Life’s a Beach in Jomtien

I never expected much from Jomtien Beach or Pattaya. I knew from travel guides and the internet that the bar scene was more memorable than the beach. It’s another destination that was never in my bucket list but somehow got there due to my travelling companions who figured spending a few days for some vitamen sea before plunging onto the convention which we came for in Bangkok.

Took the airport bus to Pattaya as soon as we arrived from our Manila flight last Tuesday. Of course, the taxi driver ripped-us off with his 100 baht/person fare from the Jomtien bus stop to our hotel. We checked-in at the 60s sounding McCoy Beach Jomtien Hotel just a short walk to the beach. I really liked the spacious and modern rooms with its luxurious double beds. I could have turned the entire 2 days into a staycation.

It was off-season so there weren’t too many people on the streets or on the beach. I was pleasantly surprised to see how clean the shore and the water was. Made me wish I brought swimming gear.

One thing I noticed was the pharmacies that seemed to be present every 200 meters, much more than 7-11.

Even more surprising was how much I eased into the slow pace of Jomtien— simply enjoying the street food in the evenings, having pad thai, drinking tonic water and hanging-out at the Chinese seafood resto-bar while listening to a Chinese pop songs sung by a Thai singer, and getting a foot massage. I was almost sorry to leave. Perhaps, because we were on the quieter section of Jomtien and it was off-season but somehow, 2 nights in Jomtien was just the rest I needed.

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Just another Bangkok day

I had barely unpacked my clothes last Saturday after my trip in HongKong and there I was flying to Bangkok last Tuesday. I was arriving ahead of everyone else for the Southeast Asia Music Education Exchange (SEAMEX) 2018 at the Thailand Cultural Center. With about 30 people in the delegation I’m heading from my university, I just need that one day of solitary mindfulness. Always good to have a little me time.

Having been to Bangkok so many times, there’s nothing to do anymore but just head to After You, my favorite spot for shibuya toast.

I arrived at opening time (11am) which meant a choice of seats and no lines. Ordered the honey toast. Big size as always.

It has been five days already as I write this and so far everything has been going great inspite of walking around the city with such a large group. We even managed to survive rush hour at Sukuhmvit MTR.

A colleague and I have been staying in this wonderful hostel at the back of Grand Mercure near the Phra Ram 9 MTR station. LITA Bangkok just opened about 3 weeks ago and it has been the best budget place I’ve ever stayed at in all my Bangkok trips. It’s a little more expensive than the others but the place is clean, modernist, and spacious.

The staff is very welcoming and friendly. It’s the kind of place where you wouldn’t mind getting stuck due to the rain or the heat. It was a joy to be coming home to such a nice place after an entire day of walking. The students and my other colleague were staying at X9 Hostel just 300m away which made it convenient to meet and organize things.

In spite of being in this vibrant and busy city so many times, there’s still something in Bangkok that makes it enjoyable. The street food, the gentle manners of the Thai, the organized chaos that seem to underlie the city, all these come together to put some sense of why I still don’t mind coming here.

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Hong Kong for another day

I thought the peking duck lunch at Peking Garden was the perfect ending to this HK trip before taking the express train to the airport. After all, we had a whole duck for all four of us! However, as it turned out, HK was not done with me yet.

With nothing to do at IFC Mall due to the crowds at Lady M (that NY patisserie known for the crepe cakes) I just decided to head to the airport though it was still much too early at at 2pm, for my 7:35 flight back to Manila; but nevermind, I thought I’d sit and have a coffee somewhere at the terminal. The Rhoda and the rest of the gang were headed to the HongKong Convention Centre for the food expo.

Looking at the announcement board, I noticed that all Manila flights had been cancelled. What the heck? Checking the FB sight of the NAIA, I saw flight cancellations due to runway closure.

This is the culprit.

My heart raced as I saw 5J113 HongKong-Manila on the list. A quick check on my email and I saw the notice. Lesson learned: always check your email for any airline notice before heading to the airport.

