So you thought driving through Eastern Europe in junkyard cars was a bad idea? Wait until you hear about the trip we are embarking on right now!
What is the Tuk Tuk Run about?
I agreed to work on another project of the creators of shows like ‘Trabant Trek’ and ‘Wreck Trek’, after having spent 3 weeks on Ukranian roads with them last summer. This time we will be travelling 2900 kilometers through South East Asia – in the iconic Thai three-wheelers called Tuk Tuks! We are a group of now 21 people from 9 countries and everyone is eager to get started.
After all the information we have gathered in the last weeks, we can only say that driving a Tuk Tuk around South East Asia as a Westerner is a gray zone. It just doesn’t seem to have been done before. It is also very doubtful if they will let 20 Farangs in 7 Tuk Tuks cross any of the borders we are meant to cross. People’s driving skills are questionable and the vehicles themselves … well, let’s just say they are special!
So in the next days everyone will get to know each other and run to the shops for Tuk Tuk parts. In the meantime, we have all Tuk Tuks changed to gasoline systems, as they usually run on natural gas which is hard to get in the jungles of Lao and Cambodia.
Then there will be some driving training and my feeling is people will have to repack several times as there is basically only space for two shorts and two shirts per person.
And then it’s off to the North! The planned route is as follows: From Bangkok all the way to the tubing paradise of Vang Vieng, then backtracking a little for Chinese New Year in Vientiane. From there we meander along the Mekong river, down to the 4000 Islands. We then take the jungle trails over the Cambodian border where we want to see Angkor Wat. Then it’s back into Thailand with a pitstop in Bangkok. From there, we will slowly make our way along caves, temples and beaches to the town of Surat Thani. We will then ship the vehicles to Ko Samui. After 2 days of relaxing there, the grand finale will take place at Full Moon Party on my favorite island, Ko Phangan!
So stay tuned for all the adventures to come!
Follow the hashtag #tuktukrun on Instagram. And see many more pictures on my Facebook page!
Please make sure to also like the Tuk Tuk Run Page on Facebook!
2 days until departure
I have spent the last days running around like a madman, getting all the Tuk Tuks and having most of the repairs done on them. It feels like Moon, our Thai friend and fixer, and I have been on the road for 12 hours every day. If you travel around Bangkok and the adjoining Nonthaburi on the hunt for affordable Tuk Tuks, there is a lot you get to see. I saw a motorbike driver hit by a van who got straight back up, wanting to hit the van driver in the face with his helmet. That’s the angriest I’ve ever seen a Thai. Several times, I have passed a crazy homeless man painting his own face with a pen. I’ve seen stray dogs and cats galore and befriended quite a few. I’ve seen the rich Bangkokians float through the traffic in German sportscars we don’t even have at home. I’ve crossed the mighty Chao Phraya plenty of times.
I think that altogether I have spent around 10 hours just sitting and waiting in this unbelievable traffic. Sometimes you see the traffic lights turn green and red again for 20 times until you can actually move a centimeter again. It’s insane and I cannot imagine being on the streets here every day.
Driving a Tuk Tuk is weird in the beginning, but quite fun after a little bit. Now it actually feels like I’ve never driven anything else. It’s basically a mix between a car and a motorbike. The clutch and the brakes are pedals, but the gas throttle is at the steering wheel. You sit like on a horse saddle and the gears are neatly placed between your legs. Most of our Tuk Tuks don’t have covers around the gearbox, so the heat coming out of the engine makes for some sweaty balls!
When I drive a Tuk Tuk, Thai people just can’t get over it. They wave, they smile, they give me the thumbs-up. Some even take pictures. This is good, as we weren’t sure if they might think it’s unrespectful.
We now have purchased 7 Tuk Tuks. That is, I have. Because I have turned into the big treasurer of this undertaking. At times, I was running around with a plastic bag full of 1000 Baht bills, one day I had the equivalent of 5000 Euro on me. Buying the vehicles and agreeing on things to get changed is fun and at the same time it’s a hassle nightmare. Things are never finished when they are supposed to be and you never get what you see in the end. And, when a deal is done, that’s it, there’s no complaining. I learned that the hard way. You really need to manage your expectations. But then again, we’re getting the cheapest Tuk Tuks available, at an average of 65k about half the price of something decent.
While I am out haggling for the vehicles which are supposed to get us around South East Asia, the filming has already begun. The guys have shot interviews and a big welcome speech on a terrace overlooking Bangkok from the 30th floor. Our very small crew of 6 is constantly out doing stuff in order to make this all happen.
Our cast is out of control. We now have 7 girls and 8 boys, coming from the US, England, France, Sweden, Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy and Thailand. They are young and hungry for life, to phrase it diplomatically. You could also say, they are wild beasts. I think they will make for a lot of laughs throughout this trip – and for a lot of trouble, that’s for sure. One of them managed to get arrested on Khao San Road already for stealing booze. It can only get worse!
We are all very excited to finally leave this megalopolis with its heat and pollution and drive on countryroads through the little-travelled Isaan region. So many things can go wrong on this trip. But I have a feeling it will be nothing but amazing!
Things to get done before leaving in 36 hours: Get a new passport (old one has no pages left), pack the few things I can bring, teach the kids how to drive, get some sleep…
As much as it hurt, we had to postpone our departure for another day. In the hours of the previous days tensions had been high. The Tuks were still not finished, some things had not yet been thought through completely. And our possible sponsors put their decison off over and over again. But then we finally had the deal, Chang and Mekhong were gonna sponsor us with money and drinks along the way! That, on the other hand, meant that I was actually getting paid a little for this adventure. Even better! As great as that was, it also meant we had to get new logos printed and design the Tuks the way the sponsors asked for. That’s why we finally decided to leave another day later.
Moon had arranged an abandoned building for us where we could park all the Tuk Tuks, work on them and even do our driving training on the roof of the parking garage. It was a weird place with a lot of filthy cats and some families living in the moldy remains of this former government building.
On the day before departure we organized a little challenge. The cast had to drive through an obstacle course and then parallel park a Tuk. The best teams would be the first to choose their vehicle from our fleet, so everyone was pumped. However, John tried the course before everyone got there. It turned out it was a little dangerous. He managed to almost flip the Tuk Tuk twice and then ran it straight into the railing which luckily protected him from a 6 meter drop. The damage to the vehicle was not too bad and he also only got a few bruises, so that was a lot of luck. We decided to not count the time on the obstacle course, so everyone would survive this. Locals in the street below the building were saying ‘accident, accident’ to me with worried faces every time I passed them on that day.
In the evening, the cast chose their Tuk Tuks. All of them are more or less equally crappy. Some have new tires, while another migt have a new engine. But at the prize we got them for you can’t expect them to be perfect. I had reserved for myself Carolina, a Tuk Tuk I fell in love with mainly because of the way I had purchased it. I got it from a very sweet family who invited me to their stilt home sitting in a little lake, with dogs running around everywhere. The owner didn’t really wanna give up the Tuk, but he liked our idea so much that he finally agreed to say yes. I had had a good feeling with Carolina from the start and knew that this was the one I wanted to drive on this trip.
We were meant to leave around noon, but everyone knew the chances for that weren’t high. The logos got there quite on time for Thai standards, but we still had so much to take care of. So we postponed the departure hour by hour, decorating and prepping away on the vehicles.
For me as the production manager of this whole undertaking, there was something new to figure out every 5 minutes. As much as I love Thailand and its people, working here can be a nightmare. Nothing is on time, agreements are constantly broken. And worst of all, you can’t even vent your anger as everything is about keeping face here and there is no way you can openly criticise anyone.
When we finally left Bangkok just after sunset, we only made it to the next gas station before the first Tuk broke down. Luckily, we had agreed on having Moon and his friend Sun (no joking) with us for the first few days. Chances were the vehicles would be breaking down a lot in the beginning. And Sun was supposedly Thailand’s Tuk Tuk mechanic number 1!
