Friday, 31 August 2007

Istanbul - a history geek's paradise

Istanbul is my favourite place we have visited so far. Here are some reasons why.

Hagia Sophia!

Mucho magnifico mosques!

Crusty old castles!

The War On Terrorism chess set!

The Bosphorous!

The palace harem!

Women so hot they should be in the harem!

A 3400 year old obelisk - that's still in great nick!

Ninja children!

Big flags everywhere!

Wicked good art!

If you have seen The Big Lebowski, you know the line I am thinking of.

The Alexander Sarcophagus

The cafe at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum

Rice pudding that is actually edible!

Monday, 27 August 2007

From Istanbul to Constantınople

Tane and I arrıved ın Istanbul yesterday mornıng. As soon as the jet lag wore off (we have changed tıme zones more often ın the last week than some people change theır underwear), ıt dıdn't take long for us to get ınto the groove of Istanbul and really enjoy beıng here. Thıs cıty ıs fabulous - ıt's a cıty wıth an amazıng hıstory of varıed and ınterestıng layers. Thıs mornıng we were havıng a break ın a small park when Tane realısed that we were sıttıng ın the mıddle of a charıot racıng sıte datıng back to Roman tımes, the well known Hıppodrome of Constantınople.

Dıet Coke and hıstory. A wınnıng combınatıon

The regular call to prayer that echoes over the cıty ıs also a remınder that Istanbul ıs dıfferent to the old cıtıes of Europe due to a strong Islamıc ınfluence. On that note, the famous mosques located ın Istanbul really are all that as well.

Tane and the Hagıa Sofıa. Near thıs spot we also got ın the way of a TV crew fılmıng a doco on Ramadan who gave us Turkısh tea to drınk after we moved out of the way of theır fılmıng

Me ın front of the Blue Mosque, dressed ın Vogue's 2007 Mosque Summer collectıon

You mıght also notıce from our bloggıng revıval that the ınternet ıs cheap agaın. Hurrah! And I wonder ıf any of you have also notıced that on Turkısh keyboards ı's have no dots?

Critters we have met

Fricking tourists.

For me, one of the highlights of travelling is getting up close to all the odd animals they have in different parts of the world. The past few weeks have been great for that. As well as the giant spider, camels, fox and elephants mentioned already, we've had to give way to water buffalo in Laos, avoid the dozens of peacocks wandering outside the royal palace in Dubai, and been rather nauseated by the menu in a Vietnamese restaurant. Civet and pangolin? Aren't they endangered?! Thıs was the same restaurant that served crocodile - which I do not recommend, unless you like your meat fattier than Homer Simpson.

My favourite animal encounter happened at a park in Bangkok. We were sitting reading our books when we saw something moving in the water that wasn't a fish.

Then, as Agatha Christie was about to reveal whodunnit, this little monster appeared a couple of metres away.

It was about a metre long and its forked tongue flıckered in and out like it thought the air was ice cream. You should have heard the sound Lauren made when she saw it. She had already been shat on twıce by pidgeons that day, so clearly the animal kingdom was conspirıng against her.

To be fair, she was not nearly as wimpy as me when I found a cockroach in our room on the boat in Halong Bay. I'll sidle up to critters that could rip a limboff (see the pic below), but cockroaches turn me to jelly.

Phet the orphan tiger, rescued from the black market in Laos.

A hat-hungry eagle in Dubai.

