Before we headed south all the way to the Thai islands, we stopped at a quiet little seaside town for a few days. The town is called Happy Place. No, that’s not it’s real name, it’s just what Daniel and Helena from the Backpack Foodie christened it after spending two peaceful weeks there in 2009. As he says on his blog, if you ask Daniel nicely, he might reveal the real name of Happy Place to you; he did for me. His descriptions of a small Thai town unblemished by tourism and blessed by fresh seafood reeled me in, and so we set off for a short detour to Happy Place.
Had I known then what I know now, I might have never left. In her broken but steadily growing vocabulary of English, Tchim, the owner of the Coco House, a small local cafe close to our hotel, told me, the islands – very crowded, very expensive. Here – not very crowded, not very expensive. Boy, was she ever right. Don’t get me wrong, we enjoyed the Thai islands – they’re tropical paradise, how could we not – but not as much as we anticipated. More on that to come, but let’s just say traveling in high season makes it hard for the paradise part to shine through.
In Happy Place, on the other hand, nothing gets in the way of its simple pleasures: watching the green lights of the fishing boats bob on the horizon every evening; watching the same boats return in the morning light; eating the fruits of the fisherman’s labors at restaurants on the promenade; hiking up to a great view and dodging thieving monkeys; trying to track down the roving VW bus turned cafe; and listening to the sea lap at the sandy shore.
Happy Place is the type of place that is more likely to be frequented by Thai tourists than farangs. We weren’t the only foreign tourists there, but it wasn’t hard to find yourself surrounded only by locals. We stumbled upon a local fair and besides us, there were only Thai faces around. Sean got a hankering for some bugs and downed some along with a Chang beer much to the amusement of some bystanders. He described them as “earthy” and said they didn’t taste too bad. Blech. I opted for strawberries and doughnuts instead. While we were at the fair, the Thais stared at us in polite curiosity, particularly Sean, as we took our turn playing the fair’s games; we politely stared back at them, trying to figure out why they were sitting in chairs connected by strings to monks up on the stage.
In his post about Happy Place, Daniel wrote that “[i]t’s, sadly, entirely possible that in a few years, we will barely recognize our favorite spot under the concrete of a beach resort” because “like many places before it in Thailand, the vanguard of foreign tourism has already begun its incursion.” Almost two years later, it seems time hasn’t marched quite yet. There’s no banana pancake cafes or booming bass and there’s only one 7-Eleven. Tchim is still there, selling coffee at Coco House and eager to chat about the two farangs that befriended her in her early weeks of operation. The Deemer family still cooks up delectable pad thai and som yam and their cat still scarfs down any of the delicious seafood that it can get its paws on. In other words, Happy Place is still happy.
Heading north finally brought some sun. We couldn’t drive there fast enough and wee ended up staying for three nights at the Top 10 Holiday Park in Motueka. The town itself was nothing to write home about, but we stayed for two reasons: (1) it was a good base to explore the gorgeousness in the surrounding areas, like the fantastic Golden Bay (above), and, more importantly, (2) I got a second chance at using a jumping pillow. The jumping pillow at the Top 10 in Greymouth comes highly recommended, so I was quite disappointed when the rains on the West Coast turned it into a big, slick accident waiting to happen. When we pulled into the Top 10 in Motueka and saw it too had a jumping pillow, well, we headed straight over.
The West Coast of the South Island has miles of coastline along the wild Tasman Sea and mountain ranges galore, but it’s biggest claim to fame is that it is glacier country. Our days on the West Coast, like our trip to Milford Sound, were covered in fog. All the scenic drives were obscured and rain poured down for most of our time there. Thankfully, the clouds parted for one brief day, and that day coincided with our visit to the glaciers, allowing us to see what massive hulks of ice and snow they really are. New Zealand has not one, but two mammoth glaciers that are slowing advancing again away from the sea. You can climb on top of them on guided hikes, but we opted just to take the short unguided hikes to the terminal ice. Standing in front of the glaciers in the massive valleys they’ve carved out is a wild experience.
Going back to Bangkok after Hanoi was like going to see an old friend. We found we loved Bangkok as much as we did the first time three months prior, save for the muggier weather. We contemplated staying elsewhere but you just can’t beat the fabulous Roof View Place. We wasted no time visiting old favorites. We were happy to see our Pad Thai Lady again; we missed her so. And just when you thought a good thing couldn’t get better, a couple opened a coffee shop with chocolately cupcakes several doors away from the Pad Thai Lady. There was another round of visits to the Peanut Butter and Banana Pancake Lady, the Mango and Sticky Rice Man, the Orange Juice Lady, the movies, the malls, and Ethos Vegetarian Restaurant. Sadly, there was no time for $6 massages, a decision I would come to regret when I realized massages on the islands are at least $8. Outrageous.
We also mixed it up a bit this time, with visits to the Jim Thompson House and a whirlwind ride in a river taxi down one of Bangkok’s side canals. The craziest thing we did was turn left outside Roof View Place instead of staying straight to walk to the bus; it was a whole new world. On your way to work or the grocery store today, take a new way home…you never know what you’ll see.
The Queenstown region is hard to beat any time of year, but in autumn, it is sublime. It didn’t hurt that it was our first (and practically only) sunny AND warm day in New Zealand. Well, maybe not warm to anyone but the Kiwis, who walk around in bare feet and (short) shorts all the time, but not cold. The yellow trees pop against the rugged mountains and blue skies, and who needs ocean when you’ve got long lakes in between mountains? In a country crazy about adventure, they’re craziest in Queenstown. Although we had no plans to do any adventure activities, we somehow found ourselves on a jetboat whizzing through the Shotover River canyon. It was fun, but not extreme; the thrill was equivalent to a roller coaster, which is much, much cheaper. We probably should have hurled ourselves off a bridge or out of a plane or something, but we were entertained just watching people bungy jump off the first bridge in the world where commercial bungy jumping occurred. The autumn splendor continued in Arrowtown and Wanaka; the perfect backdrop for lazy afternoons.