Bali has something for everyone and the spiritual side of local culture particularly appeals to those in search of inner peace and self-discovery.
Bali has a storied reputation as a spiritual travel destination
One of the most celebrated aspects is Bali’s culture is a deep-rooted relationship with religion, which some travellers overlook. Whether you are planning a trip around an action-packed festival, or seeking out an off-the-beaten-track temple, there’s so much more to Bali than catching the surf and sipping sunset cocktails.
Religious celebrations are a regular occurrence on the island
Famed for its plethora of annual celebrations, Bali is undoubtedly one of the world’s best-known festival destinations. Usually found atop of the bucket list are the energetic Galungan and Kuningan, while Nyepi, the ‘Day of Silence’ is a far more solemn, albeit unique, affair. The one-day event during which nobody talks, as well as fasting and practicing meditation, is an ethereal experience. What precedes it the day before, however, is truly eye-opening.
Held every other year in Jasri Village, Ter-Teran sees the locals come together with batons made of tied, dried coconut. The crowd then splits into two opposing groups, sets fire to the clubs and, as the sun sets they break out into a ‘fire war’ with each team throwing burning leaves at the other. The frantic, symbolic ritual is an opportunity to rid the village of evil spirits – and for onlookers to witness a once-in-a-lifetime local custom.
Sticking with the theme of banishing bad spirits is the sacred tradition of Ngerebong. At this bi-annually held gathering, participants look instead their inner self. Supported by the surrounding crowd, they attempt to stab themselves with a sharp item called a keris to force out their spiritual parasites. Incredibly, the weapon fails to make an impact and the player instead usually collapses to the ground in an exhausted heap. Usually held in Denpasar’s Kesiman Village, the ritual has to be seen to be believed.
The holy spring at Tirtha Empul is revered as one of Bali’s holiest sites
Bali is reputed to house more than 5,000 temples, although there still remains a well-worn checklist for most visitors to the Island of the Gods.
Top of the pile of often overlooked houses of worship is Tirtha Empul, Tampaksiring. It may have become far more popular with tourists in recent years, but many visitors to Bali still bypass this stunning water temple. Known for being the island’s central holy water source, rituals run as deep as the pools at Tirtha Empul. Upon arrival you’re encouraged to enter the pools for a ceremonial cleanse, which is followed by a specific process, almost like a Japanese onsen. It’s best to ask fellow bathers if you’re unsure on the rules, as certain fountains are used only on rare occasions. The fact the temple is located in the aorta of the island’s jungle interior further reinforces the mystique of this uplifting experience.
While in the neighbourhood, don’t miss the nearby Gunung Kawi – a world unto itself. The 11th-century temple-cum-necropolis, which is one of Bali’s oldest monuments, is flanked by paddy fields and welcomes visitors with adorned cliff faces and some of the island’s most spectacular views. Adding to the intrigue is the fact nobody really knows what the 10 eight-metre-high shrines cut out of the rock face actually represent, although each one is believed to memorialise members of ancient Balinese royalty. Well worth the 300-step hike, Gurung Kawi is currently being considered for UNESCO Heritage status, so do yourself a favour and beat the crowds before it’s too late.
Sounding it out
The Pyramids of Chi is one of the region’s most popular destinations for sound healing therapy
Sound healing may have recently taken off in the West, but it’s been a therapeutic staple on Bali for generations. Reputed to ease stress and assist with mental equilibrium, the meditative practice is perhaps most associated with Tibetan singing bowls and mantra chanting, but can utilise almost any instrument to encourage relaxation.
In Ubud, long been hailed as the island’s spiritual epicentre, there are a variety places where you can go to realign your chakras. One of the more popular is Pyramids of Chi, a retreat that is home to two stone pyramids, one of which is built to scale with the Great Pyramid of Giza. The focus here is on generating healing frequencies via huge gongs, didgeridoos, pow wow drums and Tibetan bowls, as well as breathing techniques. The onsite cafe serves up delicious fresh meals, to boot!
If Pyramids of Chi sounds a little too niche for your tastes, visit the rustic Yoga Barn, which, as the name suggests, combines sound healing classes alongside yoga, dance, meditation, Ayurveda and detox programmes.
A little respect
Sarongs are an essential item at many temples on the island
Whether you are a veteran traveller or a first-time adventurer, it always worth making sure you’re up to speed on the local etiquette and cultural customs when visiting holy sites. Here are a few tips to help you avoid any awkward moments in Bali’s breathtaking temples:
- From the beach bar to the temple, the sarong is your best friend on Bali. They tend to be essential dress at holy sites but don’t worry if you don’t have one to hand as it’s usually possible to rent them at the ticket office.
- Women who are more than six weeks pregnant or menstruating are not allowed inside temples.
- Always remember to take off your shoes before entering a temple - the simplest of tasks if you’re wearing flip-flops.