No wonder I saw so many Pinoys waiting at the airport. At the Information Counter, I was directed to the Jardine Services counter where an unsmiling woman simply gave me a piece of paper with Cebu Pacific’s contact numbers and told me, “Call and ask them directly. We are just agents.” 2 tries and 5 minutes of waiting, I gave up. A Pinay seated in one of the chairs pointed me to row D of the check-in counter where a long line had formed. I could have my flight rebooked there, she said, just as she had earlier at 9 in the morning. I took my place in the cue though deep in my heart I knew I wasn’t gonna last long. The Pinay in front told me they were hoping to score a seat at the HK-Clark flight departing at 9pm. The problem is the guys at the check-in counters weren’t attending to the line as they seemed to be from another airline.

I stood in line for about 5 minutes then decided to leave. I called the call center again and a miracle happened! A live person came through at the other end. Umfortunately, the choices were grim: either take my flight that had been rebooked to Sunday or the only available Sat flight at 7:35pm. That means missing the CCP concert I had planned for months. I gave up and headed back to the apartment hoping to catch the gate open so I could leave a note at the door telling Rhoda I was staying the night.

Luckily, the gate was indeed left open and after knocking twice, I left my note. Decided to just stay at one of the benches just outside the MTR station so I could catch Rhoda and the others when they pass through. Plan B was to just score a room at Mongkok. I think it was about that time I was searching for rooms at the Booking.com app that they did pass through as I missed them.

Decided to try to rebook my ticket via the app and there it was — an available flight tomorrow at 9:45 am! I even managed to secure an emergency row aisle seat! So I would be doing the commentary at the concert tomorrow, it seems.

Finally got hold of Rhoda over the phone just as I was about to give up and move on to Plan B.

All’s well that ends well.

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Visa Guide to Azerbaijan for Filipinos

There was very scant information on the internet on how to get a visa for Azerbaijan. The honorary consulate in the Philippines has no authority to grant visas which means you have to get it elsewhere.

One blogger used a visa service while another sent hers to the embassy in KL.

Since the nearest consulate is in Kuala Lumpur, I decided to apply there. I looked up their website ( http://kualalumpur.mfa.gov.az) and sent an email to the address in the contact page. I was pleasantly surprised to receive a quick reply from one of the consuls, Mr. Eldaniz Musayev. who not only gave me the instructions on visa application but gave his Whatsapp number too.

This is how my co-faculty and I applied for the visa as we were attending a conference in Baku:

1. We made photocopies of the ff. documents:

Information page of passport

Hotel booking

Flight reservation

Letter of invitation from the conference organizer

Employment certificate

Downloaded and signed visa application

2. I sent the above documents, 2 pcs of passport-size photos, and our passports to the Azerbaijan Embassy in KL via DHL. It was addressed to Consul Eldaniv Musayev. I inserted RM 400 (RM 200 for each of us) inside my passport.

After leaving the DHL office, I sent a Whatsapp message to Mr. Eldaniv to inform him that the documents were on its way.

3. Our passports with the sticker visas were ready in 5 working days!

Unfortunately, I forgot to send an additional RM 25 with my documents so our passports could be couriered back to my address. Mr. Eldaniz sent me a Whatsapp message and I made arrangements for my co-faculty’s friend to just get the passports from him as she was heading back to Manila in a couple of days.

The entire process was very easy. Mr. Eldaniv was very responsive to my emails and Whatsapp messages. He updated me when he received our documents and when our passports were ready.

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Hello Hong Kong

So near yet never really in my travel radar, Hong Kong is one of the places I’ve always taken for granted. Maybe because I associate it with my childhood. Back in those days of expensive airfares, Hong Kong was THE place to be. It was a fabled place of exotic cuisine and legendary shopping. So I grew up going to Hong Kong a couple of times with family. It was Bangkok that marked my transition to adulthood (that’s another story).

The last time I was here was in 2013. Spent a few days snacking on dimsum before heading to Israel. Nothing has changed with this short trip. It’s still about food.

This time, I’m with my eldest sister, a family friend, and our long-time househelp who turned 60 this year and whose birthday treat this was. They’re all staying until Sunday while I’m flying home on Friday as I’ve had to alter my travel plans due to a botched-up schedule. Got a one-way Cebu Pacific outbound ticket. Too bad for my Cathay Pacific non-rebookable flight.

