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Asia the Unwalkable

For those who like to get around by foot, South East Asia can be a very frustrating place to visit.

It would seem that South East Asians have an extreme aversion to walking anywhere.

This was made clear to us when we took a cooking class in Thailand. The school chef apologized for us having to walk 10 minutes to the pick-up spot, it was as if they perpetrated a great injustice upon us. They said in their own words “Thais (like many others in SE Asia) do not like to walk”.

And who can blame them? The sidewalks (if they exist at all) are usually broken, cracked, uneven and interrupted by missing sections. There are mantraps in the form of missing sewer covers or storm grates that you can disappear into never to be seen again. Then there are the spider webs of exposed electrical wires ready to lobotomize anyone unfortunate enough to stumble into them.

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An ankle buster in Chiang Mai Thailand

In the Western Hemisphere sidewalks are for the most part, the domain of pedestrians.  In contrast, South East Asian sidewalks are used for everything else.

Visit almost any city in SE Asia, whether it is Bangkok, Manila, Phnom Penh, or Hanoi, you will find aggressive motorcyclists using the sidewalk to avoid traffic — or as convenient parking spots.

In addition to functioning as overflow traffic lanes, Asians use sidewalk space for everything but walking.

Or as I like to say,

Asian sidewalks how do I block thee. Let me count the ways…

They are blocked by:

  • Restaurants extending onto pavements with their overflow tables and chairs
  • Cafes
  • Beer joints
  • Piles of garbage
  • Planted pots
  • Food stalls
  • Fish mongers
  • Fruit and vegetable stalls
  • Parking space for all types of motor vehicles and bicycles
  • Impromptu barber shops
  • Extended shop space for displaying merchandise
  • Street vendors
  • Storage space for construction materials
  • Impromptu gas stations selling petrol out of plastic pop bottles
  • Signs that take up the whole width of the sidewalk
  • Extremely low hanging banners, awnings, and flags
  • Security guard shacks
  • A place to stand, chat with your friends and block passage
  • A place to smoke
  • Etc…….


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A “Gas Station” in Phnom Penh Cambodia


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A barber shop in Hanoi

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Vendors in Chiang Rai Thailand

Forced into the streets

All of the above activities, jam the sidewalk space and force pedestrians to walk into traffic on the street itself – forcing them to take their lives into their own hands.

Even if you play smart and walk against the flow of traffic, there are often motorcycles driving in the wrong direction sneaking up behind you, honking their horns for you to move.

It is absolutely fricken bonkers – it is exhausting, maddening, and soul crushing.

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Alternatives to walking

This may be part of the reason why people in South East Asia don’t walk for more than a block – rather they hop on a motor scooter, grab a tuk-tuk or a pedicab. With ride sharing you don’t even have to walk to a bus stop.

On-demand food delivery apps like GoJek, GrabFood, FoodPanda, and Deliveroo mean you don’t have to leave the house to shop or feed yourself.

This however adds to the problem of traffic congestion and air pollution.

As a traveler if you decide to walk anywhere, the only other people liable to be out walking are other exasperated, stressed-out foreigners.

In addition to the lack of pedestrian walkway and traffic chaos, other deterrents to walking include the sometimes-stifling tropical heat and Asia’s air pollution (which is some of the worst on the planet).

Crossing the street

Then there is the trauma of actually attempting to cross a street!

As a pedestrian you feel like you are a persona non grata, a meat suit with no rights at all.

There are no real functioning cross walks. Yes, there are painted lines on the street but they have no meaning – these might well be colonial relics or just funky street art?

There are very few pedestrian controlled lights – the ones that do exist are often ignored.

To get to the other side of the road you first need to let go of any preconceived Western ideal about pedestrians having any “Right of Way” – that is not how it works here.

There are traffic rules here, they however they are very different from the Western world and you need to figure out what they are before you get run over.

The thing is – even though it appears to complete chaos in the form of Brownian motorcycle motion, most drivers in SE Asia are typically very alert and sometimes (but not always) defensive. The motorcyclists have a vested interest in avoiding collisions.

To cross the street in places like Hanoi,  you need to be very alert. You wait for a small gap in the traffic flow, then wade into the sea of scooters – you need to walk in a straight line at a consistent measured pace and let the scooters pass around you. It is freaky, but it works in a wonderfully Zen way (sort of).

You can tell a lot about a place by the way they treat pedestrians (and their stray animals).

The bottom line is- being a pedestrian is obviously not on the top of the priority list in S.E Asia.

  • Sidewalk maintenance is not a priority
  • Pedestrian safety is definitely not a priority
  • Keeping vehicles off sidewalks is not a policing priority nor is it enforced.

Oasis of (relative) calm 

There are some notable exceptions we came across:

The first is Luang Prabang’s historical center in Laos. This was one of the most walkable Asian towns we came across. The historical center is a pedestrian oasis. This is probably due to the fact it is a managed UNESCO world heritage site plus its location at the end of a peninsula. Get outside of the historical center and it is the same as anywhere else.

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Luang Prabang, Laos

Hanoi is typically a pedestrian nightmare, however every weekend from Friday evening to Sunday night, 16 streets around Hoan Kiem Lake are closed to vehicular traffic. “Hanoi walking street” becomes an entertainment area complete with organized sporting and cultural events.

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Friday Night on Beer Street, Old Quarter of Hanoi 

Not my job

What I have noticed in Asia is there seems to be this attitude of “It is someone else’s problem”. If garbage is dumped someone else will pick it up. Not my problem.

If the sidewalks are blocked and the place is un-walkable it’s not about me, nor is it my problem. It is a government issue, or it is a policing problem. 

From my perspective walkability is about how livable, healthy, and safe a place is.

As much as I like South East Asia – I certainly would not want to live in one of its cities! Not until they become much more pedestrian friendly.

Asian Sidewalks – How do I Block Thee?

How do I block thee? Let me count the ways

I block thee to the depth and breadth and height
Motorcycles parked, until out of sight

For the ends of business every day
I block the pathway in every way

I loathe there to be any space

The sidewalks tangled in a messy maze

A parody of urban planning’s craze

I block your path, with all my might

Feet can’t wander through the winding ways

For every step brings forth a daunting plight

Obstacles that hinder, causing disarray

As parked vehicles claim pedestrian space

The vendors’ wares produce a grand display

The endless obstacles you must embrace








About the author: Michael was born under a wanderin’ star. He is an Engineer who became an explorer, a photography bug, and hack traveller writer with the propensity to be snarky. “Retired” in 2012 at the age of 44, he and his wife Yvonne travel and house sit around the globe on a full time basis. Michael’s goal is to share the process of escaping the rat race, exploring the globe, and some of the experiences along the way.

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