A Travellerspoint blog

Adventures in Southeast Asia

Ho Chi Minh City, Yangon, and Bagan

semi-overcast 90 °F
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I arrived in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) late in the evening. To me, it seems like more of a Western city than Hanoi. I'm trying to limit my spending a little, so I stayed in a hostel for the two nights I was there. It was a fantastic deal for $7 per night and the walk wasn't too bad to the museums I wanted to visit. The first one I wanted to see was the War Remnants Museum.
It used to be called the Museum of Chinese and American War Crimes, and while the name has been changed, there is certainly a level of anger (that might not be right word) at the Chinese and Americans just under the surface. The first thing that caught my eye on the map was an exhibit about the photographers on all sides of the Vietnam War. This was the most objective exhibit at the museum and I spent the most time here. It's a large collection of famous and not so famous shots of the war. It takes a long time to see and read about all of them but if you're interested in historical photography like me, it's well worth the time. There is also a large exhibit about the use of Agent Orange and other defoliants during the war. The outdoor space is filled with mostly American military vehicles and weapons. There is also a display on the ground floor about peace between the US and Vietnam after the war.
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About two hours into my visit at the musuem, they kicked everyone out from 12-1:30 for what I'm assuming was there lunch break. I decided to go to the Independence Palace (aka Reunification Palace) because it was nearby and my War Remnants museum ticket valid all day. Of course the palace was closed for lunch too, which was a bit more unusual than a museum closing. I figured that was a good time for me to go eat as well.
I returned to the Palace after lunch a walked around inside. It's not used as much anymore, so there are a lot of the original items still there. It's an interesting historical site.
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I left the next day for Yangon, Myanmar. I had about a 4-5 hour layover in Bangkok so I didn't do much else that day. The next day I went to the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. The most accurate adjective for this place is: gold. Visitors have to remove their shoes and socks and shorts are not allowed. It had rained earlier that morning so stone seemed clean enough, but I've never had a problem walking barefoot anyway. I was approached by supposedly a teacher from a nearby monastery. He spoke English pretty well, so the teacher story was believable, but if there's one thing I've learned while I've been at these tourist sites, a large majority of people like this are looking for money. I let him show me some of the Buddha statues and I saw how to wash the Buddha on for my birth day of the week. Sure enough, after 20 minutes or so, he stuck his hand out expectantly.
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I took an overnight bus from Yangon to Bagan last night. It was an adventure. I had read about the trains in Myanmar and the general consensus was that they are not too safe. The buses were similar, except for supposedly one company: JJ Express. This was the one I took and when I saw the bus, I was relieved. It was very clean, comfortable and looked well maintained. The only thing that gave me any doubts was that life insurance was included in my ticket. The bus left at 8 pm for a roughly 8-9 hour journey to Bagan. In case you don't want to do the math, that would put our arrival time at around 4-5 am, an awfully awkward time to arrive in a new city. Fortunately we stopped a highway restaurant with a bunch of other tourist buses at midnight. We stopped again a few hours later, and because it was pouring most of the time, we didn't arrive until the much more reasonable hour of 6 am. I took a taxi to my hotel and checked in at 7 am. The first thing I did was lay down and take a nap. I managed to extract myself a few hours later to go explore Bagan. My research told me the three popular modes of local transportation around Bagan are horse drawn cart, bicycle and electric scooter. My hotel had electric scooters to rent for roughly 4 dollars for 6 hours. It seemed like a good idea, so I went for it.
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Of course the battery died when I was about as far as I could be from my hotel. I asked a local tourist police officer to call my hotel to ask them to bring another battery. 20 minutes later, I was back in business. I managed to see a lot but I have all of tomorrow morning and early afternoon to see some more.
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I have another overnight bus from here back to Yangon from tomorrow night until Sunday morning (8pm-6am) and then a flight later that day back to Bangkok. My plan is to take the train the next day (Monday) up to Chiang Mai in north Thailand, for a few days.

