Chaotic Efficiency: Honk, Beep, Toot-Toot

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Let’s talk traffic for a moment. Where I have always grown up in Washington, we drive fairly sane. Yes, we have the more than the occasional road rage, but for the most part, everyone drives by the rules and laws of traffic. We stop at stop lights. We use signals to change lanes. We passed laws to abolish talking and texting on your mobile phone while driving. We consider those who use their horn to honk at others are assholes, and we think anyone driving faster than us is a maniac! (Rest in peace George Carlin). There may be a finger outside the window here and there and most people actually use the sidewalks and crosswalks. We really get bugged with those who don’t use their blinker, those rock-spitting semis, and those people we believe shouldn’t be able to drive if they can’t drive the speed limit! Now as for Asia . . . well, none of this applies.

Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Vietnam is known as one of the worst countries for traffic in the world, running in close comparison with India. Personally. I feel India traffic was much worse than Vietnam’s. All three countries are very similar in relation to one another so I will just speak collectively about them all.

Back in the States, to have a bike can be sought as dangerous. Many people are reckless and think they are able to disobey traffic laws. Motorbikes and scooters, however, are the very best form of transportation in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Where there are vast roundabouts, helmets are for style, no speed limits, very little lanes, traffic lights are just a suggestion, and honking your horn means you have the right away. The Vietnamese like to refer to the traffic as the ocean of bikes.

I have experienced many close calls where you start to use your invisible foot brake hoping you won’t crash into the large semi coming towards you full speed. Weaving bikes finding every possible hole in between vehicles to patch up. Keep in mind there are always the sidewalks if the street is too full. There are no lines for waiting your turn. No huffs that you were just cut-off, and the horn is liberally used. There’s no use for a pickup truck for you can load your bike up beyond your wildest imagination. You want to take the family out for some rice noodle soup? No problem! You can easily fit a family of five on a one seated motorbike and carry your pig for dinner that night . . . just kidding . . . but really.

The funny thing is drivers don’t get road rage or constantly curse at one another when you are cut-off driving or your paint is nearly scrapped off by someone’s handle bars or mirrors. It is so normal to drive in chaos, I am sure their culture shock of the United States would be quite frustrating not being able to drive however they wanted as well as being a bit more shy on the horn. There’s more to traffic in Asia other than scooters and motorbikes. There are peddle bikes, cyclos, and rickshaws. Taxis are everywhere. Cars are less practical and buses are highly inconvenient. Although I have been thoroughly impressed with the skills and confidence these drivers have on buses. Just when you think for sure he won’t make this squeeze or pass that guy in time, they always prove me wrong.

Picture a swarm of helmets, taxis, and cars all cruising through intersections and roundabouts. Now lets throw a bicycle in the mix. Adding a few cyclos and Tuk-Tuks. What do you have? A hot and humid efficient mess! Did I mention they love their mobile phones? Because they do! Texting if they stop at a light. Answering phone calls then stuffing the phone in their helmet. I have even seen movies playing on their phone while on motorbikes! Now how about if you are on foot? Oh yes, I am talking about pedestrians. In the mix of all these various forms of transportation going every which way and avoiding collisions every second, pedestrians walk wherever they want. Highways, roundabouts, bridges, you name it! Do you think they wait for a gap in traffic to cross? I think not! No, they just mosey on their way, slowly through traffic, expecting the bikes and cars to avoid them. Brave. I must say I have gotten used to this in the short time I have been traveling in Asia. Proudly, I am not frightened nor intimidated. How? Because you just do it. It is so normal and expected, it truly is way more efficient than our traffic laws in the States. Also, by far more entertaining to watch. No wonder why so many people are always sitting outside their shops staring at the traffic during their meal or coffee break or siesta. Because it is so entertaining! You just have to laugh and be grateful.

