This week continues my two-week road trip around New Zealand’s South Island. Last week I ended the column in Invercargill, New Zealand’s southernmost city. From there the plan was to work our way back up the South Island, zigzagging our way around visiting hot spots and places of interest.
We leave Invercargill heading for the small lakeside town of Te Anau, which is the gateway to Fiordland and Milford Sound. When I check out of the hotel, the proprietor asks where we’re heading next and recommends a couple of must-see places along the way. One is a fabulous cafe, the other some quirky houses at Kozy Beach.
The cafe turns out to be a great recommendation and compares with the best cafes in in Auckland and Wellington. The quirky houses, however…..
We locate the turn-off from the main road for Kozy Beach. It leads us down a long gravel road, heading for a remote beach. The car’s suspension bounces and we groan all the way along the most uncomfortable, pot-holed, gravel road. The sea is in sight and we make it to the end, our hopes high of seeing something neat, off the beaten path. But all that we can see are a few shacks. There are telltale signs that these hovels in the middle of nowhere are inhabited, probably by those who wish to live off the grid. Was this really worth going out of our way for?! I can’t help thinking that the hotel proprietor has a webcam set up at Kozy Beach there which he tunes in to for kicks and gets a laugh at those who are stupid enough to follow his recommendation and who get to see nothing but a few shacks. He probably erupts in to laughter when he sees some clown like me actually take out his camera and snap a shot. Or as the other half said, it would be a great way to lead someone down a long road in the middle of nowhere if you had sinister intentions. You could be robbed or worse!
Less than 2 hours later we reach Te Anau, a small lakeside town in Fiordland, which makes up the south-west corner of the country. The town is – or at least was – a tourist hot spot and is the gateway to Milford Sound, a pristine and dramatically beautiful part of the country.
Te Anau is just as I remember it on my last visit some 20 odd years ago, misty and brooding with mist lingering over the lake and the hills for much of the day.
Te Anau is not an attraction for us per se, but a place to spend the night. It is the gateway to Milford Sound.
The road from Te Anau to Milford Sound is a big part of the visit to Milford Sound, and features some of the most dramatic scenery in all of New Zealand. You pass pristine lakes, through glacier-carved valleys and at times are surrounded by mountains on either side with sheer cliff faces many hundreds of metres in height.
With rain hammering down, I was almost drenched in seconds. Real photography was impossible in the conditions. With an umbrella in one hand and an iPhone in the other I fired off a few snaps before the phone camera’s lens was covered in water.
It feels like rain is a permanent fixture in Milford Sound which gets around 9,000 mm i.e. 9 metres (not a misprint) of rain per year. There are frequently dozens of waterfalls cascading down the sheer cliff faces all around you. The drive to Milford Sound stands out as the most spectacular place I have visited anywhere in the world and the photos don’t come anywhere near to doing it justice.
Parts of New Zealand are beautiful in a rugged way. There are some classically beautiful locations with small towns lining the shore of a lake with mirror-like reflections, all in the shadow of snow-capped mountains. But it is the rugged nature of many landscapes that I like best.
After spending the day at Milford Sound, our next destination is Queenstown, a short hop a couple of hours away.
Along the way in Kingston, another small lakeside town, I see a flag fluttering above a house. Make Ardern Go Away it says, a reference to the current prime minister of New Zealand. I look to see if the owner is about. I’d like to commend him on his fine work and shake his hand but alas, he isn’t about.
We arrive in Queenstown at lunch-time with mist still lingering over the lake.
Queenstown is busy and there are foreigners everywhere. How can that be? International visitors have not been able to enter New Zealand for months. It would seem most of them actually live and work in Queenstown. It felt like more foreigners were employed in Queenstown – at least in hospitality and retail – than were Kiwis.
Fergburger is the most famous eatery in Queenstown, a burger outlet that has had a long queue for about as long as anyone can remember. The queue outside was so long when I was last in Queenstown in 2015 that we didn’t bother. There is still a queue there today. Customers have been known to queue for a burger for up to an hour. Fortunately it’s not so busy and the wait is only 10 minutes. We can live with that. The burger is worth the wait.
The best meal we have in Queenstown is at a BBQ joint. Beef, lamb, bacon-wrapped chicken and a sausage with sides set us back the grand total of $53, or less than 1,100 baht. There was over 800 grams of meat alone. We leave stuffed. Great quality food, excellent value.
I sometimes think that Queenstown is to New Zealand almost like what Phuket is to Thailand. It’s the tourist hotspot, where many tourists gravitate to, and the entire economy of the town is built around tourism.
