Sin City

A world away from the sleepy seclusion of Phuket’s beachside retreats, Bangkok is a city always in motion, for better or for worse. “Go with the flow” is perfect advice for the Thai capital: fail to do so and you’ll most likely be overwhelmed by its relentless intensity. But if you can find a way to see past the noise and the grime, the scammers and the tourist tat, you’ll find a fast-evolving megalopolis that can stir and excite the senses like few cities can.

Certainly, Bangkok is not an easy place for the virgin traveller. From the airport taxi drivers that pretend to get lost in the middle of the city’s most popular tourist districts, to the illicit tour guides that will harry and hound you outside all the major sights, it can feel like there are people out to make a quick buck from you at every turn. But one learns quickly to either play or ignore the con men - and we were thankful to find that they weren’t (on the whole) physically intimidating like some we've encounter in less inviting parts of the world.  

If there’s one factor that makes the city ongoing hard work, it’s the heat, which is omnipresent and incessant, and can make exploring the temples – where legs and arms are required to be fully covered – rather uncomfortable. Relief of a kind comes often in the form of rainstorms, but the downpours are usually so torrential that it’s almost impossible to continue exploring in them, and we spent much of our short time in Bangkok dashing into the nearest bar or café for shelter (and secretly reveling in another excuse for a snack).

As is typical in South East Asia, life in Bangkok is lived on the streets. It’s what gives the city its manic energy, but also the thing that feels most alien for western travellers. In the busiest areas, you can find yourself wading through thick throngs of localers, who usually act as if oblivious to the strangers in their midst. The smell of food permeates everywhere. On every major street you’ll find a dozen or more stalls cooking and selling stuff to be snacked or gorged on, while mobile merchants (usually women) walk up and down carrying obscenely heavy basket-loads of fresh fruit and vegetables.

Nervous of picking up bugs that might wreak havoc with constitutions weaned on western standards of hygiene, we chose early on to avoid the street food ourselves, but it was still fascinating to watch it being prepared, cooked and eaten by the locals, for whom this style of al fresco feasting appeared to be as normal as fish ‘n’ chips in front of the TV. Inevitably, it was the weird stuff that most firmly gripped our attention. Insect eating would play a larger role later on our tour, but it was in Bangkok that we saw the first time scorpions and spiders being deep-fried and sold for snacks – a sight every bit as can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it gruesome as you’d imagine. 

On our maiden walk through the backpacker mecca that is Rue Ram Buttri, it quickly became clear that Bangkok is just as geared up for western tourists as Phuket and its surrounding islands. But where the Andaman’s beach resorts promise rest and relaxation in settings of pristine luxury, Bangkok tries to entice its holidaymakers with more earthly temptations. The sheer volume of shops and stalls peddling what appear to be exactly the same range of knock-off clothes, accessories and souvenirs is staggering, and you wonder how some of these outlets make any money at all, when a sale is almost entirely dependent on the vendor offering the cheapest price. I suppose not all tourists can be bothered to haggle, and certainly there seemed to be little desire among the travellers we encountered to hold out for more unique items outside the capital. How else can one explain the near-ubiquity of elephant-patterned stretchy pants, which were the legwear of choice of almost every female backpacker of a certain age?

We were also amazed by the pervasiveness of English, which seemed like it was the city’s unofficial second language, at least in the tourist areas. Restaurant signs and menus were almost always in our native tongue, which was of course rather useful for us, but did make some of our experiences feel rather inauthentic. 

If street food is not your bag, then don’t worry - you can’t go hungry in Bangkok. Once you’ve got your attire sorted (and admittedly, in that sort of humidity, those elephant pants are bloody comfortable,) the next thing you’ll almost certainly pine for as the heat and energy-sapping crowds take their toll is an ice-cold drink and plate of grub. Almost everywhere you look on the Rue Ram Buttri, there are cafes and bars and restaurants (with many blurring the distinctions between the three) purveying cold beers and hunger-busting food at prices so low you’d think it was some sort of joke. Picking out the good ones can be challenge – menus are generic, with Thai stuff (noodles, curries, deep fried everything) rubbing shoulders with select western items (burgers, pizza, though no pork pies sadly). But if you head to where the biggest crowds are, you don’t often go wrong. 

