Sunday 29 November 2020

Lempuyang temple trail

Perched at the top of Lempuyang hill, the Gates of Heaven look out towards the fabulous shape of Mount Agung. From its unique location, it undoubtedly presents a spectacular view and hence a prime Instagram location in Bali.

Gates of Heaven - Popular Instagram location in Lempuyang

Pura Lempuyang is a temple complex on the upper slopes of Mount Lempuyang, which sits at a height of 1,775 metres above sea level. The complex is considered among the six most holy places of Bali. The temples are also among the oldest Hindu temples in Bali.

A set of seven temples line the slopes of Lempuyang. The Gates of Heaven is located by the bottom most temple. A winding staircase of 1,700 steps starts from the second temple and follows the slopes of the hill to the topmost Luhur temple. All the temples fall in this path. A shorter second set of stair case goes straight up from the second temple to Luhur.   

Map of the Lempuyang temple trail

Most visitors leave after taking their Instagram shot at the gate, and never visit the temple trail.

I had requested a taxi pick up at 5:30am from my hotel. The early start was planned to avoid the strong Balinese sun. I was advised that the trail would take me 3 to 4 hours. 

It was close to 6:30am when I reached Lempuyang. There is no entrance fee to the temple, but a donation is welcome. Also all visitors must wear a sarong within the complex. It is possible to rent sarongs at the entrance too. I was carrying my own, hence could avoid the queue. I was surprised by the number of people even at that early hour.  As I entered the first temple, a girl waiting by the doorway sprinkled water on me as a way of purification. This is a common Hindu practice, hence did not surprise me. 

I entered a vast courtyard where over a hundred people were waiting for their iconic shot at the Gate of Heaven. A man directed me where I should enlist myself for the photo shoot. He was surprised when I said I did not want my photo taken. At the Gate, every person is allowed five poses, if I remember correctly. A local, sitting on a stool keeps clicking on his mobile phone in exchange for a payment. It was interesting to see the water effect they produce in the photos by using a mirror just under the camera lens. Innovative!

People start gathering for their photograph in the misty background

Temples in the mist

The hill was shrouded in mist. The top of the temple disappeared into the clouds. I took a look around and then headed up the hill. 

A 2km uphill walk on tarmac road took me to the second temple. Locals kept approaching me on motorbikes offering a pillion ride for a payment. I was happy to walk. I was walking in the clouds, getting drenched in the rain. While the feeling was surreal, there were no views either.

A motorbike approaches, the headlight shearing through the mist

The temple was quiet. There were a few shops around, which were just about opening up. A woman in one of the shops saw me struggling with my sarong, offered to help me. She tied it around my waist just as the locals do. She didn't speak any English, but has language been a barrier? 

Hoping for the clouds to clear, I waited for half an hour, but the clouds only got denser. In the mist, I was unable to see where the stairs started. 

A man sitting at one of the shops had been watching me for a while. As I stood by the stairs, confused, he stood up and approached me. He spoke basic English, and asked what I was looking for. When I told him about my plan, he asked me to follow him. He said he was going to Madyapura, the middle temple and I could accompany him. He called on to his son and both of them went on their way. I followed them in the mist. We passed the crossroads where the other set of stairs went to the top. Soon we reached the third temple, where I wanted to stop. I thanked him and we bid our goodbyes, but not before I clicked their photo.
My guide went ahead as I wandered into the quiet temple shrouded in mist.

At the crossroads

Through the mist, that was making me nervous

My guide leading the way

The photograph

A small temple before the third. The only sound was of the leaves, birds and the water droplets from the mist dripping

Lempuyang, as I said before, is considered as one of the most holy temples in Bali. I kept meeting locals heading to the temples, carrying their offerings in large baskets. At that early hour, I did not meet any visitors at all. People stopped to chat with me, mistaking me as Balinese. Some spoke enough English to quench their curiosity about the solo woman traveller who apparently looked Balinese, but wasn’t.

