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Final Episode

Six months ago we embarked on an adventure to take us to visit Hayley, Aaron and Jake in Alabama. To see Rikki and Shirley in Hong Kong, Tony, Claire and Chloe in Thailand, Kate and Cath in Australia and, finally, The Wheelers, all of them, in New Zealand.

Three continents, 14 flights, 30 hotels, 17 boat trips later we have no more sleeps before the final two flights to land us safely on UK soil on Tuesday 5th September.

Last week we returned from our whistle-stop tour of South Island, New Zealand. I had been expecting big things of this larger of the two islands, and I must say, I was a little disappointed. The North Island had me moved. The overwhelming friendliness of the people, the rich culture, the extraordinary landscapes and the pride of the nation in their heritage and ownership of this land, blend harmoniously into a spiritual cocktail that excites the mystical tastebuds, warms your sacred heart and settles smoothly for a long digestion.

The South Island fell short of this nourishing experience. Perhaps South Island first, is a better idea. The entree to the perfect meal. We are replete.

On South Island we went in search of more soul food and found only fast food. And like the annual trip to Mcdonalds, we enjoyed it tremendously. We kept our visit south of Christchurch, concerned mainly about the weather. Earthquakes, floods and snowfalls had dominated the weather forecasts for months and weeks leading up to the trip. We therefore resisted the famous ferry crossing from north to south and flew, Air New Zealand, into Christchurch. Immediately, and upon sound advice drove to Akaroa, east of the city. What a delightful drive and an even more delightful coastal town. With a major French influence, this exclusive settlement nestled neatly into the mountain side and down to sea level. Given the opportunity we might have prolonged our stop, but a walk along the jetty, a chat with the lady in the wool shop, another flat white and English tea and ploughman’s lunch later we were off, bound for Timaru.

Roads, like I have mentioned before, are essentially empty. With only a population of 800,000 people on SI, in a space just over half of UK, you will appreciate how empty, empty is, and generally straight too. Particularly here. This is why cruise control was created.

Following a night in a room designed for wheelchair users, which, of course included the regulation oversize wet room, we zoomed off towards Lake Tekapo. More overuse of cruise control and interminably long straight roads lead us through and into just the most spectacular of landscapes. At one point we were totally surrounded by snow capped mountains, deep blue skies and warm embracing sunshine. Standing on the empty road, listening to the silence of nature, the feeling of overwhelming humbleness will last and last. This astonishing section of our trip from Lake Tekapo to Te Anau was simply breathtaking. The number of times I felt the need to stop was becoming silly. On an adventure as this, where we set targets for our days journey, which, by its very nature can be anywhere we really want to go, but with the goal being the hotel we are booked in to, the need to stop is pressured by the need to progress. The lure of the landscape is such that I make progress at the expense of enjoying and relishing the environment. Hence a real call to return.

I have been asked by many people about the highlights of NZ, and I was about to mention some on this particular section of the journey to Te Anau, but in doing so I would diminish those places not mentioned and that would be wrong and ill considered. What I can say is that we avoided Queenstown. It is pointless for me to search for words to describe our feelings for this area. It is quite simply nature at her most beautiful.

Milford Sound has been a bucket list destination for many years. Ever since my coming of age, in photographic terms, and seeing the elegant power of Milford Sound in photographs, as THE place to be, as a photographer, I have held the ambition secret. And now here it is, on a map, on a road sign, right in front of me. The drive begins. And what a drive. More Scenery, with that intended capital. Winding roads, around steep-sided mountains with long drops should anything untoward occur. Milford Sound is fed by hundreds of waterfalls that cascade in a photogenic dancing display of liquid poetry.

Our day was overcast as we cruised for two hours along the length of the sound but the immensity of the geography and wildlife, spotted in the water, was by no means a dampener on the experience. Sleeping seals on the rocks with rare blue penguins making a fleeting appearance enriched the cruise. The captain decided to steer the bow of the boat, where both Jo and I were situated, into the tumbling waters of the largest of the falls. The noise was colossal, dare I say, this was the sound of Milford? Concealing cameras neath our waterproofs, we were soaked. So much for the waterproofs! Throughout our trip we have enjoyed climbing and descending waterfalls, but to be driven into one, came as a surprise. Actually a refreshing and welcome surprise.

This country. What can I say?

We travelled from Te Anau to our southern most point on our trip, Gore, the country music capital of NZ, apparently, and also the Worlds Centre for brown trout fishing. Who knows? But that’s what the signs said on the road in and the road out. We didn’t stay long enough to test the validity of either of those claims. But we marked that fact that were weren’t far away from Antartica!

En route for Dunedin, to visit an ex-colleague of Jo’s from school. Quite a delightful lady, whose passion is frogs. Once again we were smitten by this city and the surrounding geography of bays, inlets and islands. Water has huge appeal. Like attracts like? We went in search of albatross. No live ones to be found, unless we were prepared to fork out $50 to see some babies. It struck me that a baby albatross will look much like a seagull, and there were plenty of those flying around for us to see for free!

We did find another wonderful black sand beach that stretched for miles along this never ending and changing coastline.

The All Blacks were playing against Australia in Dunedin whilst we were there. Resisting the temptation to buy tickets, they were available (quite surprising), we opted for a big screen in an Irish pub just away from the ground. Great atmosphere as I cheered for the underdogs (OZ) as they scored two breakaway trys! I then applauded the All Blacks as they found their way to the win in the second half. I was actually applauding the rugby and the spirit of the game. Quite special.

