My Life in Motion

Life in Slow Motion

It wasn’t quite the start that I’d planned. With a month of volunteering ahead of me, I hadn’t expected to find myself prostrate on the couch light-headed and dizzy on my arrival. The place was deserted and I drifted in and out of consciousness. It had been a rough night, and I’d thought I was going to have to have a doctor called. I’ve been hospitalised before from severe food poisoning and in the darkness of my misery during the night, I was recognising the warning signs that had led me down that slippery slope in the past. But after leaving the hotel behind and with each passing hour on that couch, I realised that thankfully I was over the worst of it. I wanted desperately to replenish my lost salts and sugars, and slowly trudged to the supermarket that evening when one of the other volunteers got home. It was a slow and draining process, topped off with nearly fainting in the shop. Not quite the best first impression I’ve ever given. But despite the torture of the night before being the most ill I’ve ever felt in my whole life (I’ll save on the gory details!), it was thankfully a short-lived illness, and within 48hrs I was feeling good, if a little hesitant about what food I put in my mouth.

Weekdays were all about routine. The workload was variable, and initially it was quite humid making for a rather sticky time to begin with. There were 2 other volunteers for the first half of my stay and we got on like a house on fire. The first week I was there, we got to sample some of Puerto Ayora’s night life. Although it is the busiest town in the archipelago, there’s only a handful of places to choose from for late nights, and despite having felt like I’ve grown out of the clubbing days, it was too tempting to sample the spot in town: Bongo Bar. Wednesday nights are salsa nights and the locals were showing off their salsa moves whilst I, never having done the dance, decided to utilise my well practised Zumba moves. It was the source of some amusement, but I think I faked it well. One of the staff members treated us to a fire dance on the balcony before we headed home tired yet satisfied.

The weekends were our own, and whilst the other two volunteers headed to San Cristobal, I headed back to Isabela, my favourite island in the whole archipelago. The public boats were different from the one I had travelled on prior, and we were packed in like sardines such that I ended up with both my shoulders being used as pillows by a local woman on either side. Sea lion swimming at Puerto Villamil pierJust a week on from my previous visit, and Isabela felt different. There were barely any penguins or blue-footed boobies – a stark contrast to the week before. My trip coincided with the beginning of the change in season denoted by a shift in sea currents from the warmer Panama current to the colder and nutrient rich Humboldt current. But the locals were full of murmurings about El Niño, a phenomenon where the warmer currents hold on, denying the normal flourish of food and decimating some of the local species. The last El Niño a few years prior had reportedly caused an 80% reduction in the number of Galapagos penguins, a decrease from which they were yet to fully recover. On land though, and the sun shone brilliantly over the gorgeous sands and the sea lions still happily floated around the pier, lazily watching the tourists who crowded around to take their photo.

I had a leisurely and lovely stroll through Puerto Villamil and out the far side and along the beach to my peaceful seaside hostel. Marine IguanaIt was only a stone’s throw to the start of a boardwalk which skirts through lagoons, vegetation, and lava fields on its way to the tortoise breeding centre that I had visited last time. Marine iguana swimmingThe start of the walk was littered with marine iguanas sunbathing, and through the red-coloured water, a large iguana lazily swam across to shore. The first lagoonThe first lagoon had several ducks and stilts around it, and then every lagoon after that had flamingos. Black Necked StiltIt was hard-going in the sweltering heat but totally worth it. Pink flamingoI saw flamingos fighting, flamingos flying and some other birds I hadn’t seen up close before, and the lava fields were littered with large cacti plants. Walking through the bushesRather than go back to the breeding centre again, Galapagos cotton plantI walked past it and continued on up the road back to the quarry where again there were flamingos, Quarry with flamingosbefore turning back and enjoying it all again on the return leg.





























One of Isabela's beachesFollowing a beautiful lunch from a little kiosk shop, I found my way to a beach that I hadn’t even noticed last time. Grey heronOn the seaward side of the row of restaurants that line the main street in town, is a lovely white sandy beach where herons, pelicans and shore birds hung out. Whimbrel feedingFrom here I could see thick clouds hanging over the highlands, but whilst they always threatened, they never quite made it over my way. School of Sergeant MajorsI lazily walked along the beach to grab my snorkel gear and headed to Concha Perla, the sheltered lagoon near the pier where I’d gone with my group the week before. StingrayThis time though it was packed with locals and it was very noisy. As a result, there was not a penguin in sight, but once I got away from the crowds in the cold water, I stumbled across a massive stingray resting on the bottom and then hung around the rock channels watching shrimp and shoals of colourful fish.















I woke the next morning to discover that the clouds had finally blanketed the whole island. Frigatebird in flightIt was overcast and windy but that wasn’t going to get in the way of my exploration. 5km out of town lies the Wall of Tears, a remnant of an old penal colony, that I had biked out to last time. Sleeping marine iguanaI’d noticed on route that there were lots of little side trails of the main path, so on this day, that was my goal: to explore every inch of access on the trail. Pile of marine iguanasThere was 1km of beach to walk along to reach the head of the trail, and above me, groups of large frigate birds and the smaller blue-footed boobies would appear over my head. Striated heronPelicans skimmed the tidal zone, and then on the first branch of the trail, I stumbled across a large colony of marine iguanas that were draped across the path. They literally will flop down anywhere, and often on top of each other, and there were so many that they blocked the path in two spots. Skirting round them, I found myself face to face with a striated heron in the bushes.



Iguana nesting areaOther trails took me to lagoons, or beaches where more marine iguanas lazed and nested. Tree tunnelI found myself back at the lava tunnel which was part-filled with sea water and thus had its own marine ecosystem there, which included an octopus. Giant tortoise wandering through the national parkAnother trail led me through a tunnel made of trees to a peaceful mangrove lagoon where a sea lion played, and on the main track itself, the so-called Camino de las Tortugas, I came across 5 wild giant tortoises simply out for a meander. They seemed unfazed by the regular passing of people, and 1 even tried to race me along the track for a bit.

View of IsabelaI didn’t go as far as the Wall, but instead stopped at a viewpoint which offered a beautiful vista over the coastline and back towards Puerto Villamil. Marine iguanaPassing the tortoises on the way back, there were yet more marine iguanas that had appeared on the main track near the beach, Pelican at the beachand I was thrilled with the constant wildlife exposure that Isabela offered. Snorkelling again at Concha Perla, I saw another stingray and a giant parrotfish, before heading out for dinner and getting caught in a downpour.








Relaxing on the main stretch of Isabela beachI awoke in the night to discover a cockroach on my pillow in front of me, its antenna taunting me. I suspect it had tickled me in my sleep. Isabela's main street near the hostelAfter checking out, I passed the time reading a book on the beach until the incoming tide nearly caught me off guard. Puerto Villamil's main streetI moved nearer town and sat under a palm tree, where another tourist seemed awfully concerned about my safety should a coconut decide to fall off. Sea lions on the boardwalk to Concha PerlaEventually I headed to Concha Perla to discover that the tide was strangely very high, and the sea had flooded it, submerging the lava walls that demarcated the normally protected snorkel area, and flowing deep into the mangroves. Communal lazinessI hung out at the pier with the sea lions and marine iguanas until it was time to get back on the boat to return to Santa Cruz.











In my 32 years of living and my many adventures, I’ve been on a lot of boat trips on several oceans and seas and in varying sizes of boats, but that trip from Isabela to Santa Cruz was the roughest trip I’ve ever done. Just 5 mins out from shore we hit the open ocean and the captain pushed down the throttle and we literally became airborne. The speedboats in the Galapagos have only a padded bench seat lining each side of the boat which faces internally. There are no individual seats, no armrests, and no seats facing the direction of travel. There is nothing to hold on to, and with several weak-stomached passengers needing the back of the boat, I found myself near the front which has the most movement on the sea. As we ploughed through the water, I could feel the boat rise up on the crest, and going at such speed the boat would take off over the top and free-fall for a second or two before slamming down on the trough that followed. The seconds of free-fall were enough to leave your stomach in the air, and it felt like hitting concrete as the force repeatedly shot through my spine again and again and again. I wasn’t worried about my stomach, but with chronic back problems, I was terrified of the damage that could be inflicted. I tried to reposition myself in an effort to save my back from taking the brunt, but packed in as we were, it was rather difficult. My bruise from the boat tripIn the end, my lower shoulder was thrown against a bar on the wall of the boat so many times, that by the evening it was swollen. For over an hour of the nearly 2.5 hr boat ride, I played a game in my head to guess how long the free fall would last, unable to sleep due to the constant jolting and shimmying. On the few occasions that the captain slowed the speed down, I knew with dread that it signalled the ensuing drop would be a big one, that even he knew maintaining speed was a risk to capsize the boat. I held dear to the thought that these captains were very experienced in these conditions, but I’m not ashamed to say there was a very brief spell near the start when I was actually terrified. Reaching Puerto Ayora, I transferred onto a panga (water taxi) for the short ride to shore, but the waves were rolling in high, and at the last minute, our driver naively turned side on to the wave which breached the boat and drenched several of us. I headed home dripping wet, confusingly coming back to emptiness. In the darkness of the night, the other two returned home having had quite a dramatic boat trip of their own from San Cristobal. What should have been a 2hr trip for them, had turned into a 5hr calamity, and we all found ourselves with a story to tell.

Puerto Ayora offered lots of choice for food. The main street of Avenida Charles Darwin was full of tourist-orientated restaurants and the side streets offered a half-way house between local dining and tourist fare. Mochachino at DeliI was introduced to a cafe called Deli hidden down a back street which had some of the best ice cream on the island, and we all became such regulars here after work, that one of the staff became quite amused by us. They did great food too, and we ate out here a few times. Chocolate cake from Il GiardinoAnother regular was Il Giardino on the main strip which had a reputation for their desserts, and a couple of other places on this street were frequented too. Ice cream sundae at Il GiardinoBut one of the volunteers and myself were keen to go more local. I had already eaten twice at the street kiosks and enjoyed the food but paid the ultimate price with food poisoning on the second visit. Delicious cevicheOne lunch we went to a little restaurant down a side street which was run by a lovely woman who made ceviche, a dish of raw seafood cured in citrus juice. It was absolutely delicious, and well worth the wait of having it completely prepared from scratch. Her kids entertained us with their nosiness whilst she put together squid, octopus, shrimps, and pieces of white fish amongst a salad. Shared between the two of us it was a huge portion and fantastic value for money. On another occasion we had breakfast at a local open-air food court style venue. We stuffed ourselves on bolon, an Ecuadorian dish made from plantain that was served with stew, rice and eggs. Kind of like a dumpling, they are pretty big and the whole dish is very filling. We ate it that day knowing we weren’t going to get lunch, and it didn’t disappoint, satiating us well into the afternoon. Another favourite was heading to the market a few streets away from where we were staying for some lovely warm morocho, a drink made with corn and milk, and sweetened with sugar and cinnamon. With a strong emphasis on seafood, rice and plantain, the Ecuadorian cuisine was certainly one to tuck into and enjoy.

My second weekend volunteering, I stayed on Santa Cruz. Local fruit and veg marketOne of the volunteers left us early on the Saturday morning, following a night at Bongo Bar for more salsa dancing. Myself and my remaining friend visited the large fruit and veg market a few blocks away, which occurs every Saturday morning in a large open-sided shed towards the back of town. Local band at fruit and veg marketThere was fresh fruit and veg for rows, and near the front, large fish and octopus were chopped up for sale, and towards the back, local food was served and a local band played music to entertain the crowds. There were a few tourists, but mainly it was locals and it felt so far away from the very commercialised and touristic front streets by the waterfront.

