Three wheels, 12 countries and 12,500 miles in a tuk tuk from Bangkok to Brighton. Two English girls devise a new way of travelling and raise £50,000 for a charity very close to one of their troubled pasts
“I felt like a corpse with a pulse. Imprisoned in my own mind and I had no idea how to escape,” says Jo Huxster, 29, on her history of mental illness and depression. Yet escape came, in the form of a bright pink tuk tuk, friend Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent and a journey from Bangkok to Brighton.
“It’s Jo’s fault. She had the idea of driving a tuk tuk from Bangkok to Brighton six years ago when on holiday in Thailand. Then in 2006 the opportunity arose as I ditched my job and Jo had a year off university, so we took the chance and just did it,” says Antonia, who is also 29.
The adventure was not only to change Jo’s perception on life, but also the fortunes of others by raising £50,000 for mental health charity Mind.
“We chose Mind as I had mental health problems in my late adolescence. I think an apt description would be cancer of the soul or malignant sadness,” says Jo.
It was Jo’s trip to Thailand in 2002 that proved a turning point in her life and inspiration for the tuk tuk adventure. Before, she had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals for four years, carving ex-boyfriends’ names in her forearm with a compass and covering the scars by wearing long sleeves to avoid embarrassment.
“I had no idea what depression was or why I felt miserable and cut myself,” says Jo. “One time I went for a late-night walk and took an overdose of diazepam to try and get some sleep. The next night my parents locked me in the house to keep me safe. I had other ideas and tried to climb out of my bedroom window, still half-drugged from the diazepam. As I tried to lower myself from the first-floor window, I fell on to the concrete and was found wandering the streets half a mile away with a broken wrist.”
After spending four years in and out of psychiatric hospitals, Jo threw herself into an academic life at university and with the help of anti-depressants and a trip to Thailand, the dark cloud of depression began to clear.
“Thailand was the first really independent thing I had done and was a huge step from my depression. It was also the first time I encountered a tuk tuk,” says Jo. “Tuk tuks are to Bangkok what black cabs are to London. I took a ride in one in Bangkok and later that day I decided I would one day drive a tuk tuk back to England. Simple as that.”
Arriving in Bangkok on 24 May 2006, Jo and Antonia spent a week preparing the trip and sorting out finalities. “When we arrived in Bangkok we expected Ting Tong, our tuk tuk, to be completely finished,” says Jo. When we went to the factory on the first day we saw her and thought ‘oh, shit.’”
Yet a couple of days later Ting Tong was ready to hit the road. Antonia describes her as “the pinkest, sleekest, hottest three-wheeler in history to be unveiled to the world”.
Their tuk tuk was custom built specially for their mission, and like the rest of their trip was paid for by sponsors. Jo and Antonia describe how she developed a personality along the trip and now is still taken out of Jo’s parent’s garage in Surrey for an occasional spin.
“Ting Tong really is the perfect name [named after the Thai bride in Little Britain]. She has an exhaust pipe but that is not her willy, she is a she,” says Antonia on a promotional video. Jo describes Ting Tong as “a real madam. Yet she is an independent lady and is like an anti-depressant pill – she makes everyone happy.”
As they finally set off from Bangkok the media swarmed them and spread word of their noble cause. “Starting in Bangkok was a baptism of fire, it was pretty scary,” says Antonia. “People stopped, stared, laughed, took photos and shook their heads in amazement. As we rocked up to the British embassy we were greeted by a pack of photographers and TV crews waiting for us.”
Leaving the chaos of Bangkok, the two girls and their new friend Ting Tong travelled north through Thailand and into Laos. At the border they met their first challenge as a law had been recently passed banning Thai-registered vehicles driven by foreigners getting through.
“We approached the Thai-Laos border with bated breath and butterflies in our stomach. Jo was in charge of the paperwork until we left China so she disappeared into a mysterious ‘Room 6’ at customs and emerged triumphantly an hour later with special permission to enter Laos,” says Antonia.
After some unimpressed visits to sites where The Beach was filmed, the trio drove through Laos effortlessly with the only pest being inebriated locals. “In Vang Vieng one night we were followed home by a drunk guy who repeatedly said to us ‘I love you Mr Ant’,” says Jo.
As they ventured into China the roads deteriorated and they were banned from the expressway due to their three-wheeled transport. The only option was pot-holed mountain roads. After several days of rough roads and repairs to Ting Tong, Jo and Antonia came across a major obstacle.
Jo says: “In the Gansu Province we came across a large crowd of people and as we rounded the corner we saw the cause – a vast landslide blocking a 100 foot section of the road. The only option was to wait until they cleared the path, which amazingly only took a day. What followed was by far the funniest night we had in China, drinking in a bar doing karaoke with some local lads. Sleeping on the pavement wasn’t quite so much fun, but hey, it’s all part of the adventure.”
