Indonesia is an amazingly vast and impressive country. When I first arrived here I thought one month would be enough. HA! How wrong I was. Six months later and I am still exploring this diverse country. Doing almost all of it by motorcycle, as well.
Many Westerns are scared or worried about navigating the wild and unpredictable streets of Indonesia — or any nation in Southeast Asia for that matter. Audrey of That Backpacker wrote a post about it several months back that further reinforced peoples’ fears. However I’m here to tell you it’s not as bad as you might think.
Riyanni and I caught motorcycling around an elephant sanctuary in Siak during filming
For starters there are many upsides to renting a motorcycle while abroad. It is really inexpensive. Ridiculously cheap, in fact. Throughout most of Indonesia prices are $5/day, $20-25/week, or $60-100/month. That’s an absolute bargain. Fuel costs even less than that.
For example, I traveled 400km from Jogja to Surabaya in 7hrs using less than $5 worth of fuel. By contrast a train ticket would have cost me $20 and taken only a mere two hours less — but then I wouldn’t have met any cool locals along the way.
Beyond the financial issue there is also the added bonus of being able to set your own schedule and go where you want, when you want. Renting a motorcycle allows you to avoid a multitude of things such as tour groups, waiting on buses/trains, and being stuck with crowds of foreign tourists. This is especially beneficial when your hotel or hostel tries to get you to join a group to see those stereotypical tourist attractions, like Borobudur or Mount Ijen. “Tidak perlu, saya punya motor.” (“No need, I have a motorcycle.”) But hey, if you want to travel halfway around the world just to hang out with foreigners, that’s your choice. However I must at least try and encourage you to interact with locals more, to live the local way of life. It’s much more educational and rewarding. Plus when (or if) you ever return home then you will have a lot more to be thankful for.
In Indonesia the larger vehicle is always responsible and must pay damages (e.g. if a car hits a motorcyclist, its the car’s fault; if a motorcyclist hits a pedestrian, it is the motorcyclist’s fault). As such, you’ll find that vehicles on the road here usually tend to be very careful to avoid hitting anyone on two wheels. I’ve done dangerous and some might even argue stupid stuff on the roads here but because of this I always scrap through unscathed.
That having been said, there are a few downsides to traveling by motorcycle in Indonesia. First there is obviously the traffic in the big cities and of course the condition of some of the roads, which are not quite the smooth and orderly roads we find in North America and Europe. Potholes, sinkholes and unexpected bumps in the pavement do occur, especially in places like Sumatra where the roads are notoriously dangerous for those very reasons.
There is also a general state of madness on the roads in southeast Asia, at least from a Western standpoint. As one of my local Indonesian friends put it: “I thought roads here are normal. But after two years at university in UK, wow, can see why bule [caucasians] are shocked.” However they are not as bad as other countries like the Philippines where: “Here everyone drives crazy. So you just have to drive crazier!”
From cars suddenly stopping in the middle of highways to people crossing the street to motorcycles zigging and zagging around seemingly everywhere at once, the roads in this corner of the world are far from what Westerns would call “organized.” There is however an organized chaos to it all and if you go into it with an open mind — and a few heads-up pointers — then you’ll see that you really have nothing to be afraid of. Well, almost nothing. Here are a few pointers to help reduce your learning curve:
International Drivers License is NOT required
This may be a bad piece of advice to start with but its the truth. Anyone can rent a bike in Indonesia, even those who have never driven one before. Of course this is both a good thing and a bad thing. One of the things I mentioned frequently on the road was “I’m not afraid of the locals — I’m afraid of the tourist who just learned how to drive five minutes ago in the parking lot.”
What about the police, you may ask. Not a problem. During my first extended two month road-trip I hit everywhere in Java, circled Bali, and circled Lombok. Not once was I ever pulled over or questioned by the police. However, when taking a motorcycle onto a ferry you do have to show your proof of insurance, which comes with all rental bikes. In Padangbai, a city in east Bali, the police officer at the port also asked to see my International Drivers License. “Oops, I forgot it.” The officer rolled his eyes at me, stuck out his hand and said “Limapuluh ribu,” which means 50,000 IDR. That’s less than $5USD. And simple as that I was on the ferry.
