Exploring Indonesia by Motorbike

Why It Should be on Every Traveler’s To-Do List.

By Chelsea Perino on January 12th, 2017

When I first heard about Indonesia, I thought, “Isn’t it that little island somewhere south of Thailand?”

Though that statement is technically true – it is indeed south of Thailand – what is far from the truth is that Indonesia is a small, simple Southeast Asian country. In fact, Indonesia is a wonder of wonders. An archipelago of more than 17,000 islands that creates a 3100 mile (5,000km) cultural puzzle along the equator, Indonesia is as diverse as its numbers suggest. It is still under debate how many of theses islands are actually inhabited, (is it 8,000 or 11,000?) by it’s more than 240 million, making Indonesia the fourth largest populated country in the world.

It is a country that defines heterogeneous. With so many people, cultures, religions, flora, fauna, and geographic wonders, it is more like 17,000 miniature countries melded into one. And it is this diversity that makes Indonesia one of the best places for an off-the-beaten path journey. It could be one of the last lands that still has truly unspoiled adventures waiting to be discovered.

Indonesia has such a wide breadth of geographical landscapes that it attracts everyone from beach bums, to extreme sports adventurists, to cultural gurus. I fit into all of those categories, so I couldn’t wait to explore the ancient temples, summit one of the 100+ active volcanoes, surf the world class waves, and just relax by the some of the world’s most beautiful beaches.

On the ride from Bali’s airport through the streets of Kuta, (Bali’s main town), the streets were a chaotic kaleidoscope of colors, people, animals, cars, buses, and of course, the quintessential Southeast Asian staple, scooters.  While I had already been in Indonesia for several weeks exploring Java, I had yet to partake in the scooter phenomenon personally, opting like most other travelers to use the extensive bus and train network to traverse the island.

Why Motorbike?

Upon arriving in Bali; however, I was engulfed in a different kind of sea  – one made of brightly painted scooters. I was amazed to see entire families (mother and father, often multiple children, and usually some type of bagged product) astride one tiny scooter, craftily zipping their way in between cars and pedestrians. While I had experienced places where scooters were common in the past, something struck me about the bike culture in Bali that I felt was different.  Never before had I seen so many tourists braving the chaos on their own bikes.  Bali’s streets seemed to have more foreign drivers, complete with board shorts, ray-bans, and surfboards attached to the side of their bikes, than locals. A smile crept across my face, and I knew that it was only a matter of time before I joined the team.

While foreigners commonly use scooters, their use is generally confined within city limits. For longer distances, buses are the most common form of transportation, and other than expensive plane flights, ferries are how both tourists and locals alike move from island to island.  My initial plan was to hire a scooter to explore the beaches around Kuta then switch to a bus to visit places further from the city and other islands.

But when I first revved the engine of my 125cc scooter, I knew the bus was no longer going to be a viable transport option for me. My first trip into the green hills above Ubud, Bali, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I felt completely and utterly free. I soon discarded my map and my plan and just followed the road.

While my exploration of Bali by motorbike began innocently, it quickly turned into a full-blown obsession, and I was soon determined to never set foot in a bus again.  My conversations with other travelers; however, were not positive. Some said that it was impossible to find a company that would give you permission to take a bike to another island, while others said that it was illegal for foreigners to take scooters on the ferries.  And of course, there were the horror stories of corrupt police, horrible back roads, and deadly accidents.

But I was not going to give up so easily. After visiting about 100 different bike rental places, I finally found one that was willing to let me take their bike abroad. I packed my bag, kick started the engine, and I was off.

As I cruised through the mountains, I casually stopped for chai in a local village café, stumbled upon an unnamed monastery where I rested by tender bum and listened to the monks chanting, and stopped to appreciate some of the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen. My time was mine alone, and without a bus driver telling me it was time to leave that underwhelming roadside restaurant, an air conditioner forcing me to wear 25 layers of tee-shirts even though it was 90 degrees outside, and tinted windows that altered the view of the beautiful terrain, I was truly able to experience the immense beauty that Bali has to offer.

