On the south slope of Great Mount Agung sits the most important, largest and holiest temple in Bali. Dating back to prehistoric times, the site of the Mother Temple holds a complex of dozens of temples and shrines built on six levels. Some of the stone bases are at least 2000 years old, and it has been used as a Hindu place of worship since at least 1284 when Javanese Hinduism took over from the local animist beliefs, encompassing native gods and folklore into the new religion.
Almost every shrine represents a yearly anniversary, and there are about seventy festivals held each year, so you are likely to run into one any time of the year. The temple is open all year round from 8 am until 6 pm, and, as usual, it's best in the quietest, coolest times — early morning or evening.
It is strongly recommended to wear a traditional dress in the main ceremony area if you want to join in and say a prayer. You will get a rental sarong when you buy your ticket (R30,000), and a kebaya is preferred for women in the main prayer area. No one will say anything, but they really don't like you wandering around in t-shirts, even with a guide. A local outfit, in this case, is 100% appropriate and makes for a fun Insta story - so drop into an outfitter in Ubud before you go. Women should pick up a Kebaya and a sash (don't spend more than R150,000) to wear with your sarong (this can be any sarong). Men should also wear a sarong and sash and a button-up shirt - short sleeves are fine, white is best.
For attending a prayer ceremony, I recommend a female guide from Ubud for this trip if you are leaving from there. They will take you through the complex and talk you gently through a prayer session, which happens continually throughout the day. If you want to have more of a cultural and historical education, and don't feel the need to involve yourself in a ceremony, a local guide will be best. They will chat to you about gods and statues and rituals and legends, as well as the various architectural styles. They will request a tip — R50,000 for their time and knowledge is a reasonable price. But be careful! There are both guides and touts at the front of the temple — it's hard to work out who is official, so ask at the ticket office, and they will direct you. You can technically wander by yourselves, but be polite and careful as there are death-related places you can't enter, and it's a working temple with many people praying.
I won't ruin the mystery, but the Balinese are perfectly happy for you to join them in prayers at this holy place provided you are dressed appropriately. You will need an extra R10k or so for an offering and your guide will arrange the flowers and incense you need and a jar for holy water if required. I happened to go on domestic animal day, and got a little jar to take home and spray at my dogs. They weren't impressed.
It was a strange thing for me, praying. As a life-long atheist, it's not something I've done much of. It felt awkward at first and, frankly, sacrilegious, but my guide and friend Leni assured me her gods would listen anyway. The little old lady sitting next to me smiled kindly and showed me the right way to hold my hands. In the end, giving thanks for my rowdy but beloved rescue dogs felt acceptable to me and, presumably, the gods I was exhorting.
Things to remember:
Cameras are fine, but drones are not.
Cover your legs and upper arms.
No kissing or public displays of affection; this is a holy place.
Be respectful of others at prayer, and pay attention to where you aren't allowed to go.
The touts outside hassling you to buy stuff are annoying, but they're trying to make a living. Just be polite or ignore them completely. The satays are cheap and delicious though, and you might want a bottled drink for your wandering.
Besakih is a pleasant drive north then east of Ubud. You go right up to Kintamani, and this is a good place to stop for a cafe-style espresso and breakfast to set you up. Check out my post on Kintamani for good cafes. The whole trip is about 1.5 hours on way — slightly longer if you take the southern road back to Ubud.
From the south-west of the island, allow for an extra hour or so. If you'd prefer to stay overnight, there is a new, nice-looking guest house within walking distance to the temple, but not many other options close by if this one is full. You could also stay easily in Amed or Sideman; Sideman in particular is a very charming area with all levels of accommodation.
Your driver/guide might want to take you to Taman Edelweiss. This is a cute pseudo-Swiss garden reminiscent of the sorts of places families visited in the eighties. Pretty gardens designed for Insta-worthy shots are set on a lovely mountainside with amazing views. It's inexpensive to visit and wander around, and might be the place to get something to eat.