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One Thai Man’s Epic Overland Journey from the UK to Bangkok in 1970

Most days, 76-year-old Anussorn stays at home, or his driver drops him off at his favorite Thai restaurant a few hundred meters away. On Wednesdays the gentle grandpa has doctor’s appointments.

But in the ‘70s, Anussorn was barrelling across Europe and the Middle East on his way from the UK to Bangkok. He threw back entire cases of beer in Switzerland. He ate hashish in Afghanistan, after smoking it “had no effect.” He stared up in awe at the Bamiyan Buddhas.

Soon after Khaosod English ran an article about an expedition driving from Singapore to London, which stopped in Bangkok on Sept. 2, a friend of Anussorn contacted us with the story of a similar journey.

Anussorn Thavisin on Aug. 30, 2019.

Anussorn Thavisin, a former editor at the Bangkok Post (starting in 1971 and retiring in 2000), sat down with us to recount an epic journey few ever complete in their lifetime.

“It was my dream to do an overland journey. At the time, it seemed like everyone was driving from Europe to India because it was in fashion,” he said. “But I hadn’t heard of a Thai doing one yet.”

A few years ago, Anussorn suffered a blood infection, underwent two liver transplants, and endured a liver dialysis, with the illness causing him to lose parts of his memory. But he was determined to recount as much of his journey as he could.

It all began on 15 January 1970, when Anussorn, then 27, and three British schoolmates from university started on what would be a six-month journey back to his home country.

Free Oranges in Greece

After graduating in electrical engineering at the University of Manchester, Anussorn, George Emsden, David Shaw, and Simon Richard drove around the UK saying goodbye to their classmates. They stopped at Derby, London, and Harridge before crossing over to the Hook of Holland via ferry.

“I had saved up for a second-hand Land Rover. But on one of our nights out at the pub, we almost lost the car because vandals loosened the wheels. When we went to drive it, the car broke down while we were making a turn and we hit a road sign. So we wasted money and two months while it got fixed,” he said. “We only had rough plans in our head, like that we couldn’t go through Yugoslavia because it was communist.”

Shaw was in charge of navigation and took most of the trip’s photos. Anussorn was the only one to keep a log of the journey, in a blue notebook which he still keeps today.

“Car almost 50,000 baht, spares 1,500 baht. UK–Holland 1,400 baht, Italy to Greece 1,500 baht, Ceylon–Singapore 3000 baht,” the first page says. “Total distance covered 15,000 miles, 24,000 km.”

David Shaw, Simon Richard, Anussorn Thavisin, and George Emsden in Lucerne, Switzerland during their overland trip in 1970. Photo: David Shaw

The company quickly sped through Holland, Germany, and Switzerland in a single day, because they wanted to sightsee outside of Europe. They blew through entire cases of Newcastle Brown Ale, which George had acquired as a sponsor for the trip. At nights, two slept in a tent pitched by the road, the other two in the car.

At one point, they loaded their car into a train to cross the Alps. They then quickly cut through Italy to Brindisi, before sailing to what would be the most memorable European pitstop for Anussorn: Corfu.

The group was forced to spend an entire week on the idyllic Greek island, as the gearbox broke down due to complications from the crash in the UK.

Anussorn was struck by how kind Greek people were. A new friend, a Greek newspaperman, took them around town and to dance in nightclubs (“Greek people dance with their arms up.”) A diary entry dated Feb. 3 said that some “excellent Corfu wine” caused them to “roll home drunk as lords” at 2am, where the hotel keeper unhappily got up to open the door for them.

Anussorn recalled another warm memory of the kindness of Greek strangers.

“We were driving through an orange orchard and someone waved us down. I thought, we’re done for, we’re probably trespassing,” Anussorn said. “But he just wanted to give us the oranges he had picked. It was at least 20, 30 oranges, so many we couldn’t eat them all.”

Bamiyan Buddhas and a Brush with Law 

With their car repaired, the company set out for Athens before crossing into Turkey. Anussorn would sleep on top of the water tank in the car in an attempt to cool off.

The company in Turkey (“It’s the coldest country we visited,” Anussorn said). Photo: David Shaw / Courtesy

“People weren’t as friendly as in Greece. Kids would sometimes start throwing stones at our car, so to prevent that I would wave as soon as I saw them so they would wave back instead,” Anussorn said, chuckling.

After visiting the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, the group drove more than 800 kilometers non-stop from Istanbul through the northern Turkish cities of Ankara, Sungurlu, Merzifon, Samsun (where they watched the sunset along the Black Sea coast), and Trabzon.

“The people are very curious and we always have people gathering around the car wherever we stop. This proves very awkward when you want to camp down for the night,” wrote his Feb. 14 entry. “Cooked a curry with the mutton bought in Istanbul two days ago! Wasn’t as bad as feared and quite enjoyable.”

For laundry, the lads would toss clothes, water and detergent into a trunk in the back of the car: a makeshift washing machine that “tumbled” as the Rover drove along. It was a tip given to the group by the Automobile Association, which also provided the maps that led them from London all the way to Bangkok.

