An ode to motorbikes of Southeast Asia

Hue, Vietnam

Hue, Vietnam

There is a problem with automobiles, and I’m not talking about break-downs or pollution. I’m talking about how they seal us off from the world around us. Listen to this excerpt from Paul McHugh’s “The Pure Jones of It,” as he compares the automobile to the motorbike:

By contrast, most human drivers of automobiles remain well-insulated from the world through which they pass. Manufacturers may hype a certain hot model’s handling, but primarily, a modern car is created to isolate you from the landscape. There’s cushy suspension to homogenize the surface of the terrain, stereophonic music to mask its sounds, plus an air-conditioner capable of wiping out any ambient climate.

I first read McHugh’s story in The Road Within: True Stories of Transformation and the Soul, while somewhere in Southeast Asia (which is to say, I read it in a region where culture and climate converge to make the motorbike a popular mode of transport). McHugh’s observations resonated with me, and helped me articulate why I was growing increasingly fond of the two-wheeled vehicles. In Saigon, Chiang Mai, and Medan, for instance, I would take great pleasure in hanging out at intersections to watch people come to a stop. I loved how scores of feet would descend onto pavement as people waited for the light to turn green. As people waited, some might say a word to the neighbor beside them. On some motorbikes, an entire family of five or six people would be present, the mother throwing a baby from one hip to the other, or perhaps whispering something into the husband’s ear. I loved how intersections teemed not with hermetic hunks of Fords and Chevys but with flesh and blood.

I don’t mean to bash the automobile, or to make light of the impracticality of motorbike ownership if you live in a city that has winter or a critical mass of drivers who tend to run over motorcyclists. I am merely wondering aloud, in light of my memories from Southeast Asia, if our cars can be too much like cocoons where we wrap ourselves up into isolated bubbles, too much detached from the people and world around us.

On those days when I am back in the States and missing Southeast Asia, I sometimes want to jump on a plane and go back. In lieu of that, I generally settle for rolling down my window and, once at a stoplight, shooting a quick smile to the inhabitants of the car beside me. Yes, seeing a smiling face through an open car orifice can freak some folks out. But sometimes—and this is a beautiful thing—they smile back.

[It was difficult to chose a photo for this post. I considered several intersection shots with large families or loads of cargo on a bike. I also considered a shot of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Saigon during Sunday Mass, since many worshipers sit out front on parked motorbikes and view the service through the open doors. In the end I picked the one above, taken across from Hue’s most famous hotel, which has had overnight guests such as Charlie Chaplin and André Malraux.]

Posted by | Comments (2)  | December 3, 2009
Category: General

2 Responses to “An ode to motorbikes of Southeast Asia”

  1. Rod Smith Says:

    I have many wonderful memories of renting a 125cc enduro in Thailand 15 years ago and exploring the country. Marvelous. There is nothing like a small, light, easily handled bike on a jungle road and no restrictive helmet laws.

  2. Brett Says:

    Reminds me of a game I call Subway Roulette. You pick a spot across the tracks or between two support columns, and keep an eye on it. As a train on the opposite tracks pulls into the station, faces will click by the spot, slower, slower, and then stop. Whoever lands closest to the spot and is looking my way gets a smile, and often proves your last line true.