Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Travelogue Turkey: Beautiful Sophia

I stand under the great dome of Hagia Sophia, inhale deeply and subtly wipe the tears from the corner of my eyes.

Yeah, cheesy. But seriously, I do cry. A bit.

My sentimental value towards this building is akin, presumably, to a die-hard Manchester United fan from Malaysia finally stepping inside the glorious Old Trafford. A guy who spends his whole life watching the games in front of the idiot box thousand of miles away from where the action really is, wondering how awesome it would be to be one of the spectators in the stadium. He knows the arena and its history inside out, and probably can recite all the notable games ever played there. He has never been to Old Trafford, but he has always been there, you know? Thus on the day when he finally steps on the green pitch of the stadium, it is as if he is returning to someplace familiar.

Istanbul and its architectural wealth have long fascinated me since I took a couple of History of Art classes at Brown, specializing not only in Jewish and Christian tradition, but particularly in Islamic art and architecture of the different dynasties – the Mughals in India, Nasrids in Spain, Safavids in Iran and Ottomans in Anatolia. The slides came alive with wonderful imagery of Islamic wonders – the manuscripts, the mosques, the palaces and the gardens.

After some semesters watching slideshow, writing papers on the subject and taking tests, I embarked on a European backpacking trip on my last winter as a student. My main goal was to trek down, much like a field trip, as much as possible the architecture I’ve been learning in the class. I walked under the arched ceiling of the Great Cathedral of Sevilla, enjoyed the serenity of the beautiful garden in several monasteries, and feasted on the architectural style of an ancient Jewish synagogue. In Granada and Cordoba of Spain, the great palace of Alhambra and the Cordoba Mosque were, finally, no longer a mere picture on my textbook. Now, after a five-year hiatus, I finally made my way to Istanbul to resume the Ottoman-part of the ‘field trip’. Hagia Sophia is the first stop.

A surge of emotion rushes through me, as I walk into the dimly lit building. It is exactly how I remember it from my class. Huge scaffolding looms over the visitors, disrupting the awe factor, but beyond that it is exactly how I imagine it would be. The huge, round medallion inscribed with the words Allah, Muhammad, the four caliphs, Hassan and Hussein are there. The mimbar is there. The stained-glass window is there, shimmering in the afternoon light.

Hagia Sophia is currently listed under World Monuments Watch list of the 100 most endangered sites, and that explains the scaffolding and all the renovation work being carried over. A UNESCO report in 1993 called for a major overhaul to protect this important monument that had been fairly neglected. The admission ticket into Hagia Sophia is a steep 20 Turkish Lira (roughly RM 40), which I later discovered is the standard price for almost all museums in Turkey, but I considered that as my small contribution as a world citizen to preserve a part of history.

What is interesting about Hagia Sophia is typical of many other buildings in regions that have witness the power struggle between the Muslims and Christians. After a successful war, buildings were expropriated by the new conqueror of the city. Depending on the religion of the winning force, a mosque was turned into a church or vice versa, usually incorporating the former structure into a new purpose. As example, in Hagia Sophia, the mimbar was built directly where the altar used to stand. Mosaics depicting angels, Jesus and Mary co-exist with Arabic calligraphy.

The Hagia Sophia is certainly a grand old dame who stood the test of times despite many wars and earthquakes. It had went through countless rebuilding and reinforcement, and saw marching past it many emperors and sultans. The building as we see it today was built in 532 by Emperor Justinian I. It became the principle church for the Byzantine empire and the main seat for Orthodox Christian for many hundred years – it even became the biggest church in the world for almost a thousand years. But when the Muslim Turks marched into the city in 1453, Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque. Four minarets were built around the mosque, and Islamic elements such as the mihrab, mimbar and calligraphy was incorporated into the structure. It was later declared as a museum by Kamal Ataturk in 1935.

Quite a history, isn’t it?

Friday, December 4, 2009

Turkey Trip: Itinerary and Expenses

To kick off a series (of yet to be written) travelogue piece on my (not so recent) backpacking trip to Turkey, I present to you my itinerary and expenses. May it guide you, oh future travellers, to have a splendid time as much as I did in Turkey.

