Friday, September 02, 2005

The Natural Guide to Bali

Anne Gouyon is a Parisian agricultural engineer who has edited the first of a series of new guidebooks, The Natural Guide to Bali. She is profiled in La Gazette de Bali No. 3, August 2005, a beautiful French tourist and expat newspaper.

She wrote it with a team made up of an ethnobotanist, Jean-Marie Bompard, Titiek Pratiwi, a "forest specialist", and Godeliva Sari, a sociologist and editor of the now defunct Latitudes, an English language glossy periodical about Indonesia. Many of the longer information pieces are in fact condensed versions of articles which appeared in that periodical.

More are planned, for Thailand, Sri Lanka, Laos, Vietnam, Madagascar, and a second edition of the Bali guide extending to Lombok and Komodo. The guide was first published a few months ago, and the series is brand new. Anyone travelling in the next little while is lucky to be able to use this guide, and one suspects that it will always be a guide used by comparatively few.

Its premise is that its user wants to travel responsibly, and it is much more selective than other guides. Lonely Planet could not devote a quarter of a page to the following:
"The Magical World of Pak Darma A banana leaf, a butterfly, and a bright flower creeping along the path will lead to fascinating stories as you walk around with Pak Darma, the owner of Rumah Roda restaurant. Under his expert eyes, every detail of the landscape finds its place as yet another colourful element of the Balinese art of living. Just tell him your interests, and benefit from his knowledge and friendship. [Contact details, and price then follow.]"
If they did, the poor man would be besieged by tourists, his price would go up, he would franchise out his operations to others, and quality would slip (the Lonely Planet effect). With this guide, one can travel around secure in the knowledge that for the next little while, these will be fresh recommendations.

The book could be better proofread, perhaps a function of having a French editor (perhaps it also explains the not-quite-right title), but it is beautifully laid out, with many more photographs incorporated into the text than Lonely Planet guides.

From what I have read so far, the ecological aspirations of the book are relatively modest (The Oberoi, a 5 start resort, gets the maximum of two goodness hearts seemingly for cleaning up the beach in front of it), and its tone is never hectoring, or cloyingly politically correct, though sometimes it gets a bit on the dumb side:
"So what to do as a nature lover? Dolphin watch tours are a good side income for fishermen, and give them an incentive to preserve the marine life. If you decide to book one of them, explain to your boat driver that you do not want to chase the dolphins. When you see a group of dolphins, ask him to stop his boat and wait. You may not see the animals as close as the other boats running after them. But it is better than disturbing these lovely creatures, and it will show the local fishermen that not all tourists are disrespectful of sea life. [So far, so good.] By allowing dolphins to behave in a natural way, you may even get a chance to witness something special, like hunting, feeding, mating or the birth of a baby dolphin [yeah, right] -- which won't happen when animals are being harrassed."
It has an excuse for being selective, which is an advantage, and has a great deal more information about many fewer accommodations with many fewer rooms each than the other guides do, which make an effort to cover off most of the things in most of the places,
even if by general reference. It is anti-encyclopaedic, and that is a good thing.

Bali is one place where there is so much information on the internet that a Lonely Planet guide is unnecessary for finding accommodation, and where good commentary about the place is probably more important. The Rough Guide has long excelled in that regard. It strikes me that the least one can do when coming to spend one's wealth decadently is follow the paths set out in this guide. It also strikes me that doing so will be no hardship, unless you are a lover of large hotels owned by the Suhartos. Furthermore, I reckon the guests and fellow diners at the 300 places with detailed recommendations will be more pleasant company than elsewhere.

Not surprisingly it is stronger on Bali outside the conurbation known generically as Kuta, and you probably wouldn't buy it if you were spending most of your time in Kuta.

It was not available in Australia last time I checked. I will consider requests to buy, borrow, or rent mine.


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