After we have stocked up our food ration, we set off on the 7-hour journey to Lake Tekapo, our first pit stop. We decided to embark on a scenic adventure and took the longer route through Darfield on State Highway No. 77.

Road trip journey begins...

Although it was a long journey, we hardly felt the time passed by as we simply couldn't stop gushing and admiring the breathtaking scenery along the way! We stopped several times to capture our memories here and enjoyed the crisp fresh air by the roadside:

Yup, we just started the trip but we've already captured by the view of the snow-capped mountain in the far distance

The snow-capped mountain is perfectly captured in my background here

Sisters in shades

The view is extremely beautiful along the way

This is how I imagined Heidi lived 


Tips: Speed limit in NZ is 50km/h (cities) and 100km/h (open road). Occasionally drivers will come across bridges, and depending on the signage, one party will have to give way to the other as the bridges normally allow for only one way crossing.

Along the way we also stopped by Rakaia Gorge to admire the gorgeous turquoise blue river which is a photographer's dream comes true.

Subhanallah! The view is magnificent!

One more with the snow-capped mountain

From here onwards, we passed by wide open grasslands with unrestricted views of the magnificent Southern Alps.

It was extremely windy but we loved it anyway

Will continue in my next posting on our accommodation at Lake Tekapo and the Lake Tekapo itself :)
We had to wake up really early the next day since we had to catch an early morning flight to Christchurch. Our choice of airline was Air New Zealand, that introduced us to the most delicious cookies that they served on board.

Can't help taking loads of selfies once we hit the road because NZ is such a beautiful country!

It is not easy to locate a prayer room at the domestic terminal in Auckland Airport as it is really remote that even some staff had no clue of its whereabout. Eventually we managed to find the place to perform our Subuh prayer before we boarded our flight to Christchurch, phew!

The prayer area is just a small enclosure with no separate section for men and women so it's advisable to go there in a group

Alhamdulillah for the nikmat to perform prayers in a comfortable and private place
Tips: The prayer area is located just across the baggage drop off on the first floor. Walk past the public shower and then turn left until you reach the end of the corridor 

My sisters taking advantage of the free but limited airport WiFi to check on our travel arrangement once we reach Christchurch

While waiting for our flight to take off, we managed to cam-whore LOL!

Mom also want a photo of her boarding Air New Zealand flight

Vomit is vomit, no matter how you say it.

Landed at Christchurch Airport to be greeted by this really nice lighting that mimics starlights (coz stargazing is one of the things you must do in NZ)

Welcome to Christchurch!

In my brand new leather jacket, bought specifically for this adventure!

Another family photo outside Christchurch Airport

Selfie again while waiting for our shuttle van to Apex Car Rental. Loved the weather even though it's a bit chilly

When we reached Christchurch, we called the car rental company to pick us up at the airport. For our road trip in NZ, we decided to rent a sedan car (Toyota Corolla) from Apex Car Rentals. It was easy dealing with the car rental staff as they were all friendly and very helpful (they even changed our GPS navigation because it was lagging).
Useful info: For 8 days hire period in South Island only, the total cost is NZ$527.20 inclusive of GPS Navigation ($55.68), which includes Zero Excess, Unlimited KMs, Roadside Cover and 3 extra drivers for free. Minimum age of drivers is 21 years old. Drivers are not required to have international driving license but driving license issued by country must have English translation.
Before we hit the road, we stopped by PAK'nSAVE supermarket at Hornby to buy some food rations as we intended to prepare our own food (partly to save cost, and partly because we didn't know if we will come across halal eateries along the way).

Can't help getting ga-ga over fresh fruit and veggies in NZ (and they are cheap too!)

More fresh vegetables...

We went crazy and bought, like 3 packs of these strawberries and the chocolate dipping sauce. It was the best snack during our long car trip

Tips: There are a few brands selling halal chicken meat like Tegel, Brinks and Best Bird. Do browse their website to find out more. We tried Tegel chicken during our stay in NZ.