Following breakfast we took the long walk to the stunning Tortuga Bay to the west of town. I’d visited here previously with my tour group to go kayaking, but this time we had no plans and no time limit so it was fantastic to just relax and enjoy the sun, the sea and the sand. I tried snorkelling here but the water was so green it limited visibility and there were few fish in the main stretch by the beach. Flanked by mangroves though, and it was well known that rays and sharks hung about on the edges. After spending most of the day sleeping on the sand, we hired a kayak and went exploring. We came across a large stingray on one bank, a marine turtle came up to breath near us when we were out towards the breakline, and eventually we found a cluster of white-tipped reef sharks very close to shore, resting in the roots of the mangroves. We didn’t have long back on the beach before the patrol whistled the time to leave. The beach is closed to access after 5pm as it is within the National Park, and with a long walk back to the gate, the guards were keen to get people moving.

Blue-footed boobies dive-bombingI had an early start the following morning, being picked up at the front door and driven across the island to the port on the north shore at the Itabaca channel. When we arrived, there was a massive flock of blue-footed boobies dive-bombing into the channel for fish, and our dinghy negotiated through them to take us to our boat for the day. Santa Cruz cliffs at the Itabaca channelThe destination was Isla Plaza Sur, South Plaza island, a small land mass to the east of Santa Cruz. Sally Lightfoot CrabIt was a peaceful and relaxing slow cruise down the varied coast of Santa Cruz, and we spotted two marine turtles catching a breath on route. Swallow-tail gull & chickOn arrival at Plaza Sur, we were greeted by some exceedingly loud sea lions cavorting in the waves, and near the arrival steps, a gull chick waited to be fed.










Hybrid (Marine x Land) IguanaPlaza has hybrid iguanas, the result of marine iguanas mating with the land iguanas. South Plaza IslandThey are not fertile, and as a result, the population will eventually die out, but there were plenty of them out and about sunning themselves, a mix of black and yellow markings making them less camouflaged than each parent counterpart. South Plaza IslandThe path took us up to a clifftop from where we could watch large flocks of Galapagos shearwaters, a cousin of the puffin, flit about and skim the waves. Cliff of South Plaza Island with Santa Cruz behindThey were so fast it made it difficult to photograph, but amongst them, our guide pointed out a red-billed tropicbird, a beautiful seabird with a rather fancy tail. Red-billed tropicbird chickAlong the clifftop path, we were able to peak into a nest hole which contained one of their chicks who looked out at us with crazy eyes. Bull sea lionAt the far end, some sea lions lay at the top of the cliff, and we wondered how they had gotten so high up. But just as we started to head away, one of them started to head down to sea and we were able to watch him negotiate the rocks until he hopped into the sea with an incoming wave.

Iguana skeletonWe passed more iguanas on the way back to the boat, including the skeleton of one who looked like it had died asleep on the rock, still in the classic iguana pose as if it was still trying to catch some sun rays.



During a delicious lunch on the boat, we slowly headed back to the Itabaca channel where we stopped near a sheltered bay to go snorkelling. White-tipped Reef SharkAmongst some beautiful shoals of fish that hovered around the various lava rock channels, there were several white-tipped reef sharks. Tropical fishMainly they were sleeping, but with plenty of time to swim and explore, on a couple of occasions I was caught off guard by one suddenly swimming past me. Large stingrayAveraging 1.5m in length, they are a relatively docile shark (although I feel it is always prudent to give any shark respect), and during the day they tend to spend most of their time resting, choosing to hunt mainly at night. I saw the most sharks on this snorkelling trip as well as a stingray and tons of colourful fish.






Laguna de Las NinfasWe returned to town early enough for me to head to Laguna de Las Ninfas, an unusual feature near Puerto Ayora where a fresh-water pond mixes via a stream with the incoming seawater nearer town. MockingbirdThe water was a brilliant green colour, and a short and easy walk takes you around the pond through the bushes and to the far side. Striated heronIt was a great place to spot herons and mockingbirds, and it was so peaceful considering it was just a couple of streets away from the town.Laguna de Las Ninfas














By this stage, I had seen so much already, but I still had several weeks on the islands ahead of me…


Island Hopping

It was the trip that I thought was never going to happen. It was supposed to be simple enough. The flights, though expensive and drawn out, were easy enough to book, as was the tour I’d signed up for at the beginning of the trip. But when all I’d wanted to do was help out and do some voluntary work, the Ecuadorian Government seemed intent on making things especially difficult for me. First, there was only 1 visa. Simple enough, and organised on my behalf. Then suddenly the rules changed and a second visa was demanded, and this proved very complicated to get, especially when nowhere in my home country of New Zealand could issue it, and it was insisted that it had to be applied for in person. But after making some enquiries, and nervous at letting it out my sight, I packaged up my most prized possession, and sent my passport to Australia, unsure if it would return to me in time for my trip to Bangkok earlier in the year, and whether it would contain the much needed visa. It took 6 months of phone calls, emails and waiting to finally be in possession of both the visas I needed, only for 1 week prior to my leaving for Ecuador, to be told that I no longer needed the visa that had been so difficult to obtain. And so it was, that I found myself no longer looking forward to the trip, having been so frustrated with the build up.

Following a day of soaking up Ecuador’s Capital city, Quito, and an early morning rise to head to the airport, we flew south to Guayaquil where we sat on the runway for what felt like forever, before taking off again and finally heading west over the Pacific Ocean. San Cristobal airportThere was little to see for most of the trip, but finally some land appeared in a break in the cloud and we touched down at San Cristobal airport, not far from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno, our first stop. There were giant bugs in the terminal building whilst we waited to go through passport control, and out the other side we were picked up by our guide and taken to our hotel. Finally, my Galapagos adventure was beginning.

Sea lion sleeping in Puerto Baquerizo MorenoAfter lunch in a local restaurant where we were introduced to the Ecuadorian habit of adding popcorn to soup, we walked as a group along the waterfront, past sleeping sea lions, basking marine iguanas and a plethora of crabs. To my excitement, I saw my first ever marine turtle. Within such a short time, we were all so giddy and excited with the wildlife spotting. On the outskirts of town is an Interpretation Centre which is free to enter, and gives a really good overview of the geographical history of the islands and also a human history of the islands. Soberingly, at the end, it also highlights the potential future concerns for the islands, as a result of increased tourism, population and construction.

Marine iguanasFrom the centre, we drove to the opposite side of town and out to Playa Loberia for the first of many snorkelling trips. Pup suckling at Playa LoberiaWe stumbled upon some large marine iguanas on route to the beach, and then the beach itself was littered with loud and smelly sea lions. It was interesting to see that there were security guards in place, ensuring that people respected the 2m rule that is widely publicised on arrival, to prevent people disturbing the wildlife. Sea lion sleeping on the park benchUnfortunately, this turned out to be one of the few places it was enforced, as so many tourists (including myself ashamedly on one occasion) get overexcited and eager for the (sadly) all-important ‘selfie’. Even after dark, it was easy to spot the wildlife as the sea lions hauled themselves ashore, and often found their way to one of the many park benches that littered the promenade in town. It made for an amusing wander to and from dinner to see these large creatures sleeping under the street lights.

The following morning was the part of the trip I was dreading. Having grown up in a country where swimming is limited to a pool, I don’t have a lot of confidence with swimming amongst waves or out at sea. In fact, I have a moderate fear of drowning in the open ocean, so when the itinerary included a trip out to sea to snorkel in deep water, I was quietly terrified. Blue-footed boobyOur group had been split up due to numbers so 3 of us headed off on an earlier boat up the west coast of Santa Cruz where we saw our first blue-footed boobies, to Kicker Rock, one of the archipelago’s most well-known landmarks. Kicker RockSteep-rising cliffs jutted out of the water, and the choppy sea rocked us as we prepared to get in the water. I love snorkelling, but I can feel uneasy at the best of times if I’m out of my depth, and here I was expected to jump in the water with only the depth of the sea below me. I failed miserably to get in on my first attempt and ended up banging my elbow when I eventually swung in, and straight away I had a mild panic attack. I started swallowing salt water and couldn’t clear my snorkel to breath properly. One of the boat crew who spoke no English tried to calm me down and encouraged me to breath slowly and then stick my head under water to have a look below. I did and this only upset me more as there was nothing but darkness below me. My instinct was to swim fast back to the boat and get the hell out of there, but with the help of my companions and the crew, I forced myself to calm down and stay in.

Between the rocks is a channel well known for hammerhead sharks and turtles. Also the walls of the rocks below the surface offer a hold for many algae, lichen and other organisms which in turn attracts fish. This was our promised reward for doing something crazy. Unfortunately, the sky was slightly overcast, and the water rather murky, which limited the visibility quite dramatically. Despite this, I had a private moment with a marine turtle which appeared briefly out of the gloom, swam below me, and disappeared again. Kicker Rock cliff-faceThere were large shoals of fish visible at depth too, and as we rounded the far side of the rock structures, the sun broke through and illuminated the underwater life. Nobody saw any sharks, but we all managed to swim into an expansive swarm of miniscule jellyfish. Stung from head to foot, the little zaps were like little static shocks, and eventually we all got out the water because they were driving us crazy. In the end I was proud of myself. The visibility had been a little disappointing but I had made myself stay in the water and I had kept myself sane after the initial panic. That was a big achievement for me.

But the trip didn’t end there. On our way to a beach spot we came across a humpback whale mother and calf. Humpback Whale mother and calfEstimated to be a few weeks old, the mother lounged at the water’s surface while the calf lazily swam around her. We must have spent an hour with them, which as a cetacean fanatic was incredible, but at the same time, I felt slightly irked by the captain constantly circling them with the engine on. It will always be a conundrum: letting people see wildlife in their own environment whilst not getting too close nor disturbing them. Humpack whale near the coastThe whales didn’t seem bothered but we literally spent the hour going in an arc around them, and when finally we did stop it was for the totally wrong reason: two of the crew jumped in the water to go and swim with them. I was not impressed. In many countries this would be illegal, and I was not sure what the legality was in the Galapagos but given the 2m rule signs everywhere else, I doubted it would have been encouraged. The mother whale herself said it all, as she made it very clear that enough was enough. Taking an extreme back arch, she slapped her tail below the surface and sent a shock wave behind her, as she barrelled away from us. The calf followed suit, delighting the other passengers by breaching several times. When the two crew got out the water, they were grinning from ear to ear, and one proclaimed it as a bucket list item checked off. She had been right behind the tail and was lucky she didn’t get knocked out.

Beach on San CristobalFollowing a delicious lunch, and some time on a nearby beach which in the sunshine looked so tropical, we headed back towards Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and happened upon a pod of bottlenose dolphins who joined us for a while frolicking by our side and bow. Bottle-nosed dolphinsIt was scorching by the time we reached the town. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno viewed from Cerro TijeretasWe had the afternoon to ourselves, so myself and one of my companions took a walk around the coast to Punta Carola, a beach full of sea lions and marine iguanas, before heading up the hill to Cerro Tijeretas (Frigate Hill) which overlooks Darwin Bay, the spot where Charles Darwin first set foot on the islands. Darwin BayBelow us, people snorkelled in the pristine bay and we could see a turtle come up for air and some sea lions frolicking around the people. Marine turtle in the clear blue water of Darwin BayStanding above it all is a large statue of a young Charles Darwin, and a short coastal walk leaves from here. Charles Darwin statue above Darwin BayHeading back into town, we bumped into some friends and grabbed a cocktail at a local bar, Street food, San Cristobalbefore venturing to a local restaurant for some Ecuadorian cuisine, followed by a walk along the promenade to see the sleeping sea lions at the beach.



















