Stickman's Weekly Column August 2nd, 2020

A Country Of Stunning Views Part 1



Friends and family raised their eyebrows when I said I was off on a road trip around the South Island. It’s what you do in summer, they told me, not in the middle of winter! It will be like Canada down there, one said. Dad chimed in and said it will be more like Siberia. But I was undeterred. We can’t travel to Thailand at this time and the travel bubble with Australia doesn’t look like it will happen at all. As long as Covid sticks around, if we want to travel it has to be in our own backyard.

 

 

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Looking back at Wellington Airport, at the southern tip of the North Island.

I know the North Island like the back of my hand. I’ve been almost everywhere – and have visited all the highlights multiple times. I hadn’t been down south for 5 years so the South Island it would be.

 

 

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Heading for the South Island, with the North Island in the foreground and the top of the South Island in the distance.

Things are largely normal in New Zealand. I have not seen anyone in a face mask since I was last in Auckland, and that was months ago. There is hardly any hand sanitiser to be seen. You wouldn’t know about the virus unless you follow the international news. It just isn’t the talking point it was a few months ago. The country is open for business.

 

 

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Guiding the vessel in to the Marlborough Sounds.

We’ve only been in the South Island 20 minutes and the other half is true to form, craving Thai food. I had anticipated this and we stop at a Thai restaurant in Blenheim. The reviews were good – which doesn’t mean a thing as your average Kiwi doesn’t know good Thai food. But I am pleasantly surprised and the food is good. And authentic, the other half chimes in.

 

 

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The ferry moves at a snail’s pace through the Marlborough Sounds.

We have an interesting conversation with the proprietor who is remarkably open about what it’s like running a Thai restaurant in the provinces. She used to live in Auckland but like many, she left for the provinces. It’s the same old story – Auckland got busy and expensive.

But running a business in the provinces is still crazy expensive, she tells us. She has a $6,300 salary bill per week, no great surprise with the minimum wage in New Zealand at $19/hour. Rent is another $1,000 per week. Yet the restaurant is profitable and it deserves to be – the food is genuinely good.

 

 

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The scenery in the South Island makes the 3½-hour ferry ride from the North Island worth it.

We plan to spend our first night in the South Island in Kaikoura. It has had a brutal time of late, having been hit hard by an earthquake in November, 2016, that reshaped the landscape, ruined roads and cut the small town off.

The reconstruction of the main highway north and south out of Kaikoura which connects it with the top of the South Island to the north and Christchurch to the south, was apparently the biggest project of its kind in the world a year or two back. It’s a magnificent coastal road and it’s great that they repaired it rather than upgrade an inland route.

 

 

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This is what a Kiwi road trip is all about, a stunning view around every corner.

New Zealand really is a great place for a road trip. There’s another million dollar view around the next corner.

 

 

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The main drag on Kaikoura Peninsula.

But as good as the scenery is, driving standards in New Zealand are poor. Kiwis are reckless behind the wheel. There’s no other way to put it. In this respect, my fellow countrymen remind me of Thais – friendly, and some of the nicest people you will meet….until they – errr, they – or am I supposed to say “we” – get behind the wheel…..and then it all becomes a bit of a lottery!

 

 

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3 huge pieces of fish and chips cost $NZ18. or about 360 baht. It fed two of us.

Kaikoura is known for seafood and Kaikoura has some of the best fish and chips in New Zealand the world. Yeah, it’s that good!

 

 

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Kaikoura, a place I never bore of.

Kaikoura is a sleepy sort of a place. Google tells me that the resident population is around 2,200. The other half likes it. She tells me it’s peaceful. She could live here, she says. We should move here, she suggests.

I remind her that she not infrequently complains that Napier is too quiet – and the population of Napier is over 60,000. Combined with our sister city of Hastings 15 minutes down the road and the population is 130,000. She looks at me like what I just said makes absolutely no sense whatsoever!

 

 

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Up for sunrise in Kaikoura.

I am an early riser and at this time of year the sun rises late. I wander out front of the hotel to capture the sunrise. No-one is around. I suspect many hotels had not a single guest and locals had not yet headed out to walk the dog, or go for an early morning jog.

 

 

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Was it a good catch for the fishermen?

As the sun comes up over the horizon a car pulls up not far from me. A lady of retirement age gets out and heads down to the beach. Despite the morning chill – the app on my phone tells me it’s 2 degrees – she is wrapped in a sarong. She removes it and places it on the beach along with a small bag. Her bikini reveals a remarkably lithe figure for a lady her age.