Will blog more about our road trip on our 2nd day in a second entry. Stay tuned!
During my last business trip to KL, I decided to find check in a hotel which is in close proximity to KL Sentral as I had an early morning flight to catch on my last day of the trip. My friend recommended me to try Aloft KL Sentral, which is part of the Starwood brand. The hotel is situated across the street from KLIA Express departure entrance, which is super convenient for early morning travellers.

I was looking forward to try out SPG Keyless feature which is available at Aloft KL Sentral. Instead of access card, guests can use their smartphone to unlock their door.

Checking in took some time due to long queue of people checking in / checking out. I noted that the reception desk's circular layout was not very systematic and something the hotel management could look into.

There were some hiccups at the reception counter i.e. registering my mobile device as the access card which took some time for the staff to do so. Similarly, when I decided to settle my bill the night before I checked out so that I could leave early in the morning, I found myself locked out of my room and had to approach the counter again to get my keys re-activated. Hope the hotel management could look into smoothing the entire customer experience during my next visit.

Going back to the access card, as soon as I reached my room, I wasted no time to test the apps to unlock my room. Perhaps I was not familiar with it, or genuinely due to technical inefficiency, the system could not recognize my iPhone and I had to unlock using the access card given to me. However when I tried it several hours later, I was able to unlock my door using my phone only to find that it didn't work the next time I tried. So it was a hit-and-miss experience for me.

I was assigned a 355-square feet Loft Twin Room, which featured urban and casual contemporary design. Sassy Lat-inspired art depicting Malaysian character adorned the wall, while natural lighting is a-plenty in the room thanks to an extra-large window on one side of the room. I spent some time gazing down at the wide road below my room, at the bustling traffic and hurried people going about their lives not knowing a stranger watching them from their room.

To summarize, these are the plus points of the hotel from my own experience:

1. The location - very close to KL Sentral, save the hassle of waking up too early unnecessarily to catch the first ERL train to KLIA.
2. Non-smoking room policy - since the hotel is family-friendly, all the rooms are smoking-free.
3. Breakfast - They have menu to cater to even the fussiest little eater. I was sorry my kids were not travelling with me to enjoy their buffet spread.
4. Kids' amenities - They do provide things like baby bathtub, Camp Aloft (Ikea tent) and other things to cater to the young guests.
5. Wifi - Internet connection is excellent.

The not-so-good experiences which I felt that the hotel management could easily resolve through proper training / developing standard operating procedures:
1. Housekeeping - Shampoo / shower gel does not come in those tiny bottles, but in those wall-mounted container. However, body shampoo was not re-stocked after the last guest left so I was forced to use shampoo instead :(
2. Reception - could be faster.
3. Laundry services - they returned my laundry quite late that I had to call to check the status.

As for the rest, you could refer to the captions beneath the photos that I took of the hotel room that I stayed in:

The room can accommodate 2 adults and 2 kids but it would be a bit cramp at full capacity.

The room decor is ultra-urban, with only practical fittings furnished. 

Guests can stock up on their snacks of choice from re:fuel station at ground floor (no, it's not free).

Don't fret if you forgot to bring your phone / power bank charger. You can borrow from the hotel, but a deposit is required which will be returned to you upon checking out.

Thankfully, we are not required to go downstairs to get a cup of coffee / tea

The spacious bathroom with separate shower / toilet on one side, and the cloth cabinet on the other side

Guests are encouraged to sing in the shower (love the purple tiles on the wall)

The cabinet's mirror sliding door hides amenities such as a mini-safe, hairdryer and towels

Standard toiletries are provided in the room

The sink has plenty of space to put your own toiletries / makeup kits

Rating: 7/10
It started with a message from my sister, 'We are going to NZ in October next year. Would you like to tag along?' Without thinking, I replied, 'Yes!'

10 months later, here I was on this mother/sisters trip. I badly needed a break-away from routine after a rough start to 2017 (taking care of my husband after his open-heart surgery, managing major change at work, etc.) and I was happy that I made that decision (although I felt really sorry leaving my husband and two girls behind, but made up my mind to return to NZ with them next time).

Tips: Planning singles-trip can be a headache especially when each of us live in different towns (and in my sister's case, country). Thankfully we had TripIt apps to help us coordinate our planning and consolidated all our bookings in an easy-to-refer-to itinerary. This way, we can see which day we have not booked / planned anything yet.

