The first time it crossed my mind that being scooter-ready might be a good idea was when I was in India. Trying to get anywhere as a solo traveller is complicated (hiring a driver is too pricey and relying on public transport is limited) and driving a scooter seemed like the perfect solution.
The traffic situation seemed hairier than an ancient guru’s beard though! As I sat in a bar which overlooked a crossroads and sipped my beer whilst watching near-miss after close-call, I decided to reconsider my options.
However, I was determined that when I got to Bali, I would be moving on two wheels.
You may have seen the motorbikes weaving between the traffic, drivers with a baby in one arm and five chickens strapped to the back, helmetless and seemingly oblivious to rules of the road. You may have seen the stats for road deaths in Indonesia and those pictures on Facebook of hospitalized Australians with no insurance who’ve lost half their skin after coming off their bike wearing nothing but a pair of flip flops, some board shorts and a Bintang vest. You might have heard stories of unwitting Westerners being pulled over by police and “fined” for no reason. You may have heard all of this and figured that Mount Agung might as well freeze over before you are getting on one of those death traps.
However, if you did, you would be missing out on one of the greatest pleasures Bali has to offer. Not only is bike rental super cheap (starting at €5 per day and much cheaper if you rent monthly), but the Balinese are some of the most considerate road users I’ve come across. Although, at first look, it may seem like any other South East Asian traffic chaos, but India this is not. The Balinese are known for their patience and this can be seen on the road where things flow, chaotically, but they flow.
I arrived in Bali a complete bike novice and in less than a year me and my trusty Scoopy have been to all four corners of the island; visiting as far South as Uluwatu, North to Singaraja, East to Amed and West to Gilimanuk, clocking up over 10,000km in the process.
So, I’m not saying riding a motorbike is not dangerous – it is! You are a vulnerable little piece of flesh flying around on a small piece of metal, amongst much bigger pieces of metal who seem determined to drive into you, on a road which resembles Swiss cheese at times (although much less forgiving if you land on it head-first!), along with sudden torrential downpours and kamikaze dogs launching themselves at your wheels to contend with.
However, there are a myriad of advantages to being on two wheels over two legs – or even four wheels – and for me, these more than outweigh the risks. Having said that, there are certain things you can do to mitigate the risk.
The first thing I would recommend when you hire your bike is just to give it a once-over. Even if you know nothing about bikes, there are three things that you can do with minimum skills.
Firstly, check the mileage and go for the lowest one you can find (something under 20,000km would be OK). Rental bikes generally don’t get any maintenance so the less it’s been used – in theory – the less issues you are going to have. The second thing to check is the tyres; make sure you have some tread, otherwise you’ll be skidding off sideways the first time it rains.
When you rent your bike mostly you won’t see a contract, have to sign anything or leave a deposit. Nobody will check you have a current license or insurance and if you ask what happens in the case of an accident then you are likely to be met with a nervous laugh.
Usually maintenance will not be included and if you have rented your bike for a long period and it needs a new part, you may have to negotiate. On the plus side, parts are not expensive. Usually, if you are going to hand over a lot of money for a long term rental, try to make sure the bike gets a full service before you take it on.
The last thing to check on your rental is the helmet. This may be the only thing between your head and some asphalt so it pays to check it is half-decent. Also, you should try it on and make sure it fits; a bit loose and it will fly back on your head as soon as you get up a bit of speed (rendering it useless), and too tight and you’ll get a headache if you’re wearing it for any amount of time.
While we’re on the subject of helmets; needless to say, you should wear one at all times. Pay no attention to however many people you’ve seen riding around without one, perhaps they do not have a lot of grey matter to protect, or perhaps they are being accompanied by their personal guardian angel (this might certainly be the case if you are in Ubud). However, for most people asphalt+head=brains on the road, or as a minimum, mild concussion (which isn’t nice either). Besides that, even if you don’t come off your bike, you are as likely to be knocked out by a low-hanging branch or a tropical-sized flying beastie. Don’t say you weren’t warned!
Do all that and you’ve just reduced the odds of becoming another road-kill statistic – well done!
