When The Sun Goes Down

Grand Bazaar Istanbul

Kitten on cushions istanbul

Istanbul was not at all as I had expected. I was taken aback by the religious fervour of the city; with mosques dotted extravagantly around the city and the ezan (call to prayer) blasting from the minarets five times a day, it is clear to see how devoted Muslims are to their faith. I will not get started here on the shock I felt at witnessing the position of women, as this is a debate which far exceeds my limited experiences. I will say, however, that we barely had the chance to speak to a woman throughout the duration of our stay!

The one exception was our visit to a traditional Hamman – there are many to choose between in the city – we opted for Cemberlitas Hamami as it seemed to be relatively reasonably priced (they’re not cheap!). Essentially, you are paying extravagantly for somebody to wash you. A lady would lather up the most enormous soapy clouds and scrub you with a mitten before dousing you with water from the taps at the edges of the heated marble room. The interior was very unusual, with the entire room made out of marble and the domed roof having holes to let the light in which gave the appearance of stars in the roof. Although it was slightly ridiculous, it would definitely be worth going for the ‘traditional bath’ over just the option to go into the heated room alone – was certainly an unusual experience!

Kittens Istanbul

Blue Mosque

Dervish dancer, spinning and spinning with that unusual 'mushroom' hat.

Dervish dancer, spinning and spinning with that unusual ‘mushroom’ hat.

Blue Mosque

The city was certainly full of character. We were taken with the exceptionally kind way in which the local, apparently stray, cats were treated. Instead of being kicked and spurned they were often fed affectionately! The blue mosque, above, lived up to it’s iconic position as the key tourist attraction. Inside, however, was not quite as I had imagined. I guess in comparison to the beautiful Buddhist and Hindu temples of the far east, I had been a little off mark with my expectations. There was an incredibly intricate Iznik tiled roof (slightly less ‘blue’ than the name would suggest, perhaps), but the mosque itself was very stark inside to provide space for salat (prayer).

Blue Mosque roof

The best places to get views of the mosque and, indeed, the city itself, are the roof top bars and restaurants. We tried out the ‘Blue House Hotel’ and ‘Panoramic’ restaurant. Both had incredible views over the city and we went up to these spots to wait around for the sunsets each night. The lengthy call to prayer at the moment that the sun falls below the horizon helped to create an all-encompassing dramatic atmosphere

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Baklava and turkish dessert selection whilst we waited for the sun on top of the Blue House Hotel

Baklava and Turkish dessert selection whilst we waited for the sun on top of the Blue House Hotel

Blue Mosque at night

The Hagia Sofia museum, neighbouring the blue mosque, is also worth a visit, although don’t expect a typical ‘museum’: it is, essentially, the interior of the building as it was when it was an imperial mosque. It didn’t take us too long to look around so this visit could easily fit into any day.

Interior of Hagia Sofia Museum

Interior of Hagia Sofia Museum

Of course, the Grand Bazaar is certainly worth a visit. Yet again though, it did not live up to my expectations. I was picturing a scene similar to the souks in Marrakech. The Grand Bazaar seemed rather more ‘up-market’. The individual stalls were shops rather than the kind of stalls you would expect in a traditional market. Unfortunately haggling was also significantly more difficult than we had expected! Due to the huge number of tourists crowded around the market it is difficult to try and push the price down significantly as there are so many alternative buyers flocking around! We did eventually find ourselves a few trinkets to take home as mementos. I personally preferred the Spice Bazaar: it was just as colourful yet much less busy and we happily wandered around the Turkish Delight stalls sampling the different flavours!

A display of Turkish Delights in the Spice Bazaar.

A display of Turkish Delights in the Spice Bazaar.

