A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: GinSmugglers

'One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble...' 5-10 Dec

sunny 35 °C
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In a last ditch attempt to avoid leaving, Monkeh tries to get himself adopted at Sydney airport

When we booked this trip, we couldn’t get a direct flight from Christchurch to Bangkok so we had to fly Air New Zealand to Sydney for a connecting flight. The problem was that by the time we left the UK it wasn’t really a ‘connection’, as Quantas kept changing the time of the next flight leaving us with almost 6 hours to kill. In addition to that, we had to collect our baggage at Sydney and check in again - except that the Qantas check-in wasn’t open that far ahead! To top it all off, true to form, the Qantas flight was late. Well done Quantas, every single flight we took with them on this trip, all five flights, were delayed. Have I said all this before? I’m not planning to become a ‘frequent flyer’ with Quantas any time in the next millennium or two!

After a hard day’s travelling, Monkeh simply ordered in room-service in Bangkok

Finally, we were in Bangkok, flying over the city watching fireworks explode in the night sky.... did they know we were coming? We arrived at our hotel, several hours later than we’d hoped, tired but so happy to be there, only to find that we weren’t booked in until the following day. It is high season, the fireworks were because it’s the King’s birthday, so 200,000 additional people descend on the city and it’s a bank holiday weekend. We sat dejectedly in the lobby whilst a bit of sorting out went on, but at last, the President Palace people found us a lovely room and we were able to get some sleep.....

Colourful taxis & tuk-tuks from the President Palace hotel room

The next morning we woke refreshed and so excited to be back in Bangkok. After a fairly substantial breakfast we walked along the street outside the hotel, Soi 11, off the great Sukhumvit Road, dodging the tuk-tuks and weaving our way around all the motor-cycle taxis lined up waiting for hire. The pavement is uneven with lots of broken slabs, there are street food vendors and their hot steamy carts all along with little plastic stools and tables packed in tight. It smells of frying chillis, jasmine, incense and gasoline, it’s crowded, it’s hot, it’s humid, it’s wonderful and it’s so good to be here!

Our very own laundry facilities at the Marriott – bliss!

Since then despite our intention to sit in the sun by the pool and relax after our non-stop tour of New Zealand, we’ve been rushing about like a pair of headless chickens. We only had two nights at the hotel, before moving to the rather swanky Marriott apartment that we are in for the rest of our stay. I’m loving this place, you don’t appreciate a washing machine until you haven’t got one, but there’s one here and I’ve been gleefully washing every bit of clothing we’ve carted around for the past five weeks!

‘One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble...’ – Monkeh loves riding in a tuk-tuk!

Monkeh visits the Reclining Buddha in Wat Pho temple

We’ve been shopping in our favourite department store and supermarket and we’ve visited Keith’s Bangkok tailor. We spent Saturday at the big weekend market at Chatuchak, we’ve been to the tourist market at Patpong and spent all day today out of the city visiting the Summer Palace and the beautiful ancient Thai capital of Ayutthaya. We’ve taken Monkeh for a ride on a Chao Praya River cruise boat, two tuk-tuk rides (which he loved!), several skytrain rides and to see the big reclining Buddha at Wat Pho. We’ve also had three Thai massages each (Monkeh only one), but tomorrow we are going to laze by the pool....... for a while that is..... before we start our Christmas shopping.......

The crowds at Chatuchak market

All of us, on the Chao Praya riverbus!

Posing by the iconic image of a Buddha’s head encased in a fig tree, at Ayutthaya

A tranquil Buddha statue, Ayutthaya

Posted by GinSmugglers 20:44 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

The final stretch of NZ, 3rd & 4th December...

sunny 28 °C
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The New Zealand experience entered its final phase on Monday with the drive north to our last stop, Christchurch. As ever, the scenery on the way was glorious and we kept stopping the car to get out and take pictures or simply to look and drink it all in. We ate our simple picnic lunch overlooking one of the best views, the Rakaia Gorge.

Rakaia Gorge, where the blue water contrasts nicely with the yellow cliffs

But gradually the mountains and lakes gave way to rolling green hills and finally to the coastal plain on which Christchurch sits.
The city crept upon us suddenly, one minute we were driving through leafy suburbs and long stretches of tree lined roads, the next we were on a four lane highway with cars and people everywhere... and road-works! Road-works were everywhere, not digging channels for utilities or the road widening/resurfacing that we get, but rebuilding roads that were damaged in the earthquake. Even our hotel was still shrouded in scaffolding in parts.

One of the ‘munted’ buildings in Christchurch (NOT our hotel!)

