5 must-do experiences in Istanbul

I’m not going to lie – I was a little bit nervous about my latest trip – a visit to Istanbul. It was only about six weeks after the recent military coup after all. There were very few tourists around during my visit, but there was no trouble at all while I was there.

Turkey is the ultimate East-meets-West experience. The architecture is a mishmash of European and Arab-influenced styles, the majority of the people are Muslim but very few of the women were burkas or even abayas, alcohol is freely available and the city has a vibrant nightlife.

The Turkish people I met (with the exception of one taxi driver who ripped us off) were friendly and had a great sense of humour. They laughed along with our jokes and made plenty of their own.

Cruise along the Bosphorus Strait

The Bosphorus Strait divides Istanbul between East and West. Uniquely, the Eastern side of the city is considered Asia while the West side of the city is European. By the port, dozens of tourist agents will try to entice you to take their private cruises. Make sure to take one of the larger ferries which hold large groups and are significantly cheaper for a broadly similar experience.

The cruise offers incomparable views of Istanbul’s skyline, as well as glimpses of the city’s history. You can choose between two hour and six hour cruises; while the views on either side of the river are truly beautiful, we took the two hour cruise and I would say that was exactly the right amount of time to relax and take in the autumn sun without getting bored.

At 13 Turkish Lira (€3.68) per person, this was undoubtedly the best money I spent during my trip.

Stroll down Istiklal Cadessi

Istiklal Cadessi, which means Independence Avenue, is a lively pedestrian street close to Taksim Square.  Although the area has been the scene of a lot of controversy, during my visit the area was packed with shoppers and people going about their daily lives with little sign of any controversy.

The street is home to high street shops, local brands, a beautiful church, an ambassador’s residence, coffee shops and restaurants. It’s one of the areas that really highlights Istanbul’s East-meets-West culture; the architecture along the street is mostly European, but Arab influence is also apparent.

Indulge in a luxurious Turkish bath

Lying on a white marble slab being bathed and massaged by a stranger was a bizarre but beautiful experience. It’s an unusual situation to find yourself in as an adult, being washed by another adult (outside the context of a relationship), but it was an oddly comforting feeling.

I decided so splash out on this and booked an appointment at the Cow Shed in Soho House Istanbul. This was a truly five-star experience – Soho House is an elegant, classically-styled private members club, fitted out with rich mahogany furnishings. The spa was decadent and serene, with friendly staff and beautiful interiors.

Wearing just a pair of bikini bottoms, I was told to lie down on a the marble slab, which dipped slightly in the middle. Warm water was poured all over me, bubbles were lathered all over my body and I was scrubbed using a traditional kese or mitt to exfoliate my skin. Then, the lady washed my hair.

I spent 300 Turkish Lira (€85) on my massage, and while you can have similar experiences at less opulent prices, I don’t regret it for a second. After  my bath was finished, I was offered a cup of lemon ginger tea and given time to relax in the spas luxurious environs before moving on to get my nails done.

Play dress up at the Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar is Istanbul’s largest market. It’s a labyrinth of alleys with more than 20 entrances, so if you see something you really want buy it, because the chances that you’ll find your way back to that stall again are slim. I recommend learning to say “no” in a way that’s both friendly and firm before you visit. You can find almost anything imaginable at the bazaar – Pick up a Turkish tea set, a rug, or a vast array of clothes, toys, souvenirs, Turkish Delight, teas or other food and herbs.

I imagine it’s normally a lot busier than it was during our September visit, but after the military coup that took place in Turkey during the summer, there were very few tourists around.

If you’re feeling a little silly, there’s a stall where you can dress up as a Sultan or Sultana and have your photo taken. We came across this almost immediately on arrival, and we burst into fits of laughter as we tried on the outfits and had a series of photos taken with musical instruments, weapons and other props. This was so much fun and makes for a great cheesy tourist shot – I recommend it.

For 80 Turkish Lira (€22.66), we got three printed photos and a CD with all of the photos saved on it.

