The towns along the periphery of Ubud are home to some of Bali's most significant temples and fascinating legends. Bedulu, Pejeng and Tampaksiring were all once royal capitals and are where you can find some of Bali's best-known sightseeing destinations. As you make your way to Goa Gajah and Pura Tirta Empul, you'll also get the chance to discover some of the area's secret hidden gems.
If you have your own vehicle or driver, the locations mentioned below can all be visited in a single day. If you're based in central Ubud, you'll first want to make your way to neighboring Bedulu to the east of the city. From there, you can visit the sights of Pejeng and the major temples of Tampaksiring. If you still have time left over in the evening, make your way over to one of Ubud's most spectacular rice terraces.
First, let's start at the iconic Elephant Cave.
Goa Gajah: The Elephant Cave
A short distance from central Ubud in the town of Bedulu, Goa Gajah is one of the area's best-known temples. Also referred to as the “Elephant Cave,” the sight remained completely unknown to Westerners until the year 1923.
Many visitors are surprised to see just how small the cave itself really is. The interior contains not much else besides a statue of Ganesha and a Shiva linga, and you probably won't spend more than a couple of minutes inside.
The real attraction of Goa Gajah, however, in addition to the massive face which serves as the cave's entrance, is the area around it. Just outside the cave, you can find large springs which were used for bathing and purification. These were only excavated as recently as 1954.
Follow the pathway down to another area which contains the ruins of another former temple, apparently Buddhist in origin. This may seem somewhat contradictory to the Hindu, or more specifically, Shivaite (Shiva worship) nature or the caves.
The most common type of Hinduism in Bali, though, is a variety of the religion that originated in Java that's considered to be a fusion of Shivaite and Buddhist ideas. The Pejeng kingdom, ruled over the Bedulu region at its peak, was also said to have been a Hindu-Buddhist one.
The small statue just in front of the main cave at Goa Gajah also has Buddhist significance. This is Haririt, a Buddhist child protectress who was formerly a demon before changing her ways.
UPPER LEFT: The natural springs for bathing were excavated in 1954
ABOVE: A sacred tree located near where the Petanu and Pakrisan rivers meet
It's not all that surprising that a number of shrines and temples were built just next to this place where the Petanu and Pakerisan rivers meet. The meeting place of two rivers is considered to be auspicious, powerful spots in Balinese culture. Balinese spirituality, in fact, is often dubbed 'the religion of water.'
Throughout the rest of your tour around the outskirts of Ubud, the significance of water to the Balinese will come up again and again. The Petanu river itself is also a major part of the intriguing backstory of Pura Tirta Empul, which you'll learn more about down below.
Entrance: Rp. 15,000
Temple Dress Code
When first arriving at the site, some touts will try to sell you a Balinese sarong, saying that you need to wear one to enter. While you do need to wear a sarong at Goa Gajah, a rental will be included in the ticket price for you, so there's no need to purchase an overpriced sarong outside.
But even better would be to try to borrow one for the day from your accommodation, or buy your own in advance. Many of the other locations in this guide also require a sarong. As they can be tricky to put on properly for newcomers, you might as well keep the same one on all day.
Gunung Kawi and Tirta Empul in Tampaksiring also include sarong rentals in their entry fee, but the Moon of Pejeng does not.
Museum Purbakala: The Archaeological Museum
Nearby Bedulu is the village of Pejeng, which used to be its own kingdom which also encompassed Bedulu at one point. Just a couple minute drive from Goa Gajah is the Museum Purbakala, also known as Gedung Arca, or by its English name, the Archaeological Museum.
The small site, which offers free entry, is notable for its numerous ancient coffins on display. More and more continue to be dug up from time to time in Pejeng and surrounding areas.
As modern Balinese cremate their dead, these coffins clearly come from an ancient culture which predates the arrival of Hinduism on the island. Some of the oldest ones are estimated to be over 2,000 years old.
One peculiar thing about the sarcophagi is their small size. The museum curator explained to me that the bodies were placed inside with their arms and legs tucked in - the position of a baby in the womb.
The Museum Purbakala may not normally be worth going out of your way for from central Ubud, but since it's just in between Goa Gajah and the next stop in Pejeng, it's definitely worth checking out for a few minutes on the way.
The Moon of Pejeng
The tower with the kettle drum
The Pejeng area is home to a number of ancient shrines, monuments and relics, but its most well-known sight is the temple of Pura Penataran Sasih, or “The Moon of Pejeng.”
The “moon” here is actually a large bronze kettle drum. The drum supposedly dates back to over 2,000 years ago. Legend has it that it was originally one wheel of a chariot which carried the moon across the sky. The wheel became loose and fell all the way down to earth, landing in Pejeng.
