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Posts Tagged ‘Friends’

A Few Days in Istanbul

Kim and I absolutely loved Nepal.  However, we were both looking forward to heading into the westernized world once again. After a full 24 hours of travel and a bump up to first class on one of our flights (yeah!), we landed in Istanbul, Turkey.  We checked in to our hostel in Sultanahmet, the heart of historic Istanbul.  We had a few days to kill before Seth, one of my oldest friends, would join us for 2 weeks of fun!  We knew he would want to see a lot of the tourist attractions as well, so we spent our first couple of days running errands (shipping things home, haircuts, etc.), relaxing on our hostel´s rooftop terrace admiring the coast, and enjoying ice cold Efes, Turkey´s best beer.

We also made a lot of new Australian and Kiwi friends since they were all in town for Anzac Day.  This is a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand on April 25th every year to honor members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who fought at Gallipoli in Turkey during WWI.  I think we were the only people at the hostel that were not from OZ or New Zealand!  When all them left for Gallipoli, we made friends with some locals that we spent an evening with drinking red wine, dancing and smoking sheesha (flavored tabacco) in their restaruant after hours.  What a great night!

 
 When Seth arrived a few days later, we only had a couple days to see the sites in Istanbul before we moved on.  We went ahead and booked all of our activities for his entire time in Turkey so we could relax and not have to do too much planning. First stop was The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque).  It was built by Sultan Ahmet in 17th century and was supposed to be bigger, better and more beautiful than Hagai Sofia (Ayasofya), the ´greatest church in Christendom´, across the plaza built in 537 A.D. This is actually a working mosque so it is closed to visitors for 30 minutes, 5 times a day for Muslim prayer.  It get´s its name from the blue tiles that are inside, mostly on the upper level.  Even though the exterior was in my opinion, much prettier than Ayasofya, the interior of Ayasofya was breathtaking and more beautiful.  Both buildings are must sees, just be ready for the crowds.  Afterwards, we headed over to the harbor for a fresh fish sandwich and mussels and a long walk along the coast. That night, we hung out with all the Aussies and Kiwis that had returned from Gallipoli.  The strip of bars and clubs behind our hostel were filled with people enjoying themselves after such an emotional experience.   
The Blue Mosque

 

Dome inside the mosque

 

Seth and Me

 
 
 

The Aya Sofia

Inside the Aya Sofia

 

 

For Seth´s final day in Istanbul, we headed to the Grand Bazaar for some shopping.  What an amazing place!! They have everything Turkish you could ever imagine.  From tea and backgammon sets, to belly dancing costumes, jewelry, clothes, pashminas, sheesha pipes, to sultan hats.  We had so much fun wandering around for hours in the maze of shops with men shouting funny lines to get you to stop and look.  You could literally spend days in there and not see everything.  We also visited the underground Basilica Cistern.  It was built in the 6th century and later enlarged to provide water filtration for the surrounding buildings in Sultanahmet. 

 
 
 

The Cistern

That night, Seth and I went with some friends from the hostel to Taksim, a area where locals and tourists go out for a good time.  There are tons of bars, clubs, live music, and dancing for any taste.  Unfortunately it was Monday, so the scene was pretty low-key.  Even though we were told it was best to go on weekends, we had to check it out.  We still made a great night out of it!! If any of you know Seth….he IS the party where ever we go.

Istanbul is an incredible city. So alive and friendly! Luckily, Kim and I would be back in about a month but now on to Cappadocia!!

 

Our new Turkish friends

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Rafting and Relaxing

With 12 days of trekking under our belts, Kelly and I were looking forward to returning to Pokhara for some good ol’ r&r.  Situated below the Annapurna mountain range on the tranquil waters of Lake Phewa Tal, Pokhara is a chilled out town with cute restaurants, bars, and shops.  We spent four days wandering the streets, eating amazing pizza, Indian food, and steak (we were sooooo sick of eating dahl baht everyday), napping, reading, and doing not much else.  

