A Balinese Adventure
Published: April 2009
By Richard Alleman
Where two wheels can take you down unspoiled paths
The Pura Ulu Danau--with its great beds of tiger lilies and towering shrines stacked with multiple thatch roofs--is one of Bali's most beautiful temples. Built in the 1600's on the edge of Lake Bratan, a magnificent volcanic crater, it is dedicated to the goddess of waters, who keeps this Indonesian island lush year-round. A divine sense of peace prevails as I stroll its holy grounds wearing a sarong (the politically correct temple-touring attire) around my shorts. This is the serene, timeless Bali that I had hoped to find.
As I leave the temple, however, my serenity is shattered by the arrival of a bus packed with day-tripping Australians from one of the crowded beach resorts in the southern part of the island. They all wear T-shirts advertising their tour packager, and many of them bypass the temple grounds for a spot where they can pose for photos with a python dangling around their necks. Whooping and cackling, they take turns holding the giant snake. This is the Bali I had dreaded.
So I feel quite lucky when I walk past their bus, undo the sarong, hop on my mountain bike, and pedal up the garden-edged road to return to my own private Bali. I've been touring the island for five days on an adventure trip organized by Backroads, a biking and hiking company based in Berkeley, California. One of the great travel clichés is that Bali is ruined, but I hoped to prove it wrong. If there was any way to find the unspoiled side of the island, I figured, it would be on a bike, exploring untraveled roads, staying in small, charming hotels, and returning home in better shape than I was in before I left.
My adventure begins the moment i get off the plane in Denpasar, Bali's capital. I'm practically catatonic after almost 20 hours in the air, but the scenes flashing by the taxi window rouse me: palms, pagodas, carved gates, and roadside stands displaying baskets, monstrous statues, and heaps of pottery. The place is a complete, but exotic, mess. Then the countryside begins-rice paddies, mountains, villages that appear to be one extended temple complex with red brick walls and towers . . . and now Bali starts to look like, well, Bali.
The taxi is headed toward Ubud, Bali's so-called cultural capital and the starting point for my trip. The hotel turns out to be 20 minutes from town. At first I'm disappointed to be so far from the action, but once I lay eyes on the Chedi, my spirits rise. Less than a year old, the hotel sits on a great green hill high above the sacred Ayung River. Dramatic cobbled paths and stairs link the high-ceilinged pavilions that house the lobby, restaurants, and bars. My room has teak built-ins and a rock-walled bathroom that opens to a shower in a secluded garden. The staff greets me with smiles and bows, whether they're making up my room or placing food and floral offerings around the hotel to honor the island's many gods. The pièce de résistance is the long, narrow, stunning slate swimming pool that seems to float magically above the palm groves and rice paddies. As I recuperate from the flight under an umbrella by this perfect pool, I wonder, Do I really want to bother with biking?I could easily spend the next 10 days right here.
But by mid-afternoon I have hooked up with Betsy Silzer and Linda Cassell, the energetic and enthusiastic Backroads guides. They outfit me with a blue 21-speed mountain bike-number 8084-plus front and rear zipper bags, two water bottles, a helmet, and a gel-filled seat cover, which, along with my new padded bike shorts, I hope will protect my tush from saddle sores.
And now I must come clean: I am not a biker. The most cycling I've done since high school, when I abandoned my one-speed Schwinn in favor of my mother's Corvair, has been an occasional 18 minutes on the Lifecycle. I am in pretty good shape, however, and when I signed up for this trip I thought I'd have no problem keeping up with an itinerary that the Backroads catalogue described as intermediate to advanced. But now, confronted with all this gear, not to mention all these gears, I wonder if I've made a terrible mistake. The worst is when I put my helmet on backward-in front of other group members, some of them big-time cyclists. Happily, Betsy and Linda are both understanding and give me a quick riding lesson in the hotel driveway.
The real test comes the next morning, when we set out on a 25-mile loop from the hotel to Ubud and back. The drill, which soon becomes routine, starts with a breakfast pep talk. Betsy and Linda go over the kilometer-by-kilometer printout of our day's route, preparing us for the wonders (temples, bathing pools, awesome scenery) and the horrors (traffic, tough turns, busy intersections, hills).