Mosque outside the spice bazaar where we were given free copies of the Quran

Mosque outside the spice bazaar where we were given free copies of the Quran

Traditional Turkish tea

Traditional Turkish tea

Spice Bazaar Istanbul

The food, in general was very interesting. To end on a funny note, we were very confused when presented with the following at a restaurant:

Turkish Bread

We’d placed our order and were swiftly given this along with the comment ‘enjoy your meal’. Anna thought they might have taken our order wrong. I thought our meal might be inside this enormous thing…like a weird pie. It turns out it was merely a dramatic air-filled flat bread and that the ‘enjoy your meal’ comment was merely a misunderstood English phrase which we were showered with after each dish was delivered.

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Buddhist gathering, chang mai

There’s a huge array of tourist-orientated excursions and activities available in Chang Mai. One of the nicer things to do, in my personal opinion, is to simply wander about the city checking out a couple of the Wats or popping in for a three dollar massage in one of the numerous establishments. Today I indulged in an hour long traditional Thai massage. It was quite bizarre: a little like some sort of eccentric physiotherapy session with the masseuse wrapping herself around me to twist my limbs into the strangest contortions. At times it was verging on being quite unbearable in terms of the intense pressure levels – she would dig in her elbows into your muscle with her full body weight, bringing me to the brink of what I like to call ‘hysterical pain laughter’.

The night bazaar is also definitely worth a visit. It’s basically an extensive network of vendor stalls interwoven with street food, live music, bikes selling delicious coconut ice-cream, the odd boxing ring, delicious smoothies etc. Be prepared to bargain hard, though. Most of the prices originally quoted to me were brought down by at least two thirds!

This morning I headed out with a couple of the girls to take on my second cooking course, this time in Thai cuisine. We started off with a shop in the local farmer’s market where the lady conducting the class explained some of the crucial ingredients to us.

small aubergine/ eggplant

This is actually a kind of aubergine on a bed of holy basil. You can see where the american ‘eggplant’ came from as it’s actually about the size and shape of an egg.

We each made four dishes of our choice, but as we chose different options it allowed us to see how to make quite a large number of meals! Here are the recipes with rough measurements for one portion size. Like with the Vietnamese recipes, I’m not sure if they’ll be of any practical use to anyone but I hope they might be vaguely interesting, if nothing else!

Pad Thai

Ingredients:

50g Narrow rice noodles
(50g sliced chicken/prawns– small strips) – Substitute with extra tofu for vegetarians.
20g tofu, sliced into small pieces
10g Chinese chives or spring onion cut into 3cm lengths
30g bean sprouts
1 tsp chopped garlic
1 egg
2 tbsp cooking oil
1 ½ tbsp oyster sauce (For Veggies: mushroom sauce)
½ tbsp fish sauce (Veg: soy sauce)
1 tsp sugar
¼ cup water

You can also add 1 tbsp tamarind sauce/ some red dried shrimp to get the authentic Thai feel, although these ingredients aren’t so easy to get your hands on! Birds eye chillies can be added to taste.

Pad Thai ingredients

1. Fry tofu in the oil until lightly golden. Add garlic. If adding chicken/prawns, put them in shortly after the garlic and fry until cooked through.
2. Push the tofu, garlic and meat over to one side of the pan/wok and break in an egg. Scramble slightly then mix in as it whitens.

Cooking pad thai
3. Lower the heat a little. Add the water, sauces and sugar followed by the noodles and stir until the noodles have gone tender (can cut with the spatula/spoon)
4. Add the bean sprouts and chives and stir in for around a minute.

Cooking Pad Thai
5. Serve with peanuts, fresh lime and chilli powder!

Pad Thai

Tom Kha Kai (Chicken/Tofu in coconut milk soup)

50g boneless chicken breast/ Tofu, sliced around 3cm thick
1 lemon grass cut into 3-4 1 inch pieces
3-4 1 inch pieces of thinly sliced galangal (Thai ginger – can use ordinary ginger)
2 kaffir lime leaves torn in half
1-3 fresh birds eye chillies, crushed
Half a large onion, quartered
Half a medium sized tomato cut into quarters
A large oyster mushroom torn into pieces
½ tbsp sliced coriander
1 ½ tsp sugar
1 ½ tbsp lemon/lime juice
1 tbsp fish or soy sauce
1 ½ cup coconut milk

Coconut soup ingredients

1. Boil coconut milk in a pot. Add lemon grass, ginger, kaffir lime leaves and chillies.
2. Add the chicken/tofu oyster mushrooms and large onion and wait until cooked.

