Danger. The travel advisory stated that Bali was considered dangerous for foreigners. A bombing by militant Islamists in 2002 had killed 202 people, mostly tourists. Another bombing in 2005 compounded traveler fears.
Our contributor made the treacherous journey to Bali where travel books warned of narrow roads, crazy drivers, potholes, packs of dogs and large trucks.
A travel book added to the flavor of motorcycling on Bali when it stated there was no denying the dangers of motorcycle driving on Bali. It went further to specifically describe narrow roads, crazy drivers, unexpected potholes, packs of dogs, children darting onto the roads, unmarked road construction, unlit traffic at night, and trucks and buses that by size proved their ownership of the roads. The author summed up the warnings by saying Bali was no place to learn how to drive a motorcycle and how many foreigners returned to their home country in a box as the result of motorcycle accidents.
Descriptions of Bali as an island paradise eight degrees from the equator, with a blue ocean and white sandy beaches seemed to dispel some of the risks inherent in the danger warnings I had been given. Inexpensive hotels, friendly people, flowing swill, palm trees, volcanoes and lush jungle driving were also positive factors I considered. As for the danger presented to a motorcyclist, I knew I was not going to Bali to learn how to drive. After having survived some of the worst roads and drivers on the planet in places like India, Cairo and Cambodia, I thought Bali could be no worse. The lure of paradise with an element of risk spelled motorcycling adventure possibilities.
For the western palate, McDonalds, Pizza Hut and fast food at the Circle K mini-market was found in the tourist center of Kuta.
With my own motorcycle helmet, clothes, travel repair kit and a wad of cash, I flew to Bali while snowflakes were swirling around my home half an earth away. What I found was an interesting mix of danger and paradise, as well as a large degree of adventure.
Bali was one of about 13,700 islands that made up Indonesia. With a population of around 3,500,000, Hindus made up around 90% of the religious population, separating it from the rest of Islamic Indonesia. Roughly the size of the US State of Delaware, Bali enjoys equatorial weather with ocean breezes cooling the hot lowlands and mountainous temperatures among the volcanic central mountain range.
The story of the first Dutch ship in 1597 stopping in Bali tells of how half the crew refused to leave the island paradise when Captain Corneluis Houtman wanted to depart, the crew finding the people and environment so much to their liking. Over the centuries the Dutch, and then the Japanese had control of Bali, but eventually it came under the rule of Indonesia, albeit quite different in culture and religion than the rest of that country. Today the proximity and low prices find Australians making this their #1 target for a vacation. Like the sailors in 1597, some English-speaking foreigners still refused to leave, making English the third most spoken language throughout the island.
This tourist paid her surf board rental agency to pilot her and her surfboard to the beach rather than try to negotiate traffic on her own, a wise decision in the wild traffic around Kuta.
The three main tourist towns are Dempasar, Kuta and Ubud, with Kuta the liveliest and Ubud the most culturally attractive. Many tourists come to Kuta and never leave to see the rest of the island, they being seekers of surf and wanting to enjoy the tropical beach life while swilling and chilling in the many pubs and restaurants designed to attract them.
At one time Kuta was one of the three targeted overland travel stops for foreigners, many following the famed “Hippy Highway.” The three Ks: Kabul in Afganistan, Kathmandu in Nepal and Kura have long since changed, and Kuta now was for those seeking sun, surf, cheap food and plenty of beer. That made the Kuta of today far different from that the seekers of truths, visions and inner being associated with inhaling or ingesting helpers. Today a strong “NO DRUGS” policy and enforcement find the jails housing foreigners not wise to the changing times. Instead, Kuta can likely claim the most beer swilled of any city in Bali - today’s drug of choice.