Also, we were fortunate enough to meet up with Doug again!  He had just finished the Everest Base Camp trek and made the trip to Pokhara to relax and do some paragliding.  One afternoon the three of us took a crazy taxi ride up to the World Peace Pagoda to get an overall view of Pokhara and snap some photos.  Unfortunately, the skies had begun to get a little hazy, so the view wasn’t as nice as we had hoped.

At the World Peace Pagoda

After several days of being lazy, Kelly and I signed up for a two-day white-water rafting trip down the x river.  We did an easy section of the river, which consisted of mostly Class II and a couple of Class III rapids…our first day we basically floated along the river taking in the spectacular views around us.  Camp was set up on a small beach with another group of paddlers taking a kayak course and our guides prepared a fantastic dinner for us before having a couple of beers and calling it a night.

The second day of rafting was a bit more exciting.  We got to hit up a few Class III rapids and assisted in the ‘rescue efforts’ of the kayakers that were tumped over during the more difficult runs.  At first Kelly and I were kicking ourselves for not doing a kayaking course instead, but after watching the kayakers eat it on those rapids, we were glad we stuck to the rafting.

At the take-out point, the plan was for the majority of the group to catch a public bus back to Kathmandu.  The guides hailed a bus, but the only room available was on the roof with the luggage.  In Nepal, it is totally acceptable to ride on the roof of buses, cars, trains, whatever.  Everyone in our group was ok with this, but I was not having it.  I insisted that Kelly and I would wait for another bus.  Eager to be rid of us and head back to Pokhara, the guides convinced a couple of ladies at the front of the bus to stand up so Kelly and I would have a seat. 

That’s the other thing about Nepal buses…they pack in as many people (and animals) as possible so people are sitting on top of eachother, standing in the aisles, etc.  Kelly and I sat at the front of the bus, facing the opposite direction which meant we had about 30 Nepali people staring at us for the entire seven hour journey…pretty entertaining for us and them.  It was not a comfortable ride and we even thought it would have been nicer to ride on the roof (and actually probably safer…at least we could jump off if the bus started to take a tumble over a cliff).  Unfortunately, our friends up top assured us that it wasn’t much better up there either.

Happy to be alive, yet exhausted when we finally got back to Kathmandu, we checked into our guesthouse and had an early night.

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Located in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai is known as the cultural city of the country and amongst other activities, is a popular destination to undertake a trek to hill-tribe villages.   After all of the island hopping, Kelly and I settled down for a whole week here and really fell in love with the place. Despite the noise, traffic and smoggy air (due to all of the ‘slash and burning’ that goes on to cultivate the mountain slopes), the city has an extremely laid back atmosphere. The ‘Old City’ is surrounded by a moat and a brick wall (crumbling in some areas) that once served as a defense against attackers and is full of narrow cobblestone alleyways lined with cafes and restaurants.

The wall around the city center

Our first day in town, Kelly and I immediately signed up for a Thai cooking course.   There are dozens to choose from, but we settled on Thai Farm Cooking School, a class taught outside of the city on an organic farm.   They picked us up from our guesthouse early the following morning and stopped off at a local outdoor market where we were given the rundown of the key ingredients for Thai cooking and allowed some time to wander amongst the endless food stalls.

Upon arrival, we were given a tour of the farm, including an explanation of the produce that is grown there, before being shown to our cooking stations. In no time we were pounding mortars and pestles to make our own chili paste from scratch…it’s actually quite a workout! Every person chose five dishes to make…Kelly and I decided on green and red chicken curry, tom yam and tom ka soups, pad thai, chicken with basil, chicken with cashew nuts, and sticky rice with mango.

 

Mmmmmm

It was a great day and the food was fantastic…we went home with our bellies full (yes, you eat the food that you make) and doggy-bags in tow, along with a recipe book of all the yummy dishes we had made.   Kelly and I are super excited to cook authentic Thai food for our friends and family when we get back home!

Look what we made!