This first one was a quick fix. However, even with the traffic being only mildly insane, we managed to get split into 3 groups in a matter of minutes. Little did we know that this was gonna be a reocurring theme…
Some people had never driven at all, many of them had never driven in a convoi and none of them had ever driven a Tuk Tuk in Bangkok traffic. Fun!
We regrouped at virtually every gas station we saw, but one vehicle remained lost. We agreed to meet at Don Muang airport. This time we actually had phones with us, unlike the Ukraine adventure last year. Smart move!
After driving into the airport which might not have been allowed and meeting up with the others there, we finally covered some ground. About an hour later we stopped at a little restaurant, run by a friendly Chinese family. On the way there, we had already passed a small parade for Chinese New Year, something we had originally wanted to witness in Vientiane. Now at least we got some free sweets from the restaurant owners, made from coconut and something sticky. Quite a bland and chewy experience, but being the friendly person I am, I ate it all.
The next hours are a blur in retrospect. It always felt that we were actually getting somewhere, but then we were disappointed when looking at a map every single time. We lost each other over and over again, and had a breakdown about once an hour. The cast was torn between being amazed and scared to death. We heard them cheer, we saw them cry. Some teams were fighting so bad they almost split up – on the first day!
The roads were alright and slowly we all understood how fast you can actually go with this vehicle called Tuk Tuk. Not too fast, it turned out. Potholes are quite a challenge for the three-wheelers, as they make you swerve easily. Motorbike drivers going the wrong way on the shoulder of the road made for extra ecitement, some of them not even bothering to turn on their headlights. We had to stay focussed all the time and I was happy to see that most teams designated the more experienced drivers.
I also realized that this driving experience was gonna be a lot different from last year’s. No music, no chatting with your passenger. It comes down to just you and the Tuk.
Soon everyone got lost again. It seemed hard enough to stay together with 3 vehicles, let alone 8 (Sun and Moon were following us in a tool-stacked Tuk of their own).
After hours and hours of driving we finally reunited at a rundown hotel in Suraburi, not that far away from were we started. Everyone was euphoric that the trip had finally gotten real! The kids were wide awake and started lounging in the parking lot, slowly working on the 10 cases of booze we had gotten in Bangkok. I, on the other hand, was virtually destroyed and soon passed out in my shabby room. There was a switch with a sign saying ‘air’ on the wall and I made sure I switched it on. Air can never harm.
I woke up almost more tired then I had been the night before. Our shooter Danny who I shared my room with had accidentally taken out the key of the box, so we had no aircon all night. Sleeping in a closed room without that time of the year is no fun. At all.
Surprisingly, everyone was already awake and almost ready to go. So I woke up the crew which consists of people a lot older than the cast. I forgot how good you can handle hangovers and lack of sleep when you’re 23… Our DP Basil looked like he felt the same way about it.
The morning started with some teams driving on the wrong side of the road and people getting lost every five miniutes. Miraculously, we all met up outside of Saraburi at some point. I bought some chips and soda at a gas station before it dawned on me that we are actually not in the Ukraine this time and that there is always something better to eat than gas station food in South East Asia. Right next to the shop there were country people selling their products, mainly cookies and dried fruits. Next door, there were curries, fish and chicken, fresh and for no money. I bought some dried bananas and decided to stick to the small shops from now on.
We then managed to stay together for quite a bit. We passed hundreds of fruit shops, selling jackfruit, tamarind and dragonfruit on the side of the road. I had recently heard that the weather change messes up everything over here. There are fruits in season now which are normally due in April. Good for us, probably bad for the world.
After the fruit shops came the stone carvers, creating the whole family of gods and goddesses from Buddhism, Brahmanism and all their animist relatives. I wished I had more space in my vehicle as I would have loved to take a huge Ganesha carved out of a single block of stone!
The rest of the road was not that spectacular. Everything was covered in the haze which is typical for South East Asia. I can never really figure out if this is all smog or something else. In a lot of places it is also just smoke as the Thais tend to burn forests and fields wherever they can. With the Tuk Tuk being so open, you reallly get all the smells from the road, good and bad. Smoke, sewage, fruits, exhaust, trees, cattle in a truck you’re passing by.
There was an occasional gigantic Buddha statue on a hill, but other than that it was mainly factories and very dry vegetation at the side of the 4-lane street. The road led us up some hills that actually required Carolina’s third gear. She had been a good girl so far, but her engine is not the strongest. In the middle of this small mountain range there was a pretty lake which reminded me of the Rhine valley. Only looking though, no time for a swim unfortunately. Near that lake, a lot of restaurants have settled down along the road. In order to gather more customers they have staff dancing and waving on the street, each of them presenting a different choreography. Quite a sight, but also freaking dangerous as all the drivers get totally distracted.
Just before sunset, the road led us through a middle-sized city called Korat. It was the hour when all the kids are going home from school in big trucks with benches on the loading area. I was riding along with John in my Tuk and Tony following us in another Tuk. We felt like rockstars with all the kids cheering and waving. Not for the first time I thought that this trip is just awesome!
Sunset was spectacular, the sun a perfect red circle disappearing into the smog and the passing trucks raising dust. We had some food at a stall and reunited with 5 of the Tuks. The French/Canadian/Aussie team was already ahead, we agreed to meet in Khon Kaen.
Luckily, the big roads were rather empty from there on. The huge trucks carrying bamboo look nice and sound like racecars, but they are scary as hell and the drivers don’t care about anything smaller than them.
We rolled into Khon Kaen around midnight, the city being illuminated by thousands of colorful lights.
Like the night before, everyone was really happy about the achievement of the day and we sat together, drinking beer and chatting away.
Everyone came to the agreement that we would not be able to cover the planned route at the speed we were going. So after Vang Vieng, we also cut out Vientiane and decided to go straight East from here, crossing into Lao at Savannaket. Let’s see how that works out!
Khon Kaen proved to be a nice little town with very friendly people. Surprisingly, people also spoke a lot better English here than in Bangkok. It was interesting to find out that the people in this area spoke a dialect which is actually closer to Laotian than it is to Thai. However, what turned out to be a lot more difficult than you would think was the continuous fixing of the Tuks. Nuchi, a very friendly coffee saleswoman close to our hotel had hooked us up with a mechanic, but after he had agreed to help us he never showed up again. After all the experiences in the last weeks, that didn’t even surprise us much.
So we did a lot of the repairs ourselves. Some hoses for the petrol systems had to be exchanged, some gearboxes had to get worked on. In the afternoon, John and I set out for a shopping trip, buying many flashing lights and additional accessories for the Tuks. After that, everyone just worked away in the parking lot of our hotel, curiously watched by all the hotel staff.
In the evening, there was a party sponsored by Chang at a very Thai place, an amusement park type of a bar. This huge open air place had a band playing, many tables with beer towers and plenty of food stands around the sitting area. We had some trouble getting there as it was still virtually impossile to keep the pack together. As soon as we stopped, the kids would get out of the Tuks, dancing in the streets. I even saw them dance in the middle of an intersection. Wow! Not for the first time I was amazed that we hadn’t gotten into any trouble with the police so far. Whenever they saw us they just shook their heads in disbelief. I think the Chang and Mekhong logos on the Tuks might have helped a little, too.
When we rolled into that Chang place, the locals were just stunned. We parked the blinking vehicles right in the middle of the whole thing and made sure there was enough booze for everyone.
Later at the party I realized that this trip was actually very different from the last one. Had we been one big group last year, people were definitely divided into cast and crew this time. That meant more sleep for us, but also a lot less fun. This time, it seemed, it was more watching other people dance than actually dance ourselves.
The kids, however, almost tore the Chang beergarden apart. They drank, they sang with the band, they jumped around. They made friends with everyone and had a really good time. They even ended up going around with a hat, collecting money for the band. After we had stocked up on drinks for the trip, the Tuks now each about 100 kilos heavier with bottles and cans, it was time to say goodbye to Moon and Sun. They had to go back to Bangkok. Over were the times when we just had to wait for them when we broke down. From now on we would actually have to fix anything on our own.
The party then went on in our hotel, but I was completely exhausted and went to bed instead. The kids chased John down the road until he stumbled and bruised himself on the tarmac. They kept the security of the parking awake for a long time. They crashed the elevator. What a mess!
I was the first to be awake and found a few of the cast passed out in front of the hotel. Then I waited for the mechanic who was supposed to fix the gairbox on one vehicle. Of course, he didn’t show up. After an hour of cruising around the little town, I finally found someone else who could do the job. Or at least said he could. He charged a stiff price, but I didn’t really have a choice.
While this guy worked away on the last broken Tuk and actually looked like he knew what he was doing, people slowly started waking up. It seemed like there were still a million things to do before we could leave. Most of them had to be taken care of by myself. We had decided not to go further North as we had definitely seen that everything took a lot longer than expected. The route we had imagined was simply not feasible.
When the gearbox was finally done, the hangovers were mostly cured and the last arrangements had been made, we finally took off Eastwards in the late afternoon. Our goal was Mukdahan, right on the border to Lao.
Now the driving got a lot less stressful and a lot more enjoyable. We travelled on quiet country roads and the late afternoon sun was just perfect for cruising. We had left 2 Tuks behind after they had had some trouble with their engine a few hundred meters after the hotel. The five remaining ones were rolling as if they were brandnew cars. That was finally fun driving!
We stopped at little villages where people were friendly, curious and helpful. We swapped bottles of Whisky for hammocks and watched the training for a cockfight at the side of the road. You could see that everyone was feeling a lot more adventurous now, far away from noisy Bangkok, in the middle of rural Issan.
The sunset on these dusty countryroads was just stunning. But when the night hit, it got almost chilly in the Tuks. We just kept on driving and were making good progress. The little travelled road led us through some hills and smaller and smaller villages. There was smoke in the air in most places. One time, I looked to the right and I saw a tree with just the end of one branch on fire. I still don’t understand what was going on there, but Tom, the camera guy had seen it, too. Maybe witchcraft…
Just before Mukdahan, the French/Aussie team almost got into a really bad crash. Chris had tried to pee while driving, a brilliant idea. They had lost control over the vehicle and went into the ditch and back. In fact, it might have been due only to the weight of all the beer and whisky that they didn’t end up flipping the Tuk. We were all very glad that nothing bad had happened and everyone hugged each other at the side of the road. The boys said they had never been that close to death before.
We had a very tasty noodle soup in Mukdahan and checked into quite a nice hotel for no money. Most of the cast, however, moved to another hotel which was even cheaper. Needless to say that they started a party right away. I personally just enjoyed having a room of my own and actually some time for sleeping.
I began the day really early, fully convinced that we were gonna start our first attempt at the Lao border that day. But I hadn’t taken into account the speed of Thais getting work done or the fact that everyone was gonna sleep for most of the day.
All day long, we ran around in the parking lot, fixing things, putting on the US number plates, trying to finally get these stupid petrol systems to work. Meanwhile, Basil and Tom were backing up all the footage from the last days, having set up a full-on production office in the lobby of the hotel. Had the staff been friendly at first, you could definitely see after a while that they were wondering what the hell was going on. 7 colorful Tuk Tuks in the parking lot with a bunch of crazies running around and drinking beer. More crazies inside with cameras, laptops and numerous harddrives. I guess they hadn’t seen something like that before.
When we realized that two of the petrol systems were actually fucked before we had even started using them, Tony, Veronica and I set out for finding someone who could get those things fixed. But they had different Tuks in Mukdahan, more like motorbikes with a bed, so several garages wouldn’t have the parts we needed. Others said they were closed due to Chinese New Year which made me wonder how long this holiday actually lasts. 10 days?!
Either way, the two hours of driving around left us with no results at all. Mukdahan seemed like a funky little town though, the main thing striking me being all the classic Japanese cars. Note to self: I have to look into 1970ies Toyotas!
When we got back to the hotel with all the bad news, we decided that we actually had to stay another night, so we just checked back in. The hotel staff seeemed relieved, but for our people this was not so nice. They had been waiting to leave for a good 7 hours.
We had some Mekhong in the parking lot that night, listening to music and talking about our lives back home. It was good to finally get to know a few of the people. Most of the kids, however, started another party in their cheapo hotel which led to the manager telling them to shut up several times.
I couldn’t believe we were still in Mukdahan. So far, we hadn’t reached a single destination from our itinerary. Besides, we were already behind schedule quite a bit. This was all not what we had imagined.
I was the first one to be awake again. My first task was to track down the people I needed for going back to the garage. But noone seeemed to be sleeping where they were supposed to…
We went back to the mechanic and he referred us to the first helpful person we had met in a while. The very friendly guy who drove a pink Suzuki owned a shop for gas tanks as well as an LPG station. Our man! So we decided to get two big tanks and hoses for almost everyone. It looked like this whole dual system idea wasn’t gonna work the way we had hoped. So it was definitely better to be prepared. We learned that you can just take any cooking gas bottle from a noodle soup shop you find along the road and hook it up to the Tuk’s tank with these hoses. Now that finally sounded like a plan!
I don’t know how we managed, but by the time everyone was finally ready to leave, the sun was already on its way down again. Leaving the hotel (whose staff had been calmed down with a bottle of whisky) we lost each other in a matter of seconds. Neverending story…
Around sunset, 6 Tuks met up at the border to Lao. One of the others had broken down just after the hotel and were at a new garage. Noone even said anything anymore about the breakdowns.
Our attempt to cross the border was not succesful. We had a feeling that the officials just didn’t want to deal with us. People around here seem to have a lot of trouble to go out of their way for anything. These guys ended up telling us that Tuk Tuks were not allowed on the Friendship Bridge. So we decided to drive down South on the Thai side of the border. Half of the crew stayed with the broken down Tuk, the rest took off towards Ubon Ratchthani.
It was an easy drive on a good road and we got there a lot faster than we expected. Even the Tuks we had lost on the way met up with us in Ubon. One of the vehicles seemed pretty screwed, but the French team had turned into a bunch of Tuk Tuk mechanis and they managed to fix it on the spot.
We all met up at a hotel. The broken Tuk was actually brought to Ubon on the bed of a pick-up truck. They had to stay the night in order to get it repaired the next day and production Tuk 2 stayed with them. We, on the other hand, wanted to carry on to the border which seemed like a very short drive. It was around 1 in the morning when we left, trying to find the last LPG station in vain. We were followed by about 50 drunk teenagers on motorbikes, leading to a few almost crashes. When we had no idea anymore where to look for the stupid gas station, one of our cast walked up to a group of cops. Now, in any other country a person wearing nothing but shorts and a Santa Klaus hat, getting out of a blinking Tuk Tuk and asking for directions while patting the cops on the back would get arrested in a matter of seconds. Luckily, we were still in Thailand… So what did happen was that one of the cops actually started his blue light and escorted us all the way to the gas station!
After that we entered real countryroads. No lights, no cars, no nothing. The darkness was very impressive. So was the silence every time we turned off the two-stroke engine.
We lost each other several times and had a few more breakdowns. At one of them, we found a tiny red kitten without a mom. The kids decided to adopt it and eventhough I thought that was a bad idea, it was still better than leaving it there.
Our goal was Sirindhorn which was supposed to be located at a nice lake. When we finally got there, we couldn’t see the lake as it was so dark. There was only one hotel to stay. When drove in there and woke up the people, it really felt like we were a full-on travelling circus by now! The first thing the kids did was release the kitten who got friendly with the dogs there straight away. However, the people wouldn’t let us stay. We were willing to pay 2000 Baht just for a few hours of sleep, but they wanted us to stay for 3 nights. Some of these things are really hard to grasp.
So after all, we just moved on after I had asked the hotel lady to take care of the kitten. The tiny creature had a new home, at least that had worked out well!
We still had to cover a few kilometers in complete darkness. One of the Tuks could only drive in third gear which made all the hills quite a challenge.
