Posts Tagged ‘sightseeing’

Relaxing on the Beach in Ko Samui

bophut beach ko samui
Sunset on Bophut Beach

Our first stop in Thailand was an island in the gulf called Ko Samui. We stayed at the Smile House for the first two days on Bophut Beach at the north end of the island, which was a nice place, set back a bit from the beach, then we moved a bit farther out in Bophut to the Cactus Bungalows where we had a bungalow just steps from the sand.

bophut beach
Bophut Beach, Ko Samui

We spent the July 25 to 29 sitting on the beach, reading, napping and not going very far from our hotel. It was only on our last day on the island that we actually got out to do something — we went to Ang Thong Marine Park.

We took the Action Islanders Adventure speed boat tour, and somehow got on the slow boat. Well, the boat itself went quickly, but we had to make a stop at a neighboring island before heading off to the marine park, which was quite a bit detour. The ride between the islands was quite choppy and Evan was NOT happy — he’s not exactly a huge fan of boats or water. About 5 minutes into the ride, he turned to me and said, “I regret coming out here.” He decided to stick it out, though, even though our driver said that the trip to the marine park would be as bumpy if not more so than our first leg, and he took some Dramamine, which helped a bit.

When we got to our first stop — a cove to go snorkeling in — we relaxed on the boat for a while before going in. When we decided to put on our masks and head in, we both ended up having a good time. I was a bit scared at first, since I don’t like fish very much, but I steered clear of the biggest schools and the areas where people were throwing bread in the water, and some quite a few types of fish as well as lots of coral.

ang thong marine park
The Lagoon

Our next stop was an island with a saltwater lagoon in its middle — the island that inspired The Beach. We hiked up to a viewpoint, then hiked down to the lagoon, though you can’t go in. The hike was short, but it was on some super steep and treacherous staircases.

We then boated a short ways over to a picnic area for lunch where there were wooden swings between the beachside palms and beautiful views of other islands.


Kayaking — does the pose look familiar?

The best stop, though, was our last — kayaking. Evan and I shared a kayak, and our guide took us around a small island, going into some seaside caves on the way. It was beautiful and peaceful, except for when the guide started splashing everyone. We also stopped at a very small and quiet white sand beach to do a bit of swimming — definitely an island paradise.

Thankfully, the trip back couldn’t have been more different from the trip out — it was essentially flat, totally smooth cruising to Ko Phra Ngan. Evan said it it were always like that, boating could possibly be considered pleasant. The shorter inter-island trip was a bit bumpy, but it was pretty quick, and a one-eyed van driver took us back to our hotel. Thank goodness the sea got calmer and our activities were fun because aside from the trip over Evan did end up having fun.

Exhausted when we got back, we had a little snack, then while Evan napped, I read and napped on the beach, then had a Thai massage in a hut on the beach. It felt like I’d imagine a visit to a chiropractor would — lots of stretching and pressure — and I felt very relaxed when it was done.

Next stop: Chiang Mai.

See our photos from Ko Samui and our first days in Chiang Mai in Evan’s Facebook album.

12 Days in Istanbul

Sorry I haven’t written in a while — the keyboards in Istanbul are a bit hard to type on because some of the letters and punctuation marks are in different places, and I just haven’t spent too much time in front of the computer lately. Good thing I’ve been writing about my days in a journal. Here are some of the highlights…

blue sultanahmet mosque istanbul
The Blue Mosque

July 13, 2008

After our adventures in Jordan, we headed over to Istanbul on a very annoyingly timed 3:30 a.m. flight, which left us with no sleep for the night and brought us into Istanbul so early in the morning, we had to wait about 5 hours for our hotel room to be ready. In our waiting time, we had breakfast at our hotel, Hotel Tashkonak, on the rooftop patio, and took a short walk through Sultanahmet, the old part of the city where the Aya Sofia, the Blue Mosque and plenty of the other tourist sites are. Then once our room was ready, we slept the rest of the day.

