Motorcycles and the mysteries of Balinese culture

As a long time motorcyclist, one of the things I was really excited to see on my first visit to South East Asia was the crazy traffic – star of many YouTube videos and stories of exasperated westerners.

Appreciating the incredible slow speed feats of scooterism was one of the many highlights of my trip to Western Europe. How would Balinese scooter culture compare?

First thing off the plane in Bali, I get into a Suzuki ATV and peer eagerly outside for the craziness. Being a hopeless motorcycle nerd, I naturally scan my environment for motorcycles to classify into make/model. In my natural habitat, I would expect to see almost as many models of bike as there are riders. Cars are almost as varied.

In Bali there were 3-4 different makes/models of scooters and roughly the same of cars/people movers.

What was behind this lack of variety? The overwhelming congestion of scooters gave me plenty of rumination time on the relatively long and slow journey from Denpasar to Seminyak. Instead of basking in the craziness of a road going culture in which lane segregation is aspirational at best, here I was grappling with cultural relativism. Welcome to your holiday, overly analytical, esoteric westerner.

IMG_1633A scooter adorned with decorations for a Hindu festival

As any international traveller can attest – there is very little that helps identify the quirks of your native culture as much as steeping yourself in another.

My perception of the Western Americanised culture in which I was raised, is one of produce/consume/produce that worships individuality and perceptions of success. This is evidenced by the variety of vehicles, to hair styles, clothes, phones – the list goes on. Our relatively high level of disposable income and free time makes this easy and can become somewhat of an obsession for many.

In Bali, making ends meet is tough. I was talking to my driver on the last day of my trip and we worked out that the average wage in Australia is more than he would expect to make in his entire working life. This is working 80 hours a week across 3 different jobs – leaving him a whole day a week to spend with his wife and child.

In the affluent West we can afford to take great pains in the relatively trivial task of selecting our ride – does necessarily cheap (family!) transport overpower the need to express oneself? This is how it appeared before venturing out on my own the next day.

A scooter with 'Violence' in EnglishA scooter with ‘Violence’ in English

As I walked the teeming and overcrowded streets of Seminyak, I noticed that while there was limited variation in transport, the individual bikes and riders were adorned with many different types of stickers and badges. One of the first that caught my eye consistently was the ubiquitous white Apple sticker that can be found in the packaging of any Apple product.

Status symbols aren’t important here? Rethink that assumption. The preoccupation with status symbols relating to premium Western brands was not to stop there.

A sensible looking middle aged man parked his 2,500,000 IDR (Roughly $250 AUD, two months wages in Bali) red Honda Vario scooter in front of me – bedecked in red and yellow Scuderia Ferrari stickers. A very stern faced girl stuck in traffic was baring stickers proclaiming her allegiance to Barcelona FC and a local Judo dojo. I lost count of how many Harley Davidson stickers I saw, on 50cc scooters to cargo trucks.

Just about every single vehicle had some form of personal endorsement – from sports teams, assorted luxury brands, TV shows, bands and businesses, large and small.

From mournfully reflecting on the poverty induced dearth of individuality – I came to appreciate a much greater depth of individuality, at a much more personal level, than I would ever see at home.

And that was just the beginning. The world famous Sydney based custom motorcycle brand, Deus Ex Machina, has had a presence in Bali since 2010 and has been making inroads into the local consciousness ever since. The driver who took me from Ubud back to Denpasar airport on my last day was very keen to elaborate, using his phone to show off key examples while darting through the chaotic rush hour city traffic.

A Deus Ex Machina inspired custom

He was searching for a used Yamaha Scorpio 225 (for under $300 AUD) to turn into an ‘old school Jap bike’. The attractions were many – greater power than the more common 100-150 cc CVT scooters (and subsequent carrying capacity), better handling, and just plain cooler.

It reminded me strongly of the café racer trend, very popular with beard toting hipsters at home, modified and optimised for Balinese conditions.

Back at home and scribbling my notes into something approaching order, I can make out the narrative of my journey. Bali is a place filled with the celebration of individuality in a very personal yet unabashed manner. Motorcycles themselves generally are a means to an end – cheap reliable transport. It is in the character of the people to adorn them in symbols that reflect their reality, their hopes, ambitions and loves.

Rider adornment in traffic

These realisations have enhanced my love of motorcycling. Not only do I appreciate their history, technical achievements, and sheer enjoyment – they have also helped me build a bridge of understanding into new and different cultures, and for that I will be forever grateful.


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Easing into my mid 30's, writing just crept up on me. I had to put something out there - no matter what. So here we are! I live in Canberra, Australia and work in statistical IT systems development and support and am a proud father of two

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