Phuket, Thailand: The scent of the sea air was so delicious, I wanted to lick it. It came on a light breeze that tickled the fronds of the rain forest and wafted over my tired and achy body, renewing my spirits, after being held captive in a seatbelt for more than 16 hours. I was a week and a half into a nearly 2,000-mile-long drive from Singapore to Bangkok. I had been on new-car test drives around the country, on 4wd adventures around the globe and had even raced in famed and exhausting desert races, but, a drive from the mouth of "Lion's Head" to Thai's "City of Angels" had challenged my sensibilities.
Our journey had been crammed from the start with a pace and schedule that would have made biking across Canada or climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro an easier task, I postulated, as I found a cozy niche among the gear secured onto the top of a Land Rover Discovery and stretched out my legs.
During our long drive from the border of Malaysia to the island of Phuket, we had evidence of the rich juxtaposition of cultures, watching the ancient ritual of men guiding tethered oxen through rice fields, adjacent to majestic gilded palaces, with fat-bellied, smiling Buddhas guarding their gates. We had fought for wheelbase room for our quartet of "Drive Around the World" logo-ed SUVs on a two-lane motorway, where we were often one of three vehicles abreast at the same time--not including the scooters to each side, often ferrying entire families and their household goods, along with modern motor coaches traveling at dizzying speeds.
We had seen lumbering elephants and swerved to avoid a Komodo dragon, as we radioed from car to car, deciphering signs with hieroglyphic markings that had to be continuously looked up in the "Lonely Planet Guide." The last thing we were was lonely and, in fact, we longed to be!
For days now, we had motored in our Discoverys and moved our gear from to hotel room to hostel, eyeing wonder to even greater wonderment, in this culturally-diverse and teeming-with-life quadrant of Asia. We had visited with Parkinson's patients at a leading research center; toured the Singapore waterways by boat, learning legend and lore of the region; and indulged in the drink named for this large city that also makes up small this country.
Moving north to Malaysia, we walked the plank between the famed Petronas Twin towers, the world's tallest since 9/11; visited with villagers in the remote and beautiful Cameron Highlands; and peeled leeches from our ankles after a night walk in the rain forest with Royal Geographic Society researchers, hearing about their study of the Malaysian jungle's flora and fauna.
Now, for the first time in days, I felt quieted. Soothed, with a cold local brew in one hand, I scanned the jungle below, moving my night vision goggles in slow, widening arcs taking in the skeletonized leaves of coconut palms and rubber trees in the foreground, panning the thin strip of sandy beach below and moving out to a vista so majestic it pulled at my heart and softened it. A full moon sprinkled gold dust on the Andaman Sea. Atolls were charcoaled into the backdrop; I could see why this was called the "Pearl of the South."
Unexpectedly, an anxiety-provoking thought crept into my brain and sent adrenalin pulsing through my palms. Peering through the night goggles that turned the world a garish green suddenly brought flashback memories that opened a drawer in my gray matter, which stored a host of haunting thoughts.
I recalled scenes from two movies, "Proof of Life" and "The Beach" (which had been filmed, in part, in Phuket). In both, quiet and seemingly-safe journeys in remote parts of the world-Peru and Thailand-had gone awry. Frighteningly wrong. Suddenly, I remembered one of the top news stories of the day about uprisings and a beheading that had taken place in a small village, within 30 miles of Phuket. "Chandra, do you think we're safe here?" I asked the wife of the expedition leader. Sitting next to me, cushioned against a sleeping bag, she smiled an affirmation.
It was nearly 10 p.m. when we arrived at this lookout, scoped out earlier by our camera men and resident expert surfers, Adam, Colin and Neil, along with Justin, the team's chief scribe, who was a quick study on languages and a whiz at stand-ups. Reporting back, after checking out the surf along the tropical island's west coast and doing some filming, they described it as the perfect place for us to set up camp for the night, either sleeping under the stars or unfurling the awnings of our Hannibal tents that became beds and provided privacy atop of the vehicles.
