The tourist hot spot where poisoning deaths are a very real risk

Liam Davies died after his vodka was treated with methanol in 2012. Dozens of others have followed. Photo / Facebook
Liam Davies died after his vodka was treated with methanol in 2012. Dozens of others have followed. Photo / Facebook

When Australian teen Liam Davies walked into a 24-hour beachfront bar a day before New Year's Eve in 2012, he asked a simple but important question.

He was lied to and that lie cost the 19-year-old his life.

Behind the bar at Rudy's Pub and Restaurant on the picturesque Indonesian tourist island of Gili Trawangan, there were dozens of bottles of spirits Liam didn't recognise. There was a small selection he knew from home.

He pointed to the Smirnoff and asked if it contained genuine imported spirits. He was told that it did but, not wanting to take any chances, he insisted a new bottle be opened for him and his mates.

The threesome drank three vodkas with lime and went to bed early. What they didn't know was that instead of vodka they were drinking arak, a locally-brewed spirit laced with deadly methanol.

Within three days, Liam would be brain dead and his parents would be forced to make the agonising decision to turn off his life support.

It's been more than three years since the Perth teen died from what he drank in that bar. His father says the risk for other tourists is as great as ever.

"I think Australians are more aware now but European tourists visiting that region have no idea," Tim Davies told

"Is it safer these days? I don't think so."


When Liam woke on New Year's Eve, he and a friend shared the following symptoms: a headache, blurred vision and nausea.

They both agreed it was an extreme physical response given how little they'd drank the night before.

That night they returned to Rudy's, still unaware that the toxic ingredient was effectively embalming them from the inside out.

Liam was found convulsing on the floor of a friend's apartment the morning after. He was rushed to hospital but a failure to diagnose methanol poisoning left him at the mercy of the toxin.

He was flown to Perth where he died a short time later, surrounded by family. His friend was the lucky one.

Since then, Liam's parents have dedicated their lives to making sure no other family goes through what they've been through. They've started a charity in his honour but the body count continues to pile up, despite their best efforts.

Since 2010, there have been dozens of poisoning deaths in Indonesia blamed on methanol.

Among the victims are New Zealand-born rugby player Mike Denton ("Jungle Juice"), British backpacker Cheznye Emmons (fake gin), Irish tourist Roisin Burke (arak) and Swede Johan Lundin (Mohito).

Others who were poisoned but escaped with their lives include Australians Jamie Johnston, who says a methanol-laced cocktail "ruined my life", couple Colin and Cathryn Williams, who drank vodka and orange cocktails that made them sick, Tess Mettam, who drank a "blaster" cocktail and went temporarily blind and Jen Neilsen, who had half her pancreas removed and was languishing in a Bali hospital facing a $50,000 medical bill last month.

The Australian Medical Association expressed renewed concerns in July over the number of methanol-related poisonings in Indonesia. It's a fact that makes Liam's father angry.

He's frustrated, he says, that despite some progress, counterfeit alcohol continues to find its way into the market.


In the mountains around Bali, local villagers make money by flooding bars and pubs with their own special brew.

The demand is driven by thirsty tourists but there are other factors at play, namely Indonesia's skyrocketing import taxes. Because it's so expensive to have the real thing brought in to Bali, locals make their own.

"There's a whole illegal industry, this counterfeit industry, that flourishes," Mr Davies said.

"Traders buy arak from villagers where the whole village is producing it. They sell it to traders and the traders sell it to organisations who make counterfeit alcohol."

Mr Davies, who visited the regions where arak is made with his wife Lhani, said counterfeiters "stretch" and "juice up" the arak with anything they can find to give it a kick.

Mr Davies says they use industrial ethanol, methanol and even insect repellant.

"That product is repackaged into imported spirit bottles and sold back into the tourist and restaurant market. If you're a little restaurant owner, you can't afford to pay top dollar so you get something else."

The industry is not the only problem. Mr Davies says there's another reason his son died. The hospital he arrived at in Lombok didn't know how to diagnose the poison.

As precious hours passed and doctors told the Davies family their son had tetanus and bleeding on the brain, Liam's life slipped away.

"Hospitals didn't know how to diagnose it then and they didn't want to talk about it," Mr Davies said.

"Progress has been difficult in a predominately Muslim country where people are reluctant to discuss anything involving alcohol."

They need to start talking about it. According to the International Federation of Spirits Producers, an organisation set up to protect the industry against counterfeiting of distilled spirits, just 8 per cent of spirits in Indonesia is declared and genuine.

Another 40 cent is genuine but imported illegally and more than 50 per cent is illegal and counterfeit.


In October, the Davies family will sit down with the head of the health department in Indonesia to attempt, for a third time, to have new treatment protocols made standard across the board.

The charity the family set up in Liam's name presented formal protocols after 12 months of engagement with authorities. If passed, they would mean every hospital treats methanol poisoning the same way and every student going through a medical degree learns the same way.

"In terms of systemic change, that's the big thing we need to get done," Mr Davies said.

Toxicology workshops were delivered for the first time at the main training hospital in Denpasar in 2013.

Outside that, the family has been working with villagers on educating them about the dangers of arak, and with community health centres on how to spot the symptoms and treat them quickly.

Every year, as thousands of Australians make their way to Indonesian party islands, Lhani Davies joins them.

She works with the organisation Red Frog, supporting school-leavers by walking them home when they've had too many drinks and educating them about the dangers of methanol.

The family attempted to take their son's death to court without success.

"The police investigation was really hard," Mr Davies said.

"We've basically walked away from that. After a year and a half it was obvious Indonesia is a really corrupt country. Police had done a reasonable job but the prosecutor was being really difficult.

"I had Liam's autopsy report and I gave it to him and he said he didn't even know if Liam was poisoned in Indonesia or if it happened later in Australia."

They focus now on what they can change and they honour Liam's legacy. In the months after his death, they set up LIAM - Lifesaving Initiatives About Methanol.

To help them spread the word, you can donate here. It could save a tourist's life.


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