 

 

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The sun is about to drop below the sky.

The sea has to be really cold at this time of year. New Zealand has nice beaches, but the water is cold in much of the country, even in summer. She spends about 10 minutes or so in the water before she returns to her bag, pulls out a towel, dries herself off, wraps herself in the sarong and heads back to her car. They’re a hardy bunch down south.

 

 

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Rugged coastline on the lower South Island.

The next day we head south for Christchurch where we catch up with a couple of Thai friends of the other half.

One of them got involved with a bogan and together they started a small business. The business is on its knees and the bogan is being a bogan, and threatening her. He didn’t put any money in to it. Now he wants the business sold and half of the money paid out to him. They didn’t get a partnership agreement drawn up and she is scared it could get messy. He sounds like trouble but has no money to instigate legal action. And legal action is very expensive. It sounds like he’s not sophisticated enough to pursue it. Not that it matters, the business is probably worth close to zero anyway. Poor girl was petrified things would get nasty, but Stickman Community Law Centre manages to put her mind at ease.

Don’t think it’s always Thai women sucking money out of white guys. It happens the other way around too.

 

 

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The clock tower at Otago University, Dunedin.

It’s 20 years since my one and previously only visit to Dunedin, the South Island’s second city. With just 130,000 people, it shows how sparsely populated the South Island – sometimes referred to as the mainland – is. The South Island has a little over a million people whereas the North Island has a bit under 4 million.

We are one country, but North Islanders and South Islanders are a bit different. Down south they are a hardy bunch, friendly, people of the land, oftentimes conservative and very much what you see is what you get. I think they see us North Islanders as flashy and showy, which does not really fit with their southern sensibilities.

The other half offered some wisdom on the matter. North Islanders are better looking. South Islanders are nicer people. And she tells me there must be less crime in the South Island because she has not seen any homeless people. We should move south she tells me for the umpteenth time.

 

 

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Seals, sea lions, penguins, all manner of birds and other sea life can be seen down south.

Like Kaikoura, Christchurch was hit hard by an earthquake. The big one was 10+ years ago and still some sites are cordoned off due to earthquake damage. Often it’s old buildings where there is an effort being made to raise funds to restore them.

Christchurch would appear to have the second largest contingent of Asian New Zealanders. Walking hand in hand with the other half, we never once received any odd looks and certainly no ill comments.

The other half says she could happily see us living in Christchurch. What is it with all this business about relocating?!

 

 

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The sign says it all.

The South Island’s second city is Dunedin. It is known for its Scottish heritage and the name of the city comes from the Gaelic Scottish name for Edinburgh.

One of the highlights of Dunedin is a walk up Baldwin Street, the steepest street in the world.

 

 

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At the top of Baldwin Street, the world’s steepest street.

Last year, the Welsh tried to claim that a street in the country was the world’s steepest and for a month or two Guinness Book agreed.

 

 

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Would you trust a Kiwi builder to build you a house?

That was until a Kiwi engineer doubted it, jumped on a plane and went to check it out for himself. He measured it and discovered that Baldwin Street in Dunedin was a full 4 degrees steeper. Baldwin Street was crowned the world’s steepest street again.

 

 

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The steep track down to Tunnel Beach, Dunedin.

Asking for a discount and bargaining just aren’t the Kiwi way, it seems. Some Kiwis in business get noticeable uncomfortable when you ask them for a discount. I don’t get it. Why wouldn’t you ask for a discount when things are so quiet? You’re not putting an insulting offer to them. I figure with hotel rates that asking for 20% – 25% less than their rack rate is quite reasonable – and I always tell them I will pay with cash.

We’ve been travelling more than a week and only one hotel offered a discount, a Chinese-owned hotel in Christchurch. Kiwi hoteliers won’t budge.

At one hotel, the owner said the room rate was $160 but he would drop it by $10 to $150 / night. The official website of the hotel had the rate at $150 so where $160 came from I have no idea. On Booking.com the price was $128. Out of that $128, Booking.com takes a commission of around 15%. That takes what the hotel gets down to about $110. And out of that $110 the hotel has to pay 15% GST, and 28% company tax. I would have happily paid $120, or even $130 cash but no, the hotel owner wouldn’t accept that. Worse still, he actually seemed offended that I had had the gall to ask for a discount. I don’t get it!