Oamaru was our next stop en route to Christchurch for our flight back to Auckland. This provided us quite a shocking moment as we went in search for an evening meal. We turned a corner towards the harbour to be confronted with, what I can only describe as “death”. The annual three-day hunting competition had just reached its climax and on full display was the “kill”. Both deer and wild boar were strewn across the road and walkways. Those that weren’t there, were either in the back of open four wheel drive pick-ups or being dragged unceremoniously to them. This was death on a scale that I had not seen the likes of previously. I have had a sheltered life perhaps? This was a life that was new to me. These men, and some women, were hunters. Their kill at their feet. They talked and joked and drank beer and children played with the horns and helped, these once magnificent creatures, to be dragged lifeless across the concrete and gravel to the waiting transport for the next episode in their imposed fate.

The previous day in Oamaru we found a more somewhat contrasting side to the Kiwi culture. Ancient cave drawings on two separate sites held us peacefully fascinated.

We made it back to Christchurch and then hence to Auckland and the ferry to Waiheke. It is here where we have been made entirely welcome, at home and at peace. Our wonderful hosts at Citrine, along with their two children, have made this final week the special icing on this rather large and extensive cake. Cakes have been a feature of our trip, none more so than yesterday, Sunday 3rd September – Christine’s 64th birthday. Such a lovely day.

In just a few hours we shall be leaving for the UK and in doing so regaining the complete day that we lost coming here. Our journey has been outstanding. Our lives have changed. We shall need time to reflect and so put the experience into a perspective that we understand more fully.

Our family, who we miss wonderfully, have been special every step of the way. They have shown us the support, love and understanding that is the utter essence of family, and we love them to bits.

Folk along our journey who made it possible for us: –

UK – Tom, Emily and Jack. House sitters and business operators extraordinaire.

USA – Hayley, Aaron and my mate Jake, of course. Exceptional English and American hospitality.

HONG KONG – Rikki and Shirley. Just the best couple in town, and its a big town!

THAILAND – Claire, Tony and Chloe. An exceptional family and the epitome of friendship.

AUSTRALIA – Kate and Cath. A loving couple who seem to share it with the world.

NEW ZEALAND – Christine, David, Robert, Amara, Ella…our extended family. The world should be filled with more of these people. We have been blessed to know them since before we were married and the rejuvenation of our relationship has been a timely reminder that we must always seek friends with hours to live, not hours to kill. We have certainly lived. Our lives have been moved to a new place. We have gone to where the weather suits our clothes. Our wardrobe will soon suffer some scrutiny towards deciding where next?

 

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Episode 20

NORTH ISLAND NZ

My eyes are bulging on this endless feast of visual treats, and my appetite grows with every mountainous morsel and most spacious of spoonfuls.

There has not been a day to date, Wednesday 16th August, that has not delighted, in one way or another. This country is quite, quite impressive. The spectacular scenery, the obvious embracing by the nation of its culture, the space, the cleanliness of the environment, the creativity, and of course friendliness, of its people. In life, you often meet folk; folk who have a talent or skill and know they are good, but are not arrogant about it; they have a confidence and a charisma that says, I’m cool, thank you! That is what these New Zealanders, certainly the ones we have been fortunate to meet, have. They know their country is special and they appear to embrace it with a calm and peaceful knowing. They have a love of their land that is as huge and long lasting as their great Kauri tree. If you are not aware of this monster, allow me to elucidate:- It is the largest (by volume) but not tallest species of tree in New Zealand, standing up to 50m tall. (Wikipedia)

So at the risk of repeating myself during this attempt to describe what we are experiencing, I will continue…

We knew this section of our NZ adventure was going to be a highlight of our self imposed UK exile and a test of our character and relationship. We are now entirely alone, no friends or family to seek time with and, indeed, space from, each other. We are now literally together, together, everyday, everyday, in and out of the car, in and out of the hotels, motels and lodges, with only “us” as company. No breaks. Constant company. With that said, New Zealand has become, and is, our “other” constant companion. New Zealand is now a friend of ours. Every new day, as we embark on our escapades, we learn more of our new friend. When we arrive at any “stop” we explore that new part of our friend, in our own ways. We look at different things, we photograph different things, we read different things and speak to different folk and ask different questions. We come back together and share what we have experienced with our friend, and learn even more.

