Gordon:  Now that we are only 22 kms from crossing the border into Thailand, I think it is time to discuss road safety in Laos.  It is certainly something that we talk about a great deal.

The time that we have spent in Laos has been one of our best travel experiences, but Laos does build an excellent case for defensive cycling.  The Lao are amongst the most relaxed and laid back nationalities that we have encountered.  This is both good and bad from a driving perspective.  While the strict “rules of the road” are not observed in Laos in the way they are in North America, there is an absence of the self-righteousness that is present in the more rule bound West.  Traffic is also generally light, and the scooters and small farm vehicles are generally moving at a modest speed.

There are, however, some driving characteristics in Laos that are by turns funny and frightening.  In the latter class is passing on blind corners, which is more than an occasional occurrence.  We often cringe as we watch one vehicle overtake another, knowing that they cannot see what is coming, and that the road is too narrow for three vehicles abreast.  Of course, with the light traffic, the passing vehicle generally gets to continue with their drive without incident.  We have, however, seen the aftermath of several accidents, including one that sent two semi rigs into either ditch.  The cab of one truck was essentially gone, leaving it unlikely that the driver still walks among us.

Another surprising and common manoeuvre is merging into traffic without shoulder checking.  Many times we have had to slow to avoid hitting a scooter as it pulled from the shoulder without so much as a glance at traffic coming from behind.  The rule seems to be that each vehicle is responsible for avoiding a collision with other vehicles in front of it.  This works if everyone follows the same rule, but it does place a lot of trust in other drivers.
I have also read that the Lao have a sense of “fate”, that is, that their safety on the road is written in the stars, rather than the care they take in driving.  As someone who doubts that the heavens care a whit about us, and riding a small, unarmoured vehicle, this sense of fate is not comforting.

Rural gas station

As in other countries where we have cycled, such as Romania, the most hazardous drivers on the road  are the wealthy.  In Romania, we learned to pay particular attention to black, German built luxury cars.  In Laos, it is white pickups.  The source of the hazard is the same: wealthy drivers with a sense of entitlement driving faster and with less care than their less affluent fellow citizens.  We have often watched in shocked disbelief as an expensive vehicle has sped through a village, with the usual slow vehicles, children and domestic animals all wandering on and off the road.  Fortunately, we have never observed anything tragic.
Based on what we have observed on the road we have become very careful, defensive cyclists.  We listen for vehicles as we approach corners, sometimes stopping if it sounds like there might be a vehicle in the invisible third lane.  Moreover, most of the other vehicles are moving slowly and doing their best to avoid a collision.  The good humour of the Lao is even infectious, as I have found myself laughing when yet another scooter has pulled from the shoulder without noticing my approach.
Our tripometer turned over 2,000 accident free kilometres today, 1300 in Laos and 700 in Thailand.

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