A small sign, with the words 'Kata Noi" was the only sign of life, as we turned off the winding roadway near the south end of the island and traveled approximately 5km along a dirt track over which the jungle was encroaching in spots and was gullied, with gaping holes and drop-offs. It required 4 LO for traction and control. This was a bonus! Now, we could film some off-road driving in the morning and clearly, this wasn't a frequently-traveled trail.
We came to a stop at an overlook that was hundreds of feet above the ocean. A fenced compound lay in the distance below, with the looks of a small hotel under construction, with a patch of white sand beach. It looked deserted, but it was the guard fence, the glaring night lights that cast a foggy-yellow steam into the night that concerned me from the start. "It looks deserted. Let's go swim," said the guys.
Cold "Changs" opened and tunes selected to on the CD to add to the ambience, Nick Baggarly, the expedition leader and the guys trotted to the beach. Other expedition members, Nancy and Todd, found an "abandoned camp" further down the track into the rainforest and set up sleeping bags on the deck, while Chandra and I hauled ourselves to the top of the Land Rover to take in the view and quiet the day still running inside ourselves.
First was the barking. Ugly barking, the kind that steels your heart and makes you aware of individual cells in your body. Before I could finish saying, "Chandra, I don't like the sound of...," we heard a gunshot. Or, was it a firecracker, I questioned? Next was a volley. On full alert and with a pre-programmed Rolodex of survival skills' tips running through my brain, I was on the ground and running. Calling out for Nancy and Todd. Bumping into Colin and working on a "game plan" in the midst of the melee, while throwing unpacked gear back into our cars and stilling the music.
As the gunshots drew nearer, we could hear the high-pitched voices of our teammates coming closer, as well. Foreign-sounding heavy voices called out from the trail, "You Go Now!!!!!" No translation was needed. "We Go Now!!!" yelled our guys, as they rounded the corner, at a labored pace.
The men that came out of the thick jungle after them looked like Viet Kong, sporting red bandanas around their thick, jet-black hair. They were holding shotguns in the air, with gloved hands. "We Go Now" and the international "Okay, Okay, Okay" became a loud mantra for all nine of us, as four drivers climbed behind the wheel of our Discos, with passengers and gear akimbo. There was no sweeter sound that night than the Land Rover's Tdi kicking in, blessing us with the aplomb to ascend the aggressive track, with deep washouts to each side.
This was something like the movies, I thought, as we reached the tarmac and celebrated our escape. I'd always wanted to be in a movie, but this was a part I didn't want to play. It was like a scene from "Proof of Life" or "The Beach," only this wasn't a movie. This was a drive from Singapore to Bangkok. A drive around the world to raise money and awareness about Parkinson's disease. A drive to answer 10,000 questions from schoolchildren who wanted to know more about adventure and travel and the wonderful wide world that we live in. What would we say to them about Kata Noi?
It was nearly 2 a.m. before our tired bodies came to rest. Some chose open air and the white sand of Patang Beach for their bed. Despite my fatigue, I put up a Hannibal tent and closed the screens to collect my thoughts. Before long, the distress of the evening subsided and I opened the front flap, tying it back just enough to let in a slice of the moonlit night.
I thought about people around the globe struggling with Parkinson's, about the schoolchildren who were following this expedition of merit for nearly a year. I decided I'd tell them about all, but especially about the smell of the salt air and the beauty of a moonlit night on the vast Indian Ocean.
Post note: We learned the next day that the owner of the entire peninsula, where we had attempted to set up camp, was a Thai Oxford graduate who inherited it recently from his family. The Dane, who told us, said that, in Thailand, landowners have the right to do what they like and that the guards could have cut us up into little pieces and thrown us into the water and the police wouldn't do anything. But, he added, this guy was really nice. The actual beach is public but the land to get there isn't. We decided to meet the enemy. Filming as we returned, we came to the gate for the beach compound. Stout and tanned, full of tattoos was our man, surrounded by his black and red-clad Viet Cong workers. After chastising us for our stupidity, he welcomed us warmly and invited us in to his compound.
