Whiskey & The Rock

Chiang Mai to New Zealand proved to be an arduous journey with a series of delays for all sorts of reasons. We spent so long in Kuala Lumpur airport that we started to feel like Tom Hanks in The Terminal. At one point we were even taxiing for take off and had to return due to low tyre pressure. In general, over the last 20 years or so, we have been pretty lucky with flight schedules. So I suppose we were due some setbacks.

Eventually we landed in Auckland at 2am, about two or three days after we left Chiang Mai. By this time we had stopped trying to work out what day of the week it was! Unfortunately, Auckland was not our final destination. We still had to get to the town of Nelson on the South Island and the first flight out wasn’t until 7am!

On our way at last.

The only thing open in the International terminal was good old Macdonald’s and the Domestic terminal wasn’t even unlocked until 4.30am. So it was a coffee and fries for us!

Luckily it was only a one hour flight to Nelson and on arriving there we only had to wait for one hour until the hire car company was open. That gave us just enough time to get a proper breakfast and coffee.

We then collected our car, loaded up the luggage, and were on our way. Independent again, at last!

So, what are our plans while in New Zealand? Well, we plan to stay here for three and a half months. Essentially a week of Spring, a week of Autumn and the whole of Summer!

The downside to that is New Zealand is quite an expensive country and we are here over Christmas, New Year and the main school summer holidays. So, several months ago, we arranged a couple of housesitting jobs, similar to what we did in Australia. The first one is for almost a month and the second one the best part of three weeks. This should take us over the festive period and the first half of the holidays, without blowing the budget too much. But most importantly it gives us our doggie fix. We both love dogs, especially Sarah, as she spent a lot of her childhood around them. We had a rescue Border Collie together for six years but our life now is not conducive to owning a dog.

After the housesitting we have then rented a campervan for a couple of months and plan to do a pretty comprehensive tour of both islands. Sarah’s sister emigrated to New Zealand about 8 years ago so we will definitely visit her and Sarah’s mother will be visiting at the same time so that should be great.

Then it will be a race for Steve at Ironman New Zealand before heading back to South East Asia in March.

It all sounds fantastic.

Our first housesit was only 40 minutes drive from Nelson in a little town called Motueka at the gateway to The Abel Tasman National Park. We arrived, said “Hi” to the owners, and then went to bed. Talk about knackered! We could barely speak. Thankfully the owners, Gareth and Sarah, completely understood. They were preparing for their own impending monster journey to travel back to the UK with no stopovers. I think they looked at us and saw themselves in a week or so!

Gareth and Sarah and their four teenage boys, weren’t leaving for almost a week but they had kindly put us up in the holiday cottage in their garden. This meant we could have a good handover and get to know Whiskey, the seven month old Hungarian Viszla we would be looking after.

“I’m Whiskey, pleased to meet you”

We had rented the car for three days, so after a little snooze we were up, straight out, and spent the next two and a half days exploring some of Abel Tasman National Park and the Takaka Valley.

Sarah on a beach in Abel Tasman.

It is an absolutely beautiful area. It’s incredibly scenic with a back drop of mountains, which when we arrived still had the last winter snow on top. The mountains are only a stone’s throw from the coast which is littered with small bays of golden sand and striking blue water. Between the sea and the mountains it is just green, everything is so green.

Looking across The Takaka Valley

We visited ‘Split Apple Rock’ reputed to be the second most photographed rock in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s very unusual but not quite on the same scale as the rock holding the number one slot, the huge Uluru in the centre of Australia!

Split Apple Rock.

We ventured over the mountains into the Takaka valley for more spectacular scenery and stopped in the very small “alternative community” of Takaka itself. It’s a lovely, tiny town that feels like it is still stuck in the “Woodstock” era of the late 1960’s. We stopped for a coffee and the girl serving us turned out to be from the same town in the UK where Sarah was brought up. She came out on holiday four years ago and is still here, now going through the citizenship process. You get the feeling a few people do that in Takaka.

Bright and colourful Takaka

After Takaka we continued on to Pupu Springs, which is reputed to have some of the clearest freshwater in The World. As you can see from the photos, even taken from a phone it still looks amazingly clear.

The water was pretty clear.

It was soon time for Gareth, Sarah and the family to head off and for us to move from the cottage in the garden into “The Big House” as Steve called it, and big it most definitely was.