I took my time, and stopped at each temple for a look around. While I was free to move around the smaller temples, the main temples did not allow visitors. Still the walk up was worth it. The mist stopped the views, but created very atmospheric photos.  

The third temple en-route

An idol of Ganesh in the third temple

Devotees stop for taking the blessings of Ganesh before continuing 

The fourth temple, one of the main temples on the trail.

Locals setting up shop. They were very curious about where I was from.

Stopping at the very quiet fifth temple 
The sun made its first appearance at the sixth temple

A priest at work

After about an hour and half, I reached the Luhur temple at the top. This is supposedly the largest and the most grand of the temples. There were shops set outside the gates. Some of the locals sat their chatting, enjoying the warmth of the morning sun as the mist cleared. 

A prayer was in progress when I reached and I was denied entry, much to my disappointment. But I decided to make the best use of my time. I sat outside the gates of the temple watching the devotees climb up the slippery, broken stairs with heavy baskets. The saying goes that, only the pure of heart can reach the top.  

After a while, and starting to feel the first pangs of hunger, I started my decent.

People watching

Local shops selling prayer items

Devotees making their way to the temple

Beautiful handmade baskets

A very careful walk down the slippery stairs

On the way down, I was invited into a shop by a lady to try her bowl of Bakso Ayam (Chicken meatballs in noodle soup). I skipped the chillies, but let her take control in mixing the vast number of ingredients. It was a pleasant meal after the long walk. 

Steaming chicken meatballs
Bakso Ayam preparation in progress

From here I took the staircase that went straight down to the second temple. It was steep and short. The steps were broken at many places. I was back on the tarmac road in no time.

The cloud had cleared at the lower levels by now. The crowd at the Gates of Heaven had multiplied a hundred times since the morning. I stopped for some photos. The first picture in the post is one of the clicks.  

I continued down to the parking lot where my driver was waiting. I was staying in Amed for my scuba diving. My driver was the brother in law of the girl who owned the diving school. She had arranged for the transport, avoiding me the hassles of bargaining for a price.

The strong Balinese sun is out - at the second temple

Devotees preparing for the journey

I am back on the tarmac

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Tuesday 2 June 2020

Arambol diaries - The Visitors

There are many reasons as to why people want to travel to India. The main one normally revolves around yoga and spirituality. This I expected to be especially true for a Bohemian destination like Arambol. However, while I did come across a few who fit this cliche image of practising yoga, spirituality and organic veganism, for the majority of the visitors, the reason for their visit was far more earthly.

First of all, Arambol is cheap, compared to their own countries. Cheap beer and easy access to drugs is a big draw to this quaint seaside destination. Though a major driver, that's not all.

Of course what's common to every visitor to Arambol is their travelling soul, else they would not be visiting this distant land, thousands of miles away from home. Here they have found comfort in familiarity. Arambol, despite its basic living standards, has evolved to cater to western tourists and does not have the stark contrast in culture presented by other rural parts of India. No one here takes a second glance at drunken behaviour or skimpy clothing in public. Unofficially, it even has a nudist beach. With its established community of travellers, for a newbie, it takes away the nervousness of setting foot in a foreign land. 

I am not sure how much the love of the land brought the visitors to Arambol though. There is of course the expansive sea, the golden beaches and the sun. But a land is made not just by its geography, but by its people. Some did mention how they loved the happy, smiling faces of Indians. But in the few days I was in Arambol, I realised that most interactions of the visitors happened within their own community. The locals are mere service providers in shops and restaurants who stayed in the background, almost invisible. Actually, some, of the so called locals are not even from Goa, but have travelled from different parts of the country for business. They are there to make money. To an Indian, the prices in Arambol appear jacked up and I could easily bargain a price down to fifty percent just by asking for the Indian price. Unfortunately, I noticed a certain disdain among the locals for the foreigners. Business has been hit hard for last two years, the fall of Thomas Cook considered to be the culprit. In much need of an economic boost, the local shop owners are tired of the backpacking travellers. One such owner selling bracelets by the beach complained that for the people who survive on bananas, how do you expect them to purchase anything at all. Unfortunately, that's not completely true. The foreigners still make purchases, but from within their own community. The business of beads and bracelets has been taken over by these travelling gypsies. They make their own, and sell these goods within their own community, but probably that is what Bohemian art was meant to be.

