The Road to Mandalay
February 1 to February 24, 2015
The Road to Mandalay - a totally new driving experience with the ERA
Day 1: Raffles Hotel, Singapore to Desaru. 323 kms
Following what should be an extremely pleasant experience, adjusting, acclimatising and generally kipling at the iconic Raffles Hotel, the route leads out of Singapore to the Malaysian border; a short, transport run. Following formalities, it then heads for the south west of the peninsular for a short run up the coast before cutting inland over a variety of straight and meandering roads, mainly through palm oil plantations. Some pleasant main roads lead to the first time trial which will, if dry, as forecast, dispel misconceptions that oil plantations are slippery; if not dry then.......! Following the time trial, on to the beachfront overnight halt at Desaru, on the SE tip of the peninsular via a brief diversion to a scenic fishing village.
Day 2: Desaru to Kuantan. 402 kms
From Desaru we head north, traveling parallel with the coast before turning inland to join and follow the Pahang River. The route crosses some impressive rivers, which are alive with fishing, ferry and related activity; really quite picturesque. Following a brief lunch halt at the Wawa cafe, it is on to the Boustead time trial over a “young” plantation, that is, it has been recently replanted and is very open and “visible”. Then on, with a lovely run down the river, to the overnight stop at the coastal city of Kuantan and another relaxing night in the Hyatt beach front hotel.
Day 3: Kuantan to Cameron Highlands. 430 kms
Out of town and inland on a sweeping major road before heading into the country and a delightful jungle drive; almost a botanical park which takes in a “rustic” coffee halt. Demands on navigation increase and lead through some quiet, interesting backroads to arrive at the lunch halt. On from lunch and a “nadgery” time trial leads to the ascent of the Titiwangsa Mountain Range involving a 76km alpine climb. After a great days driving, finish the day, perhaps with a cup, or two, of the local tea, at the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia’s most extensive and famous old colonial hill station.
Day 4: Cameron Highlands to Kota Bharu. 440 kms
Following the recent devastating Malaysian monsoon floods, the route for Day 4 has seen some last minute changes. It will still be an early, and probably misty, start for the frontrunners as we head for a short hillclimb test through the tea plantations of the Camerons. Then we begin the descent to the Kelantan River valley for morning coffee and the start of the route changes. These take in the higher roads of the original route plus a couple of interesting new additions as we make for Kota Bharu. The planned ferry trip has had to be abandoned as the slipways have been destroyed, so it is a land-based final run to the Riverside Hotel.
Day 5: Kota Bharu to Georgetown. 450 kms
From Kota Bharu, we run alongside the Thai border. A spectacular route crosses the mountain range, bound for Georgetown on the beautiful island of Penang, where two nights will be enjoyed, providing an opportunity for some rest, recuperation, and also to fettle your car with the help of our travelling mechanics. Coffee will be taken at the summit before meandering down to the start of the next time trial, the “Tour de France”, a classic Hillclimb favoured by the local cycling community, and then on via the newly completed, 24 km, “2nd Bridge” to make a clockwise tour of the island and a well earned rest at the E & O, Georgetown.
Day 6: Rest Day - Georgetown
A rest day and an opportunity to catch some sun, relax and explore the historic, Portuguese influenced, colonial city and/or grease those steering joints, adjust the brakes and enjoy a shoulder massage in the classic ambience of the E & O – once hailed as the premier hotel east of the Suez.
Day 7: Georgetown to Trang. 385kms
Leaving Georgetown via the old bridge, a transport section leads upcountry to the final time trial in Malaysia. A technical test, the “Fields of Athenrice”, courtesy of Pad Dee and the local community, demands precision, with no room for error, and no shortcuts! Then, it is “Selamat Jelang” to Malaysia and into Thailand via the border crossing at Wang Kelian, a delightful backwater frontier complete with Duty Free, but no commercial traffic. Formalities over, the route runs through good main and back roads, taking in the distinct cultural differences that Thailand presents, to a charming Thai welcome at the Rua Rasada Resort, at Trang.
Day 8: Trang to Khao Lak. 463 kms
A busy day as the route heads for Khao Lak via a brief detour to the island of Phuket. Some open driving, with some navigational elements leads to coffee at “Cabbages & Condoms”, where those running short on Brassicas can resupply. Then the fun starts; through the “kargs” (limestone outcrops) to a regularity, of “waltzer” nature, leading to lunch before a navigational detour, prior to crossing the Sarasin Bridge onto Phuket. A double run over a “gradiently challenging” road will thrill, or otherwise, before a short coffee halt to reset the adrenaline sensor and then a testing route through the forest to Khao Lak.
