The sun rises and sets every day. Yet it was the back story and experience that makes the viewing process so emotional and memorable, like Key West and Cabo da Roca, together with Bali, I call it my sunset trilogy, because of how much these locations made me think and feel so deeply. It was a spiritual journey; Bali was magical. The island was like a sponge soaked with a rich and unique culture; the landscape was diversified: volcanoes, forests, Terraced paddy fields, Beaches, and Cliffs… In fact, my trip to Bali was a spiritual one – it was a celebration of my birthday, and, we visited a number of sacred sites on the island because there are simply so many.
The main religion in Balinese culture is Hinduism, but it is quite different from the Indian Hindu religion. Balinese believes in the souls of all things in nature, it is close to “animism”, and hence the celebration and respect of things around us. Here are some of the best temples and sacred sites in Central and South Bali that you don’t want to miss.
Pecatu, South Bali
One of the most emotional sunsets that I have ever witnessed was in Uluwatu, Bali.
One day, the driver took us to Uluwatu. The temple stands on a cliff located at the southwestern tip of Bali, and therefore the best way to go there is self-driving, or by taxi. It takes about 45 minutes from Jimbaran beach and luckily there was no traffic that day, we made it on time for the gorgeous sunset and a view of the Indian Ocean. While I said it’s the tip of the island, the site is packed with tourists because it’s that famous. It is one of Bali’s most picturesque postcard-worthy locations. The cliffs are about 70 meters high, with waves crashing on the rocks, making it another wonderful surfing location for surfers as well. Locally, this place is called “Pura Luhur Uluwatu”, and to me, it’s the best place to view the sunset as the pathways are elevated at the top and hence offer a panoramic view of the breathtaking seascapes.
Walk around as you will see many ancient architectures and sculptures scattered in the temple, not to mention a pagoda at the highest point that goes perfectly with the sunset. This is also where the Kecak and Fire Dance performance takes place. Get there a little bit earlier and grab a good seat in the open-air amphitheater. The venue regularly shows the Ramayana Ballet and Kecak dance during the sunset hours.
Monkeys in Uluwatu
There is a significant population of wild monkeys – while I was also told that the monkeys were trained by the temple monks, they are not as “friendly” and “docile” as those you may have seen in the Ubud Monkey Forest. They may snatch your food, or rummage your bags for food. So be alert and don’t bring food into the temple to draw unnecessary attention from the hosts.
Taman Ayun Temple
The temple was built in the 17th century and it is a dramatic landmark of the Mengwi village – and why wouldn’t it, the line of pagodas showcases great examples of traditional Balinese Hindu temple architecture. Layers of square-shaped pagodas and well-maintained courtyards and enclosures, surrounding these eye-catching shrines is a tropical garden, with water features, lotus ponds, and fish ponds – a hint of Chinese influences from the design, structures, and reliefs around. The temple is the heritage site of the Mengwi Kingdom.
Tabanan, West Bali
Require no introduction, Tanah Lot is one of the most well-known sacred sites in Bali, because it is a landmark that is frequently featured in travel books, brochures, and postcards. Why is it famous? Mainly because of its unique and dramatic setting – an ancient Hindu shrine that sits on top of an outcrop amidst constantly crashing waves from the ocean. This is a sea temple, and while the tides are up, the temple is separated from the mainland, it is also a wonderful viewing location for the sunset, too.
The name ‘Tanah Lot’ (in Balinese means ‘land in the sea’) is a unique rock formation on the shore of the island; and Tanah Lot Temple, along with the Uluwatu Temple, is one of the seven magnificent sea temples in Bali and probably the tourist’s favorite. Featured heavily in Bali mythologies, the photogenic temple looks mesmerizing at every angle. As I was sitting on a cliff overlooking the temple from afar, listening to the soothing waves crashing on the rocks every few seconds, I was as if got taken to another spiritual place.
The best way to get there is from Kuta, but still, it’s a 45 minutes drive, there are small onshore village temples with restaurants, shops, and a cultural park outside the entrance of the Tanah Lot. Dance performances are shown in the park – to seek something special, and if you are there, go to the temple on the day of Kuningan, and on the temple’s anniversary. The temple will be packed with festive pilgrimages with their workshop and religious rituals.
