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Saturday March 2, 2013

Driving through Thailand

Loop-the-loop: Reached our digs Mae Salong Flower Hill Resort in one piece after a hair-raising ride through 1,000 loops. — Four-Trax 4x4 Academy Loop-the-loop: Reached our digs Mae Salong Flower Hill Resort in one piece after a hair-raising ride through 1,000 loops. — Four-Trax 4x4 Academy

Starved of exciting holiday ideas for the family? How about a road trip through a foreign land on a four-wheel-drive?

ARE you Alexandra Wong?” A van almost completely wrapped with colourful flags has pulled right in front of me, and the boy in the front passenger seat is waving a placard at me.

Still zoned out from catching the earliest flight to Chiang Mai, I squint groggily.

Yes, it has my name roughly scrawled on it. I climb into the van of complete strangers, wondering how my parents would react.

This vehicle is supposed to take me to Ratchiparat Horticultural Show, where my parents are. You see, two weeks ago, Mum and Dad had gone completely bonkers and joined a convoy of four-wheel-drives (4WDs) for a driving trip through Thailand.

Yes, those monstrous machines that macho men use to turn mere mortals into mincemeat... sorry, too many repeated viewings of The Expendables.

My first reaction was shock. My folks – whose idea of culinary adventure was eating sushi? Then: No way was I going to let them do anything so crazy, unsupervised! Never mind if they were merely passengers in their friends’, the Kans, SUV.

I bought a ticket to Chiang Mai, tracked their progress through Mrs Kan, cleared my deadlines in record time, and, voila, here I am.

Amongst the sea of people, I spot my father’s mop of white hair next to my mother’s familiar polka-dot jacket. I slide up quietly behind, tap him on the shoulder and drawl nonchalantly, “Mr and Mrs Wong, fancy bumping into you here!”

Riding in style: Mighty
machines get heads turning.
— Four-Trax 4x4 Academy Riding in style: Mighty machines get heads turning. — Four-Trax 4x4 Academy

Dad looks like he’s seen a ghost. My ma’s lips start to tremble. At their side, my fellow conspirators, Mr and Mrs Kan, grin indulgently. Eventually the excitement of my arrival subsides, and I draw Mrs Kan aside. “How’s it going so far?”

“It’s really a different experience driving in convoy,” she says breathlessly. “Just like The Amazing Race! On the first day itself, we clocked up nearly 1,000 km! We pushed off from KL, picked up the Ipoh folks and crossed Hatyai on the same day.”

“That’s a lot of driving! Got time to see anything interesting or not?”

She nods enthusiastically.

“Yes. In fact, we get the chance to visit both the must-see tourist attractions as well as off-the-beaten-track places like Mae Sot. Only thing is, a lot of time we eat on the run. We’re very familiar with 7-Eleven by now.”

At my pained expression, she laughs. “Don’t worry – the Thai 7-Eleven is nothing like ours. You can find Mos burgers, wantan noodles, yogurt drinks in all kinds of unusual flavours, and even makeup!”

At the next stop (7-Eleven naturally), I seize the chance to study my fellow travellers. To my surprise, there are quite a number of families with young children, and at least three senior citizens.

“These trips are excellent opportunities for bonding,” says regular participant Kim Yap. “Many of these are businessmen who have very little quality time to spend with their children and miss out on their growing years.”

Akha women peddlers at the small
markets around Doi Mae Sa Long still
wear their traditional costumes. Akha women peddlers at the small markets around Doi Mae Sa Long still wear their traditional costumes.

And the he-men I’d been expecting? I finally spot them: a long-haired hippie whose tattoo-covered forearms would give Sylvester Stallone a run for his money; the larger-than-life “30 Lim”, who’s built as big as his 4,000cc truck, ; and our group leader from Four-Trax 4X4 Academy, Steven Ng, a gentle giant whose soft-spoken demeanour reminds me of a librarian.

“Where’s the most exciting drive you’ve ever taken?” I ask.

He thinks for a bit. “If I had never done the South American drive, I would say the Himalayas, where we drove up to the roof of the world and enjoyed 360° views, is the most exciting.

“If you talk about challenging mountain ranges, the Tibetan mountain pass is by far the most dangerous highway. The Chinese government calls it the ‘First Road beneath the sky’. The roads hug the mountains, there is rain almost 365 days a year, causing rock and mud avalanches.”

So much for librarian.

“Is that your day job?” I ask.

“Actually no,” he surprises me. “The road adventures are just a side thing I do for fun. Most days I can be found teaching 4WD driving at the academy.”

“Who would want to learn?”

“Without the 4WD, farmers wouldn’t be able to go into hinterland, engineers can’t service your telco towers, and rescue work can’t be performed during natural disasters,” he explains. “The 4WD is a highly-specialised vehicle indispensable to the survival of many industries. In fact, recently we just launched a voluntary team of 4WD professionals who can readily be mobilised during emergencies.”

The men proceed to discuss their strategy for the next stretch of road leading to our lodgings in Doi Mae Salong, a hilltop town 1,800m above sea level.

“The next stretch is lined with the hairpin bends,” says one chap.

“I read that there’s one thousand loops in total...”

“Yup, every car that makes it to the summit is presented with a certificate.”

