Zigzagging in Malaysian Traffic

I was buzzing through Georgetown today on my motorbike, heading home from running a few errands when it hit me: many people would think that what I am doing is insane.

But to me it’s such old hat that I could weave through traffic with my eyes closed – almost.

Friday late afternoon the traffic on Burma Road leading west of Georgetown becomes a bear. It’s backed up, bumper to bumper for a good long while.

But no matter. That’s why I bought a little Honda 100cc. It was meant for weaving through traffic. So that’s what I do.

I cautiously scoot by many cars, making sure my mirror doesn’t hit their mirrors. Then when I upon two cars which are too closely together, I’ll zip in front of one car and head to the next ‘lane’ – a ‘lane’ being the small swath of pavement between two actual lanes of cars.

Sometimes I have to scoot over a couple lanes and ride along the edge of the road, but I have intent and I know what I want. I want to make it to the front of the line of cars so that I am sitting at the red light waiting for it to turn green.


Because once it turns green, all the motorbikes tear off in their glory and have a stretch of open road in front of the cars until we catch up to the backup of cars at the next intersection. At that point I start the weaving in and out again.

Riding motorbikes in Malaysia cut down time in traffic by a significant margin and there is little that can’t be done. I don’t go through red lights. Many Malaysians do. I have, at times, used the sidewalk to get around a swath of cars until I make it to the front of the line. My wife didn’t like that when I told her I used the sidewalk. It’s not like any pedestrians ever use them!

So yes, it is kind of crazy when you think about it. Once false move and I could be up against a car. But its the only way to travel around here.

And besides, motorbike traffic in Malaysia is super-duper easy compared to Vietnam.

Do the Dirty Deed, Just Don’t Look Them in the Face

Even after living in Asia for the better part of twenty years, there are certain cultural instincts built into me from my American upbringing that have a hard time adjusting to my Asian surroundings, but I am adapting. Let’s talk about concealing vulnerability. Today, I’ll put it in the context of traffic.

Traffic in Penang can be a little hectic. Traffic rules tend to be followed more like suggestions. Anyone can spend a few minutes at any intersection on any corner of the island and count so many traffic infractions that they cannot be counted on one hand.   Perhaps not even one pair of hands. Illegal u-turns, going through red lights, using a turning lane to go straight, not using a turn signal, not stopping at the white line, etc… it’s endless, really. But every single time that I am inconvenienced or even threatened by a bad or careless driver, the perpetrator will do the dirty deed and never look at me in the face. It’s fascinating, really. They completely pretend that nothing at all has happened.

Eastern and western cultures clash on this point. Western culture typically espouses exposing vulnerability while eastern culture values the concealment of vulnerability. Bringing people to “justice” and “exposing the fraudulent” are well practiced themes in the west. Traditional Asian culture sees no virtue in causing waves in the community. Harmony is of utmost importance. Problems simply disrupt the harmony, so ignoring the mistakes of others is oftentimes the easiest way to move on.

The traffic violators know what they did, but if they looked over at me, the person they cut-off, and looked me in the eye, they would be admitting that there was a problem and they would be admitting that they did something wrong.

So when you are cutting someone off, just keep you eyes straight ahead on the car in front of you. Never look at the person you are cutting off. Never mouth “sorry” to that person. Do not wave your hand. Just ignore.

Why did I think of this issue this evening?  Well, I was on my motorbike, leaving the big box store, and, of course, I was complaining in my head again about the ‘idiotic’ way they arranged the exit lane. (You can drive to within 20 feet of the exit but then suddenly there is a “Do Not Enter” sign and you have to turn left and drive the whole way to the other side of the parking garage in order to wind yourself back around to the exit. But that’s another story.)

Anyways, I went through the “Do not enter sign”, tucked my head down a little, made no eye contact with the two motorbikes and two cars that I butted in front of, and exited the store without incident. Such a pro!