We left early the next day for an interesting 3 hour boat ride west to Floreana island, the smallest of the four inhabited islands. Under the cover of a large speedboat, there wasn’t much to look at, so I attempted to sleep the journey away, but it was a bit rough for some people in the group who did their best to grit their teeth and get through it. Marine iguanaIt must have felt forever for them, and even at the other end, we had to jump on a panga (water taxi) to get to the pier. There was a good swell by this point, and it took a few attempts for our panga driver to time it right so we could get off. Again, there were marine iguanas, sea lions and crabs everywhere, and we watched them being lazy whilst we waited for everyone to be ready.

Puerto Velazco Ibarra is very different from Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. Zig-Zag SpiderWith just a few streets making up the town, it was quiet and subdued and it felt like we were the only tourists there. Painted locustWe were staying in little lodges by the sea, and from our patio we could see multiple turtles in the surf. Lava lizardThere were insects and lizards everywhere and it was hot and humid outside. We got a ride in a Chiva (truck) up into the highlands where we took a walk through the vegetation whilst learning about the history of the island. Floreana is an island steeped in human history with a good bit of mystery and intrigue to add, thanks to the mysterious disappearance of some previous inhabitants. Carved rockWe came across some caves and a rock carved like a face before having our first encounter with the famous Galapagos tortoise. Galapagos tortoiseThanks to early settlers, there are no native Floreana tortoises left in existence, but an enclosure contains some introduced San Cristobal tortoises which we could wander amongst as they went about their business of generally doing nothing or munching on the vegetation.
















Sunset on FloreanaBack in town, a few of us waited for sunset at the pier surrounded by iguanas and sea lions. We added our postcards to the self-mailing mail box, and swung in hammocks at the restaurant before dinner time. Sally Lightfoot CrabAt the restaurant we were introduced to the delicious snack that are chifles, a salted snack made from plantains, that I found myself munching on for the rest of my trip. Sleeping sea lionsBack in the lodge we tried and failed to get the lodge cool enough for a good night’s sleep. Hundreds of blue-footed boobiesBut the morning heralded a beautiful day – calm sea, blue skies and another boat trip. Sea lion at IsabelaLeaving the iguanas and sea lions behind we endured another 2 hour ride on the same speedboat, heading west to Isabela, the largest and one of the youngest islands in the group. There were lots of sea birds as we passed the neighbouring Tortuga island, and as we motored into the sheltered port of Puerto Villamil, we were surrounded by blue-footed boobies, large frigate birds, and to everyone’s delight: penguins.












Galapagos penguins swimmingFor me, it was impossible not to fall in love with Isabela. Blue-footed boobiesThe water around the pier was crystal clear and full of wildlife, and there was a serene calmness about the place that just sucked you in and chilled you out. Galapagos penguins and chickThat afternoon, we headed out to Las Tintoreras, a group of islets not far off shore that were made up of ‘aa’ lava, a type of rocky lava that juts up sharply in spikes. Juvenile heronOn route, we passed hundreds of the beautiful blue-footed boobies, saw the pirates of the sky, the frigate bird, soaring above us, and watched penguins sunning themselves on the rocks whilst a juvenile heron spread its wings on its nest. Marine iguana sunworshippingThe lava had created some marine channels which white-tipped reef sharks liked to rest in, and we saw one from the shore, as well as being surrounded by lava lizards, and marine iguanas. Night HeronWe were even lucky enough to spot a night heron amongst the bushes.



















But what beat all of this was the snorkelling. We started off in the deeper water, before heading into the more sheltered and shallower water around the islets.

I was excited to see several marine turtles up close, including a couple who ignored the 2m rule and swam right up to me and past me right in front of my face. There were tropical fish everywhere, and the highlight for me, and indeed all of my snorkelling trips, was the inquisitive sea lions.

Like puppies, they are playful and inquisitive, and love interacting in the water. They would blow bubbles and spin, and swim towards you before changing direction at lightening speed at the last minute.

The rest of my group had swam ahead and I found myself alone with 3 juveniles who seemed as keen to play with me as they were with each other. It was utterly magical, and I stayed for a long time enjoying the moment before eventually my guide called on me to catch up. Even with multiple snorkelling trips after this, that day remained my favourite snorkel of the entire trip.

The main street of Isabela is sandy and low-key with a scattering of restaurants and bars. A few of us headed to a pizza diner where we were amused by our waiter who somewhat endearingly managed to cock-up our order multiple times, before we spent our evening relaxing in the hammocks in the garden of our hotel. The neighbourhood dog joined us for a while and seemed to love the attention. Somewhere nearby there were roosters who proceeded to crow from an early hour and wake us up far too early. Giant tortoisesWe had a day of exploring ahead of us, and headed first to the tortoise breeding centre out of town, where there were hundreds of tortoises of varying ages. With introduced predators on the islands, those tortoises younger than 25 years were at risk of being killed, so eggs are now routinely collected and the youngsters are reared in captivity until they are big enough to fend for themBaby tortoise and a tortoise eggselves. By the age of 25, they are usually of a size when they can be released. It was a chance to get up close with the tortoises and see some very small ones that were only a few weeks old. The small ones were very active and capable of moving quite fast, but the older ones were very sedentary in comparison.


FlamingoesJust past the breeding centre, an old quarry was home to a few flamingoes which we were able to see on our way to the highlands. It was misty, damp and muddy for our 1hr hike up Cerro Negro, an active volcano. Volcan NegroWe followed the ridge line a little way which gave time for the mist to lift and we were lucky enough to see the full extent of the crater rim, and the black crater within. The last eruption had been 10 years prior and we could see the site from where it had occurred. Just a couple of months prior to my trip, one of Isabela’s other volcanoes, Wolf, erupted, a reminder of the archipelago’s origins.

After lunch near an orchard, we gathered our rental bikes and set off along the beautiful expanse of Isabela’s main beach and headed west to the entrance to the National Park and the start of the track to the Wall of Tears. Wall of TearsHuman habitation on this island had begun as a penal colony, and the prisoners had been forced to build a large wall of lava rocks, which now remains the only remnant of the prison. I don’t think a single one of us had a decent bike, and through flat tyres and poorly functioning gears, we laboured our way along the 4km winding track before coming across two wild giant tortoises. Up till now, every tortoise we had seen was in an enclosure of some kind, but finally these were ones in the wild. I’m ashamed to say that I broke the 2m rule to get a photo of one, and was told off by my guide when he spotted it. Leaving our bikes at the end of the track, we walked to the large wall, and headed around and up past it to reach a viewpoint. Lava tunnel heading out to seaIt was rather overcast which limited the view but we were surrounded by vegetation and birdsong, and finally got to see the Galapagos Mockingbird, a particularly beautiful-sounding bird. Heading back to civilisation, a few of us stopped at a lava tunnel by the sea, before it was time for more food and relaxation.

Concha Perla is a small lagoon near the pier that offers protected snorkelling and we headed here the next morning before leaving Isabela behind. The reward was a very large stingray, getting close up to a penguin on a nearby rock, and tons of colourful fish and starfish. With the Panama current switching to the Humboldt current, the water temperature was dropping, and being further west in the realm of the penguin, it was noticeably colder in the water. For the first time, I started feeling cold, and after spending a good time exploring the lagoon and the surrounding lava channels, I had to get out. From here, we had a 2.5hr boat trip east to the most populated island, Santa Cruz, my base for the next month. It was a bumpy ride and one of the engines failed on the way, but everyone felt relatively good, and we turned up to the busy port of Puerto Ayora hungry. I wasn’t the only one who was excited to see our restaurant had a barista and several of us enjoyed our first decent coffee in several days.

The Galapagos' best breeding male tortoiseOur hotel was near the waterfront and we walked from here to the Charles Darwin Research centre which lies just outside of town. Quite compact, it houses a small collection of giant tortoises of various species as well as a couple of land iguanas, a rather yellow version of their black cousins, the marine iguanas. Brown PelicanWe had plenty of time to ourselves to explore the overly commercial town who’s front street is an array of tourist shops, restaurants, travel agents and the local fish market which drew a crowd of birds and people. Puerto Ayora fish marketIt was so very different from the other islands, and with little wildlife near town, I was missing the peace of Isabela already. But at least we had options. Keeping away from the tourist restaurants, we headed to a back street which was lined by food kiosks where we settled amongst a mix of locals and tourists to enjoy some delicious Ecuadorian street food.





Finally it was our last morning as a group. From town we took the hour-long walk to my favourite spot on Santa Cruz: Tortuga Bay. Walking through vegetation swarming with paper wasps, it feels like forever before the path breaks out at a beautiful surf beach. Past blue bottle jellyfish that lined the long sandy beach, we headed to the far end and through some mangroves to come out at a beautiful sheltered lagoon where we went kayaking. Hugging the mangroves first down one side and back along the other we saw rays, a white-tipped reef shark and a marine iguana swimming in the sea, the first time any of us had actually seen one in the water. Although slightly overcast, we enjoyed a bit of relaxation on the beach before heading slowly back to town.

Galapagos TortoiseIn the afternoon, we drove out to Rancho Manzanilla, one of a few ranches in the highlands offering up close encounters with semi-wild tortoises. On the long drive there, we came across the largest giant tortoise that I saw on the whole trip. Soy una tortugaIt was just sitting at the side of the road and we stopped to take photos before negotiating the gravel road around it. Wearing an exceedingly heavy tortoise shellThere had been rain recently and we needed to wear welly boots to negotiate the muddy grounds, but it was a nice wander around amongst the vegetation and there were many tortoises of various sizes hanging out around mud pools and bushes. In the main building, we had fun trying on tortoise shells for size. Climbing inside them, they were surprisingly heavy and it was a struggle to try and stand up with one on my back.







From the ranch, we stopped at a large lava tunnel on the drive back to town. Caused by the external lava cooling quicker than the deeper lava, it was like a large cave that we could climb down into and walk along for a short distance. It was another reminder of the island group’s volcanic origins. As it was our last night together, most of us went to a nearby hotel for some cocktails before heading back to the street of kiosks to sample something different. It was a lovely night, and despite them all leaving me behind the next morning, I promised to get up early with them to say my goodbyes. It was not to be though. For the third time in my life, I was struck down with the most horrendous food poisoning which robbed me of any sleep and made me feel absolutely miserable. Feeling guilty for disturbing my roommate in the night, I was finally able to separate myself from the bathroom and crawl back into bed at 6.30am when she was getting up. I was touched to have some of my companions for the past week come by to say adios before leaving, and I found myself alone in the hotel waiting till the last possible minute before check-out. Struggling down 2 flights of stairs with my luggage feeling weak and dehydrated, I negotiated a taxi and set off for the rest of my Galapagos adventure…

From the Andes to the Coast

I remember feeling breathless after just a couple of steps into the hotel lobby. Those first few days at Lake Titicaca in Peru a few years ago, took some getting used to, and that was what I was thinking about as I arrived at Quito, Ecuador’s capital at an altitude of 2850m (9350ft). Fully expecting to feel the air stolen from my lungs, I didn’t have grand plans of filling my 1 day in Quito with too much action. But I stepped off the plane and out the airport to normality, and I breathed in the fresh air without a hint of a problem.

