Saturday, May 2, 2009


1. As we prepared to depart Hotel Briza at Khao Lak, we had our first hiccup with the Pajero: the back door could not be opened. If this was not solved, getting things in and out of the car would be a real hassle. After many minutes of trying, we gave up. Called up Ben Khoo in Singapore and he said he would study the Pajero there to see what might be the potential problem. The hotel staff at Briza was helpful and got us the address to the nearest Mitsubishi service station at Chumphon, which was a good 250 km away to the North, on the way to Hua Hin, our next destination. We decided to get on with our journey and look for the service station at Chumphon.

2. We chose Khao Lak to stay because it was one of the most devastated areas of the end 2004 tsunami. Based on what we could see, life seemed to have return to normal. Many of the resorts along the coast looked new. The hotel we stayed in, Hotel Briza, for instance , opened only one year ago. The monument on the right reminded us of the tragic event in which many people died. It was commissioned with the Swedish embassy, as many Swedes died here in Khao Lak. In the background of the picture, one could see a Police patrol boat washed inland. Also, visited the Tsunami Museum. With more resources, this museum could be expanded into a better facility to remind us how the world had come together to respond to this human tragedy.

3. Travelling North, we decided to take the scenic route along Highway 401, from Takua Pa towards Surat Thani, about 150 km long, through the Khao Suk National Park. Like our earlier drive through Khao Lak Lamru National Park, this was just as beautiful. A nice casual drive, not many cars, really enjoyable; winding road through the mountains. Along the way, we decided to visit Khao Suk Rainforest Resort, which appeared interesting in the Lonely Planet guide book. This resort had 11 units built into the forest, and from here many activities could be organised in the National Park. Other resorts were also located nearby in a cluster. Took a picture with the family that looked after the resort. On the spot Sunny printed out the picture for the family using a portable colour printer and they were elated. A stop at the Chiaw Lan Lake, formed by a shale-clayed 95m dam. At its widest the lake is 700m long. The scenery is captivating. We wished we could have got out our stove to cook our packets of instant noodles there.

4. A couple of observations after driving in Southern Thailand:
(1) The roads are really good, no worse than those in Malaysia. Any saloon car would have been driven in Southern Thailand without any problem. No need for 4 by 4. Also, auto service workshops are everywhere in the towns and cities, major brands like Toyota, Isuzu, Mitsubishi, Honda, Nissan etc and petrol stations are many along the major roads.
(2) The roads are still mostly flanked by rubber estates, unlike Malaysia. More than 10 years ago, when I used to travel up Malaysia, there were as much rubber estates as oil palm estates, but in this trip, I could see that the rubber estates along the N-S highway were all gone. Wonder why South Thailand has not changed.

5. Reached Chumphon in the evening, after dark. Decided to check into Suriya Hotel, and called it a night. A very basic facility, more like a rest house, which we paid 280 bahts (about S$12) for the night; reminded me of some of my stays in Taiwan in Ping Tong - Chi San area which I used while on exercise there nearly 20 years ago. Good thing was that we could park the car in the inside compound of the hotel which was very secure. In the evening, we tried glutinous rice with mango in the nearby stall. Sunny loved it, even though he does not like sweet stuff. Speaking in Teochew, the stall lady told us that she had been operating the stall for 18 years and in the first year was already mentioned in a local paper (i.e very good).

6. The next day, early morning, with the help of the hotel staff, we got a motorcycle taxi to bring us to the Mitsubishi service station at Mitsuchumphon, Phet ka-sem Rd. Strangely, could not locate this in our GPS. You could see the motorcycle taxi in red in the picture to the right. When we got there, we were in for a surprise. It was May 1, also a holiday in Thailand, and the service station was closed. Luckily, Miss Lien (she asked us to called Ah Nee), was there.
Her husband (also in the motor trade) was able to magically open the back door. Conversing in Teochew, they were very helpful, and gave us a Mitsubishi travel brochure for Thailand which showed the locations of all the Mitsubishi service stations in Thailand. Apparently the door dropped a little when opened which might have caused the problem. There and then, Sunny and I, were able to open the backdoor and we decided to move on. As of now, the back door is still behaving erratically and giving us headaches.

