Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ballooning - The Only Way to Fly

12/5/10 – 28/6/10
Motoring. An old-fashioned word, kind of like ballooning, conjuring up images of a dashing young man in leather jacket and gloves, behind the wheel of a mighty jalopy, a beautiful young woman in frilly lace by his side, billowing hair in one hand, parasol in the other, racing across the countryside at a terrifying twenty miles per hour.

Malaysian motoring isn’t like that.

But hold on. What about the environment, world peace and Julia Gillard we hear you ask? Oh yeah, you mean that stuff is still going on? Admittedly we have way too much time on our hands right now. In fact we probably have enough time to solve all those issues (well maybe not the Julia Gillard issue if we’re really honest). But most of that stuff is really only happening inside your TV set.

If you’re after a taste of the real world instead, sit back and strap yourselves in, things are about to get all mustardy.

Speeding aside, you’d need to do something apocalyptically stupid, or be incredibly unlucky, or strike a motorbike cop on a bad day trying to fill his quota, to actually get booked here. In fact the whole notion of being booked in the first place is so incredibly preposterous, we wonder whether anyone ever contests traffic fines in court. Anyone with a handycam and a bit of time on their hands could easily capture mountains of footage of the cops themselves, breaking every traffic law known to man. Ironically, back when we first entered Borneo, one of them actually did us a big favour. We sat behind and watched him (not in pursuit, or rushing to an emergency) crossing and recrossing a double line several times, to pass a procession of cars. From that moment onwards, we realised that road markings here were simply “advisory”.

In fact, Malaysians treat lane markings with such utter contempt, the authorities might as well do away with them. At first its a little surprising when you discover that virtually no one indicates when changing lanes, until it dawns on you sometime later that the whole concept of a lane is completely meaningless. Which wouldn’t be such a big deal if your average Malaysian was a competent driver; someone who possessed a certain level of skill and good judgement. Someone who could be relied upon to maintain awareness of fellow road users, and towards whom acted considerately and courteously. Ah... alas. No. Sure there are some good drivers here, but the majority aren’t, falling instead into four broad categories: the infantile and the aggressive, the myopic and the incompetent, women, motorcyclists.

Did you just say “women”?
Countries like Malaysia are possibly the last bastions of political incorrectness, and we’ve been here for eight months now, but before our female readers get all Pauline Hanson on us, maybe we’d better explain.

You see, Malaysia is still basically a chauvinistic society. And while its a massive generalisation to say, Malay women are encouraged to dress and act conservatively, and discouraged from leading independent lives. What this means in practice is apparent when crossing the border, where in contrast Thai women seem to carry themselves with an air of confidence.

So what does any of this have to do with driving? Well from our experience, meekness, indecisiveness and lack of skill, brought upon by a general lack of confidence, are a real liability out on the roads. Especially Malaysian roads, which are a model of natural selection in action, sped up to warp speed.

So does this mean your average Malaysian woman is so bad that she shouldn’t drive at all? Of course not. We’re just telling it like it is, that’s all. We don’t pretend to have all the answers.

Interestingly, if you see someone blasting someone else with their horn here, its most likely a group of young Malay guys in a Proton, hurling abuse at some hapless female P-plater in a Perodua.

Which brings us to the infantile. Whose sole mission in life is to be first to the next set of lights. Who, if they and their driving habits were transported to any western country we can think of, would be killed and mashed up into itty bitty little Malaysian pieces, quicker than you can say road-rage. Observing their reactions in a place like KL, which has traffic jams to rivals both its big neighbours, Bangkok and Jakarta, can be pretty entertaining though. After employing all the childish tactics at his disposal to make it first to the lights, Mr Infantile has about ten seconds to bask in a testosterone-fuelled afterglow, before gripping the steering wheel in impotent frustration while the space in front of him fills up with twenty scooters.

Which brings us to the truly mental. If you’ve ever seen a test pilot on a motorbike carving his way through the traffic, and wondered whether he had some sort of death-wish, come to Malaysia to have your perceptions realigned. If the traffic in Bangkok and Jakarta is congested, at least its predictable. In contrast KL roads are like rivers, with scooters, the smallest fish in the food chain, ducking and weaving their way through meandering schools of cars and slowly weaving buses and trucks. Anything goes. Any part of unoccupied road or footpath is a potential space for a scooter to squeeze through. Don’t get us wrong, we’re all for it, and are quite jealous that we can’t squeeze the BMs through the same tight spaces. What we’re not too thrilled about is having to look out for the red light-jumpers, the Valentino Rossi wannabes, the dipsticks who turn across you or out of side streets in front of you without looking, the lack of signalling, and the fact that because motorcyclists are generally treated with disdain, we get treated with disdain as well.

