Bali A Paradise Created by Adrian Vickers

Bali: A Paradise Created by Adrian Vickers

Bali: A Paradise Created is a penetrating and unafraid examination of the manufacturing of the island’s image to serve political, economic and cultural purposes. This important book explores the underlying social and cultural forces that have shaped the ultimately enduring image of Bali that we have today. It gives expression to multiple voices in the experience of Bali, including insights gleaned from oral history interviews with the Balinese themselves.

Over the past four centuries of Bali’s modern history, this tiny island is unique in that it has been subject to a number of widely divergent images. From the 16th to the 18th C., Bali was perceived to be chaotic and violent – an island of theft, murder, anarchy and despotic decadence – by Dutch colonists and early European writers. These images are amusingly elucidated in the chapter entitled “Savage Bali.”

During the five-year-long English rule of Java under Sir Stamford Raffles in the early 19th C., Bali was perceived as a living museum of Javanese culture, and the Balinese themselves as “Noble Savages.” When the Netherlands government launched an expedition against the king of north Bali, resulting in a humiliating defeat for the Dutch, it further boosted Bali’s warlike menacing image.

When slavery and widow sacrifice, the two foci of much of European image making of Bali, were outlawed in the mid-19th century, Bali’s image began to soften. In the early 20th C., the island became a noble, artistic and harmonious destination for generations of tourists – the quintessence of both the mystical Far East and friendly Pacific islanders.

It was during the Dutch colonial period in the 1920s and ‘30s when Bali as an island paradise fully emerged. After independence, the Suharto regime inherited the idea of Bali as paradise from Sukarno and used that alluring image to boost vital tourism revenue to restore the bankrupt national economy that first president had left behind.

Bali has undergone profound changes since the first edition of Bali: A Paradise Created was first published in 1990 – the exponential explosion of resource draining tourism, the 2002 and 2005 bombings, massive unchecked development, gridlocked traffic congestion and environmentally devastating overpopulation. That authoritative, much–cited reference work has now been updated with new photos and illustrations, a new introduction and new text focusing on the rapid changes to the image of Bali over the last two decades. The author has tried to minimize updating of earlier chapters and has avoided adding a lot of extra information.

Chapters have been organized as a set of discontinuous and overlapping narratives – Golden Age of Conquest, Balinese Under Pressure, 1908-1965, Indonesian Bali, etc. – which look at the ever-evolving Western images of Bali and fascinatingly contrasts them with what the Balinese imagine their image to be. Western readers are naturally drawn to Bali’s development as a destination for famous and infamous Europeans and Americans in the book’s liveliest chapter, “The Birth of Bali The Paradise” about a third of the way through. For me, this is when the reading starts to pick up and then sustains the pace for the rest of the book right up until the year 2012.

No longer arcane history, it’s a story that I was a part of in the early 1970s with the arrival of the hippies and surfers, Kuta’s emergence as a traveler’s center, the development of Nusa Dua large-scale resorts, the 1980s and ‘90s boom years, the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005, so I could strongly relate to Vicker’s astute recitation of what was unfolding in Bali over these formative years. The 200-plus pages is one of the best capsule histories of this early period of discovery of the island by world travelers.

The driest and most repetitive chapter, of interest only to diehard Bali scholars, is “Balinese Images from the Golden Age to Conquest” which chronicles the late feudal period of the island, its debt to the great Majapahit empire, bygone customs of the grand palaces, interminable dynastic wars, the entrenchment of the caste system and the proliferation of kings and their descendants, the names changing with the frequency of a 19th C. Russian novel.

If read for pleasure, the book bridges the gap between scholarly works and more popular travel accounts. It offers an accessible history and an anthropological study not only of the Balinese, but also of paradise–seekers from all over the world who have invaded Bali in ever–increasing numbers since the 1920s. You begin to understand how Balinese culture has pervaded western art, film, literature and music. Even those who’ve never been here are now able to enjoy a glimpse of paradise.

Illustrations have been assiduously and lovingly assembled: 10 fanciful line illustrations of priests, fights to the death, old navigation and topo maps, Covarrubias drawings and preposterously inaccurate 16th C. woodprints; 20 black & white photos of kings posing with retainers, scribes, topeng dancers, classic Balinese painters, bare breasted servants and slaves, early tourists, colonial officers, Western expats, art deco 1930s KPM travel posters, stills from early films, iconic paintings and modern day festivals. The author has a fondness for biting cartoons lampooning the benefits of development and tourism.

There’s no bibliography, but numerous titles on Balinese history, religion, art and customs – the best books ever written on the subjects – are cited in the text and in the footnotes and in the Acknowledgments, a rich source of reading and study about every aspect of Bali, both ancient and modern. Vicker’s insights into the background, motivations and lives of authors and the literary and social significance of their works on or about Bali sparkle and inform. A glossary is conveniently combined with the index, so unfamiliar terms can be looked up quickly.

Bali: A Paradise Created reveals the true stories behind the island’s development, what goes unremarked in the guidebooks and tourist brochures. Though necessarily a partial history, presenting a broad overview, this illuminating new edition simplifies and at the same time unifies the profusion of histories on Bali. It rebuts unfair treatment in the process of stereotyping and image making of Bali, introducing Balinese history instead as many sided, not just as a single Western-oriented narrative. In a word, this highly readable thesis unwraps the packaging of Bali.

Bali: A Paradise Created, Tuttle Publishing 2012, ISBN 978-080-484-2600, paperback, 320 pages, 16 pages of color, dimension 14 cm x 21 cm. Available for Rp220,000 at Periplus ( and Ganesha bookstores (

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