If you plan to see much of Bali, you have two choices: rent a car, or rent a scooter. Bicycles don’t quite work on the main roads as scooters own both the edges of the roads and even some sidewalks.
With a rented car you get a huge benefit — a driver. I wouldn’t even consider renting a car without a driver, unless you have extensive experience with: narrow roadways, and hyperactive scooter drivers. With a driver and a car you can go almost anywhere (I’ll give an example of where you can’t go in a minute). Car travel will be slower than scootering by 25% or more, but if you’re not the dizzy type you can catch up on your reading or try and be zen while watching the scenery (traffic) roll by.
If you mostly plan on frequent days trips from one nearby town to another, I’d recommend renting a scooter. However, you should not be a total beginner. You should either be a scooter owner or someone who has rented scooters during previous vacations in England or the Caribbean. Even with experience under your belt, driving a scooter in Bali or anywhere in Asia is not for the faint of heart.
In Bali you drive on the left side of the road:
•Left hand traffic: ~1/3 of the world. Mostly the UK and its (British) colonies in Oceania (Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga etc.), Eurasia (Ireland, Malta, Cyprus, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines etc.), the Caribbean (Antigua and Barbuda, St Kitts and Nevis, Jamaica etc.), and Africa, particularly SE’tern countries (Kenya, Uganda, Botswana, South Africa). The Japanese too drive on the left hand of the road!
•Right hand traffic: ~2/3 of the world. These include USA, Canada, most of Europe including France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Italy and their corresponding colonies, and most of Asia.
Secondly, outside of Denpasar (Bali’s largest city), traffic lights are few and far between. This means that when you come to an intersection, its a negotiation. At the busier intersections you may get lucky and find a traffic cop. But don’t count on it. It’s best to follow a local scooter driver and make your move right behind her.
While traffic along the main roads is abundant day or night, if you are going to rent a scooter, try and avoid peak traffic. In addition, getting a smartphone holder that attaches to the scooter’s mirror or handle bar before you arrive in Bali is also a good idea. You can even turn on the “speak louder” option on Google maps, since staring at your phone while scootering is a bad idea.
Here’s a case where renting a scooter is relatively easy to do (and a lot more fun than hiring a driver — in addition to being much cheaper). Let’s say you want to go from Pererenan to Canngu:
The dark blue lines are drawn by Google on my timeline from April 29th. I ran a few errands earlier in the day, and just before sunset went with Shelly and a new friend to The Lawn. The red arrow is pointing to one of the main roads across southern Bali (Jl. Raya Canggu). So as you can see, we were able to take a short cut and avoid traffic:
Here’s a satellite view of the area. A red line is pointing to a small, narrow road that cuts across the rice fields, where only scooters can fit. On that particular drive (April 29th) the moon was almost full, and driving the 10-12 minutes from Pererenan to Canggu was a delight.
It is possible to go longer distances by scooter, even going from one side of Bali to the other in under a day. As long as you have previous experience in moment-to-moment intersection negotiations you’ll probably be fine, but most likely not entirely relaxed.
(Here’s a little slide show of various scooter scenes from my trips to Vietnam, Thailand and Bali:)