Once settled, we drove out of the centre a few kilometres to visit Geoff and Di Illston, old friends who had emigrated to New Zealand 19 years ago. Their house survived the first big quake, but was badly damaged in the second, months later. It looks fine at first sight but on closer inspection, you can see cracks in almost every wall.... they are waiting for the insurers to decide if it would be more cost effective to repair it or simply knock it down and start again! Whilst we sat talking to them, we experienced another earth tremor... they’ve not gone away! They live in an outer suburb called the Port Hills, and they drove us up to the very top of them in their 4WD for a stupendous view over Christchurch city, its port, Lyttelton, and its beach suburb, New Brighton (of course), and beyond as far as the Southern Alps.

The view over Lyttelton, from the Port Hills in Christchurch

For our very last day, Geoff and Di drove us out to the coast to Akoroa, a really pretty little seaside town to enjoy a last picnic in the New Zealand sunshine. Akaroa is wonderfully at the head of a long natural harbour reaching into the Banks Peninsula, which is the eroded remains of an ancient shield volcano (and Lyttelton harbour is similar), so maybe it isn't too surprising that Christchurch is in an earthquake zone...

Akaroa harbour, with its lighthouse and yachts

On the way back they took us to see what remains of the historic centre of Christchurch, which had been a beautiful city built around rivers and parks. Now it resembles a war zone, with exposed interior walls of half collapsed buildings, great empty spaces where clearance has already taken place and piles of rubble where it hasn’t. I’d hope to see the remains of the cathedral but you can’t get a close look as the whole centre is fenced off because, obviously, it’s unsafe. A new word has evolved to describe the effects of the earthquake... ‘munted’, meaning something like, broken/destroyed.

Another of the ‘munted’ buildings in Christchurch (NOT our hotel!)

Great efforts are being made to save some of the more precious buildings and to keep people coming into the city. One such enterprise is the ‘Container Mall’ where gaily painted shipping containers are being used as shops, one container with a glass front as the main shop, another set at right angles on top for storage. The ingenuity of desperation.....

Part of the ‘Container Mall’, Christchurch

What is left of Christchurch’s historic Anglican Cathedral...

Then it was back to the hotel to squash everything back into the suitcases and get an early night ready for our 4.00am call and our last car journey in these beautiful islands... to the airport.

Posted by GinSmugglers 07:02 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Starry Skies, 2nd December

all seasons in one day 24 °C
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On Sunday, it was time to begin the trek north once more. Leaving Queenstown we drove up and over the Crown Range of mountains which gave us the most wonderful views back across Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables, which isn’t a boy band but yet another mountain range. The Remarkables are so called not only because they are pretty spectacular to look at but because they mark a direct North-South line.

Monkeh & The Remarkables (NOT a boy band)

We had intended to try another one of these activities that we are really far too old and sensible to even contemplate, but when we got to Omarama, gliding capital of the world, it was too windy to fly so we had second breakfast instead! We let Monkeh play on a display fleece (Omarama is also the sheep-shearing capital of the world), and drove on towards Lake Tekapo.

Monkeh enjoys a nice soft fleece

We went through Twizel (Pronounced twy- zell, not Twizzle which I would have thought was better!) which is a fairly new town, constructed to house the workers when the nearby hydro-electric scheme was built. The workers liked the area so much that they stayed and now it’s a well known ‘water activity’ centre. From then on we drove along the edge of Lake Pukaki and had to keep stopping because at every corner another spectacular view opened up. Mount Cook, the highest in the country, looked magnificent beyond the bright blue lake.

Great view of Mount Cook over Lake Pukaki

Another view of Mount Cook, from a bit further along Lake Pukaki

On the way along we’d admired all the lupins growing wild, all shades of blues, purples and pinks making great colourful carpets on the hills and by the roadside. Unfortunately, it seems that they are considered a pest as they spread fast and are taking over from the indigenous species.

Some pestilential lupins

Early afternoon and we arrived at Lake Tekapo, and our first port of call was the top of Mount John which is deemed to have some of the clearest air in the southern hemisphere and where the Canterbury University Observatory is situated. It might be a great place for star gazing, but it’s also pretty good for looking down over the lake.

An observatory dome on Mount John

Lake Tekapo & its village, from Mount John

Later we checked into Peppers Bluewater Resort where we were given a room looking out on to a small car-park and the back of another building. I explained at reception that we hadn’t travelled 13,000 miles to look at cars and a wall, so we were taken, in the hotel mini-bus, on a tour of the property and eventually selected a two story apartment overlooking the lake and mountains. It cost us an extra £30 but gave us a full kitchen and, oh joy, a washing machine and dryer!! Clean socks and undies again, yippee!!

