Drive Around The World (Australia)

One family, one car, one year, one planet

Hat Yai – Bangkok, Thailand, Day 55-60, 30 May-4 June 2008

Hat Yai – Bangkok, Thailand

Day 55-60, 30 May – 4 June 2008


‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’ – Stevie Wonder

‘Drive and Reflex’ – The Models

SK: From Penang it was a straight run on the expressway to the border. Slowly traffic dropped off, with cars and bikes veering to the off-ramps the further north we travelled. From tollbooth to tollbooth, truck numbers increased, and we began to notice cars with Thai numberplates, heading home.

We stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch, and at the same time were able to purchase Thai insurance for the car, change money, and prepare ourselves for another border crossing. Leaving Malaysia was straightforward: the carnet was stamped in the customs office with minimal direction required, again there were raised eyebrows at the roof pack, and when we identified ourselves as Australian, we were waved through.

(Pic: The Malaysia-Thai border)

Entering the Thai border at Sadao was different. There were cars, trucks, scooters and people everywhere. We were directed past the customs point and were waved into a car park crowded with all kinds of vehicles. We then stood in one queue, then another, in the heat, humidity and fumes, to get our passports stamped. After following a number of false leads we eventually found the right queue to obtain an entry permit for our car. It was hot and dusty, but fortunately a gaggle of monkeys entertained the kids. (Gaggle? What is the collective noun for monkeys? Troop? Tribe? Football Club? Liberal Party fundraiser? [DB])

When it came to our turn, the customs officer looked with interest at the carnet, and began entering details onto her computer for the permit. Then her computer crashed. And crashed again. Meanwhile the queue behind us was growing longer and beginning to mutter. She eventually got a screen up that appeared to have the details of the previous car permit, and just substituted ours. We noted later that she unfortunately left in some details from the other vehicle: listing the make of our car as Toyota, not Nissan; noting Nissan as the model, rather than Patrol. Also, she had the car colour as grey, not burgundy. Despite our advice to her that we were exiting from Bangkok, she also (we found out later) had Sadao as our exit point. All this would come back to bite us.

As she printed the document, hands were waving new papers at her and elbows were pushing us aside, as the people behind surged forward. We grabbed our papers, had the carnet stamped at the next window, and got out of there.

There we were, driving in Thailand! It was a great sense of achievement to have crossed another border. The kids commented that the landscape hadn’t changed that much from Malaysia, the main difference being that now everything was written in a script we didn’t understand and couldn’t read. We headed to Hat Yai.

DB: The south of Thailand has been a hotbed of Muslim activism, and some terrorist activity, in recent years. This is something we did not tell our parents about beforehand. But realistically it was the only way into Thailand from Malaysia that didn’t involve many extra hours in the saddle. We had spent hours getting through the border and it was already getting late.

(Pic: The rain sets in – Hat Yai)

Not knowing Thai script meant not knowing what the bulk of the road and street signs actually said. The major ones were also in English, but this didn’t help all that much when we drove into Hat Yai town. Making it more difficult was the enormous storm that met us at the city limits.

We were aiming for a particular hotel mentioned in our travel guide, and Sandy was basing our route on its rudimentary map of the city. Unfortunately the road marked as the city entrance was not the one we entered on (even though we came in on the highway), which threw the rest of the reference points out. It was getting hopeless. The choices were: a) hire a taxi for us to follow to the hotel; b) drive around aimlessly in the rain until we find it, or; c) check out that huge monolith of a hotel right there that isn’t mentioned in our guide-book.

The J.B. Hotel was a treat. I was expecting Bobby Byrd to introduce “The hardest working man in show-business, Mr Dynamite…” or the concierge to announce: “I wanna get up and do my thang,” but we were eventually shown to our two adjoining rooms overlooking the city. The hotel was enormous, and a testament and salute to the crumbling grandeur of an early 1980s structural aesthetic. Bombings and threats had sent tourists away in droves; now, only business opportunists really came. So, the restaurants, bars, car-park and pool were essentially deserted. And hence, nobody spoke English at all – there was simply no need. And, aside from our rudimentary greetings, thankyous and a few foods, our Thai was pretty rusty. And here we were.

