Having read quite a few articles on the Sheik Zayed Grand Mosque, it has always been on my “must visit” places. I have been privileged to visit the two largest mosques in the world – Mecca and Madina and with this, the third largest.
The grandeur and beauty can be seen from the outside just a few km away from the entrance rising 11m above sea level. Glistening pools surround the mosque amplifying the stunning architecture.
With over 1000 columns and 80 domes, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s dream was brought to life by skilful calligraphers from the UAE, Jordan and Syria. The wandering tourist sees beautiful verses from the Quran embedded in arabic.
The largest dome (The main dome) is 85 meters high with a diameter of 32.8 meters. With lavish open spaces, the mosque is open for prayers to both muslims and non muslims. Despite the large crowds, you feel a sense of serenity and absolute peace. You feel the presence of power and kindness.
First opened for prayers in 2007, the mosque can host over 40,000 worshippers in the main prayer hall that show cases a hand knotted carpet of 5,600 square meters that tok over 1,300 craftsmen to complete.
Another astonishing feature of the mosque is the 5,625 m2 large carpet in the main prayer hall. It has been hand-knotted by about 1,300 Iranian craftsmen.
A prayer for Dad and one hour later, well worth the visit and as long as I return to Abu Dhabi, this will always be my place of serenity.
The (true) servants of (God) the most gracious are those who walk the earth in humility, and when the ignorant address them, reply with (words of) peace – Quran 25:63.
Strabo, the Greek geographer once wrote that Izmir was the most beautiful Ionian city of the time, even rivaling nearby Ephesus. After reading up on all the “must-visit-cities” in Turkey, we decided to spend some time in Izmir. It’s also relatively easy to get-around Ephesus, Pamukkalle and other historic sights from Izmir.
We hopped on an early morning Turkish Airlines flight from Istanbul to Izmir and checked into the Mövenpick Hotel. It’s in the heart of the city with an amazing view of the Izmir Bay. With 185 rooms, a Fitness Centre and indoor pool, the hotel is also a few miles away from the shopping centres. I can’t really comment on the Fitness Centre since I spent my evenings trying out Turkish food. (Obviously).
We commenced our full day tour of Ancient Ruins in Ephesus from Izmir. The archeological site of Ephesus is a must-visit destination for culture lovers and archelogy enthusiasts alike. An important city to the Roman Empire, we spent an entire day exploring its ancient sites including the Temple of Artemis, the Great Theater, The Library of Celsus, The Fountain of Trajan and the House of the Virgin Mary.
The Temple of Artemism, rising to the clouds is the most famous structure in Ephesus and once known as one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. Built between the 6th and 4th century BC, it was destroyed by a fire and replaced a few years later by another more imposing temple.
We then moved to The Library of Celsus, built to hold over 12,000 scrolls and at the time, one of the largest libraries in the world. It’s arguably one of the most beautiful examples of Roman architecture left standing. We entered the library, passing the four female statues representing wisdom, character, judgement and experience. A lovely reminder of the value we have always placed on learning and knowledge.
The Great Theatre of Epehsus was next. A well-preserved building that could accommodate over 24,000 spectators back in the day. Sounds impossible, but if you look down from the top, the size of the theatre becomes more prominent. The theatre is even used to-date with crowds witnessing performances by Elton John, Sting and Diana Ross to name a few.
If you fancy learning more, you can always visit the Museum of Ephesus. Displaying the pieces found in and around the ruins of Ephesus, it costs around 10 Liras (380 rupees), but we preferred strolling through the market place staring at the beautiful carpets (which we didn’t end up buying).
Our final stop for the day was the House of the Virgin Mary. Religious experts agree that Saint John, Saint Paul and the Virgin Mary spent time living in the city of Ephesus. Driving up the winding roads, the house is humble in appearance and small in size. You can also find metal taps and local legend has it that each tap reflects an aspect of life; wealth, health and fertility. Whichever one you drink from, that gift will come your way. It’s a quiet and serene place where you can also share your messages on their “wishing wall”. The entrance fee is around 1250 rupees and well worth the visit.
