Enlightenment on Wheels

February 19th, 2007

Phnom Penh — The vast majority of Thais and Cambodians are Theraveda Buddhists. Like all other Buddhists, they believe that enlightenment can be reached only by releasing your earthly desires, realizing that all life, including your own, is transitory, and being ready, or even eager, to let it all go.

The streets of Bangkok and Phnom Penh are full of American tourists who practice, for want of a better term, California Buddhism, and who have come here to discover authentic enlightenment and have some fun along the way. They make the temple circuit, hang out with monks, meditate, seek a teacher, and perhaps even enter a monastery for a period of time. Once in a while (especially in Bangkok), most of them visit a nightclub to experience transitory life at its most transitory. Perhaps they see a spiritual metaphor in the way the physical object we call money slips out of the pocket in a nightclub and disappears into the void. There should be a lesson there somewhere.

Virtually all of these pilgrims, when they’re not lighting incense and sitting for long, uncomfortable periods of time with their eyes closed, probably expend some of their precious spiritual energy in cursing Southeast Asian traffic. But I would suggest that they’re missing a terrific short-cut to enlightenment in a practical, white-knuckle fashion.

If they really want enlightenment, they should climb onto a motorcycle taxi.

To understand the spiritual opportunity that ten heart-stopping minutes on the back of a “moto” can offer, you need to know a few things about Southeast Asian traffic laws. There aren’t many of them, they’re extremely simple, and they have a certain Darwinian beauty. Here they are:

  • The vehicle with the greatest mass has the right-of-way. Forget any preconceptions you may have about yielding to the right, looking both ways, slowing for a yellow light, or any of that. If two motorized objects are attempting to share the same space at the same time, and (a) one of them is a cement truck and (b) the other is a moto with you on the back, then (c) you’re peanut butter.
  • The speed limit is on the speedometer. Unlike the West, where one is constantly on the lookout for signs posting the acceptable maximum speed, Southeast Asia is more convenient: all you have to do is glance down at the speedometer. If the largest number is 120, then the speed limit is 120.
  • Stoplights are pretty. Red, yellow, green, red. They blink, they change color. I’m sure it won’t be long before some Thai electronics manufacturer comes up with a stoplight pole that can wiggle and shimmy to music, like those annoying battery-powered mounted fish. Stoplights raise property values. Southeast Asian drivers never ignore a stoplight: they glance up at it, offer a moment of appreciation for its attractiveness, and then do exactly what they want. By the way, some braniac in Phnom Penh has installed new, improved stoplights that count down in large electronic numbers like the ones that measure the time before the world ends in a Tom Cruise movie. The countdown tells the driver how long he has before the light turns red. This results in people breaking the speed limit – actually driving faster than their speedometer allows.
  • One side of the street is as good as the other. Sometimes the shops are more interesting over there. Once in a while, there’s an attractive girl on the opposite sidewalk. Why should a passenger have to cross the street to reach a destination? The pavement looks a little smoother over there than it does over here. Oh, and the obvious corollary to this law is: Signs saying “One-Way Street” are a form of regional humor.
  • And what about the sidewalk? Let’s say both sides of the street are inconveniently blocked by other vehicles. Let’s say your moto driver just had a nice hit of the Southeast Asian speed called yaa maa (always a good bet) and is in the full flush of that familiar gottdoitnow gottadoitnow reaction. Look, over there – on the other side of those parked cars: a sidewalk. It’s vroooom-vroooom time!
  • The police are raising funds for NPR. Southeast Asian cops descend on an accident site with all the concentration and determination we’ve come to expect from the cast of “CSI.” Unlike TV cops, however, these Men in Brown are never distracted by false leads, red herrings, planted evidence, or bad acting. With laser-like intensity, they focus on the central question: who can pay the most to be innocent? If you’ve been in an accident and a Southeast Asian traffic cop is looking at your wristwatch, he probably doesn’t want to know the time.
  • The maximum number of people legally allowed on a single moto is 1,293. If you’re a fan of watching people’s jaws drop, keep an eye on Southeast Asian newcomers as they watch motos. There are times I think that entire villages pool their resources to buy a single moto, and, whenever possible, they all go for a ride. Together. I once saw a moto with five dead pigs on the back seat. I once saw two motos, one about nine feet in front of the other, transporting between them a long pane of plate glass. I once bought a seven-foot-high bookshelf and asked to have it delivered to my apartment. It arrived on a moto.

So, to summarize: mass dominates, there’s no such thing as direction, higher authority is unpredictable, money talks, and the statistically improbable is commonplace. See? It’s just like life. And when you climb onto the back seat of a moto, you are demonstrating that you’re willing to bring to an end, to transcend, to release, your own little life and all that binds you to this earth, all in exchange for going a few blocks just a little faster. Now that’s enlightenment, in my book.

But me, personally, I’m working toward a Humvee.

2 Responses to “Enlightenment on Wheels”

  1. Stefan Hammond Says:

    Once again, you nailed it. People who haven’t visited Phnom Penh may think you’re kidding.

    I’ve visited. You’re not.

    The best analogy i’ve read: someone giving advice to anyone thinking of renting a motorbike to drive around Phnom Penh: “If you’ve done a lot of snowboarding, you’ll soon get the hang of it.”

    The best thing I’ve seen on Phnom Penh roads: a guy being driven in a cyclo (bicycle-driven three-wheeled sedan-chair) holding a two-meter long black-velvet painting of Angkor Wat, total fluorescent oil-paint overkill, like a moving frame slowly perambulating down a dusty street. One of those DAMN-I-wish-I-had-a-camera moments.

  2. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I spend my whole life in Phnom Penh wishing I had a camera. And the stupid thing is that I do, but I never remember to carry it.

    Just a couple of days ago I saw four guys on motos driving behind a stalled car, pushing it with their free hands while the car’s driver steered. Nobody gave it a second glance. Do you have any idea how much the traffic ticket for that would cost in the Land of the Free?

    Just everyday life in the land of the Khmers.

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