Queenstown is said to be hurting without the international visitors but it still seemed to be doing ok when we were there. Kiwis unable to travel overseas are flocking to Queenstown and flights from the bigger centres like Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch are full.
Queenstown has a reputation amongst Kiwis for being very expensive but prices are said to have dropped since the border closed. A very nice hotel room with views of the lake and the mountains runs $NZ125, or about 2,500 baht. Food and drink is no dearer than Auckland. In terms of value for money, we have no complaints.
Hotels in New Zealand have finally got wi-fi sorted out. Last time I was in the South Island 5 years ago, wi-fi in hotels was very much hit and miss. In some hotels the wi-fi connection was slow and in others you had a very limited amount of data. Apparently crap Internet in hotels was the biggest bugbear of international visitors. That’s all in the past and everywhere we stayed had lightning fast internet. (Of course, we could just have used our mobile phone’s data as a hot spot, if required).
I guess the most popular attraction in Queenstown is going up the gondola to the lookout. You get magnificent views over downtown Queenstown, Lake Wakatipu and The Remarkables mountain range. But we didn’t take the gondola. We climbed the mountain. The other half was not impressed!
It’s a challenging walk up the side of a very steep hill. The path sees you clamber over tree roots, rocks and traverse some steep sections along what is in parts a very narrow path without handrails. Fall and it could be game over.
It took us about an hour to get to the top with stops for photos along the way. The Queenstown gondola is said to be the steepest in the southern hemisphere and making your way up the side of the hill is a good exercise. By the time we reached the top we were knackered.
But the views are worth it. Of course, we could have taken the gondola ride up but the view from the top made it all worth it.
There is no shortage of things to do in Queenstown, and some beautiful places to visit nearby.
There is some lovely scenery on the 45 km drive from Queenstown to Glenorchy, a small settlement at the northern end of Lake Wakatipu.
It is so beautiful that at times it feels almost otherworldly. In some sections the road is almost at the river’s edge, in others it rises up above the lake giving fabulous views with the calm waters of the lake giving mirror reflections of the mountains opposite.
There’s not a lot to see in Glenorchy proper; it’s more about the journey and the scenery along the way.
There is so much to see and do in Queenstown that you could easily spend a week or more there. We visited 5 years earlier so a couple of days was enough for us.
We left Queenstown and resumed our journey north. Our next stop would be one of the highlights of the trip, Mt. Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain.
In various places all over the south skulls were placed at tourist hotspots and lookouts. Sheep skulls, at a guess. I have absolutely no idea what that was all about.
Mt. Cook is located near the middle of the South Island. There aren’t any major centres nearby so if you wish to visit the area you’ll probably stay in a small town. We choose Twizel, a town of not much more than 1,000 people. There’s not much there and it’s not even on the main road so I guess the only reason to go to Twizel is if you plan to visit Mt. Cook or the other peaks in the area.
We arrive in Twizel late afternoon. The other half is hungry. She spots a Thai restaurant. She wants to grab dinner there. I say it’s probably a bad idea. A Thai restaurant at a small town in the middle of nowhere won’t be any good, I say. She doesn’t believe me. She insists that when she tells the staff that she is Thai they will cook the food to the Thai palate and not tone it down for Kiwis as many Thai restaurants do.
We walk inside and greet the waiter in Thai. He looks at us like we’re speaking Alien. He looks Thai but obviously he isn’t. I guess he’s Chinese or Vietnamese or perhaps Cambodian. In the kitchen we see a beaming Indian fellow. We walk straight out.
Second choice for dinner is fish and chips. You usually can’t go wrong with fish and chips in small-town New Zealand. We walk in to the local fish and chips shop and see Chinese people running it. The Chinese do a decent job at running many types of businesses, but not fish and chip shops, in my experience. We are about to walk out when we hear someone say something in Thai. They aren’t Chinese, they’re Thai. I greet them in Thai and ask them if the fish is fresh and whether they have blue cod. For the second time in 5 minutes I am looked at like I am an alien!
I take a sneaky look at property prices in Twizel as I am wont to when I travel. Twizel is a small town in the middle of the South Island, effectively the middle of nowhere. Few places in the country get as cold in winter. The nearest major centre, Christchurch, is about 3½ hours’ drive away. The wilderness is on your doorstep but that aside, the area really doesn’t have much going on. A very basic house – and frankly not the sort of place you would want to live – is around $NZ 400,000. Something semi-decent is north of $NZ 600,000. I know the Kiwi property market has gone bananas but this is just crazy.
