Goa Gajah and Yeh Puluh

Heliconia rostrata

“False bird of paradise” in our villa’s garden.

I let myself marvel over our bungalow at Puri Wisnu this morning. It really was a lovely layout, with lots of exotic plants growing everywhere around the courtyard. I took a picture of Heliconia rostrata, known as “lobster claw” or “false bird of paradise.” It’s very striking from a distance, but when I got up close I discovered it was exuding a sticky substance that a swarm of ants seemed to find irresistible. Isn’t that just the way, getting attracted by beauty at a distance and then finding out something disturbing on closer examination… or not. That’s just the way of nature: beauty is our construct and insects have other uses for things.

Hawkers at Goa Gajah

The hawkers’ pavilion outside Goa Gajah.

Today, Rebecca, Chloe and I took a taxi ride out to Goa Gajah, about 4.5 kilometers southeast of where we were staying and almost directly east of the Sacred Monkey Forest Temple we visited three days ago. It seems kind of wasteful to shell out money like that for a two-mile hike, but the temperature was pretty unforgiving this day, the sun particularly strident. When we showed up sweltering, bottled water was a popular idea with us. Outside of Goa Gajah was a long strip of houses and shacks selling souvenirs, bangles, hats and clothing, toys, and water. My impression was that the salespeople here were a little more aggressive and worse-tempered than any I’d seen so far, between Denpasar and Ubud. They weren’t mean, but we had to hunker down into a more defensive mode to block them out and not make eye contact, and in this manner we marched into the temple grounds.


Goa Gajah translates to “elephant cave.” The cave is one of the primary features of the location, but there are no elephants here: this word is used to mean anything very large. This cave, serving in part as a meditation chamber for monks in training, is one part of a spreading complex that includes a sacred bathing pool and a massive Buddhist temple that had been badly sundered during an earthquake. I’m unable to determine when this earthquake occurred, and even the information on the temple is variable: our guide told us it was constructed in the 11th century but Wikipedia claims it was two centuries prior to that.

Garden of ruins

The garden of ruins, fragments of former structures.

We descended a long stone staircase into the grounds, getting an aerial view of the bathing pool and various monks quarters and buildings. The first site we were introduced to was a broad platform with piles of mossy and weathered masoned stones: these were various fragments of the Buddhist temple. Perhaps someone had the idealistic notion to someday fit them together in an attempt to restore the architecture, but for now they were only collecting them to show them respect. Behind them was a large sign posted by the Department of Culture and Tourism, sternly advising visitors to not litter the grounds and avoid disfiguring this cultural site.

If one didn’t know better, one could easily ascertain that marring the artifacts was a serious problem here. Not far from the collected and stacked rubble was a small shrine with a Ganesh figure inside, but set in front of its dais was another sign citing “Law No. 5” of a 1992 ruling assuring protection of “relics and ancient history.” The fact is, yes, while the vast majority of tourists are respectful and observant of most regional mores and customs, there is a class of Westerner that believes they are above these petty annoyances, and if they themselves are not going out to plunder these archaeological sites, they manage to hire henchmen to do their dirty work in each country. What Bali and these places are most concerned with is not the loss of money being funneled out of their jurisdiction, it’s the irrecoverable damage and loss to their cultural heritage, to their religious and philosophic foundation. These concerns don’t even register to art collectors or selfish tourists, who only think in terms of money and trophies.

The Elephant Cave

The demon’s mouth guarding the Elephant Cave.

Next was the eponymous elephant cave: the entrance was the mouth of an elaborately carved demon, surrounded by whorls and designs I couldn’t readily identify (perhaps transdimensional fire?), not least because they had lost their structural integrity over several centuries. It was possible to make out two rows of fingertips, however, as though the demon were pulling apart the mountain itself to shove its enormous face through. Before the cave, two demon guards were posted, wearing sarongs in broad red-white-blue check, this bold pattern being reserved, of course, for statues and traffic police. One demon guard had lost the top half of its body, the stone having shattered around its belly; the other was intact and had a little card in front of it that read “Dilarang Duduk”—not the name of the demon, unless its parents christened it “Do Not Sit”. Oh, tourists… We entered the cave.

Lingam stones

Lingam stones representing Vishnu, Siva and Brahma.