July 14, 2008

Once we were well rested, we started exploring Istanbul in earnest. We started out with the Little Aya Sofiya, which is a pretty church-turned mosque with a graveyard surrounding it and a pretty domed roof. Then we visited the tomb of a bunch of sultans, which we happened to come across. All their individual grave markers/sarcophagi were standing like little houses under a domed roof.

Next we went to the Blue Mosque, or  Sultanahmet  Mosque, which is one of the most beautiful sights in the area. It has soaring minarets, domes everywhere you look and a lovely courtyard and garden. Inside it looks like a pretty standard mosque, though it does have some nice tile work, with mostly blue floral designs on the tiles. I’m glad I bought a head scarf when I was in Egypt so I didn’t have to use a loaner.

We couldn’t go in the Aya Sofiya, which is right across from the Blue Mosque, because it’s closed on Mondays — we explored it a few days later — so we headed across the street to the Basilica Cistern, an ancient roman cistern with a hodgepodge of columns taken from across the city and a vaulted roof. There were some carp swimming around in the water, and in the far corner, there were two columns whose bases were upturned Medusa heads. The theory as to why one is on its side and the other is upside down is that the Romans, being Christians, meant to show that they were just using the blocks as building materials, not worshiping false idols.

Continuing our super-tourist day, we went to Topkapi Palace, a huge complex for the sultans and their families. The treasury had an interesting collection, with lots of rubies, emeralds and diamonds, and there were some very elaborately tiled walls in the harem. It was also neat to learn about the palace’s history, complete with scheming concubines, murdered princes and the sultan’s mother ruling the roost while the sultan walked around in silver-soled shoes.

We also walked around the hippodrome, which isn’t much to see, except for two obelisks, a column and a fountain. It functions more as a pedestrian thoroughfare and makes a pleasant place to stroll.

basilica cistern istanbul
The Basilica Cistern

July 15, 2008

We decided to head out of the city for a day to explore the Princes’ Islands, a set of 9 Islands in the Sea of Marmara where people from Istanbul keep summer villas. The only transport allowed on the small, hilly islands are bicycles and horse cards, though there are some motorized vehicles allowed for the police, garbage men, etc.

We went to the biggest of the Islands, which we got to by ferry, and got some ice cream straight away, since it was a hot day. Then we started our walk to the monastery up in the mountains, which ended up being more of a church than a monastery, but maybe we missed something. The walk was really lovely — the big houses had huge gardens, and because of all the trees, we had lots of shade. There were also great views of the sea, the other islands and Istanbul.

When we finally got up to the monastery area, we had a nice lunch, explored the small Greek Orthodox church where people had left little trinkets, like watches and jewelry, in hopes that their prayers would be answered. There were also lots of white bags, papers and cloths tied to the trees and bushes on the path leading up the hill, which apparently also symbolize prayers.

July 16, 2008

We woke up to rain for the first time on our trip, but by the time we had breakfast and set up a lunch date with a friend who lives in Istanbul, it had stopped. Before lunch, we decided to tour Aya Sofiya, which is much more impressive from the inside than the outside. Outside, it looks old and staid compared to the blue mosque, but inside, it’s all gold and there are some incredibly detailed mosaics in its gallery. It would have been amazing to see it in its original glory, with its large open spaces and soaring dome, which were unfortunately obstructed for us by scaffolding put up for reconstruction work.

By the time we were ready to leave, there was a thunder-and-lighting storm raging outside, so we ran to the nearby tram stop, getting soaked in the process, and trammed and funiculared to Taksim to meet our friend who took us out to a lunch of traditional Turkish food. We had dishes like “The Imam Fainted,” a tasty cold eggplant dish, dolmas, stuffed peppers and pureed eggplant. I also had Turkish coffee with dessert — strong and bitter as expected.

