Monday, 27 January 2020

Southeast Asian Spielplatz

From Oman we joined southeast Asian expat-workers heading home and western oil workers on holiday (the Thai airways flight was actually a codeshare with the Oman Petroleum Development Corporation, which apparently operates some sort of airline).  Our destination was Bangkok where we'd meet Sarah's brother and whanau and begin the final, southeast Asian leg of our travels. Interestingly, we had a stopover in Karachi, where through-passengers didn't leave the aircraft. Before the new passengers boarded, the crew went through and confirmed that every piece of carry-on luggage corresponded to a passenger who was still on board.  Stopovers like this are pretty rare these days!

We met Sarah's sister-in-law Carmen at the airport and, soon after, her nieces Melinda and Vanessa at their school in central Bangkok.  

As with our visit with my family in Canada, I'm just going to give a limited account of all the fun stuff we did with the whanau in Thailand.

In Bangkok we ate tons of yummy Thai food.  True street food is getting tougher to find, with the government trying to force vendors indoors.  But we managed some of that anyway. And had heaps more in fun little restaurants too. Pad Thai, Som Tam (spicy-sweet-peanuty-savoury green papaya salad), green and red curries, Tom Yum (spicy-sour lemongrass flavoured soup), satay chicken, pad krapow (stir fried meat with basil leaves and chillis).  I'd been looking forward to this for months, and eating in Thailand was every bit as good as I remembered.

We took a four-day family holiday out to Koh Samet, driving from Bangkok then taking a speed boat across the brilliant blue water for my first visit to a Thai island.  Lots of reading, sand castle building, swimming and hammock swinging followed. As well as a few short walks around the island and lots more yummy Thai food (seafood green curry for breakfast is the best!)

While we still had the borrowed car, Michael, Carmen and the two of us took a trip out to Wat Sam Phan on the city's outskirts.  It's more modern than the older temples at Bangkok's heart, but this nunnery is centred on a sixteen-storey round building with an incredible Chinese dragon spiralling up and around it as though climbing.  It also features a giant turtle that you can walk into, a larger than life-sized white elephant statue and a giant rabbit. And very nice ladies selling still more delicious som tam and pad Thai.

On our own while the family was at school and work, we headed out for a lovely walk along Bangkok's canals and out to the Chao Praya River to watch the once-in-a-generation royal barge procession that forms part of the two-year long coronation ceremony for a new King of Thailand.  Given the huge number of people who wanted to watch, and the fact that they all had to queue up, present ID and be photographed to get (free) tickets for the public viewing areas, it all went amazingly smoothly. There were ample free cold water stations, free public transport for the day and municipal trucks had been pressed into service as shuttles for those who lived in parts of the city not really served by public transport.

We didn't really have the best viewing spot, but it was an aural experience as well, with the thousands of rowers chanting, and the timekeepers on the boat banging down their poles in time.  Our trip home was on one of the canal ferries ("Klong Taxis"), which are one of the funniest ways to get around the city (and when traffic's bad, one of the fastest too).

Despite the fact that it was "winter" in Bangkok, the temperature was usually over thirty degrees for most of our visit, often with lots of humidity to boot.  As such, we spent plenty of time in the rooftop pool at the family's apartment, both for our own enjoyment and swimming, splashing and babysitting with Melinda and Vanessa.

The night before our departure we joined Carmen for a beer at one of Bangkok's rooftop sky bars for an expensive view out over the nighttime skyline.  It was the sort of thing we'd be quite unlikely to have done on our own, so I'm glad Carmen talked us into it.

Our final day in Bangkok was early Christmas.  Literally. Because we'd be on holiday with everyone and away from home, we built a homemade tree (which looked really impressive, given that it was made from faux-evergreen garlands, a table and a chair), exchanged gifts and, perhaps most importantly, ate most of the gingerbread house that Sarah and I had constructed and the girls had decorated.