I had nearly 6 weeks of Spanish immersion in front of me, and I was determined to make the most of it. From the moment I boarded the LAN flight from New Zealand, I spoke only Spanish, and was quietly impressed with myself chatting to my taxi driver as he took me to my hotel for the night. Quito’s airport is relatively new and as yet it doesn’t have an airport hotel. Arriving at 11pm at night, with the city up to an hour’s drive away, I just wanted somewhere to put my head, so I had booked into the nearest hotel I could find, which was in the nearby village. Down a cobbled back street and hidden behind a high wall, the driver could have been taking me anywhere. Arranging a ride for the next morning, he left me behind and I got shown to my room which was right under the flight path on approach to the runway. Thankfully I was too tired to be bothered and I was out like a light.

The next morning I was up early to get into the city and make the most of the 1 day I had there. I was met by the same taxi driver as the night before and we chatted as much as my Spanish would allow on the 45 min drive to my next hotel. He told me about his family, and I told him about my work, and with patience and a bit of repetition, we managed a reasonable conversation. He got a bit lost as he reached the edge of the city but I didn’t mind because he was the first real Ecuadorian I had met and he was lovely.

I fell in love with Quito in an instant. It was that sudden. Driving down into a gully and seeing the buildings tower over us from the opposite hilltop, I was taken aback with just how undulating the place was. Full of hills itself, it is also surrounded by peaks and I was eager to get out and explore. The Trendy MariscalIt was a steep walk down from the hotel to La Mariscal, an area full of bars and restaurants and tourists. It was also the nearest stop for the city’s hop-on/hop-off bus tour which was going to be my mode of transport for the day. Driving round QuitoLike many large and long-standing cities, Quito is a mix of old and new, and it is a seemingly haphazard sprawl of highrises, parks, religious buildings and colonial buildings with hills jutting up behind it all.




Steep street on route to Plaza GrandeMy first port of call was Plaza Grande in the Old Town, or Centro Historico. The day was hot and sunny but I was determined to pound the streets of the region to soak up the atmosphere. Plaza GrandeBeing a Saturday, there were as many locals as tourists, mainly hombres or caballeros chewing the cud with their amigos on the park bench. Iglesia/Church on Plaza GrandeI slightly recoiled when one called me a gringa as I passed, unsure if it was meant as an insult or just a passing remark. Wandering around the Old TownComment aside, I never felt threatened or uneasy wandering around Quito, and I followed a recommended walking route round the surrounding streets admiring domineering and religious buildings and museums before pounding up the steep street to the gorgeous Basilica del Voto Nacional.














Basilica del Voto NacionalWe had passed it on the bus on the way to the Old Town, and no matter which angle you see it from, it is stunning. Inside the BasilicaI was desperate for water by this point, and having finally obtained some, I despaired at being a weakling and not being able to open the bottle. Stained glass windowsI geared myself up to asking a stranger in Spanish to help me out before finally prising it open. The clock towersIt was much needed, for not only is the chapel itself beautiful, the real reason to visit is to climb the many stairs up the towers. Beautiful BasilicaFirst one side, and then across the roof to the towers at the other end, the changing viewpoint of the surrounding city is more than worth the $2 entry fee, but for some people, the steep ladders may be a physical and mental challenge.Quito as viewed from the clocktower
















Quito Observatory at Parque La AlmedaWith the bus passing by each stop hourly, I had some time to kill, so continued on foot to Parque La Almeda which was packed full of people relaxing with their family and friends, and had a quaint little lake at the far end. Parque La AlmedaI was hungry but all the stalls were surrounded by crowds of people or didn’t look appetising so I pressed on and after a nice stroll, Beautiful BasilicaI headed back to the Basilica to jump back on the bus. The Virgin stands tall over QuitoFrom there we wound through the streets and up the hill to El Panecillo, a viewpoint with a giant sculpture of the Virgin who looked over the city. Quito to the SouthVisible from most of the city, she was huge up close. Quito to the northRound the corner, a collection of food stalls served various local foods and the city sprawled out below and to the side and up the neighbouring hillside. In fact, Quito appeared to disappear into the distance in every perceivable direction, but with a population of over 2.6 million people, it isn’t even the most populous city in Ecuador, with Guayaquil taking that crown.








Handily, the bus sits here for about half an hour to give time to soak up the view before moving on, and back down the hill, we motored through some tight streets and back through the Old Town before turning and hugging the western edge of the city below a large mountain, before cutting back into the city in the New Town and looping to Parque La Carolina where I jumped off. Cacti bed in the Botanic GardensSurrounded by malls and American food chains, it was a totally different side to the city, but the park itself was well used by the locals with families having picnics, and people playing sports on the various sport fields. Orchids in the Botanic GardensTwo thirds of the way down, a lake was filled with people pedalling boats, and next door was the compact Botanical Gardens which I opted to go for a wander round.




Sign in La MariscalBy now well into the afternoon, I caught the last circuit of the tour bus to take me back to La Mariscal where I enjoyed a relatively expensive meal at a tourist bar before heading back to my hotel to meet up with the people that I was heading to the Galapagos Islands with. Cotopaxi VolcanoWe headed back to La Mariscal in the darkness for a meal in another tourist restaurant before we headed off the next morning before sunrise for our early morning flight. By the time we reached Quito airport, the sunshine was spilling over the surrounding mountains, and the domineering structure of Cotopaxi volcano stood out against the blue sky with its white cap. Just a week later, Cotopaxi erupted.

Statue in the MaleconOn the banks of the expansive Rio Guayas, Guayaquil sits at just 4m above sea level and felt very different to Quito. Guayaquil on the river bankAn obligatory stop-over on my way home from the Galapagos Islands, I had just the evening to explore the country’s most populated city. Colourful suburb of GuayaquilThe airport is within easy reach of the city centre, so having checked in at my airport hotel, I was quick to jump in a taxi and head to the Malecon, a large, developed promenade that snakes along the bank of the river. With play areas, restaurants, shops, a cinema and much more, there was plenty to do here. GuayaquilI’d read about a bus tour of the city, and with time to kill till the night time tour, I plodded my way along and back most of the length of the malecon. By this point on my trip, I was keen to avoid tourist restaurants, and found the best place I could for local food, the last Ecuadorian meal I would have. Certainly, the staff seemed surprised when I walked in and spoke Spanish, and generally, despite Guayaquil being the main point to get to the Galapagos Islands, it seemed a lot less sure what to do with tourists. Granted, I didn’t venture far on foot outwith the malecon, but there was just a very different vibe to the place than I’d experienced with Quito, and I just couldn’t warm to the city very much.





Rotunda at the MaleconWhen finally the time came for the bus tour, my feeling was increased even more. The open top bus blasted loud and irritating music for the entire 1.5hr route. Repeatedly we had to duck low branches to avoid being knocked out by a tree, but most importantly, what was supposed to be a tour of the city’s sights, felt like an irritating drive round ‘Nowheresville’. I had been told about a few places worthy of a visit which I assumed the bus would go near, but instead it felt like we were being shown every mall and car showroom the city had. It even included the airport as a tourist site, and after just 20 mins I was desperate to get off. Finally, we found our way back to the malecon, and I happily disembarked and went in search of a taxi.

With so many places I could explore within reach of Quito, I would happily head back to Ecuador’s capital in a heartbeat, but Guayaquil was just not the city for me.

Wildlife of the Galapagos Islands

I am fully aware of how lucky I am. I have been able to travel many times, and in different countries have had, with just a few exceptions, such thrilling experiences with the local flora and fauna. But in my opinion, there is nowhere in the world that can come close to the experience I have recently had in the Galapagos Islands. Magical. Surreal. Fantastic. Whatever adjective I choose, it cannot adequately sum up how the place makes me feel. After 5 weeks visiting 10 of the 17 islands (and the seas in between!), I saw so much wildlife that I just had to share some of my excitement.

MAMMALS (English)/MAMIFEROS (Spanish)

Sea Lion/Lobo Marino

Sea LionSea lion underwater

Humpback Whale/Jorobada

Humpback Whale mother and calf

Bottle-nosed Dolphins/Delfin Mular

Bottle-nosed dolphins

Killer Whale/Orca

Orca (fin tips just visible)


Galapagos Giant Tortoise/Galapago

Galapagos Tortoise

Pacific Green Turtle/Tortuga Marino del Pacifico

Marine Turtle

Marine Iguana/Iguana Marina

Marine Iguana

Galapagos Land Iguana/Iguana Terrestre de Galapagos

Land Iguana

Hybrid Iguana

Hybrid (Marine x Land) Iguana

Lava Lizard/Lagartija de Lava

Lava lizardLava LizardLava LizardLava Lizard




Blue-footed Booby/Piquero Patas Azules

Blue-footed Booby

Nazca Booby/Piquero de Nazca

Nazca Booby

Magnificent Frigatebird/Fragata Real

Magnificent Frigatebird (Female & Juvenile)Magnificent Frigatebird (Male)

Great Frigatebird/Fragata Comun

Great Frigatebird (Juvenile)Great Frigatebird (Male)

Galapagos Penguin/Pinguino de las Galapagos

Galapagos Penguin

Greater Flamingo/Flamenco


Lava Gull/Gaviota de Lava

Lava Gull

Red-billed Tropic Bird/Ave Tropical

Red-billed Tropic Bird

Swallow-tailed Gull/Gaviota de Cola Bifurcada

Swallow-tailed Gull

Brown Noddy Tern/Gaviotin Cabeza Blanca

Brown Noddy Tern

Smooth-billed Ani/Garrapatero Comun


Galapagos Shearwater/Pufino de Galapagos


Storm Petrel/Golondrina de Mar

Frigatebird (large) with Storm Petrel (small)

Semipalmated Plover/Chorlitejo




Sanderling/Playero Comun


Wandering Tattler/Errante

Wandering Tattler

Ruddy Turnstone/Vuelve Piedras


Great Blue Heron/Garza Morena

Great Blue Heron

Cattle Egret/Garza del Ganado Bueyera

Cattle Egret

Great Egret/Garza Blanca

Great Egret

Brown Pelican/Pelicano Cafe

Brown Pelican (Juvenile)Grey Heron (Adult)


Small Ground FinchLarge Ground FinchGalapagos FinchFinch

Yellow Warbler/Canario Maria

Yellow Warbler (Male)Yellow Warbler (Female)

Striated Heron/Garza de Lava

Striated heron

Yellow-crowned Night Heron/Garza Nocturna

Night Heron

Galapagos Mockingbird/Cucuve de Galapagos


White-cheeked Pintail/Patillo

White Cheeked Pintail (Female)

Common Gallinule/Gallinula

Common Gallinule

Black-necked Stilt/Tero Real

Black Necked Stilt

Galapagos Dove/Paloma de Galapagos


Galapagos Flycatcher/Papamoscas



White-tipped Reef Shark/Tintorera

White-tipped Reef Shark



Spotted Eagle Ray/Raya Aguila

Spotted Eagle Ray

Blue-Chin Parrot Fish/Pez Loro de Barba Azul

Blue-Chin Parrotfish (Terminal Phase)Blue-Chinned Parrotfish (Initial Phase)

Streamer Hogfish/Vieja Ribeteada

Streamer Hogfish

Panamic Sergeant Major/Sargento Mayor

Sergeant Major



Galapagos Grunt/Roncador de Galapagos

Galapagos Grunt

Razor Surgeonfish/Pez Chanco

Razor Surgeonfish

King Angelfish/Pez Bandera

King Angelfish

Bullseye Puffer/Botete Diana

Bullseye Puffer


Galapagos Painted locust/Saltamontes de Galapagos

Painted Locust

Spot-winged Dragonfly/Chapulete


Zig zag Spider/Aranha zig zag

Zig-Zag Spider

Sally Lightfoot Crab/Zayapa

Sally Lightfoot Crab

Fiddler Crab/Cangrejo Violinista

Fiddler Crab

Pencil Spined Sea Urchin/Erizo Punta de Lapiz

Sea Urchin

Chocolate Chip Sea Star/Estrella Chispas de Chocolate

Chocolate Chip Sea Star




Cockroach on back

Exploring Español

Estoy nerviosa. I am nervous. He estado estudiando español por dos años. I have been studying Spanish for two years. En menos de dos semanas, voy a ir a sudamerica. In less than two weeks, I’m going to South America. He ido a sudamerica dos veces antes de este viaje. I have been to South America twice before this visit. Pero en esta ocasión, voy a estar sola. But on this occasion, I will be on my own. Y de mayor importancia, trabajaré mientras estoy allí. And most importantly, I will work whilst I am there.