There were armed guards everywhere, including along the elevated driveway in front of the hotel entrance, where we had to park the truck – it was too tall to get into the car-park. Our truck would have the guards’ full and undivided attention all night, which made us happy.

We had been on the go for almost a week and needed some r and r. It was a strange place to choose, but it was cheap, clean, we could get some laundry done, it had free internet access and it was comfortable. We decided not to venture out into the town just yet but instead just get some quality time with us.

It was obvious this place was struggling. We were amused we were the only customers in the hotel’s posh Chinese restaurant, and there was only one chair near the pool. In fact, the staff greatly outnumbered the residents.

We eventually did venture out into the town the following day and received some stares and acknowledgements, and nothing but politeness, friendliness and assistance. We were able to buy lunch, drinks and a newspaper, and it got us thinking about the basic ways of life for the vast bulk of people – just getting on. The tensions in this area had already been documented, yet here were children getting out of school and buying treats at a local vendor, a couple of young adults touting for new customers for a mobile phone company, and people getting on with their shopping and errands. We were a novelty as we were the only ‘western’ faces there, but that’s about the only difference.

We had had breakfast in the second restaurant that morning that felt like a camp mess hall, except with waiters hovering around nervously, waiting for something to happen, so we decided to try our luck out on one of the main strips again for dinner. We had seen a couple of restaurants that looked promising earlier in the day, but by nightfall the streets were basically deserted, and the rain had set in again. So, back to the hotel mess hall, where we had a reasonable meal, accompanied by a three-piece band: a man in his 50s playing a rickety tenor saxophone, and two young men who looked to only be there for the pittance they would be earning and at the same time dreaming of power chords and filled auditoriums, on bass and a piano in serious need of tuning. Playing to a backing track, the saxophonist played every fifth or sixth song, in between telling the other guys what songs to play along to a click track. And this was our introduction to standard Thai musical repertoire – the nauseating 1980s ballad.

The restaurant was huge and opened onto a separate street entrance, theoretically inviting other punters in, but we were the only group there, aside from an American who insisted on calling people on his mobile phone and commencing conversations with ‘Hi! You’ll never guess where I am!’ and a large Chinese businessman who seemed to enjoy making a mess of his table (we would see him again later asleep in the dimly lit cocktail lounge with his shoeless feet on a table, showing scant regard for Thai etiquette).

We sang along to the old favourites – Stevie Wonder’s most appalling and unfortunate ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’ being a highlight – and applauding each song. We even threatened to get up and dance and the children equally threatened to leave (see Glen Helen, NT), and we weren’t sure about them wandering the streets of Hat Yai at night. When we had finished dinner and were leaving the restaurant, leaving the musos to entertain the staff, we were the ones who almost got a standing ovation.

(Pic: JB Hotel)

That night there was a banner hoisted up in reception welcoming a Malaysian four-wheel-drive club. We tracked them down in the morning and shared some travel stories, and then headed back out into Thailand. We now had some serious driving to do as we had confirmation about when our shipping company needed the truck in Bangkok for its journey to Los Angeles. We had the option of pushing that back a week, but we were already behind time with the Singapore drama.

We had a choice of Highway 4 through the middle of the southern Thai peninsula, or along the east coast. The map seemed to indicate that both roads were as big as each other, but given our experience of ‘B’ roads in Malaysia, we were concerned with the coastal road’s congestion, and therefore the amount of time it would take to traverse it.

SK: We needn’t have worried. The coastal road from Hat Yai, through Songkhla and north to Sichon was quiet and picturesque. We pulled over at a small fishing village and walked along the pier strewn with discarded sea life: small round fish, crabs and starfish. A skilled young fisherman was reeling in garfish, one after another, their narrow, glistening, green bodies flopping feebly on the concrete, while the Muslim call to prayer wafted across the air.

