Tag Archives: english
March 14, 2012

Thoughts on Malaysia

We were down to the last couple weeks of our trip when we decided to go to Malaysia.  Sitting in Thailand, we had tickets in hand to fly from Singapore to Brisbane the day after Christmas.  The question on the table was, “What do we want to see between now and then?”

The easiest options would have been to stay in Bangkok a little longer or fly directly to Singapore.  Always wanting to see a new place, my preference would have been to bus down through Malaysia, but I knew Oksana wasn’t up for that.  At any rate, there wouldn’t be time enough to do the country justice.  Kuala Lumpur was only a few hours from Singapore by bus, though.  Perhaps we could spend a few days there – and see the Petronas Towers, at least – before moving on?  (And yes, I’ll admit that chalking up a visit to another country’s McDonald’s may have influenced my decision…)

Oksana agreed, so we paid for a one-way flight from Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur.

I started taking notes about Malaysia two months before we officially entered the country.  After our first month in Thailand, we had to do a visa run to extend our stay.  Since we were in Phuket, we had only two options. One, we could take an all day bus-boat-bus ride across the border into Burma, but that would have only granted us 15 more days.  To get a 30-day stamp, we chose option number two, which was to buy round-trip airline tickets to Kuala Lumpur.

We left practically all our belongings in our hotel room and just brought along a laptop and iPad to keep us entertained during the 5-hour layover.  We never even left the airport, but even so, that’s when I jotted down my first thoughts on Malaysia. (more…)

February 1, 2012

Thoughts on Thailand

Out of all the countries we visited on our trip around the world, Thailand was the one in which we spent the most time. 61 days, over two visits.  It has since gone down on our list of places we want to return to someday, but when we first arrived, we were not impressed.

We had been traveling fairly quickly ever since Africa and by October we were both ready for a break.  While we were still in Russia, we planned out the last three months of our trip.  In order to conserve money – we had just officially gone over our travel budget – we wanted to find a place to sit down and rest for a while.  I sent out a request on Facebook and Twitter and asked our friends and followers for their recommendations in Thailand.

We received a lot of good advice, but ultimately had a hard time taking advantage of it because we were set on a month-long rental.  We checked Craigslist and various vacation rental websites, but the vast majority of listings were only available in the largest cities or most touristy areas.  We debated traveling out to the remote islands until we found a place to our liking, but ultimately took the easy way out.  We spent just a couple days in Bangkok, recuperating from our jet lag, before flying to Phuket and following up on some leads there.

The first place we stopped was in party central, Patong.  I can’t even remember why we chose that town, because foam-party nightclubs, seedy massage parlors, and plentiful weed are not on our list of travel necessities.  Nevertheless, Oksana found us a cheap hotel away from the beach, and we stayed there a week.

Prices were low, as October is still officially the off-season.  And no wonder – it rained hard just about every day we were in Patong.  That didn’t bother me especially much because I had just come down with my first cold since leaving home almost a year and a half before.  For the next week, all I wanted to do was lie in bed and sleep.  Easier to do during the day – night were miserable… at least until I visited the pharmacist, a real life anime character, who prescribed me some heavy sleeping pills.

Unfortunately, just as I was about to get over my cold, Oksana picked it up.  Most of our month off was spent battling head and chest colds.

Eventually, we left the Starbucks and McDonald’s behind by moving just four kilometers down the island to Karon Beach.  The oceanfront was prettier, the tourists more family oriented, and both of those things suited us just fine.  For about $19 per night, we stayed in a huge hotel room, venturing out once a day to the pool or to place an order at the on-site restaurant.  We caught up on some internet stuff, rested our travel-worn feet, and worked on our tans.

Prices went up on November 1st with the official start of the high season, but we didn’t mind.  Our friends from Roam the Planet were due to arrive any day and, with our batteries recharged, we were ready to hit the road again.

Because of the record flooding that was going on in central Thailand during our stay, we didn’t get to see as much of the country as I’d hoped.  Most of the things I noticed about Thailand came from the few places we did spend some time: Bangkok, Phuket, the Phi Phi islands, Chiang Mai, and Koh Mak.


January 20, 2012

Thoughts on the United Arab Emirates (Dubai)

At the end of September, we went through a huge fiasco with Orbitz that completely changed our travel plans.  Months before, we had purchased tickets to fly from Moscow to Bangkok by way of Sri Lanka.  The day before our flight, we learned that it had been rescheduled and we’d already missed it.  Fortunately, we managed to iron everything out with Orbitz, but not before we had to purchase a second set of airline tickets at the last minute.  Our new flight plan included a 17-hour layover in Dubai.