Posted by cschelz 07:16 Archived in Myanmar Tagged vietnam bagan yangon myanmar ho_chi_minh Comments (0)

Past the halfway point

Bangkok and Hanoi

sunny 93 °F
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I purchased my plane ticket home a few weeks ago. I will be landing at JFK on November 13th, almost 4 months to the day after I left. If my math is correct (but it's certainly possible that it's not), the halfway point was sometime last night (between September 13 and 14). In those 61 days or so, I've traveled 15,615 miles through 14 countries (not including the US). I've traveled the most by airplane, more than 11,500 miles and the least by boat at 201 miles. I don't think I've fully absorbed what I have experienced in that time and I don't think that two months ago, on the eve of my departure, I could have imagined where I am now.

The next two months will involve a much smaller amount of countries visited, but I imagine there will still be a lot of traveling (hiking, driving, sailing, flying). I go to Ho Chi Minh City tomorrow afternoon where I'll be for two nights. Next I fly to Yangon, Myanmar for a night. After that I take an overnight bus to Bagan, Myanmar with a night there and then another overnight bus back to Yangon. I fly back to Bangkok on the 21st for a train to Chiang Mai where I'll be for two nights before returning to Bangkok. I fly to Australia on the September 26th where I'll be traveling with my friend Allen for about a month around Australia and New Zealand. I don't want to go to far in detail for my future plans so here's what has happened since my last update.

I landed in Bangkok at night on September 8th and I left in the afternoon on September 11th. My cousin Jamie met me at the airport and we took a taxi to his friend's apartment in the city (his is too small to fit two people). His friend, Aubin, was nice enough to let me stay at her apartment all three nights. Unfortunately she doesn't have AC, so it was sometimes difficult to sleep but the apartment is within walking distance of the elevated train which is useful for travelling around the city. The next day was mostly another planning/organizational day. I went to the post office to ship some souvenirs home, as they were taking up too much space in my bag. After that I spent several hours in a mall near the center of the city. Not only was in nice and air conditioned, but it also had free wifi (the apartment did not have wifi). I needed to plan my SE Asia segment. Instead of travelling to several countries for a short time (and buying lots of expensive plane tickets), I decided to focus on two countries, in addition to Thailand - Vietnam and Myanmar. Obviously Jamie didn't sit with me while I was on the Internet for most of the day so we met later for dinner at one of his favorite local places. Since he has more experience with Thai food, I let him order for me and I was not disappointed with any of the meals I've had with him. After dinner I headed back to the mall to finalize my plans for the next few weeks, including buying my plane tickets and reserving hotels. I also purchased my visa on arrival invitation letter for Vietnam. To get into Vietnam, you either need to go through a similar experience to what I did for my Indian visa - acquiring before you leave the US or you can buy a letter that says you're eligible for a visa on arrival from several companies online.

The priority for the next day was acquiring my visa for Myanmar. I had to go to the embassy early in the morning to drop off a form with my passport and some photos. I was a little nervous about leaving my passport there all day, but it was ready a few hours later. While I was waiting I explored that area of the city. I took a ferry up the Chao Praya, the river that flows through Bangkok to the Grand Palace. Unfortunately it was closed when I got there for a Buddhist festival (I think?). I could have gone in if I had long pants, but I was dressed for the debilitating humidity in shorts. On my way back to the ferry, I was cut off by a tuk tuk driver asking if I wanted a ride to see a nearby giant Buddha and then a visit to a tailor. I knew this was going to be a similar racket to the ones in India where the drivers get a kickback from whatever the tailor sells but I decided to go for the ride so my ferry journey wasn't a complete waste. The buddha was pretty cool and the tailor was exactly what I expected. I had joked with my brother about getting a suit after seeing the Top Gear hosts get some ridiculous ones in Vietnam. I was still reluctant because I have had a suit for several years and I have yet to wear it. The salesman, a pretty good English speaker, convinced me that I would wear his because it would fit me much better than what I had at home. I was sold and soon they were taking my measurements for pants, shirt, jacket and a tie all for $250. I had a choice of colors and materials, with some significant input from the sales guy, considering that I'm not the most fashion conscious person in the world. Soon their preparations were done and they told me to return later that evening.
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When I got back to the dock, I saw the Grand Palace was now open. It is a very golden place, with some gems thrown in. This is one of those places that is better shown rather than written about.
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There was a limited amount of time that the embassy was open for passport pickups so I hurried back there on a long boat with what looked and sounded like a truck engine. It was really fast (much faster than the ferry).
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I returned to the tailor later that evening for the final fitting of my suit. The jacket wasn't fully ready yet; they were going to finalize it after they took those last measurements, but the shirt and pants were ready and I have to admit, they felt (and looked) pretty fantastic. Here's an idea of the colors:
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After their fine adjustments they told me they could ship it home and it would be there in about a week to 10 days.

