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Trunyan village basket burial site on Lake Batur

 
   - darkometer rating:  9 -
 
A unique site in the category of dead on display, located on the shores of Lake Batur in north-eastern Bali, Indonesia, where a local tribe upholds a tradition of burying their dead in semi-open baskets. For some the place has a kind of mystical aura, for some it is too dark to handle – it certainly isn't for the faint of heart. 
  
More background info: It is actually not so easy to unearth really reliable factual information about this place. Most sources I was able to find just quote local stories and myths they picked up. And I'm afraid I can't do any better than that either. This is a summary of what I gathered:
  
The Trunyan (in Indonesian often spelled “Tarunyan”) are an old tribe of aborigines of Bali (Aga) that go back to before the island became predominantly Hindu (in contrast to most of the rest of Muslim Indonesia). And unlike Hindus, the Trunyan do not cremate their dead, nor do they bury them underground. 
  
Instead they place the bodies in cage-like structures made from bamboo that resemble upturned baskets … and then just leave them in there to rot. 
  
The baskets presumably also keep away carrion birds and other looters from the natural world – but there aren't even many flies or bugs. Nor do the decomposing bodies smell as badly as they should normally. This is attributed to the presence of a tree that is referred to as Menyan Taru – or fragrant tree. Whether it really masks the smell or somehow gets rid of it in other ways I cannot say. I didn't pick up any strong fragrant odour emanating from the tree – but neither did I pick up any smell of rotting corpses, not even close up, though I could clearly see a semi-decomposed face staring back at me when I inspected one of the baskets. So the absence of the smell of death at this burial site remains a mystery. 
  
There are apparently three such cemeteries near this Trunyan village, but only one is usually shown to tourists. This is the “regular” cemetery, which is only for people who died of natural causes. People who died in accidents or committed suicide are not eligible for burial at this site but are taken elsewhere. Same with children. Around the burial baskets personal belongings of the deceased are placed. Even photos. 
  
The bodies are left in the basket until sufficiently decomposed (some sources say for about a year). Then the basket is cleared to make way for the next body, while the previous occupant's bones are cleaned and scattered around whereas the skull is placed on a ledge nearby. 
  
My guide also had lots of stories to tell about related local myths and traditions, e.g. that women are allegedly not allowed to attend the burial ceremonies, but other than that I cannot remember any details … that's because I just zone out so easily when it comes to ancient myths and other esoteric “explanations” (cf. paranormal tourism). 
  
He also offered such mythical reasons to explain the alleged fact that the eruptions of the nearby volcano Mt Batur have never killed anybody (unlike those in Muslim Java – cf. especially Merapi!) … apparently they have some Hindu sort of ceremony or other to magically prevent that. Well, it may also have something to do with the fact that Mt Batur is a much smaller stratovolcano, which erupts through fissures along a ridge, which sometimes create lava flows that are well predictable in their behaviour, rather than in massive explosive events causing large-scale pyroclastic flows and lahars like Merapi does with deadly frequency. I also wondered: what about nearby Mt Agung then? This is the dominating volcano on Bali and it did cause quite a serious number of fatalities in its latest big eruption phase (in 1963). So did they forget to prevent that through any such ceremonies in that case? … or is my undermining religious/traditional beliefs through logic disrespectful?
  
Anyway, the Trunyan basket burial site has become something of an unusual tourist attraction, contrasting quite drastically with the usual Bali image, but as it is so easily combinable with any visit to this area north of popular Ubud, the locals apparently try to cash in on this too now. In a way you can't blame them – they probably can do with the extra income generated in this way. However, going by several travellers' stories, local touts, (would-be) guides and scammers can be quite aggressive in their “marketing” approaches and charge rip-off prices for dodgy services here. 
  
This makes visiting the site additionally controversial (on top of the gruesome dead on display nature of it). You have to use your own judgement. And if you want to go try to make sure you get a decent guide. See below
  
  
What there is to see: My tour consisted of a boat ride to the actual Trunyan village, where we stopped first for a walk around. I could personally have done without that bit (or my guide's lengthy narrative on traditions and ceremonies) but so what. It was part of the package and provided some sort of context, I guess. 
  
We then got back on the boat for the additional short ride to the cemetery. Ours was the only boat at the time and we only had one more tourist (from India) with us who grabbed the opportunity to join us on the spot at the boat terminal. So the atmosphere was very calm and peaceful when we finally went ashore at the burial site. 
  
To my mild surprise there was even a welcome sign in English over the entrance. This was flanked by a kind of gate. At the bottom of each side lay a couple of skulls, and around them coins were placed. Apparently offerings or donations.
  