After a narrow passage with two alcoves in the walls, it opened into an oval-shaped chamber to the left and right of us. As we stood on the center of the room, behind us were two more alcoves on either side of the passage and seven in the wall before us; at the far ends were two shrines. Our guide explained the structure to us: these alcoves were used for meditation, and they had a hierarchy to them. The two in the corridor were for beginning students of meditation; six of the seven alcoves before us were for the advanced meditators; and the two in the room on either side of the entrance were for masters. Certainly, the structure of this room did much to deaden outside noise, and it was refreshingly cool in stark contrast to the sweltering weather outside. The shrine to our left had another Ganesh statue in it, and the one in the right housed three black lingam stones, two of which seemed to have faded carvings of some kind of flowery band or garter around them. They were dressed with very dingy cloth around their bases, the left in black representing air, the center one in white for water, and the right stone in red for fire. These colors also represented, respectively, Vishnu, Siva and Brahma. (I’ve seen other photos of the lingam stones where they were dressed in much shinier, nicer cloth or had no decoration about them at all.) Of the seven alcoves, the fourth one in the center was a repository for chana and offerings. There were sections of another statue in the back of it, but they didn’t resemble the demon guard out front, so there’s no telling where they came from.

Bathing pools

The mystical bathing pools.

After this the logical next stop was at the enormous bathing pools. These were recessed into the ground and divided roughly in thirds, with stairs at two places in the front and one on the right. I wondered whether this positioning bore any ritual significance but had no opportunity to ask. In the first and third pools, the larger sections were three standing statues of attending women holding ewers, from which streams of water still flowed into the pools; the middle section was narrow and only held a makeshift offering stand. The water level didn’t come up to the statues’ feet and I couldn’t see where it drained out. Our guide took some pleasure in explaining the magical properties of bathing in these pools, back in the day (though he did not recommend this as hygienic in their current state). It was the usual “magic water” kind of material: bathing here could grant you long life or physical invulnerability. I read on another blog of a woman who was instructed to kneel and splash her face with water seven times, in order to bring about a successful romantic event. She did not report whether this had later occurred, but I suppose she wasn’t provided a timeline.

From there we climbed up to the Buddhist temple proper, which only Chloe and I could enter—Rebecca respectfully observed the restriction that menstruating women were forbidden on holy ground. Of course no one would check, and of course it was not visible, but Rebecca is a rare tourist in that when she hears about cultural mores or restrictions, she complies with them out of basic respect. This stands in contrast with a certain southern nation that regards all of southeast Asia as their personal party zone for getting drunk and loud and wearing as few clothes as possible.

It’s a little misleading to say we went “inside” the temple, as it was entirely open and outdoors. It was just understood that there was a boundary beyond which you were considered to be inside the temple. There had been two Buddhist statues in the temple but one was stolen in 1990, I suppose by an art collector. Because of thefts like this, there are laws that prohibit bringing any kind of Buddhist icons in your luggage. Yet given that little Buddha statuettes are on sale everywhere, I wonder how they are able to effectively catch this at the airport?

Sign for a Buddha statue

Arca Budha, or “Statue of Buddha”.

Everywhere there were signs, some professionally painted and some hand-lettered, that mentioned “Arca Budha”, which means “Buddha statue.” The professional signs were posted at the entrance to a section of the complex, while the more amateurishly written signs were near a mound of rubble with evidence of carving or decoration on them. These were fragments of the Buddhist temple or some statues in the area, and though some of these were quite large, it was impossible for me to regard them in aggregate and piece together what the place must have looked like while it was intact. I wondered whether any of these mossy, geometric boulders would ever be reassembled—of course, I also wondered when the hell this earthquake was. I just could not find any information on that at all. Ruins or not, it was impressive to walk through this lavish jungle, marvel over the trees and foliage and be pleasantly surprised by finding another carving in the rocky hillside or another fragment of ancient architecture. Banyan trees were everywhere, with long, smooth, ropy roots spreading out over the ground; occasionally we bridged a small stream that carved its way through solid rock and ran off into deeper jungle. There was so much to look at and think about, frequently I forgot about the temperature entirely and got lost in the antiquity of this area. I certainly forgot it was anything like December, being the opposite of all my previous Decembers, at least in terms of color, culture and temperature.

Balinese guide

Our friendly, informative guide.