According to legend, the wheel continued to glow just as brightly as the moon itself. The bright light, however, threatened to foil the plot of a local thief. To dampen the light, he proceeded to climb up a tree and urinate all over it! Thanks to his nasty deed, which he would pay for with his life, the drum is now the dull brown color you see today.
The drum is considered to be the largest of its kind in the world that's been cast out of a single piece of metal. Experts are still in debate as to whether it originates from Indonesia or somewhere like Vietnam, where such drums are more common. The drum is no longer played today, but it used to be banged on to announce important events and oncoming wars.
Today the drum is kept in a safe place in the temple, in its own little tower and far out of reach from those who wish to repeat any profane acts of vandalism. As a result, it can be a little hard to get a clear view of. Nevertheless, this significant Balinese spot is well worth a brief visit, especially with an understanding of its backstory.
Pura Penataran Sasih dates back to the 13th century and was considered the prominent temple of the Pejeng Kingdom. During my visit I was the only one there, but there was evidence of a large festival which had just taken place the previous night.
Goa Garba: Where Giants Meditate
If you're looking for a truly obscure and off-the-beaten path place to visit around the area, you can do no better than Goa Garba, a holy spot dating back to the 12th century. This is another mysterious cave temple that, in contrast to Goa Gajah, even many locals don't know about.
The sight, though, is significant due to its relation to the famous Balinese legend of a man named Kebo Iwa. The story goes that even as a baby, Kebo Iwa had an insatiable appetite and quickly grew to an enormous size. He wouldn't stop eating and wouldn't stop growing. Thanks to his kindhearted nature, the villagers were more than happy to help out with cooking for him and building him a large house.
The king of Bali at the time was under threat from the neighboring kingdom on Java, the Majapahit Empire. Kebo Iwa, of both enormous size and strength, promised the Balinese king that he would protect the island.
When the Majapahit King, named Gajah Mada, learned about this giant, he decided to make a peace offering by allowing Kebo Iwa to marry his virgin daughter. The whole thing was a trap, though, as Kebo Iwa was subsequently buried by Majapahit troops as he dug a brand new well for his bride. Kebo Iwa did manage to escape, but was killed shortly afterward anyway by his one weakness: limestone.
The story ends somewhat optimistically, as Gajah Mada ends up promising Kebo Iwa before his death that he'd unite all of Indonesia and protect the island of Bali rather than destroy it.
Goa Garba is often omitted from the abridged version of the classic tale, but it is supposedly the spot where Kebo Iwa went to meditate and develop both his spiritual powers and battle skills. The sight is even believed to contain both the remains of Kebo Iwa himself and the remains of some of those that he killed.
At the spot today you can see a large footprint, believed to have been left by the giant himself. Nearby is a little spring with water, as is common at holy sites in Bali.
Goa Garba is slightly out of the way if you intend to drive up to Tampaksiring, but at only 5 minutes or so from the Moon of Pejeng, your detour won't take up too much of your time at all.
Arriving near the spot, you should see a sign that says “Pura Pengukur Ukur,” an alternative name for Goa Garba. Walk down the pathway until you reach the main sight. You can exit another way by simply climbing up the staircase pictured above. You'll end up walking past a cockfighting arena, a school and a temple before ending back up at the same road.
Later in the day, at an intersection near Pejeng, you may pass a massive statue of a baby. This is a depiction of Kebo Iwa as a toddler. Ironically, the statue itself happens to be made from limestone.
Ancient relics inside the cave
Leaving the Pejeng area, head north to Gunung Kawi Temple, located in the popular town of Tampaksiring. The journey is a fairly long one and from Goa Garba it should take you about 25 minutes by car or motorbike.
Pura Gunung Kawi Temple overlooks either side of the Pakerisan River. Its main characteristic is the large shrines that have been carved out of the side of the cliff faces of the mountain. Dating back to the 11th century, these are said to have been built by the ancient Balinese king Anak Wungsu, himself the son of King Udayana. The shrines are supposedly dedicated to his deceased family members.
Just as impressive as the rock carvings, temple and tomb, is the lush natural scenery around the area. Visitors are greeted with stunning views of a local rice terrace, while a bridge on the way to the shrines offers excellent views of the Pakerisan River.
The main sight can take awhile to reach, as you have to walk down several flights of stairs. The walk back up to the main road can be a tough one under the hot sun, but there are plenty of places to sit down and sip on some coconut water during the return journey.
Entrance: Rp. 15,000
Pura Tirta Empul
Perhaps the most well-known and popular spot on this itinerary, Pura Tirta Empul also happens to be the center of yet another fascinating backstory from Balinese folklore. This legend, it turns out, brings things full circle, as the story also ties in with the first stop on our tour, Goa Gaja.