Drive with your lights on 24/hrs a day and ALWAYS use your turn signals
Often times at night you’ll see locals driving around without their lights. I’ve done the same thing myself several times after having a few beers. The easiest way to avoid this is — no, not to skip the beer with dinner — is rather to turn your headlights on when you first get the bike and never turn them off. They shut off automatically when the motorcycle is off so don’t worry about draining the battery.
Always remember to use your turn signals as well. When bikes are weaving in and out of each other and people are driving every which way, that turn signal is the only way people around you know what you are thinking and where you plan on going. Proper driving etiquette here in SEA is to pay attention to everyone around you. The locals will assume that you are also doing the same to them.
Don’t be afraid to use your horn
In other parts of the world honking your horn at another driver is disrespectful. Not here in Indonesia. It is actually quite the opposite. It’s considered courteous and respective to do so, especially if you think the other driver might not see you. Use it when passing cars, trucks, buses, bicycles, becaks, even people walking alongside the road. Just as a warning, so they know you are coming. You also want to do it when approaching any free-for-all intersections or running red lights. That brings me to my next item…
Drive as the locals do
This includes running red lights, driving down sidewalks or the wrong way down a one-way street, even making illegal u-turns. All of this is standard driving practice in Indonesia and will make it look like you have been in the country a lot longer than you have. With the exception of the southern part of Bali (Kuta, Sanur, Uluwatu) the police do not care the slightest about any of these tactics. In Indonesia it is first come, first serve. Even at convenience stores, where locals frequently skip the queue and just cut in front of others, especially foreigners.
Also, if you start to notice that many other motorcyclists around you have their raincovers on already despite the fact that it has yet to start raining, you might want to pull over and put yours on real fast. Chances are that the rain is only a few minutes away.
Slow down before bridges and railroad crossings
Most of these are bumpy, especially the railroad tracks. Large gaps several centimeters across in between the pavement and the rail are commonplace. Combine that with the lumps in the pavement and it’s easy to go flying. One time I hit a railroad crossing at 100km/h and I literally flew out of my seat, completely lifted up into the air. Luckily my front tire was pointed straight forward and I had a tight grip on the handlebars.
Bridges are not as bad. Some of these are quite smooth actually. But many have a rough bump and the beginning and ending, where the bridge meets the roadway. Just to be on the safe side you want to slow down for these as well, especially if you see the other drivers around you doing the same thing.
Be aware of potholes, sinkholes, and gaps in the pavement
These occasionally occur in the big cities but are more frequent on the long stretches of road in between cities. For the most part Java is not that bad. Other islands like Sumatra are a completely different story. Just keep your eyes focused ahead and you’ll be fine. If you’re really worried then just drive a little bit slower.
Be observant when others flash their brights at you
This occurs both during the daytime and the nighttime. At night fast-moving cars will often flash their brights as they are coming up from behind to inform you that they are about to pass. However as cars frequently drive on the wrong side of the road when passing slow-moving trucks or buses, you will also see oncoming cars do this as well. In this case you want to move as far to the left as possible, to give them room to pass.
During the daytime it’s a little different. If you see an oncoming car flashing their brights at you it usually means “you’d better get out of the way because I cannot!” In this situation it is wise to slow down as well as scoot as far to the left shoulder as possible.
There are no official speed limits in Indonesia, only “suggested” speed limits
Being pulled over for going to fast or too slow in this corner of the world is a fear you do not need have. I regularly hit triple digits in quiet neighborhoods and places where the signs say 30 or 40 but the police don’t even bat an eye at me. However, if you are going to drive really fast, be sure to keep an eye out for people trying to cross the street and cars or motorcycles entering the roadway.
In Indonesia the idea of stopping when you reach an intersection and looking before you turn just doesn’t exist. People just pull out and hug the shoulder, rather than swinging out into the center of the lane, but they never look. They count on the ones already driving down the road to be on the lookout for them. Remember that. This is also one reason I advocate driving on the right side of the road, nearer to the center lane — except when traffic is trying to pass, of course.