Why am I doing this? ¿Por qué estoy haciendo esto? I love to travel. Me gusta viajar. I like to step out of my ‘comfort zone’. Me gusta salir de mi ‘zona de confort’. And so I decided to go somewhere where I would have to speak the language. Y así yo decidí  ir a un lugar donde yo tendría que hablar la lengua. It has been a dream for three years. Ha sido un sueño por tres años. And finally, the moment has arrived! ¡Y finalmente, el momento ha llegado! Watch this space! ¡Mira este espacio!

¿Usted ha salido su ‘zona de confort’?  Have you been out of your ‘comfort zone’? ¿Dónde? Where? ¿Cómo? How?

Image Source: theprisma.co.uk

Image Source: theprisma.co.uk

Edit: Gracias to one of my Spanish teachers for correcting a few minor mistakes. I am very grateful to the team at Speak Spanish for helping me these past two years.

Growing Up (aka Hanging Up My Backpack)

There comes a time in everyone’s life when they either choose to, or are forced to, grow up. After 13 years of backpacking around the globe, at the age of 32, I have decided to hang up my backpack for good. The last couple of years it was becoming increasingly obvious that the backpacker life was no longer for me. I resisted this realisation for as long as possible, but a few weeks ago I decided that enough was enough. My trusty backpacks have done me well, and across 6 different continents they have housed my belongings, and survived a multitude of flights including, on a couple of occasions, even heading off solo thanks to transit problems at airports. These two bags are particularly well travelled:

 My Rucksack

My backpack

A quad biking accident 2.5 years ago has left me with weakened wrists and a mountain biking accident 2 years ago has left me with permanent back issues. Thankfully, both have recovered enough that I can get on with life in a near-normal fashion, but lifting heavy objects is now something I try to avoid to reduce my reliance on a chiropractor. The final straw was in Bangkok, when after attending a four day conference, I was laden down with literature and freebies, resulting with me struggling in the heat with a 17kg bulging rucksack on my back. And so, feeling like a ‘proper’ adult now, I bought my first suitcase. With a handle. And 4 wheels. I can’t wait to take it on my next adventure. A backpacker I may no longer be, but a traveller I will remain till the day I die…

My New Suitcase


Contrasts of Krung Thep

It’s hard not to find something to love about Bangkok. After a fantastic few days based in Silom, it was time to change hotels in preparation for a conference, and discover another side of the city that I had quickly fallen in love with.

I caught the Skytrain (BTS) to Phaya Thai and transferred to the airport link to travel one stop to Ratchaprarop. 4-Star LuxuryThe station was next to the busy Ratchaprarop Road, and coming into the heat of the day, despite my hotel being just a 7 minute walk away, I was sweating buckets by the time I reached it. Thankfully my room was already available, and I checked into the spaciousness of it. One of the fantastic things about Bangkok, is how far your money stretches, and even a four-star hotel was perfectly affordable. It was a luxury that I rarely get when I’m travelling.

Bangkok's tallest buildingThere was so much to explore in this area. The vibe was quite different here, with various four and five star hotels in the neighbourhood, as well as one of Bangkok’s main conference centres and a myriad of giant malls all within easy reach. Erawan ShrineHeading south to where the skytrain (BTS) stands tall above Phloen Chit, one of the city’s main shrines, the Erawan Shrine, sits on the side of the road. Elephants at the Erawan ShrineIt is a busy place at any time of the day, and the locals come here to pay their respects, give thanks, and have their prayers heard. Dancers at the Erawan ShrineTo one side, some men played instruments whilst ladies in traditional clothing danced. I stayed for a while in quiet observation before moving on.
















Phallus at the shrine of fertilityI was on a quest to explore the lesser explored parts of Bangkok. I had seen on a website some quirky things to do, and was on my way to find one of them. Phalluses at the Fertility ShrineA couple of blocks east from the shrine and up a long road, nestled in the grounds of the Swissotel Nai Lert Park hotel, is the Goddess Tubtim shrine. Khlong Saen SaepEffectively a shrine full of phalluses, it is where the locals come to seek fertility. On the banks of the Khlong Saen Saep, it was a quiet and peaceful place to be, the quiet broken only when a khlong boat flew by.












Riding the Khlong boatThe khlong boats along the canal were an experience in themselves. Unlike the river boats, these khlong boats are not a routine form of transport for tourists. They are very definitely the realm of locals, and as such the signage at the boat stops and the staff that worked on them, were not geared towards English comprehension. I boarded at Chitlom pier (several of the piers are known under different names depending on where you read it) just a street away from the phallic shrine. Initially the boatman trying to give me a ticket couldn’t understand where I wanted to go, but after a bit of repetition we got there in the end. It was a very cheap ride, and the boats were crowded. There was no hanging around at piers: getting on and off needed to be a brisk affair, and involved stepping over the lowered side of the boat without tripping over the material or the ropes.

Riding the khlong boatJust a few minutes later, I was left confused when everyone got off the boat but me. The last passenger to get off was speaking in Thai to me and pointing up ahead. The boatman then did the same. It turns out that Pratanum pier is an interchange pier and there is an obligatory boat change here, so everyone had piled off simply to climb aboard the boat in front. Soon we were on our way again. The sides of the khlong boats can be lowered and raised as splash guards. The canal water was a murky brown with lots of rubbish floating in it. This was the not the kind of water you wanted to be swallowing, and at the speed the boats were running at, the splash guards came to good use to stop the spray coming inside the boat.

Banks of the khlongThe boats offer an interesting perspective on the real Bangkok. With mainly locals and few tourists, it was a popular transportation for commuters, and many of the buildings that lined the canal were authentically Thai and gave a glimpse of life in some of the poorer quarters, with small shacks squeezed into the gaps between highrises. Eventually, the boat came to a stop, and again everyone got off. The signage was a name that I didn’t recognise and I had no idea whether it was where I wanted to be or not, but with no other boat to board, I cut up to the road to discover that I had indeed made it to Phanfa pier.

The Golden MountI was not a million miles away from Kao San Road to the west, but this time I crossed the bridge over the canal and headed one block south to the Golden Mount. Statue at the Golden MountAt just THB40, this is one of the cheaper tourist places to visit, but involves a lot of stairs that spiral up and then down the other side, so is not for those who would find this physically hard. CentipedeLarge centipedes wandered across the lower stairs, and there were lots of statues amongst the bushes on the way up. Bangkok from the Golden MountIt was a very overcast day, but the reward at the top was a view over the local district of Bangkok sprawling into the distance. Bangkok from the Golden MountAway from the commercial buzz of Ratchaprarop and neighbouring Ratchathewi, this area seemed calmer and less westernised. Bangkok from the Golden MountThere were plenty of tourists there that day, but compared to the busyness of the Grand Palace, this place felt hidden and out of the way, which I liked immensely.














I could spot my next destination from the roof of the Golden Mount, and after descending the steps back to the main road, I cut through streets full of shops selling buddhas of varying sizes. It was astonishing how many shops there were selling so many styles and sizes, and I wondered what kind of market there was in Thailand to warrant so much choice. I had heard about, and indeed seen in a couple of locations, petitions to encourage tourists not to buy buddhas as souvenirs. It is seen as devaluing and disrespecting what is essentially a symbol of Buddhism, and I tend to agree. Whilst for many tourists, a buddha symbolises their Thai experiences in the way that the Eiffel Tower is used to sum up Paris, or Big Ben for London, I would never wear or buy a symbolic cross as I am not Christian, so nor would I buy a symbol of any other religion that I am not a follower of. However, with many people earning much needed money from these often tacky souvenirs, I guess it will always be a contentious issue.

Giant SwingAt the western end of Thanon Bamrung Muang is a structure known as the Giant Swing. Giant SwingIt is essentially a large red frame that sits on a traffic island next to Wat Suthat. Just a few blocks to the west of here is the back wall of the Grand Palace. Democracy MonumentI headed north past the City Hall to the Democracy Monument, before turning back east and sitting for a while in the grounds of Wat Ratchanatda. A man who told me he was a teacher at the nearby school chatted to me briefly before I headed on back to Phanfa pier past the Mahakan Fort which didn’t appear to be open to the public. Again, I nestled amongst the locals on the khlong boat back to Pratanum pier where I re-emerged amongst the busy commercial district.

Marks & SpencerIt can be quite strange the things that make you emotional. I have no idea how much the incessant heat and humidity played a part, but when I headed into the great expanse of Central World mall, I became ridiculously overjoyed to the point of near tears, when I saw some UK high street stores nestled in its white interior. H&MIt’s been 2.5 years since I last set foot on UK soil, and I didn’t realise how much I missed some of my favourite stores until I saw Marks & Spencers, Boots, Accessorize and H&M. I’m well known for hating shopping at the best of times, being the antithesis of a shopaholic, but I couldn’t help but gleefully wander around the stores that flooded me with memories of my old life in Scotland.

7 Floors of Central WorldCentral World is 7 floors of a shopper’s paradise, and armed with a store map, I started with the lower level, getting tired before I even completed that one floor. I’d discovered repeatedly, that Thailand does not know how to make good coffee, so despite not normally being a tea drinker, I enjoyed a nice pot of fruit tea at the Twinings of London tea house. Busy Ratchaprarop RoadAfter a brief respite and shower back at my hotel, I explored the busy streets at night time in search of food. At times it was hard to find authentically Thai food outwith the street stalls, as a lot of the restaurants were fusions of different styles of Asian food. It was easy to find delicious food though, and sometimes there was so much choice that it was simply overwhelming.


The View from the Bangkok Convention CentreThe following day was when the learning started with 4 days ahead of lectures. The view from the Bangkok Convention CentreThe bulk of the day was spent in the coolness of the air conditioned conference centre, which at times was so cold I ended up covered in goose bumps. The view from the Bangkok Convention CentreI ended up taking the opportunity at break times to step outside and feel the previously suffocating heat. Thai dancerAt the end of the first day, Thai dancerwe were treated to a traditional Thai dance show with men and women dressed in traditional attire, Thai dancerand some in masks representing mythical creatures.Thai dancerThai dancers



























Asian elephantAfter the second day of lectures, many of us boarded the skytrain (BTS) to Asok before transferring to the metro line (MRT). At the Thailand cultural centre stop, we were met by a shuttle bus and driven to the cultural centre for a Thai-themed night. We were greeted at the entrance and introduced to an Asian elephant who posed with her Mahout for photographs. Asian elephantI’ve previously ridden an Asian elephant in both India and Sri Lanka, but I’m always in two minds about how I feel about them being used this way. In other parts of Asia they are regularly used for carrying things in a way that horses, donkeys and camels are used in other parts of the world. I have no idea how this elephant spent the rest of her day, but several of us noticed her shuffling from one foot to the other, and wondered if she was frustrated.

