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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Cool, Calm and Collected

Yoga in Swedist Sunset

“The pursuit, even of the best things, ought to be calm and tranquil.”
 – Marcus Tullius Cicero

I met the Gambill’s at Copenhagen airport and together we hopped on a train to their hometown of Älmhult in the Småland province of Southern Sweden. (Had to get Vendela to write down all the names for me as couldn’t quite get the hang of the letters!) It’s so incredibly special, being completely cut off from stress and technology and surrounded by lakes and forest. There’s very limited internet access and no need for phones. The sun didn’t set until around 9 or later in the evening creating the magical feeling of midsummer. Again one of the first things I noticed was the smell: a really strong omnipresent smell of pines which I must have grown accustomed to pretty quickly as didn’t notice it after the first evening.

Mockeln Smaland

Daisy Chains

Vendela and Paulina making daisy chains in the garden of their Grandpa’s house

Delicious local kanelbullar (cinnamon rolls)

Delicious local kanelbullar (cinnamon rolls)

 

We spent lots of time on the shores of the enourmous Möckeln lake which was perfect for swimming in the scorching sun. It was fantastic to just get back to simple outdoor activities like playing the traditional Swedish game of ‘kubb’ where you essentially knock down pillars in opposing teams with elaborate ‘sticks’. The food was also delicious and simple: we had lots of knäckebröd (crispbread), cheese and tomatoes! Essentially our time was spent relaxing and going for walks along the lake and in the forest – very tranquil!

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Friendly ducks at Bökhult beach

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Playing kubb in the garden of the Gambill’s summer house in the forest

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We found a little board walk into the lake by the summer house which made an ideal spot for some evening yoga. We noticed the potential for photos though with the silhouettes against the sunset and ended up getting completely carried away! Overall, such a relaxing spot to get away from reality for a few days!

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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!)