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Around The Sun: 1 - Rules Of The Road In Asia

Westerners who risk life and limb in Asia need to understand a whole new attitude to life, as Steve Harrison reveals.

This is the first of four choice articles by Steve on the dangers of travelling around in Asia.


The first and general impression of driving in Asia is that there are no road rules. In reality there are many but few bear any resemblance to the order of things found in the western world.

The first and most important road rule is to not die on the road, or receive or inflict any kind of injury. Survival is paramount. It sounds simple enough and is obviously logical, however you must know that logic is a rare commodity especially as it relates to the eastern mindset.

Your fellow motorist believes in the will of the Buddha and the spirits of the departed ones if he has an accident or dies. He can drive blind drunk, on the wrong side of the road, drive with the lights off at night with total disregard for the welfare off others, but when Buddha or the ancestors will it, then it is in the hands of the gods and what fate dictates, so to speak.

Perhaps he forgot to light the right amount of incense sticks, pray at the appropriate time, wear the correct amulet, behave inappropriately towards a monk or any of a thousand other different whatevers. Then his or her Karma will surely come into play. Never at any point is a driver at fault or reckless.

Drinking and driving is almost compulsory, even the police do it. Not giving mechanical or hand signals before turning is the norm. Driving from second class roads into main thoroughfares without even once considering oncoming traffic is essential. Motorcycles do have indicator lights but they are only as decoration and wing mirrors are for grooming oneself whilst driving “boy do I look good behind the handlebars” or “I really should fix my makeup”.

Everyone drives and talks at the same time on a telephone. Cyclist plod along weaving all over the road three or four abreast, chatting and telling stories to each other completely oblivious to the oncoming bus careering all over the place, or the taxi on the wrong side of the road.

If you have to stop, you stop, even if you’re in the middle or on the wrong side of the road. Should your cap blow off, then you do an immediate U turn and go back and collect it, the gods are with you. If you have been well behaved, appeased the gods, conducted your ancestral worship properly then you are immune to any danger that can possibly threaten.

Should an accident occur (and there are thousands of them), then you obviously did something wrong to incur the wrath of the spirits and deserve your fate. Unless a white man was involved.

So rule number one stay alive and try to arrive at the destination uninjured.


Interestingly the white man, barang or farang, as they are identified, break all the rules.

Because we are foreigners we obviously do not understand the correct Asian ways and we do not worship their gods or spirits. It stands to reason then that bad luck or evil omens will beset a white man.

If you are white and driving a vehicle that gets tail ended by a drunk driving at 80 km at hour at night with no lights it was obviously your fault for two very good reasons: one you ignored the spirits and they were not protecting you, secondly you’re the only one with enough money to sort out the mess, pay damages and hospital bills.

Should you be on the back of a motorcycle taxi who is involved in an accident then the previous two facts make you the guilty party and also it’s your fault because if you were not in the country or had not hired the vehicle then this accident would have obviously been avoided.

Even if your taxi driver commits a motoring infringement, drives the wrong way down a one way street or runs a red light (both regular almost compulsory actions) if he is unlucky enough to be caught by the police then again you will have to pay his fine for all the above perfectly obvious reasons (re-read the last two paragraphs).

The good Samaritan is a great biblical example of good human behaviour but can be a costly practice in Asia. If a western person stops to assist someone injured in an accident then the inevitable will soon occur. Some superstitious bystander will eventually point the crooked finger at the foreigner and raise the observation that this outsider hasn’t appeased their ancestral traditions. Minds will adjust and as if by magic the whole responsibility of the injury will have found an appropriate shoulder to lay on. Good neighbours look after their own, but ultimately the ancestral spirits look after their own kind, provided they’ve done the necessary kowtowing


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