Just spent most of the day yesterday at the harbour, the cultural center, and Mongkok.

I really love how the Hong Kong Cultural Arts Centre is open to the public regardless if there’s a show or not. It’s a good idea really as it encourages people to explore the center and let them think about art rather than closing it off like some sacred place open only for a privilged few.

Light showers sent us taking refuge at cafes which wasn’t all that bad. This delicious soufle served like an omelet at the 3rd floor on one of those buildings in Mongkok was a pleasant surprise.

Not musical instruments this time but books were my most significant finds. Didn’t know there was an HK branch of the Taiwanese bookstore, Eslite. Saw the signage just as we rounded the corner from the star ferry terminal. Spent about HK$ 800 on a some books including a copy of Routledge’s “Philosophy and Music” which was at half price.

It was my first time to see the Symphony of Lights at the harbour. Quite nice but not really overwhelming. The harbour is beautiful at night as it is.

Now, this time the whole view, crowds included.

Hahahaha!

Unfortunately, the area where our AirBnB is, Queens Road West, seems empty of those push-cart dimsum places. We did find a small air-conditioned eatery serving good noodle soup near the HUK MTR station. The goal for today is peking duck before I head to the airport.

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Istanbul Practicals

I stayed 9 days in Istanbul and still couldn’t get enough of this historic city. I really enjoyed myself and want to share how me and my colleague managed our trip.

Transport

To/From Airport

There is a metro line that connects Ataturk to the city center.

To save us the hassle of looking for our hotel at Sultanhamet, we just booked transport from one of the numerous kiosks at the arrivals area of Ataturk airport. Cost was 25 USD.

When we transferred hotel to Taksim, we hailed a cab off the street for 35 lira. We could have taken the tram to Kabatas then the funicular to Taksim but we worried how we would manage the narrow turnstiles with our luggages.

From our hotel in Taksim to Atatur k, we booked transport with our hotel for 90 lira.

Around the City

Of course, the Istanbulkart is the way to go. Rides are cheaper with the card rather than paying per route. We bought our cards at the magazine kiosk near the Serciki station for 10 lira. Much cheaper to buy direct from the machine at 6 lira. We never took the bus but we used the card for both tram, metro, and boat.

The tram and metro have stops that connect with each other. We mostly used the tram.

Useful stations are:

Kabatas – Funicular to Taksim

Karakoy – Funicular to Tunel for Galata Tower

Eminonu – Bosphorous boat tours, ferry to Uskudar

Gulhane – Topkapi Palace, National Archaeological Museum

Sultanahmet – Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque

Beyazit – Grand Bazaar

Sleeping

Sultanhamet or Beyoglu? I too asked that when deciding where to stay. Since we were staying 9 nights, we decide to spend 4 at Sultanhamet and 5 at Beyoglu. Good decision.

Staying at Sultanhamet allowed us to just walk or take the tram (if we were tired) to the main sights such as Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sofia, and the Blue Mosque.

At Beyoglu, specifically at Taksim, we were able to shop and shop and enjoy the vibe of Istikal street with its crowds, shops, street musicians, cafes, and restaurants.

You can say that by staying at both areas, we experienced two sides of Istanbul — the historical at Sultanhamet and the modern at Beyoglu.

Eating

The Sultanhamet area seems to have the monopoly on kebab and doner meals.

I enjoyed eating more at Taksim as there were more varied choices and there were places that were like fastfoods with main meals on display. There are many along Istikal Caddesi.

Much cheaper are those on the streets away from Istikal. We found this place at a narrow street just opposite the street of our hotel. We ate here many times.

The price is much lower and the food is much better than the one we had along Istikal.

All of these plus a small bottle of Sprite is only 20.50 lira. The desserts here such as sutlac are also much cheaper. I didn’t notice anything different from the 3 lira version I had here to the more expensive one at a cafe along Istikal.

The fact that many locals eat here says a lot.