 

 

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The lighthouse at Nugget Point, not infrequently the coldest place (during daylight hours) in New Zealand.

Hotel room reservation sites work well and you can get some decent deals, but I have grown wary of them. They still have that awful practice of saying “only one or two rooms left at this property” – and when you get to the hotel it is empty.

I booked a room for Queenstown for a couple of nights and Booking.com told me there was just one room available. I booked it. I thought I’d check in to Booking.com the next morning for a laugh. Guess what? Just one room left. Yeah, right.

I went to make a booking at my favourite hotel in Wellington which Booking.com said had two rooms left. I thought I’d call them and see if I could get a better rate. The answerphone message says the hotel is closed – and has been since April. Yet Booking.com is quoting rates and says that for my travel dates, just two rooms are left. Hmmm….

 

 

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Queen’s Park, Invercargill.

I have visited much of the South Island before and covered many of the highlights, but I had never previously been to the deep south.

What a nice surprise Invercargill turned out to. One of the world’s southernmost cities turned it on and we had 16 degrees in July, in what is usually the coldest month of the year. The city of 55,000 has wide boulevards, a beautiful park and very friendly locals.

 

 

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The sign at the bottom of the South Island. A long way from home.

They say that the further south you get in New Zealand, the less keen they are on Aucklanders. I have a wry grin at the huge print decorating my Invercargill hotel room, a cityscape of Auckland!

 

 

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Bluff oysters, truly a delicacy.

Down the road from Invercargill is Bluff, best known for Bluff oysters. They are said to be prized by oyster lovers. Bluff oysters can only be enjoyed in New Zealand. Their export is prohibited.

At a modest fish and chip shop I enjoy Bluff oysters for the first time. They had a distinctive taste which is hard to describe. They struck me as more meaty than other oysters and while not chewy per se, they had more texture to them than other oysters. Several minutes after enjoying them the flavour is still in your mouth, a weird sensation.

 

 

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Te Anau, lower South Island.

At the half-way mark of my South Island road trip, I reflect on the first 8 days. I’m having a blast. The weather has been good, and remarkably mild for winter. The food has been unreal. The people we have met have been fantastic. Most of all, New Zealand is truly a country of stunning views.

 


Billboard Bangkok
 

 

Mystery Photo

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Last week’s photo was taken on Silom Road. Not a single person got it right. This week’s is rather easier.


Nana Plaza
 

Stick’s Inbox – the best emails from the past week.

With Stick.

Interesting tale from the past re: Jane. You dodged a bullet. From your description, she is psychotic and probably has a dangerous, nasty personality – the type that would cut off your penis.

With Jane.

I have to say though I’m with Jane. You have to at least give someone a chance, especially when the first date seemed to go well. I’m baffled that you think she was being unreasonable and that she was a nut-job. I don’t understand that way of thinking. My point of view is that she obviously also thought the date went well and was just pissed that you turned out to be another player.

Crazy Jane.

I think you got lucky by dating Jane just once. When a Thai woman says “I crazy lady” (yes, I’ve heard that) or “you die,” I take her at her word. I suppose there are crazy ladies in many cultures, but it seems like there’s a higher proportion in Thailand.

Heaps of choices for Brits to return home.

Regarding repatriation flights, it kind of puzzles me that anyone from the UK is stuck in Thailand. A 20-second search on the BA app found multiple flights with wild variations in price. On July 30 you can get home for THB17,000 (9,000 baht without tax and other fees), hardly extortionate under the circumstances.

The domino effect.

My guess for the bar considering only opening on Friday, Saturday and Sunday would be Stumble Inn. And I guess once one bar does so, others will follow.

Being shown the door.

In the latest move by immigration, tourists have been told to get out of Thailand by 26th September. I agree that there have been circumstances in the past when some abused the ‘privilege’ of being allowed to stay in Thailand spending money. But these are exceptional circumstances which, at present, show no signs of changing for the better. Quite the opposite, with just about everywhere that has tried to lift restrictions suffering from a rise in Covid cases. Thailand has done well in keeping the country almost free of the virus, but now they are perfectly happy to demand that anyone who was encouraged to visit the country as a tourist now return to countries that might be suffering hundreds or thousands of new cases a day. And for no reason at all except we don’t want you in our country. Very nice of them.

Flying out of Bangkok after taking advantage of the visa amnesty.