But we finally got to Chong Mek when the sun started to rise. I was so exhausted that I could barely stand upright, but Basil was determined to film the sunrise. After that, we got the crew some rooms in a guesthouse while most of the cast decided to sleep on the premises of a nice temple we had mistaken for a hotel.
We got up at noon, after not enough sleep. I felt like my brain was still in Mukdahan. Besides, the heat had gotten almost unbearable. As soon as you left the room, you were soaked in sweat. The place itself looked pretty rough in daylight and, having a general weakness for border towns, I enjoyed walking around a bit on the hunt for something to eat. There were trucks lined up on the dusty road. Along the half finished road there were rundown stalls and people who looked rather used as well. I bought an umbrella and met up with the others who had only slept for about an hour before the sun had woken them up.
The vehicles were all registered in John’s name and he was still in Ubon, desperately trying to get team Bazooka’s Tuk fixed. But all our people were really sick of waiting. So we gave it a shot at the border without John. It turned out to be a piece of cake which might also be due to the fact that one of the border cops seemed to have quite a crush on me… Looking gay helps sometimes!
In a matter of 3 hours we made it to the Lao side. We met up with our camera guy Tom who had stayed behind to backup footage. Then we drove into that new country.
The difference to Thailand was just astonishing. It felt like we had just driven from 2nd to 3rd world. The roads were much worse and there wasn’t much along them. The people were driving horsecarts and antique vehicles. The houses at the side of the road were more shacks and everything seemed rather poor.
The people, however, were really friendly. And you could tell that they don’t get to see a lot of Tuk Tuks normally.
It took a few moments to get used to driving on the right side of the road again. The road was also leaning to the sides, so I had to constantly grab the steering wheel really hard which was very tiring. The first view of the giant Mekhong river made up for it. Every city in the world should have a majestic river like that!
In dusty Pakse we found team Miss Fit at an intersection. They had just taken off at the border, being fed up with the constant waiting for everyone. Eventhough we couldn’t find food or a Lao simcard, everyone was very determined to reach the 4000 Islands that night. It was only 130 kilometers down there, so we hit the road again.
Rural Lao was even darker and less inhabited than rural Thailand. Altogether, there wasn’t much out there at all. It seemed like everything was on fire though, we were driving through banks of smoke all the time. Where there wasn’t smoke, there was dust. The wind had picked up quite a bit also. All of that combined with scratched windshields turning completely blind in the lights of the oncoming traffic, made the trip from Pakse to Nakasang very tiring and annoying. When I had to turn around for the Xth time after another breakdown, I almost lost it and was ready to go home. Apart from that, one after the other Tuk was running out of LPG. Unfortunately, the petrol systems didn’t really seem to work on all of the Tuks. So it was a constant stop and go. At least, we all managed to stay together most of the time. It seemed people were too scared to be alone on these roads to actually get lost.
When I ran out of LPG, I painfully had to discover that my petrol system didn’t work either. Also, it was already around midnight, so there would be no boats to the islands anymore. So we just camped at the side of the road with 2 Tuks. The 3 others had already moved on and we were sure to meet up with them on the next day.
Graeme, one of the cast, had some stories of Lao people chopping off the hands of people who stayed at the side of the road, but we just decided not to listen to that. Instead, we rolled out a few blankets and hammocks and looked at the stars in amazement. What an amzazing sky!
I slept quite well, only woken up by the occasional motorbike and a few chickens picking stuff just behind my head. We had no idea where the other 2 Tuk Tuks were, our Thai simcards not getting any signal at all. So I always had one ear on the road in order not to miss them.
Waking up in this tiny village at around 6 was the most adventurous this trip had felt so far. There were puppies, there were chickens, there were water buffaloes. And there were the Laotian villagers, stretching in the morning sun and watching our every step with friendly curiosity.
The girls managed to find a shop which had petrol surprisingly quick, so we could all get back on the road. Carolina wasn’t running fine, but it was still possible to drive her. It seemed like the carborator was getting too much petrol. It smoked a lot, used a hell lot of petrol and had only a quarter of the power it used to have.
We met up with the others who had camped outside a gas station. Everyone was very dirty, but also very enthusiastiac about the camping in the middel of nowhere. It is these moments that you will remember forever!
We stopped at a random mechanic who was very nice but quite obviously knew nothing about Tuk Tuks. Luckily, there was a noodle soup shop next door and for the next hour we kept the old lady busy making spicy soups for everyone. Our people played with the Laotioan kids and the puppies. When the mechanic had finally given up, we moved on.
The only way I could actually drive Carolina still was to constantly work the petrol switch. On, off, on, off. The last 15 kilometers to the tiny little port Nakasang felt like 150.
When we finally got there, we realised instantly that now we had to deal with all the backpackers again. As soon as the camera was running, a few people showed up next to us who had obviously fried their brains with MDMA. Apparently, they had spent months on the 4000 Islands already, so I was not impressed with the 7 words they knew in Lao.
Already on the boat to Don Det, all the stress fell off of me. The last time I had been here was 8 years ago and I couldn’t wait to spend more time on this little island, part of the 4000 small islands in the middle of the Mekhong.
However, when we got closer to the place I realised quickly how much it had changed during these few years. Long gone were the times when there had only been a few huts with local people. This was a real tourist destination now. Slightly disappointed, I took a motorbike taxi in order to carry all our gear to the other side of the island. When I got there, a few of the cast came running towards me and were quite agitated. They advised me not to see the hotel I had booked if I didn’t want to get killed. Yes, I knew that we were a day too late, but was it really that bad? I had to go see, the island was too small a place to just sneak out of this.
The manager who had lost it a bit with the kids was quite polite with me, but still he wanted to be reimbursed for the nights he had kept the place empty for us. There were several misnunderstandings and tried to explain to him that I had had no means of contacting him the night before. I told him we would deal with the whole problem later and met up with the camera guys. We were all exhausted and decided we needed this half day off after all. My stress level was almost at the top of what I can handle. So I took off alone, had a massage and a nice dinner and then crashed for a good 11 hours.
Later I found out that our people had danced for the whole night, deliberately trying to break the bar of one of the places by jumping on it for hours. The owner told me the next day: ‘Your people break my place. I have to fix it now.’
Every time I passed the reception of the hotel which was much more luxurious than I needed it to be, I was reminded of the unfinished business I had with the manager. But other than that I finally relaxed. Even with the now bigger number of tourists, Don Det was still a charming little place. Unfortunately, the Laotians on the island had stopped being friendly, but that was not surprising when you took a closer look at how the tourists behaved.
I had a very tasty Fish Larb, a spicy salad, for lunch and then set off for the mainland in order to get my Tuk and one of the cast’s repaired. But also in the tiny town of Nakasang people were neither helpful nor friendly. Walking around the place and asking about 15 people was quite tiring in this relentless heat that had started only a few days ago. The search for a mechanic remained unsuccessfull, but I ended up finding a place that could organize tanks with cooking gas. Screw the petrol systems, they would never work properly anyway. We would just go back to LPG again. Driving on gas other people used for cooking, why not?!
On my way to the harbor I walked through the smaller streets, away from the main tourist zone. And indeed, here the Laotians were still the way I remembered them, smiling and curious. I walked past some colorful coffins, filthy dogs and kids playing in the trash. A little further, a group of Laotian men was watching a Thaiboxing fight on a tiny TV, placing their bets outside of the shack and commenting every punch of the fighters with their own sounds.
The port itself looked like it was best to just turn around again and leave. Had I found the unfinishedness and all the trash rather charming back in the days, I found it just stupid and lazy now. The fact that nothing had changed here at all, in spite of the masses of visitors passing through, just blew my mind.
When I got back to the island, everyone was just taking off in tubes. Giving it some thought, I decided I had worked and driven enough in the last days and it was about time for some relaxing. So I just joined them. We had a little floating bar with us and let the river just take us downstream slowly. I used the very chilled out time on the water for talking to those kids I had not yet spoekn to and finding out more about their lives back home. It was nice to finally get a little closer to these people who I basically shared my fate with for the time being.
When we got back we realized that we had gone around the wrong side of the island and had gotten right into the danger zone before the waterfall. Why did that not even surprise me?
In the evening, we reunited with the rest of the people. After having spend days in Ubon Ratchathani in order to get team Bazooka’s Tuk fixed, they had finally decided to leave it there. The team would have to hop into other vehicles for the rest of the trip. Everyone was happy to be together again and we celebrated a bit. I have to say that all these new places blarring music don’t really fit the Don Det spirit which I remembered. Luckily, they all close rather early and everyone then moves to the beach, gathering around a campfire. That was more my type of entertainment, but I only wished I had a guitar. Giving it some more thought though I figured that I wouldn’t even know half of the songs these kids listened to nowadays…
Eventhough we were getting more behind schedule every day, we decided to stay on the island for another day. We just needed that extra time to get stuff organized and everyone was very happy not to be driving for a bit longer. Before Don Det we had basically only seen unattractive Thai cities and sides of roads. So this quality time was more than appreciated.
We shot interviews in the afternoon, finally found an agreement with the angry hotel owner and had another get-together at night. It all seemed to fall into place now. The cast tried to get me drunk that night and they almost suceeeded. We rolled around on the beach so much, that I slept in a pile of sand later on.
However, I realised once more that you shouldn’t really go back to places you liked a long time ago. They all change, and mostly not for the better. Don Det is still a pretty island, but everything which was exotic 10 years ago has now become institutionalised and mainstream. The Lao people on the island have lost their friendliness and the whole setting is now just like any other South East Asian tourist hub. Thanks, globalization!
We started to get all our people, luggage and gear off the island rather early. But we still had to film a speech on the beach and sort out a few things. So by the time we actually hit the mainland it was already way past noon.
The good news was that the tanks with cooking gas really worked. My Tuk Tuk and the one of Team Drama worked just fine, so all the problems had really been due to the petrol systems. In retrospect, we should have never gotten these built in, but how were we supposed to know beforehand.
Two Tuks drove from Nakasang to the border. The other 4 stayed behind as they had some issues with a wheel.
I had thought that the Cambodian border would be a piece of cake after the Lao one, but it turned out that I was wrong.
First we had to find someone who actually worked there. I love borders, but this was a very weird one, probably the strangest I have ever seen. On the Lao side there were a few shacks, on the Cambodian side there was a huge building which turned out to be entirely empty. We walked around inside of it and couldn’t really decide if it was yet to be finished or already falling apart. There were a few builders who apparently lived inside the building, moskito nets and stoves set up in the otherwise empty rooms.
We finally found the officer on duty at one of the food stalls, busy playing cards and drinking whisky with a few other men. People around there seemed to have a weakness for wearing socks in their Flip Flops which looked rather odd. All women, on the other hand, were wearing pyjamas and it wasn’t even dark yet.
The officer was quite nice though and tried to help us, but the important guy at customs said there was no way we were gonna enter the country with Tuk Tuks. He sent us back straight away which meant a defeat for the time being.
We met up with the others and found a nearby hotel. Everyone was knackered and we called it a day quite early.
In the morning I realised that this was actually quite a nice place. They had puppies, they had kittens, the people were superfriendly and the food was also OK. Yes, we were still in Lao, but did it really matter at this point?
I took a few people into the nearby waterfall area as it didn’t look like the others were gonna wake up anytime soon. The Khone Phaphang Waterfall is quite a sight to look at, but it’s even better to get into one of the basins and soak yourself in the Mekhong water. A great way to wake up!
When we returned to the hotel, we were told that John was still working on getting us through the Cambodian border. He knew a few people who knew a few people, but contacting them just took a little while.
So I went back io the waterfall again, this time not only with cast, but also with two camera people. The guys at the entrance let me go in for free this time.
Our group jumped from cliffs, sociales with the locals and created quite a fuzz among the waterfalll people.
I hung out with a bunch of local kids who seemed to be just spending time at the falls, but were of course trying to sell something. Not to me though, they just wanted to spend time. I taught them some English, they taught me some Lao. In the end, I bought some pictures from them as well as a plastic bottle full of little river fish they had just caught in front of my eyes.
Back at the hotel, I had the people fry the fish for me and they were delicious. At the next table, there were some Lao men who had already worked their way through a crate of beer and it wasn’t even 3 yet. One of them happened to be a fortune teller and he told away for the female members of our cast. A thought crossed my mind that this whole area was rather weird. Maybe it was something with the Mekhong water…
Throughout the afternoon it became clearer and clearer that we were not gonna leave this place before the next day. The Laotians closed their border at 6, so there was no way we could make it happen. But funny enough, noone really seemed to mind the situation. We had become friendly with the family who ran the hotel and everyone was happy to have another quiet day. We cut each other’s hair and just spend the afternoon with silly stuff. The time just flew by, just like on every other day of the trip so far.
Then I went to the waterfall again, this time not even bothering to stop at the entrance gate. Tom, Veronica and I walked inside for sunset and as the place was officially already closed there were no other tourists. We were all alone in this incredible place! The waterfall made for a stunning sight in the sunset and there it was a again, this feeling of adventure I am craving for.
I spent the evening with music and reading while our group was tearing apart yet another place. Then we filmed some interviews at the side of the road, some of the cast had a lot to tell us after almost two weeks on the road. John and our DP Basil had to stay in Cambodia overnight, but things seemed to be looking good, so we decided on an early departure the next day.
The morning hours are the best time in these country places. The locals get up very early, so the otherwise deserted road gets almost busy. There are cows and dogs on the side of the road, pigs and ducks and all sorts of vehicles. All the tiny kids riding bicycles which are way too big for them add to the general picture. It was just great sitting there and watching the scenery while sipping my sweet and and sticky coffee. Needless to say that noone else bothered to get up that early.
However, we managed to get quite a good start still. But at the border, not even 20 minutes away, we had to find out that John wasn’t there quite yet. Parked in between the two countries, Tom, Danny and I decided to use the time we had. So we ended up shooting a few more interviews just next to a rundown food stall while some of the kids enjoyed a game of boules with the Laotian border soldiers.
Then John arrived and he had good news. The Ministry of Tourism had given us a special permit, so we could finally enter Cambodia for real. However, we needed another two hours to get all the bureaucratic stuff sorted. At the Cambodian border they have an area with a ‘quarantine’-sign where you have to fill in a very basic form about your health. Then they use quite a futuristic device to test your body temperature. If that is OK, you get a little pice of paper stating that you are in good health. Funny!
Then we drove into Cambodia and for a long, long time we saw – nothing. There was literally nothing out there. A few huts, many trees, but nothing else. We had the road almost to ourselves. Some of the fields alongside the road were on fire so we turned several times in order to film driveby shots next to the flames.
It was beautiful to drive on these roads and miraculously all 6 Tuks ran just fine. Every time we stopped, the whole group was displaying a smily face.
Around sunset we passed the bridge over a Mekhong sidearm into the strange but lovely city of Stung Treng. I liked the place from the first moment, even though you can’t really call it a pretty place. The foodstalls and benches along the river reminded me of other river cities like Luang Prabang or Vientiane. A massive river flowing by always adds to the scenery! The rawness of the city had a charme of its own.
When we parked in front of the guesthouse, more and more locals gathered around us. They all wore smiles on their faces and some pointed at our strange vehicles. There were also people from Cambodian newspapers, very interested in our mad undertaking.
The guesthouse let us park our Tuks on the ground level of their place, we just rolled them inside one after the other. The place next door offered weird varations of Western food (e.g. pizza which was a big baguette sliced open and filled with pizza ingredients), but the atmosphere in this little town was very nice and sitting outside for a while seemed like the right thing to do. I wished we had more time to explore, but I had to give in to my exhaustion.
I got up at sunrise, only to discover that the tow I had bruised on some root near the waterfall had gotten infected and that I had also managed to catch a cold. All of that just before the worst leg of the whole trip, awesome!
