Thursday, November 6, 2014

Do I really need a motorbike licence in Bali

Riding a motorbike in Bali is one of the most common things to do. it is a great way to get around easily and cheaply and with the crazy traffic jams that exist here, it is often much quicker than by car.

From the area we are currently living in, I realised that to get to Green School by motorbike rather than by car would be 30 minutes ride compared to over an hour drive (each way) maybe longer.

Taking into consideration costs, times, heat and a sense of freedom, a bike certainly seemed like the best solution.

Now riding a motorbike in Bali is not for everyone and if you have never ridden before, I certainly do not recommend it. You will certainly be jammed in tight squeezes from time to time with a hairs breadth between you and a truck. Certainly not a time to get the wobbles or lack co-ordination skills in motorbike handling.

You also do not have the protection of a car around you, so it is a choice that each person must weigh up for themselves.

Contrary to popular belief, helmets are required.
You may get away with it for some time, but police do pull people over and fine them regularly and if you happen to have an accident, it may well save your life, so definitely a good idea.

The helmets available here certainly vary in quality, from OK to "you'd be safer wearing an ice cream container".

If you are serious about it and especially for children, you may like to bring a helmet from your country where you can be assured it meets safety standards. It fits easily into luggage and you can pack soft clothing into the head space. If you think you may not need it when you return and you buy an open faced, matte black one I can assure you everyone here will want it so you should be easily able to sell it or make a locals day by donating it to someone you have become fond of, if you don't want to take it home.

Whilst a simple car license will allow you to rent a bike here, you may like to check if your insurance covers you in the unlikely event of an accident. I asked a few companies in Australia and some would not cover motorbikes under any circumstances. Aussie Travel Cover had no problems with it as long as the rider was legally licensed to ride a motorbike either in the country they are riding in or their home country.

Decision made (for me anyway), lets do it properly. I've done my motorbike license in Denpasar twice and whilst pretty easy, there are mountains of red tape, it wastes an entire day and expires after a little while. So the choice became easier, get it done (once) in Australia.

Now to those around me, it seemed like I breezed through it, go and book a full day with Hart, come away from no experience to well trained and with your learners license in 1 day. OK, sounds pretty simple. Well for some, perhaps it is, but for a middle aged woman, doing it for a life choice to get her daughter to school, there was a bit more to it than that.

Firstly there's the arrival to the training centre surrounded by well built young men with adventures ahead of them, being trained to become an even bigger chick magnet than they already think they are. I eagerly scanned the group and was delighted to find 2 other women who I struck up an immediate aching need friendship with.

Helmets off - test completed - putting bikes away
Then there's the sheer terror joy of getting on a moving vehicle which you have to turn, sometimes with your body more than your hands and projecting through space at a screamingly terrifying speed of nearly 20kms per hour.

Ho ho you chortle, you try it! It's darn nerve racking the first time. Let alone learning stopping, turning, cornering, emergency stopping and avoiding the other riders - you don't have to worry about the instructors too much, they know not to be in the middle of the riders path much (maybe from past experience).

If you can ride a push bike the men at HART are pretty good at getting you going, although one young Asian man did seem to have his motorbike stuck up a ramp or over the hill ever time I looked around. Eventually in desperation the instructor asked him in all sincerity "have you ever ridden a pushbike" He looked confused and replied "No, too hard to balance".

The next corner I came around, I noticed he and the motorbike were laying down on the wet grass about 100 feet off the track. The next time around, he had somehow impaled his motorbike firmly on top of a metal star picket and he and his instructor were trying to lift it up and off . The instructors face had a weird sideways grimace to his mouth.

By the end of the day, all of us (except the young man above) were proudly handed our learners licences and told to "go practice and come back in a few months".

Perfect girls bike, cheap, comfortable and low to ride.
I got a little 250cc Suzuki Maurauder - perfect for gals as it's a cruiser hence comfy seat and low to the ground. It was cheap too - less than $2000 2nd hand.

I was a little fortunate to have several riders around me who constantly encouraged me to "get out and ride with us". In all manner of weather and conditions, they were there supporting me and encouraging me to learn skills. I connected with female riding groups in Australia and discovered a whole pile of new friendships, but most of all, it was fun!

There were the difficult moments for sure, waking up and bending, stretching, gyrating, jumping up and down on one foot, twisting from side to side, hopping around and turning circles - and that was just getting the pants on. After such a strenuous workout you almost don't feel like riding - almost! Bring on Bali, I need to kick those extra 8kgs!

I also find it amusing when I am lecturing at a conference in business attire, zip out the back once done, throw on leathers, and stride out helmet in hand, you can hear jaws drop and I still find it funny when they ask "You ride"? I'm tempted to say "No, I just like all the leathers and carrying the helmet around to look cool".

However, eyes firmly back on the prize, I needed my full licence and so the day dawned to one of the biggest thunderstorms Melbourne had ever seen, roofs were off houses, trees down everywhere, torrential rain, but no lightning, so the testing goes ahead. I think pretty much every one dropped their bike at least once that day, For me, it was on the very last test of the day, quick stop in wet conditions on a bike that was not mine - boom. Locked it up, straight under the wheels and legs jammed through the bike.

As the instructors lifted the bike off me, they said "before you get up, you failed the test, we can retest you today, but only if you aren't hurt, How are you?"

"Fine, I squeaked through gritted teeth.

"OK, go over there, wait your turn and do it again"

By the time it was my turn I was shivering to the bone, shaking from shock, cold and stress, the end result - a pass - just!
I'll take it and valuable lessons learnt about handling in difficult conditions.
As the skies opened up once more the instructor said "Here's your score, you passed, but you're a better rider than this indicates, now here's where the truth may kick in, get off your bike and walk"

"Umm, I can't" I whispered as my leg buckled under me. "Thought so" he replied, "lets get some medicals out here".

Not sure whether to cry or be delighted - but a pass none the less and I am sure I'm a better rider for it.

Getting in some track practice at Broadford
Fantastic dedicated "Girls Dirt Day" Instructors
A friend of mine is a female race instructor for girls learning to ride and asked if perhaps Emma may like to learn, "Sure, why not, maybe she will understand pillion balancing a little better, which has to be good. She was delighted to be decked out in armour, taken up to Broadford track for a "Girls Dirt Day"

She absolutely loved it and gained some great skills herself.

Driving in bali can at once appear maniacal, like a nest of ants running in every direction, a complete cesspool of madness, smells of exhaust fumes and the pungent waft of durian mingle with tropical frangipanis. Your skin swelters in the unknown heat and humidity as perspiration trickles down your back. The thought of riding a bike in Bali has terrified many tourists.

This is actually a good thing, Bali is not the place to ride a bike if you have no experience, people can and do regularly get hurt, maybe even just from falling off a track into the muddy ricefields as much as skidding under a truck in a busy intersection.

However, if you do decide to brave it, theres a few things that are good to know. Firstly make sure your bike has full insurance, ask to see the papers. You will be paying 20,000-50,000rupiahs ($2=5) per day to hire the bike, so a little bit more for insurance won't hurt you. But if you are uninsured and you crash the bike, the person you rented it from my lose the equivalent to 1-20 years of wages.

Then there's the traffic, remember most of these people do not have insurance and therefore definitely do not want to be in an accident. They will generally be overly cautious, especially at intersections.

Now here's where (for western riders) if gets confusing, when you approach a crossing without traffic lights (if theres lights you must still obey them), you just inch forward and carefully merge with the flow of traffic, like ants it will generally part and you can weave your way from one side to the other.

The other trick if you are a bit scared at an intersection is align yourself with a larger vehicle, preferably a bus or a truck and just carefully sit beside them as they do the weaving through for you (just watch they don't turn your way).