The next afternoon and evening was dedicated to the Sunday Walking Street Market, a market that blows all the other markets we‘ve seen away. Rachadamnoen Road, one of the main streets in the Old City, is closed off to traffic and the entire street is lined with row after row of vendor booths that sell clothing, jewelry, home décor, paintings, and other local crafts.   Singers, dancers, and other musicians perform in the middle of the road and tucked inside the temple yards are food stalls packed with diners feasting on pork dumplings, fried noodles and rice, meat skewers, and fresh fruit smoothies.   Kelly and I had another fine, cheap street food meal as we tried to navigate the shops that sprawled in every direction, but finally had to give up around 9 p.m.   After four hours, we probably only saw half the market…it is that huge.

Stalls at the Sunday market

The following day, Jeff K. from Canada arrived and the three of us took a taxi up to the Doi Suthep, one of the local Buddhist temples.   The temple was pretty, but unfortunately, was under construction…the big stupa was covered with tarps and scaffolding!

Wat Doi Suthep

 That evening, we all ticked another Thailand ‘must-see’ off of our list and attended a Muy Thai Boxing Fight.   Picturing a boxing match from the States, we thought we would be sitting in a crowded arena with hundreds of other fans, but were surprised when we arrived at a courtyard full of bars and were escorted to a small ring surrounded by benches and tables…much more up close and personal than we expected!

Muy Thai!

There were five rounds of boxing, the first couple between young Thai boys and teenagers, followed by a match between two Thai women boxers (awesome!), and then two international fighters against a local Thai.  These fighters don’t mess around and the sport looks absolutely exhausting.   After our fill of punches and kicks, syrupy-sweet cocktails and shirtless dancing lady-boys, we called it a night.

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Since Kim and I were in the area, we decided to hit up the notorious Full Moon Party in Koh Phangan, an island off the east coast of Thailand.   It’s one of those things you just have to see.   Because of the influx of tourists to the area, around this time each month  the price of everything doubles or triples and it can be very hard to find a room.   And even if you do, they require you to stay at least 5-10 nights!   Reluctantly, we booked 5 nights well in advance at Coral Bungalows on the west side of the island.   We weren’t too happy about spending that long on a party island, however, we would be meeting up with the Jeff’s once again and have a few extra days to relax.  We had heard that Coral was known for it’s party hardy atmosphere and huge, all night pool parties — not to mention the billion signs on the drive there advirtising the “Biggest, Craziest Pool Party in the World 700, 500, 200 meters Ahead!!   Kim wasn’t too pumped about this but to our surprise, our room was gigantic with super power A/C, private balcony, and far enough from all the action to turn in early if needed.   It was fantastic! The pool, restaruant and bar were right on the beach and sold everything from gatorade (gotta get in those electrolites) to toilet paper…they made it very easy not to leave this place.   

Beach view from Coral

 
We spent the days leading up to the FMP walking around town, shopping, and hanging with the Jeff’s and our new friends Chelsea, Chris and Katie.  We thought about heading to the beach on the east side for some tanning and swimming, but once we caught a glipmse of it, we quickly changed our minds.   The scenery itself, the cliffs, the color of the water, the blue sky was all wonderful, but the beach itself was pretty gross.  Trash everywhere!!  People don’t just party on the beach the night of a full moon, it happens just about every night here.   The sand is filled with straws (from all the buckets being consumed), wrappers, paper, broken glass…it’s horrible.  And we know that the water is just a big urinal when the sun goes down.  So, needless to say, we didn’t do much actual beach time in Koh Phangan. 
One day while Jeff and I hung by the pool, Kim did a day trip to Ang Thong National Park to visit some of the surrounding islands.  Despite the nausea-inducing boat ride, the scenery was gorgeous:
 
At night, we would meet up with everyone at Coral and then head to the beach.  The nights leading up to the FMP are just as good, if not better than the actual party.  It’s crazy!  The beach is lined with “bucket bars” competing for your business, yelling and dancing, waving various patriotic flags to attract certain tourists, offering gifts with purchase, etc.  Chris and Katie had been living in the area a month, so we stuck with them and got “the hookup” at their favorite place.   This was also during the final days of the Olympic Games and Canada was playing the U.S. in the championship hockey game at 3am.   Since we were with ALL Canadians, and they are FREAKS about hockey, Kim and I had to tag along to represent:)   We didn’t quite make it to the end of the game, but heard we put up a good fight in overtime.  The Canadians were quite happy with the outcome (and quite drunk walking home at 7:30am).

