Cross-Malaysia blast leaves Jack Baruth fit to be Thaied
Bobby runs the voodoo down
“They are forging the documents in the wagon,” Bobby says, his baritone take on a Chinese-Malaysian accent nearly inaudible over the pseudo susurrus of a diesel cab-over’s laboring passage. “So don’t walk over there, because it might draw someone’s attention.”
We’ve been at this border station between Malaysia and Thailand for nearly five hours now, locked in a bizarre pas de deux with the Thai immigration authorities. The sun is down, but the heat stays with us; we’re just a few degrees above the equator, and the old-style arc lights above us in the no man’s land between countries are thick with swarming insects. A steady stream of scooters, cab-overs, and tired old sedans is passing through this asphalt lot, most of them waved through without ceremony by Thai soldiers toting assault rifles. Each and every driver, rider, and passenger turns to stare at me—sometimes for a shy second, often for a confrontational half minute. And why not? I’m a 6-foot-2, long-haired white man in camo-colored Dickies work shorts. I’m the foreigner here, I’m the curiosity, and I am starting to suspect I’m the reason we are not going to be allowed to cross the border into Thailand. Not tonight, not tomorrow. Maybe not ever.
Eighty-one cars left a parking garage in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, earlier today, festooned in the sort of deliberately wacky livery that has become de rigueur for high-speed drives everywhere from eastern Europe to west of Hollywood. This event, the 2019 Evo Enduro Drive held last July, is the brainchild of motoring impresario Bobby Ang, founder and owner of Malaysia’s EVOLTN emagazine. The idea is to cover the 2000-kilometer (1243 miles) round trip from Kuala Lumpur north to the varied delights of Thailand’s Phuket Island and back in as much style, and with as much pace, as possible. We have Porsches, with which you’re no doubt familiar, and we have Protons, with which you are perhaps not (they’re homegrown Malaysian cars occasionally based on discontinued Mitsubishis). I’m with my wife, a club racer and financial analyst we call Danger Girl for a variety of printable and unprintable reasons, in a brand-new, glossy black Mercedes-Benz CLS350. We follow Bobby’s Audi S4 Avant because he knows where he is going and we don’t.
Our convoy broke into discrete cadres hours ago as various participants dropped off in search of a particular meal or unusual photo opportunity. A few drivers put the hammer down and headed toward an out-of-the-way Thai border station where the guards were known for being “soft touches.” Bobby’s group, with me trailing behind, got stuck in traffic, missing the five p.m. shutdown of that particular station and another like it. Consequently, we were forced to cross at the 24-hour checkpoint favored by big-rig drivers and the thousands of migrant workers who cross this portion of the border both ways every single day via shank’s mare or Honda’s “Scoopy” 49cc scooter.
The Thai officials stamped the passports of our Malaysian drivers with no drama. Mine occasioned the intervention of a serious-looking senior fellow but was handled within 10 minutes. “I don’t see what all the fuss was about,” I whispered to Danger Girl as we walked out of the building. Then I saw an official walking toward Bobby, not exactly pointing a rifle at him but also not not pointing a rifle at him, if you catch my drift. They conferred briefly.
“The cars,” Bobby told me after the discussion, “all need individual documentation to cross.” We had nine vehicles out of the Malaysian press fleets, and none of them had any kind of document saying they could enter Thailand. The immigration officials considered this tantamount to deliberate automobile smuggling and were becoming a little agitated about it. “Go back to the parking lot,” Bobby said, “and try not to look conspicuous.”
“Easier said than done,” I replied. Bobby’s crew got on the phones to the various manufacturers’ reps. Not everyone answered the phone, and not everyone who did answer the phone could put his or her hands on the appropriate boilerplate for international car smuggling or the disproving thereof. Meanwhile, our communications with the Thai authorities had been handed over to the “runners,” fellows who ride their scooters back and forth between the Malaysian and Thai border controls with impunity. They carry no identification, but they are known to all. They answer your questions and assist you with sticky situations. Most critically, they are the cutout for naked acts of bribery.
