Bali Methanol Drinks Warning

For one of the most popular spots on the tiny island of Gili Trawangan, Rudy's Pub is not much to look at: a tired beach shack with a smattering of tables and thatch-roofed pavilions, where bronzed drinkers with braided hair lounge on cushions and take in the view of lapping sea. Since the ’90s, the Indonesian island has been a poor man’s Ibiza: a backpacker party mecca with cheap accommodation, no police presence and loads of drugs.

Rudy’s stays open 24 hours a day. Down towards the beach, a couple of backpackers are passed out after spending the night here, either because they couldn’t move or because a bench is cheaper than a hotel. “Marijuana?” bar staff, their mates, or even other tourists will offer nonchalantly, even though just across the water in Bali several Australians are serving lengthy jail terms for drug possession. “Maybe cocaine?” As staff mix “’shroom shakes” in two blenders, a tourist rolls a joint and starts smoking it with his girlfriend.

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It’s just another carefree day in backpacker paradise. For two older Australians who have just arrived on the nearby larger island of Lombok, however, there will never be anything carefree about Rudy’s. There will never be any joy here. This was the bar suspected of serving a fatal drink to their 19-year-old son.

Tim and Lhani Davies have come to Indonesia in an attempt to find out what happened to Liam. They’ve been here many times before on holiday, but this time their visit is unplanned and unwanted and all they feel is numbness. The serene view from their hotel, the ocean glittering at dusk, fails to work its usual magic.

The last time Tim and Lhani saw their son alive was just after Christmas. The cheeky 19-year-old carpenter, raised in Perth but of New Zealand and Samoan heritage, was on his way to Indonesia with friends to see in the New Year. Gili Trawangan, with its crystal clear waters, scant development and a no-cars policy, is what Bali used to be before it was scarred by over-development and pollution—a magnet for backpackers like Liam.

“I told him I loved him and I would see him when he got back,” Lhani says. But Liam came back far earlier than planned—in a coma and close to death.

Indonesian doctors had misdiagnosed his sudden collapse on Lombok as a brain aneurysm. In reality, the 19-year-old had suffered acute methanol poisoning. Formaldehyde had formed in his body and had rapidly attacked his organs. By the time he arrived in Perth, it was too late to save him.

There is no way of knowing how many people have been poisoned by methanol in Indonesia and no statistics are kept by the country's health department. None of the hospitals in Bali and Lombok are equipped to test for methanol poisoning. Dr Agus Somia, head of infectious diseases at Bali’s Sanglah Hospital, says he regularly treats people for poisoning, far more often than headlines focusing on foreign tourists would suggest. “It is really easy to buy drugs or chemicals in Indonesia,” Dr Somia says. “Everyone can buy methanol, formaldehyde or anything. I never have to show a prescription when I go to the pharmacy.”

The symptoms of methanol poisoning

When methanol poisoning occurs — it can result in permanent blindness or death — it is rarely possible to trace the source. Symptoms don't appear for up to 48 hours and are often mistaken for a hangover. Travellers in holiday spots like Lombok typically move between many bars and restaurants, any one of which could have served them a spirit or cocktail laced with methanol — traditionally used by Balinese in rural areas to light pump lanterns.

In Liam's case, the source was easy to pin down. He had stuck to bottled Bintang beer for most of his trip and on the one night he had ordered cocktails — vodka mixes—he got them from Rudy’s Pub.

Two of the people with him, a friend from Perth and a tourist he had befriended on the island, also became violently ill. Rosalind Jay, an 18-year-old Canadian backpacker, had been traveling alone in Indonesia when she met Liam and his friends on Gili Tranwangan a few days before the New Year. When she ran into him again on the morning of New Year's Eve, she decided to see in the night with him and his friends at Rudy’s. Wary of drinking spirits from unsealed bottles, they watched the barman pour the “vodka” from a labeled bottle. The last time she saw Liam was shortly after midnight. “I was saying goodbye to him and his friend as we all headed back home from sitting on the beach.”

The next day, having left the island, Rosalind fell violently ill on the ferry between Lombok and Bali. Her vision became blurred, she was confused and had trouble staying awake. “It got worse and worse,” recalls Rosalind, “I would try to open my eyes but I couldn’t see.” Rosalind lost consciousness. Passengers had to move her when her head kept banging against the boat and she didn’t wake up.

Once alerted, her parents arranged her admission to hospital where she was treated for methanol poisoning. She continued treatment in Malaysia before flying back home to Canada about a week later.

She had no idea that Liam had been poisoned until her mother went online to research methanol cases and came across an article about the Perth man’s fate. “My mother said ‘Someone else from Gili has been poisoned,’ and she read out the name. I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I thought I was being careful. I didn’t drink any arak. I thought I was having a safe drink. The bar staff are all friendly so you think they’re your think everything is fine. I’m lucky to be alive.”