The other half really likes the South Island and insists that she prefers southerners. The South Island is how she expected New Zealand to be, she says, not cosmopolitan like the North Island. She goes on and on about moving to the South Island. A couple of days earlier we checked out some houses in a new subdivision, Jack’s Point, on the outskirts of Queenstown. New houses of a good size – around 200 – 230 square metres, on good-sized parcels of land – around 600 square metres, with a mountain view on one side and a lake view on the other sell for between $NZ 1.1 million and $NZ 1.7 million. Nice properties for sure, but that is more than you would pay for a similar sized new property in Auckland. The average property price in Queenstown is north of a million dollars. We won’t be moving to Queenstown in a hurry.
The start of the walking track at Mt. Cook National Park is 45 minutes’ drive from Twizel and takes us past Lake Pukaki which is an amazing bright turquoise colour, due to glacial flour in the water.
The Hooker Valley Trail in Mt. Cook National Park is one of the country’s most popular day hikes, which makes it sound more challenging than it really is. It’s a 5 km walk in and a 5 km walk back along the same path. If you’re fit and walk at a decent clip and there aren’t too many people on the track to slow you down, you can walk one way in about an hour.
The Hooker Valley Walk is fantastic. It’s long enough to make you feel like you got your daily exercise, but not so long that you’re totally knackered. The views of Mt. Cook are fabulous. At 3,724 metres, it is New Zealand’s highest peak.
Over the hour or so it takes to walk to the end of the track, the weather changes multiple times. We start with calm sunny skies. This is soon followed by dark, threatening clouds but mercifully it doesn’t rain. Next is strong, gusty winds and before we reach the end the sky clears and sunlight returns. The reward at the end of the track is the best view of New Zealand’s highest peak, Mt. Cook.
We linger for over an hour, taking lots of photos and chatting with some others on the track, including another Kiwi / Thai couple. We’re happy to linger and are in no hurry to walk back.
After Mt. Cook we worked our way back north to Blenheim, where we relaxed before getting on the ferry and heading back to the North Island. We spent two weeks down south and the much-needed break was fantastic.
New Zealand’s South Island is a great place for a road trip. I love the scenery. I like it that everything is so easy and there’s no need to get on a plane and go through all that airport crap. And I like it that I don’t get the feeling that I am being gouged or ripped off, a feeling I get a bit too often for my liking in Thailand.
Up at the lookout at the top of the Gondola in Queenstown is a large cafe / restaurant. Prices are about the same as they are at ground level. A good coffee runs $5 (about 100 baht). In other tourist hotspots around the world I’ve visited you’re gouged in places like that. That isn’t the case here.
This was not a photography trip per se. The camera did ok for an 8-year old model and what is now a previous generation of lenses.
I’m keen to get back down south but as much fun as a road trip is, I am not sure I would drive all the way down there again. Probably next time we will fly in to Christchurch or Queenstown and rent a car there. It’s easy to forget just how far away Queenstown is from the North Island. All that driving can get tiring.
Were they any disappointments or let-downs? Funnily enough, the fine, unseasonably warm weather just might have been. Some days the daily high was a full 8 degrees above historical averages. The other half had hoped to spend time in the snow and while the mountains had plenty of snow on them, we never saw any at ground level.
I enjoyed having our country back to ourselves. Tourism in New Zealand had become like Thailand with parts of the country over-run with visitors. We didn’t have to battle any crowds, which was nice.
And it looks like we will have the country to ourselves for some time to come. It is very unlikely New Zealand’s borders will open up to foreigners this year. With the virus raging out of control in some countries, it’s hard to see the border opening any time soon. And Thailand looks like it will be very much the same.
Reflecting on this trip, everything went about as well as could reasonably be expected. We spent a good deal of time planning and the unseasonably good weather made getting around easy, if not exactly the winter conditions we had been hoping for.
There was little evidence of the effects of Covid, except that there were hardly any foreign visitors around (those that where about are either resident in New Zealand or are stragglers who have stayed on and prefer to stay here than return home).
One minor disappointment was not getting to see a kea in the wild. The kea is a charming bird native to New Zealand, perhaps best described as an alpine parrot. It’s said to be the world’s most intelligent bird with an intellect rivalling primates. Keas are friendly and often approach people in alpine areas. We didn’t get to see one.
Time in the South Island caused me to look at the part of the country I live in and, at the very least, think about whether it is the right place for us. Weather-wise, Hawkes Bay is arguably the best spot in New Zealand. Long, warm summers, high sunshine hours, low rainfall and winter is sharp, but short. But the unemployment rate in the province is higher than the average and there is a bit of a welfare mentality that I don’t like. Could I see myself living down south one day? Probably not, but you never say never.