Four hours after our arrival, the runners told us all the documents had been rejected except for the ones provided by one particular automaker. “Your paperwork,” they told Bobby with a wink and a nod, “should look like that for all the cars.” It was after 10 o’clock in a country where few businesses are open past six. Nobody was answering the phone, so Bobby set his assistants to work with two laptops in the back seat of a Volvo SUV as he had extremely careful conversations with a few different runners. In an hour, some images were created. They wouldn’t fool an American border agent—and they wouldn’t fool his Thai counterpart, either. But they were the necessary catalyst for the real negotiations.
“Once we submit the forged documents,” Bobby told me, “we have waived our right to simply turn around and leave, if you understand me.” Two runners arrived to convey Bobby via scooter into the checkpoint supervisor’s office. “Quick,” he said to our assembled group, “give me ringgit.” The Malaysian currency is worth about a quarter of ours; one ringgit is an American quarter. Bobby climbed onto the back of a smoke-spitting scooter and disappeared into the night.
“What’s the plan if this doesn’t work?” Danger Girl asked me.
“Well, we can’t drive forward, and we can’t necessarily drive back without the Thais blocking our progress. So I think we have to run back.”
“It’s, like, 500 yards,” my wife said, casting a doubtful glance back toward the heavily armed fellows beneath the flag of the Islamic Republic of Malaysia.
“Run in a zigzag fashion,” I suggested, “but not a predictable one.” Twenty minutes later, Bobby was back.
“One hundred ringgit per car for the supervisor, and 100 ringgit for each runner,” he informed us, “so a total of 1000 ringgit.”
“So we spent, uh, 250 bucks. And that took all night.”
“Should I tell them,” Bobby asked, his eyes crinkling behind aviator glasses, “that you wish to spend more?” Before I could answer, he turned to face the crowd of anxious Evo Enduro drivers and raised his arms for silence. “We’ve been accepted into Thailand. And you know what that means.”
“What does that mean?” I asked, trying to keep the concern out of my voice.
“It means,” Bobby grinned, “that it is time for McDonald’s.”
The only traffic law is that there are no traffic laws
By the standards of Malaysians set loose in Thailand, I’m a coward, a left-lane bandit, a Prius owner with a Ralph Nader sticker on his bumper. The moment we left Bobby’s favorite McDonald’s in that Thai border town, we started making pace that would worry a Cannonball Run participant. It wasn’t simply that we averaged over 120 mph for hours at a time. It was that we did it on two-lane farm-to-market roads that were also occupied by “dekotora” trucks covered stem to stern with LEDs and various religious icons, scooters with four people sitting cheek by jowl sidesaddle, and sub-one-liter cars that looked like New York phone booths—but with less visible crash protection.
There are traffic laws in Thailand. I’m certain of it. But nobody obeys them. There are speed cameras in Thailand. Our group triggered hundreds of tickets in the course of four days’ driving, each of which came out to between $2 and $5. I’m not sure if anyone paid. At one point, I caught up to a police-liveried Corolla at a closing speed of perhaps 80 mph and jammed on my brakes, only to watch Bobby pass the Toyota in the oncoming lane and keep going. Everybody else did it. I was last in line. The face of the Thai highway cop was impassive behind massive Oakley-style shades.
A brief listing of the animals observed on the Thai highways
Wild dogs. Tame dogs. Packs of wild dogs, dragging some sort of dead animal. Something that looked like a deer but was not a deer. Longhorn cattle that appeared to weigh a third of what their Texas counterparts do. Goats—a lot of goats. Packs of masterless goats congregating in the untamed medians of the relatively rare divided-highway sections. One monkey chasing another monkey across the road, but the monkey holding the fruit was the one doing the chasing. Why?
