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Road trip to the Cambodian border


A tale of a broken fan belt and ignorance

Saturday, the 19th of November we set out to drive to the Cambodian border, camp a few nights in the Khao Soi Dao wildlife sanctuary and get back to BKK the following Monday. Not everything went exactly as planned.

Why did we go?

We plan to go on as many little trips as we can before we go on the bigger one.

  • We just got our truck, for both of us our first motorized vehicle. We have little driving experience, car-owning-experience or car-fixing-experience and we really could use the practice.
  • Also wanted to test our camping equipment, mostly ridiculously cheap stuff from China and hand-me-downs. See what’s missing, what we don’t need and what’s just too crappy.
  • Having an Android phone with a GPS application installed (nDrive), we hope to save some money and not buying a dedicated unit. But we wanted to know how well this works.
  • I (Joost) also needed a new stamp in my passport. Got a one year marriage visa, but only get a stamp for 90 days. Every three months I have to cross an international border to get a new one.
  • But the main reason for our little foray was to test the truck, Tau-tau. To find his weak points, push him to his limits, check what breaks. Cunning bastards like we are, we do this during the warranty period.

At least for the last reason, the trip was a big success.

Day 1: BKK – Ban Laem – Khao Soi Dao

We left home at 6 a.m. in order to beat the Saturday morning traffic around the eastern industrial estates. We jumped straight on the elevated express way, free that day because of the flooding 🙂 and drove straight out of Bangkok and through Samut Prakan.

In Chachoengsao we stopped at a gas station for coffee, breakfast and, like proper truck drivers, red bull. We continued like this: driving easily, never exceeding 90 km/h and stopping often for coffee and a little break.

Tau-tau on a break somewhere in Sa Kaeo

Tau-tau on a break somewhere in Sa Kaeo

After 2,5 hours Benz had her first drive in the truck, now past the industrial estates and their trucks, the driving became increasingly pleasant. After a couple of hours, in Sa Kaeo province, I took over the wheel again and tried to make a dash to the border.

We were making great progress, it was not even 1 p.m. when we were entering Chanthaburi province, bordering Cambodia. Surely we could be at Khao Soi Dao around 3 p.m.?

Just in Chanthaburi we heard a weird ticking noise under the passenger seat and we pulled over to decide what we should do. Ignoring common sense for the first -but not the last- time, we decided to drive to the next mechanic, instead of having a look ourselves.

Trashed fan belt

4 kilometers later we found one. Turned out our fan belt was busted. A brand new belt, shredded after just 300 km. Weird. We made a quick call to P. Nid, the guy who imported and fixed up our truck, who was just as surprised. He would reimburse the cost and asked us to bring the old belt back so he could send it back to the factory. Decent chap. And at 350 Baht (40 Baht ≈ 1 Euro), no biggie.

Benz investigating our broken "Mitusboschi" belt

Benz investigating our broken "Mitusboschi" belt

The mechanic wanted to replace the other belt as well, claiming it was too tight. It felt fine to me, but it being the same brand (Mitsuboshi, no typo) as the broken one we agreed. Only 100 Baht extra.

Insert new belt

An hour later we were on the road again and getting close to the border. We wanted to go to a little used border crossing called Ban Laem. That way we could avoid the beggar-infested hell on earth that is the Aranyaprathet-Poipet crossing.

Wrong turn, potholes and a hot engine

Ban Laem is not on any map we checked, so we guessed its location. Wrongly. We ended up with the wrong coordinates in the GPS app. Not a big deal, but by the time we realized this we were already going down a quiet road parallel to border.

A road that at parts resembled swiss cheese. More potholes than tarmac, some as deep as 40 cm. It was a great learning experience and after 5 km on that road we had better feeling of where our wheels were and it became quite easy to maneuver the wheels over the pieces of road left. Unfortunately this meant we were going really slow now. It was getting late and we still had another 30 km to go to the border, do the visa thing, and then another 40 to the wildlife sanctuary.

Almost at the border

Almost at the border

We noticed the engine getting hotter and hotter. Having driven almost 300 km and it being 35 degrees outside we thought nothing of it at first.

Benz wanted to check the coolant overflow reservoir. Ignoring common sense again, I -worrying about the time it would take to let the engine cool down and it getting late- convinced her and myself that the new belt was probably a bit loose. Perhaps it was slipping and either the fan or water pump wasn’t getting the action it needed?

If you own a car you probably let out a disappointed sigh reading that last paragraph. Yup, now we know too.

Driving through a beautiful forest, we passed military camps, endless barbed wire and a gazillion potholes, which had gone from a fun learning experience to really annoying by now.

