temples

Abu Simbel: Ramesses II’s Ego Run Wild

This stunning but crowded day trip from Aswan has been moved from its original location.

Add Aswan to your itinerary and spend a morning at Abu Simbel

Add Aswan to your itinerary and spend a morning at Abu Simbel

Pharaoh Ramesses II embarked upon one of the most ambitious construction programs in Ancient Egypt. But it was his temple in Abu Simbel, far from the judgemental eyes in Memphis and Thebes, in the southernmost part of the Egyptian Empire that he gave his megalomania free reign.

There’s a discrepancy in the dating of the site, but it took place over two decades, either 1264-1244 BCE or 1244-1224 BCE.

The Abu Simbel temples were chopped into 16,000 or so blocks — and reassembled like a giant-sized puzzle in an artificial mountain 200 feet higher.

Carved into the side of a sandstone cliff, Ramesses II’s temple to his own awesomeness immediately impresses the visitor with its four massive seated colossi of the king that rise 69 feet high. One, sadly, has lost its torso, which now lies shattered at its feet.

Four seated colossi of Ramesses II are larger than life, at 69 feet tall

Four seated colossi of Ramesses II are larger than life, at 69 feet tall

A carving of Ra-Horakhty, the conflation of two sun gods (noticeably smaller than the statues of Ramesses II), stands in the center of the façade. A line of baboons decorates the top of the exterior, which faces east, with the rays of the rising sun bathing the frieze in light. Baboons were associated with the sun, as their cries were thought to greet the dawning of a new day.

Inside, the first hall contains eight giant-sized replicas of the pharaoh in the Osiride style, meaning they have their arms crossed over their chests to portray Ramesses as Osiris, lord of the underworld.

We don’t call him Ramesses the Great for nothin’.

The first hall features eight giant statues of the pharaoh as Osiris, the god of the underworld

The first hall features eight giant statues of the pharaoh as Osiris, the god of the underworld

Ramesses II was quite the egotist — his image is all over the temple

Ramesses II was quite the egotist — his image is all over the temple

It’s crazy to think that the temple is around 3,200 years old!

It’s crazy to think that the temple is around 3,200 years old!

In theory, though, the Great Temple was dedicated to Ra-Horakhty, Amun (creator god of Thebes) and Ptah (creator god of Memphis, associated with the underworld). Oh, and the deified Ramesses II rounded out the grouping, of course.

It’s a family affair at Abu Simbel — those smaller statues at the bottom are Ramesses’ wife, mother and children

It’s a family affair at Abu Simbel — those smaller statues at the bottom are Ramesses’ wife, mother and children

Building the temples in the southernmost part of the country, facing Nubia, also acted as a deterrent to any invaders coming from that direction. They would see these massive statues of their enemy and would hopefully be frightened away.

The temple was a genius stroke of propaganda. The famous Battle of Kadesh, in which the Egyptians fought the Hittites, actually ended as a stalemate. But that didn’t stop Ramesses from declaring a victory and commissioning numerous carvings portraying himself as the protector god and showcasing his “triumph” over one of Ancient Egypt’s archenemies.

Other reliefs on the interior walls are decorated with scenes showing the king defeating the Syrians, Libyans and Nubians, presenting prisoners to the gods.

The reliefs inside showcase Ramesses’ military “victories,” including the famous Battle of Kadesh, which actually ended in a draw

The reliefs inside showcase Ramesses’ military “victories,” including the famous Battle of Kadesh, which actually ended in a draw

Abu Simbel was built on the border of Nubia as a deterrent to invasion, and shows a line of Nubian slaves

Abu Simbel was built on the border of Nubia as a deterrent to invasion, and shows a line of Nubian slaves

At the very back of the temple, carved deep into the mountain, lies the innermost sanctuary, the holy of holies. It housed four statues. There are the three great state gods of the late New Kingdom: Ra-Horakhty, Ptah, Amun-Ra and, no surprise here, the deified Ramesses.

Sunlight bathes these three of these gods on two days only: February 21 and October 21 (some sources say it’s the 22nd), one of which is thought to be Ramesses II’s birthday, the other possibly his coronation day. The figure of Ptah, associated with the underworld, remains in partial shadow.

The temple next door is fit for a queen — in fact, it’s dedicated to Ramesses’ wife, Nefertari

The temple next door is fit for a queen — in fact, it’s dedicated to Ramesses’ wife, Nefertari

Nefertari’s Temple to Hathor

Nearby is another temple, dedicated to the goddess Hathor, though it really seems to be for Nefertari, Ramesses II’s chief wife (pharaohs were polygamous, with a harem full of spare wives). Even here Ramesses insisted upon sharing the spotlight: Out front are two 33-foot-tall statues of the queen, along with two more of the king. Diminutive figures of their children round out the family portrait.

What was groundbreaking at the time, though, was that Ramesses II portrayed his favorite wife as equal to him — her statues on this temple are the same size as his.

And inside, while it’s still impressive, the pillared hall didn’t get as much attention as the one next door. The Hathor columns, a popular style at the time, where the pillars are topped with the head of one of the most revered deities in the Egyptian pantheon, look downright amateurish in comparison. Hathor, considered the first goddess, was depicted with bovine features. The heads atop the columns all have cow ears.

Don’t have a cow! These Hathor columns aren’t as ornate as those in Ramesses’ temple

Don’t have a cow! These Hathor columns aren’t as ornate as those in Ramesses’ temple

On the rear wall, Hathor is depicted as a cow emerging from a mountain, with the king standing beneath her chin. Nefertari is shown participating in the divine rituals — on equal footing as Ramesses.

Nefertari is shown as a divine being, being crowned by the goddesses Hathor and Isis

Nefertari is shown as a divine being, being crowned by the goddesses Hathor and Isis

Fun fact: Abu Simbel isn’t what the complex was called in ancient times. In fact, it’s supposedly named after the local boy who led one of the archeologists to the site. Abu Simbel is a bit more catchy than the original name, Hut Ramesses Meryamun, the Temple of Ramesses, Beloved of Amun, if you ask me.

The entire temple complex was cut into pieces and relocated on higher ground to avoid it being flooded by the Aswan High Dam

The entire temple complex was cut into pieces and relocated on higher ground to avoid it being flooded by the Aswan High Dam

A Monumental Relocation Project

The Abu Simbel you’re visiting today isn’t at the same spot it was in ancient times. The original site has been submerged beneath the waters of the newly formed Lake Nasser after the construction of the Aswan High Dam. What happened to the temple complex?

Egyptians (and UNESCO) couldn’t bear to have such a stunning monument lost beneath the water. So, from 1963 to 1968, teams underwent an impressive undertaking. They chopped up the entire temples into 16,000 or so blocks — and reassembled them like a giant-sized puzzle in an artificial mountain 200 feet higher.

Instead of repairing the sculptures — as mentioned, one of the colossi has lost its head — the project team chose to keep the temples exactly as they were before the relocation.

If you arrive close to opening time, you’ll be stuck with busloads of other tourists. But around noon, the complex was much less crowded

If you arrive close to opening time, you’ll be stuck with busloads of other tourists. But around noon, the complex was much less crowded

Visiting Abu Simbel

If you’re staying in Aswan, chances are your guide will want to get an early move on. Abu Simbel is, after all, a three-hour drive away. But it you leave at the crack of dawn, around 6 a.m. like us, you’ll arrive at the same time all the massive tour buses pull in as well. That meant we arrived at the impressive edifice along with swarms of other visitors. There’s nothing that takes you out of the experience more than having to share an enclosed space with throngs of tourists taking selfies for Instagram and moving en masse all around you.

We suffered through a claustrophobic exploration of Abu Simbel, then went over to see the Nefertari temple. When we returned to Abu Simbel, it had largely emptied out since it was around noon. Only then did we experience the awe of this sacred space.

If you want to take a picture without swarms of tourists, snap one as you come back from Nefertari’s temple, where a low wall obscures the crowds

If you want to take a picture without swarms of tourists, snap one as you come back from Nefertari’s temple, where a low wall obscures the crowds

In an effort to prevent congestion, guides can’t go in the temples, so Mamduh, from Egypt Sunset Tours, gave us the rundown and then set us free, meeting us back at the café near the entrance.

Admission costs 200 Egyptian pounds, and be sure to spring for the 300 L.E. photo pass. This was one of the sites where we saw guards forcing violators to delete the pics right off their phones.

Like most sites you’ll visit in Egypt, you have to walk through the bazaar on your way out. As we hurried through, a dagger with a curving horn handle caught my eye. Duke likes to joke that everywhere I go I look for daggers and dollies (it’s funny cuz it’s true). I negotiated a price of 350 L.E., or about $20. I could have probably gotten him to go lower, but I was OK with that price.