But back to the cops...

The main function traffic cops seem to perform in Malaysia, apart from terrorising motorcyclists, is directing traffic. Now we realise not every town is likely to have a sophisticated traffic monitoring and control centre, where lights can be altered in real time to deal with peak hour traffic and bottlenecks, but does some whistle-blowing Bonaparte in a white shirt and storm-trooper trousers, really make any positive contribution to the flow of traffic? We think not. In fact, from what we’ve observed, quite the opposite. Its commonplace to see one of these Match of the Day wannabes simply standing by the side of a four lane one way road, with no intersection in sight, blowing his whistle and waving the traffic towards him. As if motorists weren’t actually planning to move in that direction in the first place. What this brain surgeon is actually attempting to achieve then, is to encourage motorists to overcome their lack of inertia, a natural consequence of looking up ahead and seeing a cop by the side of the road, with his big cop bike, flashing its big blue cop light.

Or he might be situated at a roundabout, acting as one of those human roundabout/traffic light conversion devices. You know, where the roundabout has completely failed and is causing massive tailbacks. We see this a lot at roundabouts, and initially wondered why. After a little while we realised Malaysians’ complete refusal to indicate, effectively renders roundabouts useless. As you approach, you have no way of knowing who’s going to do what. So you often have to slow to a complete stop, while many of the idiots you’ve stopped for simply turn off before they even reach you.

Another reason for the congestion is Malaysians’ refusal to walk anywhere. And like parents in most western countries, they especially refuse to let their children walk to school. And because the schools operate using this dual shift thing, where half the kids attend during the morning and the other half during the afternoon, there’s this god-almighty changeover at about midday. Not only is there a car on the road for each one or two children, but parents double and triple park outside schools, often cutting off the road entirely. You really want to be somewhere else around lunch time.

Some people say its because of the heat. Some say its due to ingrained laziness. But when it comes to walking, its probably both. Nevertheless, when the whole traffic system is geared up for vehicles, being a pedestrian in Malaysia requires commitment. A commitment most of the population has chosen not to make. And you can’t really blame them when going in to battle in this environment without so much as a scooter, means you’re as vulnerable as one of the stray cats which roam the streets in the early hours.

Why? Firstly, there are virtually no pedestrian crossings anywhere. And even if there were, they’d be the last places you’d cross. Your average Malaysian won’t stop if you wait by the side of one, and won’t slow down if they see you on one. In fact they’ll often try to intimidate you off the road by speeding up or steering towards you. Don’t just take our word for it either. A recent study of behaviour at pedestrian crossings reveals the ugly truth.

Then there are the footpaths. While KL has some half-decent ones, the rest of the country is typically Asian, where footpaths are not designed for pedestrians but are instead simply places for shop owners to do business. They display stuff, they sell stuff, they fix stuff. They use them as restaurants and parking bays. But most importantly, seemingly they dictate whether or not the path is fit to walk on. Not the council. For example, if you have five shops in a row, its likely the footpath will be five different levels, with a step up or down between shops, or even a ramp up into the shop itself so the owner can park the family car or motorcycle inside. Footpaths are simply designed for you to pull up at the curb in your car, step up off the street and into the shop, do your business, walk back to your car and drive off. They are not designed to make it easy for you to walk along beside, and off, the road.

Painful though this makes it to walk through the city, its probably less painful than if you find yourself falling six feet through a gap in the pavement into the storm water drain below. You probably think we’re exaggerating, but the suburban footpaths maintained by the councils are so diabolical, most people, us included, end up walking on the street instead.

But - and this is a big one - the whole footpath thing also points to an absence of the Its Not My Fault syndrome, the root cause of all the petty restrictions which permeate western society. Because if the councils here were afraid of litigation, the footpaths would be billiard table smooth. In fact most people we’ve spoken to, and we’re basically in agreement with them, are quite happy to live in a society which places far fewer restrictions upon them than say neighbouring Singapore.

So it seems to be a trade-off. Chaos and personal freedom on the one hand. Order and personal restriction on the other. We’re not sure about you, but we’re pretty tired of the Nanny State.


Btw, if you're wondering about the photos, they were taken at the Chin Swee Caves Temple in the Genting Highlands and are a depiction of ten Chambers of Hell, or Naraka. The chambers line a path, called the Journey to Enlightenment, whose aim is to discourage bad conduct by depicting the painful experiences an evil person would encounter in Hell.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the road report of that country/cit/town or ????
    Seem a bit like Brisbane roads , in some areas al least.
    Was wondering where the pics were taken.............. kept us waiting , didn't you .
    OH this is coming through my new notebook.
    Speak soon again on skype
    Take cra eyou two . Love N