The Wonders of Islam in The Blue Mosque

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Istanbul was actually one of the first major European cities outside of my home country that I have ever visited, despite having lived in London all my life. I do of course prefer to travel to Asia, rather than within Europe, but I had the opportunity to have a look around the historic city of Istanbul recently and one of the most amazing things that I experienced was The Blue Mosque. Built in 1616 during the rule of Ahmed I, this mosque is a fantastic example of classical Ottoman architecture and is very photogenic! For a detailed history click HERE.

At the front entrance

At the front entrance

In the courtyard

In the courtyard

The Blue Mosque, otherwise known as Sultan Ahmed Mosque to the locals, is so-called because of its blue tiles in the interior. It is without question deserving of its status as one of the city’s main tourist attractions. Unlike nearby Hagia Sophia, which is now a museum, the Blue Mosque is a real mosque where Muslims go to pray every day. As such, your dress code when visiting should be respectful and fully comply with the regulations (i.e. no skimpy shorts, or vests). I am not religious myself, but I enjoy learning about different cultures and religions – including Islam – and this here in Istanbul was actually the first time I had ever been inside a real Mosque (although I have seen Mosques in all their resplendent glory on the outside in Jakarta, Singapore, Dubai, and New Delhi).

Check out this great blog on Sultan Ahmed Cami by Formae Divinae for more information!

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The admission price to the Blue Mosque is completely free. There are two entrances to actually go inside the main building, one of those entrances is for Muslims only. The entrance at the rear is for tourists, and we were made to take off our shoes and put them into a plastic bag and carry them around with us. You will not be allowed into the Mosque unless you take off your footwear. The plastic bags were readily available and there were more than enough for everybody to use. Women must also wear headscarves when inside the main building of the Mosque, although in the courtyards outside you do not need to cover up your head.

When inside The Blue Mosque, you will gasp at the intricately decorated ceiling tiles and the overall shape of the design up there. There are countless people with their cameras and phones staring upwards to get a good glimpse of the architecture. It really is a prime example of Islamic architecture but obviously with Ottoman touches of flair.

For a different perspective on Sultan Ahmed Cami, this blog by Turk Eberts may please you.

The rear gardens

The rear gardens

So impressive up close

So impressive up close

I had always wanted to visit the Blue Mosque. When I first saw pictures of it I thought it resembled something out of Middle-Earth, with its drastic architecture of one main dome and 8 secondary domes, each surrounded by the iconic six minarets. During calls to prayer, there are speakers positioned on these minarets to relay the noise to the locals. It was such an experience to hear the call to prayer in the shadow of Sultan Ahmed Mosque!

For a HD video tour of my visit to The Blue Mosque, check out my video embedded below:

Khmer Foodporn

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As I have travelled the world, I have became more and more familiar with local cuisines. I have already chronicled some of the more popular dishes of many nations, and you can read all about them in my Foodporn series of articles. Now, having just returned from Cambodia, I think it is time I highlighted a few amazing dishes from Khmer cuisine!

Cambodia is surrounded by countries with famous foodstuffs: China, Vietnam, and Thailand, to name but a few. These countries, as well as India and Malaysia, have certainly influenced Cambodian (Khmer) cuisine over the centuries, with curries, spices, and seafood prevalent in every day life here. Nowadays, most backpackers not only visit Cambodia to see the extraordinary Temples of Angkor, and not only to experience a great beach or two at coastal towns like Sihanoukville, but also to lap up the great national cuisine here, including the (in)famous Khmer BBQ!

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(Image courtesy of thaisandkateinasia)

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One thing you must try when you visit Cambodia is the traditional Khmer BBQ. It is well known for its exotic ingredients, such as snake, squid, crocodile, and even the odd dog or two (although I don’t know if this is legal in Cambodia). Of course, I have written about the consumption of dogs in my article on Korean Foodporn. Khmer BBQ is usually cheap and cheerful, and surprisingly tasty. I have enjoyed many Korean BBQs in Pub Street in Siem Reap, although I had merely beef and chicken, rather than some of the more exotic meats on the menu!

