Before I traveled solo to Bali last year, I read about their taxi mafia from online forums and travel blogs.
During my trip, there were so many rules (official and unofficial), depending on whom you talk to. For example, transport network vehicles (TNVs) or ride-sharing apps like Uber and Grab are banned in Ubud, but you may use it in Kuta. Many tourists will tell you that they’ve managed to book Uber rides in Ubud, but very discreetly.
I learned that when using TNVs, make sure you avoid getting picked up or dropped off in touristy places rife with taxis and cops. You may be dropped off by TNVs at Denpasar Airport for your departure flight, but you cannot be picked up by TNVs upon arrival, because that area is dominated by Blue Bird and other airport-accredited taxis.
It was so confusing in the beginning. Actually, it still is.
Distressing Last Day In Ubud
I booked mostly meter-based taxi drivers, private tour drivers, and local scooter rides to get around. There were “No to Uber and Grab” signs plastered everywhere. Ironically, the local peddlers and tour guides hanging in every corner of Ubud would always ask, “Taxi? Where are you going? Need transport? Scooter?” followed by, “How about Uber, Grab?”
During my first two days, I would scratch my head whenever they asked me that question. I would reply, “Huh? I thought Uber and Grab are not allowed here?” They just smiled. I soon learned that this was their trick to catching tourists using ride-sharing apps. I wonder what would have happened if I actually replied, “Yes, can you please get me a Grab because it’s much cheaper than taxis?”
On my last day in Ubud before heading to Seminyak, I was running low on funds, so I decided to book an Uber ride for the first time. My fellow foreign travelers told me that I just have to be discreet and never admit to bystanders that I’m booking an Uber.
After checking out of my hotel, I opened my Uber app and found a driver. He was going to charge me IDR 175,000 (₱671) to take me to Seminyak. Regular taxis and private drivers would cost IDR 300,000-350,000 (₱1,152-1,344).
I stood along Jl. Hanoman, a busy street. I usually got picked up there by local scooters and Ubud-based private drivers with no problem. I stood there with my luggage while waiting for my Uber. A group of men sitting across the street shouted at me, “Taxi?” I replied, “No thanks, I already have one.” It was the same conversation I had with them before.
This time, one of the men crossed the street and approached me. “You have taxi?” I said yes. “Uber? Grab?” he asked. I lied, “No, I booked a private driver.”
He pressed for more: “Your driver friend from here in Ubud?” I replied nonchalantly, “Yes, the same driver I booked for my tour the other day.” I prayed my acting skills worked.
But he decided to sit on the pavement beside me, wait, and watch me fiddle with my phone. I didn’t think it was a sign that meant I was using Uber. In the past, I communicated with my Ubud-based drivers via Whatsapp and would stand on the same street while texting them.
Meanwhile, I was wondering what was taking my Uber driver so long. On the app map, I saw that he kept going in circles, avoiding my area. “Where are you?” I texted. “I cannot go there,” he replied. Then he pointed to a new location on the map, which was five blocks away from me. “Meet me there.” I said no. I could not drag my 20-kilo luggage to that hidden location.
After 15 minutes of waiting, I tried to make a compromise with the Uber guy, “Meet me at the café one block from here.” I saw that the place was quiet and far from the man watching me.
As I dragged my luggage and casually walked away, the man said, “You lie to me!” While I was walking away, he started screaming to the other men on the other street and pointed at me. Like a domino effect, they passed the message to the other men on all the other streets. They scoffed at me as I walked by clumsily with my heavy luggage. They spoke in Balinese, so I didn’t understand anything.
And then I realized: They’re the members of the taxi mafia. They were the once friendly men who helped me book local scooters during my first few days. But this time they hated me, even if I actually hadn’t stepped into an Uber ride yet.
I hid in the café, connected to the WiFi, and asked my Uber driver to meet me there. Again, he declined and told me to go the hidden location several blocks away. Frustrated, I cancelled my Uber ride and called the Ubud-based private driver I booked the other day. After haggling, he agreed to IDR 280,000 (₱1,075) to take me to Seminyak, around an hour away.
When he arrived and parked in front of the café, several members of the taxi mafia huddled around him. The driver whipped out his wallet and pulled out his identification cards. The taxi mafia inspected his ID, nodded their heads, shook his hand, and left him alone. I shuddered to think what would have happened if the Uber driver picked me up instead.
Lessons On Taxi Mafia
When I was finally safe inside the private car en route to Seminyak, I asked my driver why they interrogated him—without admitting that I tried to get an Uber before calling him.
“They just want to check if I’m from Ubud and not an Uber or Grab. My ID card shows my Ubud address.”
