Chaos With No Evidence of Road Rage

First impressions many people get when they visit a country they have never visited is often the journey between airport and hotel. That transfer journey will take one past landscapes, towns and villages we're not familiar with. That's true with my recent trip, with my wife to the island of Bali. 
Our driver picks us up from Denspena Airport. The vehicle of choice is a Toyota mini van. We only travel a few yards before I notice that every vehicle is some sort of Japanese make of vehicle or a scooter. Balinese drivers drive on the left like we do in the UK. I though that maybe I could hire a car for our two week honeymoon vacation. The transfer from airport to hotel however, changed that thought rather quickly. It's a half a mile journey between parking and the toll booths out of the airport. It's 5pm, rush hour and it's busy. I thought the four lanes of traffic, bumper to bumper - and a really do mean bumper to bumper was all a bit close to each other. Scooters taking up any gap that was left open by a car and other cars and mini buses moving into other lanes that were moving slightly fast then the other, cutting up the vehicle beside and behind. Indications were optional. If you were too close, you'll get beeped at, but only as an 'I'm here'. It turns out that it was a two lane road, with four lanes of traffic.

Exiting the airport perimeter the situation didn't get much better. Our driver drove close to the vehicle in front, and so did everyone else. It seems that the roads are 50/50 with scooters and cars. At times 10 maybe 20 scooters would rock up all around you at the traffic lights. Any gap on the road was game for any vehicle, regardless of any dedicated left of right turning lanes. Scooters would weave around and so would the four wheeled vehicles.  Somehow our driver got us to our resort without contact with another vehicle.

My wife and I had a few trips planned and was informed that the resort will provide a dedicated driver for us. Anywhere we wanted to go, our driver, Putu would take us. Bali Pulina coffee plantation, Sukawati Art Market, Uluatu Temple and the Tegenungan Waterfalls were just a number of wonderful places we visited. Each journey we asked Putu about local sights, how he and local people lived out in Bali and of course how Bali people traveled around and the roads.  
As we turned left of the dual carriageway many scooters overtook us on the right, and some took their chances on the inside.
"Scooters are cheap Mr" Putu always called me Mr "We buy and give back some money, little money 5 years" Similar to us buying a car on HP or taking out a loan. But their loan is for small, sometimes beaten up old scooters. If you were rich however, you would have a car.

Putu was driving the hotel mini van. A Hyundai. He drove it close to the vehicle in front and used any gap available. So did the scooters. As we turned left off the dual carriageway lots scooters overtook us on the right, and some took their chances on the inside. Putu not phased by this, he left a gap on the inside and it was used, and yet seemed very aware of where all these scooters were.  Big junction ahead, it looked busy. Yet there was no road markings.  No giveaway sign. Who had the right of way? Putu said "Many traffic Mr" but he Carried on, slowing down a little, cutting up another car and slotting behind another one. 10 scooters around us done the same, he'd left a gap for maybe two scooters, 10 filled that gap. Putu adjusted his position to allow the 10 scooters in. 'Beep beep' was that road rage? No it was one of another 10 scooters behind us, letting our driver know someone was behind on his near side rear. That scooter had a rider who wasn't wearing a helmet. Really? In this day of age. Putu explained that helmets are not necessary if you are traveling less then 1km or your wearing traditional Balinese head wear - a scarf that matched the uniform. Hotel and restaurant staff all wore this.

I looked to the left, another undertaking manoeuvre was happening, this one was by a chap and his (presumably) wife. The lady was holding a very young child. Because scooters are cheap, it turns out the whole family would travel together on one scooter. Four up sometimes.  Sometimes workers would use the scooter to transport goods around too. I saw one guy with so much stuff, I'm not sure I would fit it all in in my family sized Skoda Octavia.

We passed what seemed like police headquarters, big iron gates, high walls. A large high clearance 4x4 pickup with blue lights flashing came out, followed by a rather large army personal carrier but in blue with lights and police written on the side. I'd imagine Bali police purchased this second hand from the US arm after it had been deployed to Irq or Afghanistan. However, traffic was heavy, and these guys were stopping for nothing, yet their wasn't a rush for other vehicles to move out of the way, after all, theirs a gap to be had, and it'll better be used, or risk losing another place forward in the traffic jam.

On one of our trips out Putu our driver explained to 'Miss' [that's my wife, but really wasn't worth explaining the Mrs concept] that kids from the age of 11 worth aloud to ride a scooter once you past a test. My wife asked was it a difficult test, "No Miss" Putu replied "You brake, you go and if you don't fall off you pass" I wanted to ask Putu more questions, but found his reply funny that laughter filled the van for a few minutes. Putu did say that their are many licences you could get. Scooter, car, taxi, bus and Lorry - rather like the UK then, but he explained that to carry tourist around you need a different licence. "Test harder, know more" I was comforted by this, and wondered if he'd taken the Balinese version of the Advanced Motoring test. Then I looked on and saw how he took a right turn at the T junction, along with four scooters each side making the same turn while the traffic he was cutting up simply gave way. Don't get me wrong, he seemed an excellent driver by Balinese standard.

It's funny how during this trips you notice other traffic and related things. For a start, I'd notice that some cars would have brake lights that flashed. And some drivers put on their hazard lights, not because they had broken down, because they were intending to go straight ahead at a busy junction. Only a few of the cars in Bali has a third brake light. You also see security personal at various hotel car park entrances or tourist stops directing traffic. They would simply stop the traffic on the main road using the whistle and flag/baton to let the tourists through. We felt kind of special at times. However, their wasn't a standard uniform that these guys would Wear, like for example a traffic warden here in the UK. These guys are armed with a whistle and a flag.. Any colour flag and at night a glowing Baton that wouldn't be out of place as a prop on an old Star Wars film.