Our friend, today, has once again delighted us with all manner of newness. This country is simply an awesome spectacle of nature. At every turn in the road a new sight, a new WOW moment is presented. With only half the number of people of London living in this promised land, the roads are pretty much empty. Most of the folk are centred in the main conurbations, not where we are exploring. This allows us to stop, breath it in, snap it, to take it with us, and then move on to the next WOW, without the pressure of holding anyone up. Quite frankly, we could be stopping every 100 metres, but progress around this island paradise would be slower than it already is. We enjoy leaving the main roads and exploring those which appear to be going nowhere, and then suddenly another WOW. Today, Friday, we stopped, somewhere, amid the green and lush pastures in the rolling hills and mountains of the Waitomo region. The peace that invaded us enriched our souls. Our breathe was taken away. Personally, I felt nature had embraced me in a man-hug, that we see so often nowadays. That new man-greeting; the handshake followed by a shoulder embrace with the free arm. All very unnecessary but with the times, if not a tad affected. I was, nevertheless, embraced by the environment and the silence; by nature, and I hugged it back. The moment was gently broken by the sound of an engine. The oversize quad bike with two figures onboard slowly emerged around the corner of the tight winding road, which I need to say here, was a school bus route. I don’t remember seeing a house, let alone people! But here were two. They slowed to halt, with smiles, which seems typically Kiwi-ian. Excepting the manageress of the current hotel at Waitomo Caves. Miserable as sin, compared with the English receptionist at the desk. The two guys astride the quad bike were father and son. They engaged us in conversation about nothing in particular. The father was well into his 70’s and full of life and energy for the land. They loved their land of 1000 acres, and why not? I wanted to stay, but they resisted my attempts of offering my services as a tractor driver. Just a delightful chance meeting. But those who know me will understand my belief in synchronicity and all things happening for a reason. These two farmers added the missing element to the scene in this Garden of Eden. The skies were blue, the clouds were fluffy white, the trees were filled with character and caressed with a gentle breeze, the stream meandered silently, the sheep grazed independently, and now the owners of this scene greeted us like neighbours. Special.

This area, Waitomo, ranks among the best we have experienced. There is so much to describe, mention and draw potential travellers attention to. But, as I said at the start of this episode, I risk repeating myself. All I can say is VISIT NEW ZEALAND. Our friend will welcome you, embrace your company and treat you kindly. The sun will shine, the rain will fall, the wind will blow, but her charm will waiver not.

With just a couple more days on North Island, we have already, climbed and descended numerous waterfalls; trekked rivers and streams; walked countless walks; climbed a volcano; driven to ski resorts; ambled both black and golden sand beaches, descended into caves with glowing worms and rowed a boat underground; been twice to the theatre (on both occasions deciding it was not up to scratch); seen Dunkirk at the cinema; explored countless natural hot springs and enjoyed wallowing in them too; have rode on cable cars; tasted most of the local wines at the prolific wineries; stayed in ten different hotels; enjoyed the capital and other cities and towns, their cafes, restaurants and restrooms; including Napier, a major centre of Art Deco and quite, quite delightful; driven hundreds of miles and smiled a million smiles. And I will have certainly omitted loads, suffice to say, without repeating myself, our friend is a very special friend, neither she or her family seek to pursue class or have status over others, she remains loyal to her roots and so calm and reassured in nature.

For now, KIA ORA…….see you on South Island, in a few days time.

 

Episode 19

OUR COUNTRY’S GOOD – Sydney, AUS. and Waiheke, NZ.

At some point, overnight on the flight from Seoul, we must have crossed the equator. Unlike cruise ships, this major event in people’s lives is not marked, in any way shape or form. I would have thought, for first timers, like us, the hostesses and crew would have conga’d the length of the plane blowing all manner of party blowers and generally welcoming us to the club. But no, nothing. Just deep sleep. Thanks Asiana Airways!!

Sydney in two days was simply stupid. And to include the Blue Mountains was even more ridiculous. However, in true Ozzie style, because we were in the company of two of them, we did it and with some style. Thank you Kate and Cath for the whirlwind tour.

Sydney was quite special for us both. My love of the play, Our Country’s Good, was fuelled with seductive delight as we stumbled upon all manner of names of streets, road, places, to be found in Wertenbaker’s contemporary classic. The fact that all those years ago when it was just a rocky inlet, Captain Arthur Phillip landed with his cargo of convicts, on 11 ships, after months of a treacherous voyage from England, and here we were standing on the very same spot(s). The spot where Phillip planted the English flag for the first time was a tad overwhelming, but I contained myself among the other ‘walkers” who just wouldn’t understand. Campbell’s Cove, as it is now, at the base of the bay bridge, is just a wonderful open space allowing full view of the opera house across the bay. Did the intellectual Captain Phillip or the drunken Campbell ever imagine that such a majestic piece of architecture would dominate the landscape as they stood back and surveyed the new scenery that greeted him. This was re-living history. Touching the very anchor of the Sirius was a brief encounter. Again, intentionally so. Our walk took us to The Rocks, an affectionate term given to the trendy area of arts and craft, coffee shops and restaurants, that was once, indeed the home to all the convicts. The names resonated throughout our two hour stroll, except for that of SIDEWAY, who, in Keneally’s novel, The Playmaker, actually opened the first theatre in Sydney. Our guide had not heard the name previously which lead me to doubt either her knowledge, as an immigrant guide, working the tourists, or indeed my romantic notion that he did actually exist. I like to think he did. Especially after seeing him brought to life so theatrically by Phil Mace, in our production. We kept seeing the characters at every turn, with the faces of the cast. It was magical. Both the Sydney visit and of course the production.

The Blue Mountains was a whole new ball game, as they say. A spectacular display of nature in the raw, much like it would have been when the Sirius first landed way back in 1788. We have taken to walking, on our journey, as the simplest and easiest form of exercise. Not only that, but the related health issues are of obvious benefit. Furthermore, the pace that one travels is slow enough to gather information, take photographs, talk and share stories and moments. In short, walking is great. However, what we did, in the The Blue Mountains was more of a trek, or perhaps even a hike – a long hike! With only one and half knees and a broken toe, I think i did OK. It is a rugged region west of Sydney, known for dramatic scenery encompassing steep cliffs, eucalyptus forests, waterfalls and villages. Echo Point affords views of the storied Three Sisters sandstone rock formation. The view was well worth the trek, until you realise the need to go back! Our departure from Sydney was filled with a yearning to return. Our Country’s Good sits comfortably in the psyche.