Arambol is a seasonal town. The visitor season starts just after monsoon in September and ends before the heat of summer hits in April. For the rest of the year, only the permanent residents and a few adventurous souls live in its empty lanes. The vibrant hippie life takes a break, as does the industry that has grown around it. 

Arambol, Goa

What definitely stood out to me was the high percentage of Russians among the visitors to Arambol. I asked the locals and even the Russians for the reason. I did not get a concrete answer, but what it appeared to me was because of the Russian community that has built up through the years, which attracted new blood. Also in the current times, with a weakening Rouble that weighed almost equal to the Rupee, and a short flight, was what made it economically viable. The strong Russian influence is evident everywhere. They are in the shop signs, and the menu cards. But when I saw a local woman fluently conversing in Russian, I realised the true magnitude of the Russian influence. The woman was probably in her fifties, with greying hair, wrapped in saree and decked in traditional jewellery. She looked formidable, who could easily be the matriarch of a family, but speaking fluent Russian is the last thing my stereotype inclined brain would have expected from her. 

Of course, along with the Russians, Arambol draws the vagabond soul from all around the world. 

The Bakery

I had spotted the Bakery when I walked past it on the day of my arrival in Arambol. The cafe is a popular joint. I had never seen it empty at any hour during the days I was there. I figured the popularity of the cafe is for two very interdependent reasons. 

The Bakery, Arambol, Goa

First of all, it's the food. 
The bakery is experienced in serving a very non-Indian clientele and their distinct palettes. The menu lists items that use freshly made hummus and pesto. The bakery, of course makes its own wide range of breads, and along with the fresh dips, serve popular sandwiches. Fresh juices are available and I loved their filter coffee. 

The second reason I figured was the opportunity it provided to collaborate. People dropped in knowing they will meet other travellers, musicians or bloggers. There is always someone with a guitar, someone typing away on their laptop, or leaflets being handed out for a gig. One morning I was absorbing the vibe over a coffee when a young girl drops in, distraught. Her boyfriend had left her. She had cancelled her forward travel plans and only wanted to return to her home in the UK. She needed help to plan and finance her journey, and there were more than a few to support her. 

The bakery, I realised, is a community, symbolising Arambol.  
Just like Arambol, it was seasonal too. It is run by a Nepali family who arrive here only for the season. I managed to have only a brief conversation with their boy server before he had to disappear to take fresh orders.

The Bakery, Arambol, Goa

The Bakery, Arambol, Goa

To me, Arambol felt like a part of India that has stopped being Indian. The hippie vibe is everywhere. Most of the locals, impersonal, like in a tourist town. There is friendship and camaraderie within the travelling community, which has evolved into a world of its own. I accept, I was a visitor, that too only for a few days. Therefore it would be unjustified to pass such judgement. But when you keep yourself open to observations, the obvious unveils itself. 


I met Tucci while having my breakfast at the bakery. He took the chair beside me and acknowledged everyone sitting around us. He ordered a coffee and soon we started to talk.
He was a doctor, a retired one. I wasn't sure whether he was a dentist or a plastic surgeon or both. He was Italian, and his English was not fluent and very accented. He was struggling with his vocabulary, but still managed to tell his fascinating story.