I never expected to travel to the United Arab Emirates and the only thing I knew about Dubai was that it was the most “Westernized” of the cities in the Middle East.  We had zero time to research, but I was still excited.  If nothing else, I’d get to see the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa (formally the Burj Dubai!)


January 16, 2012

Thoughts on Russia

Red Square, 2006

The first time I traveled to Russia was in 2006.  Oksana and I split our time between Moscow and St. Petersburg, because while she is originally from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy in the Far East, her family happened to be spending time in the big city.  Her brother, Andrey, played host and seemed to have an all-day itinerary planned for us every day we were there.  We were exhausted by the end of our “vacation,” but looking back through our photos, I’m amazed at all the things we got to see and do in just three weeks.

I always felt guilty for not writing much about our first trip through Russia.  Even way back then, I had a mental list of things to write about for one of these “Thoughts On” blog entries.  When we crossed the border into Russia again last September, my notes were already full of half-remembered items that I jotted down on the bus from Estonia.


Asking “What is Russia like?” is like asking “What is the United States of America like?”  How do you answer that?  When a country spans most of a continent, has citizens from every socioeconomic background, as well as a history dating back thousands of years, you can’t just sum it up in one or two sentences.

I’ve seen two of the biggest, most prestigious cities in Russia, a couple larger cities in the east, and passed through many a rural town on the rail line between St. Petersburg and Irkutsk.  About the only thing I know for sure is that Russia isn’t easily summed up.

I can tell you, however, that there’s a strange dichotomy when Russians think about their own country.  On the one hand, there’s the feeling that Russia is the greatest country on the planet.  Mention that you’ve been to the world’s largest lake and they’ll tell you that Russia has the world’s deepest.  Describe to them how something is done in the States and they’ll explain to you why the Russian method is better.


November 7, 2011

Thoughts on Estonia

The easiest way to get from Helsinki, Finland, to St. Petersburg, Russia, is by train.  It’s a straight shot, takes about three and a half hours.  Since St. Petersburg was our next destination, taking the train was everyone’s first suggestion.  We didn’t take the train.

We skipped a lot of Europe when we skipped from Bulgaria to Finland, and I wanted to see at least some part of it before we slipped into Russia.  Estonia, which was right across the Baltic Sea, was an easy choice.  Close, cheap, and also sharing a border with Russia.

We left Helsinki on a giant cruise ship (the word “ferry” just didn’t seem to apply) and a couple hours later, we were in Tallinn.  We spent a night and a day there, exploring the city, and loved every minute of it.

European Union

Estonia was our first border crossing within the European Union and we weren’t prepared for it.  We disembarked from the ship with a few hundred other passengers and followed them through the long and twisting corridors of the ferry terminal.  We passed through a couple glass doors and suddenly found ourselves standing next to a line of taxis.  Hey, what the heck?  Did we somehow miss immigration and customs?

Nope.  There was no immigration, no customs.  As we skipped back into the terminal to withdraw some more Euros from an ATM, I reflected on just how much more convenient life in the Union must be for the people of Europe.  Crossing from country to country didn’t seem to me to be much different than crossing from state to state in America.

Only bummer is we didn’t get any new stamps in our passports!

October 24, 2011

Thoughts on Bulgaria

This was our plan when we thought we had a lot of time:  Fly from Israel to Istanbul, then work or way north through Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine.  From there, we’d swing west to Poland (because Belarus has an expensive visa) and continue up through Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia on the way to visit a friend in Finland.

By the time we left Turkey, however, our plans had changed.  Our new plan was to go north to Bulgaria… and then fly directly to Helsinki.

We still had some time, but we came to this decision for two reasons.  First, Oksana’s childhood friend, Karina, invited us to stay with her vacationing family in their Sveti Vlas condo on the Black Sea.  Second, the stay was offered rent-free and without a limit on duration!  It turned out to be a great opportunity for us to recoup some of the money we’d spent on our recent travels.

Staying with Karina in her one-bedroom condo was her grandmother and one-year-old daughter.  They generously gave us the bedroom and we quickly settled into a routine.  Babuska busied herself making three huge meals every day, Oksana and Karina spent every waking hour catching up and fussing over Liza, Karina’s daughter, and I spent most of my time in the bedroom (since I couldn’t keep up with the spoken Russian) making a lot of headway on my travel writing.

From time to time, we’d go for a walk with Liza in the stroller, pick up some groceries, go to the beach, or buy a beer at the pub across the street so we could use their wi-fi.  A week turned into 10 days.  10 days turned into two weeks.  We left Sveti Vlas on a bus, bound for the capital city of Sofia, where we spent just a couple of days before flying out.