The next morning, before my flight, I had a bit of a hunt for a place to take passport photos and to print out my Vietnam letter, but I located a business near the Myanmar embassy (where I was the day before) that did both. Fortunately it was on the way to the airport and I made it on time. The flight to Hanoi was uneventful. It was a large plane, a Boeing 777 and it was at least half empty. There was only one person in front of me and several rows behind me and next to me were completely empty. I wish the flight was longer than 2 hours so I could have taken advantage of such a surplus of room.

I made it to my hotel that evening and had dinner at a local place that the hotel owner suggested. It was pretty good and I even surprised myself by managing to finish the meal using chopsticks and without asking for a fork. I still feel like there are an infinite number of tools that are better for eating rice than two sticks. The power went out multiple times during the meal, reminding me that I was not in the United States.

I spent the next day walking around Hanoi. I started at the Ho Chi Minh museum which was unfortunately closed the day I was there, but there were plenty of other things to see.
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One of the places I wanted to see was Hoa Lo prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton. It was originally constructed by the French, when Vietnam was a colony, for political prisoners, and then held Americans during the Vietnam war. It was a fascinating place, but it wasn't the most objective museum I've been too. At least it seemed to end with a re conciliatory tone.
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John McCain's flight suit:
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The manager of the hotel I was at suggested I take a cruise on Halong Bay while I was there and he just happened to have a company to recommend. How convenient! It actually was pretty nice because a bus picked me up at the hotel, along with other people at nearby hotels, and drove us all to the coast. After a 3.5 hour drive, we arrived at the harbor and took a small launch to our bigger boat. The brochure made it seem pretty nice, but I'll admit I was nervous when I first saw the exterior.
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The worrying was for nothing after I saw the interior.
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During this two day, one night excursion we also hiked in some caves on one of the 1900+ islands in the bay and kayaked at sunset.
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I returned to my hotel in Hanoi this evening to make sure everything is ready for Ho Chi Minh tomorrow.

Posted by cschelz 09:06 Archived in Vietnam Tagged thailand vietnam bangkok hanoi humid ho_chi_minh halong_bay Comments (1)

India: terrifying roads, culture shock, beautiful sights

Mumbai, Delhi, Jaipur and Agra

sunny 93 °F
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Where to begin with India? This country almost didn’t make the list. In the week before I left from JFK, I was doing a last minute review of what I might need. When I was double-checking visa requirements I found out that I needed to get a visa before I got to India and it was a lot more involved than what I did for Turkey (filling out a form online and printing out a piece of paper). India contracts they’re visa administration to a private company. I read online that I could either send my passport to this company and they would get it back to me within 7 business days. Considering that I was leaving in 4 business days, this wasn’t an option. I also read that I could walk in to this company and get the visa at their location. Fortunately, they have a location in Manhattan, so I decided to go down there the next day.
I was told to take a number when I arrived. Not expecting any major delays, I was instead greeted with a pretty large crowd and the current number of the customer being helped was nowhere near mine. To make a long story slightly shorter, I waited about 3-4 hours. After handing over the necessary paperwork to the clerk, he told me that I still needed to leave my passport to get the visa and it would take 3-5 business days, including Saturday. This was Thursday afternoon and I was leaving the next Tuesday. I decided to take a chance, figuring I’d just pay the fee to change the flight if necessary. Miraculously, I received an email on Saturday night that my passport was ready to be picked up the next business day, which was Monday. I left for the airport the next day with my passport and Indian visa (but somehow forgot my Turkish visa, but that wasn’t a problem).