Of course, eating and drinking aren’t all Bangkok has to offer. Walking the streets is always my favourite way of orientating myself in a new city, and we spent many hours blissfully (if stickily) wandering around the maze-like cobbled avenues, poking our heads into hidden temples, noseying at the locals hanging from their apartment windows, and being constantly amazed by the dizzying amount of electrical wiring on display. Honestly, some of the streets are so enmeshed with cables that you’d think they’d been invaded by giant black silk weaving spiders. (Note also the delights being advertised on the 'Sale' board below - if there's one thing Bangkok isn't, it's prudish.)


The temples of the Grand Palace and Wat Pho are always near the top of the travel guides’ ‘Things to see in Bangkok’ lists and it wasn’t hard to see why. Emerging from the warren of streets around Rue Ram Buttri, we strolled through the enormous Sanam Luang park (which is shaped like an ancient Roman sporting arena and encircled by roaring traffic-jammed highways) to the outer walls of the Grand Palace, where we raised a wry smile at the line of ‘Tourist Police’ vans trying to keep the bootleggers in check. 

From the street, you could see little more than the tips of the buildings within, but as we stepped through the gates and into the complex, it became quickly apparent we were about to experience something very special. Before Bangkok, Windsor Castle and Versailles were my two most vivid reference points for palaces, but Thailand’s equivalent provided a whole new dimension. 

The overriding impression of this 18th century mini-city was one of almost bawdy opulence. But it was hard not to be won over by the sheer scale and splendor of the place, with dozens of exquisitely designed buildings and temples vying for the title of ‘most grand’. For me, it was the Temple of the Emerald Buddha, with its gilded honeycomb roof and needlepoint spire standing out as a glittering beacon even amid such abundant lavishness.  

While the manifold structures within the guarded walls of the Grand Palace were breathtaking from a distance, carving a wondrous skyline of multi-hued rooftops and rococo towers, it was up close that the true extent of the designers’ achievements was revealed. The detail on the building’s facades, many incorporating countless thousands of tiny coloured and gilded tiles arranged in the most intricate patterns, was on a scale I’d never seen, and it all looked as polished and pristine as it must have done the day it was completed. 

The temple interiors were no less opulent, and whatever your religious persuasions, the custom of removing shoes and sitting in quiet contemplation beneath the grandly ornamented ceilings and Buddha statues felt entirely appropriate. 

The only thing that perhaps took some of the joy from our visit to the Grand Palace was the sheer volume of tourists present, but this is a blight that afflicts many an ancient wonder in the modern world, and as direct contributors to it, it would be hypocritical to complain. 

Despite the feeling of battery-caged hens continuing in the nearby Wat Pho - a separate complex of temples to the Grand Palace, but one no less worthy of a visit - little could detract from the awesome spectacle of the sight’s enormous reclining Buddha. 15 metres high and 43 metres long, the horizontal statue was awesome in size and detail, and with only a narrow, tightly angled path surrounding it inside its hosting temple, photographing it in its entire glory was almost impossible. 

48 hours in Bangkok was barely enough to scratch the surface of this dense and complex city, but it did give us our first real taste of South East Asia after the largely sanitized versions we’d encountered in Phuket and Ko Phi Phi. Away from the tourist areas we found a way of life that was altogether alien to our privileged eyes, but for all the dirt and hardship on display in some of the city’s poorer areas, there was an unmistakable joie de vivre in the way the locals behaved and interacted. And while we suffered from the same weariness and occasional frustrations that must affect all foreigners who come here, we left with the surety that one day we’d be back. 



Amore Del Tropico

Arriving at Thailand’s Phuket airport bleary eyed and weary limbed after a nine hour economy flight from Sydney, we were relieved by the timely appearance of our hotel’s private taxicab pulling up in front of the arrivals hall. As it happens, we could just as easily have walked to the Phuket Airport Hotel, which turned out to be as close to the terminal as its name would suggest. Unfussily checked in by the friendly night porter, we found our garden-facing room clean and functional, if a little stark, save for a smiling Buddha painting adorning the wall above the bed. As an overnight stop off ahead of our journey to Ko Phi Phi Island the following morning, it appeared to tick all the boxes.    

Our only mission for what little remained of the evening was to source a decent meal, Jetstar airline’s in-flight food service having stretched little further than a bag of overly salted pretzels. Conscious that the surrounding Thalang district’s finer eating establishments were most likely contained within the gated walls of its myriad private resorts, we weren’t sure what to expect of the local neighbourhood’s dining scene. But with our daydreams of Thailand auguring a tropical paradise and the pristine beaches of south east Australia still burning bright in our memories, the dimly lit and grimy street we encountered as we stepped gingerly out through the hotel’s front gates was most certainly not it.  