The return Malaysia Airline flight costs me RM 3276.
Total expenditure spent in Turkey is RM 4823.45 Note: you can definitely cut down on the total expenditure by skimming on the food and skip shopping and the hot air balloon ride – the ride costs RM700 alone! As this was my first big trip since I started working, I decided not to be too “berkira” (duit boleh dicari ganti....hehehe) and went all out trying all kind of Turkish food (a real Jalan Jalan Cari Makan Extravaganza). It was a stark contrast to my poor student days when all I ate during my European backpacking trip was bread and Nutella ~ for three weeks :p

Exchange rate during the trip is (roughly):
1 Euro ~ RM 5 1 YTL ~ RM 2

25 July 2009 (Kuala Lumpur – Istanbul)
We arrived Istanbul in the morning and spent the day visiting Ayasofya Museum and Basilica Cistern. We also took the ferry to Haydarpasa.

Ayasofya Museum: 20 YTL
Basilica Cistern: 10 YTL
Transportation: 10.5 YTL (5 tram rides, 2 ferry rides)
Food and drinks: 27.5 YTL

26 July 2009 (Istanbul)
We visited the Topkapi Palace and Archaeology Museum.

Topkapi Palace: 20 YTL
Archaeology Museum: 10 YTL
Food and drinks: 35 YTL
Transportation: 3 YTL (2 tram rides)

27 July 2009 (Istanbul – Selcuk)
We took the Bosphorus Cruise Tour and walked around Taksim during the day in Istanbul and left for Selcuk on an overnight bus.

Bosphorus Tour: 9 YTL
Transportation: 28 YTL (5 tram rides and 1 taxi ride to the bus station)
Food and drinks: 18 YTL
Accommodation (25-27 July): 20 Euro
Overnight bus to Selcuk: 55 YTL

28 July 2009 (Selcuk)
We arrived in Selcuk in the morning and visited Efes and the small Efes Museum.

Efes Museum: 4 YTL
Efes: 20 YTL
Transportation: 5 YTL (a horse cart ride – yeayyy!!!)
Food and drinks: 37.10 YTL

29 July 2009 (Selcuk-Pamukkale-Selcuk)
We took a tour package to Pamukkale while maintaining base in Selcuk. The tour included transportation from Selcuk to Pamukkale, a buffet lunch, entrance fee to Pamukkale and tour guide service. As Pamukkale is 3-hours away from Selcuk, the tour is the best deal for time-crunching, public transport-relying tourist.

Pamukkale Tour: 40 Euro
Pamukkale Museum: 3 YTL
Food and drinks: 23.75 YTL

30 July 2009 (Selcuk-Goreme)
We visited St. John Basilica and the Selcuk Mosque in the morning and left for Goreme, Cappadocia by evening bus.

St. John Basilica: 5 YTL
Food and drinks: 16.75 YTL
Accomodation (28 – 30 July): 47 Euro
Bus ticket to Goreme: 50 YTL

31 July 2009 (Goreme)
We arrived at Goreme very early in the morning (it was still dark and bloody cold, hohoho). We visited the Open Air Museum and caught the sunset at Rose Valley.

Open Air Museum: 15 YTL
Food and drinks: 32 YTL

1 August 2009 (Goreme)
We took the very fanciful and expensive hot air balloon ride during sunrise, then went on the Green Tour. The tour brought us to the underground city, a hike down Ihlara Valley, a cave monastery and a few stops that highlight the geology of Cappadocia. The price included transportation, entrance fees to all places above, lunch and a tour guide. A highly recommended tour if you are pressed for time or does not have your own transport. Whatever it is, a hike down the gorgeous Ihlara Valley is a must!