As we exited on the other side of the temple hill, a policeman smiled and began chatting with us. Of course we had no idea what he was saying, but it seemed like he wanted to pose for a picture with us (for a tip, naturally). He presented his machine gun like he was offering for us to hold it, but I hope I was wrong about that. –Wally

 


21 Egypt Travel Tips

How to get a visa for Egypt, navigate a police state, exchange money, and be able to take photos in the temples and tombs. Oh, and why you need small bills to go to the bathroom.

Egypt is a trip of a lifetime — but you have to know what to expect. Here Duke and Wally are set to explore the Temple of Philae in Aswan, one of the best-preserved ancient sites

Egypt is a trip of a lifetime — but you have to know what to expect. Here Duke and Wally are set to explore the Temple of Philae in Aswan, one of the best-preserved ancient sites

Egypt isn’t an easy country to navigate — Cairo in particular. It just doesn’t have the sophisticated tourist infrastructure so common in other parts of the world. Plus, it’s essentially a military dictatorship. In many ways, it reminded us of traveling through India, just on a smaller scale.

That being said, Egypt has a mind-boggling amount of temples and tombs to explore. They’re some of the oldest structures on the planet and are remarkably well preserved, having been buried in the sand for thousands of years.

We watched temple guards grab the phones of people who hadn’t bought a photography pass and force them to delete their photos!

Here are 21 tips to help you prepare for a trip to Egypt.

1. If you learn one word, it should be “shokran,” thank you.

When you say this, some people will burst into a huge smile. “You speak Arabic?!” one man exclaimed, joking. It’s great that something so simple can bring so much pleasure. And it goes to show how few travelers — or should I say tourists? — take the time to even bother learning one simple word.

Here’s another easy word: Salaam. It means “peace,” and works as both a greeting and a farewell.

Do you dare wear short shorts? Yes, it’s hot in Egypt, but respect the culture

Do you dare wear short shorts? Yes, it’s hot in Egypt, but respect the culture

2. Follow the dress code.

It’s not mandatory (there aren’t any morality police like in Iran), but do you really want to be the tourist that disrespects the culture of the country you’re visiting?

For men, T-shirts are OK, and I suppose you can get away with wearing shorts, but why? You won’t see a single Egyptian wearing them. Just bring along a couple of pairs of lightweight pants. Maybe it’s time to invest in a pair of linen pants, which travel extremely well.

For women, you don’t have to wear a headscarf — in fact, plenty of local women forgo this. Just cover your shoulders and wear pants or long skirts and dresses, preferably to the ankle. Again, you can get away with less coverage — heavens knows Egyptians see all sorts of lack of modesty at tourist attractions — but why be that person?

3. Pack sunblock.

Cuz it’ll be sunny, dusty and hot. Very hot. It reached 100 while we were there in late April.

4. It should go without saying that you shouldn’t drink the water.

Always have bottles of water to stay hydrated and to brush your teeth. You may not think that you’re getting dehydrated, but trust us, this can happen swiftly, and heat exhaustion is no joke. Duke suffered a mild case of this which caused him to have prickly heat, lightheadedness and diarrhea, which is no fun when most of Egypt’s sites are in the blazing sun.

5. Upper Egypt is the south part of the country, and Lower Egypt is the north.

Yes, this is counterintuitive to the modern brain. But the River Nile flows northward, so the Ancient Egyptians’ perception of the world was the reverse of ours.

6. You have to stake your ground in lines.

If there are any gaps, people will weasel their way in and have no qualms about cutting in front of you. While waiting in line for customs, a woman behind us kept tapping my backpack to get me to move up, as if pressing into each other would make the line go faster. Eventually, Duke and I formed a line with an annoyed fellow American to block the path of anyone trying to barge past us.

This happens on planes, too. I’m not saying Americans are the models of decorum, but when it comes to disembarking from a plane, no one would ever consider rushing up the aisle. We very patiently wait our turn and let everyone sitting in front of us get off before us. Not so in other parts of the world, including the Middle East. You have to rush into the aisle to prevent fellow passengers behind you from rushing ahead.

7. Getting a visa upon arrival is ridiculously easy.

No paperwork. Just US$25 and you get a sticker.

For other countries we’ve traveled to, like Vietnam and Cambodia, we had to send out our passports to the embassies in Washington, D.C., putting our faith in the U.S. Postal Service. India’s was an even more-elaborate affair, requiring a picture to be taken.

But the visa for Egypt can be purchased at a bank kiosk to the right of the line for customs.

8. It’s a good idea to get a data plan for your cell phone.

Not that we had great luck with Uber in Cairo (we thought we’d never escape from the Khan el-Khalili souk, after waiting for a couple of hours for various Uber drivers who never arrived). But we communicated with our guide service via email, and Wi-Fi was spotty at one of our hotels.

9. Prearrange pickup from the airport.

A mass of guys in navy blue jackets will call out, trying to get you to take their taxi. We like to have our hotels pick us up.

If you do need to get a cab, negotiate the price before you get in. When we returned to Cairo from Luxor, a charming man who played Western pop music took us to the Mena House for 400 Egyptian pounds, while the hotel was going to charge about 1,300 LE.

Get used to seeing policemen and soldiers toting semi-automatic machine guns everywhere you go, including the gorgeous Dendera Temple

Get used to seeing policemen and soldiers toting semi-automatic machine guns everywhere you go, including the gorgeous Dendera Temple

10. There are machine guns and metal detectors everywhere you go.

You’ll see them at the numerous military checkpoints on the road and outside tourist locations. It’s unnerving to see the tip of a machine gun peeking out a window in a small square tower as you drive down the street or enter the grounds of a temple.

It certainly was the first time we had to go through metal detectors as we entered our hotels. You’ll probably set them off, but they’ll wave you through.

When you’re visiting a site, there’s usually a bin or flat surface to place your cell phone before you pass through. If you’re bringing a bag, expect to have it screened.

The machine guns it seems every police officer and military personnel carry are made of tarnished silver, like something from generations past. And despite their toy-like appearance, resembling what you would play at a shooting gallery on a beachside boardwalk or a traveling carnival, I don’t doubt their lethal power.

11. Don’t expect to get a lot of money out of ATMs.

They’re certainly not as common as in the States, which is to be expected. But the maximum amount you can withdraw is 3,000 Egyptian pounds, or about $175 at the time we visited.

Sometimes the ATM would reject this selection — maybe there wasn’t enough money left — so we’d try 2,000, which usually worked.

The Egyptian pound is abbreviated as LE, from the French livre égyptienne.

Resist touching the walls: The oil from our skin darkens stone carvings, like these hieroglyphics

Resist touching the walls: The oil from our skin darkens stone carvings, like these hieroglyphics

12. As tempting as it may be, don’t touch the temple walls.

You can see the dark, shiny stains where people have touched certain spots too often. Our guide in Cairo, Ahmed, saw a guy touch the walls of a tomb, and he told him not to. “You’re breaking my heart,” he said, then grumbled to us, “They wouldn’t go to the Louvre and touch the paintings!” He did have a point. These structures have survived thousands of years and still sport their original paintings. Let’s help preserve them for another thousand years.

I know, I know. Wally’s not following his own advice — he’s touching the carvings!

I know, I know. Wally’s not following his own advice — he’s touching the carvings!

13. Get small denominations (especially 5 LE bills) cuz you’ll need ’em to go to the bathroom.

Almost every WC (as they’re usually marked, from the Britishism water closet), has someone out front collecting payment of 5 LE.

Fives are also handy to tip small amounts to someone who helps you in a small way, like a bellboy.

Hopefully you’ll luck out with a friendly, knowledgable guide like Mamduh

Hopefully you’ll luck out with a friendly, knowledgable guide like Mamduh

14. Hire guides everywhere.

There are security checkpoints all over the country, where they record the license plate, telephone number and other information in a ledger. (We always heard the term “Amrikiya,” which I assume meant we were Americans.) These checkpoints are facilitated with a guide and driver. I’m not even sure you could get into sites without a guide.

Plus, you know, it’s nice to know what you’re actually looking at. By the time we had spent a week with Mamduh from Sunset Tours, Duke and I felt like minor Egyptologists.

Added bonus: The vendors might be a tad less pushy. If you don’t have a guide, I imagine you’d be picked apart like a vulture with carrion. As it is, you’ll still have to ignore endless entreaties from shopkeepers inviting you to their stand, hoping to make a sale.

The roads are much less crazy outside of Cairo, but you’ll still be sharing them with a variety of transportation, including donkey carts

The roads are much less crazy outside of Cairo, but you’ll still be sharing them with a variety of transportation, including donkey carts

15. Egypt is definitely one of those countries where driving is insane.

Horns honk nonstop and pedestrians walk in the street, crossing traffic without a care in the world. I watched a woman with two small children talking on her phone cross a busy street without even a glance at oncoming traffic.

In Cairo in particular, drivers act like they’re playing a real-life video game, narrowly dodging other cars, horse-drawn carts, auto rickshaws, trucks loaded with produce, donkeys and motorbikes, often with a woman on the back sitting sideways, a child in her arms.

