If I had an elephant, I’d call it Nelly

Standard

DSC_1148

For the record, Thailand is actually REALLY LONG. Coming from our fair isle (fair, but also fairly small), Thailand seems huge. And with it’s size comes a lot of diversity.

Post-Bangkok, we both took our full bellies and newly acquired viruses (how you manage to get a stinking cold in 36 degree heat escapes us) up to the northern city of Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai and Pai

If you have the opportunity to go to the north of Thailand, go. With a mountainous backdrop, cooler climate and calmer pace of life, it couldn’t be further away from the heat of the islands and the chaos of the capital. There are only 174,000 inhabitants in Chiang Mai, a village compared to Bangkok’s 9 million, and the city is dominated by a walled and moated old town – picturesque indeed. It is awash with temples, historic buildings and even a Buddhist University, so seeing a monk with his alms bowl at dawn is a common occurrence. This seemingly sleepy place comes alive at night with the sprawling Night Bazaar, for which Chiang Mai is renowned. It is also famed for being the gateway to the hills – there’s an abundance of treks and organised outings for those who want to explore the surrounding jungle.

Chiang Mai Night Bazaar

Chiang Mai Night Bazaar

NOTE: Be CAREFUL with the treks – it’s a huge gamble choosing a tour operator and a lot of travelers end up disappointed. We met a couple who’d forked out for a 3-day jungle trek and didn’t quite realise that it was no country amble, it was a Thai-Army-Action-Commando-style adventure. The jungle here is pretty much straight out of Jumanji, so if you’re stuck there battling spiders the size of your hand and burning leeches off your ankles, it’s not so much fun.

Of course, Cel and I did LOADS of research and asked LOADS of people … (or maybe just picked a place with a nice looking lady who was really chatty and had nice pictures in the office). Regardless, we plumped for a one-day-er and for a pittance we rode elephants, visited a hill tribe village, swam in a waterfall, walked alongside paddy fields, (dubiously) shot a crossbow, made our way down a river on bamboo rafts… WIN!

It was an absolutely fantastic day, if not quite an experience in places. For example, despite feeding the elephants about 4 tonnes of bananas, it was hard to shake the feeling that they might not be leading the happiest of lives. Although there are a plethora of eco-friendly ‘Elephant Camps’ in Thailand – where elephants live in comfort and luxury and are treated fantastically by well-trained ‘Mahout’ (handlers) – there are a hell of a lot more which rake in the cash from gullible tourists (such as ourselves), and work the elephants a little too hard and use elephant hooks a little too liberally. To be honest, it is hard to judge as we couldn’t understand what the guides were saying and we don’t know anything about the training and handling of animals, but if you go with gut feeling, I think we both felt rather guilty. Lesson learnt – when animals are involved, don’t go for the cheap option.

Hungry nelly-phant

Hungry nelly-phant

DSC_1167

Having a drink to cool off

Having a drink to cool off

DSC_1164

Meeting the kids of the Karen tribe...

Meeting the kids of the Karen tribe…

..who have learnt to be extremely photogenic

..who have learnt to be extremely photogenic

The bamboo rafting was probably the most unforgettable, namely because our ‘driver’ was an absolute legend. Each raft was made up of about 5 or 6 thick tubes of bamboo strung together with strips of old tyre. (Ace Ventura, eat your heart out. ) You can fit 5 people on it, four farang and one driver, who essentially punts at the front using a long stick of bamboo. However, he didn’t last long and soon gave up, consigning charge of the raft to Cel and another lad. He him sat back and barked instructions, shouting ‘Rie..rie…control rie. Mmmmmm. Lef..LEF! LEFCONTROL LEF!!’ before we got absolutely annihilated by rocks and rapids. Anther catchphrase of his was, ‘no wet no fun’, which he’d mutter to himself before he soaked us and encouraged local children who were playing along the river to do the same. All Cel’s hard work and manual labour paid off as we rounded a corner of the river and in front of us three elephants and their baby ambled across the water in front of us. They were silhouetted against the low sun and as they reached the other side they stopped and started splashing themselves in the river, spraying themselves and cooling down. Corny as it sounds, it was genuinely magical.

Take a look at the map at the top, and the star up a bit and to the left of Chiang Mai was our next destination – Pai. So the road there might have been horrendously mountainous and we may have spent the journey clutching onto our seats and repeating rosaries, but as soon as we arrived it was clear that this was our kind of place. It has a population of just 2,000 and is set in a mountain fortressed valley; a perfect setting for the laid-back hippy lifestyle that Pai nurtures. The best thing to do there, aside from relax and take in the town, is to make your way up another hair-raising hill climb to the Yun Lai view point, which towers above the valley. We were on a scooter and only JUST managed it – Cel was driving and Imogen actually made a quick exit by jumping off the back halfway up the hill… lighten the load and all that! The view from the top is stunning. The mountains look fake – coloured in various shades of purple and green, you can see all the hillside villages with the wonky houses and bamboo roofs, and best of all, it is utterly silent up there. As you arrive, an old Chinese man (it is above the Chinese village of Santichon) shuffles towards you with a beautifully decorated pot of tea and two tiny mugs. You sit in the shade, sipping your piping hot tea and looking out over the valley.. it’s bliss. I guess the calmness and serenity of the viewpoint kind of summed up our experience in Pai; not only is it extremely chilled, but it feels like you are experiencing how Thai people live. Tourists are secondary here –  the Thais just carry on with their lives and we are lucky enough to get a sneaky peek.

Decorations at a strawberry farm just outside Pai

Decorations at a strawberry farm just outside Pai

Yun Lai Viewpoint

Yun Lai Viewpoint

Tea time

Tea time

An elephant we met on the road to Pai..

An elephant we met on the road to Pai..

Chinese influence at Yun Lai

Chinese influence at Yun Lai

At first she was a bit apprehensive...

…at first she was a bit apprehensive…

...but then she became extremely friendly!

…but she became extremely friendly!

Pai Canyon

Pai Canyon + intrepid explorer

Next stop, Laos. Heading up to the border (past Chiang Rai) and slow boat down the Mekong River to Luang Prabang.

A Culinary Tour of Bangkok

Standard

Oh, Bangkok. Not only do you have a hilarious name, but you also have a bit of a hilarious reputation. People who haven’t been to Bangkok are convinced that it really is the home of the debauched chaos oh so delicately portrayed in cinematic classics such as ‘The Hangover’ and that-scene-where-Tilda-Swinton-and-Leo-get-together from ‘The Beach’; and those who have been often feel that they deserve some sort of medal for surviving it.

DSC_0973

And surviving is the right verb. Bangkok is like nothing else. Home to 9.1 million people and sprawling over a 1569 square kilometre area, it is MENTAL. Honestly, we cannot even begin to describe how hectic it is. There are people everywhere and they are always trying to sell you something or entice you to come with them or get a taxi. The streets are packed with myriad clothes stalls and food stalls, patronised by dazed looking farang, sweating more than should be humanly possible. When people say ‘an assault on the senses’, you can completely understand what they mean; you are constantly marvelling at new sights, wrinkling up your nose at the smell of an open drain before catching a delicious whiff of fresh Pad Thai, getting an aural medley (it sounds nicer than it is) from the vying sound systems of bars spilling out onto the streets, being blinded by laser pens (of all things) wielded aggressively at you by curiously dressed street sellers.

