How a beautiful Indonesian island and a mythical demon taught me a valuable lesson about the duality of good and evil.
After an ill-advised trip to a local fish market on a trip to Indonesia, I was struck with “Bali belly.” I was forced to push my flight back, which left me with five days in Bali with no accommodations and no plan. Perfect.
I was thinking about visiting Nusa Penida long before my trip. It is a tropical island paradise less than an hour away from Bali, and anyone with an Instagram and a pulse has likely seen photos of the iconic sandy cliffs and crystal blue water.
When I suggested it, my Scottish friend revealed that he desperately wanted to avoid Nusa Penida. Locals warned him about evil spirits rumored to haunt the island, and a girl we know swore something was pulling her down by the ankle while she was scuba diving. Earlier on my trip, a taxi driver told me he was seeing spirits and advised me to ritually wash my ears and neck so the “hunter” wouldn’t get me. Needless to say, I slept with the lights on that night.
My friend didn’t understand my desire to tempt fate — we were near so many other beautiful places with fewer haunted claims against them — but I’m stubborn. Despite his fearful protests, we headed off to Nusa Penida, armed with nothing but our backpacks and a pocketful of food poisoning medication.
After the hustle and bustle of mainland Bali, getting off the boat in Nusa Penida felt like exhaling a breath you didn’t know you were holding. The island is lush, untouched, and wild. There is a spark in the air — it is equal parts exhilarating, freeing, and nerve-racking.
There are plenty of homestays, restaurants, and bars on the coasts, but the middle of the island is much quieter. Between tall hills and rice terraces, we stumbled across charming villages and temples. Children excitedly wave at you from the back of scooters while chickens run in circles.
Everything is an adventure on Nusa Penida, even just going to the beach. We visited Crystal Bay, Angel’s Billabong, and Suwehan Beach. Crystal Bay is popular, likely due to its small restaurants that offer loungers, snacks, coconuts, and other treats. However, most beaches, including the famous Diamond Beach, require steep hikes.
While its natural beauty lures in travelers, Nusa Penida is also known as the Black Magic Island.
Since ancient times, myths and legends have warned that Nusa Penida was inhabited by demons and warlocks. The most famous was Jero Gede Macaling, also known simply as "Macaling," who, according to legend, was banned from Bali for spreading disease and misfortune. A local friend of mine calls him the “one with the long teeth.”
On Nyepi, the Balinese New Year, Macaling is said to have fooled the people of Bali by taking the form of a Barong, a mythical creature that is the leader of hosts of good. With his disguise, Macaling and his army of demons snuck into Bali and destroyed the island. This is why the Balinese New Year is still a day of silence.
After Macaling’s attack, the legend continues to say the people of Bali created another Barong who defeated Macaling’s army, banishing them back to Nusa Penida. High priests from around the area came to the island to cleanse it of black magic. This battle gave Nusa Penida its name, which translates to “the island of priests.”
Pura Ped temple is believed to hold the evil warlock Macaling's spirit, and he allegedly continues to roam Nusa Penida to this day. It is known as a place to practice dark magic. “When people feel sick, they go to the temple in Nusa Penida to pray to Macaling,” my local friend told me.
Those who practice Balinese Hinduism make a pilgrimage to the temple to find the balance between negative and positive energies. Macaling’s presence emphasizes the duality of good and evil. In times like this, it can remind us that, while there may be darkness in the world, there will also always be light.
With a colorful spiritual history and breathtaking sites, Nusa Penida is one of the most stunning and unique places in Indonesia. It is a paradox of sunshine and darkness, calm and adventure. Bali is one of the most spiritual places on the planet, and that can make it one of the most spooky as well. It all depends on how you look at it.
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