Cooking coconut chicken or tofu soup
3. Add tomatoes and the seasoning/sauces
4. Serve with coriander sprinkled on top.

Coconut and Tom Yam soup
Tom Yam soup (on the left) is actually very similar to this but with stock water in place of coconut milk. Also straw mushrooms can be used instead of the oysters. The same process applies. If using prawns in place of chicken/tofu add these later with the tomatoes.

Here's a lighter, vegetarian alternative with chinese cabbage, carrot and soft tofu.

Here’s a lighter, vegetarian alternative with Chinese cabbage, carrot and soft tofu.

Green Curry paste
7 fresh birds eye green chillies
2tbsp chopped garlic
1 tbsp chopped shallots
1 tbsp chopped lemon grass
½ tsp chopped galangal/ginger
1 tsp chopped coriander root
½ tsp chopped kaffir lime peel
1tsp turmeric
½ tsp roasted peppercorns
2 tsp roasted coriander seeds
1 tsp roasted cumin seeds
½ tsp salt
½ tsp shrimp paste
All ground together in a mortar – peppercorns and seeds are best to do first.

Alternatively you could just by pre-made paste to speed up the process. Having it fresh though really does make the difference!

Green Curry (Kaenf khiaw-waan kai)

50g boneless chicken breasts or tofu thick sliced
30g of egg sized variety of the aubergine – not sure how easy they’ll be to find. Cut into wedges
30g baby sweet corn (or carrot), sliced.
2 kaffir lime leaves – torn
6 sweet basil leaves
1 tbsp green curry paste
1 ½ cup coconut milk
1 ½ tbsp oil
1 tsp sugar
1 tbsp fish or soy sauce

1. Put oil in a pan, on low heat add green curry paste (rub into the oil with the back of your spoon/spatula)– bring to simmer. Add half the coconut milk and stir in well.
2. Add chicken/tofu and stir until cooked

Green Curry
3. Add remaining coconut milk, aubergine, sweet corn/carrot and kaffir lime leaves.
4. Season with the sugar and sauce
5. Sprinkle sweet basil leaves then turn off the heat. Serve with steamed rice.
(Simply substitute a red curry paste for the green for a red curry)

Other items on the cooking menu include the likes of spring rolls, Phanaeng curry and sticky rice pudding with mango (absolute heaven). Unfortunately I feel adding in all the recipes learnt today would be a bit of an overload so I’ve tried to rein it in a little.

Spring rolls

Thai spring rolls

Phanaeng curry ingredients

The basic phanaeng curry ingredients, including mini aubergines!

cooking phanaeng curry

Cooking phanaeng curry.

Following the class, I ventured out to the old town district in the centre of the city, surrounded by the remains of a city wall and moat. By lucky coincidence my visit overlapped with some sort of Buddhist ‘mass’ or prayer session in one of the central temples. It began with a slow stream of monks trickling in and kneeling in neat lines along the floor. In the blink of an eye the entire temple was filled.

Temple in old town chang mai

Monks in Chang Mai

Below My Feet

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

“I think the thing to do is to enjoy the ride while you’re on it.”

 – Johnny Depp

Today has served to consolidate the idea previously budding in my mind: Laos is my favourite destination from my selection that I’ve passed through on this trip through South East Asia. The beauty of the countryside is simply outstanding and the people here, in my opinion and from my experiences, are incredibly accommodating and generous.

A few of us were up before the sun this morning. We headed into the beautiful UNESCO sight of Luang Prabang town to watch the ‘giving of the alms’. This daily procession consists of the saffron-clad Buddhist monks of the local monasteries walking in their groups around the town to collect food offerings from the town’s people: the only meal they will eat all day.  It was a charming and humbling experience. Particularly touching was noticing the monks reverse the process in giving some of the food they’d received to the elderly beggars.