Cars come from all directions, and there aren’t any lines on the road. Vehicles speed along, weaving between traffic, straddling two lanes, zooming along at an alarming clip. At night many don’t even use their headlights.

16. Most sites have an extra photography pass you can buy — though a lot of tour guides fail to mention this.

If you want photos, just ante up the 50 to 300 LE or so and get the pass. If you don’t, be warned that the guards can be ruthless. At Abu Simbel, for instance, we watched them take the phones of people who didn’t buy a pass and force them to delete their photos! Fortunately for us, our guide Mamduh always asked us prior to purchasing our tickets.

17. Just because you pay for a car for the day, doesn’t mean you get to go wherever you’d like.

The concierge at our hotel in Cairo said we had a driver and guide for the full day, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. But we learned that unlike other places you travel to, you’re limited to their itinerary and can’t go off script.

Our guide, Ahmed, made our experience extremely unpleasant, rushing us through the sites of Giza and Saqqara, until we said we had come all this way and wanted to see everything we could. He refused to take us to the Mena House for lunch, telling us that it was ridiculously spendy (and even though we had discussed this with the concierge at the Kempinski the night before) or any other sites, even though we still had hours left.

What’s strange (I’m being sarcastic) is that he would have made the time to stop at the papyrus and perfume shops at Giza, or the carpet schools at Saqqara, if we had accepted his offer. Having suffered through these tourist traps, where guides get commission if you buy anything, we knew to avoid them like the 10 plagues.

18. They don’t believe in seatbelts in Cairo.

Very few drivers bother to wear them, and not many of the backseats have working seatbelts, especially in Cairo. There’s nothing you can do but pray to Osiris or Allah that you’ll safely reach your destination amidst the chaos of the roads.

Thankfully, the other parts of the country we visited, Aswan and Luxor, tended to have working seatbelts — though our driver only slipped his on when we reached military checkpoints.

19. You’ll see a lot of Egyptian men with dark circular marks on their foreheads.

At first we thought these gray smudges might be ash — we visited over Easter and figured it might be some Coptic Christian tradition — but after a while I realized it was the type of mark you’d get from repeatedly rubbing your forehead against something. I suspect it’s a mark from prostrating themselves and bowing their heads to the ground five times a day during their prayers. I imagine some wear it proudly as a public display of piety.

Duke learned this mark actually has a name: zebibah, or raisin. (Given its size, it’s actually more like a prune.)

The one downside to staying on the West Bank in Luxor were the ever-present flies

The one downside to staying on the West Bank in Luxor were the ever-present flies

20. Get used to flies.

They’re everywhere, especially in Luxor. We noticed a slew of small red bites on our lower legs the morning after our first night on the West Bank, and although we didn’t see any mosquitos, they were obviously there. So you might want to pack some bug spray, too. We used Repel 100, which kept those pests at bay.

21. Not to be rude, but you should expect to smell BO quite often.

It’s obviously most noticeable in confined spaces like an airplane or a car. This isn’t a dig at Arabs — I suffered through many a stinky bus or metro ride in Europe, believe me. –Wally

Prambanan: A Towering Tribute to the Hindu Trinity

If you’re in Indonesia, add Java to your itinerary and see this stunning temple complex that plays second fiddle to Borobudur.

Borobudur gets all the fame, but Prambanan is a must-visit complex on Java as well

Borobudur gets all the fame, but Prambanan is a must-visit complex on Java as well

Our main reason for visiting the island of Java, Indonesia was to see the spectacular ancient temple complexes of Borobudur and Prambanan. Given the importance of religion in ancient Java, it’s not surprising that both of these attractions are imposing in scale and have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Plus, the opportunity to stay in a private villa that came with an infinity plunge pool at the Plataran Borobudur Resort & Spa and a view of Borobudur in the distance was one Wally and I simply couldn’t pass up.

The complex contains temples to the Hindu trinity and the creatures they rode

The complex contains temples to the Hindu trinity and the creatures they rode

The Prambanan Temple Compounds were located about a hour and a half northwest from where we were staying, and having a private driver provided by the resort made the journey getting there stress-free.

Wally and Duke sit atop unrenovated remains outside the complex

Wally and Duke sit atop unrenovated remains outside the complex

Whooo dat? We were surprised to pass some owls en route to the main temples

Whooo dat? We were surprised to pass some owls en route to the main temples

Many Priests and Ladies-in-Waiting

Shortly after we arrived at the temple complex, we were introduced to our guide, Dwi, who wore a shirt embroidered with the Wonderful Indonesia logo. As Dwi led us past the main entrance, he explained that the three concentric courtyards are laid out in the geometric form of a mandala and follow the concept of vastu shastra, an ancient Indian method of architecture and construction to enhance prosperity.

The small structures out front are called pewara, or “ladies-in-waiting”

The small structures out front are called pewara, or “ladies-in-waiting”

Some of the ruins are intricately carved

Some of the ruins are intricately carved

The fragments of the temples fit together like puzzle pieces

The fragments of the temples fit together like puzzle pieces

Dwi added that the name Prambanan means “Many Priests,” quite possibly in reference to the outermost courtyard, which was once encircled by a wall. The original function is unknown but it may have served as a monastic community and included lodging for hundreds of brahmin priests and their disciples. As these buildings were most likely built of wood and brick, nothing remains of them.

The peaks of the temples rise into the sky — a bit higher than Borobudur

The peaks of the temples rise into the sky — a bit higher than Borobudur

Directly in front of us was another large courtyard with hundreds of small shrines called pewara, or “ladies-in-waiting,” organized in concentric squares four rows deep. Almost all of these temples had been reduced to rubble. We asked Dwi if there are plans to reconstruct them, and he explained that this was not likely, as much of the original stonework has been destroyed by erosion, earthquakes or looting. Like Borobudur, at least 70% of the original material must be used in restoration to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The ornate black stone temples create an imposing silhouette

The ornate black stone temples create an imposing silhouette

Duke and Wally take a break on the steps leading up to one of the temples

Duke and Wally take a break on the steps leading up to one of the temples

The Main Temples

At the heart of the complex stand the most sacred and well-preserved temples, the scale and detail of which can only be appreciated when you are standing in front of them. Three of the main shrines are dedicated to the Trimurti, the Hindu trinity of Brahma the Creator, Shiva the Destroyer (to whom the largest central temple is dedicated) and Vishnu the Preserver. The smaller vahana shrines are for the deity’s respective animal mounts: Hamsa the Swan, Nandi the Bull and Garuda the Eagle. There are also two small temples between the rows of Trimurti and vahana shrines, although the function of these remains unclear.

Duke poses with a group of local boys, with Prambanan behind them, looking like a fake backdrop

Duke poses with a group of local boys, with Prambanan behind them, looking like a fake backdrop

The initial construction of Prambanan began around the middle of the 9th century during the reign of Rakai Pikatan and served as the royal temple of the kingdom of Mataram. Additional structures were added by the successive Kings Rakai Kayuwangi and Balitung Maha Sambu.

Peeking through at a smaller vahana temple for the gods’ mounts

Peeking through at a smaller vahana temple for the gods’ mounts

The staircases are carved in the shape of mekara, creatures with other beings coming out of their mouths

The staircases are carved in the shape of mekara, creatures with other beings coming out of their mouths

Pretty in pink: An Indonesian woman enjoys her visit

Pretty in pink: An Indonesian woman enjoys her visit

Dwi suggested that Prambanan was built as a political and religious response to mark the return of the Hindu Sanjaya dynasty after decades of Buddhist-led Sailendra rule.

The Shiva Temple is the largest of the bunch

The Shiva Temple is the largest of the bunch

The Shiva Temple

Not to be outdone by Borobudur, the central Shiva temple is the tallest. At 154 feet, it’s 41 feet higher than the triple-tiered stone umbrella chatra that once served as the pinnacle of its rival complex. The temple is embellished with a series of elegant carvings along the inner wall, depicting scenes from the ancient Indian epic the Ramayana.

Those not pure of heart will be crushed as they try to walk under Kala’s mouth — or so the legend goes

Those not pure of heart will be crushed as they try to walk under Kala’s mouth — or so the legend goes

Wally loves nothing better than to explore an ancient temple

Wally loves nothing better than to explore an ancient temple

A lion sits within a small niche flanked by half-woman and half-bird kinnara

A lion sits within a small niche flanked by half-woman and half-bird kinnara

Wally and I followed our guide and made the ascent up the steep stone steps before reaching the eastern sanctuary chamber of Shiva. We passed through a portico with the monstrous gaping half-mouth of Kala leering at us from its lintel. Wally asked Dwi what this creature was. He replied by saying that if you’re a bad person, the mouth will close down upon you!

