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Singapore - Macau Route Survey

 
Sorry about the delay in putting the following onto the website. This was due mainly to the pressures on my time, and to my tired, lo-tech brain’s inability to cope with the challenges of electronic communication.

John and Arne’s Wonderful Journey, Instalment 1


Raffles to Raffles: the Route So Far


It’s 30th March, it’s my birthday, and I’m in Phnom Penh. Arne and I have just enjoyed a very ample Chinese Sunday lunch at the Gold Fish River Restaurant, a fairly ethnic joint beside the broad Tonle Sap river. The whole bill was just $36, including several cans of Tiger.

Phnom Penh is the capital of Cambodia, a spacious city largely built by the French. In 1975, the Marxist-Stalinist fanatic Pol Pot cleared out the supposedly effete urban population and massacred all those with any education or other bourgeois symptoms, men, women, children and babies alike. For three years the city was empty, a ghost town, many of its fine buildings wrecked. Undesirable inhabitants were massacred at the killing fields of Choeung Ek, which we visited this morning - a place for reflection

Wonderfully, this is now a heartening city to visit, lively, bustling, friendly, cosmopolitan even; a tribute to the indomitable spirit of the human race. Thirty years on, a new generation of young Cambodians are putting the past behind them.

We are staying at one of the grand old palace hotels of the far east, Le Royal, built early last century, and now lavishly restored and rechristened Raffles Le Royal.

Our journey began more than three weeks ago at the original and even more sumptuous Raffles Hotel in Singapore, when we set off in our faithful Mitzi, one of the two Mitsubushi L200s currently owned by HERO 4x4xplore. This one, RX06 EXF, has already done duty as sweep car on the Great Tour of China, La Aventura Panamericana and the Grand Tour of India, so she is well run in by now.

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Mitzi on the event Start Line, Arne proudly pointing out the Swedish flag


My driver, Arne Hertz, is of course the very celebrated co-driver for the likes of Hannu Mikkola, Björn Waldegård, Ove Andersson, Stig Blomqvist and others, winner of five RAC Rallies and three East African Safaris. In the evenings, he entertains me endlessly with tales of the great old days.

Also riding with us are a succession of local representatives of Diethelm VIP Travel, our Bangkok-based tour operating partners. As well as being good company, they act as interpreters, reading signs in strange scripts and asking locals the way, and as founts of knowledge, adding greatly to our understanding.

Thanks to good work by the local representative of our shipping agents, CARS UK, collection of our vehicle in Singapore was on time and painless. There is a fair amount of bureaucracy, but all the paperwork had been set up in advance and we just sailed through.

Singapore is an island state not much bigger than the Isle of Wight, yet is one of the world’s economic powerhouses, a spotless place of skyscrapers and expressways, in which Raffles is a haven of old fashioned peace. We had a drink in the bar in which the last tiger in Singapore was reputedly shot. The hotel management were very cooperative in arranging for the event to start from the front of the hotel, and to set aside parking spaces in their large underground car park.

The bridge that takes us into Malaysia is less than half an hour away. We had planned a route up the coast road to Malacca, but this proves slow and not especially attractive, so we opt instead for a quick run up the pleasant expressway and a few hours in the afternoon to explore this fascinating little city.

Malacca was successively a trading outpost for the imperial Chinese, the Portuguese and the Dutch, before becoming part of the British Empire. All these cultures have left their mark; we choose a traditional restaurant specialising in the local version of Chinese food for the event’s first dinner on the road. Our hotel, the Majestic, is a very pleasant surprise: behind a well restored merchant’s mansion is a modern boutique hotel with beautifully accoutred rooms.
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Multicultural Malacca: Portuguese fort...

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... Dutch house...

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... and Chinese street


Next day, another short expressway run brings us into Kuala Lumpur, one of Asia’s great cities, with an afternoon free to explore the shopping malls, filled with high quality merchandise of all kinds. Our hotel is the superb Mandarin Oriental, in the shadow of the awesome Petronas Towers.

We dine at sunset in the revolving restaurant of the KL Tower, or Menala KL, about a kilometre away. Although at 421m (1,403 ft) this building is not as tall as the Petronas Towers (452m), we are higher here than the highest public area of the latter. The views are superb, watching the city lights come on - the food is pretty good, too!
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KL Tower


Next day is another short run, north along the expressway then up a twisting highway into the green cool Cameron Highlands, an area of hill stations and tea plantations. We stop to watch children splashing in a mountain cascade and have a lunch break at a very English half-timbered lakeside hotel. We stay at the Cameron Highlands Resort, another high quality boutique hotel, run by the same people as the Majestic.
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Cameron Highlands


There are plenty of things to do here, including golf, guided walks and an interesting drive to the top of a nearby mountain, but sadly we couldn’t find any 4x4 trails - in fact, the generally excellent condition of roads everywhere, and lack of mountains, has so far been one of our few disappointments (but I gather that northern Thailand and Vietnam will make up for it!)

