The Zen chaos of Bali traffic

October 25, 2009

So here I am, riding my motorbike (yes, you scoffers, my girlie bike), thinking about how to write this article.  Being an active participant in Bali traffic is quite an illuminating experience, by no means limited to complex vehicular dynamics. It is a social and cultural phenomenon as well, not to mention a crash course in logistics, strategic planning, tactical implementation and group psychology. Well, maybe ‘crash course’ is a poor choice of words …  

Nevertheless, it’s an immersive learning situation and I actually enjoy being in the thick of  it. One can contemplate the fluid chaos around one’s bike while interacting with it. Staying alive is always such a good motivator, too. One has to be completely involved, the theory being that this provides practical insights which lead to better understanding, which in turn leads to being a more effective participant in said chaos. So much for theory. I really should have concentrated more on the road instead of spending so much time in the Daliesque abyss of my head. But even if I had my full attention on the traffic, I could not have predicted what was about to happen one minute later.

With my indicators on for the last 20 metres, my side street coming up on the right and already leaning into a gentle turn from the middle of the road, I see in my right mirror a looming apparition. The urban warrior behind me, ignoring my blinkers and already-turning bike decides to overtake on my right. Luckily a light tap on the brakes stands me up enough for him to miss me (just), but, tyres smoking,  he careers into the bikes parked at the side of the road. The impact is fortunately gentle and only two parked bikes fall over. My last glimpse of him reveals a face turned to me full of annoyance – at me!

Later, I read a forum post that explained the logic. I’m not a local. The other guy didn’t personally invite me to Bali. If I hadn’t been in Bali, this never would have happened. Therefore, the accident was my fault. I think it’s called transductive reasoning. Or maybe it’s something to do with the “if” fallacy which my father used to explain to me whenever I made some feeble excuse which included the ‘if’ word. He would say: “If mushrooms grew under your nose, you wouldn’t have to go into the forest to pick them”. Never made sense at the time, but now that I’ve been exposed to Bali traffic, I think I’m beginning to see what he meant.

Despite my brush with death (oh all right, my brush with a possible scraped knee) I still believe that Bali traffic has a flow about it, a organic flux that makes driving in this frantic crucible work in most cases. There seems to be both a scary lack of personal responsibility coupled with a Zen acceptance that everything will work out fine in the end. Unlike in my home country, there is no road rage as such. That seems to be reserved for after a serious accident instead of before. My friends tell me that if I’m involved in a death or injury situation (assuming I can still move), I should get the hell out of there and report to the nearest police station. A sobering thought.

I’ve learned some simple rules to help me survive so far. Treat all turns as merges. Think zipper. Treat all intersections as the merging of two traffic streams at right angles. Give way only to those you are about to hit, or are about to hit you. Travel at the speed of the surrounding traffic. Drive in a bubble, concerning yourself only with the people in front and to the sides. The ones behind can take care of themselves. Assume that anyone joining traffic from left or right kerbs will not look before accelerating. Above all, follow the medicos’ creed: “First, do no harm”. It doesn’t reduce the chaos, but it does make it a little more bearable.

And it’s not just cars and bikes that make Bali traffic so chaotic. Don’t forget the most dangerous and annoying road users of all – pedestrians, especially tourists. These are people that think nothing of suddenly stepping out into the roadway in front of a motorbike – for no other reason that they can’t be bothered to use the footpaths. Or passengers that force their cabs to stop in the middle of a narrow street for five minutes, gridlocking everything for two kilometres while they get their wallets out, argue about the fare, demand their 2,000 Rp change and complain about Bali traffic … 

But you know what – I love it. It’s alive. I feel like a corpuscle in some huge circulatory system. OK, it’s slow and I won’t get to where I am going in time for my appointment. So what? It’s Bali – neither will the people I am meeting. Jam karet. And in all the grand confusion, it still all makes sense somehow. Dean Koontz, in his novel The Darkest Evening of the Year says: “At the core of every ordered system … is chaos. But in the whirl of every chaos lies a strange order, waiting to be found.” He could well have been talking about Bali traffic.



  1. […] would be a sin, as another Bali ex-pat has recently posted a much more acute version of this post. Borborigmus in Bali is a Blog well worth a […]

  2. Great place to visit 🙂

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