Drive Around the World:
LONGITUDE is a year-long, 50,000-km drive around the world that follows lines of longitude. Kicked off on November 1, 2003, at the Parkinson's Institute, in Sunnyvale, Calif., the expedition will cross four continents and travel through some three dozen countries, coming to a close, back in Sunnyvale. The team is comprised of nine volunteers, who have collectively visited over 100 countries, often lending their knowledge and labor where need demands them. They are driving specially-equipped, certified pre-owned Land Rover Discovery IIs.
Although piloting Land Rovers around the world merits praise as an endeavor and accomplishment in itself, the real beauty of this expedition lies in the sponsorship of the participants, who are raising funds and had to pay to participate in the expedition. Every single dollar donated to LONGITUDE goes directly to fighting Parkinson's disease, as well as to raise awareness about this disease.
Parkinson's is a progressive nervous system disorder affecting muscle control. Victims gradually lose control of their muscles, including those that control speech. Dementia is also associated with the disorder. Currently, there is no cure for Parkinson's, although many researchers say science is ahead of the funding. LONGITUDE is hoping to raise one million dollars to support continued research. More than 1.5 million Americans are affected by the disease, while countless others suffer worldwide.
Beginning in Sunnyvale, Calif., the expedition headed south into Mexico and through Central America. The team and vehicles were then shipped to Ecuador, where driving continued through Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. In February, the Land Rovers were shipped to Brisbane, Australia, with the full team arrived in mid-April. Traveling across Australia and the legendary Gunbarrel Highway, the team reached Cottlesloe (Perth), where on May 17, vehicles and expedition members shipped off to Singapore. Southeast Asian driving included Malaysia and Thailand. The expedition next traveled through Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar, on their way to China. After motoring north through China, the group will drive across Siberia and ship off to the Kamchakta Peninsula. Circling this land point, LONGITUDE will then move by ship to northern Alaska. Driving the famed Dalton Highway and the Alaska Highway, they will bear south, returning to California.
The team believes that the fight against Parkinson's must be a communal effort in order to succeed and find a cure. Accordingly, LONGITUDE members have not isolated themselves during their expedition. Instead, they have encouraged voyeurism, both in the U.S. and everywhere they travel. Nick Baggarly, team founder and leader, emphasizes the importance of reaching out to and embracing others. "I have learned that, when people come together, we're suddenly capable of extraordinary things. We can make amazing accomplishments." LONGITUDE regularly posts progress reports on their website, drivearoundtheworld.com, so friends, family, donors, Parkinson's patients and others can stay informed. When scientists conduct experimental research, especially for a cause such as Parkinson's, the public often watches with support. In the same way, team LONGITUDE is conducting "field-fundraising," allowing those not directly involved to participate actively.
Established in 2002, with headquarters in Los Gatos, Calif., Drive Around the World is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that seeks to inspire a sense of adventure and the tradition of exploration, encouraging people to actively learn about our world and creatively act to understand the humanitarian and environmental problems we face. Drive Around the World press releases and electronic photos of the LONGITUDE expedition are available on-line in the pressroom section of www.drivearoundtheworld.com.
Land Rover Pre-Owned Program:
Land Rover Pre-owned vehicles are available exclusively from Land Rover retailers. Before earning the "Certified Pre-Owned" title, the vehicles undergo a comprehensive 140-point inspection, assessing both hardware and software, in addition to an on-road evaluation. Land Rover diagnosticians assess the onboard computer of each vehicle to perform all the necessary analytic tests. Once qualified, Land Rovers earn a 12-month/12,000-mile warranty that can be expanded by the new owner for another 12 to 24 months. Roadside assistance is included, as are some rental fees if the pre-owned Land Rover falls temporarily out of service. Owners also receive other perks, including opportunities to participate in off-road driving schools and exclusive Land Rover driving events.
Care to Join Us for a Drive?
I joined the team in Singapore, the "Lion City," located in Southeast Asia between the nations of Malaysia and Indonesia. It was founded in 1819 as a British trading colony and later became part of the Malaysian Federation, in 1963. Two years later, however, Singapore separated and became an independent, sovereign nation.Despite its small dimensions--it's just less than 650 square kilometers in area--this fascinating country contains much diversity. Over 4 million Chinese, Malays, Indians and Eurasians live and work there and consequently there are four official languages of Singapore - Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and English. Business and schooling are generally conducted in English, but many residents are bilingual, speaking their native language in addition to English. Malay is recognized as the national language.