After another 20 kilometers of craters and cavities we reached an intersection, saw a sign for Ban Laem and left the swiss cheese road for a wonderfully smooth one. I think we actually cheered when we saw that gorgeous smooth asphalt.

Border and Khao Soi Dao

At 4 p.m. we finally reached the border. I checked out of Thailand, got a Cambodian visa, stamped into Cambodia, turned around, got an exit stamp and entered Thailand again. Pointless.

At the border market we bought some meat and vegetables to go with our pasta, a hat and one of those portable speaker thingies where you can play music through a USB drive.

At Ban Laem

At the Cambodian border with my new hat

The engine seemed to fair a little better when driving slower, so we continued slowly. The temperature gauge never reached the danger zone, so we figured it wasn’t a huge deal. Little did we know.

We reached Soi Dao village around 5:15 p.m., bought some water, beer and ice and drove the last 12 km up to the wildlife sanctuary. In the last hour of daylight I rushed to set up the tent while Benz cooked a brilliant meal, all the while fighting off a bunch of wild peacocks. Respect.

Thoroughly exhausted, we ate the pasta in the dark sitting in our new, cheap, but very comfortable, camping chairs.

Khao Soi Dao means something like “mountain where you can reach the stars”. An aptly chosen name as we found out that evening. Us mad urban city folks were impressed. After dinner we watched a movie on our net-book and had a couple well-deserved beers under the starry sky before going to bed. Good times.

Day 2: Khao Soi Dao – Chanthaburi town

When disaster strikes

After a good night’s sleep and coffee, Benz fried up some breakfast while I had a look at the truck. Wanted to find out why our engine was running so hot the day before. One of the new belts felt a little loose, perhaps 2 cm give. Could this be the reason? Or was it the distance and heat? Tried starting the engine, at first it didn’t take. On the third try it did start, shaking at first and then sounding weird.

Coffee in the morning

Coffee in the morning

I had a look at the coolant overflow reservoir and… well, you know that feeling? It starts somewhere under your toes and at the same time on the tip of your head, you get hot, then cold, then hot again. A mixture of fear and shame …nothing in the reservoir. Not a drop. Unscrewed the radiator cap, also dry as a bone. Shit.

It was still very early on a Sunday morning, so not much we could do. We ate our fried eggs, sausage and toast, trying not to worry too much about engine damage.

An hour later the local mechanic confirmed I’m an idiot. When starting the engine without coolant I had blown the head gasket. Luckily there seemed to be no further damage to the engine.

No way we could drive to Bangkok now. And in the one-horse-town that is Soi Dao there are no spare head gaskets for a Daihatsu Hijet S100P. It is actually on our list of spare parts for our trip, but we haven’t gotten these yet.

We were getting worried now, we both had to work on Tuesday. Ordering the head gasket alone would take much longer than that. Towing the truck back to BKK would cost around 10.000 Baht.

At that point one of Benz’ sandals fell apart. Without a way to drive or walk, not knowing how we should go home, 12 km from our tent, worrying about money, morale was at an all-time low.

A second-hand car dealer from heaven

Again we called P. Nid. He told us not to let the local mechanics do anything to our truck, lock up and wait for him to call back. 40 minutes later he called back and told us that he would come, see if he could fix Tau-tau on the spot or, if not, take us and the truck back to the city of angels. For free!

Let me re-iterate: this awesome guy will drive 300 km to get us and our truck, that we broke, fix it or take it back to his shop in Bangkok and repair it there. ON A SUNDAY. FOR FREE. What a man!


Nothing to do but wait

Feeling a million times better, we left Tau-tau at the local mechanic’s lot, used their industrial strength glue to bodge Benz’ sandal and hitched a ride back to the wildlife sanctuary.

On the way to the waterfall, which we didn't see

We decided to hike up to one of the waterfalls, but once we realized our phones had no signal higher on the mountain we returned back to camp. If a guy comes to save your behind near the Cambodian border on a Sunday, you don’t want him not being able to reach you because you’re splashing around in a waterfall.

Washing the grime off in a nearby stream

Without transportation and no phone signal in the jungle we couldn’t do anything except chill out near our tent. After lunch and quick wash in a nearby stream, we did absolutely nothing the rest of the afternoon. We enjoyed every minute of it. P. Nid called to say he would be there early evening.

Exploring the area near our tent

Nearby stream

To Chanthaburi

Around 5.30 p.m. we started walking down the hill, soon finding some people who would take us on their bikes to the village for a small fee. A short wait later P. Nid and his friend P. Rang showed up in their truck. They confirmed the head gasket was a goner and we needed to get back to Bangkok to replace it.

