Posted in English, Europe, Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul – Days 4&5

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

07 February 2019

Today is the penultimate day of our short stay in Istanbul. Of course, there is a lot that we didn’t get to see – mainly because of the weather, rather than lack of time. For example, had the weather been good we could have headed to the Prince’s Islands or the Rumeli Fortress. Instead, we had to dedicate the day to shopping, which is actually also interesting and also a source of impressions. Besides, it turned out to be a great bargain: first, the lira is rather cheap at the moment and second, we were lucky to be here during big winter sales.

A drive to the Istinye Park shopping mall, located quite far north, near the Technical University, is also an introduction to previously unexplored parts of Istanbul. I guess, this is the perfect time to share my general impressions of the city, taking, of course, into account the fact that the trees are all bare now and will certainly add a lot more colour to the landscapes in the spring. So, the city is not homogeneous, some parts of it look a bit shabby, although I would say that overall, buildings in one area tend to follow the same style – it is unlikely to see a tall new building among old five-storey houses, like it is often the case back home.

The shopping centre is a huge building, topped with a dome, which, of course, gives it a distinct Middle-Eastern look.

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Shopping-wise, we were interested specifically in Turkish brands. Generally, shopping in Istanbul is very pleasant, primarily because of the high quality of service. The shop assistant immediately greets you but does not pounce on you or tread on your heels, as, again, they annoyingly like to do back home. And when you address them, they show a maximum of friendliness, patience and willingness to help you make a purchase that you are really going to like.

The same, by the way, applies to waiters in restaurant: the service is very quick and they are really friendly (which doesn’t look fake and forced).

Funnily, the only time when we saw neither of these qualities was the day before yesterday, when we had lunch at our hotel’s bistro. We waited for our most basic sandwiches for so long that we could vividly imagine the waiter running into the kitchen in a panic and shouting: “They ordered sandwiches! Be quick, run to buy chicken and meat!”

But overall, we really liked the local people. Not once did we even observe any quarrel, rudeness or swearing. People are polite and friendly to each other. The degree of friendliness towards us increased even more when they learned that we were from Azerbaijan. And their attitude towards animals, which I have already mentioned, simply wins one’s heart and mind!

On this day, dedicated to shopping, we got a chance to visit not only a large modern mall, but also the little shops of the Old City. The impressions are completely different, of course. Shops are strictly specialized – bags only or hats only – but on the whole, there is some feeling of chaos. Yet, this chaos has a certain charm to it.

We finished the day with dinner at the same restaurant near our hotel, which we liked so much yesterday.

08 February 2019

Today, on the day of our departure, we enjoyed a very pleasant walk along the rainy Istiklal Caddesi after breakfast.

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We decided to have lunch at the airport, and we headed there rather early – as it turned out, it was a good idea. The queues at the Istanbul airport begin not at the check-in counter, but from the entrance, where a full security check is taking place. Actually, the measure is quite understandable, remembering the terrorist attack at this airport three years ago.

Interestingly, everywhere around the airport we could spot bald men, with bruises on their seemingly burned heads. We’d come across such men previously as well, in the city. We wondered what that could be – some kind of sect? Later it turned out that everything was much more trivial and that Istanbul is a Mecca of hair transplantation, with lots of clinics and prices more affordable than in other countries.

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Posted in English, Europe, Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul – Day 3

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

06 February 2019

Today has been a particularly busy day, and the weather played up very well: the forecast that promised non-stop rain turned out wrong, and it actually only rained in the morning while we were still on the bus on our way to the tour around the main sights of Istanbul’s Old City.

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Surprisingly, although we had reserved yesterday’s and today’s tours on different websites, we were greeted by the same guide as yesterday, Muzaffer, in our English-speaking group. Apart from us there was also the same Indian couple as yesterday and an Irish family. Looking ahead, I will say that after lunch we were joined by another couple from Hong Kong and some British Indians.

The day started getting a spiritual direction right from the start – from the Hacı Beşir Ağa Mosque. It is small, not particularly remarkable, but it is where we were explained how to behave in a mosque (believe it or not, I hadn’t been to one before!): there is an obligatory requirement to take shoes off and, for women, to cover their head with a scarf. The mosque itself was closed, and we could only look at its interior from the upper floor for women. What was interesting to see was a special chamber, where a believer would spend the night before having to make an important decision, praying for Allah to send them a clue in a dream.