“Who gets to mow that lawn?”
“You do, and the rear lawn is even bigger”

It has five bedrooms and all the other rooms to go with it. It is a beautiful home, set on a huge plot with big lawns front and rear and mature borders all around. It looked like a full time job to manage the house and garden, never mind looking after a young active dog, four teenage boys and working full time. No wonder they need a month’s holiday!

We quickly settled into a routine. Steve cycling in the mornings while Sarah walked Whiskey around a scenic inlet. Then in the afternoon we had ball throwing in the garden and trying to entertain the World’s most energetic dog. By the time it came to the evening we would all flake out in front of the TV!

“Does she ever get tired?”

On one of Steve’s cycles he was heading up a 14km hill nearby. Although he’s getting on a bit in years he still doesn’t like it when he gets passed. So when another cyclist came past him like a rocket Steve was out of his saddle and sprinting after him. Could he catch him? Not on your life, the guy was flying! Steve continued on and a few minutes later came across the guy on the side of the road breathing very heavily. Steve, being concerned, stopped and asked “Are you alright mate?”. The guy said he was fine and just doing some hard training as he was trying to get back in shape after “the off season”. “Off season?”, Steve thought and started to put two and two together. It turned out the guy was called George Bennett, New Zealands number one cyclist! He’s a regular at the Tour de France and winner of quite a few races in Europe!! “Are you alright mate?” … I bet he thought “Cheeky bugger”.

Motueka or “Mot” as it is referred to, turned out to be a lovely place to spend a few weeks. It’s a great town, with friendly people, extremely scenic and brilliant weather. To say we are on the South Island we have only seen one full day and two half days of rain in almost a month. We can understand why it is a regular front runner for the title of ‘sunniest place in New Zealand’.

“Hurry up with that coffee, I’m bored”

Sarah and Whiskey became regulars at a couple of the local coffee shops, and Steve found some great places to run.

On some of Steve’s longer runs Sarah would borrow Gareth’s mountain bike and accompany him for an hour or so before heading back to Whiskey, while Steve carried on. At seven months Whiskey is still a pup and into everything, so joining us on a run was not possible. With all the smells on the off road trails it was all a bit too much. Even just walking one day she darted down a small embankment towards the water and caught Sarah off guard planting her straight on her backside!!

A beautiful place to run.

Our time dog sitting in beautiful Motueka is now over. We are hiring another car and spending four days heading south to the big city lights of Christchurch where we are dog sitting again over the festive period.

Christmas in Christchurch, now there’s a thing!

Elephants & Temples.

We were both a little sad at leaving Phuket. Everything had gone well and we were becoming comfortable and settled. At the same time we were looking forward to, and excited about, visiting Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. This was another place Steve visited many years ago and it would be a new location for Sarah.

It was out of luck rather than good planning that we arrived on the holiday of Yi Peng. The city was decorated with lanterns and people were sending small decorative floats into the river which runs next to the old town. These floats were made of palm leaves, colorful flowers, and had a candle in the middle which were religious offerings.

Colorful floating offerings.

The main attraction of the evening was a long parade of various sections of the community, including people from outlying towns and villages. They were either dressed in traditional clothing or the clothing of the sports club or department they were representing. Each one was accompanied by a heavily decorated float, all competing for the prize of best turned out.

One of the many floats in the parade.

Every so often part of a marching band was interspersed with the parade and each group provided its own, very loud, accompanying music. It was all a sight to be seen for sure.

The local WI?

We were entertained by the parade for a couple of hours but with our stomachs rumbling and the line of floats still stretching into the distance we left in search of food, so we never did find out who won the grand prize. Steve thought the one that looked like a cross between The Lord of the Rings and The Little Mermaid was a definite contender.

Accommodation options for our first four days in Chiang Mai was thin on the ground, obviously due to the holiday weekend. We managed to find a hotel room which was nothing special but suited our needs and was a 15 minute walk to the old town.

The moat and old city wall.

Chiang Mai is an ancient city and is almost 800 years old. The city limits have expanded over time to make it the second biggest in Thailand. At the very heart is The Old Town, almost a perfect square with each side measuring a mile in length. Parts of the original wall and the four entrance gates still remain and the moat which surrounds The Old Town is still intact.

The Old Town is a fascinating place to wander around. A mix of Thai buildings from what seems like every year since the city was formed, all jumbled in together in a myriad of streets. The buildings contain everything from backpacker hostels to 5-star boutique hotels, from the ever present 7/11 convenience stores to upmarket fashion shops, and from street food vendors to high quality restaurants.

