They say getting there is half the fun. Given Thailand’s dubious status as the world’s most dangerous nation to drive, getting there alive seems more like a more reasonable suggestion. In a nation where 22,941 people die on the roads each year, you might call us crazy for logging almost 4,000 kilometers in this year’s annual “smog escape”. But here’s the thing; despite a surge of new vehicles by a population that spends six times their average lifetime savings to buy Honda Accords and triple that for a BMW, long-distance road travel remains relatively unknown to most Thai people. Unlike the USA, a nation obsessed with highways, driving is more about being seen in a shiny new status symbol than getting from point A to point B. And if you’re Thai and lucky enough to get spare time for seeing the country, why on God’s earth would you drive from Chiang Mai to Bangkok when you can simply fly in an hour?
Thankfully, that leaves most of the open road between major destinations empty and available for the farangs. And unlike America, whose crumbling bridges and aging highways lag the entire continent of Asia when it comes to infrastructure, Thailand recently made major improvements to national highways. Having embarked on a God awful bus trip from the south to Chiang Mai that arrived hours late due to a 300 mile stretch of one lane construction switchbacks only four years ago, we had reservations about taking a road trip. But surprisingly, except for the inevitable military junta of burning, wrong way motorbikes barrelling towards you in the shoulder and tin can pickups carrying shit piled up so high it’s comical, the newly paved stretch from Northern Thailand to Bangkok looks similar to Interstate 5 from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Deciding that we’d need 47 days to miss the ever increasing stench of poisonous toxic air permeating Northern Thailand every March and April, we planned a trip that started with a drive to Bangkok’s large international airport. Intending to leave the car in the long term lot, travel to Vietnam for two weeks and then traverse from southeast to southwest, we barricaded the house as best we could to protect it from mounds of soot that creep into the dwelling during burn season and hit the road.
Kicking off bright and early to beat the Thai rush hour, we hit the road at 6 AM. Using the only practical way to travel south from Chiang Mai, we navigated a stretch of third world construction on Highway 11 that’s dangerously unsigned and also about eight months behind schedule. Unlike Bangkok, Northern Thailand may as well be Uganda as far as the junta government is concerned and it shows with Chiang Mai’s lack of road improvements. Reaching Lampang about an hour later, we made a southbound turn on National Highway 1 and would’ve set the cruise control for the long boring drive to Bangkok if our car had one. Once out of Lampang, the road is a well paved four-lane highway with almost no towns for the next 90 minutes so the idiot factor is low. Approaching the very Thai looking city of Tak, you cross a bridge, and then continue on where you’ll rarely need to pass anyone or change lanes for the next two hours. But Google Maps can’t keep up never-ending new roads in Thailand so we almost missed a new bypass through the uber polluted city of Nakhon Sawan.
Surprisingly, gas stops in Thailand are amazingly refreshing. Virtually every station on major roads are spotlessly clean, always have some sort of Thai food, a mini-mart and unlike Malaysia’s disgusting public toilets, you can pee without worrying about disease and bacteria. But there’s no recognizable western food until an hour or two out of Bangkok where 24 hour Burger Kings and McDonalds dot the roadside every half hour or so. Although we have tried our luck with Thai food we can’t properly discern, we recommend buying Subway sandwiches the day before and bringing them along in a small cooler for the first rest stop. Granted a Thai version of a footlong BMT isn’t remotely close to the real thing but at least the bread is good. Typical of Thailand’s hilarious contrast between modernity and third world, when you’re on islands and many rural roads, the main source for fuel is often roadside stands with bottles of gasoline, often accompanied by laundry and other services.
After about four hours of driving, the highway becomes a six lane superhighway as you get closer to Bangkok although traffic remains relatively light compared to a similar suburban approach to Seattle or Baltimore. Reaching unthinkable levels, road construction in and around Bangkok makes it look more like a city recently flattened by a major earthquake and being rebuilt at lightning speed. Building countless overpasses on all major arteries, widening existing motorways and adding endless new extensions, no area of the city is left free of traffic. Negotiating how and where to exit with many signs half in English and half in Thai always proves challenging and ending up at your destination without missing a turn provides a thrill of adrenaline similar to winning a bet at the track with 50 to 1 odds.
Approaching our hotel only about seven hours after leaving Chiang Mai, the plan was to take a swim before dinner, eat at their restaurant and catch some TV before sleep. Finding a place about 20 minutes from Bangkok’s enormous Suvarnabhumi Airport, we knew it was critical to look for somewhere on the same directional side you’re traveling in or risk a maze of u-turns, ridiculous confusing intersections and frustrating delays. Satisfying the criteria, the U-Tiny Boutique Home Suvarnabhumi Airport Hotel was reasonably priced and despite being right off an enormous swath of major construction, relatively quiet. Reiterating my earlier point, the hotel had nowhere to park despite being a gateway for travel and they suggested we park on the street outside. With 47 days worth of clothing and a bunch of miscellaneous stuff for further travels after our Vietnam trip, we decided to lug it all upstairs rather than leave it in a dark deserted alleyway.
