I don’t know about you, but when I go bicycle touring I want to stay alive. Sometimes this can seem difficult amidst all the zippy motos, impatient cars, and thundering trucks. Whether you’re touring for months or just renting a bike from your hostel for a jaunt around town, riding in Southeast Asia can be intimidating.
Riding a bicycle in traffic is, unfortunately, not the safest thing most of us will ever do. But don’t despair! With the right attitude and a solid understanding of the informal rules of the road, you can create an acceptable margin of safety that even your mother would be comfortable with. (I said your mother. My mother is still not comfortable. Sorry Mom.)
After almost three months of bicycle touring through Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, I’ve ridden the good, bad and ugly of Southeast Asian roads. Here I’ve compiled my best traffic safety tips – some learned the hard way – to help increase your chances of a safe and pleasant trip.
The Good News
Traffic in some parts of Southeast Asia can feel chaotic and aggressive. The combination of questionable roads, wandering farm animals, and vehicles of all shapes, sizes and speeds competing for limited road space can create a challenging environment for cyclists.
That’s not the good news. The good news is that, while you may not be used to all this, drivers in this part of the world are. Unlike America or Europe where it can be uncommon to see a cyclist on main roads, in Southeast Asia the roads are generally shared between cars, trucks, motorbikes, bicycles, tractors, cows, and all manner of other improvised vehicles. Drivers are accustomed to negotiating for space with small and slow vehicles, and traffic usually flows slowly enough to allow for this.
That doesn’t mean you can do anything you want and expect to be safe though. There are still “rules of the road” that you need to follow if you want to avoid surprising local drivers. Read on.
Use a rear view mirror
This is absolutely essential in my opinion. I brought one that mounted on my handlebars and wish I’d also brought one of those dorky-looking helmet mounted ones too. On bad roads sometimes the vibration made it difficult to see anything in the handlebar mounted one. Still, it was soooo useful for keeping an eye on what was coming up behind me, allowing for well-timed exits from the pavement when traffic from both behind and ahead threatened a tight squeeze.
Whatever type of mirror you choose, make sure you can switch it from right to left, or bring two. You may find yourself needing to ride on the wrong side of the road on occasion, or crossing a border between a right driving country like Cambodia and a left driving country like Thailand.
Motorbikes are your friends
I learned to ride in chaotic Hanoi traffic by pretending to be a motorbike. Moving together like some kind of sophisticated distributed organism, they ooze around gridlocked traffic with orderly chaos and negotiate via magical telepathy when crossing busy intersections.
As long as they are moving slowly enough – and in congested city streets they probably are – you can join them. You may even get a friendly smile and a short conversation out of it while waiting (or not waiting, as the case may be) for a traffic light to change. It’s a great way to learn the local driving style and become a predictable rider.
For many of us their style is more aggressive than we are used to. When I have the nerve for it, it’s fun to join them as they swarm around slow or stopped cars on busy streets. When I’m feeling overwhelmed or just need a minute to collect myself, I wait patiently with the cars stuck in traffic or pull off to the side.
There is one rule if you are going to join the motorbike swarm: DO NOT STOP. They are not expecting you to stop. They are expecting you to GO, as long as there is even the tiniest amount of space ahead of you to squeeze through, because that is what they would do. So move like a motorbike if you want to play with the motorbikes. If you need to stop then pull smoothly off into a driveway or cross street, safely out of the flow. Otherwise you risk being rear-ended at worse or just obstructing a whole bunch of peoples’ commute at best.
On highways and bigger streets you can use the presence of motorbikes to help you understand where you’re supposed to be. If there aren’t any and you’re on a big highway or bridge, chances are they’re not allowed to be there, which almost certainly means you and your bicycle aren’t either. Best to take the next exit and look for the safer two-wheel-friendly detour.
Go with the flow and ride predictably
This is super important when riding in any kind of traffic, from city streets to freeways. Drivers have a model in their head of how you will move. If you conform to that model, they probably won’t hit you. If you do something sudden that surprises them, all bets are off.