Next followed one of Istanbul’s main features – which became especially famous after the Magnificent Century TV series – the Topkapi Palace. It is constructed on the first of the seven hills of Istanbul and dominates the surrounding area. As we entered the very first room – if I remember correctly, it was the Imperial Council, or Dîvân-ı Hümâyûn – we immediately understood why the Dolmabahce Palace, despite all its pomp and splendour, didn’t cause a storm of delight. The domes, the paintings and the décor of Topkapi are much stricter, more harmonious and, one might say, more majestic. What I see here is spirituality vs. Dolmabahce’s depersonalised grandeur. And all this despite the fact that this palace’s harem was not included in our tour.

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There are four gardens in the palace complex – the first two are external, while the third and fourth are internal, and the latter was only reserved for the closest members of the sultan’s household. Photography is allowed in many parts of the palace, but not in rooms with expositions – which is a shame, given that they contain the most interesting things!

First of all, there is a magnificent collection of clocks and watches – both from Turkey and Western Europe, from small pocket watches to tall grandfather clocks. Next, there is an extensive collection of weapons – mostly local Ottoman ones (such as firearms, bows, swords, yatagans, chain armours, shields, helmets, including those for horses), but also trophy and gifted weapons. For us it was particularly interesting to see Safavid weapons among the last (or maybe the penultimate!): who knows, it may have been my ancestors who used it! At the same time, we couldn’t help having a strange feeling, that today we are walking around this exposition and looking with great interest at something that once presented a mortal danger and was created to kill people.

The next exposition consists of huge kitchen premises, which were used for preparing food for six thousand people. And nowadays they contain a collection of ceremonial tableware and kitchen utensils. We found the latter more interesting, since they are functional, as for tableware — well, it’s just tableware!

We were really impressed with the collection of religious relics – at one point the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire extended over Mecca and Medina, making it inherit the status of the caliphate, as well as Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, it was in its capital that a collection of items belonging to the prophet Muhammad (weapons, personal belongings, even beard hair and teeth) and his closest entourage, as well as other prophets — for example, the staff of Moses and the sword of David — was collected.

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We also really liked the library of Sultan Ahmed III, in the midst of which there is the sultan himself (well, obviously a figure!)

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The last exposition we got to see contained the portraits of all the sultans, but this one was probably the least interesting. From the palace, where we spent about two hours, we went straight to lunch, which was very well organized. In general, the impression is that restaurants in Istanbul are often placed on the top floor of a hotel to provide a beautiful view. So there we sat, eating delicious mezes and kofte, drinking tea and admiring the views of Istanbul and the seagulls proudly sitting on the roofs.

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After lunch, now in a bigger group, we headed to Hagia Sophia. This place is truly unique, bringing together values that are almost incompatible by modern standards. Outside, it is very clearly visible that the minarets are attached to a Christian church. However, the building itself does not look particularly outstanding. Looking ahead, I will say that the Blue Mosque, located directly opposite, is much more beautiful on the outside.

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However, the interior of Hagia Sophia is stunning. Despite crowds of tourists – as always, mostly Chinese – you get a feeling of extraordinary holiness and admiration for the fact that the images of Christ, the Virgin Mary, the first Roman emperors and the symbols of Islam peacefully coexist in this place.

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In fact, this has not always been the case. At first, Sultan Mehmed II, who conquered Constantinople, simply ordered the main Christian cathedral to be turned into a mosque, covering the Christian images with plaster. They weren’t cleared until 1935, when by a decree signed by Ataturk, Hagia Sophia became a museum.

The happy free cats of Istanbul feel great here as well, causing a smile, which somewhat dilutes the sublime feelings evoked by the place.

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The Blue Mosque, aka the Sultanahmet Mosque, as already mentioned, is very beautiful outside. It has as many as six minarets (usually, there are one, two or four). But unfortunately, there was almost nothing to look at inside – there is renovation going on, so, for instance, the dome is completely covered. Since, unlike Hagia Sophia, this is a functioning mosque, there are a separate entrance and exit for tourists, who therefore have to carry their shoes with them in specially provided plastic bags.