Not that this is all a bad thing, it is the Bangkok way. And as we found out, a lot of it is due to the fact that we were frequenting the heavily trodden tourist territories. Get out of Kaoh San Road and the surrounding LP sights, and you’ve got a totally different story.

Fortunately for us, after one or two days getting lost in the city, we found our very own tour guide, Wan; who I had the pleasure to teach last year during her 9-month stint at EC Bristol. What a difference it makes to have some insider knowledge! After plying us with gifts – including traditional Thai soaps, beautiful bracelets, mango and durian biscuits and crab crisps – she ushered us into her car and took it upon herself to show us (the poor ignorant farang) the REAL Bangkok. Like many Thais, she was keen to show visitors that Thailand is more than drink and dirt, ladyboys and scammers. And she more than won us over…

The lovely Wan

The lovely Wan

First stop, Koh Kret – an island in the Chao Phraya river about 30-40 minutes outside the city. She described the area (which is essentially a small satellite town) in relation to Bangkok as Bath is to Bristol (although you’d have to SERIOUSLY multiply the scale.) Koh Kret is home to a Buddhist temple, complete with a Pisa-esque leaning tower, and lots of winding streets filled with traditional Thai food and an extensive arts and crafts market. As Wan pointed out, only Thai people come here, which became immediately evident in both the demographic and the prices.

The leaning tower of Koh Kret

The leaning tower of Koh Kret

Young Thai dancer and musicians.. just another day at Koh Kret

Young Thai dancer and musicians.. just another day at Koh Kret

Now, just as a word of warning, Wan told us that in order to show us the traditional Thailand, we had to eat all the traditional food. The Thais are extremely proud of their cuisine and it’s no secret that Thai food is renowned throughout the world. We were warned early in the day not to get too full too quickly (it was so hard!) as we had A LOT of eating to do…

We started off with some traditional sweets. Perching on wooden stools at a market café, we were given a plate of small ceramic cups filled with a white gelatinous substance. You were also given a flat wooden spatula in which to scoop them out – round the sides, under the bottom and into your mouth in one go. They were double-layered, with thick white paste on the top and a thicker yellow goo underneath and an unusual consistency; similar to Chinese dumplings, but sweet. I loved them, but I think Celyn was having a few reservations.

His taste buds were satisfied, however, with the accompanying snack of breaded fried fish. They were small, like a sardine, but full of fish eggs (does this mean that they were preggers when they were cooked??!). Kind of like fish fingers filled with caviar. Plus an accompanying spicy sauce. NYOM!

Next stop, lunch. Finding a place in the market, we shared some bowls of Tom Yam – a spicy soup which is extremely popular in Thailand. This was a bit of a variation on Tom Yam as there were thick rice noodles in the soup mix (and one bowl wasn’t as spicy because I am a spice-weakling). Still, it was delicious – all crumbly meat, crunchy veg and thick noodles drenched in spicy sauce.

As if this wasn’t enough, we passed a traditional Thai sweet stall on our way out and Wan stocked up! The sweets were more like works of art – each brightly coloured, meticulously decorated and almost too beautiful to eat.

The sweetie assortment

We still ate them.

Our collection of sweets.. they didn''t last too long

Our collection of sweets.. they didn’t last too long

Thai sweets may be sweet, but they’re not overly sugary and have a strange flavour that sits right in between sweet and savoury. They like mixing the two here, as is evident from their world famous sweet-and-sour dishes, their sausage-in-a-sweet-pancake stalls and penchant for having sugar in their bread. The sweets, as with the cup dessert we had just tasted, had a doughy consistency (like suet, perhaps?) and came in more designs than we thought possible. There were perfumed jelly roses, sticky rice with egg custard in a banana leaf, fondant frosted fruit, cinnamon-y cups, orange coloured marzipan baskets and pearls…

We told Wan that we’d get fat, but she assured us that it didn’t matter. Well, not today, at least! We heaved our full bellies off the island and drove towards Bang Bua Thong – a suburb of Bangkok – to Leng Nein Lee, the Chinese Buddhist temple. As with many cities in SE Asia, there is a large and lively Chinese population and the scale of this temple was paramount to the strength and closeness of the Chinese community.

DSC_0975

Wan and I outside the Chinese Temple

Wan and I outside the Chinese Temple

Buddha and a framed photo of the King and Queen

Buddha and a framed photo of the King and Queen

DSC_0996

From the temple, we headed towards Bangkok city centre – all glistening malls and upmarket restaurants. This was not unlike Bukit Bitang in Kuala Lumpur – you know, that place of a thousand malls that Cel and I managed to lose ourselves (literally) in. She took us to the Siam Centre and Discovery and we all just wandered open mouthed along the brightly lit marble floors, gawping at shop displays which seemed more like modern art than consumer culture.

Seeing as we hadn’t eaten in a few hours, it was time for another meal. Naturally. We scooted above the heaving roads on a concrete skywalk and found ourselves in Central Plaza. Yet another mall with yet more square metres of shop, we bypassed Hermes and Gucci and headed to the restaurant area. I hesitate to say ‘food court’ because that conjures up images of Millie’s Cookies and dirty McDonald’s seating – this was far nicer.

Seated comfortably in MK restaurant, we were treated to another Thai favourite – Suki Yaki. I think it may have originated in Japan but it has been wholeheartedly adopted in Thailand and has become the quintessential pan-Asian feed. Basically, you choose a variety of raw meats, fish and veggies. You all sit around a table with a hob in the middle and are provided with a pan filled with stock. As the dishes arrive, you add them one by one to the bubbling stock pot, crack an egg over it when you’re done and… voila: your meal! You can put anything and everything into the pot – crab meat, pork balls, tofu, jellyfish, pak choi, cabbage, raw sliced pork, mushrooms… whatever takes your fancy. The secret (and most important) ingredient is Suki Yaki sauce – a semi-spicy thick relish that you ladle over your steaming broth before you eat it.

Wan persuing the menu

Wan persuing the menu

Can't believe his luck!

Can’t believe his luck!

It is DELICIOUS, and a really sociable way to eat too. If you want the recipe, have a look at the bottom of the page…

Post-food coma

Post-meal lethargy

As if this wasn’t enough, Wan insisted that we try an egg tart in the Siam Paragon as well as a milk tea shake with tapioca. Again, the egg tart was that strange mix of sweet and savoury – sweet pastry but just an egg in the middle. It’s not half bad you know, perhaps we should write to Greggs…!

By this point you can imagine how full our stomachs were. Even Celyn (eater extraordinaire) was getting a bit of a straining gut so although we were tempted by all sorts of weird and wonderful smells as we went on an evening stroll through China Town, we couldn’t eat another thing.

Actually, that’s a lie. We had some roasted chestnuts. Chinese special apparently so it’d have been rude to say no.

Nursing our swollen stomachs, we parted ways and headed home. But what an experience we had had in Bangkok. We are so grateful to Wan for her kindness and generosity and for all the amazing tastes we have discovered. Without her, we would most certainly have left Bangkok with a less tasteful (‘scuse the pun) impression of the city, not to mention far fewer memories.

