Highways to Hell in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos

by Andy

We knew traveling would get us out of our proverbial comfort zone, challenge us in new ways, appreciation… culture… blah blah blah. But we didn’t expect that quitting our jobs and bumming around Southeast Asia for three months would provide ample opportunities to CONFRONT DEATH ON THE REGS.

After two months on buses, vans, tuk-tuks, taxis, motos, bicycles and our own two feet, we’ve developed an “appreciation” for the different flavors of near-death-experience each culture provides.

 Dog meets pickup meets moto

Dog meets pickup meets moto

 

Cambodia

The roads—streets, highways, whatever—are free-for-alls. Cars and tuk-tuks generally keep to the right side, but also they don’t. Motos and bicycles (and the occasional tractor) do whatever they feel. I’m not an expert in chaos theory, but I think it has something to do with Cambodian roads.

 It feels how this looks

It feels how this looks

But at a certain point, you're gonna need to cross the street. Here’s what you do: say a quick prayer, wait for an opening and then... just go. You’ll walk several feet, then stop as vehicles whiz past/around you, walk a few more feet, stop again, etc. The rule: Whatever’s biggest has—or rather, takes—the right of way. And drivers love horns. A constant chorus of “beep beep beep beep beep!” warns smaller, slower things that they’ll be run over momentarily unless they swerve aside STAT.

 This was a real vehicle really on the road

This was a real vehicle really on the road

Highways are straight-up terrifying, but since the country is flat, most roads are pretty straight, which means that as your driver plays chicken with oncoming traffic, he will most likely have adequate time to return to the right lane. Maybe. Also, forget traffic lights. If you do happen to see one, don’t worry; no one else will.

Oh yeah, and don’t even think about running.

 

Vietnam

I didn’t think it was possible for a place to be any more horn-happy than Cambodia. Then we got to Vietnam. But Vietnamese honking is a bit more nuanced—and like echolocation in bats, used to alert others of your precise location and speed at all times. This can be helpful when the traffic flow runs 20 motos deep. (In northern Vietnam, honking is such an art form that truck drivers have signature horn sounds, akin to personalized ringtones.)

 Motos on motos on motos

Motos on motos on motos

As for the streets, the chaos seems slightly more controlled than that of Cambodia. Big cities like Saigon and Hanoi are swarming beehives of moto activity. But there are lanes, and the occasional traffic light (which people generally respect). To cross the street, you have to close your eyes and step off the curb (think: canyon air-bridge scene from Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade) and if your faith is strong enough, the universe will not let you die. Motos will part for you, Moses-style.

Highway travel is where things get hairy. Because the country is basically one big strip, nearly all traffic has to travel north-south on Highway 1. Drivers weave around slower cars with reckless (wreck-less?!?) abandon and the number of times the bus or van we were riding in skimmed millimeters past an oncoming coal or pig or lumber truck are too many to count. We quickly adopted the strategy of sitting on the back right side of buses because if there was an accident, maybe we would die last?

For an extra dose of road-terror, book a night bus!

 Night(mare)bus

Night(mare)bus

 

Laos

In Laos, they drive like they live: chill, brah. Streets are often empty, even in populous towns. Speedometers don’t get much of a workout. And people seem genuinely okay with waiting their turn. Our first day here I actually LOL’d when I saw a car roll to a complete stop at an intersection to wait for oncoming traffic. It was the first time we’d seen a driver do this in two months. (In Vietnam, that car would’ve blasted out into the street without so much as a glance—just faith and honks).

 Just about the worst traffic you'll see in Laos

Just about the worst traffic you'll see in Laos

Lao drivers seem generally afraid to use their horns. The streets are eerily silent. A nice change of pace. (I really want to attribute this to the fact that most Lao men spend several months to several years studying as a Buddhist monk. Soooo chilllllll.)

 Laotian traffic jam

Laotian traffic jam

Previous observations aside, as I'm writing, we’re flying through the Lao countryside in a sweaty van, weaving in and out of semis at terrifying speeds. I’m guessing our driver did not study as a monk. Laos' hottest ride has it all: twisty mountain highways, sporadic pavement, police flagging us down, an angry driver who had to pay off the police who flagged us down. And while it seems like this may qualify as our most terrifying ride yet, it’s so hard to choose. Like picking your favorite Arrested Development character, only with more chances to die.

 

What We've Learned

If we’ve learned anything, it’s that at a certain point you just have to close your eyes and enjoy the ride. Or take sleeping pills. That’s a good option too.

 Option 2 as demonstrated on a Vietnamese night bus

Option 2 as demonstrated on a Vietnamese night bus