Pura Tirta Empul is one of the main holy spring temples on Bali and is the source of the Pakerisan River, which you've already seen flowing through both Gunung Kawi and Goa Gajah. Locals and outside visitors alike flock to the spot to bathe in the holy fountain. If you don't want to get wet then don't worry – it's perfectly fine to just watch the bathers without getting in yourself. If you want to go in the water, understand that while a regular sarong is required for the temple, you can only go in the spring with a special type of green sarong.
Bali was soon in disarray, with crops dying all over the place and food shortages happening all over the island. A local priest named Mpu Kul Putih was determined to put a stop to Mayadenawa's reign of terror, and summoned Indra, the King of the Gods, for help. Soon, a great war between Mayadenawa's and Indra's troops ensued.
At some point during the fighting, Mayadenawa poisoned the water near where Indra's troops were sleeping. In order to sneak away in the middle of the night undetected, he walked with angled feet. The literal translation of Tampaksiring, in fact, means 'footsteps at an angle.'
The Legend of Tirta Empul
The story goes that a king named Mayadenawa who once ruled the island was a man extraordinary abilities. He could change his form at will into anything he wanted. He was also an extreme narcissist who believed that due to his amazing talents, it was he who was to be worshipped throughout the island, and not the gods or local spirits. Mayadenawa even went as far as banning any other forms of religion on Bali, and his powers of transformation made the islanders scared to challenge him.
Indra's troops were poisoned thanks to Mayadenawa's scheme, so the King of the Gods drove a stick deep into the ground, out of which sprung special healing water. His troops recovered after drinking the special water and this is the very sight where Tirta Empul exists today.
Eventually, Indra hunted down and killed Mayadenawa, whose blood formed what would become known as the Petanu River. This water was believed to be cursed, and local villagers avoided using it at all. The 1,000 year curse actually ended just recently, though, and the waters of the Petanu are now considered fit for use.
You may remember the Petanu from the first stop of this tour – at Goa Gajah, where the Petanu and Pakerisan rivers intersect.
The Tegalalang Rice Terrace
When one thinks of Bali, the image of a large, green rice terrace is likely one of the first things to spring to mind. Though rice terraces can be found all throughout Southeast Asia, including on neighboring Java, Bali is renowned for having some of the most beautiful ones in the region. Ubud alone contains a few popular rice terraces, though Tegalalang perhaps being the most well-known.
From Pura Tirta Empul it's just about a fifteen minute drive, and the stunning view is a popular gathering spot in the evenings for tourists and locals alike. Tegalalang sometimes suffers from overcrowding, though it can be hard to predict how many people will be there on any given day. Even with the crowds, though, the views are impressive and the rice terrace is a great way to spend the last couple hours of daylight before heading back to your hotel.
Ubud is probably the most visited town in Bali that doesn't have a beach. The city center features all sorts of accommodation options for different budgets, especially along Monkey Forest Road and nearby side streets.
Many people tire quickly of the city center, however, with its constant traffic and noise. Therefore, more and more visitors these days are looking for places to stay just a little bit out of town, such as the villages mentioned in this itinerary like Pejeng or Bedulu. Choosing where to stay should also have a large part to do with how you plan to get around Ubud.
I stayed at a place called Kenari House which I would highly recommend. It's located in between the town center and Bedulu.
Kenari House features private rooms inside of a family compound, so you can enjoy your privacy while also getting a glimpse of local Balinese family life. You can also eat a delicious breakfast each morning while looking out at a fantastic view of the local rice paddies.
Ubud, like most of Bali, lacks much of any type of public transport. To many visitors' dismay, ridesharing services are also banned on this part of the island. While you can technically use the apps, there's a high chance your driver will be very late or won't show up at all out of fear of getting caught by the local taxi mafia.
Therefore, for distances too far to walk, your options for getting around this part of Bali will either be renting your own motorbike or hiring a driver. Many people do fine on a motorbike, but accidents are also very common amongst tourists. It's not unusual to see people walking around with casts or crutches due to accidents, though most of the serious accidents seem to happen in the Kuta area rather than Ubud.
Regular taxis are greatly overpriced due to the lack of competition. Though not cheap, the best option may be hiring a private driver for the day, which you can arrange for roughly $40 USD a day.
Bali only has one airport, which is located in the capital and largest city of Denpasar. The best way to reach your accommodation in Ubud from the airport would be via taxi, which can be arranged for around Rp. 300,000 or even a little bit less. Your hotel or host will likely be able to send a driver to meet you at the airport, which can save some of the hassle of trying to negotiate after a long flight. Expect the drive to take roughly an hour.
If you're coming to Ubud from another part of Bali, you might want to look into a private tour company such as Perama Tour to arrange a shuttle bus for you.
The most common way to reach Bali is by plane. The Ngurah Rai International Airport in Denpasar is very well connected. You can find direct flights from all over Indonesia, in addition to plenty of international cities throughout Asia and even Europe.