Just yesterday I had the audacity to ride a cyclo in Saigon of Vietnam. I climbed aboard what looked like a wheelchair attached to the front of a tall bicycle. My driver, so smiley and happy. Waving at me frantically to choose his cyclo. I couldn’t resist the hilarious urgency and excitement he portrayed. As we cycled on, he showed me certain areas of importance to Saigon, reassuring me along the way to not worry and trust he has been doing this line of work for over forty years. We slowly crept by street vendors while being passed up by cars, buses and bike after bike. I was reclined slightly back with my elbows perched on the sides enjoying the chaotic and beautiful ride. Everywhere there’s a “honk honk!”, with pedestrians walking in front of me and motorbikes zooming past me. Other tourists on the road stating I was brave as they smiled at me along my way.

The honking of the horn represents a multitude of things. Awareness. Letting others know you are there. If you merge in or out of traffic, pass someone, or try to “change lanes” so to speak, the horn is vital. The horn, believe it or not, represents the right away; if you honk your horn and someone else runs into you it is now their fault, you warned them, you made it known that you were around them, therefore it is their responsibility to avoid you. A honk could be a, ‘come on over I see you trying to get in my lane’, or a ‘hey, don’t forget I am here and I have nowhere to let you in’, all done without any haste. With all this horn honking going on, how do you know which horn is representing which vehicle? I have no idea. But I find it impressive that they know! If the cabs or tuk tuks see you walking along your merry way, they will honk to get your attention. Inviting you to join their crazy adventure. I found it to be really funny one day; leaving Bangkok in a taxi I was speaking to Rob about how you don’t see any accidents and how amazing the honking works to prevent them. That is until five minutes later we pass by five accidents in a half mile! The great thing is no one slows down to get a good look, the cluster of traffic only congests when trying to move around all the accidents in the road. We got past all these accidents steadily in five  minutes. Back at home it would probably take four hours to get past five accidents at least! Maybe they will even shut down the freeway. A couple were even five car pile-ups. Bikes are so much more efficient. After passing in a sea of swerving bikes and cars, for the rest of my adventure I hadn’t seen another accident. I thought I might be in an accident or two or twelve but it never happened.

The most dangerous vehicle is the Tuk-Tuk. Also know as the rickshaw. Question after question, “Would you like tuk tuk miss?” “Tuk tuk please, sir?”, sometimes walking down one strip of road with over eight offers. Often times they don’t know the difference between a Sir or Madame, therefore calling everyone Madame or everyone Sir. By far the most dangerous form of transportation. Three wheels and an overhead canopy. Driven like a motorbike. Sometimes I rode in a canopied rickshaw attached to a motorbike, able to be disconnected. Similar to attaching a trailor to your truck. At one point we hit a pothole and started tilting off-balance. Our driver almost fell off! We asked if he needed help! I found this experience really fun and hilarious. You just have to laugh at the far less than safe ways of Asian traffic. Some of the pluses; the breeze, quick in and out, the scents of street foods, cheap, a true cultural experience. The negatives; exhaust, dirt in your eyes, bugs in your eyes, agreeing on a price before commuting, smell of garbage and sewer, dangerous. In the end, worth it! Not to mention the roads are less than perfect. Or maybe even mediocre. Red dirt, clay, and choppy pavement. Sometimes riding in the back of the bus I became airborne driving along the paved roads. Just one more additive to stay attentive while driving. You can forget sleeping on a bus. Just when you are almost fully dosed off you are startled awake with patterns and repetition of musical horns. Lovely.

One other thing to mention, the animals. Within this mass of fumes and beeps, one has to mind the roads for animals. Cows, chickens, ducks, water buffalo, cats, dogs, monkeys, lizards. I have seen all these animals in the road in the two weeks I have been in Indochina. Even quading in the countryside of Cambodia, I had to weave in-between a heard of cows, beat the water buffalo to the road, and avoid running over those quick lizards! Not to mention there are children everywhere in Cambodia. Being cautious and ultimately paying attention anytime you are on the road is a must to avoid hurting yourself or others.

I just love how crazy and reckless it is. Everyone gets to where they need to go. No one loses their temper or results to insults. Just communities minding their own and going about their living. Along with the other 89,999,999 million people earning their own for the day in Vietnam. Props to the women for never having helmet hair and rocking the motorbike side-saddle or in a skirt and stiletto heels.

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