New Zealand next. So excited to be seeing our friends of 36 years, once more. Christine and David moved, with their two children, to New Zealand some 17 years ago. In that time they have established themselves as the regions premier goldsmiths. We proudly sport both wedding and engagement rings fashioned by Christine. Her art in gold and other precious metals is quite unique. Each piece embraces its own narrative, told through the shapes, materials and rhythms created by the artist, Christine.

On an island, Waiheke (which means “cascading waters”) in the bay, off Auckland, they have built their own castle on a cloud. Well its not really a castle and its not on a cloud but when you stand in the lounge, come kitchen, come dining room, come snug, and look through floor to high ceiling windows and doors and gaze out over the sea at Auckland in the far distance, it feels like being in a castle on a cloud. We instantly felt at home.

This island has no traffic lights, numerous coffee shops, tasty restaurants, deserted beaches, delightful wineries, a couple of schools, really friendly people except for the “man in the hat” who chalks the time on the wheels of cars who are parked quite legally in bays on the road side. But he’ll be back to book you if you go into illegal, trust me. I know.

We took time to speed our way around the island, by car. It didn’t take long. It is a magical place and cannot wait to return for our final week. Island life appears idyllic. Finding new places to walk, be it the bush or the beach, is easy. There are walks galore, and each one very very special. I have been walking in borrowed shoes too and have become a Croc convert.

At home, Jo would be digging the weeds or planting new seeds, plants and flowers. I would be making furniture for the garden, erecting a gazebo and mending the fences. Well, like I said earlier, we felt instantly at home. Jo took to the garden and drive to help David and Christine catch up with these neglected areas. David threw me a hammer and saw to make a bush house for 7 year old Robert. Together, David, Robert and I took a week to design and build the first and best bush house I have ever built. Nestling deep in their 4 acre plot, found only by following a narrow trail through the bush from the back garden, it stands in a clearing which is also home to a swinging horse and large seat-log. With perspex roof, windows and two perspex walls, the house is big enough for both their “looked-after” children, Robert and Amara. The other walls are solid but for random two-inch holes drilled for even more light in the back wall and an opening in the front as the door. This is real famous five stuff. The look on their faces as they were introduced to the new bush house was just lovely. It matched the look on David’s and my face as we shook hands upon completion. It was a look of amazement!

Cascading Waters has drenched us in a torrent of positive charm. The appetite to return for more has been whetted.

Off to North and South Islands.

 

Episode 19

Chiang Mai – Northern Thailand

Our four days in this quite different and somewhat spiritual centre is worthy of its own page of notes. The difference is felt immediately upon stepping from the plane, a slight drop in temperature, and then stepping from the taxi after a short ride to the hotel, noticing a drop in the pace of life. Whilst still not slow, much slower from that found in Bangkok and Phuket. We enjoyed the afternoon amble around the streets. Turning left from the hotel and walking directly into the city’s centre, passing any number of massage parlours, where the delightfully looking ladies and some lady-boys too, much to Jo’s delight. It has been a goal of hers to see at least one lady-boy before departure. Box ticked, as it were. We did a couple more temples, and I have to admit to being all temple-out now. They are quite magnificent but one Buddha looks just like another after a while, even after a short while, truth be known!

We took an early night, following another delicious Thai meal, and looked forward to the next day which would see us playing and laughing with elephants, unchained elephants, more especially. We arrive at the banks of some river, up in the mountains north of Chiang Mai. We stripped to the order of “take off your clothes”. Our guide Jimmy, quite a character, from the Chiang Mai Elephant Sanctuary, had a super presence, extensive local knowledge of just about everything, and a sense of command that meant do as you are told or you are elephant meat. Elephants, of course do not eat meat, they are probably vegans, which seems to be a fad prevalent among the Andrews and Turner households at the moment. So we took off our clothes to reveal our swim wear. We trod very carefully down the muddy slope to the brown river’s edge, whereupon we embarked the bamboo raft, to be steered downstream by a handsome lad brandishing a large bamboo pole to dip into and out of the water in order to engage the bends and rapids along the two mile route through the jungle. This was not quite the white waters of the Colorado but nonetheless just as mesmerising. Bamboo, it must be said is just the most fantastically versatile wood ever created in nature. Our raft consisted of eight twenty foot lengths of this miracle wood, bound by other smaller and bendy miracle wood lengths. Quite special. If we were in America, this would be Huck Finn’s raft on a tributary of the Mississippi. We lazed our way comfortably downstream encountering the occasional blockage, created by other rafts, that had probably escaped their quite lax moorings or fallen disused bamboo bridges across the river. It was all good fun. At one point it was reminiscent of our Ardeche River adventures. The rapids were too rocky and difficult for the length of the raft that we needed to alight and tackle the rocks for about 50 yards before remounting the miracle wood for the final time. We beached at a convenient slip on the left bank. The rafts were lifted to a roof of a beat up old Toyota truck and our captains perched on top of them to go back upstream for a well earned banana leaf smoke and a nap. We, on the other hand, climbed into the back of another Toyota jalopy, which would take us further up the mountain, deeper into the jungle. The route as hazardous to say the least. The scenery beyond the steep drops to our left made the fear bearable until the mud track ruts halted our progress with wheel-spin. Versatile Jimmy strapped chains to a single wheel and we were off and spinning once again, en route to his home village, the name of which, sadly, at this time, I cannot recall.