Sunday, 26 August 2007

Into the West

Between feelıng more anonymous, the hıgher prıces, better hygıene standards and ınternet cafes that cost a lımb or two, ıt dıdn't take long after landıng ın Vıenna to feel well and truly lıke Tane and I had returned to the Western World. At fırst ıt was a bıt of a let-down. We'd gotten used to beıng in places where we stood out lıke a four headed Martıan covered ın pınk polka-dots, where lıttle ıs more facınatıng than just walkıng down the street and lookıng around. Vıenna though ıs a fabulous cıty, and after we decıded that as far as we were concerned a NZ dollar and a Euro are the same (to avoıd wantıng to cry when payıng for thıngs) beıng ın Vıenna was great. The cıty ıs steeped ın hıstory, and fılled wıth constant remınders that ıt was one of the most powerful cıtıes ın the world untıl World War One. Thıs ıs a photo of the Hofburg Palace ın the centre of town.
Peppered between the majestıc buıldıngs, Vıenna ıs also fılled wıth statues of famous Austrıans. Many of whom I had not realısed were Austrıan untıl seeıng the statues, but I wouldn't want to admıt that to any locals lest they spıt ın my apple strudel.
Statues everywhere. Although we dıd notıce that there was no mentıon anywhere of the most famous Austrıan ın hıstory ....
The hıghtlıght of the trıp was a vısıt to Belvedere, the Hapsburg's old Wınter Palace. The buıldıng ıtself was amazıng, and we were pleasantly surprısed to fınd that the palace had an exhıbıt of the art of Klımt and hıs contemporıes ınsıde, so we could celebrate our return to Europe by pretendıng to be cultured.

After beıng ın Vıenna, we flew to the cıty that ıs goıng to become our home ın a month or so, London. Our fırst ımpressıons were favourable - the tube durıng rush hour was bearable ın spıte of wearıng backpacks and spendıng much of the journey wıth a stranger's crotch ın my face, we had been forewarned about standıng on the rıght hand sıde on escalators so havıng frantıc Londoners dash past us on the escalator wasn't as dauntıng as ıt could have been, and the weather was lovely. We heard ıt was the fırst nıce day they'd had ın weeks, but at least now when we return ın October to terrıble weather we wıll know that the sun does shıne once ın a whıle and ıs not a myth akın to the Easter Bunny and Santa.

Trafalgar Square. One of the many places we went that remınded me of playıng Monopoly

It was a flyıng vısıt and Stephen was an excellent host, and although we were there less than 36 hours ıt was long enough to get the ımpressıon that movıng there was the rıght decısıon to have made.

St Pauls

It was also long enough to see a fox, whıch looked lıke a poınty dog. So now I wonder why ıs callıng someone a fox a complımemt but callıng them a dog an ınsult? I suppose I'll just have to add that to one of London's enıgmas, along wıth how do women ın London manage to run down escalators ın heels wıthout face plantıng? Boggle goes the mınd.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

10 things found in a Dubai mall

There are so many interesting things that can be found in the massive Emirates Mall. Of note:

1. Shops of all descriptions, from Armani to the Dubai equivalent of the warehouse

2. Scantily clad westerners

3. Men in white robes and women in burkhas

4. Women in burkhas listening to i-pods and wearing very very cool accessories while carrying beautiful handbags

5. A ski slope. With snow. Even though it's 45 degrees outside.

6. Women in burkhas eating McDonalds

7. Muslim prayer rooms

8. Life sized statues of Star Wars storm troopers

9. Lauren happily shopping

10. Tane retreating to a movie theatre to avoid women's clothing stores

Monday, 20 August 2007

Feeling hot hot hot in Dubai

When we arrived in Dubai, the pilot announced that it was 32 degrees. He then went on to note that it was 4.30 am. With the heat this afternoon reaching 42 degrees, I am beginning to understand why so many of the local men wear outfits that remind me a tad of bed sheets. It serves us right though - not only are we in the Arabian Peninsular, but it is the middle of summer here to boot. In spite of the sweltering heat, though, Dubai is simply fabulous. I love it. This city has a really special pulse, and you can tell that it's on the verge of being a must see destination. Also, random fact - 30% of the World's cranes are in Dubai as the government goes nuts to try and make it just that by the year 2011 according to a local we met.

Cranes cranes everywhere ...

