Life, News, Photography and Reviews from Ubud: The Apple of Bali's Eye

The Big Read « Bali « How to Survive Bali on your Rental Scooter

Ubud High takes a look at riding a rental scooter on Bali's monster roads – and doesn't rate your chances.

Tips and tricks for keeping the rubber on the road...

Motorbike accident victim treated in a clinic, Ubud, Bali

A scooter-accident victim is treated for a serious leg-injury at Toya Medika Clinic in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia.

© 2017 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 the death-toll on Bali's roads has spiraled out of control.

During the whole of 2010, 541 people out of a population of 3.9 million died in road traffic accidents on Bali. From just March to May 2011 the number leaped to a staggering 758 dead - with most fatalities riding motorbikes. The rise is puzzling until you factor in the ease with which a local can set up a credit plan at a motorcycle dealership - with a downpayment of as little as Rp.500,000 - and ride off into the sunset.

In 2006 there were 1.58 million vehicles on the island; by July 2011 the number had surged to 2.35 million and counting.

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. Most buy their license from the police. There are children of nine riding without papers, helmets or insurance.

Young families of five balanced on a scooter aren't uncommon: add a teenage girl who's texting while she's tailgating, a bunch of speeding 15-year-old boys heavily drunk on arak (80 percent-proof palm alcohol), throw in a wife trailing a wheelbarrow behind her Yamaha as her husband steers and you've got an explosive mix.

Stefan, a 49-year-old expat Briton working in Sanur on Bali's south coast 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, the shouts of indignation when they finally hit someone because they have absolutely no idea how life or the road works around here."

White punks on 'bikes: notice he does nothing for the Balinese woman who he has just rammed into from behind.

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 really 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, last resort. 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 around in the middle of your lane in city traffic, fully expect to be undertaken - and expect to be hit, particularly if your motorbike doesn't have an inside mirror...

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.

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. If you can't take being tailgated by a truck at 60 kmh, 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 40s. I arrived on the scene very soon after it happened. It was like the strangest theatre."

"There was a crowd of 30 or so people who had come out from nearby shops. The whole scene was completely silent for about 12 minutes. Nobody moved. In the middle of the road one of the boys groaned twice 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. No ambulance came. A young guy in his twenties hovered over me and filmed the dying man on his smartphone."

"About ten minutes later, when the man passed away, everyone 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 when 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-year-old man. I kept seeing the man's face in my mirrors for a few months after that."

If normal Balinese roads are closer in spirit to The Whacky Races, the 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 north-west tip of Bali is a major blackspot for tired truckers who have driven non-stop across Java to get there. Brakes may or may not not have been serviced in the past year.

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.

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.

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. Forget brain damage: a secondary skin infection from road-gash in this ultra-humid climate is guaranteed to put your holiday plans on hold.

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. If you're unfamiliar with a road - especially at night - follow a local who has mapped out the latest killer pot-holes.

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 want 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.

Related Content on Renting and Crashing a Scooter on Bali

For the other side of the coin, take a look at Silly season in Ubud, Part 1: Just another motorbike accident on Bali.

And for how not to rent a scooter while you're on holiday in Bali: Silly season in Ubud, Part 2: Renting a scooter, and crashing it, on Bali.

Surviving Bali on a Rental Scooter ~ Readers' Comments

Celine, Ubud:

'There's a classic where the 'Eat, Pray, Lovers' drape themselves in a long neck-scarf, usually 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 very 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 - about 35 or 40 kph. Why go that fast down a very busy road? Why go faster than 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.'

Sara, Ubud:

'The funniest thing I've seen ever? There was a young white guy, man-bun and everything, bombing down Ubud main street with his legs crossed in a yoga position on his motorbike seat.

I nearly wet myself laughing.'

Jono, Ubud:

'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 everybody 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.'

Paul, Denpasar:

'I had a terrifying experience 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 some 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. I still do. 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.'

Joe, Ubud:

'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.

That's criminal. Except they think it's criminal when their four-year-old get wiped out or maimed and blame it all on everyone else except themselves when they do something stupid.

Many Balinese don't have enough money to continually upgrade on helmets for their growing kids. If you can afford them but don't bother, or go headless to look cool, or do it out of solidarity to your fellow Balinese families, or just to dry your kid's hair after their swim, just give up.

Get the bemo or something.'

Bill, Ubud:

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 the house are totally inappropriate for motorcycle use because you have to put your foot down for use as a third wheel. A lot of cases, that foot is your third wheel.

So what kind of a third wheel do you want? If it's your foot, it's got to be protected like a regular wheel would be, 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 at all. I have two friends who have lost toes and who've split their feet down the middle because they hit a rock. 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. If you don't have toe protection you don't have any foot protection, the third wheel is compromised.

Some roads are nice on Bali, some are not. Most of the roads have problems, holes, gravel with all the construction zones around. If you're not an experienced biker, going round the corner and there's loose gravel you're going down. If you hit your front brake on any gravel, even going straight, you're going to go down. And if you go down in this immense amount of traffic, you can be run over from behind or from the 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. 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 it 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 though they're on crosswalks, they're not observed. It's like a food chain. The smaller vehicle has to submit to the larger vehicle, this is a food chain. The smallest vehicle, or a pedestrian, waits for the time to move so they can move. And they will run your ass over here. I've seen it happen, people get killed here, tourists too. And the 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.'

Related Content on Motorbike Accidents in Ubud, Bali

For the other side of the coin, take a look at Silly season in Ubud, Part 1: Just another motorbike accident on Bali.

And for how not to rent a scooter while you're on holiday in Bali: Silly season in Ubud, Part 2: Renting a scooter, and crashing it, on Bali.

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