So once you’ve got your wheels, you need to get some practice. Now, don’t think “I’m so independent, think I’ll drive to Immigration!“, and head into central Denpasar. Not a good place to start. Just like with anything, you need to acclimatise. A scooter isn’t exactly a Boeing 747 in terms of operation, but there is a certain amount of coordination involved, not to mention other road users to get used to. I would recommend a quiet street with not a lot of traffic where you can dither around like an idiot without causing a major traffic incident (even the Balinese have limits to their patience).
Start by going up and down, getting used to your mirrors (probably the first and last time you will use them), feeling comfortable with where the indicators are, the horn (for those dogs) and getting a feel for the brakes. You should also practice stopping and starting a lot as beginners tend to rev the engine whilst breaking at the same time which can have hilarious consequences (like the time my friend John almost drove off the side of a bridge and into the sea – oh, how we laughed). Anyway, it’s a coordination thing, they are both in the same hand so you just need to get used to it.
Another recommendation is to practice using the kickstand, don’t kick it far enough when you park up and your bike will fall over. Sounds simple? Again, I am speaking from experience.
The final beginner thing you might want to practice is the whole start-up process of; kick stand up, turn key, squeeze brake, then ignition. Yes, it’s idiotically simple but when you are leaving the bar on a Friday night, waving goodbye to your friends and wanting to make a cool exit, it does not look good when you are frustratedly turning the key backwards and forwards, going redder in the face and insisting someone call the rental company as the bike is obviously broken! Until eventually a waiter comes over and shows you that your kick stand is not all the way up.
Believe me, if you think your ignition is broken, it isn’t – it’s you.
Now you have the basics, it’s time to deal with a little traffic. The first turn you should attempt is the left turn. Right turns are more advanced and you need a few more ‘cojones’ until you’re ready for that. You drive on the left so a left turn is simple, right? And it is once you realise that you are not waiting for a gap in the traffic. Wait for a gap and you will be there until Nyepi. You are a bike, so you merge. Wait, you don’t know about merging?
Merging is key to riding a bike in Bali and the sooner you get it, the sooner you will be riding like a local.
The first thing you need to understand is that, as a bike, you do not really count as traffic. If you can’t fill a lane then you don’t count, basically. As such, if there is something else in the lane, you will simply be expected to move over and merge into it. So if you are turning left and the traffic is flowing, you just look for a suitable spot and merge into it. A couple of caveats: Firstly, don’t do this with cars – cars don’t merge and you will not register on their radar until you’re under their wheels. Secondly, choose your moment, make sure the scooter you are merging with is not going too fast, checking their Tinder profile, or carrying a restaurant on the back. Just go with the flow and you will be fine.
Do the left turn a few times (yes, you will be going round in circles – that’s fine, your suntan will be nice and even) and you will soon be ready for the right. This might look difficult when you are looking at the two frightening lanes of traffic before you and no traffic lights, but don’t panic; once you realise that you are going to merge into the furthest lane and really – barring cars – you only need to be looking for a gap in the near lane, then it will be a lot simpler.
Wait for the gap, check for lorries, and merge away!
So now you are getting there. You’ve mastered the basics and are ready to hit the road, or at least venture into town. But first, there’s something you need to know about those other drivers.
The ones in front of you
As a piece of life advice “No looking back” is quite poetic, on the road however, it can put life into perspective in a more visceral sense. Essentially, if you are behind someone, you don’t exist. Vehicles will not only pull out in front of you, they will do so using the whole road and at the pace of 5kmph! So be on your guard at all times; if you see the front of a bonnet poking out of an entranceway or a motorcycle by the side of the road, be ready to slam on the brakes / swerve out of the way (or both). Indicators are sometimes used but tend not to be a very reliable source of information. Balinese don’t plan ahead, they are following their destiny, and destiny doesn’t always indicate.
The ones behind you
Apart from the drivers in front of you, you also have those behind you. Now you may think that you don’t have to worry about them if you are doing it the local way and to an extent, that’s true – traffic behind you is the least of your worries. However, it does pay to be aware of someone hanging off your shoulder and waiting to overtake if you are weaving around trying to avoid potholes, dogs or any other random things that you are likely to encounter on the average road. Cars generally honk to indicate that they are coming past and you should move over.
The ones on the other side of the road
You can see why the locals seem to have abandoned their mirrors though when there is so much other stuff to be aware of when you are driving. I’ve already mentioned the road users in front of you and the terrible condition of some of the roads, but besides monitoring these things, you should also pay special attention to the traffic on the other side of the road as, sooner or later you are going to have to get out of the way as a car or a truck comes hurtling straight towards you!
