Motorbiking East Bali: A Few Interesting Routes…and Human Skulls

Bali motorbike route

This is the Hindu-majority island paradise of Bali.
The blue line is the approximate route my friend Sujin and I motorbiked for five days.

Trevor near Amed

This is Banturita, the bike that barely could but did anyway.
Over mountains, through jungles, along coasts, she accelerated loudly on inclines, tried to kill us with failed brakes on a steep descent, then decided not to ignite en route to the airport, leaving me to push her to the nearest mechanic in hopes of bringing her back to life in time to catch Sujin’s flight back to Beijing.

But she also carried us through some of the most interesting scenery we’d ever experienced.

Volcano near Danau Bantur

Why Should You Rent a Motorbike While in Bali?

When in Bali…see Bali. The Kuta neighborhood near the airport is a traffic-clogged tourist trap. For the casual visitor, there is nothing special about it. The beaches are average; the prices inflated. Unless you want to pay a premium to party with other foreigners, I suggest you leave by the most efficient way possible, motorbike.

This post is meant to highlight the rich Balinese culture, much of which can only be visited by bike.

General Guidelines for Renting a Motorbike in Bali

  • Ask hotel where to find nearby bike rentals (there are many)
  • Leave excess belongings in hotel safe or secured storage room
  • Bike rental is 500,000 rupiah per month (~US$39, negotiate daily rates)
  • Rental price should include two sturdy helmets (use them)
  • Find bike with locking storage compartments on back and below seat
  • Test drive bike before committing (we didn’t, hence, Banturita)
  • Ensure copy of bike’s official paperwork is stored below seat
  • Leave only passport copy with rental shop (do NOT leave passport)
  • Pay in cash (do NOT use credit card to avoid fraudulent charges)
  • Drive on the lefthand side of the road

3 Interesting and Scenic Routes in East Bali

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Route 1: Klung-Klung Sub-District to Jalan Amed

Flying in from Australia we took a taxi to our hotel then picked up our bike the following morning. Previously I had arrananged our bike rental through a friend of a friend because I thought it’d be quicker than spending the morning dealing with rental touts. This was a mistake. My friend’s friend had only one bike available, and it wasn’t nearly as nice as the others being rented in the same area (no offense, Banturita). Live and learn.

We decided on the plane to Bali which areas to explore. No route was set. Between Sujin’s local SIM card and my T-Mobile Simple Choice International Plan we were able to drive, stop, check GoogleMaps for interesting roads, then continue. This is how we discovered this windy backroad en route to Jalan Amed.

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Outside Kuta (congestion, crawls) the traffic flows uninterrupted until cars are few and far between on the eastern shores. The gradual tapering off of traffic adds to the sense of exploring the more traditional Bali. Be aware though that a different set of road rules apply everywhere. You pass when you can. You are responsible for avoiding trees on the road or motorbikes barrelling toward you in your lane.

Someone new to SE Asia might assume no rules exist, but that would be the oversimplification of a system that, I believe, works well. You don’t drive around constantly worried about receiving an expensive ticket for a minor infraction like in the US. Common sense dictates driving here. Big, fast-moving object equals greater-than-thou, equals take care. It’s so simple that even street dogs understand the concept. Though Bali is more chaotic on the surface I think it’s safer to drive here than in Thailand.

Best Bali meal

The best meal of our trip, tipat plecing (about US$.40).

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On this route we came across several Balinese ceremonies in which processions of women filed into temples with fruit and fried chicken offerings balanced on their heads. Elaborate bouquets of food and fruit. The men never seemed to make offerings; instead, they lit incense and prayed in various seated positions, always dressed in white with sorongs wrapped around their lower halves. We weren’t allowed to enter this temple without sorongs. Buy sorongs in Kuta so you can attend the ceremonies you’ll inevitably encounter.

Volcanoe near Amed

Stratovolcano and highest point in Bali, Gunung Agung, as viewed from outside the sleepy town of Tulamben.

Balinese praying on highway

Balinese praying alongside the road. The pictured woven palms are left as offerings.

Backroads to Temple

Route 2: Jalan Amed to Pura Lempuyang Temple

I’m going to call BS on this one, GoogleMaps. Parts of this route, the squiggly switchbacks, are almost vertical. We had serious doubts as to whether Banturita could hang in this part of the jungle. But she did, bless her motor. More accurately I’d give this Jalan Amed to Pura Lempuyang Temple 60 minutes, plus stops.

Sujin at rice paddy

These rice paddies were 10-minutes from our hotel, on the only road toward Pura Lempuyang.

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The Balinese diet is fruit and rice heavy, which is healthy I suppose…but not so good for Paleo eaters.

Road petrol

Gas stations as traditional roofed rest stops do exist in cities. Outside cities, most houses alongside the road sell gas (bensin) from vodka bottles or other glass containers. Despite sometimes balancing the needle on empty not once was I worried about running out of gas because I could pull over anywhere, point at my guage, and be sold questionable combustible from smiling Balinese. Cost per liter: 6.5K rupiah (gas station); 7K-10K (roadside). If offered the 10K price, put on a disgusted face, type 8K into your phone screen, then show it with a good-hearted gesture. The jokester will laugh, then fill you up for eight big ones.

Trevor at temple

“Speak softly but carry a big stick.” That was my attempt at teaching Sujin American history but I couldn’t remember whether it was Roosevelt or Eisenhower (Update: Google says Roosevelt). At the Pura Lempuyang, a six-hour hiking loop to reach the farthest temple, I was entrusted with the big stick to protect against “savage monkey attacks.” Sujin was scared, having been once attacked by a baboon. I was impressed, by the guide’s vocabulary and not-so-subtle sales technique. We almost hired him for his language skills alone (5 self-learned languages) but in the end decided to solo hike. No monkey attacks, unfortunately (I was born ready). We did however wait out a tropical storm below a tin roof that was blown off someone’s home.

