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Quite at home on a tour in Bali

This highly recommended tour of East Bali takes in a former palace and floating pavilion, a famous temple, an original Balinese village, and a royal palace.

Klungklung, Taman Gili

We start out tour at Klungkung, a city also known as Semarapura. We spent a couple of hours in the former palace. The palace was the royal seat of successors of the Gelgel line that moved here in 1710, and was witness to one of Bali’s saddest moments in history.

Threatened with a humiliating subjugation to the Dutch colonial army in 1908, the king of Klungkung and 1,000 of his followers chose to die by a ritual suicidal charge outside the palace into the teeth of the Dutch guns.

A silent procession headed by the king, carried high by four bearers, came to a stop 100 meters from the Dutch forces. His family, guards and priests were close behind. A priest stabbed a dagger into the king’s chest and the rest of the followers began killing each other. In one of the Dutch army’s less glorious moments, they opened fire with rifles and artillery. A massacre ensued.

Women mockingly threw jewelry and coins at the troops. More people emerged from the palace to follow their king into oblivion. Mounds of corpses rose higher and higher. Some estimates put the butcher’s bill as high as 4,000 Balinese.

The Dutch soldiers, being above all pragmatists, stripped the corpses of valuables and sacked and burned the palace. A photo captures the results of the massacre, with dozens of Balinese lying in a jumble of bodies, clad in traditional white cremation clothing.

Today, as you stand on the stone palace walls where you would have looked down on the massacre, and look up the road, you can see a towering 28-meter monumental statue of the king and some of his followers in the middle of the busy traffic roundabout. The statue, made from black stone, is known as the Puputan monument, which translates into “mass ritual suicide”.

The palace has been converted into a public recreation area and museum, named Daerah Semarapura, where you can see displays bronze and marbles sculptures and paintings and photographs of the ill-fated royal family and their palace. Other artifacts like huge bronze Gamelins, ancient pots, royal chairs, and ceremonial headdresses are spread throughout the museum.

But the palace’s most spectacular attraction is Taman Gili. This open-sided pavilion stands in the middle of a moat, and appears to float. The moat’s green water is covered with wide lily plants. We access the floating pavilion by a short, 4-foot wide stone and brick bridge with elaborate, lichen-covered sculptures of Balinese deities along its sides. Suli, our guide, tells us that the pavilion once served as a Hall of Justice, from 300 years ago. Disputes between the people were settled here.

This pavilion’s Klungkung architecture is notable, but its’ ceiling is what people come here to see. Covered entirely by red, brown, and orange paintings depicting scenes from Balinese myths, you can spend hours here gazing up at the ceiling and following the thread of each series of paintings.

It’s alike an oversized Balinese comic strip. You’ll see the story of Sutasoma, a Buddhist saint, scenes from the Mahabharata Sanskrit epic, the Tantri stories, battle scenes with arrows flying and swords piercing unfortunate soldiers, the demon Wirosa pursuing sinners, scenes of enlightment and salvation, amongst other eye-catching narratives.

The 360 degree view of the palace grounds from the pavilion is also well worth appreciating.

Goa Lawah Bat Cave Temple

The Goa Lawah Temple entrance is impressive enough with three stone columns carved with deities and symbols. But the one thing you should pay attention to high up on the middle column is the golden bat with wings spread—it’s a harbinger of things to come.

As one of Bali’s nine important directional temples, you’ll inevitably find a ceremony or two being held here. We arrive mid way through one. The villagers sit cross-legged, in rows, wearing their best clothes. Little children, dressed in colorful clothing, sit on their laps. One after another the villagers file up to the altar with their offerings of fruit and flowers in the ubiquitous little Balinese straw baskets.

These ceremonies can take hours, as we discover. It’s only after watching the proceedings for a while that we notice the cave behind the altar. Tucked behind some small temple sculptures we see a cave receding into the cliff face. And its black ceiling seems to be moving. Squirming. Flapping. And a strange smell emanates from the cave.

Of the dozens of atmospheric Hindu temples I’ve visited in Bali, the Goa Lawah is by far my favorite. Why? Bats. Hundreds of thousands of them! Probably millions. This is the ancestral home of Bali’s fruit bat.

Unsurprisingly, visitors are not allowed into the cave. Not that we’d want to. There are, apparently, some rather large snakes in there. The bats fascinate me. Hanging upside down from the craggy rock surface, they make an amazing sight. Screeching at each other and trying to sleep in the half-light of the cave entrance, it’s a surreal sight that I’ll never forget.

Tenganan Bali Aga Village

After a short drive up into the forest-clad hills, we arrive at a Balinese village surrounded by a 6-foot high stone wall. Entering this half-mile long village and see bright pink, yellow, and orange bantams, roosters, and chickens. (They’re painted somehow, and kept in Ata vine woven baskets). A few dogs wander lazily around or sleep in the shade.