I had the throttle on that big Benz pinned to the floor trying to catch Bobby, and the speedo needle was all the way to the criminal side of the dial when I saw traffic scatter right and left in front of me, cars heading for the ditch and an old pre-ABS BMW 318i blue-smoking its locked-up tires in the oncoming lane. I hauled down on the brakes and came to a stop in front of a giant, sorrowful-looking elephant. It had a rider. There were perhaps a dozen other elephants behind it, each with one or two riders. Their procession was swaying, unhurried, majestic. The forest into which they disappeared was identical to the forest from which they had come. As the last tail vanished swishing into the trees, I watched the Bimmer drop its clutch and lay a long stripe of Continental rubber through, and past, a dollop of animal waste the size of a human head.
Kapchai, scooters, and you
The most popular mode of transport in Malaysia is the underbone motorcycle, called kapchai in the local polyglot tongue. The Honda Super Cub was the ur-kapchai, one single tube between handlebars and rear seat with an engine slung underneath and plenty of plastic bodywork to obscure the details. Four speeds, manual shift, hand clutch. The Honda Wave is the most popular current model—125 cc or 150 cc, fuel-injected, 15-inch mag wheels, 100 mpg, and the service intervals are all optional.
A considerable percentage of them wear the Repsol livery of Honda’s superbike racers. A certain subset of young toughs prefers the Yamaha Y15ZR—“ultimate power and performance!” according to the billboards. It has 15 horsepower. You can see gangs of them on the Malaysian superhighways, angry-looking men in goggles stretched nearly prone to bring the top speed near 70 mph. As a fellow motorcyclist, albeit one with a 1441-cc, 208-hp daily-driver Kawasaki, I treat them with exaggerated respect. The Malaysian drivers simply force through like sharks in feedstock.
Cross the border to Thailand, and the kapchai are replaced by traditional scooters with wheels and engine in a single unsprung unit. Nobody was able to explain to me why the Malays love kapchai and the Thais prefer scooters. The only kapchai you see in Thailand have massive welded-steel sidecar platforms added for the purpose of carrying fruit, machine parts, furniture, or as many as 10 children. Few of them can maintain more than walking pace up the surprisingly steep grades on the way to Phuket.
You also see the Honda MSX125, known as the Grom here in the States and sourced from the same Thai factory that produces them for local consumption. We consider it a toy for millennials riding between apartment and café; in Thailand, it carries entire families. Unhelmeted, alert, clinging to their mothers in the knowledge that losing their grip means near-certain death. I never saw an MSX125 with fewer than two people on it. I was told in passing that the retail price equates to greater than the average household income, so owning a Grom in Thailand is like having a Lexus GX470 here. Which explains why I never saw one in anything other than perfect condition. Once you see an entire country operating successfully on vehicles with the combustion capacity of a shot glass, it flicks a switch in your head somewhere. I don’t know how to flick that switch back.
Thais—they’re just like us!
Yes, Thailand is a country filled with exotic vistas and spookily beautiful people and elephants on the road. Yes, they have a king, and you can be jailed for criticizing him on Facebook. And there’s the language, which is incomprehensible to Americans as well as Malaysians. Forget all that. The average Thai fellow is a true American, though he knows it not.
Thai highways are stacked deep with diesel pickup trucks “rolling coal” courtesy of outrageously non-environmental tuning kits. Sure, they’re generally 3.0-liter Isuzu regular cabs and not F-350 Super Duty big rigs, but that’s a minor point. The pickups are covered with stickers denoting the drivers’ favorite bands, diesel tuners, and aftermarket supply shops. Some of them are wrapped in iridescent vinyl. All of them have enough window tint to make an Ohio trooper draw his pistol.
Thais love their guns. They have shooting ranges all over the place. A range official who spoke no English still managed to convey to me that the Glock 17 was a plastic piece of crap but the Springfield 1911 was God’s own sidearm, placed in the mind of John Browning by the Almighty himself. He was carrying two 1911s, a holster on each hip, the guns tricked out in a manner that would garner approving nods at a 1990s-era IPSC pistol match. “That Thai fellow,” Danger Girl said, “is exactly like my dad. I mean, he’s not in any way like my dad (who is an electrical contractor in New Mexico). But he’s also exactly like my dad, if you know what I mean.”