Kuta was where I started my search for a motorcycle, having decided to save the thousands associated with flying my own motorcycle in just to drive around the island. I soon discovered that rental motorcycles were available for nearly all sizes, from step-through 90cc Hondas to a Harley-Davidson FLH. The Harley-Davidson cost about $200 per day, whereas the Honda could be had for $5 per day. I found a 250cc for $9 per day, plus another $1.25 for insurance. The deal took about an hour to conclude and required that I show the owner a valid International Driving Permit and he
Bali is famous for white sandy beaches, sometimes secluded like this. On the north side of the island the sand was black.
copied my passport. Most rental agencies wanted to hold my passport as security against damage or theft of the motorcycle, but the owner of my rental decided I was a safe bet to return the motorcycle and pay for any damages, so passed on the passport security issue - a highly unusual deal.
After two days in the stifling traffic and noise of Kuta I wanted the solitude of the many quiet beaches and mountain villages. It seemed that Kuta, and adjoining Legian, were where tourists went to crash motorcycles, drink and party. Nearby Dempasar, the island’s major city, was also clogged with city traffic. It took nearly 20 kilometers to get away from the stop-and-go, hot city driving and onto smaller roads with less traffic.
What the tour book had said about driving in the country was true. The bigger the vehicle, the more give I had to do with the motorcycle. Trucks and buses would take up three-fourths of a road, leaving a narrow edge of the pavement on the shoulder for motorcycles and bicycles. An “adventure motorcycle” with panniers and one meter wide handlebars would have had to take to the dirt, off the pavement, when some of the bigger vehicles came at them. It was clear why the Harley-Davidson rental agency told me most of the Harley-Davidsons rentals were to foreigners wanting to “show” and
Driving on the sidewalk, against one way traffic like pictured here, made an observer wonder if there were any rules or police to issue tickets. Of course there were, and tourists who tried this often paid a hefty price.
not “go” along the beach roads of Kuta, that few ventured into the mountains or along the coastal highways. The bottom line was a big motorcycle, big as in wide and heavy, was disadvantaged when competing with cars, trucks and buses for the small space allowed to them on mountain and coastal roads.
Driving was done on the left side of the road, and it was a test to meet the challenges of dodging chickens and dogs, avoiding potholes, and watching for non-existent warning signs. My 250cc motorcycle was able to maintain all highway speeds while being nimble enough to miss most of what was going on in front of me, except for the monkeys.
I had slowed to watch some tourists who were wildly chasing a monkey that had grabbed the handbag of one of them and run off with it, likely inside carrying the owner’s passport and money. As I slowed to 5-10 miles per hour another monkey ran up to the side of my motorcycle and tried to pull off the small tank bag. At first I was surprised and panic-striken, only to find my tank bag was under full attack by the monkey that was straining to pull it off the motorcycle. He fought and shook it while I tried to keep the motorcycle upright and shift into neutral. Once I found neutral and then switched the motorcycle off, I toed the side stand down. Then I had both hands free to deal with the fierce monkey. With a gloved right hand I tried to pull it off, make it let go of the holding straps. That only got me a nasty show of teeth and a nasty scream, so I let go. My next effort to free my bag from the grips of the monkey would likely not please animal lovers, but got the problem solved.
I swatted the monkey on the back of its head hard enough to knock it out. It let go of my tank bag and fell to the pavement, stunned. I wondered if I had killed it but decided it was better to start the motorcycle and drive away than to try CPR on the animal. As I shifted into first and started to drive off I saw the monkey regain consciousness and roll to its feet. Driving away I yelled “Sorry mate,” thinking the monkey had heard the Australian term for friend before. Maybe I
A monkey scampered across the road and darted up a mountainside to safety after it was chased by a tourist after an unsuccessful “snatch and run” attempt.
should have said something lower caste to the little thief, some of the other Australian slang I had learned, but I think the monkey knew what was meant. Riding away from the monkey attack I noticed the tourist group had the monkey with the purse treed and were throwing rocks at it. It looked like their day was going to be long as the monkey had the high ground with the valuables still in hand. Rocks being thrown 40-50 feet in the air did not seem to be giving the monkey much reason to let go of the cache.