Remember how you don’t count as traffic? That means that when a car is considering overtaking, they will not see a motorbike on the other side as an impediment to doing so. Look out for this as it truly is terrifying. Be especially aware if there is slow moving traffic on the other side of the road, as some drivers will start overtaking on blind corners and solid white lines and that kind of thing.
And it’s not just overtaking you need to look out for; on the smaller side roads cars will drive right in the centre, leaving you little room to pass. Again, don’t assume they will move over for you. You are the one that needs to move, so slow right down and be prepared to stop if you have to. Years of martial arts training have honed my reflexes so that I can deftly whip my broad shoulders out of the way of a speeding wing mirror. Many local drivers either don’t seem to have a clue about passing distances, or else don’t place a lot of value on my shoulders. My advice to non-black belts would be: Fear the worst and take appropriate avoidance measures.
Now, apart from your helmet, there are certain other sartorial considerations when taking to your bike, particularly on a long trip. Covering your skin will not only save you from sunburn, but just think of it as at least one less layer of skin that you have to lose if you do come off. You will notice that the locals wear long sleeves and trousers on their bikes, so do the same.
Apart from the evident safety gains of covering up, there is also the matter of the black plastic motorbike seat that heats up to the temperature of Mars if left out in the sun for too long. This was brought to my attention by an Australian who commented as he parked his bike under the safety of a tree; “Gotta park here otherwise my girlfriend gets a burnt arse!” and I looked over to where she stood – insta ready – in hotpants.
A face mask is also a must-wear. Even for short journeys, you are likely to be in traffic at some stage and emissions limitations are not exactly a major consideration here. Whilst a mask will help – but not completely – prevent you from getting a lung-full of exhaust fumes, you will be glad you are wearing one when that truck in front of you guns the engine and you are suddenly immersed in a dirty black cloud.
The final, and possibly most important item of bike-wear is the waterproof poncho. When I first arrived with my lightweight raincoat that fit conveniently in my backpack, I thought I had it covered. No need to invest in one of those ugly, head-to-ankles, bin bag-like affairs, I thought.
But that was until it rained, and I mean, really rained (read about my experience here). My advice is; buy a poncho before you need it, and get the best one you can find. You will thank yourself later.
“What about footwear?” I hear you ask. I go with flip-flops or something quick drying. Despite the fact that I have met people who have sliced off a toe which was hanging too close to the kerb, or squashed their foot when the bike has fallen on them, the misery of wet shoes has tended to overrule the potential of mangled feet for me – Your call!
The most common road sign you are likely to see is one placed in the road saying “Ada Upacara“, this is telling you there is a ceremony up ahead. You may also see “Ada Proyek” or “Pelan-Pelan“, telling you there are road works ahead, or to slow down. In any case, seeing a sign in the road is a pretty good indication that you should slow down so a good knowledge of Indonesian is not necessary. There are not many other road signs to speak of so just make sure you are driving on the right side of the road (as in the left!) and there’s not a lot else to think about.
In terms of road signs indicating places, you may find that the places that most locals are headed to are not the ones you are looking for – Gianyar is much better signposted than Ubud for example – so check the most important towns close to where you are going, it will help you to ensure you are headed in the right direction.
If you’re old enough to reach the handle-bars, you’re old enough to drive – or so it seems to go in the country lanes of Bali. Don’t be surprised when driving around a mountain road, to find 8-year-olds whizzing past you on their motorbikes. This freaked me out a bit to start with as, although these biker kids are likely a lot more experienced than me at handling a bike, children don’t quite have the same attitude to risk. My advice is to give them plenty of space.
Other risks of country driving include some terrible roads. Potholes are not confined to the country of course, but some roads can barely be called roads at all and you may want to think twice before putting your suspension through such a rigorous challenge.
Mountain bends can also be quite hair-raising, particularly when you see kamikaze overtaking on those blind corners. Enjoy the view, but don’t get too distracted by it or you might end up flying off the side!
On the whole, country driving is more relaxing as you have incredible views and less traffic, the pace is slower and there are less junctions – just less to worry about in general.