A single track meandered through the many homes built on stilts. It was quiet, still, peaceful and humid. The menfolk were at work in the fields or in the surrounding towns, leaving the women, young and old at home tending to the young children and domestic chores, chopping wood and collecting rice bundles. The children were attending the local school, taken their, along with other family members on the family moped. Every home has at least one. This was a magical experience. On the porches of these wood and bamboo constructions sat young mothers breast feeding, grandmothers sitting with grandchildren, motionless, sad looking but seemingly content with each other. I spy a very elderly, frail looking lady lifting a felling axe to split wood, presumably for a cooking fire. She does it well and persists. Our western ways, on occasions like this, seem unnecessarily crazy. We chase status symbols, we allow ourselves to be manipulated by the media, we rely on conveniences. These charming people have only just installed electricity. I am not sure that is a good thing.

Our stroll through time took us to the elephants. The elephants. We had a quick Thai lunch as the heavens opened, changed into the required colourful garb, as seen in the snap above. The rain made the walk to the elephants feeding place, very interesting. The elephants know they cannot fall over. Should they lose their footing they would simply slide down the mountain, nonstop, at a rate of heavy knots! It was steep. The went very slowly, step by careful step. The trick, for us, to go up and down is to tread in their footprints. They compact the mud and make it solid. Avoiding the dollops of poo, we arrive eventless at where we feed them bananas. Oh no, Jo went base over apex! The atmosphere was spiritual. These splendid, prehistoric creatures obviously communicating with us as we touched them, hugged them, played with them. Their eyes still with intelligence, confidently quiet with a wealth of worldly knowledge within.

The feeding was followed by a mud bath. Both us and the elephants bathing knee deep in a mud pond, although they preferred rolling on their backs and snorting the muddy water over everyone. Such playful creatures. Not a care. Should we learn from that?

Another careful walk with the elephants, keep it up, two, three, four, to a waterfall and splash pool to wash off the mud, from everywhere, from everyone, achieved once again by the snorting powers of the big boys and girls as they lay on the backs and side in the water. Just very special.

That was the end of the elephant experience, although we stayed in the jungle for a while longer. We trekked, barefoot, along jungle paths to another more spectacular waterfall where we bathed and peed in the cool waters. The Chang beer was very welcome.

What a day? Certainly a most memorable 10 hours of wet, wild and wonderful.

Not satisfied with that, the following day we searched for the Baan Tong Luang village which is home to a number of hill tribes, including the famous long-neck tribe, Karon. Government funded, the hill tribes live in their own environments, pursuing their own styles of livelihood and cultures. Another eye-opener. We felt humbled by the nature of these folk, their simple yet effective life styles. Their unique cultures bonding with nature in mutual respect. I feel they will survive us when the western world is successful in destroying itself.

Our final exploit took us to a temple high on another mountain. I was all templed out but this one had to be done! According to the guide books. It was actually quite ordinary, in comparison to some we had visited, but suddenly there emerged a stream of saffron robed Buddhist monk trainees, chanting prayers and responses as they paraded around the circular walkway. It grabbed our senses. The monotony of the chants, the smell of incense, the colourful spectacle; we were tasting the religious culture and feeling moved. The event provided a new dimension to the temple experience. Before, temples were just places of worship visited by tourists.. This temple was now a working temple, much the same way as the hill tribe villages we had visited. Working, real and alive. Meaningful.

Chiang Mai was quite, quite exceptional.

Episode 18

Thailand…so far.

I have been putting off this moment because I have not known where to start. To add to that issue, I am not sure where I would finish. This country, formerly known as Siam, and I love the name Siam, conjures magical myths, colourful splendour, majesty and honourable people, it has so much to talk about and I run the risk of rambling and losing the readers attention. Although, I think primarily, this exercise is for the benefit of my immediate family, as a keep sake, as evidence that Jo and I didn’t disappear into a huge film set and make this whole thing up, and not for some random reader who perchance comes across my words and takes delight in them to want more!

So I shall make efforts, now started, to be brief, informative and without prejudice bring you the flavour I have tasted of Thailand.

Lemon grass is the smell and Masaman curry is the taste. I could finish right there, but that would be neglecting……..where do I start?

This place is filthy. This place is chaotic. This place is a mess. This place is mayhem. This place works.

Despite the mayhem and the mess and the very unfinished appearance of just about everything, excluding the exclusive resort areas and golf courses, it actually works. Society, these wonderfully natured, polite and respectful people make it work. Somehow. Much of our time has been spent on the roads. The roads are a swarm of moped users, each small motorbike carrying, on average, three people. Man, woman and child, young child, baby! Babies being cradled at the back, in mum’s arms with younger brother or sister in the middle and dad upfront driving, and probably on the phone. These bikes are everywhere. Weaving in and out, at speed, coming from nowhere they dart in front of you from the left and the right sometimes two from either side, in formation, very neat….but dangerous! Helmets? What helmets? Oh yes, they are stored in the very cleverly designed seat locker. Rules of the road are very different from ours in the UK, assuming they exist of course. The only policemen I have seen have been blowing their whistles, incessantly, like a new toy, and directing traffic with a silly, somewhat effeminate hand wave. Perhaps they are the famous lady-boys in disguise at their day job! These policeman wear helmets, sunglasses and mouth mask, so they could be anybody just having a spot of fun dodging cars and avoiding the swarm of mopeds, who incidentally, all line up at the front of the queue when the lights are red. The lights are great. Alongside the red or green light you have a countdown digital clock, the same of which you will have seen for pedestrians in major cities across the globe, which informs you of how long you have before to have to stop or, in the case of the afore mentioned swarm of mopeds, GO. And they generally jump the gun anyway. Twenty or thirty mopeds all with suddenly screaming little engines under the weight of their extra loads, with flattened rear tyres. Chaos. Orderly chaos. Accepted chaos. Charming chaos.