(Pic: Maddy and Raffy watching the fishermen)                        

Slowly, as we travelled north, elegant mosques gave way to riotously coloured wats. We were delighted and fascinated with these Buddhist temples, their golden buildings with decorative red gables, and the huge statutes of Buddha that would appear suddenly around a bend. After some time, of course, we degenerated into “what wat was that?” jokes.

DB: Something that surprised us about driving in rural Thailand was that almost every vehicle on the road was a ute (utility, pick-up). No matter what people did or needed a vehicle for, almost everyone drove a flimsy two-seater ute. Memo to the people of Deniliquin: if you want to see a real ute muster, go to Thailand, though we didn’t get to see any circle work.

Of course, utes are useful for carting around stuff, but in Thailand the size of the ute did not necessarily reflect the amount of cargo – human or otherwise – that could and would be loaded into it.

(Pic: Some workers in a ute)

Another point of interest for me at least was “cultural road etiquette”, otherwise known as “you’ve got to be kidding me.” For example, in my formative years behind the wheel I got used to using a car’s indicator to alert other drivers that I intend to change lanes, or turn. In Thailand it became apparent that upon seeing another driver indicate requires you to speed up to close the gap immediately. So, the contrary approach to lane changes is simply not to tell anyone you’re going to do it. Hence, indicators don’t get used, except perhaps if you want to tell other drivers that you aren’t actually going anywhere. For example, you swing out into the right-hand lane and only then flick on your right indicator that is supposed to tell others that you don’t actually intend on moving back to the left side of the road – regardless of what is coming towards you. “I shall not waiver – I am protected by the power of Flashing Orange Light!”

(Pic: Same workers 30 seconds later!)

The ‘turn left anytime with care’ rule is also one to mention, particularly because, while it applies to some places like parts of North America and Europe, it officially does not in Thailand. Which, obviously, means that if you intend to turn left but wait at the red light, then the traffic behind you will give you all kinds of hell because you are simply obeying the rules. Simple, really. Of course. How silly of me.

Oh, and don’t get me started about not sticking to a lane. It seems those pesky white lines on a road are intended to go underneath your vehicle, not alongside. It’s really about hedging your bets – maybe I’ll stay in this lane, or I might just veer into the other one – but of course it means that on a multi-lane road, every vehicle has to compensate, with the driver in the extreme right lane ending up with wheels on dirt, grass or perilously close to a concrete barrier.

(Pic: A you-beaut-ute)

Lane changes in Thailand are quite fascinating – ad hoc, unexpected and often somewhat violent. Bus drivers particularly are adept at pulling on their steering wheels with a motion akin to ringing a church bell. Watching them right their vehicle on springs and shock absorbers that have seen better days is like watching a drunk waiter with a very large wedding cake.

SK: We stopped for morning tea in the small town of Pak Phanang, feasting on sugar doughnuts and iced tea in plastic bags, and ute-watching. On the small country roads as well as the highway we marvelled at the hundreds of these vehicles laden far beyond belief with all kinds of things: durian, rambutan, banana, people (!), baskets of seafood, palm fruit destined for the oil refineries, and more.

(Pic: Hang on, I think there’s more room…)

DB: Sichon was a small beach community with a couple of resorts that were deserted after the peak holiday season. We stayed at the Issara resort – a small family run place that served us magnificent Thai food on the beach after we had splashed around in warm turquoise water. The local kids were fascinated with Maddy and Raffy and, as they all swam, bombarded them with questions (the same questions over and over – “where are you from” and “how old are you”. Though repetitive, our kids acknowledged that this was greater than their own knowledge of Thai). That night there was a family dinner for the matriarch (“Mama”) complete with karaoke performances. We were invited to sing, but, again, the children forbade us, so instead we grinned at family members, young and old, saddling up in front of the computer screen and under three slowly flashing coloured lights, singing mournful Thai ballads, with eyes closed and appropriate hand gestures. We presented Mama with one of our koala key rings as a birthday present, and the delighted family showered us with extra dinner treats.