I flew from Abu Dhabi to Mumbai on Monday, September 1. I had booked a hotel with Priceline for $17/night for three nights. Happy to get such a cheap hotel but a little wary because I hadn’t been able to see the hotel before I bought it (part of the Priceline system), I prepaid for a taxi to take me there. I obviously knew that India was going to be nothing like Abu Dhabi or western Europe, but as we drove I couldn’t help but feeling that I might have made a mistake with the hotel. To put it gently, we were driving through areas that weren’t the nicest. Deepening my apprehension, the taxi driver had to keep asking for directions to the hotel. I finally saw it, on a busy and dirty street across from a hospital. I paid the driver and grabbed my bags.

This was the last time I trust “customer favorite” on Priceline. The small lobby was clean enough but the room was pretty bad. Plaster was crumbling off the walls and there was what looked like a lot of mold on the ceiling (I didn’t investigate to thoroughly). At least it had wifi and decent AC. I soon decided that not only was this not a place I was going to spend three nights in, it was also very inconvenient to the downtown part of the city. I booked a night at the Comfort Inn Heritage, a hotel in a better location and with cleaner rooms. I also decided to leave Mumbai a day earlier to go to Delhi.

I moved to the Comfort Inn the next morning after a relatively uncomfortable night. The Comfort Inn was a much nicer place and looked a lot better. I still didn't know what I was going to do to see the tourist sights in the city because public transit in India is much different than anywhere else I had been. Fortunately, the staff at the Comfort Inn hired a taxi to take me to the sights over 4 hours. It was a very good $20. Some pictures from this 4 hour tour:
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The next day I flew to Delhi. I arrived in the evening so my plan was to have dinner and then wake up early to get to the train station to buy a ticket to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. I was going to stay 1 night in Agra so I could see the Taj Mahal at both sunset and sunrise. That plan was completely changed when I tried to get my ticket at the station. Apparently as a foreigner, I had to go to the India Tourism Center down the street. Too far to walk, especially since it was raining, I decided to take an auto-rickshaw. It's a three wheeled vehicle with open sides and a soft top. Even though it was only a roughly 10 minute ride to this tourism center, it was a pretty terrifying road. I caught a glimpse of a sign on my last full day in India (today), that read: "Lane driving is sane driving". I've always agreed with that sentiment, which makes a large majority of India drivers insane drivers.

I entered the small tourism office, wary of a scam. It was a clean, well-lit place, which eased my doubts a little, but I was still nervous. After I explained what I was looking for, he quickly rejected it as a waste of time and said he had a better option. This gave me a bad feeling that a scam was coming. He said forget the train, and instead I could get a private car/driver to drive me from Delhi to Jaipur to Agra and finally back to Delhi (known as the Golden Triangle). It would also include three nights in hotels (one each in Jaipur, Agra and Delhi) with breakfast in each. All I had to pay for was any necessary entrance fees to tourist sights. He gave me two options: basic hotels or slightly higher end. I asked for the basic price - about 35,500 rupees. It sounds like a lot, and it is, but when you divide by 60 to get the amount in dollars, it's slightly more manageable: $590. This was still steep for me, but I figured I'd try it so I could see more of India besides airports and the Taj Mahal.

