Besakih Temple, the worst side of Bali tourism

Never have I had as horrible of an experience with tourist exploitation as I did at the Besakih Temple in Bali, Indonesia. Although it is considered one of the top sites to see just outside of Ubud, also known as the “Mother Temple”, I’m telling you right now, it is not worth the hassle you will find there. I’m not one to dismiss tourist attractions simply because they may be a bit more difficult or prone to scams than others, but this place should sadly be passed up, it displays the worst side of Bali tourism.

For a place that’s supposed to be one of the largest and holiest temples in Bali, it doesn’t feel like anything more than a place to exploit tourists out of their money every step of the way, it is out of control.

We went to the Besakih Temple as one of the many stops on a tour we booked in Ubud. Other stops included the Goa Gajah (more popularly known as the Elephant Cave), the active volcano Mt. Batur, and a lookout over the rice paddies, all of which I would recommend. However, when we arrived at the Besakih Temple, we realized that we probably should have kept going. I had read in my guidebook to watch out for the numerous amount of scams at the Besakih Temple, our tour guide, a local Balinese man, even warned us that you shouldn’t pay anything extra than the entrance fee, and yet we were still not prepared for what we would encounter; one of my most frustrating days on the road that I have ever had.

After paying the entrance fee, we walked to the main entrance. There was a booth set up with men in uniforms, supposedly to check your tickets. However, when we approached they grabbed our tickets, and started aggressively telling us that we had to make a mandatory donation, something around 150,000 IDR (about $13), which is a lot in Bali and more than the entrance fee itself. When we told them we didn’t have that kind of money and that we were told there was no mandatory donation, they told us to just give them whatever was in our wallet. I refused and asked for my ticket back. They reluctantly agreed, and that’s when I realized this wasn’t a stop to check your ticket, it was just one of the many scams that the temple had to offer us that day.

After I told them there was no way I was going to make a donation, they told us we needed a “temple guardian”, someone to show us around the temples because there was a special ceremony that day and we couldn’t go into certain parts of the temple. They tell the same lie to tourists every day.¬†I knew from reading up ahead of time that there wasn’t such a thing as “temple guardians”, it was just another scam. The other couple we were with paid them some Indonesian Rupiah to rent a sarong they didn’t need, and to rent a “guardian” simply to appease them. Even still, there was no guardian assigned to them, so we just started walking up the long hill towards the temple.

When we made it to the foot of the temple, there were three sets of stairs, one main one that led to a gate. There were “guardians” everywhere dressed in white. We walked up to the gate and there were children blocking our way telling us we needed a guardian. Already irritated with how many times they had attempted to trick us, I walked through quickly before they could say anything else. Unfortunately, the other three people in my group hung back, unsure of what the correct protocol was when we knew we were being scammed, but at the same time not wanting to offend the local Balinese. I walked back to the other side of the gate, not wanting to continue without my group, and that’s when the leader of the guardians, an older brother I would assume, came over to make his presence known.

Wearing a Harley Davidson shirt and smoking a cigarette on the entrance to the temple with a bandana around his head, he tried to claim that he was in charge and we weren’t getting past without paying an extortinate amount for a “guardian”. We argued with him for what seemed like ages, telling him he couldn’t legally block our way because we knew the “guardians” were just a scam, and we had already paid the entrance fee. At one point, looking into his eyes I could feel his hatred towards us exuding out of his whole body. When my friend told him that all we wanted was to see their beautiful temple, he made a racist slur about not wanting us white people in his country anyway. Ironic being that he makes his money off extorting tourists.

When we asked him if he had a boss or someone in charge we could talk to, he suddenly pretended that he didn’t understand us, even though he had been speaking in perfect english to us this whole time. He was getting angrier and he slammed the gate on us, not letting us past. We went to one of the other staircases and walked up no problem, but there were still “guardians” everywhere inside leading tourists around. We were stopped more than once by these “guardians” telling us we couldn’t go into certain areas, and then watched as they proceeded to bring a group of people into the very area they just told us we couldn’t go.

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We were so infuriated at this point, that we just decided to leave, not even having the chance to walk into the main sanctuary yet, we realized it wasn’t worth it anymore.

I try and understand the perspective of the Balinese who run this scam, that they do this out of desperation and need, that they feel validated because the tourists who come to their temple are so much more well off. Still, I couldn’t believe the disrespect they showed to one of their most sacred monuments, a place meant for reflection, prayer, and spirituality. I couldn’t believe they would treat other human beings with such disdain, making preconceived judgments and practicing reverse racism because of the color of our skin. I couldn’t believe how horrible of an experience the Besakih Temple was, and how ¬†unregulated the scams are.

Similar to not supporting the young children in Cambodia selling souvenirs to tourists because you don’t want to encourage the bad side effects of tourism, the Besakih Temple isn’t worth going to because it’s supporting the worst side of Bali tourism. I’d like to believe that Bali is better place than that.

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Mimi McFadden
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Mimi McFadden

Travel Writer/Blogger at The Atlas Heart
Mimi founded The Atlas Heart to create a community of travelers inspired to see the world. The Atlas Heart is a space where you'll find anecdotes on slow travel, craft beer, outdoor adventures, and all the eccentric bits in between that this world has to offer.
Mimi McFadden
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