Then we reassemble at the hotel garage to get our bikes and stock up on trail mix, granola bars, cookies, peanut butter sandwiches, tiny bananas, oranges, water, and Gatorade. We also meet the Indonesian contingent of the Backroads team, Pak Bandi, Madé, and Ketut, patient men who drive the two Toyota Land Cruisers that will shuttle our gear and, when necessary, us. Our group of 13 is almost evenly divided between couples and solo travelers ranging in age from late twenties to early fifties, with home bases in New York, California, Colorado, Canada, and Australia. All in all, Linda tells me, it's a standard motley bike-trip crew.
I had assumed we'd travel in a pack, so I'm surprised to see everyone taking off at different times. Suffering from first-day jitters, I forget my map, then my biking gloves, then my sunscreen, and wind up leaving dead last. But since a Backroads guide always picks up the rear, I luck out with Linda as my riding partner.
At first it's all wonderfully easy as the two of us glide past poison-green rice paddies in the morning sun. Just when I think I have this biking thing licked, Linda indicates a right turn and the road becomes a series of short steep hills. My heart is pounding by the time I reach the top of the first, and I wonder why I bothered with all those aerobics classes back home. Angry at my poor performance, I storm the second hill and make it up. But things bottom out partway up the third when I miss the ultra-low granny gear and am forced to dismount and walk my bike to the top. Linda tries to soothe my damaged type-A ego by diplomatically pointing out that it's okay to stop from time to time. Ultimately, she says, biking is about pacing.
Eventually the hills flatten out and I can concentrate on Bali rushing by rather than on the blood rushing through my body. The scenery is much the same as yesterday's, but taking it all in by bicycle rather than from a taxi turns sightseeing into an exhilarating video game, as we encounter traffic and rice paddies, mountains and potholes, and clusters of crazed kids who greet us as if we were rock stars.
The town of Ubud is a bit of a letdown: wall-to-wall travel agencies, money changers, and shops. Still, it's not without its charms, particularly the Lotus Café, an oasis of pavilions set around an enormous pond full of pink lotuses. I catch up with some of the group for lunch: spring rolls, curries, fried rice and noodle dishes, and best of all, big bottles of Indonesian Bintang beer.
After one of these brews, I decide to pass up the six-mile bike ride back to the Chedi in favor of poking around town and getting a lift in our support vehicle. I guess I'm taking to heart Linda's advice about pacing, but I'm also happy for a chance to bond with some of the group: Christina and Jane, who've come on this trip because they're the only Australians they know who haven't been to Bali, and Suzie, a New York social worker, who figured Bali was the best place on earth for escaping the pressures of the inner city.
Our bonding process continues the next day on a white-water rafting trip down the Ayung River. We divide into three rafts, and once we get the hang of bobbing around the rocks and rapids, we start attacking, splashing, and racing one another's craft. A stealth cameraman captures our antics on videotape, which we screen at the visitors' center when our 11-mile adventure is over. What the video doesn't capture is the beauty of the jungle river, its steep banks thick with vines, giant ferns, bamboos, and palm trees.
The next day we hit the road in earnest. It's hard to leave the Chedi, where I've fallen into a routine of writing in my journal on my patio at sunrise and then going for a solitary swim in the great granite pool. At the same time, it's exciting to head into terra incognita. Suzie, Jane, Christina, and I travel at the same speed and fall into a foursome on the first leg. Blond and pretty, Suzie doesn't just elicit the usual hellos from the kids; she provokes wide-eyed, openmouthed stares. But our own jaws are constantly agape, too, as we pass gaggles of geese bathing in muddy rice paddies; sleek bronze roosters in bamboo cages, waiting for the next cockfight; and women in pink and gold sarongs on their way to the temples, balancing fruit and food offerings on their heads.
For the most part, these paved back roads are cycling and scenery dreams. It's the main roads that prove to be the nastiest, since they are perpetually crowded with trucks and buses that honk as they pass, leaving hideous fumes in their wake. Ironically, the most gruesome leg of the whole trip is the steep, steady two-mile climb that begins immediately after I've so cleverly escaped the rowdy Aussies at the Ulu Danau temple.
Even with frequent stops, I often feel that it's time to pack it in and walk or hitch the rest of the way up this long, horrible highway. Finally I can stand it no longer: I decide to give up. But just then I see what I think is a pack of dogs up ahead. That's all I need-wild animals attacking me as I push my pathetic bike up the road. So I call on every ounce of strength left in my exhausted body, shift into 8084's lowest gear, think of my trainer back in New York urging me to do those extra reps on the leg press, and forge ahead. Only to discover that the wild dogs are a clan of gray rhesus monkeys that couldn't be less interested in me as they preen, pose, and spar with one another by the side of the road.
