Tag Archives: first impressions

Angkor Wat-What.

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In almost direct contrast to the atrocities and sheer hell described in the last post, our next stop in Cambodia was quite literally heaven on Earth. Angkor Wat, the ‘City of Temples’, is both the largest Buddhist temple complex and the largest religious monument in the world.

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Walking to Angkor Wat at sunrise

The temple came into being in the early 12th century under King  Suryavarman II and is the earthly representation of Mount Meru, the home of the ancient Hindu Gods. (Note: Angkor Wat was first Hindu, then Buddhist – as it is today) The Khmer King and his successors were known as the ‘God Kings’, and each strove to build enormous tributes to both honour the gods as well as illustrate their own power and strength to their subjects and against their predecessors.

We’ve heard that the first glimpse of Angkor Wat is one of the most breathtaking and stunning experiences of the modern world. They are completely right. As we rounded a corner, we saw the temple come into view, silhouetted against the pale streaks of the dawn sky and reflected in the enormous moat that surrounded the gates. To actually get to the temple, you walk along a wide stone pathway, always with the impressive structure ahead of you. I have never been to Agra, but I can imagine that perhaps there are echoes of the Taj Mahal in Angkor Wat – both stunning in their architectural riches and religious devotion, both modern wonders of the world.

Our rather unorthodox sunrise crew

Our rather unorthodox sunrise crew

As you enter the temple you can see the extensive intricate detail on the stones, illustrating the time and devotion that was spent on every little detail. There are four towers which surround one large central tower, standing 31m above the rest. This gives the whole structure a sense of symmetry and unity, the height of the towers emphasising their closeness to the gods. What really strikes you about Angkor Wat is that despite the hoards of tourists (it was packed at dawn!) the whole area is just so peaceful. Although it is one of the world’s most renowned tourist attractions, it has retained it’s original ambience of calm and religious devotion, something that has become few and far between in the modern world.

The temple walls - decorated with 800 m worth of bas reliefs depicting King Suryavarman II's victories

The temple walls – decorated with 800 m worth of bas reliefs depicting King Suryavarman II’s victories

The intricate detail on the walls

The intricate detail on the walls

Inside the temple complex

Inside the temple complex

Sunup

Sunup

Equally as impressive, if not more so by it’s diversity and size (10 square km) is neighbouring Angkor Thom. To enter, you drive through terribly imposing gates, made all the more foreboding by the pregnant clouds that hovered aggressively above. The gates are flanked on either side by stone statues that depict a tug of war between 54 gods and 54 demons – The Churning of the Ocean of Milk.

The first temple you come to is the Bayon, which I perhaps wouldn’t recommend if you’ve got any sort of easily triggered paranoia issues. The whole temple, majestically dilapidated, comprises 54 Gothic towers that are decorated with 216 faces of the Hindu God, Avlakiteshvara. Word on the street is that the King (Jayavarman VII) who built this was more than a little off his rocker, and as if the feeling of constant surveillance wasn’t unusual enough, the faces are said to bear a strong resemblance to Jayavarmann himself. The whole place is eerie yet fascinating;  you clamber over piles of rocks and peer through darkened archways only to find that at every turn you are once again face to face with the coldly smiling Hindu deity. It is mesmerizing, enigmatic and very very weird.

The faces of Avalokiteshvara

The face (one of 216) of Avalokiteshvara

Cel's getting paranoid..

Cel’s getting paranoid..

The labyrinth of archways and entrances

The labyrinth of archways and entrances

 

The fallen archways

The fallen archways

More temple decoration

More temple decoration

Contemplating the crazy faces

Contemplating the crazy faces

There’s plenty more to see at Angkor Thom – the Terrace of the Elephants, Prasat Chrung, the Terrace of the Leper King. Each equal in beauty, each with it’s own story to tell. As we moved through, however, the blue-black sky which had been threatening us all morning finally broke and we were caught in a torrential downpour. Rather than a hindrance, it was a welcome cool from the closeness of the morning. Although photo-taking was now a no-no, the heavy clouds and sheets of rain only added to the ethereal atmosphere of Angkor Thom and Ta Phrom (our next stop).

Everyone knows Ta Phrom. It was in Tomb Raider, it might as well have been in Indiana Jones, it’s that world-famous image of temple against jungle; human against nature. Ta Phrom has been completely left to the mercy of the jungle which, as we know, is merciless. The temple emerges from thick jungle, barely distinguishable from the dense foliage and layers of dark greenery. Nature has run riot and tree roots hug the crumbling walls, emerging at incredible angles from the once beautiful stonework. Foundations have been overturned, and stones and piles of rubble lie everywhere, interspersed with lopsided gateways and broken steps. Some roots look like serpents, their corpulent bodies gradually choking the building and bringing it to the ground. It seemed so apt visiting this natural playground in the pouring rain, as though we were trespassing on a jungle secret that served to remind us of the power of nature against the relative impunity of humans.

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Growing THROUGH the temple foundations

More roots...

