Driving in Asia is quite a unique experience. It's unlike any other place on the planet (well maybe South America) and seems to have its own random 'code of ethics' and 'rules of the road'.
It's easy to get frustrated with North American driving. We've all had a moment of cursing and single-fingered hand gestures. Be grateful! You don't know how civilized and organized the roads really are… until you drive the streets in Asia!
We are currently in India, where every moment on the road is an exhilarating and terrifying experience. If you've traveled to Asia before you'll have an idea of what we're talking about, although each country seems to have its own distinctive twist on road etiquette. We've heard that it is roughly 30 times more likely to get into a vehicle accident in India than in North America (but don't quote us). We can see why!
Let's start with the honking. In Canada, a horn is rarely used except by tailgating road-ragers who have no patience. In Asia, the horn is as important as the brakes. The horn is used to communicate; it's like a primitive version of Morse code. One beep means something totally different than two or three beeps; and of course the long single wail typically means "move out of the way you %$#@!"
It is actually comical, but also extremely annoying, observing to how frequently drivers use their horns… especially motorcyclists. When a motorcycle is cruising down a street with pedestrians the driver will abrasively beep the horn, letting the pedestrians know that he's approaching. Now is that really necessary? Even if the pedestrians didn't hear him approach, do you think that scaring the crap out of them with your horn will help? But those are the accepted 'rules of the road' in India!
While driving through the congested city streets of India, drivers will literally keep a continual honk going for up to 500 meters… now imagine every driver doing this at the same time. It quickly loses its affect, yet drivers continue to do it out of habit. In fact, many drivers come to expect it. Many large trucks have "please honk" painted on the back. Our assumption is that they simply don't want to use their rearview mirrors and need a loud wake-up call? Many trucks and buses even have their own unique horn jingle, similar to a cell phone ringtone.
Even after nearly three months in Asia we still can't figure out its honking logic because it seems to change from city to city. But one thing is consistent… the obnoxious beeping never stops!
Let me walk you through a typical tuk-tuk (auto-rickshaw) experience in India and Nepal while it's still top of mind.
First of all, the majority of tuk-tuks are falling apart and should not be allowed on the road. They're basically a lawn mower with a rusty metal bubble on top, hardly the type of vehicle you'd want to be in if an accident were to occur. Secondly, we're not convinced that many of these drivers even have driver's licenses; and if they do, the government should seriously consider beefing up the testing and qualifications process. Finally, drivers must learn to decipher which way the flow of traffic is going… and stick to that direction. That means do not cross into oncoming traffic dummy!
After firmly negotiating the fare you climb into the dirty, rusty auto-rickshaw careful not to cut yourself on loose metal. You then reach into your pocket, take out your towel and cover your mouth to protect yourself from the never ending clouds of foul black emissions. Then you hold on tight and keep your eyes focused straight ahead.
The tuk-tuk maneuvers its way down a narrow beat-up street, cautious of the large potholes and never ending stream of pedestrians. It randomly bounces from one lane to another with no regard for what's going on behind. A car in front is driving in the center lane… oncoming motorcycles are forced to use the dusty shoulder instead. There isn't really a need for road lines, nobody uses them anyways.
The tuk-tuk speeds up as it approaches the looming intersection. You hang on tighter, knowing there is nothing you can do at this point… you're committed to this journey. At the last minute, it slams on the brakes and makes a jerky right turn, squeezing between a bus and a pack of masked motorcyclists. The decrepit bus spits up a cloud of black smoke that fills the cab of the auto-rickshaw. You cough and sweep the cloud away with your hand but it's no use, you're swallowing the fumes regardless.
Most intersections do not have traffic lights so the flow of traffic never fully stops. Some are roundabouts, but mostly it's the standard crossroads. The driver inches his way into the chaotic intersection, continually beeping his horn and cutting off motorcyclists and overstuffed jeeps with passengers hanging out the rear window. There is no protocol. Its first come first serve and the bigger vehicles win every time.
You look over your right shoulder out of habit. You see another tuk-tuk rapidly approaching at full speed… you close your eyes and brace for impact. The tuk-tuk hits the brakes and comes to within an inch of your vehicle; the oncoming driver gives you a big smile, thinking "you must not be from around here". He chuckles and moves on, his native passengers stare at you with strange curiousity.
The tuk-tuk swerves to the right to avoid a rear-end collision with a stalled truck… in the process it almost collides into another nearby tuk-tuk. You're glad you kept all of your fingers in the vehicle. In India, vehicles stop whenever and wherever they please without as much as a glance in the rearview mirror.
The tuk-tuk honks at the truck three times, it really doesn't matter why. It's like the Wild West and drivers have itchy trigger fingers.
There is a commotion twenty meters ahead; vehicles are swerving to avoid something. It's a pair of large brown cows sitting in the middle of the road! They gaze at you peacefully as you pass by, oblivious to their dangerous choice of resting place. You do double take… are they really chewing on a plastic bag? Oops… the tuk-tuk just ran over a cow patty!
Traffic picks up again, so does the speedometer… just kidding, there are no speedometers! You see a bus picking up passengers ahead. The tuk-tuk's speed recklessly increases. Without any warning, the bus makes a sharp turn into traffic with very little speed. The bus driver doesn't care; he assumes that every one behind him will figure it out.
The tuk-tuk slams on the horn (before the brakes) and swings to the right, it feels like the tuk-tuk is going to flip. It doesn't. In fact, you're almost impressed by how well it handles jerk reactions.
The driver immediately turns back into the other direction, narrowly escaping a head-on crash with a pack of slow-moving bicyclists in the center lane. A motorcyclist is coming at you head on… what is he doing? The motorcyclist gives a long loud beep, signaling that he is not moving out of the way. Your head starts to hurt. You smacked it on the metal roof earlier when the tuk-tuk violently hit a string of deep potholes. Are we there yet?
You turn the corner and are instantly stuck in a traffic jam. You're trapped and not moving. Vehicles are jammed into seven lanes, the road only has three. Something's burning… no worries, it's only a garbage pile on the side of the road. There is a uniformed traffic officer blowing a whistle and waving a bamboo stick. He smacks a cyclist on the hand; he was jumping the queue. You look to your left, another cow is staring at you. A homeless child reaches into the vehicle and grabs your arm. She points to her mouth and says "One rupee".
You can't breathe. It's hot and it stinks. Everyone is beeping their horns. Nothing is moving. Then it opens up. Stop…start…stop…start. The tuk-tuk inches his way to the side of the road. Finally, you've arrived! The driver asks for 80 rupees… you agreed on 60 rupees. We'll end it there…
When driving through the countryside the rules change. The bigger the vehicle, the more damage it can cause... thus giving it the 'right of way'. We typically traveled by bus on highways but were strongly encouraged by several locals to take the train instead, for safety reasons. We saw many trucks in the ditch, one had even slammed into a brick wall and was abandoned. Some highway stretches look like vehicle graveyards.
Trucks and buses travel in the middle of the two-lane highways at top speeds. As they approach slower vehicles they wail on the horn and pass them, regardless of the oncoming traffic. Approaching vehicles pull onto the shoulder for fear of death. Bicyclists and pedestrians are within inches of being clipped.
They don't flinch… it's just business as usual on the streets of Asia!