It feels like hours since we last stopped. I’m cramped from sitting hunched over and my sweaty legs are sliding all over the vinyl seats.
“Ugh … ooofff … damn!” I grunt as we bang over a pothole, the jolt making my spine throb. The 53-year-old Land Rover bucks like an angry bull, its suspension rigid with age and practicality.
“Turn right here,” I shout at the driver, Torben. The crunching of knobby tyres on tarmac, a throbbing diesel engine and windows open for the fresh air – the air-con having long since given up – rob our conversation of nuance.
We jounce down a narrow dirt lane atop a dyke, with fish ponds on either side and no one in sight.
“Where do you think this goes?” Torben asks, clenching the wheel as he pumps the heavy clutch and drops a gear. The transmission gives a rattling snarl.
“I have no idea. Let’s see.”
The road ends next to a loading chute built of bamboo. There is a river, slow and muddy, and the stench of fish.
“We should have brought our fishing gear,” Johnny crows as we stand on the river bank, breathing in the humid air, still and heavy with heat. Thailand can get very hot.
Torben bought the vintage Land Rover Series IIA in Bangkok and needed to take it south, to Phuket, where he is building a home. “Road trip!” Johnny and I chorused the moment we heard that.
We’re taking Route 4, also known as Phetkasem Road, most of the way, and Google Maps has predicted the nearly 900km trip will take 13 hours. It hasn’t, however, allowed for the fact we’re taking side roads that add distance and time but lead us through villages and farmland and down to the sea.
We stop to buy mangoes and pineapples at roadside stalls and steer into gravel pits and palm oil plantations. The Thai countryside is sprinkled with small cafés, some of which we stop at for coffee – and to check the engine oil in the ageing Land Rover, which draws plenty of attention.
Every road trip needs at least one dodgy hotel, and we find ours in Chumphon, a beach town of 35,000 people that served as a wartime rail hub for the Japanese and is now a transit point for tourists catching ferries to Koh Tao. Having failed to find vacancies in more reputable establishments, we settle for a seemingly nameless place that feels like a prison, with a hard facade and harder beds. There are no bars or restaurants in sight, so we sit on the concrete steps outside our rooms to drink a few beers before turning in.
The next morning we drive west to the Kraburi river, which marks the border between Thailand and Myanmar. The river is muddy and narrow, and Myanmar just a skimming stone’s throw away. We follow the Kraburi south to its wide estuary, thick with mangrove forests, and stop in gritty Ranong, Thailand’s main Indian Ocean port, for a lunch of rice, curry and pickled vegetables that taste better than they look.
Route 4, Thailand’s longest highway, is studded with waterfalls, which are beautiful when there’s water, but we’re making our trip during a drought. We do, however, pass plenty of temples with ornate, colourful entrance arches and golden, bell-shaped roofs that brighten the journey, and innumerable small roadside restaurants serving excellent, cheap food.
One of the best parts of a road trip is seeing the scenery, culture and climate subtly change with the kilometres. Despite the drought, the landscape becomes greener as we drive south. Soon the road begins to climb up and down the seaside mountains. Mosques become more plentiful and ports and beaches more prominent, emphasising the sea’s place at the heart of everyday life.
With the windows open we also enjoy – or suffer – the changing smells; the loamy whiff of dung as we pass an elephant sanctuary, the sharp tang of dried fish near the sea and the smoke from burning fields in the cultivated river flats.
A random right turn off Route 4 takes us through flat pasture populated with cattle and goats to a quiet, humble seaside resort and campsite. The grass is brown, the hotel a series of concrete-block buildings with tin roofs reflecting the blazing sun. A solitary Russian couple eat watermelon at a picnic table on the beach while long-horned cattle wander across the sun-baked sand.
The small road passes a tall white building, open sided with wide steps. It is a disaster shelter. Route 4 winds through some of the areas hardest hit by the 2004 tsunami. Seaside villages still bear the scars; barren lots, ruined buildings and signs pointing to the nearest shelter.
Back on the highway, we stay in the slow lane – the old Land Rover doesn’t like to go faster than 80km/h – and cheer each time we overtake another vehicle. Still, we push it hard for a few hours to reach Khao Lak, a quiet resort town 60km north of Phuket. We arrive in time to check into a hotel – this one with a pool – mix our own rum and cokes, and take them down to the beach for a sunset swim.
South of Khao Lak and just off Route 4 is Police Boat 813, a chilling memorial to the awesome strength of the tsunami. The boat was a nautical mile offshore, guarding Her Royal Highness Ubonrat Rajakanya Siriwaddhana Phannawaddee and her family, who were staying in the nearby La Flora Resort, when it was hit. The incoming water swept the 80-foot steel boat almost 2km inland and it remains where it was unceremoniously deposited, the focus of the new International Tsunami Museum.
In Phuket, we park the Land Rover and take a taxi to the airport. As I settle into my seat on the plane, I notice the map of our route back to Hong Kong on the video screen.
“Look,” I say, giving Torben a nudge. “We drove almost half that distance and it took us days. Now we’ll be home in a few hours.”
“Yeah,” he says. “But it won’t be anywhere near as much fun.”
Five tips for a successful road trip in Thailand
Renting an insured car in Thailand is straightforward and affordable. Avis and Budget both have networks in the country.
Buy or borrow paper maps in addition to installing GPS/mapping apps on your smartphone. Hong Kong public libraries have an extensive map collection for loan.
Get yourself a local data card for your phone; you’ll be doing a lot of internet searches for directions, local sights, hotels, translations, etc.
Obtain an international driver’s licence before you go. You risk having to pay a fine or bribe at Thai roadblocks if you don’t have one.
Carry a cooler filled with ice for cold drinks as you go; it allows for short hikes and beach breaks as you find them.