The journey was long but the arrival was plenty. After a twenty-eight hour flight from New York and a short layover in South Korea, I landed on the island of the thousand temples. Bali.
Eat, pray, love was all I heard in the year leading up to my solo trip. Apparently, I’m the only one that never saw the film with Julia Roberts but got the gist. I planned on more praying and loving than eating on my journey.
Expectations ran high for an epic adventure and Bali delivered!
I hit the ground running. My first day filled with sightseeing, excursions, and activities. In total amazement, it became clear in short order how and why Bali got its moniker. There are more temples than homes throughout the small but grand island.
At every turn, you’ll find community temples, village temples, and sacred temples. Each with intricate detail and purpose. The only consistency among them all, the offerings and guardian statues protecting the entrance.
Intrigued, I immersed myself fully in the Balinese culture starting with a spiritual cleansing. Before I share my travel journey to elevate my state of mind, body, and spirit, let me explain one thing about the various types of temples for your benefit.
Balinese culture follows a communal system. Generations of families live together within their own villages and work together to support the community. The strength of the community is remarkable. Seeing people work together and love each other in spite of differences whether hue, religion, or other was admirable. Getting married, giving birth, or in death, the entire community comes out to lend helping hands. As a result, crime is low in Bali. Mainly because the village would be ashamed if anyone ruined the family name.
At the entrance to every village, expect to see the Pura Desa (village temple) dedicated to God and the trinity: the creator, protector, and destroyer.
Matters of the village, ceremonies, and rituals take place here. The village temple is also a gathering spot for meals. Fellowship at this temple is a welcomed treat after long work weeks.
The sacred temples house the family compound. They’re dedicated to God and the ancestors. In Balinese culture, the dead are purified by cremation. During this process, their soul’s rest in death temple.
All are welcomed in community temples which are dedicated to the spirits of the land and community. Just don’t forget an offering.
Each village in Bali has at least the three types of temples mentioned above.
I almost died in Gunung Kawi, a temple of tombs in Tampaksiring
If you are physically able to do so, the descent into the valley is an experience to be had. I have high blood pressure, as a result, I have a difficult time with inclines and steps in particular. It’s a dilemma that I’d love to resolve.
So, I knew I’d have a difficult hike back up more than 300 steps out of the lush, tropical valley. Yet and still, I was hardly prepared for what actually happened.
When I say I almost died, it’s no exaggeration. On the descent, fields of green and never-ending rice fields await you. An overflow of vegetation, flowing brooks, waterfalls, and beautiful flowers form the backdrop. An amazing experience would soon be overshadowed by reality of the regretful climb.
There is something magical about the ancient Gunung Kawi Temple. With 10 shrines (referred to as candi) cut out of rock within a cliff, you just have to see it. The tombs date back to the 11th-century and serve as a memorial to a royal Balinese family although no one knows for sure which ones.
Several legends exist in Bali. The story of Gunung Kawi says the massive memorial of tombs were cut by the fingernails of Kebo Iwa in just one night.
If you’re riding around Bali, you cannot miss the Kebo Iwa statue. He is the big baby statue. He can be seen in the middle of the road adorned with offerings and black and white cloth. His presence in town represents rebirth/rebuilding.
In Balinese culture, black and white mean good spirits. These colors keep evil away. Pay attention to the color patterns throughout Indonesia as they all have spiritual meanings.
Anyway, Kebo Iwa had a huge appetite. His mother’s milk wasn’t enough for him so he would feed on rice. Neighboring villages had to help raise him as he was more than a handful with his gigantic self. Famine and drought struck making it very difficult to feed him. As a result, he dug deep wells with his bare hands to help irrigate the rice fields (sidebar: it’s amazing to see the irrigation systems throughout Bali while sightseeing in the various villages). Becoming a warrior, carver, and master-builder, Kebo Iwa became the legend behind these breathtaking tombs.
This is an attraction in Bali you do not want to miss. In addition to the tombs and the miraculous views, you’ll find sacred temples and caves to enter here. Have your sarong on for this experience.
Respiratory failure, is that you?
The most fear I’ve had while traveling happened here. Didn’t think I’d make it out of the valley alive. Tears pouring down my face, fire in my chest, dehydration, burning numb legs, heat stroke, and little oxygen in my lungs, I stopped. Sat. Repeat.
My gasps for air sounded like the death breath. The last breath before being ushered into the next chapter. It has a distinct quality if you’ve ever heard it. My heart palpitated viciously. I prayed not to come this far to die in a valley of death.
My mother crossed my mind.
Sadness covered me thinking about how she’d feel knowing her only child who has such a taste for life and adventure died in the valley of death while trekking through Bali. She wouldn’t think it was fair. Neither did I.
Some people clearly annoyed and/or perplexed by my situation made their way around me on the steep steps. However, my tour guide Musa was beyond patient and sympathetic. He tried to help me breathe. I could hear his voice but could no longer see. I was in a pickle. And, it wasn’t sweet.
I couldn’t breathe, at all.
Was I having an asthma attack? I don’t have asthma. My doctor gave me an inhaler once for Bronchitis. He told me to keep it should I need it again. The doctor thought I had something that mimicked stress induced asthma. He wasn’t sure. It was a fluke that I had the inhaler with me on this trip.
I wondered how they’d get me out of the remote valley in a medical emergency. Heck, I wondered how they’d get anyone out. People of all ages ascended and descended on those steps. Part of me saddened to see such elderly individuals moving about without pause. Me, I only made it out by the grace of God. Or, as the Balinese culture would say, Gods.