7. Driving up North, we reached Hua Hin about lunch time, but was disappointed. Unlike what I saw 15 years ago, the place is now very developed and commercialised (much like Phuket along Patong beach), and very crowded, probably due to the May 1 holiday and the long weekend. Checked a hotel and it was fully booked. We decided to move to a smaller resort town to the North, Cha-am, and checked into Long Beach Cha-am Hotel (2200 bahts a night). Cha-am is very much a domestic destination. We hardly see any "faran" here, which is how the locals call the foreigners. We had some time to relax at the pool and had a beer (thats how we appeared in the picture) and a wonderful dinner at the seafood village on the beach.

Thursday, April 30, 2009


1. We crossed into Thailand at Sadao (the view of Sadao after we crossed below), from Malaysia's Changlun check-point along N-S Highway at about 9 am on Day 3, 29 April; after spending the night Hotel T in Kuala Perlis. Contrary to our fear, crossing the border with our car at Sadao was a breeze, all done in about half an hour. After clearing our passports, I presented the car log card and my passport at the customs counter. The friendly lady keyed in the required information into the computer (ya, no form filling), after asking me the value of the car, and out came the completed import/export form. Very efficiently done. After taking one copy of the import/export form, the customs officer waved us through, and we were in Thailand; no checking of chassis and engine numbers, or car insurance (14 ringgits for min of 9 days) which we bought the day before at the Gurun's Caltex service station.

2. After crossing, we topped up the tank and filled up our spare petrol container of 20 litres and we set off for Khao Lak, about 500 km away. Got lost a couple of times even with GPS and passing by Phattalung, Trang, Krabi, we eventually arrived at Khao Lak at about 5 pm Thai time. As we approached Khao Lak, Sunny suggested that we got off Highway 4 to take a short cut at Thap Put into National Park rather than looping South to Phang-nga. It was a great suggestion. Very hilly, lots of turns round corners (reminded me of Cameron Highlands some 30 years ago), green mountains and valleys, one lane either way, good road. If travelled slowly, its a safe route. One scene is given below (though not the best).

3. After arriving at Khao Lak, we scouted around for cheap and good hotels. This is now our routine, our SOP. After looking at 4 hotels, we decided to check into Hotel Briza (picture); a 5 star beach side resort, at 2,200 bahts (nearly S$100), free internet access; really because its low season in Khao Lak.

4. Had dinner along the main street of Khao Lak in a restaurant called Ga. A small restaurant, mostly Caucasian customers. Delicious Thai food. What struck Sunny and I was the emptiness of the whole place. Shops were mostly empty. There were some tourists in the restaurants but patronage thin. One local told us that this year's low season is worse than last year's and the political situation in Thailand has undermined the confidence of tourists.

5. The night before, we spent the night in Kuala Perlis at Hotel T. Sunny saw the ad along the road showing 79 ringgits a night. Rather than Kangar, this is at the coast and we thought its worth checking out. Its like a small boutique hotel in a double storey shop house, probably about 20 rooms or so, quite tastefully designed, BUT small. Toilet has no separate shower area; so it get all wet after we showered.
Where we stayed was also the terminals for ferry operations to Pulau Langkawi, with the coastline facing West. A walk along the coast was beautful. Great sunset views. We had dinner at the nearby Hai Tien seafood restaurant. Its steam sea bass, kept hot by charcoal, was memorable.

6. We are off to Hua Hin this morning (Day 4), with at least 6 hrs of driving ahead of us. The last time I was there was some 15 years ago when, as Chief of Army, attended the annual ASEAN Armies small arms meet.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

D DAY - 27 Apr 09

1. At last, D Day arrived. Was up early this morning at 6 am to complete last bits of packing and did final checks before we set off on the Asean on Wheels at 9 am from Sunny's house. Monday morning was chosen to avoid the weekend heavy traffic at 2nd link. This was how the Pajero looked like with packing completed. Very full, but neatly packed with the toyoda boxes.