That evening Michael (who had another week of work to do before he could join us). saw us all into a taxi as we headed to the train station for an overnight journey to Nong Khai, in Thailand's northeast right up near the Lao border and just across the river from the Laotian capital of Vientiane.

It took a little work to get the girls ready for bed, but with the gaps in their bunk curtains plugged, pajamas on, teeth brushed and bedtime story read, Vanessa and Melinda eventually fell asleep and they, like we, woke up the next morning halfway across the country.

Monday, 6 January 2020

The World's Friendliest Strip Mall

Our time in Oman was short.  We would have liked to visit for longer, as Oman's mountains, oases, wadis and desert are legendary amongst outdoors and adventure enthusiasts.  Unfortunately for us, all of this good stuff is only reachable by private car. As one of my driver's licenses was expired and the picture on the other had been rubbed into invisibility, there would be no rental car for us.  And driving taxis is a profession reserved for citizens of the Sultanate, who make up only 60% of the population, hiring a vehicle with a driver was prohibitively expensive. So we decided that we'd just have to content ourselves with a quick visit to Muscat, Oman's capital city.

This visit was made still shorter when due to national holidays all the buses between Dubai and Oman were sold out for the next 36 hours when we originally tried to depart.  So we ended up with 2 nights and approximately 40 hours in Muscat.

My first impressions of Oman were a bit odd and, it must be said, pretty uninspiring.  Pretty much the whole way from the Dubai border to Muscat looked like it was one giant strip mall.  Almost the entire route was lined with a mix of furniture shops, mechanics/car dealers and hypermarkets.  First glances on arriving in Muscat around 22:00 didn't do much to improve this.

Things looked up quite rapidly, however, when the formerly-grand-now-slightly-run-down hotel we'd booked upgraded us to a suite.  And even moreso when I went across the street to try to get some dinner at a vegetarian Indian restaurant (like the UAE, Oman has large numbers of Indian expatriates and they've brought their food with them).  All of the banks and currency exchanges were already closed for the night. When I asked the proprietor if he could take credit cards or Emirati Dirhams, he said no, but that I could just have dinner that night and pay them the next day.  A gesture of kindness like this (especially when followed up by a pretty decent south Indian thali) is always going to do wonders for your impressions of a place.

Muscat isn't really a city as such.  It's more a collection of villages that sort of grew into one another and became the sultanate's capital.  You could also say (about much of the city, as far as I could see) that it's just a part of the coast where the density of the endless strip mall makes an order of magnitude increase.  All of which is to say that it's mostly a sea of four to seven storey concrete buildings with repeating retail on the ground floor and a mix of nondescript offices and apartments above.  And also to say that, despite improvements in public transport, it's not easy to get around (there is a fleet of modern, air conditioned public buses. It's very hard to get information about schedules or [especially] routes and stops, but the system staff are very friendly and helpful).  

But there are some pretty positive points to Muscat as well.  The old bazaar is pretty cool. True, about half of it is now dedicated to selling tourist trinkets and little bags of frankincense to cruise ship passengers, but it was still pretty and pretty low pressure.  Interestingly, taxi drivers offering to tour us around the city seemed to lose interest on hearing we weren't passengers from the cruise ship that was in port (also interestingly, we originally thought there were three cruise ships in port, but two of them just turned out to be the Sultan's yachts!)
Above the old bazaar was a restored Portuguese fort.  And following along the coast from it was the tidy and pleasant corniche.

One of the other cool things about Muscat was how each of the former villages that make up the city is separated from the others by not particularly high, but incredibly rugged mountains.  I took a back route roughly parallel to the corniche, up one wadi (which, to my surprise had running water in it) through and over an open bowl, then down another wadi. It was only a tiny taste of what Oman's wilderness can offer, but if it has this level of prettiness and adventure almost within sight of the capital, I'm really jealous of those who get further afield.

