Kuala Lumpur our old friend (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)

We sit watching the runway at the Gold Coast Airport. A crewing issue has delayed our flight by an hour but it doesn’t bother us. We have a two night stopover in Kuala Lumpur so there’s no rush. Budget airlines call this small domestic and interns airport home: Air Asia X, Scoot and Jetstar planes stand on the tarmac waiting for passengers. Just one of each.
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The flight is full. Watching the other passengers is always fascinating. Some complain about everything from the leg room (surely everyone knows by now that leg room is non-existent when flying) to the change for purchases being paid in Malaysian Ringgit. The latter works in our favour because I found some Korean Won when I was packing our house. Not enough to exhange but too much to ignore. I use these to buy a cup of tea: the Ringgit I received as change are more useful to me than the Won. Paul passes the flight sleeping and listening to music while I sleep and watch movies. Oh how I love the convenience of smart phone technology and Netflix.
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The airport bus drops us at Kuala Lumpur Sentral.  We could easily take the monorail to Bukit Bintang but have been sitting all day. The 4km (1.5 mile) walk not only allows us to stretch our legs but also gives us more time “in” KL. Places now evoke memories for us: the shop where we bought sunglasses, the roundabout where we dices with death to get across, the corner where we ate a delicious meal and that spot where I threw a hunger tantrum. And new sights open up before our eyes: the gorgeous Church of the Holy Rosary and the Bukit Bintang food street.
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It’s hot and humid so we take a shower before heading out for dinner at 9pm. The market is an assault on the senses. The heady stench of durian fills the air around the many vendors selling this local delicacy. As much as I hate durian, the scent centres me here in Malaysia. Touts push menus in our faces, proclaiming their restaurant as the best, oldest or cheapest. Small stalls sell the knick knacks typical of any market in the world. Table to table vendors try to push figet spinners and wooden baskets onto the captive audience of diners. And local buskers sing for ringgit. The crowd is mainly a mix of Chinese locals and foreign tourists. But not exclusively. We eat fried rice with sticky sesame pork and spicy stir fried vegetables. What a way to reimmerse ourselves into South East Asia.

A one hour foot massage for RM50 ($AU15) rounds out the first day of our adventure. Paul suggests adding on a back massage but I’m exhausted. It’s only 11pm but my body us still on Brisbane time and it feels like 1am. Besides, we have a full day here tomorrow.

A night at the Gold Coast (Queensland , Australia)

Our flight to Vietnam departs at 9am in the morning. The airport is a two hour drive at the best of times, let alone during Monday morning peak hour. That’s all the excuse we need to justify a pre-trip night at the Gold Coast.
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The 27th floor of the Novotel Surfers Paradise has a stunning view. I’m glad Paul organised us a high floor.  The shapes of the mountains are familiar – I’ve spent a lifetime looking at and hiking the range. But I digress.

We take a walk along the waterfront. It’s late afternoon and the beaches are quiet. Only three surfers brave the cool winter afternoon in the shadows cast by highrise development.  This is the hour between holiday makers playing on the beach and party animals hitting the bars. The hour where couples promenade, families ride bicycles and fit people jog.
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Dad has recently moved to the Coast and invites us to take in the sunset from his balcony. His famous creme brule awaits as a pre dinner treat. There’s a reason I consider Dad’s creme brule famous: the taste is divine with smooth vanilla custard and crunchy top that cracks when hit with a spoon.
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He knows a place that sells burgers and beer. We step out into the yellow lit streets and walk a few blocks to Longboards. It’s a cool casual bar overlooking the Q1 swimming pool. We eat burgers and fries while talking the night away. There’s much to tell and hear. The perfect start to our adventures in Vietnam.

Ready for Vietnam 

It seems like a lifetime since our last trip to Asia but, finally, we are within a week of our next foray into the Orient.  It’s just six more until we board our Air Asia flight to Kuala Lumpur then on to Ho Chi Minh City a few days later.  

Our trip to Vietnam is unlikely to be a traditional tourist expedition. We fly into HCMC and will be there two nights before heading inland. Our entire trip is based on a Couch Surfing host’s invitation for us to stay with him in Pleiku. It’s a town well off the HCMC-Hoi An-Hanoi tourist race. And along the way we will stay in some other quite random places well inland from the coast. 

We will travel from HCMC to Hoi An and Hue via this random countryside route on scary bus rides before flying home from Danang. 

