Long before I’d set foot on Bali, I had a sense that I’d been there before. I’d encountered a little bit of the island in the Caribbean, in Malaysia, Costa Rica, Australia … even Ibiza. I’d seen it in pavilion-style hotels with their muslin-draped daybeds, in those ornate wood carvings scattered around boutiquey little places that provide barefoot luxury to the smart set. Bali had whispered to me from the pages of glossy travel magazines and sleek coffee-table books. The island has become a metaphor for tropical luxury, an aesthetic commodity that has spread far beyond this tiny bead in the Indonesian necklace. So when I finally arrived, the first question I asked myself was this: how has Bali done it?
Bali is rich in natural resources: tropical timbers, lava stone, copper, gold, silver, alang alang reeds. The natural settings, though increasingly sparse due to overdevelopment, are exemplary, with surf-thrashed coastlines, jade-green rice terraces and bosky mountainsides. In the late 1960s, these exotic landscapes – along with an idiosyncratic arts scene – acted as a honey pot for itinerant hippies, artists and architects, signalling the start of the tourist boom that would change the island for ever.
Similarly seductive were the enigmatic and spiritually rooted beliefs that govern life on the island. For Bali is an anomaly – not only is it the only Hindu enclave in the world’s biggest Muslim nation, but the Hinduism practised here would be unrecognisable in India, flavoured as it is by Buddhism and, more significantly, animism.
“We worship big things – trees, rocks and, most importantly, the mountain,” architect Trishna Newson told me as we sat in the cool, spacious pavilion at the Alila Manggis hotel. Born in Bali and trained in New Zealand, Trishna – when not designing luxury villas for her clients – has devised an architectural tour of the island for Alila’s guests, which introduces this complex and singular design for living.
Traditional Balinese buildings are based on a code that doesn’t relate to architectural conventions or planning edicts, but on the concept of tri angga – a three-tiered hierarchy of spaces: “utama”, or high and sacred; “madya”, the everyday; and “nista”, the lowest, impure or profane sector. It’s synchronised with the belief that the universe is a tripartite cosmological model that in turn can be mapped on to the island itself. The peak of Mount Agung – the active volcano that marks the island’s highest point – is the sacred pinnacle, madya the lowlands and nista the sea. And, as humans, it is said that we are physiologically divided in the same way. “This is how we build our homes,” Trishna explained, as she pointed to the pitched woven alang alang roof above, the cool stone living space around us, and the Indian Ocean beyond the neat lawn below. Similarly, as I looked around, the guestrooms were in simple two-tiered buildings with a pitched roof above providing the third layer.
Of course, the interpretation of these ideals can vary. Hotels might purvey Balinese design to the rest of the world, but to see it in its purest form, you have to look at the temples and village compounds where most Balinese people still live. “You’ll find all the most important temples up near Mount Agung, but there are thousands more all over the island,” Trishna informed me. It’s this proliferation of temples or pura that has given Bali the nicknames of Island of the Gods or Island of a Thousand Temples.
As I set off to explore with my Balinese guide Kumara, the choice seemed overwhelming. Every village accommodates three temples – one at the highest point dedicated to the gods, one for everyday rituals in the heart of the community and one for the dead at the lowest point. Add to that family temples in each home, and there aren’t just one thousand temples, but closer to 20,000 – quite astonishing for an island smaller than Devon.
On the drive from Manggis on the east coast, up to Ubud in the central highlands, we passed under tunnels of penjor – bamboo poles arched over the road and decorated with bright green coconut leaves curled to form patterns. These totems of celebration marked the half-year in the 210-day pawukon calendar, and at their top, tiny bags of food and flowers were tied on with string as an offering to the gods.
At the village of Demulih, we stopped to climb a steep, forested hill. At the summit, the view funnelled down through an implausibly neat slice of a valley to the haze of the ocean in the far distance. A small stone temple marked the apex, decorated with bright yellow parasols and facing Mount Agung; this orientation, known as kaja, is a crucial axis in the structure of Balinese life. As we drifted down the hill past coffee bushes, durian and snakeskin-fruit trees, we reached another temple complex at the bottom. “Kelod,” Kumara announced. “Facing the sea.” Here, two huge pools held water that had filtered down from the mountains. Not only is this water considered holy, but it plays an integral role in the island’s ancient subak irrigation system that democratically shares mountain water around the paddy farmers – a practice that was recently awarded Unesco Heritage status.
