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Belgian Sets Off on Odyssey in Thai ‘Golf Cart on Steroids’

September 15, 1996

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) _ Slaloming through thick traffic and trailing plumes of bluish exhaust, Thailand’s three-wheeled ``tuk-tuk″ taxis are for many just another nuisance on Bangkok’s roads.

But for one Belgian it was love at first ride. To prove his devotion and because nobody’s ever done it, he left in one Sunday on a 12,400-mile, yearlong odyssey from Bangkok to his native Brussels.

He’s confident of success, although even his key sponsor _ the government’s Tourism Authority of Thailand _ hints at potential pitfalls.

``A city denizen, it is designed for short sprints, not for long distance runs,″ says its news release, referring to the open-sided vehicle named for the distinctive sound of its two-stroke engine.

With only his dog Raja as a companion, 32-year-old Axel Ewbank plans to chug south to Malaysia and board a boat _ the only non-road part of his journey _ to Bangladesh. From there he’ll make his way through the Indian subcontinent, the Middle East and Europe.

During test drives in Thailand last month, Ewbank noted some flaws: Tuk-tuks get flat tires easily, brakes are rather weak and the thermal power system tends to break down during long trips. He’s also worried about back pain, given the threadbare shock-absorbers.

``To drive 20,000 kilometers on that is going to be tough,″ he said, pointing to the thinly cushioned seat.

But his enthusiasm remains undiminished. ``It’s a beautiful machine,″ he said shortly before departure. ``It’s safer than a motorcycle and not closed like a car so you can be in touch with people and the scenery.″

Ewbank hopes the tuk-tuk’s uniqueness will get him some free overnight stays, publicity and generally attract locals. So do the sponsors, who view his trip as promoting Thailand and its tourist potential.

Despite its downsides, the tuk-tuk has joined the elephant and orchids as a national Thai symbol. Tourists to Bangkok regard a tuk-tuk ride as a must-do experience, although one that may not be repeated.

``Resembling nothing less than a golf cart on steroids, it zips through the Bangkok traffic with the freedom of a nippy, nimble chariot,″ say the tourism backers, who helped Ewbank out with $8,000.

His tuk-tuk, somewhat modified for the trip, cost $3,200. It comes with just a few spare parts so Ewbank _ who admits to few technical skills _ will rely on mechanics along the way.

With the spires of the Royal Palace as a backdrop and flags of Thailand and Belgium fluttering, Ewbank received a memorable send-off.

Escorting him out of town were 49 other tuk-tuks, which didn’t have to dart in front of angry motorists since police had cleared the streets of traffic.

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