No visit to Bali would be complete without a trip to see at least one of Bali's temples. There are over 20,000 pura (Balinese for temple) in Bali at last count, a widespread marker of Bali's exuberant culture; you don't have to make an effort to see all of them, but you do have to see at least a few of the temples listed below.
Some temples can be seen within a single trip (Tirta Empul and Pura Gunung Kawi are both near Tampaksiring, for instance); others may need a little more advance planning. In any case, the effort to see any of these Bali temples is effort well spent.
1. Pura Besakih
The holiest of all temples in Bali, the "Mother Temple" of Pura Besakih is located some 3,000 feet up Gunung Agung in East Bali. This sprawling complex consolidates 23 separate temples, some dating back to the 10th century. The temple's main axis aligns with the peak of Gunung Agung, the tallest mountain and holiest site in all of Bali.
Pura Besakih narrowly escaped destruction in 1963, as lava flow from Gunung Agung's killer eruption missed the temple by mere yards. Today, Pura Besakih is a major draw for tourists and for devout Balinese. (For other tourist attractions in this part of the island, read: Places to See in East Bali.)
2. Pura Gunung Kawi
Located about a mile south of Tampaksiring, Bali's "Valley of the Kings" is located in a ravine between ricefields. The Pakerisan river flows through this ravine, and the cliffs flanking the river feature shrines carved into the stone honoring kings and queens from the 11th century. The Balinese - big believers in the holiness of water - believe that the river sanctifies Pura Gunung Kawi.
The site isn't a temple per se, neither is it an actual tomb - the royalty honored here were likely cremated as per Balinese custom. (Read more: Bali Culture - Balinese Cremation: Passing On to the Next Life.)
3. Tirta Empul
The sacred spring that feeds Tirta Empul provides holy water for priests and bathing for ordinary Balinese, who believe that a dip hereabouts can bring good fortune and health. An offering must first be made at the temple before you can climb into the long main pool to bathe and meditate.
Legend has it that the god Indra created the spring Tampaksiring (namesake of the nearby town) as an antidote to a poisonous spring created by an evil demon king. In reality, Tirta Empul was probably built in 926 AD during the Balinese Warmadewa dynasty. A villa complex nearby houses government VIPs; it was originally constructed for former President Sukarno in the 1950s.
4. Pura Luhur Lempuyang
Obscurity aside, the temple of Pura Luhur Lempuyang is one of Bali's most important religious places: it's one of the six sad kahyangan ("temples of the world") dedicated to Sang Hyang Widi Wasa (the supreme God), and it's also one of the island's nine directional temples that "protects" the native Balinese from evil spirits.
The temple presents an interesting challenge to visitors: reaching the top means conquering 1,700 steps cut into mountainside jungle, requiring about an hour and a half of serious climbing. Ordinary Balinese make their way up the stairs to ask for divine assistance with problems or request blessings from above.
5. Goa Gajah
Known as the "Elephant Cave", Goa Gajah seems strangely free from elephants until you realize it takes its name from its proximity to the Elephant River. (Which is also strangely lacking in elephants.) Goa Gajah's key attraction is the menacing entrance to the cave - the surrounding rock has been carved into a face, mouth agape.
The interior of the cave features a statue of the Hindu god Ganesha and a worship area devoted to the Hindu god Shiva. Goa Gajah probably dates back to the 11th century, and is mentioned in a poem that dates back to the 1300s.
6. Pura Tanah Lot
Tanah Lot stands on a rock some distance from the shore, towering over the sea. Access to the temple is limited to low tide; even so, this picturesque temple is barraged by visitors.
The temple's construction was supposedly inspired by the priest Nirartha in the 15th century; after spending the night on the rock outcrop where the temple now stands, he instructed local fishermen to build a temple on that site. Today, Tanah Lot is regarded as one of Bali's most important directional temples. A multimillion-dollar restoration effort in the 1990s saved Tanah Lot from falling into the sea.
As one of Bali's most popular temples, Tanah Lot is surrounded by crowds and vendors. Do not visit if it's peace and quiet you're after, but do come if you're after a great sunset view.
- Location: Accessible via Ubud or Denpasar. The temple can be visited together with Pura Taman Ayun nearby. 8°37'16.35"S, 115°5'12.54"E (Google Maps)
7. Pura Taman Ayun
Built in the 1600s by the King of Mengwi, Pura Taman Ayun survives today as a beautiful example of a royal public temple. The descendants of the Mengwi royal family still sponsor the temple, which also serves as the clan kawitan temple (a temple dedicated to the worship of the deified ancestors, in this case the previous rulers of the Mengwi royal family).
"Taman Ayun" means "beautiful garden"; a moat surrounds the temple, which gives the complex the appearance of floating on water. A landscaped front courtyard entered through an ornamental candi bentar (split front gate) adds to the temple's beauty. The inner courtyard features a number of multi-tiered meru (pagodas).
- Location: about 11 miles northwest of Denpasar; 5 miles southwest of Ubud. The temple can be visited together with Tanah Lot nearby. 8°32'34.04"S, 115°10'20.44"E (Google Maps)
8. Pura Ulun Danu Bratan
This temple on the shores of Lake Bratan is second only to Pura Besakih in significance, but for rice farmers in Bali, this temple is the foremost on the island. Pura Ulun Danu Bratan is the primary temple in the many temples and shrines that punctuate the subak irrigation system popular in Bali. The temple is dedicated to the worship of the goddess of lakes and rivers, Dewi Batari Ulun Danu.
Part of the temple is located on the mainland, while a significant section seems to "float" on the lake, being set on an island just off the mainland temple complex. An 11-roof meru (pagoda) sits on the island section, a towering beauty surrounded by a placid lake.
- Location: Lake Bratan, an hour and a half from Denpasar. 8°16'32.11"S, 115°9'58.77"E (Google Maps)
9. Pura Luhur Uluwatu
Pura Luhur Uluwatu is both a major Balinese temple - one of the six sad kahyangan revered by all Balinese - and the site of a nightly kecak performance that re-enacts the Ramayana through chanting half-naked men, masked actors and a dramatic fire-dance.
Pura Luhur Uluwatu was first constructed by a Javanese Hindu guru in the 10th century. The whole temple stands on a cliff soaring 200 feet above a prime Bali surfing spot in the westernmost part of South Bali - the temple's name refers to its position "at the head of the rock", and visitors get an eyeful of the sea as it breaks against the base of the cliffs below. The view is especially beautiful during sunset.
- Location: eleven miles south of Kuta. 8°49'37.7908"S, 115°5'4.5722"E (Google Maps)
10. Pura Goa Lawah
The temple of Pura Goa Lawah in East Bali is centered around a cave inhabited by thousands of bats. A black-sand beach nearby makes Goa Lawah a popular site for post-cremation purification, for the Balinese families that can afford it.
The Javanese priest Nirartha is reputed to have visited the cave back in the 15th century. Legend has it that the cave interior extends over 19 miles underground to emerge at Pura Besakih.
- Location: 6 miles west of Candidasa. 8°33'6.15"S, 115°28'7.1"E (Google Maps)