30 May 2012

Seagull kebabs, ancient ruins and an Irish bar….

The dates chosen to go to Thailand just so happened to coordinate with the Australian and New Zealand WWI commemorative holiday, ANZAC Day, on 25 April. This holiday marks the 97th anniversary of the New Zealand, Australian, British and French soldiers that embarked on a failed mission to take Istanbul. Nicole and I thought it would be an opportunity like no other.

It’s been a long time since I’d given any thought to the holiday. Back in the day, when I was a Girl Guide scout I attended the parades and services to remember the soldiers lost at war. After I left the group ANZAC Day was just one day I didn’t have to go to school and then work. The day was a chance to sleep in until the shops opened at midday then go to the forever advertised ANZAC sales.

Now there we were, looking at seriously attending the 2012 service. The search was on for a Turkey tour company. I began the search where else but on Google. Scouring the internet I was looking at the cheapest but unknown tour options. After not hearing back from any of those contacts, our search ended at Topdeck.

Topdeck: Trips for 18 to 30 somethings. Sounds like a civilised party… Unlike Contiki: Trips for people who want to not remember a thing about the trip!

I knew little about Topdeck or what their Turkey ANZAC tour had to offer so left it up Nicole. Turns out her travel agent friend was a big help (or maybe convinced us for commission) and voila! Trip booked. The credit card came out again and essentially I agreed to an eight day express tour of Istanbul to Bursa to Ephesus to Troy and to Gallipoli for the dawn service and back to Istanbul. I was happy.

Several months of saving later, and a wee detour to Thailand, we were in Turkey!

Turkey is home to over 74 million people, and is a transcontinental Eurasian country. Asian Turkey includes 97% of the country, separated from European Turkey by the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara, and the Dardanelles. European Turkey comprises 3% of the country.

They say and when I say this I mean our local guide said: Turkey is a country of the four seasons, the north faces the wintery snowy mountains, the east deals with the dry crunchy leaves of fall, the south brings the summer beach resort and the west has the all-inclusive sometimes rain but mainly shine spring.

Istanbul was developed to become one of the most significant cities in history, and one reason the British thought it necessary to invade Turkey’s borders in 1915. For nearly sixteen centuries following its reestablishment as Constantinople in 330 AD, Istanbul served as the capital of four empires — the late classical Roman Empire (330–395), the Eastern Roman ("Byzantine") Empire (395–1204 and 1261–1453), the Latin Empire (1204–1261), and the Ottoman Empire (1453–1922).

Although the Republic of Turkey established its capital elsewhere, in Ankara, fragments of Istanbul's previous central role still remain visible across the city, with Ottoman palaces and imperial mosques lining the hills.

To sum up the time spent in Turkey:

T is for Topdeck. They know their stuff, they are organised and they're there to make sure you have the best trip possible. It’s all true. We also had the best trip leader and guide and even a ninja bus driver! Perks for going with a company like Topdeck is the connections they have made with local bars and restaurants. The best night we had out was in Kusadasi at Kitty O’Shea, an Irish bar! Free popcorn bar snacks flying everywhere, trippy light show, bar staff doing a strip tease, special cocktail served in a HUGE jug, music to dance your butt off to, and free shirts that say “They say I was in Kusadasi but I can’t remember.”

U is for Uncles, in my case Great Uncles. I found out I had two relatives that died on the Gallipoli peninsula. My father’s paternal grandfather Mick and his two brothers Edward and Klein fought in the war. Mick and Edward both embarked from Wellington to Suez, Egypt where the infantry trained. Both survived, Edward was wounded a number of times, once by the falling of a bomb proof shelter. Klein was killed in action 8th August 1915 age 21 at Chunuk Bair. My father’s maternal grandfather’s brother William was also killed in action 8th August 1915 age 22 at Chunuk Bair.

R is for ruins. From Ephesus to Pergamon to Troy. These ancient ruins were my main highlight. Perhaps not so much of Troy since there is nothing left to see in the overgrown meadow except some stones in a semi formation. Ephesus however, was above my expectations. Simply put: beautiful. Pergamon was very much the same: a stunner.

K is for kebab. The old favourite doner kebab, greasy roasted meat cooked on a vertical spit. A classic after-a-night-of-drinking snack. Now a 3.00Turkey Lira kebab (just over NZ$2.00) is well very cheap! Cheap in comparison toNZ$7.00 you would normally pay. At that price a kebab will always go down well…but not after a couple of days of eating said cheap kebab to then find out the “chicken” may contain seagull!

