A Little Transportation… Figuring Out the Roads & Rules of Southeast Asia

Last updated on December 13, 2018

There’s a sense of poetic chaos to the roads of Southeast Asia. At first glance, there seems to be no rhyme or reason. Cars whizz past, motorbikes weave and pedestrians walk with a nonchalant indifference. This frenetic pace to the traffic baffled me in my first days in Southeast Asia. The streets of Bangkok are chaotic compared to those of Ho Chi Minh City, but they’re a far cry from the order and neatness of Orlando, Florida.

In the weeks and months since I first left home, I didn’t anticipate that traffic patterns and transportation would be two of the things most impacting my daily life on the road. And yet, even the streets of Sydney, Australia posed a challenge. And that was before I made it to Asia! Now, my Western sensibilities are assaulted at every turn and I’ve had to embrace a new sense of what order and “rightness” means. Because although it seemed baffling at first glance, there’s a balance and harmony to the streets of Southeast Asia that I find quietly lovely.

transportation in bagan, myanmar
Locals in Myanmar head home at the end of the day in Bagan.

Here’s what I first found baffling:

  • Lines in the road are mere suggestions.
  • It’s acceptable to cross traffic and drive in the opposite direction, against the grain.
  • There are no crosswalks and traffic lights are negotiable
  • Tuk tuks, motorbikes, cars and bicyclists all share the road.

And yet, there is a fluidity underneath the traffic patterns that I liken to the hive mentality of bees. The worst thing you can do here is make an unpredictable move. But on the other hand, if you signal your intent, then most anything is acceptable. In practice, that means you move your car over the line and into oncoming traffic if you’re looking to pass a slower moving vehicle — just let them know your intent. Then, as you move into oncoming traffic, everything just shifts to the left, then to the right. And if you need to make a turn but there’s no turn lane, cross sooner and then hug the curb as you drive against the grain. So long as you do it slowly and show your intent, traffic swims around you.

playing guitar in a tuk tuk in laos
Just a guy strumming his guitar in the back of a tuk tuk in Laos.

The same goes for pedestrians. Though it looks nearly impossible to cross the larger roads in cities like Chiang Mai, Bangkok, and Hanoi, you just have to know the way the game is played. In my early days in Southeast Asia, I would often wait for a local to begin to cross and follow them. The only way this works, however, is to put your trust in the hive.

Take a first step from the curb and you have now signaled your intent to cross the road. Given the right circumstances and assuming you’re visible, traffic will now adjust and swarm around you, predicting your path and speed. It’s almost like the person or tuk tuk or motorbike travels in an invisible bubble. That other people on the road calculate the trajectory of that bubble and then adjust their traffic pattern to match.

It sounds crazy. It feels crazy. And that’s just the half of it. Because at some point you’re the one doing the swarming around the obstacle and it’s just a wild feeling of chaos. Will it work? Will the traffic smooth out? Usually, it does. That said, this region of the world has among the highest rates of death from traffic accidents, so it pays to be cautious.

Hoping for safety with a wish and a prayer in Cambodia.

Let’s Talk About Types of Transportation

I was tense and white-knuckling it through every drive on my first days in Laos. Now, when riding in a tuk tuk I just sit back marvel at the organized chaos that somehow, you know, it just seems to work.

The tuk-tuk is the quintessential form of transport in Southeast Asia. It’s the easiest way to travel most cities in the region, and each town’s tuk tuk’s tend to have their own flair. These are motorbikes with a bubble on the back, that fits two to three (or a lot more if you have little kids too). Then there are the larger tuk tuks that are small pickup trucks with the back converted into two rows of seats. The first kind is popular in Thailand, and the second in Laos. (Of note, Thailand calls the pickup trucks songthaews and they are usually fully covered on the sides with cushy seats—here’s a rundown of all the both normal and weird forms of transportation in Thailand).

back of a pickup truck in Thailand
Our transport up the side of the mountain in Northern Thailand en route to the Akha Ama Coffee Journey.

On my first packed ride in a Laos tuk tuk, we squished nine backpackers into the back, and then our driver jetted from the curb and proceeded to weave and dart through traffic. I won’t be overly dramatic and say that visions of my life flashed before my eyes, but it was a close call.

Tuk tuk on the streets of Chiang Mai, Thailand
A tiny tuk tuk in Thailand!

There are even more opportunities to push the boundaries of transportation. Motorcycle taxis run throughout most of the towns. So, if you are in a couple or with bags, you usually take a tuk tuk. But if you’re a brave (or incredibly foolish) soul, I’ve seen backpackers clinging to a motorbike with a 65 pound backpack dangling from their back as they wove through town. And helmets aren’t popular here unless you demand one. Places like Bali, Indonesia enforce the helmets laws (and in Vietnam, too), but most locals in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia seem to ride around the city with their helmet in the basket of their bike.

Motorbikes are the most affordable forms of transport, so it’s not uncommon to see almost anything being carted across town on one. It’s pretty standard to see entire families piled on the family motorbike, but also carts of chickens, massive pieces of furniture, pots of food, and anything else that a local might need to procure and move in their life.

It’s all been an education these past weeks. I head to India soon, and I hear tales of rickshaws and mules and human-powered transport. It should be a continuation of the adventures in transport!

Backpackers Guide to Southeast Asia

A download of everything I learned from years backpacking Southeast Asia, and a beginners guide of sorts for anyone traveling through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia!