Text: Inigo S. Roces / Photos: Inigo S. Roces | posted July 21, 2016 15:56
A true cross-country road trip
For Filipinos, going abroad typically means hopping on a plane and dealing with all the trappings international air travel entails. Yet for our ASEAN brethren residing in Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam, “cross-country road trips” can take on a very literal meaning.
Often mentioned in European car TV programs nonchalantly, it’s a rare experience for most Filipinos, and most especially in Asia. After all, many of the EU countries drive on the same side of the road, and the benefits of being an EU citizen include relaxed travel restrictions across borders.
Is it possible to do so in Asia, in spite of the often-conflicting traffic rules and travel restrictions? Mazda has certainly proven so.
Just two weeks ago, Mazda distributors from around the region invited members of the media from ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) nations to partake in a drive across several borders and thousands of kilometers in a veritable buffet of Mazda vehicles.
Called the Mazda SkyActiv Caravan, it was conceived to allow participants to experience this possibility personally. The Caravan entailed a drive from Bangkok, Thailand; to Nakhon Panom-Khammuan, Laos; through Hanoi, Vietnam; down to Cambodia, and back to Bangkok. The nine-day journey spans some 4,000 kilometers, with over 140 participants from Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Singapore.
Daunting as it may seem, the trip was split into two, with the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore media taking on the first four-days spanning 1,400 kilometers from Bangkok to Hanoi. The Thai media would meet us in Hanoi, taking on the longer five-day journey to Ho Chi Minh City, Cambodia, Trat, and back to Bangkok.
The route entails driving on each country’s highways, giving participants a first-person glimpse at each nation’s traffic, driving style and market tastes. Not surprisingly, all of these countries along the route have Mazda as one of the top five car brands.
The Philippine contingent of five journalists, along with Mazda Philippines president Steven Tan, would be split into two cars, each taking turns behind the wheel.
The epic drive began early on June 27, with the vehicles assembled for a flag off at the King Rama V statue in Bangkok. From there, the nearly 20-car convoy made its way to the Northeast of Bangkok to the border with Laos, via the country’s long, six-lane highways. Thankfully, built-in GPS navigation made driving through the serpentine flyovers of the city center a breeze.
We were blessed to be among the first aboard the new Mazda CX-3, a compact crossover based on the Mazda 2, which Tan said would be made available in the Philippines by the end of the year. Powered by a 2.0-liter petrol engine, this front-wheel drive version easily kept pace with the fast-moving convoy, averaging at 100-120 km/h. In true Mazda-style, the CX-3 still appears quite sporty with the signature Kodo face and low slung appearance. Just light taps on the throttle allowed it to accelerate to close the gaps in our convoy. It’s no less agile than your average Mazda 2 either, willingly diving into curves while returning a relatively more comfortable ride than the Mazda 2 it is based on.
There’s surprisingly good legroom on the second row, even for tall people. Alas, like the Mazda2, trunk space is rather limited, only able to fit one large 30kg 5-day travel bag and a smaller 15kg 3-day travel bag.
Thailand’s smooth highways were punctuated by brief stops for lunch and breaks along the many fuel stations along the way. Switching drivers allowed each of us to try sitting in front and behind and catch a few winks in between. By nightfall, we found we had already covered some 500-km in just one day, checked in to a hotel and prepared for the next day’s drive.
The next morning entailed a short drive to the Nakhon Panom border. It was just a short 15-minute drive away. It’s a lot like your typical airport, save for the cue being made up of cars. Of course, Mazda had some hand in making the immigration process easier for us with pre-approved permits and such. All the vehicles lined up at the driveway while participants lined up at the immigration booth to have passports stamped.
From there, there was a cursory check of vehicles before driving over the ornate border gate and bridge connecting Thailand to Laos. Thailand certainly knew how to bid tourists goodbye with a beautifully decorated bridge, boasting some of the most intricately decorated street lamps you’ll ever see. By contrast, the sudden absence of GPS maps as we crossed the bridge would foreshadow the drastic change to expect in Laos. On the Laos end, it was yet another immigration cue before proceeding into the country. A curiously shaped X-intersection directed cars driving on the left side to the right side of the road. Mind you we were driving Thai-registered cars, with the driver’s side also on the right.
After running through sprinkler systems to sanitize the vehicles of any foreign contaminants, we were free to roam Laos roads. They were starkly different, similar to Philippine two-lane provincial highways. The asphalt roads were narrower, had faded white markings, and bore the occasional bumps and potholes. On either side were smaller towns and much less development. Rather than broad freeways, our two lane asphalt highway snaked through the towering limestone cliffs, near-virgin forests, and lush greenery on either side. The plan was to simply cut through the country, avoiding its capital, Vientiane altogether.