At first, with a festering hunger propelling us on, we chose not to let our unease deter us as we trotted down what appeared to be a main highway. But our pulses were soon set racing by three quickfire encounters with local wildlife that perhaps only David Attenborough would have been unruffled by. 

First there was the whopping great cockroach that scuttled out of the shadows less than a metre in front of us; then there was the elephantine snail that had somehow ensconced itself in the road’s central reservation and would have surely entered into a sticky and crunchy argument with my foot if I’d caught sight of it a moment later; and then there was the pack of scrawny dogs that burst out alarmingly from behind a set of overspilling metal dustbins and eyed us up and down with the same drooling fervor that they would usually reserve for a fresh bowl of mushed up horsemeat. 

In addition to this menagerie of gruesome tropical beasties, there were cars that hurtled past at such breakneck speed that there would have been little hope for any hapless pedestrian tourist unwittingly stepping out into the road to avoid treading on a giant mollusk. There were the roadside outlets that, while seemingly operating under the guise of public restaurants, were so dark and dingy that even the most experienced traveler would have given them a wide berth. And while the locals we encountered on our wanderings – eating, selling, chatting, laughing - were not in the least bit threatening towards us, the fact that we couldn’t understand a word they were saying did not exactly help to make the scene feel any less alien.    

What all of this boiled down to, of course, was a classic case of culture shock, exacerbated no doubt by heavy jetlag and loudly rumbling tummies. A month further into our trip and we’d be taking on streets like that with little more than a shrug of the shoulders, but so far outside of our comfort zone did the environs appear to us at the time that we feared - if not for our lives - then certainly for the continued purity of our underpants. 

Respite, to our shame, arrived in the unlikely form of a branch of Tesco. Amid the rundown restaurants and shabby street stalls, the sight of this gleaming icon of British retail, unmistakable with its white and red facade, was not a little incongruous. But just as we’d sought refuge in the familiar (if enfeebling) comforts of McDonalds when we first arrived in a similarly overwhelming Morocco three years ago, so Tesco promised us a modicum of homeliness in this strange and fearful land.  

Not that this Tesco bore much resemblance to the UK’s sloganeering hypermarkets, its interior, as we discovered, decidedly rough around the edges and Heinz baked beans nowhere in sight. But it was here that we purchased the first of what would become many large bottles of purified water on our South East Asia adventure, and they at least provided a much needed dose of rehydration.

Back out on the road, we resolved to continue walking for a little longer, even though the only eatery approaching a realistic contender for dinner was Subway – and after Tesco that just felt like too much of a cheat. But a couple of minutes later, we suddenly found salvation in the brash neon lights and Disneyland Wild West stylings of The Mango Saloon, a bar-cum-restaurant that has no doubt rescued many a weary traveller in its time. Welcomed by a typically cordial waitress, we were seated in front of a giant screen showing English Premier League football highlights, which for me is about as good as it gets. A Pad Thai and pint of Chang lager later and we felt sufficiently relaxed and refreshed that the journey back to our hotel – even with mosquitoes buzzing excitedly around our inviting bodies - felt entirely achievable. 

After all that night’s exertions, I would have put money on us having the most blissful, uninterrupted sleep of ours lives. However, I hadn’t banked on being awoken repeatedly by the incessant buzz of our hotel room’s fridge freezer, which we later discovered was a near-ubiquitous amenity in Asia’s mid-range hotels. After more than an hour of futile swearing into my pillow, I decided to take evasive action and switched the bloody thing off at the socket. This had seemed like a perfectly sensible idea at 3am, but unfortunately my semi-functional brain had failed to account for the freezer section, well, melting without power. Cue a frantic pre-breakfast floor mopping session the next morning - and a lot more swearing. 

Thankfully, our first 24 hours in Asia proved to be something of an aberration in the grand scheme of our tour, and a forceful reminder that you should never judge by first impressions. It also taught us straightaway that only a few hundred meters outside the sanitized luxury of Phuket’s tourist resorts (the walls of which some holidaymakers choose never to leave during their visits here) there is still something of real Thailand to be experienced, in all its ramshackle glory. 

Post-mopping, our second day continued with a simple breakfast of toast and marmalade with coffee in our hotel’s garden courtyard, from where we were collected by the private car we’d booked to take us to the Ao Po Grand Marina. The journey was our first chance to experience our new surroundings in daylight, though the frequent blasts of tropical rain did their damnedest to obscure the view from the car window. 