During my journey I stayed in various kinds of accommodation. When in tourist locations, which I did visit, I stayed in local surf shacks and guesthouses. On average I paid between $2-$6 USD for a bamboo shack and a hard mattress or hammock.  However, the real joy came from finding unmarked guesthouses, some in towns so small I did not even know their names. Touring by motorbike allowed me to visit towns where there were no tourists, and it always helped my budget. Often times locals were so shocked to see a foreign girl on a motorbike in their town that they just charged me local prices (which was always less than foreigners). Also, a 125cc motorbike gets on average 70 miles to the gallon, so I spent less than $50USD on gasoline for the entire trip.

Motorcycles are readily available for hire all over Indonesia. Rental costs vary, but I found that 30,000Rp ($3.10USD) per day was average, although if you rent for longer, prices are negotiable. I paid 25,000Rp ($2.60) per day since I hired one for an entire month.

Motorcycles are almost all between 90cc and 125cc, and you won’t need anything larger than that since the roads are not in shape for fast drivin.  I ended up renting my bike from a local person in Ubud rather than an agency, and since I was staying away from the tourist center, they were much more flexible. I paid the entire rental cost up front, signed a contract promising to cover the costs of any damage incurred during my trip, and provided copies of my passport and international drivers’ license.  Locals just want to cover themselves and their property, so if you are willing to do things in advance you will definitely have more luck. Note that having an international drivers license might get you out of trouble if you are pulled over, as well as help convince renters that you are reliable. Also, be aware that some travel insurance policies do not cover you if you are involved in an accident while on a motorcycle.

My goal was to reach Flores by passing through Lombok and Sumbawa. During my three-week journey I was able to visit not only some of the most iconic places in the Balinese islands, but also places where few tourists had ever ventured.  Here are some highlights from my trip:

  • The Hindu Tirta Empul Temple in Bali, famous for its purifying holy waters, calmed my soul and reminded me that it is possible to find peace amidst chaos.
  • The sun rising over Mt. Rinjani, Lombok’s second highest volcano, was the most colorful I have seen, and Danau Segara Anak (Child of The Sea Lake) at the summit looked from another planet.
  • After passing through a random street festival in an unnamed town in Sumbawa, where I was followed down the main street by a group of children clapping and singing, I found a deserted beach and spent the afternoon reliving my childhood building sand castles and playing in the sea.
  • Five days later I arrived at the famous Lakey beach, where I watched seasoned surfers cut through the waves, and spent the evening sipping beer on the balmy open terraces.

Deciding to explore the Balinese islands by motorcycle gave me the freedom to truly experience the cultural richness that runs through their veins. However, the trip is not for the faint of heart, and if I were to do it again, there are definitely some preparations that I would make. The following are three tips that will help if you decide to get behind the wheel.

  • Look at the weather patterns: There is nothing better than cruising along a deserted costal highway on a sunny day, the wind blowing in your hair and the smell of tropical fruits filling your helmet. There is nothing worse than getting stuck in the rain, on that same highway, with nowhere to find shelter and nothing to keep your bag (or your person) dry. I was lucky and had perfect weather through my entire trip; however, tropical storms are common, and they create really dangerous driving conditions, so make sure to plan ahead.
  • Have a working knowledge of Bahasa Indonesia: Or at least bring a good dictionary. Once you get outside of the tourist areas, very few people speak English, so without a rudimentary vocabulary, the simplest (and sometimes most important) questions, like directions, for example, can become very difficult. This leads to possibly the most important preparation.
  • Learn how to fix a flat tire before you leave (and bring a toolkit). I made the Superman complex mistake (assuming I was invincible) and left without the slightest mechanical knowledge or any kind of tool besides my Leatherman. And then I got a flat tire. In the night. In the middle of nowhere. Luckily for me I spoke enough Bahasa Indonesia to explain what happened to the saint of a man that stopped to help me.  He explained that there was a village 7km away where someone would be able to fix the tire for me.

The moral of the story? Take the unexpected route and you will be rewarded with sublime vistas, beaches all to yourself, and a stillness that you might not think exists anymore. Your patience will definitely be tested, but hey, that’s one of the many advantages of long-term travel.  You have all the time in the world, right?

Photo credits:  JasonParis, Black_Claw, Maks Karochkin, all other photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.