“Neither of them,” I offered by way of affirmation, “has ever seemed very impressed by me.”
Rental karts are big in Thailand. And very fast. Rental kart safety is not big in Thailand. Be warned. And the penalty for bumping, like the penalty for speeding, is honored in the breach more than in the observance.
The McDonald’s restaurants in Thailand are hideously expensive. Converted to dollars, it’s cheaper to eat a Quarter Pounder at an American airport than it is to have the “Angus burger” in a Thai village where five bucks will get you a scooter for a day or a massage for an hour. Perhaps for that reason, the employees look like supermodels and the burgers look like they do on television.
Road rage, thy name is Vios
Go into any major Southeast Asian city and you’ll see an admirable amount of courtesy shown by drivers and motorcyclists. I spent a week in 2013 wheeling a beautiful, brand-new Peugeot 508 wagon around Kuala Lumpur and only survived the experience because hundreds of other people on the road made space for me, anticipated my mistakes, and didn’t lose their tempers when I needed to change lanes at the last minute or poke my nose out onto a busy thoroughfare.
Somehow I made it through without a single hairline scratch on the paint.
By contrast, the people who use Thailand’s rural two-lanes and four-lanes exhibit a degree of road rage that would give Los Angeles residents pause. The worst of them, without fail, are driving refrigerator-white Toyota Vios sedans. What’s a Vios? It’s kind of like a four-door Yaris hatchback, but some variants are more like Toyota Echos and others bear no resemblance to either. I passed dozens of them over the course of four days while driving our CLS350, and all of them attempted to repass, sometimes in horribly aggressive fashion. I’m talking two-wheels-in-the-grass-at-100-mph aggression, swerving-across-the-lane aggression, drive-down-the-center-line-then-brake-check-you aggression. Every. Single. One.
“I don’t want you to be concerned,” Bobby radioed me after watching a NASCAR-esque interaction between me and a Vios in which I ended up taking a service road at the top of fifth gear to escape the guy, “but I believe the driver was waving a pistol.”
Your guide to rural toilets and roadside meals
The JW Marriott in Kuala Lumpur, from whence we started the Evo Enduro, has toilet paper. The Marina Bay Singapore, featured in the film Crazy Rich Asians and the place where we ended our 10-day Asian trip, also has toilet paper. In between, there are holes in the ground accompanied by a flexible metal hose. If you’re lucky, the hose has a thumb sprayer. If you aren’t, it doesn’t.
I’d warned Danger Girl. She arrived at the Kuala Lumpur airport with enough rolls of Charmin to last a year. Some of the women on our trip were refined people from the higher echelons of Malaysian society. They started eyeing my wife’s stash with criminal intent. We made a few friends by not being stingy.
Malaysia has outstanding high-octane gasoline available everywhere, courtesy of the state-owned company Petronas. Thailand does not. The overboosted 2.0-liter turbo four in the Mercedes proved surprisingly omnivorous, despite spending 10-minute stretches at redline. Bobby’s S4 was not so forgiving. On the bright side, most Thai freeways feature a 7-Eleven every 30 or so miles. The Thai idea of a 7-Eleven is slightly different from ours. It involves a wide selection of prepackaged meals that the staff will quick-cook for you. Between that, the $15 McDonald’s dinners, and the astounding restaurant in Phuket that was bolted to a cliff and featured nothing but glass walls, I made it all the way through Thailand without consuming any Thai food. The mention of this fact produces active and visible heartburn in millennials, foodies, and millennial foodies. Yes, I sat on a beach facing the Andaman Sea, the only white man for miles in either direction, and ate french fries. Put that in your first edition of Eat Pray Love and smoke it, why dontcha?