July 17, 2008

It was time to see something of contemporary Istanbul, so we went to the Istanbul Modern, a great museum that showcases Turkish modern art. We were introduced to plenty of talented artists we’d never heard of, and toured the temporary “Design Cities” show, which showcased important works from cities that influenced popular design over the years. The museum also has a fantastic cafe overlooking the Bosphorus, though it seems like just about every restaurant in Istanbul has some sort of water view, which is always a nice touch. The rest of the day’s tour included a trip up Galata Tower and down the Kamodo Steps.

July 18, 2008

We thought we might avoid it because of our crazy experience at the bazaar in Egypt, but we ended up going to the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market anyway, and boy were we surprised. It wasn’t crowded, the shopkeepers didn’t hassle us too much, and the shops had some really interesting and colorful items. We also went in to a bunch of mosques, though at this point they all started looking a bit the same.

July 19, 2008

We had a nice relaxing day of sleeping in, then sat at a tea garden eating ice cream and baklava and playing checkers for most of the afternoon. Evan beat me every time.

July 20, 2008

We went to tour Dolmabahce palace — another home for the sultan’s, though newer than Topkapi and in a European style. The grounds were beautiful, with manicured gardens, fountains and little ponds with lily pads and an expansive view of the Bosphorus. Touring the interiors of the buildings, though, we needed to go as a group with a guide. The groups were pretty big, and the palace’s big rooms echoed and made it hard to hear our guide. We also kept running into the group ahead of us. Still, the building was impressive, with huge chandeliers, carved ceilings and a lot of trompe l’oeil painting. Touring the harem, our guide did a better job, though we had some rogue tourists who kept arguing with her and trying to strike out on their own.

After getting lunch at a vegetarian restaurant near Taksim, we took the metro to Levent to go to the mall. The Kanyon mall was huge, modern and gorgeous. It’s an indoor-outdoor multi-level space with posh shops, curving walkways and a spherical movie theater. We shopped a bit and saw Hancock — with an intermission that included commercials (not cool to interrupt a movie so abruptly like that and then make us watch even more ads!).

July 21, 2008

Lazy day lounging at the hotel, researching Thailand and reading. We ordered in food with the help of the super-nice staff at the hotel and spent a lot of time using their free lobby computer.

bosphorus
View of the Bosphorus

July 22, 2008

It was time to get out of the city again and go on a Bosphorus tour. We caught the ferry at Eminonu and took it up to Anadolou Kavagi, where we climbed up a hill to a ruined castle, where we had great views of the Bosphorus and the Black Sea, which were both a  tranquil turquoise blue.

When we got down from the mountain, we caught a bus down to Kanlica where we had a strait-side lunch featuring the town’s delicious yogurt, which really was better than any of the yogurt we had elsewhere in Turkey. We watched plenty of ships passing by and even saw a dolphin. By the time we were done with lunch, it was too late to visit any of the other sites we’d hoped to get to — just about everything around Istanbul closes at 4 or 4:30 — so we hopped on another bus to Uskudar, then took the ferry back to Eminonu.

We walked along the coast back to our hotel, passing swimmers and sunbathers on the rocks (there’s no beach there).

July 23, 2008

One of Evan’s brother’s friends who we’d met for drinks earlier in the week played tour guide for us all day. She brought us to a Greek Orthodox neighborhood where we visited a church and an impressive large high school on top of a steep hill. We also toured Bosphorus University, which as its name suggests has some beautiful views, then had a long and relaxing lunch at a waterfront cafe in Ortakoy.

We spent the rest of our day in Istiklal, hanging out in a cafe reading while avoiding some rain, then going out for a makeup birthday dinner, since in Jordan we never had one, at a rooftop restaurant.

July 24, 2008

With our flight to Thailand in the evening, we had one last day to spend in Istanbul and I knew what I wanted to do — go to a hammam/Turkish bath. Evan didn’t want to come, so he went on his own errands while I headed to the Cemberlitas Hammam, right near the Grand Bazaar. The Hammam dates back to the 1500s, and the men’s side is supposed to be grander than the women’s, though it was still a neat experience.