The first traffic jam you find yourself in, say peak hour through Denpasar where trucks and buses intermingle with motorcyclists - sometimes up to 7 across, all wedged in together can be nerve wracking to say the least. You are gridlocked, no ones moving, the fumes are making your eyes water and the bike in front of you has his exhaust angled in such a way that it constantly puffs in your face like an ignorant smoker. However, I've actually struck up a few friendships this way. The kids laugh and shyly grin at you, we've offered them sweets which a little hand quickly grabs from you and a few Indonesian words like "Chantik" (Pronounced CHAN-TEAK) which means "beautiful" when looking at a little one, will bring adoring smiles form their parents and endless "Terima Kasihs" (Thank you). You just have to admit, those tiny helmets to fit the babies are pretty adorable too.

Sometimes they will honk (actually it's probably more like a beep), don't take this personally if its a quick honk, it means "I'm just letting you know I'm behind you so I don't frighten you/ so you don't pull out into me". Similarly 2 quick honks can mean the same thing or perhaps "Hello, I know you my friend" or "Oh look a middle aged woman with white skin and a child, isn't that interesting, I think I'd like to look at her face, hello, hello, helllloooooo".

One long honk is considered very rude and therefore generally only used for emergencies or if someone is very angry (which really doesn't happen too much in Bali). I asked my driver about this and he replied "Oh, no , we would never honk, because someone has made a mistake, maybe tomorrow I will make a mistake and I wouldn't like someone to do that to me. We are very understanding of other drivers".

There are endless places to rent motorbikes from and if you ask around I'm sure you'll find one in a few questions.
Most people ride scooters, in particular "Scoopys" they are fun. You can put things under the seat, they generally have a hanging hook in the front for shopping and are extremely economical.
You also don't need to change gears, hence its really just throttle for go and brake for stop, thats about it.
To completely fill one up to the top with petrol will cost (in 2014) around 18,000rp ($1.80) and that should last you for a full days touring or several days to a week if just around town.

 Bike organised, it is an amazing feeling of the wind in your hair, the cool breeze calms even the hottest days and you have a sense of freedom, even if it's just zipping down to a local warung (cafe).

Worth the stress of the Melbourne license testing, you bet!

My lovely Bali Scoopy. I can even carry the groceries home on her!


  1. Just an update: I got pulled over my police 3 times yesterday on the bike Ubud to Sanur. A couple of things went in my favour (with the ostensibly gruff men / polisi)
    1. I spoke Indonesian to immediately, which one tells them you are either a local or aware of some rules so they are not going to get maximum money from you if you are in the wrong, they smiled a little.
    2. I had a safety approved helmet on
    3. I had obeyed traffic rules, stopped at lights, not been speeding, etc
    4. I had an International licence for both the car and the motorbike which I pointed out to them in Indonesian

    Thus, they really couldn't do much, smiled and waved me on.

    My friend, (doing all the same as me) riding on a standard (not international) licence for a car (don't think it had motorbike on it, but it was not international)
    was fined, with great threats being made, he bargained them down from 250,000 to 100,000

    My maid says they always fine her 50,000 if she rides without a helmet

    It's not a lot of money but would have been fined 3 times in the one day without an international licence and its pretty stressful each time.

  2. Credits to you for your bravery!
    Launching yourself into the Balinese traffic is something of a giant leap of faith, and it's good that you emphasized on the safety aspect of your experience.

    I quote you: "This is actually a good thing, Bali is not the place to ride a bike if you have no experience, people can and do regularly get hurt"

    You're completely right, and would you believe that, on facebook groups, there are still people who ostensibly refuse to wear a helmet! If you link that with the sheer amount of tourist sporting bandages and casts, you can guess what happened.

    As a safety advice, I would like to add that, in Bali, your worst enemy is the road. If Balinese are generally very experienced and drive collaboratively (re: the honk), the road doesn't care, and sudden smears of oil, chalk, mud or seemingly teleporting potholes will give you some nasty surprises, and that's still discounting the mounts of construction sand piled up before or after sharp turns :D

    In any case, great article, kudos!

  3. thank you Angie, Yes you are correct, I completely forgot about mentioning the huge piles of grey sand on the side of the road spilling into traffic and the gravel, Yes they are certainly an added twist to the tale.