All of us consolidated our itinerary in a single trip by emailing our bookings to TripIt

Preparation to NZ was quite minimal since I've already bought warm clothes from our Osaka trip last year. Although it was spring season, weather at night was chilly so I packed a pair of thermal inner clothing, windbreaker, fleece jacket and a sweater for outer-layer. I also brought NZD700 cash for food, souvenir and emergency cash.

We agreed that each of us was responsible to bring different items for the trip. I was tasked to bring pharmacy medicines, wet tissues and the likes, while my sisters bought instant rice (my sister bought the rice in Japan which required no water and just needed to be heated up in a microwave) and Brahim's instant food. We also did some grocery shopping when we reached NZ as it was easy to find halal food at the supermarket there.

We took AirAsia flight with a short layover at Gold Coast. Unfortunately, despite joining a 5km run the day before, sleeping late to pack my bag and waking up early to travel to Miri to catch our flight to KL, I couldn't sleep for the most part of the 8+ hours journey. Eventually I did doze off towards dawn only to wake up 1 hour later.

Upon reaching Australia, it was a rush to queue up for a quick immigration check, then a dash to the restroom for a quick relief before queuing up at the airline's counter to board the flight again. This time, I was upgraded to the quiet zone since my sister checked us in separately, and the airline wanted to accommodate a family request to sit together.

At Gold Coast Airport, Australia for a quick layover

The journey from Gold Coast Australia to Auckland took another 5 hours. When we reached Auckland, we had to take a shuttle bus to the terminal and then started the long queue at the customs. NZ's biggest export is their farm produce (milk, fruits, vegetable you name it), so the government is very strict about fresh food items that goes through their border. They even require us to declare if our shoes have been used in sports activities outdoors!

Tips: To speed up the process, prepare a list of food that you are bringing in (with translation if the food packaging is in local language) and only bring in food that are permitted (cooked / processed food like Brahim's instant chicken rendang that are sold in supermarkets are allowed if it is in its original packaging) and have the list ready for the customs officer to inspect. You may be lucky enough that they won't check the luggage if you have the list prepared ahead.

After 6 hours we finally reached Auckland

So the first thing we did when we reached Auckland Airport was to look for a prayer room to perform our Zohor & Asar prayers. I was impressed that Auckland International Airport is Muslim-friendly and there is a musalla on the first floor of the Arrival Hall (entrance next to McDonald's). Then we went to buy a local SIM card (we decided to get Vodafone SIM card) so we could contact Auckland Airport Lodge where we were staying for the night before our early morning flight to Christchurch. Besides being in close proximity to the airport, the lodge also provided free shuttle service to and fro the airport and the lodge so it was really convenient to us. 

Tips: Auckland International Airpot does have accommodation adjacent to the airport, the Novotel Auckland Airport. There is also a budget hotel within walking distance to the hotel i.e. Ibis Budget Auckland Airport.

Our first night - Auckland Airport Lodge. Clean & comfortable

While waiting for our shuttle van to arrive, we bought sandwiches (and chocolates, my favourite Whittaker's chocolate is really cheap in NZ!) for dinner at the airport. The journey to the lodge took about 10 minutes and upon arrival, we immediately checked in and was given our key. While it is no fancy stay, we really liked the lodge. Our studio unit is just a few metres away from the office and located on ground floor so no climbing required. The room is really spacious and easily accommodated the four of us. It is also super clean and after a long journey, the bed easily felt like the most comfortable bed we've ever laid on!

Next entry, our NZ adventure began!
Have you ever wondered where did all the Time in the world go? I have. I ponder at the fact that Time is unique - in the sense that it can never happened twice. Oh sure. 3pm will arrive daily, but it's only a concept to measure Time so we won't lose track of life. The truth is it's always a different Time that arrives each day and it rushes and never return.

Time. It is something so precious yet always taken for granted. The first thing that I checked when I woke up is time. What time is it? It's time to go to work. It's time to take my bath. It's time to wake up. But it is only recently that it occured to me that I look at Time so incorrectly. The question that i should ask is - how much Time do I have today?