If you’re wondering where to eat, you can always try Margaux Restaurant at the Mövenpick Izmir, or if you are not too tired, enjoy a cool walk outside and make a reservation at Korfez. Located on bay’s restaurant row, the service is excellent, and the food is fresh and tasty. It’s NOT cheap, but it’s a lovely dinner to end your evening (and their selection of Turkish wines – AMAZING!)
While you are in Izmir, don’t forget to spend a day in Pamukkale! It will take you around 3 hours by car with an entrance fee of just 500 rupees. The “Cotton-Palace”, one of the most beautiful attractions. While we visited Pamukkale and Hierapolis just because it looked stunning in pictures, most visitors go there with the purpose of rejuvenating and for wellness benefits.
Known to cure many illnesses, it’s made up of mineral forests, waterfalls and terraced basins. You can bathe in the warm mineral rich waters and easily spend an entire day here. It’s a bizarre, beautiful sight, now a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site. Many centuries ago, the Romans, aware of the powers of Pamukkale’s water, decided to construct a big spa city called Hierapolis nearby. Translates to “Holy City” in Turkish, it has a well-preserved Amphitheatre seating 12,000 people.
So, there you go – An amazing time in Izmir. Don’t believe the weather Gods. Even During September – October, the weather was certainly not warm. We landed from Istanbul and checked into Izmir in our shorts but walked out with umbrellas and cardigans. It doesn’t dampen your experience at all though.
Certainly not known for its charm or tranquility – Phnom Penh is loud, busy and vibrant. The streets offer a history lesson and has a certain distant charm to it. If you are in Cambodia, just 2 days in Phnom Penh would actually suffice.
We stayed at the Palace Gate Hotel Resort. It’s smack in the city and right opposite the Royal Palace. A restored French colonial villa with spacious rooms, good food and a 20 minute drive to/from the airport.
We had a few meals at the Mealea restaurant located in the hotel, and the local cuisine is fantastic. We tried the Battambang chicken curry in Khmer spice, wrapped in a lotus leaf and a local favourite – The fresh zucchini, moringa leaves and pumpkin flowers soup.
It’s not spicy, just full of flavour and turmeric, galangal, ginger, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves.
Make your way to the Central Market – It’s worth the experience. WAY more expensive than the actual stores despite the haggling, but you will find almost anything and everything.
Built somewhere in 1935-36 in the shape of a dome, the building itself is a dark yellow art deco. You may want to hold on to your clutch while you haggle.
Wander over to the Royal Palace, built in the 1860’s. With four main compounds, the palace boasts the finest Khmer architecture and a touch of French charm. With beautiful mural paintings, a throne hall, temple of the Emerald Buddha and a Kampaeng (Defensive Wall), it’s open to the public during the day.
The museum is also quite close to the Royal Palace, home to the world’s finest Khmer collection. Photography is not allowed and it’s not as large as you’d expect it to be. It took us about an hour to tour the entire museum .
Known to be the second largest city in Cambodia, Battambang exudes a small-town feel. It seems deserted, quiet and quaint. You can visit the city for just a day or a weekend, but if you are in Cambodia, then Battambang is a must especially with the world famous bamboo train ride!
You can travel to Battambang via Siem Reap by car and it will take you around 3 hours. This is well worth the trip although the journey to Battambang is not very eventful. A ride on the Norrie as they call it, is a bamboo flatbed on wheels, and is powered by a small engine.
Navigate the green fields and enjoy the stunning country side and pristine air as they chug their way through 7km of beautiful scenery. These trains were traditionally used by the local people to transport cargo. It will cost you around USD 10 for this mini adventure and you really should not be paying anything more.
You can also stop by Wat Kandal, known to be one of the oldest temples in the city. Known for its beautiful wooden doors and paintings, you can complete the visit in a very short time.
Another popular temple in Battambang is Wat Tahm Rai known as the elephant temple and it’s enroute.
We spent just half a day here so I can’t really recommend a list of restaurants or hotels, but you really must check out the train ride!