We have our letter of invitation for visa on arrival, some clean US dollars, passports and flights. We’ve booked some cheap but well reviewed accommodation so just have to pack and get ourselves to the airport. 

Our final day in New Zealand (Auckland, New Zealand)

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It’s our final day in New Zealand and I wake with mixed emotions. While I’m ready to go home and prepare for the next adventure, I would dearly love to stay in New Zealand and keep exploring. After packing our gear into the car we set off for one final drive. We randomly select Bethell’s Beach as our destination. Bethell’s Beach is one of Auckland’s Western Beaches and we think we found a bit of a marvel.

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We spot the massive cave from the far end of the beach. It draws us like a magnet; as it does the other people visiting the beach. We walk across the black sands to the huge opening. The tide is slowly coming in and we can see exactly how this cave has been created. The incoming water pushes strongly up the beach through the barricade of rocks towards the cave entrance. It might still take an hour or two to reach into the cave and that’s why we can enter.

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Now that we’ve explored the cave, we find ourselves noticing the small things that make this beach so amazing. There’s long ribbons of bright yellow sea weed. Green moss tumbles from rock pools like soft waterfalls. And muscles cling to rocks in their hundreds.

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The beach looks like it has been influenced by New Zealand’s volcanic past with large boulders balancing on big rocks. Black sand is becoming familiar to us now. I still don’t feel drawn to the water on this black sand beach but am not sure whether that’s the season or the sand. But I do love to walk on this black sand beach and like the way it frames the other colours.

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We had intended to see a few more beaches but spend so much time enjoying Bethell’s Beach that we already have to head to the airport. We watch our final Kiwi sunset as our plane is prepared for the flight. As usual, Air Asia fly us home in comfort.

We’ve loved our time in New Zealand. It’s been the perfect blend of nature and culture. We found Kiwis to be a friendly folk. It’s an expensive country to travel but we managed to keep costs manageable by renting places where we could cook instead of having to dine out. We also avoided all the tourist traps (the New Zealand tourist industry is expert at extracting money from foreigners) but still had an amazing experience in the Land of the Long White Cloud.

Auckland (Auckland, New Zealand)

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We are both feeling a bit blah when we get up this morning. We actually don’t know what to do. I know I feel a bit discombobulated being in the city after such a long time in the countryside. There’s also the disappointment of the relatively rubbish Air BnB after the absolutely gorgeous places we’ve stayed throughout our trip so far. And, perhaps, we’re tired from fitting so much into each day for the past two weeks. Had we been staying somewhere nice we would have just had a day in but today we don’t want to stay at our overpriced dive so we head into Auckland city.

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We wander around the CBD for an hour or two. It’s not an ugly city but it’s also not that interesting. There’s the same strings of shops and advertising that exist in almost every city we’ve been to, the same chain restaurants and coffee shops, and tourists carrying Lonely Planet guide books. Perhaps the city is just too small for us. It’s not hectic and crazy like South East Asia nor historic like Europe. That’s not to say Auckland isn’t a nice city but it is a bit boring for us. We find some nice moments and have a nice day. But it’s not awe inspiring like our other days in New Zealand were.

Waingaro to Auckland (Auckland, New Zealand)

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I wake to a heavy dew on a morning just warm enough to avoid a light frost from forming. I walk outside to talk to the alpacas and goats that live in our hosts’ paddocks. While curious, the alpacas only come so close to me. But the goats are fairly well climbing the fence for a pat. Our hosts got them from a children’s petting zoo so that probably explains the friendliness. We talk with our host again this morning and take ages to leave on our drive.

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But before we drive to Auckland we take a scenic detour towards Raglan, just south of Waingaro.

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A detour from our detour takes us to Bridal Veil Falls. My cousin told us about these falls two weeks ago but we didn’t have a chance to get here. Now that the sun is shining and we have plenty of daylight to make it to Auckland we can come here. The short walk to the top of the falls is easy. The 261 steps down the the base of the falls is a little more challenging and I’m glad my hip has settled a lot. And then there’s the 261 steps back up to the top of the falls. Thankfully the waterfall is so stunning that it’s no real hardship.