From the moment I put my shoes on, I kept on running around like a madman. First, I took some pictures of the sunrise while scouting for a pharmacy. Then I drove across the whole city to get some air pressure into my tires before we would go through the wilderness. After that, I skimmed the whole area around the market for an additional gas hose and a place to fill up our tanks. A guarantee for us having enough fuel of any kind to get us to the next destination was the biggest priority now.
After running back to the hose place for three times, everything actually worked. We had just invested another 200 Euros in the Tuks, but at this point the only thing that counted was to not run out of gas along our way.
Two cops on motorbikes escorted us onto a river ferry. The whole setting was almost surreal and stunning in its roughness. Everyone around us was so incredibly friendly that it was hard to believe. The boat slowly took us across the Mekhong. On the other side, the road looked exactly how we had imagined it from looking at the map: Dusty and full of potholes. We knew that this was gonna be the deal for the rest of the day.
For the next hours, things actually went quite well. The roads were sometimes OK and sometimes very bad. They weren’t good for a single meter. Long stretches were just being rebuilt by some Chinese company. It would be worth looking into why they built this road trough the middle of nowhere. Going through the middle of these construction sites was twice as difficult with our vehicles as you constantly had to keep that one front wheel from getting stuck in the ground. Also, there were plenty of huge trucks driving on these roads. Sometimes you only saw them in the last minute due to the dust and the smoke from the trees burning at the side of the road.
The dust was just insane. After only minutes, we were all covered in that very fine yellowish stuff. Most of us used T-Shirts or some other kind of cloth to protect our mouthes and noses.
After a few hours, the problems started. We stopped at a place which offered both very plain crisps and a motorbike mechanic. We ate the crisps while the dude fixed a few things on my Tuk and another one. But after all the others had left, thinking that we were now alright, we had to find that the opposite was the case. First Team Miss Fit’s Tuk wouldn’t work, then mine. Then theirs again, then mine again. We only covered 2 km in the next hour or so. After we had realised that the problem on Carolina was only the spark plugs coming loose on these shaky roads, we organised a spark plug tool for the girls’ Tuk. But also that worked only for a while. Then it wouldn’t move anymore at all. Diagnosis: Broken piston. Cure: None available out here.
We towed the Tuk to a nearby village. The people there were insanely friendly, insisting on feeding us with dried fish, rice and green tea. Everyone had something to say, but none of the people could actually help us with the engine of the Tuk. We knew the Khmer word for mechanic and after a bit we managed to have one actually show up. But also this guy said that Miss Fit was not gonna run anytime soon.
So we had no other choice but tow. At first, we had only a very thin rope which tore everytime we had to go off the street where the Chinese built bridges. These spots, every 5 kilometers or so, were tricky for a Tuk Tuk to begin with. The substitute road went steep down, over some improvised wooden bridge and then steep up again. Now imagine doing that with another Tuk on a rope behind you.
Some very nice roadworkers gave us a towrope for free, so things went better from there on. But when the darkness hit, everything got a lot more difficult. The dust and the smoke made me see close to nothing. The spots where you had to leave the road were not indicated at all. And the other Tuk, driven by Sarah, was right behind me. We were all quite tensed.
We ended up driving like this in the dark for almost three more hours. Somewhere along the way we picked up a friendly Cambodian youth who knew a guesthouse in the bigger village where we wanted to spend the night. I thought he could help me find my way through dust smoke and improvised roads, but his yelling in the backseat only added to the general stress.
When we finally got to Phraew Vihar, the Cambo kid suggested we go see the big festival that was happening that night. But I was so exhausted that I could barely stand upright anymore. The drive had been a physical and psychological challenge and my cold was now in full swing. So I watched Tony eat a stuffed Khmer frog in silence and then decided to go to sleep.
We got up very early, as the others had let us know that they needed all the chargers and gear from our Tuk as soon as possible. Luckily, Tony took over Carolina, grabbed all important stuff and set off towards Siem Reap with Jessica, one of the cast. I was glad I didn’t have to drive in the condition I was in. I was now coughing, my nose was running constantly and I felt like crap.
Danny and I searched the little place for some coffee and breakfast. We found a mobile food stand selling weird, but delicious sandwiches, almost like the Ban Mhi you get in Vietnam. Then we sat down with a couple of old dudes in a very random restaurant and joined them watching American Wrestling. Under the given circumstances, it took me three big coffees with sweetened condensed milk before I could activate my brain enough to even know my first name.
When Freia and Sarah, the remaining members of team Miss Fit, got up, we started our mission. We had to find someone to transport the broken Tuk to Siem Reap. We had no idea what we were gonna do with it there, but that was nothing to be discussed now anyway. First things first.
As noone spoke a word of English in this charming little place, we headed for a handicrafts workshop where disabled people weaved colorful scarfs. A French couple had told us that the boss spoke decent English so it was our first and only lead. The place was interesting but almost as random as everything else we had seen that day. The cruelling heat and my clogged nose added to the surreal feeling of a hallucination.
The place’s boss was a really nice guy and he showed us around his workshop which had once been funded by Emmylou Harris herself. We learned how they were gonna grow there own trees for silk worms to nest in, so they could be able to produce their own cotton. After the tour he made a few phone calls and soon assured us that he had found the right guy for our demand. We left a donation and trotted back to the hotel.
Almost 2 hours later, some people showed up with a truck half the size of the Tuk Tuk, insisting that it would fit anyway. Another 30 minutes and a lit of talking later, they gave up. I already felt that we were gonna stay in that Chinese hotel for longer than planned, but then the man who ran the little food shop/pharmacy/frog roastery next door suddenly appeared with a big enough truck. It was a random place, that was the last proove needed! Miraculously, we managed to get the Tuk onto the bed of the truck with just the few of us and some passersby. A few minutes later we were already back on the dirtroads and I was fast asleep in the cabin of the truck.
The drive took us almost 4 hours and with the heat, the dust and my sickness it was almost as exhausting as the one a day before had been, even without driving myself. About half way we swapped places, now Sarah and me riding inside the Tuk Tuk on the bed of the truck. There were also two kids who seemed to have joined us just for the ride. Everyone was smiling and the people along the road kept pointing towards us. A Tuk Tuk was a rare sight to see in rural Cambodia, but a Tuk Tuk on a truck?
Siem Reap seemed much bigger than the last time I was there 8 years ago and probably that’s due to the fact that it is. No more deserted roads here, just a big mess of traffic and people walking around, hotels, spas and travel agencies.
As soon as I reached the hostel, I was sucked straight back into work again. Apparently, the kids had stayed out the night before until everything closed and noone had yet seen a single bit of the ruins. The crew got together for an improvised production meeting and told each other the respective stories.
We then headed to a restaurant on pub street and I instantly hated the restaurant, the street and almost every single person spending time there. I was grumpy, yes. But this place really was shit also. It’s what globalization does, turning once special places all into the same kind of mass tourism mush which I find very hard to bare.
So after a mediocre dinner which came accompanied by supposedly traditional Khmer dances with blarring music, I just snuck out and went to bed.
I woke up at 7 and sat down near the reception in order to write and sort my pictures. While I sat there, some of the cast came home from drinking, trying in vain to hide from me. It was hilrious!
We were all meant to meet up at noon and go visit the ruins of Angkor Wat, but of course noone showed up at the agreed time. It blew my mind that anyone so close to this amazing mother of all temples would rather invest his time into drinking and recovering the next day instead of actually visiting this Unesco world heritage site. But then again, I wasn’t really surprised. The kids definitely had different priorities. I, personally, had seen Angkor Wat 8 years ago and spent 3 days walking around back then, so I took it humuroulsy that we had to wait yet another 3 hours before we were finally ready to go.
Driving through very touristy Siem Reap was quite cool. We were going with 4 of the vehicles and in addition to all the deco stuff we now had a thick layer of dust everywhere which made clear that we had been on our way for quite some time. The tourists at the side of the road stared at us.
We were stopped at the entrance to the temples by some police telling us that we were not allowed to enter with those strange vehicles. But John wouldn’t be John if he took a no for a no. After chatting on the phone with the tourism authority for half an hour, they finally gave up. Funny enough, they said we should just do it and not mention them if someone stopped us. Only in Cambodia….
