Bali Books to read before your Trip

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Bali Books to read before your Trip

In preparation for a trip to a region or country, I like to dive into the literature written in or about an area.

Bali today is everyone’s idea of paradise largely in part due to the book and movie Eat, Pray, Love.  Bali has long been a sunny & less expensive retreat for Australians (similar to Mexico for Americans).  Now thousands of tourists from Europe, America and elsewhere travel there to bike through rice fields, visit spiritual healers and enjoy this beautiful Asian culture. 

I have visited Bali four times and my experience was one of an island paradise. Bali family life & culture is celebrated, locals are kind, and a slower pace of life becomes the norm.  As I traveled outside the normal tourist areas, I saw more of the old way of life that still exists through Balinese rituals in small towns and the signs of Dutch colonial rule.

Following are my choice for books on Bali celebrating its culture and novels from ex-pats who now cherish the Balinese culture as I do. I also included some books on Indonesia examining its complex history both from family native structures and Dutch colonial rule.


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by Janet De Neefe

Fragrant Rice is a memoir of an Australian woman who came to Bali in 1974. As she stepped off the plane, she fell in love with the Balinese food and culture.  After later falling in love with a Balinese man, she adopted the Balinese culture & tradition as she raised her four children in Bali.

The memoir provides entertaining stories as she adapts to this new culture and way of life.  It also provides insight into the ancient myths and rituals still alive in Bali today.

De Neefe and her husband runs two restaurants & cooking classes in Bali. The book shares 115 Balinese family recipes to further experience the warmth of this book and culture.


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by Elizabeth Gilbert

Eat, Pray, Love (both the book and movie) have become a worldwide sensation and likely needs no introduction as it has that launched many women’s trip to Bali and solo travel in general.  On a recent trip to Bali, I overheard 3 different conversations in a restaurant mentioning this book as inspiration for their trips – both culturally and as a spiritual journey.

Gilbert’s novel follows her year long journey to Italy (Eat), India (Pray), and Bali (Love) as she takes a year for self-examination and immerses herself in each culture to spark magic and joy back in her life.  The book and movie both highlight the beauty of Bali and especially Ubud as she bikes through rice fields, explores the markets and visits healers.

Regardless of your thoughts on the movie or lifestyle, this book has sparked millions of people and especially women to examine their lives and dare to dream.


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by William Ingram

A Little Bit One O’clock tells the story of a couple, William and Jean Ingram, as they transition from wandering backpacker to life of Bali expats by living with a Balinese family. The author, William, provides entertaining stories of his cultural shock as a westerner in this different culture but without disparaging either which is quite refreshing.

The couple have gone on to fully integrate into the Balinese culture and contributing to the rebirth of textile weavers in Indonesian. You can see their work at Jean’s gallery, Threads of Life, in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia.


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by Miguel Covarrubias

First published in 1937, Island of Bali is still regarded by many as the most authoritative text on Bali and its fascinating people. Included is a wealth of information on the daily life, art, customs and religion of this magical “Island of the Gods.” In the author’s own words it presents a “bird’s-eye view of Balinese life and culture.”

Miguel Covarrubias, the author, was a noted painter and caricaturist as well as a student of anthropology. He lived in Bali for a total of three years in the early 1930s, and today his account is as fresh and insightful as it was when it was originally published. Introducing the island with a survey of hits history, geography and social structure, Covarrubias goes on to present a captivating picture of Balinese art, music, drama. religion, witchcraft, death and cremation.

The books also contains 90 drawings by Covarrubias and countless others by Balinese artists and 114 half-tone photographs, and five full-color paintings by the author.


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by Tim Hannigan

Indonesia is by far the largest nation in Southeast Asia and has the fourth largest population in the world after the United States. It is a land of incredible diversity and unending paradoxes that has a long and rich history stretching back a thousand years and more.

A Brief History of Indonesia details its fascinating history. These are the fabled “Spice Islands” that Europeans set out on countless voyages of discovery to find and later fought bitterly over in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. This was the land that Christopher Columbus sought, and Magellan actually reached and explored. One tiny Indonesian island was even exchanged for the island of Manhattan in 1667!

