Put the kettle on, your feet up, and get lost in West Bali. We've put together a reading list that, we're pretty sure, will give you some inspiration for your next holiday.
Good books about Bali
Good books about Bali
Bali: Sekala & Niskala
– Fred B. Eisman –
One of the best possible sources for anyone who wants to try to get their head around the complexities of religion and magic on the island. This well written, and intensely researched, book shows that the world we see (sekala) and the realm of the occult (niskala) are intertwined in countless ways through everyday life on ‘the island of the gods’. Even Balinese experts often refer to this book for background on such things as rites of passage, blood sacrifices and the Balinese calendar (good luck with that one!).
Secret Bali: An Unusual Guide
– Narina Exelby and Mark Eveleigh –
Black sand that has healing power; why you shouldn't whistle on a beach at night; beautiful rice terraces; a workshop where batiks are created with natural dyes; a place to petition the spirits for a baby; flute-playing pigeons; one of the world's best unofficial street-art exhibitions; a mysterious breed of cattle; a miniature Borobudur temple....
Secret Bali is a homage to an island paradise that still bewitches those who take the time to explore it. More than that, it is a tribute to the Balinese people – one of the richest and most hospitable cultures in the world. Some of the places in this book are located in parts of the island that few visitors will ever see; others lie like dropped gems , right beside the well-trodden tourist trail. Even dedicated connoisseurs of Bali will find some treasures among these pages.
Love and Death in Bali
– Vicki Baum –
Written in 1937 but set during the Dutch invasion of 1906, this unexpectedly gripping and moving story is probably the most exciting novel ever set in Bali. The puputan (mass suicides) of the royal families form a bloody climax to the story but it makes a beautiful read too for portrayals of Balinese village life that travellers who get off the beaten track will surely recognise over a century later.
A House in Bali
– Colin McPhee –
When writer and composer Colin McPhee first heard gamelan he realized that it was the music of his dreams. Written in 1947 (almost a decade after McPhee and his wife finally abandoned their house in Bali), this book still continues to inspire lovers of Bali with its passion, excitement, evocative descriptions and sheer fascination for the islanders’ way of life. Perhaps it was his musical background that allowed the beauty of the island to sing through every page of his story.
Island of Demons
– Nigel Barley –
The fictionalized story of German artist Walter Spies who lived in Ubud in the 1930s and was a magnet to the rich and famous – Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, Vicki Baum, Barbara Hutton (one of the world’s richest women)… Written from the viewpoint of Spies’s artist friend Rudolf Bonner, this poignant and sometimes very funny book is also occasionally disturbing (to whit the artists’ appetites for young Balinese men). It seems that, even at that time, life in Ubud could be a little too frantic and Spies eventually moved to what he called ‘a mountain hut’ in East Bali. Island of Demons follows the artists even farther as he tries to flee his sad destiny at the start of World War II.
Secrets of Bali: Fresh Light on the Morning of the World
– Jonathan Copeland and Ni Wayan Murni –
One of the best sources for accurate information on Balinese daily life. There are often said to be two sides to every story in Bali…but if you can find it within the pages of Secrets of Bali chances are that you’ll be getting the truth. Written by Jonathan Copeland but in conjunction with Ni Wayan Murni (owner of Murni’s Warung, Jalan Raya Ubud), this is one of the best sources of information on…well, on pretty much every question you might have about Bali’s culture, traditions and lifestyle.
– Willard A. Hanna –
Originally published as Bali Profile: People, Events, Circumstances 1001-1976, this reprinted version (with an infinitely catchier title – and a swashbuckling cover) offers a wonderful insight into almost a thousand years of history. It might not go back to the beginnings of humankind’s dominion on the island – did you know for example that the first sea voyage undertaken by man was believed to have been between Bali and Lombok (on a bamboo raft) about 850,000 years ago? This is the book to read if you want to understand the island’s history from the days of the Majapahit invasion through the oppression of the Dutch years to the tourism boom of the 1970s (which seems to have terrified the author with its invading army of hippies).
Island of Bali
– Miguel Covarrubias –
The Mexican author described this book as a "bird's-eye view of Balinese life and culture". Covarrubias lived in Bali for three years in the 1930s yet his depth of knowledge and research comes across on every page and his explanations of art, traditions and witchcraft present a window to anyone who would like to understand Bali almost a century later.
Travelling to Bali – Four Hundred Years of Journey
– Compiled by Adrian Vickers –
From the account of the first Dutch fleet in 1579, through Miguel Covarrubias's "dire predictions" for the tourism future of Ubud written in 1937 (I kid you not!) this book – compiled in 1994 – includes excerpts of some of the best writing, both foreign and local, to come out of the Island of the Gods. Well worth looking up.
The Year of Living Dangerously
– Christopher J. Koch –
A classic 1978 thriller (and love story) set among the drama and violence of the Communist coup attempt of 1965. Perhaps best known for the classic movie, starring Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver, the book has aged well and is still an infinitely worthwhile read these days. It is set in Java, mostly around Jakarta and there are scenes that will still be familiar to visitors who know the nation’s capital today. A real classic.
