The rice paddies on the hills in southern Sumatra were simply beautiful at that time of the day. The sun, low on the horizon, cast it’s late day rays on the water brimmed terraces that reflected the crimson light everywhere in a comforting orange glow. A picture perfect moment I thought as I rode along and considered a spot to stop and make use of my Nikon. Just one more bend on the narrow road and for sure there would be a good photo opportunity waiting for me I told myself. Tripod and lens were already on my mind as I veered into the glaring sun, but what I found around that last bend was far from the perfect opportunity I envisioned. Actually, it made my heart sink straight away.
Getting pulled over by the cops is rarely a welcome event. I have been stopped, or signalled to do so, by some kind of law enforcement officer in almost every country I crossed on my overland trip from London to Bali. Rarely however, did it turn out to be a stressful occurrence with the need for confrontation (although some firmness at times was necessary). Actually, some encounters with the law ended up with laughter, hand shakes and selfies. Most of all though, there was negligible or no monetary upset whatsoever.
Here are a few rules of thumb I developed travelling across Asia. They represent my own personal approach and, commendable or not, it’s what worked for me.
DO NOT STOP!
This can sound controversial but I think its “best practice” in scenarios in which:
A) The “enforcement officer” is not wearing a uniform, or a fully recognisable outfit.
Of course you should use your good judgement but equally should not feel intimidated by appearances. Twisting the throttle and riding away is a safer option if you keep in mind that there are plenty of time wasting scammers eager for cash in every culture. “I stop for nobody without a uniform” is a very valid mantra. Also, worth remembering is that a flashing blue light on an unmarked car is absolutely no guarantee of the law outside of the western world. BEWARE!
B) No clear and safe area is available to pull over without risking an accident.
This is a very real issue in countries like Iran, Pakistan and India where traffic can be fast paced and simply insane especially after dark in urban areas.
C) You are waved down simply to be looked at (happens often).
You develop a feeling for this sort of scenario. A solo traveller on an exotic machine stands out from the crowd and attracts curiosity. It’s a chance for some officers to break the day’s monotony, chat or similar. In these cases I would slow down, smile, wave and carry on.
In all of the cases above (A, B, and C), nobody ever chased me!
STOPPED, PULLED OVER
It’s hard to argue any violation if proof is caught on camera but there is usually always space for a little negotiation. For example, I discovered that insisting on a receipt before paying any cash worked wonders in some circumstances.
Furthermore, stiff lipped officers changed attitude towards me when I tentatively commented on things such as a desire to go fishing, an interest in football, the merits or demerits of my motorcycle or enquire about the attitude of local women or seek to understand some aspect of local culture. Invariably there was some softening towards me to the point that smiles appeared. After a little banter the original issue for being pulled over faded to the background and was even forgiven (clearly not forgotten). Perhaps, in most instances there was no real intention to pursue in the first place at all.
Regardless, I have been “forgiven” for speeding, failing to produce an insurance document, riding in lanes reserved for public transport, using highways closed to motorcycle traffic. I have received help from enforcement officers to find accommodation, find money changers, locate hot fishing spots. Most cops I encountered were genuinely cool guys (not all of them mind).
I HAVE NOTICED
A helmet action camera encouraged officers to get rid of me quickly.
Using an open face helmet, sun glasses and riding a white bike with a tall wind shield occasionally got me confused for a motorcycle policeman myself with some amusing reactions from my “would be” colleagues.
I never handed over my original driving licence, vehicle registration document, or passport to the police. I carried high quality laminated colour copies of these for inspection by the side of the road and they worked just as well.
So my friends, in the end that late afternoon in Indonesia I rode into a police road block but things went just fine. There was a photograph opportunity after all as you can see in the picture above. It just was not the kind I was expecting. Still, I think a hint of that orange evening light was caught in the frame regardless?