Away from Thalang, the landscape was thick with greenery, the vast tracts of tropical vegetation interrupted only by the occasional roadside hut or stilt-supported house. Rocketing by in leather-seated comfort, our fascination was matched only by our guilt at witnessing first-hand a simplicity of living that made the opulence of our own experience appear ridiculous. But we knew too the importance of tourism’s contribution to the economy, even if the money we would spend here would likely contribute little towards improving the lives of Thailand’s most impoverished. 

Before we could get too introspective about the morality of our trip, however, we were swept away by the sparkling gleam of the Andaman Sea as a high-speed ferry carried us away from Phuket to the self-proclaimed tropical paradise of outlying Koh Phi Phi Island. 

With an intensive month of sightseeing across Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam ahead of us, we’d always planned to spend the first week of our Asia adventure firmly in holiday mode, and to that brief the Outrigger resort at Koh Phi Phi did not fail to deliver. Our first sighting of the island from the upper deck of the boat was every bit as cinematic as you would hope from a place that had outshone Leonado di Caprio in the Andaman set Danny Boyle movie The Beach. Hemmed with a glittering white sand shoreline, and with towering coconut trees completing the holiday brochure look, Koh Phi Phi appeared to be the realisation of Desert Island Discs listeners’ imaginings, and for us provided the scene for our trip’s most relaxing days.  

But first we had to navigate the small matter of actually getting onto the island. It transpired that the waters, even some half a mile out from the beach, were unusually shallow, so our boat wasn’t able to go any further than the spot where it had unexpectedly anchored. After spinning gracefully in tranquil waters for some fifteen minutes, a somewhat more primitive longboat moored alongside us to transport the passengers in batches to another point about thirty feet from the shore. Our final mode of transference resembled nothing less than a tractor towing a metal cart, onto which we were graciously loaded and dragged onto the purest beach I’d ever seen. 

Now I must say at this point that resorts are not typically our thing. My idea of holiday hell is spending a week by one of those fading Mediterranean beach hotels where pasty Brits go to get fried and a thousand families try to outwit each other at musical deck chairs and towel swap. Thankfully, the two resorts where we stayed in Thailand, while still unashamedly engineered for Western tourists, did at least maintain some degree of connection to local culture and styles. 

Outrigger’s accommodation, for example, consisted of a series of wooden bungalows, raised off the ground with stilts and roofed with a thatch-like weave. The simple interiors nevertheless provided all the creature comforts one could reasonably hope for, and the front terrace, complete with tables and sun loungers, was ideal for mid-afternoon snoozing and reading. 

Around the resort, the elegantly manicured gardens and lush tropical walkways provided a tastefully augmented version of real Thailand. With a beach reserved exclusively for the resort’s guests, a mercifully uncrowded pool area, and a fine selection of beachside bars and restaurants serving enormous cocktails in hollowed coconuts and first rate Thai and western food, our relaxation needs were met in every way. 

Our stay’s highlight came in the form of a pair of Thai massages, the first massage of any kind I’d ever actually paid for, prudish Brit that I am. With such glorious surroundings and hours to idle away each afternoon, it was a case of “Why the hell not?” 

The spa was set high up on the hillside overlooking the resort and as we ascended the wooden staircase that snaked up to its entrance, we were greeted by wafts of ambient music and the scent of burning incense. So far, so hippy. Warmly welcomed by a pair of immaculately dressed local women, we were invited to sit and sip on green tea as we waited to be summoned to the massage rooms. The views from the reception area’s vantage point were worth the trip alone, but we’d barely had time to soak them in before we found ourselves being led to a private parlour where we were promptly requested to strip down to our underwear. 

From that point on, nervous giggling proved hard to subdue. Garments duly removed, we were invited to lie face down on a couple of tables, each complete with a cushioned hole through which our heads were to be placed before the massages began. The first surprise was the bowl of floating flowers that met my eyes as I pressed my face through the requisite void. The second was the realization that my masseuse was crawling up my back with her elbows, a sensation that brought to mind nothing less than being mangled by a combine harvester.  

And so the treatment continued, with all manner of kneading, scrunching and slapping taking the place of what I had traditionally imagined of a massage. Wondering if Holly was being similarly re-sculpted on the adjacent table – for my position meant I couldn’t see a thing that was happening, bar the slow motion of the flowers shimmering in their bowl – I thought about calling out to ask her, but feared this might set off a full-on fit of the giggles.

An hour later, and it was all over. Intermittently relaxing, but largely painful, I emerged grateful to have had the experience, if not for the aftereffects on my joints and bones. I also felt a little cheated when comparing notes with Holly afterwards, for it appeared that her masseuse had gone the extra mile and thrown in to her treatment a free hair restyling, complete with dexterous plats and a frangipani. Surely they could have done something equally inventive with my beard?

