Bali Cons: Touts, Beggars and Thieves
Driver. Taxi. Taxi miss! You want driver? Where you go? Need taxi? Driver!
The chorus that follows you around Ubud has been blessedly silent, and it was bittersweet to hear it starting up again in April 2022, two years after tourists abandoned the island.
The point of this post is not to complain (well, maybe a little bit) or judge those who are either trying to earn a living or desperate enough to beg and steal. This is to warn and inform — so you are aware of the issues and don't get, depending on your temperament, shocked, frustrated or angry.
Every tourist destination has these sources of western discomfort to a greater or lesser extent with their own peculiar attributes. The touts in North Africa are unpleasantly aggressive. The beggars in America are a shock due to their sheer number in such a rich country. The pickpockets in Europe are brazen. Store owners in Asia are friendly but insistent. In the subcontinent, I had experiences of being grabbed at and dragged... which was not fun.
In comparison, Bali is relatively relaxed, comparably safe from theft and with far fewer nuisances. Here is a short list that ranges from annoyance to danger. If I've missed something, or you think my emphasis is wrong, please leave a comment below.
The chorus noted above is also found in Kuta and Seminyak but seems quite concentrated in Ubud where GoJek/Grab/Bluebird isn't allowed (see the point about the cartel below). You might start out politely saying "no, no thank you, maybe next time", but by the 20th call of 'Driver??', you WILL get annoyed. Like all touts, these guys are trying to make a living, so try and ignore it. It really is a minor nuisance. If you DO need to go somewhere the next day, or back to your hotel in the heat of the afternoon, check their prices and bargain, bargain, bargain. However half- and full- day trips are fairly standard so just compare a few drivers.
Apart from the irritation of being yelled at about taxis, touts really aren't bad in Bali (except Kintamani — see below). There are random people hanging around who will shove chess boards, chopsticks and cheap bracelets in your face. Holding a hand up, saying no or ignoring them will be fine. It's cheap shit you don't need anyway. Store owners in the markets will hassle you good-naturedly, and you will feel their silent urges to buy in your bones, but a smile and a headshake are fine. Bali is a good place to work on your bargaining skills. Generally, food isn't bargained for, but all other goods can be discounted. Just don't do that privileged white person thing of arguing over 50 cents or not buying when your price is met. I once spent 6 hours bargaining for a carpet in Morroco, so I like to think I'm pretty good, but I still get hot and bothered sometimes and just accept what's offered. You need a happy medium. Don't start bargaining if you don’t have much time. Don't start bargaining if you don't really want the item. Take your time; do the calculation of their initial offer and think about what it would cost in your home city. Take off 50% then go up to a 20% discount. Don't haggle over a few cents — it's bad form.
I do give 5,000R to beggars every now and again. It's 50 cents; it doesn't hurt me, and it's filling one child's belly for one day. Bali has a natural welfare network in its Banjar system. If someone is begging, they either HAVE fallen through the cracks (single mums, usually), or there is more money to be made getting 5,000 rupiah notes off soft-hearted/gullible bulés (foreigners) than working elsewhere. The problem, of course, is that giving money for nothing encourages those who can work but choose not to, and you don't know which ones are truly desperate. There are children's charities in Bali (see list at end of the post), which might be a better use of your money. Again, this isn't a huge problem — frankly, there are way more beggars in the US and France. Do whatever you feel comfortable about here just don't hand over large notes.
Ubud Taxi Mafia
The motivation is understandable, but in practice, the taxi situation in Ubud is stupid. The local community groups don't want online taxi services taking work from local drivers. However, the cost of getting from A to B in Ubud is more than triple what is in Kuta where bluebird taxis roam the streets.
The Ubud taxi mafia has been known to run GoJek drivers off the road, chasing them away from tourists and demanding their own overpriced service be used instead.
Of course many drivers lost their cars to the banks holding them hostage during the pandemic, and I feel for the families that were reliant on that income. Nevertheless I hoped the pandemic might have broken the cartel, but there are stories of these problems starting to arise again.
Fighting off healthy competition is not good for the economy in the long run, and drivers in Ubud are, quite simply, way overpriced. It's stopping tourists from coming to Ubud or staying longer. There is no public transport so if you don't drive a scooter, or don't want to drink and drive, you will be forced to use local drivers. There is also the discomfort/danger issue for women in particular; getting home at night is safer with an app and online payment system than a random guy waiting on the street.
There aren't a lot of options. Checking prices with a few drivers will help you understand what it should cost to get somewhere, and if you find a good and trustworthy driver, get his number for future trips. Also, a Gojek or Grab driver will be able to pick you up from a hotel or villa, but you might struggle on the street or in a cafe. They may be interrogated by the taxi mafia and get in trouble. Tell anyone who asks that the driver is private.
Your hotel driver may be complimentary for short trips, so check that, and many high-end restaurants offer complimentary pickup and dropoff. There was a free bemo service, from Monkey Forest to the Palace and back again. It may start up again soon, and I will update this post when I find out.
