Tuesday, 27 April 2010

4 posts in one month? But madam, you are really spoiling us!

New Zealand really is an amazing place. I've never been anywhere where you can literally drive for hundreds of miles and only have sheep for company.
J and I decided to hire a camper as it was the easiest and cheapest way to see the country. Despite the freezing cold nights in the South Island, wearing socks, jumpers, jeans and hoodies to bed and hip pains from sleeping in the back of van, they do not take away from the fantastic experience travelling around in it was. The 'Super Tui' became our mucky friend.

As promised to a friend a few weeks ago, this is the rundown of what we did in our two weeks in New Zealand. Be prepared to break the speed limit and have a numb bum from so much driving:
In the North-Mount Mauganui, Rotorua, Lake Taupo, Tongariro National Park and volcano, Wellington, Martinborough; in the South-Marlbrough Sounds, Kaikoura, Franz Josef Glacier, Tekapo, Twizel, Queenstown, Dunedin, Otago Peninsula and Christchurch!!! Our favourite bit of the whole trip was walking up and through the volcanoes at Tongariro-amazing. Thanks to Rochelle for making our trip that little bit more special.
After such a good time in New Zealand, I wasn't all that keen on going to Australia. J may have had a few choice words to say about the Aussie officials, but my opinion was much worse. I was actually cursing the day Jon convinced me we ought to at least drop into Australia seeing as we had to fly there. However, I'm pleased to say that my first impression of the country was wrong. Sydney was a lot nicer than I thought.
There's a nice atmosphere to the place and I can see why so many people want to settle there. Possibly not for me but there's definitely a lot going on.
We did the usual: Botanical gardens, the harbour bridge, the harbour, the Opera House (all of which are located around the harbour) and wandered around the districts of the centre. We also took a day trip to Manley Beach (nice but flaming freezing. No sunbathing to be had there) and an hours drive up to the Blue Mountains with a stop off at the zoo first.
As you can see, we didn't spend our 5 days doing an awful lot. The harbour sights took half a day and we didn't do a fat lot at the beach either. We had spent 14 nights in the back of a Toyota van with plywood and 2 inch foam sponge mattress as a bed. We ate beans, toast and more beans and toast from our camp stove. We did nothing but relax in Sydney and it's a good place to do it. Besides, we'd had to sell a kidney each to pay for New Zealand-Australia is also not cheap.

The highlight of our trip to Oz was not our meeting with Clint the Koala or seeing the view of the Blue Mountains but meeting Gary Kemp from Spandau Ballet in a very nice Italian cafe. He was sitting there eating, minding his own business with his wife, kids and mother-in-law. And I got J to pester him for a photo. Poor bloke. Never mind, at least I now have a picture that could make me £50 in 'Take A Break'.

Monday, 26 April 2010

The Land of the Long, White Cloud

There was a possibility that Thailand's memorable month of April would've been spent celebrating Songkhran and having water thrown over us and flor slapped across our chops in any of the wonderful holiday destinations around these parts.

As it was, we went 'back to civilisation' via the 3 blobs of island in the South Pacific that used to belong to the British Empire and have long been cherished as a 'once in a lifetime' visit for most of us born in the UK.

So revelling in the three week holiday, we were off on the first Saturday on the exceptionally good Philippines Airlines to Manila. Which was quite an experience as the overly-fussy, dressed like an extra from Tenko, Aussie immigration officer delighted in checking the bags, whereabouts and intentions of us in a crowded airport.

This was our first 'experience' of the Aussie authorities whose reputation precedes them as a bunch of boorish, ignorant racists who for some reason think everyone wants to stay permanently in their boring, cultureless, shite version of England/America that they are so precious over it stinks of inferiority.

There I've said it- I've never met an Australian I liked- there I've said that too.

On with the journey then and a long plane ride to Sydney let us have a quick one day stay before we landed some hours later in New Zealand.