Our three days on Ko Phi Phi were every inch the halcyon escape we’d hoped for, with radiant sunshine and balmy evenings completing the tropical dream. But ever eager to experience something new, we spent our fifth day in Thailand travelling back to Phuket, where we’d booked a further three night stay at a slightly more offbeat resort in Thalang. 

Where Outrigger felt authentically rustic, Indigo Pearl was as architected as a stately home. Wildly contrasting with the surrounding shoreline, yet oddly at ease with its rainforest backdrop, the resort had the feel of a steampunk storybook with metal, concrete and rainbow glass converging to dizzying effect. It was a design that carried through from the alien chandeliers in its reception, through its walkways and swimming pools, to the minutest details of its rooms and restaurants. All the cutlery used there, for example, was part of a stylized set that took cues from a workman’s spanner, while the bedrooms’ wall-mirrors resembled the rusting decor of an ancient ocean liner.

It was fortunate that the architecture carried so much interest, for the days we spent there coincided with a particularly dismal patch of weather, repeated thunderstorms scuppering any hope of an afternoon sunbathing on the local beach. But one evening did at least allow for a stroll down to the seafront, where one of the most spectacularly violent sunsets I’ve ever witnessed left me as awestruck as my first wide-eyed wanderings through Indigo Pearl’s otherworldly interiors. 

Much as we enjoyed our time in Phuket, we never let go of the thought that these resorts were bubbles, cut off spatially and culturally from the land and people around them. Emerging refreshed from our week of massages and cocktails, fine food and long sleeps, we looked forward to reacquainting ourselves with the more palpable Thailand of our first night. Which was just as well, because if any place was going to test our burgeoning love of Asia, Bangkok was surely going to be it. 



A Tale of Two Cities

Australia has long held sway over my imagination, a consequence in all likelihood of a misspent decade gorging on Neighbours and Home & Away as a child. But despite spending three years a mere pond’s hop away from it, I’ve still barely scratched the arid surface of this vast and obscure continent. 

With only a couple of months to travel in between leaving Auckland and our full-time return to the UK, we had to prioritise and decided to focus on South East Asia and the USA over New Zealand’s friendly Antipodean rival. Nevertheless, we did reserve ten days to catch up with friends in Melbourne and Sydney, two cities I’ve visited before but which, on this trip, I found myriad new reasons to cherish. 

            I must confess that Melbourne, our tour’s first port of call, did not exactly bowl me over on my initial visit some four and a half years ago. Knowing my character - and specifically my love of coffee and culture - friends had often remarked that Melbourne and I would be a heavenly match, but on my virgin trip to Australia I surprised them and myself by liking rather more the glitz and glamour of Sydney, with its iconic harbour and brassy beaches. 

            Melbourne, characterized by café-lined back alleys, grand arcades and world class art spaces, had felt more like a European city to me, and therefore inherently less interesting to this London-based Brit. And with limited time constraining me to a whistle-stop tour of little beyond the grid-based city centre, the charms of Melbourne’s eclectic suburbs sadly eluded me. But with the benefit on this visit of local friends to show us around, I was finally able to experience the best of a city I should have fallen for half a decade ago. 

              After Auckland, where bars often sit empty on a Monday night and city squares can lie vacant at midday but for sun-basking pigeons, I was struck immediately by how busy Melbourne was. For all the ease of living in a quieter city, I quickly realized that I’d missed the clatter and velocity of a London or a Paris, and Melbourne certainly had shades of both. For one, it boasts an exceptional public transport system revolving around an extensive and always timely tram network. I’ve often thought Auckland, in some future era of higher population and prosperity, would be a perfect candidate for a tram line, and Melbourne certainly showed its benefits as it rattled us from suburb to suburb, showcasing a city sparkling with culture, shopping and entertainment.

            An early highlight was a trawl through the labyrinthine Queen Victoria Market northwest of the city centre and home to purveyors of every food type imaginable. Recalling France’s grand marchés, its narrow undercover alleyways are hemmed with dozens of window stalls proffering breads, cheeses, pastries, salamis, chocolates, craft beers, juices, sandwiches and a hundred other delectable goodies. Our friends do almost all their food shopping there, and it was easy to see why, the range of fresh meat and fish particularly impressing. How anyone but the most discerning chef can hope to choose between over twenty different butchers flogging what appeared to be exactly the same cuts, joints and minces remained a mystery.

