The Ubud Handbook « Surviving Bali on a 'Bike
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."
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."
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. 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'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. Forget lifelong 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 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.
THE UBUD HANDBOOK ~ Your guide to living in Ubud and Bali in an online nutshell.