The Case of the Swapped Showpiece at Tirta Empul, Bali

Our INSEAD MBA intern, Divya, has lived in Singapore for the last 8 years and her favorite destination in Asia is Bali. Having been to Bali many times, we asked her to share her most memorable stories and one story stood out. The story takes place at Tirta Empul, also referred to as the Balinese water temple dedicated to the Hindi god Vishnu…

Tirta Empul Temple

On my second trip to Bali, my cousin really wanted to see this famous temple, Tirta Empul, which was a 30 minute drive from Ubud. We hired a driver for the day, who came highly recommended by a work colleague. His name is Putu, a trustworthy driver who happens to also be knowledgeable tour guide and spoke English well – a huge bonus!

Putu, our forever smiling Bali guide

When we inquired about what makes Bali so special, Putu excitedly told us “It is for the spiritual and the religious. The surfers, sunbathers and party people. It is also for families, friends and honeymooners. It is for everyone!”

One interesting fact Putu shared about Bali, was that children were named in the order in which they are born. “Putu” or “Wayan” is always the first born, and the name is the same for girls and boys. The second born will always be “Kadek” or “Made,” and the third born “Komang” and the fourth born “Ketut.” This explained my long standing confusion of why there were so many “Putus” in Bali.

As we approached the Tirta Empul temple, Putu strictly warned us not to buy anything from the stalls selling temple souvenirs by the exit but did not provide an explanation when I askedy why. Upon arriving, he took out sarongs from the trunk of the car and explained that it was mandatory to wear this inside the Bali temples while helping us tie it the right way- with matching scarves and everything!

As we both entered into the main temple area, we could feel the peaceful vibe right away. Local Balinese and Hindu worshippers, as well as tourists, stood in long lines for the purification ritual known as the ‘melukat’. I later learnt that they go through the “cleansing” process from left to right, dipping their heads under each waterspout. I decided to stay dry and take pictures while my cousin experienced the ritual.

My cousin and me inside the main worship area

While entering the main prayer area, we were asked to tie our hair back. As a side note, remember to carry a hair tie! Since my cousin did not have one, we had to use the blue scarf around her waist to tie her hair up.

After our tour ended, we headed towards the exit. We were relaxed and had a great time, and all cautiousness were forgotten, including Putu’s advice.

Right at the exit, a man came up to me and showed me the most beautiful handcrafted wooden replica of the main temple and told me it could be mine for just US$100. It looked like a beautiful souvenir which my father would love so I was intrigued. While I was bargaining with him on the price, Putu came towards me and asked me to leave and come back to the car. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to stop looking at this beautiful piece of art, I felt like I needed to have it and so I asked Putu to wait. Without saying a word he left.

I continued haggling with the man, bringing down the price to US$5, which made me felt like I won. But during this time, Putu was calling my cellphone which I ignored. The man had someone wrap up the wooden sculpture and I happily handed over the cash and returned back to the car.

Right away, Putu asked me to open my package and to my horror I saw a piece of plain wood instead of the beautiful sculpture I thought I had purchased. I had been cheated!

It all made sense now why the seller was willing to sell the art piece for just US$5. Putu’s warning echoed back at me and he explained that this was a very common scam. He warned us ahead of time but could not warn us again in front of the seller because they would not allow him to enter the area again and he would lose business.

I was upset that I fell for this scam but this was a lesson I would not forget.

I still highly recommend visiting the beautiful Tirta Empul, but always remember Putu’s warning “Don’t buy anything from the sellers here!” and you will leave with good memories.

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