Global tips and Local secrets for the intrigued traveling surfer…

Motor Scooters 101: Basic Operation and Road Rash Avoidance

The opportunity for traveling surfers to drive a motor scooter through the seemingly lawless streets of Indonesia is not a matter of if, but of when. And the idea is a fairly simple one. It’s like riding a bike, right?


The truth is, driving a scooter becomes natural quickly with a bit of practice, but it doesn’t always feel natural from the get-go. Before I delve into my basic operation and safety tips, I’ll tell you about my first experience hopping on a scooter.

It was late September last year and I was staying near Uluwatu on Bali’s Bukit Peninsula. It was my first morning waking up on the island, and friends of mine had asked me to join them for breakfast at a cafe called Jiwa Juice.

My previous experience on any type of motorized bike up to that point: zero.

I asked my friends to swing by my hotel to show me the ropes and the way to Jiwa. Their reply was something like, “It’s on your right just past Bingin you can’t miss it. You’ll figure it out. See you soon.”

It took me about 5 minutes just to turn this damn thing on. The key was in the ignition, it was turned in the on position, and I was hitting the starter button. As I sat there wondering what I was missing, a local guy came over and showed me that you need to hold the left break handle (your back breaks) in order to start the scooter.

That sounded sensible. Why didn’t I think of that?

Moving on.

I slowly walked this thing out into the middle of the road, and proceeded to gas it straight into a pole. It was not a small pole. It was a huge, metal, unforgiving pole. As I picked up the scooter feeling embarrassed, a local lady stared at me with a look of horror on her face, motioning at me.

For fear of losing my scooter privileges before I’d even gotten started, I hopped on my bike and took off down the road.

Next step: fill the gas tank. Should be a no brainer, right?

After another 5 minutes of searching the bike on the side of the road (feeling like an idiot), and some help from a random Brazilian guy, I learned that the gas tanks in these puppies are under the seat. You need to use the key to lift up the seat, and there you’ll find the entrance to the tank.

It would have been wonderful to get a quick tutorial from the man who rented me the scooter, but no such luck. He simply told me how much it would cost and handed me the keys.

That was my first motor scooter experience. As you can see, it wasn’t quite as successful as I would have hoped. I chalked it up to “it’s just me,” and I moved on and eventually became relatively proficient on my scooter.

It was not until this year’s Indo trip that I realized something… I’m not the only one having unsuccessful first experiences with their scooter.

For example, one of my friends actually caught himself crashing into a fence right outside of our hotel on his own Go Pro camera. Another friend of ours could not figure out how to turn on her lights before driving at night, and the guy trying to show her could not figure it out either.

That was the breaking point and the inspiration behind this post. What follows are my basic tips on operating a motor scooter and driving safely for first timers.

Basic Motor Scooter Operation

1. Left break is the back break. This needs to be held in order to start the scooter.

2. Right break is the front break. It is advisable to only use this break in combination with the back break. For instance, if you’re going down a hill.

3. Right handle is the throttle. Expect the throttle to have more power than less, and spend some time gently revving and feeling it out.

4. Your blinkers will be located just to the right of your left hand, reachable with your thumb. Pulling it with your thumb to the left, or pushing it to the right will initiate your blinker in that direction respectively. Push in on the lever to turn your blinker off.

5. Underneath your left hand you will find your horn.

6. Underneath your right hand you will find your lights. There are two settings: normal and bright. Use your judgment on the appropriate times to use both.

7. Your mirrors are easily adjustable with your hands.

8. There are foot pegs in the case that you have someone riding on the back of your scooter.

9. Some scooters die automatically when the kickstand is shifted down. Those scooters also may only start with the kickstand in it’s upright position.

10. There is a small space for storage under your seat, which is also where your gas tank is located. The seat can be opened using the same key used for the ignition, and the entrance for the key is on the left side of the bike, below the seat and in line with the front edge of the back tire.

11. Scooters are set up with surfboard racks upon request.

Motor Scooter Safety Tips

1. Wear a helmet. You’ll notice that nearly half the people you see on the road are not wearing helmets. Once you see the chaos of the busy Indonesian roads, you’ll understand why that is often a fatal mistake.

2. Do not be afraid to use your horn. In Indonesia, rather than being a sign for “F&#$ you, you’re pissing me off,” horns are used frequently just to let other drivers on the road know you are there. I use mine frequently, especially when going around turns.

3. Use your blinkers. It never hurts to signal.

4. The roads are slippery when wet. Depending on the season, it can rain often in Indo. You’re best off taking it slow, especially when going around turns after a rain.

5. Beware of sand, dirt, gravel etc. It is very easy to lose control of your bike when you hit a patch of sand.

6. Take your time. If you’re in Indonesia on a surf trip, chances are you are not in a rush. Leave rushing for when you are at home and late for work.

7. Use defensive driving. Always expect the scooter or car in front of you or around you to do exactly what you hope they won’t do, because chances are they will. 

8. Be extra cautious when passing slower drivers. Aggressive passing is really common in Indo, even when going around turns.

9. Many of the roads where you’ll be surfing are skinny, more suitable for scooters, but there will still be large trucks and cars using these roads. These larger trucks tend to stick out into the lane of oncoming traffic. Keep that in mind.

10. It’s common to pay about $4-5 USD per day for a motor scooter in Indonesia.

To those of you who have prior experience with scooters and motorized bikes, this may seem like pretty obvious advice, but I’m now convinced there are more of us struggling first timers out there than I initially thought.

And to you… I hope this helps.

At the end of the day, driving a scooter around Indo is a hell of a lot of fun. That being said, I value my life and if you feel the same way, the safety tips are something I highly recommend taking into consideration.