I catch my breath, ogle the monkeys, and see from my route map that the top of the hill is less than a mile away. After a peanut butter sandwich and about a half gallon of Gatorade, I take off, determined to make it to the summit. When I reach my goal I practically collapse on the Toyota's tailgate, where Madé and Linda welcome me with a cookie tin and the good news that from here on, it's downhill.
It's also a new world. We sail at 4,000 feet along a narrow back road with fields of blue hydrangeas on one side and volcanic lakes edged with dark green mountains on the other. Suzie, Christina, Jane, and I have wound up together again, although we quickly part company once the near-vertical drop begins. Now our video game is on fast-forward as we hurtle through a windy wonderland of pines, bougainvillea, and fresh cloves drying beside the road. Soon we find ourselves in a tree house at the Puri Lunbung Restaurant & Bungalows, while a gamelan trio plays softly below us. Later we soak in the elegant stone pools of the Banjar Holy Hot Springs, then have poolside massages at the Mas Lovina Beach Cottages, where we are to spend the night.
That evening we dine by the pool and watch Bali's classic Legong temple dance, performed by a trio of young girls wearing heavy makeup and red-and-gold sarongs. Like all Balinese dances, the stylized Legong re-creates an episode from the Hindu epic The Mahabharata, this one involving a king, a captive princess, and a raven bearing bad news. But it's not the story or the dance's stiff body movements that grab you; it's the intricate hand play and the amazing facial choreography. The little girls change their expressions so fast that they seem magically to be turning into different people.
Our longest run-a flat 50-mile swing around the northwestern coast-takes us through the drier, poorer part of Bali. Although Betsy and Linda warn us not to expect too much in the way of scenery or challenges, this turns out to be my most rewarding day of cycling. With no awesome vistas to distract me and no major ups and downs, I feel at one with my bike and my surroundings. I ride mostly solo, crossing bridges guarded by fantastic stone creatures and passing through villages where kids on bicycles suck me into impromptu drag races. The sea, punctuated by brightly painted outriggers with madras sails, is almost always at my side.
I make great time, reaching our hotel by mid-afternoon. The year-old, 30-room Mimpi Tulamben Resort caters to divers, but anyone would be delighted by its 16 cottages, designed like Balinese houses with walled courtyards, gardens, and separate pavilions for sleeping, bathing, and lounging. The pool seems to hang above the sea. Though the pebbly gray beach isn't particularly inviting, what lies beyond it is: some of Bali's richest undersea scenery, especially around a sunken U.S. warship from World War II.
At sunset, throngs of villagers dressed in their best sarongs proceed down the beach for an important full-moon festival. As at most of Bali's Hindu ceremonies and festivals, travelers are welcome, so we put on our sarongs and head to a small temple crowning a bluff.
The religious event turns out to be more like a carnival. Food stalls and games of chance occupy the front courtyard. On the other side of the temple gates, several dozen kneeling gamelan musicians hammer on xylophones and monster bells, creating a deafening score. In a tent across the way, village girls are being made up and costumed for the Legong. Their performance turns out to be much less polished than that of the professional troupe we saw the night before-and much more ingenuous. Meanwhile, back in the front courtyard, boys in starched white sarongs with yellow sashes huddle over a dice game, betting on animals rather than numbers. The next afternoon I take a walk in the dirt-poor village outside the Mimpi compound and see some of the kids from the festival, now dressed in tattered T-shirts and shorts.
Mimpi is another place I don't want to leave. I'm also a little sad because the 28 miles we'll travel today, to the beach resort of Candidasa, on the island's eastern coast, will be our last. The backdrop for this final ride-the bleak lava-covered fields and the ominous hulk of the great Mount Agung volcano-fits my melancholy mood. But soon we're taking on hills, and the land gets lusher, and once more I am overcome by Bali's beauty.
We stop for a swim and lunch at the Tirtagangga Water Palace, a fabulous estate built in 1947 by a local rajah with terraced lawns, gardens, and pools fed by giant statues. Here, you don't just swim: you dive into Balinese mythology. Then it's a straight shot to the Serai Hotel, a few miles south of Candidasa. A sister to the Chedi, this two-year-old property-with its huge pool, white-sand beach, and sleek teak-and-stone guest rooms-is a great place to end our journey. It also marks the culinary highlight of our 10 days on Bali, thanks to Australian chef Jonathan Heath's superb Asian and Mediterranean dishes.