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To finish with the mosque topic, I will say that there are more than two thousand of them in Istanbul. This seems like a huge number, but is actually normal for 20 million people.

We had thought that the Hippodrome – our next destination – was a visit to some ancient sports facilities or its remnants. It turned out to be even more than just remnants, located right here, at the Sultanahmet Square: there is only one Egyptian obelisk and two Greek columns, one of which is made of weapons and armour of the defeated Persians.

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And finally, the last destination of our tour is the Grand Bazaar, or Kapalı Çarşı. The visit was preceded by a meeting with experts of Turkish carpet weaving, which we had in the Istanbul Handicraft Centre not far from the Bazaar. They treated us to apple tea, piled up a bunch of carpets in front of us and explained the difference between the local and, say, Persian technique(double knots instead of single ones). Of course, this was done with an eye to enticing us to purchase carpets, but no one in our group was willing to. At least us, the Azerbaijanis, could hardly be tempted by carpets.

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We had 40 minutes to explore the Bazaar itself, but in fact that was more than enough. Frankly speaking, yesterday’s Spice Bazaar impressed us a lot more, because Kapalı Çarşı, although of course much bigger, seemed less beautiful and more chaotic. We walked through one of the galleries back and forth and found that this “drop” was enough to appreciate the entire “sea” of the Grand Bazaar.

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Moreover, even though the day had been very interesting, it had also been exhausting, so our bus, which accurately dropped us off at our hotel, seemed to be the most tempting place.

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We were so tired that for dinner we found a restaurant literally around the corner from our hotel, and made a right choice: it was very nice and cozy with delicious food and great service.

Posted in English, Europe, Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul – Day 1

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

03 February 2019

Surprising, but fact – I am a person who has seen quite a few countries, including far ones, but has never been to the neighbouring Turkey. Yet, every self-respecting Azerbaijani, who has the opportunity to travel abroad, has definitely been there. So I finally decided to fill this unforgivable gap, and here we are, flying to Istanbul!

The flight begins with mixed feelings: there is no online check-in, which is bad, but we end up without a seat neighbour, which is good; our seats are at the very rear of the aircraft, which is bad, but breakfast starts being served from the tail of the cabin, which is good. First we are flying over mountains – underneath us there is the majestic Caucasus, with its dazzling snowy peaks! – and then mostly over the Black Sea.

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The Istanbul Ataturk Airport is definitely worth a mention – the speed and the quality, which we observed while going through all the necessary stages of arrival, really impressed us. Such a contrast with, say, Heathrow, where you hang around for a good hour in an extremely slow queue at the passport control. The queue here isn’t any shorter, if not longer, but it’s moving speedily and cheerfully all the time.

At first glance, Istanbul didn’t strike us with anything extraordinary. We are going in a taxi, on our right side we see the Marmara Sea, and on our left side there are some buildings, not very expressive ones.

Our hotel is located in the Pera district in the European part of the city, and is literally a stone’s throw away from the central pedestrian street Istiklal Caddesi. In general, we were advised – and we also advise this in our turn – to choose a hotel in this particular part of the city, and definitely not in the Old Town, where most of the tourist attractions are. In fact the Old Town area is only lively during the daytime, while Istiklal Avenue and its surroundings provide the tourist with everything they need – food, drink, shopping, entertainment – at all times of the day and night. View from our hotel window:

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So Istiklal Avenue is where we start exploring Istanbul today. Our hotel’s location is such that if you walk a kilometre to the left, you will get to Taksim, and if you walk one (plus a bit more) to the right, you will reach the Galata Tower.

We first turned left. A historic tram line passes through Istiklal Caddesi, and this is the street’s only transport, apart from cleaning vehicles and police cars, which, by the way, also try to drive along the tramway track so as not to disturb pedestrians very much. For people from Baku, the best description of Istiklal Avenue is that it’s Istanbul’s “Torgovaya”, only a very long one.

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We are surprisingly lucky with the weather today: despite it being February, it is so warm during the daytime that we have to take off our outerwear every now and then. When we sit down on a bench on Taksim Square, the sun is literally scorching. The square itself does not seem very cozy. We sat there for a bit and looked at a mosque under construction, at the “Republic” monument with sculptures of Ataturk and other marshals, including the Soviet marshal Voroshilov, and then turned back to Istiklal Caddesi, more interested in the tram, with roller skater boys clinging to it, than in the square itself.