Wan, thank you once again and remember that you are always welcome to stay in the U.K. Although not sure how haggis compares to Suki Yaki…

RECIPE:

Suki Yaki

DSC_1011

Ingredients:

300 grams of sliced beef
1 Carrot – sliced
1 Onion – sliced
250 grams of Shiitake mushrooms whole
250 grams of tofu
2/3 cup of chopped cabbage
100 grams of Enoki mushrooms
1 cup of chopped morning glory
100 grams of Pak Choi (Chinese cabbage)
2 cubes of chicken oxo
1 package of glass noodles
1 larger turnip chopped

Cooking Instructions:

1: In a large pot, boil the turnip, carrots and chicken stock for 30 minutes

2: Drain the water from the pot into a large wok

3: Bring the water to a boil and begin to add the meat and vegetables.

4: When the vegetables are almost cooked, add the glass noodles.

5: Turn off the heat source and let sit for a few minutes.

6: Serve in a bowl with Suki sauce (sweet spicy Thai chili sauce) – available in most Chinese and Asian shops in the UK. This is INDISPENSABLE so don’t sack it off!

PS. This is most definitely a GUIDELINE.. add what you want!

Thailand Island Hopping

Standard

FINALLY MANAGED TO GET THE INTERNET TO WORK – shiny new pictures and maps, just that little bit easier to digest. Enjoy…

bigclimblittleclimb

Our route.. in minature

Follow the yellow stars from left to right: Koh Phi Phi (bottom left), then across the mainland to the Gulf of Thailand and the islands of Koh Pha-Ngan and Koh Tao.

 

 

Here we go….

Koh Phi Phi

“Oh how beauty can be a burden. Like Marilyn Monroe, Phi Phi’s stunning looks have become its own demise”

Thank you Lonely Planet. For once, you’re absolutely spot on.

Of course, we can’t exactly speak PERSONALLY from experience of the burden of beauty, but we have become aware of  it’s bittersweet truth having spent a few days  on the Thai island of Phi Phi (Pee Pee.. it never gets old).

As you catch the boat over the Andaman Sea towards the island, the sparkling azure waters, fine white sand, and towering cliffs rising over great lagoons give you every reason to think that you are in paradise…

View original post 2,225 more words

Thailand Island Hopping

Standard

Our route.. in minature

Follow the yellow stars from left to right: Koh Phi Phi (bottom left), then across the mainland to the Gulf of Thailand and the islands of Koh Pha-Ngan and Koh Tao.

 

 

Here we go….

Koh Phi Phi

“Oh how beauty can be a burden. Like Marilyn Monroe, Phi Phi’s stunning looks have become its own demise”

Thank you Lonely Planet. For once, you’re absolutely spot on.

Of course, we can’t exactly speak PERSONALLY from experience of the burden of beauty, but we have become aware of  it’s bittersweet truth having spent a few days  on the Thai island of Phi Phi (Pee Pee.. it never gets old).

As you catch the boat over the Andaman Sea towards the island, the sparkling azure waters, fine white sand, and towering cliffs rising over great lagoons give you every reason to think that you are in paradise. But it’s this appeal that is killing it – it’s a hidden treasure that is not so hidden any more, and the island’s resources and infrastructure are buckling under the swelling tourist demand.

The views towards Phi Phi

The views towards Phi Phi

 

Of course, there’s plenty to see and do. The actual island is tiny; home to a minute resident population and completely devoid of cars. The tourist village of Tonsai, once consisting of a handful of hotels and completely battered in the 2004 tsunami, has grown and re-grown to a beach holiday mecca; plenty of accommodation, any style of food, all-night bars spilling out the streets, dive centres, beaches, pharmacies, 7/11s – you name it, in terms of convenience, Phi Phi has probably got it. Although most of the accommodation is centred around Tonsai, there is a clear divide between the more upmarket hotel-resorts of the south side, and the lashtastic hostel holes of the town centre.

This works well for both parties; those who want a relaxing holiday pay that little bit extra and avoid the town chaos, and those who are having a bit of a blow-out don’t have to worry about making too much noise. If you are going to stay in Tonsai, you’ll have a tough time escaping the tween traveller trail. Who can blame them? Phi Phi is every 18-year olds dream; dirt-cheap alcohol buckets, streetside tattoo parlours, bunches of sexy farang (foreigners.. that’s you and me) touting for bars on the streets in exchange for free booze and a guaranteed good time, and absolutely no one to tell you that the sea isn’t a bin, the street isn’t a toilet, and flailing about with a Bacardi Breezer and sunburn isn’t a good look.

Thankfully, Phi Phi isn’t all rum and neon, it’s also a great place to make the most of the sea, and is the starting point for some fantastic day boat trips. It only takes a few hours to go round the whole island, including stop off points at uninhabited Mosquito and Bamboo islands as well as Monkey Bay on the main isle. Depending on which boat trip you have, you are more than likely to be able to stop and jump off for a bit of snorkelling whenever you want.

 

Most trips continue onto the neighbouring island, Phi Phi Leh, which ticks every box in terms of an antidote to the rowdy main island. It was here where Alex Garland’s cult classic, The Beach, was filmed, and naturally has become a sort of pilgramage for the modern day traveller. The scenery is stunning – so much so that you can easily forget that you are sharing the water with hundreds of other boats, and there is almost no accommodation, which means the island remains largely unspoilt. This is one experience not to miss – swimming in deep clear lagoons in the shadow of craggy cliffs. You know that typical postcard perfect ‘image of Thailand’? Longtail boat, turquoise sea, rugged rock face in the background…? Well, this was it in the flesh.

 

Picture postcard image of Thailand..check

Picture postcard image of Thailand..check

 

So, that was it. Phi Phi Don (lash) and Phi Phi Leh (beaut). To be fair, although I’ve definitely had a good old moan (M.A.I = Middle-aged Imogen…I should probably get back to my knitting), it’s not all bad. Despite feeling like we weren’t young enough or our clothes weren’t neon enough, we did adopt an ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ attitude fairly quickly. Which was fun. Very fun.

I guess it’s just a word of warning: we were under the impression that Koh Phangnan was the party island and Phi Phi was the calm before the storm, but this is not the case. If you go to Phi Phi Don expecting deserted beaches and a true taste of Thailand, you’ll be sorely disappointed. But go for some cheap voddie and maybe a tattoo or two, and you’ll have a blast.

 

DSC_0864

 

From here we sweated on to the ferry to Krabi, bussed it across to Surat Thani, on the Gulf of Thailand, and landed on the shores of Koh Phangnan as the sun was setting…

Koh Pha-Ngan

 

Look for the two red circles - First stop: Hat Rin (South East peninsula), Second stop: Hat Yao, (North West)

Look for the two orange circles – First stop: Hat Rin (South East peninsula), Second stop: Hat Yao, (North West)

 

Everyone knows about Koh Pha-Ngan. That’s where the Full Moon Party is, right? So it’s going to be crazy and drunken and dirty and loud and generally a bit minging, yes?

Well, not really. At all.

For a start, Koh Pha-Ngan, although smaller than neighbouring Koh Samui (which we didn’t have time to go to), is much bigger than Phi-Phi. And you can feel it. There are people who live permanently on the island and it doesn’t have that feeling of a purpose-built resort about it. Cars, pick-up truck-taxis and mopeds storm about on concrete roads and authentic Thai street food stalls far outnumber the dodgy western fare. Yes, this may be the site of one of the most famous parties on the planet, but its overall appeal is immediately evident

So we started off with the Full Moon Party. Sorry, Mum, but as someone said to us when we arrived, ‘The Full Moon Party is kind of like smoking. You know it’s not very healthy, but you have to try it once to see what it’s like’.