It takes a bit of effort to get to the very bottom of the South Island and far away from cities, but you are rewarded with the most breathtaking and dramatic landscapes. With Thailand likely to be closed for some time to come and travel abroad difficult generally, it won’t be long before I am back down south again.
Last week’s photo was taken at Molly Bar, in the soi that runs adjacent to Khao San Road, Soi Rambuttri. A grand total of 3 readers got last week’s photo right. This week’s photo was taken this week in downtown Bangkok by a friend.
Stick’s Inbox – the best emails from the past week.
Thailand-based Brit in New Zealand.
As a Brit who is stuck in NZ but lives in Thailand on a retirement visa due to expire very soon, it was great to see NZ get some coverage. What a great place it is. People here should feel very lucky that life is normal here, rugby and the horses go ahead as normal with spectators. Covid-19 is non-existent and it’s as safe as houses. I can’t believe many Kiwis moan they can’t travel when you have such a diverse country. My only gripe is to extend my visa here I paid nearly $500 NZD as I had to go to the doctors because I live in Thailand and I had to have a chest x-ray for TB. I applied mid-July but am still waiting for approval. In Singapore you can apply on-line and 15 minutes later you get the approval! It made me laugh your girlfriend needing Thai food after the boat. My girlfriend going from Bangkok to Hua Hin consists of 2 food stops, unless I am the one driving.
Making up for lost earnings.
I went to Hillary 2 on Friday night. There were 5 farangs and about 100 hookers. I spoke to one and she wanted 5K baht short time. She said she had to make up for lost time. Not with me you’re not!
With regards to hotels not offering a discount, a couple of times a friend has wanted to extend his stay at hotels and the hotel wanted to charge him a higher rate than that shown on booking sites. He simply went to an internet shop, made the booking on-line and returned to the hotel to check-in again at the reduced rate. The hotel wasn’t amused.
Fleecing the farang doesn’t work any more.
Your report of the scam that Suzie Wong is pulling by advertising drinks at 90 baht while forgetting to mention that is an outdoor price only reminded me of an episode I had at the first beer bar on Soi Nana. Happy hour price for all local beers, so I ordered a draft Singha. Bill comes and the price was much higher. When I protested I was told the happy hour price was only for bottled beer. No sign anywhere saying that. And the bars wonder why customer numbers are falling. They just don’t get it. Customers that are cheated won’t return, and such tales now go around the world warning others to avoid the place. In the age of social media, it’s no longer a case of fleecing the farang doesn’t matter as another will be along tomorrow.
Discrimination is actually illegal.
I was surprised to recently learn that Article 27 of the Thai constitution says: “Unjust discrimination against a person on the grounds of differences in origin, race, language, sex, age, disability, physical or health condition, personal status, economic and social standing, religious belief, education, or political view which is not contrary to the provisions of the Constitution, or on any other grounds shall not be permitted.” I guess if pressed Thais would say their discrimination is justified.
Bringing the mountain to Muhammed.
I suspect, like most of your readers, that we are all champing at the bit to visit Thailand again and break free of these strange and challenging times. Some positive experiences can be found outside Thailand though. On a recent city-break to London with workmates I happened to meet up with an old friend from Bangkok. Said lady was never in the industry but is no shrinking violent and likes to party. She’s attractive, university-educated and can speak multiple languages. She’d make a great catch. A dinner date with her friends was arranged and a large group of us met up. The cocktails flowed and there were laughs a plenty. For a moment I was transferred back to Bangkok, indeed until the bill came I quite well could have been because they paid for it. Anyway, this young lady was keen to escort be back to my room and while things never quite got hot and heavy, they certainly got comfortable. A very pleasant experience and no taxi money was needed. A trip over to visit me in my city is now planned and so while Muhammad can’t go to the mountain, I’ll be bringing the mountain to Muhammad.
My experience of Thai girls asking for money is a little different. None of my group of female friends in Thailand has contacted me for money. So I did the opposite, and contacted each of them and offered some money (between 2,000 baht and 5,000 baht depending on …..ah-hum how well I “knew” them). All but one took up the offer. They were all so thankful. I guess I am now jai-dee and have banked lots of karma points.
Spanky’s in Nana Plaza will host a party this coming Saturday, August 15. Details are on the poster above.
King’s Castle 1 and Kings Castle 2 in Patpong will reopen this coming Friday, August 14. King’s Castle 1 was getting rave reviews in the months leading up to the closure of bars in mid-March. With a bit of luck it will be similarly good when it reopens.
Among those gogo bars which have yet to reopen are all of the Arab’s bars on Soi Cowboy. The soi of neon doesn’t look quite the same without the admittedly beautiful frontages of all of the Arab’s bars.
