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Driving Lesson for Expatriates in Asia

(Note: I cannot claim originality for all of the ideas this article, as a friend from Indonesia recounted them to me from an article he'd read)
     There are only three rules for successful driving in Asia. They are: Flow, Pick and Big. Following these rules and employing a few simple strategies could save you much worry and frustration. You may even prolong your life. Drivers with experience elsewhere may be tempted to add more rules; but there is really no need and doing so only causes confusion. So, put aside what you learned abroad and remember: Flow, Pick, Big.

Rule 1—Flow

     It does not matter where the lines on a road are painted, or how many traffic lanes they denote, just flow with the traffic. For example, if there are only two painted lanes for traffic, but there are four lanes of vehicles, do not worry about it; go with the flow. The flow rule applies to both one and two way streets. If there are five lanes of traffic all going in one direction on a two-lane, two-way-traffic street, do not panic—just go with the flow. Lanes may be added on the road shoulders and, as the need arises, along the ditches. For some bizarre reason, however, side walks are off limits. Finally, the flow rule does not imply permanence. So, lanes of vehicles may materialise and disappear at will.  Indeed, you may start a new lane at any time, providing that there is sufficient room in between any two adjacent vehicles to do so.

Rule 2—Pick

     Whichever driver is first to pick a spot in an adjacent flow and places any portion of his vehicle, however small, in front of any other vehicle has the right of way. Of course, it works both ways. If another driver picks a spot in front of you, you have to give way. Picking can produce a lot of horning, swearing, head lamp flashing and gesticulating. However, they do not count—only picking does.
     Incidentally, in Asia, to horn is a verb, as in, “I horn, you horn, he horned me, et cetera."  Except in Singapore, the horn is an essential item on the vehicle. Vehicles may be driven without lights, signals, doors, seat belts, seats and almost any other part not needed for locomotion. Nobody in his right mind, however, would drive without at least one functioning horn; in the Philippines, the average is two and a half.
     It is also good to remember that while head lamp flashing in most non-Asian countries is a signal that the flasher recognises your presence and will slow a little to allow you in, in Asia, it is means the reverse. This is invariably a startling revelation the first time one picks a spot just ahead of a lorry with head lamps flashing in a seemingly-inviting manner.
     In Singapore, the headlight flash generally replaces the horn, and the horn generally replaces the extended middle finger.  With regard to the latter, rude gestures, common on the continent and North America, are considered bad form in Asia, except in Singapore, where they are illegal. The penalty is nearly as severe as that for gum-chewing.

Rule 3—Big

     The bigger vehicle has the right of way. This is also known as the tonnage rule. One might conclude that the bigger vehicles rule the road in Asia. This would be a mistake. Judicious flowing and picking can permit the drivers of smaller vehicles to compete with larger vehicles. Of course, when push comes to crunch, big has priority.

     Mastering the foregoing three rules is all the expatriate driver need do, to merely survive. To enjoy the driving experience, one should treat it as a martial art. As with any martial art, winning is all in the strategies. For successful driving in Asia, there are only three main strategies.  They are: No-See Chicken, Lane Change by Intimidation and Road Hogging.

Strategy 1—No-See Chicken

     No-see chicken is a strategy that requires one to never, ever acknowledge the presence of other drivers, especially by eye contact. To do so is to forfeit the right of way. For example, when entering an intersection, if there is a vehicle coming from either side, you have to act as though you do not see it. If you slow down or turn your head towards the other vehicle all is lost and you will lose the right of way.
     No-see chicken also applies to oncoming traffic. When oncoming traffic flows over the centre line into your lane, the first driver to move out of the way is a chicken. Forfeiture of right of way is the result. Worse, you may then be responsible for relinquishing your side of the road to the oncoming traffic, who will employ it to form one or even two additional oncoming lanes. This strategy is not for the faint of heart. It can also be worrisome for passengers in your vehicle, who may not know whether you are truly skilful, or just a lousy driver.

Strategy 2—Lane Change By Intimidation

     Everywhere else, lane changing normally involves first signalling then moving smoothly into the desired lane. The normal procedure does not work in Asia. Here, signalling is an indication of weakness and inexperience. It identifies you as a prime pick.
     The proper technique in Asia is to first crowd over toward the traffic occupying the desired lane. Placing your vehicle’s wheels on the lines, or even slightly over them, is advisable. The moment the driver of a vehicle in the desired lane slows or even looks toward you, he has failed to employ the no-see chicken strategy. You therefore are perfectly within your right to invoke the pick rule and change lanes. Signalling is optional, but should never commence until the pick is at least half completed.

Strategy 3—Road Hogging

     In Asia, one never drives in the centre of a marked lane, but always to one side or the other. Good strategic drivers straddle a line, wandering slightly from side to side in the process. The truly gifted can command three lanes by meandering from the centre lane into and out of the adjacent two.
     The effect of this strategy is to intimidate the following drivers, so that they will keep their distance. If they do pass, they will be wary and stay out of your way. This strategy also preserves one’s options when approaching a traffic jam. Only at the last possible minute does the experienced Asian driver pick the shortest lane and flow with it.


     The Hokien dialect of the Chinese language has a word that sums up the mentality behind these rules and strategies—Kiasu.  Kiasu means fear of loosing out, desire to be first, drive to be bigger, faster, better.
     At first glance, a newcomer to Asia may think that applying these rules might constitute illegal behaviour. This is not so. These few rules are the underpinnings for driving throughout most of Asia. They articulate what experienced Asian drivers do subconsciously. When flowing, picking and employing the no-see chicken strategy, it makes sense, of course, to remember rule 3, have a foot ready for the brake and a hand ready for the horn.
     Newcomers often spend years of frustration in Asian traffic because they do not know the rules. Just remember, “Flow, Pick, Big”; that is all you really need. But to truly drive like a native, you have to add a few simple strategies.  Just remember, “No-See Chickens Intimidate Road Hogs”. What could be simpler?