Driving has always been one of my favourite ways to explore a foreign country as it offers so much more fun, insights and excitement. The freedom and option to stop anywhere you want, the experience of traversing from town to town to interact with the locals, and the opportunity to detour on uncharted roads to discover new things, all make road trips most exciting and rewarding.
My first road trip was in the U.S., driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco, stopping at Las Vegas, Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Santa Cruz. I have also done other road trips in Australia, New Zealand and Taiwan. While there are many beautiful places like the Swiss Alps and Great Ocean Road with windy roads and sceneries seemingly drawn by God with road trips in mind, South East Asia has in fact plenty to offer for road trip lovers as well. And the potential of driving from home to explore this region has impelled me to take my little car up north beyond the Boleh land.
Knowing a long term friend, also a Thailand guru who has driven on countless occasions from Singapore into Thailand, Cambodia and China, following him was perhaps the best way to start. Planning was easy with our sense of adventure and flexibility. Soon, we were meeting at Gelang Patah for early breakfast before embarking on an exciting 11-day journey into the Kingdom of Thailand, each behind our own wheels.
The first 800 over kilometres crossing Peninsula Malaysia was pretty much a humdrum and uneventful journey. Our minds were all set on the Land of Smiles while we floored the pedal and tore up the North-South highway before peak hour traffic started to build up. The only worthy stop was Ipoh, which is well-known for some steamy Hong Kong tim sum, a perfect place for lunch. By sunset, we had crossed Sadao, the immigration point of Thailand, and were approaching Hatyai, eagerly looking forward to our dinner and a good foot massage.
Immigration checkpoint at Bukit Kayu Hitam (Malaysia), entering Sadao immigration in Thailand. We skipped Malaysia altogether and aimed for Hatyai on the first night. Led by my friend's BMW X3, my constant vanishing point for 11 days.
Hatyai. Parked and looking for breakfast the next morning.
Hatyai. Aromatic Thai tea, freshly prepared by the roadside. I do not wish to think when was the last time they washed that sock, or at all. Perfect way to kick start the day.
|Tasty noodles for breakfast in Hatyai.|
Hatyai. Getting ready to set off day two, which is the glorious day of my maiden journey into the heart of Thailand.
The trip had literally covered from the south to the northern most edge of Thailand, but had concentrated mainly on the northern districts of Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Pai. The breathtaking mountains offered mesmerizing views as we steered along the cliff-edge roads that meandered from town to town. The quaint and bohemian town of Pai tucked in the mountains and surrounded by paddy fields and a river provide a charming retreat for city dwellers. The Akha hill tribe village in Mae Salong offered a place to rest our feet while enjoying a cup of hot and fragrant local oolong tea amidst the cool weather. Of course, no trip to Thailand would be complete without a stop in Bangkok, where we spent 3 days for a doze of civilization, Thai massage and street food indulgence.
An informal rest stop along the highway near Bang Saphan Noi district. The rest stops along North-South Highway seem luxurious in comparison.
Heavy rain while traversing Chumphon.
While we had enjoyed every bit of the stops we had made, the most fulfilling part for me was none other than the journey itself and the fact that I have made my way there and back, all in my little car. However, it was not a drive in the park or a road trip for the faint-hearted. It was definitely not for typical Singaporeans who treat their beloved cars to spas more than their wives do.
If you think that the roads in Malaysia are bad, try Thailand. Despite the awesome scenery along the way, especially in the north, some roads were seemingly showered by meteorites once upon a time. I guess the roads were made worse by the epic flood that had just receded. The amount of steering I had to do to avoid potholes that littered for hundreds of kilometres was phenomenal. On several occasions, heavy downpours with a one car-length visibility in the night had made driving nerve-racking. They had all required an enormous amount of driving concentration and effort, probably the most I have experienced so far. It was of such intensity especially when compared to the one-hand cruising we are used to doing in Singapore at times.
Fortunately, we had both bought, brought and drove the right cars along. The agility and robustness of the MINI was put to the test in this harsh and real-life environment. Its nimble steering, rigid chassis and a healthy boost of torque from the turbocharger had zipped us across towns and scaled mountains, avoiding potholes and animals with confidence. While much physical hard work was needed behind the wheel in the MINI, the leading BMW X3 was in a totally different world. Its high profile tires and vehicle clearance had a huge advantage over challenging road surfaces. Its SAV chassis offers the best of both worlds from highway speed to off-road capability. And with its intelligent all-wheel drive system, the xDrive, every hairpin was a piece of cake, rain or shine.
For 11 days, my perspective through the windscreen was mostly terminated by the distinguishable Singapore registered BMW, except when it had simply bashed through the pothole littered roads while I was driving like an F1 driver, not in the race but only meandering his car in an opening lap to warm the tyres. The MINI and its driver had to work so hard and could only hear the clatter of metal, rattle of gravel, all symphonized with the distinctive tune from the hardworking engine compartment. In contrast, I wondered what mesmeric Thai music my friend was enjoying in his acoustically cocooned Bimmer as he saw the Singapore registered MINI had disappeared in his rear view mirror for a few hours. The popular Thai song Sabai Sabai was probably in his iPod – relax, all is well.
(Two YouTube video links of the drive in the mountains have been included at the end of this post.)
