The Best Books About Indonesia
When it comes to books, I’m old school. I like to read books about a destination rather than Googling and, in fact, I still vastly prefer printed books to anything on a screen – and not only because you can read them in the bath.
Good books about Indonesia used to be thin on the ground, but a clutch of great books have come out over the past few years. So, without further ado, here’s a list of the nine best books about Indonesia, whether you live there, you’re travelling there, or you’re planning on studying there.
If you’ve got suggestions, I’d love to hear them. Drop me a note in the comments and let me know. I’ll update this post every so often with new recommendations, and will be working my way through this interesting list of Indonesian novels over the year.
Indonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation
Part contemporary history, part travelogue, part memoir, Indonesia Etc. covers the journey Indonesianist Elizabeth Pisani took through her adopted country in 2011-2012 – governed only by the rule that she’d accept every single offer of hospitality that came her way. She criss-crossed the vast archipelago, much of it by bus, boat and motorbike, from tiny islands nudging up against Australia to the wilds of Sumatra and Borneo, and everything she writes – including her frustration – is informed by a deep passion for this improbable nation and the bonkers diversity of its thousands of islands.
You’ll learn about the etiquette of buffalo sacrifice in Sumba and how to use it to ruin a rival’s life, the ineffective, dangerous tedium of the whale hunt of Lamalera, the magic of Pelni ferries and the rhythms of bus louts, and the warmth and hospitality of the Indonesian people – as well as the archipelago’s complex recent history. If you’re considering overland travel in Indonesia or planning on spending any serious time here, this is the perfect book for you.
Buy at BookDepository.com for just $10.63 including worldwide shipping.
Love and Death in Bali
It took me a LONG, long time to get around to reading this book, the great classic novel of Bali, I am ashamed to say – so don’t make the same mistake. (It’s not as hard going as Sekala and Niskala, I promise!) Vicki Baum, a Weimar-era German novelist and friend of the Bali-based artist Walter Spies, spent time in Bali during the 1930s, and the novel oscillates between the 30s and the time of the Dutch conquest, and the great mass suicides, or puputan.
The narrative is compelling and the characters step off the page – spoilt royalty, optimistic peasant, beautiful dancer, churlish fisherman, frustrated Dutch officials, and more. (Baum went on to be a successful screenwriter.) But what’s so wonderful reading this story generations after it was written and over a century after its main events shattered the island is how much of modern-day Balinese life remains recognisable, from dances, cockfights, sacrifices, healers and cremations to the rhythms of life in the ricefields. Read it on Bali, ideally on a balcony with a view over the rice terraces.
Buy at Book Depository.com for just $13.88 including worldwide shipping.
A Brief History of Indonesia
It isn’t easy to tell the story of Indonesia, a nation that was only founded in 1945, with its thousands of islands and hundreds of languages, its myriad cultures each with their own long myths and history of sultans, rajas and emperors. But Tim Hannigan manages it in this book, spanning an ambitious timeframe from Indonesia’s rich prehistory right to the present day, all in under 300 very readable pages.
The great natural disasters that shaped the archipelago – the eruptions of Krakatau and Tambora, and their resultant tsunamis – feature. So do the rival kingdoms that arose and eroded on Java, the mysterious folk who built Borobudur, the myriad kings of Bali, the pirate sultans of the eastern islands and even the Chinese admiral Zheng He, still worshipped as a god by some Chinese Indonesians today. Hannigan slots it all together into a whole that’s coherent enough to make you feel you understand Indonesia, but pacy enough to read in a hammock.
Buy at Bookdepository.com for just $14.24 including free worldwide shipping.
Trashy, gossipy and compelling, Australian journo Kathryn Bonella’s Hotel K is one of a series of exposés of Bali’s seamy side: Snowing in Bali, her exploration of the island’s coke dealing scene, is almost equally hard to put down. The tale of life inside Kerobokan prison, AKA Hotel K, where foreigners and locals alike make their best fist of a world of corruption and hardcore drug use, it’s an eye-opening but thoroughly researched read.
Yet it’s also – for all its focus on the foreigner experience – an intriguing insight into how Indonesia works: the routine corruption of a paradoxical island where the biggest source of Class A drugs is the prison where dealers are kept and where prisoners can buy their way out for a day on the beach. You’d have to be a real bliss ninny not to enjoy this book.
Buy at BookDepository.com for just $8.68 including worldwide shipping.
The Malay Archipelago
Alfred Russel Wallace was a naturalist who may well have beaten Darwin to the theory of evolution. And he came up with his big idea on an epic journey across what is now Indonesia, while laid up with malaria on the island of Ternate: struck by the distinctiveness of animals on Bali from animals in Lombok and beyond, he theorised they may have originated separately, on distinct continents.