I’m not Hindu. I am spiritual though and can respect the beliefs of others in most cases.
I grew up Pentecostal within COGIC (Church of God in Christ). While I haven’t turned my back on my beliefs, I put some distance between myself and the institution of religion. Experiencing so many shenanigans in church, I question the institution and intent of too many churches and pastors today.
Feeling connected directly to a higher power source, I opted-out of the need for intercession via crooked prophets. The church experience began to feel cult-like, disingenuous, and overly negative.
That said, my Balinese spiritual journey began with a much-needed cleansing, purification, and chakra opening at Pura Tirta Empul in Bali following my near death experience at Gunung Kawi.
The sacred Holy Spring located in the village of Manukaya, Tampaksiring is a central point in Bali. According to legend, the spring was created by Indra, a guardian deity during the Vedic era of Hinduism. A statue of this deity is visible at the entrance to many temples.
He is well-known for removing obstacles to human growth. This is one of many reasons the Holy Spring is worshiped, for its curative properties. It is also thought that he pierced the earth to create the fountain of immortality after being poisoned.
Pura Tirta Empul erected circa 926 AD
The healing waters cherished since. People bathe, drink, and pray in the holy waters daily. The waters are believed to heal any illness in the body.
There are many visible inscriptions and symbols at the temple. As a Black woman, one stood out more than others. The symbol we’ve come to know as the swastika.
It is easy to be taken aback by the presence of this symbol. However, as someone who always has her head in a book, the History channel, and documentaries, I immediately understood the context of its origin and subsequent meaning. Therefore, the presence of the symbol didn’t bother me.
However, it did disturb another Black traveler visiting the sacred spring upon first sight. I took an opportunity to educate the brother. Before Hitler turned the swastika into a symbol equated with destruction and hate, it was known (and still is) in Hinduism and other cultures to be a symbol of good fortune, luck, and well-being.
An ancient symbol, that when bent clockwise, is thought to bring good fortune. Imitating the rotation of the sun, the swastika remains in many cultures. Indian, Native American, Egyptian, and Greek to name a few. The symbol is a staple on temples, houses, and entry-ways. When traveling around Bali, do not be alarmed by its appearance.
Open to health and wellness, I was excited to take a dip in the fresh water spring which flows into the Tukad Pakerisan River. The water was freezing cold.
Mind over matter. If there’s a fountain known for restorative health in my proximity, count me in. Healthy living, well-being, and a conscious state of mind are all in order.
If you are planning a trip to Tirta Empul, be aware the rocky bottom is painful to walk on as you must remove your shoes before entry. It is also slippery in some areas due to algae. Large fish have taken habitat in the spring so don’t be alarmed.
Upon arrival to this natural cultural heritage site, you will have an opportunity to rent a required sarong for entry in the temple. For a small donation, you can obtain one just outside the temple. Be sure to arrive with your offering for entry.
Travel Tip: be prepared for overly aggressive saleswomen on your walk to them temple. They’ll grab you in an attempt to sell merchandise. In this case, the required sarong. You may choose to buy one here or simply make a small donation as I mentioned earlier. From my experience, just about everyone made the donation.
Culture Tip: many of the women were rudely aggressive and shockingly strong for their stature. Your inkling may be to start nice and friendly. In most cases being stern is best. One woman had a grip on my arm so tight I wanted to smack her. Honestly, I felt violated. I’m no featherweight. She grabbed and physically pulled me in her direction. She would not let go after repeated requests.
Pura Tirta Empul Etiquette
There’s a level of respect and etiquette that is required and expected when entering Pura Tirta Empul.
You need to wear a sarong, remove your shoes, and bring an offering. The guard has the right to refuse entry.
When you enter the bathing pool, be careful getting in. It is deeper than it appears. The steps are slippery since they are covered in algae which you can barely see. I slipped and almost cracked my head.
The rocky floor hurts. I’m not sure how to get around this. Walking on the massive rocks was a chore. I broke my foot over the summer so balancing on the rocks and trying not to cause additional problems for myself was a task.
When you approach each fountain, fully immerse yourself under the flowing water and say a prayer at each one. I believe there were 12 fountains in total. Two look distinctively different. Skip these as they are meant for funeral ceremonies only. See photos of the Holy Spring in the gallery below.
If you want a true immersion experience, a trip to Pura Tirta Empul is a must.
After purification at the Holy Spring, my journey continued to a botanical Ashram. A shaman offered her perspective related to my upcoming path. She told me things which were spot on and other things that were definitely not aligned with my future.
Ultimately, I enjoyed the experience for what it was worth. And, one of the things she told me already came to fruition.
While at the botanic garden, I learned new mediation techniques and committed to mediating at least 5-minutes a day to jumpstart my day. Taking this time to calm my spirit in a world of chaos sounds good.
For those of you familiar with yoga or Ayurveda, you’re likely familiar with the term chakra. The concept revolves around energy in the body made up of seven main chakras which align to the spine. When your chakra is open, expect vibrancy and good health. However, when closed or imbalanced, the result is illness or physical ailments.
So, I’m not offering a chakra lesson since I’m no pro. This part of my Bali spiritual travel journey opened my chakra. The concept aligns perfectly with the overall climate in Bali which promotes total well-being.
Overall, enjoyed the teachings and meditative techniques learned during my Bali spiritual travel journey.