The best for last: Kyoto (Japan recommendations part IV)

Finally last post with recommendations for Japan! Thanks for sticking with me. If you’re planning a trip to Japan, I hope I’ve offered something useful. If you’re a Japan expert, I hope you’ll give me recommendations for my next trip that will definitely happen someday! Click here for my recommendations for Tokyo, Hakone, Nara, and Kobe, and Osaka, or read on about my favourite city of all:

Kyoto: 

I wasn’t sure what to make of Kyoto at first. As it was our last stop, I went in thinking I had seen all the temples I could handle, walked into all the little shops I could possibly walk into, eaten all the delicious things I could possibly eat. And then Kyoto proved me so very wrong. It became my favourite city we went to in Japan, and the number one I would recommend for anyone planning a trip. It has everything from the modern to the traditional, from the serious to the playful, and some of the best of every possible type of cultural aspect of the country.

Continue reading “The best for last: Kyoto (Japan recommendations part IV)”

Trekking Dreams: My Hiking Bucket List

One of the things I love most about hiking is the solitude. For the most part, give me a peaceful trail with nobody else on it over a crowd any day. However, there is one big plus to doing a hike at the same time as a bunch of other people, and it’s that you’ll always find out about more hikes. When we hiked the Milford Track last year, a group of Australians in the huts at the same time as us offered heaps of recommendations when we said our next stop would be Melbourne. It’s because of them that we hiked Mount Kosciuszko, and it’s because of them that a hike I had never even heard of shot to the top of my hiking bucket list.

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Hiking in Canada

The Overland Track is a 65-km, 6-7 day trek through the heart of the Tasmanian wilderness. While there are basic huts along the way, you have to carry everything from food to fuel to camping gear, meaning it’s a strenuous but rewarding undertaking. Steve and I have booked in to do it in early November just before we wrap up our time in Australia. Thanks to a Jetstar sale, we scored a great deal on our flights last week, and since then I’ve been both eagerly anticipating the hike just a few months away, and also thinking about other “dream hikes” I’d like to do in the future.

Continue reading “Trekking Dreams: My Hiking Bucket List”

My travel bucket list

This week marks six months in Melbourne, which means Steve and I are halfway through our visas here in Australia. While we still have plenty of time left for more exploring down under (trips to Cairns, Sydney, and Tasmania are in the works, as well as a few weeks in Japan during the Rugby World Cup), it’s also time to start thinking about our post-visa adventures. We’ll be heading to Ireland as our next long-term destination, but leaving Australia just as it’s coming into summer to head to cold, rainy Ireland in the dead of winter doesn’t sound like the the most fun.

As we begin to outline our plans (in a massive spreadsheet I’m having way too much fun making) for a couple of weeks hiking in New Zealand followed by a ramble through Southeast Asia, I’ve started thinking about my ultimate travel bucket list. I’m lucky enough to have already been on several trip-of-a-lifetime adventures, from a road trip across the USA a few years ago to a year living my best Lord of the Rings life in New Zealand, but the world is so big and there’s still so much more to see. Here are the other places and things I’m most hoping to experience someday.

Hike Mount Kilimanjaro

I bought Steve’s flights for Japan for his 30th birthday present, and I’ve already told him that when I turn 30 a few years from now, I want a ticket to Tanzania. While I’m not into mountaineering and I definitely don’t dream of ascending all seven summits, after Mount Kosciusko earlier this year I would like to see the top of one more. The tallest peak in Africa, Kilimanjaro is high but not overly technical, meaning that you have to account for altitude but don’t have to worry about plunging to your death off an icefall. The average trek takes about a week and a half, and sounds tough but so rewarding.

See the Northern Lights in Iceland

Steve and I talked about flying up to Yellowknife or Whitehorse in hopes of seeing the Aurora Borealis when we were living in Vancouver, but in the end the trip would have been extremely expensive and if we hadn’t gotten lucky enough to see the lights we would’ve felt like there wasn’t much to do in either town. In Iceland, even if you don’t see the lights you’re still treated to some of the world’s most beautiful waterfalls and cliffs. The northern lights would just be an amazing bonus.

Visit Patagonia

Aside from Antarctica, which is its own thing, South America is the one country I haven’t yet visited. When I do, I want my first stop to be Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. Mountains, glaciers and lakes create awe-inspiring landscapes. By the end of this year I’ll have plenty of overnight hiking experience and I’ll be prepared to take on hikes like the 7-day O trek, as well as many incredible day hikes around the area. And while mainly being an outdoor-focused trip, I also want to visit cities in villages in the area, like Ushuaia, the southernmost city at the end of the world.