Hot air balloon trip: 130 Euro
Green Tour: 60 YTL
Food and drinks: 12 YTL

2 August 2009 (Goreme-Ankara-Istanbul)
We took an afternoon bus to Ankara, stopped over in the city for a few hours, and took the night train to Istanbul. I recommend that you skip Ankara and spend the time somewhere else – not much to see here :)

Accommodation in Goreme (31-2 August): 30 Euro + 5 YTL
Bus to Ankara: 25 YTL
Food and drinks: 13.25 YTL
Transportation: 5.1 YTL (3 tram rides)
Locker: 2 YTL
Train from Ankara to Istanbul: 60 YTL

3 August 2009 (Istanbul)
Arrived Istanbul early in the morning. We spent the day at the Grand Bazaar & Spice Market and snapping pictures at Eminonu.

Shopping: 141.50 YTL
Transportation: 6 YTL
Food and drinks: 30.5 YTL

4 August 2009 (Istanbul)
Visited Dolmabache Palace and Miniaturk. The Miniaturk is a cool park with miniatures of all tourist attractions and significant places in Turkey ~ so since we can’t cover the whole country in two weeks, a trip to this park allowed us to see the places we weren’t able to visit :p

Dolmabache: 20 YTL
Miniaturk: 10 YTL
Food and drinks: 36.75 YTL
Transportation (tram, bus, funicular): 7 YTL
Baklava: 25 YTL

5 August 2009 (Istanbul-Dubai-Kuala Lumpur)
Goodbye, Turkey!!

Accommodation in Istanbul (3-5 August): 60 Euro
Transportation: 3 YTL
Shopping: 10 YTL
Drinks: 5 YTL

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Amazing Race: Shopaholic Edition

Fifteen racers...
Millions of rupiah to spend...
Who will emerge as the winner?

This... is... the Amazing Race, Shopaholic Edition!

Recap of the last episode: The racers completed several very wet tasks at the tropical island of Pulau Seribu, 45 minutes away from Anchol, Jakarta. As it was a non-elimination round, all racers are now off to the next location - the hilly town of Bandung - via boat and bus. What task awaits them now?

Day One
After a three-hour mandatory rest at Holiday Inn Bandung upon arrival, the racers were presented with a choice of two tasks:

Spend only two hours shopping along Jalan Dago. While this may sound easy, there are more than ten outlets along this road, so racers have to be brilliant in dividing their time,
Spend the equivalent amount of time at Jeans Street (I think they went to Cihampelas). While racers have the luxury of spending longer time at just one place, the lack of variety of goods may mean that some racers will come out with nothing.

(Director's note: no pictures taken from Jalan Dago, because the camera-man also too busy shoppingggggg!! She had been subsequently fired.)

Day Two
An hour in the morning was spend for more local oriented task - i.e shopping at the more traditional Pasar Baru. This building is a makcik-makcik shopping haven - floors and floors of telekung, fabrics, batik, etc. The biggest challenge? Racers were only given sixty minutes to complete their task (perghhh, mana cukup!). One of the racers, Cik A, failed to buy one of the required item on the list, a modern embroided baju kurung with slanted cutting. The other racer advised her on the strategy see-and-grab ("tak yah pikir2 dah") and compare prices only between two adjacent shops ("x yah aa round satu floor nak compare and tawar. Banding dua kedai je cukup!"). Miss F (yang bunyi awal2 tu konon-konon x nak shopping) accidently bought another bombastic lace fabric. She bought one last year from the same place, and it is still wrapped in the plastic at home. Now she got two bombastic fabrics, with no bombastic functions where she can wear them.

Afterwards the racers stopped by a few other outlets and also the Prima Rasa Bakery. Everyone was then transported to Jakarta after a Nasi Padang dinner.

Day Three

The challenge continues in Jakarta. The main task was to buy several batik pieces for friends back home. Five racers decided to team up and against their better reason, listened to the advice of other competing racers who directed them to Mangga Dua instead of Tanah Abang.

Four of the five racers. Pn. A duduk depan, so gambar tak masuk :p

Perbincangan paling penting di ATM machine - berapa banyak kena keluarkan duit nih?!