The main bathing room has a warm raised central platform, where most of the activity takes place. I started out relaxing there in my bath sheet while others were getting bathed around me, staring up at the small circular skylights in the pink domed ceiling, and soon an attendant came in to give me my bath. There was lots of water, soap and scrubbing with a loofah mitten. There was also a bit of a massage and I also had my hair washed in an adjacent alcove. The most surprising part of the experience, though, was that the attendants don’t really wear much clothing. Like only bikini bottoms. The guide book did not prepare me for that — I thought I was the only one who was going to be exposed.

Well, I chalked this one up to being an interesting cultural experience, and I despite some initial anxiety, ended up enjoying myself and feeling squeaky clean and relaxed by the time I was done.

Evan and I spent the rest of the day relaxing at the Dervish Tea Garden, drinking tea and playing backgammon. I won every time.

When it was time to finally leave, we had a nice time at the airport, hanging out in the Turkish Airways lounge, which was really nice (we somehow managed to fly business class to Thailand — our longest flight!). There was a business centers with computers to use, a big dining/drinking area, a separate kids’ room, a TV lounge and a sleeping lounge. The flight itself was fine — we both slept most of the way — though Turkish Airways has the worst business class food I’ve ever had, worse than most economy meals I’ve had. There were at least huge TVs, and on their flight monitor, we could check out the front and rear views from the airplane — it was quite cool to see it approach the airport and land!

Check out our Istanbul photos in Evan’s Facebook album.

Giza, Saqqara and Memphis


King Zoser’s pyramid at Saqqara

June 29:

Today, Evan and I went to Saqqara, Memphis and Giza. Our guide, Sahar, and a driver came to pick us up early in the morning, and we headed to Saqqara first, passing Giza along the way, to see the oldest Pyramids in Egypt. We saw the step pyramid of King Zoser, which is nearly 5000 years old, and which was almost eclipsed by the palace structure leading up to it (photo coming as soon as we are able). There were also a bunch of stray dogs, who followed our tour guide around. She usually feeds them, and today was no exception. We also went to see a tomb that had some amazing designs on the walls, and some even with the original paint.

We left the desert to head back past the “green line,” which marks the boundary between the lush irrigated land and the barren desert, and went to a carpet school. We saw people making knotted and woven carpets, and I learned how to make a knot, and made my mark on a carpet! Then, of course, we went to the shop where we looked around, got quite a sales pitch, and ultimately left without anything, though they did have some very nice carpets.


Statue of Ramses II at Memphis

Next it was off to Memphis, where we saw a few ruins and statues in an outdoor museum. The most impressive piece was a giant statue of Ramses II.

After Memphis, where the Pharaohs ruled, it was off to a papyrus store to see how the world’s first paper was made. We got to see papyrus plants, then see our guide to the store slice off the outer skins, cut the center into strips, soak the strips (which would normally take six days), arrange them in a criss-cross pattern, then press them flat (which would normally take another six days). Then we got to see the finished product, write on it, test its strength, and get it wet.

We browsed the artwork, and saw plenty of the expected Egyptian themes, as well as some Christian ones and even two Jewish ones – a Happy Hannukah one and a Ten Commandments one. We settled on a plain sheet for us to decorate with our own artwork.


The Sphinx and a pyramid

We finally made it out to Giza, bought our tickets and stepped out to see the pyramids. They were huge, as expected, and we got to stand on some of the lower steps. We opted not to go inside, because from everything we’ve read and heard, walking down a steamy claustrophobic passageway to an empty room was not worth the extra cash. Our guide took some funny photos (coming soon) of us “holding” pyramids, and at one point hung out of the window of our moving van with Evan’s camera to take a photo for us.