The next morning, we return on a fast scenic new road to the coastal plain, where we visit a number of interesting sights: Kellie’s Castle, a flamboyant folly built by a colourful expat; a series of caves containing Buddhist temples; Kuala Kangsur, the lovely old royal capital of Selangor, with its palace complex and magnificent mosque; a touching orang utan rehabilitation project; and one or two others. Finally we cross the 8km bridge to Penang Island, and discover a very attractive hilly route around its west coast.


 

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Kellie’s Castle

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Mitzi and Mosque, Kuala Kangsur

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Orang Utan Preservation Centre


We also discover a superb beach hotel, the Shangri-La Rasa Sayang Resort, which is in every way superior to the slightly disappointing Eastern and Oriental in Georgetown city, and book it for the event. We suspect that many participants will pass up the sightseeing and opt for a fast run up the expressway to chill out here. Our evening meal will be a beachside barbecue.
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Shangri-La Rasa Sayang Resort, Penang



From here, it’s a long day’s drive north to Krabi, but the roads are fast and it’s a fairly easy run. Participants will have to leave early to escape the horrific rush hour on the Penang bridge, and in little more than a couple of hours they will have covered the 185km to the Thailand border. Once again, formalities are quick and easy.

We are immediately aware of being in another country. Malaysia is just a little buttoned up, but Thailand has a much more easy going air. In both countries, though, all the roads are of excellent quality.

We try a few roads towards the coast without success, so opt instead for the Route of the Waterfalls. This 65km loop through interesting countryside is our first taste of Thai secondary roads: fast and empty. We visited three or four of the advertised waterfalls, but only one was really worth it. As we progress through Thailand, it becomes clear from the plethora of signposts to them that waterfalls of any size and description are a national obsession.

Near Trang, we do find a minor road out to the coast, and run alongside the sea for about 30km of beautiful unspoilt coastline, exactly like the ads: palm-fringed pale sand, blue sea, green islands, fishing villages on stilts where craftsmen make boats by hand in the traditional way.
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Unspoiled Thai coast near Trang

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Traditional boat-building


Just before Krabi town, we make a detour to Tiger Cave Temple, the centre of a thriving Buddhist cult, where a vast concrete stupa is nearing completion. Tiger Cave itself is tiny; below it, in the wide shallow cave called the “meeting hall”, the faithful pray to a large gold Buddha.

We skirt Krabi to the embarkation point for the boats to Rayavadee, and are please to see the large modern reception hall and secure car park. We boarded the speedboat direct from the beach, but arrangements for participants may vary according to the state of the tide at time of arrival.

Rayavadee isn’t an island, but it is inaccessible by road. It occupies a low-lying isthmus between great karst rocks which together form a promontory, and has three beaches at different points, as well as a lovely pool. The rooms are individual cottages, with a bedroom upstairs and sitting room below. It is a truly idyllic spot at which to spend a rest day, just chilling out.
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Rayavadee beach...

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... and cottages

 
We find a lovely route northwards up the coast from Rayavadee, avoiding the busy main road for about 70km. Our next stop is karst-studded Phang Nga Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site made famous by the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun - in particular, the stack now known as James Bond Island. It’s a three to four hour boat trip in a long tail canoe.
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James Bond Island


This wonderful device marries a traditional canoe shape, with a slender high pointed bow, to a propeller mounted directly on to the end of a long shaft. This is driven by a big old six-cylinder truck diesel engine mounted on a bevel, the whole lot being moved side to side or up and down by the helmsman. The hundred-plus horsepower provides bags of oomph, and at speed leaves in our wake a great elegant arc of water.
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Long-tail canoe


The trip is great fun, taking us through narrow mangrove creeks and low caves cut through the karsts by the sea, and includes a lunch halt at a Moslem village on stilts (including a gold-domed mosque). The seafood meal is superb.
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Lunch stop, Phang Nga Bay


From here, it’s an easy run into Phuket. Here again, we spent a lot of time looking at alternatives, finally deciding against struggling through the traffic to our original choice of Cape Panwa Hotel, which we also suspect may have changed a little since Leonardo diCaprio checked out. On balance, too, the urbanisation and congestion outweighed the scenic parts of the run next morning up the west coast of Phuket Island, so we have changed our accommodation to the excellent modern Sheraton Grande Laguna Resort, in the north of the island. Participants should now be able to arrive in time for a dip in the pool.


 

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Sheraton Grande Laguna Resort, Phuket


Continuing north, we take the pleasant and quiet main Route 4 up the coast to Ranong. Here we do a short detour along the shore, where there is a good view across the water to Myanmar (Burma), before taking a well surfaced, twisty and hilly minor road across the isthmus to the Gulf of Thailand coast. Using Google Earth, we discover a very useful short cut to our hotel, the excellent Novotel beach resort at Chumphon.