Shopping

Typical tourist souvenirs such as magnets, carpet-design pouches, and keychains were cheapest at the old city than at the Grand Bazaar or at Taksim. If you want to buy the cloth used for scrubs in the hamam, you can get them at shops along Galip Dede Caddesi at the end of Istikal. They’re just 5 lira compared to the 10 lira I got at a small convenience store in the old city. At the Grand Bazaar, it was 20 lira. I also bought a pestemal at the same street for 10 lira. It’s similar to the ones I used in the hamam.

Take note that the Grand Bazaar is closed on Sundays.

There’s a grocery called Ucler just across the Uskudar pier on the Asian side. I bought my olive oil soaps there for just 8.90 lira for a pack of 5 soaps. Much cheaper than the 5 lira soaps at souvenir shops. The bakeshop there also sells bahklava at a much lower price– 54 lira/kilo for hazelnut compared to 68 lira at the fancier shops.

July seems to be sale season (“indirim” means sale) as all the shops at Istikal and at the Forum Mall were on sale and prices were really slashed down.

My favorite shop was LC Waikiki which seemed to be the Turkish version of H & M. Clothes and shoes were really cheap.

Even items that weren’t on sale were quite cheap (39.95 for shirts, for example).

Istanbul is a city that demands to be discovered and explored. I never felt that the 9 days spent there was too much.

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Last Day in Istanbul

Last day in Istanbul and I heard mass at beautiful St. Anthony church built in 1912 by the Franciscans. The servers and the congregation are largely African and music is by an African choir. Wonderful to hear robust African songs as liturgical music.

Had lunch at our favorite eatery and as always, enjoyed it. For dessert, I had a slice of this cake which I guess was “tres leches.”

It was very good as it had just the right amount of soaking. What made it different from the usual “tres leches” is the burnt caramel top which added a counterpoint to the milk taste of the sponge cake.

Madame P and I went on our ways. She to shop and me to just take the tram and see the city a bit. I had forgotten that the Grand Bazaar is closed on Sundays so when I got there, I just decided to walk down the road in the direction of Sultanahmet where I can pick-up the tram again.

Discovered other sights such as the tombs of past sultans which I had missed earlier.

Took the tram and disembarked at Karakoy to walk to Galata Tower. However, I stumbled on the Tunel funicular (I had forgotten about it!) which saved me an uphill slog. I had loaded 5 lira on my Istanbulkart so might as well take all the rides I could with it.

Up at Tunel and turned right downhill too look for the shop selling Turkish water bowls for 25 lira which was lower than the 30-40 lira at shops I had passed on my walk to Sultanahmet earlier. Bought a copper one and was given a free tea spoon, probably to make-up for the 5 lira discount the shop owner didn’t give.

That somehow ends any my Istanbul trip as I’ve nothing more planned until we leave for the airport at 9pm.

Bye, Istanbul. I hope to see you again.

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Turkish Sweets

I love how Turkey has a penchance for sweets. Big thanks to the Ottoman rulers who cultivated the population’s sweet tooth with unique delicacies.

Mostly everone associate’s Turkey with two sweets: Turkish Delight (locally callef lokum) and bahklava. My sisters have been bugging me for bakhlava ever since I got here. Bakhlava indeed is love. The very mention of its name lights up mine and my sister’s eyes. The combination of pastry sheets, honey, and nuts is just amazing.

At Taksim, lokum and bahklava compete for space.

Just like Turkish lutes, provenance and heritage seems just as important in lokum and bahklava as makers advertise their year of origin. Choose among 1461, 1864, or 1905.

This shop seems really popular as they have multiple branches. They also have nicely furnished cafes.

But Turkey is more than these. There are other delights such as fried dough dipped in honey.

Citir Halka is saccharine heaven. Bite into it and honey drips. Fancy cafes at Taksim also sell this but you can get this local treat at a stall at the market street in Uskudar.

Kazandibi is a caramelized chewy milk pudding. It’s so good especially with a scoop of ice cream. You wanna close your eyes and remember your past loves.