Antonia and Jo both describe how north China stood out the most during the whole trip, partially due to feeling so far from home but also because of its size and the physical and mental challenges they encountered along the way.
Kazakhstan, the home of Borat, was next. Thinking that they had overcome the worst driving possible in China, Antonia says that the Kazaks take first prize: “I prayed that we could drive out of Almaty without having an accident and we missed several by a matter of inches. I was truly nervous driving Ting Tong in Kazakhstan. However the best thing was the people, they are mostly incredibly friendly.”
As they drove out of the self-titled ‘Lada-land’, Ting Tong was taken through Russia and into Ukraine and the hospitality continued. Yet they weren’t expecting one Ukrainian policemen’s practice of casually fondling Jo’s breast while he was supposed to be checking their documents. “He was about as dodgy as it got,” says Jo. “But even then, it was quite a good-natured grope.”
“In all the Russian speaking countries the men were very macho but they fell in love with the bight pink tuk tuk. She makes everyone smile, even the big hairy Russian men,” says Jo. “The Ukraine was perhaps my runner up for favourite countries, mainly due to its people, beauty and nightclubs,” says Antonia.
The last stage of their journey was Europe, starting off by exiting the Ukraine and entering Poland. It was then followed closely by Prague, Cologne, Brussels and Brighton. The end was close but there was still much to do.
“It started to rain near Krakow, Poland, and continued to do so most of the way back to Brighton. Ting Tong developed a whole host of problems and the closer we got home the more troublesome she was,” says Antonia.
Traipsing through Germany, Belgium and France the trio stopped off at sites such as Auschwitz but hurried to get home within their time schedule and in fear of their beloved Ting Tong falling apart. Their last day involved a ceremonial 20 mile stretch to Brighton with a host of British tuk tuks to finish the journey in style.
“Most of us know that post-exam feeling: you’ve been focusing on something for weeks, unable to see beyond that final wonderful moment when you walk out of the exam room for the last time. You celebrate wildly, and then ‘The Void’ appears. ‘What next?’ you wonder. Arriving in Brighton on 3 September 2006 was akin to walking out of that exam room and reaching that point that has always seemed so far away,” says Jo.
Antonia adds: “It was a fantastic moment and yet at the same time it was surreal. For the rest of that day Jo and I drifted around in a dreamland, unable to grasp that we had actually done it.”
After 14 weeks the girls had to return to reality and the trip was over, but both are now pursuing completing new adventures of their own. Jo is now married to her Indian husband Raja and they are expecting their first child next month.
“If I hadn’t suffered depression I might never have taken the trip and who knows how my life would have turned out. Do I regret cutting myself? Well if I could click my fingers to make myself better, of course I would. But if I can use these,” she lifts her arms, “to do some good, then I’m happy with that.”
Another trip doesn’t look likely in the near future with Jo’s new commitments and another four years left as a medical student. “It would be a shame not to take Ting Tong on another exciting trip. I suggested to my dad I could drive her to India, but there are no immediate plans,” says Jo.
Antonia, however, has chosen to continue travelling across borders in strange modes of transport. Now working on a small team called The Adventurists, she offers the opportunity for a similar adventure to Jo and Antonia’s tuk tuk journey.
The company launched five years ago with their Mongol Rally, a 10,000 miles trip to Outer Mongolia on the world’s hardest terrain “in a car more suited to grinding coffee”, says Antonia. Since its beginning it has raised over $1 million for charity as entrants must raise at least £1000 per car.
Now they offer other unique experiences such as the Africa Rally, Ruta del Sol through Latin America and something scarily similar to the tuk tuk adventure – ‘The Rickshaw Run’.
“We raise a significant amount of money for various charities, and our ‘Tuk tuk to the road’adventure is still receiving donations,” says Antonia.
Both back in the UK, Jo and Antonia are still close friends even after their sometimes turbulent and life-changing journey. Ting Tong rests in her alien setting of rural Surrey but is exercised occasionally and will never be forgotten for her part in the trip. Jo now sits with her arms bare, which she once had covered, and says: “Ting Tong is one of the girls. She helped me deal with a lot of issues and I’m pleased to say is now dating a large red fire engine.”
‘Tuk tuk to the road’ is a diary of their trip with Ting Tong and is on sale now. Video footage is presently being edited and there are talks about turning it into a documentary, but nothing has been confirmed yet.
For more information or to donate money to Mind through the tuk tuk trip, visit here:
Ting Tong’s vital statistics
Engine: four-stroke, water-cooled 550-cc Daihatsu
Fuel: unleaded petrol
Fuel tank: 50-litre capacity
Gears: five forward, one reverse
Wheels: three, with 12-inch rubber tyres
Top speed: 70 mph
Electrical system: 12 volts
Braking system: 11-inch front brake disc brake, rear drum brakes
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