Do a YTT abroad

I know that I want to undertake a yoga teacher training someday, more to deepen my own practice than necessarily to teach, and ideally if I can take the time to do so I’d much prefer an intensive version of the 200-hour course than one that is split up over nights and weekends, in order to fully dedicate myself to the training. And if I can go the immersion route, I’d love to do so in another country, where a new environment will help me leave behind the day-to-day and completely focus on learning and yoga.

Take a photography trip to the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Skye

My friend Medb and I were planning to do this a few years ago and then she, a fellow adventure-lover, ended up taking off for New Zealand on short notice instead (and really, who could blame her?). However, I’d still love to do this someday and now that I’m heading back to Ireland for good(-ish) maybe we’ll even get to go together! I’ve only been to Edinburgh previously, and while it was a beautiful city I’d like to revisit, I really want to get out into the wilds of the moors and see the rugged beauty of the far north of the country.

Backpack Southeast Asia

This is the one that’s in the works. As I said, we’re hoping to skip out on Irish winter and spend a few months eating, hiking, and relaxing (but mostly eating) our way around SEA before arriving back to Ireland in early March (“Just before Paddy’s Day” – Steve). Right now our hope is to visit Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and while we haven’t done much planning yet, thinking about this trip is my current favourite daydream. Anyone with recommendations, please share them!

Abel Tasman Almost All To Ourselves

Abel Tasman National Park is one of the busiest spots in New Zealand, with upwards of a quarter of a million visitors per year spending at least a day in the park in recent years. However, the vast majority of these visitors come in summer, to enjoy the beautiful golden sand beaches and warm water for kayaking and swimming. Last week, in late autumn, it was nearly empty, and it was a wonderfully peaceful way to experience one of New Zealand’s most stunning regions.

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View of Split Apple rock from the water taxi

Our trip started with a water taxi from Marahau to Totaranui Bay. We decided to go from north to south because it offered more flexibility; we could take the morning boat and when we got back to Marahau three and a half days later, we’d be back at our rental car and ready to return to Nelson. The water taxi trip was great, taking us to the famous Split Apple rock as well as to see baby seals playing in rock pools near an island just offshore.

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Baby seals getting curious about the boat

I already wrote plenty about our experience between Totaranui and Awaroa hut, but even though the rest of the trip wasn’t as dramatic, there was still so much to see and do. Abel Tasman is full of flora and fauna, beautiful vistas and lush forest, and to be there in such a quiet time (there were days when we didn’t see anyone from the time we left the first hut until the time we reached the next) was amazing.

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Fantails’ white eyebrows make them look like angry old men

Our second day in the park took us 13.5km from Awaroa to Bark Bay. Unlike the previous afternoon, day two was warm and sunny. The trails in Abel Tasman are well-marked and don’t have much elevation climb, so the hike itself is not difficult and leaves plenty of time to enjoy the scenery. There are also a couple of fun bridges to cross over estuaries and streams.

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The high-tide bridge across Torrent Bay estuary

We arrived in Bark Bay to find a family had already arrived at the Bark Bay hut and started a fire in the stove, making the lovely space extra nice and cozy. After sunset, we walked out to the beach at Bark Bay to take some photos of the night sky using my camera and tripod. Across the Tasman Bay, in the distance, there was a thunderstorm and with a little luck and a lot of mistimed shots, I managed to capture it in one photo.

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Lighting across the Tasman Bay

The start of our third day in the park was a bit grey and drizzly, but as the morning went on the weather cleared up and the sun hitting the last of the raindrops made for some beautiful rainbows.

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A quick side trip to a lookout near Bark Bay

Day three featured a couple of side trips as we hiked from Bark Bay to Anchorage. We climbed up a steep and less-traversed trail to visit Cascade Falls, as well as taking a much more leisurely ten-minute detour to Cleopatra’s Pool (which must be an amazing place to take a cool dip in the summer).

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Cleopatra’s pool

Anchorage Hut was the busiest and most well-outfitted of the locations we spent the night. Although none of the huts have cooking facilities, they do have flush toilets (although usually a short walk from the huts themselves) and Bark Bay and Anchorage both had a few solar-powered lights). This hut even had solar-powered mobile phone charging cables, which is something I never expected to see.

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Torrent Bay, on the way to Anchorage

The final day, from Anchorage back to Marahau, was quick and easy, and we enjoyed burgers at The Fat Tui before heading off to Nelson for the night. A couple of weka, a kiwi-like bird that we had seen throughout the trip, tried very hard to steal our sandwiches.