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We drive on to Raglan. This popular surfing town on the west coast is buzzing with backpackers. They are everywhere doing what backpackers do. This is the first time we’ve been in a Kiwi place that’s so popular with backpackers but that’s probably because we’ve stayed in random out of the way places without hostels. There’s an informative museum near the iSite. It’s not hugely impressive but worth a visit and tells a good story of the town. The surfing exhibition is my highlight. In a way the town is similar to many backpacker towns around the world. Everything has a price, the same tours are advertised on every corner (surfing classes, diving, caving and boat trips), and backpackers can be heard phoning ahead to hostels further along their journeys looking for dorm beds. It makes me think about that move The Beach with Leonardo di Caprio. That’s not a bad thing – it just is a reality. And it makes me glad we had a car and found ourselves in random out of the way places far from the tourist rat race. That said, we have a good laugh and enjoy an absolutely delicious burrito at a tiny hole in the wall place – one of the benefits of backpacker towns is generally the availability of fresh hipster inspired food that generally tastes great.

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We spend the rest of the day following Highway 22 to Auckland. I want to stop after every bend to take photos but have to resist or we won’t get anywhere.

Auckland comes as a shock to the system. After two weeks in rural New Zealand the traffic and close proximity of houses is crass and harsh. We have rented an Air BnB in Titirangi. Unfortunately, we arrive to discover it is nothing like what was advertised and the reviews are clearly fraudulent. It’s frustrating and annoying. We consider leaving but Auckland is so expensive and we don’t want to pay another $200 a night after we’ve already paid this place. Our mood does improve though after we find an amazing Nepalese restaurant in nearby Blockhouse Bay. It’s packed and takes over 50 minutes for us to be served our food but the time passes quickly watching the restaurant buzzing and discussing the highlights of our holiday. The food is so worth the wait. From memory the restaurant had the word Everest in the name.

Whitianga to Waingaro (Wiakato, New Zealand)

We pick up two hitch hikers as we leave Whitianga. They are an American and Canadian traveling New Zealand between outdoor guiding seasons in their home countries. They are good company and it’s interesting to learn about the best places to visit in Canada, a country we definitely want to make our way to at some point. We back track down roads we’ve traveled a few times the past few days until we cross the range into Thames where we part ways with our hitch hikers.

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Thames is a groovy town. At first it looks like a rural service town, providing support to local farmers requiring goods and services. But a shift of eyesight to look at the upper facades of the buildings quickly shows that this is a town with plenty of colour. The facades are bright and show the town’s century or more of history.

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At ground level the town is creative and fun. Op shops and eateries make up most of the storefronts. But the footpaths is where the action is at. There’s a massive teddy bear cafe complete with elderly bears sitting in wheelchairs. And someone has built a motorbike completely out of random spare parts, mostly from military weapons. We spend about two hours wandering town eating and browsing the shops.

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Leaving Thames we re-enter the Waikato basin with its rolling hills, green pastures and dairy cattle. This is the area we have liked best so far in New Zealand. While the mountains and coast are stunning, the rolling pastures feel homely. But then, despite being travelers, we do have an attachment to a homely sense of calm.

We visit my aunt in Te Aroha. I haven’t seen her in many years so it’s lovely to catch up. We missed her two weeks ago because she has a life (which is awesome 🙂 ). She has baked us a delicious apple tart and we sit chatting over the tart for about two hours. I learn more about her life than I ever knew before. It’s a blessing to spend this time with her.

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The sun is sinking low into the western sky as we leave Te Aroha for Waingaro. There’s quite a bit of traffic on the road for a rural area. Clearly lots of people work in towns and live on farms because the cars disappear down isolated driveways as we get farther from each town.

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Our Couch Surfing hosts aren’t yet home when we arrive. It’s cold and dark but we find their home easily. It’s in the middle of nowhere but there is a small town with just a camping ground, hot springs and pub about 10 minutes away. The pub is quiet but serves quite good steaks at a reasonable price and the kitchen is still open. Steak and chips are served with fried eggs and salad here in New Zealand. That’s what we buy. At home, steaks are often over cooked in pubs but here in New Zealand the chefs seem to err on the side of under cooking. I know which I prefer and it’s not the Australian way. Getting a medium-rare steak that is still on the rare side of pink inside is a real treat because at home medium-rare steaks are almost always on the well done side of medium.

We meet our hosts at their home and are still awake at almost 2am talking. We cover everything from criminal justice and social work (we all have experience in these fields) to international politics (a subject usually off limits to Australians) and our mutual favourite of travel. There’s something special about strangers opening their homes, lives and stories with us; especially when the sparks of friendship develop. Paul and I both hope we meet our hosts again somewhere in the future to continue the conversations.