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ISTANBUL – The Mystery of the East and the Practicality of the West.

by Julie Lythgoe

With flights to Istanbul costing from as little as 18,000 Baht and the visa waiver for Thai citizens, Istanbul has become a very accessible holiday destination for Expats and Thais alike. Non-Thai citizens require a visa which you can purchase online (electronic visa) for around 700 Baht. It is also possible to purchase a visa on arrival in Turkey, the arrival halls have self-service machines where you can obtain your visa and it is a very easy procedure. All the major airlines fly from Bangkok to Istanbul. Turkish Airlines (who have won best European Airline for six consecutive years) and Thai Airways, offer direct flights of around eight to ten hours and a short taxi ride will take you into the heart of Istanbul.

I, like many people, had my own ideas about Turkey, when I lived in the U.K. I had no interest in visiting Turkey but having spent two weeks there I can honestly now say that it is one of the most fascinating destinations I have visited. Istanbul is the only city in the world that can lay claim to straddling two continents – Europe and Asia and it combines a traditional eastern city with a modern western city. As you amble through the vibrant bustling streets you can actually sense Istanbul’s rich history it seems to ooze from the architecture permeating everything, I almost felt privileged to witness it.

In recent months Turkey has endured periods of unrest and a spate of bombings making it an undesirable holiday destination. Security is very high in Istanbul, the airports are the most secure that I have ever been through and there is a police presence at all the major historical sights but other than this life in Istanbul is relaxed and lighthearted.

Turkish people are fiercely proud of their country, there are beautiful flowers, flags and displays all over Istanbul and the streets are immaculately kept.Turkish people possess an infectious love of life and are extremely friendly and humorous, they are very positive fun-loving people who are clean and smartly dressed. Wherever I went I was made to feel welcome and people were eager to make conversation. In fact getting around Istanbul is cheap and very easy, the city has an excellent, modern transportation system. If you purchase an ‘Istanbulkart’ card you can get around the city via the Metro Subway, Metro Bus, Funicular train and the ferries that cross the Bosphoros Strait - European and Asian side. You can even use the card on the quaint red trams that run up and down Istiklal Avenue to and from Taksim Square.

Accommodation in Istanbul is plentiful and varied from 5-star luxury hotels to basic guest houses and hostels. There is something to suit every pocket, I chose a hotel in Beyoglu near Istiklal Avenue which is the main shopping and entertainment area of Istanbul. Prices for accommodation are comparable to Pattaya. Plus there are countless top-drawer historical attractions in Istanbul. In the two weeks that I was there I managed to visit some of the more well-known ones: Hagia Sophia, The Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Galata Tower, Dolmabahce Palace and The Grand Bazaar (the oldest covered bazaar in the world).

A visit to Istanbul without experiencing a Turkish bath would be unthinkable, I chose a spa at one of the nearby hotels which offered private rooms to experience this ancient Turkish tradition. There are many communal bath houses all over Istanbul but if you prefer some privacy then it is probably best to book into one of the many hotel spas. Copious amounts of water are ladled over you on a heated marble slab, lots of soapy foam and scrubbing and 45 minutes later I was done – it was actually quite an enjoyable experience and I certainly felt very clean afterwards – they even washed my hair!

Shopping in Istanbul is fabulous, you can find anything you might be looking for from designer stores in ultra-modern shopping centres to souvenirs in historical covered bazaars. Probably the best place to shop is in and around the spice market near the Galata Bridge, where there are both interesting products and reasonable prices.However as vibrant as it is during the day Istanbul is every bit as vivacious at night. Music seems to pour from every street and the numerous bars and restaurants set up street tables where you can sit and enjoy all the city has to offer. Sitting with a cold glass of Turkish beer and a plate of fresh almonds is heavenly. Street musicians are everywhere playing traditional Turkish music; the whole atmosphere is completely intoxicating.

During my stay I flew south for four days to visit the beach resort of Marmaris on the Turkish Riviera. Marmaris is breathtakingly beautiful, it is set in a bay surrounded by pine-forested hills and turquoise waters. As it is just an hour’s flying time from Istanbul you can easily enjoy a two-centre holiday, giving a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul. Booking offices can be found in Taksim Square at the top of Istiklal Avenue or you can book online using websites like Fare compare or Skyscanner. For a little over 1,000 Baht each way you can book your flight.

Before you go you should check with your bank that your debit card will allow you to withdraw money whilst you are in Turkey. Although I was assured by three banks in Pattaya that my card would work, it didn’t, and I had to ring Bangkok to get it cleared for overseas transactions.

It is always advisable to purchase travel insurance before any holiday, BUPA and AXA, both on Sukhumvit Road Pattaya offer good policies at a reasonable price and for around 1,000 Baht you will get a policy that will cover you for most things.

I certainly hope that I will have the opportunity to visit Istanbul again one day, it is a truly magical, unforgettable and intoxicating city.