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Car Trouble In Paradise

  • Written by Mr. Lucky
  • March 15th, 2006
  • 8 min read

Anyone brave enough to invest in a used vehicle must be prepared to play the tragic hero in an ongoing saga of automotive maintenance. I embarked on my own Odyssean epic when I purchased a thirteen-year-old truck from an American guy in Chonburi. I tried to hedge my bets by choosing a reliable model, the Toyota Hilux, but inevitably I was targeted by the evil engine-gremlins of Loki, the Norse god of car troubles (and insurance companies, incidentally).

Fortunately in Thailand, while outlandish import taxes keep even used car prices in the clouds, maintenance comes dirt-cheap. With the national average wage at around 4,000 baht per month, it seems most Thais purchase cars by going into debt for the remainder of their lives and the lives of their children. So maintenance is key. No way are they going to let the car die before they do. I know a farmer who daily uses a tractor that is 45 years old. Who knows where he gets spare parts, but the thing runs like a dream.

My truck is not quite what Cent lovingly refers to as a "shit-box", but it has it's quirks. For

one, the driver's side door handle is broken and it can't be opened from the outside. The result is that I am forced to behave like a gentleman, diligently opening the door for my passenger before I can get in. This is one of those problems I usually choose to live with. Everything I own seems always to be half-broken. I must tweak and wiggle knobs on guitars and amps, push-start motorbikes, and fight invading armies of ants in my home. It's a natural state of affairs and I'm comfortable with it. Occasionally I have to clamber over the passenger seat to get behind the wheel but it's not a big deal.

Another problem with my truck is the air conditioner. It cranks out a feeble breeze for about fifteen minutes before changing into a heater. I've put up with it for the past few months, but with the hot season on the horizon, I figured it was time to fix the beggar.

Near my house in Phuket I had found a mechanic I could trust not to cannibalise my engine for spare parts while he's fixing it. He once drained a tank of bad diesel and charged me all of 200 baht.

Figuring it could shape up to be an all-day operation and I might need extra wheels, I loaded my bicycle in the back and headed down to the garage. When I got there, my cheery mood was broken when my mechanic uttered the words, "Mai dai," a Thai phrase that basically translates as "no-can-do". They weren't equipped to handle air cooling equipment.

My fifteen minutes of cool air already depleted, I headed back home in a sweat to consider Plan B. A few times in the past months I'd passed by a giant Toyota shop and noted they had a comprehensive-looking service bay. The place was a good 40-minute jaunt up the road but I figured I could kill two birds with one stone. They'd certainly stock original parts and could slap a new handle on the door while they bandaged my air-con. Of course I knew it would be more expensive at the dealer's shop but it was too hot to snoop around after a bargain.

I hit the road and aimed my mobile steam bath north. I was five minutes from the place when disaster struck. The gas pedal suddenly turned to mush and the truck lost all power. I managed to limp to the Toyota place by putting it in fourth and keeping the revs low. Annoying, but I was going to the giant Toyota shop so they could just fix that too, I thought. I wondered how much they'd charge to drain a tank of bad diesel.

A spiffy salesman walked me out to my truck and introduced me to a mechanic with the body of a roasted marshmallow and face decorated with a tiny Chuwit moustache but otherwise desolate of expression.

He prodded a meaty hand with fat, limp fingers into the running engine and spent ten minutes or so flicking at the little arm on the carburetor that makes the engine go "vroom! vroom!" He finally pulled his head out of the engine and, mumbling like he was afraid to mess up his little moustache, he told the salesman that I must be lying about the loss of power and he could find nothing wrong.

I herded them both into the truck and, after we took a short drive, the mechanic then decided there was indeed a loss of power and proclaimed the problem to be the pump. The salesman took me aside and said, "Three days."

I boggled. It was too early in the day for boggling but the situation called for extraordinary facial expressions. I boggled at the salesman then, with my eyes, invited him to join me in boggling at all the complicated machinery that was dangling all around us, just waiting to fix a truck.

"We can't do pump or air-con here. We have to send it to two places in Phuket Town. That's two days. Then back here to fix the handle. Three days." He smiled apologetically. The initial price was quoted as almost 2,000 baht for the labour. Who knows what the parts would cost.

While I mulled over the question, a cheerful young woman made phone calls to find me a rental car. She came up with a little economy vehicle with a 1-litre mosquito under the hood for another 2,000 baht. Per day.

I knew I could rent a Suzuki Caribbean for 700 baht per day near my place, which got me thinking about my neighbourhood mechanic. He couldn't fix the air-con but this power problem was right up his alley.

I smiled my way out of Toyota and eased the truck homewards. I made it back before sundown and once again I loaded the bike in the bed and drove to the neighbourhood garage. There my local mechanic took it for a short spin, cracked the hood and glared at the carburetor.

He yanked a spring off it, produced a dusty replacement from a tool box, slapped it on in under five minutes and the engine was humming better than it had done in months. I dug out my wallet and he waved it away. NO CHARGE! I slipped a tip to his assistant and drove away to overtake other vehicles on blind curves with my newfound acceleration. Air-con would have to wait. I was tired of visiting mechanics for the day.

The following day I set out to my favourite cliff-side cafe for an early lunch. As I was climbing a steep hillside there was a titanic, "PAM!" from the engine and the truck suddenly sounded like King Kong crunching on a bag full of live Harley Davidsons.

I pulled over and shut it off. By the time I walked around to open the hood, I knew what I would be seeing. A foot from the engine block, the exhaust pipe had burst in two. It was not even at a joint or other obvious weak point. The pipe itself had just ruptured apart. Most likely it had succumbed to rust due to splashing through puddles for thirteen years near the salty sea.

Again keeping the revs low, I eased the truck back down the hill and headed to my local garage. Children cried, women wailed and flocks of frightened fowl erupted from the jungle canopy as I thundered by with a noise like a heavy metal drummer with a thousand arms.

Bad news awaited me at the shop. "Can't do it here. Go to Phuket Town." I got explicit instructions on the location of a shop that specialised in exhaust pipes and thundered down the road, leaving a wake of terror and mayhem that would make any Apocalyptic Horseman proud.

The exhaust pipe shop turned out to be every young hormone-pumped Thai man's wet dream of a Grand Prix pit stop. They not only specialised in exhaust pipes, they did paint and chrome and whatever else you might need to turn a Yugo into an ass-kickin' ZZ-Top road-blaster.

I lost myself for two hours at a local spicy food shack and left my truck in the hands of Frankenstein's delinquent nephew. They were tightening the last nut when I returned and I handed them 3,000 baht for the new pipe and some kind of joiner thing they said I ought to replace.

He fired up the engine but it didn't fire up. Instead it purred like a sleepy bobcat with a mouthful of freshly killed 'possum. The truck had never sounded so smooth in the year since I'd bought it.

I let myself in the passenger door and cranked my long legs over the gearshift into the driver's seat, ignoring the chuckles going around the garage. I gave them all a thumbs-up, swung out into traffic and aimed my lean mean machine for the beach. I was going to need a long cool swim. The air-con still wasn't fixed.


Stickman's thoughts:

Comments to follow. Sorry, another busy week for me!