The Ubud Handbook « Surviving Bali on a 'Bike
Ubud High takes a look at keeping the rubber on the road in Bali – and doesn't rate your chances.
A scooter-accident victim is treated for a leg injury at an Ubud clinic in Bali, Indonesia.
Photograph © 2021 Ubud High.
CHRISTINA IS A SAVVY 60-year-old American who's come to Ubud to set up nest. She's never ridden a motorbike before and has already fallen off twice in two weeks.
– "I've just learned how to turn left," she says, "without feeling as if I'm going to tip over."
It may not come as a surprise that accidents and deaths on Bali's roads have spiraled out of control. The exponential boom in tourism has set off an explosion of traffic on the island, and the number of vehicles on the island has mushroomed from just over half a million in 1996 to nearly 5 million in 25 years – with most of the new additions being motorcycles.
Simply put, the roads in Paradise are full to bursting.
The vast majority of Balinese people have never taken a test or a driving lesson in their lives – many pay for their license. There are children as young as nine riding without papers, helmets or insurance. Young families of four balanced on a moped aren't uncommon. Add a teenage girl who's texting while she's tailgating, sling a bunch of road-racing 15-year-old schoolboys into the mix, and bang in a few dozen drunk or jet-lagged tourists for good measure.
Gently stir in a brace of tourist-buses with bored drivers on tight schedules, sprinkle generously with speeding red or yellow trucks that do not stop for man or beast, throw in a wife trailing a wheelbarrow behind her scooter as her husband steers and you've got a volatile scene.
Most of Bali's road-users – 85 percent – drive motorbikes, and the majority of deaths and accidents on the tourist island involve motorcyclists. There's a lot of fresh blood on the tarmac.
A chart showing statistics for deaths and injuries from road traffic accidents (RTAs) on Bali from 1996 to 2020.
* Numbers for injuries from 2020 are not yet available.
Source: Kepolisian Daerah Bali (KPD) ~ State Police of Bali Province, Indonesia at www.bali.bps.go.id.
Stefan, a 49-year-old expat Briton working on Bali's south coast in Sanur has been to Borneo and back on his Honda Africa Twin 750:
– "Most riders who die on Bali aren't wearing helmets or don't do them up properly. There are no fixed rules here – anything goes. If people see a space, they go through it. Mirrors are for checking how you look as you ride to Temple, and indicators are ornamental.
"For me, some of the most dangerous people on the road are white people. I avoid them like the plague. You can tell the ones who are going to hurt others – the fixed grins, the hunched over the handle-bars, the wobbling around corners and shouts of indignation when they finally hit someone – because they have absolutely no idea how life and the road works around here."
White punks on 'bikes.
Note he does nothing for the Balinese woman that he has just rammed into from behind. This is definitely a case of paying up on the spot for damage and injuries sustained. Do not drive away after an accident like this. Fix what you broke.
Road-rage is extremely rare on Bali: losing your temper in public is the height of rudeness, and to be avoided at all costs.
– "If you've never ridden before," advises Stefan, "don't even think about renting a 'bike here. Having a lot of overseas experience can also hurt. You've got ingrained rules that just don't apply. In Britain if you flash your lights it means: 'Come out, you can go'. In Bali, it means: 'Watch out, because I'm not stopping, and I will crush you'.
"Using your horn in Western countries is often an aggressive, angry response. Here you beep quickly to let someone know you're going to overtake them, or you give a quick beep at somebody who looks as if they're going to pull out in front of you without looking – or you beep before you take a blind corner. It's not rude. It's not an insult. Don't take it as one. Driving angry only causes more accidents."
Mike, 57, an American expat living in Ubud who has been riding in Indonesia for 18 years, describes the traffic flow on a typical Balinese road.
– "Imagine a school of fish moving together. Go with it. Anyone outside that flow is the one who's going to cause an accident. Stick to an imaginary lane. Don't drive aggressively – drive defensively. Keep an eye on who's overtaking or undertaking you – and don't make any sudden moves unless you're about to hit something."
If you're wallowing in and out of your lane in city traffic, fully expect to be undertaken
– particularly if your motorbike doesn't have an inside mirror.
This tourist wasn't hit – he hit somebody else.
Fellow road users aren't the only dangers.