E is for EFES. Starting with a man selling the beer on a boat quickly turned into the group anthem. This man, who could barely speak English, walked around the deck with a tray full of beer cans shouting “Efes! Efes! Efes?” You couldn’t say no. After that it grew like wildfire and we would all chant “EFES!” On the way to ANZAC Cove our group number sign became an   “EFES?!” sign. This sign even photo bombed Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard!

Y is for you will never forget. This was a once in a lifetime pilgrimage to the Western Front. Lest we forget. 

25 May 2012

Cocktails in coconuts, thunder/lightning skies and tsunami false alarms

The decision to go to Thailand was not my own…

It began one New Years Eve…I was out of town at a festival and on the first checked Facebook, as one does to send the “Happy NYE” message. Instead I found an event invitation to Thailand. Reading on I learnt four of my incredibly drunk friends decided at 6am that morning a holiday was in order and chose Thailand out of the many tourist beach locations around the Pacific.

Many friends “joined” the event thinking it’s a great idea but nothing will really come of it, I was one of them.
Except the idea expanded in July 2011, I was sick in bed checking messages to see the original instigator found a deal him and his partner was going to take. $500 for two at  4* resort in Patong Beach, Phuket for seven nights with bonus additions. This was too good to turn down. In my fuzzy state of mind the credit card came out and I was in!

For me though a holiday to Thailand will be one way. I was already saving to start my OE, destination the motherland England, but what a way to start the big leap across the globe.

The last time I left my homeland New Zealand was in 2001 for a two week exchange to Japan. The only international experience before was for a week family holiday in the Gold Coast, Australia. What these trips have in common is the little input I had in organising tickets, the day to day itinerary and traveling around.

You can say I am a complete travel novice because it’s true. So deciding to join a group that ended up being  four couples for a holiday in Thailand was a little over my head. Luckily a friend decided to be my +1 and to continue on to England too.

Now enter Thailand. Officially the Kingdom of Thailand, formerly known as Siam, is a country located at the centre of the Indochina peninsula in Southeast Asia. Home to 5.2 million legal and illegal migrants as well as a number of expatriates from developed countries.

To sum up the time spent in Thailand:

T is for Tsunami warning. We arrived on the speedboat to dock after the Phi Phi Island tour, but back out to the deep sea when the warning came. After half an hour or so we went back to shore to climb a STEEP hill to higher ground to wait it out, luckily for us nothing came. Huge thanks to our guide fetching us water and snacks on his scooter. I was strangely calm never panicking, even when one tourist did and started a stampede of people heading up the hill. For one second I thought is there a wave coming already? To then stop and realise the bay was in the other direction and realistically we have at least another couple of hours before a wave reaches Thailand from Sumatra. In the end I had the outmost faith that the locals knew what they were doing and was not afraid.

H is for haggling. Going to the markets was always an ordeal of shop keepers calling out “G’day”. Our reply? We’re not bloody Aussies!

A is for awesome food. In Thailand I wanted to eat only the local food and I did and it was colourful, delicious and sometimes spicy, but not too spicy.

I is for Island. Phuket is the biggest island in Thailand, located in the Andaman Sea of southern Thailand. One of the most popular tourist areas on Phuket is Patong Beach on the central western coast, with a wide and long beach. Most of Phuket's nightlife and its cheap shopping is located in Patong, and the area has become increasingly developed. Patong means "the forest filled with banana leaves" in Thai.

L is for lizards. Lizards in the resort, at the cafes and at the bars!

A (again) is for annoying Songkran. Known as the ‘Water Festival’ by Westerners because people pour water at one another as part of the cleansing ritual to welcome the New Year. Traditionally people gently sprinkled water on one another as a sign of respect, but as the New Year falls during the hottest month in South East Asia, many people end up dousing strangers (yes this happened to us driving pass in a Tuk Tuk!).

N is for new friends. We made friends with a couple from England on the Phi Phi tour and bumped into them at Dino Park, where one friend managed to fail the last hole, a guaranteed hole in one. Not to name names but TROY got a par 4! The ball managed to stop an inch away from the hole.

D is for deserted beaches. Last day was spent walking along Patong beach after the rush of people that consume the beach had departed. The site was calm, peaceful and the storm leaving the island was a beautiful last snapshot.