Explore the majestic Blue Mosque

No trip to Istanbul would be complete without a trip to the Blue Mosque, which are beautiful inside and out. Ladies dressed in Western clothing will need to borrow an abaya to wear if you’re going inside. There are booths where these are available free of charge. The mosque has beautiful stained glass and low hanging chandeliers. To get the best view of the outside of the mosque, visit the rooftop seafood restaurant at Seven Hills Hotel for panoramic views of the Blue Mosque, Hajja Sophia and the Bosphorus.

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Vivid memories of Vietnam

Backpacking in Vietnam

It’s hard to believe, but in February it will be seven years since I had my first experience of travelling in Asia – a visit to Vietnam in 2010 when I was 21. At the time, I was teaching in Abu Dhabi, and I went on this trip with around 12 other teachers during a two-week mid-term.

We started our journey in Ho Chi Minh, formerly known as Saigon, travelling from there to the Cu Chi tunnels and the Me Kong Delta, before travelling back up the coast through Nha Trang and Hoi An, before arriving in capital city Hanoi for our flight home.

I’ve been lucky enough to visit  lots of other countries since then, but few have such an incredible combination of awe-inspiring things to see and do.

Unmissable Vietnam experiences

Crawl through the Cu Chi tunnels

One of the reasons Vietnam won the war was because they had a secret labyrinth of underground tunnels that they used to communicate with each other, launch attacks and live. A section of the tunnels have been enlarged for Western tourists, but are still no more than a metre tall.  Our guide set us a challenge – to crawl through 100 feet of the tunnel, but with the option to bail at every 20 foot mark. It was dark, uncomfortable and claustrophobic in the tunnels, with no opportunity to turn back, and most of us left after 40 feet – with a few of the more determined going to 60. It was unbelievable to think people spent years on end in them.

While we were there, our guide educated us on some of the torture instruments and guerrila tactics used by the Viet Cong, and we were given the opportunity to shoot a cow dead with an AK47 – we passed on that!

Row through the Me Kong Delta

Having hired motorbikes (and in my case, a Vietnamese man to drive my motorbike), I set off toward the Me Kong Delta with some of my friends and an English backpacker we met over breakfast that I invited along. At the delta, we rowed down streams lined with Asian foliage, befriended a python and watched as the catch of the day was fried in front of us. The outstanding memories of that section of the trip was the English guy. We hit it off and as my friends made their way back to Ho Chi Minh that night, he and I stayed on at a town near the delta where no one spoke English and we could only order food by pointing at the noodles we wanted. And it turns out, you’ll learn how to use chopsticks pretty fast when forks and knives aren’t an option!

Visit the War Remnants museum in Ho Chi Minh

The first thing you see when you go in are colourful pictures painted by children depciting peace, love and harmony. From there on in, it’s a harrowing couple of hours reading about the impact of the decades-long Vietnam war. After a lifetime of hearing about the war from the American media, seeing the human impact on the lives of the Vietnamese people was a massive eye-opener. Inside, exhibitions depict shocking photos of the war with graphic details on the use of Agent Orange and other American attacks, while outside airplanes and army tanks from the war are displayed.

Party till dawn in Nha Trang

I spent three days in Nha Trang, sipping cocktails and lying in hammocks during the day, partying till dawn at night. My memories of this spot are a fantastic, fun-filled blur: This was back when I still drank alcohol (hard!) and I danced the nights away, skinny dipped at 4am, smooched someone on the beach and had the time of my life. Just thinking about it brings a warm, nostalgic smile to my face!

Get some bespoke tailored clothes in Hoi An

Hoi An is one of the prettiest places I’ve ever been. Lanterns are strung up throughout the town, giving the place a romantic, oriental feel. Hoi An had the best food I tasted in Vietnam, and we stayed there for a few days because it’s most famous for tailoring (there are about 300 tailors there and it’s a tiny little town). I had three beautiful dresses made – one of which I still own and love today – if only it still fitted! After the hectic time we had partying in Nha Trang, Hoi An was the perfect antidote, colourful and totally relaxed.