Bangkok is a place I have no desire to return to, the heat, the pace, the noise and the awful smell of the durian fruit on every street corner. I certainly enjoyed the experiences we crafted but an invite to return would be declined.

I would however certainly consider most other places we visited, to date (10th July) as a return trip. Although, I do question the idea of returning anywhere, when there are so many other places in the world to discover. I want to see the world before you put me in it. Shouldn’t one inspect one’s final home to be sure it suits? I think when folk say “I’d like to come back here” it is more a stamp of their approval rather than an inclination to return.

Thai people love their food. Me too. I love their food. I think there are as many street food sellers on the sides of the streets as there are mopeds on the streets. The pavements are a crowded restaurant. Open all hours and providing all manner of delicacies. I suspect everyone has their favourite spot, their favourite cook, and their favourite dish. The idea is, you rock up on your moped, no need to jump off, lean across, make your order, its cooked and ready, straight off the grill, or out of the pot, pay your bill (very cheap), and away you go, revving up as you re-enter the traffic munching on your chicken, shrimp or whatever gave you reason to stop. This is not fast food. This is very fast food. You have to stop at McDonalds, because of the queues. No waiting for this food. If your man is busy, go to the next. The streets, as I said, are lined with them. I did some tasting too. If you like spice, rich flavours, then the street food are for you. I imagine no-one has kitchens at home. Naturally the restaurants do a great job. Super foods at super prices. Our favourite has been BAANBURI, on Phuket. We eat their everyday. Cheaper than cooking at home. I come away from there wanting to open a Thai restaurant in Canterbury. Who knows?

Thailand is definitely an exciting land. The Land of Smiles, so they say. I am enthusiastic about that epithet, because it really is. Every which way you turn, and whoever you meet, you are greeted with a smile, a bow of the head, with hands in prayer position in front of the face, and even a smile accompanied by salutes, if the person is in uniform, be it car park attendant, policeman or security guard. This, I do feel, is a genuine gesture, not just a daily chore. In addition, the indigenous folk have a beauty about them that is quite endearing. They are a beautiful people.

We have explored islands, capes, atolls, waterfalls, tracks, roads that go nowhere, temples, palaces, beaches, mountains, rivers, seas and numerous view points, all by various means of transport. One of our goals was to see how many modes of transport we could use during our trip. At this point, I have to mention public transport. When it is available, generally in the cities, they do not tolerate food or drink. This is also echoed in the theatre, no food or drink allowed. Wonderful. Imagine our joy as we took our seats in Row U, five from the front, to have no distractions other than the show itself. And boy what a show! The auditorium must have held 2500 people; the stage was the size of Chilham Square, probably bigger. There was a cast of about 200 actors, singers and dancers, two full size elephants, 20 odd fly points, a ton of trucks, a river, yes a river, which an actor jumped into and disappeared, remerging as part of his morning wash routine. The story was that of Siam, its history and traditions, called Siam Niramit. The grid system then opened for us to experience torrential rain as part of a tropical thunderstorm. WOW; items in the river, thrown there as part of the previous scene, floated stage left and disappeared into the wings. So the river was flowing too. This was a stage-managers and tech-crew nightmare but an audiences dream.

It was simple spectacular…much like the Thailand story we are living at the moment.

Episode 17

Before you read any further, or indeed at all, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Thank you.

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Paradise Koh Yao – the hotel was booked on a whim. I had seen no details before arriving, my mind being more preoccupied with improving my chipping in golf having gone over 100 at the premier course Laguna. I was reminded that it was in 30 degrees and 90% humidity, but that really did nothing to alleviate the guilt of disastrous close to the green golf. Guilt was also the emotion that Jo was experiencing as we managed to cling on to the hand rails of the flat back taxi as it bounced its way through a national forest come rugged rubber plantation along a rutted, potholed track worthy of any off-road 4×4 competition. This is the track that Jeep could well use in their next commercial enticing us to leave the tarmac for a more adventurous drive. An important difference here being that it wasn’t a Jeep, I have no idea of the make of the vehicle, probably a homemade pimped ride, although that conjures the wrong idea. Nothing pimped about this little jalopy, and the other important difference…. I wasn’t driving.

In addition to guilt, Jo, now 25 minutes into this off road jaunt, was feeling like a hostage. She kept muttering to me, between seat departures, of our impending doom at the hands of Thai bandits. I made efforts to calm her by insisting this guy knows a short cut to the hotel and that it couldn’t be the only road in. There was no one going in the other direction, or indeed was there anyone else going in our direction. I could see how Jo came to the swift conclusion that we had suddenly become a prize and worth a substantial amount of Bahts.

