Many of my friends and I have been driving to Thailand regularly to take in the sights of the Land of Smiles.
The Thai/Teochew food in bustling Hat Yai is a highlight, and the 775km of seemingly unending stretches of Malaysia's North-South Expressway (NSE) makes it a real joy ride.
Pass the paperwork
For those planning a road trip to Hat Yai, note that you need a photocopy of the computer printout of your car's registration. If the car is not registered in your name, get a letter from the owner authorising you to take the car into Thailand.
Next, check whether the car insurance policy covers you up to Hat Yai, which is 56km from the Malaysian border. Many insurance companies will extend the geographical coverage to include Hat Yai and beyond, but you need to pay.
Take the insurance certificate with you on the trip. I start early to avoid possible congestion at Singapore's Tuas and Malaysia's Tanjong Kupang checkpoints. After clearing the Malaysian checkpoint, I am on the Second Link Expressway and it's an effortless drive along this dual carriageway.
At its northern end, it merges with the North- South Expressway that goes all the way to the Thai border. Although it is possible to reach Hat Yai by evening on the same day, it is better to break the journey and spend the night in Ipoh, 556km away.
I normally make two stops for a petrol fi ll-up, refreshments and to use the toilet.
My first stop is at Ayer Keroh Jejantas, just over 200km away, after a two-hour drive. This rest stop along the expressway is popular as it has shops selling Malaysian fare as well as fast food. After this, get back on the expressway and continue north towards Kuala Lumpur.
Avoiding Kuala Lumpur and the city's traffic
After passing Seremban, I exit the NSE at Nilai Utara (exit 214). This is the preferred route for most motorists heading towards Ipoh, as it bypasses Kuala Lumpur and the city's heavily congested roads.
After turning off at exit 214, you will go past Sepang and the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA). Follow the gantry signs for Ipoh.
My next stop for lunch is at the Sungei Buloh Jejantas rest area, just beside the highway.
Short-cut to Ipoh
After lunch, I continue the journey and pass Rawang, Tapah and Gopeng before exiting at Simpang Pulai. This is the shortcut I take for Ipoh.
After the Simpang Pulai toll booth, turn right and then drive straight on for about half an hour and you are smack in the middle of Ipoh town.
My favourite hotel is the Syuen in Jalan Sultan Abdul Jalil as it is near to all the popular food spots. Dinner is a 15-minute walk to Lou Wong Tauge Ayam Kue Tiau in Jalan Yau Tet Shin (above), famous for its bean sprouts, chicken and hor fun.
This is followed by a trip to nearby Jalan Church, known locally as Tong Shui Kai (Cantonese for dessert street), where you will find a wide variety of hot and cold desserts.
Back on the road, dim sum powered The next morning, breakfast is at one of the best-known restaurants in Ipoh - the Foh San Hong Kong Dim Sum at Jalan Leong Sin Nam, just a two-minute walk from the Syuen.
From Ipoh, it is another 280km to the Malaysian border checkpoint at Bukit Kayu Hitam. The three-hour drive takes me past Kuala Kangsar, Butterworth, Sungei Petani and Gurun.
Remember to top up your tank before crossing into Thailand because Malaysian petrol is cheaper and has higher octane ratings. Also, most of Thailand uses gasohol, which is 10 per cent ethanol and 90 per cent petrol. It is safe for Singapore cars.
At the Bukit Kayu Hitam checkpoint, drive up to the immigration counters for your passport to be stamped. You are now leaving Malaysia, and a short distance away, you will find a duty-free shop on the left.
Farther down the road, the Sadao Checkpoint beckons as you drive into Thai territory. Turn left and leave your car in the big open carpark. Fill in the Thai immigration form (available from the office) and have your passport processed at an immigration counter.
After this, buy third party Thai insurance (compulsory) for your car at a booth just beyond the vehicle lanes. This is inexpensive.
Next, proceed to the customs booth and present your passport, car registration document and the Thai insurance certificate to obtain a car import permit.
After processing, the customs officer will provide you with a computer-printed permit. Your documents are also returned. Hand over the permit at the adjacent booth. You will be directed to sign on the permit as well as in a book. The permit is handed back to you.
Keep this permit safely as it must be returned to the Thai Customs when you leave Sadao on your trip home.
Take me to "Washington"
Now, you can pick up the car, drive out of the carpark and hit the road for Hat Yai, about an hour away. Just follow the road and drive straight all the way to the bustling unofficial capital of Thailand's southern region.
Hat Yai has a wide variety of hotels to suit all budgets but I recommend those in the heart of the city like the Centara and Lee Gardens Plaza. The streets around these hotels abound with shops, department stores, food outlets, hawker stalls and massage parlours.
Try the local shark's fin and bird's nest soup at any of the restaurants or shops in the area.
One of my favourite places for dinner is the Washington Restaurant in Niphat Uthit 1 Street. It serves Thai/Teowchew cuisine such as suckling pig, shark's fin and fish maw soup at reasonable prices.
There is a stage with singers belting out songs in Thai, Mandarin or Hokkien while you dine. Or try 59 Restaurant. The owner is a Thai Teochew woman who will tell you to order and eat without asking or worrying about the price.
On the many occasions that I had eaten there, the final bill turned out to be lower than I had expected.
To get to these two restaurants, just hop into a tuk-tuk plying along the streets. It is 20 baht (80 Singapore cents) per person for a one-way trip to any place in central Hat Yai.
For 59 Restaurant, just tell the driver "Har Sip Kow" (Thai for 59) and he'll take you there.
As for Washington Restaurant, telling him "Washington" works equally well. This just goes to show how popular these two places are. Hat Yai is a foodie's paradise and I love the kway teow pet nam (duck guo tiao soup) and kah moo (pig trotter in soy sauce) from roadside stalls and coffeeshops.
One of my favourite desserts is soya beancurd, served hot, at a street stall outside Lee Gardens Plaza Hotel. It is sweetened with ginger syrup and you can order mini you tiao (fried fl our crackers) to go with the beancurd.
The Little Mermaid
For those who want to get out of the city, take a 40-minute drive to the beaches in Songkhla, with their clean white sand and clear waters.
I usually drop by at the Little Mermaid statue in Samila Beach. Legend has it that a mermaid was combing her hair on the beach when she was frightened by a young fisherman and she fled back into the sea. The fisherman waited forlornly for her to return.
This article was published by the Special Projects Unit, Marketing Division, SPH.