The owner of a big name Bangkok gogo bar which I won’t name let me know that they broke even the first month they were back. The owner who is one of the good guys did not have to put his hand in his own pocket at the end of the month to pay the bills. All things considered, that’s a pretty good result. The worry is that this bar was reportedly doing better than many other bars. One imagines some owners were dipping their hand in to their own pocket to pay salaries this past week.
As per the photo of Bangla Road in last week’s column, Phuket is deader than dead at this time. But Phuket is more than Bangla road and in the area around Nanai Road, expats and tourists stranded in Thailand have found bars and restaurants open, massage available and no shortage of willing ladies. And in something that is most un-Phuket-like, long-time rates have come rocketing down. 1,000 baht has become an agreeable number.
Down in Pattaya, Walking Street is now Driving Street with traffic allowed on Pattaya’s nightlife ground zero 24 hours / day as the street diversifies and markets itself to Thais with no foreigner visitors around. It will be interesting to see how this goes and one wonders whether it will revert back to Walking Street when international travel and tourism eventually resumes.
While business is tough out there, that hasn’t stopped some well-run businesses from expanding. Sunrise Tacos will open its newest branch this coming Wednesday, August 12th at 18 LaSalle soi 36, Bangna. If that address doesn’t mean anything to you, perhaps the location is better described as directly across from Bangkok Pattana School.
So many readers are keen to get back to Thailand as soon as they can. Recent polls have shown that Thais are not keen on the idea of foreigners visiting at this time which is understandable – they don’t want the virus to make a comeback. But what do you make of the fact that many expats in Thailand don’t want other foreigners to return at this time either? A poll on the popular ThaiVisa Facebook page responded to by more than 10,000 people showed that amongst expats in Thailand, 58% were against the idea of foreigners visiting Thailand at this time. Jungle Jim syndrome is alive and well!
I thought it was ironic that Thai Airways, which is in all sorts of trouble financially and has been very slack in dealing with people who have thousands of dollars tied up in bookings, sent out a note this weekend advising they had updated their booking app!
I note that Thai banks still charge a fee if you use your ATM card outside of the province of the branch in which the account is held. That seems rather silly in this day and age. I know the fee is only 15 baht so it’s not like it’s a lot of money, but it seems so unnecessary.
Are Thais still wearing their gold at the moment? I ask because the price of gold is soaring and in Thailand is over 30,000 baht per baht weight unit. The combination of the high price of gold and the fact that many people are out of work and without an income sounds like a potentially dangerous combination. For those of you on the ground, are the old suspects who liked to parade their gold still doing so?
I learned plenty from Thailand and adopted some ideas from Thailand. One of them is maintaining good table manners, something I have to admit that I didn’t always have. I also find that I have become kind of Thai-like and get uncomfortable when people do things with their feet in public. The photo taken above was on the ferry returning from the South Island to the North Island. To be clear, the seating was not cramped like on a plane and there was heaps of space to stretch out so why did this wench have to put her feet up on the headrest of the seat in front like that where a little old lady was sitting. I really don’t like this sort of thing – especially when there was someone sitting in the seat in front of her. And why is it so often younger pooying farang who do this?
When out with friends in Thailand, often (but not always), one person will pick the bill. It happens more often that it does not, in my experience. But with Thai people here in New Zealand I have never seen this happen. Not once. If a group of Thais are out, they will each pay for themselves. I guess partly they have adapted to the local culture – Kiwis typically pay their share of the bill rather than split the bill, say, 4 ways if there were 4 people. Or maybe it is that a lot of Thais who hang out together in New Zealand aren’t actually that close / as close as they are with friends back in Thailand?
And while I am asking about the behaviour of Thais, why is it that Thai people so often believe what they hear from a fellow Thai over a non-Thai, even if the non-Thai is talking about something in an area in which they are an expert?
This Week’s News feed
Quote of the week, “The only thing worse than a female toilet attendant is a male one.”
A Thai wife / American husband are arrested for dodgy visas and growing cannabis.
President Trump pronounces Thailand as “Thigh-Land” before quickly correcting himself.
An esteemed Thai virologist calls for strict scrutiny of borders to keep the virus out.
Thailand shelves its plan for travel bubbles as Covid-19 cases increase elsewhere.
This week’s column is light on bar news and gossip. I’d like to say it was because I was travelling but that is not it at all. I was in contact with a number of people on the ground but little came back. Everyone told me that around the bars, there just doesn’t seem to be a lot going on. Hopefully I will have more bar news and gossip for you next week.
Your Bangkok commentator,
Stick can be contacted at : [email protected]