The Petanu River Trek begins at the famous Goa Gajah (Elephant Cave) temple in Bedulu Village about 5km south-east of Ubud. Built sometime in the 9th century, this sacred temple was believed to have been a sanctuary for Shiva priests and Buddist monks. Its location at the confluence of the Petanu River and the Kali Pangkung underground river which emerges from beneath boulders at this point is considered magical as the mixing of the waters is an earthly representation of the ancient Hindu concept of duality called Rwa Bhined. Basically, Rwa Bhined accepts that there is good (the above ground river) and evil (the underground river) and that either seeks to balance out the other rather than eradicate it.
Following excavation of the site from 1922, the complex revealed a small cave recessed into an intricately carved rock face, bathing pools, sacred trees, meditation niches, waterfalls and stone statues. And that’s all the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of visitors to Goa Gajah ever see because unless you head downhill away from the main complex you won’t notice the small “Jungle Temple” sign pointing down the river valley.
The trail begins by some broken moss covered carvings; chunks of fallen Buddhist reliefs that once graced the adjacent rock face. Soon the formed path turns to a well-trodden dirt track hugging the steep sided Petanu River valley. Through the thick jungle foliage there are glimpses of the river below. You’ll pass a thatched hut, a row of ancient stone carvings, bravely decaying in the muddy hillside and step through a tunnel of roots formed by and ancient banyan tree. Before long another shrine, almost overgrown by the cloying jungle, a tiny spring and more stone effigies. After about 20min you should reach a crude bamboo shelter where there is usually a vendor selling soft drink.
Our kindly vendor walked us on a short way to the jungle temple, lit some incense, made a blessing then waited patiently whilst we looked around. Of course, we felt compelled to buy a round of warm soft drink from her but there was something strangely compelling and memorable about sitting under the bamboo shelter exchanging a mix of basic Indonesia Bahasa and English.
Right near the drink vendor, you should see a stone staircase leading up out of the river valley to Lebah village. From here you basically need to cross southeasterly through the village to Yeh Pulu Temple which is nestled adjacent to the rice fields on the far side of the village. Just keeping asking the villages “Yeh Pulu” and they’ll point you in the right direction.
Nestled in a ravine between the Petanu and Pakerisan Rivers, Yeh Pulu lay overgrown and covered by volcanic debris for hundreds of years, although local villagers still made daily offerings at the site. After it’s “discovery” in the 1920’s by the Dutch administrator in Ubud, archaeologists began excavation works that eventually revealed a number of extensively carved stone walls featuring mythical Hindu gods, holy men , male and female figures, animals and bathing niches. The age of the complex has since been estimated at 600+ years.
This trek is just under 1.5km long and shouldn’t take much more than an hour. We recommend getting an early start from Goa Gajah temple to beat the crowds. Although just as impressive as Goa Gajah, Yeh Pulu Temple attracts only a fraction of the visitor numbers so even later in the day the atmosphere is much more quiet and relaxed. You definitely don’t need a guide but there are a lot of trails through the rice fields and more temples in the area so you never know what you might stumble upon with some local knowledge.
We completed the trek during the wet season with a 6 and 9 year old along and although the track was a little slippery in places and the jungle was hot and sticky, it was easy and thoroughly enjoyable.