Kites falling out of the sky; snakes crossing; chickens and dogs darting across the street; mounds of black building sand at the side of the road that's all but invisible at night; deep pot-holes that weren't there the evening before; clouds of insects that will temporarily blind you at dusk if you're not using a visor; and sand and grit that gathers at the bottom of a hill after heavy rain.
If you drive like this, you deserve to go down hard. Speeding, and hitting sand on a curve is a great way to get a DIY skin-graft. It's also a great way to kill people.
Dave, 45, another Ubud resident, is more direct.
– "If you can't survive a near-miss with an ibu and not smile back when she smiles at you, you shouldn't be on a 'bike here. If you're uptight, you're better off walking or getting on a bicycle. Just hire a driver. If you can't take being tailgated by a truck at 60 kph, you shouldn't be on a 'bike.
"I saw a triple-fatality involving two 14 or 15-year-old boys and a man in his forties. I arrived on the scene very soon after it had happened. It was like the strangest theatre. There was a crowd of 30 or so people who'd come out from nearby shops. The whole scene was completely still. Nobody moved. Everybody stared. In the middle of the road one of the boys groaned twice and went silent, and the other didn't move at all.
"The two motorbikes were vaporised nearby. The older man was lying with his face in the gutter bleeding out through his mouth. I offered my handphone to several people to call for an ambulance because I didn't have a number. Nobody would touch it. I finally convinced a shop owner to call for help, and she disappeared into her shop.
"I went back to the man who was bleeding out. The blood just kept pulsing out of his mouth. A few minutes later, after he had passed away, everybody bounced into life. The three bodies were rushed into a shop, the larger bits of the 'bikes were carried onto the pavement, the smaller bits of plastic kicked into the gutter and road-dust sprinkled over the blood. The man's forehead flapped off as they picked him up.
"The next day I went past the same spot. There were just two white Xs painted on the ground, one for the two boys and one for the forty-plus man. I kept seeing the man's face in my mirrors for a few months after that. I couldn't shake him off."
Fully expect other riders and vehicles to veer into your lane on a bend.
Keep it slow; keep it tight.
GoPro video of a head-on motorbike collision on a quiet country road. It doesn't get scarier than this.
If normal Balinese roads are closer in spirit to The Wacky Races, the Ngurah Rai By-Pass running from Kuta to Sanur is Death Race 2000. The school of fish has got tighter, and margin for error has become far slimmer. The long, beach-hugging road between southern Denpasar and Gilimanuk Port on the northwest tip of Bali is a major blackspot for tired truckers who might have driven non-stop across Java to get there. Brakes may or may not not have been fixed in the past year.
What's the worst that can happen? You die.
What's the second-worst thing that can happen? You kill someone else, and things get very sticky with the police, the victim's family and the courts, and you go to jail and pay a lot of compensation before going home.
Bali sees a steady stream of about 500 road-deaths a year, which works out to about ten people a week.
Statistics for deaths caused by road traffic accidents (RTAs) in Bali, Indonesia, from 1996 to 2020.
Source: Kepolisian Daerah Bali (KPD) ~ State Police of Bali Province, Indonesia at www.bali.bps.go.id.
If you're intent on 'biking around Bali, good luck.
Give your rental a tune-up at the local garage and get the brakes and accelerator fixed. Buy the best Standar Nasional Indonesia (SNI) helmet you can afford and do up the strap tightly. Forget life-long brain damage – a secondary skin infection from road-gash in this ultra-humid climate is guaranteed to put your holiday plans on hold.
Wear strong shoes – flip-flops are for the beach. Leave your shorts at home – jeans and a thick jacket will save you several layers of skin when you come off. Find some good travel insurance after reading the very small print. Keep your headlight on at all times – during the day, on full. Be very polite with the police when they stop you. Hug the kerb when you're taking a blind corner as other vehicles won't think twice about veering into your path.
And if you're riding pillion, use a slow-flapping gesture with your arm – known locally as the magic hand-signal – to convince others that you really do intend to make that turn.
Better still, don't bother.
Get on the back of an ojek – a motorcycle taxi – and learn from an expert. Grab a cab. Or go that extra mile and hire a car with a smiling, informative driver for as little as Rp.500,000 a day. Leave the stress to someone else, lie back, wind down the windows and enjoy the magnificent views.
You're not going to get lost, or die, or argue over a map, or be left with a crippling injury, or kill someone else, or go to jail.
Or get wet when it pours with rain.
