After a less than successful start to our road trip through Thailand, we left Koh Samui with high expectations that we’d used up our ‘road trip’ bad luck and the final leg to Bangkok would go smoothly. Chaotic border crossings, scenic routes that take far too long, and in-car vomiting and temperatures … surely we were ready for some luck! And we were … just not the luck we were expecting.
The day started out well – a leisurely ferry ride back to the mainland filled with games of Uno, snacks, watching islands drift by and playing on the top deck in the wind. Hayley only tipped over two water bottles … all in all a successful ferry ride!
We drove off the ferry, reached Surat Thani ahead of schedule and decided to take a detour into town in search of lunch.
500m after turning off the highway …
POP … FIZZ No, sadly it wasn’t the sound of Hayley’s latest made up song. It came from under the bonnet.
FIZZZ … HISS
“Can you smell smoke?”
“CRAP!!! (insert other more colourful expletives) There’s a trail of water behind the car … PULL OVER!!!”
Opening the bonnet it quickly became apparent our road journey to Bangkok was over – water everywhere coming from a cracked radiator.
Horrible border crossings, vomitting and fevers … and now the car was dead with three days driving ahead of us to get to Bangkok to see Nanna. There were really only two options – cry and get angry, or laugh hysterically at the annoying setbacks that happen when you travel that are totally out of your control.
We chose to laugh hysterically.
And that’s when we realised we weren’t in fact out of luck.
The radiator had cracked right outside a service station in a large city. It could have happened anywhere. Bangkok is almost 1000km from Penang, with large stretches of unpopulated highway … and we just happened to break down in a city.
Not only were we in a city, we were right outside a service station! One of the service station attendants knew just enough English to work out the problem and took Colin across the road to the mechanics where between the three of them they worked out that we needed a radiator shop. The mechanic then towed us for free with his pick-up truck to a radiator workshop, that happened to be less than 2km away. The radiator repair shop fit us in immediately, pulled everything apart and started fabricating us a new part right there and then, promising to have it done by 8pm that night – less than 6 hours away.
We were dumfounded? 6 hours … really? We were expecting to be stuck for days. We decided to check into a hotel for the night and reassess our plans once the car was fixed. The owner knew a little English and overheard us talking about hotels so he jumped straight on the phone, found us a nice hotel, negotiated a good deal and drove us to the hotel for free. He then offered to come back to get Colin when the car was fixed. Which he did, promptly.
All in all, the repairs cost us $120USD and were completed in 7 hours. They took an extra hour because they put the radiator cap valve (is that what it’s called? Where you pour water into your radiator, you know what mean!) in the wrong spot and had to redo the part.
Colin checked later and found that they’d also charged us local prices. Considering we were stuck and completely at their mercy it just goes to show how amazingly wonderful the people we met were. They could have charged us a lot more and we a) wouldn’t have known and b) would have had no choice but to pay.
If you had to imagine a best case scenario for your car breaking down in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language, clearly don’t know a lot about cars, and have no idea what the local prices are it’s hard to imagine a better outcome than what we got.
We could have broken down in the middle of no where. We could have struck a repair shop that needed days to order in parts rather than having the faciliites to fabricate them there and then. Or a repair shop that wanted to charge us 10 times as much and we would have had no choice but to pay. Instead we broke down outside a service station 2km from a radiator repair shop in a town where every local person we met seemed happy to go out of their way to help us.
Onto Plan B!
With 600km still to go, plus the return journey, we didn’t really want to continue driving our car just in case the repair didn’t hold or something else had been damaged when the radiator cracked. So Plan B came about: Colin would drive the car slowly back to Penang, stopping every few hours to check on the radiator and engine, while the kids and I would take an overnight train to Bangkok.
We booked the only tickets available for the next night – two beds in the 2nd class sleeper tickets, and then spent a day exploring Surat Thani before heading to the train where we waved Dad goodbye and set off by ourselves for 5 nights in Bangkok. Crap … 5 nights in Bangkok by myself with two kids. Now there’s a new adventure!!!
Surat Thani to Bangkok by train
Just in case you’re wondering the 2nd class sleeper to Bangkok from the south wasn’t as nice as the one that runs between Chiang Mai and Bangkok. The train is narrower, meaning the bottom bunks are smaller. On the Chiang Mai train an adult and child can easily share a bottom bunk. You really couldn’t do that on our train. The top bunks don’t have a guard rail on them and the train is really bumpy, so the kids shared the bottom bunk while I took the top one and spent the whole night checking on them.
They also don’t turn out the lights in 2nd class. That wasn’t a problem for us as the curtains blocked just enough light that it was easy to sleep. But there were quite a few babies on the trains that were totally confused by having lights on in the middle of the night and decided to party at 4.30am.
There’s no room under the seats to store bags so make sure you have locks. I just put everything valuable in my small daypack and slept with it, leaving the larger clothes pack in the corridor.
Snacks are served in the morning and you can buy breakfast for 100 baht that includes tea or coffee or milo, juice, toast, jam, eggs and ham. It wasn’t fancy but it was definitely edible. Most of the other snacks being served were local foods, so if your children are fussy be sure to take plenty of food with you.
Overall the train ride was fine. We had a lot of fun and would do it again. But it definitely wasn’t as comfortable as our previous train journey between Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Next time we’d probably splurge for a first class cabin if we were taking a train in southern Thailand.