Friday, December 13, 2013

Dodging Motos in SE Asia

I was recently in SE Asia with my wife and daughter for what has become our annual international vacation. We started taking these trips with our daughter a couple of months before she turned two and she would celebrate her fifth birthday on this last one. As we were anticipating this vacation and telling people about it we were often greeted with a look shock from many people and even a "wow" every now and then at the idea that we would take a five-year-old to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Some people were impressed by us, others thought we were crazy. I think the ones who thought we were crazy didn't think we had really thought it through really well. But we had quite a bit. Before this trip our girl had been on four foreign vacations and in a total of eight countries, all in Europe but having taken a step in to Asia by being in Istanbul.

In all the traveling we've done with her she has been fantastic and easy on the flights and pretty much all aspects of the trip. Sure she gets tired and cranky on occasion but that can happen at home, too. Having done the 12-hour flight to Istanbul and back with no problem we figured we were ready to up our game with our choice of vacation destinations. And my wife, who traveled much more than me when she was younger, really wanted to get out of the Europe trend we'd been in since our daughter was born..

My wife and I had gone to this part of the world as our last trip before trying to have a kid, six years earlier, so we knew what we were getting in to. Sure SE Asia is a hectic place, but it is also so beautiful and full of wonderful people.

But there was one part of the trip that maybe confirmed our craziness for taking a five-year-old to this part of the world. They drive like lunatics over there.

It is really hard to explain to people who have never been to this part of the world just what the driving is like. If you go to cities like New York, Chicago, or Boston and think that the driving is insane there you have no idea how much worse it can be. The best description I've ever been able to come up with is imagining you are on a crowded New York City sidewalk with all the people weaving back and forth and going around each other, coming within millimeters of one another, getting out of an oncoming person's way just before you would bump in to each other. Now imagine that with everyone on cars, motorbikes, and bicycles instead of walking.

Nowhere that I've been is it any worse than Hanoi. And it got worse since we were there six years ago. Sure traffic was bad with all the motorbikes but when you got off the main thoroughfares you could usually find some breathing room on small streets like in the charming Old Quarter. Not any more. Traffic seems to be a constant flow on those small streets just like in the more urban looking parts of the city. And a lot more of the vehicles are cars (as opposed to motorbikes) now that more and more Vietnamese can afford them.

This makes crossing the street very tiring, especially when you are trying to do it with a five-year-old. We spend so much time as parents trying to train our kid the rules of crossing the street only to have to throw them out the window. I explained to her that we she had to hold our hands and when we said "go" to just start walking and don't stop for any reason. Telling her that when there are motorbikes and cars coming at us they will swerve around us. Rightly, she looked at me like I was crazy.

I had such a great memory of how charming Hanoi was when I visited before but that's been replaced by sheer hatred of the place. It is just exhausting to be there. Luckily we were only there for one day as a stopover on our way to Hoi An. We were staying away from the bigger cities on this trip and after the stay in Hanoi I knew we made the right decision. And a big reason that Hoi An was one of my favorite places - on top of the fact it is a charming town with lots to do and see - is that for several parts of the day the Old Town section is closed to motorized vehicles. The calm it creates in contrast to the chaos of the traffic is as wonderful as being in a typical European pedestrian plaza.

It is as crazy as Hanoi all over this part of the world. There is no sense that there are any rules to follow. Major roads are clearly marked with solid or broken lines to indicate a passing or no-passing zone but they are completely ignored. Drivers will pass going in to blind curves without giving it a second thought.  They will also begin an overtake even if there is oncoming traffic only 100 yards away. The right-of-way rule seems to be whoever is bigger gets their way. It is like the bully on the playground method of traffic control. For instance, there was an oncoming truck that started flashing his lights at the car we were in on a trip between Hoi An and My Son, telling our driver to make way from about 200 yards away. Except that the truck was the one that was passing and was in our lane. But if we hit him, we would lose.

This applies to pedestrians as well. No way should you assume that if crossing the street at an intersection with a stoplight that the cross traffic will stop when they have the red. You should assume they won't.

This of course was not new to us since we had been there before. We knew the traffic and driving there would be crazy, that people in these countries were nutty and aggressive drivers. But one thing did change in the time we had last been there:

They all have freaking smart phones now!

Holy shit, if you thought driving under the influence of smart phones was bad in the ain't seen nothin'. I was biking between the beach and town in Hoi An and a guy came by me on a motorbike while casually texting, face buried in the phone, while within centimeters of me. This was a common sight, drivers texting while swerving around pedestrians and other vehicles, sometimes while driving a motorbike with their toddler child between their legs.

Probably the most bizarre/hilarious/frightening example was during our ride between Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia, for which we had hired a driver to take us on the four-to-five hour trip. While our driver was in the middle of passing another car at about 60 km/h on the patchy narrow highway (I use that term lightly) with oncoming traffic in sight he decided that would be a perfect time to take a picture of the sunset happening to our left. I suppose it is nice to see someone still appreciates the beauty of his country enough to snap a photo of a nice sunset. It was a really nice sunset.

There is something about traveling that makes you throw your usual rules out the window. "Why yes, we can have gelato for dinner." You know, things like that. This time we threw out pretty much any standard we have at home for transportation safety for our kid (except that we did do several of our trips by boat to avoid buses on the highways in Vietnam). At home we always make sure to have her booster seat if we are going to be in a car, we make her wait for the light at intersections, always cross in a crosswalk, etc. You know, responsible middle-class American parents.

In Cambodia we rode tuk-tuks so many times every day. If you've never seen a tuk-tuk, this is it:

The family on a tuk-tuk in Siem Reap

It is basically a trailer hooked on to the back of a motorbike and then a guy drives you somewhere in the previously described traffic. My daughter loved this more than just about anything else we did on the trip. She begged to take a tuk-tuk every time we left the hotel. And so we did.

At one point during out trip I was telling our daughter about how when I was a kid that we would just pile in the back of a pickup truck but how that wasn't allowed anymore because it wasn't safe. And then in Luang Prabang we went on a hiking and kayaking trip with a guide. And how did we travel the 40 minutes to where we were trekking? In the back of a pickup truck, of course.

When in Rome, I suppose. Even if it is the most dangerous thing you can do.

One tries not to judge the culture of another country while traveling. But on both trips to this part of the world I could not help but think that there must be a decent amount of people who don't like the status quo. There must be a high number of people that have lost children to accidents because of the insane lack of traffic rules that would like to see a change. I just wonder what it will take to change the madness. Looking at the situation it seems impossible to change. But it wasn't that long ago that there weren't any drunk driving laws in the U.S. Or seat belt laws, car seats for kids, and helmet laws.

There is, I discovered, a helmet law in Vietnam that came in to effect just a few years ago. So there seems to be the beginning of an effort to change things there. And I noticed a lot more traffic lights than when we visited before.

Some drivers even stop for them.

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