How to Find the Gates of Heaven at Pura Lempuyang in Bali
Want to just know how to get there, who to contact as a guide / driver, and how to get a photo like this? Scroll to the bottom. ;)
Confession: I'm going to admit that this blog post started because I was chasing after an Instagram-worthy shot.
Someone had shown me this photo and the photographer had declined to share where exactly the photo had been taken, writing instead that "it was an adventure to get there." Intrigued - and totally in love with the view - I took to Google and did a bit of researching myself.
That's how I found the Gates of Heaven at Pura Lempuyang temple, a stunning "split gate" style of Hindu Balinese architecture that represents the boundary between the outer world and the outer realm of the temple. The temple is in East Bali, though, which is out of the way for many tourists. But I wanted to see the temple in person and I was eager to explore beyond Ubud.
I took a two-hour taxi ride from Ubud to the water palace of Tirta Gangga, where I met up with Yohanna, a fellow American hailing from California. Yohanna and I had met at a hostel in Ubud and we stayed in touch over FB Messenger. She wound up staying at a family friend's villa in Tirta Gangga, so I met her there so that we could explore Pura Lempuyang together (more on that villa later... it was beautiful!).
Our guide, Kadek, who is from a nearby village, picked us up the morning I arrived in Tirta Gangga. We stopped by a street stand so that Kadek could buy some offerings and incense - he was going to show us how to pray at the Hindu temples of Pura Lempuyang. After a thirty minute drive up a winding mountain road, we pulled up to the entrance of Pura Lempuyang.
There are six temples that make up Pura Lempuyang and we knew the Gates of Heaven had to be at one of them. The three of us walked up to the first temple - the Dragon Temple - and immediately noticed the looming gates before us. The temple showcased a set of three amazing staircases flanked by dragons on each side, with a huge courtyard before it.
But Kadek insisted that the fourth temple - not the first temple - was the largest temple, so we figured that the gates we were seeking had to be at the fourth temple. We snapped a few photos of the staircases and wandered around the first temple for a few more minutes.
We then followed Kadek up the dragon-flanked steps to the middle zone of the temple where the prayers and offerings take place. Unsure of what to do or where to go, we looked to Kadek for guidance.
As Kadek lit the incense sticks, we took our flip flops and sat cross-legged on them. We set our small offerings in front of us, with the incense stick leaning forward. More Hindus gathered in front of the altar. The men wore white cotton shirts and the women wore colorful sarongs with intricate, lace tops. Kadek told us to follow the bell chimes, but Yohanna and I kept sneaking glances at him to make sure we were doing the prayers correctly. He said we could meditate and think good thoughts as we were praying.
A Hindu priest sprinkled water on us as a cleansing. Then the prayers began.
Hands to forehead in prayer. Pick up flowers from offering, circle them around the incense three times, pray. Put those flowers on the ground. Pick up more flowers, circle them around, pray. Put those flowers on your head. Pick up more flowers, circle them around, pray. Put those flowers behind your ears.
The priest sprinkled us with more water. We kept our palms open for the first blessing, then we drank water three times from the palm of our right hand. Finally, we each took a pinch of rice soaked in water from the priest. We stuck the rice to our forehead and behind our ears as the last blessing.
With the prayers over, we stubbed out our incense sticks and threw the offerings away. We left the first temple with rice on our foreheads and flowers in our hair, our skin smelling faintly of incense.
We followed Kadek in search of the fourth temple and the Gates of Heaven.
We walked 25 minutes up a narrow road, avoiding zooming motorbikes along the way. When we finally made it to the second temple, we knelt for our second series of prayers. On the way to the third temple, we passed by several monkeys. I watched an adult monkey grab hold of a coconut and split it open, then lift it up to drink the water that streamed from it. Baby monkeys swung from the branches above us.
The third temple, which was quite small, offered a stunning view of Mount Agung. We knelt for our third series of prayers: flowers, water, rice. But I knew we were close to the fourth temple and I couldn't wait to see the view that I was so expecting.