The one disappointment was that being at the pyramids felt like being back at the bazaar. We couldn’t turn our heads without being asked to ride a camel – “Egyptian Cadillac! Its name is Michael Jackson! No? Will you come back later?” We stayed off the camels, didn’t buy any plastic pyramids, and weren’t lured by a boy yelling, “Ice! Ice!”

We also saw the Sphinx, which seemed to be home to quite a number of pigeons. There was also a great view from the Sphinx to the three pyramids in the background.

Oh, and guess what’s right in front of the Sphinx? A Pizza Hut! That must be the most scenic Pizza Hut in the world.

We ate dinner in Zamalek (a district on the island in the center of the Nile) at a restaurant called L’Aubergine. The food was good, and upstairs there was a bar packed with people watching the Euro 2008 finals (¡Viva España!). It seemed to be a bit of a Westerner’s haven.

Now we’re back at the hotel, figuring out what to do tomorrow.

Walking in the Trees at Kew

Kew Treetop WalkwayKew treetop walkway

Last weekend, we went to check out the Treetop Walkway at Kew Gardens on its opening day. The line to climb the stairs snaked down a pathway, but it moved pretty quickly, and we were soon up in the trees on the sinewy metal structure.

Though it was a shorter pathway than I anticipated, I really enjoyed being up in the trees, feeling the structure sway with the wind and getting to enjoy the great views of the Temperate House and other Kew Gardens sites.

kew treetop walkway

Not everyone was as thrilled to be up in the trees, though. For those with any discomfort with heights, the walkway made them a bit queasy, and there were quite a few people clutching on to the railings or their partners and waiting eagerly to get down.

The biggest thing I would change about the walkway would be to add an additional entry/exit point, since there was only one — a single staircase only big enough for people to go single file each way, which caused quite a backlog on the narrow walkway. There was a lift right across from the stairs, but it wasn’t ready to be used yet.

We also went to check out the other summertime special tree exhibit, the Rhizotron, which was supposed to teach about root systems. We were unimpressed. It was really directed toward little children, with a cute mosaic, a few metal roots on the walls of the tunnel and some cartoony bugs. It seemed like an afterthought compared to the treetop walkway.

Check out more photos of the walkway on Flickr. And check out all the photos from day as well.

Touring Cambridge

King\'s College, Cambridge
King’s College from the River Cam

Yesterday, Evan’s parents and I took the train out to Cambridge. It was only about 45 minutes away from London on the express train, which made for an easy trip, and we took a taxi into town since it was a bit of a walk from the train station.

The first thing we did was take a walking tour offered by the visitor’s center. Our guide, who knew a ton of trivia — much of it likely town lore — showed us around town, took us to a few of the colleges, including Trinity, where we got a nice glimpse of the courtyard, and King’s, where we got a tour of the immense chapel, which is strangely devoid of much religious iconography in favor of having kings’ and queens’ crests, symbols and initials around. It also had some very old graffiti from the English Civil War, which was interesting.

The tour ran a bit long — the guide sure liked to chat! And afterward we took a bit of a break for lunch.

Punting on the River Cam
Punting on the River Cam

After lunch we were on our own. We walked down to the River Cam and hired a friendly punter to take us on a river tour, which was relaxing and a lot of fun. He knew a lot about the city, answered lots of our questions and did a good job of maneuvering around the less experienced punters. We also helped two people get their poles back.

Inexperienced punters
Inexperienced punters who resorted to dragging their boat from the riverbank

And remember the Bridge of Sighs from Oxford that went over the road? Cambridge has another version, though it’s not quite as ornate, doesn’t have glass and actually goes over the river. I’m guessing that it’s a just a common bridge name at this point because though tour guides like to claim they’re replicas of the one in Venice, neither looks anything like it.