This means no sudden movements! Set your intention, claim your space, make your trajectory clear and stick to it. Don’t pass so close to things – people, chickens, tractors, the billionth car that has decided to use the shoulder as their personal parking space – that you’ll need to swerve quickly to avoid them if something funky happens. Always give yourself time to react smoothly.
This was the cause of my one accident in Southeast Asia, in which I was clipped from behind by a motorbike full of school boys when I swerved to avoid two other motorbikes full of schoolboys who had suddenly stopped in the middle of the road right in front of me. Yes, the boys behind me should have been paying more attention and the boys in front shouldn’t have stopped, but I also should have given them more room or slowed way, way down.
Don’t be too tentative in congested urban streets
Being tentative can also cause you to move unpredictably, so learn to be a bit more aggressive (not reckless) if the local style demands it. Coming from a place with more orderly traffic, it’s easy to simply freeze up and yield to everyone and everything in the overwhelming chaos of a busy intersection in Phnom Pehn or Ho Chi Minh City.
The locals don’t freeze up and yield though, because if they did they would never get anywhere, so they are not expecting you to either. Take a few deep breaths and try to get into that flow state where you are focused, aware, and moving smoothly forward as much as possible. Forget about right-of-way and embrace the smooth everyone-for-themselves collaboration that keeps things flowing in many busy Asian cities.
Join a swarm to cross busy intersections
What cyclist or pedestrian hasn’t looked at a busy uncontrolled intersection in Ho Chi Minh City (or Rome for that matter) and wondered aloud “How the f#@k am I supposed to get across this?!”
If you are lucky, other vehicles will also need to cross and you can join forces. I usually latch myself – figuratively – to the downstream side (protected from the traffic) of a car or group of motorbikes and simply stick with them for dear life until we’re all across.
If there is no one else going your way and the stream of traffic is unbroken (no traffic light upstream to create a lull) then the answer is often to just advance slowly, predictably and with nerves of steel, letting the traffic part around you.
Obey the hierarchy of the road
In much of Southeast Asia, might means right on the roads. Bicycles yield to motorbikes yield to cars yield to trucks yield to… pretty much no one. Bicycles are the bottom of the food chain.
As such, I found that most drivers would give me only as much room as they could without slowing down or dramatically altering their course. On a quiet country road this often meant they made a wide and respectful pass, but get them on a busy highway with traffic coming both directions and they turned into reckless maniacs.
If you understand these rules you can know when it’s safe to hold your ground or when it’s time to dive into that roadside ditch (yes that happened). Consider these scenarios:
- Two lane road, car behind you, no oncoming traffic. In this case the car has room to move over and pass you safely and usually will, though it’s worth keeping an eye on your rear view mirror (you do have a rear view mirror right?). There are always a few who will pass too close for comfort no matter how much space is available.
- Two lane road, vehicle behind you, vehicle approaching in oncoming lane. The vehicle behind you is probably not going to slow down, and definitely not going to move over and risk hitting the oncoming car in the other lane. If there is not room for all three of you to pass safely next to each other, you need to move to the shoulder, fast.
- Two lane road, oncoming vehicle in other lane, and oncoming vehicle in your lane too! This is how I ended up diving into a ditch. A bus was trying to overtake a truck on a blind corner of a narrow road. I was coming the other way. I was unscathed, except for my dignity. Now I’m always on the lookout for that moment when I’m thinking “they definitely won’t try to overtake here, it’s not safe” and then they do.
- Narrow single lane road, vehicle coming either direction. They will move over only as much as they can. For a big truck on a small road, this may be not at all. It’s your responsibility to move off the road in time. This is what they’re expecting and they won’t necessarily slow down to wait for you to do it.
Use your ears
You’ll notice a lot of honking in Southeast Asia, particularly Vietnam. This used to annoy me until I became a cyclist and learned to understand its value. Basically it means “I’m coming through!” and it’s a valuable warning that you need to pay attention to. It could mean anything from “hold steady, I’m passing you” to “GET OFF THE ROAD!” depending on where you are and the urgency of the honking.
Conveniently, different vehicles have different types of horns. I quickly learned to differentiate the deep baritone of trucks and buses, which might actually squash me like a bug unless I got out of their lane, from the chipper beeping of motorbikes happy to zoom around me and just alerting me to their presence. While it always helps to actually look behind you, listening can go a long way toward knowing what is coming and therefore how you will need to react.