Giving of the alms Luang Prabang

Giving of the alms Luang Prabang

The next excursion I had my doubts about: an elephant trek with the ‘Mahout Eco Camp’.  My expectation of poorly treated animals and masses of tourists, however, was completely turned on its head. The elephants seemed at the height of health and very well loved. They’re left to roam free through the jungle throughout the day – only being called into the camp in the early morning for the rides. I asked if I could sit on the Elephants neck as opposed to a seat and was rewarded with having an elephant (called Tong Kun) all to myself! It was just me and four friends, on two other elephants – not the vast crowds I’d been dreading. I was taught by the trainer of Tong Kun how to instruct her, with ‘pai’ meaning ‘go’, for example, and then left to it! She was surprisingly obedient and, of course, utterly adorable.

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

 

 

 

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

Elephant Ride - Luang Prabang

 

 

With only one day in this beautiful town, we had no time to lose. Next stop: Kuang Si waterfalls. Despite the slight increase in the crowds, these ascending tiers of soft, milky turquoise water are not to be missed. There are also numerous areas where you can head in for a swim – lots of jumping off the waterfall opportunities to be had! The site also is home to a ‘sanctuary’ for Asiatic black bears and sun bears, rescued from highly inhumane conditions such as minuscule cages or forced ‘bear dancing’.  They’re now set up in the equivalent to a zoo-like habitation which, although still not ideal, is unarguably far preferable to their previous situations.

Kuang Si Waterfall

Kuang Si Waterfall

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Kuang Si Waterfall

We stopped at a little village on the way back into town. Naturally, we were bombarded by the local salemen...in this case, children.

We stopped at a little village on the way back into town. Naturally, we were bombarded by the local salesmen…in this case, children.

 

The final exertion for the day was climbing up the steps to the tallest peak in the town: Phu Si temple. Undoubtedly the best place to view the sunset over the Mekong River. Other delights not to be missed in this enchanting little town include the friendly and vibrant night market, full of irresistible locally crafted goods. Down a side branch of the market you can find the equivalent of a food quart, where a vegetarian all-you-can-eat Laotian buffet costs as little as a dollar. The smoothies/shakes available at stalls throughout the streets are also to die for. The perfect way to end a fantastic day.

Sunset Luang Prabang

Food at Luang Prabang night market

N.B. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LnKUD_OztRE

(This would have been my preferred song for the post but it just seemed a little too obvious!)

Coconut Skins

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Here’s evidence of the, almost obligatory, wearing of the cone hat as we were paddled downstream…

ImageWe headed out yesterday morning in the direction of the ‘mighty’ Mekong Delta. As far as ‘tourist-traps’ go, this was fairly high up on the list, but was, nevertheless, an interesting experience. We hopped on a motorboat and went first to see some of the local ‘coconut candy’ production – using the flesh of coconuts to make cream and then a sort of toffee which is actually rather good. The rate at which the team of ladies were wrapping each sweet was extraordinary.ImageWe then were herded into a cart pulled by an impossibly small horse and taken through the village to eat at a restaurant. The menu was pretty eccentric, including the delights of crocodile, snake and turtle.

I bumped into some Australian guys the day before who’d been to the restaurant and ordered snake. The staff brought out a live snake and proceeded to cut its head off with a pair of blunt scissors and pour its blood into shot glasses to drink. The still beating heart was placed on the table for them to watch as it slowly came to a standstill. This is all deadly serious– I had the pleasure of watching the video recording they’d taken of the whole gory scene. Obviously I stayed well clear of that dodgy side of the menu.

Another local speciality which we tried was their honey tea into which they mix the local honey with bee pollen and the juice of little Asian mandarins. (Of course the whole aim of the exercise was that we were then expected to buy a bottle or leave awkwardly, as ever.)

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Honey/pollen tea!

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They were also selling these bottles of some sort of coconut-based spirit with whole snakes inside – some with scorpions in their mouths! Disgusting!