The gang of violent peacocks returned in the afternoon

After Tau-tau was loaded on their truck, they took us back to the sanctuary where we quickly packed our stuff and headed for Chanthaburi town to get some dinner.

P. Nid & P. Rang come to Chanthaburi often and know a fantastic restaurant where we had the best Yam Pla Duk Foo we’ve ever had. An extravagant meal with slices of duck, coagulated duck blood, Tom Yam Pla, wild boar in curry paste and chicken.

P. Nid sat in our truck all the way to Bangkok

It was close to 10 p.m. when we finished dinner and decided to spend the night there. We ended up in the soulless but swanky New Travel Lodge. Benz and I were tired and just had a couple of beers at the poolside bar while P. Nid and P. Rang hit the town.

Day 3: Back to Bangkok

The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel’s buffet. Benz & I spent some time hanging around the pool, waiting for our saviors to get ready. We had the hardest time paying for the rooms. P. Nid would just not let us pay for them. In the end he reluctantly let us pay part of our room. What a guy!

By 10 a.m. we were on the road again. Me, Benz & P. Rang in their truck, P. Nid sitting in our truck on the back. We had an uneventful drive back to Bangkok, luckily they allowed us to pay for a full tank, alleviating our guilt a little.

Back in Bangkok unloading Tau near P. Nid's shop

At his shop, we unloaded Tau-tau, grabbed a few essentials and got back in the truck with P. Rang who had to go our way anyway.

Back home

2 p.m. we were back home, looking back at our little weekend trip with mixed feelings. If we can not even drive one day without breaking our truck, how will we ever make it to Holland? On the other hand, these kind of things were exactly what we wanted to find out.

Ignoring a hot engine is not something we will ever do again. That much we learned the hard way. Two independent mechanics have since told us that we should check the coolant level every day with a Daihatsu Hijet. This is the kind of information that’s probably in the owner’s manual. Unfortunately ours is in Japanese. The English service manual, that we have ordered, is still in the mail.

Looking back we feel like we have learned a great deal:

  • If anything is out of the ordinary with the truck, stop and have a look. A broken fan belt or being low on coolant are things that are very easy to spot and also easy enough to fix. Even if we can not fix it, we can at least assess the risk of driving to a mechanic.
  • Engine temperature. It’s no joke.
  • We definitely made the right choice getting our vehicle through P. Nid.
  • Those lightweight aluminum tent pegs are worthless on anything but butter soft soil. Or we’re doing it wrong? The heavier steel rock pegs kick ass though.
  • P. Nid is a really, really great guy.
  • Benz’ love for good deals on shoes is not suitable outside the city.
  • Zip lock bags, Tupperware, etc. are awesome for keeping ants out. Need more.
  • We need a bigger cooler. Ice, food & beers are quite bulky.
  • Having a table makes life a lot easier when camping.
  • Wild peacocks. They are not shy. At all.
  • P. Nid rocks.

So, WTF happened?

P. Nid thinks the 4 km we have driven with a broken fan belt (so no fan) on an already hot engine caused some of the coolant to evaporate. Neither us nor that mechanic checked the level of coolant (they just use water in Thailand), us driving another 90 kilometer on an already hot engine with low coolant caused more heat, which lead to more evaporation, and so on. When the engine cooled down overnight the remaining coolant contracted, and what was left over in the morning was too little to safely start the engine on. Which I stupidly did anyway. Or something like that.

Yeah I know. I’m a twit. Feel free to abuse me in the comment section. That’s what it’s there for.

Now we’re waiting for P. Nid to finish replacing the head gasket. He’s insanely busy, a lot of work for him after the flood, so this will take another couple of days.

Next weekend we will drive up to Damnern Saduak for a night at Benz’ parents. A shorter trip and no camping. We’ll let you know how that went/what we broke in a week or so.

Posted from: Thailand

5 Responses to Road trip to the Cambodian border

  1. Wow Benz.. Joost.. entertaining story man.

    The bigger the learning curve the bigger the fun afterwards so they say..

    Maybe this actually is a very good start. Everything else, like flat tires and other disfunctional thingies, will be less time consuming probably. 😉

    Good luck over there. Keep the stories coming. Love to read them.


  2. Hi Joost, a beautiful website, and a fantastic story!
    Can’t wait to read more after you started the big trip..
    I wish you all the best!


  3. Pingback: Driving to Koh Lanta and back to Bangkok in our Daihatsu Hijet

  4. Pingback: Leaving Thailand

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