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As with most of my travels this past year, my trip to Bali was last minute and done with little planning. I didn’t know much about Bali’s history, people or culture and had just barely decided where I was going to spend my time right before I got on the plane. I knew that the island was known for its unique version of Hinduism revolving around social standings, regular religious ceremonies and offerings, and that there were plenty of my beloved rice fields, but that was about it.
Normally I don’t immediately go for organized tours or hiring drivers – partially because I don’t like shelling out the money for them and partially because you never know how they’re going to turn out. I would much rather walk around a city on my own to see what I see (and for free) than pay to end up in an awkward tour group with a disappointing guide or itinerary.
But, what I often fail to remember is, even though they may sometimes be uncomfortably touristy (and probably include bad food), tours will show you sides of a place and culture that you may not have seen or understood on your own. This is especially true for small group or private excursions and when you have a good guide.
Where I could barely afford even the group tours in Italy, it’s relatively easy to hire a personal driver in Southeast Asia and if you find one that really knows what they’re doing they can completely change your whole experience and understanding.
Aside from renting a car or motorbike yourself and driving around, taxis and drivers are the easiest way to get around the Bali. Since I was by myself, I didn’t feel comfortable getting a motorbike and exploring on my own, plus while figuring out a place on your own can be very interesting and satisfying, there’s also something to be said for letting someone who knows where they’re going handle everything for you. I was lucky enough to have help planning an excursion from one of my hotels in Ubud and ended up with the same driver for two full days.
Hiring a driver in Bali was by far my smartest move of the trip.
In those two days we traversed the island going between the top of volcanoes and mountains to back roads flanked by rice fields. I visited temples I wouldn’t have been able to find on my own, went through small villages and hit a couple touristy spots I hadn’t even thought of like a coffee plantation. The real value though was just being able to observe what I saw passing by my window – women tightly wound in bright sarongs with offerings of fruit piled two feet high walking down the street, schoolchildren running down the road with small brooms to sweep the local temple – and being able to ask questions about whatever I wanted. I learned about some of the different Balinese holidays, the daily ritual offerings, that after people go to the temple each day they place a flower petal behind their ear, how much average incomes were and what local prices were for common goods and meals, how Balinese families were organized and what my driver’s personal thoughts were on just about everything. I learned and made more connections between things in those two days than the entire rest of my trip.
Still hiring a driver can come with some risks…
There are so many tour companies and individual drivers available everywhere you go that finding a driver isn’t a problem, however choosing the right one can be. Of course you hear stories of people being scammed – either being charged higher rates than usual or not going on the intended itinerary – but for the most part people are just doing their job and trying to make a living. You can do a few things though to ensure a good trip however.
Also, if you’re heading to Ubud I’d recommend seeing if Made Dego (ma-day day-go) is available to take you around. You can contact him by phone at +62 82 147 266 785. UPDATE: As of November 2016 half-day trips will usually be around $40 and one day trips around $60 USD.
Have you ever hired a private driver in another country before? What other tips would you sharing for having a good experience? Let me know in the comments below!