Hua Hin on the second night. Our dinner coffee shop serving mouth-watering local food.
|Hua Hin night market.|
Getting ready for day three after breakfast. A long and ambitious journey to Chiang Mai, covering close to 900 km in a single day.
|Morning traffic building up in Hua Hin.|
|Lunch stop at Nakhon Sawan.|
|Everyone needs a ride sometimes.|
|More Thai cocktail of ethanol and gasoline for the car.|
Kao soy, mouth-watering Thai curry noodles with egg at Chiang Mai.
|T-shirts galore at Chiang Mai night market.|
A coffee shop in Chiang Mai where we had Tim Sum breakfast.
|Tim sum breakfast in Chiang Mai.|
Public transport in Chiang Mai. Don't complain that our buses are crowded.
Geared up and ready for Route 1095, the only road which connects Chiang Mai to the charming mountain town of Pai.
Stopping for a break on Route 1095 en route Pai.
Rest stop on Route 1095 en route Pai.
Arrived in Pai through rain and shine. Traces of the 2,700 km covered so far.
How often do you see chickens roaming around where you have parked? At the Chinese Yunnan Cultural Village in Pai.
Sunset at Montis Resort, Pai.
How many persons can you carry on a motorcycle?
|Pai night market.|
VW Kombi turned retail stall on the streets of Pai - a small bohemian town with a laid-back charm.
Akha hill tribe merchants are a common sight in the night market.
Where would you like to be plucked?
|A loyal friend.|
Keeping food and child warm, both at the same time, at the night market in Pai.
Overlooking River Pai in the morning. Nestled in a quiet valley surrounded by rice paddy fields and northern Thailand’s jungle drenched mountains, this laid-back town has a way of making visitors wish they would never have to leave.
Chiang Dao Hill Resort, 70 km north of Chiang Mai.
Cherry blossom lined road (Route 1249) in Doi Angkhang, some 150 km north of Chiang Mai and fringing the boundary between Thailand and Burma.
Cherry blossom lined road (Route 1249) in Doi Angkhang.
Cherry blossom in Doi Angkhang.
Arrived in Thaton. Bridge over River Kok in Thaton, a small village a stone's throw away from the Thai-Burma border.
Setting off early from Thaton the following day.
Foggy mountain roads en route Mae Salong.
A little girl from the Akha hill tribe selling crafts at Mae Salong, a mountain village in Chiang Rai Province.
Akha hill tribe vendor selling craft works and jewellery at Mae Salong.
Heart-warming buns filled our stomach in the cold mountains of Mae Salong.
Taking a break and enjoying a cup of locally grown and harvested oolong tea at Mae Salong.
More hill tribe vendors at the car park in Mae Salong.
Route 1338 to Mae Fa Luang, hairpin turns all the way.
The Thai-Burma border military post lookout point on Route 1149 (Burma mountains in the background) near Mae Sai.
The Thai-Burma border military post lookout point on Route 1149 near Mae Sai.
Thai soldiers at the Thai-Burma border military post.
Panoramic view overlooking Burma from the Thai-Burma border military post.
Mae Sai, the northern most city of Thailand, a gateway into Burma. The cross-border immigration building in the background (blue roof) and a Myanmar registered motorcycle in the foreground.
|Lunch in Chiang Rai. Mouth-watering beef noodles by the road.|
|Arrived in the town of Phrae in northern Thailand. Perfect for moo kata, a Thai BBQ buffet dinner in this relatively cold town. Temperatures drop to a cool 15 degree celsius at night.|
|Early morning in Phrae, getting ready to head south back to Bangkok.|
|Phrae is the former centre of Thailand's teak industry. It contains one of the largest reserves of teak forests in the country.|
|Lunch stop at Nakhon Sawan.|
|Arrived in Bangkok. Visiting Thai "friends" at the MINI showroom.|
|It happens so often and serious that this is necessary.|
|A common sight in Bangkok - grilled banana stalls on wheel carts.|
|Gluay Ping, grilled banana in palm sugar syrup or eaten plain. Tasty snack and energy booster at anytime of the day.|
|Mixed noodle soup with a wide selection of ingredients. Just pick what you want from the stall.|
|Smooth and silky noodles in hot and savoury soup.|
|Mixed pork platter with eggs and mushrooms.|
|Delicious and piping hot fish maw soup, known as krapo pla in Thai. A must have every evening.|
|Mix-and-match dessert stall by the roadside. The possibilities are endless.|
|Sweet and juicy Thai mangoes.|
|Khao niao mamuang. Thai glutinous rice with mango. A satisfying way to complete the dinner.|
|Beautifully made Thai tea. Rest stop at Prachuap Khiri Khan.|
|Roadside banana stalls outside the Phota Hin Chang Shrine in Chumphon.|
|Roadside banana stalls outside the Phota Hin Chang Shrine in Chumphon.|
|Spot the passenger.|
|Last petrol top up in Baht.|
Facts and Figures:
Date of Trip: 6 to 16 December 2011
Total mileage: Approx. 6,000 km
Accommodation: The Regency, Hatyai; The Seaone Hotel, Hua Hin; CH Hotel, Chiang Mai; Rim-Pai Cottage, Pai; Apple Resort, Thaton; Sarin Park Hotel, Phrae; 24 Inn and All Seasons, Bangkok.
Vehicle: MINI Cooper S Clubman
Equipment: Nikon D5100, Nikon AFS 10-24mm, Sigma 17-70mm