They have me surrounded. There’s nowhere to go. No right move to make. I’m stuck in the worst gridlock of my life on a motorbike, choking on exhaust, wearing flip-flops, and sporting a cherry Channel Islands thruster racked up alongside my scooter. Throngs of Balinese locals try to push past me without catching a fin or digging their brake handle through my single concave Merrick. In other words, there’s zero room for error here.
Four months of hiring scooters in Southeast Asia couldn’t prepare me for the amount of traffic I faced in Bali. Not only do the cars and trucks have a blatant disregard for lane lines, but you’re constantly engulfed in motorbikes that number in the thousands. Adding a surfboard on a side rack to the mix and things can get a bit dicey. Yet, despite all the congestion, two-wheeled transport is the most efficient way to get around. Here are a few tips that will help you safely navigate Indonesia’s hectic streets with ease.
1. Go with the flow.
Motorbikes operate under a herd mentality. So when you see that line of scooters zipping along the shoulder toward the front row at a red light, go ahead and carefully fall into queue. When the light turns green, it’s like someone waved the start flag at the Baja 1000, so keep to speeds you’re comfortable with. Also, stay to the left if you’re going slower (they drive on the left side of the road in Indonesia) and pass on the right. Avoid making sudden moves or jerky turns. Keep your peripherals in tune and you’ll be sliding along easily with the pack. And rest assured, if someone wants to pass you, they will. So stay calm and go with the flow.
2. Helmets and horns are your friends.
God forbid the moment that you actually need your helmet. However, with the amount of traffic in Southern Bali, for example, it’s simply the smart thing to do. Plus, most helmets have visors which help protect your face from wind, bugs, dirt, rain, and exhaust fumes. When you venture onto a less-beaten track, the headwear becomes protection against low hanging branches and leaves.
The high-pitched squeak of scooter horns can be a tad emasculating for some Western macho men, but the Balinese don’t hesitate to make their presence known. Americans tend to deliver a honk out of aggression, but in Indonesia a single toot can be used when you’re about to pass someone, riding in their blind spot, or simply saying hello. Think of the horn as your bodyguard that clears a buffer zone around your motorbike.
3. Wear bandanas and sleeves.
Wearing a bandana will not only protect your lungs from the dangerous fumes spilling out from exhausts, but you can wipe sweat off your forehead, keeping it from potentially falling into your eyes and causing momentary blindness. Also, find a lightweight, long-sleeved, breathable shirt. This will guard your skin from the harsh elements while allowing you to keep cool and protected. Some people even wrap up with a sarong to protect the lungs and skin with a single garment.
4. Know when to make your move.
Similar to surfing, anticipation is key. See a flood of red lights ahead? Keep a hand on the brake lever. Stuck behind a slow-moving vehicle? Get ready to punch it when oncoming traffic clears. But first, be sure to get familiar with your throttle and brakes on quiet roads before hitting the mean streets. Some bikes take an extra second to screech to a halt while others stop on a dime. A highly responsive throttle is optimal, as it can get you out of a sticky situation quickly. Plus, it’s always best to pass a slower vehicle with confidence knowing your bike is fully up to the task.
5. Use sidewalks only when absolutely necessary and always be on the lookout for potholes.
When all forward-moving lane options are null, it’s not uncommon to see motorbikes take to the sidewalks to get back to open road. At first, this may strike you as risky, illegal, dangerous, or downright crazy. (And it is quite crazy, really). Only utilize this option if you are fully confident in your driving skills. And even then, are you really in such a rush? Aren’t you supposed to be on vacation? Best to save your ancillary energies for pothole spotting. While the roads in Bali are exponentially better nowadays than years past, these sneaky tailbone-rattlers will pop up quickly, especially if you’re following someone too closely. So give space and allow time to drift around these land mines that often flatten tires and rattle your innards.
6. Keep your knees in.
This was the sole piece of advice I received from a motorbike taxi driver in Bangkok, Thailand, when he handed me a helmet as we sped off into oncoming traffic. Simple? Yes, but also extremely vital. Whether your sneaking to the front of an intersection in stopped traffic, passing another bike in a one-lane rice field, or pulling into a parking area packed with hundreds of cycles, make sure to close your legs. In doing so, your mirrors will serve as the cat’s whiskers on your two-wheeled vehicle. Traffic is bountiful in Bali, so keep it tight and you’ll slide right into place.
Bonus tip: Google Maps works!
You can download a large section of Bali in the Google Maps app, which works (almost) perfectly, even if your phone is on airplane mode. If you’re riding with a passenger, have them track your route and provide directions so you can keep your focus on the road. If scooting solo, pop in some ear buds and have the computerized voice guide you to your destination. It doesn’t always give you the most efficient route, but don’t worry, you’ll eventually get to where you’re going. And if all else fails, the friendly Balinese people are eager to talk to foreigners and provide directions.
Check out more of Mike’s journeys around this planet at mermaidsandnomads.com.