Buckets at Coral with the Jeffs

Bucket bar stalls along the beach

Partaking

 
The night of the Full Moon Party, we all went to an authentic Thai BBQ at this quaint little restaurant, Bull Of the Moon.  Chris and Katie ate there just about every night for the last month.   The owner was quite generous and provided us with a great experience.   Basically, they place this metal bowl with sort of dome in the middle with slits over a pot of burning coals.   He fills the outer area with broth to cook noodles and vegetables and then gave us a plate of raw shrimp, squid, pork, beef and chicken to grill ourselves with chopsticks.   Good fun, but super hot!   We would have enjoyed this activity much more in the winter:) 

Traditional Thai BBQ

 Then it was back to Coral to get painted up for the party.  It’s pretty much against the law to not cover yourself in neon paint for this event.  Plus, it’s just fun to paint stupid stuff all over each other!  We had a great time drinking and dancing the night away.  It was very interesting as well to see all the random people passed out all over the beach, falling off stages and spranging something, carrying their barefoot buddy off the beach with cut up feet, and the list goes on.   I’m sorry, but that shit was out of control! Good times though!

Gettin' painted up!

Chelsea, Kim, Chris, and Jeff getting crazy

Katie and Jeff actin' like fools

The beach looks exactly how you feel at the end of the night

We of course spent the next day recovering and getting ready to head back up north.   We had a short stop back in Bangkok before we took a long bus ride from hell up to Chiang Mai.  I will say though, we had so much fun in the Islands!!   It’s gorgeous here and everyone should see this place.  Southern Thailand, you will be missed.

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Kelly and I were fortunate  to meet up with Doug again and have him as our tour guide for the rest of our time in the city.  He grew up in Hong Kong and was in town visiting his parents for a few weeks…we love having a local to show us around!  He and his friend Joseph (randomly, a former Austinite) showed us a great time.  Some of our favorite adventures include:

 -Dim Sum at Luk Yu Teahouse, one of the oldest dim sum restaurants in Hong Kong. 

-A Spanish wine tasting with Doug’s parents at a swanky hotel. His dad accidentally knocked a whole tray of wine glasses onto the floor, which was awesome.

 

-One of the most amazing sushi meals of our lives (Kelly will fill you in later), followed by karaoke, a popular activity here in Hong Kong. We had a private karaoke room and spent the night getting sloshed and butchering Neil Diamond, Madonna, and Michael Jackson tunes. Disappointingly, there were no Rolling Stones songs available, but it was still a kick-ass time. See if this little ditty doesn’t get stuck in your head after about 2 seconds:

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4sZ5_ocsgs 

-The Horse Races! Horse racing is a huge spectator sport in Hong Kong, and Doug’s folks scored us some free tickets to the Wednesday night races in Happy Valley. Kelly and I gambled and lost, Doug’s horse actually placed and he won a whopping $45.

The Race Track

The Track

Crossing the Finish Line

-A day trip to Lantau Island where we sort of got to see the Big Buddha statue through a bunch of clouds and stupidly attempted a hike to the summit of Lantau Peak in crap weather. This was not the best idea since the ascent is pretty steep and the rock stairs were wet and slippery…coming down was going to be a problem. It was so cloudy that you couldn’t see anything anyway, so we turned around before reaching the summit and tried not to slip and break our skulls open.

 

The Big Buddah

-Strolling around Tai O, a small fishing village on Lantau, to check out the dried fish market and catch whiffs of fermenting shrimp paste. Yum!

 

Tai O

Dried Fish Anyone?