Siam NiramitAfter an enormous buffet of traditional Thai food, we piled into the theatre to watch the show. I was mesmerised. Having been unsure what to expect, I was captivated with the wordless portrayal of Thailand’s history and traditions. The dancers and elephants even came amongst the audience on a few occasions, and there was a lot of surprised murmurings when a river appeared to flow across the stage. For me, it was simply magical.



After the third day of lectures, I discovered a large food market on the forecourt of Central World. Despite tucking into plenty of fruit, juices and savouries from street-side stalls, I had been very hesitant about eating the cooked food. The street food generally looked and smelled divine, but having previously been hospitalised for severe gastro-enteritis contracted in India, and still suffering the effects from another bout contracted in Fiji 6 months prior, I had thus far been decidedly cautious about the meat. Finally though, I felt I had to give it a go, and having found a stall where it looked to be well cooked and freshly prepared, I bought a selection of meats and kebabs and tucked in. I was thoroughly disappointed. Not only were they either cold or lukewarm, but they didn’t taste anything like they had smelled, and I was disheartened with my poor judgement.

Fashion ShowI headed into the mall in search of something tastier and stumbled across a fashion show on the ground floor. I watched from above for a while before heading back to Twinings of London for another pot of a fruited tea blend. A famous groupWhen I found my way to the stage, there was live music, and the crowd suddenly went wild for a group of young women that came out to sing. I had (and still have) no idea who they were, but one song in particular was obviously very popular and I was amused to see all these men in their late teens and early twenties singing along and filming them whilst yelling the lyrics at the stage. The popular girl group on the rightI hung around for a while, and was rewarded with a band who again, seemed to be quite famous and well known there. I later saw the lead singer in an advert on the television, and enjoyed their performances immensely. Women fawned over him when they were invited onto the stage for a competition with him, and I noticed him forcing smiles and pretending that he wasn’t wishing he was somewhere else right then. Eventually, the music finished, and all the acts came back onto the stage, including the girls from earlier, who once again were screamed at by all the young men in the vicinity. I’m guessing that I was privileged to see some Thai celebrities.

Chilli Hip RestaurantThe final day of lectures came and went, and after a wander around the famous MBK centre, I decided to splash out on the rooftop restaurant at my hotel. Street food had ranged from THB10 – 50, and restaurants had varied from THB200 – 600, which usually had included a cocktail. That last night in Bangkok, I enjoyed a fantastic trio of entrees and the most delicious cocktail I’ve ever had for the staggering price of THB1000 (about NZ$40). Rooftop viewIt was al fresco dining at its expensive best, with the twinkling lights of the neighbouring skyscrapers for company. Thailand had been so cheap overall that I didn’t care about splashing out on such a luxurious venue, and I was already starting to feel sad about the prospect of leaving Bangkok behind the next day.



Skytrain above the city centre streetsWith my flight home not till the evening, I still had quite a bit of time to spare on the last day. I had read about a giant elephant to the south of Bangkok and was keen to go and visit. It was confusing to work out how to get there. I figured that the skytrain (BTS) had been extended recently, as two different station were mentioned on different websites and I was unsure of which one was nearest. I enquired with the concierge at my hotel as I checked out and he mentioned a third station which left me even more confused. I asked him to write the address of my destination in Thai so that I could give it to a taxi driver, and duly headed off to the skytrain station. In the end, I followed my gut instinct (I normally have a reasonably good sense of direction) and stayed on the line till its terminus station of Bearing. Stepping out, I realised to my satisfaction that I was right.

The skytrain stands tall above Sukhumvit Road, and waiting at the bottom of the steps was a taxi. I jumped in and handed him the piece of paper with the address in Thai. In then became quite clear that it wasn’t an address at all, but some kind of description, and the driver couldn’t work out where it was directing him to. He talked out loud to himself for a while, clearly trying to solve the puzzle before he let out an exclamation and started driving. I knew he just needed to head straight down the long road until he went under the motorway, and I silently prayed that he was going to take me to the right place. Thankfully, after initially crawling through the built up traffic, the giant elephant appeared, and he pulled over to drop me off.

Erawan MuseumThe Erawan Museum in Samut Prakan is a 3-headed elephant that stands 29m high as it stands on its pedestal. Erawan MuseumWhat makes this building even more impressive, is that the building itself is within the elephant, and frankly the internal design is so ornate and simply beautiful. THB400 pays for entry to the grounds and the elephant. Ground Floor of the Erawan MuseumThe grounds themselves were peaceful with waterways, and statues, but the building itself made the entry worthwhile alone. Staircase inside the Erawan MuseumIn the basement, which I wouldn’t have known about had it not been for some other tourists who beckoned me to follow them through the door, were lots of relics. View from inside the elephantIn the ground floor of the main building, an arced staircase beckons you up to a platform below a large and ornate stained-glass window. The top floor inside the Erawan MuseumFrom there a staircase leads up one of the legs of the elephant until you are literally within its body. Peacock StatueA small window in a recess gives a view out over the nearby motorway and beyond. Elephant StatueUp a final staircase, a chamber is reached that is painted an ethereal blue with lighting around a buddha casting magical shadows. Erawan MuseumBoth inside and out, this place is just beautiful from every perceivable angle.












There was not a taxi in sight when I was ready to leave. I asked one of the workers where to catch one, and he instructed me to have a seat at the gate and told the man at the gate to try and flag one down to take me back to the station. After a few minutes he flagged down a bus, and told the driver in Thai where I wanted to go. This was my first experience of the public buses in Bangkok, and the ticket lady spoke no English. She had to show me the ticket so I knew how much to pay and then we trundled on up the road. What had taken half an hour in the traffic on the way down, took less than ten minutes on the way back, and the driver actually stopped me from getting off at the bus stop before Bearing station, and insisted on pulling over right at the bottom of the stairs up to the platform. I was exceedingly grateful and happy that I’d gotten to experience another piece of real life in Bangkok. I had read that the public bus service could be confusing, so I wouldn’t have used a bus here in any other circumstance.

After You Dessert CafeBack in the world of Ratchathewi, I enjoyed the best chocolate dessert I think I’ve ever had, in a lovely cafe called After You Dessert Cafe, before watching some candy being made at a candy lab. Dolphin StatueFinally, I wandered around an art display outside of Central World before heading back to my hotel to pass a little more time with my feet dipped in the rooftop spa pool. Elephant StatuesCrossing the khlong on the way back to the hotelEventually though, it was time to make the final trip back to Suvarnabhumi International Airport for my flight home to New Zealand. Rooftop Spa PoolI had gone to Bangkok with no expectations, and quickly realised that I would be leaving a piece of my heart behind. Despite the heat and humidity, here is a place of vibrancy and culture; of modern and traditional; of east meets west, and there’s nothing you can do but fall in love with it.

The Death Railway

I came close to collapsing with heat stroke twice in one day. I can be too stubborn for my own good sometimes, always determined to walk as much as possible. But when the mercury is encroaching on 40oC and the humidity pushes the feeling even higher, I really ought to know my limits. Especially when I’d already knackered my poor feet the previous two days in a row.

The in-flight entertainment on my Qantas flight to Bangkok included some tourist information on various destinations, including the city I was headed to. With little research done on my destination, I was curious to see what it said, and was intrigued to see it recommending making a day trip to the ‘Bridge On the River Kwai’, which was made famous in the movie of the same name, and bares the scars of the war that lead to the railway earning its nickname of the Death Railway. I’d seen the location on the map before I’d left home, but hadn’t given it any thought. However, after watching the video and once getting some wi-fi at my hotel in Bangkok I did some research into the plausability of taking a day trip there. Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to be possible to travel the full run on the train as well as seeing the countryside around the bridge or the war memorials all in one day, but it was definitely an option to go as far as Kanchanaburi, the location of the Allied War Memorial.

I rose early to catch the first Skytrain (BTS) to Saphan Taksin, and waited for one of the first ferries of the day to take me up river. I caught the orange boat at central pier and disembarked at N10, Wang Lang. I’d promised myself I’d catch a tuk tuk to Thonburi train station, but not knowing how long I’d need to get there, I’d arrived at Wang Lang with an hour to spare, and only a 15 min walk to get me to the station, so I reneged on my earlier promise and wandered the busy streets of Thonburi district. It wasn’t long until I’d reached the bustling market that fronts the small train station, and after purchasing my ticket, I had a wander round in search of something for breakfast.

Timetable at Thonburi StationThere were a lot of tourists waiting for the train, and despite all the other scheduled trains leaving late, the 07:50 train to Namtok left nearly on time. Traditional Station Conductor waving the train offDespite this, it was over an hour late in arriving in Kanchanaburi, a feat that I’m still not sure how it happened. Wat next to the railway en routeIt was an interesting ride through suburbia and townships, and eventually reaching the countryside. Thai countryside viewed from the trainI’d noticed on the flight into Bangkok how flat the area is, and this continued for most of the train ride. The Death RailwayMost of the track felt like we were going in a perpetual straight line with very few turns, Level crossingand only when Kanchanaburi was getting closer, Finally some hillsdid the hills start to appear, and lush vegetation take over.






















Despite being due in at 10:20am, we pulled in at the station after 11:30am, and I went straight away in search of food. Despite leaving Bangkok with its inclement skies, out here, the sky was near cloudless, and the sun beat down relentlessly. After a quick refreshment, I stupidly decided to walk the 2km from Kanchanaburi to the famous bridge. A walk that back home in cool New Zealand would have been a breeze, was one of the stupidest things I decided to do in the heat of the Thailand day with the humidity pushing the perceived temperature into the 40s. My stupid pride made me wave off tuk tuks and taxis that tried to pick me up, and nearly 2/3rds of the way there, I started to feel nauseous and dizzy. My feet ached, but I pushed on, finally reaching the crowds at the bridge, only to have to desperately find some shade to catch my breath and rehydrate myself. I promised myself I’d get a taxi for the return journey.

Bridge on the River KwaiThe river Khwae Yai flows peacefully under the majestic and iconic structure of the bridge. River Khwae YaiIt is easy to spot which part was destroyed and replaced as the central bridge spans are different from the outer bridge spans. River Kwai Bridge train stationDespite the crowds, it was a serene place to be, and I wandered slowly across, admiring the changing view both up and down stream. Standing on the bridgeIt felt a world away from Bangkok and I was revelling in the change of scenery. Chinese temple on the far bankOn the far bank, a seemingly out of place Chinese temple sat on the banks blasting out music on loud speakers. The Death Railway disappears into the distanceIt was open to the public, but most people didn’t notice or didn’t care. Bridge on the River Kwai from the Chinese templeOnly a couple of other tourists went in for a wander, and I followed a little behind them. Looking upstream, River Kwhae YaiIt was worth it purely for the view it gave back over to the bridge and down stream, and I sat on the river bank for a while, enjoying some much needed shade. Looking downstream, river Khwae YaiEventually, after wandering around the grounds of the temple, Mountains in the distance down the riverI headed back up the stairs to the bridge and returned to the other side.



























River Kwai BridgeThere was not a taxi in sight when I was ready to head back to Kanchanaburi. Conscious of time before catching the train back to Bangkok, I felt I had no choice but to head off in the heat. It was a miserable affair, and to make matters worse, I ran out of water on route. There was no shade from the relentless sun, and again I felt the nausea and dizziness return. I was close to collapsing when a tuktuk appeared and I flagged it down. I did a terrible job of bartering a price, agreeing to a ridiculously high price, but at that moment in time, I would have paid anything to get off my feet and into some shade. I got him to drop me at the Allied War cemetery, but even there, sitting in the shade of the entrance arch, I felt rotten.