The view from our studio room over Lake Tekapo & the Southern Alps

We went down to the few shops and restaurants that constitute the village to investigate booking a night time trip to the observatory, even though it was still very cloudy. We were assured that the weather forecast was for clearer skies, so we signed up and then spent the next 6 hours glaring at the clouds and wondering if we’d wasted our money. Whilst we waited we ate some great steaks which were presented to us raw with hot stones, so we were able to cook them to our exact taste. At 10.15pm we were collected from our hotel and driven the 200 yards or so back to the village to be issued with goose down jackets to keep us warm on the mountain. Unfortunately, it was still cloudy!

We were driven up the steep winding mountain road in a minibus, the last kilometre without headlights to avoid light pollution for the telescopes. Quite scary. One or two stars had appeared by now but we were first shown some of the professional astronomers’ telescopes. The observatory had humble origins, but grew rapidly when the Americans wanted to plot the space junk that might have ruined the Apollo moon missions. It was they who built the access road, too.

The first dome we were shown housed one of the older telescopes with a 1.0m mirror, now retro-fitted with modern technology and used for spectroscopic observations of external galaxies, and the second one held their newest and largest telescope with a 1.8m mirror, which is used to search for planets circling distant stars by looking for ‘micro gravitational lensing’ events. The search for “life, but not as we know it, Jim”.

Inside an observatory dome on Mount John

All this time inside, we were cocooned inside our goose down parkas, looking like a collection of fat, hot, chrysalises. I for one, was in danger of expiring from heat exhaustion but once outside, we really needed those coats as there was a gale force wind blowing but thankfully, the wind had blown away the clouds and the milky way stretched above us in all its glory. Three large telescopes with computer guidance systems were set up outside and trained by their expert operators on anything that was good to see... Jupiter and his moons, one of the very furthest galaxy we can easily see (11 million light years away), a star that had collapsed 64 years ago but still shone brightly because its light takes years to reach us...... clever stuff but beautiful and fascinating. We got back to the resort at about 1.30am and slept like logs!

An observatory dome on Mount John, with the top of Mount Cook in the background

The Church of the Good Shepherd, as seen from our hotel

When we did get up, we visited another local landmark, the beautiful and beautifully located Church of the Good Shepherd. In place of stained glass, its altar window frames the Southern Alps over Lake Tekapo...

The altar window in the Church of the Good Shepherd

Posted by GinSmugglers 16:33 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Lakes, Mountains and Hobbits, 1st December

semi-overcast 24 °C
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It's about time we showed you our travel map (you should also be able to pan & zoom it!)

Before we left home, I’d looked on the websites of all the hotels we had booked to check if they had wi-fi. The majority of them said ‘free wi-fi’ but in reality we discovered that the ‘free’ wi-fi turned out to be available intermittently, if at all, in some small corner of the bar. If you want internet connection in your room, ‘that’s $20 ma’am’! On South Island, only Glenfern Villas, in remote Franz Josef gave us really free access, bless them!

After so long in the beautiful snowy back-end of nowhere, the cosmopolitan mecca that is Queenstown came as something of a culture shock. The town is built on a bay of Lake Wakatipu with the mountains of the Southern Alps beyond reflecting in the water. It has become a weekend getaway spot for New Zealanders and is a centre for mountain hikes and white water rafting and LOTR tours.

Diane on Queenstown jetty

As we walked down the hill into the centre, we passed bars with people spilling out onto pavements, cafes and restaurants with tables overlooking the lake, all full! We hadn’t seen so many people anywhere since we left Hong Kong.

Monkeh riding the Queenstown cable-car (aka ‘gondola’)

Unfortunately, Saturday dawned grey and drizzly but, as it was our only day to explore the area, off we went. First we took the long cable-car to the top of Bob’s Knob, the hill overlooking the town. The views were misty but quite spectacular nonetheless. On a fine calm day, you can ride a chairlift further up the hill and then plummet back down on a luge, but, mercifully, it was closed due to the wind, so I didn’t feel morally obliged to risk life and limb and so we simply came back down on the cable-car again.

Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu and the lake steamer, TSS Earnslaw (if you zoom in enough)

Next we drove the few miles out to Arrowtown. An odd little place that looks like a wild-west film set. It’s a relic of the gold-rush days but has been prettified to the n’th degree with quaint shop frontages and flowers everywhere, so is a real tourist hotspot. Unfortunately it was really raining by now so our raincoats were used for the first and only time on this trip. We had lunch and waited for the weather to improve... which it did.

Diane in her stylish raincoat, in quaint Arrowtown

Back at the hotel, it was time for our Lord Of The Rings tour and we were collected by Alana in her sturdy minivan, which we didn’t have to share with any other customers. Much of the outdoor footage in the films was shot in the area around Queenstown, principally in Glenorchy and Paradise, so we drove along stopping at lots of different locations where we got out to take pictures and to pretend to be Hobbits, although I was elevated to the status of Boromir for one shot!

