My Experience of Buying a used car in Thailand
The Tale of what happened when Jmayel went on a solo mission to Bangkok to Buy a used car in Thailand
There a certain tasks in life that are better suited for a man. I Feel this is one of them.
It hadn’t been clear to us how much difficulty we would experience buying a used car in Thailand. Research into the difficulties of emigration can only explain a fraction of the realities you’ll face when you jump in and immerse yourself in another countries system.
I am no stranger to the world of used motoring. For over a decade I have nurtured old abandoned vehicles back into society to become an extension of my character. I have worked in the car refinishing trade and owned my own mini paint shop business. Needless to say i’ve met some undesirables. So it was down to me to hold the reins of this daunting situation.
I begun where most people would, online for hours on end listing and bookmarking potential transport. The first thing that struck me was the extortionate costs I was seeing. 12 year old Opel Corsas with no character, appeal or visible value were advertised for 120000 Baht (£2400). My eyes were wide with shock for most of the night, getting redder as the fans blew dust into their perpetually open state.
It didn’t take too long for both Sacha and I to realise that the £400 pound car we had just sold in the UK would have been worth its weight in diamonds in Thailand.
Our expectations for what we would eventually be able to afford reduced by the second, to the extent where we were standing beside a 1988 Mitsubishi Lancer that had more rust on it then I had ever seen in my 3 years working in the panel paint and restoration trade. Actually considering handing over £1000 for the privilege of driving it as our new work horse. Sacha and I stood with our arms crossed, frowning at the prospect that this boxy 80’s reject that organically received the nick name ‘rusty’, might be the only car available to us in our current time window.
That night, under the buzzing fluorescent lights of our current home. I sat sweating under the pressure that I had put myself under. Unsure whether I should disregard all the instincts i’d picked up from the motor industry and buy something that my head would never contemplate in my natural environment. There were several other options I tried to explore, but my inability to speak Thai was closing the doors on many potential purchases. Time was running out. Then something caught my eye.
I had given up on all cars produced in the 80’s, and began a search for specific vehicles that were produced in the 60’s, 70’s and even the 90’s that had visual desirability. Figuring that if we had to spend almost all of our savings to get 4 wheels. They had better be something interesting. That is how I came across ‘Murf’. After exhausting the Chiang Mai Classifieds, the expat motor companies and every possible Thai Auto Trader options. I ended up in contact with a fellow british expat, who was very much now a Thai Resident, from the Thai Visa website. He had a selection of vehicles that looked very interesting, but only one that we could afford. There were 2 photos of it, boxed in between 3 other vehicles. Then it started to happen, those chemical reactions inside your gut that make a sinking feeling change into that zero gravity experience that can only be likened to a mild state of Euphoria. Was this the car?
I took a moment to analyse the situation, lay on my back watching the ceiling fans rotate over and over. I began to imagine being able to see the air turbulence dancing between the blades and travelling downward to cool my thought processes like an overheating computer terminal in a boiling server room. I had to make a decision.
Emails and text messages were exchanged. Many questions were asked and the bond between buyer and seller began to strengthen. The car was in Bangkok, Thailands sprawling capital city. We were over 700kms away in the much quieter city of the north Chiang Mai. Was this a good move? Honestly, I didn’t know any more. Options were so limited within our budget it had come to gambling situation. I am not a gambling man, so the best option was to take as many precautions as physically possible and research everything thoroughly. Including the seller.
His name was Mark Murphy, so that’s where the investigation began. First port of call, google, which inevitably led to facebook. What I discovered made the world seem like a much smaller place. It turns out he had connections with an editor of a classic car magazine that I used to do professional photography for back in the UK. We spoke for longer until I was convinced that I wasn’t following my heart over my head, then the decision was made. I was going on a solo mission to Bangkok.
I lay a large road map of Thailand on the floor, traced the route with my finger trying to imagine what the long red winding lines would like from behind a dashboard and steering wheel. It was an exciting, adventurous prospect. And it was mine to tackle alone…
The car had been overhauled at a Bangkok mechanic , had a brand new Air Conditioning system fitted at my request and was waiting for me to arrive to drive it home. I packed a little backpack with what I thought would be essential items for one day away from home, gave Sacha a few thousand Baht to last her until I returned. Then realised that it wasn’t only me that had to endure a taxing experience. She would be alone in Thailand for the first time without me to protect her. Left behind to care for herself and our dog in a neighbourhood where no one spoke our language.
The time had come for me to leave and the skyscape had turned to a dramatically moody storm. Rains poured over us as Sacha & I walked to the main road to hail a Red Songthaew taxi. In our experience the Songthaew drivers don’t speak a lot of English so in my best tonal effort I uttered the words, “Saat ah Nee – Rot Fai, Aann-Nee Tao Rai?” Which literally translates to ‘Station Train this one How Much?’… There was a pause… like he had just heard me over a time delayed skype conversation. Then a nod of recognition. I jumped into the back of the Pickup Truck alone, the sound of the diesel engine resonating around the steel cabin was the only thing I could hear as I watched Sacha get smaller and smaller the further apart we became… I consoled myself to stem any pangs of nervousness by thinking… It was only a day.