One thing you learn about traveling in Thailand quickly is there’s always some developing world shit going on like a power outage when you’re in the shower or a room that’s nothing like they promised. Sure enough, as we arrived, we found a team of local Thai workers constructing a new deck right next to the lobby. And of course, it was attached to the pool. This being Thailand, there were nails and other dangerous items laying all over but they told us we could use the pool anyway if we didn’t mind cautiously stepping over an area that should be closed to guests and enduring some jackhammer noise. Explaining that our plans were to relax at the pool after a seven-hour drive, we asked when they’d be done and they said: “Maybe 5”.
Unlike last year’s debacle when the power went out for hours at the rest stop and I lost it with an obnoxious Thai owner who lived in the USA for a time and obviously learned to be an asshole, this time I kept my composure, didn’t complain and went to the room to wait until they’d be done. Checking the status a bit later, it was clear they’d never finish by 5 PM, so we assumed it wasn’t supposed to be a one day job. TIT means This is Thailand and that always translates into something unexpected so a half hour later there was a knock on the door. Looking very apologetic, the hotel manager unhappily explained that they “may not finish by 5”. Deciding to rough it, we went swimming anyway because it was getting late and luckily, we didn’t step on any equipment, nails or anything else that would’ve necessitated a trip to a Bangkok hospital.
Despite the relatively large size of the hotel, the on-site restaurant was in the lobby which was conveniently located on the other side of a door that led to the not yet completed deck. Returning from our swim, we showered, relaxed a bit and waited for sunset when we figured the workers would be gone. Somewhere around 7 PM, we took the elevator downstairs only to find the construction crew now working with little headlights on their helmets like coal miners use. Unaccustomed to developing nation workers ever going one minute beyond quitting time, we complained to the manager who gave unhappy glances at the foreman as she opened the door and checked with him again. Obviously lacking any authority, the manager instead looked annoyed and we ate a delicious Thai dinner to a symphony of drilling. But unlike anything we’d experience in gruff and aggressive Vietnam, she brought us the bill and offered to cut it in half. For some stupid reason, the annoying idiot European couple at the next table refused and paid in full. Nice touch and a great start to the Great Smoke Escape 2019.
Getting an early start the next morning, we prepared for what looked like a confusing trip to Thailand’s version of a long term parking lot. Enjoying a good breakfast which is almost always included in all Asian hotels, we packed up and headed out. Following the service road, we tried to follow the Google Map but the roads we needed only had Thai writing and another obstacle in Thailand is they don’t use directional indicators anywhere so you can’t look for an “eastbound” or “North Route 1” sign. Meandering our way down an insanely crowded road, driving in Bangkok when you’re used to Chaing Mai takes some getting used to but thankfully, the one road rule they teach them all are signals so if you always use one, you’ll usually be able to merge once you realize you’re four lanes away from your exit with 50 meters to go.
After three tries and a few wrong U-turns, we finally found a sign in English indicating we’d found the long term parking lot. Unlike the car happy world of North America, it’s more like a field a few miles from the terminal area with a gate, some bored Thai employees and a lot that’s never more than 20% full. Pulling in, the first thing they did was giggle when they saw our Chiang Mai license plate. Unsure why everyone throughout southern Thailand does this, we suspect either they think it’s insane to drive all the way from the North or they find it inconceivable that a farang husband is so poor, he has to drive his Thai wife all the way to Bangkok instead of flying. No, Diane isn’t Thai but sometimes we like to let them ramble on and we pretend she understands.
Since every Thai sign looked the same and it was hard to distinguish one lot from the next, I walked with the luggage all the way past the entrance to take a picture of the area. Seeming confused, the Thai guy at the gate ran out after me and constantly motioned the other way because that’s where the shuttle bus stop was. Although signed in English, it’s still immensely confusing because unlike in our world where the shuttle bus takes only passengers with luggage to a passenger terminal, in Thailand, it makes 11 stops 10 feet away from each other so the Thai employees working in the cargo building don’t have to walk when they need to do something next door in the customs building. Eventually, it arrives at a stop barely recognizable as the main terminal and you walk so far with your luggage, they may as well make you take a taxi. Further complicating things, on the way back, the route abruptly ends and you’re apparently supposed to transfer to a different bus to get back to the lot. Thai logic at its best.
And so we began our long trip away from the burning polluted air of Chiang Mai for a seven-week jaunt through Vietnam and Southern Thailand’s beaches. Now that everyone knows The Experimental Expats are leaving Thailand next year, we reiterate that while it’s time for us to move on for reasons mostly related to changes in the Thai Retirement Visa Financial Requirements, Thailand remains by far our favorite Southeast Asian nation. While the immigration rules are ridiculous, the drivers are the worst on the planet and the ruling military junta is not a representative government by any stretch, the people are the still the nation’s best asset. Always surprising us and when compared with Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar or Vietnam, we’d still recommend spending some time in Thailand if you’re considering an overseas retirement. Cheers from Chinag Mai