The last few weeks have been preparing the truck and planning for Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.
I spent almost a whole week in the Velocity Race Innovations workshop in Kuala Lumpur making a loading ramp for the balloon. It was challenging to make a light ramp which was strong and compact. It took some trial and error, but we got there in the end. At the same time, the lights on the truck were upgraded. I could hardly see 2m in front of me with the old ones, so it was on the list of things to do.
A number of days were spent in front of a computer, researching and communicating with UNICEF offices and contacts in SE Asia. It is more than a full time job coordinating everything. I am lucky enough to have some very generous volunteers helping me with it, a special thanks Carola Jonas and Philip Sen, both of whom have/are working in Cambodia. Philip runs a communications company which helps NGO’s, (www.tell-our-story.com) I have also received great support from the local commercial balloon companies, AKA balloon in Malaysia and Balloon Adventure Thailand. It is great to have support from so many people.
Some interesting things that I did in my spare time in Kuala Lumpur was going to the Red Bull Air Race, going on a tour around Les Copaque’s animation studio and catching up with friends. Kuala Lumpur has plenty of good restaurants to visit. The cuisine is varied with the mixed cultures of Malay, Indian and Chinese. There’s something for everyone.
With the help of AKA Balloon, we managed to arrange two flights over Putrajaya. The two were very different. The first was over the middle of Putrajaya. I even landed on the roundabout outside the Prime Minister’s Office. An unhappy looking policeman came over to ask us what we were doing. I took off again and left my crew to deal with it. All was OK, one of my crew just had to call police operations to explain that we had the permission to fly. The weather was perfect and it was very interesting to see the many government buildings there. It is a bit like Canberra, Australia, as the area was built as a centre for government services.
The second flight was completely different. We took off and flew south east of the city. We flew over a couple of villages, a local mosque, (where everyone ran out and greeted us), hills, forest and I flew over wild monkeys in the trees for the first time. I managed to find an empty lot where they are going to build something. I was happy to be there as there wasn’t much else after it: lots of hills, forest and a sizeable lake. Luckily I had ordered a big tarpaulin the previous week, otherwise the balloon would be coloured red now. It had rained earlier in the morning and the earth was red, sticky clay. Our shoes weighed a few kilograms more from all the clay sticking to them. I flew Les Copaque, the makers of Upin and Ipin, (a very popular cartoon show in this part of the world). The video will come out in a week or two on their Youtube channel.
A few days after the flight, I finally left Malaysia after being based there for a couple of months. It was with some sadness as I had made a lot of new good friends and had really enjoyed my time there.
The first day I drove up to the Thai border. The road is very good, dual carriageway all the way. I did have some concern with the engine as it was getting hot as I went up hills. The temperature would always come back down again quickly, so I kept going. I made it to the border in good time and managed to find Malaysian Customs. I befriended a customs officer and he was very helpful in getting my two carnets stamped and sorted, (one for the balloon and the other for the truck). There was no line and it was all very laid back, there were only truck drivers milling around. Five people worked on my carnets at one point and there was some confusion about where to stamp it as the stamp was in the wrong place on the balloon’s carnet when it was imported into Malaysia. I gave some direction to them as they weren’t very familiar with that type of carnet. Hopefully all will be OK.
I found immigration after customs. I wasn’t sure exactly where to go and I ended up in the office of the top official running the place. He pointed me in the right direction. Again there was no line, I must’ve struck it lucky as there was quite a jam coming back into Malaysia.
I drove the couple of hundred metres through no man’s land and approached immigration, parked my truck in the truck lane and walked over to get my passport stamped. Thai Customs are in booths next to immigration, so it was very easy to find and sort out the importation of the truck. They were helpful and again I ended up talking to the top guy as I needed to ask about keeping the truck in Thailand for a few months, (I will leave my truck and balloon in Thailand for a couple of months while I fly commercially in France in a month).
I was surprised that they recognised my carnet as everyone says that it isn’t recognised in Thailand. After a bit of paperwork, I was on my way. The whole process took a couple of hours and was fairly painless.
Over the border I bought a Thai sim from a guy who was very excited that I had something to do with UNICEF. We had a good laugh in Thai-English.
I decided to continue to Hat Yai, about 100kms north, even though it was dark. My LED light bar came in handy, it shows up the road very well and is just as well because you are likely to find people walking down the road who suddenly appear out of nowhere or motorbikes travelling without lights.The road was single and sometimes double lane for a time, then it became double the whole way. The roads aren’t as good as Malaysia and there are some pretty rough patches which definitely need to be re-sealed. The good thing is that there are no road tolls. There are many in Malaysia, (it cost around US$20 to travel from Kuala Lumpur to the border, around 500kms). I found a service station to stay for the night being was aware of the Thai curfew, (thinking it was 10pm, but it had changed to 12am). There is also a one hour time difference between Malaysia and Thailand.
I had a good night’s sleep after my 600km trip the day before. I left around 8.30am ready for the nearly 1000km trip to Bangkok. It was a pretty easy drive, though some parts of the road were quite rough, especially with quite hard suspension. Some other overlanders from Singapore blasted past me with siren blaring and orange lights flashing. They had a convoy of about 10 cars. They past me a few times during the day, they must’ve liked to stop a lot. I looked up their website and it is a tour company doing regular overland journeys. They were heading to Koh Samui, not too difficult to do from Singapore.
The scenery didn’t change much and I listened to a lot of Thai talking. They don’t seem to play a lot of music on radio stations in the south of Thailand, (not that my truck could pick up anyway). I like the Thai language, it is soft and easy to listen to. I enjoyed the drive and it was nice to be on the road again.
I made it into Bangkok around 9.30pm and found a place to eat close to where I was going to park the truck. I had a good dinner and the owner drew me a map of where the place was where I would spend the night. He was a bit drunk and looked like he was going to be drinking a whole bottle of whiskey by himself.
I found my friend’s place with some difficulty. The place that the guy had drawn wasn’t the place at all. I wasn’t too surprised it was wrong given the state of him. I had the c0-ordinates and drove down some back streets to find the gated community. My friend wasn’t there, but he had informed the guards that I would stay the night parked in the community.
I had a very good sleep as it had been a long drive the day before. I drove to the UNICEF Thailand office around midday, where we had a meeting about an event we will do together in Chiang Mai next month. It was interesting to have a look around as it is also the UNICEF headquarters for SE Asia.
After the meeting I drove into the middle of Bangkok. You have to stay alert as there are cars and motorbikes everywhere. I wasn’t sure where I was going to park as every inch of space is taken up in the central city. I managed to find a big hotel and said I was thinking of staying there. They directed me top a place to park. It was a great idea and the truck was even guarded. I went to meet my balloonist friends to discuss the process of getting the permission to fly in Thailand next month.
After the meeting, I got stuck in a huge traffic jam. Eventually I found a place to park on the outskirts of Bangkok and stayed in a hotel as there is no air conditioning in the sleeping part of my truck. Hotels in Thailand are cheap.
During the last couple of days I have been spending hours a day on the computer planning for events in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. I did go into Bangkok one evening to meet with a friend. I am staying close to the airport. It is nice and quiet here, with the exception of the odd plane. I also managed to do a couple of things on the truck, sorting out the water circulation system in the camper, getting a new part for the air compressor and bleeding the tank. I also found the cause of the overheating of the engine. A wire for a cooling fan had disconnected. Water and oil were all fine.
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