Maria and Derek's Travels

Monday, January 16, 2017

Singapore - An Easy Introduction to Asia

November 12 - 13, 2016
A melting pot from all around the world, Singapore offers visitors a quick and easy light version of SE Asia. Things are impeccably clean, streets are efficient and most people move around in an orderly, regimented way that makes sense and keeps things running smoothly. Singaporean, Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and expats from around the globe come together here, and the one thing that ties everyone together is the food. With so many rich cultural influences, the food is exceptional with flavors suiting almost any palette.

We arrived late in the evening from Istanbul and were able to meet an old friend at the airport, just as she was about to head to China for a few months. I had met Jenny at a hostel in New Zealand back in 2007, and we had stayed in touch ever since, so it was nice to be able to spend a few hours catching up with her before we headed into the city. We dropped off our bags at the hostel and began exploring Boat Quay, Clarke Quay and the business district. Having stayed in Singapore before, I wanted to find a nice central location with good walking access, so this area fit the bill for us.

Quickly, we found the Merlion, the symbol of the city - half lion, half mermaid. We posed for the obligatory pictures and then headed on our way, exhausted from the long flight but excited by the sights of the pretty city. We also made our way to a hawker centre - basically a covered version of a food court with small stalls offering a variety of different food. All stalls are very cheap, and most are also very good quality. We started with a delicious Thai curry and couldn't wait to try more of the food during our time in Singapore.

Our second day out was just a day exploring the city by foot, taking in the mix of sights and sounds, old and new, East and West. Though it feels a little watered-down, the city is attractive and has a safe, easy feel to it, particularly in the business district and tourist areas. We enjoyed our time walking around the city, and we loved the wide range of cheap, delicious food.

The bright lights of the Singapore night, near Clifford Square, just South of the Merlion.

The symbol of the city, the Merlion.  50% lion, 50% mermaid, 10% strange.  Always giving 110%.  (Get it?  Math joke.)

A nightly laser show at the impressive Marina Bay Sands Hotel.  Ooooohhhh, shiny lights.

As always, Singapore was hot and humid, so I paused for a drink.  Everything is so sanitary here that you can even drink the tap water.

The underside of a nearby temple and the ornate arrangement of flowers.

Inside one of the temples nestled into the city.  In spite of the numerous skyscrapers in the city, temples, mosques and churches have managed to maintain their unassuming locations and offer a quiet respite from the busy city life.

Typical streetscene near the Chinatown area.  Most of our time was spent near the Business District, Clarke Quay, Chinatown, Little India and Kampong Glam.

Lights.   Trust me.  They're lights.


Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Turkey - Food Guide for Travelers

Chicken and lamb gyros wrapped in pita
Traditional Turkish tea served with most meals, along with a piece of Turkish candy (aka Turkish delight)
Typical breakfast from a hostel in Turkey - bread, eggs, cheese and fresh vegetables
Beautiful fruit stand - apples, oranges and pomegranates
Stacks of Turkish treats with various nuts mixed in
Baklava with an abundance of pistachio filing
Random dessert assortment seen through a shop window
Pide - Turkish version of a long pizza, though usually served without the cheese, baked in a traditional brick oven.  Mine had minced/ground beef and Maria's had minced chicken.
A fruit stand near Galata Tower
Finally, someone beat the US in gluttony!  Bucket Size fries = king size + king size + medium.  Wow.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Istanbul - What To Do in One Day - Part Two

November 11, 2016

With Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace already under our belts, we still had half a day to go, ready to explore more of the Blue Mosque, wander the Basilica Cistern, get lost in the alleys of restaurants and end up at Galata Tower before heading back to the airport late that night.

We entered the impressive Blue Mosque through the huge courtyard, greeted first by a few friendly carpet salesmen trying to get us to stop by their shop after our visit.  Passing through the gateway, the courtyard opens up to a magical square surrounded by huge minarets (towers), high archways and domed ceilings.  It's a spectacular entrance, and I believe it was also used in the early scenes of the movie Argo, where Ben Affleck walks in to a mosque that is supposed to be in Iran.

During non-prayer hours, visitors can enter the mosque (though you may have to don one of the shared robes to cover up properly), so we took a look inside.  A huge carpeted room with sweeping ceilings, all covered in delicate tilework and beautiful mosaics of elegant colors and Arabic script lay before us.  We shuffled through the hushed room, amazed by the beauty and peace of the place.