(Pic: Danny thinks about a lie down)

The next day we continued north along the east coast of Thailand (I just like saying it – pretty cool, eh?). For the first time, we got waved down by traffic police. With some concern, I wound down my window. Apparently we were being chastised for driving too fast in the wrong lane,  as opposed to everyone else who was hurtling past us in all lanes. Fortunately, we were sent away with a warning, but we were still unsure of what we had done!

Just before Surat Thani we turned off the highway and rattled down a one lane road to Wat Tham Kuha, the Temple of the Missing Bull, a cave inhabited by a large reclining Buddha, and others depicted in the Srivijaya and Indian Pallava styles. Raffy, the keen spelunker, was more interested in following the steep steps deeper into the cave, where dozens of bats squeaked and whirled. 

Continuing through Surat Thani and various fishing villages, we went over the Isthmus of Kra – the land bridge joining mainland Asia and the Malay Peninsula. We didn’t see any commemorative signage – we only know about it because of our HEMA map. We turned right at Chumphon to the small village of Hat Sairi. Again, there were no tourists in sight and, probably due to it being out of the way of the more popular tourist destinations, was doing it tough. We found a decent room on the beach, a place to park the truck next to the room, and a reasonable meal with it, but a walk through town showed us a few dour shops in amongst abandoned ones, and crumbling roads and footpaths and stray dogs who may or may not have had better days. Nevertheless, our view onto the sea was mesmerising, watching fishermen in traditional boats trawling the waters, dropping traps and transforming the waters around them with blazing light as the sun went down to attract the bugs that would in turn attract the fish.

It was also our introduction to Thailand’s infamous ‘kathoey’ – Thailand’s ‘third gender’ or ‘lady boys’. A well-established community across Thailand, these mostly muscular and rather imposing men with perfectly coiffed hair and delicate make-up, proved fascinating to Maddy and Raffy!

SK: As our hosts couldn’t rouse themselves for breakfast the next day, we headed into Chumphon lured by the promise of vegemite toast at the Fame café. We are rationing our own supplies of the black gold, and were keen to refuel.

(Pic: Playing with the locals in Hat Sairi)

DB: It was here where we noticed the Thai’s attraction to caged birds. We remain unsure if this day was a particular ‘giving of caged birds’ day, but hundreds of people were riding scooters and motorbikes while holding intricate timber cages with a bird of some description in it. We then began noticing bird cages hanging in front of houses, shops and restaurants everywhere.

Continuing north we came within 11km of the Burmese border and then struck gold. Past Bang Saphan and Thap Sakae we stumbled upon Prachuap Khirikhan (go on, say it). Our map provided us with a reasonably direct route into town, until a large hoarding of some sort unceremoniously blocked the road. We back-tracked and got around what seemed to be a very large market and made our way to a relatively new hotel called, somewhat less confusingly, the Sun Beach Guest House, located ten meters from the beach. After checking in we asked about the blocked road and were told that tonight was the last night of a big festival. A festival of what, we remain unsure, but like most festivals it involved fun, frivolity, music and embarrassing amounts of magnificent food.

(Pic: Fishing boats at low tide, PKK)

So, after swims in the slick guesthouse pool we headed out into the evening along the beach road into the festival and gorged on fish and seafood caught that day from these very shores. The kids had a few rides on some carnival favourites and we trawled the markets. That night we again watched fishing boats head out and fell asleep to the quiet waves lapping the shore.

(Pic Khao Chong Krajok)

SK: The next morning we drove around the base of Khao Chong Krajok, “Mirror Tunnel Mountain”, on top of which sits Wat Thammikaram. The mountain is inhabited by monkeys, which, to our delight, had come down just when we were driving by, lured by a ute (of course) with fruit for them.