 

Gearing / painting up for the Full Moon

 

It all takes place in Hat Rin (Haad Rin), a town set on a peninsula on the southernmost tip of the island and geared up in every way possible for the monthly influx of full mooners. The tongue of land jutting out into the gulf has a beach on either side; handily called Hat Rin Nai and Hat Rin Nok, Sunset and Sunrise respectively. Sunset is smaller and quieter, whereas Sunrise is where all the lunar madness happens.

You can tell that the Hat-Rin-ers are used to the parties because they are absolute pros. As the sun goes down, makeshift bars pop up on the street sides and along the beaches, tattoo artists sit outside their shops drawing swirling patterns in UV paint on the bodies of willing tattoo-ees, EVERYONE has some sort of neon item of clothing or paint on and the streets are packed, which gives the whole town a kind of eerie glow, as though you are seeing everything through a phosphorescent lens. The actual party doesn’t kick off ‘till late, when the whole town is sufficiently fed, painted and lubricated.

As for the party itself, there is no doubt that this is one of the best parties we’ve ever been to. The music is phenomenal, there are literally thousands of people and it all takes place on this paradise island moonlit beach. And if it all becomes a bit too much, you take time out and marvel at the revelry on Mellow Mountain or Kangaroo Bar set on the rocks above the beach. Recounting stories is probably going to be mighty dull (you had to be there, mrah), so if anyone fancies going, here are a couple of tips:

 

Some of our lovely roommates (we were in an 18-bed dorm) .. I think the girl’s expression on the left says it all…!

 

1. If you go to the island but miss the Full Moon, don’t fret. The enterprising Thai locals have cottoned on to just how lucrative the blow-out traveller trail can be, and have created an array of almost-but-not-quite Full Moon parties; Shiva Moon, Black Moon, Moon-Set – it’s all just an excuse really.

2. If you do make it to a Full Moon Party, you MUST book accommodation in advance. This does include weird and wonderful deposits which nearly always get declined and leave you with some very confused email conversations with hostels. Obviously the town is full to the brim around party time and most places want you to stay for between 3 and 5 nights. So get organised.

3. DON’T TRY TO LEAVE TO GO TO KOH TAO just after Full Moon. It’s where the party continues and everyone has the same bright idea – ferries are packed, and more often than not you spend a couple of hours in the merciless sunshine only to spend the next two tucked up in a sweaty corner of a jam-packed ferry.

In fact, thanks to some good advice from Luke ‘I’ve-been-here-so-many-times-I’m-basically-a-local’ Farley, we managed to totally avoid the Koh Tao crush and instead spent a few days discovering the rest of Koh Pha-Ngan…

Haad Salad/ Hat Yao

What. A. Place.

If anyone is planning a honeymoon anytime soon, you should seriously consider spending it here. Haad Salad, set on the northern side of the island, seems like an undiscovered chunk of paradise. Far less busy yet far more beautiful, this gives you an insight into true Thailand island life. From hammocks and beach bungalows at Lucky Resort (gorgeous family-run resort, unbelievable value) to freshly caught fish at the seafood market in Chalok Lam and lonely longtails silhouetted against a pink sky, this was such a find.

 

Hammock love at Lucky

 

During our few days of R&R in the north, we managed to rent a jeep for 24-hours, which gave us access to the whole island. OK, so the roads sometimes just descended into sheer drops of terrifying terrain and we may have come across a couple of wandering elephants on the roadside, but honestly, having the freedom to discover a place for yourself is ideal. Hats off to; Cel, who managed to get us out of the clay rut on an almost vertical hill with minimal clutch damage; Ali, who proved herself to be a ridiculously good cruiser after having been sans voiture for more than 2 years; Farles, for being reckless but really really knowledgeable; and Imogen, for not crashing.

 

Local Thailander behind the wheel

 

Perhaps three days wasn’t enough, but time is of the essence and we had to continue onwards and upwards to…

Koh Tao

 

Koh Tao

 

There is no doubt about it, Koh Tao is cute.

At only 21km2, the place seems tiny in comparison to the other islands of the Gulf, but that is most definitely part of its charm. It doesn’t have the holiday hedonism atmosphere of Phi Phi and is famed for it’s deep sea diving, so the sunburned Thailash-heads are diluted with cool-looking active types sporting six-packs and oxygen tanks.

There is more than enough for everyone. We spent some middle-aged time (probably my idea) at Shark Bay (see the map) – a quiet cove renowned for it’s coral and impressive array of marine life. The adjacent bay, Chalok Ban Kao, went  down  well as somewhere to relax with a cold drink as the sun goes down and the tide comes up. We had something a little bit different at Hat Sai Ree, the ‘town’ in Koh Tao. Busier than the remote reaches of the south, this was like a really relaxed version of Sunrise Beach, Koh Phangnan. Some great bars spill onto the sands – chilled out music, giant beds, and mesmerizing fire shows. You can party hard here, but the nice thing is you definitely don’t have to.

 

One of the ridiculously talented fire dancers on the sands of Koh Tao

 

And so ends our trip to the islands of Thailand. Apologies for a mega post.. it’s hard to be concise when you’ve  got over two weeks to cover and you’re fighting with an internet connection. I’ll work on that.

Any last thoughts about the islands?

Yes, a few.

It is ridiculously easy to get to and from and around all of them. Because this is such a time worn travel destination, you’re ushered from boats to buses like a herd of very sweaty sheep. They have this almost fool-proof sticker system (except when you’re Celyn and manage to lose it) so it’s clear to everyone where you are going and where you should be. The infrastructure of the islands is exemplary, and the roads are crammed with Sorng-taa-ou – basically, pick-up trucks with benches on the back working as taxis. Prices are non-negotiable – word on the street (Farley) is that they’re owned by the Thai mafia, which seems plausible given that on Koh Phangnan the taxis would routinely stop and pay a sort of informal road tax. The trucks on Koh Tao don’t have any roofs, which makes for fun if not slightly hair-raising (literally) rides.

The Thai people are gorgeous. Nearly everyone we met was so friendly and helpful and they absolutely love a practical joke. The food has been spectacular, (Massaman Curry, Pad Thai, Banana Shakes, Flied Lice…), the service sporadic and the bars absolutely brilliant. Plus, there is no denying that this is paradise. We’ve been treated to beautiful sunset after beautiful sunset, snorkelling with tropical fish, eating deliciously fresh food, drinking chilled beer… it’s perfect. And although we all complain of profuse sweating ALL THE TIME, we’re not really that bothered. Heat is heat is GOOD. And sweat clears your pores and makes you lose weight… right?!

Of course, there are some glaring flaws; tourists often treat the islands like a theme park and possess an astonishing disrespect for the people and the places, stinking piles of rubbish line the streets and cups and wrappers can be found floating in the shallows of the beaches, and the eggy smell of full drains is never far away. Yet, tourism is a massive deal here, and for every tourist tyrant, there are a whole load of people who come and enjoy and spread the word. For our part, we hope that everyone has a chance to visit at least one of the Thai Islands. It’s well WELL worth it.

 

DSC_0792

Truly Asia

Standard

Get any Malaysia Air flight and you’ll be treated to this a little gem, or something of a similar ilk.