            Our mission at the Market was to source breakfast and we left sated with the dreamy pairing of a piping hot borek (a type of Turkish bread roll laden with spinach and feta) and an excellent filter coffee from an establishment whose tagline was “We love to make coffee for the city that loves to drink it”. Pretentious, perhaps, but their caffeinated output certainly delivered to the marketing spiel. 

            An afternoon was spent hobbling (on account of a new pair of Converse I’d foolishly overlooked to wear in before packing them as my only holiday walking shoe) around Brunswick Street in the north eastern suburb of Fitzroy, another trip highlight that cast Melbourne in a whole new light for me. Bringing to mind parts of San Francisco, with screeching trams rattling through unfeasibly long streets studded with boutique shops, bars and cafes, Fitzroy is a haven for anyone with a vaguely alternative taste in fashion, furniture and the arts. The homeware emporiums were particularly inspiring, with gorgeous antiques jostling with expert modern craft, and there were so many eateries that a resident might never have to visit the same one twice. 

            On which note, this being a holiday for us as much as an opportunity to explore a new city, a significant chunk of our visit was inevitably spent eating and drinking. Again, we were blessed with local friends to escort us around the hotspots, but I was impressed in general by the high quality of bars, restaurants and cafes we encountered. The volume of rooftop bars, dotted across the whole city and offering skyscraper views as a backdrop to a twilight beer or cocktail, particularly stood out, and left me wondering why more cities don’t make such crowd-pleasing use of their upper floors. 

            One watering hole we didn’t enter but which certainly had me intrigued was a garish black brick corner bar near the Victoria Market named, I kid you not, Witches In Britches. From the rubber ghouls behind iron bars that cackled as you walked past, it was clear this was no ordinary establishment, but given its proximity to a strip of brothels it was unclear whether this was designed as a fetishist’s fairground or hen party’s final resting place. Either way, I was more than happy to people-watch from across the street rather than risk poisoning from a pint of witches brew. 

           Away from the CBD, it turned out Melbourne offers almost as much seaside interest as the more famously beachy Sydney. A tram ride through the gentrified and leafy suburb of South Yarra and the shopperheaven that is Chapel Street led us to St Kilda, where a long beachfront walk culminates in a cluster of oceanside bars, gourmet patisseries and the glamorously fading Luna amusement park. 

More scenic was the daytrip we took with a hire car to the Mornington Peninsular, south east of Melbourne and a good two hour drive to its spindly apex. Once we escaped the clutches of the city’s seemingly endless outer suburbs, the landscape opened up into an idyll of rolling hills, lush woodland and sparkling sea views. 

Though the area is renowned for its wineries, a limited timeframe for returning our vehicle sadly prevented us from indulging in any cellar door tastings, but we were able to stop for a good old-fashioned pub lunch at the seafront hotel in Portsea and then gobble down a hopelessly decadent vanilla slice at the otherwise uninspiring town of Sorrento, where such slices are proclaimed, somewhat dubiously, to be “world famous”.

If we harboured any negative feeling as we departed Melbourne, it was reserved only for the cost of eating out, which felt high when converting back to the NZ dollars in our bank accounts. But Kiwis have long bemoaned how much better paid Australian jobs are compared to their New Zealand counterparts, so the more expensive cost of living probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise. 

As I’ve blogged about it previously, I won’t linger too long on Sydney, where we spent five nights following our week in Melbourne. The city remained as intoxicating as ever, in part thanks to the exceptional weather, unblemished blue skies and thirty degree temperatures belying the fact that it was officially only a couple of weeks into spring. 

With an ever-rising number of Kiwi and British friends now based there, Sydney continues to hold an allure for me, and our mates didn’t hold back from teasing us about our impending return to the damp and chill of the British winter while they bask smugly in the searing Australian sunshine. 

Sydney’s weather though is not without its drawbacks, as we discovered during a hot but lasciviously windy walk through scene-setting Surry Hills. Every gust of muggy air swept up and forged a maelstrom of tree dust, engendering the unpleasant sensation of battling through a sandstorm. Our eyes and throats were so raw after only a few minutes of valiant exploration in the face of this woody onslaught that we were compelled to take refuge for a good half an hour in a gift shop until the winds died down. 

The blustery weather again proved obstructive the following day, when we were forced to call off a planned boat trip around Sydney Harbour just as we’d finished loading aboard our hired vessel enough food and beer to pacify the Wallabies. Though there was certainly a hot breeze coursing through the bay where we were moored, it hadn’t initially seemed to us seafaring novices to be anything particularly untoward, but the boatyard’s owner was insistent that it would be far too choppy to be enjoyable once we got out on the water. 