© 2021 John Storey. All Rights Reserved.
Surviving Bali on a Rental Scooter ~ Readers' Comments
'There's a classic where the 'Eat, Pray, Love' types drape themselves in a long neck-scarf, usually white silk, that complements their image of Holiday Freedom. What they forget is when the scarf is too long and gets wrapped up in the spokes of the back wheel. I saw a woman get ripped off her 'bike like that not so long ago on Jalan Raya Ubud.
She hit the road in a second, and her face hit the asphalt. It was ugly. No helmet of course, too uncool, and she wasn't moving when the crowd ran over to pick her up. There was a lot of blood, and her nose was pointing towards her cheek.
She was also going way too fast, just past Ubud market – 40 or 45 kph. Why go that fast down a very busy road? Why go faster than 15 or 20 there? You can't stop for a child, or one of the Chinese tourists who always step onto the road without looking.
Maybe it was fate stopping her from hitting someone else the next day.'
'The funniest thing I've seen ever in Ubud? There was a young white guy, man-bun and everything, bombing down the main street with his legs crossed in a yoga position on his motorbike seat.
I nearly wet myself laughing.'
'Some of the most selfish, dangerous people on the road are tourists on a day out from down south. The ones driving three or four 'bikes in a convoy. The motorbikes at the back are always playing catch-up, so when the first 'bike overtakes a truck, they all do. Except the last one almost always has a head-on collision because the margin for overtaking has gone.
Then they all stop at the side of the road to check their maps, and leave their 'bikes on the road so everyone else has to swerve around them into the traffic. Or they stop on a corner so other people are forced onto the other side of the road on a blind bend. Or they're checking their sat nav on their smartphone as they're driving.
They put so many other people's lives in danger because they're too tight to hire a car and driver.'
'I had a terrifying experience a few months ago. I was behind a white woman and she was driving on the outside of the lane. She wouldn't move. Normally, a Balinese person or a visitor who has been here for a little time knows that if you give a quick beep at someone, it means "Pull over a bit if you can because I'm going to overtake."
So I gave her a quick beep, and committed myself to overtaking – which was stupid. She didn't move over, and to avoid the car coming in the opposite direction I had to cut in very, very fast. I thought I was lucky to have got away with it. Then the next thing I know, she cuts right in front of my tyre – I had to swerve really, really hard to avoid her. If I'd come off, so would everybody else behind me.
I simply hated her for her insane vindictiveness. She didn't know the rules of the road. She nearly killed me. I never trust white people on motorbikes now. I stay as far away from them as possible.
But, thinking about it, I was stupid. I missed the first rule for myself: "Drive defensively". I didn't need to overtake. I should have just dropped back and left her to it.'
'What really annoys the hell out of me is looking at Western men and women carrying their young children and babies on motorbikes around Ubud – and a lot of the kids don't have helmets on.
That's criminal. Except the parents think it's criminal when their two-year-old gets wiped all over the road, or maimed, and blame it all on everybody else except themselves when they do something dangerous.
It's like they're using their babies as air-bags when they strap them to their fronts and backs.
They see the Balinese riding one-handed with kids on their laps, and think it's normal. Except most Balinese have been riding 'bikes since they were ten or twelve.
Many Balinese don't have enough money to continually upgrade on helmets for their growing kids. If you can afford kids' helmets but don't bother, or let them go headless so they look cool, or you do it out of solidarity for your fellow Balinese families, or do it to dry your kid's hair out after a swim, then just give up.
Get the bemo or something. Grow up.'
'I started 'biking here in 1989. In those days there was a lot less traffic. You have to be on guard all the time, anytime you're on a motorcycle.
You have to be focussed. Wearing sandals or the flip-flops you wear around your house are totally inappropriate for motorcycle use, because you have to put your foot down an awful lot.
Your feet have got to be protected – a hard-toe front on it, even if it's an open shoe. So when I put my foot down, even on a rock or something, I have toe-guard. Flip-flops don't offer any kind of protection. I have two friends who have lost toes and who've split their feet down the middle because they hit a rock or one of the raised sidewalks. That's one of the easiest injures to have here. You don't have to wreck your motorcycle – just put your damn foot down in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Some roads are nice on Bali, some are not. Most of the roads have problems – holes, or gravel and sand with all the construction zones going on. If you're not an experienced biker, and you're driving 'round a corner on loose gravel, then you're going down. If you hit your front brake on any gravel or sand, even going straight, then you're going down. And if you go down in this immense amount of traffic, you can be run over from behind or from in front. It's very problematic.