Sveti Vlas was a total resort town, which was a great place to kick back and enjoy the warm weather, but it didn’t give us any idea about what the rest of Bulgaria was like.  Sofia was more interesting; both Oksana and I enjoyed it a lot.  It was in Sofia that Oksana first remarked, “You know what?  I think I could live here for a little while…”

Here are some of the things I found interesting about Bulgaria:

October 17, 2011

Thoughts on Turkey

The end of November.  Family gatherings, The Dallas Cowboys playing on TV, the smells of traditional Thanksgiving recipes wafting from the kitch–

Wait.  Sorry.  Not that kind of “turkey.”  This one:

Istanbul from the water

Turkey was never on our list of must-visit countries.  The only reason we went to Istanbul was because (aside from some place in France), it was the cheapest fare out of Israel listed on Kayak.com.  We only spent three days there, and we didn’t stray far from the Sultanahmet area, but even just that little taste was enough to put Turkey at the top of a list of places I want to return to again.

Public Transportation

Arriving in a new country is never very fun.  There’s always so much to figure out.  When we fly in, our priorities are to get through immigration, find an ATM to secure some local currency at an exchange rate we can trust, and then we usually just suck it up and pay for a cab straight to a hotel.  Airports are usually a good distance from the city center and we end up paying for that first ride, but it’s often worth it to skip having to navigate yet another metro, in a foreign language, with all our luggage.

Istanbul was different.  The airport was a pleasure to navigate, with English translations printed on every sign.  We didn’t yet have visas, so before going to immigration, we followed the signs to the “visa bank.”  Step up to any counter, present your passport and a twenty-dollar bill, and they’ll slap a small stamp on one of your empty pages.  Total time to obtain a visa: 30 seconds.

Later, as we came out of customs with our bags, we were not surrounded by taxi touts, even when we stopped a minute to look around.  We collected our Turkish lira from the ATM and decided to follow the signs to the metro.  Hey, why not?  It was mid-afternoon and it didn’t look packed.  On the way, we spied a tourist information booth.  They gave us a free metro map and confirmed what we had already figured out; we’d need to make just one route change on the way.


Istanbul’s metro system is a pleasure to navigate.

The token dispensing machines couldn’t be easier.  Just slide in some cash, select how many trips you want, and out come your tokens and change.  The hardest part was getting our big backpacks through the turnstiles.  Half way through our ride to Sultanahmet, we had to get off the train line and get onto a trolley (tramvay.)  It was slightly more crowded – we had to stand with our packs – but no more troublesome.  Within 20 minutes or so, we had made it all the way from the airport to the doorstep of our hotel and at a tiny fraction of what it would have cost us to take a cab!

Tourist Friendly

I hate to keep harping on Egypt, but Egypt deserves it.  It’s impossible to simply go sightseeing there, because touts and hustlers are constantly vying for your attention.  Istanbul, in comparison, was like a breath of fresh air.

Stepping off the metro at the Sultanahmet station was like walking through the gates of Disneyland.  The Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque dominate the skyline, literally thousands of people wander around the large park and countless vendors are selling their wares.  We’d been traveling since late the night before and I was in no mood to be harassed on the way to our hotel.  I hefted my pack, hunched my shoulders, and resolved to not make eye contact with anyone except the receptionist at the hotel.

No one spoke to us on the way.  No one called out, asking us to buy anything.  No one offered us – two tired tourists with backpacks! – a taxi. It was wonderful.

Later that evening, once we had rested a bit, we decided to go out and wander through the stalls.  I slung my DSLR over my shoulder – something I would have felt very uncomfortable doing in Cairo – as we headed out the door.

Just as soon as we stepped into the street, a man came out of his carpet store and sidled up next to me.  “Sir, can I show you some excellent Persian carpets?”

Oh, here we go, I thought.  “No thank you.”  I looked straight ahead, but he was still walking along beside me.  I turned to give him a bit of a glare.

“Oh, don’t worry,” he said. “I’m just walking in the same direction.”  He smiled as we parted ways at the corner.  I felt bad.

Over and over, our inaccurate preconceptions were thrown back into our faces like that.  At the Grand Bazaar, vendors were happy to have you just window shopping.  At the Spice Market, we bought an assortment of dried fruit and the salesmen rounded up when weighing our bag and went on to trim a few cents off the price because it was easier to make change.  At a convenience store near our hotel, the guy behind the counter would always throw a couple pieces of gum in our bag, just to be friendly.