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To break up the two hour return to Ho Chi Minh City we stopped off at our first Vietnamese temple. Although, to be frank, the inordinate number of Buddhist temples scattered across these countries is resulting in them already becoming a little repetitive!

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It seems that in an ironic way, the Dalai Lama would agree:

“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”
 – Dalai Lama

That being said, they aren’t exactly an eyesore.

 

Sun Rise, Light Flies

Sunrise over Angkor Wat, Cambodia

We woke up this morning before the birds. A 4.45 departure time wasn’t particularly welcome considering the long travelling day to Siem Reap, Cambodia from Bangkok yesterday combined with the fact that I’m still on the wobbly side of full health! However, the aim was to see Angkor Wat at sunrise, which seemed worth the effort. The only problem was that every tourist and his dog seemed to have the same idea. Apparently it’s the ‘thing to do’. Unfortunately it does rather diminish the experience being crammed in with a pack load of tourists, ravenous for good photos. It was still spectacular and calming nevertheless.

Sunrise over Angkor Wat, Cambodia

The crowds didn’t die down after breakfast. We headed first to ‘Angkor Thom’ (Angkor simply means ‘city’) which was a vast collection of ruined temples – like the rest of the site they were originally built in the 12th century as largely Hindu temples but being renovated into Buddhist temples in the late 13th Century. What was striking to me was how much the site reminded me of the various Mayan ruin sites in Central America. The blatant difference being the crowds of people and the hype! Don’t be fooled by my photos – I painstakingly tried to avoid snapping random tourists. There were a lot more people than it seems!

Entrance to 'Angkor Thom'

Angkor Thom

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Traditionally dressed Khmer children

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Angkor Thom jungle

‘Ta Prohm’ was similarly breathtaking but, again, rather obscured by excessive tourists.  What was so beautiful about this temple (where tomb raider was shot, I’m told) was how the jungle was interwoven with the ruins. Colossal, twisting roots and trunks clung to the walls – simultaneously holding it together and breaking it up as the roots made their way into the gaps in the structures.

Ta Prohm

Monks visiting the top of 'Angkor Wat' (City of Temples)

Monks visiting the top of ‘Angkor Wat’ (City of Temples)

I think you’d have to give up around three days to properly explore the complex as just whizzing round the highlights took us eight hours! A long time when you’ve been up at 4 am!

After heading back into Siem Reap for lunch, a couple of the girls in my group and I decided to visit the local ‘Acodo’ orphanage. It was shockingly small, with just two small buildings for the 76 girls and boys to sleep in and only a couple of English classrooms. However, the people running the place seem to have a clear set of aims and objectives for the project and are doing remarkably well with the money donated to them. Again, I made a comparison in my mind – this time with ‘Goroka’ school in Papua New Guinea where the money isn’t so much the crucial issue as how it is used – with large sums frittered away on teacher’s parties and gifts etc. Here they’ve built several structures including a kitchen, water filter system, a couple of class rooms for English lessons and have separated the boys and girls dorm rooms. They also send the elder children in their free time out to the Acodo farms to learn useful farming techniques whilst helping to reap the benefits of the land to feed themselves and the rest of their fellows.

If you’re remotely interested in volunteer work in this part of the world then I really think Acodo orphanage would be a very worthwhile destination, instead of volunteering through a travel agency. They do take on volunteers on a regular basis but are often short and the results are immediately visible.

We tried to make ourselves useful by bringing along some treats and bits and bobs for the kids and helped some of the older girls to practise their English. The younger children were pretty entertained with our cameras for a while which was amusing.

Acodo Orphanage Siem Reap

Acodo Orphanage Siem Reap

Acodo Orphanage Siem Reap

Acodo Orphanage Siem Reap

Acodo Orphanage Siem Reap

“Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.”
 – Mother Teresa

 

Gold on the Ceiling

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“Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without.” – Buddha

So I managed to sort out my Myanmar visa and that evening headed off on my flight – panicking that I would have to do the same for my Vietnamese visa; All of my organisation seems to have been ripped to shreds! However, I’m now celebrating my victory over this mess whilst I can (i.e. before something else goes wrong) as I managed to find the Vietnamese embassy in Yangon and have sorted that out too. Phew! I have also managed to fit in an incredible amount of sightseeing.