– Elizabeth Pisani –
A contract to cover Indonesia as a correspondent for Reuters and The Economist in 1988 began a fascination that turned Elizabeth Pisani into one of the most widely travelled foreign writers in the country. Indonesia Etc is packed with fascinating insights from a widely-travelled and adventurous journalist. The depth of information that this book encompasses is staggering, yet it remains an entertaining and light-hearted read. Elizabeth Pisani had a talent for creating a page-turner while at the same time painting insightful and poignant pictures of everything from radical Islamism to Tana Toraja’s "living dead" to the Bali bombs.
The Malay Archipelago
– Alfred Russel Wallace –
More than 150 years after it was written, The Malay Archipelago is probably still the best travel book ever written about what would later become Indonesia. The celebrated naturalist (a contemporary of Charles Darwin) landed only briefly at Bali, spending a few days exploring the Singaraja area in June 1856. Wallace’s lively words make exciting reading even now, and still inspire travellers with an ambition to get to know the world’s greatest island nation. Indonesia boasts an estimated 17,500 islands, of which more than 6,000 are said to be uninhabited. Wallace spent eight years travelling about 22,000km through virtually unexplored islands… many of which remain virtually unknown to outsiders even now.
Ring of Fire: An Indonesian Odyssey
– Lawrence Blair, with Lorne Blair –
The story of the various journeys that English brothers Lawrence and Lorne Blair made while filming the 10-year exploration (sponsored by, of all people, Ringo Starr) of Indonesia. From 1972 the brothers travelled through New Guinea, Sumba, Komodo, Krakatao, Sulawesi, Borneo and, of course, Bali filming their classic adventure-travel documentary series Ring of Fire. This remains one of the best travel books on Indonesia.
We're massive fans of Audible (Narina is, especially). We love to listen to audio books when we're roadtripping, and find it a convenient way to keep "reading" while negotiating boarding queues, taxis and public transport. Unfortunately none of the books we've recommended above are currently available on Audible (very few books about Bali are – unless you consider Eat, Pray, Love a "Bali book"), but if you're looking for a book to listen to while you're travelling or lounging next to a pool, take a look through Audible's "shelves", where there are more than 200,000 titles. If you don't yet have an account, keep in mind that you get one free book when you sign up.
PS we're Amazon affiliates and so if you do accept a free book – or buy one – through our link, you'll be supporting our work on this site, at no extra cost to you.
Stories about West Bali
– Wild Travel –
A herd of elegant sambar deer is grazing placidly around our campsite. A civet trots across the edge of the meadow, and in the distant trees we can see the shadowy forms of a troop of rare Balinese black monkeys. Spectacular as they are, they are just distractions to me, mere backing acts for the main event I've travelled halfway around the world to see.
– Etihad Airways: Aspire –
It is a typically peaceful and picturesque Indonesian dawn. Mist clings to western Bali's muscular green hills and coats the valleys in milky layers. Further westward, on the distant horizon, the highest Javanese volcanoes are already reflecting the first gold-tinged heat of the day. The sound of birdsong carries clearly across a patchwork of paddies that resemble a romantic English watercolour.
– Get Lost –
The Bali Time Forgot
You'll hear one phrase again and again in West Bali. Adeng adeng. It means 'slowly slowly', but more comprehensively it could be said to sum up a relaxed tropical lifestyle that's fast disappearing on the rest of the island. If you drive out this was you're sure to have had a solid introduction to the adeng adeng philosophy long before you even arrive.
– KLM: Holland Herald –
Island of the Gods
The spirits of the Balinese highlands seem to have an insatiable taste for chewing gum. For the third time today, jungle guide Made is making an offering. He carefully decorates a banana leaf with petals, rice, a cigarette and the obligatory gum and places it among the roots of a sacred banyan tree. He whispers intonations in an ancient tongue, voice respectfully lowered so that the syllables seem almost to dissolve in a haze of incense.
– Qatar Airways: Oryx –
Bali's Wild West
...After just a few days here [in West Bali National Park] I have already discovered to my surprise that West Bali offers the most spectacularly accessible wildlife viewing I have ever seen in a Southeast Asian jungle. Even from the vantage point of a hired 4x4, we have seen all three of the park's resident deer species and two of the three primates.
– Qantas –
I'm standing in a Rockpool ... on Bali's north-west coast, mesmerised by the faint hum of a Madurese fishing boat as it cruises towards the soaring peaks of Java. As the sun crests a rain forested mountain behind me, it turns the warm, clear water lapping army feet into shards of burnished copper. Then, as the sound of the vessel fades, it's replaced from the depths of the jungle by the cackle of a kingfisher and the distant cough of a barking deer.
– Traveller –
Once There Were Tigers
The Indonesians have a poetic name for the sun. As my hammock sways gently, 'the eye of the day' does indeed appear to be winking through the jungle canopy. IT's a common misconception that dawn is a peaceful time in the rainforest, but nature comes with its own piercing range of wake-up calls. At daybreak the forest reverberates with the din of unforeseen wildlife.
– Philippine Airlines: Mabuhay –
The dawn air is infuse with cloves as we drive through a shady orchard heavy with burgeoning crops of chocolate and coffee. The homely scent of a dozen breakfast fires catches me, wafting like incense around the shrines that guard a highland hamlet. Suddenly, I am out among paddies that gleam under the first slanting rays of the sun.
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