Bridge of Sighs, Cambridge
Another Bridge of Sighs — though this time over the river

Unfortunately, we were visiting during exam time and most of the colleges were closed to visitors, so we didn’t get to really spend any time exploring them. We spent a bit more time walking around town, but it was after 5 and most attractions seemed to be shutting down, so we walked to the train station and headed back to London.

See more photos on Flickr.

Brighton Beach Outdoor Art

When I was in Brighton, I couldn’t help but notice some very loud buildings and other outdoor art. Take a look…

James Brown
A building-size tribute to James Brown

graffiti art
Close-up of some more graffiti-style art

graffiti art
Different styles coming together on different parts of a building

graffiti art
Graffiti on a wall: Who needs actions when you got paint. Are those CCTV cameras stenciled on the right?

Take a look at the rest of my Brighton photos on Flickr.

Sunday in Brighton

It’s been a busy weekend! After my trip to Oxford yesterday, I was inspired to venture out of the city yet again — this time, taking advantage of the lovely sunshine and heading to the seaside — to Brighton.

The train was packed on the way down. I was lucky enough to get a seat, but there were lots of passengers left standing or sitting on the floor. When we finally got to Brighton, there was this huge flow of people heading downhill from the station toward the water.

old brighton pier
West Pier

The first thing I did was check out the coastline. I was surprised that there was no sand, just pebbles. I took some photos of the old, twisted metal pier frame still standing in the water (though just barely), and also photographed the current pier, with its rides and arcades and traditional piery things.

Brighton Pier
Brighton Pier

It seemed like every shop was hawking fish and chips, and there were signs for eels and puns with plaice and even a giant lobster by a poster that said “I got crabs in Brighton”!

brighton lobster shack
A giant lobster, lots of fishy signs and beach kitsch

I decided to do a little sightseeing before relaxing, so I went to the Royal Pavilion, the bizarre Asian-inspired seaside palace of George IV. From the outside it was striking, with its white pointed domes, and from the inside, it was truly spectacular.

Royal Pavilion
The Royal Pavilion

Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to take photos of the inside, but the highlights were the dining room, which has a 30-foot-long chandelier with dragons holding lotus-flower light shades in their mouths suspended from a giant dragon’s claws in the middle of a domed ceiling painted with plantain leaves. (Seriously, it’s sort of shockingly insane.) The music room was also interesting, with a similar shockingly dramatic look. And it was interesting to see the king’s chambers and some of the more private areas like the kitchen, which came complete with stuffed animals (including rats!) to make it seem like it would be used today.

After the Pavilion tour, I went to check out the Lanes, a shopping district of alleyways, which was once a fisherman’s village. I was surprised by the quality of goods there, especially their fair trade, locally made and recycled/reused offerings. I was tempted to buy a lot, though I didn’t indulge. There were also some spectacular looking bakeries and ice cream shops. One particularly cute cupcake shop even sold little felt cupcakes and other goodies.

felt cupcakes
Cute fake cupcakes!

Once I was done window shopping, I took a stroll down the crowded pier. It seemed like everyone had an ice cream cone with a flake bar sticking out of it in hand, and everyone also had a sunburn. Almost as soon as I started walking the pier, I saw some guys jumping off and even diving — a big no-no according to all the signs posted. There were some angry looking security guards around and tons of spectators.

Jumping off brighton pier
Boys jumping off Brighton Pier

Some of the guys tried to climb back up onto the pier, but I think they all ended up just swimming to shore. There are plenty more pictures, including ones of divers and the boys climbing back up on Flickr.

Once I was done on the pier, I went to North Laines to walk around a bit and see the artier side of the city. I caught an interesting street performance where people dressed as mimes were putting on a show for a person sitting in a peep-show sort of contraption that had lots of windows that someone would open to tell the story. I only watched it from the outside, but it was pretty funny and most certainly absurd. There was also lots of street art to check out, and I took some good photos of the graffiti and graffiti-style murals in the area before catching the train home.

Take a look at the rest of the day’s photos on Flickr.