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Weka are so cheeky

Having previously done an overnight hike only once before, four days and three nights in Abel Tasman was definitely a new adventure. And so worth it. If you’re okay with chilly weather and love tranquil solitude, I definitely recommend exploring a national park in the offseason. Not only is it easier to do (we booked our huts a few weeks ahead of time, whereas in the summer they fill up months in advance; on other trips such as our road trip we were able to take advantage of first-come-first-serve campsites in parks like Yosemite that become highly in-demand book-ahead sites during peak season), but it’s a great way to enjoy the beauty and power of the site without crowds of other people. And if you choose to go to Abel Tasman, you’ll surely be in awe of the wonder of the world that you encounter.

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One of the most beautiful places in the world for sure

Hiking Mount Holdsworth: My First (but not last!) Overnight Hike

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When I was a kid, I went camping with my Girl Scout troop. We spent a weekend in cabins, making crafts and reading Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (that drawing of a woman with a half-skeletal face still haunts me). I remember it rained most of the weekend and the food was bad; it didn’t do much to encourage anyone’s love for the Great Outdoors. My only other camping experience until recently was a few nights my sister and I spent in a tent in the backyard–or, when the weather was bad, in a tent in the living room. Camping was never something I was specifically not interested in, but it wasn’t something I went out of my way to do until recently either. Why sleep in a sleeping bag if you could sleep in a bed?

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Living in the Pacific Northwest, I came to enjoy and look forward to camping. We camped in Tofino on Vancouver Island, in Olympic National Park, in Levenworth, WA, and in Banff. Camping was a chance to enjoy the beauty of nature close-up, as well as saving heaps of money on accomodations. Naturally, when Steve and I took our road trip camping became second nature, although we usually slept in our van rather than in a tent.
Still, as much camping and hiking as I’ve done the past few years, there was still one experience I’d yet to have until this past weekend: an overnight hike. In the USA and Canada, overnight hikes almost always mean backcountry camping, and the idea of bringing pack, tent, food, and everything standing between me and a bad time was daunting to me.

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However, in New Zealand, the popular hiking trails often have huts along the way, making an overnight hike a little less intimidating. The huts are designed to keep out the wind and rain (to an extent), provide toilets and potable water for your journey, and some even have cooking facilities in the form of gas burners so you don’t have to bring your camp stove and canisters.
A few friends are spending a number of days on the Milford Track in a few weeks, so in preparation for them and in anticipation for us of wanting to do an extended hike in the future, we spend the Wellington Anniversary weekend at Mount Holdsworth in the Tararua range. Twelve of us set off in total, with only a few having done an overnight hike before (although one member of our group had walked the entirety of the South Island, so she was well-experienced in this sort of excursion).

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I packed up my trusty North Face backpack with two extra pairs of yoga pants, two spare shirts, clean underwear and socks, pajamas, a sleeping bag, a raincoat, a warm jacket, two water bottles, cutlery and a cool collapsing bowl, food (including plenty of snacks), wipes, paper towels, and plenty of sunscreen.
We aimed for an early start, leaving Wellington just after 9am and beginning the hike around noon. The hike up to Powell hut took about four and a half hours including breaks, ascending some 1200 metres through the bush and up the mountain.

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When we reached the hut, we joined 15+ others (the 28-person hut was completely booked due to it being a holiday weekend, and there were even a few people who had to kip on the kitchen floor) in stashing our bags next to the bunks, which were outfitted with “mattresses” resembling gymnastics tumbling mats.
Fearing that the weather would be bad and the visibility low on our return hike the next day, a few of us decided to head to the summit a few kilometres further beyond the hut. High winds pushed against us and tried to knock us off course, but we made it to the top… and then almost immediately turned back because seriously, those winds were no joke.

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Sleeping in the hut was pretty much like sleeping in a hostel: folks bumbling around, turning on lights, generally being inconsiderate. Luckily, after eight kilometres of hiking with 10-15kg packs weighing us down, we were all pretty exhausted and ready to sleep anyway.
The next morning our group woke at various times between 5:30am and 7am, and we were packed up and ready to go by 9. This was important because our second day of hiking was much longer than the first; around 18 kilometres, so at least twice as long as Day One. However, the views made up for it with the first few hours of the day a trek back up to the summit and then along the ridgeline, above the trees and nearly level with the clouds.

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Unfortunately, one member of our party hurt her ankle, and she and her partner took a shorter route down the mountain, leaving us as a group of ten to follow the Jumbo route. After following the ridges, this path took us back into the bush and into a forest that was straight out of Lord of the Rings.

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Unlike the trail up to the Powell hut, which featured a number of overly large stairs but which was otherwise fairly easy to traverse, the Jumbo path was much more wild and we had to make our way carefully over a mess of tree roots and uneven ground, descending a steep slope for several hours until we finally reached the riverbed. Soaking our feet in the icy cold water at the bottom was a welcome relief.