But probably the stand out feature of The Old Town is the vast number of exquisitely decorated temples. There are over 300 in Chiang Mai and a large proportion of them are in The Old Town.

A colourfully decorated temple in The Old Town

Around every corner is another temple seemingly more impressive than the one before. You really have to be selective or you could spend weeks checking them out.

Another impressive temple.

After the first four days we moved to an apartment close by. This was quite compact but was very modern, had everything we needed, and the added bonus of a roof top infinity pool. We were starting to feel like we might never leave Thailand.

A great place for sunset watching.

Chiang Mai sits in a valley surrounded by mountains with the highest ones being only three miles from the centre. This meant that with only a few minutes of fighting the city traffic Steve could be out on perfectly smooth tarmaced roads, that twisted their way up and up into the thick jungle with virtually no traffic.

Up above the clouds and the jungle.

We quickly established a routine of Steve cycling in the mornings while Sarah wandered around exploring the Old Town, doing bits of shopping and spending some time on her online Spanish course.

In the afternoon we would lay by the pool and then on most evenings we would venture into the Night Bazaar area. This is a big expanse, over several blocks, which contains markets, street food and entertainment. To be honest just strolling around was entertainment in itself.

We had planned, as normal, to cook for ourselves in the evenings but the street food was so good and so cheap it was silly not to do it. We could eat a ton of great food and have change out of £5 for both of us! Sarah became addicted to Thai Yellow Curry, rice noodles and corn fritters. The woman who ran the stall had already started her order when she saw her coming each night.

Delicious food everywhere!

Everyday that went by we enjoyed Chiang Mai even more. We could understand why it has become a favourite for digital nomads and expats.

There were a couple of things we wanted to do outside the city though and one of them was to visit an elephant sanctuary.

Some of our best memories from travel have been through wildlife encounters. But we are extremely conscious about doing this in the right way. We are very aware how in many places animals are exploited for tourism and are made to work in terrible conditions.

When we saw humpbacks in Australia we did it with a conservation project accompanied by marine biologists. We swam with Whale Sharks where tour licenses were strictly controlled and protocols were enforced. We try to put ourselves in safe situations where we see animals in their natural surroundings such as Big Crocs, Cayman, Sea Eagles, Cassowary to name a few.

So when we decided to try and see elephants in Thailand we carried out a ton of research before we committed.

We eventually decided on a sanctuary an hour outside of the city with only six elephants, (five adults and a four year old!). All had been rescued from either the logging industry in Thailand or Laos, or from a circus. The sanctuary effectively take any profits from the tourism and save until they can afford to actually buy the elephants from the logging industry.

They are then brought back to the huge area of the sanctuary where they are free to roam around the jungle at will. They are not forced to interact with visitors but when you spend 20 hours a day eating and there is easy bananas and sugar cane on offer at the main centre they are pretty much guaranteed to turn up.

We made the journey up to the sanctuary in the back of a songthaew (more on those later) and what a day we had.

From start to finish it was incredible. You get up close and personal with the elephants and also get to feed them. You are encouraged to carry as much as you can hold as they are big eaters.

Sarah with a hungry baby.

Once the food is gone the elephants are free to wander off back into the jungle. However, there is a mud pool nearby and the elephants sometimes like a dip in there to cool off. We were lucky that three of them chose this option and we were encouraged to get into the mud pool and help cover them in mud. One elephant in particular seemed to be enjoying this and almost completely submerged herself with her trunk sticking up like a snorkel.

“A bit more behind the ear please”

After the mud bath it was time for the swimming pool to wash off. So we followed them to a large natural pool and all jumped in together.

Do you visit this spa often?

It reminded us of the equivalent of a top spa day. Some nice food, a mud bath treatment, a refreshing swim and then off to relax for the afternoon. “Not a bad retirement home after a life of hard labour”, said Steve.

The day had been so much more than we had expected and Sarah in particular was in her element.

Mudding it up!

Lunch for us was part of the deal, but this had a bit of a twist to it. We were given a cooking demonstration and then told to get on with it and cook our own Thai chicken noodle soup. Luckily it was pretty straightforward and only one or two over did it on the spices!

When we look back at our travels in the future, there will be some days which will really stand out above others as being amazing experiences and we are sure our day with the elephants will be one of them. It was awesome!

In many of the countries we visit, getting around using local transport is all part of the fun. This is no more true than in Thailand and South East Asia as a whole.