The Malay Archipelago is Wallace’s lengthy account of his travels around the islands – and it’s an impressive piece not only of natural history but of travel writing. (Some of the tribes he encounters are still thoroughly recognisable today.) If you’re headed to east Indonesia, the remoter parts of Indonesia, or doing a long Indonesia trip, this is the perfect book to dip into and out of as you while away those long bus and boat journeys, and it comes as a classic Penguin too!
Buy now on BookDepository.com for just $13.13 including worldwide shipping.
Flavors of Indonesia
William Wongso is the grand old man of Indonesian cooking, a passionate communicator and popular chef who’s been researching the signature dishes of the archipelago’s various islands for decades now. And Flavors of Indonesia is his attempt to distill the different foodie cultures of the archipelago down into a set of stories, ingredients, cultural insights and simple recipes that will help bring a taste of Indonesia into even a Western kitchen.
Beautifully photographed, with action shots of culinary culture from across a myriad islands, as well as luscious ingredient pics, it’s a celebration of street food that works as well as food porn as it does as a cookbook. The recipes are diverse, with specialties from as far afield as Sumatra, Sulawesi and Maluku, not to mention Java, Bali and Lombok, and easy enough to make at home.
Buy now at BookDepository.com for $34.26 including worldwide shipping.
If you’re interested in learning Indonesian, do head over to my post on the best books for learning Indonesian. Even if you’re not particularly interested in learning Indonesian but are planning to travel a little off-track you’ll end up needing to speak some of the language, so this dinky little book is well worth picking up.
Indonesian is, a friend once remarked, the Lego of languages, so when the authors say you can express 1,000 ideas and concepts with just the 100 words in this book, they’re almost certainly right. Master these basic 100 words, and they will take you a very, very long way, as well as showing you the basics of how the spoken language works. (Or, of course, you could start with these twenty words.)
Buy at BookDepository.com for just $5.59 including worldwide shipping.
Lonely Planet Indonesia (2010 edition)
I am a major fan of the dead tree approach to countries. Particularly big, complicated countries like Indonesia, where it can be crazy hard to work out how to get from A to B, let alone how long anything will take. But, unfortunately, I’m in the minority nowadays. Which is to say that guidebooks are getting shorter. Lonely Planet Indonesia checked in at a whopping 924 pages in 2008 – the 2016 edition is over 100 pages slimmer.
I am of a mind that anyone who’s spending significant time in Indonesia should have a guidebook. And if you’re looking for a guide to Indonesia – as opposed to just Bali, or Bali and Lombok, for which a welter of guides exist – you may well want to pick up one of the older editions. My preference would be the one from 2010, though some guidebook completists believe in 2008.
Pick up a second-hand copy on Amazon from $3.96 including shipping.
Diving in Indonesia
Indonesia is a diving mecca, thanks to its position on the Coral Triangle and the dramatic currents of the Indonesian Throughflow. Yet, with thousands of islands and countless square kilometres of reef, it’s hard to know where to dive.And, no, you won’t get granular information on dive sites from a guidebook, because guidebook writers don’t have the time or budget to go diving. You’re unlikely to get it from a blog, because they’ll only cover places where they can dive for free (or even get paid to dive).
So if you’re serious about diving Indonesia, I recommend acquiring a copy of Diving in Indonesia, a lovingly researched guide to hotspots including Raja Ampat and Komodo, by Sarah Wormald. It’s amicably arranged by region and by dive site, and the money you’ll save by not diving the Gilis (for example) will pay back the purchase price alone.
Buy on BookDepository.com for $17.96 including worldwide shipping.
So these, in my view, are the best books about Indonesia from a traveller’s perspective. Which brings me to the single most popular book for travellers to Indonesia, and by far the biggest-selling book even to mention the world’s fourth most populous nation, the one and only…
Eat, Pray, Love…
I’ve tried on a number of occasions to read this tome, which is single-handedly responsible for transforming Ubud from a destination where a handful of self-absorbed American women went to find themselves through yoga to the place where a neurotic morass of self-absorbed American women go to find themselves through yoga, raw food, alkaline water and Tibetan bowls. Every single time, I get to some egregiously wrong fact about Bali, or some irritating sub-counselling toss about weeping fat tears into a plate of pasta and want to throw the book across the room, ideally at the author.
I have huge respect to Elizabeth Gilbert for securing a $200,000 advance for a travel memoir – one can only assume her original book proposal included finding a husband, which must have made her Ubud stint quite the challenge – but if you’re looking for books about Indonesia, this ain’t it. Oh, and the healer died in 2016, so you can’t go and see him any more, though you can enjoy this frankly delicious takedown of the recent spinoff, Eat, Pray, Love…. Made Me Do It. You’re welcome!
Completist? Buy on BookDepository.com for $6.75 including free worldwide shipping.
Thanks to Barta IV for 1800s Library, available on Flickr’s Creative Commons.