City driving involves having all of your senses working in 360º. You’re watching the other traffic, what’s coming up, what’s behind, beside and in front of you. It’s intense!
There are some big highways in Bali, there’s one running South, along the coast from Denpasar to Padangbai called the Padangbai Highway. Here you have several lanes of traffic going full speed. It feels strange to be moving at such a speed as you are usually limited by traffic or the state of the roads, so it makes a nice change. However, you are conscious of how vulnerable you are, with lorries flying past you and all manner of high-speed craziness.
You will be hard-pushed to run out of petrol in Bali. Pertamina petrol stations can be found frequently alongside the road and are well indicated. You will be able to choose from Pertamina, Pertamax. Go for Pertamina if you’re on a rental, as it’s cheaper and Pertamax if you are looking after your bike. When you pull in, you can usually join any queue as they usually serve both types. There will be an attendant to fill it up in front of you, just tell him/her; “Full“, or the amount of money you want to put in i.e. “Dua puluh ribu“. You can see the price on the screen in front of you so no need to stress out about remembering all your numbers in Indonesian (on top of everything else you’ve got to think about!).
Usually a full tank will be around 20k on a regular scooter
If you’re not on a main road, look out for the roadside pumps, which are anywhere there is a dwelling. These also have Pertamina and Pertamax, which you will be able to identify by the colour of the liquid; yellow and blue respectively. Once you indicate which one you want, the attendant will crank a lever to top up the container so that it starts from zero. There will be markings on the side, which tell you how much is going in.
It might cost you 25k for a full tank here but generally it’s not too much different from a big petrol station.
The Absolut last resort
But what if you’re off down a really small side road with no petrol stations or roadside pumps in sight? Your final and last resort is to go in search of vodka! Yes, you heard right. Remember those roadside shops selling bottles of Absolut with strange looking blue and yellow liquid inside? That’s your emergency petrol.
You’ll pay 8k for a litre of the yellow one – plenty to get you to the next pump – and they will pour it into your tank with a funnel.
If you feel like your wheels are a bit wobbly, it might be a question of putting in some air. You will find plenty of roadside mechanics by the side of the road. Just pull in and have them put some air in the tyres; it will cost you the ridiculous price of 2k.
Ask them for ‘servis’ and they will also check the brakes and see that everything else is running smoothly.
After hurtling around these country lanes and dusty roads, you are going to find your wheels have started to look less than optimum. As is to be expected in Bali, there is no point in doing the work yourself when you can get someone to do it for next to nothing. Car wash is “Cuci motor“; you will see them by the side of the road, just pull in to get your wash.
Costs around 15k.
When you first look at a map of Bali, you’d be forgiven for thinking it would be pretty easy to navigate. There aren’t that many roads and to get from one place to another you just pick a road and head north/east/west/south, right? Well, not quite. You will find roads are generally not straight and before long, you have no idea which direction you are headed. Main roads sometimes disappear into gravel tracks, junctions are sometimes so insignificant you drive straight past them and there are usually several ways to get to the same place, so road signs are often not that helpful.
So, isn’t it lucky that we live in the age of Google maps with voice navigation? I swear, one of the best inventions of the 21st Century; just input your route, click ‘directions’ and then ‘start’ and, with one ear piece in (keep the other ear free for what’s happening in your environment), you will be guided all the way to your destination. You don’t even need an internet connection to use it, so as long as you are connected when you input the route, once you are on the road, it doesn’t matter if you have data on your phone or not.
If you have a phone mount on your bike, even better, as sometimes voice instruction might drop off, depending on where you are and you don’t always realise it until you’re already 10km off-track, so it’s always handy to be able to see where you’re going.
Just be careful if you are in a city, as a mounted phone is very easy to steal when you’re sat at a set of traffic lights. You also won’t be able to use it when it’s raining so you can just stuff it in your pocket or in the pocket of your bike.
Another thing to be aware of is that the route that Google shows you may not be the fastest route on two wheels, as it will make sure the roads are navigable by car. This is particularly true in the city where there are often short cuts and the like, which will make your route much faster. Use the pedestrian option on Maps to find the most direct route.
That’s it; you are now your own tour guide, with the whole of Bali at your fingertips. So choose a spot, fill up your tank and enjoy the ride – there’s nothing quite like it!