Fried Red Tree Ants

Fried Red Tree Ants

If you know where to look, you will learn that in Khmer cuisine, it is not only the large mammals whose meat is consumed here on a daily basis. Insects are also consumed regularly, such as grasshoppers, tarantula, and ants. Red Tree Ants are fried and battered together with soy milk to make a crunchy appetiser to any meal time!

Nom Banh Chok

Nom Banh Chok

Cambodian people love their noodles, maybe even more so than their Thai neighbours. Nom Banh Chok is a famous Khmer dish usually eaten for breakfast by the locals, although tourists are known to indulge at any time of the day. Gravy and vegetables are served with these noodles, and typically for this part of the world, there are ample spices mixed in to make sure you are fully woken up in the morning!

Lap Khmer

Lap Khmer

Khmer Red Curry

Khmer Red Curry

Some more popular Khmer dishes are Lap Khmer, which is a healthy portion of marinated beef (reminds me of Bulgogi in Korea) and mixed in with lime juice and fish sauce, and then of course we have Khmer Red Curry, which needs no introduction, other than a warning to have a glass of cold water standing nearby!

Ang Dtray Meuk

Ang Dtray Meuk

Ang dtray Meuk is grilled squid, Khmer-style! In Cambodian seaside towns such as Sihanoukville, this dish is extremely popular, with extremely fresh squid that has probably just been caught and grilled before your very eyes as you are sipping a can of Angkor Beer. This squid is usually marinated in spicy sauces, and can be served on bamboo skewers.

Bai Sach Chrouk

Bai Sach Chrouk

Bai Sach Chrouk is a popular street food dish of rice and pork and is a firm favourite among the locals and among tourists. Sold incessantly as a snack, or as a full breakfast, it can also be served with chicken broth and spicy vegetables.

Kdam Chaa

Kdam Chaa

Fish Amok

Fish Amok

Unsurprisingly for a country with a large ocean shoreline, seafood is high in the list of priorities here in Cambodia! Squid is popular, as described above, but also fish and crab are part of a staple diet of Khmer people. Usually served on a banana leaf, Fish Amok is a fish mousse that includes coconut milk and curry paste. There is a distinct bitter taste to this, which actually I didn’t like that much. Kdam Chaa is fried crab and is usually served with vegetables and covered in Kampot, a local pepper. For anyone who has experienced Pepper Crab in Singapore, Kdam Chaa is an even more spicy version – just the way the Khmer people like it!

Cha houy teuk

Cha houy teuk

And what do they eat for dessert in Cambodia, you might ask. Well, one of the more popular desserts here is Cha houy Teuk, which is a refreshing jelly made with ‘agar agar’ (a kind of gelatine made from seaweed) and can be served with shaved ice, or topped with coconut cream for an added tang!

I hope I have whetted you appetite for some Khmer food, and please let me know if you have experienced any additional dishes from Khmer cuisine that I have not included here. Bon appetite!

On The Rocks…

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I have since realised that I never took many photos from my forays to Sydney’s The Rocks, even though I visited it at least once every day of my stay down under. I walked through The Rocks on my way from Darling Harbour to Circular Quay, which is a good 30 minutes walk, the first half of which is through the CBD, and then we get to The Rocks.

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It’s an historic area of Sydney, which was the first location Westerners touched down at when they came to Australia. Local Aboriginal families used the nearby Harbour as a means of trade and transportation up the Parramatta River. Nowadays, it is a quaint village with residents living in the old cobblestoned streets, with wooden-beamed housing, and there are some nice old fashioned pubs here, too, such as the Lord Nelson, where I enjoyed a pint one day. In fact, descendants of the original Aboriginal families that used to live here still reside in the area.

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The Rocks rises steeply and is quite hilly. As you can see from the photo above, there are some nice views of the Harbour from within The Rocks, and as such I guess real estate value is pretty high here. However, I learned as I was walking through the streets here that there are plans to demolish the residential parts of The Rocks. There were ‘save our streets’ posters on almost everybody’s gate and windows. Historically, there have always been demolitions and evictions here, dating right back through the centuries.

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Although I didn’t much time examining the history of The Rocks while I was in Sydney, it is nevertheless interesting to read up on it all now. You can learn more about The Rocks on the following website HERE.