Aside from the historical and natural attractions, most of the rest of the good bits of Muscat centre on the grandiosity of Sultan Qaboos.  He's almost universally beloved by Oman's citizens, and he has done an incredible amount to improve living conditions in the country over his 49+ year reign.  Old Muscat is now filled with bright white government offices surrounding his spectacular palace.

And a goodly way north of the city centre (insofar as it has one), about two thirds of the way to the inconveniently distant airport, the Grand Mosque that was built under the Sultan's orders is a really spectacular building, and one that illustrates how modern construction techniques and old architectural styles can actually come together to create beauty.  I'd left Sarah outside with our bags while I went inside for a look. I'm glad Sarah did eventually get a look, because the place was so big and impressive that time kind of got away from me and I forgot that we had limited time left to visit before it closed for prayers.

Even though prayers were about to begin and the entrance was shut a volunteer from the Islamic information centre attached to the mosque showed Sarah in the exit door so she could see the inside of the main hall.  And afterward he and his colleagues offered us coffee and dates and, with great warmth and openness, offered to answer any questions we had about Islam. We actually had a really nice talk with him, and I was very impressed with some of his explanations.  Most notably about how for him and many Muslims, god provides a constant focus for meditation and removal of worldly desires (which sounds practically Buddhist!) and how his belief in the political and legal aspects of Islam (the Omani interpretation of which is, as you may have guessed, fairly open and liberal) stems largely from his belief in their ability to make the world a better and more peaceful place.

Seeing as the Grand Mosque was, as previously mentioned, most of the way out to the airport, we made it our final stop in Muscat, save for a short and semi-abortive visit to the national opera house a little ways back towards town on the same road.  We arrived at the airport kind of ridiculously early. We didn't even have an airport beer to pass the time (had to make do with a horribly oxidised, too sweet non-alcoholic malt beverage imported from Portugal of all places). The long wait in the shiny, new, slightly boring Muscat airport seemed an entirely appropriate way to finish our time in the city.

Post Script: I've already alluded to this, but I'd be entirely remiss if I didn't explicitly explain one more thing about Oman: just how friendly everyone we met there was.  Whether they were Omanis or expatriate workers, taxi drivers or shopkeepers, Indian contract workers from Hyderabad or Omanis from the desert come in to do some business in the big city, everyone had a smile and a wave and seemed to be doing their best to ensure we left with a positive impression of their country.  Which, despite all my earlier complaints about the sprawl and sameness of much of Muscat, I think we did.

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

A Feast in the Desert

Following Istanbul our next stop was Dubai.  We'd been there before in 2008 and I think it's fairly safe to say that we didn't think much of the city back then.  But our friends Dean and Hamsah have lived there for years and we were finally in a decent position to go for a visit.  

We were on a flight that arrived in Sharjah (the next emirate over from Dubai) at 02:05.  We sat outside the airport in the warm night air amongst dozens of Pakistani and Indian expats, trying to access the airport wifi, which we learned could only be done using a code obtained on the far side of passport control in the departures area only. 
Although we argued strenuously that we'd known what we were getting into when we booked it and that getting to their place ought to be our problem as a result, and despite our communications issues, Dean very kindly came and picked us up at 03:00.

We spent a week in Dubai.  And mostly because we got to spend time with Hamsah and Dean (and kids Alina, Adam and Zoe), we enjoyed it more than on our previous visit.
We were staying in downtown Dubai, which didn't exist when we were last there.  And downtown Dubai actually has sidewalks and pedestrian crossings, and when it's not furiously hot outside (like in late November, for example) it's even modestly pleasant to walk around.  We were within walking distance of the mall of Dubai, with its huge lagoon, dancing musical fountains (and free wifi for playing a bit of Pokemon Go). And of course the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, which looked smaller than I'd expected, probably mostly because it was completely surrounded by dozens of 50+ storey towers.

We made a return visit to the Dubai Creek area, busy with gold and souvenir sellers, dhows crossing back and forth or coming and going from the gulf and tourists arguing with dinner cruise sellers about exactly what they'd been promised about their boat trips.