Have an adventure in Halong Bay

As the holiday was drawing to a close, we took a final trip – a night in Halong Bay, a UNESCO world heritage site. Many of the sights we had seen were beautiful, but the bay was breathtaking. We organised to spend a night on a boat out there in the ocean, to be followed by a day of activities including kayaking, swimming and snorkelling. Unfortunately, our kayaking trip went slightly awry when my friend B and I accidentally sank our kayak and got conned out of loads of money by men who were holding our passports. But that’s another story.

It’s amazing to be able to think back after this long and have such incredible memories – and these are only the major highlights. The only other country I’ve visited that had a silmilar impact on me was Kenya. Have you been to Vietnam, or would you like to go? Leave a comment! Or connect with me on Facebook or Instagram. I want to hear from you!

Stranded in the South China Sea: Travel Disasters Part 2

Back in February of 2010, at 22, I went on my first ‘holiday of a lifetime’ – two weeks exploring Vietnam. There was a group of about 12 of us, all working as teachers in the same school in Abu Dhabi at the time, determined to make the best of a mid-term break.

We covered serious ground over the two weeks, starting off in the colourful and chaotic city of Ho Chi Minh, crawling through the tunnels the Vietnam War was fought through in Cu Chi, and rowing along the meandering rivers of the Me Kong Delta. We delved into history at various museums, motor biked along the coast (me hiring a driver as well as the bike, the others riding their own), danced until dawn at beach parties in Nha Trang and had exquisite clothes tailored in Hoi An. All of these activities come highly recommended if you’re planning a trip to Vietnam.

Nha Trang (pic via Google Creative Commons)

As the holiday was drawing to a close, we took a final trip – a night in Halong Bay, a UNESCO world heritage site. Many of the sights we had seen were beautiful, but the bay was breathtaking. We organised to spend a night on a boat out there in the ocean, to be followed by a day of activities including kayaking, swimming and snorkelling. We were joined on the boat by a group of Australians, who mistakenly thought they could out-drink a group of Irish people. In a move we would later recognise as a major red flag, the tour company held on to our passports while we were on the trip.

As we set off kayaking in pairs the next day, I was delighted to be partnered up with one of my good friends, B. We listened patiently as the guide explained that we would row to some nearby caves. If we fell out, she warned us that we would be charged if we lost our oars. We were the last kayak to set off, and as we did, B gave me a huge grin and said: “I’m definitely going to topple us over.” As our friends followed the guide towards the caves, B, whom I have always blamed for what followed, said: “Why are we following them like sheep? Let’s go toward that beach over there instead”, pointing at an island a little further away. Foolishly, I agreed.

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We rowed for a few minutes, and as our friends disappeared into the caves, we realised the island we were heading for was further away than we thought. The inevitable happened, and we toppled over (B blames my poor rowing skills for this, he might be right). Remembering our guide’s warning, we immediately swam for our oars, not wanting to be held liable for them. Around 20 seconds later, oar in hand, I turned back to the kayak, wondering how I would be able to clamber back into it from the water, when B and I realised that wouldn’t be a problem.

Our kayak was sinking at an incredibly fast rate, and we were out in the open water alone.

B made a valiant attempt to stop the thing from disappearing, but there was nothing that could be done. Since kayaks are definitely not meant to sink if they topple over, we can assume this one had some kind of hole in it. We looked at each other and burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation. We were too far from the shore to swim back in, we had ditched our friends and there was no one around. I screamed as something brushed against my leg, but it turned out to be a plastic bag.

A large boat went past shouting to us to find out if we needed help. Disappointingly, when we said “YES!” the boat continued on its way, abandoning us. A different group of kayakers came across us and couldn’t take us on to their’s as there was no space, but they rowed back to shore to call for help. Eventually, two small, round, shop boats, stocked with cigarettes and small bottles of whiskey were sent to rescue us. They were so tiny each could only hold one of us. I have no idea what the young Vietnamese women working on them made of us. I imagine them raising their eyebrows to each other saying: “White people!”.

This is a stunning shot of the caves in Halong Bay... Maybe we should have just done that!