After an hour fruitlessly searching for a fabric store in Mangga Dua, and useless direction from the shopkeeper there when asked on the stores' location, the team decided to abandon Mangga Dua and left for Tanah Abang. Time was a big concern, as all racers need to be back at the hotel by 2 pm to check out and leave for the airport. They did not accomplish anything in Mangga Dua except for Miss F who managed to score two cute tops there. She longingly stared at the handbags but as everyone else was pressed for time, she decided to forgo those babies and went with them to Tanah Abang.

Muka risau dalam teksi... takut tak sempat shopping.

Yeay, dah nampak Tanah Abang!

Yeay, dah sampai...! Ready, get set, go!

The five racers reached Tanah Abang and voila, all that they want was there. More fabrics, more batiks, more telekung... They barely had two hours there but marvelouslly, learning from yesterday's experience, all task was completed successfully.

The winner was determined at the airport, based on the person who has the heaviest luggage when checking in at the airport counter. The name not to be disclosed here for privacy reason, hohoho. A clue: the winner was not Miss F (who felt sad that she was dethroned as the Shopaholic Queen), and the winner was actually a 'he'!

Monday, June 8, 2009

Zorbing @ Titiwangsa (Or The Day We Pretend To Play Hamster)

I wonder who first conjured the brilliant idea of sphere-ing or zorbing? Maybe that person was having coffee on one fine day, reflecting on his many life achievements, when suddenly it struck him that his life would be incomplete until he found a way to put people inside a giant, clear rubber ball and rolled them down the hill.

Or maybe, just maybe, the evil genius behind the idea is actually a hamster, taking revenge on behalf of his kind on us human who have subjected his furry families and friends to run in spinwheel and plastic balls.

One beautiful Saturday morning I found myself at Taman Tasik Titiwangsa with my KOMA cohorts. Two giant plastic balls were waiting for us.

Act One – Dry ball

Left leg in, right leg in.
Carabineer secured.
Hand went through the first handle, holding the second handle.
Harness checked.
Deep breath…
A smile to my golek partner, Ash, safely secured across me and…
I screamed like a mad woman, but in my heart I was furiously praying, “God, why am I doing this! Selamatkan hamba mu. Tak kahwin lagi. Mamaaaaaa!!”. It lasted only for a few seconds, but it felt like forever.

Up, down, up, down. Round and round.
This must be how it feels being trapped in a giant washing machine.

My left leg slipped out, and now it dangled dangerously as we continued to roll. I tried to slip it back in, but the sheer force of the motion and gravity drained the strength off me. Nasib baik aku ini katik orangnya, if not Ash would have been kicked mercilessly during the ride.

We rolled to a stop 70 meter later, and only then I realized my headscarf was completely off. Tercabut habis. All the bump, hump and jump had caused a friction between my head and the plastic wall that my scarf slid off. No wonder Ash’s scream got louder towards the end of the roll – the sweet girl across him had transformed into a crazy-haired banshee!

The start of the dry ball - boleh senyum dan bergurau senda lagi


There were about twenty of us, and eventhough each ride only lasted for a few seconds, we had to wait for everybody’s turn before continuing with the more challenging wet ball. We followed the same sequence, so I got to witness a few friends going through the wet ball.

It did not looked and sound as fun. I approached Jai, the first one in.

“Eh, ok ke? Air tak masuk hidung?”
“Semua masuk, beb. Tak leh tahan, nak buat macam mana”
“Hohoho (laughing nervously). Sure, that bad?”
“Macam HUET la jugak. Kalau orang yang tak leh HUET tu, yang ni memang susah lah”

Oh, shit.
I hate, hate, hate HUET to the core of my bones, to the lowest dermis in my body, to the last drop of blood pumped into my heart. HUET (or Helicopter Underwater Escape Training) is a compulsory course for oil and gas personnel working offshore. It trained us how to escape in case the helicopter crashed into the sea. The training is conducted in a huge pool – we are strapped on seats inside a box - the ‘helicopter’- submerged into the water, then they turned the box upside down so that we are now dangling the wrong way up, after which we are supposed to release ourselves from the harness, kick open the window and swim out of the submerged box. I passed all the tests I’ve taken so far, but it took so much courage and practice to put a brave face in front of the instructor and friends, and just to get it over. Dalam hati tuhan je yang tahu…uwaaaa

Lakonan mantap Jai, yang membuatkan sesetengah orang tertakut untuk membuat well ball.

