Bali Road Tripping: The Culture Shock of Driving in Indonesia

Getting somewhere in Bali is an experience.  If you’re walking, then you often have to be careful of the offerings, the rubbish, the upheaved pieces of sidewalk, and the stray animals, all the while politely turning down dozens of people offering you transit or massages.  But everywhere we walked, it was relatively easy to navigate and felt fairly safe.  You have to pay attention to where you step, but it’s no big deal.

If you want to travel somewhere over land farther than you want to walk, then it is easier in some ways to handle (once you get in the car, no offerings to watch out for or hawkers to turn down!) but also perhaps even more of a culture shock in others.  To begin with, a lot of places, even sizeable ones, don’t have public transport, except for that provided by, well, the public. (And even where there is a city bus, as in Yogyakarta, the process of getting to the bus and then from the bus to your destination can be a challenge, including, say, a walk along an intimidating highway-like road with no sidewalks and plenty of careening vehicles, or needing to arrange a trip in a cycle rickshaw to travel slowly down yet another busy road from the bus stop to the temples of Prambanan.)   Renting a car and driving it yourself tends to be significantly more expensive than hiring a local to drive for you, and since there are so many people offering such services wherever foreigners tend to go, it is more a matter of determining which driver would be a good pick, rather than finding one in the first place.

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Cycle rickshaws waiting to give tourists rides on a quieter road near the sultan’s palace in Yogyakarta.  It would have been much more calming to take one here than the busy road we actually went on in one of these things, I bet!  Still, it was a cool new experience.  (In this shot, you can also see the black and white pattern that was used where yellow often would be in the US – for example, street edges, lane markers and, surprisingly, even trees along the edges of the road!)

Despite this, we heard before our arrival that it’s better to go with a driver recommended by your hotel than to find one on the street, given the exorbitant prices some will charge and the fact that some are thieves… or simply incompetent.  So at our first hotel in Indonesia, in Sanur, we asked the desk for recommendations for drivers for a road trip we intended to take after returning to Bali from the Javan city of Yogyakarta, up to the northwestern corner of the island.  Although we got such a recommendation, it turned out we couldn’t make an appointment for a trip that far in advance (nearly two weeks) and were told to call the night before we needed it.  Just in case, we picked up a few business cards over the next few weeks of drivers who seemed more trustworthy and English-speaking, and called them all before our return from Java.  In the end, after awkward phone calls where we knew hardly any Indonesian and our interlocutors had varying degrees of intelligible accents in English, we got the friend of the driver that our first hotel recommended all set to pick us up from the airport.  At later points in the trip, we had one of our hosts kindly be our driver for the day, and twice went with random people on the street who had fairly new cars (we cared about that for general safety reasons).  Again, not too hard to manage.  Indeed, once you get a driver set up, you’re good for a day – or longer – on hardly any (American) money at all.  Depending on where you are and how far off the beaten path you want to go, you could hire someone for between $20 and $75 to drive you for the day.

But this doesn’t touch what is most surprising to an American about getting somewhere in Bali (and from what we can tell, probably most of Indonesia).  It’s mostly about the actual driving.  It’s not just that they drive on the opposite side of the road.  In Indonesia, it seems that lanes and traffic laws are “more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules,” as they say in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. This listicle does a fair job demonstrating what I mean by that, complete with much more evocative pictures than we managed to capture…

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This is a pretty good example from that link, probably from one of bigger cities in the country on another island, although the cars are much more dense and in clear lanes than we tended to see.

As Toby mentioned briefly in his first post of our trip, watching the cars and motorbikes streaming past each other out the window of a car in Indonesia feels a lot like watching a turbulent river with many bits of driftwood floating along, getting tossed from side to side and swirling around in flowing yet confusing patterns.  There are often effectively three or four lanes on a two lane road, and many people simply ride straddling the middle lane line before weaving back to one side or the other.  Most people didn’t seem to signal, and when they did, it didn’t necessarily tell you which direction they were about to shift, only that they were about to do something.  It was pretty common to see astonishingly close tailgating and near-miss swerving that gave me some agita.  There are no speed limits and many cars lack working seatbelts or only have them in the front, but luckily the roads were made for slow enough travel that the weaving happens at manageable rates to those who are used to them.  One way signs don’t seem to apply to motorbikes, who go wherever they want, and even cars go the wrong way at times.  Luckily and surprisingly, we saw no traffic accidents despite witnessing all these things that would be considered really dangerous to do in America!

On top of all that, motorbikes are everywhere, and while they look a little more powerful and bike-like than Vespas, they are definitely of the lightweight, zippy, and relatively inexpensive sort, with the latter point meaning that the bikes are the way most locals (and few very brave tourists) get around.  This also means that as convoys of them weave all over the place around the cars and other bikes on the road, people pack whole families onto a single bike (kids sandwiched and often sleeping droopily between their parents), or add saddle bags or racks that could support anywhere from 4 buckets filled with liquid to 3-foot high stacks of lidless cartons of eggs, from large pieces of construction materials to fluffy piles of plants destined for animal feed.  It’s impressive and shocking to see what people carry on their bikes, and how well they navigate the swarms of their own making.

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Motorbikes parked en masse at the beach, not densely loaded up like they often are when out on the road between towns. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have gotten any decent photos of the stacked up or swarming bikes on the road.  I think I was mostly just taking it in – and focusing on not getting sick from the swerving and bumps…

And then there’s the honking.  Every time you pass someone, you honk.  Every time you go around a corner, you honk.  Every time you get close behind someone, you honk.  In short, every time you want people to know where you are so they don’t hit you, you honk.  Short, to the point, not held long or obnoxiously.  But. So. Many. Honks.  (This apparently has something to do with the fact that mirrors are a fairly recent addition to the kind of relatively cheap cars and bikes sold in Indonesia, or are still absent in many cases.  I can see why people would want to use their horn as a warning signal instead of just assuming someone will see you and keep out of the way!)

In some of the more rural places we drove through, there were of course far fewer vehicles, and more people walking along the roads carrying large bundles, usually on their heads.  These tended to either be piles of plants for animal food or baskets of special offerings headed to the temples.  But the roads also tended to be squigglier, narrower, and less well-maintained (the road up the hill to our hotel in Nusa Lembongan was more pothole than road), so when drivers took advantage of the lack of nearby cars to up the ante from our usual 15-25 miles per hour all the way to over 40, it wasn’t exactly a welcome shift.

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Passing through a rural town, with women in traditional dressed up outfits heading to the temple with offerings.  Note the parked bike on the right with a little shop counter attached.

To say the least, all this took some getting used to.  I do have a lot of respect for how many people we saw expertly navigating this very different way of travel, since it apparently requires a lot of attention to those around you, trust that people will be paying attention to you in turn, and skill at swerving around others and at not getting in the way of those doing the swerving.  Kudos Balinese drivers, you have skills that would put most New Jerseyites to shame.  Plus you would be totally refused a driver’s license in the US without some serious adjustments.

(PS: When I started writing this post, I had intended to explore some of the places we visited on our Balinese road trips… but it clearly morphed into something else and I decided to run with that instead.  Sea temples and rice paddy towns will be coming up next!  And boy, is it nice to be doing this where we have reliable and fast internet, unlike most of the places on our journey!)

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