Like all vain humans in this world, I think of Time as an Asset - something that I own and control. Yet it is not. Time is my Liability. I borrowed Time to live this life. From who? I borrowed Time from the Time Creator.

That is why live life frivolously. I hardly stop to think - what will I justify for using that Time? I work mindlessly, spending my time outside working hours still working. I think the Time as MY Time - I can choose to continue work if I want to. But if I had taken a step back and reflect - this hour, who does it belong to? The answer would be - my loved ones. Then I would think twice before robbing Time for something as trivial as work.
We had the opportunity to sample a hotel in Sibu during Le Hubby's business trip a couple of weeks ago.

While Sibu has thrived in many ways, one aspect of Sibu that has yet to catch up is their hotel establishments.

Most of the hotels in Sibu are still hanging on to the dated decor and facilities from my observation of the hotel room photos in booking websites. Therefore, it is not surprising to me upon seeing the room in Paramount Hotel.

Dated furniture are still the main theme of the room

There is a slight upgrade in the room - the flat TV instead of the bulky TV

The bathroom

The kids take pleasure in this bathtub

The carpet looks new and perhaps save the day

But what the hotel lacks in terms of aesthetics, it made up in terms of its cleanliness. Nothing is more dreadful than an old, mouldy hotel. However, Paramount Hotel while is yet to spot the modern contemporary design one should hope, it is very clean and well-maintained.

There is also ample parking space in front of the hotel, however it is not free on weekdays as the parking lot does not belong to the hotel. Since we stayed during weekend, we need not pay for the parking.

The generous portion of its special fried rice

Overall, it is an average hotel which will perhaps do better if the hotel management is willing to invest in modernising the hotel look.

Rating: 5/10
We happened to be in Kuching, Sarawak for our Merdeka (Malaysia's Independence Day)/Aidiladha break. In conjunction with the Merdeka break, we decided to bring our kids to Sarawak Cultural Village (SCV) to get them acquainted to their own grassroot traditions of being Sarawakians.  

In front of SCV entrance

Entrance price for non-Sarawakians are RM60++ for adults (++ inclusive of 6% GST). Kids above the age of 7 are charged at 50% of adult's price. However, being local Sarawakians, we got the privilege of getting special prices (RM25++ for adults). 

We were issued with these tickets that are valid for only one day. The downside is we didn't get the passport to stamp each time we completed a tour at the traditional houses
We were issued tickets as well as wrist band that we had to wear at all times, yet allowed us to enter and leave the premise freely without being charged twice. The first building we saw on our right housed a restaurant that features local delicacies, a souvenir shop as well as the cultural theater. Our first stop was at the restaurant first to have our lunch. 

The main building that housed the cultural performance theater, a souvenir shop and  Sarawak Ethnic Kitchen that served authentic Sarawakian cuisine

We opted for a meal set consisting of a combination of Sarawak various ethnic food - manok pansoh (chicken cooked in bamboo),  umai (Melanau's version of sashimi seasoned with lime, chillies and onions), ikan asam pedas (fish cooked in sour and spicy style), daging tepus (meat), squashed tapioca leaves, wild ginger fern, fruits and complimentary drinks.

From top clock-wise: Umai, manok pansoh, ikan asam pedas and squashed tapioca leaves

Interesting colourful motifs adorn the restaurant ceiling

Sarawak Ethnic Kitchen has two dining area - air-conditioned and open air

Although the food served was delicious, we couldn't help but notice that the service was quite slow (we were made to wait for half an hour to wait for our meal set to arrive, although it presumably it is best-selling item. On the other hand, perhaps they wanted to prepare the meals fresh). A couple of foreign tourists with young children had to go to the counter to check on their order as it took a long time as well. I felt that this is something they definitely need to improve to preserve a good image of the SCV.

After lunch, our first pit stop was at the Chinese Farmhouse. Chinese in Sarawak descended from the Hakka or Foochow clan, who came to Sarawak in the early 1900s as farmers. That is why we saw many farming tools on display inside the house. According to SCV's website, the house itself is divided into two main parts; the family room which contains the kitchen, eating and living area as well as a storage area for valuables such as bicycles or agricultural machinery, and the bedroom.