Day 9: Khao Lak – Rest Day
Relax in the extensive beachside resort and/or excurt to Khao Lak which was one of the hardest hit locations during the Tsunami. There is a Tsunami museum, notable for the Thai naval vessel which was “relocated” inshore. Our local Thai agents are busy arranging various activity options for those of a more energetic mindset...
Day 10: Khao Lak to Chumphon. 340 kms
Departing Khao Lak, the route takes in some rural backroad navigation before joining the major road north up the West coast. Turning inland, the terrain is mountainous and the road becomes serpentine with continuous ascents and descents as it crosses to the east coast, throwing in a few surprises on the way. Finally, it crosses the main, arterial highway and onto the Novotel, on a beautiful stretch of coast to the east of Chumphon.
Day 11: Chumphon to Kanchanaburi. 558kms
The best laid plans... or should that be "no longer laid"? Damage to the Kaeng Krachan Circuit by a recent truck meeting means that it is now unavailable for the Road to Mandalay. Our local fixers have worked miracles at very short notice to secure a new test and lunch stop at the fabulous Majestic Creek Country Club near Hua Hin. The owners are very enthusiastic to have our event visit their beautiful resort and it sounds like there could be quite a crowd of spectators gathered to see what is going on. With the club being located close to the original route, it has been easy to keep changes to the minimum as the morning route heads up the isthmus on main roads before cutting through interesting country past Majestic Creek and onwards to reach our overnight hotel, on the bank of the river and the opportunity to walk the river bank and visit "The Bridge over the River Kwai", built by Alec Guinness and Co.
Day 12: Kanchanaburi to Kanchanaburi. 372 kms
A free start from the hotel allows those interested to visit the Hellfire Pass Museum and the notorious cutting created by the POWs on the Death Railway, before the official start from the museum car park. The route becomes increasingly scenic, climbing the Kwai valley before entering the jungle where a mixture of gravel, tarmac and concrete surfaces over steep climbs and descents present their challenges. It then returns to tarmac roads and a non-stop series of rollercoaster climbs and hairpins to the Sri Nakarin Reservoir dam for lunch. From the dam we return for a second night in Kanchanaburi and a further opportunity to explore the town, railway museum and the war graves.
Day 13: Kanchanaburi to Phetchabun. 525 kms
Today, cars and drivers can relax, to an extent, while the navigators concentrate as we drive through the central plain of Thailand with endless paddy fields, where the 3,500 varieties of rice are grown. There are some interesting sections along the route and a coffee diversion to a “bizarre” monastery, en route to the “Chicken Run” forest time trial which may require a degree of “machetising” to preserve the elegance of the competing cars. On finishing the time trial, it is on, northward to arrive at our night halt in Phetchabun; a memorable hotel, crammed with collectibles and paraphernalia. We are now in Northern Thailand, and in for some truly scenic driving.
Day 14: Phetchabun to Phrae. 422kms
From Phetchabun, following a brief, optional pause to pay respect to the Buddha, a quick “warm up” detour to Khao Kho, site of King’s summer palace which is followed by an amazing 7km Alpine road climbing 5,000 feet to the top of Phu Hin Rongkla – site of the HQ of the Communist insurgents back in 70’s. There is a small museum there and a great drive down the other side to Nakhon Thai and then onward to lunch at a renowned floating fish restaurant, the location of which is TBA (depending on the level of the lake). The day finishes with a demanding gravel time trial, through the clouds, over a jungle covered mountain and a descent of endless hairpins to overnight at the town of Phrae.
Day 15: Phrae to Chiang Mai. 408 kms
Once out of town, a brilliant days driving awaits. Fast, open curving roads with little traffic and some great alpine sections which will delight. However, just to break the rhythm, there is a short gravel diversion leading to the asphalt “Mount Columnar” time trial which is flat but extremely tricky and the late brakers must err on the side of caution!!! Following a lunch detour to an “offbeat” pub, the driving is all alpine until joining the run into Chiang Mai, attempting to beat the school run which can cause frustration!
Day 16: Chiang Mai - Rest Day
A top hotel, the Shangri La, will aid recuperation and our many local contacts might serve to supplement our team, mechanically! Otherwise, there is a huge choice of options to fill your time, if lying poolside is not your thing. The night market puts Marrakesh to shame and you can replace your wardrobe for less than the hotel might charge to sterilise your accumulated laundry!
The restless might partake in some hill climb training by indulging in a, self organised, tour out of Chiang Mai, through the National Park and up to the peak of the highest mountain in Thailand, Doi Inthanon 2565 m.