Going too slow, that's no solution at all. Going too fast is also no solution at all. You have to do the right, correct speed at all times. This means under or around 40 kph on most roads. It doesn't matter if you're carrying a baby, a gallon of gas or a water bottle. You have to do the correct speed, you have to keep up with the flow. If you don't, you put yourself in jeopardy.
This kind of nonsense – "I've got a baby, so I'll go slow and be safe", that's totally bullshit. Baby-carrying motorcycles are more dangerous than most bikes on the road because they go too slow. And when you slow down, everybody behind you slows down, and then everybody's desperate to get around you because you've slowed down.
So they pass you on the left, they pass you on the right, all the while jeopardising whoever is in front of you that's going too slow with a child or an infant. And they can go down. They can be hit from behind, pushed to the side, off-roaded, all kinds of calamity can happen to those people who go too slow. So it's very, very important to maintain flow.
I call it Zen on the road. Because you have to focus and maintain whatever you're doing. That way there's no accidents.
There are a lot of hazards here. I for one would always advise people to stay off motorcycles on Bali entirely if you're a tourist.
And pedestrians, they don't have the right of way here under any circumstances – even if they're on crosswalks, which aren't observed. It's a food chain. The smaller vehicle has to submit to the larger vehicle. The smallest vehicle, or a pedestrian, waits for the safe time to move. And they will run your ass over here. I've seen it happen – people get killed here, tourists too. And the accident statistics never come out unless there's been an extreme injury.
I've made it a policy whenever I get on a motorcycle to refuse accidents, from behind and from in front. I just flat refuse and say 'no'. I say to myself, 'Today, I'm not going to get into a wreck. I won't allow it.' And I maintain that mindset every moment I'm on that motorcycle.'
Other Scooter Tales from The Ubud Handbook
I'M WAITING FOR a friend on Jalan Suweta in Central Ubud. Three young Scandinavian women are at the side of the road clinching a deal on their new scooter rentals. They mount, and look non-plussed as they hunt for the ignition. The rental lady demonstrates how to switch their motorbikes on.
It really doesn't bode well...
[ ... » Read on... » ]
IBU KETUT'S LATE. She's normally at my house by 10 in the morning: I'm the second job of the day. After me, she'll spend another eight hours cooking in the kitchen of a five-star Ubud hotel to support her seven children.
It's a great life if you don't weaken.
She starts sweeping, and I notice she's limping. There's a spreading bruise and an angry graze running past her knee and onto her calf. She wants to carry on cleaning: I sit her down and ask her what happened.
She's shy; I press...
[ ... » Read on... » ]
CHECK OUT the statistics for checking out on Bali's roads over the last 25 years.
[ ... » Read on... » ]
© 2021 John Storey. All Rights Reserved.
The Last Pic
Portrait of the Day
Portraits from Bali by Ubud High
Photograph by © Ubud High.
© 2021 John Storey. All rights reserved.
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THE UBUD HANDBOOK ~ Your free guide to living in Ubud and Bali in an online nutshell.
‘First stop on Shree Ganesha's round-Asia tour was a spell in Buddhist Tibet with its strong tantric leanings – a convenient spot to re-invent himself as Vinãyaka, and then as the dancing red Nritta Ganapati – before a full-blown alter-ego revamp as the scarlet, twelve-armed Maharakta Ganapati. Now, Maharakta Ganapati was unusually fond of skullcaps filled with human flesh and blood – and this we might charitably put down to a bad trip.
After all, what happens in Tibet stays in Tibet...’
‘To cut an all-night story short, the mask was donned by a dancer who fell into a deep trance. But instead of staying in the temple, he began to run. And run. He became violent and uncontrollable. He ran for four kilometers down the road – the crowd scrambled after him. He ended up in a cemetery just past my house, and in the dead of night began to do frenzied battle with unseen foes...’
∞ 'Nyepi' ~ Bali's Hindu New Year, and the Day of Silence ~ Melasti, Ngerupuk, Ogoh-Ogoh & Manis Nyepi
‘If previous New Years' Days have seen you waking up with a crippling hangover trying to remember what you did the night before, maybe it's time you headed to Bali in March. Nyepi – the Balinese Day of Silence, and the start of the Hindu Saka New Year – is a day, a night and a day you'll never forget....’