The flip side of this is that locals are used to driving with their ears, and bicycles are quiet. On numerous occasions I had motorbikes and pedestrians pull or step out directly in front of me and then act surprised to notice me hitting my brakes right behind them. While it seems motorbikes often pull out in front of anyone regardless, the pedestrians probably would have responded to a bicycle bell which I unfortunately did not have.
Watch out for drivers who underestimate your speed
Bicycles in Southeast Asia are usually ridden by old people and school kids. They are typically creaky single-speed machines moving at a very, very casual pace. Until the school kids decide to race you, and then they can really haul!
But generally when locals see a bicycle, they are not expecting it to be moving at your blistering super-cyclist pace, powered by your impressive quads of steel. So they may do silly things like walk in front of you or pull their motorbike onto the street right ahead of you, not expecting you to arrive in their space quite so quickly. Be ready for it.
Avoid motorbikes going the wrong direction
In every country I rode through in Southeast Asia, the shoulder is used by motorbikes and other small vehicles traveling against the flow of traffic. Usually this is because they are only traveling a short distance and don’t want to bother crossing the road, or are about to turn onto a side street.
This is not usually a big problem, though when things get busy it’s yet another hazard to pay attention to and avoid. If you’re riding head down on a less busy street don’t forget to look up often, or you could have a head-on collision coming up.
It seemed that these against-the-grain riders typically claim the very outermost sliver of shoulder, expecting me and everyone else to move to their inside. Usually this is fine, but a few times when I wasn’t comfortable with the traffic coming from behind me or didn’t have time to spot it clearly, I would hold my line in the outside of the shoulder and let them pass to the inside. After all, they’re the ones who can actually see the traffic coming up behind me, so I let them deal with avoiding it.
Adapt to changing styles
I found the tips above to be pretty universally applicable in Southeast Asia (and probably many other places around the world), but it’s true that driving styles do vary from country to country. It helps to notice this – you will without even trying – and adapt to the new style as fast as possible so you can start predicting things like how close drivers will pass and whether anyone will yield to you ever.
For example, I found Vietnam to be the noisiest, honk-iest country with rather aggressive drivers. Lao drivers were the most patient, polite and cooperative, with Thailand a close second. Cambodia depended on where I was, but on the main highways in particular drivers seemed pretty reckless and aggressive.
Don’t let locals kill you with kindness
In Laos and Cambodia especially, the locals on rural roads were absurdly friendly. “Sabaidee!” and “Hello!” were shouted from every house, especially by the children. While this did occasionally get old, most of the time it felt genuine and I really enjoyed waving and returning the greeting.
But there were a few times when I raised my hand from the handlebars for a big wave, only to be surprised by a thundering semi-truck at close range as I wobbled slightly with a single hand on the bars. The smiling kids never stopped smiling and didn’t seem to notice anything concerning, but I felt I had nearly escaped instant death. If I’m going to get hit by a truck, is it better to have my last sight on this earth be an adorable gaggle of smiling school children greeting me enthusiastically?
No, no it’s not. It’s better not to get hit by a truck. After a couple of these incidents I started getting more selective about my waving. If it wasn’t all clear in the rear view mirror, a big old grin and shouted “Hellooo!” would have to suffice. A big obvious head nod works well too.
It’s also worth noting that when the kids are on bikes themselves, and they’re waving at you all distracted and wobbly, they are at risk too. So maybe best to stick to enthusiastic verbal greetings when traffic is around, for everyone’s sake.
There were times when the roads tested my patience. Like when the constant “Helloooo!” from the kids got to be too much, or the slippery gravel of endless Cambodian roadwork made the going tough, or YET ANOTHER PERSON decided to park their truck / car / tractor / food stand / herd of buffalo in the shoulder just ahead of me, forcing me into traffic to go around them.
I come from a place where road rage is a normal part of the daily commute, but on the road in Southeast Asia an irritated swerve is more likely to get a cyclist flattened by a truck than make anyone second-guess their poor choice of parking spot. So I tried not to express frustration in my riding, or better yet, just not get frustrated.
