The major tourist draw in the east of Bali is undoubtedly the Besakih temple complex, situated on the slopes of Gunung Agung, the holiest and highest mountain on the island.
Besakih is the most venerated site on Bali for Balinese Hindus, who believe that the gods occasionally descend to reside in the temple, during which times worshippers don their finery and bring them elaborate offerings. The complex’s sheer scale is impressive, and on a clear day, with Agung towering dramatically behind, and with ceremonies in full swing, it’s beautiful. However, Besakih has also evolved the habit of separating foreign tourists from their money as quickly as possible, which can make for a frustrating experience.
The complex consists of more than twenty separate temples spread over a site stretching for more than 3km. The central temple is Pura Penataran Agung, the largest on the island, built on seven ascending terraces, and comprising more than fifty structures. Start by following the path just outside Pura Penataran Agung’s wall, and then wander at will: the meru (multi-tiered shrine roofs) of Pura Batu Madeg, rising among the trees to the north, are enticing. Pura Pengubengan, the most far-flung of the temples, is a couple of kilometres through the forest.
Unless you’re praying or making offerings, you’re forbidden to enter the temples, and most remain locked unless there’s a ceremony going on. However, a lot is visible through the gateways and over walls. The rule about wearing a sarong and sash appears to be inconsistently applied but you’ll definitely need them if you’re in skimpy clothing; sarong and sash rental are available, with negotiable prices, but it’s much easier to take your own.
There are huge numbers of local guides at Besakih hoping to be engaged by visitors, but you don’t need one to explore the complex; stick to the paths running along the walls outside the temples, wear a sarong and sash, and you’ll be in no danger of causing religious offence. If you do hire a guide, you should use one who has an official guide badge and is wearing an endek shirt as uniform, and always establish the fee beforehand. If you’re escorted into one of the temples to receive a blessing from a priest you’ll be expected to make a “donation” to the priest.