Singapore's economy depends heavily its exports of electronics and its powerful financial sector. Manufacturing is also a lucrative industry. Strong business, however, is not the nation's only virtue. The ethnic diversity creates many opportunities for unique forms of expression. For example, the food selection is superb, mainly because of the variety of residents. Street performances are also common, occurring on occasions such as the Chinese New Year. Several religions including Buddhism, Scientism, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity coexist and are often marked by public festivals exclusive to each. Hot and humid year round, its wettest season is from November to January. Daily temperatures are often in the 80s and even hover around 70*F at night.
Next, we moved on to Malaysia, a country that is split in two large pieces, one being the peninsula bordering Thailand and the other the top-third of the island of Borneo, which borders Indonesia. Geographically, the area is slightly larger than the state of New Mexico, with a population over 23 million. Malaysia was formed in 1963 from the former British colonies of Malaya and Singapore (although Singapore left the federation in 1965).
Bahasa Melayu is the official language, although English, Tamil, Malayalam and several Chinese dialects are also spoken. Like that of Singapore, the country's economy is based heavily on the export of electronics and manufacturing. Malaysia is considered more of a middle-income country. The topography ranges from coastal plains to mountains, and the tropical climate yields two distinct monsoon seasons. About 60% of the country is still considered rainforest.
It was here that we took a night walk into the dense rainforest, with researchers from the Royal Geographic Society, as well as a side trip to the scenic Cameron Highlands. The Highlands is the largest hill resort, with villages scattered along the main road along with terraced plantations that are fertile with vegetables, flowers and tea leaves. It is the center of Malaysia's tea industry. Recognized for cooler temperatures, waterfalls, gardens and handicrafts, we were also convinced that it is the place where old Land Rovers go to die. We saw hundreds at work hauling goods through the streets of Ringlet, one of the main towns and on rural roadways throughout the region.
Our final on my nearly 2,000-mile-long journey with the LONGITUDE team was Thailand, located south of Burma and Laos and also on the borders of Cambodia and Malaysia. Over 65 million people live in the country, many of them practicing the most prevalent religion, Buddhism. The Thai Kingdom has existed since the mid-14th century, although the nation was not called Thailand until 1939.
Like other countries in Southeast Asia, Thailand relies economically on its export industry. However, electronics are not the big sellers--instead textiles, footwear, fishery products, rubber, jewelry, automobiles and various appliances are produced. Culturally, religion and the monarchy play huge roles. Buddhist temples liberally speckle the country and the national anthem is played twice daily in towns and villages.
The capital city of Bangkok is also the most populous, with around 10 million residents living there today. Although sometimes considered chaotic, the city includes many attractions and is often considered manageable because of the friendly Thai people living there. The most famous site is the Grand Palace, a shrine for Buddhism that was originally built in 1782 by the founder of Bangkok.
About one-fifth of Thailand consists of rainforest and over 1,000 species of birds have been recorded. Insect and marine life is also plentiful, although exotic mammals such as tigers, leopards and elephants are most confined to wildlife reserves.
Phuket is Thailand's largest and most heavily populated island. Tourists often refer to the land as the "Pearl of the South," and subsequently Phuket is the most visited island of the country. The area is slightly smaller than Singapore, with 230,000 residents. However, about 3 million tourists visit the island each year, many to bask along the white sandy beaches of the west coast. Between November and May the weather is sunny and dry and the water calm and clear. Fishing, diving, snorkeling, scuba diving and canoeing are also popular activities, with the coral reefs being particularly attractive.
On land, golf, cycling and rock climbing are enjoyed frequently. Nighttime amusement is also prevalent, especially at Patong Beach. Many restaurants, bars and dance or music venues provide exceptional entertainment to those who choose to take advantage. Shopping is another popular pastime, with the options ranging from open-air village markets to western style department stores. Besides tourism, other industries in Phuket include rubber, tin, fishing and agricultural products, such as coconuts, pineapples, bananas and cashews.