Tirta Empul Temple
Gianyar, Central Bali
Tirta Empul is a Hindu Balinese water temple and a national cultural heritage site. The temple has a rich history dating back to 960 AD during the Warmadewa Dynasty in the old Balinese Kingdom. Its name means “holy water spring” – the name of the water source located within the temple, originated from the nearby Tukad Pakerisan River. The spring provides the water into the baths, pools, and fish ponds. You will find a lot of water features on the site’s ground.
The worshippers believe that the spring water is sacred and can wash away evil spirits and blessings of prosperity, they come to the temple to perform ritual purification by taking a bath in the pool. If you want to join in, the holy spring water and the temple staff would be happy to give you some guidance about the tradition and rules.
Apart from the water, various sites and archaeological relics could be seen, backed up by many fascinating local myths and legends. To go a little bit further, the Istana Tampaksiring is the presidential palace on the top of a hill, that used to be the nation’s first president Soekarno residence.
Penataran Sasih Temple
Known as the “Moon Temple”, Penataran Sasih houses an ancient bronze kettle drum called “Moon of Pejeng”. It is the largest bronze kettle in Southeast Asia. The kettle is 2 meters in length and dates back to 300 BC. Built in 1266, it is the state temple of the Pejeng Kingdom.
The temple has a stone seat of Ganes in the middle of the main courtyard, a modern chronogram in front of the entrance, and several Hindu sculptures.
Samuan Tiga Temple
The royal temple was built during the Warmadewa dynasty. It was the sacred place of meeting gods, deities, and saints, the temple is where Siat Sampian takes place, a Balinese Hindu ritual. The ceremony happens at Purnama Kadasa (every 10th full moon, usually in April). The performance is a series of Odalan ceremonies with specially chosen men and women.
In the village of Batuan (10 kilometers south of central Ubud), this is an 11th-century shrine that faces a large communal hall. Worshippers pray and present offerings in the hall, with delicate sandstone motifs and traditional Balinese temple architecture around the venue.
Don’t forget to check out the multi-tier thatched-roof shrines within the courtyard.
The temple has one of Bali’s oldest known artifacts, dating back to 914. It was Sanskrit inscriptions on an ancient stone pillar to celebrate the victory of King Sri Kesari Warmadewa – the first kind of the Warmadewa dynasty.
The king was believed to be the first who established Bali’s first formal government. More, check out the sandstone statues of Ganesh and various animal figures.
Taman Saraswati Temple
This is another beautiful water temple in Ubud. It is a great stopover when you explore Ubud, as it’s located just a few steps away from the main road of Jalan Raya Road. The temple features some classical Balinese temple architecture and tranquil views.
It’s a beautiful foyer that features ponds filled with blooming pink lotuses. What’s more exciting is that the temple has a restaurant where visitors can actually sit by the water on the stage and enjoy a dinner of delicious Balinese dishes. After that, talk a short walk to the other side where traditional dance performances are held in the evenings at 7:30 pm.
Gunung Lebah Temple
It is another Ubud’s central landmark, positioned at the western end of the Jalan Raya Ubud main road. The temple’s name is “mountain valley temple” in archaic Balinese. It dates back to the 8th century, the temple honors the goddess of Batur, and it has a close spiritual tie to Batur Temple. The complex has three courtyards and pavilions. The gamelan pavilion hosts traditional dances.
Gunung Kawi Temple
Northeast of Ubud, Central Bali
The temple has a unique archaeological feature, with a collection of ancient shrine reliefs carved into the face of a cliff. The temple overlooks the sacred Tukad Pakerisan River, the same river that leads to Tirta Empul Temple – the site we mentioned above and it’s a kilometer north of Gunung Kawi.
Check out the ancient reliefs on the shrines. There are few places to stop by as you walk down to the temple – art shops and small local warung food kiosks. What’s more, you have to enjoy the view of the paddy terraces and gorgeous green valley.
Ubud, Central Bali
Goa Gajah is a special site with historical significance, and another frequently visited place in Bali. It is more commonly known as the “Elephant Cave”, but it doesn’t have any pachyderms. These caves were hermitages and a sanctuary built in the 11th century, and these shallow caves feature stone idols and meditation spaces in the forest. The stone carvings at the entrance of the cave looked stunning from a distance.
Outside the cave, you will see a Wantilan, a meeting hall, and a temple courtyard. The ancient tree does have a tranquil and serene quality that calms you, the open-air gallery of large stone relics lies near an ancient bathing pool that was excavated in 1954.
In the pool, it was also believed that the water can wash away evil spirits. Look at the nymphs holding waterspout vases, and other stone artifacts behind the grounds under the trees.