How To Survive Indonesian Traffic – A Short Guide For Beginners

Now, when it’s been over four months since I came to Bali, it’s high time to talk not only about how wonderful this place is, but also about what bothers me here.

First I was tempted to write down a list of what I miss here, with cheese being high on my list. There is only one thing that I miss more than cheese, and it’s butter. But since every time I recall butter I cry a little, I decided to dedicate this post to a subject about which I get less emotional and through which you could learn something about this exotic country. The subject is: the road code in Indonesia.

In the beginning, I thought about rephrasing the topic to ‘traffic anarchy’, since if I were to write about the rules, the post would be very short. It would only say: keep to the left side of the road, there are no more requirements than this. I very quickly realised that in fact even to this fundamental rule many exceptions apply, so that being on the road you get a sense of a rule which sounds more or less like this: ‘try to keep to the left side of the road, but if you really really want to, you can also drive on the right side’.

Eventually I decided at least to attempt a concise summary of what traffic here looks like, because having been a participant in this huge party called Indonesian traffic for a few months now, I can say that Indonesians are a little predictable in their unpredictability on the road. And please excuse few pictures attached to this post; the reason is that I am not multitasking. Riding the bike and listening to my navigation through earphones is the most I can do at a time. Taking pictures while doing that would be just too much.

I will explain what it is like to enter the traffic from a side road. Most probably there will be no space to smoothly join the flow of vehicles, and no one will stop to let you in. Now, it depends on whether you want to turn left or right. If you want to turn left, it’s easy – you just turn without having looked to the right, counting on the driver on the right to see you and to slow down to let you in.

If you want to turn right though, it’s a bit more complicated. You go to the very right of your small road which you are trying to get out of. By doing this, you multiply potential ways of collision, because you don’t let in the vehicles that are coming from your right and wanting to turn left into your minor road. They need to drive around you. But from where you are you are feeling a bit closer to where you want to go, and since you want to go to the right, you’re standing on the right side of the road.

Now, still trying to turn right, if you found a little space in the lane that you need to cross, it means you can go. You don’t look at the other lane yet; focus on one thing at a time. You get a position in between the lanes – actually there is an invisible lane in the middle which makes things a lot easier! Once you crossed the most challenging first lane, you drive in this middle lane until you see in your mirrors that there is space on the left lane and you can go to the far left side of the road. On condition that you have mirrors, because some Indonesians don’t have them. Or they do, but the mirrors face the ground, not the rear. Mirrors are good for hanging a helmet when your bike is parked (applicable only to those who use a helmet), but during the ride there is so much happening in front, that who would dare to check what’s behind?

If you are already on the road, that’s a great success. But stay alert. Now, when you are already a part of this mess you need to be very attentive. Don’t trust turn signals, they always mean something different than they seem. Most probably if one is on, someone has forgotten to turn it off and is not aiming to turn. A real Indonesian won’t use a turn signal when wanting to turn. Or, if there is more than one person on the bike – the one sitting on the back will wave with a hand to signal where they’re aiming to turn. A vast majority drive solo, but the average number of people on a bike I would estimate at 2.7 (and now I could explain you this sharp statistical joke, but I won’t).

Unless the passenger on the back is a little kid, then he or she holds tightly to the person in front and looks like a little frog glued to the back of the one in front. By little kid I mean a child at the maximum age of six. If he or she is older than let’s say six, they are qualified to ride a bike on their own, also carrying younger siblings. This does not apply to tourists. Bule are not qualified to ride bikes according to the police, and if you happen to be involved in an accident (a real accident, not one with a cow in a country road), you will be found guilty.

Indonesian family on a motorbike - not very safe but very happy
Indonesian family on a motorbike – not very safe but very happy
Liberated women
Feeling so free without a helmet!

Intersections and roundabouts – I find them most fun. There is no right-of-way. In one intersection I sometimes give way, at other times I am given way. Maybe there is a logic behind it, which I haven’t discovered yet, but most probably it is that if I look confident enough, I am given way. The lanes just before the intersection, which in Europe drivers would use to take positions corresponding to the direction they’re going, here are just theoretical. Virtually, you can take the very right of the several lanes you can choose from, and turn left from it, just because there had been a space in that lane. The same applies to roundabouts: you take a random lane, and only while already in the roundabout, you try to figure out how to get out safely from this mess.

Also, if waiting on the traffic lights you feel you are standing too far from the lights, and you think your vehicle is slim enough to fit next to another vehicle in the same lane, you can try and overtake everybody else. If you are riding a motorbike and there is no space on the road, use the pavement to overtake everybody, no one walks here anyway. If you are driving a car which turns out not to be as slim as you thought, and now you are occupying two lanes, don’t worry, as I said the lanes exist just theoretically. (At this point I am so tempted to make a political digression about the tape scandal in Poland, when the Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs commented on the condition of the Polish state, and then I would make a sharp reference to the Indonesian state, because I think that his comment was more relevant for this country. But I won’t.)

Finally, what bothers me most are horns. I once counted how many I could hear in 60 seconds while sitting in a warung. I counted 10. One freaking sound every 6 seconds. But each has its suitable meaning. A horn is used to signal overtaking. It is meant to be heard when approaching a bend so that a vehicle coming from the opposite direction that does not see you yet will not overtake while on the bend. It is used by taxi drivers to attract tourists’ attention, taking for granted that a walking person for sure is looking for a taxi (who in their right mind would walk?). I wonder how people still react to the sound of a horn? For me this signal is sometimes confusing, like once when I was being overtaken and heard the horn behind me, I wanted to give way and so moved a bit to the left. But the bike behind me was coming from the left side, which I did not expect.

In fact, if you want to drive in Indonesia, there is not much that you have to remember. I would summarize it with the below rules that keep me still alive:

  1. While on the road, trust no one;

  2. Be confident and pretend that you know what you’re doing, just like locals do;

  3. Have fun!

    Bathroom on wheels – I need to try it out next time when camping

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Emilia Majewska

I am not a traveler. I love my home country - Poland, my favourite activity is lying in my bed with my cat and I cannot stay vertical without my morning coffee. But at the same time, I love my life and everything it offers to me. Once I got accepted for a yearly scholarchip in Indonesia, I packed my backpack, gave my crying parents a goodbye kiss each and came to Bali.

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