This is a stunning shot of the caves in Halong Bay… Maybe we should have just done that!

As they rowed us in, B sat back on his boat, eyes closed, basking in the sun. “B!” I shouted over at him “I’ve never seen you look more relaxed.” He’s a good man in a crisis, he doesn’t panic easily. The next few hours are a blur; some rudimentary attempts were made to recover the kayak but those were unsuccessful. The rest of the day’s activities were cancelled. The tour company claimed we owed them hundreds of dollars for the kayak (in another part of the world we would have been threatening them with lawsuits for sending us out in a blatantly faulty kayak, but this was Vietnam, and these guys had our passports.) We realised we were being scammed, and there was almost nothing we could do about it – we had a flight to catch.

The men in the group negotiated with the tour company, I wasn’t allowed to be a part of the conversation. The guys claimed this was out of deference to Vietnamese culture, but I think they were just scared I’d flip out, which was reasonably likely. Nonetheless, I imagine I would have done a better job – their ‘negotiations’ cost us every penny we had (and a bit more.) I distinctly remember B and I pooling our change during our stopover in Singapore airport to see if we could afford a coffee each at Starbucks.

So, that’s that story told. Although it wasn’t the best way to finish our incredible holiday in Vietnam, it’s a story that gets told and retold every time B and I get together – his version might be slightly different than mine.

The lesson? Never give your passport to a tour company, it’s almost always a scam. Follow the damn guide, that’s what you paid them for. And never listen to your crazy friend B, no matter how much he’s grinning at you.

Have you had any travel disasters to share? If you enjoyed this one, read about the time I got deported from Bahrain for “security reasons”.

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Getting deported: Travel disasters and what I learned from them

There’s a side of travel that people don’t talk about so much… You rave on Facebook about the new cultures you encounter, Instagram shots of stunning sunrises on mountaintops and Tweet about amazing experiences that happened spontaneously in exotic places. You just don’t hear so much about the days people lost luggage, felt homesick and missed flights.

The good part is that you learn as you go, and rarely make the same mistake twice. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to write about some of the travel disasters I’ve faced, and what I learned – so hopefully you can avoid getting into these situations.

Getting deported: In Autumn 2012 I had just moved back to Dubai, but my residence visa wasn’t processed within 30 days, so I needed to leave the country and come back in on a new tourist visa. This is very common, and most people drive to neighbouring Oman to cross the border and come back. I decided to fly to nearby Bahrain instead because an Irish band I love were playing that weekend.

I had visited Bahrain before in 2009 and gotten a visa-on-arrival, and assumed I could do the same thing again. I did not take into account the political instability in Bahrain caused by the Arab Spring (or ‘The Emergency’ as Bahraini Sunnis call it) and how that might have changed things. Somehow, the Bahraini border police knew that I worked in the media and thought I was trying to sneak in to do some investigative journalism. I really just wanted to see that band.

I was 24 years old and more than a little arrogant. Though I cooperated with the aggressive officers’ questions, ultimately I lost my temper with them when they refused to believe the truth. They accused me of trying to sneak into the country to stay, because I didn’t have print outs to prove where I was staying and that my flight back was in just a couple of days. It was incredibly frustrating because they could have confirmed the details I was giving them with a phone call or two – but they wouldn’t. (HELLO – I’m a millennial – who prints that stuff these days?)

Long story short- I was deported back to Dubai six hours later with a form that cited “security reasons” as the cause. When I called my embassy before my next trip abroad (Thailand) to see if this would impede my ability to travel they said: “You’re not on any watch list we have access to”. Thank goodness for that!

The lesson? Maybe don’t go to countries that are politically unstable. If you are going to, print all your travel documents before you get to the airport, try to organise a visa online in advance, contact your embassy to let them know you’re going, and grit your teeth and smile at border police no matter how awful they’re being- you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar!

Next week I’ll write about getting conned into buying a kayak in Vietnam, it’s just as ridiculous as it sounds – subscribe to get the whole story into your inbox.

Have you ever been deported? How did you deal with it?

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