INSTAGRAM : Behind the scenes of the Gates of Heaven, Bali:
When the Gates of Heaven became the Gates of Business
Nicknamed “Gates of Heaven”, the beautiful gates of the temple of Pura Penataran Agung Lempuyang, in Bali are among the main tourist attractions of the center of the island. And more recently as well, the topic of a modern controversy.
All of us having an Instagram account have seen dozens of pictures of the magical place: a beautiful Balinese gate framing a giant volcano in the background, and in the first ground, a foreign person in a local outfit, striking a yoga pose, all contemplative in front of the majesty of the surroundings. And to add to the magic of the view, all that is reflected into a little pond of water. The picture is perfect and it obviously convinces most visitors in Bali to go and… take the same exact picture.
This picture was first taken by an Instagram "influencer" a few years ago and since then, thousands of pictures have been taken in the same exact spot, in the same exact way.
Recently in Bali, and while instead scouting for unexplored roads and off the beaten track views, we finally decided to visit Lempuyang temple. We had been very hesitant about it, having an idea of the crowds we would find and that we’re running away from.
However, we were around there, and the views of the volcano seemed spectacular. With an eruption the day before, we though we may catch a few pictures with smokes and that was enough to convince us.
I obviously do prefer local temples over tourist crowds, for their atmosphere, for the possibility to shoot unique pictures, and also because they’re usually cleaner, quieter, are more authentic. For all these reasons, we had been postponing our visit. But after all, we thought that whatever would be there, we’d at least enjoy the beauty of the view. And we were not even close to imagining how much beauty there was to be seen.
So off we drove to Lempuyang. We wanted to see it in the late afternoon, and if it was worth it, to come back the next morning for sunrise.
When we got there in the afternoon, exactly as we had been reading and expecting, there were hundreds of tourists in the main temple. But I couldn’t really blame them. The views, indeed, proved to be spectacular. To put it simply, it is what we call a must-see.
Although I had read about the pond reflection scam on the internet, I was impatient to see what was going on on this side, and again, I was far from envisioning how enriching this experience would be. With almost every person going to Bali having a picture of themselves in that particular place, it was time for me to see what was going on behind the scenes!
And well… First of all, there’s no water. The reflection is a man-made trick. Fine.
Second, it’s a long queue to get your picture. From thirty minutes at six o’clock in the morning up to about three hours in the middle of the day. But, if people consent to this just for a picture that everybody else has, then fine.
But mostly, it has produced one of the smartest businesses on the island : taking advantage of the herd. And that seemed just fair enough to me.
So there he seats, on a plastic stool. He faces the Gates of Heaven.
His job offers one of the most beautiful views of Bali. In front of him, the gates, the volcano, and everyday, beautifully dressed young women posing contemplatively, when not suggestively...
His partner holds an umbrella to protect him from the sun and the rain, as he’ll have to sit here from before sunrise until after sunset.
They have for only working tools three plastic stools, one bag, and a little piece of glass rectangle. And with just that, they created and now run a business. They initiated and manage a line for people to queue and wait for their turn to be photographed by them. But they don’t need a camera, because they shoot people with their own mobile device. This way, the visitors have their pictures instantly after the long wait !
Visitors queue, and when it is their turn, they hand the guys their mobile phone. Sometimes it’s one person alone, sometimes a happy couple, sometimes a group.
The photographer yells “first shot”, and he clicks a few times, “second shot” then he clicks a few times, “third shot” and he clicks a few times, and he finally shouts “last shot”, and clicks a last few times. People find themselves with about ten or fifteen different pictures of themselves in four different poses, in just a minute.
“Next !”, we can hear him shout again, to get the next person in the queue to hand him their phone. And they keep on going. ALL. DAY. LONG.
After getting their phone back, people give the duo a donation. There’s no fixed price. But it’s always cash and it goes from one dollar to twenty dollars sometimes, for the groups.
One takes the cash, puts it in the backpack sitting on the second stool, and a few times per day, one of them goes and drops the cash somewhere and comes back with an empty bag.
Very little investment, no declaration, no tax, cash only, with between a few and thirty dollars every five minutes. Smart, and pretty profitable, I’d say.
