Thailand – just follow the directions

Dusk at Coral Hotel
Dusk at Coral Hotel

Our ‘Bangkok in a day’ tour completed, we were ready to head south to the hellacious Phuket. It’s difficult to overstate the kaleidoscope of elements that contributes to experiencing Bangkok; from breathtaking cuisine – we’d dined on exquisite Miang Kham* in the riverside Thiptara restaurant and meandered through street food stalls – to the people; charming, respectful and gentle in a manner that is disarming to hubristic Westerners; and that river – rich in horrific and mysterious flotsam. We’d wandered along Charoen Krung Road to shop at Robinsons and I’d established a relaxed stand-off with the security officers who never quite understood my dawn excursions, bush-shaking and pishing** in the hotel gardens.

In the taxi to Suvarnabhumi airport to collect the rental car I was mindful of the wealth of advice provided, guidance published and concern expressed about driving in Thailand. Statistically we were in the second most dangerous country in the world with something approaching 24000 vehicle-related deaths a year; that’s about three an hour. I had been counselled on the risks of drunks, un-roadworthy vehicles, insurance scams and corrupt police. In short, choosing to drive was madness.

Emerging onto a moonlit sea
Emerging onto a moonlit sea

The rental desk was deserted and the assistant who arrived to deal with her only customer [locals and Asian visitors were using a presumably cheaper outlet next door] was only matched in her warmth and enthusiasm by her apparent lack of experience. Whilst putting some of that down to language it became clear as we struggled through the process of processing booking confirmations, passport copies and driving licence details that she probably hadn’t done this before. I began to have visions of being angrily accused by a moped-riding drunk in baggy shorts and tee-shirt before being pulled over by corrupt police to find that the one piece of paper you must carry in Thailand was still at the airport. My fears were compounded when the SatNav I’d pre-ordered was respectfully presented to me in a box – cellophane intact – with a perfect set of instructions in Thai. That was swiftly followed by an invoice for the rental charge – £1200! This disjunctive and time-consuming exchange was all very good-natured but with distance to drive and the day disappearing I was relieved when her senior colleague arrived. Within minutes the SatNav was programmed, its cost moderated – she’d used the purchase price for each day of the rental – and we were wedged into a tiny but shining new car with the smiling staff waving us off at the kerbside.

Bang Saphan beach at dawn
Bang Saphan beach at dawn
Poolside at Coral Hotel
Poolside at Coral Hotel

Now – the aforementioned perils aside – all we had to do was follow the directions. Straight down the Suvarnabhumi Road to the Sirat Expressway; along Ratchadaphisek Road, join the The Rama II Frontage Road and head for Prachuap Khiri Khan. The roads were pretty good and the traffic surprisingly benign but we encountered an unexpected problem – the SatNav couldn’t pronounce Thai. We were reduced to floods of laughter at the American-accented gibberish and were forced into the nearest service station to buy a map that would facilitate our journey towards Huahin.

Once out of Bangkok the road degenerated into a straightish dual carriageway but, as one would expect, it was sort of different from what we see in Europe. A lot of incomplete road works necessitating diversions, U-turns and – frighteningly – some unmarked two-way stretches were interspersed with random traffic signals and junctions that often defied comprehension. Numerous potholes, missing bits of road and debris encouraged heavy trucks, tractors and pick-ups full of schoolgirls to swing erratically from lane to lane but it became clear very rapidly that none of this concerned the Thai drivers; they simply ignored everything in a headlong rush to get where they were going. It was truly nerve-racking but in time I became more confident and once we’d reached a velocity approaching that of the traffic it was akin to floating down a river on a log.

Pool from the restaurant at Coral Hotel
Pool from the restaurant at Coral Hotel

We had an overnight stay booked at Coral Hotel in Bang Saphan but it was almost dark as we arrived. The SatNav, which we’d by then begun to interpret, garbled a left turn onto an unlit, narrow road heading into the forest but there were no signs and the road was too small to be on the map. We could see no indication of where we should go, turned back, retraced our steps and tried again before eventually seeing lights. We emerged into a rural setting that boasted a supermarket, a rail crossing and a single traffic light. I decided to try – map in hand – to see if anyone could point us towards the hotel and was ushered to the centre of the store where a youngish guy was ministering to a hoard of local residents. This was the pharmacy and he was, I guessed from the way he was consulting each customer before dispensing pills and tubes of ointment, the local doctor. I was at the back of a queue but quickly became the focus of animated attention, being foreign and all. We collectively established that we were indeed on the right road and that we should cross the railway, turn right at the signal and look for a sign. Whether that would be transcendental or physical I couldn’t tell but the garrulous crowd quickly turned its attention back to the doctor and we headed further into the trees. Eventually a hand-painted notice directed us along a sandy track that broke through the forest onto a beach, edged with coconut palms and bathed in moonlight. A short distance further and we pulled into a bijou tropical paradise, adorned by beautifully presented Thais and a small group of trendy, French guests. For all the world we had emerged in the film set of Emmanuelle.

Waiting for Emanuelle to appear
Waiting for Emmanuelle to appear

So, we’d passed the first test by avoiding death on the highway – narrowly, at one point – and were in a tropical paradise.

*Dried shrimp, roasted coconut, roasted peanut, shallot, ginger, lemon wrapped wrapped with betal leaf and served with palm sauce.

**If you’re not a birder then this explains pishing.

I use a SatNav, especially when I’m in the Middle East and have to tackle remote places but I’m not a big fan. Here’s a post from some time ago.