Our guide, a friendly and fluent young man, led us from one region to the next with full background explanations (and here I wish I’d taken better notes or brought a voice recorder, at least). He led us through the part of the temple where the monks live, their sleeping quarters, even their kitchen. All the tools and implements for every aspect of life here were interesting to me. There were shelves with what looked like round, peaked straw hats (like my own caping gunung) but charred around the brim. These were used for cooking rice and steaming vegetables, resting on hot woks. There were clay cooking pots stacked away, a few random bowls and eating implements, other items whose use I could only guess at—I found the whole thing fascinating. Immediately, I wondered whether I could live so spartan, just owning enough to clean and cook my food. Of course I could, but would I be happy doing it, without Buddhist doctrine and a dozen like-minded students to urge me on? Always, everywhere I went, any time I looked at the trappings of these foreign lives, I always wondered how well I would do, as I am now, living in their environment as if we were to swap places. In these spare and unglamorous Buddhist surroundings, I wondered whether I could revert to austerity and what the days of that lifetime would look like. It seemed I couldn’t be presented with something new and foreign without reflexively attempting to relate to it. What kind of tourist this makes me, I don’t know.

Mural at Yeh Puluh

The extensive mural in bas-relief.

After all this we hit another ancient archaeological designation known as Yeh Pulu—our taxi driver had been napping outside the temple, waiting to drive us to the next location, as was common. As a group, we three paid Rp. 25,000 to get in (US$3.41), though many online sites claim the entrance fee to be as low as Rp. 6,000 or even free. This probably depends on who’s sitting at the entrance to the grounds: there didn’t seem to be any formal organization in charge of it, just an old woman and members of a family sitting under a tree with a small, rough table.

Momentarily I wondered whether we could just push on through, because who could stop us? But not wanting to be rude (and because the amount of money was so small to us) we paid the fee and a tall, gaunt middle-aged man accompanied us, so maybe the extra money was for the services of a guide—which, honestly, we did not want and was forced upon us. He seemed friendly, though tense, and he was fluent enough to get every idea across and answer our few questions.

Tiger hunters in mural

Hunters haul away tiger carcasses.

While this area is named after a wellspring, the main feature is a 25-meter mural carved into an enormous rock. It was discovered by Dutch colonists in the 14th century, so there are only theories as to its origins and meaning. It is in the area of an ancient hermitage, and the Balinese believe that it may tell the story of one of Krishna’s hunting trips (from the Mahabharata): certainly, Ganesh is recognizable in some of the bas-relief carvings. There are some typical and early scenes that could have come out of any context, like two hunters carrying a pair of tigers from their own hunting excursion (the last Bali tiger was shot in September 1937, incidentally). But there are other things that look ordinary, like a horse and rider, that don’t make sense in the Balinese context. I haven’t seen any horses on the island, though I haven’t seen the whole island, so that data point would persuade me to agree this might be the representation of an ancient literary text.

When we had walked all the way to the far end of the mural, I was disappointed to receive a solicitation for additional funds. I knew it was coming to this when the gaunt man became very apologetic and insisted that he did not wish for any moment to stain our enjoyment of this tour, but the fact was he was asking for more money. His story was that his daughter needed money to go to a good school, and that could have been likely. Even in my country, we have parents who will humble themselves and do whatever it takes to provide their children with the opportunity for better education, if such a chance exists. Contrary to this theory, however, was the fact that he asked us to visibly hand him the money within sight of some angry-looking young men who were lounging by vehicles not far from the entrance. Chloe, better versed in the region than my wife or I, believed these men were gangsters and our guide had been coerced to solicit additional money from us. We could have walked away from him and his plight but we forked over an additional Rp. 50,000 (US$6.86) and left with hard feelings. I can’t speak for my company, but I certainly felt like a chump for giving into his request, and I descended from my sense of wonder at all we’d seen this day into a dank kind of resignation that nothing is ever purely good, that anything enjoyable is distracting you from something rotten, which itself is only waiting its turn to command your attention.

We rode back into Ubud, paid and tipped our driver, and Chloe went her own way while Rebecca and I walked through town. We were quite familiar with the main strip of Ubud by now and enjoyed wandering around as though we belonged here.

Taman Curry restaurant

Taman Curry in Ubud, Bali.