We then stepped into the actual burial ground area. It is quite small. Indeed there is only space for some eight to twelve baskets. These were set up in a row to the left side. To the right stood a large tree – the allegedly fragrant tree  that gave rise to the choice of the location for the burial site in the first place. I did not, however, notice any of the allegedly intense scent the tree is supposed to emit – see above
  
Between the burial baskets and the tree was a stone wall and on its ledge a few dozen skulls were arranged in rows. Some were already green with moss and the eye sockets  partly filled with cobwebs. 
  
The site of the skulls was already too much for our Indian companion. Instead of staying with us to look around more she preferred to go back to the boat and wait there. So it is clearly not for everyone! I guess she hadn't really been aware of what she was in for until we got to the burial site … and she didn't even see the really gruesome bits:
  
The actual burial baskets are really something else. At first you can't really see it but when you get close and peek through the gaps between the bamboo spokes you suddenly come face to face with the dead – literally. As I was trying to focus I realized that beneath some white headscarf cloth a pair of hollow eye-sockets stared back at me from a half-decomposed skull with black semi-rotten-away skin … and a lipless row of teeth were flashing me a sinister grin. It was quite chilling. 
  
What was quite remarkable, though, that there was indeed no smell of decomposition. Nor were the corpses crawling with bugs, as you would perhaps expect in those stages of rotting away. Normally you would also expect to find clouds of flies buzzing around. But I saw only one solitary green fly crawl across the dead forehead. 
  
The other baskets had occupants in them that were far more decomposed already and not much on a similar scale of grim was visible. Incidentally, whether or not there will be any dead as visible as that first one I saw and in what state the other ones will be will quite naturally vary with time. I've heard reports from visitors who did not see any corpses at all. Only skulls and bones. Others witness bodies clearly only just laid to rest here and still almost completely intact. I got the in-between of those two extremes. 
  
In front of the row of baskets were piles of things that we were informed were personal belongings of the recently deceased. This included mostly simple household items such as plastic plates and bowls. These were clearly not wealthy people. Also on the piles of things, as well as attached to the baskets, were photos of the deceased, slowly fading from the exposure to daylight. Some of the basket's head sections had umbrellas/parasols over them, as if to protect them from the sun and rain. I found this quite touching. 
  
In general I felt the atmosphere at this unique site was one of tranquil serenity, rather than horror or anything genuinely gory. But opinions on that may vary.  
  
By the way: do not touch anything here – I have seen rather disrespectful photos online of people posing with skulls they lifted up to next to their own heads and grinning widely into the camera. Please do not follow such bad examples! (Cf. ethical issues!)
  
Overall, this is a site that is quite unique but certainly not suitable for everyone. Even for some experienced dark tourists, such close encounters with the dead as described above may be a bit much (but remember that these will not always be there to be had either). 
  
You have to decide for yourself – also if it is worth the effort and money to make it here. It is, after all, quite a small site. But I found it a most special addition to my range of dark-tourism experiences I had in Indonesia.  
  
  
Location: on the eastern shores of Lake Batur, opposite Mt Batur volcano, in the north-eastern inland part of Bali, Indonesia.  
 
Google maps locator: [-8.2449, 115.4265]
  
    
Access and costs: The cemetery is only accessible by boat, charters can vary dramatically in price. Be wary of scams.  
  
Details: To get to the burial site you first have to make your way to Lake Batur and then get a boat ride. There is no land access to the burial site, as it clings on to a steep and thickly overgrown cliff side (the old caldera wall in fact). So there is no alternative to a boat.
  
Unfortunately, the area around Mt Batur is notorious for ripping tourists off. E.g. they won't let you climb the volcano without one of their own guides, who are organized into an association that claims a monopoly on the mountain. And I've heard of overpriced tours to the Trunyan village pressed onto tourists as well. Even complete scams have been reported.  
  
When I went in August 2014 it was as part of a longer tour of inland Bali with a hired car and driver and with a guide. That way there were no scamming attempts on us – and my guide did the negotiating at the landing stages for boats by the lakefront at Kedisan. The boat ride was included in my tour, so I don't know what my guide paid, but I imagine he would have got a good price as a local Balinese in the know of the tourism trade here. On your own you may be unlucky and get offers at the other end of the scale. I've heard of outrageously inflated rates in excess of  a million IDR (more than 80 USD), which is definitely too much. 
  
If you want to do it independently you also have to get some sort of road transport to the lake first. There are public buses to as far as Penelokan, if you want to rough it on a shoestring. For the onward journey down to the lake you'd have to get a bemo (minibus taxi), hire a taxi or motorbike ride or hike down (and later back up) the ca. two and a half miles (4 km). 
  
