When we were in the Philippines, we arrived at the scene of an accident shortly after a man on a scooter was hit by a bus. He wasn’t wearing a helmet. He didn’t survive the crash, and all the villagers were gathered around his body in shocked silence. Someone walked up to him and placed a palm leaf over the corpse, to give him so dignity.
It’s an image that has stuck in my mind to this day.
And yet, despite the dangers, scooters are the transport of choice for tourists across Asia – especially in Bali. And it’s easy to see why despite the risks.
Scooters are cheap to rent and run – some go for just A$4 a day and you can fill the tank for around A$2. And they get you from the beach to the hotel to the yoga studio and back again with ease and freedom.
Riding a scooter in Bali
When we arrived in Ubud, Carmen and I ummed and ahhed about whether or not to rent one.
We had been walking everywhere and taking taxis, but the blistering heat and damage to our wallet weight was getting to us, so we finally bit the bullet and paid a local tourism agency $50 to rent one for a month.
The first day of driving was definitely the hardest.
I drove it back to our hotel before a van came to whisk us away to the villa we were set to stay in for two and a half months.
Carmen went in the van with all the luggage and I followed behind on the scooter, weaving through the mad Ubud traffic and learning how to handle the machine.
Finally the turn came for our villa and the van went up a steep little incline onto a dirt road. I followed – and what happened next can only be described as bang, ding, ow!
The back wheels slid in a puddle of mud and I lost control. The bike tipped and I fair went over the handlebars and landed smack on my face and arms. Carmen saw it all from the van and jumped out, running down the path to help me.
Now, this all happened at around two kilometres an hour.
But it left me with a scratched up elbow and a deeply dented ego. Not to mention the bike itself was also scuffed and scratched.
Frightened to get on the scooter
After this little incident, Carmen was even more reluctant to ride the thing. So I dusted myself off, bandaged up the cut and went back out again to get my confidence up.
And it worked. I got better at riding the bike and eventually got pretty good at it. But I never forgot the crash, and kept my driving very sensible.
I rarely went above 40kmph and drove as carefully as possible – my mate from Italy Alain even said I drove like an old man!
And yes, I felt pretty dorky whenever I’d see some glamorous hippie couple whizzing past us at 60kmph without helmets. There was a even a guy whose dreadlocked hair was so long it trailed down near the back wheel – imagine the scalping if it got caught!
But who cares. Just like in Yoga, it’s not about what you look like, it’s about how you feel – and we felt safe on the scooter most of the time.
Tips for scooter rental in Bali
Make sure you’re covered by insurance
This is a big one. You may think that you’re covered by insurance, but in most cases you travel insurance company will only cover you if you have the following:
– Have a motorbike or scooter license in your home country. Your International Driver’s Permit will only cover you for the vehicle you have in your home country. So if you fall off your scooter in Bali, and don’t have a motorbike license in Australia, your travel insurance won’t cover you.
– Have an international driver’s license. You need to either have a local driver’s license from Bali (which is easy enough to get, by presenting your home license at the driving department. It should take a few hours to process) or by having an international driver’s license.
Check, check and check again
You can rent a scooter very easily in Bali. Take your pick of the rental agencies, they are everywhere. We paid A$50 for the month, which was an average price, and you may be able to haggle a better deal.
Now, before you fork over your cash, it pays to give your prospective scooter a very thorough inspection – and that goes for the helmets too.
Repairs are cheap and quick, and any roadside garage will do most jobs for you no problems, but a breakdown is better prevented in the first place.
Start by turning it on and giving it a few revs. The engine sound should be smooth and regular, and on idle it should be steady. Then flick on the headlights and check that both the regular running beams and the high beams work. Then check the indicators, front and back.
Next, check the brakes – push the scooter forward and apply the grips, first front brakes (right side) and then back (left side). Back brakes are the most crucial, as you will be using them the most.
Check the tyre treads too, bald is bad – but worn tyres are pretty usual for Asian scooters. Make sure to note any scratches or dents on the bike, although it is rare as a unicorn to find a Balinese bike in mint condition. In fact, if you do come across a brand new bike, avoid renting it because any scratch you make will stand out vividly.