The village consists of two rows of identical stone houses that stretch up the hillside. Brightly colored Balinese masks and carvings hang outside some of the houses. We walk up the stone stairs into a few of them and see bronze Buddha heads and wooden Balinese carvings of deities and people displayed on shelves. The people here are gracious and welcome us into their homes/shops without any expectation to buy.

A lady shows us how she weaves long narrow strips of double-ikat cloth, known as kain geringsing. Another woman sells durians, pineapples, water and the local equivalent of coca cola. Continuing up the rough cobble stone lane through the village, our guide Suli tells us that this authentic Balinese village remains much as it was 700 years ago. It’s essentially a living museum.

The people living here, the Bali Aga, are descendants of the original pre-Hindu Balinese people who inhabited the island before the Majapahit arrived in the 11th century. These people strongly resisted the rule of the post-Majapahit Kings and hold strongly to their ancient traditions and customs, giving the village an old-fashioned feeling. Tourists are welcomed and not crowed by touts, so you can take your own leisurely walking tour.

We stroll past an open sided wantilan, the village meeting place for social activities. A few women are cooking here, preparing for lunch, while small children crawl around.

A hundred yards further on and we come to a Bale Petemu, the open-air meeting hall of an association of unmarried village men. A few men sit around in two circles, quietly talking.

Tirtagangga Royal Water Palace

We drive further into the hills, covered with terraced countryside and dotted with temples. Tirtagangga is Bali’s best surviving royal water palace, a recent addition, built in 1947.

Constructed by Anak Agung Anglurah Ketut, the last king of Karangasem, the palace is a series of pools, ornamental ponds, fountains and a sacred spring. It’s like walking through an aquatic fantasyland.

Just inside the palace complex to the right, my favorite pool sits, about 30 meters by 40 meters, covered with dozens of life size stone statues. Long rows of octagonal stepping-stones—about one meter wide—form a path back and forth across the shallow pool. You can walk across the stepping-stones and stop to admire each statue, several to a row. Huge red koi swim around your feet hoping for a handout.

Continuing through the terraced gardens we see animal-shaped fountains spewing water into the pool, a tall, 20-foot tall temple spire water fountain at its base, in the middle of the next circular pond. Up the stairs and overlooking the pools is a hotel and restaurant.

Another rectangular pond is covered with water lilies and five small fountains overflowing with water. Another ornamental pond has a small Balinese temple in the middle with no pathway to get to it.

Other highlights are the towering statues of demons and gods, and two with dragon’s heads, a bull’s back, and human feet. We return to our van by walking a concrete pathway along a 100-meter long island flanked by two narrow pools. The island has seven small circular ornamental ponds, each with a small fountain in the center.

Where to Stay

Semara Seminyak
The three-year old Semara Resort & Spa is perfectly located in the heart of Seminyak, Bali’s up and coming, and bustling and fashionable shopping and dining district. Only a quarter mile from the beach Semara Seminyak makes a good jumping off point for a tour of East Bali. This hotel is an ideal family accommodation with a variety of rooms.

Superior Poolside rooms are available. Executive, Deluxe Suites, and Presidential Suites are set into landscaped gardens with large private balconies for relaxing. Each beautifully appointed room includes marble stone floors, sophisticated wall coverings, custom furniture and artwork, and 5-star beds.

The Spa and Wellness center features ten treatment rooms, and 2 couples rooms and a Thai massage room. The Spa menu includes body scrubs, manicures, pedicures, hair treatments, and facials. A gymnasium and 25-meter swimming pool are also features.

Semara Uluwatu
Perched high on the Uluwatu limestone cliffs overlooking the dazzling blue Indian Ocean, Semara Uluwatu is a more upscale and exclusive property than its sister property (above).

This unique luxury resort contains seven private villas, each with five bedrooms and suites attached, making them ideal for family, wedding, corporate, or group accommodations.

These exclusive and luxurious villas have distinct themes ranging from Contemporary to Contemporary Balinese, grand opulence, Asian, Colonial, Bohemian and Indonesian, and Indonesian family villas.

Each villa also has TV and media rooms, private office and study areas, dining rooms, private pools, gazebos or outdoor lounges, and some with ocean views. The resort’s spa also offers similar services to Semara Seminyak, with impeccable service and ambience.

Upon request, the management will arrange a private chef to cook at your villa in the evenings. The resort’s Selatan Restaurant offers an excellent and varied menu of Balinese and western dining. Finn’s Beach Club is a restaurant literally on the sandy beach below the resort. With an open-air bamboo pavilion and the water lapping at the restaurant’s foundations.

You access Finn’s by an “inclinator” that takes you down the long drop to the beach.

How to Travel
Bali’s tour operators are happy to go anywhere that takes your fancy. We found Bali Success Tours to provide impeccable service.

The vans were clean and Suli, our driver/guide, was polite, knowledgeable, and helpful. And always made sure we were drinking water from the cooler. On our two Bali Success Tours we got to know Suli like a brother and were very sorry when they were over.

Much more by this author on his own website.

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