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Motorcycle Etiquette in South East Asia

Motorcycle Etiquette In South East Asia

If you’ve ever stepped foot in a country in South East Asia, you know all about the motorcycles. Who knows, maybe you’ve even been a part of the pack revving, speeding and beeping your way towards your destination. If you’ve not yet had the pleasure of a South East Asian road, it looks a little something like this: a swarm of vehicles fill every sliver of space on the roadway, there’s an orchestra of horns sounding out their battle cry. Cars are dwarfed by the sheer number of them, like the sand that slots between the stones. It is a stream like no other, a mechanical dragon with a thousand pieces moving slowly towards the horizon.
At some point in your travels, there may be a moment you think “Gee I could rent a motorcycle.” Well before you do that, make sure you’re familiar with the motorcycle etiquette of South East Asia. It looks like this:

Basic Driving Skills, Who Needs ‘Em

I have no idea what people learn in driving school in most of the South East Asian countries I’ve visited, but it certainly isn’t how to actually ride a motorcycle. There seem to be two kinds of people riding motorcycles in South East Asia: way too confident and not confident at all. Way too confident zips around corners, disregards speed limits and generally appears as though he’s got a pressing appointment with the reaper. Not confident at all struggles with the most basic of motorcycle manoeuvres from rounding a corner to backing out of a parking space. Do us all a favour and if you’re planning on renting a motorcycle in South East Asia, at least know how to ride one.

Right of Way? No Way!

In Western countries we operate on a pretty simple system of right of way. Yeah it’s hard to get your head around when you’re first getting started,
and you might hesitate at your first T-junction, but the rules are there and people follow them.
Not so in South East Asia.
Give way basically got roadhouse kicked to the head here and replaced with take way. The basic rule of this is if you’ve got the balls, you own the road. Pulling up to an intersection? Blaze through it man, people will move around you. See a car pulling out in front of you? No time to wait for that, just swerve around and keep on going. Obviously, take way is risky in any circumstance. Best thing to do is choose your battles and be very aware.


The Horn: Your New Best Friend

You know how in most places the horn is an absolute last-resort oh-my-god it’s an emergency and I’m going to have an accident signal? Yeah, well in South East Asia it’s more like a gentle reminder, a little tap on the shoulder in a metaphorical sense that says: “Hey, I’m behind you” or “Excuse me, coming through”. Of course, if a thousand and one motorcycles are practicing this on a regular basis it sounds more like a cacophony of chaos, a runaway truck full of sensitive smoke detectors bouncing down a hill. Definitely a shock to the senses, and unsurprisingly a serious beating on your ears. You build up a resistance to it over time, but until then it’s earmuffs or mind over matter.

Speed Limits? I Do What I Want

To be completely honest, I can’t remember the last time I saw a sign in a South East Asian country that informed motorists of the speed limit. This isn’t really a problem for cars, the overwhelming crush of other vehicles is more than enough to keep them at reasonable limits.

But motorcycles are another matter entirely.

Like vehicular osmosis in fast-forward motorcycles tear down the South East Asia roads at whatever speed they feel matches their contextual mood. Fast or slow, everyone has their preference and both extremes are equally as dangerous. If you’re on the roads, pick a speed you’re comfortable at and try and stick to it. I usually hover between 40-60km/h and believe me, when there’s thousands of crazy drivers around you, that’s fast enough.

Pathway or Parking?

You might have noticed if you’ve been to South East Asia recently that although the infrastructure exists, the idea of a footpath has very much been lost on most people. Instead of footpaths, where the main activity is walking from Point A to Point B, South East Asia has convenient roadside motorcycle parking! Just pull up anywhere, put your stand down and wander off. Or so it seems. But if you’ve ever tried to just pull up on a curb riding a motorcycle you’ll know that there are a whole heap of unwritten rules and ownership issues that plague footpath parking. I’m not even going to give you advice for this one, but good luck trying to figure it out.


At Capacity? No Such Thing

Perhaps the most famous of all stereotypes about motorcycle behaviours in South East Asia is the total disregard of the capacity of said motorcycles. So don’t be shocked if you see a family of six defying gravity and speeding down the road on a single motorcycle, it’s a totally normal occurrence. Ditto the man with two trussed up pigs waiting at the red light, it’s no issue. There is literally nothing that cannot be transported from one place to another via motorcycle, from baskets of produce to building materials. It can be a distraction on the road if you’re driving, but it’s comedy as well. Take a moment to marvel, but don’t get too many ideas of your own.

Roads? Don’t You Mean Obstacle Courses?

Roads in Western countries are a beautiful thing. Smooth, wide and stretching for kilometres uninterrupted in the landscape of movement. In South East Asia, roads are more like those evil obstacle courses your sport coach used to dream up for you to suffer through. Just imagine your average road, the road as you know it. Then add in shops that spill into the street, a seemingly endless stream of pedestrians walking all over the road thanks to the impassable footpaths, random motley construction and a whole lot of people peddling goods. From carts selling soup to bicycles piles with fruit and veg, South East Asia is the king of roadside shopping, and boy does that mess with the road. So keep your eyes open, and expect the unexpected!

This post originally appeared on, the pre-evolved version of Maps And Mandalas. I’ve republished it here with its original date because I love it that much.

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  • Reply
    January 29, 2017 at 6:21 pm

    I found your blog because I was googling “sexism travelling southeast asia”. I was delighted and laughing out loud to read of your experience. I have travelled extensively by myself, and was quite surprised by the marked difference of travelling with my partner here in Cambodia and Vietnam. We are keeping a tally of how many times he receives the beer I ordered and I receive the coca cola that he ordered. I have essentially given up any efforts to negotiate, ask for services, or interact with people while we are together. oh dear.

    • Reply
      Oceana Setaysha
      February 9, 2017 at 7:54 pm

      It is amazing isn’t it! Such crazy expectations 😀

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