Pick your model carefully
We had a Honda Scoopy and it worked just fine, aside from the high beam headlight bulb, which blew and had to be replaced at a roadside mechanic. This only cost about US$3.
But the Scoopy is absolutely gutless – it looks very stylish but the engine would struggle to whip cream. It’s known as a ‘girls bike’ in Bali and I got stick from both men and women there for driving it. The little cane basket at the front probably didn’t help…
Seriously though, the Scoopy’s only got 49ccs to work with, so with two on the bike and a big load of shopping our little machine strained itself.
If you want more power, go for something like a Honda Vario with a 125cc engine, a much lighter body, more powerful brakes and longer seat – a must for passengers.
Make sure the helmet is good quality
If you rent your motorbike, it should come with a helmet. Don’t rent from a place that doesn’t supply helmets, as if you don’t wear one you will make yourself a target to be pulled over by the police. (And you’ll have to bribe them usually, $5 is the going rate, don’t pay more.)
We would recommend a very sturdy helmet, and one that has a section that wraps around your jaw and mouth, so that only your eyes are showing.
Soon after we left Bali, a friend of a friend fell off their scooter. Although they were wearing a helmet, it didn’t cover their jaw and they suffered horrific face injuries. They had to get plastic surgery to repair the damage.
Our helmets didn’t have this jaw covering but I don’t think I would rent a bike without this type of helmet again, especially after hearing about that accident. It’s not worth the risk.
Practise your driving somewhere quiet first
I didn’t have a chance to practise before we rented our scooter – and I wish I had. It would have saved a lot of trial and error, and a scratched up elbow.
Carmen got the chance to practise her driving however when I took her up to Bisma, a very quiet road in Ubud that’s a great spot to pootle around on the scooter and learn the ropes.
Riding a scooter is pretty easy – most of the same rules apply for riding a bicycle, like for balance and when using your back brakes.
The tricky part is using the accelerator and learning how to balance that when you turn and when you’re travelling at slow speed. But you get the hang of it pretty quickly, as it’s mostly instinctive and will come with just a little bit of practise.
If you get the chance to ride up and down a quiet street for a while, take it. But you’ll learn quickly in real traffic…
Keep calm and flow with it
Road rage is frowned upon in Bali.
If you lose your rag in the inevitable traffic snarls of Ubud, or yell abuse at the driver who cut you off at the intersection in Kuta, you will be giving yourself a severe case of social embarrassment, showing that you can’t handle the roads.
Yes, people can drive like fools in Bali –there are plenty of reckless truck drivers and idiot tourists and bad choice Balinese behind the wheels and handlebars.
But I learned that most bad spots I got into were my fault because I didn’t understand the local way of the road.
So here are some tips to keep you safe:
Keep left – Don’t drive in the middle of the road. Stick to the left so that people who are going faster than you can overtake easily. Don’t be that person who holds up a convoy of cars and scooters.
Beep – In Australia, beeping means f#$%k you. In Bali, beep means “I’m here.” If you approach an intersection it pays to beep – it lets people know that you are coming through. Also, beep when you overtake. In fact, just beep a lot.
In front is all that counts – Beeping is vital because in Bali there’s no such thing as looking before you turn, they just turn. You are expected to take care of what’s in front of you, not worry about behind or to the side. So that means people will turn blindly into traffic and expect you to let them. When you get your confidence up, you’ll do it too – otherwise you wont get anywhere.
Big beats small – Truck wins. Car wins. It doesn’t matter who was first, if you are small then you lose. But scooters win in the end because they can zip around the worst of the traffic jams.
Don’t overtake on the inside – Keep in mind that cars will struggle to see you if you overtake on the inside of their vehicle. Avoid this and avoid an accident.
So whether you’re struggling with traffic or coasting along a jungle frosted road by the roiling sea, just flow with it. You’ll get there in the end, and it’ll be worth it.
Driving a scooter in Bali can be a bit scary at first, but you get the hang of it. And the freedom it brings is awesome – you can go anywhere, at any time and they are great value for money.
But be careful – I’d much rather drive an underpowered scooter, wearing a dorky helmet, at a maximum of 40kmph, than have my insides rearranged by a coroner for the casket.