Driving in Bali isn’t the huge task it might seem on arrival. There are plenty of places to rent a car cheaply, and quickly and the driving isn’t too challenging.
Hiring a Car
After arriving and getting yourself acquainted with the feel of the area, check out a couple of car rental places a pick choose your ride. Here is my guide to hiring a car in Bali. Equipped with your International Driving License, registration and 20,000 – 50,000rp in cash handy, you are set to go.
Driving as a tourist
Tourists often comment that the roads in Bali seem a madhouse, and this frightens people away from driving. Most local people in Bali have never had a driving lesson. They don’t need to, as you can get your driving license without taking a test (but its cheaper if they take the test). The road skills people have, are earned by plowing headfirst into traffic, and muscling their way through, like everyone else is doing. This can be a hard concept to learn, putting the western idea of ‘road rules’ aside, and taking up a ‘law of the jungle’ approach, but that’s how it is.
Road conditions in Bali
Road conditions in Bali vary greatly, from the silky smooth tarmac in Nusa Dua, to the ‘craters of the moon’ condition of some of the minor roads in the highlands. The environment in Bali, with intense heat, followed by torrential rain and high traffic, mean the roads get torn up fast. Potholes develop, even on major roads like Jl. Legian and the Bypass. For a person driving a car, these can give you a nasty jolt. For a motorcyclist, it can mean an accident. Coming around a blind corner too fast and having to avoid a large pothole, while simultaneously missing the oncoming car, can be a scary experience. Tailgating a car is also dangerous, as a pothole can appear from under its rear bumper, giving you a split second to react.
Once in a while you will see a large rock, or a tree branch sticking out from the side of the road. This is a warning, that you should keep a wide berth. Drivers and highway patrol in Bali, don’t have reflective triangles, or emergency flares. Part of a tree with a strip of cloth, or even a bucket full of rocks, serves a danger marker.
All big towns in Bali have traffic lights, where needed. There are no special rules involved in their use. Americans are used to being able to turn on a red light, after stopping. That’s not the case here unless you spot a turn signal, that is designed to allow a turn. Balinese drivers will often turn on a red light themselves.
There might be speed limits in Bali, but nobody I know pays any attention. The police hang out at intersections, where the traffic is stopped, so the rest of the road is yours. If you do get waved over by a roadside cop, keep going. Police here do no have radar guns so have no way to tell what your speed is.
While never a good idea, driving drunk is popular with many expats. Police have no breath tester or way to measure your alcohol consumption, so you’ll never get pulled over for being drunk.
The police in Bali are under paid, and use their position to boost their income. Pulling over people / tourists, for minor infractions, and demanding money is a part of life here. The Tourist Police will also do this, stating that you have made some fictitious driving error.
Not having a license, may get you an on the spot fine, of 100,000rp or greater. The cops want an instant payoff, and have no desire for you to go to court, as they will lose their chance of a payday. If you produce your wallet and it only has 20,000rp in it, they might let you go with that. I have previously refused to hand over one of the 50,000rp notes for a minor infraction, and the cop let me go, after I showed him the only other money I had was 5,000rp.
Getting a map is a very good idea. There is a Bali Road Atlas, but for short term tourists, a simple map by Periplus will do. It will show, Primary, Secondary and minor roads, enabling you to be creative in your route selection. Bear in mind some maps will show a road going straight through a town, where in actuality, it will be a T-junction or a multi-choice junction, often unmarked.
Bali is a small island with mountains in the middle. If you are in the Kuta part of the island and get lost, remember downhill is usually toward the ocean (south), uphill towards the mountains (north). This is very useful on the longer roads around Ubud etc. where you can get lost. On the north coast its reversed of course.
In the southern part of Bali the geography dictates that roads follow ridge lines going north – south. There are plenty of ways to get to Ubud, Kintamani and other places on a N-S axis. Going east- west is more difficult, and means you will have to cut off of the main road, sometimes taking a windy local minor road. This can actually be the most rewarding part of a journey.
Night driving is okay in a car, though not so recommended on a motorbike. You just can’t see the potholes as well at night, and there are more drunk drivers. In a car watch out for people crossing the street, and steeping out into the road from underneath dark places, like tall trees.
You can only use your headlights after dark. Many people go out at night, and forget to turn off their headlights. I see them driving around the next day, with the headlights still on. This gives the police an excuse to pull you over at an intersection.
As a foreigner, accidents will almost always be your fault according to locals. Whenever there is an accident, other traffic will pull over to watch the proceedings. The local driver will be telling them you caused the accident, and sooner of later will demand money. That demand will go up, as the crowd gets bigger. The police will likely back up the local, and might ask for money too. Best strategy is hand over money as soon as it happens, and leave, regardless of who caused the fender bender. Its easier to drive away when its only you and the other driver, than when there are 50 locals around. Of course if you have a minor accident and are able to keep going, that is always the best strategy, even with the cops. Just say you didn’t realize.
Streetside parking is the way they do it in Bali. Space is sometimes hard to find and you might have to pull a move you might not try at home. For example, a shop might have a 2 car driveway right off of the main road. Using this will necessitate backing out into traffic at some later time. Very often there will be a Parkirman, (parking attended) with a whistle and red baton, ready to stop traffic for you. Supermarkets have these s well as some better restaurants and hotels.
Balinese / Indonesian drivers do things a little differently at intersections. Whereas in the west, we are taught to wait our turn, pull into the middle of the intersection and execute a turn, over here many people cut across to the oncoming lane, going head on to traffic, before switching lanes at an opportune moment. They think this is a smart and sensible way to drive, as it saves a few seconds. The problem with this, is puts you in a head-on situation, and forces you to cut across traffic in the lane you are trying to get back into. This tactic is used mostly by motorbikes, but if you are a tourist and plan to rent a car, its good to know what to expect.
•Main road junction
Another favorite is the main road and junction tactic. Whereas in the west, we are taught to make our turn onto a main road, arrive at a turn, and maneuver into it, locals here will come out onto the main road, and go directly at the turn which is 50 yards down the street. Once again this saves 5 seconds, but puts them head on with other traffic. Again this is a tactic used mostly by motorbikes, but the occasional aggressive car driver might try it.
•Pulling out from the curb
Finally, there is the pull out from a side street going straight. Balinese drivers for the most part, will not look or indicate when pulling out from the curb, or from a side street. They will maintain speed and hook a sharp turn, expecting the cars behind to miss them. As long as they hug the curb its okay, but some start to stray into the other lane after about 10 meters.
•Only worry about what is in front of you
A basic rule of driving in Bali is ‘only worry about what is in front of you’. People expect you to avoid their mistakes, and you will be blamed if they pull out and you hit them.
Many people tail gate in Bali. If there is an accident, the driver of the front vehicle will be blamed as he ’caused the accident’ (unless you are a foreigner, in which case he’ll say ‘Why you crash me?”).
•Using the horn
Everybody uses the horn, not to vent anger, but to let others know their presence. You may actually be asked ‘Why you not use horn?’ if there is an accident and you didn’t konk. When honking just use a quick honk, not an ‘in your face’ belt.
To enjoy driving in Bali you have to relax. Traffic is dense, but people are nice. Don’t stress at traffic jams, take it easy and know that in 20 minutes you’ll be off to where you are going. Speeds in Bali often don’t get above 40kmh, so it casual driving and does not take long to figure out.