Chiang Mai has its fair share of the ever present tuk-tuk, found all over Asia. But it is also home to a large number of Songthaew (pronounced songtail).

Sarah using the local transport.

These are similar in design and function to the ‘Collectivios’ in Mexico but with no fixed route. Essentially they are Toyoto Hilux cabs with a covered back which contains two wooden benches on opposite sides, in which you can squeeze up to 12 people (Thai’s are quite small). They have no fixed route and each journey costs 30 bhat (about 70p).

A songthaew and a temple. It has to be Chiang Mai.

You stand on the street, flag one down and tell the driver where you want to go. You then jump in the back and off you go until someone else flags the driver down whose destination is likely to involve a small detour. On this detour someone else gets in and another detour is taken, and so on, until you arrive at you destination, or as near to it as you are willing to accept! I suppose the tip is, don’t use songthaews if you are in a hurry, but if you’re not, sit back and enjoy the tour.

“I wonder how busy this one will get?”

The other thing we really wanted to do whilst in Chiang Mai was to visit the temple at Doi Suthep. This is an important temple complex and stands on a mountain 3000 feet up, outside of the city.

Steve had already been up to the entrance seven times as it was on one of his cycling routes. But this time we made the climb together once more in the back of a songthaew.

The temple complex is amazing and well worth the journey up. Not only are the buildings themselves visually impressive but the view across the city and the whole valley was amazing.

The view across the valley.
Amazing decoration.

We wandered around the complex and came across a small temple where a few people were queuing. We saw that there was a Buddhist monk sitting inside and the people were queuing for a blessing. Although the rest of the people appeared to all be Buddhist, Sarah decided to join the queue. When she got to the front she was warmly welcomed by the monk who happened to speak a little English and she received her blessing, after which the monk encouraged Steve to take a photograph of the experience.

Sarah and the monk.

A couple of days later Steve made another trip to the 11km hill to Doi Suthep. This time as he approached the start it was incredibly busy with people everywhere and the road was blocked by army personnel. Steve spoke to a few people and it transpired it was part of the local university graduation celebrations. All the students were making the pilgrimage to the temple by foot and the only vehicles being allowed through were support vehicles, mopeds and cycles. Brilliant thought Steve, this should be fun and off he went.

There were well over 5,000 people walking up the mountain that day, maybe even double that. All were walking up in a disciplined line, wearing the shirts of their various university courses, and all looking like they were having a great time.

A long pilgrimage up to Doi Suthep.

Every kilometre or so there were aid stations giving out free water, energy drinks and food, some even had barbecues on the go.

It was another one of those unexpected events that we seem to encounter with what seems like a growing regularity. Travel is great.

It seemed like only yesterday that we met Mike back in Kuala Lumpur, but we have been in Asia for 6 weeks! We have done so much and it has been brilliant from start to finish but it has gone in a flash. Our plan is to return for more of South East Asia for a month next March, maybe to Vietnam and Cambodia. But for now we are continuing ever further South to Aotearoa, The Land of the Long White Cloud, or what most people know as New Zealand!

Back On Our Own.

So with Mike on his way back to The UK we headed to Phuket in Thailand. So, why Phuket? Well we did ask ourselves the same question. The island has developed a reputation over the last few years of becoming very Westernised and over commercialised, and this is very much the case in large sections. It is unrecognisable from the island Steve first visited almost 30 years ago. There are, however, still parts of the island which have either resisted the change or been protected from it. You just have to go a little out of your way to find them.

To be honest, if we had wanted quiet beaches and a few beach side restaurants serving basic menus we wouldn’t have gone to Phuket. There are still other places in Thailand that better offer that experience. The big deciding factor was the cycling! We are going to be in New Zealand while a big Ironman Triathlon is taking place. It’s one of the last couple of major races that Steve has not done. So the opportunity to compete was never likely to be passed. Phuket is starting to become a training destination for some top class athletes after a World class sports complex was built in the centre of the island (obviously we weren’t staying there!). With the combination of hills, smooth roads, and of course hot weather, it made for a good choice.

Having some previous knowledge of the layout of the island, we decided to base ourselves in an apartment at the North end of BangTao beach. We had stayed here before about 15 years ago and for us it is in a great location. Any further South and you start to get swallowed by the vast tourism machine that has been created. I’m sure one day it will consume the whole of the island but for now parts do survive. Also, the last time we stayed here Sarah accidentally left 72 Singapore dollars in a bed side cabinet and Steve was hoping it might still be there!

