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Some Enchanted Island

Bali has thousands of temples and tens of thousands of shrines. None of them rise to the exalted levels of Indian Hindu architecture, but some are worth seeing. Besakih continues to be the Mother Temple, the most venerated place on the island, occupying a spectacular site high on a mountain with views of the fertile island stretching below it to the sea. You can't enter the temple precincts, which are reserved for worshipers, but you can peer over the walls of Pura Penataran Agung (the main temple dedicated to Shiva the Destroyer) at its starkly beautiful black meru, or pagodas.

Unfortunately you have to run a gauntlet of souvenir stalls and be hassled by unofficial guides, who stick to you like glue and have no real information to offer. This is not a problem elsewhere in mild-mannered Bali. It is easy to get templed-out, surfeited by all those split gateways, thatched shrines, pop-eyed deities and holy serpents. If your interests include bats as well, what may be the most disagreeable shrine in all Indonesia awaits you on the southern coast of Bali—Pura Goa Lawah, famed for the cave in the cliff behind it, whose roof is a roosting place for myriads of fruit bats. They are so densely packed that you can't see the rock to which they cling, and the stench of their holy guano is overpowering. The cave is, needless to say, immensely popular with tourists.

There are better places to go. One is in Klungkung, the regional capital east of Denpasar. Its Semara Pura, or royal palace, was largely torn down after a battle between Dutch soldiers and the Balinese court in 1908, leaving only a redbrick gate and two pavilions. But these are must sees for anyone with an interest in traditional Balinese art because their ceilings are decorated with the island's only surviving examples of classical wayang-style painting, heavily restored but dating originally from about 1710.

It is good that these old paintings have been preserved because the one thing you are unlikely to find anywhere else in Bali is a genuine antique. The junk shops—sorry, antique stores—of Bali today are denuded. The reason is simply tourism: those million-footed tides washing through, picking the island clean. By law, anything more than twenty-five years old has to have an exit permit to leave the island. This scarcely seems a hardship, since little that isn't nailed down or rooted in the ground is more than twenty-five years old. The Balinese themselves make no bones about this: Everywhere, you see signs proclaiming finest antiques made to order.

Bali is said to be a "shopper's paradise." You may or may not find it so. Most of the "batik" on sale in the markets, for instance, is not batik at all, handmade by the traditional wax-resistant dyeing process. Instead, it is ordinary machine-printed cloth in batik-style designs, mainly imported from Java—pretty enough but not a patch on the real thing. I was so numbed by the quasi-industrial repetition of junk that the only things I brought back to New York were some delightful hand-painted kites made in the village of Celuk.

If, on the other hand, you fancy massive teakwood furniture, Bali is certainly the place to get it cheap, and there are plenty of reliable shippers. Next to repairing those little motorcycles, storefront furniture making is the most public industry on Bali, and with the rupiah at about 8,100 to the dollar, you can hardly go wrong—if you really want your living room to look like the veranda of some long-gone Dutch colonial administrator, replete with woven rattan baskets and lurid polychrome figures of Hindu deities. But it might be easier just to take back your memories, your photos and your scorecards, especially since no one will let you on the plane with a durian. I know; I tried.


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