Why Visit Tanah Lot?

What’s there to like about this seaside temple? Well, a tanah. Or, a whole lot. I know that was corny, but I couldn’t help myself. The Balinese words, “Tanah Lot,” mean, “Land Sea,” or, “Land in Sea,” which is exactly what it is; a temple, located in the regency of Tabanan, that is perched on a large rock surrounded by waves crashing to and fro. When visiting Bali, Tanah Lot is usually at the top of most travelers’ “must see” lists, and for good reason. The temple, due to its unique location, is certainly unlike any other you’re likely to ever see, and people from far and wide come to witness its glory, usually with a fiery sunset as the backdrop. But, I didn’t go during sunset. I visited the Hindu temple on a blistering afternoon (never drive anywhere in Bali in the afternoon – the heat is sweltering) and had an experience that I’ll never forget.

The beautiful temple of Tanah Lot
The beautiful temple of Tanah Lot

A Brief History of Tanah Lot

The temple itself dates back to the 1500s, when a high priest from the Majapahit Kingdom in East Java traveled to Bali to spread Hinduism. He, of course, faced some opposition and was challenged by a village chief. Instead of tucking his tail between his legs and running for the hills, the high priest meditated on a rock, which caused it to drift out to sea. At the same time, the sashes he wore turned into snakes (more on snakes later), which guarded the base of the temple. The chief saw this and went, “Oh damn!” He then recognized the priest’s powers, and pledge allegiance (or, at least acted like it). All’s well that ends well.

Except, in the case of Tanah Lot, even the high priest’s snakes and meditative powers couldn’t prevent the physical erosion that always comes with time, and is accelerated by the presence of water. The temple, and rock it sat on, was decimated by 1980, so the Indonesian government, with the help of the Japanese, restored it. Today, about a third of the rock you see at Tanah Lot is artificial (womp, womp). However, I’ll say it looks convincing. Unless you’re a geologist, you likely can’t tell the difference. Trust me, I had an extensive rock collection when I was younger (they were just random rocks I picked up in the suburbs, but still), and I couldn’t tell the difference.

Me after praying at the seaside temple of Tanah Lot - note the flower, does it work for me?
Me after praying at the seaside temple of Tanah Lot – note the flower, does it work for me?

The Holy Snake of Tanah Lot

Before actually getting to the temple, you’ll walk down a large boulevard featuring vendors selling everything from sarongs to coconuts to roasted corn (I had it, it was delicious) and other various knick-knacks. If you’re in the mood for souvenirs, you’ll be in heaven. If you’re not, carry on.

You’ll eventually come to a large set of stairs, and see dozens (or, hundreds, depending on the time of day) of people milling about on the shore snapping photos of the temple. From the ground, the temple looks impressive. It’s exactly what it sounds like; a temple on a large rock, which is something you don’t see every day.

After snapping a few photos, I escaped the throngs of travelers and saw a sign that said, ‘Holy Snake.” Now, I didn’t know any of the temple’s history before heading there, so “Holy Snake,” drew me in. I saw a man sitting at a table in front of a cave, and an older man a few meters, deeper into the cave, behind him. The man said that, for a donation of my choosing, I could go and visit the “Holy Snake.” I wasn’t sure if there was a real snake, or if the older man in the cave was the “Holy Snake,” but I bit. I paid a donation of 2,000 IDR (.14 USD) and walked into the dark cave. The older man was smiling, and beckoned me closer with a wrinkled hand. He then turned on a flashlight and pointed it in the direction of a hole. Inside the hole was the “Holy Snake,” which was a real, live snake, bearing blue and black stripes, coiled up.

The elderly man who encouraged me to touch the “Holy Snake” of Tanah Lot
The elderly man who encouraged me to touch the “Holy Snake” of Tanah Lot

“Yes, yes. Touch it,” the older man said. I’ve touched snakes before, but I can’t say it’s a favorite pastime of mine. I’ve seen what snakes can do (they can climb trees, did you know that?) and I wasn’t sure how predictable they were. Either way, I stuck my finger into the hole and rubbed the little guy. “He protects Tanah Lot, wish for something,” the older man said. I felt bad for poking the guy, which the older man didn’t have a problem with,” but I gave him another rub and made a wish.

