Tiger Rally 2008

Asian Elan

Before the car had even come back from Calcutta after its Himalayan adventures we had booked onto the 2008 Tiger Rally from Kuala Lumpur to Hanoi; there was however just a little bit of work to do and only six months to do it. The known things were a respray, brake overhaul and rebuild front and rear suspension. Investigation in the garage showed that the chassis was broken in two places – so it was start again time!

I had been aware of one weak spot in the chassis – the flange on the rear turret which holds the Lotocone and the top of the shock absorber. The punishment it had taken meant that the flange had twisted, the vertical plates had bowed and one had split. The answer seemed to be to have a diagonal strengthening plate running from mid way up the tower to the end of the flange. This called for narrow springs and some specialist chassis work so I had a chat with Andy at Spyder. He devised a solution and for half the price of a new Lotus chassis he refurbished an old chassis with modified rear turrets and thicker engine bay section – the second break was at the rear of the engine bay.

Some months later, the Elan was ready to face the road – in time for an MOT and another trip to Felixstowe to be stuffed into a container. We next saw it at the end of February at the Sepang circuit in Malaysia sharing a container with a yellow 1936 Lagonda. One tyre was flat and it refused to start until it was in fresh air but apart from that it was raring to go. So how about this circuit – could we have a go on it? Eventually and reluctantly we were allowed to process round behind a pickup truck – lap time just over 6 minutes from pit lane exit to pit lane entrance. Don’t ask what an F1 car does!

Then the 70 kms back to our hotel in the centre of KL. It would have been easier if we’d turned left for the petrol station instead of right to the city but………..four motorways, two U turns and 80 kms later we were where we should have been – in the underground car park of the hotel. These are not places you want to stay in – they are clean enough but they’re hot and humid and an excellent incentive to ensure your car does not break down so you don’t have to work there!

The Malaysians roads were excellent, though on our way north we left the crowded main roads for the emptier motorway – they drive on the left, there is 97 octane petrol and in Georgetown, Penang we even saw a parked yellow Elise. Before that our journey started with a trip up into the Cameron Highlands followed by a long fast descent on wide curvy roads to the island resort of Pankor Laut. After a few days of driving north we entered Thailand – they also have excellent roads, drive on the left, have 96 octane petrol and someone saw a blue Elise. After that it got a bit rougher!

How was the Elan? Very happy! The only problems were the drivers. We are both paranoid about oil pressure and in this temperature we were unable to get more than about 25 psi at 4000rpm. The answer was to call Susan Miller and ask her to send a set of big end shells to Bangkok so that if we did have a problem we would have some chance of a repair. Amazingly within 5 days and thanks to Royal Mail Parcel Force the parts were waiting our arrival.

In Malaysia and Thailand we progressed from smart hotel to smart hotel and some fantastic scenery. The temperature was around 35C and with the plastic seats we got used to dripping shirts, the heavy rain was welcome relief – though our feet got wet as I’ve never managed to stop the water getting in! We drove up the west coast to Phuket and a boat trip in Phang Nga bay with its spectacular islands, eroded over the years into strange shapes with caves and lagoons. One was James Bond Island where Roger Moore and Christopher Lee appeared in The Man with the Golden Gun. Now there are now lines of vendors selling trinkets – must have been much nicer before Bond got there!

From Phuket we crossed to the east coast resort of Tusita where the (1975) replica of a 1935 Bentley Speed 6 was losing power. The mechanics changed the head gasket which had blown in two places. There seemed to be two groups of people on this rally – those who knew their cars and if there was a problem they were there never mind the oil, dirt and humidity. And the others who gave the keys to the mechanics and retired to the bar!

From Tusita our next stop was Kanchanaburi, famous for the River Kwai Bridge and the many who died there. On the way we stopped at the 1925 Royal Palace of Marukhathaiyawan with its traditional strict isolation of the King’s wives and concubines in the inner sanctum. Even though it hasn’t been a royal residence since 1927, out of respect for the royal family, my knees – well not just my knees but knees in general – were not to be shown; I had to wear a male sarong. Not quite a sarong but it was folded and wrapped round my waist with a “tail” pulled up between the legs and tied into the waist band; I could manage to step up 2 inches but anything else was impossible.

An early start from Kanchanburi took us the the Tiger Monastery (and the name of the rally). The monks, helped by teams of local and overseas volunteers care for an breed tigers. The 3 month old cubs have virtually free run of the grounds whilst the adults are lead around like dogs on a lead. You can play with the cubs and carefully stroke the adults – I’ve never been that close to a tiger before!

Leaving Kanchanburi for the run into Bangkok we stopped at a Temple complex with Thai and Chinese temples vying for prominence – some would say the bus won the contest!

Next stop Bangkok and our secret weapon here was the electric fan we had fitted having experienced BKK streets in the past. The fan was brilliant, the temperature never rose above 80C except on hill climbs – and the traffic in BKK was so light that we didn’t need it here anyway! There was rest day in Bangkok so a chance to visit the Royal Palace complex, the Wats and a boat trip on the canals – and collect our parcel from the hotel reception.