Moving on, we decided to visit the Basilica Cistern.  This underground cave of stately pillars was originally built in 532 AD, sometimes using leftover pillars from other temples.  It was designed to store water for the aqueducts.  Apart from the history, it's simply an impressive place with magnificent lighting contributing to the eerie, somber mood, lighting up just the bases of the 336 pillars in the huge cave.

Next, we decided to wander the streets a bit, eventually finding a wonderful spot for dinner with pide, a traditional Turkish dish that is sort of like a long pizza, though usually without the cheese.  After dinner, we still had time to walk across the bridge over the river to the Galata area, where we followed some steep alleyways up to the Galata Tower.

Finally, we decided it was time to head back, so took the train back to our hostel, grabbed our bags and headed to the airport for our 2 am flight over to Singapore.  All in all, we both loved Istanbul (it was my second time there), and the fascinating mix of cultures, incredible history and beautiful architecture definitely make it a place worth visiting.


Me and Maria outside the Hagia Sophia.  Starting off with rain, it turned into a beautiful day for us.

The interior courtyard of the Blue Mosque.  Absolutely beautiful.

Practicing my ninja kick skills in the courtyard of the Blue Mosque.  Not perfect form, but not too bad.

The inside of the Blue Mosque.  The details of the place are unbelievable, and visitors are allowed to enter with proper attire during non-prayer times.

As a woman, Maria had to cover up, so we bought this colorful scarf just outside the mosque.  You can also borrow ones for free, but we figured this will be very useful during the rest of our trip in SE Asia.

A close-up of the beautiful domes atop the Blue Mosque.

In addition to having a great view of the Blue Mosque from our rooftop patio, this is the view looking the other direction from the patio.  That's the Bosphorus separating the European side (where we are) and the Asian side of Istanbul.

Dark clouds coming in over the Hagia Sophia, though we didn't get any more rain that day.

Built in 532 AD, the Basilica Cistern is an amazing underground reservoir, just a few minutes' walk away from the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque area.

336 pillars stand in the still water, majestically lit and creating a beautiful, ethereal atmosphere.

Pide - a Turkish version of pizza, usually served without cheese (though it can be added).  I opted for the minced beef one in the front, and Maria chose a diced chicken one.  Both were delicious and cooked in a traditional brick oven.

Our last stop for the night at the Galata Tower.

Istanbul - What To Do in One Day - Part One

November 10/11, 2016

Ancient history, the mix of Eastern and Western cultures and religions, great food and welcoming people.  Istanbul has everything you could want from a city.  Our flight to SE Asia brought us through Istanbul, so instead of just staying 4 hours, we extended the stopover by a day, so that we could see more of the city.

[Note - this often works out to almost the same price, if you book the multi-city trip on the airline's website with the same routing as the original flight, but just with a longer stopover.  In our example, it only cost an extra $9 on Turkish Airlines to add a day layover in Istanbul.  A few years ago, I extended a 3 hr layover in Fiji into 3 weeks for the same price.]

With a direct flight from Atlanta, we arrived in Istanbul just in time to see the late afternoon light fill the hillsides with a muted orange from the windows of the plane.  We hopped on the metro and transferred to the tram to make a super-easy connection from the airport to the heart of Old Istanbul, surrounded by mosques, museums and tons of history.

The week before we left, the US Dept. of State had issued a stern travel warning and actually removed all family members of the consulate workers based on potential threats in the area, targeting foreigners and tourists.  We were, of course, a little scared, but these warnings always must warn of the most extreme scenarios, so we decided not to let it change our plans, though we were certainly more watchful of our surroundings.  In the end, we felt completely safe and only found warm, welcoming people.

Walking off the tram, we were greeted immediately by the bright moon and a beautiful mosque in the Sultanahmet area.  Just minutes later, we were passing by the Blue Mosque to our right and the Hagia Sophia to our left - surely one of the most impressive streets and introductions to a city that you could possibly have.  We dropped our bags at our hostel and wandered the cobbled streets of the old town and around the mosque and museum.  Though tired from the 11 hr flight and a little chilly with a hint of winter coming in the air, we absolutely loved the area and had a hard time pulling ourselves away to go to bed.