We climbed the final stairs to the fourth temple and as we turned the corner towards the entrance, I held my breath to see the massive gates before me, with Mount Agung framed inside it and the landscape sprawled out beneath.
I hauled myself up the final step and saw… an ordinary temple. There were no gates or anything close to resembling the Gates of Heaven that I had envisioned in my mind. Confused, I wandered the grounds of the temple, looking for the shot, but it clearly wasn't there. The temple offered the best views, though: I could see the ocean to the north and Mount Agung to the west. The three of us knelt to pray for the fourth and final time.
Then it dawned on me.
We had already passed the Gates to Heaven. It had been the massive gates at the first temple, before we even started the hike up the road and climbed up all the stairs to reach the second, third, and fourth temple. The view I had been looking for had been there all along, but I was so intent on finding something better that I didn't even appreciate what was right in front of me.
I turned to Yohanna. "So… I think what we were looking for all along was at the first temple. Two hours ago."
She laughed. "I was thinking the same thing! We didn't even know what we were looking at!"
And so we started the long journey back to the Dragon Temple, past the same temples, steps, and monkeys. Kadek continued onto the car while Yohanna and I explored the first temple again, which was empty of any people.
The clouds had covered the sun and the lighting was perfect. We took the photos that we had came there for, taking the time to perfectly align the shots with the volcano in the background.
But both of us recognized the irony of the day. In seeking something that had been portrayed and set up in a perfect, Instagram-worthy way, we had completely missed it. Had we realized early on that the gates we were seeking were at the first temple, I doubt we would have climbed the next two hours to reach the remaining temples. We would have missed the prayers, offerings, ceremonies, and friendly locals that we encountered along the way.
We ended up with an adventure, and the Gates of Heaven, and a lesson learned.
It truly isn't the destination that matters - it's the journey.
How to get there: Take a taxi or private driver. It's 2.5 hours from Ubud. If the driver is unsure where Pura Lempuyang is, you can use Tirta Gangga Water Palace as a reference. It can be done as a day trip from Ubud; you can find a set price with a travel agency on the streets of Ubud. One-way drop-off to Tirta Gangga from Ubud is Rp 450,000. Pura Lempuyang can also be reached by motorbike. The Gates of Heaven (where these photos were taken) is at the first temple of Pura Lempuyang, just steps away from the parking lot.
Who to go with: Kadek is an amazing guide! He is so sweet, funny, and a safe, reliable driver. Kadek's patience and kindness as he taught us how to pray in a Hindu temple is one of my favorite memories from Bali. Feel free to message him!
If I'm being honest: Pura Lempuyang is truly not a common tourist destination. I saw less than 20 tourists in the 5 hours we were there. The temple is quite remote and really only used by locals. Huge tourist buses don't stop there, so this place is an absolute gem. And should stay that way! It is well worth it to continue to the second, third, and fourth temples even though the Gates are at the first temple. There is also a fifth and sixth temple, but those are far up in the jungle and require an additional two hours to hike to.
PS: To get the shot of the volcano looming over the gates, the photographer has to stand half-way up the dragon steps on the right staircase (visitors are not allowed to walk up the middle staircase). Yohanna and I wandered all around the temple trying to figure this out!
AUTHOR’S EDIT 4/2/2019: The information in this blog post was accurate at the time that I wrote this blog post in July 2017. Since that time, I have been amazed at how popular this temple—and the very “Instagrammable” photos—have become. I’ve seen on some travel FB groups that there are now hour-long waits for this photo, with a mirror and photographers. I am sure it is far more crowded now than it was when I visited, but I do think the visit is worth it and I still highly recommend Kadek as a guide. I stay in touch with Kadek and his girlfriend and they are so grateful for the business this blog post has provided them. They have really loved meeting travelers from all over the world. Please keep the Balinese and the local economy in mind when you visit the Gates of Heaven and leave a donation at the temple.
Looking for more travel tips? Check out these blog posts: Why I Quit My Job to Travel the World and $14,027: The Total Cost of 10 Countries in 9 Months