Wandering around Siem Reap is truly something else! This ancient city boasts 292 temples, our trusty tour guide mentioned that 37 were actually accessible. (No, we did not visit 37 temples..) Siem Reap is not only famous for its temples, but also the amazing food, night markets and cultural experiences.
No doubt, Angkor Wat took our breath away. Originally built and dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the intricate Apsara carvings are unique and beautiful. One of the most well preserved temples, Angkor Wat requires at least 2-3 hours to take in the awe-inspiring details. It’s the heart and soul of Cambodia and a source of fierce national pride.
Don’t forget to climb the steep stairs all the way up to the upper level. The view is worth every aching step. (Nothing a fantastic massage can’t solve later on!) .
Our next stop was the “Tomb raider temple” Ta Prohm ; A battle between architecture and nature in Cambodia. Swallowed by jungles, Ta Prohm is a buddhist temple dedicated to the mother of Jayavarman the seventh.Bound by massive roots of humongous trees, this is certainly a must visit.
Similar to Ta Prohm, but on a lesser scale lies Ta Nei, in much rougher shape than the rest.
Take a walk to the Elephant Terrace where the Angkor rulers viewed their returning armies and visit the Bayon Temple, built to represent Mount Meru and known for the mysterious faces on its many towers.
Don’t forget to include an Apsara dance along with your dinner during your visit to Cambodia. As depicted on the Angkor walls, these women with shimmering silk tunics and coy smiles will perform a graceful ancient art of the apsara dance.
So as you can see, Siem Reap is a city filled with fun, adventure, culture, history and some amazing people by the way!
A resilient country, recovering from a dark past, Cambodia has now become a tourist destination for both luxury travellers and backpackers alike. With stunning landscapes and exotic temples, ten days in Cambodia gives you ample time to cover Siem Reap, the charming gateway to Angkor temples, Phnom Penh ; the scenic riverside city and Battambang ; known for its bamboo train rides.
Our abode for the night and the next few days was the Golden Temple Retreat. There was no particular reason for choosing this but the reviews were great so we thought – why not?
We were greeted at the airport by “May” the Guest relations officer with cold towels and king coconut water, and in addition a few traditional sweets like milk rice and jak fruit wrapped in betel leaves.
The hotel is small, snug and the staff extremely friendly. Genuinely friendly. They go out of their way and are very obliging.
We tried a few dishes like the Khmer chicken curry and beef along with lime pickle rice and washed it down with Angkor beer. It tastes quite good actually! The food – a mix of Thai and Sri Lanka so far. Mild spices and lots of coconut milk.
The pool at the Golden temple is quite big and despite the high occupancy, you still feel at home.
We hopped into one of the local Tuks and headed over to the Phare, Cambodian circus. If it’s your first time in Cambodia like myself, this is certainly a must watch. Pre book your tickets via get your guide or Viator to avoid the queues and disappointment. It was packed with around 350 people and the circus was unique and entertaining.
Mostly street kids passionate about arts, theatre and the circus performing their hearts out. They have some serious talent! It’s around one hour and well worth the money. If you are unable to follow the story, you do have giant tv screens with English and French translations but I bet you really wouldn’t care when you’re fixating on the well built boys summersaulting and juggling ten oranges all at once !
Our temple hopping adventures take place during day 2, 3 and 4 and we can’t wait to check out what’s in store!
Golden Temple Retreat gives you easy access to wherever you want to go.
There’s a free airport pick up and drop off included
The rooms are spacious with large balconies. (Bathrooms have no doors so if you are traveling with a friend ; this might be .. Well!)
The staff : Icing on the cake. Helpful, always with a smile and absolutely amazing
The Spa is excellent, clean and quite affordable
Cocktails : generous
They even have an Apsara show with dinner and a cooking class in the morning with a certificate for participation
Ooooh and a farewell t shirt as a souvenir ! Book direct via: http://retreat.goldentempleretreat.com
I dedicated a post to the Hagia Sophia and Blue mosque and I still can’t do it justice.. However, I did spend a few more days in Istanbul. The constant beating of the wave of the East against the rock of the west. The Dolmabahçe Palace dominates around half a kilometre of the Bosphorus shorelines. With over 280 rooms and about 5-6 turkish baths, this beauty was constructed in 1843 and is an extravagant mystery. Unfortunately you are not allowed to take pictures inside the building but you are more than welcome to stroll through the gardens and check out the interior.