And unlike last time we visited, there are actually (very!) nice and accessible public beaches (prior to 2010 there weren't really public beaches with facilities and good access, so if you wanted to visit one your only options were private beach clubs or hotels).  I went for my first swim in the Persian/Arabian Gulf (the naming of it is a subject of much contention between the countries on each side). The water was very, very warm, and clearly much saltier than the Mediterranean, leaving the body with the same sort (if not magnitude) of oily feeling as the Dead Sea.  (Incidentally, they take the idea that if you're not in sight of the ocean your togs are actually undies, with signs along the boardwalk right behind the beach saying that wearing swimming costumes [only] is prohibited while walking along it).

While there were new attractions to our visit, like on the previous time, I think the biggest attraction in Dubai was eating.  Cheap or fancy, Dubai is a great place to eat food from all over the world (both figuratively, as in cuisines from many different regions and literally, as in most of the food eaten in the emirate is imported).  

During our stay we ate fabulous Pakistani, Lebanese, Japanese and South Indian food, drank quite a bit of pretty good coffee, and we had brunch.  Expat brunches in Dubai are kind of legendary.  They take place on Friday late morning to afternoon, and they have, to varying degrees, become bacchanalian feasts.  Ours was out on the famous reclaimed palm tree shaped suburb extending out into the gulf. Brunches at fancy hotels with "drinks packages" don't come cheap.  We had two for one discounts from the Dubai equivalent of the Entertainment Book, which brought the damage to around NZD100 per person. I think we got our money's worth though, eating huge quantities of Ceviche and sashimi and Wagyu roast beef and French cheeses and drinking similarly vast quantities of Gin! and tonics, red snappers, wines, beers… everything on offer really.  At Dubai drinks prices I suspect that our food and the last three or four drinks apiece were effectively free!

In addition to being silly with the adults, I also had a lot of fun being silly with Adam and Alina and making Christmas decorations and watching ridiculous movies on TV.

The week passed by remarkably quickly and it came time for us to leave.  Or at least try to. First we struggled to find the bus station for the bus to Oman.  Then to figure out how to buy tickets. Then we discovered that, being the Sunday after a long weekend in Oman, tickets were sold out for the next three days.  Then finding the other bus company that does the route.  Then finding that they too were sold out for the day.  Then spotting a taxi with Oman plates, but also with a driver who wanted around NZD400 to do the trip. And finally deciding that the best option was to forego one night of our non-refundable hotel booking in Muscat, buy tickets for the following afternoon and enjoy one final night in the company of our friends.

The next day Hamsah drove us to the bus company office ("Bus departs at three, but be there at two, because it could go any time after that…"). And with a couple more hugs, farewells and assurances that we'd see one another soon, we were finally on our way out into the desert towards Oman.

Thursday, 12 December 2019


This was my fourth and Sarah's third trip to Istanbul.  One of the best things about revisiting a place is that you've already done all the "must do" sightseeing things and you can approach the place with a more relaxed attitude.  Another is that (even if it takes a few visits with a huge place like Istanbul) you have a good handle on the geography and can nail down the place to stay that best fits you and your plans.

To this end we decided to stay in Üsküdar, a busy neighbourhood on the eastern (Asian) side of the Bosphorus.  This meant that we took the ferry an average of twice a day during our five days there. This was entirely according to plan, as not only are they an inexperienced and quick way to get around (no traffic jams on the water), but they're just a fun and beautiful way to see the city.  One morning a big pod of dozens of dolphins swam and jumped past during our crossing. On our final day we even took one ferry southwest across to the European shore then immediately hopped on another one headed southeast instead of taking a bus or Dolmus straight south down the Asian shore.