Kid near bike

Atop a post is as good a place as any to Asian squat, I suppose.

Trevor with balinese family

Having evaded polyglot super-salesman (trained in monkey counter attacks) and paid a tourist tax to hike up an asphalt road on which local teenagers blew by on motorbikes, we finally reached a jungle path that lead to this temple, the second farthest. Here we observed: women simultaneously placing colorful baskets on altars while chasing away stray cats that tried to steal from the gods, incense plumes, some guy with a fake pistol to scare monkeys. The large walled plaza lined with thatched towers was strangely welcoming.

It was exotic, different from the gold Buddhist temples to which I had become accostumed in Thailand. So exotic that I didn’t notice the group of Balinese growing stealthily from behind. One second I’m trying to understand why what is placed where, the next 20 were picnicking in the grass. “My father died last Monday,” smiled the eldest son while bouncing a daughter on this knee. Instinctively, I fought back an instinctual ‘I’m sorry’ then sat to absorb the celebration that made me hate Western funerals even more.

Trevor outside Amed

Remember, folks: it’s important to hydrate when dodging dogs on Balinese backroads.

Jalan Tejakula to The Ayu

Route 3: Jalan Tejakula to Lake Danau Batur

Trust us on this one, there is only one road in this area from the coast to the lake. Amazingly, GoogleMaps zoom shows all options in great detail. Not so amazing is how there is no way of knowing what is a hiking trail, horse path, or washed-out stream. Dirt bikes can pick their path. Banturitas should stick to pavement.

Trevor asking for directions

Pointing and sound effects can only take you so far. Even the most stoic point and enthusiastic whoosh with accompanying forward arm motion will only lead back to the highway, not up the steep volcano crater between you and the lake on the other side. Trust us. We pushed Banturita well beyond her horse power, on paths no scooter should attempt. In hindsight, these kids—along with everyone else we asked—were trying to say “There is one road and it’s not here. Don’t make us rescue you from savage monkeys in our pajamas.”

It was dusk already. And we still were determined to push up the side of a mountain with half a tank. When the fifth family directed us back to the highway we decided to find a hotel before continuing onward in the morning. We ended up sharing a meal with a Balinese man who works on Carnaval Cruise ships.

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Yet another Balinese ceremony. Don’t forget to buy a sorong so that you can enter temples to observe Hindu practices. The Balinese are happy to have you, as long as you follow the bare minimum of etiquette.

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The mountain ridge between Jalan Tejakula and Lake Danau Batur that we tried to cross via hiking trails.

Sujin on boat

Sujin and ladies in boat from Trunyun village to the skull cemetery. I considered not writing about the skulls…because I regret going and don’t recommend it. Besides losing our brakes on the way and being ripped off for the 10-minute boat ride, the whole thing felt disrespectful.

Here’s what happened: while visiting the hot springs near The Ayu I asked a man how to visit the Bali Aga, an original Balinese people who bury their dead above ground, below a tree that masks the smell. My go-to site for unique attractions, Atlas Oscura, made it sound as if some primitive tribe guarded the sacred burial plot with bamboo spears, allowing only the most pure of heart to enter (I’m a sucker for Indiana Jones-esque descriptions). The man, perhaps sensing my naivety, said he knew a villager who could help us “cross.”

Boat from Trunyun

During lunch a villager named Putu came to our table to offer his price, the equivalent of US$30 for two. (Mind you, the average monthly salary is less than $400). I explained that we wanted to split the boat cost with others who also may be waiting to cross. “Putu, I don’t want you to be angry if you accompany us then we decide to use another boat.” He agreed. Upon arrival he immediately, in Balinese, told the other captains our price. “@#!&,” I thought. We had been claimed, a common practice amongst tourist touts. Now nobody would ferry us for the real price, which we learned from the Balinese women was 10 times less.

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Bad haircuts and always paying more, these are the two things I hate about travel.

When Sujin told me I looked angry I forced myself to relax, to enjoy the ride. It was beautiful, afterall. Off-loading last, by the time we climbed the small hill to the burial site the Balinese had already taken selfies in front of the skulls and hurried back to the boat. “Time to go!” one yelled after what seemed like two, maybe three minutes…because it was. We lingered at the basket-covered bodies and stacked skulls while the ladies impatiently eyed us from the boat below. The moorings were untied, the engine revved.

Ashamed, awkward, dirty. I felt all of the above. I couldn’t believe the villagers had turned their ancestors into a freak show, and that I had paid the entrance fee. I felt worse upon realizing that perhaps it wasn’t the degradation of the dead (my Western thinking) that so bothered me, but maybe that I hadn’t gotten a ‘deal.’ While hacking miles/points has made the act of travel more spontaneous—because I can go anywhere, at anytime—, it’s also made it more quanitifiable, a numbers game in world that sometimes shouldn’t, and can’t, be measured. Thanks for the reminder, Bali Aga ancestors.

Kopi Luwak coffee tasting

Back to Kuta was uneventful besides a kopi luwak coffee break to escape an afternoon downpour. Since this east Bali trip I’ve been motorbiking around my newest home, Ubud. I take for granted the constant temples and greenery and smiles that line the roadside. Sometimes though, at 50 kmph on a particularly scenic stretch or upon seeing an absurdly ornate offering I remember that this is paradise, and let out a laugh.

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If you visit Bali, rent a bike, get out of Kuta. You’ll be glad you did.

P.S. – Thank you, Sujin, for the wonderful photos. Follow her world travels on Instagram here.


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