You need to also visit the Topkapi Palace which was home to the Ottoman Sultans for almost four decades. The Palace boasts high walls and four courtyards and now serves as a museum.
Visit the courtyards and the harem which was once the quarters of the Sultan’s family which shows you a mix of many architectural styles.
The street side shops and the grand bazaar is just great! One of the largest and oldest markets in the world, with bustling shops and happy hagglers. From coffee sets to evil eyes, to some of the finest turkish sweets, this colourful and chaotic bazaar adds poetic charm to the city of Istanbul.
Oooh and the best sweets? Hazer Baba’s Turkish Delights in the Bazaar. You can mix and match, they even vacuum pack it for you!
If you prefer a sit-down kind of sweet shop, then head to Hafiz Mustafa . They have been around since 1864 and it’s a quaint but VERY busy store with locals. You can opt for the turkish tea along with a platter of sweets and the Baklava is just out of this world!
So there you have it. A part of Istanbul. Next up : The whirling Dervishes, dinner and lunch spots and cruises.
Alphonse De Lamartine – The famous writer and poet once said that “If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul”. How very true. Istanbul modestly boasts beauty everywhere. Istanbul boasts some of the best food in the world. Istanbul boasts majestic palaces overlooking the vast Bosphorus and Istanbul boasts mesmerising history, culture and heritage. Needless to say, wandering in Istanbul was just amazing!
We started our morning by visiting the “Holy Wisdom” – Hagia Sophia. Previously a Church constructed in 537 , an Orthodox Basilica which was then a mosque somewhere in 1453.
An architectural landmark in the heart of the city and now a museum, the Hagia Sophia is the perfect place to observe both the Byzantium and Ottoman effects all under one roof. The Christian mosaics and the black and gold calligraphy discs honours both religions in the most beautiful way.
During the period where this was a mosque, they not only ensured all the Christian paintings were in tact by plastering carefully over it, but when it was finally converted to a museum, the unearthing of these paintings resulted in both religions standing side by side – a depiction of harmony (something we sadly lack in this day and age).
Covered in multi coloured marble, the walls and ceiling are spectacular as you try to take this all in (while frantically clicking and capturing every single angle from your Phone or camera), the 100+ columns that lead you to the first floor shares decorative creations of the Byzantine Empire.
Listen to the stories unfolding around you as various tour guides share the mysteries and secrets housed within these walls. A peek over the wooden framed windows also give you a glimpse of the blue domes.
Needless to say, if ever you are in Istanbul, you really must spend a solid hour or more at the Hagia Sophia.
A ticket is priced at 40 TL (10 USD)
Your attire doesn’t really matter since it’s a museum and not a religious place of worship
A guided tour gives you all the information you need to know. If you cannot afford a guided tour – eavesdropping on other tour groups also works well!
Once you reach the first floor, don’t forget to take a picture right towards the middle which gives you panoramic views.
A few repairs are currently underway but you are certainly not marred by this.
Turkey has been on my bucket list for a few reasons and Istanbul has always been a “must visit” because of the Hagia Sophia and the beautiful blue mosque. So 2017 was about crossing something off my bucket list (since marriage and babies- well, clearly nowhere in sight!)
After a 9-10 hour flight all we needed was a good snooze. The taxi ride from the airport cost us around 130 TL (25-27 pounds ) and nearly our lives (and I thought Sri Lankan tuk tuk rides were bad!). It was quite exhausting since he didn’t speak English and the only Turkish word I was aware of was “chicken” – not really helpful. After a 45 minute drive of honking, arm waving and conversations we just didn’t comprehend, we arrived at the Hotel.