The statue of Shiva the Destroyer

The statue of Shiva the Destroyer

Shiva stands upon a lotus, which symbolizes enlightenment — an odd depiction of the god

Shiva stands upon a lotus, which symbolizes enlightenment — an odd depiction of the god

The east chamber contains a four-armed 10-foot-tall statue of Shiva, standing erect atop a blooming lotus flower, the Buddhist symbol of enlightenment. Some historians believe this rare depiction may be due to the union between Hindu Prince Rakai Pikatan and Buddhist Princess Pramodhawardhani. However, it is also thought that the statue was made in the likeness of King Mataram Balitung, who considered himself the divine manifestation of Shiva.

The elephant-headed Ganesha grants wishes

The elephant-headed Ganesha grants wishes

A nearby chamber contains a statue of his portly son Ganesha, the remover of obstacles. Dwi regaled us with an interesting tale of how Ganesha broke off a tusk and used it as a pen to transcribe the ancient Indian epic the Mahabharata. The tip of his trunk dips into a bowl of sweets, of which he is very fond.

Fierce Durga holds weapons in six of her eight hands

Fierce Durga holds weapons in six of her eight hands

This dwarf isn’t happy that Durga is touching his head

This dwarf isn’t happy that Durga is touching his head

In the northern chamber is a statue of Shiva’s consort Durga, also referred to by locals as Loro Jonggrang, the Slender Virgin. The protective mother goddess of the Hindu universe is depicted standing in a relaxed pose, her right leg slightly bent and her hip jutting out to the left. Six of her eight arms hold weapons. She stands on the back of the asura Mahisa, a demon in the form of a buffalo. Durga holds his tail in one hand, while another touches the top of a dwarf’s head — a taboo gesture in Hinduism, as the head is considered the highest and most sacred part of the body.

A statue of the dwarf hermit Agastya with his trident

A statue of the dwarf hermit Agastya with his trident

The south-facing chamber has a statue of the hermit Agastya, one of the most venerated sages in Hinduism, portrayed as a dwarf with a long beard. He has a fan on his left shoulder and a trident on his right.

The bas-relief panels of the Shiva Temple depict the epic love story of Rama and Sita:

The statue of Brahma the Creator

The statue of Brahma the Creator

You can’t sneak up on this guy!

You can’t sneak up on this guy!

The Brahma Temple

A single chamber inside the temple contains a statue of Brahma, depicted with his four faces and four arms. The four faces symbolize the four cardinal directions as well as the four Vedas, the most sacred Hindu scriptures: The Rig Veda, Yajur, Sama Veda and Atharva Veda.

The Temple of Vishnu, like the others, is carved out of volcanic stones pieced together

The Temple of Vishnu, like the others, is carved out of volcanic stones pieced together

The Vishnu Temple

Like the temple dedicated to Brahma, a single interior chamber holds a statue of the deity. Vishnu wears a tall crown upon his head. He has four limbs, two of which are raised up and the other two down. His upper right hand holds a discus and the left holds a conch shell.

Vishnu the Protector holds a discus and conch shell

Vishnu the Protector holds a discus and conch shell

Are they breastfeeding? Some of the carvings on Hindu temples can be quite bizarre

Are they breastfeeding? Some of the carvings on Hindu temples can be quite bizarre

The Temple of Vishnu is decorated with carvings retelling the epic battles of Krishna

The Temple of Vishnu is decorated with carvings retelling the epic battles of Krishna

Blue-skinned Krishna is an avatar of Vishnu but is also worshipped as a god

Blue-skinned Krishna is an avatar of Vishnu but is also worshipped as a god

The bulbous lingam-yoni ornaments encircling the temples represent male and female reproductive parts

The bulbous lingam-yoni ornaments encircling the temples represent male and female reproductive parts

The Nandi Temple

All gods need transport, and at Prambanan, they have their own smaller temples. Nandi is the only statue of the vahanas that has survived.

Nandi the Bull carried around the god Shiva

Nandi the Bull carried around the god Shiva

We’re drawn to various characters in mythology — and Duke has always loved Nandi

We’re drawn to various characters in mythology — and Duke has always loved Nandi

The temple for Nandi the Bull sits in front of the Shiva Temple. In the inner chamber of this shrine, the humped reclining statue of Nandi rests on a raised platform facing the entrance door so it may perpetually gaze on Shiva. Sadly, its left horn has broken off and is missing. To the left is a statue of Surya, the Hindu god of the sun, standing atop seven horses.

Surya, the god of the sun, stands on a chariot drawn by seven horses

Surya, the god of the sun, stands on a chariot drawn by seven horses

The Paparazzi Descends Upon Us

After our guide Dwi bade us adieu, we continued to explore the complex. Local students who were also visiting Prambanan excitedly approached, asking if if it would be OK to take a picture with us. At first it was fun and we were flattered, but after 10 or so photos, we had to politely say no with a smile and fled the complex.

The minute our guide left us, the locals swarmed, asking to take photos with us

The minute our guide left us, the locals swarmed, asking to take photos with us

Get to Prambanan as early as possible — busloads of schoolkids take field trips to the temple complex

Get to Prambanan as early as possible — busloads of schoolkids take field trips to the temple complex

At first we were amused by all the attention

At first we were amused by all the attention

The girls wore jeans, sneakers and brightly colored headscarves. “You’re so tall!” they exclaimed

The girls wore jeans, sneakers and brightly colored headscarves. “You’re so tall!” they exclaimed

After about 10 photos, posing with strangers got a bit old

After about 10 photos, posing with strangers got a bit old

Around back, there were scaffolds, work in progress — and no tourists — so we were able to make our escape from all the attention

Around back, there were scaffolds, work in progress — and no tourists — so we were able to make our escape from all the attention

We recommend visiting Borobudur and Prambanan on different days. Each complex is completely different, and I honestly feel that we wouldn’t have been able to appreciate the grandeur and complexity of each site if we crammed them into a single day. –Duke

Prambanan Temple

Prambanan Temple

Prambanan
Kranggan
Bokoharjo
Prambanan
Sleman Regency
Special Region of Yogyakarta
Indonesia

Candi Mendut: A Peaceful Borobudur Side Trip

Explore this ancient Buddhist temple and go for a swing on the massive banyan out back.

mendut.JPG

It may be small, but it’s an exquisite ancient temple. Located a short distance from Borobudur, the largest Buddhist shrine in the world, Candi Mendut was the third and final stop on our day’s itinerary. The clear blue sky was a stunning backdrop for the structure, composed of gray andesite volcanic rock.

We also visited the small (and rather unimpressive) Candi Pawon, where Wally and I bought a replica of the bell-shaped stupas that line Borobudur, carved of the same stone as the temple.

The southern façade of Mendut has a bas-relief of Hariti, patroness of motherhood, who was once a child-eating ogress.

The Dutch discovered this sacred structure by chance in 1836, while cutting through thick foliage to clear the plot for a coffee plantation. After careful inspection, overseen by colonial engineering officer Theodore Van Erp, the ruins were eventually uncovered. Conservation efforts began in 1897 but weren’t completed until 1925.

Candi is the word for a Hindu or Buddhist temple or shrine in Bahasa, the Indonesian language. The lone structure stands atop a stone plinth and shares a peaceful green clearing with an enormous sacred banyan tree. A remnant of the Sailendra dynasty, the temple is believed to have been built sometime around 824 CE, during the reign of King Indra.

Its roof is a succession of staggered tiers, decreasing in size, with the first and second encircled by votive stupika, small dome-shaped shrines. At the summit, the central stupa is absent, most likely due to the passage of time or, perhaps damage caused by earthquakes.

Parts of the temple have been excavated but not rebuilt, as they’re missing pieces

Parts of the temple have been excavated but not rebuilt, as they’re missing pieces

Off to the side of Mendut, a field of sculptures and fragments are laid out in the order they would fit had the missing pieces been found.

Candi Mendut is one of three temples connected along a nearly direct line, leading historians to speculate that it was part of a grand design and most likely an important pilgrimage stop en route to Borobudur. Of the three, Mendut is the oldest, having been built about 10 years before Borobudur.

On the west side, a staircase leads up to a broad terrace, designed for circumambulating or ritualistically walking clockwise around the temple. Wally and I climbed the worn stone steps, flanked by a pair of makara, mythological Buddhist sea creatures, each with lion standing within its gaping mouth. Narrative scenes from the Jataka tales, which tell of the Buddha’s previous incarnations as both humans and animals, are carved into the balustrade.

I know it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s very unusual that the Buddha’s feet are both touching the ground

I know it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but it’s very unusual that the Buddha’s feet are both touching the ground

After we passed through the structure’s single entrance into the inner sanctuary chamber, we were greeted by three remarkably well-preserved figures. The formidable central figure is the Buddha Vairocana, depicted in a seated position, atypical for having both feet touching the ground. His hands are in Dharmachakra mudra, a gesture used by Buddha during his first sermon after enlightenment, representing the continuous flow of energy.