Staying calm and patient also means choosing safety over speed. So what if you need to stop and wait for a break in traffic before pulling out to pass something parked in the shoulder. Big deal if you go a bit slower riding the dirt shoulder when the pavement is busy with trucks right to the edge. You’ll get to the guesthouse a bit later, or need to find one sooner. On a relaxed tour there’s almost never a good reason to put ourselves in danger just to gain a couple kilometers per hour.
Not that this was easy for me! I like efficiency and speed. So, I channeled all the Zen-like calm and patience I could muster and made it my goal, when the going got stressful, to chill the f*@k out.
Respect fast traffic on modern highways
When I arrived in Thailand after crisscrossing Cambodia I thought I was in road paradise. Suddenly there were wide, smooth, six-lane highways instead of dusty potholed two-lane disasters. In general this was an improvement, but it was also a big change from the previous two months and required a change in mindset.
Good roads and predictable traffic mean higher speeds. Higher speeds mean that accidents, while less likely to happen, are more likely to be extremely serious if they do. Higher speeds also mean you have less time than you might think before the traffic in your rear view mirror arrives at your side. And the drivers are probably not expecting obstacles like they might on more chaotic roads.
Higher speeds also mean that vehicles, as much as they might want to not kill you, have fewer options if you suddenly end up in front of them. In Thailand it was common to have three highway lanes where the right two lanes (Thailand is a left drive country) are going quite fast and the left one is periodically used as a parking spot. I was always extra careful when pulling out to pass, knowing that the traffic coming up behind me would arrive sooner than I was used to and a mistake in my timing could put me and several other drivers in a lot of danger.
Avoid highway flyovers (Thailand)
This one might be specific to Thailand, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s relevant in other more developed places too. When I hit the very developed areas around the Gulf of Thailand, I rode the busy highway 3 when necessary. In many places where it crossed another major road, there would be an exit to the left and then the highway would continue with a raised section on the right, up and over the other road. These raised sections typically had narrow shoulders and fast traffic, since the left (slow) lane had just disappeared at the exit.
After pedaling furiously up and over one of these flyovers/overpasses, only to notice that the lane which had exited simply rejoined from my left immediately after, I realized the trick. The exit lane usually rejoins the freeway after a stoplight at a junction. After that I stayed away from the flyovers and instead took the exits, passed through the junctions and merged right back onto the highway from the safety of the slow lane. Bonus: less uphill pedaling!
Don’t be too stubborn to take a bus
Sometimes your gut just tells you it’s not good to be riding somewhere. Listen to it! Live to cycle another day and take the darn bus. Don’t confuse many kilometers of being lucky with unconditional safety.
I took a bus because of traffic safety concerns twice in Southeast Asia. Once was in Vietnam on a twisty, misty, rainy section of uphill frequented by reckless tourist buses (the road from Lao Cai to Sapa). And once in Cambodia on a chaotic stretch of shoulderless two lane highway filled with frequent long strings of aggressive trucks in both directions at once (highway 5 between Pursat and Phnom Penh). In both cases I was happy with my decision.
Pay attention. And have fun! 🙂
All these detailed tips probably make it sound like death is imminent if you make just one mistake. Don’t worry! Southeast Asia was my first time riding in substantial traffic and I coped just fine. All things considered I think it’s a great part of the world to ride in and I felt quite safe most of the time.
The key is just to stay aware and continue to update your assessment of how safe the conditions are or aren’t. That way, on the rare occasions where things do get dicey, you’ll notice right away and take the necessary precautions.
Armed with that mindset, there’s no need to worry. Just get out there, enjoy yourself and take it one kilometer (or mile, for us Americans) at a time. Southeast Asia is a wonderful place to ride a bicycle.
Other Southeast Asia Cycling Resources
If you’re heading to Southeast Asia on a bicycle, here are some other resources you might find helpful:
- Why cycle tour in Southeast Asia (or not)
- Guide to Independent Bicycle Touring in Laos
- Guide to Independent Bicycle Touring in Northern Vietnam
- Why I felt safe cycling in Cambodia, even as a solo female
- Ideas for what to wear as a woman while cycling in Southeast Asia