A dozen years ago there were only a few hundred cars on the road of Laos' capital, Vientiane. It was a bike culture,I imagine not unlike those old videos you'd see of the Chinese heading to work in Beijing.
Fast forward to 2011, and it's changed. The populace is on motorcycles. The speed, the inertia, the chaos has taken a quantum leap. But the rules of the road- and physics- haven't changed.
The high road up the street from our house thrums in the morning with commuters on motorbikes. Most wear helmets, but many don't. Girls in school uniforms ride side-saddle behind big brothers. Moms sandwich infants between them and their husbands or friends driving. Young men roar between cars seeking those extra few meters and seconds of gain. Others deke up and run on the sidewalk to jump to the head of the line. A few decide crossing the divided lanes is too much hassle, and run against traffic.
What you get when you apply bicycle rules to motorized traffic is chaos. Add a lack of control lights, non-existent policing, ubiquitous alcohol and speed and you get carnage. There are no official stats handily available, but word is one person dies every day on the streets of this little city. There are hundreds of traffic-related injuries reported weekly by hospitals. Locals with massive bruises or road rashes are common.
In a week of biking we've seen a car upside down in a drainage ditch, and a parking accident where one car, don't ask me how, ended up on top of another in a parking lot. I've crunched my bike tires over more than one patch of partially-cleaned up car remains, evidence of nasty crashes overnight hastily cleared. Just this morning I saw a dog hit by a car a few metres away from me.
Bike riding is about the most suicidal practice on these roads, but it's the option we have so we're going for it. Being the littlest guy on the road with the most to lose in an accident sharpens the awareness wonderfully. But I have discovered it's no cure for road rage... I just am thankful my shouts of 'douchebag' and 'cocktractor' (thanks Trailer Park Boys for that one) are lost on the people grazing by on their cycles or pulling out without shoulder checking.
Our bikes are old clunkers, beaters dumped by long ago owners moving up the hydrocarbon evolutionary ladder. At first I wished for a decent mountain bike to be able to move faster, more nimbly. Now I realize if I was to go faster, I'd likely be nailed by some guy trying to force his way across an intersection, or pulling into traffic ahead of me without shoulder checking first. I've been saved several times by my single-gear dinosaur.
It's not likely the street situation is going to improve. The one consumer commodity that actually has visible chain outlets in this town are cars. Isuzu, Hyundai, Ford, etc.. Word is 1,000 cars were sold here in one week recently.