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The Secret Language Of Survival On Bali Roads

December 5, 2011

Bahasa Indonesia is not the only language that Bali visitors must learn – especially if you drive or ride on our roads. There is a separate, informal language for road users that, although it has no words or grammar, has its own peculiar syntax.

It is more akin to the body language used by dogs, which lets them identify strangers, assert their right of way, recognise alpha dogs, resolve territorial disputes and generally smooth the path of social interaction. Motorists and bike riders here, at least those who are still alive and uninjured, have not only learned this non-verbal language but use it fluently every day.

The first and most important rule is that size matters. Visitors from more regulated places might expect that every road user will follow the same set of guidelines, whether they are driving a bus or riding a moped. Not in Bali. Here, one’s ability to dominate a traffic situation is directly proportional to the physical size of your vehicle. It’s the Bigger Is Better Rule. So trucks give way to buses, cars give way to trucks, scooters give way to big motorbikes, and pedestrians are meant to give way to scooters. To add a little uncertainty to the system, cabs will often ignore this hierarchical structure. The magnitude  and frequency of these lapses in protocol will depend on the taxi company involved  and whether the driver is at the beginning or the end of his typically long shift.

Basically, you give way to the might, and a lack of understanding of this prime aspect of Bali traffic dialogue by newbies causes quite a few problems, many ruffled feathers, and even the occasional injury.

Visiting pedestrians are particularly vulnerable here, believing as they do that because the streets here are so narrow, they automatically qualify as footpaths. Those who wander along carriageways, three abreast in a bovine stupor, will soon get their elbows clipped by a passing motorbike mirror.  Few realise that this is in fact a practical lesson in the finer points of ‘Bali Road Language’ being administered by a fed-up motorist. The exception is, of course, for locals. Within their own village precincts, Balinese reign supreme. They may strike up conversations in the middle of the road, suddenly stop their bikes anywhere on a whim, or even close an entire main road for a ceremony. Relax, that’s normal, but don’t try it yourself.

The second rule of the secret traffic language is to do with the judicious use of lights. I don’t mean indicators, which when used at all, only serve as a visual clue that the driver or rider has made a turn some time during that day, or might be thinking about turning at some stage in the future. Or just has a fondness for flashing lights. Hazard flashers, however, are used to indicate that a car is continuing through an intersection without turning. They are never used to indicate that a car has stopped in a dangerous spot. In Bali, there is no need for this; you can safely assume that every parked car has been left in a dangerous spot.

No, the real light signal communication here  is through the use of headlights. The ‘high-beam flash’ is used in conjunction with the Bigger Is Better Rule, but it’s the driver who flashes first who gets precedence. If you are proceeding up a narrow street and an oncoming taxi is stymied by a parked car, it will generally not stop until you have safely passed the chicane, but execute The Double Flash. This is the universal Bali GOOMW (Get Out Of My Way) signal. A especially tetchy driver will triple-flash you, which is more of a GOOMFW signal, and should not be ignored. Police and other authority figures may occasionally use the Multiple Repeated Flash, also known as the GOOMFW,YI. The correct response is to stop, or move over to the left as far as you can even if it means knocking over several parked bikes and creaming the odd pedestrian to let the oncoming vehicle through.

The third rule has to do with the use of sound. A minor aspect of this is the actual engine note of a vehicle. Whatever the other complex rules say, if you hear a large truck coming at high speed, get out of the way immediately. Don’t get precious and listen for squealing brakes; most trucks here don’t have any. Get out of the way if you hear the characteristic sound of a Harley. You might theoretically have right of way, but its rider is likely to be bigger and tougher than you.

But discounting mechanical sounds, the most mellifluous part of the traffic’s  symphonic language is the horn section. Bikes will beep you as they overtake – not to hassle, but to politely warn. In terms of right of way,  it’s a He Who Beeps First, Wins Rule. If you are about to change lanes and someone beeps you, wait until they have overtaken. However, the reverse applies in some extremely narrow lanes where there are often blind corners leading to even narrower lanes, wide enough for only one bike. It is, of course, customary to beep as you approach. No audible response means you can continue, but an answering beep usually means stop until you see the other rider. So in these lanes it’s a He Who Beeps Second, Wins Rule.

A few weeks back, this particular rule caused perhaps the most absurd situation to date during my time here. I often take short cuts through narrow lanes, and one in particular has a very tight turn. I approached, politely tooted, and immediately received an answering beep. So I waited. And waited. After a while, a repeat beep elicited another beeped response. Again, no sign of a bike. Edging carefully forward and craning my neck, I managed to peer up the lane. Nothing. Grrr. So I edged the bike around the corner, beeped twice in sheer frustration – and heard a loud beep-beep in my right ear. Nearly falling off, I snapped my head around to see an alcove leading to a Bali house. And sitting serenely in a bamboo cage was a nondescript brown bird. Beep-beep, it said again. It’s difficult to do when you have no lips, but I swear it grinned at me.

Anyway, that’s Bali. Needless to say, situations will arise where the Bigger Is Better Rule conflicts with the Double Flash Rule, and cannot be resolved by the He Who Beeps First, Wins or even the He Who Beeps Second, Wins Rule. This can lead to some hairy situations, but most of these can be overcome by a judicious application of the Slow Motion Good-Natured Bullying Rule, which is normally used at all Bali intersections. This simply involves continuing in your intended direction at a slow creep until someone eventually gives way to you. However, remember that regardless of all the other rules, the Don’t Collide With Anyone Even If You Supposedly Have Right Of Way Rule always, always has precedence.

Got all that? Makes trying to learn Bahasa a piece of cake, doesn’t it?

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4 comments

  1. I always wondered why friend Gede honks before taking a sharp turn. Thanks.


  2. We also beep at those small roundabouts which double as shrines to appease the spirits which live there. Works so far :)


  3. It’s a bit like Cairns really, especially the stop and block both lanes of a street if you run across somebody you haven’t seen for a while bit.
    You are entitled to get out of one of the vehicles and go and have a 10 minute chat to the other driver.
    Everyone else is meant to stop and wait until the chat break is over and normal traffic flow can resume.
    Frankly, as road rage is encroaching on our peaceful byways, I don’t think I’d try it lately but it has worked a treat in days gone by.


  4. An excellent article. However you forgot the vegetation draped building materials placed in the middle of the road and also the propensity for driving into the path of a large truck in ordr to avoid a puddle 2 inches deep!



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