From here we were delighted to discover a lovely route northwards, hugging the coast for 150km on excellent fast roads not properly shown on any map (although discernible on Google Earth). We saw very little traffic, passing through farming and fishing areas and a few charming little resorts. In one of these we had a super fish meal at a quiet beach restaurant. Towards the end of the stretch, we discovered a huge golden Buddha, high on a promontory looking out to sea. Later, we made another detour into the Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park, with unusual scenery and some interesting wildlife.
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Coast north of Chumphon

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Giant Buddha. looking out to sea


Those who want to get quickly into Bangkok can cut these sections and go straight up the main road, as can those who prefer the detour to see the Bridge on the River Kwai. This is quite an easy 150km extra, and was more interesting than I thought it would be, with a display of locomotives and the option of a trip on a little diesel train. We had a good meal in a restaurant by the bridge. The run into Bangkok was easier than we thought it would be, thanks to expressways which took us to within 2 km of our hotel.

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The Bridge on the River Kwai

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Japanese rail lorry


Bangkok was of course wonderful. Our hotel, the Oriental, has been voted the world’s best, and we found it excellent in every way, particularly the superb rooms, the outstanding service and the magnificent food - particularly the wonderful buffet at the outdoor riverside restaurant at both dinner and breakfast.
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View of Bangkok from Oriental Hotel


The Oriental is an ideal location for a rest day, as it is right alongside a boat station, and so has easy access to the exquisite temples and monuments of the royal palace area, which are NOT to be missed. Other sights, including shops and markets, are also within easy reach.
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Royal palace, Bangkok

Leaving Bangkok, in less than 2.5km we were once more on an elevated expressway. We decided to avoid the crowded coastal plain past Pattaya and head inland. Our first 100km, through Bangkok’s sprawling suburbs and industrial belt, were covered in little more than an hour, and soon after we were on Route 3259, an excellent fast quiet road through prosperous farming countryside. As we climbed into wooded hills, we saw elephant droppings on the road. After another 100km we started to run parallel to the Cambodian border, through the foothills of the Cardamom Mountains. Here we found a very enjoyable 14km section on gravel roads, and roadbooked the tar alternative in case it is needed (or people prefer it).

Another 90 km of good secondary roads through hilly countryside brought us to the coastal highway near Trat, and an easy run to the Cambodian border. Here, as at all other frontier crossings, we were ably assisted on both the Thai and Cambodian sides by our Diethelm colleagues. The only slight hiccup, which we met virtually everywhere, was the need to explain to sometimes sceptical customs officers the importance of getting our Carnet de Passage stamped and the appropriate slip removed. This should not be a problem on the event, as Diethelm’s staff are now clued up (and we will be preceded by Arne in a 48/24 hr car).

Our hotel, the Koh Kong International Resort, is a luxurious modern casino complex right alongside the Cambodian border post, so that Thai high rollers can slip in without going through immigration formalities.
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First glimpse of Cambodia: Koh Kong International Resort


Cambodia is very different from Thailand or Malaysia: a real third world country, most of whose inhabitants struggle against serious poverty, resulting in part from their involvement in the Vietnam War and from the monstrous draconian Pol Pot regime. Knowing the country is still part of “Francophonie”, the loose commonwealth of supposedly French-speaking nations sponsored by the French Government, I tried speaking French to a few people, to be gently told that virtually no-one speaks the language now; in Pol Pot’s time, to do so was virtually an automatic death sentence.

But don’t get the wrong idea. Cambodia is now a young country, and the new generation are lively and optimistic. It is a very positive, heartening place to visit.

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Restaurant, Kampot
From Koh Kong, we took the new 140 km Route 48, bankrolled by the Thai Government to facilitate timber extraction, which now links this distant corner with the rest of the country. It’s a wonderful fast road that turns and swoops through what was previously virgin forest, giving some fine views. We had to use ferries to cross a couple of rivers, but the bridges are complete and can be used as soon as the right politician cuts the tape.
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: The new bridge on Route 48 is finished but not officially open, so we had to take the ferry.

We had planned that the highlight of this day would be a visit to Bokor, a ghost hill station built by the French in the last century, whose substantial period buildings are now atmospheric ruins, high on a mountain overlooking the ocean. However, when we reached the foot of the access road, we were turned back: sadly, the site is closed for development as a resort complex.

But after a couple of days exploring many different options, we were able to find a very attractive alternative route, pausing to explore the attractive old town of Kampot (where we found a very good restaurant), then driving through fishing villages [0638, 0636, 0633, 0644] and the nice little seaside resort of Kep, before heading north towards Phnom Penh.
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Scenes from a fishing village on Cambodia’s south coast: the fish is landed...

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... and quickly put on sale...

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...alongside local fruit ...

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... and live chickens, brought in (like most other things) by motor bike

. There are two or three interesting places to pause along the way, including the chilling site of Choeung Ek, the killing fields, which I found profoundly moving.
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Thirty-five years ago, they were teachers, doctors, students


But do not enter this pleasant, lively city in too heavy a mood; come and have your spirit lightened by a new generation.

John Brown
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A happy waggonload of monks



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