Jumping out of the back of the pickup I looked toward the Chiang Mai Railway station. The dark clouds gave the impression that my onward journey might not be so simple. I’d heard a few horror stories about the night trains in Thailand, but having survived the 3rd class carriages of India 7 years ago it wasn’t worth worrying about. The ticket buying process was simple, the prices were cheap and the staff spoke good English. I sat aboard the 2nd class A/C sleeper alone, feeling over privileged watching other tourists traipsing by to the 3rd class fan carriages.
As the locomotive set off on its pre destined path the scenery from the surrounding countryside became displayed in the windows around me. Beautifully lush tree lined mountains sat proud skirted by flooded reflective rice fields. Creating diamond shaped mirror images of the peaks of north Thailand. There were 13 tiresome hours separating me from our car, shortened considerably by modern technologies such as the mighty ipod and kindlebook. In time I forced my eyes to sleep.
Waking with a tinge of excitement and anxiousness I stepped off the still moving train in the city of Bangkok. The first thing that struck me was that it wasn’t like how I remembered it from our visit during a round the world trip in 2005. The streets were cleaner and the pace much less hectic. I wasn’t being heckled into tuk tuks by 30 drivers trying to rip me off. It was unexpected.
Before long I was being dropped off in the wrong place about a mile from where I was supposed to be. I called Mark who set me in the right direction, I began walking, sweat lining my brow as the sun overhead cast its beams upon the un-shaded concrete pavements. Just one more mile.
Then I was there. Standing within eyesight of the car I had committed to buy. Its dark red paint encased in a fine film of dust and dirt. Its rubbers cracked and leather seats weathered by the relentless Thai summers. Its retro body lines sending out a vibe that was fashionably classic. With 4 evenly spaced metal letters displayed bravely across its bonnet and boot lid… F…O…R…D
This was what we had chosen. A vehicle that had given its service for 40 years, then found itself in our possession… A Mk1 Ford Escort.
But this was no ordinary Escort. This was a Thai Escort. For at its heart lay a Nissan A-14 Engine, and inside its body sat the dashboard of what appeared to be a Japanese commercial vehicle of some kind. And protecting its front and rear were the bulky steel bumper bars of an unknown donor. It may not have been the prettiest modifications i’d ever seen, but it certainly was a car with character. I stood for a moment smiling.
Mark Murphy was running about like a busy ant. He hadn’t seen me yet staring aimlessly at the proceedings. I approached moments later. We introduced ourselves and spoke about life as expats in Thailand. It turns out he has lived in Thailand for close to 6 years, speaks fluent Thai and can’t see any reason to head back to the UK. At that moment I felt a little envious of him. Watching Mark talk to the mechanics in Thai made me want that ability for myself. It just looked like an entire extra dimension was accessible to him that I could only see and not be a part of. I decided to step up my efforts to speak the language from then onward. We exchanged monies at Marks high rise condominium and I took possession of the worn keys and Blue Book. It was now 11am and I had planned to leave a lot earlier in case of complications. Mark and I shook hands and parted ways. The journey home had begun.
It began as I imagined it would, with me getting lost in Bangkok. Trying to drive a 40 year old car that was unfamiliar to me with an oversized, over-fiddly map folding itself in directions it was never designed to be in laying across the steering wheel. Thats right… Old Skool. No Sat-Nav for me just plain map reading like people used to do about 6 years ago before the Tom Tom invasion.
I decided to skip the city traffic by utilising the skyway toll roads. 65 Baht to save about 40 minutes of traffic was a good call. And that wasn’t the only advantage. As the Escort climbed the gradually inclining ramps, its 85 bhp making an almost unbearably loud noise, I levelled at an almost equal height to the sky scraping towers of Bangkok city. Just at that moment I lost all interest in maps, noise and vibrations. Everything went quiet in my head as an uncontrollable smile involuntarily stretched across my face. Like looking at a huge panoramic photo that had been curved around me my eyes panned from left to right. I remembered this view, vividly from the last time I had been there. Except this time there was a curvy bonnet rumbling wildly in front of me. It struck me that I was driving a Mk1 Escort in Thailand, from Bangkok across the country back to Chiang Mai where my wife and dog would be waiting for me at our new home. It was madness. But it felt so good.
2 hours passed like moments, I was enjoying every minute. Until I became shunted into reality by an intermittent lack of throttle response from the accelerator. Something was wrong. I pressed harder on the throttle, tried to break past what I thought might be the usual issues of a car that had not been driven for a long time. But I was soon rolling to a halt at the hard shoulder of a busy highway. The engine had stalled. At that point I imagined Sachas disappointment had she been in the car with me. I began to feel like a failure as I pulled open the bonnet to reveal a burning hot engine bay and began to analyse what the problem might be. Would this car ever make it back to Chiang Mai?