On arrival we were greeted by the extremely friendly staff who were so genuinely helpful. Along with an upgrade, we checked into a lovely room on the fifth floor overlooking the picturesque city and stunning waterfront views. A personalised message from the General Manager, a bottle of Turkish wine (another must try by the way!) and some chocolates and Turkish delights hit the spot.
The Mövenpick Istanbul Golden Horn is perfectly located with an amazing spa, an All day dining that serves up the finest Mövenpick breakfasts and the sky dome – all the way on the tenth floor with views, drinks and dinner.
The breakfast buffet offers a wide spread of both local and international cuisine. From Lentil soup, salads and olive stations to fresh pastries, yogurts, an egg station and plenty of Turkish cheeses and fresh juices. We were also offered some lovely banana and chocolate pancakes with Mövenpick ice cream – an absolute treat! (I clearly remember telling myself that I will be visiting the gym shortly after. I did visit the gym “area” also known as the Spa!)
The Spa offers various treatments and we opted for the Swedish massages. The massage was not aggressive and very relaxing with a soothing oil, which lasted around 55 minutes. Thereafter the “package” offers a Turkish bath. This was a first time experience for both my friend and definitely something you must try when in Turkey! We walked into the “Hamam” and relaxed for around 10-15 minutes. At this point I was glad it was just the two of us since I wasn’t quite sure how fun and insanely awkward communal bathing can be and I wasn’t ready to find out as yet..
Fifteen minutes later both our therapists walked in singing some Turkish tunes, and began bathing us. (It was also the first time someone not only bathed me but serenaded me at the same time!) With a vigorous bubble massage that leaves you feeling absolutely refreshed they then allow you to relax a little more.
The food – We experienced both the all day dining and the sky dome for dinner on two occasions. The view from the tenth floor is stunning and the food splendid. Between the two of us, we tried the cheese platter, the pita and kebab, beef and Turkish sausage pizza and the red and white Turkish wines. Comfortable rooms, gorgeous views, good food and coffee – nothing quite like a hotel that ticks all your boxes especially when you get back after an exhausting tour or sightseeing in town.
The overall experience was truly Mövenpick – we certainly made memories and I’m quite sure I’m well scrubbed for the next few days!
The most beautiful spring garden in the world – Damn right! When we planned our trip to the Netherlands, the Tulip fields were definitely on the bucket list. Given that it’s open just 8 weeks every year, we were lucky enough to spend an entire day at Keukenhof!
I actually did not know that there were over 3000 varieties of tulips, and sure as hell did not know that it originated somewhere near Turkey..
Yet somehow the Netherlands rule hands down with a marvellous variety of tulips spanning over 30+ hectares ! I’m not even pollen your leg… (Geddit?)
A full day is ideal to enjoy the tulip fields. Known as the largest flower garden in the world, the place comes alive once every year for a few weeks with working windmills, stunning flower beds and Instagram worthy clicks every step of the way.
You can even purchase the bulbs (which we did, but didn’t really work out in Sri Lanka where the temperature reaches 30* degrees ! It probably deep fried the bulb I planted…
During our visit, the Tulip fields were around 80% in bloom and even the indoor flower exhibitions were lively and crowded.
Don’t forget to book your ticket early, visit during the end of April if you want to see the Tulips in full bloom and carry a map of the gardens with you. It’s far too large and you are bound to get lost, (You wouldn’t mind it though since it’s such a breathtaking place to lose yourself), but if you want to cover some good ground, then a map is necessary. (Or if you are directionally challenged like I am!)
The Darwin Hybrid tulips were one of my favourites with its pyramid shaped blooms. You really can’t explain how magnificent these tulip fields are.. Just visit and make sure you bring home a souvenir and kudos if you actually grow it!
I would plan ahead and go along with a tour company to Keukenhof. It’s around 40-45 minutes from Amsterdam, they drop you right at the entrance and allow you ample time to stroll the tulip fields as well as drop you back in the City Centre. I found this to be rather convenient. We booked ours via www,getyourguide.com and it was very professional and well timed.
So get ready to spend an entire day or a good half day since it’s well worth it!