After a brief rest, I headed across the road to the Thailand-Burma Railway centre which thankfully had both air conditioning and water, and I wandered round what is a relatively small but very interesting museum. Whether the heat stroke added to my emotional state or not, I was deeply moved by what I read and saw. However you look upon it, the Thailand-Burma railway was a feat of engineering, strength and endurance which Japan had built using the labour of Allied prisoners of war in the second world war. A living skeletonThe numbers are staggering. At 415 km long at its full operational length, it was constructed by 180,000 civilian labourers and 60,000 PoWs, with an estimated 90,000 civilian deaths, and 12,621 PoW deaths during its construction. They laboured through monsoons, and incessant heat with little shelter or nourishment provided. There are many stories of brutalities, and the men were worked till the point of collapse. Having nearly collapsed twice from walking 2km in the heat with a large bottle of water, I shuddered at the thought of what these men went through on a daily basis. There were plenty of photos in the museum depicting the emaciated bodies of the men who were forced into hard labour.

Built for the purposes of supplying the Japanese forces who had taken control of what was then Burma (now Myanmar), it was finished ahead of schedule, taking around a year and a half in total. It saved the Japanese valuable time by saving the need to transport by sea. 111 kilometres of the railway were in Burma, and the remaining 304km were in Thailand. Just four years after completion, the railway was closed and abandoned, and now large sections of it are under water, deconstructed or left in place to age. Only the Namtok to Bangkok section, including Hellfire Pass, which was a particularly difficult and deadly section to build, is still used.

Allied War Cemetery, KanchanaburiI returned to the Allied War cemetery and looked through the book of names before wandering through the beautifully maintained and landscaped cemetery. Allied War Cemetery, KanchanaburiI was overcome wandering along row after row of headstones baring the names of lives who’d been cut short through disease, brutality and exhaustion. Allied War Cemetery, KanchanaburiSeveral of the headstones bare no name, as the remains have not been able to be identified. A lost soul buried with his kin. Graves of unidentified soldiersI’ve never felt so emotional before at a cemetery or a war memorial, and if ever I could feel grateful or sorry for the sacrifice of a generation I know so little about it, Kanchanaburi War Cemeteryit was here, in the quiet and solitude, amongst the graves of fellow countrymen, in a town in the middle of Thailand.














Steam train outside Kanchanaburi stationEventually though, I had to head back to the station. I expected the train to be late in returning as it had been so late in getting there that morning, but I didn’t want to take the chance of missing it. Kanchanaburi train stationWhen I got there, an English couple who I had seen at the bridge, were waiting, and the ticket office bore a sign saying the train would be 45mins late. I sat with them for a while, before feeling drawn back to the cemetery where I passed some more time before grabbing a snack on the way back to the station. Angry Spicy BBQ flavoured seaweedI shared the bizarre sea-weed concoction with my fellow travellers, and discovered they were needing to get back to Bangkok to catch a flight that night. They were getting nervous about making it, so when the delay was extended to 90 mins, one of them went off to see if they could negotiate a taxi. In Thailand, it is normal to barter for a price, and it is easy for novices to be ripped off. With a two hour drive back to the capital, we all knew the taxi price would not be cheap, and when he returned with a price, and not enough cash in their wallets, I offered them some much needed Bahts in the hope it would help them catch their plane. When the taxi turned up, they asked if I wanted to join them, and with the prospect of an unknown time till the train would finally appear, I decided to accept.

Firstly, our driver spoke very little English. Secondly, he took us to someone’s house down a back street where a second man and a young boy got in, meaning what we thought would be a comfortable air-conditioned drive, was actually 6 people squeezed into the car for a 2.5 hr drive to the airport. One of the things I’d already noticed in Bangkok was that lanes, and indeed sides of the road, were only for suggestion, and cars, motorbikes and buses weaved in and out as they pleased, including driving on the wrong side of the road if it suited. Despite that, there was very little horn tooting unlike what I’d experienced in India. Not only that, but all the vehicles looked in pristine condition, as if new and straight out the car wash or the car showroom. Apart from the one man who I’d seen come off his bike, I saw no accidents and no bashes or scratches on any of the vehicles. It was amazing.

The three of us chatted the time away in the back seat as the sun began to set, and eventually we hit the rush hour of Bangkok. It was a side to Bangkok that I wouldn’t have otherwise experienced, and despite never having met any of these people before, it felt like an adventure sharing this part of their trip with them. Finally, we pulled up at Suvarnabhumi International airport, and we went our separate ways. They were in plenty of time for their flight, and I caught the train back into the city centre, before jumping on the metro back to my hotel. Doing the full trip up to Namtok via Hellfire Pass will be on my agenda if I ever make it back to Bangkok. But I was exceedingly pleased that I made the time to go to Kanchanaburi, and tired and hungry at the end of a very long and emotional day, my heart wept for the dead.

Krung Thep – City of Angels

I don’t think I’d ever been this unprepared for a trip before. Certainly, I don’t plan trips to the same degree every time but usually I have a vague idea what I want to do and see when I go somewhere new. When I discovered that a vocationally-renowned conference was taking place in Bangkok, Thailand, I was very keen to go. I booked my place and my flights 9 months prior then duly acted like it wasn’t happening. This year has been plagued by complications which I may yet get to write about if they are ever fully resolved, and there were a few weeks in April when I had no passport and thought the trip wasn’t going to happen for me. So I ignored my guidebook, did only very basic research online, and finally boarded the plane with quite a bit of trepidation and little idea of what to expect at the other end.

I jumped the ditch from New Zealand to Australia, and after a brief connection, and a smooth 9.5hr flight, I landed in Bangkok, and waited with increasing impatience at baggage reclaim for a bag that never came. Great start. One of the few things I had planned was how to get to my hotel in the Silom district. Taking the airport link train to Makkasan, I transferred to the Metro station of Petchaburi and discovered that I wouldn’t have been able to come this way if I had had my luggage. Every metro station has a security gate and bag search to go through and as a result, large bags and luggage are not allowed. Bangkok from my hotel roomFinally getting off at Si Lom station, I emerged into night time, and the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, slightly disorientated at a cross roads, and struggling to find any kind of signage to indicate which street I wanted. By the time I found my hotel, I was more than ready for the air conditioning and a good night’s sleep.

I was very impressed with the ease of Bangkok’s main public transport systems. The next day was a Sunday, and I took the skytrain (BTS) to Mo Chit and headed to the famous Chatuchak weekend market. A quiet section of Chatuchak MarketI’m not a fan of shopping generally, and do it only when necessary, so I expected to only spend a couple of hours there before heading on somewhere else. So I surprised myself to emerge 7 hrs later, limping yet satisfied. The best way to describe it is like a rabbit warren. Apparently there is order to the chaos, and maps are supposedly available somewhere, but I preferred to just head on in and start wandering up and down the various sheds. The market is the largest market in Thailand and the world’s largest weekend market with roughly 15,000 stalls. They are crammed into little lots nestled around narrow alleyways that criss-cross the section, and I was determined to cover every square-inch of the place.

Generally, the market is grouped into categories of wares, so clothes are mostly together, homewares are mostly together, food is grouped together, and animals are all together. Macaw for sale, Chatuchak MarketThere are some exceptions, but for the most part, if you are interested in just one type of product, you can focus on a specific area of the market. Ornate birds for sale, Chatuchak MarketI had been warned in advance that the animal section was not a place to visit as an animal lover. It started off innocently enough with puppies and kittens in air-conditioned rooms, but the deeper in I got, I found puppies struggling in the heat, cages crammed full of rodents, birds tightly packed into spaces, vivariums over-populated with reptiles, and exotic species that I know need specialist care, but were sold freely to anyone who would pay the price. I went with an open mind, but it didn’t sit well with my conscience.

Wood Art, Chatuchak MarketThe main lesson I learned at the market, was that if you see something you want to buy, buy it. I tried to find my way back to two stalls I had seen earlier in the day in order to buy something, and no matter how hard I tried, I could not retrace my steps to locate them again, and missed out. Coconut IcecreamIt was impossible to come to this place without buying something, and I enjoyed sampling different foods from different stalls.  Outdoor stretch of Chatuchak MarketThe heat was incredible though, and without any suncream (which was packed in the luggage that had never arrived), I limited my time outside as best I could. I really wanted to take pictures to capture the chaos, but most of the time, it was so crammed with people trying to squeeze past in the narrow corridors that there just wasn’t much opportunity. It just needs to be experienced.

After 7hrs of idly wandering, I emerged into the daylight with a grin on my face. Queen Sirikit ParkI knew early on that Bangkok was going to capture my heart, and with each new place I went, I felt more and more at home. Next to Chatuchak market is the green space of Queen Sirikit Park. Queen Sirikit ParkBy now late afternoon, the park was full of locals spread across the grass relaxing with friends and family. A large lake snakes its way up the park and even through the murky waters, large fish were visible at the surface and people merrily paddled swan boats up and down the waters. Even though my feet were blistered and sore, I meandered through the park for a while before heading back to the BTS and my hotel on the other side of the city. I was relieved to get to my room and find that my luggage had finally arrived.




The Banks of the Chao Phraya RiverThe next morning was overcast, and I took the BTS to Saphan Taksin where a short walk takes you to the banks of Chao Phraya river, and Central Pier. From here there are plenty of boat options with the main boat service (the Chao Phraya express boat) being colour-coded according to the stops it makes. The banks of the Chao Phraya RiverThe main stops that tourists make are covered by all the colours, but the price varies, with the most expensive being the blue boat which is sold specifically as a tourist boat and comes with a commentary. Khlong Boats on the Chao Phraya riverI jumped on the first boat that came (orange) which cost THB 15 compared to THB 40 for the tourist boat, and although crammed, I was able to watch the world go by as we chugged up river. I love trying to merge with the locals when I’m abroad, so I was happy to avoid the tourist boat, but for the uninitiated, there is no announcement of stops, so it is important to have a good idea of which stop you want.






I disembarked at N9 (Tha Chang), and walked through the food stalls to emerge at the bottom of the road that leads to the Grand Palace. Statue at the entrance to the Grand Palace complexEven from this distance, I could see the crowds and buses that hovered near the main entrance, and as I reached the main gateway, I stopped to get my shawl ready and make myself respectful. It is important at the Wat’s of Bangkok to be covered up. A mere portion of the crowds at the Grand PalaceSome places are more strict that others, but generally shoulders and upper legs need to be covered. I was quickly accosted at the entrance, and told my shawl was not enough, and was sent inside to hire a shirt to better cover my shoulders. The main walkway up to the entrance was packed with tour groups and the sky was growing ominously dark. I duly paid the THB400 entrance fee and hired an audio guide for another THB200. Entering through the main gate, I was jostled into a throng of people.

Phra Sri Ratana ChediThe audio guide took me on a tour around Wat Phra Kaeo, past elaborate and ornate statues and shimmering details on the various buildings. Statue in the main courtyardI was finding it really hard to absorb the information that was being relayed to me through the headphones and left at the end of it, feeling like I’d learned nothing about the meaning of the place, but despite that it was a marvel for the eyes. Mythical CreaturesIn the cloisters, there were ornate murals with golden tints, and the Phra Sri Ratana Chedi stood out in its golden glory against the black sky. Gilted doorwayThe various temples and mausoleums stood proudly with gilted window frames and doorways, and the roof details sparkled with greens, blues and golds. Mural in the CloistersI admired the various statues that adorned the route. Statue in Wat Phra KaeoHalfway round the Wat, the threatening storm finally broke, and the thunder rolled in and a deluge fell from the sky. I took the opportunity to head indoors to the Royal Chapel of the Emerald Buddha. Supporting Creature at the base of a ChediIt was impossible to get to the front of the crowds for a closer look but it sat proud at a height so even with rows of people it was still possible to see the buddha, The main entrance of the Royal Pantheonand I left those who wished to pay their respects at the front, and hovered at the back for a while, taking it all in.




