ENJOYING a picnic while watching the sunset on the roof of a restored 1973 VW Kombi camper van sounds like something on an exotic location from a movie scene.
What if I told you there is a way for people to experience this in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah?
Suchen SK, a local photographer who has travelled to 45 countries, two of which were on a working holiday visa, made it his mission to restore the VW Kombi he bought in 2012, not only as a mode of transport for him but for locals and tourists to enjoy in Kota Kinabalu.
Soft brown leather seats and red panelling on the dashboard of the camper van.
His niche is offering his customers something that no one else does – a special sightseeing experience in a groovy vehicle.
But more importantly, it should not be misconstrued that Suchen is a tour guide. He provides a photography experience and as he is an expert photo crafter, you can get useful tips for taking good photos.
“The VW Kombi is not a tour bus. I can drive you to Mount Kinabalu in a regular car, but the journey (in the Kombi) is a rare experience.
“Those who own a similar VW Kombi don’t take it out (for people to ride in), but I do and it can be rented for photo shoots and as a wedding car,” said the 40-something Suchen, short for Suchendran.
The back portion has seats that pull out into a bed.
Tall and with a head full of dreadlocks he has kept for over 20 years, Suchen’s pleasant disposition and wit complements the favourable rapport he has with his customers and friends.
It was his friend, Terence, who introduced him to the world of Volkswagens. Suchen initially wanted to get a four-wheel drive for his two dogs.
“We made a road trip to Melaka to buy used car parts for Terence’s VW. A worker at the shop said there was another VW Kombi for sale and took us to see it.
“It belonged to a former company founder. I bought it for RM25,000,” said Suchen who spent close to RM100,000 to restore the VW Kombi.
Suchen calls himself a perfectionist considering that after he bought the van, he ended up doing everything – from stripping the entire vehicle to rebuilding the engine, wiring and body.
Suchen with the 1973 VW Kombi he purchased in 2012 before it was modified. – Photos courtesy of SK Suchen
From Melaka, the VW Kombi was towed back to Klang.
“The engine and the clutch were a goner. Rebuilding the engine was done in Klang, body work and interior in Petaling Jaya, and the initial roof rack as well as door hinges and some fine tuning was done in Bangkok, Thailand.”
Suchen designed the current roof rack, made in a small workshop run by a father and son team in Kota Kinabalu.
Oh yes, Suchen’s VW Kombi has the much-talked about roof rack where you can kick back and relax with refreshments while enjoying the scenery.
The roof rack, he said, was completed last year.
“There are lots of breathtaking places in Sabah.
“Often, I like to park the VW and have a picnic but finding a space is not easy. I often end up on the beach in Tanjung Aru but some areas there have red ants.”
Suchen designed and customised the roof rack, which is equipped with turfgrass to create a barrier from the sun’s heat.
Initially, he installed a slide-in ladder with a double-locking system, where when pulled out, functions as a bicycle carrier.
Suchen (right) and his guest relaxing on the roof rack out in Kota Kinabalu.
“When I’m travelling, I don’t want to take the van out once I park, so the bicycle allows me to move around.
“But I realised this ladder was a pain to unscrew and pull out and put back in every time I wanted to go up on the roof, especially when I want to have a quick stop to take a picture from a higher level. So, I built a permanent ladder on the side.
“Now, I can park anywhere and enjoy the view from the roof,” he said.
He took the VW Kombi on a road trip from Kuala Lumpur to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam and after the interior was done, it was shipped to Kota Kinabalu in 2013.
He has kept most of the interior look as close to the original 1970s as possible, like the dashboard with red panels and the fact that the van did not come with safety belts.
“Original classic cars have no safety belts, and it passed Puspakom inspection, but I might install them one day.”
The seats are in dark and light brown leather, and the ones in the back can be converted into a pull-out bed.
The souped-up part is the Bose home sound system fitted at the back and front, and fear not, it has air-conditioning.
There is even a custom-made wooden mini bar for guests to enjoy drinks while on their trip.
“I like the look of a retro car, but not the headache of one. Inside must be modern.”
Suchen visualised a pull-out bed and some people said it couldn’t be done, but he did it.
A noticeable feature is the over 100 champagne corks that fill the dashboard, Rastacap and a Bob Marley spare tyre cover, exuding an overall reggae feel.
“The corks are my collection since 2007 during outings with friends. Each cork is labelled and has its own memory.”
If you visit Tripadvisor, you can look for Suchen by typing “The Classic VW Kombi Photography Experience”.
For RM300 per person, Suchen will drive you around for some sightseeing for three to four hours and offer advice on what to do in Kota Kinabalu. Trips to Kundasang or Kinabalu National Park and other places are also on his list.
Or, you can hop on the roof rack and just relax.
“The locals and tourists love this. Many people have said it is like their dream car.”
As I watched the picture perfect sunset in Tanjung Aru from Suchen’s roof rack of course, I lost count of how many people stared in awe at the VW Kombi.
It is definitely a good way to make friends.
“I can be on the road at a traffic light, and the person in the car next will automatically smile and give me a thumbs up. It makes people happy.”