Yangon is a breathtakingly beautiful city – a mixture of old British colonial architecture, tropical foliage mingled in and around the buildings, stalls, street food, markets and religious buildings –  largely dominated by the stunningly decorative Buddhist ‘pagodas’ scattered throughout. Buddhist Monasteries are everywhere – monks wander serenely around the city and the locals, namely the men, wear traditional yongi (like lap-laps) which further adds to the vibrant atmosphere.

Karaweik Palace on Lake Kandawgyi

Karaweik Palace on Lake Kandawgyi

Small Buddha Shrine at Botataung Pagoda. These small statues are for visitors to pour water on, showing their respect, as water symbolises the 'nectar' of Buddha's teachings.

Small Buddha Shrine at Botataung Pagoda. These small statues are for visitors to pour water on, showing their respect, as water symbolises the ‘nectar’ of Buddha’s teachings.

Shwedagon Pagoda has got to be one of the tourist highlights of Asia. It’s a bit early on in the game to be making such sweeping statements, I know, but the vast scale of each elaborately decorated temple is just extraordinary. There’s an entire village purely made of Pagodas, temples and shrines with the enormous Shwedagon Pagoda in the centre – at 99 metres high it dominates the skyline of the city and has relics of the last four Buddhas enshrined within. It’s crown is embellished with diamonds, emeralds, rubies, sapphires and other precious stones.(I was told this information by an elderly monk who then proceeded to give me his prayer beads which was rather heart-warming.) What’s more, according to legend the Pagoda has been around for more than 2600 years. The 6th-10th centuries are more likely but still, pretty impressive.

Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

Giant Buddha at Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

One thing that took a little getting used to is that all foot wear needs to be removed before entering any sort of pagoda or temple. Even small little areas with a tiny shrine don’t allow it. It’s a complete reversal from the societal norms back at home where I’ve been asked to leave a supermarket due to my bare feet. Imagine walking into a cathedral at home with no shoes on.

Again, it’s difficult to grasp the scale of this reclining Buddha at Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda - 65 meters long and 16 meters high.

Again, it’s difficult to grasp the scale of this reclining Buddha at Chauk Htat Gyi Pagoda – 65 meters long and 16 meters high.

There’s a fantastically lively night-time food market going on all the way down the main road near my hostel. The number of fruit and vegetables that I’ve never seen before in my life is outstanding. I haven’t quite plucked up the courage to try the proper street food yet – largely due to a complete incapacity to communicate with the vendors, but being vegetarian doesn’t exactly facilitate things either. However, I did try out authentic ‘Myanmar cuisine’ for lunch. It seemed like a sort of hybrid between thai and indian:

Basically, when you arrive you’re presented with a plate of rice, a bowl of some sort of broth soup (let’s not lie – it was probably chicken) and some sauces and salad stuff (ginger, something that resembled cucumber and I’ve no idea about the rest),  then you proceed to the cooking area and ask point at different curries or vegetables that you want. Quite fun!

Basically, when you arrive you’re presented with a plate of rice, a bowl of some sort of broth soup (let’s not lie – it was probably chicken) and some sauces and salad stuff (ginger, something that resembled cucumber and I’ve no idea about the rest), then you proceed to the cooking area and ask point at different curries or vegetables that you want. Quite fun!

One of the traits that make this city so unique is the total absence of tourism. Apparently tourism has really taken off this year. That must simply be relative to beforehand as I barely came across a single tourist today and there was certainly no evidence of ‘westernisation’. Definitely no McDonalds here kids.

A small Buddhist shrine along the board walk of Lake Kandawgyi. Yet another quiet spot to get away from the hustle of down-town.

A small Buddhist shrine along the board walk of Lake Kandawgyi. Yet another quiet spot to get away from the hustle of down-town.