A nice view from the balcony.

Our apartment was beautiful and really brought home how, compared to many parts of The World and with a little searching around, you can still get great value for money in South East Asia. We won’t say how much it was but it was cheaper than a 2km taxi ride in Oslo!

We were perched on the edge of a golf course, five minutes walk from a glorious golden sandy beach, and a small town nearby offered everything we needed. It was perfect. We even watched a group of workers cutting back the palm trees right in front of our balcony. They would skillfully climb up the tree trunk and hang on with their knees as they cut down the leaves and coconuts. Sarah being Sarah managed to go down and talk to them and get a coconut. Steve being Steve managed to get one of them to throw a coconut to him on the balcony!

Steve in action catching a coconut.

We spent a couple of days settling in. A few hours on the balcony, off to the beach, a walk into town for coffee and provisions and finishing off with a swim in the lovely pool. We started to remember why we had made quite a few trips to South East Asia in the past.

Steve did a few miles out on his bike to find the best routes and then Sarah rented a moped so she could come along. We had a brilliant time exploring the entire Island. We even made an early start one morning and rode the 20 miles or so down the West Coast to see the non stop bars, massage parlours, clubs, Burger Kings, KFC’s etc, etc, before it all woke up and sprang into life.

We made a trip off the Island and across the bridge onto the mainland and up to Phang Nga Bay. This place is visually spectacular with dozens of small, tree covered hilly islands, scattered across the vast blue bay. It was made famous as one of the locations for the filming of the James Bond film, ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’.

Sarah looking out over Phang Nga Bay

We toured the Northern interior of Phuket which is so different from the tourist strip that most people see. With lots of small villages on quiet roads through wooded areas which provided much needed shade.

Sarah pushes Steve on up a hill.

We also made the trip to the Big Buddah, a 20 year project which is almost at its completion. Constructed of blocks of white marble from Myanmar, the Buddah stands 45 metres tall at the summit of a steep mountain.

Dark clouds circle Big Buddah

Our trip there wasn’t entirely successful. It was a cloudy day when we set off and even more humid than normal. We had been riding the bike and moped for three hours before reaching the bottom of the Big Buddah road. Steve wasn’t expecting the steepness of the climb which, in several places, was over a 20% gradient. He struggled to the top, hungry, thirsty and exhausted. Then the clouds burst and it started to rain. Boy did it rain. Sarah braved a few photos before we crept back down the steep road, very slowly, as it turned into a stream. We hit the main highway and decided to follow it home as it was the quickest way back. The rain hammered down, the traffic didn’t slow down, and we sped along with the rest of the mayhem. Sarah was getting cold, being drenched and just sitting on the moped. Steve was getting hot as he peddled furiously to keep up.

Here comes the rain!

Eventually we got back to the apartment and dried off. “It’s all experiences”, said Steve. “You will not forget your day out to The Big Buddah in a hurry”.

The next day the sun was out again and we both had a day out together on the moped. Obviously Sarah was driving as we still have the scars from the last time Steve was driving and Sarah was on the back. But that’s another story and a painful one!

Sarah in the driving seat this time!

We made our way up to Nai Thon beach. This is one of our favourite beaches on the island. Set between two steep headlands, it is a wide, golden beach backed by tall trees and a small strip of shops, bars and accommodations.

The beach at Nai Thon.

We have never seen it crowded and it’s a great place to watch the World go by and do some people watching.

The final place of note that we visited in Phuket was Surinat National Park. This is pretty close to the airport, which might put some people off going, but there is much much less noise from the occasional plane than from the bars, clubs and everything else down in Patong.

Sirinat National Park is great.

The beach here is amazing and it is what Phuket used to be like. It is around 2km long and when we were there we saw less than 30 people. There are three or bars at one end serving food and amazing smoothies. It’s definitely the place to come to escape for a day or even a week.

The smoothies are delicious.

So the time had come to leave or comfortable apartment and move on. Phuket had been super easy and we were almost regretting that we had made plans to head North. With the exception of Big Buddah in the rain everything had been perfect. We were even able to laugh about that now.

But we packed up, made our way to the airport and jumped on a plane to Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand. “I’m a bit disappointed the Singapore dollars weren’t still there” said Steve as the plane left the runway and a new adventure beckoned.

“Hey Sarah. I’m thinking of changing my hair style. What do think?”