“We swear you’ll thank us for this,” is what Lonely Planet said. The travel book described it, quite simply, as one of Bali’s most sacred Hindu temples, and it turned out to be, quite simply, the opposite. Pura Lempuyang sits high on a mountain overlooking the Bali Sea and the active volcano Mount Agung. The challenge is climbing 1700 slippery, stone steps to reach the “don’t miss” temple “where gods and humans meet.” Azar, my travel partner, and I were up for the challenge. If Lonely Planet “swears,” then we’re committed.
The challenge is climbing 1700 slippery, stone steps to reach the “don’t miss” temple “where gods and humans meet.”
At the base, we paid a fee and were instructed to wear a sarong throughout the journey. A guide, who wouldn’t be going with us, estimated it would take two hours to reach the temple and warned us that there would be occasional aggressive monkeys looking for food.
“How aggressive are these monkeys?” I asked.
“Oh you’ll be fine, of course. Just don’t feed them,” he replied.
It was a tropical day, thick with a burning sun seeping through bulbous, hazy clouds. We had no reservations about climbing hundreds of steps in oppressive heat wrapped in an extra layer of ankle-length fabric. I was dressed in proper hiking attire. Azar, my thirty-year-old, flower-child, free-spirit friend was in her short, breezy sundress and tennis shoes. Azar, a former colleague about half my age, wears a smiling air of confidence like most of us wear t-shirts and jeans.
Azar, my thirty-year-old, flower-child, free-spirit friend was in her short, breezy sundress and tennis shoes.
The beginning of the climb led us to the lower temple, which was magnificent, with a breathtaking view of volcano and sea. Our eyes scanned clean, white columns above narrow stone steps, lined with statues, foliage, and red tropical flowers, all leading to the open-air temple. Everything was lush and green. We could smell the fresh sea and see the grand, cone-shaped, volcanic expanse of Mount Agung.
We could smell the fresh sea and see the grand, cone-shaped, volcanic expanse of Mount Agung.
We should have stopped there. All the other tourists stopped there. No, we had to continue on our soon-to-be-grateful-to-Lonely-Planet trek.
“Why are we the only tourists climbing these stairs?” Azar laughed. “It’s all locals climbing in sarongs and flip flops.”
“They must think I look like an idiot with these hiking shoes and my backpack,” I answered.
We began the climb, optimistic that we would soon see the most magical, sacred place in all of Indonesia. The heat and dense smell of foliage thickened. Another half hour of climbing and sweating and my excitement was gone. Something didn’t smell or feel right. The trees took on a tired, aged look with dry, crooked, wrinkled tumbleweed-like branches. The green had been extracted from their leaves. The bottom of the trek had the fresh smell of spring. This part smelled like a desert.
My sarong grew cumbersome atop my heavy cotton hiking shorts. “How do they know if we’re wearing it?” I blurted in a heat-infused menopausal outburst. The sweat flowed, blinding my eyes and falling on the steps, adding to the slippery climb. The sarong turned into a thick belt hiked up around my waist. I finally took it off and used it as a towel to wipe jungle sweat off my face.
An hour into the bazillion steps and I wanted to rest, recover, and return to the bottom. “I’m not giving up, we only have another hour to go,” I thought. We hit a rest-stop where locals were cooking on outdoor stoves and socializing. A few wild dogs, a small monkey, and a tour guide roamed around.
The guide asked if we needed a tour. We declined, but he followed us up the path, giving us a history lesson anyway in a last-ditch bid for a tip. The view clouded up and very little was visible. We climbed the last thirty minutes and finally reached the beautiful carved-stone sign at the temple entrance. It read: “Pura Lempuyang Luhur (Dragon Temple) Flows the Essence of Iswara, Divine Inspiration and Spiritual Awakening.” Our guide took a picture of Azar and me in front of the sign, both of us looking relieved with a divine sense of accomplishment. We made it!
The sign read: “Pura Lempuyang Luhur (Dragon Temple) Flows the Essence of Iswara, Divine Inspiration and Spiritual Awakening.”
This altitudinally enlightened temple, to our surprise and gasping disappointment, was very small, in terrible need of repair, and, above all, filthy beyond belief. Right in front of the outdoor temple’s pillars and altar steps stood a construction-size dumpster brimming with rotting fish bones, dead flower offerings, and other trash that curls the nose and brings tears to the eyes. “A place where gods and humans eat,” is what the description should have read.
We walked around the perimeter to take in the “breathtaking view.” There was no view. The altitude and smoky haze denied us our reward. Before we entered the temple, we found a large group of men, women, and children huddled under an outdoor overhang, eating their midday meals. We entered the open-air temple and found a small group of Balinese on the floor deep in prayer. We walked to the back of the temple and found more trash and offerings clinging to the mountainsides, melting like toppings on an ice cream sundae, only not as pretty. Natives climbed two hours to reach this divine place of worship. They had to eat and they had to bring offerings because that’s part of their religion. Who knew how often that dumpster was emptied?
There was no view. The altitude and smoky haze denied us our reward.
On our way down, a scream of monkeys greeted us. Climbing and screeching atop blue-tarp-covered kiosks stood a dozen vicious-looking, wild, huge monkeys staring at us with banana dreams. The alpha male was the size of a two-year-old child. His eyes were close-set, wiry hair sprung off his cheeks, and blood dripped from his chest. He controlled the pack. As my life flashed before me, I thought, “Damn, I wish I could get a picture of this.” I found a palm frond beside the path and used it scare off the tribe, waving it furiously at them while Azar ran down the path screaming at the top her lungs. Several of them came dangerously close to her, as she had nothing to protect herself.
“They’re going to kill us!” she screamed as she disappeared down the stairway.
“Don’t leave me! I’m scaring them away!” I yelled back.
The guide had called them “a little aggressive,” we called them “looking in the face of death.”
Once we passed their territory, the danger dissipated. But we were frightened, and we wanted out of there. What had promised to be a spiritual adventure had turned into something unholy. Azar and I had hoped for spiritual connection on a peak of Hindu divinity. What we’d found were heaps of man’s abuse of nature. It took us an hour and half to get to the base, exhausted and disappointed.
We stopped our judgment once we’d made our safe return. We recognized the power and depth of the religious dedication of the Balinese, the hierarchy of gods and humans. I’m sure the Hindus saw their temple as a holy place in the sky, closer to their gods. The first temple had been magical, but as we’d ascended, the magic had melted and faded in the sun-drenched haze. I heard the echo of Hindu gods and humans coming together, laughing at us. Or maybe that was Lonely Planet.
Aleta Ulibarri was born in Denver, Colorado in 1950. She retired in 2010 after 32 years with Denver Public Schools. She taught English, reading, and speech at Rishel Middle School and served as librarian, Spanish-dance teacher, and director of Mariachi de Las Artes at Denver School of the Arts. She now travels, writes, cooks, and enjoys her freedom. She has one son who lives in Los Angeles.