 

 

OK, so the video might be a bit cringe and there is a rather high white-foreigner to Malaysian ration, but after having it on repeat during a 10-hour flight, you get the idea; Malaysia IS truly Asia.

This is quite a big claim to fame, and they’re obviously very proud of it. But what the hair oil are they on about? What is a true representation of Asia?

 

DSC_0413

 

Frankly, I haven’t a clue. But if the slogan is correct and if Kuala Lumpur is anything to go by, then I guess it’s all about sheer contrasts and diversity; an exhausting mix of bustling street stalls and new-age high-risers, samosas on the roadside and a Starbucks on every corner, temples and mosques and the occasional church thrown in for good measure.

Let’s put this into context. So we arrived sleepy and smelly into Kuala Lumpur late in the evening not really knowing what to expect, hop onto the train to the city centre and notice that this is probably the smartest train that either of us have ever caught. All the other passengers are well-dressed and smothered in electronics, there are flat-screen TVs at the end of each carriage with yet more advertisements proclaiming Malaysia’s Asian-ness, each stop is announced and clearly marked on an LED board with every station, the train is more refrigerated than air-conditioned, the stations have glass doors between the train and the platform so suicidal passengers don’t upset the timetable. In short, this is high-quality stuff. Yet, alighting in Chinatown, the area where we were staying, we walk straight into a night market. It’s similar to stumbling upon five different children’s parties happening simultaneously while someone slaps your face with a damp towel and shines a light in your eyes. The stalls are so close to one another that there is hardly room to pass between them, and glorious smells of cooked meat drift between the racks of fake sunglasses and Abercrombie T-shirts.  Hawkers beckon us into their stalls with promises of ‘good price’ and ‘gifts for lady’. Obviously we are awestruck, we never know quite which way to turn, we keep bumping into one another. Hectic, yes, but hilarious.

This contrast wasn’t a one off. Take the following day, for example. Suffering from mild jetlag, we spent the first morning sweltering our way up the 272 steps to the Batu Cave Indian Temple – a Hindu shrine in the cavernous interior of a limestone outcrop, frequented by bona fide Hindus, hoards of tourists, and a bunch of extraordinarily bold monkeys who are surprisingly adept at nicking your lunch. At the top, we were casually asking a bystander about the meanings of the various marks being painted on the worshippers heads, and we suddenly found ourselves ushered to the front of the temple to receive a blessing. Pretty moving stuff.

The 40-something metre high statue of Lord Murugan at the Batu Caves

The 40-something metre high statue of Lord Murugan at the Batu Caves

 

Starting the climb...

Starting the climb…

Inside the caves

Inside the caves

Monkey plus stolen goods

Monkey plus stolen goods

Compare this with the afternoon, where we found ourselves in hedonist heaven Bukit Bintang. This is an area of the city devoted to shopping malls, as in a WHOLE AREA THAT IS JUST MALL AFTER MALL AFTER MALL. No joke, this makes Oxford Street look like the ‘Reduced to Clear’ section of Tescos. For anyone that knows Celyn and I, we were TOTALLY lost. We’re not really that accustomed to shopping, even window shopping, and now we were being faced with square miles of brightly lit consumer culture. Sorry guys, but we were a little overwhelmed. We got lost in one mall, the Sungei Wang centre, which was actually TERRIFYING. It was like one of those scenes from a horror film where no matter which way they turn, they always end up at the same place. In a horror film, they are trying to escape from some sort of mad axe murderer, in our case we were trying to escape from the crazy ladies who wanted us to buy some sort of skin-lightening moisturizer. They KEPT RUBBING OUR HANDS. Weird.

In all seriousness, this area is phenomenal. There is just so much evident wealth. One shopping centre, the Starhill Gallery was more like a hotel, or a museum showcasing how millionaires spend their time. There was a jazz band in the foyer playing to no-one, the escalators were red a la red-carpets and the lifts had no numbers for the floors, just enigmatic labels such as ‘Relish’ and ‘Adorn’. What the..?!

Starhill Gallery Shopping Mall / Museum / Playground for the rich

Starhill Gallery Shopping Mall / Museum / Playground for the rich

Developing expensive tastes...

Developing expensive tastes…

Chef in a lift

Chef in a lift

 

??

?? 

Anyway shopping-mall-stress aside, we’ve come to see that this is what Kuala Lumpur is all about; contrast. And despite being a truly modern cyber-city, it is clear that it’s still managed to retain every ounce of the integrity and tradition from which it was originally built.

 

And we’ll leave you with a few more pics…

 

DSC_0464 DSC_0450

Early morning at the Petronas Towers.

The view from the Skybridge of the Petronas Towers - 170m up

The view from the Skybridge of the Petronas Towers – 170m up

Building on fire?? View of a high-rise bank taken from floor 88 of the Petronas Towers

Building on fire?? View of a high-rise bank taken from floor 88 of the Petronas Towers

Some of the flower garlands sold on the streets which can be bought as temple offerings

Some of the flower garlands sold on the streets which can be bought as temple offerings

 

Lord M again

Lord M again

One of the malls even had a HARRODS!

One of the malls even had a HARRODS! (Quite enjoying the ‘Please do not touch me’ sign)

PTs again.

PTs again.

 

Haere Ra Aotearoa

Standard

So ends our little sojourn in Noble Zealand; six months and one week since we arrived, and 22 hours until we leave.

DSC_0735

And what a time we’ve had. No car crashes, no thefts (touch wood), no more tattoos, two birthdays, one lost wallet, one submerged watch, two pierced ears, a lot of pies, and a fair few hellos and goodbyes. Although we’d like to think we now understand the meaning of life and we are fully qualified to impart our VAST knowledge onto others, we’re pretty sure this is not the case. So instead of a ‘here’s what we’ve learnt’ polemic, we thought a little summary of the best and the rest might be more palatable…

HOSTEL

Best: The Tree House, Hokianga, North Island. Exactly what it says on the tin, a hostel in a tree house. Remote, quiet, beautiful.

Worst: Any Base X hostel. Only suitable if you’re 18, enjoy listening to Journey and Bon Jovi on repeat and don’t mind the reek of adolescence. 

The Tree House, Hokianga - for some reason the only picture we took here was in the garden. Duh.

The Tree House, Hokianga – for some reason the only picture we took here was in the garden. Duh.

CAMPSITE

Best: Gillespie’s Beach, Just outside Fox, South Island. Camping at a beach on the wild west coast with the Southern Alps a seeming stone’s throw away, this was unrivaled in terms of scenery.

Worst: Donegal’s, Kaikoura, South Island. The campsite is a car park. Have you ever tried putting pegs into gravel? It DOESN’T WORK.

Dawn at Gillespie's Beach. Told you it was good..!

Dawn at Gillespie’s Beach. Told you it was good..!

OK.. Base X might’ve been terrible, but we did manage to make lasagna.

DRIVE

Best: Miford Sound, Fjordland, South Island. There are few drives in the world where the scale and beauty of the scenery makes you stop, drop your jaw on the floor, and release a volley of expletives at every turn. But this one will. You have been warned.

Worst: Wairariki Beach, Golden Bay, South Island. As if driving alongside a sheer cliff drop isn’t terrifying enough, much of the road had crumbled and caved in down the hillside so you had to crawl along the wrong side of the road hoping desperately that it would hold. Not the most relaxing of drives.