This history book tells the story of Indonesia as a narrative of kings, traders, missionaries, soldiers and revolutionaries, featuring stormy sea crossings, fiery volcanoes, and the occasional tiger. It recounts the colorful visits of foreign travelers who have passed through these shores for many centuries—from Chinese Buddhist pilgrims and Dutch adventurers to English sea captains and American movie stars.


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 by Elizabeth Pisani

Declaring independence in 1945, Indonesia said it would “work out the details of the transfer of power etc. as soon as possible.” With over 300 ethnic groups spread across over 13,500 islands, the world’s fourth most populous nation has been working on that “etc.” ever since. In Indonesia, Etc, author Elizabeth Pisani traveled 26,000 miles to highlight the forgotten, less-traveled area of Indonesia with all its unique customs. This book takes you out of popular Bali or the cities in Java to lessor known areas of Indonesia with fascinating customs.


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by Colin McPhee

First published in 1947, A House in Bali tells the story of the writer and composer Colin McPhee’s (1900–64) obsession with a music once unknown to the West, and of his journey to Bali to experience it firsthand.

In 1929, the young Canadian– born musician chanced upon rare gramophone recordings of Balinese gamelan music which were to change his life forever. He was able to realize his dream of experiencing this music first hand and spent almost a decade there during the 1930’s. Music of Bali and dance are second nature to the Balinese, and his subsequent writings and compositions proved seminal in popularizing Balinese gamelan music in the West.

In A House in Bali, McPhee unfolds a beguiling picture of a society long established, staggeringly poor in Western terms, but rich beyond belief in spiritual values and joy…. an observation most Westerners quickly discover visiting Bali.


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by Vicky Baum
The looting of a Chinese trading ship gives the Dutch colonial forces the perfect excuse to intervene in island affairs, but they encounter astonishing resistance. In the battle of Badung, wave upon wave of Balinese clothed in white ceremonial garb charged into the blazing Dutch guns, kris daggers in hand, prepared to die. The lives of various characters in colonial life, from casteless peasants, feudal lords, impulsive youths, slaves, mystics to bureaucrats all intertwine and tragically culminate in the infamous puputan, (the “ending”) which was the mass suicides of Balinese royalty that has come to symbolize resistance to foreign aggression). It is a novel about love, death, and also rebirth. Love and Death in Bali, first published in German in 1937, is considered by many to be the finest novel ever written about this island paradise where everyone, regardless of caste or position, is woven into the fabric of an ancient culture, connected by customs and, above all, by strong religious beliefs. now reissued in a completely re-edited edition under its original title, with an introduction by anthropologist and award-winning author Nigel Barkley


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by Cameron Forbes

Under the Volcano is dramatic history written by Australian foreign correspondent Cameron Forbes. He combines life stories of native Balinese and foreign settlers (of various backgrounds) with historical accounts covering the ritual suicides of Balinese warriors fighting the Dutch, he massacres of 1965-66, and the bombings of 2002 and 2005. He also provides narrative that covers the jihadist network and drug trade in Southeast Asia today.

Everyone comes to Bali looking for paradise… and it is, but there is also a dark side in its history and present day living as every culture has.


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by Kathryn Bonella

Hotel Kerobokan is the nickname for Kerobokan Jail – Bali’s most notorious prison.

In Hotel Kerobokan‘s filthy and disease-ridden cells, a United Nations of prisoners live crushed together in misery. Petty thieves and small-time drug users share cells with killers, rapists and gangsters. Hardened drug traffickers sleep alongside unlucky tourists, who’ve seen their holiday turn from paradise to hell over one ecstasy tablet.

The book reveals the wild ‘sex nights’ organized by corrupt guards for prisoners who have the money to pay, the rampant drug use, the suicides and killings, and days out at the beach. It exposes the jail’s role in supplying high-grade drugs to the outside, the gang that rules the jail through terror, the corruption that means anything is for sale, and the squalor and misery endured by prisoners.

A might message to stay clear of ANY drugs in Bali. This author also wrote about Gold Coast beautician Schapelle Corby whose trial gripped the Australian headlines for years.

Looking for a Travel Guide Book about Bali, Indonesia?

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