More roots…

...that look like something from a sci-fi movie

…that look like something from a sci-fi movie

One of the desolate courtyards

One of the desolate courtyards

 

And that was that, our experience of Angkor Wat. We only had time for a one-day pass, but it’s possible to have three- or (for the hardcore) seven-day permits. All we have to say is DO IT – this ancient site will inspire, impress and instill a sense of wonder that will last for a long, long time.

Thailand Island Hopping

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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.

 

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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.

 

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Truly Asia

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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?

 

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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…

 

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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.

 

Auckland – The Windy City?

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In the words of the  Love Actually nativity child-octopus, ‘we’re here’.

We’ve made it. All in one piece. No missing luggage; no missing body parts; and no errant prohibited biodegradable items in our bags (although going through customs was one of the more ridiculous experiences I’ve ever had). Despite some severe lapses in communication, we managed to find Scott and Carl’s house in Mount Eden, hidden in the depths of leafy suburbia, pretty unscathed.

First impressions?

1. It’s cold. Like serious cold. It’s the tail end of winter, which means we frequently flip from Narnia to the Saraha in a matter of minutes. When we arrived to grey skies and a spattering of rain, we did have a mild panic attack as we thought that perhaps we had flown to Kuala Lumpur and then mistakenly flown right back to Heathrow.

Dear God.

No, it’s not that bad. According to the New Zealanders, this week has been particularly blustery, and it’s colder than it usually is for October. Funny. Is this faintly reminiscent of the great British epithet ‘No, I promise you. It’s NEVER normally as cold / wet / unpleasant as this!’?

Whatever.

We are, however, thanking our lucky stars (YES, James Taylor) that we are wholly familiar with the concept, ‘changeable’.  Auckland may be on a slightly different equivalent latitude, but the weather is JUST AS ANNOYING. 20-minute torrential showers, freak gusts of wind, and bursts of sunlight hot enough to make a dermatologist hyperventilate.

Och well, nae boths. It’s layering and anoraks all round. Besides, word on the street is that you can still ski in the south. Worth a shot.

2. The culture, demographic and general facon de vie is… peculiar?

I know we are but 2 days into our ‘extravaganza’, and furthermore we have been told that Auckland is not a representation of ‘the real New Zealand’, but having caught possibly the least direct airport bus to the city centre, I can’t hep but notice how much the this country seems like a fully-functioning yet unfamiliar amalgamation of British, American and Pan-Asian culture.

They drive on the left. British. They have pictures of the queen on their coins (yet, for some reason, they don’t accept pounds. We tried). British. The nicest and most reasonably priced food is either sushi or Subway. Asian? American? You are just as likely to hear Malaysian or Cantonese in the city centre as you are English.

It’s quite fun actually. The infrastructure is most definitely influenced by the US. Not only are the roads wide and well-signposted, Auckland is also made up of mile after mile of suburban bliss – detached, coloured bungalow homes with steps up to the porch, letter boxes on the road and numbers going up to the zillions. Mix this with a whirlwind taste of Europe in the French souvenir shops and ‘Father Ted’ and ‘Danny Dolan’ pubs that are on every street corner. In fact, it is probably easier to find a European pint here than any sort of native fare. For example, ironically, our first NZ pint was in a Belgian bar, complete with Leffe on tap, pictures of Brigitte Bardot (pretty sure she’s French), and Hommes / Femmes on the toilet doors. Food wise, the best munch is most definitely Asian. Well, I guess we are in spitting distance (.. OK, things are a bit more ‘spread out’ in the southern hemisphere). Regardless, we have thoroughly thrown ourselves into the sushi market. (You can even get proper sushi packed lunches!) Nyom.

So how do we describe Auckland in a nutshell? With McDonalds, KFC and Subway restaurants, an enormous Deloitte building, and The National Bank with a rearing stallion as a logo (remind you of anything…?) it seems as though New Zealand (gross generalisation, what I mean is Auckland), rather than being merely tickled with the fingers of globalisation, it seems to be thoroughly characterised by it. This almost sedimentary identity has created something familiar yet exotic, a kind of welcoming mix that the New Zealanders have well and truly made their own.

3. Everyone here is so damn nice.

From the woman in the bar who looked after our bags and gave us our first pint to the boy on the street who saw me gawking at a sweet-dispensing-bus-stop-sign (I know, WTF??!) and gave me his card so that I could see it in action, we have yet to meet a bad tempered New Zealander. Long may it continue (although I don’t think we’ll have much of a problem!)

4. There are loads of volcanoes.

Two volcanoes in 2 days; Mount Eden and Mount Victoria. Good for the thighs. Pretty worried about imminent death by lava. Nuff said.

5. Jet-lag does exist.

We reckon we’re immune to it. However, we are finding it hard to explain why Celyn-who-never-goes-to-bed-earlier-than-1am fell asleep again at 9pm, and I’ve got up at 6am for the past 2 days. Must be something in the water.

Great times. So these are our impressions (probably misguided) so far. They may change, for better or for worse. We’ll let you know. Also, one last thing. Very exciting indeed…we did our first grown-up activity this morning.

NO. It’s NOT rude.

WE BOUGHT A CAR!

Possibly one of the most nerve-wracking experiences we’ve ever had, but the main thing is, it’s red and called Rosie.

Mazin’.