Why has Indonesia turned to methanol drinks?

To understand how a deadly chemical can make its way into seemingly safe drinks in bars across Bali and Lombok, you need go drive about two hours east of Bali’s capital, Denpasar, to the poor farming region of Karangasem.

About 80 percent of arak, the famous local spirit sold in Denpasar and the basis of the famous “Arak Attacks” cocktails (usually arak and orange juice) popular along Bali’s tourists strip, has its unlikely origin here, in the muddy backyards of a string of villages.

The brew — distilled from the sap of palm trees — tastes like petrol and burns its way violently down the throat.

“The financial situation makes people creative, but in the wrong way,” explains Ika, a Denpasar local outside a small shop in Legian, where some of the arak ends up. “To make money, you have to mix it with something. Water makes it taste less strong, so you put something else in it... something cheap to keep it strong."

The growing problem of drink spiking in Bali is rooted in this black market economy. Beginning in the hills of Karangasem, everyone in the moonshine chain is after a profit — from the Denpasar middlemen who come up to the villages every afternoon and haggle over price, to the corrupt police paid to turn a blind eye.

At first, locals just spiked their own drinks, equating the ability to handle a highly potent drink with manliness and sexual prowess. “If you have high resistance to arak then you are strong,” Ika says.

But two years ago, the Indonesian government raised the excise tax on imported spirits by between 100 and 214 percent, depending on their alcohol content, and arak suddenly became a cheap substitute to keep bar prices down and profits up.

These days, unbeknown to the customer, many bars across Bali and Lombok are selling “vodka” or other name-brand spirits that is actually arak. If the substitute has been watered down and laced with a substance like the odourless, tasteless methanol to maintain its potency, the results can be deadly.

Sometimes it is methanol, sometimes ethanol, sometimes it is mosquito repellant — anything a seller thinks can be used to cheaply water down arak but still give it its kick. The result is often permanent blindness and, occasionally, death. In some cases, it may not be that a lethal drink has deliberately been spiked – methanol can remain as a result of poor distilling.

“It happens with everything here in Bali," Ika says. "White snapper is cheap so you put red colouring on it and it becomes red snapper, which you can sell for more. Because we are poor, we have to be creative.”

In the weeks after Liam’s death, Tim and Lhani’s grief and shock were compounded by frustration over the Indonesian police’s apparent ignorance of the death, and contradictory statements from both Indonesia and Australia about an investigation. (Tests conducted by Perth's The West Australian newspaper a week after Liam’s death showed that Rudy’s Pub was still serving drinks laced with methanol.)

With frustration building, the couple made the sudden decision to head to Lombok to push for what should have been obvious — an investigation into who had poisoned their son. They also wanted to meet Rosalind Jay, the Canadian student who he had befriended.

Rosalind Jay had only just returned to Canada when she decided to turn around and fly back to Lombok. Indonesian police had said they wouldn't investigate Liam's death unless an official complaint was made in person at Lombok's police headquarters. Rosalind realised she wasn't just a witness; she was also a victim. So on the long flight from Vancouver, she prepared a lengthy statement for police describing the night in detail. Tim and Lhani came with their own documents —Liam’s medical records, death certificate and a photograph of their son lying in a coma.

A series of attempts to meet Lombok officials initially fell through and Indonesian police floored them with a claim that they had gone to the island to investigate but didn’t get anywhere because they didn’t know the name of the bar allegedly responsible. They claimed the Australian Federal Police had withheld this critical information, along with other key details of Liam’s death (the AFP denies this).

But the couple persisted, hiring an Indonesian lawyer and mounting a public campaign to seek justice. Lombok police finally launched an investigation and alcohol taken from the bar tested positive for methanol. At the time of writing, charges were expected to be laid against those responsible for the spiking.

Rosalind Jay grows tearful as she recalls the Davies’ last night in Lombok. As the sun set over the fishing boats at Sengiggi Beach, the young woman who had only known Liam’s parents for a few days, instinctively rested her head on Lhani’s shoulder. Returning to Lombok and meeting them had helped give her a sense of closure, she says.

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Take precautions

Last year, 860,000 Australians holidayed in Bali. “About 99.3 percent come home having had a really good holiday,” says Ross Taylor of the Indonesia Institute. He says “a couple of thimbles” of methanol can do permanent damage and offers this advice:

• Take your own spirits and order a soft drink. (Visitors to Bali can bring in 1lt of alcohol each);
• Only order spirits in four-star or five-star hotels;
• At “susceptible” bars, stick to the local Bintang beer, imported beers or soft drink;
• Drink imported wine at well-known restaurants from bottles that you see opened;
• If an exotic spirit drink costs $2, ask yourself how the bar could sell it for that;
• The fact that a spirit is coming out of a legitimate bottle is no guarantee the drink is safe;
• Respect the place, respect their laws, respect their customs and respect yourself by taking precautions.

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