Inside the small temple is a statue of Buddha and two bohisattvas, including Vajrapani, a protector and guide

Inside the small temple is a statue of Buddha and two bohisattvas, including Vajrapani, a protector and guide

On either side sit two bodhisattvas, compassionate individuals who postpone nirvana to teach others enlightenment. To the left is Avalokitesvara, the One Who Hears the Cries of the World, who represents compassion and liberates devotees from the destructive power of speech. To the right is Vajrapani, the protector and guide of the Buddha, symbolizing the energy of the enlightened mind, his right leg folded and right hand raised.

Standing in the chamber among the ancient sentinels, I could almost feel the presence of the invisible dead. Make sure to look closely at the feet, which are black from being touched by devotees.

You’ll pass Mendut Monastery en route to the temple

You’ll pass Mendut Monastery en route to the temple

Apparently, the monastery is open to visitors, though the gates were closed when we passed by

Apparently, the monastery is open to visitors, though the gates were closed when we passed by

Looking out at the temple grounds from Mendut’s raised platform

Looking out at the temple grounds from Mendut’s raised platform

The Legend of Hariti: From Ogress to Protectress

The southern façade of Mendut has a bas-relief of Hariti, who, according to myth, was once a child-eating ogress. To feed herself and her 500 children, she took to cannibalism, snatching kids from the village of Rajagriha. This led to great fear among locals, who came to the Buddha and pleaded with him to save their children.

In one variation of the tale, the Buddha waited for Hariti to leave her dwelling and kidnapped her youngest and most beloved son, hiding him beneath his begging bowl. Upon her return home, Hariti found her son missing and searched for him in vain. Grief-stricken, the ogress in turn sought the Buddha’s aid in finding him.

The Buddha agreed to help, providing she give up her wicked ways. He explained how she was causing great suffering to the villagers. Hariti agreed to abstain from cannibalism and promised to consume only pomegranates from then on. The Buddha returned her son and ordained her the protector of children.

This statue is of particular importance to childless Javanese couples, who pray to Hariti as a symbol of fertility and patroness of motherhood.

You can see the banyan behind the temple, though its immense size is still hard to grasp

You can see the banyan behind the temple, though its immense size is still hard to grasp

The Sacred Banyan Tree

Like the witch Rangda’s mane of unkempt hair, multiple root streamers descend from the banyan behind the temple. After some minor coaxing from our driver, Wally was swinging from one. Our photos can't begin to relay the enormity of the banyan. It was the second-largest tree I’ve ever seen, the first being the ancient banyan at Pura Kehen on Bali.

Banyan roots grow down from branches and become as solid as trunks, forming a cave of sorts

Banyan roots grow down from branches and become as solid as trunks, forming a cave of sorts

The staff at our resort later told us that our driver had been sharing this photo of Wally swinging on the sacred banyan roots

The staff at our resort later told us that our driver had been sharing this photo of Wally swinging on the sacred banyan roots

Mendut may be less well-known and unassuming than Borobudur, but it has some beautiful bas-reliefs and stone carvings. If you are planning on visiting Borobudur, you should definitely add Candi Mendut to your visit. It’s worth walking around the complex to take in its peaceful atmosphere — and have a swing on the banyan out back. –Duke

Pair Candi Mendut with a trip to Borobudur

Pair Candi Mendut with a trip to Borobudur

Mendut Temple
Jalan Magelang Sumberrejo
Mendut
Mungkid
Magelang
Jawa Tengah 56501
Indonesia

Pura Gunung Kawi Sebatu Water Temple, Bali: An Off-the-Beaten-Path Oasis

Bathe in and explore this calm and cool ancient holy spring near the Tegalalang Rice Terrace.

Balinese people bathe in the holy fountains at water temples, like Pura Gunung Kawi in the village of Sebatu

Balinese people bathe in the holy fountains at water temples, like Pura Gunung Kawi in the village of Sebatu

Wally and I arrived at the water temple of Gunung Kawi in what seemed like a relatively short distance from the Tegallalang Rice Terrace. I’ve mentioned the traffic-choked roads we experienced during our time on Bali in previous posts, which make destinations feel farther away than they really are.

Our driver Made parked his vehicle and adjusted our sarongs before sending us off to cross the road and purchase tickets to the sacred site.

Wally peeked over the wall and was surprised to see a naked old man peeing into one of the holy pools.
Wally didn’t get all the way in the bathing pool — he and Duke just poured water over their heads

Wally didn’t get all the way in the bathing pool — he and Duke just poured water over their heads

The lichen-covered stones lend Balinese temples an ancient air

The lichen-covered stones lend Balinese temples an ancient air

An assortment of daily offerings placed at the threshold of the bathing pools are filled with flowers and sticks of incense

An assortment of daily offerings placed at the threshold of the bathing pools are filled with flowers and sticks of incense

The complex was established during the reign of King Udayana in the 11th century and is referred to by locals as Pura Tirta Dawa Gunung Kawi Sebatu. Not to be mistaken with the stone monoliths of Gunung Kawi in the neighboring town of Tampaksiring, this smaller, less-visited holy spring temple dedicated to one of the principal Hindu deities, Vishnu, is located in the highland village of Sebatu.

Looking down upon the complex, with its central pool and fountain of the goddess Saraswati

Looking down upon the complex, with its central pool and fountain of the goddess Saraswati

Walking alongside the road, you can take in a sweeping bird’s-eye view of its immediate surroundings. We made our way down a set of steps and arrived at a meandering path that led us past a few elegant pagoda-style cages, one of which housed a striking yellow-crested cockatoo preening itself.

Pagoda-like birdcages line the main pool

Pagoda-like birdcages line the main pool

A striking cockatoo with a sulphur-yellow crest

A striking cockatoo with a sulphur-yellow crest

The aviary lines the large reflecting pool with four whimsical stone frogs peeking above the waterline, I suspect they are meant to be fountains, but were either not working, or on when we visited. Surrounding the frogs is the formal pools centerpiece, an ornamental statue of the goddess Saraswati standing atop the back of a swan. The crystal clear waters are filled with well-fed koi fish and overlooked by a grand open-air pavilion with a hipped terra cotta tiled roof.

This platform overlooks the central pool

This platform overlooks the central pool

Holy carp! The pool is filled with koi and isn’t a place for bathing

Holy carp! The pool is filled with koi and isn’t a place for bathing

Not far beyond are a series of small spring-fed pools where locals ritually bathe. Wally and I didn’t feel right entering them, so we improvised by cupping our hands to collect water, which we splashed upon our heads. It was cool and clear and felt refreshing in the early afternoon heat.

Water pours from the weatherworn carved faces in the bathing pools

Water pours from the weatherworn carved faces in the bathing pools

While I was taking a picture of one of the lichen-covered faces spewing water from its mouth, Wally peeked over the wall and was surprised to see a completely naked old man peeing into one of the holy pools.

Before you cross the threshold of this sacred space, make sure you’re wearing a sarong

Before you cross the threshold of this sacred space, make sure you’re wearing a sarong

Slippery Rock: The Story Behind the Name

According to legend, there once was a man named Mayadenawa, a descendant of the powerful Daitya, a race of demons, and the primordial goddess Danu. He was a practitioner of the dark arts and possessed supernatural powers that allowed him to shapeshift.

When he ascended to the throne, King Mayadenawa regarded himself as a deity, and under this pretense, commanded his subjects to worship him. His behavior angered the storm god Indra, who watched from afar and ordered his celestial armies to attack.

Most temples on Bali have statues of demons

Most temples on Bali have statues of demons

Statues act as guardian spirits

Statues act as guardian spirits

King Mayadenawa knew he was no match for Indra’s troops and manifested a great pool of poisonous water near their encampment. When the army woke, they drank and bathed in the pool. Hundreds fell ill. Seeing this, Indra drove a stake deep into the earth from which a sacred spring emerged. The fleet was immediately reinvigorated as the purified water touched their lips.

To avoid capture, Mayadenawa cunningly morphed into several creatures. Each time, he barely escaped. He transformed into the great bird manuk raya, immortalized in the village of Manukaya. He also appeared as a bulbous green-skinned breadfruit, buah timbul, in what became Timbul village.

Exhausted, Mayadenawa fled and transformed himself into a huge rock. Indra saw droplets of blood forming on the surface of the rock, drew his bowstring back and shot his magical arrow into the boulder. Blood flowed from the stone, forming the Petanu River, which was cursed for a period of 1,000 years.

Sebatu, the village where the temple is located, derives from the Balinese words sauh (meaning “slip”) and batu (“rocks”) or Slippery Rock. As Indra’s troops chased the king, many innocent people lost their footing, giving Sebatu its name.

A wooden effigy of a deer

A wooden effigy of a deer

A Quiet Oasis

As we wandered farther into the complex, we discovered a second rectangular pool with a small, palm-thatch roof shrine on a man-made island embellished on four sides with winged apsara. The backdrop of dense foliage lent a mystical aura to the singular structure.

