What’s Left?

“Oh, this is weird,” I said to no one in particular as I sat down behind the wheel of our new car, a gold Proton. I sat on the right-hand side of the car, still feeling like a passenger, but holding the key in my hand. I took a deep breath, put the key in the ignition and cranked it forward. The car purred to life and I reached down with my left hand to the transmission. I found myself feeling grateful that this was an automatic. I’ve probably logged more hours in manual-transmission cars than in automatics, but the thought of trying to concentrate on shifting gears with my left hand while trying to navigate Malaysian traffic is frankly terrifying. More about traffic later, though.

There are a couple good theories about why people drive on the left. One is that the practice developed out of a security concern. A long, long time ago, travelers on horseback would ride with their sword hands (right hands, by a bias toward right-handedness as cultural default) would be toward the center of the road and available to defend against any threats coming the opposite direction. No one wants to swing a blade across their body or their own horse’s neck. A second and perhaps complimentary theory is that (again by cultural default), most people with horses would mount them from the left, swinging their right legs over the top. It would make little sense to try and do so in the middle of the road; men trampled to a paste have trouble riding horses. Some areas of the world kept this system, but with developments in technology and vehicle design others adopted right-side driving. Colonialism, both political and cultural, divided the world.

The historical background is interesting, but only relevant in as much as it tells us that Malaysia was once a colonial asset of Great Britain. Beyond that, driving on the left is easy. The only things you have to remember are to actually drive on the left side of the road and to remember to leave room on the left side of the car to avoid hitting objects like curbs and side-view mirrors. Once you get those down, you just have to remember that you’re in a foreign country with a wholly alien concept of road etiquette.

At first glance, Malaysian roads seem like a lawless free-for-all. As it turns out, the rules and customs that are solid and unbreakable in places like the US are more like suggestions over here, which may sound bad, but there’s a decent reason for it. In the US, people tend to treat their space on the road as their personal space. Much as if walking on the sidewalk in a place like Boston or San Francisco, Americans have a relatively rigid expectation of distance and order. We keep out of each other’s personal bubbles, traveling neither too fast nor too slow. And with all the space our young country has to offer, we have the luxury of sprawling cities.

Here, however, density is the word. One could speculate why this is–climate, historical contexts, environmental limitations, cultural norms–but the facts remain the same. Walking on sidewalks here is often like navigating a crowded nightclub. You follow the general flow through the room, but in the end it’s entirely up to you to find spaces and gaps to get where you’re going without causing undue hardship to the flow of traffic as a whole. That last part is something I have noticed enough to feel it is worth emphasizing. In the States, it is not uncommon to see people racing along the side of a snarled interchange, trying to wedge their cars into a space that doesn’t exist, just to gain three car lengths–on whom, no one really knows. In the end, traffic jams even more, and everyone loses. Here, I have been witness to the zipper method of merging. Traffic continues at a fast clip, but cars from merging lanes come together one after another, bumpers often drifting very close.

The first time I rode in a car during heavy traffic, I could feel my blood pressure spike. It seemed as if cars and obstacles were coming at us from all directions at high speed, and it was highly unsettling that our driver was calm to the point that I wondered at one point if he was awake at all. After a while, I began to find that our car was drifting on the currents of traffic like a feather in the breeze, giving and taking ground organically. It indicated a level of situational awareness that many Americans lack. Looking at it from the outside, it might have appeared that he was drawing on the Force.

Another such Force-sensitive cab driver was Mr. Zain. Kuala Kumpur’s secondary airport, LCCT, is realistically two hours away–longer when it’s raining. The instant we got in the cab, I knew this was going to be an interesting trip. Blind corners, rain, heavy traffic and posted speed limits disappeared into the rearview mirror as the road shot past us. Mr. Zain drove his cab as if he’d mistaken it for a fighter jet, and once or twice we did even leave the ground as we hydroplaned through a particularly rainy patch of road. Changing highways, we hit a crowded roundabout at speed, and as quickly as Zain threaded his us into the rotating circle of certain doom he threw us from it, flying down the new stretch of road. It took an hour and a half to reach the airport, roughly the same amount of time we spent in the real jet.

The first leg of our trip to Singapore.

The first leg of our trip to Singapore.

It has been said that I display an equally gleeful detachment from posted regulations and passenger stress levels. (The word “lunatic” gets bandied about so easily these days.) This complaint is probably valid, since I am new to driving on the left and to the traffic culture of Southeast Asia, but there is something about the fluidity of it all that feels right. As much as it pains me, however, I have agreed to drive more like an American–for a while, at least.


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