He explained that TNV or ride-sharing drivers usually come from the distant provinces. They hardly get tourists in their area, so they join Uber or Grab and drive all the way to Ubud, Seminyak, and Kuta to get passengers for a much cheaper rate. The residents of Ubud, Seminyak, and Kuta don’t like the competition. But these Uber drivers continue to operate in Ubud by pretending to be regular cars lurking in quiet streets and avoiding the tourist areas.
“What happens if the taxi mafia or cops catch the Grab and Uber drivers?” I asked.
My driver said there are many possibilities. They could interrogate them in hopes of driving them away from Ubud. Sometimes they bully the TNV driver into paying a fine that will go straight to the pockets of the taxi mafia. In worst cases, violence ensues. Some TNV drivers get beaten up and their cars, smashed by the angry mafia. As for the passengers who booked the TNV, they will also be interrogated.
The Coast Is Clear in Seminyak and Kuta… Kinda
It was a different story in the party district of Bali. Seminyak and Kuta seemed more lenient with TNVs. I would see Grab bikers wearing their Grab helmets and jackets while picking up tourists. I easily booked Uber and Grab as long as my pickup point wasn’t in front of a scooter rental area, a taxi parking zone, or the main entrance of a tourist spot.
Back in my hotel, I learned from my fellow foreign travelers that two of the employees there were very sensitive about TNVs. The mere mention of Uber and Grab would turn their smile into a scowl. As for the other employees, they were okay with TNVs. They even helped me book Grab rides.
The Indonesian locals I befriended didn’t have a problem with TNVs either. They understand that Uber and Grab rides are much cheaper—half of what regular taxis and scooters charge. Most locals and expats drive their own scooters, but they also use Grab and Uber from time to time.
Speaking of renting your own scooter, the rules also differ for expats and foreigners. Locals who overspeed and forget to wear helmets can get away with it. But if you’re bule (local slang for foreigners and expats), you will easily get pulled over by the police and fined for not wearing a helmet. Sometimes they get pulled over for inexplicable, made-up offenses. The fine depends on the mood of the cop and the gullibility of the foreigner. You may even haggle. Sounds just like the Philippines, if you ask me!
But Let’s Not Generalize
Don’t get me wrong; not all taxi drivers are members of the mafia. There is a strong resistance to TNVs or ride-sharing apps, while many locals are protesting the ban. Not everyone is out to get TNV drivers, but there have been reports of violence and hostility.
So how does a tourist deal? If you don’t have any budget issues, just go for accredited metered taxis like Blue Bird. But if you’re penny-pinching, be street smart and aware of the risks when booking TNVs.
Most of all, check the Bali online forums and news reports for updates. In 2016, the Go Jek ban was lifted after a petition.
1. The cheapest way around is by renting a scooter for around IDR 60,000 (₱230) per day (petrol not included)—but only if you know how to drive one. You may also book a Go Jek or local scooter ride, but be wary that it’s more accident prone than taxis. Wear a helmet at all times—not just for safety, but because you will be fined by cops if you are caught without one.
2. If it’s a short distance, just walk! A little exercise is good for you.
3. Grab and Uber are banned in Ubud, but some tourists still get away with it. If you’re willing to take the risks (Remember my story!), do it discreetly. Ask to get picked up or dropped off in risk-free areas where there are no cops, busy tourist joints, mafia members, and metered taxis.
4. Grab and Uber are easier to use in Seminyak, Kuta, and Canggu, but you should still be wary of the taxi mafia there. It’s best to to get picked up or dropped off in risk-free areas.
5. Never admit that you’re booking an Uber or Grab. If local bystanders ask you if you already have a driver, say yes. If they ask more questions, say that he’s a private tour driver who’s from the area.
6. There are many private tour drivers around. You’ll meet them everywhere on the streets, and they will easily hand out their calling cards. You may also look for private tour drivers on Facebook groups like Ubud Community, Bali Travel Forum, and Canggu-Seminyak Community. The price varies. Always haggle. Once you find a driver you like, keep booking him for your next trips and the price will be easier to haggle. WhatsApp is the preferred messenger app in Bali.
7. If the hotel or tourist joint has a No-Uber or No-Grab policy, just walk a few meters down the street in a quiet location and you will be able to hop into one without any issues.
8. For official metered taxis, the most trusted one is Blue Bird. It’s light blue, has a bird logo on the top, a working meter, and a bluebirdtaxi.com on the windscreen and side of the cab. Look for the driver’s ID badge pinned to his uniform. Beware of dodgy taxis with no meter and Blue Bird lookalike taxis that come in dark blue paint but with a different name on the cab. They are scammers.
9. You may get dropped off by TNVs at Denpasar Airport for your departure flight, but you cannot be picked up by TNVs upon arrival.
Disclaimer: My personal experience may be different from other travelers. Bali is still one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever traveled to, and I will definitely return. This post is meant to teach first-time travelers about the transportation system in Bali. If you’ve traveled to Bali and have tips to share, fill up the comments section below.