I thought that you might be interested in my experience leaving Suvarnabhumi last night. As you know, all foreigners were allowed to stay until July 31st without visiting Immigration for a formal extension. However, it appears that no one made the appropriate adjustments to the immigration computer system. So if you’ve stayed beyond your initial permission, the computer at the Immigration officer’s booth rejects your attempt to leave, and you’re handled as an overstayer. Another officer takes you and your passport to the regular overstay counter. Your passport is handed to one of the Immigration officers there, where s/he puts it on the bottom of the pile. There were a couple dozen people waiting when I got there last night. The officer puts your information into the computer (apparently this takes several screens’ worth of input) as if you are an illegal overstayer. Then, after that’s complete, the officer inputs into the system that your penalty (apparently including the period of time for which overstayers are banned from re-entering) has been waived. It went relatively quickly, but plan an extra 20 minutes for this, more if you’re trying to exit through Immigration at peak travel times. I can’t say that I’m shocked, but wouldn’t it have been easier just to adjust the computer program so that no one is dinged for being an overstayer until August 1st?

Expats feeling the pressure.

Things here in Phuket are really dire as they are in Samui and other places reliant on tourism. Sadly (and predictably), the government has shown no sign or ability to address the problem. Many of us long-term expats have helped prepare food for literally starving locals. And I’ve had calls from almost every lady in my contact list begging for money from up north where they’ve mostly retreated to. I’m a bit of a soft touch and 60 bucks to me means a lot less than a couple of thousand baht does to them. One rather unsettling development is the increasing exposure of the underlying xenophobia with farangs being increasingly blamed for the virus. There’s a developing story of a restaurant in Bangkok that has banned foreigners. A few weeks ago there was a guy here in Phuket who has an anti-farang Facebook page and he was encouraging Thais to use catapults against foreigners not wearing masks. That in itself was bad enough but the comments were really scary (as they are with the restaurant in Bangkok). It’s crossed a lot of minds in the expat community that they may start to really come after us if this goes on much longer – like in that Owen Wilson / Pierce Brosnan movie, No Escape, filmed in Chiang Mai.


Spankys Nana Plaza Bangkok
 

Little change around the traps in Bangkok where many bars are doing it tough and trade remains slow in most venues. There are still a good few bars, particularly in Patpong, that have chosen not to open.

Following on from mention in last week’s column about a big beer bar on Soi Nana which might open reduced hours, word is that the farang manager – a good guy – will be on reduced hours and a reduced salary to match. Tough times for farang bar managers.

While it is very quiet out there, those who make it out are not missing out on attention from ladies, many of whom are doing it tough.

Nana continues to be the pick of the bar areas and is doing better than elsewhere, but that is not really saying much.

Crazy House is largely back to operating as normal – but it’s still the ground floor only which is open.

At Suzie Wong in Soi Cowboy, some girls outside the bar hold up signs saying 90 baht drinks all night. Enter the bar, take a seat, order a drink – and it’s 190 baht! What is that all about? Suzie Wong is being a bit sneaky……the 90 baht deal applies to drinks consumed on the balcony outside only.

And it’s the same at Baccara where I was trying to work out what was happening with drinks prices with some people I know swearing it was 90 baht, others saying the prices are what they were pre-Covid. At Baccara it’s 90 baht beers on the terrace outside. If you choose where to drink based on price, ask what the price is before you order.

Suzie Wong continues to attract the punters and word is that it’s the most popular bar on Soi Cowboy at this time.

Overhead lights have been installed along Soi Cowboy. The idea is that they come on at the end of the night to light up the street. But that is not what is happening. Whoever is in charge of the switch seems to enjoy randomly flicking them on and off, killing what little atmosphere there is due to the lights being so bright.

Over at The Paddy Field in Patpong, it is buy 1 get 1 on all drinks every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, from open until close.

Some venues are looking beyond their traditional customer base and trying to attract locals. That is locals, as in Thais. The likes of The Game and The Old English Pub in Thonglor are marketing in the Thai language – and in the case of the latter it could do quite well, given its location. Old customers won’t be back any time soon so good on bars for trying something different.

Buddy’s Bar & Grill has taken the Sukhumvit location that was recently vacated by Bad Burger due to uncertainty of a lease extension on their soi 22 spot.

 

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The colourful frontage outside Random, Nana Plaza.