Act Two – wet ball

“Ash, aku tak nak buat kot wet run nih”
“Ah, tak de, tak de. Kena buat jugak”
”Ko buat la ngan orang lain. Sure ada budak lain nak buat dua kali nyeh”
”No, no.. partner tak leh tukar eh”

We walked to the starting point.

“Eh, serious ni, aku tak nak buat”

We arrived at the ball. Ash got in first.
“Tak mau buat ahh”
“Masuk!! Masuk!!”

I gathered my courage – how bad it can be? It only takes a few seconds. You survived HUET, girl! – and entered the ball. Ash was strapped in. The interior was slippery from previous usage, and I slipped trying to stand up, putting the harness on. Suddenly, my stomach turned, I felt so dreadful, as if I just crashed into Anuar Zain’s BMW and he hurt so bad he could no longer sing and I was solely responsible for depriving the world from his nightingale voice. Oh God, what am I doing?

“Tak mau!!! Nak keluar!!! Nak keluar!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

Yes, my friends. I screamed without shame. I try to run to the opening, but the staff – hantu betul diaorg ni! – put their bodies against the hole, preventing me from going out. I tried the other hole, and someone was fast enough to cover that escape route as well.

I resigned myself to fate. I stalled so much getting the harness on – suddenly, the harness shrink and I can’t put my legs in. Then I can’t put through my arms. Then the carabineer pulak tak nak lock. Macam-macam lah alasan.

The staff poured in two buckets of water inside the ball.
Nothing else can be done, except to pray.
Ya tuhan, ampunkan dosa hambaMu ini.


I covered my nose with the side of my arm.
First round, the water got in my nose….. pedihhhhhhhhhhh
Second round, more water got in….. argghhhhhh
Third round, fourth round…. Oh, this is how it feels to really be trapped in a huge washing machine!

The washing machine - wuhoooooooooooooo!

Unlike the dry run I did not opened my eyes at all. All I could hear was Ash screaming like mad – saje bikin havoc la tu – and I just kept quiet until the ball stopped. A few friends were waiting at the end to subject us to some torture – they rolled and shook the ball a couple of times just to make us suffer – and only then, I opened my eyes and mouth and scream… happily! It’s over!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Kelahiran anak dugong - gambar ihsan National Geographic

Golek partner

Yes, I would recommend this to everyone, no matter how harrowing I make it sound. I would even recommend you to try the zorbing in Gemas, which has a longer route and it may take close to one minute to reach the end (hohohoh, please don’t eat breakfast before you try this). Or if you are lucky enough, try the one in New Zealand, which is even more challenging than the one we have here.

To all KOMA friends, it is a pleasure, as always… hahaha

For more info, check out the website
The dry ball is RM 15 per ride. The wet ball is RM 20.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Sang Sangkuriang and Pisang Keju

Tangkuban Perahu (pic from

Ok guys, since I’ve been here and I visited Tangkuban Perahu before, let me tell you the story behind the volcano. Very interesting lah this story. Way, way back then, there were these king and queen… (pause). Eh, jap… Aaah, that’s right, there were this king and queen, they had a son. Then something happen, the son was cast away. I don’t know what happened la, but he had to leave the country. Then years later he came back, but he did not recognize the place was his country before. (Eh, how come he did not remember? He was an adult when he went away kan?). Anywayyyy, something happen, and he came back to the country that he no longer recognize as his country but the most important thing is he met his mother who he did not know was his mother and they fall in love. (Eh, where was the king at this time? And how he did not know his mother? She must be so old too!). Ok, I think his father was dead. Maybe he killed him? That’s why he was thrown away? Anyhoo, the mom and the son fall in love, then he asked her to marry her, then somehow she discovered he was her son, so of course she wanted to say no. So she asked him to do an impossible task, that to marry her, he had to build a giant boat before sunrise the next day. Wahh, apparently this boy got magical power, so he get helped from all those magic creatures so of course his boat was almost done by dawn. Her mom got worried but she also got power, so she did something la, I don’t remember what she did, but what she did caused either the sun to rise early or the rooster to think that the sun was rising that it made that koo,koo sound so the boy pretty much lose. He got angry of course, so he kicked the boat and it overturned, and that’s how you get the mountain called Tangkuban Perahu, my friend. (Oooooo).