So what does the map say?

Mangroves at the southern boundary of Everglades National Park

In a few days’ time I’ll be donning my big hat, a linen shirt and worn-through cut-off denim shorts. I’ll be in the depths of the Everglades again and despite having been there many times I’m spending hours poring over maps and atlases, planning routes, checking out small roads for anything that looks interesting and marking tracks and hiking trails. What I’m doing, as I always do, is indulging myself in anticipation of a forthcoming trip – reading the map.

Maps fascinate me. I don’t know of a time when they didn’t captivate me and stir my imagination so I’m taking them to bed with me and absorbing detailed information over cups of tea in my office; they’ll be beside me at dinner, in a stack on the coffee table and, of course, a constant companion in the smallest room.

A map of the Everglades showing Lake Okeechobee to Bahia Ponce de Leon and Whitewater Bay in 1859. Although the old U.S. Army forts are gone the area designated as Indian hunting grounds remains as reservations, housing, retail outlets and, er, Miami. It’s overflowing with wildlife, natural wonder and historical sites yet a SatNav in a car I drove through here once instructed me to ‘turn west onto Tamiami Trail at junction 25 and continue for 87.8 miles’ without mentioning anything on either side of the road. This is from the Library of Congress map division.

There’s real joy in reading a map, in examining small details and discovering something that had evaded one previously, in gaining what I think of as the ‘big picture’ and it’s because of this that I’m perplexed when I find someone has driven from point A to point B by following directions provided through a gadget on the dashboard. I’m not against the provision of important traffic information – far from it – but for me it’s essential that I choose my route and find road junctions rather than being told what to do when I encounter them. I just don’t get the attachment to SatNav instructions as it’s very important to me that, along the way, I don’t miss – even if I don’t intend to visit – a church or a building, a natural feature or a place of interest that isn’t highlighted because it’s off the route and not relevant.

Driving patterns change, of course, and I’m comfortable with a new generation of drivers taking ownership of the M25 queues, the endless rows of traffic cones, increasing fuel costs and diminishing road maintenance as they ‘continue on this road for the next one hundred and fifty kilometres’. In some ways, however, I can’t avoid the feeling that the monotonous tones and garish graphics of a SatNav that places value on reaching a destination without distraction are metaphors for a lot in life today. I’m by no means a Luddite but how many new drivers today will suffer the dubious and bitter-sweet agony of watching his wife reading a map upside down so that the picture faces the right way? How less rich will a relationship be if you don’t have to make up after an argument because a husband didn’t ask for directions?

Many years ago I met a chap who carried in his car a collection of Ordnance Survey one-inch maps that covered most of England. His neatly-stacked box held, literally, dozens. They all looked grubby and well-thumbed until a close inspection showed that the margins and plain areas weren’t actually dirty – they were filled with hundreds of tiny notes in neat, small handwriting. Over years of travel he had carefully recorded the memorable minutia along the routes of innumerable journeys such that his scribblings ranged from roadside artefacts and ancient buildings to uplifting vistas and barmaids’ knockers. Each time he turned the ignition key he was beginning an adventure and his maps were an intrinsic part. They were more than a mere means of finding directions between two points. In a counterintuitive attempt to improve the place to place ‘driving experience’, SatNavs will now provide sightseeing software that is not only portable, allowing you to walk away from your vehicle while retaining contact with your virtual companion, but which also records where your vehicle stopped, in case a short time in un-conditioned air disorientates you.

In Robert Harris’ book ‘The Ghost,’ the eponymous character, a ghost-writer, finds himself in a vehicle following the GPS route used by his dead – at that point presumed murdered – predecessor. In the movie version of the episode, a Teutonic and efficient female voice urges him on until he arrives, a long way off the beaten track, at the gates of an isolated house deep in the woods of New England. It’s a pivotal point in the plot and, to me, all the more sinister because of the unemotional and slightly disassociated tones emanating from a little piece of electronic gadgetry. It seems perfectly reasonable, however, for him to ‘turn left at the next junction and continue for one hundred and twenty metres’ even when it does send him down an unpaved track in the forest.

Whilst that particular journey was crucial to the pace and tension of a novel it is perfectly normal for people to suspend usual levels of caution and self-preservation as they blindly follow the instructions that a SatNav gives them. Turning left or right at the next junction when a gadget tells you to has proved to be dangerous and sometimes fatal and although I’m never surprised at how witless people can be I am astounded that apparently otherwise sensible individuals will state – usually in evidence – that the SatNav was to blame. We could perhaps have accepted that as the case in January 2012, when a coronal mass ejection – that’s a solar flare to the less scientifically verbose – threatened to take down parts of theGPSnetwork. That’s when I expected roundabouts to be blocked for hours while hapless drivers circled, anxiously awaiting instructions on which exit to take. Alas, there were no reported incidents.

I’m looking forward to my trip and know some of the routes through the ‘Glades by heart now but I’ll be taking a few back roads and will be off the beaten track so maps are essential. Although it’s a vast place I will eschew all efforts by the car rental company to impose on me the very latest, interactive, high definition, comprehensively-programmed SatNav unit. I love my maps and using them is part of the adventure. No, I don’t want one in my car unless, of course, it sounds like Sean Young. In that case I’d go more or less anywhere it told me to.

A Black Vulture at the side of the road...
...and a Sherman's Fox Squirrel in the dry pineland at the north of the park.