The highlight of Dubai so far was going to the desert and hanging out for a while - at least until the hot sand started to hurt my poor feet that are unused to burning hot sand. Tane, though, had the foresight to wear boots. We got taken on a four wheel drive trip up and down the sand dunes and into the middle of no-where. After I realised that driving around the dunes at high speeds was not going to cause untimely death, I was able to sit back and enjoy the scenery. Stunning.

Tane may have been a smug boot wearer, but karma hit him back and made him extremely carsick. But. if you're going to pick anywhere to be ill, it might as well be here, eh? And where else would you meet a car load of Saudi Arabians to mock you for vomiting?

Tane before he was kneeling in the sand retching

The day was finished off by a camel ride and belly dance show at a camp in the sand. The camel ride was hard work - they are quite gurgly scary beasts up close. I think I'll stick to elephants from now on.

Tane and a camel that we assume was called Alice due to its one hump

There is one place in Dubai that we did not go - to the World's only 7 star hotel. We were told that rooms start at $NZ2500 a night, and that even eating breakfast inside costs about $150. This was as close as we got given that we are mere plebs.

Yay Dubai! I totally recommend visiting here if you get the chance.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

One Night in Bangkok

According to the 1980s classic One Night in Bangkok, the world's your oyster, the bars are temples but the pearls aren't free. The song also promises that you'll find a god in every golden cloister, as well as a host of other suggestive lyrics. After only a few hours in this city and some wandering around the night markets, Tane and I had been propositioned in ways that I dare not describe in detail lest my blog come up in less that wholesome Google searches. Golly gosh. This city should carry a R18 tag.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Love and loathing in Laos

Today is our last one in Laos, and it's been a delight. In the last two of days we've done a couple of half-day trips out of Luang Prabang to two of the big local attractions, a very cool waterfall and a couple of less-than-amazing caves filled with Buddha statues. The journey up the Mekong and a tributary river was worth it though.

Lauren at the waterfall.

So goodbye Laos, I hope to come back and find you not too touristy. Sadly, I suspect you will be. Vang Vieng, or Vang Vegas, feels like it's more about helping backpackers get drunk and stoned cheaply than anything else, and Luang Prabang has plenty of places that sell burgers and chips.

Here's a summary of what I loved and loathed in Laos. I'll start with the bad stuff.

What I loathed

Losing my wedding ring in Vang Vieng. Yes, I know, I'm a moron. I was gutted - I loved my silver ring with its koru pattern, and I loved showing off that I was hitched to Lauren. I put it down on a chair in a room in our guesthouse and forgot to put it into its case. At some point the chair got moved and I think it must have rolled off. As we were about to board the bus to Luang Prabang I realised I didn't know where it was, and grabbed a tuktuk back. I searched the room, but to no avail. It's either been taken or is in some strange crevice. Which sucks the big one.

Drunken Western Yobbos. We were woken up in Vientiane and Vang Vieng by idiots who make you feel embarrassed to be part of the same culture.

Children trying to get money out of you. Begging isn't bad in Laos, and when you say no to someone who's offering something to you, unlike in Vietnam that's almost always the end of it. But the kids begging, selling nicknacks and offering baby birds in cages are not cool.

Rural poverty. Not quite as bad as Cambodia, but pretty damn bad. Driving through the villages with thatched rooves and walls made of woven bamboo, you feel like insanely wealthy visitors from another planet.

Toilets you have to pay to go in. Sure, they're cheap by NZ standards, but you are paying to use a repulsive hole in the ground.

What I loved

The scenery.

Man, karst mountains are cool. On the road from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang I stared open mouthed for ten minutes as we passed the steepest mountain I have ever seen. Sadly, the photos didn't come vaguely close to doing it justice.

The Mekong. It's big, it's brown and it's perfect for drinking iced lemon juice next to.

The Laos attitude. It's rare to strike someone who's not friendly, calm and laid back. A pleasant change from Vietnam. Go Buddhism.

Fruit shakes. Fresh fruit ground up with ice, combined with temperatures over 30 degrees, equals ecstasy.