It proved to be perfect roads to switch to the 2.0-liter Mazda 3. The sweeping curves and steep inclines were hardly a challenge for the vehicle. So too was avoiding the occasional multi-trailer truck that would suddenly pop out of a corner. There’d be the occasional tourist on a scooter, carrying a heavy backpack loaded with gear for spelunking — one of the many attractions in Laos. Nonetheless, Laos drivers were sparse but quite considerate, typically travelling at just 80 km/h, as opposed to our convoy’s 120 km/h. There didn’t seem to be any posted speed limits. And as we approached these cars, they either signalled by hand when it was safe to overtake or simply pulled over to let us pass.
The smooth straight highways soon gave way to winding mountain roads. Stalled trucks were beginning to be a frequent sight, sometimes parked precariously on a curve. In just a few minutes, we reached the Vietnamese border in the mountains. There was already a long row of trucks waiting to cross as well. This time, we simply had to wait in our cars as our hosts had opted to process our immigration for us.
In an hour’s time, the process was complete and we were free to cross the border gate with little fuss. The other end had some bumpy roads snaking round cliffs with frighteningly steep drop-offs. Nothing too bumpy for the Mazda 3 to handle. It soon gave way to better roads as we snaked down the mountain.
It was refreshing to see cat eyes and a centerline on the road again. And while not as smooth as Thailand’s roads, it was certainly far better than those of Laos. There was more traffic too, and the occassional Vietnamese highway patrol in brand new Honda Accord police cars. As we drove, a local was quite eloquently explaining the history of the towns we passed.
By this time, we found ourselves in a Mazda 2, powered by a 1.2-liter petrol engine — the sole awardee of the Thai Eco Car Phase II program. This special model was able to pass Thailand’s stringent fuel consumption and emissions regulations, making it eligible for certain tax breaks in the country. Naturally, some heavy throttle input was required to get it up to speed. Indeed it could use some pep, but there was no denying its efficiency, clocking in 14 km/L even on our hurried pace.
As we got close to Vinh city, so too were motorcycles becoming more frequent. If they strayed toward the center, we were advised to use the horn. Though that seemed to do little to convince them to give way. There was no task these scooters and underbones couldn’t do. Many were fitted with boxes, sometimes animal cages, and yes, the occasional trailer. There was no hitch, nor reflectors, tail lights or plates. These home-made two-wheel trailers simply had a horizontal bar that riders simply sat on to secure and tow. How they haven’t resulted in any accidents continues to remain a mystery. Electric bikes were quite popular in rural areas too, though they were quite behaved by typically driving on the shoulder.
By nightfall, we reached our hotel in Vinh, Vietnam. We checked in for the night, enjoying the view of the city’s busy roundabout, peppered with cars and scooters inconceivably navigating through the chaos unharmed.
In the morning, we stopped for a quick photo op by a towering statue of Ho Chi Minh. With the addition of three red Mazda’s, there could be no better way to pay our respects to one of Vietnam’s most revered leaders.
With the participants on board and rain beginning to pour, it was time to head to Hanoi, 200-km away, this time in a Mazda CX-5. Again, it was an appropriate pairing, thanks to the vehicle’s equipped cruise control, blind spot and lane departure monitoring. There were only a few towns left to navigate before driving on to the long smooth highways to the city.
We soon got a taste of Vietnam’s famous love for motorcycles the closer we got to Hanoi. In this big city, motorcycles easily outnumber cars, swarming the road in great numbers and making it difficult just to stay in lane. Thanks to the CX-5’s all around visibility, it was easy to keep tabs on the scooters and underbones on all sides. They certainly don’t hesitate to get quite close, often times swerving in front, beside or behind with little warning.
Naturally, the Filipino drivers seemed to have had the least difficulty adjusting, perhaps because of similar situations back home. By nightfall, we found ourselves at our final stop, and were treated to a cultural show as we greeted the Thai media that had just arrived.
We bid them well wishes as we closed the book on our epic 1,400-km drive, spanning three countries, all while averaging an impressive 12-14 km/L despite the fast pace.
The drive certainly proved that while we may live across a vast sea, our cultures are not that different at all. Regardless of the nationality, background, or language, every gear head looks forward to a long drive in a Mazda, no matter what roads lie ahead.