I nearly choke on my food. One THOUSAND loops? A CERTIFICATE? There must be some kind of mistake. The sound of a whistle pierces the air. “Rolling, rolling!”

We hurry towards our respective vehicles. As our fleet of Land Cruisers, SUV, Hiluxes and Jeeps swoosh in a single file out of the petrol station, everybody turns to look. The CB crackles.

“Sweeper, sweeper. Let us know when you’ve made a right turn.”

“Roger.”

“Convoy, after this, it’s SO-SO all the way.”

“Copy, Car 1.”

They are using 4WD jargon through the CB or communication box. Constant communication with all vehicles at all driving times is part of the everyday experience. Every car is also supplied with a ring-bound dossier with the itinerary, contact details, a map and GPS coordinates, as well as a comprehensive list of do’s and don’ts (“Always make sure the vehicle behind you sees you before making any turn off the main roads”).

An expedition leader at the front and the sweeper at the back of the convoy ensures no one is left behind. Like Steven says, safety is serious business.

After passing a deceptively bucolic stretch of shacks and settlements along a flat road, we reach the foothills of Doi Mae Salong.

From a distance, the dark green mountains ringed with ragged wisps of cottony white mist look surreal and beautiful. That’s before we start the ascent and the road begins to wind back and forth, up and down. And the engine’s sound pitch changes.

“What’s that?” I shoot Dad an alarmed glance.

“Oh, Mr Kan has just stepped on the gas to push the car up the slope.”

The car, which had coasted like an electric train on flatland, now revs up a couple of notches as it battles the double challenge of a steepening incline and never-ending hairpin bends. The consecutive loops send me rolling like a marble across the back seat, from left to right, and back.

The scenery is fantastic – there’s a reason why this part of the world has been called “Alpine-like” − but I’m too rattled to do anything with my camera.

Somewhere around the midway mark, the gradient becomes distinctively steeper and the roads narrower. Incredibly, even at this height, the traffic remains mind-bogglingly busy. In one instant, we squeeze narrowly between a bicycle on the left and an oncoming bus from the front. It’s after this white-knuckle moment that I become aware of an acrid smell.

“Don’t step on the brake too much ...” the communication box crackles.

“Switch your gear to L. Do not use D or you’ll have to change piston,” another chips in.

That doesn’t sound good. I eye my dad with alarm.

“It is important for drivers to continually monitor the driving situation and change gears to avoid overstraining and damaging the engine or brakes. That’s the good thing about convoy – there are buddies to look out for you.”

To conserve energy, we roll down the windows. It helps, but not by much, because our vehicle has the lowest engine capacity.

“And by the way, it takes greater skill to take a smaller cc car up.”

I regard Mr Kan with renewed respect. Since we started climbing, he has barely spoken a word, except to mumble “yes” or “no” when his wife asks him if he needs refreshments.

Despite being one of three first-timers in the group, he remains remarkably calm as he navigates narrow, winding roads that could plunge down to a green abyss with one false move.

My father tugs at my arm and points outside. In between cracks in the trees, I can see the green blanket falling away in an undulating patchwork of tea-plantations, gleaming green rice fields and lush teak forests. From the corner of my eye, the summit is visible where the sun glints on the gilt-wrapped domes and spires of a Buddhist temple.

All of a sudden, I have an epiphany as to why people do crazy things. Like my photographer friends who camp for days waiting for the perfect sunset. And these guys who buy big expensive vehicles only to subject them to punishing drives through treacherous routes.

And momentarily, I forget what fear is.

Most of the time, though, it feels like we’ll never get there. The guys were NOT kidding about the 1,000 loops. Then, after a military checkpoint that follows a sudden spurt of switchbacks, the view suddenly opens up to a village setting.

I alight unsteadily and try to locate my butt, which has lost all sensation. My knees feel like jelly. While waiting for my heart to resume its normal pace, I look around.

The building where we’re lunching is framed with thick-foliaged trees and overlooks a small grove. Underneath the trees, a few ladies in elaborate attire sit on the grass, blankets spread out in front, piled with colourful souvenirs.

I didn’t know then that the residents of Doi Mae Salong are direct descendants of Yunnan natives, and the little town was founded in the 1960s by former Kuomintang soldiers who had been expelled from Myanmar, only to plunge into a power struggle with local drug barons for the lucrative opium and heroin market. I only know that I feel like I just walked into a National Geographic documentary.

A tiny hand tugs at mine, pulling my gaze downwards. It belongs to the cutest little girl I’ve ever seen. She is wearing a colourful headdress with red tassels, dressed in a heavy vest made of silver bells. Her hand is clutching a bunch of bracelets. I point to the most colourful handwoven bracelet in her hand.

Thao rai (how much)?”

Ngi sip baht (twenty baht),” she whispers shyly.

I hand her a green note and tie my new souvenir around my bag. And then I walk down the grassy meadow that carpets the trail to the restaurant to savour what’s awaiting me: a hot meal, and the next chapter of my once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

Alexandra Wong’s adventurous parents eventually clocked more than 5000km on wheels in a two-week journey through Phathalung, Hua Hin, Lop Buri, Uthai Thani, Mae Sot, Mae Sariang, Chiengmai, Doi Mae Salong, Sukhotai, Bangkok and Hatyai.

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