So we all fired up the Tuks at the same time and just started driving. Noone said a word!
I think it was inside these impressive ruins that some of the cast actually realised what they had been doing in the last weeks. All of a sudden, it felt like quite an achievement, even with the shortened route we had covered. We had actually made it to Angkor Wat! I saw several people hug each other and shake their heads in disbelief and I even saw some tears here and there. To be quite honest, I was touched by that moment, too.
After looking at the two major temples, Bajon and Angkor Wat, filming our cast getting friendly with some monks and playing around with the omnipresent kids trying to sell souvenirs, the sun set and we headed back into town. We made it to just after the exit, before one of the production Tuks broke down. These things really did have some personality. They would run just fine for some time and then break down completely out of the blue…. I towed Tony back to our hostel.
Believe it or not, but the kids had a quiet night that night. I was glad to see that they actually did get tired at some point.
I myself spent the evening trying to find some good food in vain. Food in Cambodia really is quite a disappointment. Anything good you get to eat is actually more Thai than anything. It was the local specialty, ‘amok’, some coconut curry, that was not too bad after all, so I just stuck to that and the fresh summer rolls. These unfried spring rolls are amazing. But they’re not really Cambo either, but originate in Vietnam and Laos.
Moon and Sun were supposed to arrive that night with a new engine and some extra parts, but of course things did not go as planned. Due to the neverending conflict between Thailand and Cambodia, recently back to full swing, the Thai border checks were a lot tougher than usual. Had Thais always been able to travel with just their driver’s license, now they needed a proper passport. Sun didn’t have one… So he was sitting at the border with the parts, not even 200 kilometers away from us.
I chatted with Moon on the phone to see what we could do about the situation and also started talking to the locals about mechanics who would be able to help us out.
I got up believing that we were gonna start driving towards the Thai border in the South soon. I was very wrong.
Some time in the morning, Moon showed up and he carried some of the spare parts we needed. For the ones he didn’t bring, we desperately tried to find someone in Siem Reap who had at least a vague idea about Tuk Tuks. Tuk Tuks there were something entirely different. They were basically regular motorbikes with a trailer. Besides, all inquiries were a lot more difficult now as Veronica, who was fluent in Thai and Lao, couldn’t help us anymore in a country where people spoke Khmer.
Around noon, the situation seemed a lot better. There were two guys working away on the Tuk Tuks. Nobody seemed to recall how we had gotten a hold of them, but that wasn’t important as long as they fixed the vehicles. Tony also worked on one of the Tuks and we were confident that we could be leaving any time soon.
Around 4, things looked different again. Some things simply couldn’t be fixed. At least not by our mechanis of choice. Besides, some other things had been broken while fixing the first things…
In order to avoid the stress and disappointment in the yard of the hostel, I decided to take all the Tuks to an LPG station I had found and fill up all the regular and all the spare tanks. I actually did like Siem Reap, but only the parts of town which were far away from the tourist strip. The pub street and the stupid night market were just wrong and made Siem Reap look like Cancun. Driving around the small alleyways was fun though. Once again, it was amazing to see how friendly people were in areas where tourists are scarce and how damaged this friendliness was where tourists were the norm.
By the time all tanks had been filled up, things hadn’t changed much at the hostel. The staff was a little confused. Like in a few other places before, we had checked out a little too late, but then left a pile of luggage at the reception for hours. In this particular place, we had now been blocking and trashing the sitting area for a good 8 hours and I had a feeling the receptionist was looking forward to finally seeing us go.
Moon had left a few hours ago and the other mechanis had kind of deserted us as well, two of them not even asking for money for their work. It seemed they were embarassed that they hadn’t been able to fix the vehicles. It all came down to some electrical problem now. The engines were apparently fixed, but they didn’t get any spark on two of the Tuks. We talked to the hostel staff and they found someone who specilaized in electrics. However, he would only be able to help the next morning. So after waiting for a good 14 hours, we finally had to admit to our defeat. There was nothing we could do but check back into our rooms and get hammered…
We started a little dance party right next to the Tuks. It seemed that now it was really time for the crew to let some of the stress go. All of us except our DP Basil chugged down beer after beer, dancing and being silly. It felt very good to just say ‘Fuck it’ for the time being. The interesting thing was that only a few of the cast seemed to have any interest in joining us at first. They partied every single night, but now that we were going for it, they suddenly bailed out.
Around midnight we had convinced some of the cast to join us towards pub street. For more fun – and better footage – we took one of the Tuks and pushed it all across the little town. Imagine 15 drunk people, decorated with colored tape, self-made costumes and fake feathers, in, behind and on top of a Tuk Tuk. It was a beautiful sight!
John worked his magic on the cops guarding pub street and we parked the Tuk right outside the most notorious bar, ‘Angkor What’. Even though I hated every single song in that place, I couldn’t avoid having fun. Our group was quite special, I understood that now. They entered a place and made it theirs, sucking everybody else into their little party world instantly. It was great to see.
We made it to one other bar before I passed out. The small part of my brain still working suddenly remembered that the mechanic was gonna show up at 8 the next day. I better found some sleep.
The others managed to get even more wasted. John had his iphone stolen by some street kids and some other people got into minor fights. Business as usual.
It’s hard to put into words how shitty I felt when I got up. Miraculously, the mechanic really did show up and started working on the Tuks. At first, I spupervised him, but after a greasy breakfast I realised that I needed more sleep. I couldn’t care less that we had to leave before noon if we were to make it to the border that day. What a brilliant idea the booze night had been!
John woke me up at noon. Everyone was exhausted and hungover. The mechanics had only been able to fix one Tuk. The new plan was to meet Sun and Moon at the busiest border, Poi Pet. We had originally wanted to avoid this place and choose a quiet border crossing further South instead, but our choices were limited now. Moon needed to do some work on several Tuks. We were gonna miss the Full Moon Party, that was for sure. But we wanted to make it to Ko Chang the day after the party, staging our own, so we really had to get things moving. It was time for me to find a truck.
After talking to a few taxi drivers who thought I was looking for ‘drug’ instead of ‘truck’ (which might be due to a slight hungover mumbling on my side), I found someone who spoke English and seemed resourceful. With my head feeling like it was gonna explode, the dude and I scouted all of Siem Reap’s outskirts for a truck big enough for a Tuk Tuk and a driver wanting to cover the 150 kilometers to the border. The sun burnt down and I drank one water bottle after the other. The outskirts of Siem Reap looked as rugged as my inner organs felt.
When I returned to the hostel victoriously, I almost fainted. It was only a bottle of coke, a bottle of M 150, a bag of peanuts and three painkillers (all of that consumed in less than 2 minutes) which brought me back to life. Surprisingly, everyone else was ready to go. So after things had been going so slowly for more than 2 days, suddenly everything happened at once. We checked out again, packed everything in a matter of minutes and discussed the route to the border. When the truck showed up it only took the cast a few moments to load Miss Fit. We were indeed ready to go. I felt very relieved to get back on the road.
We made it all the way to the next corner before another Tuk Tuk died. This time, we didn’t play around. We had to finally leave this place! So with the help of the other truck driver – and cast member Jess who was riding in his truck obviously speaking fluent hand and feet – we soon had another truck and loaded the pink Tuk as well. The drivers charged quite a bit of money, but they knew we were depending on them now.
Then the day finally got nice. Driving out of Siem Reap in the sunset was beautiful. I still had to fight the urge to throw up, but I was slowly feeling better. The remaining 2 working cast Tuks had left already, so it was down to the 2 production vehicles. How nice it was to drive with just two vehicles instead of 7! However, the pleasure only went on for so long before Lisa, production vehicle 2, started to have some problems with its cylinders. We stopped at several mechanics and one of them seemed to really know what he was doing. While he was working I enjoyed watching everyday life in the little village.