2. A number of friends found time to come and see us off - Benjamin Khoo (from Mitsubishi service centre), Leslie Chang, and Quek Bee Lan. Of course, there's Sunny family. Here are some pictures taken:

3. We were pleasantly surprised that the customs at the JB side allowed us passed without any check even though we had boxes and boxes of stuff in the back of the Pajero. Happily we set off on our journey. After 1 lunch and 2 rest stops, and after getting lost a little around KL, we were in Ipoh at about 5 pm; all in about 6 hrs of driving.

4. After 57 years, this is my first time to Ipoh. The approaches in and out of Ipoh are really quite stunning, with steep cliff hills that look like they had been scratched. The main streets are lined with pre-war looking buildings which must have been beautiful in their hey days. We were surprised that the town looked surprisingly quiet even though it was just early evening. There was more life the next morning, but still it somewhat lacked the buzz. Taxi drivers said that since the tin mines closed, many people had moved to bigger cities like KL for work. Also, the N-S highway now takes the traffic away from Ipoh.

5. We were thirsty by the time we reached our hotel, Rega Lodge, and longing for a beer after a whole day of driving. Sadly, the hotel restaurant did not serve beer. Decided to take a walk but still no luck with 3 other cafetaria/coffee shops. Eventually managed to get the beer at a seafood restaurant that was preparing to open for the evening. It seemed that restaurants/coffee shops would choose not to serve alcohols like beer if they want to attract Muslim customers.

6. Had a leisurely paced morning the next day (2nd day, 28 Apr). After breakfast in hotel, did some emails and completed another posting for the blog. At lunch, we were happy that we found a coffee shop that served bean-sprouts chicken, Ipoh's signature dish. Really quite good and Sunny would have more to say about this. Set out for Kangar (near to the border) after lunch. Would stay near the border for the night before crossing the border early the following day (i.e the 3rd day).


1. The car to buy really depends on what on what you want the car to do. At this stage, what I need is a "touring" vehicle, one that would travel on good and not so good roads to get me to the destinations. In addition, it must have the ability to get me out of trouble if the problem is one that cannot be avoided, especially when we travel to less developed countries. Unlike Rally cars, objective is not to go look for "troubles". My objective is touring, not getting the joy out of overcoming ground challenges.

2. After discussion with friends and some research, it was down to Mitsubishi Pajero and Land Rover Defender for the "touring" vehicle that I was looking forward to buying. In the end, I bought the Pajero in February this year. What tipped it was when I saw the 3 door Pajero at Hin Loong showroom, a dealer in used cars. A shorter wheelbase it is more sturdy than the longer 5 doors version. Also, for use in Singapore, it is easier for parking. At about $85k, it was still good saving from the $110k quoted for the new 5 door Pajero. Though one year old, the first owner hardly used the vehicle and clocked only 1800 km. He even forgot to send the car in for 1000 km servicing. On the other hand, the Defender has great track record, used by security forces in many countries for many years, but it costs $130K new, and about $80K+ if registered as a good vehicle. Its a permanent 4 wheel drive and I found gear changing rather cumbersome (though a Defender die-hard said that its just getting use to it). Speed limit for a goods vehicle is 70 km in Singapore. Was also told that there may be problem getting a good vehicles in and out of visiting countries, including Malaysia. Also, a good vehicle have to be registered under a company. Another friend of mine recently said that I should have seriously considered Volkswagen Touareg, but by then it was water under the bridge.

3. Next comes the task of preparing the Pajero for the trip by late April. For this, William Lyou, Leslie Chang, Larry Lim and David Wong were particularly helpful, spending their valuable time giving me advices and going around getting parts and services. I got to know William and Leslie during the March ASEAN Car Rally in Hatyai and Larry and David through CE of AA, Lee Wai Mun, a former colleague of mine. William, Leslie, Larry and David are all veterans of car rallies.