Monks. They have cool robes, they give you directions and they also use cellphones and Skype.

Wats. So ornate, and filled with funky monks chilling out. Though I do wonder if some of the money spend making and decorating them should have gone on better sanitation.

Laos kids. Putting aside my disgust at the underage beggars and hawkers, the kids here are so darn cute. Playing soccer with a toddler, using a cane ball, was a highlight.

Elephants. So big, such amazingly flexible trunks. And, I thought, so placid. Then our bull snapped a small tree like it was a toothpick.

These things.

Essentially an engine on wheels yoked to a trailer, they're a popular form of public transport in northern Laos.

Beerlao. It's apparently the only beer made in Laos, and its yellow signs are everywhere. Including on a t-shirt of mine.

In short, Laos is great. Get here before too many people like us spoil it.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Yay for elephants!

Tane and I have been staying in the small town of Luang Prabang for a few days now. Nestled in the mountains, surrounded by rivers, and heavily populated by monks, the town is like something out of a book. I love it here, it's both relaxing and facinating.

Tane and some monks hanging out on the Mekong

Luang Prabang is also surrounded by jungle, and in that jungle live lots of elephants. Laos is called Land of 1000 Elephants, and today we got to ride one of them. Yay!

Tane and I on our elephant wearing the very nifty hats that we were given to wear for a reason that we were not told.

We went on an elephant trek through the jungle for an hour or two this morning, sitting perched on the top of the elephant in a tiny seat. Our elephant was huge, bashing his way through the jungle like ele-rambo, and taking us up and down muddy embankments. At first, being on the elephant scared the ba-jezus out of me. This was just a smaller Indian elephant too - note to self, never ride an African elephant. I couldn't stop thinking about Stampy the elephant from the Simpsons that lies on his side when you say 'majumbo', and how much I would be squished if that happened.

Once I calmed down it was very fun though, a great experience. Tane loved it to, especially feeding our elephant bananas at the end.

Elephants are so cool, and far hairier than I had thought. After seeing this elephant bash his way through trees, I'd also hate to get in the way of one when they were in a bad mood. Or if the word 'majumbo' actually did make it fall on its side ...

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Getting Lost in Laos

Laos is the complete opposite to Vietnam - it is quieter, more relaxed, and we are able to walk down the middle of the road without fearing death. I like Laos a lot, there are fewer tourists and more little children to chase you down the street.

On our first day in Vientiane (the capital), Tane and I merrily set out for the only place that we could change money in the entire country about 2 hours before it closed. After walking toward what we thought was the centre of town for close to an hour we were surprised - we had heard that Vientiane was a small city, but thought that the dirt roads and lack of shops was a bit extreme for a capital. Little did we know we had walked the wrong way.
Walking the wrong way. Fool!
Luckily, in true Laos style, a monk eventually set us right. We found out where to go and now the monk is probably one step closer to Nirvana so it was a win-win situation. I let Tane do all the talking - apparently, if I even brushed up against him the monk would have had to "ritually cleanse" himself for days, so didn't want to risk it.

Tane getting directions from a monk. Notice Tane straining to keep his head lower than the Monk's, as it is a sign of respect to do so. Quite hard when they are very short.

After catching a tuk-tuk, we made the bank just in time to change our money. Lucky, too, as doing so enabled us to see some very lovely temples around Vientiane. Here is a photo of Tane sitting at one of them, Phat Tat Luang.

Tane also got talking to another monk here, and learned that they get up at 4am each morning to meditate. It all felt very quaint and old-fashioned - until the monk's cellphone went off from inside his orange robes. That's modernisation for you, I guess.

We are now in the small town of Vang Vieng, the backpacking hub of Laos. It's a lovely place, but a bit strange as every bar has a large TV, and pretty much all of these are playing re-runs of Friends. We have even heard rumours of a cafe where you can see four episodes all at once. There is some fabulous countryside near Vang Vieng, though, that has made the stop off well worth it.