Before disappointment could set in, however, the owner graciously suggested that we could move to another, far more luxurious boat in the marina and spend the afternoon playing on it, albeit without actually moving anywhere. Though this wasn’t quite the sightseeing afternoon we’d had in mind, it would have been churlish to complain about spending four hours hanging out with friends in brilliant sunshine, and with all that food and booze still to be guzzled. We even managed to fit in a spot of fishing - not that we caught anything, so well adapted the local fish proved to be as they nibbled through all our bait without once attaching themselves to our increasingly deflated hooks. A couple of our group went for a dip themselves in the water, though when we later noticed, mere meters from the boat, a stingray that was closer in size to Gerry Anderson’s sci-fi submarine than your average marine life form, I was thankful I hadn’t joined them. 

The rest of our time in Sydney was spent exploring some of its inner suburbs. The quaint terraces and shady trees of Paddington, for example, provided the backdrop to a pleasant afternoon dipping in and out of boutique shops and cafes. We especially enjoyed a pair of lunchtime toasties at a café called, cutely, Not Just Coffee, on narrow Perry Lane off Oxford Street, followed by a stroll around the perimeter of the vast Centennial Park. We also paid an early evening visit to Bondi Beach, where lively seafront pub The Bucket List cleansed our weary limbs with pints of pale ale soundtracked by a live dreampop band. 

Outside of the CBD, we were fortunate enough to spend a couple of nights with friends who live in Little Bay, a sleepy community several inlets down the coast from Bondi. Though the area has none of the entertainment options that abound in the more central suburbs, it does boast a stunning secluded beach and cliff-top walking track that meanders for a couple of kilometers through the local golf course. We enjoyed a memorable afternoon flip-flop sauntering along it, dodging golf balls and wary of the snakes that were said to have been spotted in the area, but also marveling at the tourist brochure views that left me briefly questioning why on earth I was giving all this up for the grime of inner city London. 

Yes, I’d be lying if I said that leaving Australia after a fortnight of non-stop sun-kissed fun didn’t tug a little at the heartstrings. Certainly, it hit home as we boarded our Thailand-bound flight at Sydney Airport that this really was the end of our time ‘down under’. But with so many friends this side of the world, and with so much of Oz still undiscovered, we won’t need any excuses to come back again and again.  



Farewell, farewell

Long-time readers of this blog may recall that it began with a shameless exercise in self-indulgence whereby I listed ‘things I will miss about the UK’ as I embarked upon this globe-hopping adventure of mine. Three years on (can it really be that long?) and Holly & I have recently bid adieu – for the time being, at least – to the place I came increasingly to call ‘home’: the land of the long white cloud, country of dag rattlers and nation of sickeningly good rugby players – New Zealand. 

So before I leap to the exciting travel itinerary we’re currently working our way through en route back to the UK, it seems appropriate to revisit that inaugural task and consider the ‘things I will miss about NZ’ when I’m ensconced back home and muttering visible curses through the ice and grey of the Great British winter…

·      The sunshine that bathes Auckland in almost obscene quantities

·      Consistently excellent coffee (espresso + a dash of water: done)

·      Beachfront walks - living postcards, framed by glorious, gnarled pohutukawas

·      The friends I’ve made, some only known for the briefest of times but sure to be mates for life, and of course the wonderful extended family I’ve acquired through Holly

·      The Golden Dawn, the only place for Friday late night revelry on Ponsonby Road (it’s just a shame it shares its name with Greece’s fascist party…)

·      Real Groovy record shop, one of the few great surviving independent emporiums of music anywhere

·      The freedom of being able to drive everywhere, offset only slightly by carbon guilt and the clenched fist-inducing rush hour bottlenecks on the motorway

·      Famous chefs serving customers in their own restaurants, like Al Brown, who recently brought me in person a ‘plate of bad’ (chips, cheese and gravy, obviously) at his superb new Manhattan-style diner on Federal Street

·      Auckland’s Sky Tower, the lighthouse that defines the skyline and guided me wherever in the city I happened to find/lose myself

·      Trips to the South Island, that mind-blowing smorgasbord of mountains and lakes seemingly lifted straight out of Tolkein’s head

·      Trips to Northland, where almost tropical white-sand beaches line NZ’s most stunning coastline and location of some unforgettable new year’s parties

·      A summertime Christmas Day with beach walks and barbecues and cricket in the back yard – the novelty never wore off

