The first thing you will notice on arrival into Bali will probably be the insatiable thirst you feel for a coconut/mojito/bintang once the humid, warm air engulfs you into island mode. The second thing you notice will most probably be the state of the traffic and drivers. Impatient honking, no speed limits, people not adhering to lane markings, cab drivers choosing the worst possible scenario for a U-turn.
All so chaotic and overwhelming, until you realise there are subtle rules, or maybe more of an etiquette in place. Yup all that honking is not a sign of impatience or aggression, the people of Bali don’t actually turn from smiley and warm to demonic and abusive on the roads. They are actually quite thoughtful and for the most part somewhat safe and efficient. Here is a summary of Bali road etiquette and also some of the more unique Bali road experiences.
It’s hard not to feel self-conscious when you hear a ‘honk honk’ from behind. The truth is that honking is a polite gesture to let someone know that you are overtaking or just a general and gentle indicator that you are in their vicinity. Also used when going around blind corners and intersections, the polite honk is a necessity when trying to navigate Bali’s busy roads for the safety of both yourself and other road users.
Hazard lights at intersections
You may have noted that drivers very thoughtfully use hazard lights to indicate going straight through an intersection. Original and an extra precaution to be taken on the overcrowded streets of Bali.
Something I find interesting about the traffic in Bali is the nature of the traffic jams. They don’t seem to be attributed to any particular time of day or day of the week when it’s on, it’s on. Gridlocks at traffic light less four-way intersections are usually subdued by someone jumping out of their car or off of their bike to do some improvised traffic controlling. This kind of village mentality of taking ownership of a problem and taking one for the team is something that I love about the Balinese. It shows their village mentality put into practice.
Green means go… Orange means go faster… And red means don’t stop immediately or someone will for sure run up your ass. Gauge your stop by making sure traffic behind you is slowing down with you.
Flashing of headlights
In the Western world the flashing of headlights is a universal signal to other motorists to drop speed as the police are nearby. In Bali where two-way streets are not in fact wide enough for two cars this signal generally means “it’s me”.
Getting stuck behind “dirt trucks”
There is no bigger annoyance than that of being stuck behind one of those big yellow dirt carrying trucks whilst driving on a scooter or motorbike with no chance for an over-take (worst offender: Jalan Uluwatu). Tiny, and some not so tiny particles of multi-coloured dirt fly at your face and lodge themselves first of all into your eyes and then deeply into your facial pores. Also to be noted are the little bugs that thickly line the air around sunset on roads located near rice paddies. Try to always grab a helmet with a visor!
I don’t mean the fine giving ‘cops that never made it’ kind. These are cheery guys that ask you how you are, where you’re from, you give them 2000rp (20c) for a spot in their car park and they can’t do enough for you. They even come to you to collect the fee, saving you the to-ing and froing from the ticket machine. The fee will cover you for the whole day. I imagine a few days even if that's what you wanted. The parking guy will never forget a face, which bike or car belongs to who and will even guide you out of your spot.
For us that have grown up with the convenience of people movers, hatchbacks and four-wheel drives, we never cease to be amazed by the carrying capacity of a single scooter. Here is a quick list of some of the crazy things I’ve seen myself or have heard of being carried on a scooter- an operating kitchen (quite common), a cow, 5 policemen, 8 dining chairs, a tiger shark, 8 surfboards. If there is a will, the Balinese will find a way.
What I love about being on the roads in Bali is that it makes you feel that you are living the ‘real’ Indo. These rules aren’t put in place for tourists, it’s just how locals go about their everyday lives. What I see is the ‘if life gives you lemons’ attitude that is characteristic of the Balinese. “Yes our roads are crap, but we work together to make them work for us”.
Written by Rosie Pattinson