Um… maybe we should slow down, I think to myself. I don’t dare say it loud for fear of the driver thinking I’m a backseat driver.
But there are cows grazing on both sides of the narrow road. And we’re going really fast. We’ve already overtaken a van so we’re on the wrong side of the road. There’s an enormous pothole in front of us. And there’s another car headed straight for us. He’s not slowing down either.
Ahhh, the joys of travelling in Asia.
This particular car trip happened in Sumatra, Indonesia, as I was heading back to the airport after a remarkable few days in Bukit Lawang – the highlight of which was trekking through the jungle to find orangutans.
But it got me thinking about other interesting journeys I’ve had while travelling through Asia.
Like the time I was in Timor Leste and I got behind the wheel for my first international driving experience. Cruising the dusty streets of Dili in a four-wheel drive I quickly learned the way to do things: beep to tell someone you’re overtaking them, beep to tell someone you’re just behind them, beep to tell someone you’re beside them, beep to thank someone as you go past. In other words: beep constantly. You can just imagine the cacophony of noise as motorbikes, cars and mikrolets all push and shove their way around the streets.
In Timor Leste, like many countries in Asia, it’s easy to pick up fuel from the side of the road. One fuel seller demonstrated his focus on safety, as he poured diesel from a glass jar into the tank of our car, a cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth.
On our first time ever overseas, we hit the streets of Bangkok and fell prey to the typical tourist trap of tuk tuk tours. Excitedly we took our places in the back of the small vehicle, the trip turning sour quickly as we covered our mouths to protect from the fumes as we were driven from wat to wat, then to jewellers and gold sellers. We learnt our lesson quickly.
Of course, any visit to South East Asia inevitably involves a motorbike in some form. I’d ridden four-wheelers before so was confident I had the skills for a scooter. I attempted it once and after I nearly ended up in a ditch, it was pretty obvious that my boyfriend Matt would be doing the rest of the driving. I still haven’t attempted to ride a bike myself for fear of embarrassing myself again.
Speaking of motorbikes, after we learned how to cross the road in Vietnam, we decided to jump on the bikes ourselves and negotiate the roads of Vietnam. It was an interesting experience in Nha Trang, as we tried to follow the other riders, who all seemed to be going in completely different directions around a roundabout.
But by far the most comfortable, most organised public transport I’ve experienced in Asia was in Japan – expensive, but the trains arrive on time, the seats are spacious and comfortable, people line up to wait for trains, and their manners are impeccable. The only thing we did need to watch out for were the bicycle riders in Kyoto, as they weaved their way through pedestrians on side walks, oftentimes simultaneously talking on the phone or texting.
By the way, I survived that journey in Indonesia. We passed the other car, seemingly barely a whisker between us.
“Whoa, that was close,” I breathed. I looked over at the driver. He hadn’t even batted an eyelid.
What are some of your memories of travel in Asia – or indeed, anywhere in the world?