Milford Sound

Milford Sound

Doing a victory handstand because the scenery was SO GOOD!

Doing a victory handstand on the Fjordland / Milford drive because the scenery was SO GOOD!

FOOD

Best: Anything at Blue Carrot Catering – especially the pork belly, savory muffins and RASPBERRY CHEESECAKE. Nyom.

Worst: Packet noodles and processed cheese sandwiches. Our stable diet for about 2 months. When everything you eat is yellow, there is something SERIOUSLY wrong.

PUB

Best: The Mussel Inn, Golden Bay, South Island. Quaint, homely, eco-friendly (standard), brews it’s own beers and serves seafood. What more could you want?

Worst: The Queens Street Tavern, Auckland, North Island. You know when you arrive in a new city and you don’t know where to go and you somehow end up in a dodgy pub with evil stares and pokie machines? Well, that about summarizes our experience in the QST. Bad shout.

The Mussel Inn

DRINK

Best: A Porsche Margarita – a sparkling tasty treat given as a free birthday offering after our shift at Flying Burrito Brothers.

Worst:  Michelada – Another FBB concoction but this time they didn’t do so well.This Tex-Mex mix of Sol, lemon juice and salt is about as far from the bona fide Mexican drink as you can get. Don’t try this at home.

PINT

Best: Macs Ginger Brew – delicious alcoholic ginger beer. Crabbies better watch out.

Worst: Boundary Road Lawn Ranger – Beer with lime added in the bottle. Tastes like an alcopop gone wrong.

BOOK

Best: The Gods Drink Whiskey, Stephen T. Asma – a somewhat irreverent yet highly informative study on the application of Buddhism in Cambodia. Maybe not the best ‘relax-with-a-good-story’ read, but stuffed with facts and ridiculously well written.

Worst: Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps, Barbara and Alan Pease. Don’t. Just don’t.

FILM

Best: The Intouchables – Yes, yes, we know this is French. But it’s still AWESOME.

Worst: Lymelife – Another depressing American Beauty spin-off starring Macaulay Culkin’s brothers. There is a reason why they aren’t famous.

MEMORY

Best: Starting off Christmas day with a glass of bubbles, a Bavarian sausage and the paddling pool. There’s a first time for everything…!

Worst: Being really hungry and having no money in Dunedin but consoling ourselves in the knowledge that there was a packet of cookies on the back seat of the car. However, what we didn’t know was that there was actually both a bag with cookies in it and a bag of rubbish on the back seat of the car. Somehow, SOMEONE had managed to mix up the bags earlier, and we ended up with no cookies, smelly rubbish and A WHOLE LOT OF ANGER.

Dunedin - site of the cookie fiasco

Dunedin – site of the cookie fiasco

 

TOP 3 TRIP TUNES

(please note how it sounds like the lyrics are, ‘tidy as a sunbed’. See also if you can find the part that sounds like ‘shit job, thriller’. We never tired of this)

We may still be unaware of the meaning of life and path to follow and so on and so forth, but what we do know is that our trip would not have been what it was without all the people that we met and helped us on the way. They know who they are, but just in case they don’t, we would like to thank them…

Hobnob, Carl, Fiona, Anita, Jacqueline and all the extras at Prospect Terrace – home from home; Bart and Lucy, Parker, Tux and Boots; Randolph, Laura, Helena, Ira and Aly and the AIR BED; Miss Alice Mahy and Josh, Clover and Sabbath; Rosie Bates, her lovely housemates and the soft grass in the back garden; Gordon, Nicole, Aidy, Mark, Stefan, Kir, Hayden and everyone working at Blue Carrot; Dawie, Rahul, Bernie, Kuldeep, Joe, Josephine and the other Flying Burrito Brothers; Siggy, Marina, Ole, Amy, Sophie, Jostein and Rafa – the dream team; Mama Bilton and Jeffies old, new, future and honorary – Adam, Barbara, Georgie, Igor, Jasmine, Clare, Kim, Tawanda, Jen, Vaughn, Jeff, Oz, Mothership, Tonka and Tinkerbell; Anna and Simon, the brains behind the Masterton Expedition as well as the expedition-eers themselves, Lester, Charlie and other dice-weilding crazies; Joe the photographer who picked us up and managed to score us two free ferry tickets; Tom from the Welsh Bar and his disgusting cocktails; Soren and Thomas – we’ll see you at Rosskilde; Sam the German hitchhiker who was amazing company and knew Quentin in Berlin; Mel and Ollie – laughed so much; Tim Fox intrepid explorer – next time we’ll see you in Cali; All the people who picked us up when hitchhiking and the many that casually offered us a place to stay when we were stuck.

(Some of) The Dream Team

(Some of) The Dream Team

Standard night in at Jefferson…

If we’ve forgotten anyone, we’re mighty mighty sorry and did not do it intentionally (unless you’re the guy who picked us up, drove like a maniac and then dropped us off miles from anywhere.. argughgugh). We’ve had a blast.

Churr.

Tongatapu – Where Time Begins…

Standard

… and pretty much stays completely still.

DSC_0045

I’m being completely serious here. As the first country to the left of the international date line, Tonga actually is where time begins. So while Hawaiians are stumbling home in the wee small hours of a Saturday morning, Tongans are shushing  the cockerels and putting on their glad-rags for Sunday morning’s church services. Weird or whaa?

 

DSC_0388

 

However, although this is where time officially begins, for some reason this is also where it gets stuck. Having flicked through a couple of diary entries from the past two weeks in Tonga, after the first day or two there is a conspicuous lack of dates and times. As we soon realised, Tonga works on Tongan Time (see Ref. 1) , just one of the many endearing quirks and characteristics that make Tonga a real-life undiscovered treasure.

 

 

Even the animals seem to understand the whole Tongan Time concept...

Even the animals seem to understand the whole Tongan Time concept…

 

 

Quick bit of background – The Kingdom of Tonga (for that is what it is) is an archipelago of 170 islands that stretches over 800km and roughly gathers into 4 main groups; Tongatapu, Ha’apai, Vava’u and Niuatoputapu. The latter is so darn far away it might as well belong to Samoa. No joke. Tonga’s capital, Nuku’alofa is situated on the main Tongatapu island and is home to a third of the island’s  population. The other two thirds are scattered among the other islands and despite many Tongans having defected either to Nuku’alofa or indeed to the bright lights of Auckland (known colloquially as Auck’alofa due to the high concentration of Tongans) traditional cultural and living patterns are still much in evidence across this Pacific island paradise.

 

 

So what is Tonga actually like? Well, old and new collide in Tonga, perhaps more evidently than anywhere else, and this makes for a pretty memorable experience.  Teenagers walk the streets listening to rap music on their mobiles, yet gather for kava ceremonies as a way of catching up with their nearest and dearest. Unlike Pacific neighbours Fiji and Samoa, Tonga is the only island nation to have resisted formal colonisation and whether a result of that or not, it remains untouched by mass tourism. When the guidebook says ‘untouched by mass tourism’, it doesn’t just mean that queues will be shorter and drinks cheaper; it means that the infrastructure, the accommodation, and even the hospitality sector are not in any way geared up for tourists. People walk the streets wearing woven mats as skirts, coconut trees count as a valid reference point when giving directions, public transport consists of imaginatively decorated hand-me-down vehicles that operate on a system with no particular timetable or other formalities. Ever the naive traveler (and not ones to actually heed any advice), it took us a while to get used to this and although in retrospect it was a blessing it’s probably better to know this BEFORE you book.