The tour started immediately with a drive around Delhi. The roads were still just as terrifying, with scooters, motorcycles, trucks, buses, scooters, rickshaws, bikes, pedestrians, dogs, horses, camels, and donkeys all in the road. Some people were going the wrong way, animals were sleeping in the middle of the road. It's amazing that there isn't an accident every minute. Photos from this day:
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My driver, Ranji, said that 7 am would be a good time to set out the next morning for Jaipur. I agreed, even though it was a little earlier than I had been getting up. I made it out by 7:20 which wasn't too bad. The man who sold me this tour told me the drive would be about 4 and a half hours. It was closer to six and a half, either due to traffic combined with relatively poor road conditions or his rather optimistic estimate. Fortunately, by leaving so early in the morning, there was still time to see some of Jaipur that afternoon.
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We didn't have to be in Agra until sunset that night so we went to some more places in Jaipur the next morning.
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We left Jaipur right around noon to get to Agra early enough to see the sunset. Another several hour drive, but we had plenty of time and the view was well worth it.
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I woke up at 5:30 this morning to see the sunrise at the Taj Mahal and unbelievably, it was even better than sunset. The pictures don't really do it justice.
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I'm back in Delhi now for the night. I'm heading to the airport tomorrow morning for a four and a half hour (hopefully it's not actually six and a half hours) flight to Bangkok. I am meeting my cousin Jamie there, and I will be in southeast Asia until the end of September. After that it's down to Australia and New Zealand for a few weeks.

Posted by cschelz 06:55 Archived in India Tagged india taj_mahal Comments (0)

Rest Stop

Taking it easy in the UAE

sunny 105 °F
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My last full day (August 26) in Istanbul was pretty busy. I started the morning visiting Hagia Sophia, once a church, then a mosque and now a museum. It's a pretty amazing place.
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Not only is it a pretty huge place, but the detail in some of the smaller aspects of the building are also really interesting. Several original murals were also uncovered during its restoration for its conversion to a museum.
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I continued my Robert Langdon adventure across the street at the Basilica Cistern. A massive subterranean gallery, it used to be supply this section of Istanbul with water. It would be considered an impressive engineering feat today, but the fact that it was built some 1500 years ago is hard to imagine. Considering it was a hot day, it's also a convenient place to cool down.
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My hostel was pretty well located so later that afternoon, it was time to visit the Blue Mosque. The mosque gets its name from the predominantly blue tiles decorating the interior. This was the first working mosque I had visited and the similarities and differences to the churches I visited were really interesting. The mosque had a large interior space like the churches, but the mosque was carpeted, in contrast to the stone floors in the church. Visitors have to cover their legs in the mosque and take their shoes off before entering. And when it is time for one of the 5 daily Islamic prayers, the mosque is closed to visitors, while the churches were open for most of the time.
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Finally, I went to the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest in the world. It can be a confusing place, and I certainly did not see all of it. It's a worthwhile place to walk through, even if you don't plan on buying anything, just to see the sheer number and variety of things for sale.
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On August 27th, I flew to Abu Dhabi, UAE to stay with my uncle Pete and aunt Holly. I planned for a lot of my time here to be focused on taking a break and just generally resetting. Everything from charging batteries, doing laundry, and backing up photos (now that I had a stable wifi connection). We spent a day in Dubai, mostly focused around the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa. It's hard to describe just how tall this building is, but when you're on the observation deck that is still several hundred feet from the top and you're still looking down on buildings that are hundreds of feet tall, you start to get a sense of it. The night we arrived we had dinner at a restaurant that overlooked a pool that has a fountains that sync to music every night.
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The next morning we went to the observation deck, and let's just say I'm glad I'm pretty much over my fear of heights.
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We also walked around some the older parts of Dubai, and discovered that Friday really is a holy day for Muslims because outside of the Burj Khalifa and the malls, there was nothing open. Even the elevated train doesn't start running until after 2 pm. This wasn't necessarily a problem, because we just went back to the hotel to eat lunch and swim on the rooftop.

So now it's off to Mumbai, India for 3 nights. I will also be going to the Taj Mahal and Delhi while I'm in India. After India I am heading down to Bangkok to spend a few weeks in SE Asia.