After Turkey, the group drove through pre-revolutionary Iran, through Tehran, Qom, and the mosques of Isfahan, which Anussorn still remembers with awe.

“Everyone was so nice and friendly. They were not religious extremists yet and the country was open,” he said.

A Feb. 25 entry written in Qom reads, “Just before sunset, we passed through some of the most fantastic surrealist landscapes I have ever seen. Stark mountains rise straight out of perfectly flat plains and dried out bushes cast long evening shadows on the desert sand, glowing orange in the beam of the setting sun.”

What Anussorn’s company’s usual camp in Iran looked like. Photo: David Shaw / Courtesy

Exactly a month after the group left England, according to his Feb. 28 entry, they were buying bread at a bazaar in Shiraz. The group doubled back to Tehran and started driving towards Mashhad. Disaster struck March 7 when a boy ran out onto the road in front of the car and was slightly injured, although George stopped in time. He spent a day sleeping at the police station, but the police eventually let him go.

While camping for the night near Herat after crossing into Afghanistan, Anussorn recalled that soldiers came and woke them up.

“We had just crossed the border and were sleeping in the desert. Then we woke, with soldiers surrounding us and yelling that it was dangerous, because people get killed by bandits in the area,” he said.

The Buddhas of Bamiyan in 1970. Photo: David Shaw / Courtesy

The group drove south to Kandahar (“Drove 350 odd miles today – the longest stretch yet!” said a March 18 entry), rounding the Hindu Kush mountains, before coming north to see the Buddhas of Bamiyan, since destroyed by the Taliban.

“I was so sad to hear this historic piece of Greek-influenced Buddhist art was bombed by the Taliban,” Anussorn said.

High in the Khyber Pass

After feeling little effect from smoking hashish, Anussorn decided to eat some on the way from Kabul to the Pakistan border.

“It made me sleep an entire day, so I missed the entire Khyber Pass. Everyone said it was really beautiful,” he said, laughing.

He noted down the poppy fields, hashish factories, and replica guns in the Kohat region in Peshawar.

“We could see pink and white poppies growing in fields on both sides of the road. We were later to learn that it was for opium,” a diary entry dated March 31 wrote.

The group drove through Lahore and into India, arriving in Delhi on April 5. As they continued through India, the men switched from camping to staying in cheap hotels, usually the entire group to a room.

“You could be in the most vast, stark places with no people. But as soon as you pitch your tent, so many people would come out, circle you, and stare without talking,” Anussorn said.

Anussorn Thavisin takes a photo near the Black Sea coast in Turkey in 1970. Photo: David Shaw / Courtesy

At New Delhi, Richard left the company to complete his last year at university. He got out of the car, stuck out his hand, and started hitchhiking back to Edinburgh.

With laughter, Anussorn recalled that he had to get back in time to register for classes, where upon staff said: “Didn’t you get the letter? Not enough people registered, and the class is cancelled.”

Unable to book bunk seats on the train, the men rode from Kolar to the southern tip at Rameswaram to catch the ferry to then-Ceylon on third-class unreserved seats (“We had to fight to find room to sit on the floor. At one stage it was difficult finding room to even stand,” wrote an April 22 entry).

With the help of a tea-shipping Sri Lankan friend, Anussorn was able to secure a ferry for his group to Ceylon. Two fishing boats lashed together carried the Land Rover. Then it was a month of bliss at a seaside villa their friend put them up in.

“There was this old lady who took care of us. She would bring a kilo of shrimp, two kilos of fish, and two kilos of crab, and ask if it was enough breakfast for the three of us,” he said. “It was so sabai, but we were greng jai so we left. That was my favorite part of this leg of the trip.”

The group after arriving in Bangkok in 1970. Photo: David Shaw / Courtesy

The company eventually left their seaside haven by plane to Singapore. There was virtually no choice: the Land Rover took an entire month to cross to Singapore due to shipping complications. The drive home was full of parties: at the Thai border, then in Phuket, and finally a finish line party at the Rama V equestrian statue in Bangkok.

Anussorn took his friends around town – David met his wife at Patpong – and in 1971, after his mom told him to get a job, Anussorn started at the Bangkok Post.

For the Next Generation

Almost half a century later, Anussorn still recalls his trip fondly as one of the most adventurous, joyful periods of his life.

“Even when we were running out of cash, eating rice and curry powder with a bit of meat, as soon as we walked into a city and caught each other’s eye, we would nod and head out to drink some beer,” he said. “It was my holiday time. Nothing was difficult or harsh or dangerous.”

He encourages young people to embark on their own around the world overland trip. Tip: most of your cash will probably be spent on gas.

“You won’t regret it. In your life you don’t have many chances to do something like this,” he said. “You will be happy you did something that most people don’t ever do. You will be happy that you did it your entire life.”

Anussorn Thavisin holds his journal on Aug. 30, 2019.


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