Diane acts out the scene where Boromir looks out over Nen Hithoel (the lake in the River Anduin)

... and how it looked in ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ film

Even without the film connection it’s a most beautiful area to visit. Alana kept us entertained with stories of Maori culture as well as tales of the films and behind the scenes happenings. I particularly wanted to see Lothlorien and I wasn’t disappointed, we even got to touch the first, original Ent (tree that walks).Then we sheltered from the drizzle under the trees of the forest to eat our complimentary and quite substantial afternoon tea.

Monkeh in ‘Lothlorien’ (Paradise woods)

The original Ent tree (reputedly), because its bumps look a bit like facial features - if you squint!

Posted by GinSmugglers 01:30 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Helicopters, highlights & hitchhikers, 29th & 30th November

sunny 25 °C
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We got up very excited about our helicopter trip over Mount Cook and the two big glaciers (Franz Josef & Fox) only to find the weather overcast and drismal. “Maybe the weather will be better further south”, we thought, so we packed up and made our way towards the Southern Alps. This wasn’t a boring journey by any means, every bend in the road revealed another spectacular panorama of dark green hills and snow capped craggy mountains. The low, grey cloud drifted around the peaks, and as we got nearer to Franz Josef Glacier Village the rain set in.

Drismal weather in the mountains!

Naturally our chopper jaunt was cancelled, so what to do in an alpine village whose sole existence is to provide a base for scenic flights and mountain walks - when it’s raining, misty and there are no views? Most people seemed to be wandering up and down the one street, looking in the tourist tat shops, or drinking hot chocolate in the little timbered bars and cafes. We really are in backpacker country here, with campsites and hostels way outnumbering regular hotels. We drove out of town and took a short but very steep walk to a lookout point to get a view of Franz Josef Glacier. We could see it in the distance, but a hundred years ago it could be seen from the town.... global warming strikes again.

Our chalet at Glenfern Villas

We checked in at Glenfern Villas, a little out of town, but wow! Proper little houses with full kitchen and separate living quarters and bedroom. So much space and so tempting to sit and make use of the free wi-fi, but on this kind of tour you have to keep going, so we went back into the village, to the Glacier Hot Pools and lazed in the hot water for an hour or so instead.

Monkeh & his blue penguin friend welcome the brighter morning!

The next morning there was high wispy cloud and the sun trying to break through: ideal flying conditions and even before we had packed up to leave, we could see the helicopters circling the glacier high above the town. We drove over the hills to Fox Glacier Village and presented ourselves for our flight, whereupon we were promptly flown back to Franz Josef... what had taken us 25 minutes to drive took less than 5 minutes to fly. We picked up another passenger and then it was up and away over the glacier. We landed on a snowy saddle, high in the peaks, to take pictures and play in the soft, newly fallen snow. Back in the front of the tiny helicopter with windows all around, it was hard to decide what to look at first! The sun shining on Mount Cook, the broad frozen river that is Fox Glacier, the lakes and plains all spread out below, the crags and fissures of the mountains. It was so beautiful I was almost moved to tears by the sheer majesty of it all.

Keith & Diane cavorting in the Southern Alps

Helicopter view of the Franz Josef Glacier

Monkeh pilots us safely back to earth!

Back on land it was time to get on the road again and start the long drive to Queenstown. We stopped to pick up a girl who was trying to hitch to the start of a trail leading up a high valley to some hot pools. It was 26km out of town so took only a few minutes. As we dropped her off, another pair of hitchhikers was waiting for a lift at the very same spot. Now, our car isn’t really big enough for us and our luggage plus another two people and their rucksacks, but they’d been waiting for an hour. So they squeezed themselves in and off we went. Stephanie and Trevor were from California, near Yosemite, and loving the mountain scenery around here.

The lovely mountain scenery around here...

The scenic west coast of South Island, as seen from the Knights Point lookout

On the way, we discussed local delicacies and how we’d all been told we must try to eat the local whitebait... Somewhere around Ship Creek or Haast we saw a sign proclaiming ‘whitebait patties $7’ so we rattled down a dirt track to a fish processing ‘shed’ where a barbecue was fired up and the whitebait patties were cooked fresh for us. Now, imagine what we know as ‘whitebait’. It was nothing like that! More like elvers, mixed with beaten egg to hold them together, then dolloped on to a hot griddle and served on bread with lemon and salt. Strange, but very tasty.

Diane & Stephanie at the Curly Tree Whitebait Company shack

What the freshly caught Westcoast whitebait looks like raw...

And what the Westcoast whitebait looks like cooked...

We dropped the hitchhikers off at Wanaka, then drove on along the edge of the lake admiring the wonderful views of the mountains reflected in the water. As we settled into our comfortable lake view room here in Queenstown, we speculated that our accommodation was probably considerably more luxurious than Stephanie’s and Trevor’s!

The view from our room in Queenstown

Posted by GinSmugglers 23:23 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

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