But it had been a long day of walking around and burning extra calories in the sun, climbing ancient staircases and coping with ancient grift schemes, so we needed to look for a restaurant. There’s no shortage of these in Ubud so we only had to pick a nice-looking establishment. This we found in Taman Curry, an elaborately decorated restaurant open to the street, by which I mean the front wall is missing and you simply walk under an extended roof right into an alfresco room. This always caught my imagination, no matter how ubiquitous it was. We just walked right up, got ourselves a table, and the waiter presented us with another sample of those handcrafted menus that I’d started to pay attention to. This one seemed to be wrapped in some lush rosy brown tobacco-paper, bound along the spine with fine twine, with three gnarled twigs artistically secured to the front. It was a great specimen of an aesthetic I’d never seen in the States, among dinner menus: usually we get a cracked vinyl cover, sometimes pebbled to emulate leather, sometimes with little brass corner covers. So many restaurants in Bali, however, went for a rougher, more artistic look that really appealed to me.

Arak and honey

A cold glass of arak and honey.

As for what we ate here, we didn’t: Rebecca got a glass of water and I tried Taman Curry’s arak recipe, which was to serve it chilled with a wedge of green lemon and a small pool of honey at the bottom of the glass. It was beautiful and really tasty. This made the third sample of arak I’d tried so far and now I was qualified to draw some conclusions: the best stuff seemed to be smoky or peaty, not unlike Islay scotch, as a matter of fact.

It’s not a large regret, but I do have some shade of a small regret that I never tried one of the scarier versions of arak. I know it can be unsafe, and I have no curiosity about that class of drink, but the only strains of this palm wine I dabbled with were at respectable establishments. Perhaps that’s not the worst decision I ever made, but one has to wonder. There was as much mystery around this drink as any archaeological site; as classy and elegant as it could be made, it also had a dark side. The students we taught certainly expressed negative associations with this traditional alcohol—men who got drunk on arak had a certain earned reputation, doubtlessly well earned.

And not far from this restaurant was Kué, a gluten-free and vegetarian café evidently constructed in response to tourist demand (or maybe another pensioner’s capitalist venture). We’ve never found another intentionally gluten-free cafe in Indonesia, so this was a real treasure for Rebecca: her face lit up, staring down a menu designed just for her. Gluten-free pastries and a full selection of chocolates, plus a restaurant upstairs: if we’d known about this earlier I know it would have become a regular haunt for us.

The décor was on the high end of the artistic scale, lots of money going into making this place stand out and look nice, the better to attract the tourists. There was a bright and colorful downstairs area, but we decided to find seating upstairs, somewhat more sedately decorated, spacious and airy. The other customers included a pair of typical world-traveling hippies and two middle-aged women trying to enact their own Eat, Pray, Love adventure.

Tourists in a coffee shop

Fellow travelers relaxing at Kué.

This was another recurring theme throughout Indonesia, the middle-aged women who had read or seen Eat, Pray, Love and decided they wanted some of that action (not unlike the young women clacking around New Orleans in stiletto heels and satin capes, copies of The Vampire Lestat tucked under their arms). I felt pretty ungenerous and judgmental of them at the time, but this was a reflection of my strained condition rather than anything they were doing. I mean, they were out and traveling, and what was wrong with that? They were having an adventure, just as my wife and I were. Maybe they were trying to relive someone else’s adventure, but that shouldn’t have been any of my concern. I was overly concerned with what other tourists were doing, another recurring theme of our vacation. I needed to learn to block them out and focus on my own experience, which I did with a fantastically spiced Turkish coffee with small cardamom pods floating on the surface. This would have been a good opportunity to pull out my travel journal and crib more notes while they were fresh in my mind, but it’s not bad to just sit down with a nice coffee and breathe for a few moments, either.

Local Bali artist

Bulan Madu’s original artwork.

Then came time for shopping, during which we didn’t actually buy anything, but it was a delight to poke through all the shops and see what was up. There was one art store, in fact, that always caught my eye. Any time you walked by or rode down on a scooter, you could not help but have your attention drawn to these large vertical panels covered in vibrant artwork. I felt like some of the work was telling a joke that I was relieved to get, that was my connection to this gallery. On the other hand, at the opposite end of culture, there were Polo/Ralph Lauren stores all over the goddamned place, as numerous in Bali as Starbucks is in any American city. Why does Ralph Lauren think that anyone in Bali, local or tourist, needs to buy so many sweaters? They were a garish display of corporate tone-deafness and I scowled at every outlet.

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