A fast run out of Bangkok led to the Cambodian border at Aranyaprathet. This was more like a border should be! People pushing overloaded carts which threatened to topple over or roll backwards, queues to have documents checked or stamped, apparently senseless migrations from one official to another, photocopies of anything that looked like official paperwork and then the civilised air conditioned office away from the hubbub where an under worked customs officer stamped the mighty “carnet de passage” – the document most precious of all which guarantees payment of twice the value of the car should you decide to sell it locally. (there’s a ready market for 40 year old Elans in Cambodia……isn’t there?).

The first 100 kms of Cambodian road was a real wake up after the luxury of the last ten days. This was dust and dirt, detours round bridges, broken down rally cars, baking heat and only one way to go – straight ahead! Apart from having great difficulty seeing through the dust the Elan was happy in this terrain – though inspection later revealed that one brand new shock absorber had already given up. The prize at the end of the day was Siem Reap and the Ankor Wat complex.

We had a rest day here, totally inadequate for a proper appreciation of the site – one crew had spent the week before the rally here with a dedicated guide and had still not seen it all. We did what we could, which included trying to get as many photos of the car in front of the ancient temples – an occupation which the security guards did not always appreciate! On our second night, the hotel organised our evening meal at a temple; we travelled by Tuk-tuk to find dancers silhouetted in the niches, waiters offering the full range of hotel drinks and nibbles, lights playing over the ruins and choruses of crickets. This was followed by a sumptuous meal, local music and dancing and a coach back to our hotel – the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Ankor.

From Siem Reap, better roads took us to Phnom Penh. We detoured off the new road to find the older ferry and the ancient hill capital of Odong. For the only time in the trip we found ourselves “adopted” by a group of children who gently coaxed some dollars out of us to “pay for English school”.

The road from Phnom Penh led to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City – HCMC) where the Vietnamese authorities had plans for us – we were to travel in convoy as they were concerned over the ability of right hand drive cars to cope with driving on the right! These plans fell apart from the outset but at the time we were warned the very existence of the rally was in danger if we did not co-operate.

At the border we were given temporary Vietnamese number plates – they decided to stick ours (the size of half an A4 sheet) in what would be the middle of the passenger’s windscreen – just being right hand drive it was dead-centre of the drivers vision! They agreed that this was not ideal so moved it to the bottom of the passenger’s side. After clearing customs we were told the first convoy had just left so we should catch it up and rendezvous at the Ben Dinh tunnels for the second convoy into HCMC. We never found this first convoy but along with 30 of the 35 cars we got there and waited for the second convoy to materialise – it never did.

We had visited these tunnels in a previous trip to Vietnam, underground complexes where the Vietcong lived right under the feet of the Americans during the “American” wars. They had booby-trapped trap door entrances, multiple levels and housed families and soldiers with hospitals and kitchens and provided invisible access routes sometimes right to the heart of American camps.

Eventually news came that there was no convoy, we should make our own way to HCMC. The car park sprang to life as we set off in a convoy of our own to the centre of the city. The enforced delay had irritated the participants as it was unnecessary, they were impatient and frustrated and had powerful cars at their disposal. In any western country we would all have lost our licences – but it was great and irresponsible fun!

Relaxing over our beers in the hotel we were told we had to move the cars to a stadium on the outskirts – as there was no room in the hotel car park (where we had already parked) and to avoid the need to drive in the city traffic when leaving………..err?! Again the threat of rally cancellation was held over us and half the cars moved out. Our arrival in HCMC was not straightforward!

Leaving HCMC was no picnic. I tried to do some videoing to capture the sight and sound of the massed ranks of motorbikes which fill the streets – and forgot to navigate! Oops, round a large block and try again! We started by heading for the stadium and found that the convoy had just left and we should try to catch up. Catch up in that traffic – you’ve got to be joking. Not only had we done two sides of a triangle but there were road works, buses, lorries a few cars, bicycles and motorbikes – say thanks for that newly fitted electric fan as this is not Lotus Elan driving territory!

We headed for the hills – Dalat, as the Cameron Highlands two weeks ago, the cool hill station escape from the heat and activity of the commercial capital. Our room had no need for air conditioning and the windows opened to a view of the lake and hills beyond – all that contrast in just 300 kms and a few hours motoring!

The Elan was by far the noisiest car in the rally as the exhaust had been so squashed by the “roads” of India that the once circular silencer was more like a pancake. We were guided into our lunch stop on the way up by a competitor who heard us coming! It was also one of the most reliable and it was in Dalat we did our only piece of repair – replacing the top bush on a front shock absorber.