Day 17: Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son. 315 kms
A delightful drive out of Chiang Mai leads, via a good forest/jungle time trial, the “Tiger Trail”, to morning coffee and the infamous “Road 1095”, known as "The Road of a Thousand Bends" – in fact there are 1864; try counting them as you climb and descend. There’s time for a brief, recuperative lunch stop, midway, then on to a very welcome overnight stop at Mae Hong Son - the end of a truly exhilarating, if tiring day. Very slippery if wet! We are now in fairly “wild” country, close to the Burma border and “tribal” people will be seen selling their wares on the roadside; maybe a short stop to haggle for a machete would be time well spent.
Day 18: Mae Hong Son to Mae Sot. 394 kms
We now head south for the Burma Road, with a series of short ascents and descents, through the jungle with a fairly straightforward time trial to stimulate the adrenaline flow and then on, via lunch at Mae Sariang to join and follow the Salawin River which is effectively the Myanmar border. The route runs through some stunning scenery and many of the population are tribal, sporting traditional clothing and, to the west of the road, are the traditionally built hillside refugee villages. The overnight halt is just short of the Thai/Burma border, at Mae Sot.
Day 19/20: Mae Sot to Myawaddy to Mawlamyine. 155 kms
“La-korn” to Thailand and “Mingalaba” to Burma, but on which day? The “gateway” to Burma is an infamous stretch of narrow mountain road, twisting and turning for 65km through spectacular mountains. Due to width restrictions and traffic volumes, it is operated on a “one way” basis on alternate days, hence we have to plan a “moveable feast” ie there will be a rest day at Mae Sot OR at Mawlamyine. Whatever, formalities behind us, it is onward into the “unknown” - with super-friendly locals, and authorities eager to welcome us in a demonstration of how this country is rapidly opening up. The drive over the mountain pass is classic “U Tube” material and a test for the faint hearted. The antics of the local traffic are awe inspiring. On reaching the plain, the route is not demanding, if a bit uncomfortable as the tarmac is also a victim of the forgotten years! (A bypass is currently being built by a Thai company, which is due to be opened in due course during 2014 or 2015 but that would be no challenge!)
Day 21: Mawlamyine to Naypyitaw. 455 kms
Remembering to drive on the Right of the road, leaving Mawlamyine, the route takes on a colourful nature where the essence is experiencing a quantum change in culture and scenery. The route takes a main road to the concrete “Express Way” which is deserted if a bit uncomfortable. However, it gets the event “up country” before diverting back to the main road for the run in to the “new” city, constructed as the seat of government – Naypyitaw.
Day 22: Naypyitaw to Inle Lake. 273 kms
A minor tour of the city does take in the notable 20 lane highway which serves the “Flash Gordonesque” Houses of Parliament, before the “Hog’s Back” time trial along a mountain ridge to get us on the road to Inle. Due to fewer roads and various restrictions, the traffic is denser in Burma, but nevertheless, the drive to Inle is fascinating. A degree more patience is called for, particularly up the long climbs, but the overnight on the lakeside makes it all worthwhile. Early arrivers can take advantage of a tour around the lake and the floating villages.
Day 23: Inle Lake to Mandalay. 251 kms
Finally we are on the road to Mandalay, immortalised by Kipling and the capital city of the last independent Burmese Kingdom before final annexation by the British, Mandalay remains the cultural heart of the country. The route from the hotel leads to an early time trial over open hillside farm tracks with few trees but some interesting features, then on to Mandalay over major roads which are due for reclassification or, at least, a degree of improvement, through beautiful countryside, littered with cultural interest to the start of a major descent to the valley and, at last, if not finally, Mandalay!
Day 24: Mandalay to Bagan. 237 kms
We originally planned for the official rally to finish in Mandalay but after visiting Bagan we realised there was only one place for the event to finish and that is ancient capital city of Bagan. We take a typically Burmese country road, passing through many small villages and across country that is reminiscent of Africa, before arriving at the most spectacular and iconic spot in Burma. The plains of Bagan are scattered with 10,000 ancient temples and we finish the official rally in truly grand style, driving through the temples before celebrating a superb driving experience with the Prize Giving Dinner overlooking the temples, lit up against the night sky.
Day 25: Bagan to Rangoon. 587 kms
From Bagan to Rangoon we give you the route instructions for the direct route back to Rangoon, but no timing. You can drive at your own pace, with the option of detouring through the unique capital city of Naypyitaw before heading south to arrive in Rangoon, a bustling old city with an air of a fading colonial grandeur absorbed by the pace of modern life; beautiful colonial buildings stand empty and decaying, while just down the road a modern high rise hotel is being constructed. It is a chance to see the old Rangoon before it might be lost forever.
Day 26: Shipping Day
The final day is about a last chance to explore Rangoon, any last minute shopping in the lively markets and importantly arranging the shipment of our cars before flying home.