Standing guard outside Barom Phiman HallIn the back corner of the Wat is the doorway to the Grand Palace. Once the Wat is exited, it cannot be re-entered, and immediately on passing through, to the left is the private Barom Phiman Hall, a former royal residence which is guarded and off-limits. The Grand Palace with Dusit Maha Prasat Hall behindThe main building of the Grand Palace is grandiose and beautiful, flanked by several halls and with beautiful elephant statues next to the main staircases. Elephant Statue outside the Grand PalaceIt continued to rain in varying intensities but this didn’t deter people from posing for photos. The Exterior of the Grand PalaceThe main building is closed to the public, but most of the neighbouring halls are open to explore. Statue outside Dusit Maha Prasat HallWhen the next downpour came, I headed into the Emerald Buddha Temple Museum to pass some time before leaving the complex.





















Taking a rest by the Chao Phraya riverFrom the main entrance, I wandered off on a walking tour of the area, having purchased a poncho to try and stay dry, wandering along streets filled with stalls, and down alleyways where various gems were for sale. I found myself at a boutique group of eateries by the river and sat on a bench watching the river life, waiting for the latest shower to pass. Kao San RoadOn reaching Thammasat University, I turned away from the river and headed to the long green expanse of Sanam Luang. Heading north, I struggled initially to find a way to get across the road. Elephant Statue at a junctionThere aren’t always crossings in Bangkok, and whilst the locals are adept at jumping between traffic to cross very busy roads, I found myself at a fast dual carriageway with no hope of getting a gap to risk running across. Eventually I found a suitable spot after a bit of wandering and headed down the large expanse of Thanon Ratcadamnoen Klang before turning off to visit the infamous Thanon Khao San. This region is a mecca for backpackers and nightlife, but for me, it was just a street full of restaurants catering for Western tastes, bars full of Western beer, and stalls selling t-shirts emblazoned with ‘I Love Kao San’, or ‘I Love Bangkok’. It just wasn’t a side of Bangkok I was interested in giving much time to.

Pink elephantsI headed back towards the green belt and wandered south past pink elephants, and beautiful buildings. Lak MuangI followed the very busy road of Thanon Sanam Chai and was shocked to hear a noise behind me and look round to see a man had come off his motorbike on the far side. Ministry of DefenceMotorbikes are exceedingly common in Bangkok, but unfortunately wearing helmets is not. Building near the Royal GardenThe man lay motionless for a few minutes before finally I saw his arms move as a crowd gathered round him. A local woman who had also stopped next to me, gave me a look that suggested I should move on, so I duly did. I never did hear an ambulance, and the traffic continued its erratic dance around him.













The Reclining BuddhaI reached Wat Pho, one of the city’s larger Wats, in the mid-afternoon, and after the busyness of the Grand Palace I was pleasantly relieved to find this place quieter in comparison. Wat Pho courtyardThere were still plenty of people around but if felt less crammed and more peaceful. Statue at Wat PhoI loved Wat Pho, and it was my favourite part of this region of Bangkok, as well as my favourite Wat that I visited. BuddhaI realised there how much the crowds at the Grand Palace had marred my visit there. BuddhaThe main draw for Wat Pho is the giant reclining buddha in one of the temples. Detail on a buildingIt was the only crowded place but people were patient at waiting for their turn to take photos. ChediI still don’t understand the significance of a lot of the buildings that make up the various Wats, but they are all so detailed and ornate that I was happy to just wander round and ogle at them. Statues were scattered around the grounds, buddha were found in various buildings, and Chedi lined the courtyards. Reclining BuddhaBy now, the clouds had lifted, the thunderstorm departed, and it was a gloriously sunny afternoon, so the gold detail glistened and I found a spot to sit for a while and people watch. My feet were heavily blistered, dirty and painful, and the rest was much needed.















Wat Arun, Temple of DawnIt was a short walk to pier N8 Tha Tien, where Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn stood on the far side of the river. Chao Phraya riverThis is one of Bangkok’s most photographed buildings, and is much-recommended to visit, but when I was there, it was completely covered in scaffolding, so I didn’t bother. West bank of the Chao Phraya riverI added it to my mental list of things I’d do on another visit, and jumped on the express boat back to central pier. Mushroom soupBack in Thanon Silom, there was plenty of choice for food and I tucked into the best mushroom soup and fried chicken that I have ever eaten.












After a day out of the city when I tried (and failed) to give my poorly feet a rest, I was semi-rejuvenated for another day of pounding the streets of Bangkok. Around the Indian regionReturning to the river, I took the ferry to N6 at Yodpiman, and cut through in search of the flower market. What I found was a large produce market, and I discovered afterwards, that the flowers arrive at night and are replaced in the daytime with fruits and vegetables, so I headed off in search of Chinatown. The busy alleys of ChinatownI had a brief wander around the Indian region where shops were full of saris and rolls of material. ChinatownHitting Chinatown, the shops changed to jewellery stores, and I ducked into an alleyway to find a collection of street markets that spanned block after block. ChinatownAgain, I gave into the moment and enjoyed some shopping whilst squeezing through tight spaces and dodging motorbikes that tried to drive through the tightly packed crowds. Chinatown ArchIt was chaotic but I loved it. I was almost sad to reach the end of it, but went in search of the Chinatown Arch.






Wat TraimitNear the arch is Wat Traimit, a relatively small Wat but up its many steps the inner hall contains a solid gold buddha, weighing 5.5 tons, and an estimated worth of $250m. Buddha at Wat TraimitLike many Wats, they hired out shawls and sarongs for a refundable deposit. Golden BuddhaI generally carried a shawl and wore long-legged clothes on the days I planned to visit Wats but on this occasion, I had gone on a whim so was less prepared. Chinatown Arch viewed from Wat TraimitThis Wat is also close to Hua Lamphong train station, one of the city’s main stations. Wat TraimitAfter a nosy round it, I hopped on the metro at the adjoining station of the same name and returned to Si Lom.













Lumphini ParkFrom Si Lom station, the large expanse of Lumphini Park was accessible, and I whiled away the afternoon wandering round here, snacking on sweet buns and bubble tea. Lumphini ParkWhilst the day was rather cloudy, the park was well used. Monitor LizardLocals jogged, biked and walked round the various pathways, and on the various lakes, paddle boats could be hired. A large fountain could be found in one of the lakes, and as I meandered around, I was pleased to see a young man on a bicycle, stop repeatedly to put some cat food on the ground for the myriad of stray cats that were around the park. But just a little further, I got a shock when a large reptile wandered across my path and slinked into the lake. At first I thought it was a small crocodile, but when I got nearer I realised it was a monitor lizard. Deeper into the park, I found several more parading around the shallows.





Clock tower in Lumphini ParkAs the afternoon turned into evening, I stumbled across a large group of people doing an outdoor exercise class. It was both amusing and fascinating to watch and it was fantastic to see the park being so well used in so many different ways. It was such a relaxing place to be away from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok’s busy streets. Yummy noodle soupMy rumbling stomach eventually drew me away and I went off in search of food. I’d had a hankering for noodle soup since I’d arrived, and finally finding somewhere that sold it, I settled down to the best bowl of noodle soup I’ve ever had. Bangkok is as much alive at night as it is during the day, and I relished wandering through the streets on my way back to the hotel. It was my final night in Silom. With the conference starting the next day, I was shifting hotel and location, ready to explore a different side of Bangkok…

Bealey Spur Track

A morning without an alarm wake-up call is like gold-dust to me, and usually occurs on those hallowed Sundays when I don’t have work or exercise classes or other commitments to get up for. But after an unseasonably early cold snap in April, it was too much temptation to fore-go my beloved lie-in to make the most of a forecasted sunny autumnal May Sunday. Christchurch itself was shadowed under low-lying cloud when I set off early in the cold morning, and it was nearly an hour of driving through cloud and fog before the blue sky and sunshine was seen. But 2hrs to the west of the Garden City, nestled in Arthur’s Pass National Park, the sky was cloudless and it was a gorgeous day.

State Highway 73 is rightly classed as a scenic highway, and traverses the Southern Alps on its way to the west coast. Crossing between the Big Ben Range and Torlesse Range at Porters Pass, it continues past the popular stops of Castle Hill and Cave Stream Scenic Reserve; the reflective waters of Lake Pearson; and eventually hugging the wide expanse of the Waimakariri river bed. Without much warning, the little settlement of Bealey Spur nestled amongst the trees comes in to view on a hillock, and from here the Bealey Spur Track starts. The car park for this walk is next to the highway at the bottom of the road that leads up through the settlement. By the highest house in the settlement, the path starts heading off through the forest.

View from the Bealey Spur Car park

Start of the hike

The early track trudges through the beech forest, with no real view to speak of and the path at this time of year was quite muddy in places. After a while, the trees open up, and the steep slope of Mt Bruce comes in to view with the sound of the rapids of Bruce stream heard down below. A couple of spots allow for a fantastic view of this neighbouring mountainside, but with a sheer drop to the river below, some caution is required near the edge. Further up the track, the taller vegetation opens up more and the first views back down on the Waimakariri river valley are achieved.

Beech forest

Mt Bruce

Waimakariri river valley

Crossing a landscape of tussock and alpine plants, the stony path follows the line of the spur, gaining altitude in a relatively gentle manner. Around the halfway mark for the hike, a fantastic viewing point is reached overlooking Turkey Flat and Klondyke Corner where the road turns to follow the Bealey river up towards Arthur Pass village, 14km to the north. After a brief spell through more beech trees, and reaching 1000m, a boardwalk leads across an open alpine section where a collection of tarns can be found. With the sun quite low at this time of year, a couple of the smaller tarns, still in shadow, were covered in a thin layer of ice. In the distance, Mt Bealey and Mt Stewart, covered in snow, peaked above the horizon.

Alpine vegetation

Looking down on Turkey Flat

Klondyke Corner

Looking down river

Reflections in a tarn

Rounding the smaller tarns before skirting past more beech trees, the path climbs again to another stunning viewing area again looking over to Mt Bealey and Mt Stewart across the Waimakariri river valley as well as looking down on the largest of the tarns. This is the last of the viewing areas before the track disappears into the forest again, emerging only once the Bealey Spurs hut is reached at 1230m altitude. The hut itself is classed as historic, having been built in 1935, and sits at the edge of the clearing which marks the end of the hike. Bealey Spur itself can be hiked for a further 1.5hrs one-way but the track is unmarked and therefore this section requires some experience in back-country off-piste hiking.

Looking down on a large tarn

Bealey Spur hut

Whilst the hut itself acts as a good location for a stop-over (and indeed it can sleep 6 people), the lack of view meant that most of the hikers I came across this day, opted not to stay there for any length of time. I ate my lunch in peace and solitude before making the return journey. This time, on the way down, the full view of the valley is evident in front of you, making for just as enjoyable a walk down as the way up. Taking my time, the whole walk took just over 4hrs return, and despite mud and stones, the track itself is of a reasonably good quality. Heading back to Christchurch on the scenic highway, the autumn yellow on the leaves by the river brightened up the already gorgeous drive home.

Looking up the Bealey river valley

Tarn and river valley

Nearby mountains

Waimakariri river valley

Autumn yellow

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