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Religion is the defining feature of Balinese life. Bali is an islet of Hinduism in the world’s largest Muslim community (200 million believers). The island, with a population of 3 million, is of exceptional piety. It has 25,000 temples, several hundred thousand family temples, and millions of seaside and roadside altars and makeshift shrines.

Hinduism penetrated Bali from Java centuries ago. Aloof to outsiders, local people have preserved it intact, and many Hindu theologians find the Balinese doctrine purer even than that currently practiced in India. It is part and parcel of the local life and psyche. Nowhere else in the world is more emphasis placed on the harmony betweenMan and Nature. That is one of the greatest attractions to visitors. But now this happy union between Man and Nature on the Island of Gods is badly endangered by the very vehicle of the island’s economy: tourism.

Indonesia intends to accommodate 5.5 million foreign visitors this year, and an overwhelming majority of these will be heading for Bali.

"Tourists swarm to Bali thanks to its inimitable serenity, but I know some homeowners who modernise their houses as soon as they have enough money for new fixtures, and lose lodgers with the innovations," says Agung Prana, expert adviser on culture and eco-tourism to the governor of Bali. A descendent of the rajas of the Kingdom of Mengwi, Prana was born in 1948 in Umabian, a tiny village at the heart of the island.

The name derives from uma and bian, the Balinese for "field" and "palm tree." Prana is not opposed to modern conveniences, and his villas are the paragon of comfort.

He merely objects to all-round and unplanned modernization. "A good hotel should not merely be environmentallyfriendly, but also fit in with local culture and the social situation. There are folk traditions to reckon with," he says.

The difficult art of equatorial life
It really is a difficult art, and one has to learn it from scratch. Previous experience doesn’t help you on Bali. As they depart for Indonesia, Russian vacationers usually plan to spend a week in the Laguna Hotel in Nusa Dua, a five star ocean-side resort walled off from the rest of the island, and another week in the Ritz Carlton nearby.

Yet all those deluxe places may leave you disillusioned - for all their posh decorations, the five-star hotels have nothing of Balinese exoticism, however hard their designers might try to retain the local color. The tourist industry has to be run by local communities, Prana insists. "The five-star hotels that are mushrooming in Nusa Dua are completely isolated from local people. Can one learn anything about the culture of Bali while staying there?"

Balinese architecture rests on the following principles: as many open spaces as possible to allow the air circulate all about, and flimsy tents to offer protection from the sun. Only bedrooms should have four walls each. That is the layout of the archetypal Balinese rajas’ palace. Luxury, calm and exotica, all-in-one. A private villa offers the best accommodation you can have on Bali.

You can rent a villa of any class. One of the best, owned by Agung Prana, are in Seminyak not far from Nusa Dua and the Ngurah Rai International Airport.

A villa has only one drawback - compared to a European-style hotel, you can’t have fifteen kinds of cheese on your breakfast table. Amply making up for that is delightful privacy, with no one admitted to the place but lodgers and servants.

A more modest and homely villa goes for $25 a day off-season. Here, there is no five-star service and you can’t have the house to yourself - several families usually rent one. However, the lodgers are far enough from the noisy crowd of other holidaymakers. If you want to visit several places, go from the seaside to Ubud, an art centre in the mountains. It also offers luxury villa accommodation, and the Orient Express’ Ubud Hanging Gardens is one of the best hotels of its kind.

It opened a few years ago near the quiet village of Melingih, away from the more frequented tourist routes. Each of the 38 villas (and you get to your place in a cable-car) has a private pool and there is another, huge multi-tier pool on the edge of a precipice, with a fine view of a nearby temple. Bali has a true masterpiece of design and architecture in the brand-new Royal Pita Maha Hotel, owned by the rajas of Ubud. Read the Complete Article Subscribe to ASEANAFFAIRS Magazine

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