Vietnamese street, image from Flickr

Being a pedestrian in South East Asia is marginally less exciting than a werewolf in London I must confess, but I can assure you it’s probably far more likely to result in death.

I don’t drive at home, in fact my partner and I no longer even own a car, so I have fairly extensive experience as a pedestrian. I find driving to be a frustrating and aggressive activity. I’m sure many people would disagree, and to them I would just say my partner and I have never been followed into a 7-11 and screamed at for walking too slow by a middle aged Ipswich man with an enormous beer belly. Nor have I ever been walking with a friend and had them pull out a wooden club and threaten a pensioner for walking in front of us. Both these things have happened to me while driving in cars (and yes, I immediately severed contact with the wooden club owner after said incident).

But Asia is a different kettle of fish. For starters the death toll on the roads in these countries more closely resembles a lotto jackpot. And we were heading to Vietnam first which in traffic terms is like drawing Federer in the opening round of your first pro tournament.

I was advised by ‘friends’ on methods for negotiating this minefield before I left. That advice largely consisted of being told to walk out on the road in a steady line and “they’ll drive around you”. This is counterintuitive to most well adjusted people, and for someone who’s convinced people are trying to kill him, it resembles a highly complex `assassination by proxy´ attempt.

Seeing the traffic in Hanoi didn’t help. Traffic to me can often appear like mechanical schools of fish. And on the streets of Vietnam the ubiquitous motorscooters closely resembles ravenous piranhas, swarming around unsuspecting tourists leaving nothing but a pile of bones and those hideous fisherman´s pants. There’s no avoiding them either as in Vietnam the road is for driving, the footpath is for parking, and walking is for idiots.

It got to the point where my partner and I were practicing the calls we would make home to our parents if one of us were to be ‘scootered’. Morbid huh? Or at least it would have been if she’d been able to stop laughing. But we survived Vietnam, and went on to discover the car/fish most feared in the rest of Asia is the shark, more commonly called the taxi.

Without a doubt the most aggressive vehicle on the road, it also shares the sharks inability to slow down, irrespective of red lights or stop signs. In Taipei they even cruise the bus stops looking for chum, or ‘fares’. And just like a shark the only thing worse than being in the water with one is being inside it. It’s the place you’re most likely to get ripped off in most countries, there are often weird smells and you get the distinct impression that all the other fish seem to think you are something of an asshole. But if you think you´re going to get help from the traffic law gods, think again.

China gets the award for the rule most likely to result in innocent pedestrian death. They’ve taken the ever popular “turn left at anytime with care” rule, changed it to “turn right at any time” and cut off the “with care”. Or as it seemed to me after I was almost vehicularly manslaughtered for the umpteenth time, “turn right at anytime with as little care as is humanly possible”. Stop signs, red lights and my stupid terrified face screaming “NOOOOOOOOOOOO!” have all been declared irrelevant in the face of this need to keep traffic moving.

Korea’s drivers are particularly efficient, with my guidebook informing me that 38% of road fatalities are pedestrians. Now while this is chilling in some ways, the advice given to avoid getting smushed tickled me pink. Essentially the book says “never be the first or last to cross the road”. Now I liked this for two reasons. One, it’s delightfully Machiavellian. Better let one of these locals get it in the hip rather than you, right friend? And two, it is almost exactly the same policy I use to avoid being eaten while swimming at the beach.

I don’t swim very often (being equally scared of sharks and skin cancer, the beach is like the mother of all death traps to me), but when I do, I can keep the panic under wraps as long as I´ve got one sucker between me and the wide open ocean. My theory is that any smart shark is going to go for the easy prey giving me ample time to stroll onto the sand, dry off, and start weeping.

But enough hysteria, my time in Asia has ended with a particularly bizarre road experience to cap it all off. On the way back from the Great Wall we were stuck in peak hour traffic in Beijing. All of a sudden, a horse tried to mount our van. Now you may be thinking “is he still persisting with this terrible ocean/traffic metaphor, or using code for a Ferrari?”. No. It was a horse. In the middle of a traffic jam in a city of 15 million people. Trying to root our van.

Still, I guess it proves that there are actually worse things that can happen to you on the roads of Asia than getting hit by a car.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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