From Dalat we returned to the coast via some Cham temples at Phan Rang, which we visited in bright sunshine, arriving in Nha Trang in pouring rain. Our hotel was a Russian owned island complex with the choice of cable car or speedboat to get there. Fortunately the hotel supplied umbrellas and we joined the other members of the rally sheltering in the otherwise deserted poolside bar.

For the next few days we followed the coast north to Vinh, passing paddy fields, fishing boats, tombs of Vietnamese emperors, imperial palaces, more Cham temples, crops spread on the road to dry and always criss-crossing the single track railway line between Hanoi and HCMC. The evidence of the “American” or “Vietnam” war is much diminished compared to our last visit in 1995 when the craters at the side of the railway north of Hue showed the efforts that went into disrupting communications. Sadly the historical sites are not so easily repaired and the temples at My Son and the palaces of Hue are no more.

Our drive to Vinh had reminders of those wars as we diverted from the coast and followed the superb and empty Ho Chi Minh Trail inland through fantastic scenery – the land equivalent of Halong Bay which we would visit at the end of the rally. This was a most enjoyable drive, no lorries or coaches, no noisy horns and no motorbikes; the bends were made for the Elan! Surprisingly few other rally cars followed this route – maybe they wanted to avoid the cross-country section later in the day as we slowly clawed our way eastwards in a land of north-south roads.

Day 25 brought another border crossing – Laos and its one-time French capital –Vientiane. We managed a few sights before they all closed at 4pm but were then offered the luxury of an air-conditioned tour round the sights; as it was about 40 degrees in the shade, this was gratefully received.

Our next stop was Luang Prabang – a centre for trekking, canoeing and outdoor pursuits; we preferred a beer on the banks of the Mekong, watching the setting sun cast its golden-red rays over the slow moving waters. We had a rest day to enjoy the peace of the area – a boat trip to caves with 1,000 Buddha statues. Our boat driver was a fisherman, who stopped the boat mid stream to pick up a dead fish – a very pungent dead fish; whilst we were in the caves he set out his nets, carefully collecting them back up for our journey back – two fish this time!

Our next stop was the Plain of Jars. There are three main sites with collections of huge jars carved out of solid rock and averaging 1.5 metres in both diameter and height. As the roads had been too easy so far we decided to visit “site 2”, 11 kms off the main road on a deeply rutted dirt track – fortunately there was no traffic so no hard choices on who would volunteer to fall into the ruts! This hilltop site was a peaceful idyll – until you looked at the concrete markers all around showing the land which had been cleared of mines. During the American/Vietnamese wars, the Americans had dropped two million tons of bombs over Laos, one planeload every eight minutes, twenty four hours a day for nine years. Clearing that lot is unfinished business. It is strange to see ancient jars leaning over at the edge of modern-day bomb craters.

We left Laos early next morning for a scheduled 510 kms drive to the Vietnamese coast at Than Hoa although by dint of short cuts we reduced it to 460. For the first 130 kms to the border we followed the green Jaguar XK150 through the morning mist towards the red ball of sun rising ahead of us. In a village just before the border were two petrol stations. The second and more popular had ordinary electric pumps and a queue of rally cars. The first, where we stopped had “gravity” pumps. This involves hand pumping 5 litres of fuel from an upright barrel into a glass jar and releasing into the tank – and you had to pay in local currency, dollars not welcome here! I stopped after 25 litres as they did not operate in units of less than 5 litres. This operation was preceded by the ritual establishment that we really did not want diesel in our tank so we had several visits to the out of action electric pumps just to point out which one we wanted.

The Jaguar returned to our pumps after getting bored in the queues at the other pumps but, having no Lao Kip he decided to forgo the fuel and carry on – and yes a little way into Vietnam, there at the roadside was………….a Jaguar with no fuel………! We gave him our 10 litre can and he then discovered that the float chambers were overflowing as dirt was blocking the floats. Once it goes wrong, it gets worse!

The border crossing was easy and the road good apart from a couple of places where there were rockfalls. We found ourselves at the head of the convoy every time and found that where our raised suspension allowed us an easy passage, others were bottoming out.

We rejoined the Ho Chi Minh trail and enjoyed the open road heading north before reluctantly leaving to head east to the bustle of the coast and some very slow, bumpy and potholed tracks (roads would be an optimistic description). As we neared our hotel a motorbike was in close attendance with the passenger keenly photographing our every move. At the hotel we found he was the photographer for Vietnam’s largest car magazine so an interview followed and we were featured in the May edition!

Our last driving day took us through slow queues of traffic to Hanoi’s inland container depot and we parked inside a big box in front of a red XK120 for the journey back to Felixstowe.

This had been a very gentle rally, the car was excellent, nearly 5,000 miles in the heat and humidity and apart from that one bush no problems at all. Sure there were a few things to sort out back home – one rear Spax had died (Koni next time), the brakes remained awful and the clutch pressure plate and release bearing needed replacing and there’s that noisy thing called an exhaust. So where next? By way of contrast a regularity rally with HERO in Iceland in September!

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