The main temple was beautiful, but off limits. However, there are a few pavilions and ancillary shrines reserved for ancestral spirits worth exploring. Artisans of this village are known for their woodcarving skills and expressively painted sculptures which can be seen in the intricately carved beams and depictions of otherworldly benevolent and demonic beings.

Taking in the calm surroundings of this unusual, untouched sacred site made us feel like we were our own special world. With the exception of a few locals, Wally and I had Gunung Kawi Sebatu to ourselves. –Duke

Pair a trip to this water temple with the cliff shrines of the same name and the Tegallalang Rice Terrace

Pair a trip to this water temple with the cliff shrines of the same name and the Tegallalang Rice Terrace

Pura Gunung Kawi
Sebatu
Tegallalang
Gianyar
Bali 80511
Indonesia

Weird Bali: 7 Crazy Balinese Customs

Cat poop coffee, temples of death and Balinese names are a few of the unusual aspects of Bali culture.

What makes islands so interesting is that they act as closed environments and often adopt their own distinct cultures. It’s curious that Bali is a Hindu island in the midst of the most populous Muslim nation in the world. Its unique religion permeates daily life.

Here’s a sampling of seven unusual things we observed or learned about on our trip to Bali.

The passage of the beans through the civet’s digestive tract, pressed against their anal scent glands makes the resulting coffee to die for.
Kopi luwak, made from the excrement of a cute wild cat, has become a craze. But we recommend boycotting it

Kopi luwak, made from the excrement of a cute wild cat, has become a craze. But we recommend boycotting it

1. A popular coffee on Bali is made from animal poop — and it’s the most expensive coffee on Earth.

Known as kopi luwak, this is essentially coffee beans that have been eaten, digested and shat out by the palm civet, a cute animal that looks like a cross between a wild cat and a mongoose. You’ll see signs for kopi luwak all over Bali, and Duke and I were like, no thank you. The British couple next to us at dinner one night said they quite enjoyed it, though, that the beans were a honeyed color, that the coffee was smooth, and they’d have gotten some if it wasn’t so bloody expensive.

Many poor civets are kept in cages and mistreated to make sure there’s a steady supply of luwak coffee

Many poor civets are kept in cages and mistreated to make sure there’s a steady supply of luwak coffee

Civets are shy, nocturnal creatures that roam coffee plantations at night, eating ripe coffee cherries. They can’t digest the pits, or beans, and poop them out. Somehow locals got it into their heads that the passage through the civet’s digestive tract, pressed against their anal scent glands, somehow makes the resulting coffee to die for.

One of the many places we were offered civet shit coffee. We declined each time

One of the many places we were offered civet shit coffee. We declined each time

What’s sad, though, is that the novelty of kopi luwak has turned into a booming industry, with many coffee farms mistreating the animals. They “suffer greatly from the stress of being caged in proximity to other luwaks, and the unnatural emphasis on coffee cherries in their diet causes other health problems too; they fight among themselves, gnaw off their own legs, start passing blood in their scats, and frequently die,” writes Tony Wild, the man who blames himself for bringing the kopi luwak craze to the West, in The Guardian. Treating an animal like that is just crappy.

There’s a very good chance that half the people in this photo are named Wayan. Seriously!

There’s a very good chance that half the people in this photo are named Wayan. Seriously!

2. All the kids have the same names, depending on their birth order.

As you become acquainted with more and more Balinese locals, you’ll notice something strange: They all seem to have the same name. And it’s not just that certain names are popular, like John and Jennifer in the States — there literally seem to be only a few names on the island to choose from. As bizarre as that seems, that is indeed the tradition on Bali.

In most cases, Balinese parents from the lower caste (that is to say, most of the population) give their children the same names, depending on their birth order — whether or not they’re boys or girls. Firstborns are named Wayan, Putu or Gede; the second-born is Made or Kadek; the third-born is Nyoman or Komang; and the fourth-born is Ketut. What happens if you have five kids? The cycle repeats itself, with the addition of Balik. So the fifth-born would be Waylan Balik, which basically means Waylan Returns.

You’ll meet tons of Wayans and Mades (this last one is pronounced Mah-deh), so how do people know who’s who? Most Balinese add a nickname or middle name. Our driver, for instance, was Made Ada.

Temples of death on Bali feature frightening statues out front

Temples of death on Bali feature frightening statues out front

3. Every village has at least one temple of death.

Known as pura dalem, every village has at least one death temple, often located in the lowest part of town, facing the sea, which is considered the gateway to the underworld. Bodies are buried in the nearby cemetery, awaiting the purification of a cremation ceremony. Pura dalem, not surprisingly, are typically dedicated to the most gruesome gods and goddesses of the Hindu pantheon: Shiva the Destroyer, Kali, Durga or Rangda.

Many temples of death are dedicated to the demoness Rangda, who has a long tongue, droopy breasts, phallic dreadlocks and a fondness for eating babies

Many temples of death are dedicated to the demoness Rangda, who has a long tongue, droopy breasts, phallic dreadlocks and a fondness for eating babies

Monstrous demonic statues line the entrance — many featuring bulging bug eyes, fierce fangs and large, saggy breasts. Some hold innocent babies in their arms as they stand atop a pile of skulls. These serve as a vivid reminders of what awaits the wicked.



The only thing that would make Duke and Wally even more macho than these sarongs is if they had flowers behind their ears, too

The only thing that would make Duke and Wally even more macho than these sarongs is if they had flowers behind their ears, too

4. Wearing a skirt and tucking a flower behind your ear is thought of as the epitome of masculinity.

At temples on Bali you have to wear a sarong, wrapping these bright cloths around your waist like a long skirt. When I first visited Bali almost two decades ago, I’d wear a sarong every day, and it was common to see local men doing the same. On this visit, though, we only saw one young man wearing a sarong in Ubud (and that’s why I approached him to be our driver for the week).

I’d also pluck a flower and put it behind my ear, having seen temple priests do so. When men on Bali would see me with my sarong and flower, they’d exclaim, “Look at you! You are so masculine!” Bali has got to be the only place on Earth where a man is considered macho for wearing what’s essentially a skirt and a flower behind his ear.

Newborns on Bali are so holy they aren’t allowed to crawl on the ground

Newborns on Bali are so holy they aren’t allowed to crawl on the ground

5. Babies on Bali aren’t allowed to touch the ground for the first three months or so.

Being Hindus, Balinese believe in reincarnation — more specifically, newborns are thought to be the spirit of an ancestor returning to live another life. Because babies are still so close to the sacred realm they came from, they should be venerated. And in a culture where the ground represents all that is demonic and impure, that means newborns aren’t allowed to touch the earth for at least 105 days after birth, and up to 210 in some communities. That’s when the soul officially becomes a part of the child.

At this time, there’s a ceremony called nyabutan or nyambutin, where the baby’s hair is cut off and he or she touches the ground for the first time. It’s often at this time that the child is given its name.

You’ll be a total baller in Bali!

You’ll be a total baller in Bali!

6. In Indonesian currency, you’ll be a multimillionaire.

Literally every time we hit the ATM, we got out the maximum amount: 1.5 million rupiah, which, at the time we visited, was only about $100.

We passed at least four Polo stores in Ubud — and they all seemed to be having a 70% off sale

We passed at least four Polo stores in Ubud — and they all seemed to be having a 70% off sale

Are these officially licensed Ralph Lauren stores? Probably not

Are these officially licensed Ralph Lauren stores? Probably not

7. There are Ralph Lauren Polo stores everywhere.

The preppy look is huge on Bali, at least among tourists. The island is lousy with Polo stores — though they might be of dubious affiliation with the brand. Walking through Ubud, we passed at least six Polo stores. Let the buyer beware: The online consensus is that these deals are too good to be true and are most likely knock-offs. –Wally



Pura Taman Saraswati: The Heart of Ubud

You can’t miss the Saraswati Temple, famous for its lotus pond and dedicated to the Hindu goddess of learning.

The Saraswati Temple is a peaceful oasis in Ubud

The Saraswati Temple is a peaceful oasis in Ubud

On our first afternoon exploring Ubud, Wally and I decided to grab a bite at Cafe Lotus. Our table within the café’s open-air dining pavilion had a lovely view of the pond in front of the temple. There’s an undeniably magical quality to the multitudes of vibrant pink buds rising upon their stems above the murky waters, with the bricks of the temple beyond glowing orange.

Grab a bite at Cafe Lotus and admire the view

Grab a bite at Cafe Lotus and admire the view

The temple is dedicated to Saraswati, who, according to Hindu mythology, is the divine consort of Brahma, the four-faced creator deity. Her name is a combination of two Sanskrit words, “sara,” a lake or pool, and “vati,” to possess. Loosely translated, her name means She Who Has an Abundance of Water. Originally, she took the form of the sacred Saraswati River in India. That river has since dried up, and over time, she transformed to become the patroness of knowledge, literature and the arts, the creative essence flowing within the human heart and soul.

This pathway bisects the lotus pond and leads to the temple

This pathway bisects the lotus pond and leads to the temple

Who doesn’t love a lotus?

