A holiday in Bali would not be complete without lying around by the pool or pantai and getting some good ol’ leisure reading in. Or if you live in Bali, giving yourself permission to just be santai one weekend to devour books is an easy way for some self-loving and (cheese alert) feeding your soul.
Reaching for the latest New York Times bestseller may be the obvious and easy choice – but we reckon that choosing books set in Bali will give you just that much more appreciation about life on the island, whether you’re a tourist or an expat. From trashy chick lit, to historical fiction, to investigative exposé, here are our picks for the best books on Bali that are worth sinking your teeth into.
1. A House in Bali — Colin McPhee
Written by a Canadian writer/composer, this book captures McPhee’s journey to Bali during the pre-WWII era and accounts the life he decided to build on the island, mainly through his understanding of Balinese music culture and all its complexities. McPhee was one of many artists that flocked to Bali for inspiration in the 1930s and settled in Ubud (when Bali’s cultural center was still a teeny-tiny village).
After encountering a rare gramophone recording of Balinese gamelan music in New York, he came to Bali to “set foot on the island where the clear, metallic music originated”, and in addition to learning the technicalities he also discovered its place in relationships and day-to-day life amongst the Balinese.
Read this if: You long to experience an “unspoiled” Bali pre its tourist-mecca reputation and you want to understand the Balinese view of music, dance and spirituality. While McPhee doesn’t try to simplify its complexities, he does describe it in an easy-to-read, entertaining way.
It’s difficult to imagine Bali in Dutch colonial times, but reading Vicky Baum’s prominent historical novel allows you to do just that.
Capturing the chilling account of the Dutch military intervention in Bali, this novel interweaves several different stories detailing the lives of various actors in colonial life, from casteless peasants, feudal lords, impulsive youths, slaves, mystics to bureaucrats. Their stories tragically culminated in the infamous puputan (mass suicides of Balinese royalty that has come to symbolize resistance to foreign aggression). It is a novel about love, death, and also rebirth.
Like A House in Bali, the setting in this novel captures Bali prior to its role in the modern age as a tropical tourist hotspot. Some parts of the book may be a little dry and a tad on the historical side, but the gripping story makes it worth turning the pages over.
Read this if: You are a history buff with an interest in the Southeast Asian colonial era and you like reading about heavy stuff.
Australian foreign correspondent Cameron Forbes combines life stories of native Balinese and foreign settlers (of various backgrounds) with historical accounts covering the suicides, massacres and bombings, before moving on to a geographical narrative that covers the jihadist network and drug trade in Southeast Asia.
Read this if: You enjoy a journalistic account of Bali and want to learn more about the not-so-paradise-like events that have affected Bali.
Calling all chicklit enthusiasts with a healthy does of skepticism regarding the Eat, Pray, Love bliss in Ubud!
Light-hearted, hilarious, and just plain entertaining — this is the perfect book to read while sunbathing in Canggu or drinking mojitos by your hotel/villa pool.
Becky Wicks set out to the island of the gods to accomplish what Liz Gilbert claimed to have done when she went to Bali, finding her inner peace and harmony. However, in the six months that she spent in Bali, her quest for enlightenment was met with the unexpected horrors of encountering teenage boys possessed by monkeys, attempting yogic headstands, undergoing colonic irrigation as well as experiencing vaginal steaming. Somewhere along the way, she realizes that the quest to “find herself” apparently involves losing the plot from time to time.
Read this if: You’re looking for a trashy read, but with some witty humor. Oh and if you think that you’d enjoy reading about the kind of situation that Bridget Jones would have gotten herself into if she’d ever decided “find herself” in Bali after reading/watching Eat, Pray, Love.
Fans of Agatha Christie and Michael Connelly will enjoy this modern-day mystery centered around the temperamental turbaned Inspector Singh whose superiors decided to ship him off to Bali upon news that a terrorist bomb attack has occured. Unfortunately, Inspector Singh’s forté lies in catching murderers, not terrorists. He ended up working on a murder mystery anyway, when skull remains of a British expat was found amongst the bombing rubble with a bullet hole through it. Throughout all of this, he has to deal with his designated Australian sidekick, a peppy police officer who he finds way too optimistic for his liking.
As with many mystery novels, this one has many twists and turns and red herrings that will keep you turning the pages. While the book is funny in parts, there is an underlying darkness to the serious storyline attempted, as Flint also depicts the way which the Balinese try to move on from this tragedy that struck their island.
Read this if: You enjoy mysteries where the detective is portrayed as a flawed (and grumpy) protagonist that you can’t help but root for, and if you enjoy stories that are a “light read” but touch on some serious and controversial issues.
If you like your books to give you warm and fuzzies, you might want to reach for A Little Bit One O’Clock, where the author shares his take on Balinese family life through experiencing many intimate moments with them.
Ingram takes readers through his transition from wandering backpacker to Bali expat (no doubt a transition experienced by many these days in the Island of the Gods). We experience the culture shock that hit him and his wife in this transition, in an account that somehow manages to escape any deprecation towards the Balinese or the westerners.
Read this if: You want an easy-to-read intro to Balinese family life and its basic rules and rituals, of if you’re just about to start (or contemplating) a new life in Bali and want to get a better idea of what day to day life involves.
For those who are curious about the underworld of drug-trafficking that unfortunately Bali has become infamous for, Bonella delves into the inner-workings of the men behind the drug-empires, highlighting their highs and lows from multi-million dollar transactions and extravagant lifestyles to being on death row in an Indonesian high-security prison. Bonella, an investigative journalist, has a very captivating writing style that makes you want to keep turning the pages over. Though we warn you, once you finish this book, you may never see Bali the same way ever again.
Bonella has also written two related books, Hotel Kerobokan, which details life in Bali’s most notorious prison and My Story, the autobiography of Schapelle Corby, an Australian women convicted of smuggling marijuana to Bali. Corby is currently on parole and always publicly insisted that someone placed the drugs in her unsecured bag. Although both are riveting reads, they are darker and heavier in terms of tone and content.
Read this if: Your idea of a good read is an investigative exposé into a bizzare underworld.
Of course we can’t not include the most famous published novel ever that made Ubud a mainstream tourist trail and got turned into a movie starring Julia Roberts and James Franco. That would not be right.
Especially when it’s been on the New York Times bestseller list. And unless you’ve been living under a rock the plot goes something like this: writer experiences mid-life crisis, divorces husband, dates and moves in with a younger man, then decides to leave him and goes on a culinary journey around Italy, tries to “find peace” in an ashram in India, and ends her travels in Bali in order to find “balance” and be healed by Ketut Liyer, the medicine man in Ubud. While in Bali, she falls in love again.
Read this if: You’ve been living under a rock and haven’t read this already. Though criticized by some as being a self-indulgent memoir, Gilbert’s account in her journey is fun to read, especially for the wanderlust amongst us.
Photo at the top: Flickr
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