|Photos by Ulysses Ang|
A fleet of 16 Mazda vehicles consisting of the Mazda2, Mazda3, CX-3, and CX-5 waited at The Royal Plaza just behind the King Rama V statue in Bangkok, Thailand. The picturesque square served as the starting point in what looked like a scene from a classic cross country race. With everyone decked in yellow event shirts that read, “Mazda Skyactiv ASEAN Caravan”, Mr. Hidesuke Takesue, President of Mazda Sales (Thailand) Co. Ltd., flagged off the participants.
Apart from being a show of strength and commitment by the Hiroshima-based car company in the region, the caravan is intended to strengthen the bond between the various cultures that make up the ASEAN Economic Community. It’s also intended to promote tourism, especially for Thailand, a country positioning itself as the gateway to Southeast Asia; something boosted by the presence of officials from Thailand’s Ministry of Tourism and Sports.
The 150-strong driver contingent was divided into two groups: the first drives the cars from Thailand to Vietnam via Laos, while the second drives them back to Thailand via Cambodia. The six-man Philippine group was part of the Thailand-Vietnam group which meant a 1,400-kilometer journey—half of which was on the first day alone. This brought the group from Bangkok to the border city of Nakhon Panom just before the Mekong River.
Given this is a fast-paced convoy, adjusting to the right-hand configuration seemed daunting. Thankfully, Mazda’s universal approach to interior design helped in making the driver feel right at home after a car switch. The philosophy of Jinba-Ittai and its four main aspects: pedal positioning, type of pedal used, seat design, and handling played a big part in the quick familiarization process whether it’s the CX-5, Mazda2, or even the new CX-3. After getting used to driving on “the wrong side of the road”, the group tore up the Thai countryside reaching speeds past 150 km/h. Day 1’s 750-kilometer drive was accomplished in under 11 hours achieving average speeds of 70 km/h.
At 350 kilometers, Day 2 was the shortest day of the three-day drive. However, it also meant two border crossings (Laos and Vietnam), lots of broken pavement, and dirt roads. The smooth roads of Thailand was replaced by the “barely there” roads of Laos. The transformation was pretty drastic too: as soon as the convoy passed the Friendship Bridge linking Thailand and Laos, it became a real-world torture test for Mazda’s suspension bits. It also necessitated a shift to left-hand drive road rules—in a right-hand drive car. This made the first dozen kilometers all the more confusing for the Philippine group.
Despite the less than ideal roads, Khammouane Province in Central Laos was rustic in its beauty and charm. A bold green color dotted the landscape as lush, almost endless patches of grass and trees lined the side of the road. It’s only interrupted by the numerous yellow butterflies and that one local woman who happened to be taking a bath in full view as the convoy zipped by. The drive after lunch was more challenging because of slow-moving trucks filled with quarried rocks. Still, the responsive Skyactiv-G engine proved more than capable for the overtaking task. The landscape drastically changed upon reaching the Laos-Vietnam border. The under-construction immigration facility was manned by border patrol wearing Mao-inspired Zhongshan suits. From that point, the feel and vibe was reminiscent of Mainland China in the 1990s. Of course, at the first coffee break stop, everyone had Cà phê đá or Vietnamese iced coffee before ending up at the biggest city of the North Central Cost, Vinh.
The third and final day spanned 490 kilometers. At this point, the drive was supposed to be routine; after all everyone logged in more than 1,000 kilometers already. But Vietnam presented itself as a special case requiring a two-minute briefing. “Use your horn. Don’t be afraid to use them a lot,” the convoy lead instructed everyone. “They will not give way unless you use your horn.” And after a few meters of liberal horn usage, it definitely worked. This parted traffic much quicker though counter flowing trucks and motorcycles with zero regard for road rules were still shockers.
Thanks to the Vietnamese guide’s draconian insistence to stick to the speed limit (50 km/h in the city and 80 km/h on the highway), Day 3 proved to be the most arduous. Still, nothing could prepare anyone for the final 10 kilometers or so when the convoy entered the chaotic roads heading into Hanoi. Vietnam’s capital and home to over seven million people, there were swarms of motorcycles darting every which way. The scandalous levels of horn usage helped, but the final four kilometers proved to be the most challenging thanks to quick changing traffic lights. The group actually got split up three ways requiring the marshals to split up just to get everyone chugging in the right direction. Eventually though, everyone reached the first group’s final stop: Muong Thanh Centre Hotel.
At this point, members of the Philippine, Malaysian, Singaporean, Indonesian contingent called this the end of their drive, yet the Skyactiv ASEAN Caravan continued for six more days with the predominantly Thai and Vietnamese group taking over. Their drive brings them from Hanoi to Hội An, Nha Trang, Ho Chi Minh, Phnom Penh in Cambodia, and back to Trat in Thailand.
After all that’s said and done, the Skyactiv vehicles all lived up their hype. Throughout the journey, they all proved to be fun, fuel efficient (convoy average was doing around 13 km/L), and most important of all, not tiring to drive. Whatever Mazda vehicle it was, it was love at every kilometer. Mazda’s success in design and engineering is reflected on their bullish attitude towards the ASEAN market: setting a goal of selling 150,000 units in four years. And this plan is possible since Mazda has laid down the foundations with engine and transmission factories in Thailand; assembly plants in Malaysia and Vietnam; and investments to support sales in Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Brunei. With more than 600 million residences and a strengthening economy across the region, Mazda has done well to spread the message of Sustainable Zoom-Zoom through its Skyactiv technology.