‘Kajeng Kliwon is the kind of day when anything that can happen will happen. It invariably does.
You have been seriously warned...’
“When I had my sixth and seventh babies at the hospital – my twin girls – the doctor ordered me to have a Caesarian. And without asking me, he tied my tubes off as well.
I think he thought I'd had enough babies...”
“On the third bite,” says one hater, “it was as though I'd just eaten a diseased, parasite-infested animal with a bad case of rabies. I prayed I wouldn't be sick because I really didn't want to taste it again on the way back up...”
‘Boobs and political censorship have never been far from the Silver Screen – in Indonesia, they're its bedrock. The silent flicks of Thirties' Bali sucked hungrily on the island's bare-breasted cabinet-postcard image that encouraged so many gilded tourists – and dodgy film-stars like Charlie Chaplin – to visit its sultry, forbidden shores...’
Getting Around ~ Bali 'Biking
“For me, some of the most dangerous people on the road are white people. I avoid them like the plague. You can tell the ones who are going to hurt others – the fixed grins, the hunched over the handle-bars, the wobbling around corners and shouts of indignation when they finally hit someone – because they have absolutely no idea how life and the road works around here...”
‘She tears into the traffic. She can't stop. She narrowly misses hitting a car head-on, swerves past a mum on a 'bike and slaloms across the road. Before she hits anyone – it's a miracle she doesn't – she falls in a bad-sounding heap of bent metal and smashing plastic. A group of Balinese rush to pick her up before the cops see her...’
‘She starts sweeping and I notice she's limping. There's a spreading bruise and an angry graze running past her knee and down her calf. She wants to carry on cleaning – I sit her down and ask her what happened.
She's shy; I press...’
‘Rule number one on a monsoon day? Don't get wet.
You may not realise that getting caught in a cloudburst or shower on Bali – particularly if you're on a motorbike – is the tropical equivalent of walking naked outside during a Prague Winter after a lukewarm bath.
It'll really slow you down. The shivers, hot-and-cold flushes, a chesty cough, diarrhoea, sneezing, stomach pains, a belting headache and aching bones are all at the top of the list...’
‘Nowhere is free from the tax of life. We all have to pay for our slice of Bali paradise – and this often comes in the shape of our biting, stinging, crawling, flying-insect cousins.
It's the downside of environment-sharing...’
Holidays from the Jungle
‘Agricultural, and unpractised in the dark art of handling international tourists, the aristocratic farmer-people of Trunyan have acquired a damaging reputation for aggression. Their unique tourist draw – a jungle-cemetery where bodies are left in the open to disintegrate underneath a magical banyan tree – is regularly shunned by travellers on the time-sensitive tourist circuit...’
‘Ten meters away and the young man finally looks up – an inane, animal-like grin taped across his face as his girlfriend grips his porcelain butt and grimaces towards the empty blue sky. They disengage like street dogs, utter an invective in Russian, and stare...’
Tourism & Self-Enrichment
‘My concentration's shot to pieces. The spaghetti keeps falling off my fork. She's on her third large beer now. She starts to say 'facking' even more, and is speaking so loudly that people passing on the street have begun to look her way, and she's spitting bits of ciabatta bread and tomato and fish into her friend's dinner...’
‘I'm staying at a cute, family-run bed-and-breakfast – a homestay – on Ubud's trendy Jalan Goutama. A young member of the homestay's family tours her compound, blessing it with incense and rice and flower-petal offerings in little hand-made palm-leaf boxes.
All is well in Bali's spiritual capital...’
‘A Dutch boy in Holland goes to a gypsy fortune-teller who tells him that he is, in fact, Balinese. Afterwards, his uncle visits the Island of the Gods and brings him back a wooden carving of a bare-breasted lady.
Lucky for him it wasn't one of those funny-shaped wooden bottle-openers that looks like a cock...’
‘Shake out those Kundalini Awakenings with some HoopYogini™ and Bhakti Boogie® at the Yoga Barn. Celebrate The Divine Feminine with a splash of Shakti Dance. Puff up your lungs in a Sacred Breathwork Immersion Workshop®, insert a Jade Egg for luck at The Womb Temple™ and polish it off with some tantalising Manifesting And Abundance.
You know you're worth it...’
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