After my meeting with the “Holy Snake” concluded, I was at a loss as to what I should do next. It was a temple; not exactly Six Flags. I noticed a large group of Balinese men dressed in white congregated across the water, at the base of the temple. A sign said, “Holy Spring,” which I wasn’t about. Regardless, I took my shoes and socks off (I never wear sandals, I find them highly uncomfortable), and waded my way across the water too the temple. It was high tide, so my shorts were a little soaked! Maybe I got some holy water on them, if I was lucky.

The Temple of Tanah Lot

The men in white seemed kind enough, so I snapped a few photos of them hanging out and shooting the shit. Travelers (if you haven’t noticed, it’s a euphemism for “tourists”) were having holy water thrown on them, as well as drinking it, and, as I said, I wasn’t really about it. Supposedly, travelers aren’t able to enter the temple of Tanah Lot, which was blocked off, but I saw a man in white handing out sarongs to two people who looked like travelers. For some reason, the thought “You can only go up there if you plan to pray,” popped into my mind, which I had no doubt read somewhere or heard from someone. So, I approached the man in white handing out sarongs and said I’d like to go up and pray, which I really did. “50,000 ($3.75) to go up,” he said. “Nah, I’m not paying to go pray,” I said. Now, was I being cheap? You’re damn right, how else do you think I afford to traipse around the world like Dora the Explorer? I prefer Carmen Sandiego, but Dora seems a bit friendlier.

A bunch of Balinese guys hanging out at Tanah Lot
A bunch of Balinese guys hanging out at Tanah Lot

A few seconds later, the man in white was wrapping a sarong around my waste. “Huh?” I said. “You go for free,” he replied. “Free?” “Yes, these people,” he said as he pointed to the two travelers (husband and wife) who were there before me. “They paid for you.” I was taken aback by how generous those people were; just the gesture itself meant more than the money (of course, it wasn’t a lot to begin with), and I thanked them from the bottom of my heart. It’s random acts of humanity like that that force me to continue to believe that we live in a good world, with good people, and that we need to maximize good by any means necessary. They didn’t have to pay for me, they could have easily brushed me off and reveled in the fact that they would have had the temple to themselves, but they didn’t. Where there are humans, humanity always has the potential to exist.

The Malaysian man and woman who generously paid for me to pray at Tanah Lot
The Malaysian man and woman who generously paid for me to pray at Tanah Lot

With my sarong, the man in white and my two new friends from Malaysia, I ascended the stairs to the temple and saw an organized array of colorful shrines, a designated place to pray and a man sitting down, who was there to lead the prayers. I took my backpack off and took a seat next to the couple from Malaysia. The man in white, Wayan, sat besides me and showed me how to pray. We burned incense, threw flowers, had holy water sprinkled on us (I finally got some holy water!) and drank it. The water tasted sweet like honey. “Okay, now, make a wish for something you truly want.” I had already made a wish with the snake, but another entered my mind. It was to get an agent for the book I’m writing, and then become published. It’s something I wish for daily, but, in that moment, I realized I should never wish for it again. Wishing and hoping do nothing to achieve our goals. It’s working towards them that allows to turn desire into reality. To wish is to believe you don’t have the power to create an outcome, which I refuse to presume true unless I’ve exhausted every fiber and atom in my body working to achieve a goal. So, I wished for the safety of one of my brothers, who’s currently risking his life to fulfill his purpose, and one of my cousin’s who’s experiencing severe medical difficulties. Those are the things that I can’t control; the things that wishing and hoping may help with.

My main man Wayan who secured a sarong around my waist and asked me about Donald Trump
My main man Wayan who secured a sarong around my waist and asked me about Donald Trump

Prayer time ended, and I saw the prayer man give Wayan a little cash in a quick exchange. A little kickback, if you will, which is fine. Everyone gets paid, everyone’s happy.

The three of us (travelers) had the whole temple to ourselves. I surveyed the area, took in the beauty of the Indian ocean and the jagged coastline of Bali and felt at ease. Grateful for life. Grateful for opportunity. Grateful for the generosity that dwells in every corner of our world, even in those places where hope seems lost.  

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Mateo is a writer who quit his flashy job in NYC to live life on his own terms. He’s done everything from working at an orphanage in Nairobi to building a new university in Abu Dhabi to sleeping on volcanos in Guatemala. And right now, he’s working to get an agent for his first novel. His writing has been featured internationally in publications including Matador Network, Víkurfréttir, Caribbean News Now and Black & Abroad. Regardless of where he is, he’s always working. To keep up with him, follow him on Instagram & Twitter at @AskMateo and read one of his elaborate stories at SwagPapi.com




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