Controlled Chaos

Now Thailand and Cambodia to different degrees are classic examples of what I like to call, “Controlled Chaos”. If you are a “Get Smart” fan, the spelling “Kontroled Kaos” is perfectly acceptable. What I mean by this term is that everything in Southeast Asia seems haphazard and quite spontaneous. The smooth running of a Swiss watch does not come to mind when observing the seemingly haphazard way in which almost everything is conducted, though looks can be deceiving!
This sensation is particularly strong the first few months in the place. It’s normal that some Westerners might find this disconcerting, however “worry” is a wasted emotion here. For instance, I am still completely clueless as to what sort of municipal zoning laws exist in the parts of Thailand and Cambodia where Silvia and I lived. What I found was many neighborhoods that were in fact a motley collection of commercial, industrial and residential. Some have better defined commercial and tourist districts, but they seem to be the exception as opposed to the rule.
Another example is overland private and public transportation. Here Southeast Asians shine! It is perfectly normal to see a man on a motorcycle with six full sized bed cushions strapped to the back. Or a very large cage with equally large live pig. Or two massive propane tanks! A parent with three kids on his bike at the same time, carrying the shopping. These are normal occurrences here! I am amazed by their sense of balance!
These are lands where helmets seem to be optional gear, despite the fact that they’re even more necessary because of generally average to poor roads. Mothers on scooters with their naked 3 year old standing just in front of her, no helmet on either is a common sight. In the West, the woman would be fined for traffic violations and endangering the welfare of a child. Protective services in several countries would certainly at least try to take the kid away from her. Yet I’ve witnessed this particular scene here in a Cambodia about a half a dozen times!
The buses are equally entertaining. We’ve been on all kinds. Some were very comfortable and really no different than in Spain or the States. Others are quite stereotypical with the only element missing, live chickens or farm animals. However, you can find four seats taken up by boxes of everything and anything imaginable. One person was transporting pillows and I remember one bus packed with boxes of junk food. One bus trip to Battambang was classic! They packed about a dozen more people than there were seats and pulled out plastic kiddie stools, placing them in the aisle. I remember looking at Silvia and saying: “Well, if there’s a serious accident there’s no way we’re getting off this puppy!”
Ironically, accidents would be triple what they are if Thai and Cambodian people were as addicted to speed as westerners seem to be. I rarely ever saw anyone speeding or rushed. It didn’t matter if they were driving a motorcycle, tuk-tuk, scooter or car; the majority of people I saw drove slower and more cautiously. I would consider the whole transportation infrastructure and driving culture in Southeast Asia as a great example of “Controlled Chaos”. You may not think they can, but somehow someway, they manage to get you from point A to point B in one piece. Maybe sweaty, maybe flustered – but in one piece!
I started to question my own views on things. I wondered how everything could look so helter-skelter and yet function, usually pretty well. It was certainly a head scratcher! As it turns out, one realizes that they have their ‘bases covered’ most of the time. Even when it doesn’t seem so. With limited English explanations may often seem vague, but they are horrible indicators of preparedness. One has to learn to observe all the time, because good explanations are few and far between.
Being or feeling “in the dark” nearly all the time isn’t ever that much of a problem. The minute you suspect that they don’t know what the hell they are doing, the people have a habit of turning around and doing something that proves contingencies were made. Blackouts, sudden rainstorms, flat tires, car troubles are dealt with much differently than in the West. They freak out less or at least less openly. They don’t seem to demonstrate any improvisational skills in the ‘day to day’, but once any kind of unexpected problem comes along they’re more creative and spontaneous than a Jazz musician! “Controlled Chaos” – see what I mean?

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