If you are driving your own (hired) car or motorbike then note that you have to pay an entry fee to the lake area at a roadside booth in Penelokan (only a small amount like 5000 IDR, but still a bit annoying). 
  
In theory you can drive a minor road (said to be in bad shape) along the inner caldera along the lake shore up to the Trunyan village and try to get a local boat there (but you'd be a captive audience there so an easier target for being overcharged). Or get the boat from the terminal at Kedisan. There were several tourist boats waiting when I was there. 
  
Our boatman even insisted we all put on life vests for the entire duration of the trip. I found that rather amusing given that our boats to neither Krakatoa nor Komodo did so – on the contrary, the latter didn't even have any life vests (despite the route including rough seas and treacherous crosscurrents). And here we were on a calm lake in inland Bali and all of a sudden there were such un-Indonesian security regulations. 
  
This boat was fine. It even had a canvas roof for protection against the sun. But at the Trunyan village and the cemetery landing stage we had to take our shoes off and wade ashore because the lake's water level was unusually high at the time (normally it only swells up so during the rainy season – now there were fears it might be rising generally).  
  
  
Time required: At the cemetery itself you need only 10 to15 minutes or so to look around. Our excursion also included about half an hour at the Trunyan village itself. The boat ride there from Kedisan took about 20 minutes each way and the second boat ride to the cemetery only about five. The drive to Penelokan from Ubud should take between 30 and 45 minutes, longer by bus, or from starting points further away. 
  
  
Combinations with other dark destinations: The volcano Mt Batur on the other side of Lake Batur may be an attraction to some dark tourists too. You can see its black lava flow from a few decades ago still dominating the south-western flanks of the slopes and the foot of the mountain. Good viewpoints are to be found from the hillside at Penelokan (lots of tourist restaurants milk these views too).  
  
If you want to climb Mt Batur be warned that the local guide association keeps a tight grip on access to the mountain and will insist you pay for one of their guides. 
  
Another volcano, in fact Indonesia's best (in my view), namely Ijen can be visited on tour packages from Denpasar on Bali (see Ijen practicalities) and this can be further combined with extensions to see the famous Bromo caldera too. 
  
The only other properly dark site on Bali itself that is listed on this website is the Bali bombing sites in Kuta, the tourism hub of the south of the island. 
  
Thematically equivalent but quite far away, would be a trip to another very remote corner of Indonesia: apparently there are similar burial rites in certain inland parts of Sulawesi, but since I did not make it to that island on my six-week 2014 South-East Asia trip I cannot report anything about that first hand. 
  
In general see under Indonesia.
  
  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Bali is as such the principal mainstream tourism destination of Indonesia, so it is in fact typically rather the other way round: that the usual tourist activities can be combined with a visit to the Trunyan burial site as a kind of maximal contrast to the normal things tourists do on Bali. Those “normal” things include cultural sites such as Hindu temples, viewing pretty rice-paddy vistas, going batik shopping, or of course the beaches and nightlife action of Kuta and its  environs. 
  
   
 
  • 01 - Lake Batur01 - Lake Batur
  • 02 - getting a boat02 - getting a boat
  • 03 - Trunyan village with Mt Batur in the background03 - Trunyan village with Mt Batur in the background
  • 04 - Trunyan village with caged vs free-range chickens04 - Trunyan village with caged vs free-range chickens
  • 05 - temple05 - temple
  • 06 - on to the burial site06 - on to the burial site
  • 07 - only accessible by boat07 - only accessible by boat
  • 08 - welcome to the burial site08 - welcome to the burial site
  • 09 - welcome donations09 - welcome donations
  • 10 - the Trunyan basket burial site10 - the Trunyan basket burial site
  • 11 - burial baskets and possessions of the deceased11 - burial baskets and possessions of the deceased
  • 12 - recently deceased12 - recently deceased
  • 13 - hardly any flies13 - hardly any flies
  • 14 - stacked skulls14 - stacked skulls
  • 15 - and a few femurs15 - and a few femurs
  • 16 - face of death16 - face of death
  • 17 - smoke on the mountain17 - smoke on the mountain
  • 18 - wildfire18 - wildfire
  • 19 - volcanic smoke on Mt Batur19 - volcanic smoke on Mt Batur
  • 20 - black lava flow20 - black lava flow
  • 21 - info panel21 - info panel
  • 22 - here we are22 - here we are
  • 23 - Mt Batur23 - Mt Batur
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  

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