Posted by cschelz 23:28 Archived in United Arab Emirates Tagged turkey istanbul dubai uae abu_dhabi Comments (0)

I'm in a transitional period

Europe to Asia

sunny
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I can't think of a more appropriate city to begin my next phase of my journey than Istanbul. As the only city in the world on two continents it's an appropriate bridge, both physically (Bosphorus Bridge) and metaphorically. It's a really interesting city that has over 8000 years of history, at least according to the bus tour. First though, a recap of what I did before arriving in Turkey.

I was in Greece from the evening of August 19th through the morning of the 23rd. My first evening there, I hiked up Mt. Lycabettus, about a 30-40 minute walk one way from my hostel. I made it just in time for sunset too.
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There's a restaurant and a small church at the top as well, and they have a fantastic view of the Acropolis.
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I waited up top until it got pretty dark because I was hoping that the elevation might give me a better view of the stars as well, but that was not the case.

The next day was my only full day in Athens so I had to do the necessary tourist activities, which in this city meant going to the Acropolis. It was a very hot day with not a cloud in the sky so the exposed Acropolis wasn't the ideal place to be. It was still a fascinating place and even though they are working on restoring the Parthenon, you can still see most of it.
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To take a break for the sun and heat, I also went to the (thankfully air conditioned) Acropolis Museum, where a lot of original parts of the different buildings on the Acropolis are stored to protect them from the elements. Unfortunately, photography isn't permitted in most of the museum so I didn't get any shots but it's a pretty expansive collection. There are items that are thousands of years old and sometimes it's hard to grasp how long that really is.

The reason I only had one full day in Athens was because I wanted to also visit at least one of the Greek Isles. I chose the island of Paros and since the ferry ride is 3-4 hours each way, I had to stay overnight to make it worthwhile. and it was completely worth the time. Of course there aren't really any tourist attractions, besides the beach, but it was a nice change from waiting in lines at museums. The water there was unbelievably clear and decently warm (I think Wrightsville Beach has warmer water) and even better, there was a beach within walking distance of the ferry terminal. The restaurants are all right on the beach too, so I had some pretty good meals here too, including the best Greek salad I've ever had. It's not the most exciting thing to read about, but I would love to come back here for longer and do some scuba diving.
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I headed back to Athens on the night of the 22nd and didn't do much except upload photos. One thing I had read about the hostel I was in was about the rooftop bar. This picture describes it better than I could ever with words:
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So now after a quick flight I'm in Istanbul. I had felt an illness coming on during my last day in Greece and I really felt it yesterday (my first full day in Turkey), so I decided to take one of those hop on/hop off bus tours to save my energy. This also had the added bonus of eliminating my planned 6-7 mile round trip walk to the Bosphorus Bridge since there is a stop on the other side. The bridge connects the European and Asian sides of the city and this was one of the top things I wanted to do while I was here. I also got off at the Egyptian spice market which is a pretty overwhelming place. For dinner, I went to a restaurant on the lower level of the Galata bridge where I watched the sun set behind some of the many mosques in the city.
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I moved hostels this morning. My original plan was always to do two nights each in two different hostels, but it worked out because the first hostel wasn't the nicest place in the world. For $20 total for two nights, though, the price is hard to beat. Interestingly, the second night I was there, a guy who had defected from Syria was also staying there. When I told him I was from the US, his first question was to ask me what people think about the situation in Syria in my country. That's kind of a difficult way to start a conversation with stranger.

Anyways, now I'm in a nicer hostel closer to the Tokapi Palace (where I went to today), Hagia Sophia, the Basilica CIstern and the Grand Bazaar, where I plan on going to all tomorrow. The next day (August 27th), I fly to Abu Dhabi to visit my aunt and uncle there.

Posted by cschelz 13:58 Archived in Turkey Tagged greece athens turkey istanbul europe asia paros Comments (0)

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