Forty minutes into the unplanned, unexpected excursion, I was irritated. I had had enough. I kept peering through the window that separated us from the anonymous driver, expecting to see a clue as to where we might be, but the view was plastered with information inviting us to check the indentity of the driver. Too late for that I thought. And was that a gun on the bench seat next to him? The vehicle slowed to a halt. A chap in uniform and holding a clip board came to the back of the taxi. “Name please?” He said. It felt like checking into a Japanese POW camp. Not that I know how that felt, but that’s the power of the moving image for you!

After the bahtering over the taxi fare and finalising it we duly turned to witness, finally, a symbol of western civilisation, the golf cart or buggy as we might say in Blighty! Driven by a young Thai, in the same uniform as the chap previously, loose fitting turquoise trousers and a white T-shirt, carrying the Paradise logo. Relief. We shall not be witnessing each others demise at the hand of a crazed Thai kidnapper. The young driver placed his hands together, in front of his face, and bowed in reverence to our presence. We both responded with our own versions of hello and thank you, and so joined the ranks of pathetic brits abroad!

The cart loaded we took to the winding narrow path between the purpose built cottages. Some single others two storeys. Deep in the jungle vegetation I was reminded of Patrick McGoohan in the Prisoner series. I know that was filmed in England’s SW but it had that feel, although not now, a few days later, this is very much a jungle hideaway. We arrived at reception to more praying hands and bowing heads. I do like it and would want to take it home, but fear the intolerance and lack of understanding.

Once sat in the deep cushioned bamboo chairs with a glass of alcohol free cocktail I knew this place was special. I checked with the receptionist. She confirmed that our road was indeed the only road to the hotel. Special. The only other route, by boat. Special. There was a quiet serenity which enveloped me. No canned musac. No crying children. No loud guests. No phones blurting unwontedly. Was there a rule about noise pollution that we were about to sign into?

It was actually – peaceful.

With paperwork concluded our quiet buggy and allotted driver took us the short trip to our room. The road twisted and turned through the jungle. It was too quick to appreciate the myriad of plants. Later, perhaps. Our man opened up a new world for us. Special. Passing through the door, on our right, outside, stood a large vase with water, floating flowers and a coconut shell handle for dousing down your feet, following time on the beach. The air conditioning was on and the wall of coolness came as some relief. The four poster bed, was romantically draped with white netting. Presumably, to ward off mosquitoes. Hadn’t seen or heard any since we had arrived!

This was a delightful room. With the colour scheme of the uniform being echoed in the rooms, alongside faded blue and driftwood, naturally, the ambience created was once again Special. The shower was of particular interest to me. Situated down a couple of steps, it opened to a, what one would call nowadays, wet room. The biggest difference, which was the interesting point for me, was there was only three walls. You could, if the mood took, and it just did with me, take a shower, essentially in the open. There was a fourth wall, for all you theatre buffs out there, which folded out to separate you from the open patio with table and swing chair, if you declined the opportunity for exhibitionism. I actually felt quite safe as each cottage has a certain degree of heavy foliage and large leaved plants and trees to conceal such moments of holiday bravado.

The beach is a crescent shape, with pier at one end and yoga room at the other. In between is housed three small restaurants, two bars, infinity pool, dominated by folk who love to throw their towels down at first light, massage huts, a wonderful spa, activity centre, large lily pond, palm trees, beach furniture, bamboo hammocks slung randomly between trees. And that is it. Essentially, one way in and one way out. Long tail boat. This is an idyllic situation. A haven. It is called paradise, and aptly named. Whilst I contend that paradise is a state of mind and not a holiday resort, whoever conceived this spot to be what it is, the careful planning, design; interior and exterior has moved me towards that intended state of mind.

I would recommend, unreservedly, this as a destination for a complete short break. I am here in June, the off season. The weather has been very kind, naturally humid, but sunbathing and swimming has been the agenda every day of the four.

We are fully rested. All four core aspects of a healthy life have been touched, rejuvenated, enriched and enlivened. At this point, I must mention the Thai massage I had on the beach. Just the best thing ever. I was tight in places, stiff neck and aching back. Today, 24 hours later, I feel as loose as soup through a fork!

Thai’s can undo those knots!

Episode 16

Los Angeles is best experienced with your back to it and waving from your open top rental crawling along route 405 towards the Pacific Coast Highway Route 1. Nothing would take me back except perhaps a film role! The Pacific Coast is quite a spectacle. The ocean is a moving majesty. The rolling breakers curl into glistening foam as they find their temporary home on the shore. The route weaves in and out around the coves and finds occasion to be interrupted by settlements. Morro Bay is a pretty place which has a claim to fame, that being, it has an extinct volcano in the centre of the bay itself. It stands proud and as you stare at the fallen moulted rock down its side from the store-littered board walk, the chorus of elephant seals provides a constant fanfare.

Further along the coast, one is tempted to turn right and visit America’s castle. High on the ridge towering over all below, stands Hearst Castle. The unfinished dream of media giant William Randolph Hearst can be seen from PCH 1. It’s majesty, designed by Julia Morgan, and conceived by Hearst on his travels to European castles, matches the ocean over which it looks, in San Simeon. A trip there would take too much time out of our day. Suffice to say a glimpse in awe paid due respect to one man’s dream.

