Inside a Bemo - a Balinese public bus

TRAVELOGUE: Traveling Like Locals is Practically Impossible

All we wanted to do was use public transportation in Bali!

It didn’t take long for us to realize that Bali was unlike any place we’ve ever traveled before, in that it is nearly impossible to use public transportation.

As always, after arriving at the airport we were greeted by scores of taxi drivers. And as always, we politely refused and said that we wanted to take public transportation. After finding another pair of backpackers and getting information on how to make the 50 minute journey to Ubud, we walked out of the airport towards the bus stand.

Public buses in Bali (called bemos) are actually little vans with bench or bus style seating. They do not go long distances and getting across the country can be done only by using multiple bemos for each little leg of the trip. Each bemo ride should not cost more than 5,000 rupia (50 cents) per person and should drop us off at either a bus stop or terminal where the next bemo should be waiting or on its way.


Bemo - Bali, Indonesia
Bemos are the local public buses in Bali, Indonesia

Good Luck Getting a Bemo as a Tourists

For locals in Bali, this is exactly how it works. However, as we quickly found out after leaving the airport, the reality is quite different for tourists. We had to haggle hard with every single driver  we encountered to get even close to the fair price and often drivers would just flat out refuse anything less  than 20,000 rupia per person to go even a short distance. Most told us that there were no more bemos to Ubud that day and we should just give them large sums of money to take us.

“But aren’t you a bemo?” we would ask the drivers. The answer was always the same: “yes, but this is a private bemo.” We would later learn that all bemos spend some time doing trips for locals but most just wait around and use their vehicle as a private transport for foreigners, as it makes them far more money. Very few public bemos were even willing to stop for us, as the system in place is designed to frustrate foreigners to the point that they throw their hands up and accept whatever price the private ones ask for.

The epilogue to our airport to Ubud story is that we finally made it there: four hours and four bemos later. We spent God knows how much time haggling and saying no to absurd prices and even despite our best work the trip wound up only being $9 cheaper than it would have been to have a 50 minute long AC cab ride from the airport to our hotel. At that point we too threw up our hands and decided no more bemos!


Bali tourism
Tourist Information Centers were the easiest way to get overpriced transportation in Bali

Touristy Shuttle Service

After a few days in Ubud, we decided to try out the other cheap option for travelers in Bali: the shuttle service. For anywhere between $5 and $20 per person, a private car will pick up as many people as it can cram in. Reservations are required, but last-minute additions are welcomed. Regardless of how many people are in the car, the per person cost remains the same. We were lucky enough to have our first one be for just us, but we have heard horror stories from other travelers.

While the shuttle service is ok, they only operate in major destinations. Other times, there is no choice but to pay a driver to go wherever we need to go. This is the most obnoxious of all, as they know you are lost without them and charge between $20 and $30 for a quick drive anywhere. We contemplated going back to bemos, but the odds of those working out in our favor were slim so we just sucked it up.


Bali taxi
The shuttle that took us from Ubud to Lovina for $13 per person and charged us extra to stop and take photos

Public and Private Taxis

Next we come to the public and private taxis. In big towns like Kuta and Denpensar (the capital), iit is not hard to find a normal metered taxi. However, once you get out of these places the taxis are just more private drivers. As we learned, actual taxis are only allowed in a select few cities. Everywhere else, anyone with a car is welcome to line the streets and hawk out their vehicle for a ride. This results in the most commonly heard things on the streets of a town like Ubud being, “hello taxi? Yes, taxi? You want taxi? Taxi? No? Maybe tomorrow?” It gets quite overwhelming with more drivers than tourists and becomes something of a joke for all travelers.


Inside a Balinese taxi
Inside a Balinese taxi

Renting a Car – the Cheapest Way to Get Around

Finally we come to the most economical way to get around that, unfortunately, we didn’t realize and take advantage of until the end of our trip: rental cars. For $9 per day we rented a Feroza, which is a Jeep-like bucket of bolts with a very wide turning radius, speed and gas gauges that don’t work and very little pickup. In order to rent it all we had to do was fill out a simple form with our name, address in the USA and passport number, but they didn’t verify any of it and I easily could have put down any info and still gotten the car.

As I can barely drive stick on the right side of the road, Carrie was our driver and did an amazing job navigating driving on the left side of the road and shifting gears with her left hand. We got lost a few times due to terrible signage in the country, but all in all the rental car was the best way to travel and we wish we had done it from the start…it would have alleviated much stress, hassle and wasted money.


A rental car in Bali, Indonesia
Our rental car in Bali, a Feroza that cost us $9 a day