 

DSC_0084

 

For a start, we were pretty pressed for accommodation. On the islands you have a handful of high-end beach resorts (aimed for the whale watchers and diving enthusiasts) and for those not prepared to remortgage their house for a mere two week holiday, there is little else in the way of accommodation. Guesthouses and hostels were slightly more in our price bracket, although finding one was not only hard but also quite risky – in terms of quality, not safety – and you genuinely have to rely on luck and meeting the right people. Take a wrong turning or make a wrong decision and you might end up spending the night with an insect menagerie and a toilet that seemed to have been imported from ‘Trainspotting’, as we unwittingly did.

 

Fifita's Guest House on Ha'apai Island

Fifita’s Guest House on Ha’apai Island

 

In terms of transport, getting from one island to another is a mine field. (Well, it’s not actually a mine field, it’s an ocean. But that’s just pedantic Celyn Thomas) Most palangi (white people) go for the safe option, and hop on one of the flights connecting Nuku’alofa, Ha’apai and Vava’u. However, even these are subject to frequent changes at short notice and the miniature planes don’t fly in the rain, in the wind, or if the pilot doesn’t feel like it. We spent a couple of wet days with a honeymooning Norwegian couple who were essentially trapped on Ha’apai as their flight had been cancelled and there was no next one for four days due to Easter Weekend celebrations.

 

DSC_0211

Public bus-boat to Pangaimotu island – about 20 minutes from Nuku’alofa

 

For non-palangi-folk and irritatingly hippy travelers like ourselves maaan, the other option is to catch the ferry. Now, Tonga owns 2 ferries – when one is heading north from Tongatapu to Vava’u, the other is heading south in the opposite direction. They probably meet and wave at each other half way.

What we didn’t know was that while one ferry is brand spanking new and has THREE TOILETS and electric lighting and A ROOM WITH AIR CONDITIONING, the other is a battered 1963 Danish cargo ship with an average speed of 3 knots per millennium.  Somehow, we managed to end up on the latter. For the record, we’re generally pretty patient people, but after spending 23 hours cooped up in a cockroach-infested cabin with three generations of a family and  nothing but a tin of corned beef and a homemade crossword to pass the time, the end of both our tethers was in sight. We had tried to research the ferries, I promise, but there were no internet sites, no offices, no working phone numbers and somehow nobody ever seemed to know what was going on. Although it seemed irksome at the time, in retrospect, it does have a lot of comedy potential as we found out when trying DESPERATELY to find out about the ferries going back to the main island…

Us:  Hello. We were just wondering if you knew when the next ferry is due to leave Ha’apai?

1st woman (owner of the guest house we are staying in): (shakes head) Oh no, no. no.

2nd woman (first woman’s mate): You know other couple stuck here because their ferry 12 hours early.

Us: Yes we do know that. That’s why we’re asking about this one.

2nd Woman: Tee hee

1st Woman: OK (looks skyward and thinks) Maybe Tuesday. Or Thursday. Or Monday.

3rd Woman (she was just passing..): No NO. No ferries AT ALL next week

Us: (PANIC) None at all?!

3rd Woman (resolutely): Definitely no.

1st Woman: (clicks tongue and shakes her fan at 3rd woman) No that’s not right. It must be.. hmm.. (under breath) it leave Vava’u on Friday, no maybe Saturday, so it leave Ha’afeva on …one, two, four… (thinks and counts days on fingers) Saturday.

Us: But that’s TODAY.

1st Woman: Oh. (confused) OK then. Not Saturday. Hmm, Monday?

4th Woman – (shouts up from the cafe below. She’s probably been listening all this time): MONDAY!

Us: Is it?

4th Woman: Yes yes. I just spoke to a ferry agent. It’s Monday morning DEFINITELY.

Us: OK, great. Thanks!

4th Woman: Oh wait. Hang on. Monday evening actually.

Us (CAN YOU IMAGINE THE EXASPERATION??): Evening?

4th Woman: Yes. Definitely evening. Around 6. Or perhaps 9. Or sometimes 11.

Us: So you would advise…?

4th Woman: Don’t worry. It will blow horn when it is leaving.

Us: But we need to be ON IT when it leaves.

4th Woman: Oh yes. OK. (smiles sweetly) Well just maybe wait there all day.

So fantastically POINTLESS yet hilariously funny. It not only shows the superfluity of any sort of timetable when taking Tongan transport, but also clearly demonstrates the geniality of the people and how they will try so hard to help you whether they know the answer or not.

 

Sitka - our beautiful Danish home. Probably would've been faster to swim...

Sitka – our beautiful Danish home. Would it’ve been faster to swim?

 

You know, Captain Cook was said to have called Tonga ‘The Friendly Islands’ because of the warm reception he received on arrival in 1773 (was this before or after their meaty dinner…?) That friendliness is still very much in evidence today and is probably why all those who visit leave with happy memories and one of those little half-smiles; like an eccentric relative, you’ll find a soft spot for it yet it’ll never cease to be totally MENTAL.

 

DSC_0388

Shipwreck off the coast of Pangaimotu island

Shipwreck off the coast of Pangaimotu island – free playground

DSC_0235

DSC_0283

DSC_0251

DSC_0297

Intrepid

The Blowholes - the sea smashes into the coastline on the south side of Tongatapu Island. Absolutely terrifying..!

The Blowholes – the sea smashes into the coastline on the south side of Tongatapu Island. Not going to lie but it’s TERRIFYING

RUN AWAY

RUN AWAY

REF 1:

Tongan Time (n) – sim. to normal time but plus or minus any length of time including days, weeks, months and even years. Most likely due to high humidity levels.

Example: Breakfast is served from 8 – 9.30 Tongan Time = All day breakfast.

Why Happiness Reads White… (Part I)

Standard

As is becoming a common theme with bigclimblittleclimb, we begin with an apology.

We are both extremely sorry for going AWOL in the past few weeks and hope that it will not happen again in the not too distant future. (sad and slightly sheepish face)

All better?

While we are (quite) sorry, there are valid reasons for this. It is partly due to our recent lifestyle change; that is, from hard-working city-dwelling internet-users to wannabe free-spirited campers with no roof, no shoes, no showers and no electricity. To be perfectly honest, living under canvas for a month has been nothing but fantastic and although the first few days saw us pining for a memory foam mattress, we now feel wonderfully adept at using just the bare necessities and average a BOLT-ESQUE 5 mins 04 seconds tent erection (ahem) time.

The second, and slightly more difficult to explain, reason, is that we are a little lost for words. There is something about the South Island that is. Just. Awesome. I know it sounds as though we’re just regurgitating the worst of Kiwiana, but it really is. The places and experiences themselves are  hard to describe without releasing a volley of superlatives and meaningless descriptions about ‘majestic / towering / forbidding / enormous mountains’ and ‘sparkling / golden / pure / soft sands’ (delete adjective where appropriate). And as you all know, happiness reads white.

Hence, we’ve said nothing.

