We are delighted to have been featured in a two-page spread in The Star.
Thank you, Haizam!
Our celebrations of the end of our seemingly interminable tuk-tuk journey would not be complete without acknowledging some of our amazing friends and supporters, without whom this all would not have been possible…
Our heartfelt thanks to:
Xin Hui, Tom, PJ & Andrew
P.S. It’s still not too late to donate to The Cambodia Trust and Birdlife International!
At the initial briefing for the ASEAN Rickshaw Run two Saturdays and a lifetime ago, Mr. Nithee Seeprae, director of the Jakarta office of the Tourism Authority of Thailand, played a tourism video that featured Thailand’s wonderful beaches and scenery (residents of Oxford who eat regularly at the Thai Canteen on Gloucester Green will have seen these videos, albeit with the sound off). Tom and I immediately turned to each other and vowed that when we reached Southern Thailand, we would run down to one of these beaches and swim in the sea.
That day arrived today, and after breakfast, we dashed down to the beach, but not before one last team photo with the Project Southeast Asia banner!
Thank you to everyone who supported us through the journey and anyone who has donated to The Cambodia Trust and Birdlife International! We really appreciate your support and we hope you’ll continue visiting this website, attending our events, and participating in Project Southeast Asia!
P.S.: It’s still not too late to donate to The Cambodia Trust and Birdlife International!
After a very pleasant evening eating curry, intestines, banana leaves and drinking lots of coconut juice, we had high hopes for our final day on the road. We were not to be disappointed.
It all began when our tuk-tuk resolutely refused to start as we reversed it out of its parking spot. We thought we’d give it its usual running start. No joy. Not even with the help of several strong men. We then turned the tuk-tuk into oncoming traffic so we could let gravity have a go. It growled slightly more reassuringly but still refused to fulfil its destiny. Our friendly guides then insisted on pushing our dear dying steed down a long sloping soi/alley. It was still not to be, and as we proceeded down the side road, some of our older helpers started to tire and peeled away. We emerged from the alley onto the main road worried that the tuk-tuk had finally reached the end of its long illness, and with heavy hearts decided we’d give the rickshaw a final heave and run before calling it quits. Just then, and as if it could sense our disappointment, our engine reluctantly returned from across the River Styx and spluttered into life. And off we went.
This was to be a short-lived success. Just before Wang Wiset, about 20km outside of Trang, the engine made an unsettling gurgling noise before rattling again into expiration. Tom was convinced it had finally given up the ghost. Along came a man with more than a passing resemblance to Jafar from Aladdin (minus the robes and parrot), who offered, well, insisted on towing us all the way to Ao Nang. We thought we’d see where we’d get to – perhaps he was the living incarnation of the Good Samaritan (we are in Thailand) or, more likely, he was going to take us on a bit of a ride – literally. Either way, he was probably going to drag us further on than we would have got waiting on a hill pass.
On arriving at a suitably deserted patch of road closer to Wang Wiset, our friend’s true motives soon became apparent. He asked us for 5000 baht (100 pounds/200 SGD) for the privilege of pulling the carcass of our warrior stallion to its final resting place in Ao Phra Nang. Aghast, we refused to let him have his filthy way with us – and certainly not in front of his two very amused young sons. Fortunately, two strapping young men came to our rescue. After some fiddling, they rapidly came to the realisation that repairing our roadwreck was beyond their expertise, and one of them left on his motorbike to enlist the services of the village mechanic. He soon arrived with a handful of spanners and screwdrivers as well as an expression of great concern. This turned out to be somewhat unnecessary, as he swiftly excised the tumour that was ailing our (un)trusty steed with yours truly as proud and reasonably competent scrub nurse (I do have some practice). Our newfound friends refused to accept any payment for their efforts, and we zoomed off with big smiles on our faces. (We do still wonder if we could have done the same if our tools hadn’t been stolen on the ferry from Belawan).
These smiles soon melted into frowns as the engine once again decided to let us down on the battlefield just 50km from the finish line, choosing this time to choke right in front of a massage parlour. Thinking it prudent to let the engine cool, we pushed the unconscious rickshaw to the side of the road and topped it – and ourselves – up with some fuel for the road.
Tom soon attracted the attention of the massage parlour staff who were certain that he had time for a massage before heading for Ao Nang. In the meantime, our fallen spaceship was slowly sliding into a nearby ditch – to our horror. But as we rushed to reverse its trajectory, we gave the ignition a hopeful twist to see if it would respond and it unexpectedly roared to life.
The state of the rickshaw was by now bordering on catastrophic. Its initially comforting engine rattle had become a constant deafening clanging. Driving it felt like manoeuvring an airport trolley across the tropical jungle with a couple of Asian elephants as cargo. Passengers had to grapple with getting flung out of the vehicle each time we made a right turn (the right door could no longer close properly), having their limbs swell and tingle from the violent rocking, and having to avoid getting left behind or run over each time we had to give the craft a running start before jumping in while rolling it down a slope. One other worrying thing was that we could longer stop the tuk-tuk for any period of time without having it stall. Like a shark, it had to keep moving or die. Red lights, therefore, were deemed extraneous to our journey. Every time we approached one, we slowed the tuk-tuk down as much as we dared and slowly inched forward until a gap appeared in traffic, before saying a prayer and flooring the accelerator to limp through the intersection. This all culminated in the final four-way junction of our journey, which involved a sharp right turn through the red light into oncoming traffic where the right door flung open and the tuk-tuk felt like it was going to roll over, its engine screaming and coughing in protest.
