Text and photos by Rio Helmi


Towards the end of the last century, before mobile phones hit Asia, perhaps the biggest leveler in terms of social change was the introduction of affordable two-wheeled,  motorized transport. Bali was no exception.


By the early Seventies the island’s roads were no longer the domain of  women walking  home with heavily loaded baskets on their heads, saronged men pedaling black, rusting push bikes that resembled penny farthings more than today’s mountain bikes, gaggles of ducks mesmerized by their herders’ poles, dogs warming their bellies on crumbling asphalt, and of course the swayback pigs straying across the ribbon of road in search of snackable garbage.


Perhaps once or twice a day they were rudely warned off by the blaring horn of some ancient car or bus; the odd old, single-pot, thumping English motorcycle; or even more exclusive, the stick shift Harley Davidsons of yesteryear. Now the small displacement Japanese motorcycle – minituarized rip offs of contemporary European bikes – had arrived.


Life on Bali would never be the same. Private transport was no longer the exclusive right of rich, upper class Balinese from Denpasar or the palaces of Bali. And to rub it in further, the two strokes were still popular then, so the mini social revolution of top oil smoke-belching projectiles that created a high-pitched, doppler effect racket was accompanied annoyingly tinny horns. Zippy Yamahas and Suzukis vied with Honda’s four stroke muscularity for the imagination of brave, stupid young men.


And it didn’t take long for the trend to seep into Ubud. The once-a-day bus from Denpasar  couldn’t keep up with the demand of the increasing number of native Ubudians working in Denpasar and further abroad. Then Nyoman Purpa was one of the first in Ubud to realize that the trend, started in Kuta, of actually renting bikes out could work up here in the sticks. And when it did work,  soon others followed suit. Yet  by the late Seventies you could still count the number of  rental motorcycle on your fingers.


_DSF9655But then in the Eighties, the arrival of the now ubiquitous 70 – 100 cc “Honda Bebek” (the “Duck Honda” – I’m sorry, I really don’t know the origin of this weird appellation) had brought on yet another mini social revolution. Balinese women had started to sit not side-saddle, but actually straddle the pillion seat!  Some Balinese women started to ride by themselves – actually ‘driving’ their own scooters. And then, not to be outdone, a few brave women in Ubud did the same.


By the Nineties some Balinese women were even riding “men’s bikes’’. You know, regular motorbikes without the space in front that would allow for at least a modicum of femininity, knees together propriety. Heavens, what was a man to do! For a while this kind of woman were referred as “that girl who rides men’s bikes”, the implication being you had to be a bit loose to do that.



But in the end the good old “Bebek” held the field, both for men and women. The practicality of the scooter with its generous leg room that can be used to carry groceries, paintings, ladders, children, or bags (or all of the above at once) won out. And the effect it has on an Ubud’s daily life isn’t just restricted to mobility – (or immobility if you take Ubud’s midday traffic into consideration).



Practically no one goes to the market on foot these days. You can stuff your scooter full of groceries and offerings. And because you need different baskets to fit on the scooter, practically no women in Ubud carry their shopping on their heads any more. What’s more: you can bring a load of groceries to your scooter, dump it, and go back to shopping without worrying about anyone stealing your spinach. There seems to be an unwritten code amongst petty thieves that you can take decent helmets but not groceries. Perhaps they are afraid of their mothers.