Who doesn’t love a lotus?

It is believed that Saraswati lives on the tip of the tongue and is present whenever words are spoken. She is the goddess of speech, and her blessings are invoked through the mantras written on sacred traditional palm leaf manuscripts, known as lontar. She is often depicted with four arms, seated upon a swan or lotus flower. In her hands she holds a lute, prayer beads and a lontar, representing the intellect, alertness and ego.

The temple is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Saraswati, patroness of learning and the arts

The temple is dedicated to the Hindu goddess Saraswati, patroness of learning and the arts

Pura Taman Saraswati

Prince Tjokorda Gede Agung Sukawati commissioned the temple, which was designed by the Balinese artist Gusti Nyoman Lempad. Construction began in 1951 and was completed the following year. Under patronage of the royal family, Lempad played an important role in the design and construction of palaces and temples throughout Ubud and its neighboring villages. When Lempad died in 1978, he was believed to have been 116 years old.

Wally and Duke in front of the temple and pond

Wally and Duke in front of the temple and pond

There’s a Starbucks right in front of the temple. Grab a venti iced latte on the way out!

There’s a Starbucks right in front of the temple. Grab a venti iced latte on the way out!

The temple is easy to find, sandwiched between Cafe Lotus and a Starbucks off the main thoroughfare of Ubud. To enter the grounds, cross a footbridge that bisects the scenic lotus ponds. The path is flanked by theatrical and grotesque sculptures of Hindu mythological figures, many of which are the original works of Lempad himself.

Grotesque statues like this one are characteristic of Gusti Nyoman Lempad’s style

Grotesque statues like this one are characteristic of Gusti Nyoman Lempad’s style

Lempad carved many of the statues and was the architect of the temple

Lempad carved many of the statues and was the architect of the temple

Wally and I were only able to explore the front platform of Pura Taman Saraswati, as the inner courtyard was closed to visitors. The temple exterior is a traditional assemblage of orange-red bricks embellished with gray volcanic stone ornamentation. A towering central gate known as a paduraksa stands at its center. A pair of intricately carved wooden doors functions as a symbolic boundary marker between the outer world and the temple’s sacred interior.

The central gate into the sacred interior of the temple was locked every time we visited

The central gate into the sacred interior of the temple was locked every time we visited

Gold detailing on the temple doors features heads of guardian spirits

Gold detailing on the temple doors features heads of guardian spirits

On either side of the main gate at Pura Taman Saraswati are two tall frangipani trees whose gnarled branches and dark green leaves grow outwards and upwards like a pair of wings. When in bloom, these trees produce small, fragrant white flowers with yolk-yellow centers. The flowers are called jepun in Bali and are commonly used in the daily devotional offerings to the gods known as canang sari.

People leave offerings of flowers for Saraswati

People leave offerings of flowers for Saraswati

As Saraswati is associated with the arts, it’s fitting that the courtyard serves as an open-air stage for nightly kecak performances, traditional stories depicting the constant struggle between good and evil, told through dance.

W is for Wally

W is for Wally

Duke branches out at Pura Taman Saraswati

Duke branches out at Pura Taman Saraswati

On a platform in front of the temple, a spiny-backed turtle flanked by two dragon-looking creatures emerge from below

On a platform in front of the temple, a spiny-backed turtle flanked by two dragon-looking creatures emerge from below

On the couple of occasions we visited, we entered directly from Jalan Raya, the main street that runs through the center of Ubud. The water temple is apparently also accessible from Jalan Kajeng, which runs perpendicular to Jalan Raya. No matter how you arrive there, it’s a peaceful oasis amid the throngs of tourists and worthy of a quick visit. –Duke

The Saraswati Temple in Ubud

The Saraswati Temple in Ubud

Pura Taman Saraswati
Jalan Kajeng
Ubud
Kabupaten Gianyar
Bali 80571
Indonesia

The Mysterious Cliff Shrines of Candi Gunung Kawi

Make the long trek down to the enigmatic “Valley of the Kings” in Tampaksiring on Bali.

When the king died, his wives were ceremoniously killed — and they were all honored with these memorial shrines

When the king died, his wives were ceremoniously killed — and they were all honored with these memorial shrines

After paying the admission fee of 15,000 rupiah (just $1), Wally and I made our way down the hundreds of steep stone steps leading to the 11th century funerary complex of Gunung Kawi. Its name literally translates as Mountain of the Poets, taken from an ancient literary language used by poets and Brahmin high priests.

When we finally arrived at the the river valley below, after a long walk through the sweltering heat, we entered a lush, green oasis — the colors all the more vibrant against the contrast of the gray basalt cliffs.

A mighty giant warrior named Kebo Iwa is said to have carved out the entire group of shrines in one night with his fingernails.
A typical split gate found at many Balinese temples

A typical split gate found at many Balinese temples

The 10 memorials were created for royal family members — and their concubines

The 10 memorials were created for royal family members — and their concubines

The complex consists of 10 slender 23-foot-high memorials shaped like candi, ancient burial towers, which have been carved directly into the igneous rock face. Each temple façade is framed within an arched niche: Four stand on the west side and five on the east, separated by the sacred Pakerisan River.

An interesting Balinese folktale attributes the entire group to a mighty, mythical giant warrior named Kebo Iwa, who, according to legend, carved out the entire group in one night with his fingernails. He’s also credited with the creative of the monster mouth cave of Goa Gajah. In reality, these magnificent structures were sculpted from the top down by hand, most likely using only pickaxes, hammers and chisels.

The shrines were carved right into the cliffs

The shrines were carved right into the cliffs

Candi Land

Although the monuments remain a mystery, it has been speculated that they were built to honor King Anak Wungsu, who ruled in Tampaksiring from 1049 to 1077. An inscription found above the central shrine on the east side mentions that the king, whose name isn’t given, made a temple here. The additional shrines were for his favorite wives, who would have ceremonially committed suicide after his death.

Another theory amongst historians is that the candi were commissioned by Anak Wungsu to honor his father, King Udayana, his mother, Queen Mahendradatta, and his brothers Airlangga and Marakata (along with himself), with the remaining four dedicated to his concubines.

The other side of the river can be seen through curtains of banyan roots

The other side of the river can be seen through curtains of banyan roots

When so little is known for certain, anything is possible. In any event, the candi at Gunung Kawi resemble the free-standing shrines of East Java and were built as an abode for the souls of deceased royalty. Their residences have steps leading to false doors. To the right of the monuments are five cells carved into the rock, where the caretakers formerly stayed.

The caretakers didn’t get the best digs — they lived in these caves

The caretakers didn’t get the best digs — they lived in these caves

Eye Candi

Wally and I followed the stone bridge across the Pakerisan River, which gurgles and flows through the center of the complex. The five main funerary monuments remained partly obscured by a copse of trees and gradually came into full view.

A river separates the two sides of Gunung Kawi

A river separates the two sides of Gunung Kawi

The Pakerisan River is considered sacred on Bali

The Pakerisan River is considered sacred on Bali

The location felt like the setting for an Indiana Jones adventure. Whatever its origin, I found myself gazing up at the five rock-hewn memorial shrines before us, taken in by the mystical atmosphere of ancient legends and long-lost tales of forgotten Balinese kings.

Behind Duke is the waterfall that’s across the river at one end of the complex

Behind Duke is the waterfall that’s across the river at one end of the complex

Wally takes a break on all those damn stairs!

Wally takes a break on all those damn stairs!

What was not so magnificent was the brutal climb back up to the parking lot. Suffice to say, that it would not be accessible to anyone who is mobility impaired.

Because this is a sacred site, be sure to bring a sarong. If you don’t have one, they’re available for rent at the ticket kiosk. –Duke

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Candi Gunung Kawi
Banjar Penaka
Tampaksiring
Gianyar, Bali 80552
Indonesia

Goa Gajah: An Easy Ubud Day Trip

The so-called Elephant Cave has an iconic and demonic gaping cave mouth.

When staying in Ubud, make a quick stop to see the monster mouth at Goa Gajah 

When staying in Ubud, make a quick stop to see the monster mouth at Goa Gajah 

Balinese words can be so fun to pronounce. You’ve got the water palaces of Klungkung and Tirta Gangga. And just outside of Ubud is a small temple complex called Goa Gajah that dates from the 9th to 11th centuries.

Turns out Goa Gajah has been mistranslated to Elephant Cave, but you won’t find even the remotest hint of a pachyderm anywhere on the small temple complex — aside from a stone statue of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh inside the cave. And, perhaps, the tusk-like fangs that adorn the demonic mouth that forms the cave entrance.

Those bulging eyes and elongated mouth are a familiar sight in Indonesian temple architecture.
Flights of stairs lead down to the Goa Gajah complex

Flights of stairs lead down to the Goa Gajah complex

The first thing you’ll come across are these ruins

The first thing you’ll come across are these ruins

Goa Gajah’s a good stopover to pair with other sites. Excavated in 1954, there are a few buildings in the complex, but it’s really all about the giant mouth cave. Wait for the tourists to clear out, snap the money shot — and you’ll be good to go.

Those bulging eyes and elongated mouth stretching into an entrance are a familiar sight in Indonesian temple architecture. As scary as they look, they’re depictions of Bhoma, a nature god who symbolically cleanses visitors as they enter the most sacred part of holy sites.

What mysteries await Duke and Wally inside the Elephant Cave?

What mysteries await Duke and Wally inside the Elephant Cave?

Inside the cave, a narrow T-shaped passageway forks to the left and right, the walls blackened from incense smoke. You can make out small niches in the darkness, some with worn-away statues, including a trio of phallic linga wearing black, white and red skirts. The adorable palm-woven square offering baskets I love so much are placed at the base of the statues.

Inside the cave are three phallic linga in honor of the Hindu deity Shiva the Destroyer

Inside the cave are three phallic linga in honor of the Hindu deity Shiva the Destroyer

The only elephant you’ll see at the Elephant Cave is this statue of Ganesha

The only elephant you’ll see at the Elephant Cave is this statue of Ganesha

Statues fill a niche. Compared to other holy sites on Bali, Goa Gajah is quite small

Statues fill a niche. Compared to other holy sites on Bali, Goa Gajah is quite small

At the back of the complex are colorfully decorated shrines

At the back of the complex are colorfully decorated shrines

It’s thought that Buddhist monks would meditate in the quiet confines of the cave.

The other notable site at Goa Gajah is the bathing pool, where water pours from the urns held by statues of busty Hindu divine spirits. The holy site was chosen because it’s the spot where two rivers converge.

Female Hindu spirits form the fountains

Female Hindu spirits form the fountains

Wally bathes in the holy water

Wally bathes in the holy water

Get to Goa Gajah as early as possible to avoid the inevitable tourist buses that show up later in the day. It’s a fun place to visit, and you can be in and out in about half an hour. –Wally

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Goa Gajah
Ubud, Bedulu
Blahbatuh
Kabupaten Gianyar
Bali, Indonesia

Beyond Prambanan: The Love Temples of Plaosan

Explore the twin temples of Candi Plaosan, built by a Hindu prince for his Buddhist bride in Central Java.

Plaosan is an often-overlooked addition to a day trip to Prambanan

Plaosan is an often-overlooked addition to a day trip to Prambanan

Our Borobudur guide, Wishnu, was showing us a few pictures that other tourists and guides had shared with him, when he paused to play us footage taken from a drone, soaring above a couple of stunning temples.

“What’s that?” I asked, and then, “Can we visit it?”

Wishnu replied that locals call these the Love Temples, and of course we could visit them — we just needed to let our driver for the Prambanan trip know that we’d like to add it to our itinerary.

The great love story began with an interfaith union between a Buddhist princess and a Hindu prince.
The northern complex is the one worth exploring

The northern complex is the one worth exploring

In the Name of Love

The site is officially called Candi Plaosan, a complex of Buddhist temples located in Klaten, Yogyakarta, a short distance north of the Hindu temples of Prambanan. What makes it truly unique is that both complexes were built by the same Javanese king.

Plaosan is a testament to the love that brought a Hindu prince and Buddhist princess together

Plaosan is a testament to the love that brought a Hindu prince and Buddhist princess together

Wally climbs over the stones at Plaosan

Wally climbs over the stones at Plaosan

Duke on the temple complex

Duke on the temple complex

Looking toward the female viharn (monastery) from the one for males

Looking toward the female viharn (monastery) from the one for males

There are piles of rubble all over Plaosan, testifying that there’s still a lot of restoration work to be done

There are piles of rubble all over Plaosan, testifying that there’s still a lot of restoration work to be done

There were once many more of these smaller shrines

There were once many more of these smaller shrines

The great love story behind Plaosan began with an interfaith union between the two ruling dynasties of Central Java during the 9th century. Pramodhawardhani, a Buddhist princess and daughter of Samaratungga, the last known king of the Sailendra Dynasty, married Prince Rakai Pikatan, from the Hindu Sanjaya family. When Pikatan ascended to the throne, Pramodhawardhani became his queen and was given the name Sri Kuhulunan. Religious differences didn’t separate the couple, and together they played a significant role in building some of the finest Hindu and Buddhist temples of Central Java.

Plaosan is a 9th century complex built at the height of the Mataram Kingdom. Once part of a single site, Plaosan Lor, the northern main temples and the smaller Plaosan Kidul to the south are now separated by a public road.

Because Plaosan isn’t too well known, you could have the temple grounds virtually to yourself

Because Plaosan isn’t too well known, you could have the temple grounds virtually to yourself

A Temple for Men, A Temple for Women

One of the first things Wally and I noticed as we entered the temple grounds of Plaosan Lor were four imposing stone ogres. Known as dwarapala, the stocky and squat semi-kneeling guardians grip a short thick club in their right hand, while the other rests upon a bent left knee.

Creatures known as dwarapala guard the entrance to the temple

Creatures known as dwarapala guard the entrance to the temple

This giant will fight to protect Plaosan

This giant will fight to protect Plaosan

Like Prambanan, the sanctuary follows a square grid system with groups of smaller ancillary shrines laid out in orderly rows. The buildings were constructed without mortar, their stones quarried and precisely cut. A small number have been reconstructed, standing amongst piles of gray andesite blocks yet to undergo restoration.

The temples are quite similar —but we’re pretty sure this is the one for men

The temples are quite similar —but we’re pretty sure this is the one for men

And this is the temple for women (actually living quarters for female monks)

And this is the temple for women (actually living quarters for female monks)

At the center of Plaosan Lor, the two nearly identical structures were viharas, meaning they were designed as Buddhist monasteries.

Above the arched gate portal leading to the temple is a Kala head whose gaping mouth symbolically swallows our mortal impediments and permits passage into the sacred inner courtyard.

Some entryways in the inner temple are shaped as the mouth of the deity Kala

Some entryways in the inner temple are shaped as the mouth of the deity Kala

Legend has it that Kala’s mouth crushes those impure of heart. Poor Duke!

Legend has it that Kala’s mouth crushes those impure of heart. Poor Duke!

Towering stalagmite-like spires crown the multistory vihara, rising like the jagged peaks of Mount Meru, the holy mountain abode of the gods, and a pair of mythical serpentine makara form the railings of the staircase leading to the monastery — a small Kewpie-doll like dwarf figure stands within the creature’s gaping jaws.

The monument sits on a high rectangular stone podium with an apron that extends several feet outward, forming a porch where visitors can circumambulate the structure. Its exterior walls feature false windows, an architectural element meant to maintain symmetry on the façade. These are embellished with distinctive Kala-makara ornamentation, but unlike the ones above the gateways, these depictions of include a lower jaw with a wide mischievous grin similar to the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Kala is a giant who was born from Shiva’s sperm

Kala is a giant who was born from Shiva’s sperm

Enshrined within the central hall are a pair of headless seated Bodhisattva statues, one that is more or less a torso, presumably plundered and decapitated by relic thieves. An empty pedestal between the pair possibility held an enthroned bronze Buddha.

There’s not a whole lot to see inside the temples — mostly seated statues of Bodhisattva, those who have reached enlightenment but remain behind to instruct others

There’s not a whole lot to see inside the temples — mostly seated statues of Bodhisattva, those who have reached enlightenment but remain behind to instruct others

Some of the statues inside the temples are now decapitated

Some of the statues inside the temples are now decapitated

Intricately detailed reliefs of various demigods and deities adorn the exterior walls. According to a theory presented by Nicholas Johannes Krom, head of the early 20th century Dutch Archeological Society, the two vihara were sponsored by influential patrons and built for male and female monastics — not as a tribute to love, as locals prefer to believe.

Bas-reliefs line the exterior of Plaosan

Bas-reliefs line the exterior of Plaosan

The south-facing vihara depicts male figures, while the north depicts female figures. The south temple was probably a monastery for Bhikkhu monks, while the north housed Bhikkhuni nuns.

You can see the construction style in action: squares of interlocking stone

You can see the construction style in action: squares of interlocking stone

Deities and demigods adorn the outer walls, which you can circumambulate on a platform

Deities and demigods adorn the outer walls, which you can circumambulate on a platform

In the distance, behind the vihara, a celebration complete with multicolored garlands made of balloons was taking place. We passed through a side gate in the low wall separating the two temples and explored the second vihara.

Whether or not Plaosan was constructed as a symbol of Pikatan’s devotion to Sri Kuhulunan or as a display of political reconciliation to placate the Buddhist Sailendra Dynasty, it certainly makes for an interesting story. –Duke

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Candi Plaosan

Jalan Candi Plaosan
Plaosan Lor
Bugisan
Kecamatan Prambanan
Kabupaten Klaten
Jawa Tengah 57454
Indonesia