As a kid, he used to run away from home and the police had to be involved. Eventually he joined the army, because that gave him the freedom to travel legally. He trained as a doctor, had a family. Now that his kids were all settled in life, he left home and started travelling. He comes to Arambol every year, and when it closes, he heads out to the South East Asian countries. He was planning to visit Sri Lanka in March and then travel to Indonesia and Cambodia. He was living his wanderlust and his motto was to help out others, which he talked about in great length. 

I asked why he came to Arambol every year. It was indeed the familiarity with the place, but the main reason he said was because it was warm and cheap. He talked about his experience of travelling in Europe and was how he was convinced that the Euros from his retirement won't last long if he continued there. 

I requested for his photo and he was more than happy to comply. 

The Bakery, Arambol, Goa


I met beautiful Lara at the house of La Sambusa Latina. She came up for a chat with Seba, over Yerba Mate. Yerba Mate is a popular drink in Argentina which is drunk from its special cup as a social activity. She was sipping the herbal tea from the metal straw of the specially designed wooden cup, traditionally made from calabash gourd. She offered me some, also showing me how to drink. The cup is filled with the dried leaves to which is added hot water. As the leaves soak, the pale liquid it releases is sipped through the straw slowly. Once finished, the cup is filled up and and passed onto the next person. The cup keeps getting emptied and refilled as it is passed around. It is a mildly flavoured drink with a smoky aftertaste.

Lara is an Argentinian too, and comes over to Arambol every year. She wasn't a musician like the members of the La Sambusa Latina, but lived the Bohemian life. She made money by making bracelets and beads, popular with the travellers and performing at dance shows. Walking the streets of Arambol and on its beaches, many of these travellers can be seen selling their own handmade artefacts. She said she did return to her home now and then, before leaving for travelling the world again. As to why she returns to  Arambol, she didn't have a clear answer, but it was more because of the familiarity and the community that was already there.

My previous posts from Arambol
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Monday 18 May 2020

Arambol diaries - The gigs

La Sambusa Latina was to perform in one of the beach shacks of Arambol that evening. Antonio, one of the brothers of 'the twins', had joined Tom, Vani and Seba on the balcony of the house. The Argentinian brothers sported similar moustache and hairstyle, confusing people by their similar looks. They took advantage of this and enjoyed pulling pranks on unsuspecting people. I met their other half, Leonardo at the bakery the next day  While I smiled at him thinking it was Antonio, the unsure smile on his face gave him away. On first meet, it was practically impossible to tell them apart.

My previous posts from Arambol

Arambol diaries - Vani

Arambol diaries - La Sambusa Latina

Arambol diaries - The hippie life

In preparation of the gig

The group geared up for the practice session. Between the strumming on the ukulele and the guitar, cigars were rolled and handed out. The distinct whiff of cannabis filled the air. 

Tom meticulously prepared the program for the evening, listing down the songs. The group discussed the sequence of programmes for the evening and their every transition. Slots were planned for the circus acts to break into the music at intermittent intervals. I was astonished to see how much effort went into the planning of an evening. Every performance is a project in itself, to be planned in every detail for its successful execution. 

As the music picked up pace, Seba brought out the tea. It wasn't the most traditional cup of tea, rather a concoction of mushrooms. It is common knowledge that psychedelic drugs are highly prevalent in this society, more popular with the artists and performers as they seemingly boosts their creativity. Through the days of living with the group and attending their performances, drugs, from the humble weed to LSDs, were discussed and used freely. 

Disappointment strikes

The performance at the beach shack in Arambol was due to start in the evening. It was to be Tom, Vani and Antonio. Seba had prior commitments. 

The publicity of these events are carried out mainly by the hosts, while the performers spread the word within their community. The performance is agreed for a fixed cost with the shacks and anything that is collected in the hat at the end, adds to the kitty of the performers. Hence, more the merrier. Apart from the money, limited food and drinks for the evening is provided to the group as well. However, not everything always goes to plan. That's what happened on this particular evening.

