Sunday, October 28, 2007

Capital offences.

When it comes to driving in Thailand, there is Bangkok, and there is the rest.

Driving in Bangkok is defined by interminable waits at unchanging traffic lights, clownish police traffic controls seemingly designed to stop any kind of traffic flow at all, air quality that Lucifer himself would complain about, potholes that would not be out of place in central Africa, constant battles for road space with tuk-tuks, motorbikes and menacing green buses, and road manners so far from the polite Thai norm that you wonder if all the people driving are from this country at all.

Outside of Bangkok, driving in Thailand is all about winding country lanes, perfect-quality roads that would not shame an Australian or French highway department, gorgeous dual carriageways running alongside beautiful mountains, twisty forest roads with dappled sunlight, and spectacular mountain passes over windy ridges.

Pick any point on the compass from Bangkok, point your car in that direction, and you’re guaranteed an enjoyable driving experience once you escape the megalopolitan boundaries.

South, there’s the drive to Phuket: taking in Hua Hin, Prachuap and the pine-lined coastal road along the east side of the peninsula. The highway to Chumpon is excellent, but the small roads linking the coastal villages are more charming, with hardly another car to be seen for hours and hours of meandering.

The drive from one side of the peninsula to the other can be made via one of two routes; the northern road crosses from Chumpon to Rayong, skirts the Burmese border, and passes through lovely rolling hills and verdant fields. At the coast, the road turns south, twisting and turning with tantalising glimpses of the ocean all the way via Khao Lak to Phuket itself.

The more southern route, which is good for the journey back north, passes through Phang Nga province. The karst islands that make the bay of Phang Nga so famous can be seen here too; this time, however, not rising out of sea, but out of land. Cruising past these spectacular rock formations and seeing them up close from the car window makes for an excellent drive. East from there, the road passes for around 30 kilometres through a strange lost valley that could easily pass for the Garden of Eden.

North from Bangkok is made for driving holidays. Following the Chao Phraya via the small riverside roads; exploring the national parks west of Nakhon Sawan, with their high peaks and icy nighttime temperatures; turning west at Tak, following the mountainous Mae Hong Son loop along the Burmese border via sleepy Mae Sariang and bohemian Pai to end up in Chiang Mai the long way round; visiting the historical sites of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya; pushing north from Chiang Mai to the high altitude areas abutting Laos… the automotive options in this most gorgeous area of Thailand are endless.

Hotels are well-spaced, and you’ll always come across a tasteful lodge overlooking a river at the end of the day where you can sit in the cool night air while eating Thai food and drinking Heineken. It’s perfect motoring country and a driving trip here could take anything from a weekend to a couple of months, depending on how much you want to see and how slow you want to go.

West from the capital, the lush riverine country of Kanchanaburi offers massive reservoirs, wide slow-flowing rivers, untouched forests and some poignant historical reminders of what went on here from 1942 to 1945. Accommodation in the area varies from serene spiritual growth forest lodges to raft hotels floating on the river where you can sleep with nothing but the sound of the water flowing beneath you.

East from Bangkok lie roads to Pattaya, Koh Samet, Koh Chang and other islands near the Cambodian border; the beautiful country of the Khao Yai national park and wine-growing region; and the roads criss-crossing the fascinating hundred-mile-long canals of Pathum Thani, cut hundreds of years ago for transportation and irrigation.

And northeast is the legendary Isaan province, which could fill up a column of its own: perfectly designed for a driving holiday, with ancient Khmer temples on a par with Angkor Wat, tiny welcoming villages, interesting railway towns, quirky settlements populated with Swiss, Brits and Germans who have opted out of European life to marry into Isaan families, wild folk festivals and quirky customs, and the Mekong River always present, snaking along the border to create the Isaan Riviera, with luxurious hotels and restaurants at unheard-of low prices.

Personally, I’ve all but given up driving in Bangkok; and rarely even take taxis unless absolutely necessary. I’m much happier bypassing four-wheeled transport altogether: standing on the BTS, or perched on the back of a motorbike, or leaning out of the side of a riverboat. Anything where I don’t have to be involved in the control of the vehicle, where I can tune out, where the gridlock can’t affect me, where I can slither nonchalantly through, above, or around the permanent coronary-inducing standstill.

But most weekends, and any days off I can manufacture, I will be found behind the wheel: nosing down canalside dirt tracks, drifting along shadowy forest roads, seeking out obscure hot springs with a map and a GPS, cruising along reservoir shores on open highways towards obscure country resorts.

Thailand is made for driving. Just don’t tell the Bangkok Road Authority: the longer they remain uninvolved in the running of the rest of the country’s roads, the better.

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