Take a peek at the photos on our facebook page, which collectively should give you many thousand words and, in order to make some sense of them, here is a brief whirlwind tour of the past few weeks…

We started off here…

 

The Abel Tasman National Park

This was a four-day freedom kayak trip around the renowned Abel Tasman coastal National Park. Contrary to popular belief, freedom kayaking is NOT the same as a Newport ‘freedom taxi ride’ (where no cash is followed by a quick dash). It just means that you start at point A and arrange to meet back there however many days you want later. In the interim, you choose a couple of campsites up and down the coastline and as long as you make it to the correct campsite on the correct night with the correct number of people / kayaks / other necessary and unnecessary equipment, then all is well. The park itself deserves its pristine reputation and despite the floods of trampers, campers and kayakers in the area, it was one of the most unspoilt areas that we have seen thus far. If you want paradise, you’ve got it here…

Note for your bucket lists: if you can, stay at Mosquito Bay. Access by water only, dramatic tidal variation, and one of the best early morning views that you can ever ask for. There’s a reason why we found a picture of this on page 4 of the LP (fame).

IMG_2360

The eagle… (as she is known)

 

IMG_2364

Morning view (Incubus?)

Mosquito Bay

Mosquito Bay

Beamers

Beamers

We saw Tom Hanks...

Pretty sure that was Tom Hanks…

100_1549

Siggy and Marina training for the next Olympics

From there, we somehow got stuck here…

Motueka and the Nelson Lakes

By stuck we mean we just couldn’t leave. Perhaps it was the hippy vibe (ex-Luminators, dontcha know) in the area; perhaps it was the free campsites that we stumbled across; perhaps it was that we wanted to spend a few more days with our soon-to-depart Norwegian and Argentinian travel buddies. Whatever it was, the whole of the Golden Bay area was without a doubt one of our favourites, and our reluctance to leave is testament to that.

Dragging ourselves kicking and screaming (note: WRITER’S HYPERBOLE) from Golden Bay, we took the Wild West route down the coast, straight into Glacial Valley. Which is as exciting as it sounds. Home to the Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers, as well as a ton (not literally) of other, smaller glaciers, this is the Southern Alps at its finest.

View of the Southern Alps (plus cloud) from the Tasman

View of the Southern Alps (plus cloud) from the Tasman

Same again but at dawn (YES WE GOT UP FOR THIS SHIZ)

Same again but at dawn (YES WE GOT UP FOR THIS SHIZ)

Does anyone else distinctly remember studying glaciers at GCSE / Standard Grade / O-Level (we’re not judging here) and learning a whole load of concepts and formations yet never EVER seeing one? We certainly do. Everyone always seems to be able to explain the formation of an arret or a hanging valley or an ox-bow lake but, let’s be honest, how many times have you actually seen one? Do they even exist?

Well, here’s the thing…

THEY DEFINITELY DO! We’ve SEEN them and we can CONFIRM their existence. Panic over. And to put another dusting of snow on an already very cold, couple of kilometre long tongue of ice, these glaciers are one of a kind due to their position close to the sea; during the ice age (around 15,000 to 20,000 years ago) the glaciers actually reached the sea… probably the greatest slide ever.

The Franz Josef is the bigger of the two, but is so over-hyped and over-stated that you’re practically vomiting information on the glacier before you’ve even seen it.

FJ Glacier.. from the pauper's viewpoint

FJ Glacier.. from the pauper’s viewpoint

A few ks down the road you come across the miniscule town of Fox which starts at a solid good and only gets better. Over the (many) years, the glacier has retreated and left a Lord of the Rings type valley; sheer rock faces on each side and an ice-grey flat bottom. Tourists can walk for around 20-minutes to reach the glacier tip, which is both hugely impressive and quite terrifying at the same time. The great tongue of ice, light blue in the centre and dirty grey on the top, is enormous. You can see the guided tour groups walking on the ice looking like miniature action men, with a guide in front hacking out a path for them to follow. At random, chunks of the ice fall off and rock debris and shards of ice tumble into the slate grey river rushing out from underneath the glacier. Funny as it sounds, it was all pretty humbling. Partly because of the size, partly because of the insane raw beauty, but mostly because of the actual danger of it all – only a couple of months ago some snap happy tourists crossed DOC barriers and ended up under the ice. Rescuers couldn’t even retrieve the bodies because it was too dangerous for them.

Fox Glacier valley walls

Fox Glacier valley walls

Valley view from the glacier end

Valley view from the glacier end

The ACTUAL glacier (Fox. Naturally)

The ACTUAL glacier (Fox. Naturally)

Fancy a swim under there anyone?

Fancy a swim under there anyone?

Outdoorsy gimps (matching trousers?)

Outdoorsy gimps / geography teacher wannabes (matching trousers?)

One thing to rival seeing the glaciers? Seeing them reflected in a lake. Formed when the glacier retreated and left an ice block in its wake, neighbouring Lake Matheson should without a doubt be in the list of ‘Top Ten Photo Ops’. Have a look for yourself…

DSC_0585

The view of Mounts Cook and Tasman from Lake Matheson

Reflection?

Reflection?

All glaciered out, we got back on the road and drove inland through the Haast Pass to Wanaka, Queenstown and Glenorchy*; New Zealand’s very own Jane Bennett, Lizzie Bennett and Mary Bennett, respectively. Wanaka is another place that we found near impossible to leave; a small town hemmed in by a vast lake on one side and impassable mountains on the other three. It has something of an alpine village feel to it – probably because that is what it is in winter. Tourism is big there, but it hasn’t completely taken over and there is a real familial and cutesy without being kitch atmosphere. Perhaps the highlight was watching the Super 15 rugby match in a local pub – Otago Highlanders (the home-ish team) vs. Waikato Chiefs. The rugby set Celyn into raptures; the happy hour prices and free hotdog with every drink (we need that more in the UK) worked for Imogen.

Wanaka is often compared to its neighbour, Queenstown. Both famous for their second to none scenery, busy ski season, and ‘adrenaline junkie’ appeal, Queenstown is supposed to be the lashy crazy older brother while Wanaka lingers a bit behind in a sort of almost-but-not-quite second position. To be honest, I can’t stand the way that guidebooks compare the two towns. Yes, Queenstown can be lashtastic and you can down ten shots of Bacardi whilst doing a 1,0000 m bungee jump and then frogging (it’s not as dirty as it sounds) down a river. But, that’s not all, and it means that visitors nearly always arrive with preconceptions neatly etched on their minds. We felt as though we arrived with an idea of what we were in for and I think our opinions on the place were formed before we’d even crossed the Crown Range. Which isn’t fair for any town, no matter how good or bad it might be. Cursing guidebooks aside (our Lonely Planet is now lounging in a charity shop somewhere in Christchurch… but that’s another story), Queenstown is a great place to quietly fritter away a few days (if you’re poor) or alternatively, spend a fair bit of cash and knock a couple of years off your life (if you’re rich). Either way, it has a huge range of bucket list activities (although they come at a price), a café culture that rivals gay Pareee, a lot of Brits, and some really really good drinks deals.

 

Actually, who are we kidding? We know that one massive draw in QT was our happy camping in the backyard of Miss Natalie Farmer’s former house. And Ferg Burger.

 

We’re going to have to stop here, it’s getting late and the only other person left in McDonald’s appears to have died over one of the tables.

 

Hold that thought – we’ll be back for the second instalment shortly…

 

 

 

 

 

 

*For some reason we hardly took any photos there. Weird.