Three days in Turkey wasn’t enough for us to completely lower our guard, but Istanbul went a long way towards restoring our enjoyment of markets.


You don’t shop when you’re on a round-the-world trip.  Or, if you do, you spend a fortune on postage.  Oksana and I have both remarked about how “lucky” we are in this respect.  Because we both already have heavy bags and a tight budget, souvenir collecting has lost much of its appeal.

Turkey, however, was perhaps the first country where we began to regret our inability to shop.  Hanging lanterns, colorful earthenware, clothing, and antiques.  We wanted to take so many things home with us from the Grand Bazaar!  We also appreciated that we were once again in a world where prices were posted on most items.  Even if we weren’t planning to buy anything, it was nice to at least know the starting price.

I remember an interaction with one of those ubiquitous carpet salesmen.  While Oksana was taking pictures in the Grand Bazaar, I was standing around, looking at everything on display.  A man came out of his store and walked up to me.

“Come in, let me show you my carpets,” he said.

I could tell his English was pretty good.  I decided to be polite and explain why I couldn’t.  “I’m sure they’re beautiful, but I can’t buy one.”

“But why?  You don’t even know the price!”

“It doesn’t matter. I’ve been backpacking around the world for a year and I don’t have that kind of room in my bag.”

“Ah,” he said, thinking he had me trapped. “This is no problem. I can ship anywhere!”

“Ah,” I replied with a smile, “but I don’t have an address! We sold our house and all our belongings before traveling!”  It was a half truth, but it worked.  I could see him struggling to come up with another angle, but eventually he had to admit that I wasn’t in the market for a giant rug.


Turkey, or at least Istanbul, is mostly Muslim, but to me, it seemed a much more liberal Muslim than the countries we’d visited in Africa and the Middle East.  Granted, we were in a very touristy area, but even at the height of Ramadan, we saw fewer women in full burkas.  Perhaps in a testament to how cosmopolitan Istanbul is now, we saw many women who were wearing trench coat-burkas.  More stylish than simple billowing silks, these were burkas that managed to cover everything that needed covering, but with fashionable buttons and lapels to give it a certain flair.  Reminded me a bit of the costumes in The Matrix.

They say that Asia meets Europe in Istanbul and I can think of no better example than those trendy burkas we saw there.


Small note, but one that we certainly took notice of.  While waiting for our bus to Bulgaria to get underway, the driver started smoking a cigarette.  Within moments, the whole bus smelled like smoke, but fortunately for us he didn’t keep smoking on the 12-hour ride to Burgas.

We Americas often get a (bad?) rap for being overly health-conscious and controlling, but I tell you what:  There’s nothing like having a nice meal in a restaurant ruined by a guy with a cigar sitting next to you to make it all seem worthwhile.

That said, this was just one incident in Turkey.  To be honest, I’ve been quite surprised about just how many countries we’ve visited that have laws in place to protect the public health.  Restaurants, bars, public buildings – many more places that I would have guessed are off-limits to smokers, just like in the U.S.


Kids playing in a fountain

All over Istanbul, we noticed public fountains.  Not drinking fountains, more like, I don’t know – something older.  These were concrete basins, often set against monuments or ornamental walls.  We saw them in Sultanahmet, inside the Grand Bazaar, just about everywhere.

Even cooler, they were almost constantly being used.  Often people just stopped by to wash their hands real quick, but I also saw a few people splash water on their heads during the heat of the day.  Personally, I wasn’t going to drink from them, but they may have even had potable water.  I saw one person washing their fruit in one and another drinking straight from the spigot.

I’d bet this fountain culture is a holdover from past times when people got their water from communal wells.  I think it’s pretty neat that the city still devotes resources to keeping a tradition like this alive.


Turkish writing bothered me.  After going through a couple Arabic countries – not to mention Israel – where we couldn’t read a thing, I sort of trained myself out of trying to puzzle out the signs.  Turkish is written with a modified Roman alphabet, though, so my brain couldn’t help but try to read each one, even though I had no idea how to pronounce any of the letters.  The end result was the visual equivalent of having something on the tip of your tongue all day (or perhaps seeing an actor in movie and not being able to place where you’ve seen him before.)  Highly frustrating.

Fortunately, however, Istanbul is a lot like other big, touristy cities, in that you’re never very far from someone who speaks passable English.  We had no problems communicating with our hotel staff, restaurant waiters, or when asking directions.

Once, on the street, a person walking past us said, as a way of greeting, “Hello please Lady Gaga!”  Just like that, all at once, without any punctuation.  I have no idea what they meant, but it could almost be a metaphor for what my brain gets out of reading Turkish.