Jul 19, 2024 Last Updated 5:22 AM, Jul 16, 2024

More than a fatal attraction

More than a fatal attraction
Published: Aug 03, 2013

Outsiders see arak consumption as a highly dangerous activity, but arak plays an important role in Balinese society

Hannah Purdy

Hannah Purdy

Following a recent spate of methanol poisoning in arak-based beverages, Australians are being warned to be selective when choosing alcoholic beverages in Bali and other popular tourist destinations in Indonesia. The Balinese economy relies heavily on the tourism industry and the implications of such warnings for local establishments are yet to become fully apparent.

Beyond the tourism industry however, arak plays a diverse role in Balinese culture. Arak has important historical, religious and cultural uses and meanings. The consumption of arak is highly social and for this reason, arak-related deaths occur in groups. Yet these deaths receive little media attention, due in part to under reporting by hospitals, or victims being treated outside of the hospital system. Crucially, then, the implications of methanol poisoning are not just a concern for tourists to Bali.

Fear and confusion

Warnings to monitor arak consumption were issued following the death of young Australian Liam Davis. Liam entered a coma and died in a Perth hospital less than one week after consuming methanol-laden cocktails on New Year’s Eve 2013. Many Indonesian and other tourists have also died, suffered blindness or permanent brain damage as a result of arak consumption and subsequent methanol poisoning.

Although the risk of methanol poisoning is real, it is also very small. Nevertheless, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, DFAT updated its travel advice for Indonesia, warning tourists to ‘consider the risks’ of consuming alcohol in Indonesia, particularly spirit based drinks as homemade alcohol may be substituted into labelled bottles. The governor of Bali, Made Mangku Pastika, followed suit, recommending that consumers be selective when choosing drinks. The head of the Bali Tourism Board, Bagus Ngurah Wijaya, went a step further, suggesting that venues known to be selling beverages containing methanol should be closed down.

There is now a high level of fear surrounding the consumption of arak. News sites reveal stories of tourists’ worse than average hangovers and travel blogs feature concerns from tourists worried ‘to think that one fruity cocktail could be my last’. Intense hangovers are being self-diagnosed as methanol poisoning, leading to overreactions and unnecessary hospital visits. A large group of students from Simon Fraser University in Canada were thought to have fallen sick after drinking methanol-laced alcohol. It was later confirmed by a spokesperson from their university that their illnesses were ‘likely due to the overconsumption of alcohol’. ‘To the best of our knowledge’, he added, ‘there have been no lingering health effects and no medical attention was required.’

A social and religious tool

In Bali, arak is not just produced to quench tourists’ thirst. It has been produced for hundreds of years and plays an important role in Balinese society. Arak can be made from coconut flowers, sugar cane, grain and many fruits, although it is most commonly made from rice or coconut palm sap. As with all alcohol production, arak is made through a process of fermentation. The juices are boiled down into to a palm wine (tuak) and then further distilled. The steam is collected and the product, once condensed, is arak. It is mostly odourless and ranges from cloudy white to colourless. A clearer liquid indicates a better quality distillation. Arak is sometimes referred to as the ‘Indonesian Rum’ because of its similarity in taste.

As a religious tool, low quality arak mixed with 70 per cent water is used for daily ritual offerings. It is sprinkled on the offerings of flowers and incense laid at temples and places in need of protection. Arak is symbolic of ‘devil vices’ and is used in religious rituals and offerings as a method of appeasing the evil spirits present in the human environment. Higher-grade arak is used for drinking. Tradition healers (Balian) are known to prescribe arak for medicinal purposes.

Arak also plays a significant role for the Balinese youth. As Made, a young Balinese activist, stresses that arak also plays an important role in the secular dimensions of youth culture. Much as it is for the Australian drinking buddies who bond over buckets and ‘Arak Attack’ cocktails during schoolies week, to Made, arak is a social tool. He stresses that the true art of hanging out (nongkrong) is not possible without arak. While ‘western holy water’, Bintang beer, wine and other spirits can be socially dividing depending on price, arak, costing less than Rp. 50,000 (A$ 5) a litre ‘brings people together’. It is consumed mostly by male Balinese: activists, young intellectuals, fishers, farmers and musicians. The arak is poured from a recycled soft drink or aqua bottle into one communal shot glass.

Yet while Made stresses the divide between the traditional usage and his own use of arak, after opening a new bottle of arak he makes sure to pour the first drop onto the earth as an offering to the ancestors. It is evident, then, that the ceremonial and nongkrong culture of arak are strongly interrelated. Both also play a significant role in the wider Balinese culture.