I am such a terrible story-teller.

It was over a meal of pisang salai keju that I told this story to my friends, as we were supposed to visit the volcano the next day. Oh, pisang salai keju, another must-have while in Bandung. The dessert was my treat - I took that it was my responsibility to introduce this yummy dessert to my friends who are new to Bandung, as it was my friend responsibility to introduce it to me when I first came here. Kan Farina? :)

For the uninitiated, pisang salai keju is grilled banana, drizzled with a combination (or all!) of either condensate milk, cheese, chocolate and peanuts. Yummy! My friends finished off everything on the plate, so hopefully they do like it.

Anyway, there are several version on the legend of Sangkuriang (he was the son who falls in love with his own mother - oh, Oedipal conflict!) Tangkuban Perahu, one of them can be found here.

We ended up not going to Tangkuban Perahu the next day at all for we have a more important mission to accomplish...hoho, so here are some pics I snapped at the volcano from a previous trip to Bandung with Farina.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The 1000 Islands

Guess where I was in the past week?
Let me give you some hint…

Yezza, I was in Indonesia - tanah tumpah darah cowok-cowok ganteng ku!

The journey was, officially, a scientific trip (hehehe) to study modern and ancient carbonate depositions and, personally for me, a shopaholic trip to study the limit of my credit card. Hello… visiting Jakarta and Bandung without stopping over, no matter how brief, at their famous factory outlets, Tanah Abang and Pasar Baru is like going to Paris without visiting the iconic Eiffel Tower ye, kawan-kawan. Thus as a responsible citizen of the world, it is my duty to ensure that my journey covers all the important spots in any city I visited... ahem.

Ancient carbonates are limestone and the likes, such as Batu Caves, Gua Tempurung and Gua Niah. These are the ancient rocks now exposed on the surface. As geologists though, we are hunting for the ones still buried underneath because this rock is one of the ‘containers’ of oil and gas underground - if the setting is right. In my profession, we observe the outcrops on surface to derive the properties and structure of their counterparts in the subsurface. This is what a field trip is all about – tengok batu… :p

Modern carbonate is living reef, and it is equally important to study how it all started – the beginning of the carbonate rock. So how do you study modern carbonates? By snorkeling of course! We went to Pulau Seribu, about 45 minutes by speedboat from Ancol, Jakarta. It is a chain of many, many small islands (hence, the name). A few of the bigger islands were inhabited; the smaller ones are humanless paradise waiting to be explored.

It is a cliché to say how crystal clear the water is, but it really is. Or how beautiful the corals and fishes are, but they really are breathtaking. Even where the water is as shallow as our knee, gorgeous, colorful creatures are swimming happily – unlike in Malaysia’s beaches, where you usually have to go quite far off the beach before you can see anything worthwhile.

One of the highlight - a beautiful starfish. Patrick!!!!

Species terancam - badak air masin. Hanya ada seekor sahaja di dunia ini. Hahahah..

We had to be extra careful though, because there are some sinister creatures like bulu babi (or sea urchin) and jelly fish abound. Perghh, bergetar perut everytime I saw the urchins. Just imagine that you are floating heavenly, tengah syok-syok memerhatikan ikan-ikan bermain dicelah batu karang, lalalalala, you went over the coral and suddenly on the other side, loomed a black creature with monstrous spikes. You can always know when a snorkeling friend suddenly stumbled into an urchin – a quiet float…. then suddenly, frantic flapping of the arms and muffled sound of an underwater scream... hahahaha, memang lawak!

The bulu babi, or sea urchins.

Awesome friends!

Credit to Aiman & Amie for some of the pictures.