taking steps back in an effort to get just the right view, until there were no more steps to take.
Following that story and telling us how worried the local authorities were about the stupidity of selfie-obsessed tourists, he just pointed us off in a good direction to check out the complex, and away we went. We wandered down the path, not really knowing what to expect. Turns out that it wound its way along the edge of the shore via the cliff, with lots of warning signs about the dangers of falling off, cute little gardens, and many offerings left by Balinese visitors.
It also turned out that there were a number of smaller temples along the coastline, all with different focuses suggesting who the Balinese could pray to there and for what. As non-Hindus, we were not allowed onto the direct grounds of these sacred sites. In fact, even if we had been believers, we would have needed to wear particular ceremonial clothes in order to enter, as well as being sufficiently pure in a number of ways. These traditional clothes include specific ways of tying on long sarong wraps around the waist, topped with sashes called selendang that act as belts before draping down the legs. These sarong and selendang are tied on in different fashions depending on if the wearer is male or female, along with gender-specific styles of long-sleeve shirts and hats. (You can see some examples of the traditional women’s wear in the top image of our previous post.) It is easier for men to be pure enough to enter temple grounds, as women cannot go in if they have ever had an abortion, are currently or were recently pregnant, or especially if they are menstruating, as we learned from some signs around Bali. Just one of numerous ways in which we learned how men and women (or boys and girls for that matter) are openly treated very differently in Balinese society – but more on that for another post.
We didn’t miss out on too much of a chance to see temple architecture, though, despite not being allowed inside. These Balinese sacred sites tend to consist of a little courtyard, with a split gate at the entrance guarded by bulging-eyed bedogol statues, with several little shrines and ritual spaces within the courtyard. When we first arrived in Bali, we were quite struck by these stone creatures, with their round eyes, grinning mouths, and little crowns, and they remained an iconic part of our experience in Indonesia until the end. But despite the bedogol forbidding our passage into the actual temple grounds, we were still able to witness some of what was inside from beyond the gates.
Outside these quiet little spaces, we were part of a steady stream of mostly-foreigners heading to the main temple of the cliff-side complex. Most of the visitors were clearly Chinese, as we could tell from the happy chatter bubbling around us as we walked. We saw quite a lot of people taking photos with selfie sticks and peace signs, and some being lured by a rare hawker into the loops of a vast python for photos with nervous grins or awkward kisses to the snake’s head.
Finally, we came around the corner of the coastal cliffs to see the temple we originally came for, the great Tanah Lot. It’s a small site by Euro-American religious architectural standards, but quite significant for Balinese culture and very cool to see. Here, the cliffs that hold up the other temples wind their way down to the sea, becoming rock flats with tidal pools sloshing with waves, home to green algaes and red-eyed crabs. The water worn cliffs behind the flats have numerous little caves and overhangs, carved out by the unstoppable sea, while ahead lies the sudden rocky uprising of Pura Tanah Lot itself, the cluster of temple buildings resting on top beyond priest-guarded pathways. Again, only believers and the ritually pure may enter.
We eventually followed the flow of people towards a large niche at the base of the Tanah Lot rock, where Hindu priests were gathered with collections of flowers and baskets of rice. When we saw them asking for money, we tried initially to simply head to the side of the outcropping to get a better look at the temple, but one of the priests blocked our path, hand out and head shaking, and pointed us back to the niche. It turns out that you have to be purified to set foot on the lower reaches of the sacred temple rock, even though tourists aren’t allowed very high up the carved out path to the actual buildings. And so, we paid our dues and were purified.
After that, we wandered around the tidal flats for a while to get better views of Tanah Lot (such as the photos at the top of this post), until we noticed that the water was quickly gushing over more and more of the land that separated us from the way out. High tide was coming! And since the flats are not actually totally flat, despite their name, you could easily have a little section of the beach flood quickly and isolate where you’re standing from the path back up the cliffs. We did, however, have time on the way out to pause and scoop up some of the black volcanic sand beneath the cliffs at a respectful distance from the sacred site, to add to my growing collection of interesting pieces of the Earth.
We also happened upon a cave in the cliff wall, shallow but tall, where priests were guarding some poisonous sea snakes that are sacred to the site. In the myths of how Tanah Lot came to be, the Hindu teacher who founded the temple, Dang Hyang Niratha, was persecuted by a local leader who disagreed with Hinduism, and so Niratha split the earth until his favored resting spot (what would become the outcropping of Tanah Lot) was safely separated from the mainland by the waves of the sea. He then transformed his selendang sash into a sea snake and released it in the waters around the temple island, to forever protect it from malicious threats. Upon seeing Niratha move the rocks of Tanah Lot into the sea and create the guardian snakes, his persecutor was moved to conversion and let Niratha spread his Hindu teachings in peace.
And so the sea snakes of these waters are still considered sacred… and a convenient way to get a few more thousand rupiah from tourists who wish to see them. There are holes in the rock wall of the cliff where they sleep peacefully during low tide, so the priests guard them from harm, and request of tourists the equivalent of a few bucks to see, photograph, and gently pet the snakes. They seem to only allow this when they have deemed the snakes to be docile enough to be safe, with their heads buried deep in their coils, and for it to be safe for the snakes themselves – which it turns out the priests deemed to be at the time we found them in the cliff! So we gently pet the sacred poisonous sea snakes, took their portrait, and paid them their dues. (This, along with the donation required for the blessing at Tanah Lot itself, seemed a little awkwardly commodified, but we decided to do it regardless, for better or worse.)
By then, it was thoroughly time for lunch, so we met up our driver back by the entrance, where he offered to take some photos of us, and led us to a restaurant nearby that clearly had their captive market of tourists in mind when they picked their menu prices. Admittedly, that meant that instead of paying the usual ~$4-5 for a full meal (which we encountered at most tourist-targeted eateries), it was a few dollars more. Exorbitant by Indonesian standards, and the quality of the food didn’t deserve the increase in price, but we didn’t have a whole lot of choice in the matter, so we found food we’d like and relaxed in the shade before heading out for the next stretch of road trip north. (A downside to this place was that we saw some stray kittens meandering among the tables, begging for food or water, and all the Indonesians we saw eating or working there would shoo off the cats with attempted kicks – they were clearly seen as little better than rats or pigeons. Cats are seriously not popular in this country in general. Poor kitties.) Our driver, however, went off to find some street food to eat, which meant that it might not have been safe for our foreign stomachs to handle, but probably cost less than $1. I got to say, it was really nice how easy it was to find food that was cheap for us but still very satisfying to eat throughout most of our time in Indonesia, but we’ll save an exploration of the food for another post.