A motorcyclist with lust to do it could circle Bali in one day. To do so would be to miss what Bali is - which is a scenic island with colorful jungles and rice terraces, spectacular views of the ocean and lush equatorial jungles. They would also miss the rich culture of the Balinese people, unique to their part of the world.
Small family-owned hotels offered clean rooms for as little as $20, each with secured parking for the rental motorcycle. For the upscale traveler there were many resorts offering everything from spa treatment to five star room service. What would cost $1,000 per day along the coast of California could be had in Bali for $250.
Eating was easy and tasteful. The local food usually included rice and vegetables, with chicken or fish. Beef was seldom seen on the menus because of the strong Hindu influence on the island, but could be found in the major tourist centers like Kuta. More often pork was an offering.
Live pigs were seen on their way to the market. Pork was a menu item more often than beef in this Hindu part of Indonesia.
The country was clean but bottled water was recommended, and available, for drinking. Hotel rooms often had cooled bottled water free for guests. The famed “Bali Belly” missed me but I knew it was there from trading stories with other travelers. It is a form of stomach flu that usually lasts a few days and finds the tourist staying near toilets. Local drugs available over-the-counter knock it out, but it can linger if not attended to quickly.
My motorcycle ran on any gas I found, whether it was from a gas station or out of the liter bottles sold from stands along the road. Because there are so many small motorcycles on Bali, every little village seemed to have at least one motorcycle mechanic shop. My one experience with a dying spark plug cost less than $5 to have sorted out and replaced with a new one.
Temples were everywhere. To explore them and take pictures was allowed if one was observant of the rules of clothing. Bare shoulders, legs or mid sections were not allowed. As hot as many places were the local attire, especially in temples, was to cover the body, not expose it. The exception to this rule was in Kuta and surrounding areas where the locals seemed to just sigh and say to themselves, “These ignorant tourists will soon be gone.” Away from the beach these rules were enforced and the ignorant tourist would find themselves being invited to go away if not dressed properly.
The Tenah Lot Temple, the most photographed temple of Bali, was built on a rock only accessible during low tide.
The volcanic mountains in the middle part of Bali made for interesting up and down driving, sometimes offering small and isolated roads. Here again the bigger motorcycle would have been disadvantageous as tight curves and slow driving were often the delight of the day, not happy driving times for the motorcyclist atop an 800 lb. bike. These small winding roads were a motorcycling delight as they wound up and down the mountains, sometimes under the lush green jungle leaves of overhanging branches.
Adventuring around and through Bali was as dangerous as the tourist book had described. It was also a place where time was easy to fritter away laying on a beach, reading a book and enjoying the day for two nights, then moving on to another town after driving for a few hours. The motorcycle gave the operator the freedom to wander from a two-day base without the worries of luggage. During that time there were changes in climate from the cool and sometimes cold of 1,000 to 2,000 meter high mountain passes, to the humid beach roads that had temperatures and humidity close to 90 degrees.
Friendly people, inexpensive food and sleeping, and a wide range of tourist activities with scenic views and temperate climate all made it easy to see why the Dutch sailors wanted to stay 400 years ago after they landed on Bali. My adventure had been one of mixing slow travel with exploring a culture unique in its own country, a Hindu culture in an Islamic world. With millions of motorcycles on the island, I was comfortable driving as long as I adopted their form of motorcycling.
As I left Bali my thoughts were on my return. While I had traveled around and away from the main cities, I had noticed numerous dirt bikes, some looking well used. My inquiries at several motorcycle shops taught me that there was a wide system of foot trails and dirt tracks that the dirt bikes were used on to reach some remote villages, temples and volcanoes. One shop said I could rent one of the owners personal motorcycles for $10 per day and the owner would go with me for another $10, showing me some of Bali not seen by the average tourist unless they were hikers. The owner promised, “If you aren’t 100% completely happy with my off-road adventure offering, I’ll take you out again for a second day, free, and a third if not happy with the second.” That is where our bargaining started and the planning of my return.