After a few more villages the road turned very quiet. The border was closed now so there was no reason for people to travel in this direction at night. It was a straight narrow road with burning fields on the sides, and driving in the slightly cooler night breeze was very nice. We stopped frequently so I could make phone calls to Sun and Moon as well as the other teams. We also bought drinks in a small village where people were curious and friendly and there was a big festival going on. Once again I wished that we actually had a chance to visit these kind of things, but time didn’t permit and we could not leave all our gear unattended.
Just outside of the village, the whole area was lit with black lights. John knew what that was all about. It was the area where the Cambodians are catching all the bugs which are being sold for eating in Thailand.
Just when I thought that Carolina had really been a good girl recently, she decided to break down. 6.9 kilometers from the border…. Luckily, I remembered the way Thai people towed Tuk Tuks, the front wheel of the broken one lifted up onto the back of another one. So we just covered the last kilometers like that.
When we got to the border town, we soon reunited with everyone in the restaurant in one of the casino hotels. It turned out that now Lisa, production Tuk 2, was the only one still working. All others were somehow broken or at least had a few issues. Incredible.
We had a nice dinner, eventhough it was already past midnight. Then we hit the casino. The Frenchies taught me how to play Black Jack and they must have done a good job. I kept winning and slowly woke up a little bit. It was very funny how the staff of the casino actually helped us winning all the time. After that we all went over to the roulette tables. The other guests, many Chinese and Thai, didn’t seem to care much about roulette. They played a game none of us knew. And where we cheered and joked loudly, all of them seemed rather serious and quiet.
I managed to actually win a little bit of money before I gave in to my exhaustion. It was gonna be another short night.
Once again, I felt like shit. But that was a good condition to be in to start waking up other people.
We gave our passports to the concierge who somehow knew how to work his way around the queue at immigration. Then we started pushing the Tuks through no-man’s land. This place really was a shithole. Poor Cambodians pushed huge carts full of products in the direction of Thailand while some shady people drove by in expensive limousines with tainted windows. The roads were shabby and dirty, yet there were all these big-ass casinos and Western coffee shops. And the smell of this place was just horrendous. John’s analogy was ‘a dead dog rolled around in puke before lit on fire and then peed upon for killing the fire’. It summed it up quite well, but did not take into account the fishy aspect of the smell…
It felt like the best thing was to leave this place as fast as possible.
Luckily, the border cops let us back into Thailand with hardly any hassle. We had expected it to be rather difficult, but around 10 or so we were all on the other side.
As promised, Sun and Moon waited for us in a car park. Sun started working right away while we organized one more mechanic as we saw that this was too much work for one person.
It was nice to be back in Thailand. Like always in this country, good food was never far way. We even appreciated having the good old 7eleven back in our lives and I filled up on energy drins and sandwiches with seaweed. Just next to the infamous shop there was a man selling second hand clothes and costumes. I couldn’t resist buying a chipmunk costume.
After all, the fixing took much longer than expected. Some of the Tuks had some serious issues, Carolina included. Our sponsors were waiting on Ko Chang for us, so we had quite some pressure to make it down there by the end of the day.
Around 2 everything was finally fixed. Or so it seemed. We said our goodbyes to Sun and Moon and headed towards the South. What happened then looks funny in retrospect, but back then it was just annoying beyond belief. Within the first 10 kilometers after the parking lot, 3 out of the remaining 6 Tuks died. We left them at three different gas stations along the way, as there was nothing we could do about them now and we really needed to finally get closer to the island. After all three had been put in places which could be retraced later on, we tried to move on. But now a truck had just crashed and flipped and was now blocking the entire width of the road. No joking. Not a centimeter on each side. I almost thought to myself that maybe we shouldn’t go South after all. All signs were pointing in that direction…
Two of the teams from the broken Tuks organized an English guy with a pick-up truck. The others hitchhiked down to Trat.
The two production Tuks and the Fraussie (French-Australian) team drove around the crashed truck on backroads, got lost in the countryside for a bit and then finally covered some ground on a rather good road.
It was funny. Had we originally planned to not drive in the dark much, experience showed that we were almost exclusively driving in the dark. In some respects, that was easier. It wasn’t as hot and most of the roads were not as busy. But I still had a lot of trouble with the lights of the oncoming traffic. My windshield was so scratched that it was almost impossible to see. Luckily, the road to Trat had some lines at least.
At first, my plan was to stay behind a big truck. That way, I had no trouble seeing where I needed to go. But the noise and the fumes annoyed me soon and the truck was going way too slow. So I overtook and then just hit the gas. The other 2 Tuks weren’t running on 100% and they had told me that I should just try to get there as fast as possible. That way, the sponsors had at least one Tuk Tuk and two of the producers on the island. Tony was with me in the Tuk, but he was very sick and had preferred gambling over sleeping the night before. He dozed off in the back seat, so I was basically alone.
After a quick pitstop in a little village where I had some sour-pickled fish we made some good way. But about 40 kilometers before Trat I had to admit that I was close to falling asleep. The Tuk driving was exhausting indeed. The limited sight, the constant noise and rattling, the permanent 100% focus in order not to crash. Luckily, Tony felt better and was able to drive the last stretch. I passed out in the backseat immediately.
Trat seemed like a nice place. We found a little cafe with good coffee, fresh juices and a tuned ukulele. The owner couldn’t believe that we had travelled so far in Tuk Tuks and she took many pictures of us and the vehicle.
Having thought that we were gonna meet the others in Trat, we soon realised that we had misunderstood each other. They were already in the little port, a good 30 kilometers away, and had been reassured that there would be a ferryboat for us even though it was already past midnight.
So we hurried there and got lost on the tiny roads with no signs several times.
When we finally met up with the others, it became clear that the boat was not gonna happen. It was too late and nobody wanted to take us over to the island. Through some cryptic text messages we found out that at least the others had made it over to Ko Chang. But due to the exhaustion, the late arrival and a lack of people, the party was apparently not the expected success. At least, our people had received a new supply of booze.
We slept in a shady guesthouse which had already been half eaten by termites. At this point, I would have slept in a termites nest.
The ocean was glittering in the bright sunlight, whilst in the distance the mountain range on the Cambodian side was just being hit with heavy rains. It was a beautiful sight to wake up to and I knew that this morning was gonna be the last drive of the trip for me, a scenic 20 kilometers along the coast of Ko Chang.
It felt quite adventurous to drive our Tuks onto the ferry. The busloads of Russians didn’t really know what to make of us.
I had forgotten how steep and dangerous the roads were on Ko Chang. The last time I had been here was a good 7 years ago. Production Tuk 2’s engine was so weak that they actually had to get it towed up some of the hills. It took us another 2 hours to finally reach our guesthouse on Lonely Beach, the island’s backpacker spot.
The reunification with all the rest of the group was very emotional and led to the first drinks on the beach. Also the sponsors seemed happy and we soon had a big photoshoot.
After that, I realised that the whole trip was coming to an end for me. Originally, I was gonna drive one of the Tuks back to Bangkok, too. But with all our delays and my flight to Indonesia going the next day, I simply couldn’t do it. It would be a lie if I said I was sad about it. My energy had been spent completely in the last weeks. I was sick, tired and I finally needed some time without 20 other people around me.
So after a short dip in the ocean, a massage on the beach and a seafood dinner, I sat down with everyone to say my goodbyes. They were, of course, gonna go to another party, but at that point there was little I was less interested in than party. Who would have thought I’d ever say that?!
The next morning at 6 I took a pick-up to the ferry, a boat over to the mainland and a bus back to the big city. I slept through the whole trip, my head banging against the window with every bump in the road.
In the late afternoon, I walked past the abandoned building where we had spent the last days before our departure. When all the food stall owners smiled at me, yelling “Mr. Tuk Tuk is back!”, I finally realised what I had been doing in the last weeks. I had become Mr. Tuk Tuk.
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Great write up Marco, the series is just about to wrap up here on Australian TV, was a nice behind the scenes read into what was going on!
Thank you, Aaron!
Yes, I can believe that the visuals plus the behind-the-scenes-report make for a good mix!
I have fond memories of that trip, but it was also very, very hard…
Greetings from Italy!