Another trip our driver apologised. He needed to stop for some petrol. Putu tried to explain about the fuel situation further up on our route, but I couldn't understand what he was talking up, not until later. We pulled into a garage, where some garages have staff in F1 style jump suits at each pump ready to fill your car up. This garage had girls in white tops and short skirts - bizarre! As a driver, you don't even leave the vehicle. No option to purchase travel mints or on the go coffee.  It was a good opportunity to work out fuel prices however. It's 6999rp. Using the exchange rate app on my phone I nearly fell out of the van. 38p per litre! I'm speechless.  
If a vehicle is slow in front, you over took it, if you were slow, you were over taken and sometimes with oncoming traffic.
As we peeled off the main road and onto single lane roads, the style of driving wasn't much different. If a vehicle is slow in front, you over took it, if you were slow, you were over taken and sometimes with oncoming traffic. Scooters everywhere still. We got caught behind a slow moving Lorry. We had no chance to over take that as it straddled both lanes, pulling over to pass oncoming vehicles in the same way as we would on a single track B road. The only vehicles that were getting past were of course those dam scooters. 30 scooters piled up in front waiting their turn to take the truck on. Inside line, outside line, on the turn, on the straight - really anything goes. Paths were not out of bounds either.

Thankfully we took a different route to the truck and was able to crack on. Passing through one of the villages in Bali, I'd notices that tourists shops steps go straight out to the road. Paths, it seemed wasn't invented for villages. Another of the many hazards you'll find on the Bali roads are dogs. Their not strays, and most seem street wise, yet a bit of shade and the dog will take advantage of it, even if it's on the road. Our driver simply drives around the sleeping dog, after all it's best to leave sleeping dogs lie, isn't it?

I caught sight of something that I really couldn't believe. Putu explained. "Mr, (still couldn't get him to say Graham) Russia likes vodka, we have lots of Russia and drink vodka. We use empty for fuel.  One litre here, see" he points to a stand on the road side, small roof on and stacked on shelves under that was about 7 or 8 bottles of Vodka. But the contents wasn't clear, it was yellow. Smirnoff written on the bottles, each one contained a litre of petrol suitable for scooters. Now I understand why Putu wanted to fill up earlier.

Many Balinese people will have breakfast at home, but other meals in what's called Wrungs - like road side cafes, if you like. Out in the sticks, these would be next to the fuel stands. One question went through my mind while writing this. How does the locals tell between fuel and cooking oil? I didn't see any fires of burnt out buildings, so I guess the locals don't get that wrong very often! Amazed by these fuel stands. 
It had four rusty poles holding some black tape between them with a sign inside the taped area next to the six foot deep hole.
Down another road we were making good progress, no traffic. Until we run out of road for about 20 yards. "Mr, project" Putu our driver pointed to a number of people having a break in the heat, who'd been working on the road.  In the UK such project would have the road closed, cones and barriers erected and a 10 mile diversion route.  In Bali not a single cone or high vis jacket to be seen. You just drive through the project. I'd noticed more 'projects' later. I'm guessing this one was a major one. It had four rusty poles holding some black tape between them with a sign inside the taped area next to the six foot deep hole. I was expecting either a scooter or maybe a car in it, but then, it's a different kind of gap in the road, so it wasn't taken up but over eager scooter rider.

As we completed our final journey of the day's tours, I couldn't help but wonder just how the Balinese roads and driving worked. The word overloaded would probably not translate to Balinese. Trucks would stop on either side of the dual carriageway to pick up workers. Workers pile in to the back of a pick up truck, not a van. I'd even seen school children being carried around like that too! Scooters often had more then two up, helmets, no helmets young children being carried, goods carted around on the scooters. Even saw a 32" flat screen being carried on the back of a scooter and another with a big pile of 5 foot high picture frames loaded on the back. Road works appear from nowhere. Junctions are not marked, you use every bit of road, and you squeeze into any gap that's available.

Two weeks is indeed no time to conduct any sort of observational experiment, Yet during my time in Bali I didn't see a single accident. No skid marks on the road, no broken glass, no contact between car and scooter no mater what way we were turning. Our driver seemed to know where most scooters were and when warned by a single beep, he or the other vehicle made adjustments to use all available space. If our driver didn't take up the space and someone else did, he will let them in, driving close was the norm. And what struck me too, maybe the most, was no one shouted, no one beep in road rage, no one minded that you were cut up, no one got out of vehicles and decked one-another. It just worked. And maybe that last point is something we as drivers in the UK should learn, keep our wits about us, and not to indulge in road rage just like the people of Bali. 

About Bali

Bali is just 8 degrees south of the equator and lies just 2 miles east of Java in Indonesia, it's 8 hours ahead of GMT. It's Capital is Denspasar in the south and the population of the island is around 4 million people. The land measures just a little over 2000 square miles. 90% of the islanders are from Bali, with the rest made up from neighbouring islands.  The main religion is Hindu. It's highest point is Mount Agung at nearly 10000 feet which is an active volcano. It's climate is around 30 degree C throughout the year with its rainy season between December and March. Bali relies heavily on tourism which is mainly in the south on Despensar and Sonar regions. 

About Graham

Graham Aylard-Poxon is a national observer for the Kent group of Advanced Motorists. He is the website and social media co-ordinator for the group.

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