My kids posing in front of an agricultural machinery (I believed to process white pepper)

Posing in front of the house exterior - the wall is made of whitewashed sawn timber while the roof is thatched with leaf attap 

Next house we stopped by was the Malay house. Unlike the Chinese Farmhouse, Malay house is built on stilts, and the staircase will lead visitors to a verandah before coming to the front door. The windows are cut to floor level to allow breeze for the seated people (I just found this out from SCV's website LOL). The first room that visitors will see is the living area. Rooms are separated by curtains to maintain the modesty of the females living in the house whenever visitors come by. At the back of the house is a spacious kitchen area.

Le Hubby is teaching Khadeeja to play a traditional Malay game called 'congkak'

Malay house (Rumah Melayu)

The most interesting (and challenging) house to visit in our opinion is the Melanau Tall House (Rumah Melanau). It is built very high above the ground (forty feet high) to protect the house dwellers from enemy attacks (traditionally, Melanau people lived near the sea within reach of pirates). We once were told that whenever enemies attacked, the people on the house will pull up the log staircase to prevent enemies from climbing up to the house and pour hot water on the enemies that tried to climb the poles. The most interesting architectural design of the house is the thatched roof, which is woven in such a way that if enemies threw fire on the roof, they can easily detached the particular patch of the roof and reveal a second layer of the roof (if I understood the story correctly).  

Rumah Melanau from the front

My kids attempting to climb the log staircase

Inside the Melanau tall house

The house is double storey and to reach the top floor, one has to climb up another log staircase
Our next stop was the Orang Ulu Longhouse where we even get to enjoy a traditional musical performance by an Orang Ulu at their spacious verandah.

Orang Ulu Longhouse in the background

Gongs, porcelain jars of all sizes were among valuable items on display in the longhouse

Historical factsheet on display told us that body tattoos symbolized a lady's social standing - the more tattoos she can afford to get, the more affluent is her family

Perhaps the simplest structure at the SCV is the Penan Hut. Penan people were (are) a nomadic tribe who lived deep in the heart of the Borneo jungle. Their shelters are quick to be constructed to last for several weeks to several months nearby area with abundant food supply, only to be abandoned once the supply has dwindled to search for new areas. They also hunted for wild animals using blowpipes which Le Hubby and Khayla had had a try at during this visit, for a nominal fee.

Khayla taking a rest in front of the Penan Hut

Having a go at the blowpipe (although her lungs were not able to generate enough force to shoot at far targets!)

Lastly, before we ended our tour at the Cultural Theater, we visited the Iban's and Bidayuh's (collectively known as the Dayaks) longhouses, where our girls had fun donning on traditional costumes and posing in front of cameras (even other tourists were taking their photos!)

Khayla donning on a Bidayuh ethnic costume complete with headgear

Khadeeja opted for the Kayan ethnic costume with colorful beads on black cloth, complete with feathers accessories

The girls posing with a SCV guide in Iban costume
Our visit ended with a splendid dance performances of various Sarawak ethnics which never failed to mesmerize me. The girls also were as spellbound as they watched an Iban warrior lifted a heavy 'lesung' using his teeth, and a Melanau man propelled on a long pole by the sheer power of his core muscle!

The opening dance was enough to capture my girls' attention

A Melanau performance

Overall it was both an educational and entertaining visit, which is suitable for families and first-time tourists alike. I think the tour would be more interesting if the management could organize a guided tour with knowledgable tour guides who can tell the origins, facts and trivias (such as the wonderful engineering design of the Melanau Tall House roof) to tourists such as done in cultural places in Europe. I would not mind paying premium for a guided tour in exchange for a rich information on Sarawak's history. In fact they can also play historical movies (e.g. Warkah Terakhir on the story of Rosly Dhoby, or even that movie potraying Jessica Alba as an Iban lass!). There are a lot of potentials that the management can explore to provide a better experience to visitors.

If you are in Kuching and haven't visited Sarawak Cultural Village, I highly recommend this place for a crash course of Sarawak culture.

Rating: 7/10