By Kingsley Wijayasinha
The Nation Weekend
Apart from salmon, reindeers, exotic glassware and the region’s “matter of fact” attitude, Scandinavia also takes pride in its scenic roads and world-famous landscapes.
Last week, Mazda Sales Thailand organised the “Mazda Passion Drive to the New Horizon” caravan consisting of 10 Mazda CX-5 crossovers driving through the Nordic region, with the climax being the visit to North Cape for the spectacular Aurora Borealis.
Mazda has been organising overseas driving events for many years in a row, whether in Asean, China, Mongolia and Russia. Last year the caravan went all the way to Moscow and the new mission takes place in Scandinavia.
While a large number of Thais visit Scandinavia (Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden) during the winter for various Nordic attractions (oh, we love selfies with the snow and other landmarks), those who want to explore the countryside by driving rather than take a tour bus can avoid tricky road conditions by visiting during other parts of the year.
The event, which kicked off on September 17, was divided into two groups. I was placed in Group A and our part of the journey kicked off in Denmark, routing through Sweden, Finland and Norway, where the cars would be handed over to the Group B at North Cape.
Thanks to modern GPS technology, it is easy to drive in Europe using Google Maps, and the light traffic in Scandinavia makes it even easier. There are speed limits everywhere (generally 80-120kph), but you are able to get a good average speed because the roads are so clear. Covering 500 kilometres isn’t as exhausting as you think. And with the CX-5’s adaptive cruise control system, you also enjoy semi-autonomous features. too, taking the burden off driving long distances.
Initially Mazda had planned to use Thai-made cars and had already shipped them for this event. Unfortunately (actually fortunately), storms delayed the shipment and local left-hand-drive CX-5’s were used instead.
The vehicles came of course with European specs including heated seats (all four) and steering wheel, diesel engine and all-wheel-drive. There were navigation as well as full infotainment including four USB ports and 12V outlets that were really used by the three people assigned to each vehicle.
Group A landed in Denmark and we started driving from Copenhagen airport - just after a 10-km underwater tunnel we had crossed over to Sweden. The destination of the day was Stockholm, before taking a ferry on the following day right across the Baltic to Helsinki.
We visited Thai restaurants for lunch during the first three days and learned that there is a huge population of Thais in Scandinavia, and Thai food is highly popular here. While dinners are more exotic and pricey, many offer cheaper lunch buffets that help keep customers coming in. Thai food is hardly authentic at all the places we visited (but you might scrape through if you’re not as picky as me).
As for the local food, if you’re adventurous, try the pickled herring (I didn’t). In general food here is simple and very salty, so some of you might need to watch your sodium levels. The best meal in Scandinavia for me was a pizza Napoletana in Stockholm for lunch (thank you Google Maps) while my buddies were having the usual Euro Thai food like Panaeng Pla Salmon.
We spent the night on the ferry crossing to Helsinki (you can purchase a package for both parking and room with buffet meals), and the ferry proved to be an entertaining experience. While it’s not as luxurious as a cruise, there are attractions such as duty-free shops, bars and restaurants, as well as live entertainment.
Whenever a European asks me where I’m from, the first reaction is always: “Hey, I have been to Thailand before”. Well that happened a lot on the ferry – we even had a nice Finnish guy who started speaking northeastern Thai dialect (Esarn) to us, describing his love for our country (the guy was a trainee at the Finnish embassy and actually graduated from Khon Kaen University), and helping our group order drinks at the bar.
The ferry ride was smooth most of the way, and if I hadn’t gotten up for the toilet in the middle of the night, I wouldn’t have seen how high and aggressive the waves were. OK, it wasn’t “The Storm” size, but you know that’s more than strong winds out there.
Nevertheless the weather turned around completely once we arrived at Helsinki port the following morning. Vehicles were driven out of the ferry and the driving commenced once again.
Finland’s beautiful natural roadside scenery had the caravan stopping several times for photography. Pine trees are everywhere along with the thousands of lakes (actually over 188,000) giving the region its own signature.
We didn’t have time to check out the spa and sauna at the resort in Kuopio, and drove another 500 kilometres the following day to Rovaniemi, the official hometown of Santa Claus and the perimeter of the Arctic Circle. A large number of Asian tourists come here every year, and it couldn’t be more obvious when I spotted packs of Mama instant cup noodles on the snack shelf.
As we head up north the temperature also started to drop to a single digit, and those heated seats do come to the rescue. Arriving late, there was no time to explore what the city had to offer.
But no worries, as the highlight of the trip was near. On the fifth day, the caravan covered as much as 680 kilometres in the final leg, crossing into Norway and finishing at Honnigsvag. Towards this destination the scenery and weather gets more extreme, and the caravan gets to take several long tunnels, some measuring over 20km in length.
After covering as much as 2,700 kilometres by land and sea, we met Group B members here and it was a pity that all took the bus to North Cape rather than driving the CX-5. North Cape has a strong Thai presence as King Chulalongkorn had visited there during the 1900s. Inside the reception area of the visitor centre lies the stone on which His Majesty carved out his initials, dated 1907. There’s also a Thai museum located here, and of course a very large gift shop.
There was no guarantee that we’d see the dancing Northern Lights, and with the cloudy skies (this isn’t exactly the right time of the year for this), we had our fingers crossed. Fortunately, closer to midnight the skies started to open up and the curious Thai visitors finally found what they were looking for – the chance to take selfies with the famous Aurora Borealis.
The light show is caused by collisions between electrically charged particles released from the sun and gases in our atmosphere such as oxygen and nitrogen. Photography is difficult; you need to know the right settings and use a tripod.
As the Group B members take over the caravan the following morning for their own adventure (it snowed heavily during their shift), Group A members, completing their 2,700-kilometre drive, embark on another journey back home with beaming hearts.