It seems presumptuous to talk about travelling off the beaten track because segments of what may seem like travelling off the beaten track could well be another person’s daily routine. So really then, it’s about travelling as a Free Independent Traveller (FIT) as the tourist trade describes this segment of consumers. Or, you could opt for what the easy choice of what is known as Sit in Coach (SIC) in the travel trade. Then, there is the Visit Friends and Relatives (VFR) group where there is no need for hotel accommodation. You could then categorise me as a FIT and VFR for this holiday story that I’m going to describe. After working for 40 years in an automotivethemed career mostly focussing on automotive journalism, I had planned to reward myself with a holiday upon completion of the final event of my professional calendar with the launch of The Cars of the Year Malaysia held at the tail-end of 2019.
And, so it was that at 6:30 am on Tuesday, I was on board the mass rapid transit (MRT) heading for Kuala Lumpur Sentral via the Museum station. The seat in a Business Class coach utilizing the KTM Electric Train Service (ETS) had been booked online weeks earlier and the boarding pass with the QR code already printed out at home. Passengers who had arrived earlier were seated at a waiting lounge outside the boarding gate. The boarding process was faster than that of boarding a plane. Remember too that access is so much more convenient via a train because there are many coaches and several doors plus a long platform for you to navigate freely.
The fascinating thing about the KTM intracity Electric Train Service is that it is punctual almost to the minute. After lunch in Penang, several travel options abound to get to the Malaysian border at Padang Besar and across to Sadao. I figured that my best option was to get a ride from my Penang friends to the Padang Besar duty-free shop. From there, I walked about 400 metres across to the Thai side, pulling along my newly acquired wheelie bag. This is the strategy to beat traffic jams. Travelling on a working day during the off-peak season is something that makes your FIT travelling more enjoyable. From Sadao, share a taxi or charter one for about THB700 (RM 92.91) to Hatyai which is just an hour’s drive.
Hatyai is quieter these days. Over the past three years, the Thai baht has gained by a 30% rise against the ringgit and made it more expensive for Malaysian tourists. Nevertheless, the Thai economy is also not as strong as it was before so it is still a good time to visit Hatyai where the food is still great and even at about RM10 per serving of most of the street food, Thailand remains essentially good value for money. I stayed at the old Lee Garden hotel at Lee Pattana Road for just RM86 a night which was booked online through Agoda and enjoyed the street food, a massage and bought back some desserts for a snack in the hotel. At 9 am the next morning, Elle Watcharee rolled up in her Ford Ranger Wildtrak 3.2 – providing our ride to our next destination – Ao Khoei, Phang Nga Province situated on the West Coast of the Ithmus of Kra, Thailand. This will be the longest leg of our journey at 470 km. I was really looking forward to Ao Khoei because it is situated on one of the most serene and secluded beaches along the whole of the West Coast of Thailand and washed by the Andaman Sea. At Ao Khoei, we’re closer to Ranong, Myanmar than to Phuket. For Malaysians who like an overseas motoring holiday, I think Thailand is the best destination in mainland Southeast Asia to visit.
The road network is comprehensive Almost every fuel station has a rest area with a cafe, food court and convenience store while the toilets are clean, bright and well-ventilated. PLUS could borrow an idea from this strategy and allow plans for many fuel stations along the highway with each being a rest-stop area. While the fuel stations are friendly, there is a wider menu of fuels than those found in Malaysia. In Thailand, there are the Gasahol 95 and Gasahol 91 variants while the diesel grade is Euro 5. However, a Thai journalist – Charnchai Petchin says that Shell supplies the best diesel for motorists in Thailand. The coffee culture is strong here and, as an early innovator – Amazon cafes are now emulated by other brands in other fuel station franchises. Amazon cafe offers Starbucks-like ambiance at about half the price. Even better value is offered by the outdoor and open air cafes located at some macro wholesale stores like the one in Krabi. The Ford Ranger 3.2 that we drove was a five-year old car that Elle had bought secondhand about three years ago. The truck’s mileage was a low 110,000km – considering its age. Although it is a powerful truck that cruises at 150kph with the engine spinning at a comfortable 2,800 rpm, the air-conditioner though wasn’t cool enough. There was also a sound from the air conditioner blower fan. It took two airconditioner mechanics to sort this out but the good part is that this pick-up truck – like all the other pick-up trucks in Malaysia – are easy to get spare parts for and to fix because they are made-in Thailand trucks. So, if you’re the anxious type of guy like me, a motoring holiday in Thailand is best done with any of the Japanese twin-cab pick-up truck. After all, you don’t have to worry about mechanical breakdowns being difficult to repair. The highlight was our safe arrival at our snug accommodation opening up to a panoramic view of the Andaman Sea from the vantage point of the main house. The sala – Thai word for a public or open wall hut near our temporary lodging place proved to be a fruitful meeting point in which we partook of jovial camaraderie with other travellers. This is part
of Luca’s property which we resided at andis perfect for a joint of smoking or massage sessions in the open. A lengthy 4km stretchin of uninhabited beach punctuated by the cool, translucent waters of the Andaman Sea proved too much temptation. So I ventured to drive the pick-up truck on the stretch of pristine beach just to get a feel of the wind blowing against me in a carefree reverie. The first generation Ford Ranger Wildtrak with its 3.2 litre turbo charged diesel engine – arguably one of the biggest and most muscular engines in Thailand – proved that poetry in motion could be achieved on the stretch of the pristine beach as it cruised along to the carefree restraints of our holiday even as we arrived at the beach bar on the Ao Khoei beach.