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Walking Istiklal Street is very pleasant. We are eating wonderful roasted chestnuts, which are sold at every corner, and dondurma – the special stretchy Turkish ice cream, which the seller scoops onto cones, using a long-handled paddle, and turning the whole thing into a real show.

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A separate paragraph should be devoted to the cats of Istanbul. There are lots of them, and this is the only place I have seen where cats are as beautiful as in Baku, but here they are loved and cherished much more. Almost every store or restaurant has food and drink bowls for cats, and often even a special little cat house. However, the most audacious cats prefer to settle in a chair right inside. There are quite ordinary-looking cats, and there are also simply outstanding examples of fluffiness and fatness. Dogs can also be found, though less often; all of them are microchipped and seemingly contented.

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What’s also interesting on Istiklal Caddesi is that there are quite a few Christian churches. We walked into one – the Basilica of St. Anthony of Padua, and, as it seemed to me, there were quite a few Turks praying in it, although I could be wrong.

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We reached the Galata Tower quite unexpectedly – for some reason I had the impression that it was in the opposite direction, and then suddenly we saw a signpost. It was about 5pm, and at first we decided to wait for the evening to take pictures of the tower in the evening light, and then thought that instead of idly waiting around we might as well go up to the observation deck (previously we were planning to do it tomorrow). The queue (maybe it’s a property of all the queues in Istanbul!), despite its impressive length, was moving rather quickly. We wondered if there was a lift inside the tower, or if we would have to climb a spiral staircase. There was a lift, yet we still had to climb the last two floors.

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I must say that a moderate wait in the queue and a dizzy climb up the eerie stairs were totally worth it. The view of Istanbul from all sides is magnificent! A special feature are the large seagulls, which land on stone balls from time to time, right at arm’s length, and observe the city, looking very smart and important. Obviously, just like the tourists here, they are admiring the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn Bay, the famous mosques in the Old City. The only slightly annoying bit is that there are too many people on such a narrow rim of the tower, especially when not everyone is following the instructions to move only clockwise, which leads to chaotic cramming.

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The tower also offers another entertainment – a simulation of a helicopter flight, which we didn’t find tempting though. However, we were taken a ton of pictures of, wearing historical costumes of harem dwellers. The poster advertising this attraction beckons you with a price of 30 liras (about 6 USD) per photo, but the ingenious photographer takes so many beautiful photos, with a variety of props, that you almost unwittingly end up forking out a lot more. But we still liked it!

To make sure we do get to see the Galata Tower in the evening light, we decided to have dinner in a restaurant directly opposite it. The weather and the heaters allowed us to sit comfortably outside (in February!) As for the restaurant, what can I say? Delicious kebabs, excellent service.

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Posted in Asia, English, Phuket, Thailand

Thailand – Day 8

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

25 March 2018

Despite yesterday’s worries, we made it to our last cooking class very smoothly. As it was indicated, we were picked up at 8am by a minibus and taken to the opposide coast of the peninsula, right through the town of Phuket. First we stopped at a market, where, just as during our previous classes, the instructor showed us variuos products, specific for Thai cuisine. But while neither in Bangkok nor in Chiangmai did we get to see a full-scale market, here we found ourselves right in one, with all its peculiar smells.

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The instructor explained that all the products that we were going to use today had been purchased here, except for meat and fish. The meat and fish here stay outside without a refrigerator all day, and, she said, while it is not a problem for a Thai stomach, ours would not necessarily appreciate it, that is why these products had been bought at a supermarket.

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From the market we headed to the cooking school, located right on the beach.

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To start with, we were treated to local desserts and exotic fruits, mostly familiar to us, except for the rose apple or chompoo, looking like a pear, very juicy, and not tasting anything like a proper apple. As for desserts, they all seemed to taste the same – just like the sticky rice that usually goes with mango.

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Our half-day course included cooking everything we were already familiar with: spring rolls, tom yum soup and sticky rice with mango. The difference between this course and the previous ones was that firstly, there were different instructors for different dishes and secondly, the process itself went like this: we sat in a room looking like a mini-lecture theatre, and the instructor demonstrated the whole cooking process from beginning to end, and then we had to repeat it on our own.