To get a better understanding of the kaja-kelod axis, Kumara took me to his home, which lay a few minutes from the temple. The gateway was positioned at the ocean, the kelod end, and guarded by a shrine to welcome good spirits and fend off bad ones. The kitchen and bathroom were close by, the impurest sections of the family compound. At the kaja end of the open air courtyard, the family temple was filled with small thatched shrines; in the centre was the main bale or ceremonial pavilion. Sleeping quarters were arranged on each side and divided according to age and marital status. Kumara lay down on the polished tiles of the pavilion floor to demonstrate how the Balinese even slept in the kaja-kelod axis, with their head facing Mount Agung and their feet pointing towards the sea.
At Penglipuran, a traditional village near Ubud, this model for living is laid out on a grand scale. Here, the village houses have been opened up to visitors, all arranged uniformly along an avenue that steers towards the mountain. The gates to each home resembled an arch split down the middle, built to symbolise Mount Agung and to allow free-flowing access to the nista. Inside, most of the families slept in the kitchen areas. Kumara told me it was to keep warm at night, which seemed unusual in the tropical climate.
Things were cooler up in Ubud, a higher-altitude region of rolling hills carved into a quilt of rice terraces and deep river gorges. This is the hub of Bali’s arts and crafts scene, where artists converge and wood-carving shops proliferate. On one of the most dramatic gorges, accessed via a long and winding road through rice fields, the Alila Ubud clings on to the steep valley above the Ayung river. The three-tiered hotel rooms have been laid out like a hillside village, following the valley’s contours and centring on the community centre – in this case the restaurant and rice paddy-like infinity pool, built on a promontory jutting into the deep valley. With the doors flung open in my valley villa, I went to sleep listening to the chirrup of geckos and singing from a temple on the opposite side of the valley.
The Alila Ubud is a modern translation of Balinese architecture, a theme that’s developed even further at Alila Villas Soori, on the south-west coast. Here, the luxurious villas are split laterally into three, an open-air bathroom at the back, the main living quarters in the middle and a private pool at the front, overlooking either the sparkling black sand of the beach or rice fields. A short drive from the quiet rural town of Kerambitan, Soori’s architecture might be a picture of modern pan-Asian design, but the black porous stone walls and pools of water reference the temples that I’d seen dotted around the island, using the same stone mined close to Mount Batur, another holy volcano north west of Agung.
Clinging to the edge of the rocky Bukit peninsula in the south of Bali, Alila Villas Uluwatu also imparts exclusivity and modern exoticism in its spacious layout that allows inside and outside spaces to flow into each other. Rows of sleek white villas are plugged into the hillsides, accessed via stairs alongside which channels of water filter down to frog-filled pools. In this there are echoes of the subak irrigation system – here in the driest part of the island, grey water is recycled in reed beds and reused to water the gardens.
But it was the busy resort of Seminyak which demonstrated how radically Balinese design is being reinterpreted. Here, sandwiched between The Oberoi and Anantara hotels, Luna2 Private Hotel completes the cycle of international Balinese style. This sleek five-room exclusive-use property is a slice of Miami Beach-meets-Palm Springs transplanted to the Indian Ocean. “Luna2 respects the past, welcomes the future and likes to have fun in the process” is the motto of its owner and designer Melanie Hall, who has sought to distance the property from the ubiquitous Balinese villa by branding it a private hotel and veering away from vernacular design.
The Pop Art playground interior is all citrus colours, geometric patterns and covetable design pieces. And while there’s not a piece of carved wood or a nod to Mount Agung in sight, there’s still that feeling of a tripartite layout: villa easing into the lawned garden, and garden down to the beach and the sea. And, of course, the obligatory family shrine.
As I drove out of Seminyak and entered the throng of Bali’s tourist hub Kuta, the island I’d come to know was suddenly unrecognisable. Here, glass and steel malls have replaced temples and house compounds. However, as I sped past a McDonald’s drive-thru, I looked again: there in the courtyard was a thatch-roofed shrine pointing to the sea, just as I’d seen in all the homes and temples. And as I left the island by sea, Mount Agung came into view, silhouetted against the crimson sky as the sun set behind it. The rest of the world might have borrowed Balinese design, but it’s missing that vital component: the sacred mountain.
The writer travelled as a guest of Flight Centre (0844 800 8624; flightcentre.co.uk), which offers flights to Denpasar from Heathrow from £689, flying on Qatar Airways via Doha. Other airlines offering connections via their hub cities include Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines and Thai Airways.
B&B at Alila Manggis (00 62 363 410 11) from £97.
B&B at Alila Ubud (00 62 361 975 963) from £119.
One-bedroom villas at Alila Villas Soori (00 62 361 894 6388) start at £331, room only.
One-bedroom villas at Alila Villas Uluwatu (00 62 361 848 2166) start at £518, room only
Rental of Luna2 in Seminyak starts at US$300 (£188) pp per night, based on 10 sharing.
Visa on arrival is US$25 (£16). indonesia.travel