For The Road to Bali, part 1

Bat Cave, Mother Temple Tour
Bali is an exquisite isle, and my package includes three private trips that reveal its natural and cultural splendor. Panorama Tours provides a driver and English-speaking, sarong and sandal wearing guide named Made who drove me in a van to Goa Lowah, an astounding cave on the southeast coast so full of bats that I half-expect to see Bruce Wayne and Alfred there. Thousands of bats hang upside down inside the cavern, as others flutter about. The nearby temple features ornate statuary "“ garudas (mythical winged creatures), snakes and golden bat symbols, adorning the tower tops. Groups of prosperity seeking Balinese faithful worship at the bat cave.

BATCAVE8-ERIn Klungkung, the Kertha Gosa 18th century Hall of Justice seems to float atop a water lily pond, the interior of its roof emblazoned with the outrageously imaginative art Bali is noted for, gaily-colored cartoon-like renderings of legends. A museum on the grounds displays artifacts and aged photos that provide a glimpse into Indonesia's darkly violent past that included Dutch and Japanese occupiers, and a 1960s coup that slaughtered up to 500,000 suspected communists.

A buffet lunch on high at Puri Boga Restoran overlooking green serene rice paddies fortified me for a trek at Mt. Agung to experience Besakih Temple, Bali's "Mother Temple," an impressive, elaborate complex of picturesque pagodas, thatched roofs, courtyards and festive artwork. During my walkabout I see a suckling pig roasted over a fire, presumably being prepared for a ceremony.

The full day tour ends at Penglipuran, a sort of model Potemkin Village, where visitors can enter walled, traditionally situated Balinese compounds to see how the other half lives. Here, color TVs and barong costumes exist side-by-side, as enormous hogs snort outside and the inhabitants try to sell visitors handicrafts or drinks. Although they are ancient Hindu symbols rocky swastikas adorn some walls, shocking Western eyes.

Kuta Beach
I vary Panorama's tours with jaunts to Sanur Beach — a brief walk down the road from Parigata Villas, where I stay during most of my sojourn "“ or to touristy Kuta Beach, a taxi ride across Bali's southern peninsula. Body surfing waves are much better at Kuta, although the numerous topless women I remembered from my 1980s and 1990s jaunts to Bali are gone — although, alas, the incessant beach peddlers remain the same. I rent a lounge chair and, remarkably, teenagers obnoxiously perch on its back until I chase the punks away. When the tide carries an unbearable mass of plastic debris ashore, I leave the waves, disgusted. Unable to find a suitable beachfront restaurant on Kuta's hustle bustle tacky main drag, I eat at Pizza Hut, only to be shocked at how sweet its drinks, salad dressing, etc., are, and wonder if American culture's contribution to Bali will be diabetes?

Ubud-Indo-ED1Orchids, Birds, Monkeys and Ubud
The next day I'm ready for another Panorama tour, this time to Ubud, which is located in Bali's center. First stop is south of the island's capital, Denpasar, at the Orchid Garden, where a lovely young guide displays a bounty of brilliantly hued blossoms in a variety of shapes. It's well worth seeing, as is Bali Bird Park, en route to Ubud, a delightful aviary with a bevy of birds "“ hornbills, lorries, macaws, flamingos, etc. — from Borneo, Papua, Java, Sumatra, and even Komodo dragons.

Near Ubud I stop at Semar Kuning, a huge art factory-cum-gallery, where painters practice their craft outside on large stretched canvases. Inside, the art ranges from the abstract to the traditional, in a variety of mediums. At Ubud, I ask Made where I can purchase monkey masks and wayang kulit (shadow puppets), and my tour guide hasn't the foggiest idea. Made leaves me on my own at Ubud's crowded, outdoor market in the blazing heat, where I buy sandals and beat a hasty retreat from the crowds to the main drag, where I find the handicrafts I'm looking for and stroll about this village renowned for its painters. Boutiques, galleries, restaurants line the road, and just off the street are some spacious, pretty hotels, water lily ponds and flowing streams. Back at the van, I cool my heels waiting for Made; when he reappears with another Panorama employee we've picked up somewhere along the way and are giving a lift to, we search for and find Oka Kartini, a hotel I had stayed at during my earlier Bal sojourns. Unlike much of Bali, Oka Kartini happily hasn't changed much. The highlight of my visit to Ubud is driving down the Monkey Forest Road, where primates scamper about amidst the tourists.

The Road to Bali, part 3

Ed Rampell has traveled widely, to more than 100 Pacific Islands, Asia, Europe, Mexico and Africa. His travel writing and photography has appeared in: Islands, Action Asia, Travel Age West, Skin Inc, Porthole, Far East Traveler, Asian Diver, L.A. Times, Toronto Globe & Mail, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Pacific Business News, E The Environmental Magazine, L.A. Reader, etc. Rampell is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Journal. was interviewed at Tahiti for the CBS newsmagazine "48 Hours," and National Public Radio's "Savvy Traveler" interviewed Rampell about the Marquesas Islands. Rampell acted as a consultant for, and appears as the most used on-camera interviewee, in the 2005 Australian-European co-production "Hula Girls," which has been seen by millions of viewers on Dutch, German, French, Swiss, Australian, etc., television on the Avro and Arte networks. Rampell's Polynesian daughter Marina is a singer in Australia.