In order to find the finish line, we had to rely on directions supplied by The Adventurists, which were charmingly incongruous. (I personally wouldn’t nickname the Thais’ currently flood-ravaged holy city of angels ‘Bangers’, for a start). We were told to “go up Ao Nang High Street”, make a turn at “the shabby little restaurant on the corner”, look out for a McDonald’s billboard, and to “bump 2km down a dirt track”. Presumably, they forgot to mention we should make a left at the pub, drive past the cricket pitch, and watch out for sheep.
We decided to rely on our iPhones instead and easily found the dirt track leading to the finish line. “Bump” barely described what the rickshaw had to go through, as it plunged into water-filled potholes, crawled up steep slopes, tumbled down sudden drops, and tossed us around as it bounced over the extremely uneven track. As it hit a particularly steep section of track, the engine stalled and we began sliding backwards. We arrested our downward and backward progress by jumping out and physically halting the slide. I slid behind the wheel, and Tom and PJ slowly pushed the rickshaw up the slope until we gained enough momentum for the engine to splutter back into life one last time. Afraid to slow down for fear we’d stall again, I kept the accelerator down, forcing Tom and PJ to dive in to the rickshaw head- and backside-first respectively, various limbs and other body parts dangling out of the rickshaw as it resumed its rollercoaster ride over the track. After another minute or two of tumbling about, we took a left turn and suddenly there it was – the finish line. The rickshaw staggered under the banner, rolled past the rickshaws that had arrived before us, and slid smoothly into a parking spot before, appropriately, stalling for the very last time.
We staggered out of the rickshaw, slightly hysterical and delirious. After a long journey, we had finally made it.
Anyway, my bum is flaming from the very long ride. Time for a dip in the sea, perhaps?
27 Oct 2011
We reached the docks of Butterworth just in time to witness our metal steed being unloaded from the “Golden Lestari”, the leaky freighter responsible for its transport across the Straits of Malacca.
Upon inspecting our vehicle, it turned out that most of the petrol had magically disappeared, along with our spanners, screwdrivers and a Cambodia Trust sticker.
Instead, the storage space of our rickshaw now featured a grubby water bottle and some food leftovers in an advanced state of decomposition, undoubtedly placed there as a compensation for this vile theft.
The other teams endured comparable degrees of hardship. We saw one rickshaw with its engine missing. Another one was held together entirely by duct tape.
After the entire convoy of rickshaws was repaired and tested, a rather dictatorial police unit escorted us to Kuala Perlis, where we spent the night.
Stuff that broke down: windshield wiper
28 Oct 2011
Despite a rather nerve-wrecking passage through the limestone hills of northern Perlis, the road from Kuala Perlis to the Wang Kelian border crossing was easily navigable.
At this border crossing, we caught up with some of the other teams and their ravaged rickshaws. Xin Hui’s family also came along and brought us sticky rice, bananas and my passport that I foolishly forgot.
The roads on the Thai side of the border were relatively good, albeit with large holes at regular intervals, which, according to Xin Hui, substituted speed bumps in their functionality. Nothing quite as atrocious as the infernal roads of Sumatra, though.
We made it to Trang without the help of a pick-up truck, which is quite a feat at this stage of the Rickshaw Run.
In fact, our rickshaw is in the most horrendous state imaginable, not being able to start without people having to push it and equipped with a gear stick that leads its own turbulent life.
Will this piece of junk get us to the finish line at Ao Nang (near the city of Krabi)? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s update!
We’ve arrived in Perlis and are spending the night here, not too far from the Thai border. By some minor miracle, the Rickshaw did not break down today, although when it came off the ferry (really a glorified sampan), it was missing a few things, including our tools and some petrol. However, another Rickshaw appeared to be missing its entire engine, so I think we got a better bargain.
What really irked me today was a remark by one of the organisers as we were about to set off. She apologetically informed the assembled teams that we would be accompanied by a police escort for at least some of the way from the Butterworth wharves to the Thai border.
“We’ve tried to explain that we don’t need an escort,” she said, “But they insist. It’s their way of showing hospitality, you see.” Left unsaid was the implication that the Malaysians really did not understand the spirit of adventure nor what The Adventurists and the ASEAN Rickshaw Run participants were trying to achieve.
My team, of course, was really annoyed by her remarks but we did not say anything. Still, it is part of a general theme of orientalism that we find frustrating, and are generally exhausted by. It’s the same school of thought which tries to explain Chinese realpolitik by correlating it to Chinese shadow puppetry, or explains religious extremism divorced from social, economic, and political realities.