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Once again, we didn’t get to cook the sticky rice with mango, but were only shown how to do it. The reason is that this dessert is made in bulk rather than in individual portions: first you have to steam the glutinous rice and then top it with a sweet coconut sauce. But this time, the process of cooking the rice was explained very well and thoroughly.

We watched the instructor prepare the tom yum soup just like a theatre performance. He was totally killing it, supplying every action with jokes and funny faces.

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So now we can quite consider ourselves specialists in Thai cuisine!

After the class we were brought back to the hotel, and our tour programme was over. Now the travel agency would only need to safely take us to the airport in 4 days’ time, and for now we are completely left to ourselves. So I personally spent my afternoon by the infinity pool in our hotel, overlooking the sea. I got to see a gorgeous sunset – we are lucky to be staying in the west of the peninsula.

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Looking for a place to have seafood dinner, we wandered into a restaurant. First we were a bit confused about what to choose, and then the waiter told us that just for 2200 baht (about $70) we could get a crab, a lobster, a fish, mussels, shrimp and squid, and choose how to cook each of the beasts, which would be more than enough for two people. And we got a whole feast!

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Posted in Asia, Chiang Mai, English, Thailand

Thailand – Day 6

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

23 March 2018

We had our second planned cooking class today in Chiang Mai. In the morning we got picked up from the hotel by the cooking school’s own car, along with the a few more people from two other hotels.

Once we arrived at the school, it took us a while to understand what was going on – for some reason we were seated at a table, while our fellow car travelers were left to wait at the entrance, and then were put on a different car together with another group of newcomers and taken somewhere. Only after seeing the school’s advertising leaflet, we realised that they were offering classes both here, at the school, and on a farm, and apparently those guys had booked a farm class.

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Eventually, our group was formed – apart from us, it consisted of a French couple and two different companies of Americans. We were then given the menu. Here the concept was slightly different from what we saw in Bangkok. Out of seven categories of dishes, we were supposed to cook five on our half-day class, and three of them – curry paste, curry and spring rolls – were pre-selected for us, so our group had to agree and choose two more out of the remaining four. We chose stir-fry and dessert, and did not choose soup and salad. And then, everyone could individually pick their own dish from each chosen category. For example, I chose hot basil stir fried chicken (many went for pad thai, but we had already made that in Bangkok); a local kind of curry called khaw soi and the respective curry paste; bananas in coconut milk for dessert; and as for spring rolls, there was only one variety.

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The school has its own vegetable garden, and we went there to see and smell the ingredients frequently used in Thai cuisine: green onions, leeks, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, various kinds of basil, roots of ginger, galangal, turmeric and ginseng.

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Then we walked all the way to the local market, passing by very interesting places with guest house and cafes, apparently for backpackers and other budget tourists.

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At the market, our instructor named Da showed us different spices, ready-made curry pastes, various kinds of noodles and rice. Here I found both a short-term and a long-term solution to my problem of the lack of vital ingerdients back home – and bought a pack of dried ingredients for tom yum soup, as well as kaffir lime seeds.

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And then we came back to the cooking school and got down to business. I must say, here we were given more independence and almost made everything by ourselves. By the way, before we started cooking, we were given a snack – leaves, in which we had to wrap peanuts, small pieces of ginger, onion, chili, roasted coconut, and add a spoonful of sweet sauce. Then everyone had to say ‘chok dee’ – which kind of means ‘good luck’ – and, however funny it may seem, toast each other by “clinking” the little wraps before putting them in our mouths.

The stir fries, as usual, were very quick and easy to make, and I got some pre-cooked rice to go with mine.

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Then, two volunteers were chosen from the group, and they made a slightly larger portion of a somewhat generic stir fry, for the spring roll filling. And everyone had to wrap the desired amount of this filling in a provided pancake and deep fry their spring roll.

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After that, we made the curry paste. It turned out that no one chose green curry, and for all the others – red curry, panang curry, khaw soi and massaman curry (nobody chose the last one either) – the base paste is exactly the same, with several different ingredients added later on.

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What goes into red curry paste is the following: pre-soaked dried chili peppers, garlic, turmeric, ginseng, kaffir lime zest and lemongrass. And then you would need to add dried curry powder to make khaw soi paste or crushed peanuts for panang curry paste.

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By the way, red curry itself is made just like green curry – i.e. with Thai eggplants and basil in addition to meat, curry paste, sauces and coconut milk. As for panang curry and khaw soi, they are made without the vegetables. My khaw soi was more liquid than the other curries and had to be served with noodles rather than rice. As I understood, that’s exactly what we ate and took for noodle soup in that roadside eatery the day before yesterday. I even added an extra spoonful of curry paste, since it wasn’t spicy enough!

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At some point between making the curry paste and the curry itself, we somehow managed to squeeze in the dessert preparation. In my case, this was a simple matter: I just had to boil sliced ​​bananas in coconut milk with sugar. Interestingly, while slicing this kind of bananas, we came across big black seeds which we had to pick out – I had never seen anything like that!

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In general, we really liked the Chiang Mai cooking class as well, especially its slightly higher level of complexity after the Bangkok one. There is yet another cooking class awaiting us in Phuket, we have to see what it’s going to be like!

Our guide and driver picked us up at the culinary school, and from there we drove to our last temple in Thailand, planned in the tour programme, on Mount Doi Suthep.

The temple and its surroundings are very croded (as usual, Chinese tourists predominate). To get to the temple itself, one has to walk up 306 stairs in the heat. Fortunately, there is a nice cool breeze atop the mountain.

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You walk into the temple – the golden shine all around makes your eyes hurt. The view is, of course, magnificent, but interestingly – and we agreed on this with my friend when sharing our impressions of the trip – the temples here don’t give you that sense of peacefull bliss, they seem too pompous for that. However, it’s quite possible that it’s just us being taken to such temples, and that somewhere in the mountains, hidden from the tourist’s eye, there are temples and monasteries where you’d find peace and tranquility and want to meditate. Here, even though there is a meditation corner, you don’t quite feel like using it as intended.

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The gilded stupa (or chedi, as they are also called here) in the center of the temple also contains a sacred Buddhist relic – a bone of Lord Buddha – and according to a legend, this relic was loaded on an elephant, which was given an opportunity to pick a spot for the temple, and so the animal came here.

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By the way, as I have already said, there are stupas scattered all around Indochina, which have a special symbolic significance for those born in a certain year of the Eastern zodiac. The local stupa is associated with the year of the goat.

There is also an observation deck on the territory of the temple, with a view of entire Chiang Mai, but it’s too foggy to see anything at all.

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And we’ve been seeing this foggy haze during all the time of our stay both in Chiang Mai and in Chiang Rai, to the extent that in the morning and closer to the sunset the sun looks like an orange tangerine in the sky.

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Once back at our hotel and having said goodbye to our guide, we rested for a bit and headed out to a massage parlor, which we had found based on Internet reviews and booked online. I must say, I liked it less than the one in Chiang Rai, although it was slightly more expensive.

For dinner, we chose a nice Japanese restaurant with a terrace on the second floor and a view over the night market, and sat down outside. But then the whole dinner nearly got ruined by a sudden rain – our first one in Thailand! – and while we waited to see whether it would stop quickly, all the outdoors tables under the canopy and decent tables inside were already occupied, so we had to sit at some tiny table in the corner inside. Luckily, the rain soon stopped and the waitresses kindly moved us back to a lovely table on the terrace.

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The only thing that brightened our time at the stupid corner table inside, was a funny episode at the next table: there was a young Chinese lady sitting there and waiting for her take-away. Suddenly, two older women approached her – perhaps, her mother and aunt, for example – and started showing her some harem pants they bought at the night market, with such delight and enthusiasm, almost jumping up and down with excitement, that we couldn’t help staring at them which made the younger woman quite embarassed, so she asked them to behave more quietly. I have to say, it’s not very often that you see such sincere and genuine joy, let alone when it’s caused by two pairs of pants! 🙂

Posted in Asia, Chiang Mai, English, Thailand

Thailand – Day 5

РУССКОЯЗЫЧНАЯ ВЕРСИЯ ПО ЭТОЙ ССЫЛКЕ. CLICK HERE FOR RUSSIAN VERSION.

22 March 2018

And once again we had to forget about our sundresses and put on our elephant harem pants purchased in Bangkok, as pretty much the whole of today is dedicated to temples in Chiang Rai and its environs.