The next morning began with a drizzling rain, so we first went inside to the Hagia Sophia (or Aya Sofya, in Turkish).  The incredible structure, almost a faded pastel pink color on the outer walls, is impressive enough on the outside, but the inside is even more incredible.  Built first in 537 AD as a church, converted to a mosque in 1453 and finally converted to a museum in 1935, this building has seen quite a bit of history, sitting at the edge of Europe, just across the river from the beginning of Asia.  The inside is filled with ornate drawings and tilework in various styles.  Most mosques don't display images of people (based on their religious teachings), but as this was a church before, there are intricate tile mosaics of figures such as the Virgin Mary and Constantine the Great.  The ceilings of the place are enormous, stretching hundreds of feet high in the main room, adding to the grandiose feel of the place.  We walked around the museum for an hour or two, amazed by the great detail and feeling of history.

As we exited, the sun was just beginning to come out from the clouds, so we headed just ten minutes up the road to Topkapi Palace, another historical sight in the old city.  The palace was home to emperors and sultans beginning in the 1450s and has a bit of a Forbidden City feel with multiple courtyards, each one more exclusive than the last.  The sultan also had a harem on the side where only the best and brightest women were allowed to entertain him while others took classes in language, dress, dance, music, etc, sometimes numbering up to 300 women in the back chambers at a time.

The palace also holds great fragments of history, ranging from ancient weapons (such as the Topkapi dagger encrusted in jewels) to religious artifacts (pieces of beard from the prophet Muhammed, the walking staff of Moses and other amazing articles).  Even more than the history, it's simply a beautiful and tranquil spot to wander the grassy courtyards and admire views out over the Bosphorus to Asia and across the river to the other parts of Istanbul.  After an hour or two, we moved on to find our next adventure in this action packed day.

The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet), built in the early 1600s, sits on the edge of Old Istanbul, literally across the street from the Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya) at night.  While I don't think of neon colored fountains when I think of history, apparently that's the look that the current tourism board is going for.)

The amazing view from the rooftop patio of our hotel.  You could hear the morning call to prayer from the Blue Mosque and had a front row seat to its regal beauty.  Also, looking back from this picture was a wonderful view of the water and the Asian side of Istanbul.

The impressive details of the inside of the Hagia Sophia, with it's mixed influences from being a church, a mosque and now a museum, beginning first in 537 AD.

The view from one of the top windows of the Hagia Sophia, looking back towards the Blue Mosque.

Maria and me along the top level of the Hagia Sophia

Check out the tiny guy in the bottom of the picture for some perspective on the size of this place.

An impressive mosaic as you leave the building.

Fortunately the weather began to clear during our day in Istanbul, giving us a nice final shot here of the Hagia Sophia.  Well, I guess it wasn't a final shot, as I took many, many pictures of the place.

The leafy entrance to Topkapi Palace - home of the rulers since the 1450s.

I believe this was the Baghdad Room.  Either way, it was one of the many, many impressive areas of the sprawling palace.

Looking out over the river from Topkapi Palace.  Galata Tower stands tall on the right side of the picture.

More beautiful tilework at Topkapi Palace.

This room within Topkapi Palace contained ancient artifacts such as a piece of prophet Muhammad's beard and Moses' walking staff.

You get the point...

The castle-like facade of Topkapi Palace.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Save Big on Medication - Travel Drugs Don't Have to Be So Expensive

US prescription drug prices are ridiculous these days.  But if you're traveling to some developing countries, you don't want to be without certain medications to help protect yourself.  Typhoid and Hepatitis A can be acquired from tainted food and water - something MANY of us are exposed to when indulging in the delicious street food of so many delicious cuisines.

Malaria and other insect-borne diseases present a very serious threat and shouldn't be ignored.

While it's not exciting to think about travel medication, it's very important and should be factored into the cost of any trip.  With our long trip to SE Asia being basically covered by a malarial region, we needed medication to protect against this and other issues.  (We use doxycycline, in case anyone is wondering.)

Cost Savings
After consulting with our travel doctor (Dr. James Adkins - he does a great job!), we took our prescriptions to the local pharmacy, but the price of the drugs was incredibly high.  In the US healthcare market, though, this doesn't always have to be the final price.  If you have generous health insurance and drug coverage, you can probably get a good deal on some of these, but if not, please look into a few FREE websites that offer discount codes/coupons.  You simply go to these websites, enter the drug you need and print out the coupon codes.