 

It’s not all bad news on Walking Street where Pin Up is said to be doing as well as – and probably better than – anywhere in Sin City. Friday and Saturday night crowds are just like pre-Covid although the Plexiglas screens between the dancers on stage and the customers are a reminder that things aren’t anywhere near back to normal.

A Bangkok bar owner who visited Pattaya recently could not believe the prices in Pattaya for drinks and food. The average price for a bottle beer in a Soi LK Metro gogo bar is around 135 baht and draft is below 100 baht. Bangkok expats looking to save some money ought to consider a trip down to Pattaya. This is nothing new and Pattaya has always been cheaper.

A number of readers tell me that they are getting messages from ladies they once knew who say times are tough and requesting some money to be sent their way. These requests aren’t anything new but this time they are much more likely to be a genuine plea for help.

Reader Richard has confirmed what other readers have said – Bangla Road, the hub of Phuket’s nightlife, is dead. Check out the photo below.

 

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Bangla Road, Phuket, Thursday, July 23rd, 10 PM.

 

I tend not to follow Bangkok websites so I didn’t know that Skins, the guy behind the website SingleMansParadise, left Thailand and the site has disappeared with him. Word is that he ran out of money and returned to the States. He submitted a story to this site a while back claiming all his belongings were stolen from his room in a low-end hotel in Bangkok.

Thailand’s second Apple store opened at Central World this past Friday. That is a whole lot easier for most to get to than the location of the first store at Icon Siam.

The Swedish krona has gained north of 15% against the baht this year. No idea what that is about. I’d like to say it’s good for our Swedish readers, but is it? Will any Swedes be visiting Thailand any time soon?

No change down in Pattaya which remains very quiet. We’ve been saying Soi 8 passed its peak years ago and it is now almost entirely closed down. Bars, 7 Elevens and hotels are all in darkness with for sale signs on shopfronts up and down the soi.

The general Soi Buakhao area, and particularly Soi LK Metro, are where the action is at in Sin City and come alive after sun-down. A reader chatted with a lady who had just moved from Soi 8 to Soi LK metro. She hadn’t had a customer for 17 days at Soi 8.

 

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Soi LK Metro, Pattaya, last night.

 

While you may encourage your Thai lady friend to get tatted up, please don’t think that tattoos are as accepted in mainstream society in Thailand as they are in parts of the West. In much of mainstream society in Thailand non-traditional tattoos are still largely frowned on. I mention this because I have noticed some job ads in Thailand specify no visible tattoos, just as some job ads may specify gender, age range, ideal weight / height etc. This is Thailand, not the West. Thais with visible tats will find themselves ineligible for many jobs.

I avoid social media but recently I had a nosey at what some Bangkok personalities were posting. What struck me were similar posts from two well-known Brits about their annual visit to Immigration. Bangkok Phil who runs Ajarn.com said going to Immigration for his annual visa extension was the day of the year he dreaded most – I am sure many expats can relate to that. And prolific blogger Richard Barrow seemed to be a little concerned following a post he had made about Bang Saen Beach being filthy where he highlighted all the rubbish on the beach. It was a legitimate post and presented in such a way that the authorities could act on it and tidy the beach up. His concern appeared to be that his annual visa extension was coming up and perhaps something he posted might have an effect on his visa and his permission to stay in the country. Worrying about whether your next visa extension will be approved is common with so many expats in Thailand – the worry being what will happen to your life if it isn’t. I don’t think worrying about that sort of thing is good for anyone’s mental health, I really don’t.

This Week’s News Feed, Thailand-Related Stories

This is what state quarantine is like for Thais returning from abroad.

80,000 people are evacuated from Danang, Vietnam, after 3 new Covid-19 cases are detected.

Phuket looks to diversify as Covid-19 kills tourism and with it the island’s biggest earner.

From the UK’s Telegraph, the outlook for Thailand’s tourism industry is very bleak.

What’s going on at The Game, under the Nana BTS.

Smart bus shelters have been introduced in Bangkok.

Artbox lives to fight another month.

A Ukrainian jumps to his death in Surat Thani.

 

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Dramatic landscapes, touring around Kiwiland.

I’ve been travelling around New Zealand for more than a week. We’ve been out and about by day and travelling long distances some days. By the time I get back to the hotel at night I crash and am out for the count until it all resumes the next day. I have been a bit slow in replying to emails. And my mind hasn’t really been on Thailand this week. I hope this week’s column is not too “bitsy” and reads ok.

Your Bangkok commentator,

Stick

Stick can be contacted at : [email protected]