For private drivers, check the Ubud Community page, as many expats there will have good guys and ladies they recommend who won't screw you. Also send me a note if you need a driver in Ubud...I have a handful of good ones who will look after you, as well as a few scooter rental places.
I’d almost forgotten, during the blessed quiet of the pandemic, how very bad the traffic was in Bali.
As a volcanic island the nature of the geography means there are deep ravines cut through by rivers and bounded by long, high ridges. Because it’s not a wealthy country, Indonesia hasn’t invested heavily in bridges so you are forced to drive for miles without being able to easily cross to a perpendicular road. This pushes through-traffic into villages, towns and intersections.
On top of this, poor- to non-existent town planning has created ongoing disaster zones with no chance of improvement in growing populations centres. Seminyak, Canggu and Kuta are particularly horrendous at most times, with the various shortcuts chock-a-block with cars that shouldn’t be there and impatient scooter drivers snarling it up further. In Ubud the drive into town on the weekends is deeply unpleasant for cars, with Pengosekan Road backed up with day trippers and tourist buses. Now, with the art market under renovation, market stalls have set up along the main road so pedestrians and deliveries are contributing to the chaos. My personal opinion, which surprisingly no one has requested, is that a bus- and day tripper car park should be set up outside town with a free bemo service into the centre. This is unlikely so the traffic in peak season is only going to get worse.
Now, despite this rant, I’ve sat for hours in painfully slow Sydney peak hour traffic. I lived in Manchester and worked in Warrington so I did that commute for four years. And I once got stuck on the Arc d’Triomphe roundabout for a good ten minutes with people screaming at me in French.
Compared to standard city peak hour traffic the world over, Ubud is really not bad and if you can zip around on a scooter it’s much easier. Plus as soon as you are off the main drag it’s fine. So if you’re a tourist in Ubud, relax. It does move, it’s not that bad, and you’re on Bali time. Sin ken ken (no worries).
Kintamani Touts and Panhandlers
In my opinion, these guys are the worst in Bali by a long way. They are insistent and rude, pushing in on conversations, interrupting photography and not taking no for an answer. If you open your wallet once, you will be like a dropped chip on a beach, with seagulls surrounding and fighting over you. I rarely raise my voice, but when visiting the lookout with a friend I couldn’t help myself and yelled at them to fuck off after they surrounded us when we were trying to chat and take pics.
This is one of those times where I recommend not being friendly or even overly polite. Don't look at their crappy t-shirts and bracelets for sale, and don't open your purse. They ARE trying to make a living to feed their families though, so maybe don't push them or lose your temper. Just try for the polite "no thank you" then ignore them for as long as you can. Watch the domestic tourists who are very good at not making eye contact, turning their backs and ignoring the touts completely.
That being said, some of the ladies sell particularly sweet and delicious local mandarins. Try and get a bag's worth outside a coffee shop or from your car window rather than at the lookout spot, and don't pay more than 20,000 rupiahs. Near the temple, there are also a couple of artists who sell delightful pictures made from ground volcanic rocks, probably worth around 100,000R maximum. The cheeky ladies outside the temple will also try to sell you an overpriced sarong and sash. You do need one to enter the temple; to purchase (bli) it should be 50,000-80,000R max, or 5,000-10,000R to rent (menyewa).
Pickpockets and Theft
I have yet to see many pickpockets in Bali, even in Kuta. The Balinese have a strong belief in Karma, and an inbuilt welfare system through the community Banjars, so petty theft is still very uncommon. That's not to say it doesn't happen in busy areas, so take the usual precautions but don't go over the top. Burglary has been known to occur in villas in Seminyak, Canggu and Ubud. The Balinese will blame Javanese workers for this, and there have been white guys arrested for theft in the last few years. I'm not getting into that argument, but it's still less likely to happen than in other countries. This is more of a concern if you are staying in a villa with no security. I don't actually lock my doors since my dogs wouldn't let strangers close, but do lock up properly if you leave your villa for any length of time.
The worst thieves in Bali are the monkeys, particularly those simian kleptomaniacs in Uluwatu. They'll nab your wallet, phone or sunnies then try and bargain it back to you for food. Don't wear your sunnies on your head, and don't make eye contact with the little shits.
On a more serious note, one key danger we've seen increasing over the last couple of years is women on scooters, or walking at night, being targeted. This is being done by gangs in, mostly, Canggu and Seminyak. It is planned; two guys on a scooter will wait around for a single woman alone with a handbag on her shoulder or a phone in her hand. They will drive up next to her and grab the bag or phone or slash at the bag with a knife. In the worst cases, they will kick the woman's scooter from under her and snatch the bag as she struggles to not die. It must be terrifying, and pandemic poverty has made this very real. It even happens in broad daylight, although it's unusual. As a victim, you are not to blame for this brazen and frightening theft. HOWEVER, please, please put your bag under the scooter seat and don't carry your phone in your hand.
I am hoping we will see less of this now that tourists are coming back and more people have jobs, but the pandemic was desperate for many people, and the region isn't likely to get back to safe prosperity for some time. Please don't be scared, though. Bali is far safer than most tourist destinations.
Here are some on-the-ground charities you could consider donating to instead of giving money to panhandlers: