Philippines Observation 4: The roads, vehicles and general driving conditions

Part 4 of an eight part series on observations of the Philippines.  View the index of all eight entries.

One of the most immediately obvious differences between the Philippines and the US was the driving.  The roads, the vehicles, and the way people drove were all radically different.

The Roads

You can pretty much sum it up with: narrow, no markings, and under construction.

As we moved around Manila and even in Laoag City, the roads were paved, but that was about it.  They were concrete roads, not asphalt, with not too much in the way of shoulders or markings.  There were places where there were passing/no passing lines down the middle of the road, to which people barely paid attention.  There were rarely lines on the sides of the roads.  There were no reflectors that I saw.  And there were very few street signs.  In fact, every time we went anywhere, I was amazed at how our driver knew where he was going.

It didn’t help that we never seemed to take main roads to places.  Maybe this was because those were always under construction, maybe there were no main roads to some of the places we went.  I don’t know.  But twice we were traveling between two significant cities or destination, such that I would think a main road would connect them.  But instead, we’re weaving down back roads and alleys and in some cases even on a dirt road or two.  It was really odd.

There were a number of times when we drove way too close to something or someone, or when I was amazed at how many smaller vehicles were swarming all around our van.  But there was only one time when I felt like my life was threatened by the conditions of the roads themselves: the bus ride from Manila to Laoag.

We rode up north on a bus.  All the same things happened that had happened every other time I’d been in a car – wild driving, getting way close to other moving and non-moving objects, no street signs to tell you where we were going, driving on back roads, etc.  But at one point, the bus slowed way down, which made me sit up and take notice.  It was just about dawn, so I could see enough to know that we were about to drive over a bridge.  But this wasn’t just any old bridge, it was a rickety wooden bridge.  Imagine the bridge to the right, but with a couple well-placed 2×12’s running perpendicular to the boards you see that the bus driver lined up to the tires on the bus, and then drove them across.  I remember thinking, “Should I wake Faith up to say good bye, or let her sleep through our crashing to our deaths.”  Actually, like the one shown here, it’s not like the bridge was over much of anything, but I would hated to get stuck in the mud out in the middle of nowhere.

After making it across the bridge, I was pretty amused to find that we literally left the paved road.  All of a sudden, we’re on dirt, avoiding sizable potholes.  I’m thinking to myself that this is the main transport between the capitol of the country and the capitol of one of its provinces (like a State in the US, sortof).  It’d be like driving from DC to Boston, but on back roads, alleys, dirt roads, and rickety wooden bridges (all while freezing to death).  It was quite an adventure.

Last element of the roads I’ll discuss is the construction.  Not only did it seem like a lot of roads were under construction, but the locals made clear that the roads took forever to get fixed.  The stretch of road between Dingras and Laoag was under construction for several miles.  The way they worked this construction zone was to have 100 yard (or so) stretches of the road all torn up on one side only, with maybe 10 yard stretches that were not torn up between them.  So, the road went from two lanes to one lane (for 100 yards) back to two lanes (for 10 yards) then back to one lane, etc.  First, the locals said that the road had been this way (torn up, with no sign that it was actually moving toward being repaired) for over 9 months.  The equivalent in the States would be take a bulldozer to a road, destroy it, then just let it sit for 9 months.  I have no idea how long they had taken to wreck the road, but nobody was confident it would be un-wrecked any time soon.  They said one of the problems is that construction would stop all together for a couple months at a time, and that this was common.

I’m sure it also didn’t help that, when we say roads being worked on, it was never by 3 guys and a bunch of heavy equipment like it is here in the States.  It was more like 50 guys with pick axes, shovels, and buckets.  All manual labor.  Amazing!

Oh … and one other thing that has to be mentioned is the Philippine concept of a speed bump.  Only one time on our trip did I actually see a speed bump as we know them in America – you know, a bump in the street that makes you slow down or rip up your car speeding over it.  Rather than these (I don’t know why), in the Philippines, the use two (typically) portable barriers that can be placed in the street.  These look like saw horses, as you’d have in your shop, except they’re as long as your car is wide.  So, on a two lane road, you’d place one of them in the right lane blocking traffic, then the second in the left lane (also blocking traffic) but spaced a little down the road … maybe 20 feet.

So, what you end up with is a mini obstacle course, around which cars need to weave one at a time (from each direction) to get through.  It forces vehicles to slow down, and weave in and out of the barriers before proceeding.  But like speed bumps in America, Philippine drivers have perfected the art of slowing down only as much as necessary to make it through the obstacles.  So, you end up with death-defying weaving between barriers while another car coming from the opposite direction tries to time his approach with your departure from the obstacles so as not to have to stop and wait for you, but at the same time not be going so fast that you collide.  I’m surprised it isn’t a blood sport.

A little diagram of a Philippine speed barrier

A little diagram of a Philippine speed barrier

The Vehicles

I think I’ve already talked about the vehicles on the roads in the Philippines in at least one other place.  The basically fell into a very small set of categories.

First, there were the jeepneys and the tricycles.  These are the taxis of the Philippines.  Let’s talk about jeepneys first.

The jeepney is a personalized adaptation of the jeeps used in the Philippines by Americans during World War II.  I say “personalized”, because it is routine for the owners of these vehicles to personalize them by painting them up with logos, naming them, inking them with their signature artwork, etc.

The jeepney is a kind of an adapted bus.  It has a driver’s seat, open sides and back, and a row of seats or a bench down each side of the long axis of the vehicle.  This allows people to jump in and out of the back at will, pass a few pesos up to the driver (pretty much runs on the honor system), and go where they want to go.

It was routine to see these things everywhere we went, starting and stopping, people jumping on and off, and the top packed with luggage of some kind.  They have become synonymous with the Philippines.

The “tricycle”, as it’s called, is a motorcycle with a large side car.  They typically have awnings of some kind over the side car to shield riders from the sun.  These too are taxis, and they were absolutely everywhere.  You would hail one as it drove by just like you would a taxi in downtown Chicago, jump in the side car, and they’d wisk you away to wherever you where going.  I assume there were fees and a meter, like a taxi we’d be used to in the States, but I never rode in one, so I can’t confirm that.

Why never rode one, you ask?  Because I don’t think I’d have fit, let alone with Faith, John and our guide, Jackie.  These things were tiny!  Yet, as amazing as this is, we actually saw as many as 5 people in the side cars on these bikes from time to time.  That’s all about the short-in-stature Philippino, not us giant bald white guys, I’m telling you.

Next came the motorcycles … without the side car.  These were the worst, because they zipped in and out of other traffic with flagrant disregard for what might happen if someone somewhere made one false move.

There were also construction vehicles: trucks and such.  There were a lot of these, but that isn’t surprising given how much construction there was, but I’ll get back to that.  There were also semis and buses.  Lots of buses, not too many semis.  Collectively, the larger vehicles were the calmest on the roads, going a little slower and driving with a little more caution (it seemed to me) than everyone else.  Most of these trucks, btw, seemed older … more run down.  Not brand new.

And lastly, about every 10th vehicle was a personal car.  What struck me here is that I saw very few beaters.  More than 9 out of 10 cars I saw were brand new, very nice, Japanese made cars.  So, they stood out in stark contrast against the backdrop of general poverty both on the roads (in the jeepneys and tricycles) or on the side of the roads (shanty towns, etc).

The Way People Drove

In short, like maniacs.  It was typically better not to watch.  I can’t tell you how many times I thought some motorcyclist weaving between our car and 2-3 others was a gonner.  Half the roads had no marks on them whatsoever, and it didn’t really matter anyway, because people made their own lanes.  It was not uncommon to be between lanes with jeepneys (which were more narrow than a normal car it seemed) or tricycles on each side of us, cars on the shoulders, motorcycles weaving in between us … and pedestrians walking around the cars while they were stopped.  It was seriously a death trap at times.

What I found amazing was that I actually heard drivers of vehicles we were in complain about the congestion of the traffic in and on the roads out of Manila.  They were right; it was very congested.  And all I did was smile and nod.  Of course, I was thinking that maybe there wouldn’t be so much congestion if there were actually RULES and SIGNS and crazy stuff like that.  🙂

Needless to say, driving was aggressive.  It was a nation of people who didn’t get the memo about the “defensive driving” video back in the 90’s … well … at least that’s when I had to watch it.  A great example is the way they dealt with the construction between Laoag and Dingras.  Remember, I said that there were stretches of road that were one lane, then two lanes, then one lane, because construction had closed down one of the lanes?  Well, here’s the way they would navigate that…

Driver A would be coming from one direction, and driver B from the other.  Which ever one could get there first (read: could accelerate to make it to the brink of the single-lane span) would press ahead at nearly full speed.  Let’s say driver A made it first.  He’d swerve into the other lane if necessary, and go for it.  Driver B, already in the right lane by virtual of the fact that he is coming from the other direction would go ahead in as well.  Now you’ve got two cars in one lane.  The solution?  Swerve onto the shoulder or into the grass to pass.  Driver B would slow down at least, but that was little comfort living through.

But wait, that’s not all.  Jeepneys behaved like cars.  But not tricycles or motorcycles.  If any of those were present, they’d just figure they could squeeze through, especially motorcycles.  Ugh!

No wait … there’s more … what about the pedestrians?  Well, there typically weren’t people pedestrian-ing (walking) along the road, but there were people drying their rice.  Rice?  What does rice have to do with it?  Well, it wouldn’t if they weren’t drying it IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD!  The basic expectation?  For you to drive over their rice to help it dry out.

So, the drivers are avoiding the constructions (giant pits in the road that would swallow your car), other cars, motorcycles, and people, while trying to HIT the rice.  Like Disney World except it’s cheaper to get in and your life’s in danger.  Oh, and that brings me to travel tip #11:  If you bite down on something dark and crunchy in your rice in the Philippines, don’t worry, it’s just gravel.  :-/

About Jeff Block

Lover and follower of Jesus, the long awaited King. Husband and father. Writer and seminary student. On a long, difficult, joyful adventure, learning to swim with the current of God's sovereign love and walk with Him in the garden in the cool of the day.
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4 Responses to Philippines Observation 4: The roads, vehicles and general driving conditions

  1. Pingback: Where we were and what we observed in the Philippines « Jeff Block’s Personal Idea Fountain

  2. Vincent says:

    hehe, yep Philippines construction of roads is way behind,
    so expect some more dying in mishaps.


  3. korn great korn says:

    hahaha!lol!am from dingras and most of the roads from provinces people used to dry rice in the middle out there…


  4. Georges Til says:

    yeah but they don’t expect you to drive on it!

    I think our american friend did not properly understand thet one has to avoid driving on the rice.

    The reason for drying rice on the roads is that concrete of the road is reverberating the heat of the sun…it fastens drying rice.


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