-A day trip to Macau Island, a former Portuguese colony known for it’s Vegas-style casinos. We didn’t do any gambling, but did cheer on Doug as he weighed in for the highest bungy jump in the world (233 meters) off of the Macau tower. It looked terrifying…even Kelly wouldn’t consider doing the jump. Doug took it like a man though and earned some bragging rights and a ‘free’ t-shirt.

 

Doug v.s. The Macau Tower

View of Macau from the tower

-Going back to the insane seafood restaurant for an incredible dinner and pounding beer bowls with the owner. Pretty convenient that he and Joseph happen to be drinking buddies outside of work.

 -A night ferry ride at the harbor and drinks with city views at the Sheraton Sky Lounge.

Hong Kong at Night

Some things that Kelly and I did without Doug, but wished he could have been there:

-Drinking bloody mary’s and watching the last few minutes of the Superbowl at an Irish bar with 100 or so other Americans.

-A shopping trip to the Wan Chai computer center so that I could purchase a new point and shoot camera. My expensive waterproof, sand-proof, shockproof camera quit working after the Whitsunday sail in OZ. I think some sand got stuck in the lens. ‘Sand-proof’ MY ASS, Olympus!

-Watching Avatar at the IMAX theatre. Totally blah story line, but pretty cool to look at (sort of like The Matrix, Andy).

-A trip up to The Peak for coffee and some cloudy, yet incredible views of Hong Kong.

View of Central from The Peak

Us and Doug on our last night in HK

Now about the FOOD…

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Even though we had visited several big cities along the way, I was a little intimidated to arrive in Hong Kong. It was the first country where neither Kelly nor I spoke the language and I was worried we might have trouble making our way around the city if we couldn’t understand anyone or read any signs.

My fears were put to rest as soon as we stepped off the plane…everything in Hong Kong is in Cantonese AND English. Not only that, but the public transportation here is amazingly efficient. The subway system (called the MTR) is spotlessly clean with trains arriving every couple of minutes, travelling to just about everywhere in the city. There are electronic signs in the subway cars that not only tell you the upcoming stop in two languages, but which side of the train you need to exit. To make things even more convenient, you pay for your MTR or ferry ride with an ‘Octopus Card’, a re-chargeable credit card that can also be used at convenience stores and fast food restaurants all over town. Wanna take a taxi? A ride all the way from the central part of the island across the harbour to Kowloon is around $10.

Kelly and I stayed in the cheap shopping district of Tsim Sha Tsui (TST)  in a huge building called Chungking Mansions. There are a ton of Indian dudes standing around out front trying to sell you a bunch of crap. Kelly and I played a game to see how many times in a day we were were asked if we wanted a ‘copy watch, copy handbag, or tailor-suit’. Twenty-seven was the big winner. The sixteen story building itself was a little ghetto and scary, but our guesthouse was nice and the rooms were clean.

Our first couple of days we spent wandering around TST and Mong Kok, another bargain shopping area. The amount of shopping malls and high fashion brand name stores here is mind-blowing. Gucci, Prada, Dolce and Gabana, Burberry…it’s a shopoholic’s paradise. Fortunately, Kelly and I don’t really care much about brand names OR shopping because we would have blown our whole load in Hong Kong.

We spent some time taking in the city views along the harbor, visiting the flower, bird, and fish markets, walking down the ‘Avenue of Stars’ and I bought at $5 watch at the Temple Street night market. Since Chinese New Year was a few days away, the entire city was adorned with red and gold lanterns, lights, and decorations, which really created a festive atmosphere. Kelly and I were also delighted to discover that there are information signs on every other corner pointing to areas of interest around the city. It is so easy to get around here, even with my horrible sense of direction. I love Hong Kong!

View of Hong Kong Island skyline from Kowloon

Cages at the bird market

Flower Market

Chinese New Year Decorations

Our first weekend in town, we met up with June, an old friend from Texas that moved to Shanghai six years ago. When she heard Kelly and I were going to be in Hong Kong, she took a flight down for a couple of days to see us and celebrate her birthday. She and her fiancee, Alex, took us to an insane seafood restaurant for dinner and then out to the Soho district for chocolate strawberry daiquiris at The Feather Boa Bar.