The routine never changes, except when a photographer like me comes and asks for a few seconds of an empty shot. I mean a shot with no instagrammer on it. The view, simply. Just the view. Then they cooperate gladly, take a break and ask their queue to hold on for a few seconds, and for these few seconds, the place is all yours to shoot. But it never lasts too long, the queue is impatient to get their pictures on Instagram right already.
I could have seen this situation like others did recently. I could have gotten mad or upset about the way people travel now or the way Balinese take advantage of mass tourism.
Many people say the place lost its magic, but I don't to see it that way. This place still felt quite magical to me.
Before sunrise, around five, there were already tourists queuing to take pictures in the dark, but it was silent. The volcano was hidden behind the clouds, and the air was cold, and humid.
Minute after minute, daylight and warmth flowed in. First really dim, but slowly the clouds burnt off to give sight to the enigmatic volcano shape. Then, the sun rose. It brushed the slopes of Mount Agung and lit it red, but just for a few minutes. At this very moment, birds and insects started to sing. Then and there, precisely, the place was truly magical.
So instead, I would stay that magic is still there for the contemplative or the believers, and maybe it’s gone away for the ones in search of fulfilling their ego with a wonderful and instant picture, as the wait might indeed take away some of the magic...
Or does the narcissist traveler not know how to contemplate with their heart anymore, but only with their precious ego ?
Although I am witnessing the damage, the excesses and misbehavior caused by social media in the world, it cannot be entirely negative either. I believe there’s always some positive to be found.
In the case of Pura Lempuyang, I truly think that as long as intagrammers, bloggers, youtubers and influencers will remain contained in the main touristic spots like herds, and as long that makes local businesses grow, it has a real positive side.
All of us photographers will simply keep on searching for quieter places, just as we always did, and normally, about a kilometer away from a tourist spot like this, there’s simply no living soul ... And isn’t that actually cool ?
That day, because it felt awkward to be there in the middle of all-so-many egos contained by two Balinese smart guys, I decided to take pictures of their business instead, and I found myself quite happy for them.
Most people will wait three hours to have the same picture as everybody around them and without even having a look at the volcano anyway. So, I can’t really say that I feel outraged for the pond-scam or sorry for the tourists.
Those who really want to enjoy the place can, and they may well go through the gates as many times as they want between two shots of tourists like I did. Indeed, I even saw one young man queueing three hours, just to get his two minutes between the doors to himself to pray. He didn’t take one picture, didn’t ask for one. He simply stayed there, and enjoyed that moment for himself.
So instead of a scam, I see the opportunity that has been seized there and in many other places of Bali. Swing chairs for influencers in beautiful landscapes, Instagram tours, photoshoots in waterfalls… And all I can see is… this keeps the crowds contained. Yes, this site is spoiled with crowds, but it is not damaged, and on the positive side, this preserves other sites. So, it looks like a sort of trade off to me.
We came for sunset and came back for sunrise, and we loved it both times.
The views are indescribable, and there are many other temples behind the main Pura Penataran Agung Lempuyang which are truly empty. Quiet. And which sights are really breathtaking.
Tourism in the last decade has increased a lot, and with the addiction to social media, we have to fight against our instinct sometimes in order to still find positive in all this. Instagram and Facebook have reinforced selfishness, self-centrism, and herd behaviors. It has also put even more importance on appearance, and it is nowadays often more important to show that you’ve been somewhere, rather than to have actually been somewhere.
But it is all about choice. No-one is forced to follow the herd. Personally, I will always let beauty win over ego. After all, philosophers say it's not just a coincidence if aesthetics is composed of the word ethics...
Pura Penataran Agung Lempuyang is of true majesty, and even though it is not quiet any longer, any beauty-lover or contemplative cannot remain insensitive to the vibrations and the magnetism that exists between these doors.
A herd is a social group of certain animals of the same species, either wild or domestic. The form of collective animal behavior associated with this is referred to as herding.
The term herd is generally applied to mammals, and most particularly to the grazing ungulates that classically display this behaviour.
* Human Parallels :
The term herd is also applied metaphorically to human beings in social psychology, with the concept of herd behaviour. However both the term and concepts that underlie its use are controversial.