From PKK (NB – not the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [DB]), which is actually the provincial capital, it was a straight run to Bangkok. We were travelling well until we got closer to the capital, and the roads deteriorated due to, well, road works! And of course, after passing numerous road-side stalls, by the time we decided to stop for lunch, no more stalls were to be found. We eventually found an oasis on the other side of the highway near an off ramp, and after some creative parking by Danny on the footpath (the benefits of a four wheel drive) we had lunch alongside eight lanes of heavy Thai traffic. Our little oasis, it must be said, comprised a delightful little garden complete with songbirds in cages, Cliff Richard singing “Lemon Tree”, and carefully nurtured grass.

With great trepidation on my part, map clutched in sweaty hands, we approached Bangkok. I thought that it would be a repeat of Hat Yai, in which we drove round in circles, with landmarks and streets appearing at wrong angles, and back to front. Yet it all went quite smoothly. We got off the expressway near to where we needed to be, though not where I had originally intended. Danny created lanes where there were none, again subscribing to the might is right rule which worked beautifully. We turned right onto Th. Sukhumvit (the main road off which our apartment was located), and assertively continued straight along the road despite all the other traffic turning left. I was too concerned about finding our way back onto Sukhumvit in the maze of freeways and one-way streets, so we drove solo along a bus lane. The traffic cop in the middle of the intersection wasn’t too concerned. He advised us that it was a bus lane, and then amiably ignored us. We counted the Sois, the numbered side streets running off a main road, until we got to Sukhumvit Soi 15 and turned left. There it was, our building in the distance, with another slight road irritation between it and us – the street became one way – the other way. Again figuring we could interpret the road rules as well as anyone else, we proceeded against the traffic, and noted taxis, cars and motorbikes doing the same thing. (Well, we were only going one way [DB]).

(Pic: Catch of the day, PKK)

With great relief and delight, we pulled into the car park of Star Suites, and parked (with centimetres to spare) undercover.

Hello Bangkok!



  Tim Ramsey wrote @

I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog.

Tim Ramsey

  Kate and Brenna wrote @


great blog on your Thai travails. We love the pictures too. Clearly there are some fascinating modes of transportation in SE Asia as evidenced by your photos.

Brenna has to do a project on Buddhism and we were just trawling the web for photos of the Buddha, so the shot of the reclining Buddha was very timely. Any questions on Buddhism, just ask Brenna she knows it all now!

Hope to SKYPE you soon in the US of A.

Cheers, Kate and Brenna

  David Taylor wrote @

HI Guys,
Great reading, yet again. And the photos help to illustrate your descriptions. What about the utes. Many a traddie in Oz would love to be there. By the height of their loads, I can’t imagine there is much wind there. Is that Raffy being tossed up in the water. What fun! The water & beach look great.
Hope you”re all well, Keep smiling,
Luv, David.

  Wally wrote @

Hi DSMR First of all shabat shalom I have just read your last entry and I found it very interesting. Thats not the way I taught you to drive.As I mention last time Eleanor listens to Lon Faine and to day was his last day on radio. I think he is leaving on Sunday. He also has a web page called http://www.melbournetolondon .com If you are interested. Also what is a Spelunker Love your site will follow it all the way, Wally.

  auntiefranny wrote @

Hi all, love reading your wonderful travel adventures. Enjoy U.S A, very different from Thailand. Gabi,Daniel and Jasmine thank you for the gorgeous outfit…hopefully send you some photos of her soon.
Carly left last week and is in Israel for a month…very hot.
Miss you all and look forward to reading the next installment.
Be safe and have fun! Fran and co. xxx

  jazzah wrote @

come on drtwbloggers, what have you been up to for the last month? are you in the land of the free and the large, homing in on the braves? please bring us obama souv’nirs.

i don’t think we can take your survivor chicken 😦 but we would like to offer you 500 million bucks to send her to nauru. there’s a huge chook run up there that hasn’t been used for a few years.

  Rosie wrote @

Hi, I’m from Malaysia and I’m planning to drive to Bangkok through Danok. What you wrote on your journey to Bangkok will sure help me a lot. Tq

  drivearoundtheworld wrote @

Hi Rosie
Thanks for your comment. Let us know if you need any more information.
Sandra and Danny

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