On our last day, we have the option of biking or hiking to Tenganan, a village in the hills behind Candidasa inhabited by the Bali Aga, an indigenous group that adheres to an ancient, pre-Hindu code of conduct. I'm tempted to take one last ride on number 8084, but I've learned from skiing that last runs are often disappointing. So, along with about half the group, I decide to hoof it to Tenganan.
With its wide cobblestoned pedestrian street edged by shops and galleries selling baskets, wood carvings, and textiles, Tenganan brings out the shopper in all of us. Or is it that because the trip is coming to an end, it's time to focus on the real world?In any case, I'm not convinced that my amazing 200-mile Bali odyssey is over until I return to the Serai and see number 8084 being loaded onto the Toyota. Ketut lets me keep a water bottle as a souvenir. On the way back to Denpasar, I hold on to it as if it were a talisman, as if it could somehow magically bring back these last 10 days. The car is claustrophobic; I hate the air-conditioning; I feel cut off from my last views of Bali. Once again I ask myself the famous question, "Is Bali spoiled?" But it no longer has any relevance. If anything is spoiled, I am.
This island is surprisingly small, given the richness of its natural and cultural attractions. Bali lies just east of Java, where the capital, Jakarta, is located. It takes about 18 hours to fly from Los Angeles to Bali's international airport at Denpasar. Garuda Indonesia airlines offers the most direct service, with a stop in Hawaii. Flights are also available via Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and Singapore on other international airlines. Important: Though Indonesia does not require a visa, you must have a return ticket when you enter the country, and your passport must be valid for at least six months beyond the day of arrival.
Backroads 801 Cedar St., Berkeley, CA; 800/462-2848 or 510/527-1555. Backroads is offering its 10-day Bali biking trip three times this spring, with departures on March 10, March 24, and April 15. The cost is $2,298 a person, based on double occupancy, and includes hotels, most meals, sightseeing, guides, and airport transfers. Bike rental is an additional $160.
What to Pack
For biking on Bali, padded shorts and biking gloves are essential. It's also a good idea to take cycling shoes or stiff-soled sneakers, T-shirts made of Cool Max (a synthetic fabric that pulls moisture away from your body), several swimsuits, and a lightweight rain jacket (especially if you go between October and March, Bali's wettest months). Backroads supplies helmets, but take a hat to protect yourself from the sun when you're not biking. Insect repellent and plenty of sunblock are also musts.
Amandari Ubud; 62-361/771-267, fax 62-361/771-266; suites from $430.
Amankila Manggis; 62-361/771-267, fax 62-361/771-266; suites from $430.
Amanusa Nusa Dua; 62-361/771-267, fax 62-361/771-266; suites from $430.
The Chedi, Desa Melinggih Kelod, Payangan, Ubud; 62-361/975-963, fax 62-361/975-968; doubles from $180.
Four Seasons Resort Bali at Jimbaran Bay, Jimbaran, Denpasar; 800/332-3442 or 62-361/701-010, fax 62-361/701-020; villas from $475.
Ibah, Campuhan, Ubud; 62-361/974-466, fax 62-361/974-467; doubles $195-$250.
BEST VALUE Mimpi Tulamben Resort at Bukit Permai,Karangasem, Amlapura; 62-361/701-070, fax 62-361/ 701-074; doubles $75-$125.
The Oberoi Legian Beach, Jalan Kayu Aya, Denpasar; 800/562-3764 or 62-361/730-361; fax 62-361/730-791; from $255 for a Lanai cottage to $800 for the largest villa.
Ritz-Carlton, Bali, Jalan Karang Mas Sejahtera, Jimbaran, Denpasar; 800/241-3333 or 62-361/771-631, fax 62-361/701-555; villas from $285.
Serai Hotel, Buitan, Manggis, Karangasem; 62-363/41011, fax 62-363/41015; doubles $125-$140; suites $220.
Passport's Regional Guide to Indonesia: Bali (Passport Books) Color photos, practical information, and insight into Bali's culture, religion, and crafts.
Shopping in Exotic Indonesia by Ronald and Caryl Krannich (Impact Publications) Where to find Balinese crafts, from puppets to furniture.
A House in Bali by Colin McPhee (Oxford University Press) The composer's journal of his years spent studying the island's native music.
On the Web
Bali Online (www.indo.com) Often breathless descriptions of Bali's natural beauty and intriguing culture. Several hotels have pages on this site, and some offer a discount for on-line booking.
Bali & B@LI (http://bali.simplenet.com) Essays on things Balinese, but turn down your computer's volume. The background music displays a cross-cultural logic; the page on religion in Bali plays Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."