I called Mark, expecting to get a dead tone. What I got instead was something that reaffirmed my belief in good natured people. He talked me through all the possible solutions, expressed his deep concern about feeling responsible for putting me in this situation and made it clear that he would do whatever it takes to help me overcome the scenario that I was now in. In my experience with private sellers from the past, once you leave their presence they want nothing to do with you. I felt reassured that I wouldn’t have to deal with this alone. I managed to get the car started, it was time to try again.
14km south of a town called Nakhon Sawan the car had hit breaking point. It only drove smoothly when it was either at full throttle or ticking over slowly. Anything thing in between caused the car to stall on the busy motorways making me feel like I was putting my life at risk. I had been putting it off but it had reached the point when I had to find a Thai mechanic. Truth be told, I was a little terrified. Dealing with mechanics when you don’t know about cars is hard enough. But standing beside the equivalent of the M1 with a broken 40 year old car, fitted with a weird Japanese engine and not being able to speak the language had left me feeling a little out of my depth.
I picked up my Lonely Planet phrase book that had been given to me as a gift from a friend as a joke. He knew that I only ever read the Rough Guides and hated their competitors publication. But as I broke it’s spine for the first time I came to realize that it might be my only way to get our car back home.
After clumsily stumbling from shop to shop trying to ask for a mechanic in Thai, I eventually got the tones accurate enough for someone to understand what I needed. Minutes later the car was chugging and backfiring to a standstill outside a muddy fronted ramshackle structure. The guys working there were just about to close up for the day when I arrived. Spelling an overtime situation that no one really wanted on a Monday night. I tried to explain my peril, eyes open wide like a kitten. Clearly I was a man with no options left. They couldn’t understand me.
Right at that moment when the phrasebook had run dry of useful phrases I got a call from Mark. He went on to explain the symptoms of the suffering vehicle to the confused vehicle medics. He diagnosed the problems over the phone and managed to diffuse the tensile situation that was building. Work on the Carburettor began and I was told to sit back and wait.
Hours past and Mark stayed on standby to help me communicate through the language barrier. The Mechanics became friendlier as the sun began to dip below the horizon. It became a hilariously futile effort to try and communicate but the body language of laughter and smiles broke through the awkward fact that we had no idea what each other was saying. There was a moment when I was standing beside ‘Noi’, a 28 year old man with a wife & child waiting for him at home. The rain was pouring down the necks of our jackets as we stared aimlessly at the lifeless car. We looked at each other and he said to me, “Carbo See a.” I wrinkled my brow and replied. “Phom Mai Kow Jai.” Then we both erupted in laughter as the speeding motorway traffic raced past. Mocking my stand-still situation. I later discovered what he’d been trying to tell me in literal translation was, “Carburettor Ruined!” to which to best reply I could muster ended up being. “I don’t Understand…”
It became clear that nothing could be done about the cars ruined carburettor until the next morning when the part shops would reopen. So a friendly mechanic named ‘Ta’ drove me to the nearest motel to rest until morning, when the full extent of the possibly costly situation would be revealed to me. Mark and I spoke on the phone and he insisted on paying towards the repairs, to which I was a little surprised but relieved. I slept easier after that.
The next morning I rose with a refuelled determination. Ta and Noi came by to collect me from the hotel and we resumed our hysterical body language conversations. Ta’s laugh was so unique and heartfelt that it is sure to become part of my life long memories. Just one single drawn out ‘Haaaa’ with a raised tone at the end that completely distorted the sound coming out of his mouth.
The new shiny new Carburettor was fitted and the old one stashed in a plastic bag to show that they hadn’t just cleaned the broken one and bodged it back together. The bill was paid, 3500 baht for the carb and 600 for the mechanics time. Strong handshakes ensued before the journey to Chiang Mai resumed. There was no time to waste with just 5 hours before our landlord was to return to his home. Meaning we had to be out with our stuff before then.
The onward journey was smooth and less complicated. Allowing me to enjoy the gentle rising of the hills of North Thailand the closer I got to Sacha, Eden and our new home.
I kept to a steady average speed of 100 kph and covered the distances on the map with ease. The warm glow of the amber sunset began seeping in through the windows as I entered the northern provinces. It dawned on me that despite all the stress and troubles of my solo mission to Bangkok. None of it would matter once I’d gotten home.
That was the last memory in my mind as I rolled to a halt outside of our old home, where Sacha had finished packing all of our belongings into neat piles. The sound of the squeaking and creaking vehicle alerted Sacha and Eden that the ordeal was now over. We embraced outside the door of our new/old car while Eden jumped onto the old leather seats to soak in the new smells of her new transport. Moments later our Landlord and his Girlfriend appeared on the horizon, returning to the old teak house nick named the ‘Shan T Shack’ that we’d been looking after for the last month. I had returned just in time and the feeling that I had accomplished everything I had set out to do spread through me. It was now time to start our new life in Thailand properly, with our new home sitting just a few kilometres away, and the means to get there together. Sacha, Eden & I in our own little noisy classic car.
Watch the Cinematic Journey