As for new explorations, we made several fun new discoveries.  Some of these were things I can't believe I'd missed before (e.g. the Istanbul University campus and its dramatic fire-watchtower) and others were things that would be easy to miss but we'd caught just in time (e.g. a beautiful, if slightly rundown, neighbourhood sitting between the Grand Bazaar and the Golden Horn that was already partially demolished with the rest looking like it would be following soon.

We spent more time right down on the water in the pleasant new park along the Golden Horn and along the still traffic-clogged and view-less Bosphorus shore north of it.  

Food and drink wise, we had a few highlights. One day was devoted to visiting some of the small number of brewpubs in Istanbul.  For a city its size, it's a ways behind the curve. If my research was correct, Wellington has roughly one hundred times as many brewpubs per capita as Istanbul.  But to their credit, the ones they've got do a respectable, if not flashy, job, preparing fault-free IPAs using inexpensive (and thus not terribly exciting) hops, decent witbiers and notably good dry stouts.
On the brewery day we also had a fun time drinking coffees in the partial shadow of a giant sundial surrounded by kitties.
And we had some really good köfte (meatballs) with bean salad in an ancient-looking restaurant in the spice bazaar just above the Golden Horn.

A repeat visit may free you from the compulsion to visit some tourist attractions.  But especially in a place like Istanbul there are some places that just demand a repeat visit.  Foremost among these is Aya/Hagia Sophia. I've written before that it is my favourite building in the world and it remains the reigning champion.  Despite the crowds (which still can't come close to filling the magically spacious, 1500 year-old cathedral) it still held its magnificent sense of space.  This was also despite the scaffolding… In my four visits to Aya Sofia over a period of fifteen ears, there has only been one where there wasn't massive floor-to-ceiling scaffolding set up under some portion of the main dome.

Interestingly, the almost equally wonderful Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque) that faces Aya Sofia across a large plaza was also under renovation, but of a much larger scale.  We popped in for a visit just after prayers and were surprised to discover that an artificial ceiling meant that almost none of its huge columns or beautiful tiles were visible.  It would have been disappointing if this had been our only chance to see it!)

Our final day in Istanbul was spent visiting a couple of friends, new and old.  The first was an Airbnb host who'd had to cancel our reservation a week or so previously after some "disagreements" with local officials.  He'd asked us to cancel the booking so it wouldn't show up on his listing, but assured us he'd meet us for coffee and pay us the Airbnb cancellation in person after we arrived.  This all smelt like a scam, but he'd been tremendously nice and helpful up to this point, and I couldn't see any way that it could be. And as it turned out he was completely on the up and up, just as friendly and helpful as ever and treated us to a coffee and a tea as well as paying us back (if you're looking for a medium term place to stay in Istanbul, let me know and I'll pass on his details!)

Our old friend was Sinem, who we'd stayed with during our last visit to Istanbul.  We'd just managed to make time to catch up on our final day, but we had a really fun time all the same. She and her cousin were going to get matching tattoos in Kadikoy and we headed down to meet them.  After the (short, simple) tattoo session was done we went out for a yummy lunch of burgers and spent a good couple of hours catching up on what we'd all been doing over the past seven years. After lunch we swung by a speciality bottle store and picked up a few Turkish craft beers to sip in a park overlooking the Bosphorus as the sun slowly made its way down towards the horizon.  We seem to get along really well with Sinem, and it was great to hear about recent events in her life, both happy and sad, to talk lots about travel (the tattoo she and her cousin got that day was a travel inspired one) and to talk about all of our plans for the future. Next time we're back in Turkey we will have to make sure we get to spend more time together (hopefully at her Boutique hotel in Imbros!)

Sinem and her cousin walked us back down through Kadikoy, which had gone from busy to positively thronging with life.  We had a bit of nervousness as we started to worry about whether we had left enough time to get to the airport (and whether we had enough Lira left over to pay for the trip).  But we had enough time for goodbye hugs, and were sent on our way with smiles, snacks that her cousin insisted on buying for us and, of course, one leftover beer from the bottle shop for the airport.