 

The girls at dinner

Kelly and Alex at Feather Boa

We did notice something strange about this part of the city though….there were no Asians anywhere. Everyone was white! Apparently there is a huge expatriate community here due to the fact that Hong Kong is a major financial and business hub…tons of of Europeans and Americans move here for work.

 We had a fantastic time hanging out with June and Alex over the course of the weekend and celebrated June’s birthday at a delicious Italian restaurant before she headed back to Shanghai. Hopefully we’ll see them back in Texas in the near future.

Happy Birthday June!

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Both Kim and I could have stayed in Sydney for a few more days, but were excited to head to Byron Bay since we had heard so much about it from the Aussie boys we met in Chile. We couldn’t wait to check it out and get some more beach time. Marianne had been there before as well and was able to show us around and point us in the right direction for nightlife (to say the least).

 Byron Bay is a great little beach town, filled with shops, restaurants, bars, and night clubs. We spent our days relaxing on the beach, shopping for some items we had lost along the way and sipping cold beverages. To get some exercise, we did a really nice hike up to the lighthouse, where we passed the most eastern point in Australia!! So cool. It also gives you an incredible view of the entire coast.

 

Byron Bay Main Beach

Yaaaaay!

On the walk to the lighthouse

 

Another view

The eastern most point of Australia

Our hostel was quite large but also very accommodating for the amount of people staying there. We spent many a night just drinking on the patio after cooking and then heading out to one of the bars to do some dancing. One night I almost won a $20 bar tab by winning a game of flip cup (which I’m phenomenal at by the way), but I was screwed. Missed out by one game!! Later that night we went out with a group of Irish boys to a couple clubs and then tried to go to the infamous Cheeky Monkey’s. Marianne had been telling us about the $8 “jugs” (pitchers from where we come from) and dancing on the tables for months. She said it was a MUST in Byron Bay. Well, too bad that Marianne was kicked out before she or any of us even got in because the bouncer said we were all too intoxicated. What?? Nah….not us:)

 Soon the Jeff’s arrived and the debauchery continued. More beach time, more deliciously prepared backpacker dinners at the hostel, and of course more beer and wine. Gotta love that cheap box wine, which tastes awful and is known here as “goon”. ‘Goon’ is the aboriginal word for “pillow” so it includes any wine in a bag that is then put in a box, including our slightly more expensive and better tasting wine. But hey, when you are on a budget….

Hostel dinners and boxed wine...can't beat it!

 On Marianne’s last night in town, we decided to try our luck again at Cheeky Monkey. I just had to shake my booty on the tables with her before she left! We headed over early since they only served the cheap ‘jugs’ until 9pm. It was ladies night, so we all got a free, huge glass of champagne to start, and then proceeded to take back a good 12 or so pitchers within the hour! After a couple of hours of dancing on the tables (covered in sheet metal, obviously dancing on them is encouraged) we sent Marianne off in style by shouting “We love Marianne!!” in our horrible Norwegian accents for a good 5-10 minutes before her bus departed. I’m sure the other passengers loved us. We will be meeting up with her again in Montenegro this summer. I can’t wait!

 

Us at Cheeky Monkey's

Marianne and Jeff L. gettin' tipsy

Going to miss you...see you this summer!

The following morning, the rest of us booked a day trip to the hippie town of Nimbin. Not much to see there other than a bunch of head shops, druggies, and a quirky museum. However, we did stop at some cool markets along the way and a few scenic spots on the drive back.

 

The Nimbin Museum

Our last night in Byron Bay, the Jeff’s and I camped out on the beach so we could catch the sunrise the next morning. It was breathtaking. Though quite uncomfortable, it was totally worth it. Check out these pictures.

 

It was time to work our way north up to Brisbane for our one day tour of Fraser Island and then it was up to the Whitsunday Island for our sailing trip!! We said our good-byes to the Jeff’s and promised to see them again in Thailand. Byron Bay was definitely one of my favorite spots on this trip. I WILL make it back here one day.

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