Learn basic directions in bahasa
These will become priceless whether driving in city or through the countryside. After all GPS in SEA is not quite as reliable — or up to date — as it is in the Western world. Knowing a few words like kiri (left), kanan (right), and terus (straight / keep going) will become invaluable. Other good words to know are dimana (where) and bensin (gasoline). “Dimana bensin?”
Get a helmet with a tinted visor
These are very helpful when driving into the rising or setting sun as even closing your eyes for a few seconds can be disastrous. They also help keep you from being blinded by oncoming lights when driving at night. Some of the vehicles here in Indonesia have crazy bright lights. In additional many of the trucks and buses have colored lights hanging on the edges, so that others drivers (particularly motorcyclists) can avoid them…often by mere centimeters.
Helmets are only necessary in the big cities
If you are like me and have been riding motorcycles for years then you know there is nothing more enjoyable then feeling the breeze through your hair. But if the police see anyone without a helmet in the big cities, even locals, they will pull them over and issue them a ticket. This is very true for tourists, especially in Bali. However once you get outside of the city and are driving through countryside and small villages feel free to take your helmet off and enjoy the wind.
Long Distance Motorcycle Travel Tips
Pay attention to the green road signs
You don’t need GPS or smart phone maps to travel long distances in Indonesia — I spent my first two months essentially driving blind, only following the green road signs. They will list the upcoming cities and point you left right or straight. Just keep driving straight until you see the next one and have no fear.
Don’t be afraid to drive at night
Many locals initially cautioned me against driving at night, warning that I might be stopped and robbed by some unscrupulous individuals. However in six months that has yet to happen. In fact I found night driving to be more enjoyable for a variety of reasons. Not only is there less traffic on the road but also less surprises, such as people crossing the street or unexpectedly slamming on their brakes.
I would suggest however that you not drive over 100km/hr at night. That way you still have enough time to see and avoid any potholes in the road.
Here’s a quick gift for all you Pinners 😉
Keep your gas tank full
The national gasoline chain in Indonesia is Pertamina. They are located everywhere in the big metropolises and at key locations in between smaller cities. Even in the middle of nowhere there is usually a Pertamina every 75-100/km, at least on Java; However they are less sporadic on Sumatra and Sulawesi. Once your gas tank gets down to 1/4 full I recommend stopping at the next Pertamina you see and topping up.
Not all Pertaminas are open 24 hours a day, especially in the more remote areas. If driving long distances at night then I recommend filling up your tank whenever it gets down to the halfway mark.
Purchasing roadside gasoline
Throughout Indonesia there are small family-owned shops that sell bensin. You will recognize these places because they always have the gasoline stored in glass bottles and displayed near the roadside in wooden shelves. They charge a tiny bit more than Pertamina (7-8,000IDR/liter versus 6,000IDR) but come in handy when your fuel is running low and there is not a Pertamina in sight.
In Bali, especially the southern, more touristy parts of the island like Kuta and Sanur, do not trust these vendors. They water down their gasoline so much that you can literally watch your gas gauge dropping as you drive. They also charge 10,000IDR a liter, nearly twice the normal price. Do not purchase gasoline from them unless you have already run out and are pushing your bike.
Follow the person in front of you
When traveling long distances through unfamiliar areas it is a good idea to follow the person in front of you. The locals know where the bumps and dips in the road are and they tend to follow the smoothest path. Follow behind them and you will have an easier ride.
Trust Indomaret, not Alfamart
Indomaret and Alfamart are the two competing convenience store chains in the country. Although most of their prices are the same, anytime they weren’t it was always Indomaret that was less expensive. They also will let you use the restroom if you need it. The few times I asked the Alfamart staff to use their bathroom I was always denied.
Well, that about sums it up. These are the most important tips and tricks I’ve learned from my time on the road here. Hopefully they help make your motorcycle experience in Indonesia a smooth and enjoyable one!
Or did this information scare you into not wanting to motorcycle while in Indonesia?