The coast road is so inspiring that stopping and starting can be an issue in achieving travel progress. Our GOal (I use two capitols by choice – no typo) for the day was downtown San Francisco but the beauty and spectacle revealed at each bend in the road had us leaping out to embrace such perfect little moments, all to often. It was decided to be more selective, erring on perhaps, perfect bigger moments, affording the time to make the required progress and enjoying the perfect littler moments from the vehicle.

One of those bigger moments was discovered soon after San Simeon. Thousands, yes thousands, of elephant seals formed an up-turned carpet of shiny blubber. The sight was amazing, shocking, surprising, spectacular. Most of all it was Nature, close to. The seals, huge, by the way, basked belly-up in the Californian sunshine. This was their territory. This is where they played, chased, rested and it was obvious some were breeding too. The noises were that, that you might hear, if you collected thousands of grandads, swung them in hammocks, to sleep, side by side in a row, about half a mile long, having first given them all a couple of pints of Guinness. It was actually a comforting sound. A carefree sound. A most natural and wonderful experience. Moving….which is what we had to do. This stop represented a perfect HUGE moment and as such we had invested more time than perhaps we should. But what an investment!

We arrived at Big Sur, in the characteristic mist, only to discover the road north was closed due to several land slides and heavy rain. It would not open until next year. Next year, my inner voice screamed! Having filled the tank and bought the obligatory “sticker” for Jo’s marvellous scrap book, we were informed the only way to reach our intended destination, at a sensible hour, was to travel back, south, for an hour, east for an hour, and north to San Francisco for a further four hours. How many perfect little or larger moments might we need to ignore to keep to the schedule?

Driving was easy, is easy, is enjoyable.

We reached San Francisco during, in-aptly named “rush hour”! Twelve lanes of motorcars dawdling in both directions is a stark reminder of how we, as humans, are living. What are we doing? What a total and utter waste! Something has to give. I reflected on the carefree lives of elephant seals. A horn blasted. Am I in the right lane? Good question.

San Francisco, much like its counterpart, from whence we came, was full. Filled with people, cars, skyscrapers, noise, smoke, steam, heat, commercialism and the race to survive. We did it in a day basically. Enough is enough. Cities and me are not friendly bed pals. Open spaces allow you to breathe, reflect and invest time in thought. The boat trip on the bay allowed some well needed respite. The sun, the sea, the spray, the easy movement through the waves. We motored under the Golden Gate, around Alcatraz and back to more elephant seals honking at the dock. A rather splendid hour, followed by a rather splendid meal at the Hard Rock, before bed and an early start back the LAX for the flight to Hong Kong.

Hong Kong gone.

Well what a place! The high-rise capital of the world, I would suggest. The city of over 7.5 million people, all of whom seem to be on the streets or on the MTR (underground) and so probably the most densely populated city on the planet. It is literally a 24 hours a day rush hour. Add to that the relentless heat and humidity, the curious absence of green spaces, the curious absence of space even, and one could be left with the distinct feeling of “Help! Get me out of here!”

The towering blocks of boxed apartments appear to compete for the ever diminishing ground space and so reach for the sky. Acres of the highly priced real estate are crammed with ever increasing multiple digits of domesticity that gasp for air with very new level of rented accommodation. Look anywhere, turn in any direction and you will see row upon row, block upon block of bland concrete monoliths each celebrating symmetrical , and yet untidy and busy patterns, of windows with clothes randomly hanging out to dry. This never ending sight was bewildering. I became transfixed with the vision of “so many”. So many. So obviously, many.

This “so many” transferred its presence to the Mass Transit Rail; their rather splendid and highly efficient underground system. It is probably the best way to travel around the entire area, Hong Kong, Kowloon and all stations north south east and west. It is quick, clean and and comfortable. No food or drink is allowed on the MTR. At first thought, my feelings greeted this law. Upon reflection, I wondered about it’s significance in the wider spectrum of the society. The stations are long, very long, multi-levelled, eminently signed, colourful, architecturally interesting and always busy with “so many”. The “so many” find their way around with great ease. They seem to navigate the escalators, platforms, twists and turns of passageways and stairs using a onboard navigation system as, just about all of them, have their heads down with faces glued to a small screen and thumbs twitching rapidly connecting with another world. Everyone travelled at the same speed. No one rushed. The multi headed monster manoeuvred reassuringly to its multi various destinations. Calling it a rush hour, which I did earlier, was a little in appropriate, that was by virtue of numbers, not the haste, hustle and bustle associated with the rush hours of London, Paris or New York. This was more an enlightened hour, or dare I say, a conditioned hour? The total reliability and efficiency of the system is expected. The service is expected to work. There is no need to rush. If you rushed it might appear that you are bucking the trend, you are not grateful for the service and the people who run it. The stations and platforms are littered with uniformed staff, gesturing with open palms and hand held signs, the direction to follow, ensuring your pleasant and safe, unencumbered journey.

An enlightened way to travel, perhaps.

Big Buddha sits 34 metres high. Made from bronze, the most impressive sculpture guards its people by looking north over China, high in the mountains on Lantau island. Situated at the Po Lin monastery, the dignified manner of the Buddha, whose hand is raised in peace to all, is perhaps a reminder that all will be OK. Peace. Have Faith in your God.

Our travels continue as the UK enters a scary time in it’s history. The country is home to a divided nation. The wrong result today will cause further division, anguish, dissatisfaction and deep social unrest. Should anyone be reading this, be reminded of Big Buddha’s right hand of peace to all.