In general, there are lots and lots of temples in Thailand, people seem much more religious than, for example, in Vietnam or China, and it’s much more common to see monks everywhere. That’s quite understandable – the country hasn’t been colonised recently, it has no communist past or present, so obviously, religion hasn’t been historically oppressed. And by the way, Buddhism here seems to contain elements of Hinduism.

The first temple we went to was Wat Phra Singh, founded in the 14th century. The name of this temple comes from the golden Buddha image, almost as famous (and as ‘well-traveled’) as the Emerald Buddha. Our guide Dino said that the temple’s architecture is in Burmese style.

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What was specifically remarkable about this temple is the large number of stray dogs that are fed here, apparently with rice, given their state of utter apathy; and sal trees, sacred to Buddhists, with large and very fragrant flowers.

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From here we headed to another temple – Wat Phra Keo, or the temple of the Emerald Buddha. Yes, yes, it has the same name as the one we saw in Bangkok. The temple is very old and was originally called something else, but in the 15th century, it was here, among the wreckage of a stupa split by a thunderbolt, that the Emerald Buddha statue, believed to be of divine origin, was found. Since the 18th century and up to this day, the statue is in Bangkok, just where we saw it, but before that it traveled a lot around the territories of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia. Dino talked about the statue’s displacements in the most thorough details – who and when took/stole it, who robbed whom etc. – but we didn’t even try to memorise all this, especially since he wasn’t the most interesting narrator ever…

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The Chiang Rai temple currently has a jade replica of the Emerald Buddha (in fact, as you may remember, the original one is also made of jade) but at least, unlike in Bangkok, you can photograph it.

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Right here, on the territory of the temple, we noticed a pond with turtles and spent quite a while watching one particular small, but proud turtle trying to crawl towards the fence, walking on the heads of its fellow turtles.

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The third temple we saw was really the best – it was the White temple, very beautiful and unusual. It’s quite new, having been built in 1997, and in fact I would rather call it a modern art exhibit in the style of a Buddhist Temple.

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The white colour represents spiritual purity.

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To get into the temple itself, one has to walk along a bridge past the “hands of sinners” sticking out of the earth – very symbolic.

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Right next to the temple there’s a museum containing paintings by Chalermchai Kositpipat – the artist who built this temple with his own money. The paintings are quite interesting, many depict paradise with different buildings in the same style as the White Temple, or mythological animals.

The gorgeous gilded building on the territory of the temple is nothing more than the ‘happy room’ (or rather a whole happy palace!), that is, a toilet.

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Fortunately for us, the thickest crowds of tourists started arriving just as we were leaving – most probably from Chiang Mai – so we were really lucky to walk around and take pictures without them.

The White Temple was our last stop before we drove off to Chiang Mai – we had already checked out from our Chiang Rai hotel this morning and loaded our suitcases in the car. We stopped on our way for lunch, again in a cheap roadside cafe, with a hot spring next to it. In one fenced well, the water was boiling and bubbling up, another one was used for cooking eggs, and there was also a bigger section of the spring which was cool enough to put one’s legs into it, which is supposedly very good for health. Some people managed to sit knee-deep in the water, but I was barely able to dip my feet for a couple of seconds, as the water was very hot – around 50 degrees Celsius – the exact opposite situation of yesterday’s pool visit in Chiang Rai!

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We arrived at our hotel in Chiang Mai at about 3pm. The hotel is located next to the night market, so there are lots of market stalls, massage parlours and bars around.

The hotel has two excellent swimming pools, and this time we had better luck and managed to take a dip. And we knew right away that we’d be more lucky – unlike in Chiang Rai, the poolside area was full of people.

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Our tour programme for the evening included a trip to the street food market and dinner right there. We tried pork satay (i.e. pork skewers) with peanut sauce, snapper fish in salt and some pork dish with rice. It was quite tasty, although not necessarily much cheaper than in a restaurant.

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On the way back to the hotel our guide Dino took a longer route so that we could walk around the Old Town, which we didn’t enjoy much – there was little to see in the dark, plus we wanted to rest a bit and enjoy some guide-less time.

Once we said goodbye to him, we went for a drink at one of the bars near the hotel, but left very quickly – the place seemed a bit dodgy, with a few foreign men and a lot of half-naked local women (if they were all women, of course), rushing with open arms towards every white man in sight trying to lure him into the bar. It seems that all the bars around are like that, and many are even completely empty, except for the stacks of women waiting at the entrance.