No, I said, “Thank tha police.”
Bobby had an idea. He’d rustled up an impressive array of sponsors for his event. One of them was Police Eyewear, a sunglasses maker attempting to break into Southeast Asia. So he put “POLICE” in big letters on the sides of my Benz, his Audi, and a few other black cars, with “EYEWEAR” in tiny letters beneath. In Malaysia, it was considered to be a great joke, because Malaysian police cars are silver with “POLIS” on the sides. In Thailand, it wasn’t so funny, because Thai police cars say “POLICE” on the sides, but it was never a problem.
Crossing the Malaysian border on the way back, one of our compatriots reported that he’d been stopped, detained, subjected to a thorough personal search, and then forced to take the stickers off his car under the watchful eye of an angry fellow with a submachine gun. Then another fellow reported similar treatment at another crossing.
“Bobby,” I said, “should we take these stickers off before we cross?”
“I thought Americans were adventurous. I thought you didn’t respect the police.”
“Who, me? No, I love the police. I mean, I don’t always stick around for them to write a ticket, but I’m a big supporter of our boys in blue. You have me confused with a whole different segment of society, brother.”
“We will see what happens,” Bobby said. Sure enough, we were stopped and a fellow holding a gun came out.
“Police,” the agent said, and pointed at the Benz.
“Police Eyewear,” I replied, and grinned. For a long time, nobody moved a muscle. Then he took a breath and waved me into the country. “Eazy-E was wrong,” I said to Danger Girl. “I’m pretty sure the lyric should be ‘Thank tha police.’ ”
These violent delights have peaceful ends
I went on the Evo Enduro to see the sights, experience some culture, and crack across a whole country at sonic-boom speeds. I went home from the EvoEnduro charmed by the commonalities between the Malaysian “car people” and their American counterparts. We had muscle-car guys, even if the muscle cars in question generally came from Mercedes-AMG. There was the fellow who spent an hour telling me about the ceramic finishes and seam-free cloths he used on his BMW M3—he’d be at home at any Corvette meetup. I met a fellow who asked me to convey his best wishes to Davin Reckow of Hagerty’s Redline Rebuild video series and Alex Roy, the former cross-country record holder. “They,” he said, “are the heroes I will never meet.”
I think the image that will stay with me, however, is from the moment we passed through an anonymous Thai city, probably the size of Circleville, Ohio, on the way back from Phuket. It was long past dark, and there was some sort of street festival going on. The main drag was closed to traffic, so we detoured around, ending up on the section of road the locals used for cruise nights—or the Thai equivalent. There were Isuzu trucks bumping a subwoofer rhythm, neon lights on tiny 660-cc hatchbacks, scooters polished to within an inch of their lives; young men leaning out of car windows and young women in giggling groups by the roadside, pretending not to notice their suitors; traffic moving as slowly as possible, people running to and from vehicles to see their friends.
I experienced that one breathtaking moment, one in which I was electrified by induction from the emotional undercurrents sizzling all around me. Mating rituals and rivalries. Absurd pride taken in vehicles that wouldn’t fetch 1000 greenbacks. The sense that anything could happen. And in the middle of it all, I was this grizzled, oversized curiosity of a man, as much of a stranger as I could possibly be, but absolutely at home. American Graffiti, separated from the original by 25 hours in a Boeing 777, but no less real and authentic for all of that.
This is what I’ve realized. Anywhere you go, the automobile represents freedom. To Bobby Ang and the EvoEnduro veterans, it’s the freedom to warp time and space across tropical vistas. To the kids in that little Thai town, it’s the freedom to rev that engine and hope it catches all the eyes on the street, or maybe one set in particular. And for me, it’s the freedom to speak the Esperanto of automotive enthusiasm to all who will listen and to hear it spoken to me in return. A tiny point of overlap in the Venn diagram of a thousand cultures and a billion or more souls. Important. Worthwhile. We should hold on to it, no matter the cost, for as long as we possibly can.