You may have read about the horrors of driving in Bali but it really isn’t bad - promise! If you’re in tune with the following, all will be “super-good” (as our manager at Villa Sagitta likes to say)!
1. How to hire a car in the first place
The international car companies like Avis and Hertz are represented on the island but the difference in price between hiring from them and the local car hire companies is huge (around Rp 1 000 000 per day versus Rp 170 000). The advantages of the big international companies is that you might be able to hire an automatic car (you’ll struggle to find them elsewhere) and you can pay for insurance cover. At the local companies, which are plentiful and easy to find, you will find only manual cars and, while you can buy insurance, it is difficult to work out what it covers. Most often, if you are in any kind of accident, it is accepted that you will pay for the damage (which costs significantly less than in most Western countries) and everyone is happy.
2. Driving with the correct licence
There is lots of information on the Internet that says you should have an international driving license to hire a car but, in our twenty odd years of hiring cars there, we have never been asked for one. As long as you have a driver’s license from your own country available to show them, everyone is happy. The international car companies like Avis and Hertz might require one but certainly not the local ones.
3. Find your zen!
The number one reason why driving in Bali is completely manageable – nothing happens fast on the island and that includes the speed of cars! This is partly due to traffic, and partly due to the innate Zen attitude with which people drive. The sooner you key into that, and emulate it, the sooner you’ll settle into the rhythm of driving in Bali.
4. Drive on the left hand side of the road
Remember to drive on the left hand side of the road. Not a surprise for some people but for much of the world it does mean a switch of brain hemispheres! And, if you’re used to driving on the right hand side of the road, remember that you’ll need to get used to changing a gear stick with your left hand!
5. You need the eyes of a chameleon
Motorbikes/scooters are everywhere. In itself this is not a huge problem, except that in Indonesia it’s legal for motorbikes to pass on the left. That means you need to keep an eye out the whole way around the car. No sweetly moving left to give someone more space on the right – you might well be knocking someone over (who is often so close you can hear them breathe)! It doesn’t help that the Balinese either have no concept of lanes, or don’t really think they’re worth sticking to – either way, you will be amazed by how many lanes you can make out of a small two-way road.
6. Triangles are circles...don’t worry you will get it!
Traffic circles in Bali work differently to many other countries. In fact in Bali there are no circles per se (although the concept is the same). Instead there are “triangles”. As you reach a triangle (thankfully there aren’t very many of them!) both directions of traffic will pass on the left of the triangle which means some nifty “crossing over of traffic” manoeuvres, and a lot of frantic looking left and right. Again it very rarely happens at any speed so you’ll be fine. Once you get the logic of it, it makes perfect sense!
On Bali, spirituality is deeply embedded in every part of everyday life and that includes driving. This is a culture that has an annual day where cars and motorbikes are blessed, and thanked, for allowing the owner to make a living with the vehicle’s help (with offerings placed on the front grille of the car or the motorbike’s handle bars). This then is clearly not a culture that is given to road rage. As a tourist, this works 100% in your favour. You might be driving like a complete idiot but nobody is going to be rude enough to draw your (or everyone else’s) attention to it! Return the favour and don’t get angry with the locals either!
8. The car hooter is your best friend.
Which brings me to the car hooter. Your hooter should (will, must...) become your friend – not in a road rage kind of a way but in a “I’m-coming-around-a-blind-corner-and-I-can’t-see-a-thing-so-I-need-to-hoot” kind of a way, or the “I’m-about-to-overtake-you-and-just-want-to-let-you-know” kind of a way (because all the Balinese do that), or the friendly “a-car-15 cars-ahead-of-me-has-edged-ever-so-slightly-forward-so-please-can-you-also-edge-forward-so-we-can-all-get-home-before-tomorrow” kind of a way. The hooter is used for plenty of things while driving in Bali - but never for road rage!
9. Keep your eyes on the road.
Possibly because things generally don’t happen at particularly high speeds, Balinese drivers seem to have a blind faith in something that you, as a foreigner, need to be constantly vigilant of. They subscribe to the theory that “if I have seen you then you have definitely seen me”. This is most frequently used when overtaking. So when the large, slow truck packed full of sand decides to overtake into the smallest gap ever as you head on a direct course to hitting him – he “knows” you’ve seen him and therefore you will slow down, move left or just stall with fear in the middle of the road (kidding!) Jokes aside, you need to keep your eyes on the road at all times for this reason - there’s a lot more going down on the road than you might be used to!
10. He who hesitates is lost!
Know this to be true - if you’re unassertive you’re going to be stuck at the intersection until your flight home! The Balinese are not about graciously letting you into the traffic. Each driver – politely, quietly, but determinedly – will inch their way into the traffic because they want to get home in time to sleep in their own bed that night. You therefore have no choice but to follow suit or you will sit through umpteen traffic light changes.
11. Maps is a must!
Direction boards to major destinations on the island are surprisingly good but are, unsurprisingly, aimed primarily at locals. This is where a map, paper or digital, can come in handy because it does pay to know that Ubud is in the Gianyar regency or that Candidasa is in a similar direction to Klung Kung (if coming from Ubud), because sometimes the signs will show the regency before the next sign shows the town itself.
12. Make sure you have data
Bali is not big on road signs outside of southern Bali. I love using paper maps but they’re not that easy to use on Bali because there’s very little in real life that corresponds to the map. If you’ve hired a car from a local car rental company you’re unlikely to get a GPS. If that’s the case I would suggest you get a local SIM card for your phone and load data. They’re cheap as chips, easily available everywhere and you can then use Google Maps anywhere on Bali (and even Waze in southern Bali). Remember to ask specifically for data because it's bought separately to voice airtime
So driving in Bali is really not bad! And - when all else fails – make like a tourist. Wind down your window, stick out your hand in a stopping gesture, say “thank you, thank you, thank you” loudly - and with a benign smile on your face - as you edge into the traffic, over the traffic or onto the correct side of the road, and you will see that those kind Balinese (all be they a bit long-suffering), will let you get to where you need to go. Just remember to keep your karma good!