Posted in Asia, Chiang Rai, English, Thailand

Thailand – Day 4

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21 March 2018

Today we left our hotel at 8am for our first excursion in Chiang Rai and headed up north, to the Doi Tung Royal villa with a beautiful garden.

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The garden is one of the successful projects of the late Queen Mother, who tried to combat drug trafficking in this dysfunctional region, bordering Myanmar, by increasing employment.

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And indeed, the garden is very beautiful. At an altitude of 1300 m above sea level, it is much cooler than Chiang Rai itself, and full of the most diverse flowers ever – predominantly European, but including some local orchids too.

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The actual royal villa, where the Queen Mother used to live, is located further uphill. We went up to the residence – again, strict dress code had to be followed there and we had to cover up – and went inside. I managed to take one photo before a lady from a French tourist group – the only tourists apart from us, I wonder where the crowds of Chinese tourists are? – warned me that this was prohibited.

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The residence is essentially a huge wooden hut, the entire interior is also made of wood. Some of the Queen’s personal belongings are exhibited, in particular tools for embroidery and pottery. The balcony provides stunning views of the garden that we saw before.

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There is another attraction at the very top of the Doi Tung mountain, where we had to get by car. These are two stupas in a typical Lanna style, erected as far back as the 10th century and containing Lord Buddha’s relics – namely, his collarbone.

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There is also a temple next to the stupas, very intricate from the outside, but not particularly remarkable inside. As for the stupas themselves, we couldn’t come close to them – women are not allowed to.

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By the way, our guide Dino told us that these stupas were especially sacred for people born in the year of the Pig (or Elephant) according to the Eastern Zodiac. And for each of the zodiacal animals, there are respective stupas all around Indochina. It is believed that everyone should visit the stupa corresponding to their zodiacal animals and pray there at least once during their lifetime.

On the way back down to our car we descended a stepped alley with lots and lots of bells of different sizes at the sides.

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It was already lunch time, and we stopped at some roadside eatery. I had read somewhere that in Thailand the most delicious food can be found right in such non-glamorous places (in China as well, by the way – as confirmed by myself), and it turned out to be exactly the case! We got two servings of spicy chicken noodle soup, and we liked it a lot. And it cost us 70 baht for two, which didn’t even make 3 USD!

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After lunch we drove to the town of Mae Sai at the very border with Myanmar. Dino said that Thai, Burmese, Indian, and Chinese people live here, and everyone gets along very well: Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians. In Mae Sai we visited a jade shop and walked past a street market, which, apparently, Dino himself was much more interested in than we were.

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But what was really interesting to see was the gate separating Thailand from Myanmar. We asked, how far away from here the Golgen Triangle was – that is, the place where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet. We were told that it was a 35-minute drive, for which we’d have to pay extra to the driver and that we’d still need to get permission to get on a Mekong tour boat.

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We decided that we didn’t want to go there and headed back to Chiang Rai. Once back at the hotel and left to ourselves, we went straight to the swimming pool, which we’d been drooling over for two days now. But it was no coincidence that the area around the pool was completely empty all the time, which we were really surprised about. The water turned out to be so icy cold that I could not even dip my toe in it, let alone get in there.

Mission unaccomplished! But we went again to get a wonderful massage in the same parlour as yesterday. There are plenty of such parlours on our street, but as we already tested this one yesterday and were very happy with it, we saw no point in looking for something else. And after the massage, as we were intending to go for dinner, we accidentally spotted a cat in the window of a small coffee shop, and then many more cats. We’d noticed this coffee shop, called Cat’n’Cup, yesterday, but somehow didn’t realise that it was a cat cafe. So how could we resist going in to have a frappe and to pet some furry purring felines!

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Well, the latter actually turned out a bummer: we were still smelling of massage oil with a citrus aroma, which by cat standards meant that we were stinking sickeningly! So they avoided us at all costs, although we did see one or two curious faces on our table!

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Then we went to have dinner in an open-air restaurant, right around the corner from the night market. It was a very pleasant place, and next to it there was a stage, from which we were entertained first with Chinese music, then with English-language guitar songs, and finally with Thai dances.

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