Sharing the spot of my favorite dessert with kazandibi is sutlac, a creamy rice and milk pudding that looks like a souffle.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to bring these desserts back home with you. They wouldn’t last in a 12-hour flight.

And of course, there’s Turkish ice-cream. That sticky and chewy ice-cream made thick by extracts from the root of a rare orchid. It’s as much fun to eat as it is to purchase some on a cone as the vendors try all sorts of tricks.

For more conventional tastes, Turkey has wonderful hand made chocolates, too.

There’s also the popular Moazzaic Cake which is a dark chocolate cake with crushed cookies. Perfect with Turkish coffee.

This dessert from a cafe in the old city is banana on a chocolate cake smothered with thick marshmallow-like cream and nuts.

It’s like “tres leches” with a burnt caramel top. Very good with just the right amount of soaking.

With hefty servings of main meals, the challenge in Turkey is leaving room for all these desserts.

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A Trip to the Asia Side: Uskudar

Took the ferry boat from Eminonu pier to Uskudar. I was surprised how big and nice the ferry was. There were two large air-conditioned cabins with nice cushioned seats and an open upper deck with wooden benches where I stayed.

The 12:30 trip didnt have too many passengers. I boarded the ferry just as it was about to pull-out and there were still empty seats at the often full upper deck. The ferry was definitely much better than the one we boarded for the Bosphorous tour a few days back. The 15-minute trip across the strait was very relaxing. The weather was just right.

It had been showering in the morning the past few days but the sky was clear today.

Disembarked the ferry and headed to the two mosques just across.

It was time for Friday prayers and the mosques were filled with men doing their Friday obligations.

Outside the prayer hall, women waited. It was atmospheric just sitting in one of the wooden benches and listening to the Imam’s voice blaring out of the speakers.

Had a soup break at an outdoor cafe just outside the mosque. The soup for the day was a creamy rice and vegetable chowder which had a strong minty flavor — a taste I have gotten quite used to since having an oily meat soup in Baku.

Nearby was a narrow cobbled street lined with fish shops and restaurants, spice shops, and a stall selling fried sweets.

Snacks of fried dough.

This fried dough drenched in honey is called citir halka (2.50 lira). It’s delicious and every bite sends honey drooling down your chin. Definitely not for those watching their sugar intake.

Unlike the European side of Istanbul, Uskudar has a more local feel.

This used to be a bath house designed by the famous architect, Sinan. It has been restored to house shops, a cafe, and a restaurant.

How to get there from Taksim

1. Take the Taksim – Kabatas funicular. Upon arrival in Kabatas, follow the sign that points to the Taksim tram stop. Go up the stairs and you’ll find yourself at the Kabatas tram station. This is the last stop of the tram.

2. Ride the tram to Eminonu.

3. Exit the Eminonu tram ststion and cross the road. You’ll see the ferry station to Uskandar. Use yoir Istanbulkart to pay.

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Galip Dede Caddesi: Music Street

This narrow street of Istikal is heaven. It is lined with music instruments shops. To get here, just walk along Istikal Caddesi coming from Taksim Square until you reach a fork on the road. The one on the left is Galip Dede Caddesi.

Went to two shops and I was treated very well by the shop keepers. I was like a kid at a toy store. I was so pleasantly surprised how reasonable the prices were. The shop keepers weren’t pushy and were very patient with my questions.

I bought a mey (flute) and a bendir (frame drum) at the first shop I went to. It was raining and we were offered cay (tea) as we sat out the rain. In the meantime, I had a photo op with the instruments.

The second shop had more stuff including small instruments such as the wooden spoons called kasic which are played like castanets. I was able to bargain down my purchases of an Irinian santur (board zither), baglama (lute), darbouka (drum), and another type of drum to just 380 lira since I was paying cash. Not bad.

The guy playing the baglama was the one who attended to me and he was very accommodating and wasn’t pushy. He would also point out the professional instruments from those for students or for display only. He also demonstrated many of the music instruments.

There are many other music instruments shops and aside from Turkish instruments, they also sold cellos, double basses, violins, and drums. Curiously, I also saw African rattles and kalemba and South American rattles. There were also many toy instruments for kids.

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