First of all, let me just say this: hiring a scooter in Indonesia is probably a bad idea.
But before you get all shouty, let me also say that of course I have done it myself, many times. And I haven’t crashed or fallen off or been extorted out of hundreds of thousands of rupiah. Then again, I have ridden a scooter for several years back home, and consider myself a fairly competent driver.
However, all of the above can happen, and that’s why I would generally advise caution before you think about whizzing around the islands on two wheels.
Still, I fully acknowledge that renting scooters is generally a good, cheap, efficient way to see more of the undiscovered places around where you’re staying. And if you’re a reasonable, sensible driver, then you should be fine – though be aware that the roads of Indonesia are neither reasonable or sensible, at least according to a western playbook.
It’s good to have a basic understanding of the rules and regulations before you set off.
First of all, they drive on the left in Indonesia.
Although don’t expect everyone to actually stick to the left the whole time, especially where it’s more convenient to nip down the right hand side of a road, or skip the traffic on a roundabout by cutting a corner.
Secondly, you should legally have an international driver’s license in order to drive in Indonesia. Of course, most people don’t have one of these, and nobody is going to stop you from renting if you don’t have one – but it’s just something to bear in mind.
Sometimes the police stop people on scooters and give them a hefty fine, and you don’t have much recourse when you realise that you are actually doing something illegal if you are driving unlicensed.
Another thing to note is that your scooter needs to have the appropriate registration papers to be legal on Indonesian roads. When you rent a scooter, the shop owner should show you these so you know where they are if you get stopped. They are usually stored in the seat compartment or taped to the underside of the seat.
Finally, most scooters that you rent are not insured. So if you crash, it’s your problem to deal with – which might be especially difficult if you crash into another vehicle and have to pay for repairs. And as a bule (foreigner) you will be at a disadvantage, because you won’t speak the language, nor do you know the appropriate course of action in these situations – you’ll be somewhat a victim of circumstance. It’s just a risk you have to take.
Scooter rental, as with most things, is usually a negotiable cost.
In Bali its such a common thing for tourists to do that you shouldn’t pay more than 50,000 rupiah for the day ($5AUD/£3), but in the other islands it might be a bit more. In Lombok we found scooters also for 50,000 (from Kuta Lombok), but in Java it was more like 75,000 when we hired them to do Ijen – though we got gas masks thrown in too.
I’d say in general the less touristy the area, the more expensive the rent will be.
Before you rent
While in general most bike rental places are good honest businesses, you will always get a few exceptions to that rule. With that in mind, there are a few things I would ALWAYS advise when taking our a rental.
First of all, take pictures of the condition of the bike before you go. That way they can’t claim that any damage to the bike was done while it was under your care. Do a thorough inspection beforehand, and particularly look for any bad scratches or dents.
Before you drive away, check that the brakes work and that the helmet fits properly. They will probably have more helmets if yours is too big, and you don’t want one that will come off in a crash. If possible take a little test drive before you set off properly just to make sure that nothing is too rattly or squeaky for comfort.
If you are asked to leave ID as a deposit, I would strongly, strongly suggest that you do not leave your passport. If they have your passport and they are dishonest, they have the ultimate leverage over you – and no amount of picture evidence will be able to help you bargain your way out of a dodgy situation. Usually a driver’s license or even a student ID will do as a deposit – and these things are much more disposable than your passport in the event that something does go sour.
As I’m sure you might realise, driving in Indonesia is not like driving in the UK. Although they do also drive on the left.
It is, in a word, bonkers.
However, to be honest you do get used to it after a while. The main things to remember are to always be aware of your surroundings – all 360° of them – and to probably drive slower than you think you need to.
There are no rules about how and when to overtake in Indonesia – so you’ll have people swerving around you to the left and to the right; motorbikes, buses and trucks. A beep of the horn is usually just to let you know that they are coming past, not an affront to your driving style.
When you’re coming out of an exit, it’s not always necessary to wait for a gap before you go, if you’re heading in the direction of traffic. Just edge out slowly and the other vehicles will accommodate.
If you need to cross the road to go the other direction, wait for a lull in the traffic in your side, go to half way, and then slowly edge your way into the traffic as before.
If you follow the same rules as back home, you will probably never get anywhere as you will be waiting for three hours at every junction for the traffic to slow.
One other tip that I got from an Indonesian is that if you need to turn right on a busy road, it’s sometimes better to come to the left side of the road first, so you can look over your shoulder and wait for the traffic before making the turn.
Read more: Conquering Lombok’s Mount Rinjani
Fueling up in Indonesia couldn’t be easier – no need to wait til you find a petrol station here. Just keep a lookout for roadside stalls with rows of bottles (often used spirit bottles) filled with what looks like olive oil, and there you have your fuel.
A bottle costs anything between 7000 and 10000 rupiah, depending on where you are and whether you are getting charged a bit of “tourist tax”. That’s only about 50p – 70p for a bottle of fuel so don’t get all angsty about paying more than local price, please.
The blue stuff is fuel too, by the way – I think it’s some kind of super charged stuff because it’s a bit more expensive and seems to last a bit better. But you can choose.
The stall holder will come over with a funnel and fill up for you, no problem. And if you struggle to open your seat (as I often do), well, they can help you out with that too.
You will sometimes have to find places to park on your journeys round the country, and it’s worth knowing what the system is for that. Usually there will be a designated parking area for any given attraction, restaurant or shop, which will be the safest place to leave your bike.
Most of the time there will be someone acting as a kind of security guard, and he will charge you a little bit for the service – usually 2000 rupiah (15p).
For added peace of mind, you can lock your bike – just turn the handlebars all the way left, and turn the key to the ‘lock’ position. Sometimes you can double lock it, by flicking a switch next to the keyhole so that a cover goes over the hole. There will be a bit on the key fob that will be able to unlock this – but sometimes these are a bit worn down so take a look at the key before you lock it in case it won’t work!
Running into problems
Sometimes you will have issues with the bike you rented during your trip. Thankfully, mechanics are a dozen a dime here, and you won’t have much problem finding someone to help unless you’re really out in the sticks. And even if you are out in the sticks, wait long enough looking a bit helpless and someone will come along either with the skills to help, or with a mate just a phone call away who can.
Indonesian people are generally super helpful.
You may end up paying more than you should for services like fixing a flat tyre, so try to negotiate a price before you let them start tinkering. 20,000 is plenty to fix a tyre.
We also had an incident in Java where the locking mechanism in the seat was broken, so we couldn’t fuel up. After about an hour of mechanical faffing, including removal and replacement of several body panels of the bike, we were only charged 15,000 for the fix – about £1.
Essentially, it should always be pretty cheap.
With all the best advice in the world, things can go wrong. Crashes do happen, and not infrequently (I guarantee you will see a few backpackers with battle scars from scooter adventures).
The main thing is that you should only do what you feel comfortable with. If you’ve never ridden a scooter before, maybe team up with someone who has and doesn’t mind having a passenger. If you don’t feel comfortable driving at night, don’t let people persuade you that it’s fine.
Ultimately you can always get the bus to places, or take a taxi. Safety is way more important than saving money. I’ve seen so many tourists wobbling around rice paddy fields or failing to indicate when they’re turning, or just being totally unaware of the surrounding traffic, that I would have to give real kudos to those who take the sensible choice and go by car.