·      The almost total absence of chain restaurants and cafes. NZ must be one of the only developed markets in the world to give a two-fingered salute to Starbucks and it’s all the better for it

·      Feeling safe when running through dark suburban streets late at night with my headphones on and the music LOUD

·      Not having to queue for a table in a restaurant, or for service at a bar, and not being put on hold and being forced to listen to crackly 70s soft rock for an hour when you call the bank

·      Draft lager that that doesn’t taste like watered down piss

·      The seemingly infinite choice of superb independent cafes for a weekend brunch – and menus that don’t give up at bacon & eggs

·      Palm trees everywhere, making me feel like I’m always on holiday

·      La Cigalle, the Parnell-based French market that became a favourite spot for picking up organic produce and a crisp buttery Danish on a Sunday morning 

·      The ease of al fresco exercise all year round – and so many fantastic places to walk and run, like Tamaki Drive and Cornwall Park

·      The outstanding quality of the sushi – how did Tesco ever earn the right to pass off those dry, chewy, faintly acrid rolls of theirs as the same stuff?

·      Barbecues every night of the week in summer

·      Jeff and the cats of Kumeu – as entertaining and eclectic a bunch of feline friends you could ever hope to acquire

·      People actually being nice to you in train stations

·      Takeaway roast dinners – why has no one in the UK ever thought to do this?

·      The wine, especially the stuff from Central Otago – some of the best pinot noir you’ll taste anywhere ever

·      The pride Kiwis take in fresh produce and good honest home-cooked grub – ready meals are a tiny portion of their market and everyone seems a good deal healthier because of it

·      For a couple of (relatively) little islands, the incredible diversity in landscapes and natural scenery, from white sand beaches to smoke belching volcanoes, from green rolling hills to vast crystalline lakes – for once, the ads don’t lie

·      Being able to see really massive bands play in really small venues

·      The supermarkets staying open late on a Sunday evening – how did I ever cope when they used to shut at 4pm in the UK? How will I cope again?

·      Colonial style villas with huge “decks” out the back (terraces) and front (porches) – perfect for afternoon reading and evening drinks

·      The abundance of alpaca, nature’s most endearingly gormless animals

Etc. Etc. The list could go on. What started as a tentative step into the unknown, when I first made the decision to move halfway around the globe to a country I’d never been to, became one of my life’s most rewarding experiences to date. I’d be lying if I said it had always been plain sailing, and my blog entries over these past three years have spoken freely of some of my pet frustrations. Certainly, unlike many émigrés, I never came to think of New Zealand as my permanent home, but my time there has opened my eyes to a place that is, if anything, overlooked and under-valued by the wider world. 

Few people I know back home have ever been there, or even thought to visit. Yes, it is a long, long way away, but so is Australia, and Brits don’t seem as reluctant to embrace the idea of a holiday in Sydney or a trip to the Great Barrier Reef. The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit franchises have of course given prominence to the spectacular scenery-fest of the South Island, but as I hope the above list shows, there is a lot more to New Zealand than that and, for me, a compelling case to make a home there for anyone seeking a working holiday or temporary change of scene, or even a permanent move abroad. 

For me, New Zealand has been somewhere that has allowed me to become more independent and further my career, to understand the real meaning of great coffee and of great sushi, to revel in summers that have appeared to stretch out for over half the year, to see stunning landscapes and live in a city full of sublime views, to meet some wonderful people and make some wonderful friends and, maybe above all, to prove to myself that I’m able to carve a rich and fulfilling life for myself far away from the mates and family and places and culture that I grew up around. 

But all good things must come to an end, and ultimately the call of home has proven too much to resist indefinitely. This isn’t just about reconnecting with those things I thought I’d miss though (and yes, it has been a struggle at times without the football and pubs and culture of the UK). For me, it’s an exciting new era that will allow me to reintegrate into British life with new eyes and new ideas, and show Holly the best - and the worst - of the place where I grew up. 

In the short term, it might mean exploring the areas – like the Yorkshire Dales and the Scottish Highlands – that, for whatever reason, I ignored during my first 27 years there and for which my time in NZ has awakened a new fascination. In the long term, it might mean setting up a business or driving an enterprise that will see me attempt to bring some of the things that New Zealand does really well - but which the UK manifestly doesn’t - to home soil. Like good coffee, of course. 

Right now, it’s about celebrating an amazing time in a bloody awesome country and getting excited for home sweet home. And just a little bit of travel in between, as I’ll soon be writing about in my next blog. Stay tuned!