And so, it begins, one of the most extensive research trips that we have ever undertaken. Lucky enough to be doing this trip is myself, founder of Compass Expeditions, Mick McDonald and our resident paramedic who has worked on many of our rides, including our Simon Pavey and Charley Boorman events, Sarah Taylor.
With a plethora of paperwork completed, we collected our Hilux 4 x 4 from the warehouse and reluctantly drove into the downtown area, reluctantly as we expected to become caught in a legendary Asian traffic snarl for many hours, nothing could have been further from the truth. Traffic was at a minimal and free flowing, even in the heart of the CBD, for a city of nearly 6 million this is incredible, but we soon found out why. To buy a car in Singapore a resident must first buy a permit to buy a car, this permit costs around AUD$30,000, this is before you can buy the car. Cars have a tax rate of 245% making Singapore the most expensive country in the world to buy a car, hence most of the 6 million who live here catch the superb public transport system.
Sarah & I officially started the research trip with an iconic Singapore Sling at the equally iconic Raffles Hotel which also happens to be the site where the last tiger in Singapore was shot dead in 1902, under the billiards table, after it had escaped from the travelling circus that was in town. We both had to pinch ourselves to realise we were about to drive from Singapore to Beijing, a journey of 3 months, neither of us could imagine the diversity of experiences, cultures & landscapes we were about to experience, we felt a very real pang of excitement & anticipation.
We efficiently, if not a little slowly, crossed the “causeway” from Singapore into our second country of the trip, Malaysia. Immediately things became a little more “Asian” with a hint of chaos, for the first time we hit the countryside and it was wonderful as we threaded our way through plantations and Kampongs (villages) on our way to lunch on the Melaka Straits.
A night was spent in the wonderful port town of Melaka that is famous for its foodie scene that did not disappoint. Escaping the heat, we ascended into the Cameron Highlands via a series of superb winding back roads lined with endless palms, rubber tree plantations and banana tress though many small kampongs, the scene shone a radiant green that was magnificent.
Two nights were spent at the superb Lakehouse Hotel located at 1400mt, a world away from the heat of the coast. We visited the famous BOH tea planation where we indulged in Devonshire tea before hitting the road for some more twisities fun, even if we were in the 4 x 4, through this stunningly verdant landscape of seemingly impenetrable forests and plantations.
We visited what must be the only Scottish castle in all of South East Asia, Kellies Castle, built in the early 19th Century by Scotsman cum tin Baron, William Kellie Smith. After his death the castle was soon consumed by the surrounding jungle only to be resurrected many decades later, it was truly an amazing sight, a Scottish castle in the jungle!!! 40ks of Twisties through the ever-encroaching jungle saw us back at 1400mts and into the cool Cameron Highlands again, it was a great day in the Cameron Highlands finished off by a few beers at the Lakehouse overlooking the jungle.
Dragging ourselves away from the relative cool of the highlands with again wound our way down the mountain through the jungle before stopping off to visit an amazing Orangutan Conservancy only an hour out of Penang. We caught a boat out to a wonderful Orangutan conservancy where we came face to face with these amazing, inquisitive creatures who were in large areas of jungle while it was, we humans who walked through a cage like tunnel. The conservancy exists to study diseases that are decimating the orangutan populations but also prepare them to be reintroduced back into the wild.
Crossing an amazing 24k long bridge we saw our first week out as we arrived into the legendry foodie capital of Malaysia and possibly Southeast Asia, Penang, that’s also a UNESCO world heritage listed town also famous for its striking street art and, strangely, love of cats!!
Already week two of our Asian Overland research trip and what better way to spend our last night in Penang, and Malaysia, than down at Micke’s Bar on Love Street listening to a cover band do Pink Floyds “wish you were here”.
We took the long way around and found a nearly deserted border to cross from Malaysia into Thailand, in fact when we arrived there was only one other car in front of us, for a moment I thought the border might have been closed for Easter, thankfully not. Immigration were their miserable selves, as per every border known to man, but customs could not have been more charming & helpful and even had free waters & tea, before we knew it, we were in Thailand.
The previous “hint” of chaos had turned to a little more substantial chaos but still the traffic wasn’t too bad, especially as we left the border city and drove deep into the verdant jungle covered mountains via an endless series of twists and curves that followed the course of a river, that ended in an impressive dam. We ended the day in Songkhla, scenically located on the Gulf of Thailand. Songkhla sees very few western tourists, in fact we saw only one other western tourist who, incredibly, came from Melton, the HQ of Compass Expeditions!!
Turning west from the Gulf of Thailand we found endless narrow back roads that meandered their way through small villages with locals going about their daily life including a logger on elephant back wandering down the road. We pulled over offered the driver a cold Coke which he instructed I place at the tip of the elephant’s trunk. Expecting to be soaked in Coke at any second as the mighty elephant crushed the coke, I was surprised at how delicately the elephant handed it to his driver. The driving was magnificent today through endless small villages, surrounded by jungle, stunning Wats (temples), and once we reached the Andaman Sea, classic karst scenery.
Two nights were spent at the luxurious Anyavee Tubkaek Beach Resort that offered utterly breathtaking views of the Hong Islands. We hired a longtail boat and spent an incredible day out amongst the seemingly endless limestone karsts that rise vertically from the Andaman Sea. We, or should I say Sarah, snorkelled, as I wasn’t keen on removing my Blundestones, (Aussies will get that). It was the classic South East Asian scene, the beautiful people, (tongue in cheek), sunning themselves on the golden beaches that were lapped by an emerald sea, bays sheltered by towering vegetation covered limestones cliffs and colourful longtail boats only adding to the picture-perfect scene, it truly is a stunning place.
Leaving the beach scene behind we travelled though some outstanding karst scenery via a series of back roads that struggled for a clear path through the forest. We visited the wonderful bikers’ bars and café of “Throttle Shrottle”. We entered the magic world of Khao Sok National Park to check out the $650 per night Elephant Camp where we will take our inaugural Asian Overland riders next year. The camp is multi award winning for its elephant conservation work & Thailand’s first luxury tented camp, set amongst stunning karst scenery and surrounded by Southern Thailand’s largest tract of protected rainforests.
Thailand continued to throw up surprises as we visited the amazing “Garage 3028” in a non-descript town far from any serious highway. The Garage is actually a café that houses possibly one of the largest collections of all things motoring I have ever seen, complemented by a small collection of antique bikes in an adjacent garage. We spent an hour there gazing at this amazing collection.
Continuing on via and endless series of back country roads, some of which I swear no tourist would have ever be on, we reached the city of Kanchanaburri, beautifully located on the River Kwai.
Kanchanaburri , however, has a very dark history; it was here during the second world war that POWs lost their lives in their 1000s while building the infamous Thai – Burma Railway and the Bridge on the River Kwai. We spent a full day on tour exploring the stunning Erewan waterfalls, Hellfire Pass and the superb, Australian sponsored, Hellfire Pass Museum where it once again become clear to humankind’s brutal capacity to inflict unimaginable suffering on each other. A walk along Hellfire pass with Australian flags, small toy koalas & bright red poppies stuck to the canyon walls certainly bought a tear to the eye.
We caught a train on the “Death Railroad” part way back to Kanchanaburri , the train teetered high above the Kwai River and offered stunning views of the valleys & of Thai life along the river front, all that more surreal considering the not too distant past.
Our second week has drawn to a close and already we are reminiscing what we have seen and experienced thus far, what a mighty journey we are on!!
For more information about the 90-day Asian Overland Expedition please follow the link below to our Expedition web page.