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We reached the parking lot at 6pm, nine hours after we left the Powell hut. We had hiked some 24km, changed 3000m worth of elevation, and had completed our first (for most of us) overnight hike!

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Finishing the Mount Holdsworth trail definitely makes me want to do more overnight treks while I’m here in New Zealand and in the future. However, here are a few things that I learned for next time:
– I’ll need a bigger backpack if I want to go for longer hikes in the future. My North Face bag is only sized as a daypack, so I had to attach my sleeping bag to the outside and I couldn’t carry much more than a weekend’s worth of food. If I plan to go for longer, I’ll probably invest in a bigger Osprey bag.

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– Speaking of food, I brought a can of Mexican-style beans and some rice for dinner, and next time I’d probably pack food that doesn’t come in a tin. It saves space and it’s easier to carry the rubbish afterward if it’s a bag or packet that can be crumpled up. I’d also bring a few sweet snacks like M&Ms or other candies; they’re a great treat after a long day.
– Bring a tripod. Steve gave me a nice tripod for my camera for my birthday last week, and I haven’t got a chance to learn how to use it yet, but next time I go hiking I think it’ll definitely be worth the extra weight to lug along. The landscapes up on Mount Holdsworth were amazing and moments like the sunset could’ve been captured better with a steadier camera. Plus, a tripod is great for group photos (although friendly hikers and selfie skills did the trick this weekend).

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– Make a checklist. I’ve never been the sort of person to worry too much about packing. I have a pretty good idea of what I need, and if I forget something it’s not the end of the world. Of course, when you’re camping you can’t exactly just pop out to the shop to pick something up. Most of us forgot something that would’ve made our trip easier or better; having a list will help prevent that next time.
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First time in Asia, we went to Malaysia

Kia ora! As usual, I haven’t been updating this blog, so last you heard I was hanging out at my parents’ house in Pennsylvania, and now here I am on the other side of the world in Wellington, New Zealand. Steve and I arrived about three weeks ago to begin our 12-month working holiday visas here in New Zealand, and it’s been nothing short of amazing so far. I promise, promise, promise (but I always say that, don’t I?) I’ll give you some NZ details soon, but first I want to talk about the journey over and our stop along the way.

Before heading off to New Zealand, I went over to Ireland for a month. It was the first time i’d been back since finishing my MA and leaving three years ago, so I was so excited to return to Killarney, Galway, and see some new places like Wicklow and the Ring of Kerry. More on that later, but I want to jump ahead to leaving Ireland on November 21st.

The longest flight I’d ever taken before November was about nine and a half hours from Philadelphia to Madrid. We were looking about 30 from Dublin to Auckland. Obviously there are no direct options, so when we were deciding which route to take we started discussing stopping over somewhere for a few days to hopefully lessen the jet lag and take the opportunity to see somewhere new. And that’s how we ended up on a flight from Dublin to Heathrow before heading on to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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We picked KL for a few reasons. It’s not Dubai, one of the most common spots for layovers between the east and west but someplace neither of us have much desire to see. The combination of Asian cultures that KL promised interested and appealed to us. It’s also meant to be far less expensive than other cities we considered like Hong Kong and Singapore. And so we booked a hostel and were off to Malaysia.

We arrived in Malaysia after almost 24 hours of traveling (counting layovers and time spent driving to the airport), hungry and tired and completely unprepared for the heat and humidity, coming from Ireland’s already wintery conditions. After checking into our hotel we only made it around the corner for some (delicious) indian food before returning to our room and collapsing to sleep.

Luckily, our flight was scheduled that we got to KL in the evening, so by morning we were fairly refreshed and our sleeping schedules weren’t too horribly screwed up. We ventured out to explore the city. Our first stop was the famous Central Market, where hawkers and vendors sold their wares to hordes of tourists. We were immediately tempted by any number of items but, having been told that KL is a shopping mecca, we used our willpower to hold off in anticipation for having plenty more options over the course of our stay.

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As it turned out, our shopping trip would soon continue as we left the market to find a torrential downpour. Wanting to stay inside as much as possible until the rain let up, we headed for Bukit Bintang and a seemingly endless parade of malls. Usually I get equal parts bored and overwhelmed in massive shopping malls, but the bright lights, bustling crowds, and array of brands and shops I had never heard of combined to create an experience more like the Vegas Strip or New York City than a typical trip to the mall.

We cheerfully spent the rest of the afternoon going from shop to shop, mall to mall, and when the rain had let up we took a friend’s advice and made our way to Jalan Alor, the famous outdoor street food market.

