Delightful Northern Thailand 7 – Driving On
Smoothly our jeep rolls north on highway 107. Our northern Thai adventure goes on. Ahead of us lie places like Chiang Dao, Ang Khang, Mae Fah Luang and Mae Salong – great valleys, gorgeous mountains, interesting Royal projects. Flowers, rivers, pagodas, good food and good life in pleasant countryside. Chiang Rai town we will skip – for us, it's all about nature. Oh, and my tourist visa is running out; I'll have to step into Myanmar for a minute at Mae Sai.
North of Mae Tang, our ugly, but reliable Suzuki Vitara brick takes us into narrow Ping
river valley. Little traffic, good road, pleasant driving throughout. We roll through light forest, when we meet a heavy truck ahead of us. Asthmatically it chugs up a harmless ascent.
"Too bad", I comment to Norah, "now this truck will block us for another 15 kilometers". She doesn't care. It's curve after curve, and there is no way of passing the slow mover.
Suddenly, on an uphill stretch, the truck moves very hard to the left shoulder and sets the indicator to the left side, too. But it doesn't get to a halt. "See that", I say to Norah, "he signals we can pass him now."
What a considerate driver. I step onto the accelerator pedal and try to gain speed. But I forgot I'm driving an automatic. Instead of getting faster, the dull car switches into highest gear and promptly looses the steam needed to accelerate. The truck driver is waiting for me to pass him. I am on the opposite lane, Suzuki is howling – but refusing to zoom past. We fall back again.
Maybe I should learn how to properly handle a 4WD automatic car? I know I can force it to stay in second gear, but that's not appropriate in our situation now.
What a shame! Now we have this cooperating truck driver, and I am not able to use his offer and get past him. What does Nora think of my failure? I look at her – she doesn't care. Or does she?
"Sorry, darling", I say, "I wanted to pass the dull truck, but I didn't know how to make the jeep faster on this uphill section. Sorry." – "Oh HANS!", she replies, "you drive so very careful – I like very much!!" – I soak up the admiring look from her warm almond eyes. Deep inside I know I am one of the smartest drivers between Singapore and Ulan Bator.
— A PLEASANT JOURNEY —
Up there I called it an "adventure". But really, it's just a pleasant journey. Northern Thailand is so bourgois, westernized and developed, that we don't come across any actual adventures.
Before starting out from Chiang Mai I had *believed*, simply driving a car in Thailand would be an adventure. While I was born and raised in Old Europe, i.e. to the believe that an automatic car is for dumbheads only, in Thailand I ordered the more expensive automatic version; I felt Thai traffic and all might be too much for me if I have to divert attention to the gearshift.
But it's such an easy ride. Just get out of busy Chiang Mai alive, and after that the roads are good, scenic and empty. The general driving style is not hazardous; remember: even truck drivers offer to let us pass them on narrow strips; more than I would expect in my Farangland home place.
I wasn't exactly scared of driving on the wrong side of road, as is custom in Thailand. I did that on bicycle and motorbike a lot. I feel it's a bit like talking in a foreign language. I have to think for a short moment, but I do get across. I even see it as a holiday fun challenge: talking languages I don't know and driving a car on the wrong side of road. (With a car I don't understand.)
— OUR GREAT RED BRICK —
Our Suzuki Vitara Long is the most forgiving we could find. My only woe: the left speaker always drops from its recess into the footwell and onto my often bare feet; last time it happened, even the cables broke. I then tossed the useless thing into the car's back areas, where it now rolls around without causing further damage. If you ask for suggestions, I'd also say, make the car boot so that it doesn't suck in dust like a vacuum cleaner. But Vitara has space galore, and I can mishandle it to any degree – it simply roars on.
South of Ban Wat Chan our poor jeep had to howl up the very worst roads imaginable – heavy-duty pothole research, but it milled on without a complaint. While grinding uphill with many rotations, I watched the coolant temperature all the time; but the pointer never moved near the red area. Next time around, instead of looking for another overpriced Honda Jazz from Northern Wheels, I rent another Vitara Long again. Even if once more I have no plans to do off-road.
After our trip, I was worried to return the car. The jeep was badly covered in red dust. I would have taken it to a car-wash – but did you see a car-wash in, say, Nong Ouk or Chai Prakan? And I had no plan to spoil my holiday with a Thai style car wash, next to a river.
But it wasn't just the dirt. Right on the first 20 meters in Chiang Mai, the talented Farang driver had steered the car scratching along a fence. Later on, the jeep was hugged by many a bush. All that left traces in the red dirt layer – if the coating is damaged, I can't really say. Another potential problem is the left speaker I had tossed into the back.
— RETURNING THE CAR —
So one morning, after a four-hours drive back from the Ang Khang area, I drop Norah at Chiang Mai airport. I drive back to town and grab a room at Diamond Riverside. Then I have to prepare for the rental agency. Will they complain we stayed away 23 days, instead "maybe ten or twelve", as I'd said before? Will they inspect the car with all it's dust and maybe scratches? I've seen another agency, "Mr. Beer", inspecting 10-Baht-bicycle-wrecks upon return.
No, I won't drive the car straight to the agency. Parking and driving on central Moon Muang road is no fun; who knows what happens when I just try to maneuver the brick into a narrow parking space with the capital's traffic flowing all around? So I stroll into town, change enough money for the rental car and a dinner at "La Brasserie" and nervously walk further to the agency, where I am welcomed with –
– a big smile!! I am treated as a lost son! "Hey", cheers the manager, "I thought by now you drove to China or what!" – "Why, we just saw some of Northern Thailand, mostly Chiang Mai province." – "Yes, but you said you need ten or twelve days, and now it's more than twenty! And I tried to call your mobile number, but the system said it's off!" – "Oh, sorry, that's because we stayed in places like Chiang Dao and Ang Khang, DTAC has bad reception there."
"Anyway", he beams, "now you're here!" – He still looks as if he wants to hug me. "Everything ok?" – "Everything ok!" – We write up the bill and don't forget the agreed discount and the deposit I had paid. I give him the key and say the car is on the parking lot at the Diamond Riverside. – "Okay", he says, "I go there later and pick it up." – "So, everything finished", I ask? – "Yes, that's it for you!"
He lets me go without a proof that the car is actually there. I wander back to Loi Khro road and rent a motorcycle. I ride motosai to the electronic malls on the northeastern corner of the moat: After I smuggled my MP3 player into Norah's handbag at the airport, I need a new one. From gadget headquarters it's a short hop over to Fern Forest Café for a stylish afternoon short cake.
Around 5 p.m. I return to the hotel. I need a shower before sundowner and dinner at La Brasserie. Just when I walk out again, already squeezing the helmet onto my head, I remember something: Hey – we had a car for 23 days, where is it?
I look across the parking lot. The car is gone.
Very nice indeed.