4. Given the time in the year and the quality of roads, the Pajero should do well in Malaysia, most part of Thailand and Vietnam, and less certain in Laos and Cambodia. Was told that many roads in Laos and Cambodia are still unpaved, some with pot holes. Mitsubishi service networks are good in Malaysia, Vietnam and possibly Thailand (website is in Thai though); but certainly weak in Laos and Cambodia. Laos has a local service agent but not sure about its capabilities.

5. With the time available, the following measures were taken:
(1) Replaced the light metal under-guard with a stronger fibreglass version at cost of S$100, undertaken by a workshop in Ang Mo Kio Industrial Park II. William's contact, boss is Ah Choon, very friendly and excellent service.
(2) Installed a Thule roof rack at the cost of about S$900, increasing the storage capacity of the car, and potentially carrying another spare tyre.
(3) Bought a 3m flexible tube for the exhaust in case the Pajero needs to go through water.
(4) Bought and carried the following items: air filter, external belt, spare bulbs, fuses, tyre repair kits, compressor (to pump to inflate tyre), 20 litre petrol container, engine oil, brake fluid, and etc.

6. Had wanted to change tyre to all terrain tyres (current ones is H/T, highway tyres) but could not do this in time. Was exploring with one potential sponsor but time was too short to effect this. Also, all terrain A/T tyres are not readily available in Singapore. A/T tyres have thicker walls to take the rough and tumble of unpaved roads. Will get this done before the next trip.

7. Just one week before departure, we had a scare. William and I detected a stain on the under carriage that looked like a oil leak. Immediately I sent the car to Mitsubishi workshop to have it checked. Benjamin Khoo, the centre Manager, and his staff, Jalani, were particularly helpful. It took a day to dismantle the parts to check for the leak. As it turned out, it was established that there was no leak, and the stain was there due to some other reason. It then took another day and a half to assemble the parts back and had the vehicle tested; all very efficiently carried, great customer service. Prior to this, Benjamin also helped arrange a half day Pajero orientation training at the Mitsubishi service centre for Sunny and I. We are grateful to Ben and Jalani for their help and support in preparing the car for the trip.

Sunday, April 26, 2009


1. The paper work necessary to drive one's car from one country to another in our region is somewhat less developed, resulting in inconsistent practices and onerous regulatory compliance in some instances; not always customer friendly. This is really because driving holidays is still an immature sector of the tourism industry in the region. Few people take their car and drive from one country to another, touring the region. If any, people would mostly just drive to the immediate neighbouring country, eg. Singaporeans driving to Malaysia, or Thais driving to Cambodia. It reflects the level of affluence of the region, eg. as compared to Europe or Australia; but as the region develops, this form of holidays will become more prevalent, as it provides a different experience for the travellers.

2. I started meeting with officials of some ASEAN Embassies here from early March to find out what are the necessary steps to take to allow me to tour their countries in my car. Overall, they were supportive and helpful, and enthusiastic about my plan. Cambodian Embassy said that they had handled organised car rallies but never had such a request of 1-2 cars before and they would clarify with its government. They said that the officials at the border crossing points are likely to be unfamiliar with the procedures and it is better to have a letter from its government or Embassy to facilitate my entry to Cambodia. Lao Embassy expressed similar sentiment.

3. It is interesting to note that, Liliana and Emil Schmid, the Swiss couple who have been travelling round the world for some 24 years in their Toyota Land Cruiser, had a trouble-free experience at the border crossing into Lao. They said in the website, "Contrary to all predictions, our passports and Carnet de Passages are stamped with any signs of corruption straight forward".

4. To date, thanks to the assistance of Lao and Cambodian officials in Singapore, I had received facilitation letters from the Lao and Cambodia Embassies.

5. Procedure and compliance requirements for Vietnam, Mynamar and China are onerous. According to Eviva Tour Vietnam, the travel agent handling our application for our car to travel in Vietnam, our application is currently on the desk of the Premier office for his approval. For the application, other than the necessary details of the car, the government also requires a detailed day by day itinerary for the journey in Vietnam (given the nature of our trip, we rather want to keep our itinerary flexible). We also need to specify the points of entry and exit; once approved they cannot be changed.