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I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you how amazing the food in KL is. For as little as three US dollars, you can stuff your face with incredible mee goreng (fried noodles), nasi goreng (fried rice), or my favourite, hokkien mee. This last we ate twice in Lot 10, a food court with an offshoot kiosk of the original restaurant that created this smokey, savoury noodle dish. I could have eaten it half a dozen times more if it hadn’t been for my desire to try as many different dishes as I could.

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On days two and three of our trip, we visited the two most famous attractions in KL. The morning of the second day took us to the Petronas Towers, one of the tallest structures in the world (it’s the tallest twin tower, and the 12th tallest building overall). First we took the lift up to the skywalk on the 41st floor, where we stepped out onto the (enclosed) bridge between the two towers and got what we thought was an impressive view of the city.

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And it was, but it was nothing compared to being sent up to the 83rd floor and walking around the observation room, taking in the 360-degree views of the city and surrounding area. One of the most striking things about KL is the contrast of old and new. Skyscrapers sit next to temples and down the street from aging villages. In the distance, the mountains and hills encase the city, impressing their own power on the imposing newness of the vibrant billboards and rushing traffic.

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In the afternoon, we ventured south through Brickfields (also known as Little India due to its cultural make-up) and to the Royal Palace. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take pictures inside of the lavish rooms where the King and his family live when they are in the city, but it was still an interesting introduction to some of the political culture of Malaysia. I have to admit, I knew (and still know) very little about Malaysia, and on this trip we focused more on having fun and eating a lot of food than really learning, for fear of taking in too much information and arriving to New Zealand exhausted rather than refreshed, but I was glad to get a little break from the bustle of the city and see a bit of Malaysia’s history at the same time.

The next day, we visited KL’s other most famous attraction: the Batu Caves. Having heard advice from friends who had visited, we came prepared. We made sure to cover our knees and shoulders for modesty (although judging by the amount of skin most other tourist were showing, this wasn’t strictly enforced unless you were actually entering a temple) and, more importantly, we didn’t carry anything that the monkeys might try to steal.

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We had been advised to visit the caves early in the day, when it wouldn’t be so hot to climb the steps up, and apparently everyone else had received the same advice as the steps were crowded with locals and tourists. Monkeys leapt around, not caring if they got in the way, happily stealing from unsuspecting people who stopped to take photos or look back at the city. The caves itself were cool to see, although heavily scaffolded from restoration construction work.

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However, it was the cave just around the corner from the main entrance that was one of the highlights of my trip. The Dark Cave is an eco-reserve that traverses deep into the mountain and features an array of bat species, cave-dwelling insects, and one of the rarest spiders in the world. We took the 45-minute tour and were led by our excellent guide, Ain, into the cave.

Dark Cave is aptly named. For most of the tour, light from outside is visible. However, as you go deeper into the cave, it fades away until you turn the corner and find only illumination from the torchlights provided. Then, the tour guide asks you to switch off your lights before she switches off her own, leaving you in darkness so complete that opening and closing your eyes looks exactly the same. It’s an intense experience.

Throughout the tour you can hear the chirps of bats and the dripping of water. In one area, openings in the cave create an eerie wind. In another, the falling water creates a beautiful calcite waterfall, seemingly frozen in time as the moving water flows over it. I didn’t hear anything about this tour before we went, but if you are ever in KL I highly recommend it.

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In the evening, it was back to the bright lights of the city and up to the top of a local hotel where a helipad-by-day, bar-by-night offers incredible views of the city. We stayed for two cocktails and then went exploring along the main tourist/bar street. A ladies’ night deal saw me drinking free gin & tonics—don’t worry, Steve wasn’t completely left out; he got 2-for-1 Long Islands. As you might expect, we weren’t up for doing much the following day.

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Our flight on the day we left wasn’t until nearly midnight, and we were determined to cram as much into our last day as possible. In part, it was because we wanted to experience all of KL that we could, but it was also an effort to tire ourselves out in the hopes of catching a few minutes of shuteye on the flight to Auckland. We explored the botanical gardens in the morning. seeing a variety of local trees and flowers.

Afterward, we headed to the central market once more, where I tried something that I had been curious about since Steve had done it on our first day: a massage of sorts by small, toothless fish who got their sustenance by eating the dead skin cells of your feet. It was an incredibly weird but oddly nice feeling, and I have to admit my feet felt pretty good afterward, despite the number of miles I had put on them over the course of our trip.

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Finally, a quick stop back at Jal Alor for one last dose of delicious Asian street food saw us off before we returned to our hotel, collected our luggage, and hopped in a taxi off to the airport. Onward to New Zealand!