The Super Boudhanath Stupa

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One of the ultimate things to do in Kathmandu is take a visit to the Boudhanath Stupa. This stupa is located close to the airport, and not far from the best (and most expensive) hotel in town, the Hyatt Regency. It took me around 20 minutes in a taxi from Thamel to get here, and it cost around 500rps each way, which is an acceptable price so I didn’t even bother haggling! Boudhanath is a vintage UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the largest Buddhist place of worship in Nepal. It dominates the skyline of Kathmandu, although due to haze and pollution it may not always be visible from downtown.

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Entrance is 150RPS for everybody unless you are from India or Sri Lanka. I think the admission is worth the price, as it really is one of the main tourist sites not only in Kathmandu but also in Nepal overall. Around the outer perimeter of the stupa are little antique and handicraft shops as well as quaint cafés and bars, many of which have rooftop verandas with views down over the stupa. All of this adds to the vibe and atmosphere of the place and makes you realise that your admission price was for more than just taking photos of a big pair of eyes!

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One of the great things about the Boudhanath Stupa is the prayer flags that are draped all around it. I have seen many of these in Bhutan, but as this was my first trip to Nepal I was surprised to see them here, too. There are prayer wheels all around the stupa as well, and despite not being a Buddhist I nevertheless still enjoyed turning them with my hand as I walked past. It should be noted that you are supposed to walk in a clockwise direction around the stupa as a sign of respect.

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Of course, with this being Nepal, the area wouldn’t be complete with a little rubbish on the sidewalk and building work haphazardly being undertaken in the vicinity, but I always felt safe around here, and the workmen are usually very friendly and get out of your way when taking photos. I didn’t take any pictures of any of the many Buddhist monks around here, as I wasn’t sure if that was permitted or not, but they were all dressed in red robes, with orange scarves, and seemed to be hurriedly darting from one area of the stupa to another. It was a nice colourful change from the stark white of the stupa itself.

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You can ascend the Boudhanath Stupa up to the second or third levels, and again walk around clockwise, although there are no prayer wheels up here (there are more prayer flags though). You can get good views of the action down below and can actually have a better indication of your whereabouts as you are higher up. A word of warning, though, if you are scared of birds: there are hundreds of dirty pigeons around the Boudhanath Stupa. I guess in some countries these pigeons would have been forced to leave to make the place a little more hygienic for the monks and tourists, but I guess in this part of the world it’s just par for the course! I almost had a couple of pigeons fly into my face as I was walking around taking photos, but fortunately I survived!

Kathmandu is even dirtier than Delhi!

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One thing you will notice when you come to Kathmandu is the pollution. Even the taxi drivers here complain about it. Although, it must be said when they drive around the city with all their windows wound down, I wonder why they complain so much! I used to think the Indian National Capital Region of Delhi was the downright dirtiest city I had ever visited. Now I have spent some time in the Nepali capital, I am not so sure.

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First things first, the Nepali people are some of the friendliest I have ever encountered on my backpacking travels. However, the city in which they live is the true definition of third world. Stray dogs, dirty pigeons, and aggressive monkeys roam the streets and surrounding hills in search of food, and probably trailing around diseases with them.

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The main problem with Kathmandu is the dirt and the dust. Much like Beijing’s infamous smog, Kathmandu has a haze of dust which blows up in your face every time a car or bike drives past you. It becomes essential for a prolonged stay here to invest in a surgical face mask that the Japanese have made famous in their own country. But believe me, Japanese cities are nowhere near as dangerously polluted as Kathmandu.

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The habits of the drivers on the road also leave a lot to be desired. Constantly honking their horns to let other drivers know of their presence. Often, their way on the road gets blocked by a random stray cow or goat, which nobody bothers to clear out of the way, as there is no official authority to deal with such events in Nepal – it just happens, and you have to get on with it! But that leaves the tourist – especially Westerners – with a feeling of dread for what might be lurking around the corner next time.

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Even the main tourists sites in Kathmandu are littered with potential hazards. You can see from the picture above that at Boudhanath Stupa there are thousands of dirty pigeons swarming the site and many of them almost flew straight into my face as I was walking around taking photos and trying to admire the views of the Stupa itself.