6. In addition, we will be required to have a tour guide following us throughout our stay in Vietnam. To save costs, we plan to have the guide seats in our car. Squeezy, but tolerable. Overall cost for getting the car permit for a 3 weeks travel in Vietnam would amount to more than US$2500; US$2000 for getting the car permit, slightly more than US$30 daily rate charge for the tour guide and US$25 for the necessary car insurance. Cost, of course, on a per car basis will be lower if there are more cars. With the assistance of the Vietnamese official in Singapore, we had received the facilitation letter from the Vietnam Embassy here, but we are still waiting for news from Eviva Tours for the formal approval letter of our application.

7. According to CTS Club Beijing, which is helping us with our planned driving holiday in Southern China, "self drive travel can only be handled by special licensed travel agent. There are a lot of work involved with a lot of man-hour attached, hence it is highly labour-intensive, and the workload and procedures are not as easy as what the ordinary people expected. Various documentations are required to be sent to multiple levels of government department/agency (especially the cities/province intended to be visited by the group) for approval".

8. Time needed for the application is normally 3 months, travel agent will charge an estimated cost of RMB 35,000 to 40,000 (US$5-6000) to do the pre-trip documentations and process the application. Although PRC is a Carnet country, we understand that there is still a need for a compulsory vehicle deposit paid to the customs. This is to ensure that the owner would not “smuggle” the car into China and dispose it off along the journey. At the estimated commercial value of the car, this deposit will be reimbursed upon disembarkation; about S$60,000 in my case.

9. In addition, an appointed vehicle and travel guide are required to follow the group (even if it is only one car like me) on the road and all the expenses including food and lodging are to be borne by the travellers.

10. Given the high cost and the long application time, we decided to leave the trip to China to a later time.

11. Requirements for Myanmar are no less onerous and have taken long time. We were told that an application for a self drive holiday will need Cabinet's approval. We expect that approval will not come so soon; quite undestandably given their deep concern over security.

12. Procedure for crossing into Thailand is more straight forward. What we need is the Carnet, insurance coverage (which can be bought at the Gurun service station (travelling along the N-S highway in Pennisular Malaysia) just before the border crossing or at the many outlets at the border crossing, and the completed manifest. Insurance coverage for Singapore cars would generally only cover up to 50 km into the Thailand/Malaysia border. Separate insurance would have to be bought for travels beyond. In a recent car rally to Hatyai, I paid 14 Ringgits for a 2 day coverage. Separate insurance would have to be considered for the other countries, as with the case in Vietnam, including whether its for third parties coverage or for own car as well.

13. A few words on The Carnet de Passages. This is a customs document that identifies a driver's motor vehicle. There are more than 160 countries which are parties to the Carnet agreement. These countries will facilitate travel in and out of the country without imposing customs duty if the car carries a Carnet document. This is really an anti-smuggling measure. In Singapore, AA is the authority issuing Carnet. Cost is $107, document is valid for one year, after giving a cheque for 80% of the commercial value of the car. A banker guarantee is also acceptable. Given the current low interest environment I gave a cheque of S$60 000 to AA. I will get this back when I return with my car. Process is efficient, and I got my Carnet in days.

14. Less Vietnam's approval, documentation wise, we are all set to go. Eviva Tour Vietnam assured us that we will get our approval in due course. Our plan is to proceed with the ASEAN on Wheels journey on 27 Apr as planned, and we can always collect the documents in Vientiane or Phnom Penh at our Singapore Embassies there.

15. Considerable amount of work had gone in over the last 2 months, working with the embassies and the travel agents, to get the necessary approvals. We are grateful for the support rendered by the various ASEAN Embassies here. We are also indebted to Quek Bee Lan, who in her own personal capacity, had rendered many hours of her our own time to help with the facilitation and applications.

16. Overall, there is scope to significantly simplify and harmonise the procedures for self drive holidays in the region. They are good examples around the world that we can study and adopt. Such efforts will facilitate travel in the region, help integration and encourage people to people exchanges and grow tourism.

17. Also, I found little information in the web that facilitates self drive holidays in the region.