Ceremonies form an important and regular, part of Balinese social interactions. Burials, cremations, weddings, coming of age ceremonies, Balinese New Year and regular family temple celebrations are just some of ceremonial events on the Balinese calendar. Arak is used in the preparation of offerings at these events. Besides the religious importance of ceremonies, they are a time when families and communities are able re-connect and celebrate important events together. At these times, arak is also used as a social lubricant.

Although arak has a traditional and religious function, its role is controversial. Gusti a 40-something conservative Balinese man who takes regular days off work to attend ceremonies for his village, considers the consumption of arak to be ‘not that big of a deal’ for his religious practice. ‘Arak is important for ceremonies and offerings but it can be taken advantage of.’ In fact, Gusti suggests that arak may cause more harm than good. ‘Because some people drink too much, arak can be a bad thing for the Balinese community and culture,’ he says. ‘After they are drunk, nothing can help, all the people will sleep and do nothing. Ceremonies are not supported by drunk people.’

He considers the problem of arak in Bali to be individual and the deaths of both locals and tourists to be the result of binge drinking culture and excessive consumption. ‘Don’t drink too much!’ he advises. ‘Just one small glass two or three times a day to make you warm and strong. One bottle every day will kill you.’ A deadly price

Gusti’s observations are certainly not baseless. Arak has increased in popularity since 2008 when the Indonesian government, responding to the steady rate of black market wine and spirit imports, imposed an import quota and a tax on alcohol of up to 400 per cent.

Bali, ‘the island of the gods’, is also the island of the tourist. In 2012, Bali hosted 2.88 million foreign tourists. With the implementation of the import restrictions, drinking establishments passed the increased cost onto the consumer. However, the new quotas were not high enough to meet consumer demand.

As liquor imported on the black market and sold cheaply to distributors was estimated to be as much as 80 per cent of the total alcohol supply in Indonesia in 2007, alcohol stocks quickly dried up. But the demand for lower-price beverages continues to grow. Businesses responded by sourcing more of the locally produced alcohol. Arak, as a cheap alternative, is now more commonly available at tourist drinking spots than in the past.

However, contrary to the international media’s conception of arak as a poisonous drink additive used to harm tourists, only 4 of the 25 people who died from methanol poisoning in 2009 were foreign nationals. Such is the social nature of the Balinese consumption of arak that the majority of the deaths were groups of four or five Balinese. Again, in late 2012, forty-four people from a rural town in Bangli Regency were treated for methanol poisoning at the Sanglah hospital in Denpasar. Three people died. The cases were reported within one week of Galungan, one of Bali’s largest and most important ceremonies. It was found that the victims had drunk excessive amounts of arak mixed with up to 9 per cent methanol during the social events associated with the ceremony.

Methanol madness

With the increased circulation of arak in tourist locations and increased price of imported beverages, the reported cases of methanol poisoning increased. However, it is unclear whether this increase has been the result of methanol now more commonly being added to arak, a growth in the production of arak more generally, or increased awareness of methanol poisoning cases due to greater media attention on the issue of alcohol after the import restrictions were imposed.

Gusti suggests that methanol is increasingly being added to arak for the purpose of ‘getting drunk more quickly’. He suggests that the new generation of youth ‘want to show how cool and tough they are. They think that the man who drinks the most arak is the strongest. They make it like a pharmacy, like a doctor, making new recipe to get you drunk faster.’ Methanol can be added to arak by the producers or after purchase. It is possible to request arak with or without methanol. And because arak is generally sold illegally, no regulation or quality controls are applied.

Methanol is also being added to arak for economic reasons. In tourism establishments, demand for cheap beverages is high and businesses are forced to maintain competitive prices to attract customers. It is not uncommon for young tourists to bar-hop between establishments, timing their movements based on which place is serving free, pre-made and highly sweetened ‘Arak Attacks’ for that hour. For the Balinese, it is also about price reduction. With 84 per cent of Balinese residents earning less that Rp. 2 million (A$ 200) per month, imported beverages are too expensive for the majority of locals. So, while methanol poisoning is a concern for tourists to Bali, it is more common within the Balinese community. While tourists can pay for more costly imported beverages or switch to beer, for many Balinese imported alcohol is not an option.

Yet perhaps the greatest concern surrounding the consumption of arak in Bali is not the risk of methanol poisoning per se, but the binge drinking culture and excessive consumption of arak that demands ever stronger and cheaper alcohol. It is important to consider this impetus along with the important role that arak plays in Balinese culture and the economic motivations for the addition of methanol to arak in any discussions of the issue of arak in Bali.


Hannah Purdy (hannaha.purdy@gmail.com) is currently working with a local NGO in Denpasar. In 2012 she completed her honours thesis at the ANU on the topic of decentralisation, healthcare and participatory development in Indonesia. Made and Gusti are pseudonyms.

Inside Indonesia 113: Jul-Sep 2013{jcomments on}

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