What Xin Hui pointed out was that the Malaysian police were not trying to be hospitable. They were just trying to save themselves as much hassle as possible. The only way for the 20 or so surviving tuk-tuks to reach Thailand was via the North-South Highway. Along the highway, stops were spaced far apart, as were petrol stations, and there was no easy access to mechanics or any form of repairs. If any tuk-tuk broke down, it would effectively be stranded. Imagine a dozen tuk-tuks scattered all over the North-South Highway, stretching from Butterworth to Perlis. It would have been a logistical nightmare for the police. Instead, they had quickly realised that their optimum strategy was to group us all into a convoy, insist that we all fill up with petrol to ensure no one ran out, and escort us to as close to the border as possible, stopping regularly to ensure that no one was left behind. A small amount of effort would thus save them a potentially huge amount of hassle.
But of course, all this was interpreted by many of the teams as contrary to their spirit of adventure, and a lot of unnecessary nannying. There was much grumbling and complaining as we were forced to stop again and again, or forced to fill up on petrol regularly. This was blamed on oddities in the local culture, rather than simple expedience.
More broadly, this entire trip has been poorly conceptualised. It seems clear to us that the organisers took a model which works for the Mongol Rally and the Indian Rickshaw Runs, and tried to apply it to Southeast Asia without taking into account local conditions. It is one things to drive a rickety vehicle through villages and mountain passes, counting on the availability of local assistance and frequent opportunities to stop; it is another thing to drive down a major highway where amenities are spaced out and designed to accommodate much larger, faster vehicles with greater range. It is one thing to allow people to choose their own route over land, avoiding major cities and sticking to smaller roads and villages; it is another when the route has to cross international waters, which necessitates passing through major ports and cities.
I do feel this event has lacked a lot of understanding of local conditions. Too often, the organisers seem to have assumed things would work just as they did back in the UK. Then, when it did not, they dismissed it as some form of local culture that they could not comprehend, rather than stop to question their assumptions or work through their organisational model.
Of course, our team are still having a marvellous time, and we are really happy to have this opportunity to travel through our home region in this way. Still, we cannot help but feel it could have been so much more.
As we have already established, Tom is a celebrity in Indonesia, offered starring roles in movies and pursued by women on a mission. Now he has followed up his wildly successful interview on Australian radio with another fantastic interview, making him definitely a celebrity in Australia too!
Here he is recording the interview:
We have successfully finished the Sumatran part of our journey! Unfortunately, the internet connection is – again – too slow to upload photos. [update: these have now been retrofitted!]
The bus from Bukittinggi to Prapat safely transported us over the northern Bukit Barisan, a mountain range we dared not cross in our rickshaw with its bad engine, faulty brakes and ingeniously improvised clutch cable.
Upon arriving in Prapat, we decided to take a ferry across Lake Toba to check out the famous Samosir Island and escort to their resorts a group of lovely damsels we had met in Bedudal Café.
Despite its spectacular nature, I found Lake Toba one of the most annoying places I have visited in Indonesia.
In addition to the abundance of touts, overpriced guest houses and dodgy souvenir shops, hundreds of school kids were dismissed to this tourist hot spot to practice their English, presumably because their teachers were too lazy or incompetent to handle this responsibility themselves. The result was a constant wailing of “Misterr, frektis Inggris?”, followed by an obligatory photo-shoot to prove that the assignment had indeed been carried out.
Glad to be back in the real world, we continued our journey to Pematang Siantar. The highlights of this bus ride were the magnificent sylvan panoramas, monkeys patrolling the road side and a bench with three school girls on it that suddenly broke off.
In Pematang Siantar, we were welcomed by my uncle Ais, who had earlier helped us with the truck. He took good care of us and drove us to Medan to pick up the rickshaw.
Offloading our rickshaw from the truck was a rather spectacular endeavour. Helped only by three wooden planks and about 15 men of strong limbs, the whole thing was slowly manoeuvred out of the truck and onto a field, ready to go.
On the way from Medan to Belawan, 5km before reaching our destination, we were pulled over by the strong arm of the law. Despite our ASEAN patronage and supporting statements from the national police department in Jakarta, our corrupt friends still deemed it in their best interest to try and have some “coffee money” imparted to them based on impromptu invented criminal offenses.
After they had failed to come up with a single justification to do so, they reluctantly let us go. My rather sarcastic apology for having wasted their time did very little to brighten their disposition.
What a delight it was to drop our metal stallion off at the Belawan harbour, whence it shall be shipped to Butterworth in Malaysia.
In the meantime, I find myself comfortably at the residence of Xin Hui’s parents in Penang, having been treated the best rojak in the world!
Stuff that broke down: the metal frame supporting the back seat
The Malaysian Oxbridge Society came out in force to support us at our party and fundraising event at the Hard Rock Café, Kuala Lumpur.
Coincidentally, it was also Dr Gerry Bodeker’s birthday! He turned 25 (give or take a few years).
We were also fortunate to be graced by the presence of Dr Peter Carey, founder of The Cambodia Trust, who spoke to many of the guests about his work. You can learn more and donate to The Cambodia Trust and Birdlife International at our JustGiving page.
Thanks again to everyone who came! We had a great time.