If you ever come to Kathmandu, be prepared for an altogether different experience from anything you have encountered beforehand! For more background reading on Kathmandu and some amazing photos, check out this blog from The Transcendental Tourist!

Ta Prohm: Rumble in the Jungle

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Ta Prohm is quite possibly Cambodia’s best temple. Despite being in the same area as Angkor Wat and Bayon, and being relatively close to Banteay Srei, Ta Prohm holds its own against its more famous cousins. It was built in 1186 and was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992. Interestingly, the idea for the video game franchise Tomb Raider was taken from the images here of Ta Prohm.

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I wanted to arrive at Ta Prohm fairly early to avoid most of the crowds. By Tuktuk from downtown Siem Reap, it took about 15 minutes. When I arrived at Ta Prohm, sure enough the crowds were fairly manageable and I was able to get my Angkor Pass inspected and then able to head in to the temple. There is a long dirt road from the car park into the actual temple, and you can hear the aggressive screeching of the crickets and cicadas in the jungle either side of you, which all adds to the atmosphere of the place.

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Not long after you enter the temple proper, you can see the famous overgrown trees that have captured the temple ruins. For the tourists, this is a major photo opportunity. Crowds of tourists can always be seen posing in front of these overgrown tree roots, but I found it more interesting to look at the details on the ruins themselves. The closer you look, the more you will discover, especially if you have done a bit of research beforehand.

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Disturbingly, I did notice a few huge hornets nests high above Ta Prohm, especially in the inner courtyard areas. I did not see any hornets (only ants) but it was still a little disconcerting to see their nests above me as I was exploring. In Sri Lanka at Sigiriya, there are also hornets nests nearby and we were told to keep quiet to avoid provoking them. Here at Ta Prohm, no such warnings exist.

Hanging vines and temple ruins - Lara Croft would love it here!

Hanging vines and temple ruins – Lara Croft would love it here!

Overgrown roots and hanging vines are what makes Ta Prohm so special, and so different from many of the other temples in the Angkor region. Of course, you have Beng Mealea and Preah Khan that are jungle ruins, but Ta Prohm is the best out of the three. It has been left in much the same condition as it was found, unlike most of the other temples here, which have had extensive restoration work. I did notice that some restoration at Ta Prohm was underway, as a joint effort between Cambodia and India.

 

Sydney’s Garden with a View

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My trip to the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney was one of the highlights of my time in the city. The admission is free, the weather is usually amazing, and the views are spectacular from virtually anywhere inside the Gardens. What more could you want?

The Botanic Gardens are in the shadow of the Opera House

The Botanic Gardens are in the shadow of the Opera House

I walked from my hotel in Darling Harbour to the Circular Quay area of Sydney Harbour, which took around 30 minutes. However, the walk was very pleasant, and I got to stroll through the historic district of The Rocks enroute. When at Circular Quay, it is only a matter of minutes to the world famous Royal Botanic Gardens of Sydney. The gardens are as much noted for their views of the resplendent Opera House as they are for its flora and fauna.

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Aside from the omnipresent seagulls, I saw lots of cranes and cockatoos when I was walking through the gardens, although to my disappointment, I did not see any lorikeets. However, it was still enjoyable to see those wild birds in such lush foliage as we see here at these gardens in Sydney. It must be heaven for birds in this park, with so many trees on which to perch, and so many little nooks and crannies in which to hide from the tourists.

The backdrop is the Sydney CBD

The backdrop is the Sydney CBD

The tropical foliage was very impressive

The tropical foliage was very impressive

Another thing that impressed me here was the use of life-size statues to add character to the gardens. Not one hundred paces went by without seeing another eerie statue staring at me. I took plenty of photos of each of them, and occasionally you would get a great big tree or tropical plant next to one, which works wonders for photography!

A nice place for a picnic

A nice place for a picnic

Although I did nothing but walk around these amazing gardens, and admire the views from within and across to the Opera House, I hazard a guess that it must be a very nice to have a picnic here in the autumnal sunshine. There is a café in the park, which gets very crowded throughout the day, but if I ever went back here I would pack myself a lunchbox and just sit around and people watch for an hour.

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