When we reached the beach shack, we were met by a very apologetic manager. For some unknown reason, they had failed to carry out the publicity for the evening. The shack was right on the beach at a prime location. However a dearth of tourists to Arambol for the past two of years was resulting in empty seats in the shacks. Despite the discouraging news, the show had to go on. It was a tedious job to set up the stage with the light and sound equipment knowing not many people will turn up, but hoping some would. 

The music started to an empty gallery. Eventually two girls arrived, and that was all for the evening. The trio still kept up the tempo for the whole time. I had heard Tom perform before, but this was the first time I was seeing Vani on stage. She was a fabulous clarinet player, truly capturing the soul of Latino music. Antonio even put up a couple of circus acts much to the delight of the staff and the visitors. Later, as he came for the collections, I dropped in some money in the hat.  

We had a late dinner. The food provided by the shack was not on their menu. It was what the staff ate. I was not part of the group, but a friend, hence I had to pay and order from the menu. The food was gloriously overpriced, but I did not have a choice at that late hour. 

The collections from the evening wasn't much, but it still made them a happy bunch. High on spirits, on the way back they bought ice-creams from the local store just as it was closing for the night. In their limited means, indulging in food is the last thing on their list and a dessert, as they called the ice cream, is a treat to be reserved for nights when they earn. Normally they chose to have two meals a day, a late breakfast and an early dinner and that too at the cheapest local places. They looked forward to these performance nights, especially if the place is known for their food. 

The program a couple of nights later was booked at one of these places.

Finally a real gig, true to the spirits

Vani was very excited as she told me about their next performance. It was a new joint in Mandrem, the adjacent beach south of Arambol. Her first reaction was, they make fabulous pizzas! Her excitement for the food was showing. Suddenly I felt sad for her. She also told me to prepare for a completely different experience from the evening before. She expected it to be a busy night, full with guests and fun. It would be incredibly entertaining and lively. 

I reached a little late, delayed by a fabulous sunset on the beach. It was already dark, took me a while to find the place. It was indeed what Vani had told me. The open space under a thatched roof was bustling with people. The stage was already set, and full with performers. Quite a few travelling musicians had joined in for the evening. They were dressed all in their La Sambusa Latina gear of black and white stripes and were ready to rock.


As the music began, members of the guest came forward to show their skills. It was a largely hippie group, all friends or acquaintances. There was exotic fire dancing, of course without the fire for safety reasons, juggling, salsa, hula-hoops, all in the tune of the foot tapping Latino music. The night was reverberating. Needless to say the air was heavy with the smell of weed and am sure drugs was flowing as freely as the beer. 

It was in striking contrast to the previous show I had been to. This time, the hosts had done well with their publicity and the effect was showing. 

Even La Sambusa as a much bigger group tonight had the energy flowing for hours. 'The twins' were fooling around with their circus acts and Seba had joined in too for the evening. The performance went on for hours, well into the midnight. Exhausted yet still drenched in music, everyone settled down. Over pizzas and beer, they chatted and laughed. Some practised their skills. People were meeting old friends and making new acquaintances. The more experienced in this life were looking out for the newcomers. The travelling community was growing. This is how it thrives. 

I sat there observing. I was definitely an outsider here. I was aware that I am unable to let go so many things in my life, which I needed to do to be able to truly embrace the hippie life. However, this did not bother me. I was just happy to be there. As I sat there, Seba came over asking how I was doing. He even tried to teach me a couple of juggling tricks, but I remained as clumsy as ever, 

The collections from the night was fairly decent as I followed a happy couple on the moonlit beach back to Arambol. 

At 2am, the beach was empty. The full moon had painted the sands, sea and the waves in silver. It was a beautiful night and after the excitement of the evening, a sudden loneliness gripped me. The evening was truly one for friends and community, a strong bond which holds the spirit of these travellers together. They thrive on company and friendship. It was a happy evening and I felt the energy of the community in my veins. In the huge empty space that I was walking back now, the feeling of melancholy had never been more reinforced.

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