The first time you visit an overpopulated country like India or Vietnam, your jaw will drop when you see the traffic. There is only one word that can
even begin to describe it: clusterfuck. This rough guide is applicable to most of Asia, from Vietnam to Nepal. With the sheer volume of traffic on the roads in this part of the world,
standard western traffic flow patterns would cause chaos. Even though it does already look like the traffic is chaos, there is an underlying order to it all, an organised chaos.
Having ridden motorbikes and scooters around India, Nepal, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos I have started to grasp the core meanings behind the madness on the roads of these far flung countries, here are some of the key things I have picked up:
In the west, the use of your horn is generally an aggressive move to show your dislike towards someone else driving skills, or apparent lack thereof, usually ending in one or both parties flipping the bird. In Asia, it’s your armour. Your horn is used to let the people around you know you are there, not as a show of emotion. In India especially, mirrors are used purely to make sure you moustache is straight not to check behind you, for that they rely on the person behind them to tap the horn to let you know they are there. Similarly, if you are winding between buses, you tap on your horn so they don't knock you off. Basically every vehicle or person you are approaching gets a short toot to let them know you're there to make sure they don't hit you.
Right Of Way
The first rule of the road is that the person in front has right of way, as with everything in life. Only in Asia, they take it too far. You can seemingly pull any manoeuvre you fancy, no matter how stupid it might be, safe in the knowledge that if anyone behind you hits you, it’s their fault. Ive had a driving licence now for 16 years and have done no more than 4 emergency stops in that time. In 1 day in Vietnam i did 7. People just sweep from the outside lane and cut across to the other side, almost perpendicular to the flow of traffic without even indicating or shoulder checking. They also fly out from side roads right into the middle of traffic, again not even a fraction of a second given to the thought of a shoulder check. Still, if you hit them, it’s your fault.
The second rule is; the bigger you are the more right of way you have. Lorries/semis and buses can pretty much do what they want because in the event of a collision, you’re going to come off so much worse than they are so they know you’ll stop. It’s also a lot easier for you to stop suddenly than it is for them.
The third main rule is to keep the traffic flowing, squeeze into any gaps you can fit your bike into and try and get as close to the front at traffic lights so you can get a quick getaway. One of my favourite methods of maintaining the traffic flow is when you come up to a ’T’ junction. Instead of waiting at the line for a break in traffic to cross to the other side, you literally cross the road before you get to the junction, riding against the traffic, and hugging the corner and continuing to drive down the next road against the flow until there is a break to cross over to the right side.
The thing I struggle with mostly is road rage when I'm in Asia, although I never get it back home. People’s stupidity boggles my mind sometimes and I frequently find myself wanting to angrily try and point it out to them, but the annoying thing is, there’s no road rage there. I realised this one day in Vietnam when buddy decides to pull his minibus into the motorbike lane in front of me to have a chat with his mate, all the while blocking the lane off. I was just about to slam on my horn and let out a ‘what the fuck are you doing?’ when I realised that not one of the now dozen odd motorbike riders stuck behind him gave the slightest bit of a shit. I realised it was my western sensibilities were the problem in this situation, not the minibus driver. If the locals aren’t pissed about something, you have no right to be either. Suck it up princess.
On top of those rules, ALWAYS wear a helmet, even if you’re not required too in that country. You might not look the coolest to the people you spend 3 seconds driving past, but it’s a hell of a lot better than how you’ll look when you come off and leave half your face on the road. Only dicks ride without a helmet, it's not cool. As they say, DRESS FOR THE SLIDE, NOT FOR THE RIDE.
If the roads look dangerous wherever you are, it’s because they are. You need to keep your wits about you at all times because there are thousands of people each
day on the roads here just waiting for a Darwin Award. As my mother always says; it’s not you you need to be worried about, it's the other people.
Riding around Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos was one of my favourite experiences, but it's also one of the most dangerous things I've done. I was run off the road twice by buses coming towards me overtaking at the last moment and even had a massive truck clipped my wing mirror as he over took me. My mirrors only protruded about 3cms beyond my handlebars so had he been any closer he would have clipped my handle bars which would have sent me under his wheels.
If you are going to undertake an adventure like this, don't be a dick or you will get killed. Especially in Cambodia. We learnt quite quickly that the bigger vehicles in Cambodia didn't want motorbikes on the main roads so we would have to ride along slowly on the loose gravel next to the road if there were any vehicles approaching us from any direction. The driving in Cambodia is so bad it is now the leading cause of death there:
"In 2015, traffic accidents killed 2,265 people and injured more than 15,000, 40 percent of whom were seriously injured"
Then there's Vietnam that has an average of 30 deaths A DAY on their roads. In 2014 alone 22,500 people died including 4 Americans, 2 Brits and a Frenchman.
So you can see why I get angry at people riding around at 80 km/h in wife beaters and board shorts with their helmet strapped to their bag behind them. My dad died from brain cancer so I've seen first hand what brain damage can do, trust me, whatever 'cool points' you think you're scoring by looking like you're too cool to wear a helmet, they'll mean jack shit when you spend the rest of your life being spoon fed and having your mum wipe your ass because you got knocked off your bike and banged your head.
WEAR A FUCKING HELMET!
Having said all of that, if you ride like your grandma and take your time, ride on the dirt next to the road when it's busy and be more cautious than you have ever been in your life, you will have a life changing adventure that won't cost you the earth. Just remember to take it slow, it's not a race! You're here to see the country and you cant do that ripping around at 80km/h because you will be too focused on the road and the millions of hazards you'll be flying past.