Warning – Mom, you’ll probably want to not read this entire post. Things get a little beginning-of-a-horror-movie at some point.

Knowing our South East Asia trip was just kicking off, and we had several more countries worth of temples to visit, we kept our Bali temples to a minimum: Tirtha Empul, and Goa Gajah.

Goa Gajah is known as the Elephant Cave, named for the river that flows nearby (we’ll get intimate with that river shortly).  Due to its close proximity to Ubud, Goa Gajah was packed with tourists, unlike Tirtha Empul.

What I found most interesting about the main part of Goa Gajah is that it contains both a Hindu and a Buddhist temple.  The majority of Indonesia is actually Muslim (it is actually the world’s most populous Muslim country, with 87% of citizens identifying as Muslim), but the island of Bali breaks away from this, with about 93% of its citizens following the Hindu religion.

Goa Gajah is well-known for two sights: the Elephant Cave, with the demon entrance, and the bathing pool.

A quick note about the statue to the left of the cave entrance: All throughout Bali, statues can be found with sarongs around the waist of the creatures. I noticed this immediately on our drive from Denpasar into Ubud, and also noted that the sarongs were all made from the same material.  It was either a black and white checked pattern, or blue and red (as in the above picture), with boxes of gray, or a blended, color.

I asked a local about the fabric (and the practice of clothing the statues) and received the following answers. Balinese believe that the statues should be covered for modesty, as are humans. The fabric represents good and evil, with the gray (or shaded) signifying that at times, something is not just good or evil, but a blend of the two.

Now our story takes a turn into the horror film genre…

We came across an old man who invited us to receive a blessing from the gods (he may have asked to receive a blessing from us, in return…). The small ritual was peaceful and beautiful, and we were quickly on our way.

A few steps down the path, and we were met by a young Balinese woman, with a baby on her hip.  She introduced herself as Ani, and asked if we would like to see the ancient temple, just a few minutes away. Of course we would! We followed her off the main tour road, and down a barely trodden path.  I noted a German couple following our group of four (six, with mother and baby). Safety in numbers, I suppose.

After many twists and turns, and several assurances that we were “just minutes away” from the promised ancient temple, I began to get a sinking feeling. We kept looking at one another, trying silently to decide if we should turn back, or keep pressing on. The Germans had long since abandoned us, and I was pretty sure Ani was leading us straight into the dark, seedy underworld of Bali thugs.

We made it down several flights of “stairs” (mostly just carved out of the rock or dirt, or with a small bit of concrete poured on top). I imagine it was the equivalent of the hike down the Grand Canyon.

We come to a bamboo bridge set up across a rushing river, and I’m just starting to feel a sense of relief (and that we actually are safe), as Ani is telling us how her father built this bridge himself. And then I look up, and see the last thing I would want to in this moment.

He’s this muscley, shady looking guy, sitting on a rock across the river, smoking a cigarette and staring straight at us. I immediately panic, because obviously the fishing pole in his hand is an elaborate ruse in the grand plan to kidnap us all. He stands up and starts walking towards us, and I take inventory of the potential weapons I have on me – large and heavy SLR camera, small pocket knife, hand sanitizer  (I imagine that could do some serious damage if squirted into an attacker’s eyes).

He calls out something to Ani from across the bridge, and I’m guessing this is the sign for the rest of the kidnappers to spring out from their hiding spots along the river.  She turns to us, and casually says that he’d like to know if we would want to give him our cameras, so he can photograph us as we cross the bridge.

Are you kidding me, sir? This is not how this is supposed to go. I’m supposed to be Taken, now, then have Liam Neeson go James Bond all across Indonesia to find my imprisoned self.  You are not supposed to be just two nice people who go out of their way to lead myself and my friends down to an ancient and sacred temple, and offer to take pictures of us as we walk over a bridge straight out of Indiana Jones.

Pictures were taken (I can only find this small one at the moment), my terror was slightly subsided, and we saw some seriously amazing scenery.

The water levels were high, but Ani said at certain points in the year, religious ceremonies were led down to these temples, when you could actually walk inside.

It was a moment when I realized how far I was from home, and how much of the world there is to see. I’m not sure how old these temples were, but I felt like I was at the dawn of civilization. These crude, simple temples were so far from the elaborately carved statues we had previously seen, yet they held such a raw power.

Needless to say, we were led safely back to the main temple, and after much thanking and appreciation of Ani, she vanished back into the dense jungle. Lesson learned: When a stranger in a foreign land offers to show you something, always follow. 

Okay, okay, I’m joking – clearly it’s a good thing to keep your guard up!



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3 Responses to Goa Gajah – Ubud, Bali

  1. Jess says:

    Beautiful post Bajo!

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