A country of just 4 million souls of course, New Zealand has always been something of a mystery to most people. Famous for the sheep and the rugby and its supposed better treatment of its indigenous population and a mass migration for artisans from England in the 50s.

The only think I ever knew about it was my uncle nearly took his family including my mother when she was a young girl back in the 50s (so I wouldn't exist of course) and a Blue Peter summer expedition to both former colonies by, I think, Simon Groom, Janet Ellis and Peter Duncan back in the '80s. So two things really.

All that's changed recently of course with Peter Jackson's LOTR trilogy creating the ultimate tourist information film and probably quadrupling NZ's economy in the process.

Nowadays it's the ultimate destination for outdoor types, thrill seekers and people that want to drive on unspoilt roads without seeing others.

It truly was a beautiful island though and it seems we might have got there just in time before it might possibly change for good. It provided us both with some special memories. From the drive down the north island from Auckland through the volcanic areas and wine tasting and good company in Wellington, to the mammoth trips across the south island in a big loop taking in just about everywhere including a wonderful two day air safari across the Southern Alps.

We really are very fortunate to be in this position and we do appreciate the opportunity to visit such wonderful places on the other side of the world.

Also it was a great opportunity to avoid any of the political unrest in Bangkok at the moment. Hopefully that will die down soon though as Mr Thaksin slowly sees his billions of baht slowly decrease with the wages that are being paid out to his upcountry 'freedom fighters'.

Oh to be back in the land of the long white cloud.

Sunday, 25 April 2010


A long time ago, before I fell into the 28-35 age bracket on questionnaires, I was told by a French youth in a New York hostel that if I was going to visit anywhere in the world, I should go to Vietnam. Many years later, having gone from North to South of the country, I think the chap in question exaggerated somewhat, however, Vietnam is definitely somewhere that I would recommend to anyone wanting to travel round South East Asia.

As stated in the last blog, we had just 6 days to travel length of a pretty long country. We started off in Hanoi, the country's capital. It was 13 degrees and neither J nor I were particularly well prepared for the 20 degree drop in temperature. However, the city is vibrant, manic, distinctly Asian yet having a very French feel about it. Another by-product of colonisation.

The Vietnamese have been colonised a lot. And they are very aware of it. They celebrated Chinese New Year with banners, fireworks and a five-day holiday. They had been colonised by the Chinese from 111 BC till the French took over in the 19th century. As a result, their streets resemble French boulevards and they do the best baguettes outside of Paris (not my quote but one courtesy of the inflight magazine. Though I'm happy to admit, they were very good). The French didn't leave till 1940 when the Japanese took over. This was short lived as the Japanese surrendered to the allies and then...
Their national museum, Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, the guided tour around the Cu Chi Tunnels all celebrate the fact that they avoided being colonised again- by the Americans.

Our stay in Hanoi was very lovely, very cold but also, sadly, very brief. We had to have a whistlestop tour of it's highlights by a lovely rickshaw driver who who had to pedal both me and J up and down hills in his little bicycle!

Next stop, Hoi An, a lovely little town on the coast which was also celebrating new year with gusto. After a few days there and a brief stop at the Royal city, we flew to Ho Chi Minh City which is still referred to as Saigon by Vietnamese people.

In Saigon, we visited the Cu Chi tunnels and the war museums. Our guide was a fantasist who, nevertheless, was extremely entertaining. We were given a rundown on the activities of the Viet Cong during the war, their tactics and their hiding place: the tunnels. Our guide Bean claimed to be a Vietnamese citizen born and bred who became a US soldier, leading a troop, and fought against the Viet Cong in the war. Somehow, I do not believe him...

Vietnam is busy yet laid back. The people are calmer and less materially orientated than their Thai neighbours. And although Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles, I felt the smiles of the Vietnamese people were a little more genuine and a lot less rehearsed. I enjoyed everything about its multifaceted culture and its friendly people. I couldn't live there as I've got a little too used to how developed Thailand is. However, I would definitely visit Vietnam again, hopefully spending more than a week there next time.