We saved 75%-80% on our medication, simply by taking a few minutes to print coupons.  This amounted to about $1,200 in savings.

There are plenty of them out there if you do a Google search for discount pharmacy codes or something similar, but we used www.goodrx.com and www.helprx.info.

Check them out - no commission or anything here, just trying to pass along a great savings that we found.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Art of Packing - How to Pack for an Extended Trip Abroad - Backpacker Style

  • Bring just two outfits and wash them every night.  
  • Bring five outfits and discard them along the way as you purchase more.  
  • Bring three weeks' worth and don't worry about doing laundry until you are deep into your trip.
  • Bring fancy clothes, workout clothes and casual clothes.
  • Bring one pair of shoes that will work for everything.
As you can imagine, there are as many approaches to packing as there are travelers in this world.  The options above are just a few of the methods recommended by various travelers.  The key is doing what makes you comfortable.  Some people truly just bring a few outfits and wash clothes most nights in their sink.  While the idea of having only a few things is appealing, we weren't too excited about the prospect of wearing the same thing every day and having to wash almost every night.

We tried our best not to go to the other extreme of bringing everything in our closet.  As the common advice says, you should pack your bag first, then throw out half of what you have packed, since that's actually the amount that you'll use and need.  Maria and I have both traveled a lot, but even so, packing for a five month trip is no easy task.

Most of the trip will be warm weather, so we didn't have to bring much cold-weather gear, though there will be some cold nights in Northern Vietnam and Laos, so we do have our jackets and pants.  Also, there are some conservative villages in a few of the countries that do prefer tourists to be respectful and wear pants, so we will do our best to appease the cultural norms.

The key for us was finding clothes that mix and match, clothes that are comfortable and particularly clothes that are light-weight.  We have some quick drying shirts and pants, along with other lightweight items.  All in all, we think we did pretty well, though I'm sure we may change our mind four months into the trip after lugging around our backpacks for months and months.

Another consideration is the actual bag.  We're huge fans of Osprey backpacks, and we will literally be backpacking around the region, holding all of our gear in large camping/traveling backpacks with smaller daypacks to hold our cameras, books, jackets, etc that we may need for the day of exploring.  Though we hope our large bags remain safe in buses, random hotels and our flight connections, we always want to have our most valuable items with us at all times - camera, passport, wallets, etc are all kept in our small packs, and those never leave our side.

We know we could have done better, but we're pretty happy with what we were able to stuff into our packs.  There's no right way, and we're definitely not experts, but here it is:

Derek's gear - 2 pants, 4 shorts, 1 swimsuit, 1 winter hat and 1 pair of gloves, 5 quick drying shirts, 4 lightweight button up shirts, 1 pair of sandals, 2 pairs of shoes, 1 rain jacket, 1 mid-weight packable jacket, 1 quick dry towel, 1 small hat AND 1 Indiana Jones style large hat

Rolling up items helps take up less space, and it can help prevent some wrinkles, if you do it right.  If not, you could also just be adding more wrinkles, but that's the least of your concerns on the road.

Nerd alert - we got large ziploc bags to consolidate and organize our stuff.  You can also get travel bags, but they are pretty expensive for what you're really getting.  Socks and underwear (in bag) are making a guest appearance in this picture...and hopefully they find their way in my backpack.  Otherwise this will be a long trip.

Fortunately, everything fit within the huge backpack, so that will be my life for the next 5 months.  (Osprey Waypoint 80)
Packing in motion

Maria's bag - 2 long sleeved shirts, 2 dresses, 1 workout band, 2 pairs of pants, 8 shirts, 4 shorts, 3 small dress shirts, 1 hat, 2 travel towels (one for the hair...Derek doesn't have that same issue), 1 rain jacket, 1 mid-weight packable jacket, 2 pairs of shoes, 1 pair of sandals AND 2 months' supply of Shakeology (it's a lifestyle)


Rolling, rolling, rolling

Ziploc bag action

At first, we had some issues getting it all into Maria's smaller bag, but we eventually made it work.  (Osprey Farpoint 55)

Packing in motion - part two

Brief Bio

My photo
Taking advantage of our laptop lifestyle and wandering this world together. Maria Renee is an online health and fitness coach, and Derek is an actuarial seminar instructor. Traveling together since 2015. Also see www.dwbrace.blogspot.com

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