At the time I booked the trip I didn't know much about Istanbul or even what I actually wanted to do there, other than eating my weight in Turkish Delight. My main motivation for this itinerary was to save myself a lot of money. However I'm always glad for the opportunity to visit somewhere I've never been before.
Tickets from Bangkok to Dublin were absurdly expensive at Easter and I'm allergic to spending money, so that was no good. Fortunately, I hold a decent number of British Airways miles (Avios) that I've collected from churning credit card sign-up bonuses and a bit of flying. Unfortunately, there were no rewards seats available on the BKK - LHR leg to get me to Dublin.
So I started looking for routes from BKK to any city in Europe where a) reward seats were available, b) I had never visited before and c) had cheap direct flights to Dublin. Istanbul was the city that ticked all the boxes.
At that time BA had just announced plans to effectively devalue Avios miles through some significant changes to their loyalty program. It's really crappy how you can save up loyalty points for years with a company only to have them slap you in the face and basically steal a third of the value back from you. I was at least glad for this opportunity to spend some of them in the short time before the devaluation was enacted.
My outbound flight was BKK-KUL-IST with Malaysia Airlines in business class. The good thing about holding BA miles is that they can be used to buy reward tickets on any airline in the Oneworld Alliance, of which I can think of seven off the top of my head that fly out of BKK.
This ticket cost me 65,000 Avios + £14.10 GBP in fees. Extremely good value as this would have cost 50% more Avios post-devaluation and the fees on reward tickets are rarely anywhere near this low.
It was an overnight flight scheduled to arrive in Istanbul at 6am. My plan was that I'd get a good night's sleep as I was flying business class, would be waking up at a reasonable time so wouldn't get jet-lagged and would be checked in to my hotel, showered and changed before 9am so that I could make the most of my 24 hours in Istanbul.
It was a pretty good plan.
A two hour delay in landing and then another hour stood waiting at the baggage carousel before realising that my luggage was never going to arrive surely messed that plan up. Incredibly, after taking hundreds of flights in my life, this had never happened to me before. I tried to figure out what I was supposed to do about it but apparently none of the airport staff spoke English, or could help me or could give a damn.
Eventually I found a lost baggage room and after a lot more waiting and dealing with their unfriendly and, to be honest, just downright rude staff I was told that my luggage was currently in Malaysia. Nightmare!
To make the most of my 24 hour stopover in Istanbul I booked a Culinary Backstreets food tour. The idea is that a local tour guide takes you though the backstreets of their city to their favourite eateries. Places that most tourists wouldn't find on their own.
I joined the tour 90 minutes late because of my flying woes, resulting in me missing breakfast. Wearing just a t-shirt, I was cold and hungry. "Don't worry" the tour guide said, "we're going to go eat 'Kokorec' now".
The way that she pronounced 'Kokorec' sounded just like "cockroach" to me. I suddenly lost my appetite. I asked what kokorec was and was told that it's roasted lamb's intestines, a common street food in Istanbul. Yeah, appetite still gone.
Although kokorec is very common, our guide was quick to point out that there's only two vendors in the city that she would ever buy it from. It's very important that the intestines have been thoroughly cleaned and most street vendors in the city are severely lacking when it comes to food hygiene. Many of them also cheat by using intestines from grown sheep rather than lambs as it's much cheaper for them to buy.
I was observing the vendor doing his thing when he carved off some meat - if you can call intestines meat - and offered it to me. The tour group stood and watched as Dale the guinea pig sampled the kokorec.
My first bite of food in hours. Anything is delicious when you're hungry. Except for this - it tasted like absolute filth.
I tried to force myself to chew it up so that I could swallow it quickly then nod my head politely but the vile taste made it difficult to maintain my poker face. The vendor and everyone else could see that I was disgusted. The game was up, so I spat it out onto the pavement.
The rest of the group were given their kokorec in a bread bun with sauce and they all thought it was delicious. Which made me look bad for spitting it out on the ground. I tried to explain to them that all they were tasting was bread and sauce, disguising the dirty taste of intestines, but they were having none of it and made me feel like a killjoy.
It seemed like every one of these 'foodies' commented on everything that we ate that day as being delicious. I've met a lot of people like this when travelling, who want to believe everything they see and do in a foreign culture is awesome and are quick to criticise anyone who has anything negative to say about anything. It's OK to actually have an opinion about things, and a personality!
Fortunately the kokorec was the only food on the tour that I didn't like. Next up was another street vendor, an eccentric man in a narrow alleyway who sold meatless-meatballs. I prefer my meatballs to contain plenty of meat actually, but they were tasty none the less. Even better was the vendor's banter, although he nearly crushed me to death with a bear hug when I gave him a thumbs-up verdict after my first bite.
We then went to a famous restaurant to eat Okra soup, which was somewhat decent. The wall proudly displayed dozens of photographs of Turkish celebrities who'd visited the restaurant. Being a smart ass I was quick to comment that I didn't know who any of them were, and that I couldn't even think of a single famous Turk. One of the lads there asked "You're Scottish right?", then pointed to a photo, "Do you know who he is?"
I did indeed, it was Tugay Kerimoğlu who played for Rangers back in the days when they actually had world class players. Consider me put in my place.
After a long walk through the streets of Istanbul we went to eat 'Pide', which is a Turkish pizza. "How is pizza a Turkish food?", I asked. Apparently what defines it as a Turkish pizza is it's long shape and the traditional topping of ground meat and vegetables. So not that much different from a regular pizza.
The pizza restaurant, which we were told only opens from 11am - 3pm each day, was in a small nondescript shop, in a local street, with nothing written in English. So definitely not a place that many tourists will find. And that's exactly what I want when travelling - to eat where the locals eat.
Inside, two men were busy preparing and cooking pizzas in a fire oven.
Everything on the food tour was already paid for as part of the tour fee but I had a look at the menu which showed the price for one pizza as 10 Lira. That's just £2.30 GBP or $3.50 USD and represents good value in my opinion.
We took our pizzas up to the roof of a nearby building. The sun was out and it was unseasonably warm at about 18C. Just as well for jacket-less me.
I did expect to be eating food that was more exotic than pizza on the tour, but I was happy as it was some damn good pizza and the view from the rooftop where we ate it was incredible.
Next up was a little bit of dessert to satisfy my sweet tooth. Our guide took us to a small bakery that sold her favourite dessert which she called 'angel's hair cake'. We then took the cakes to a small local tearoom and ate them there with tea.
The cake was just finely shredded pastry soaked in syrup. It was extremely tasty, of course. It's basically impossible to make any combination of pastry and syrup taste bad.
After another long walk to regain our appetites we visited a 'Dürüm' restaurant. Dürüm is more like what I'd consider a Turkish food. It's a flatbread wrap with kebab ingredients.
The restaurant was packed so they set us up a table out on the street. The food was presented to us in a big tray with wraps, meat, vegetables and spices to assemble ourselves and eat. No sauce though.
I asked the guide "Why no sauce?" and she replied that they never eat this food with sauce. I told her that I'd eaten similar food in Greek restaurants with some nice sauce. "Well, that's Greece. That's not how we do it here!" she informed me very sternly. Remind me never to mention Greece to a Turkish person again.
Everyone was commenting on how delicious the food was, including myself, although I couldn't help but add "a bit of 'Tzatziki' sauce and it'd be absolutely perfect". I'll get my coat! Oh wait, I don't have one.
We had another long walk through the streets of Istanbul before arriving at a small family run restaurant which was in the top two floors of a town house. This was type of restaurant is very rare, we were told, as the owner cooks fresh home-made food using only high quality ingredients. There are many independent restaurants in the city serving home-made food but they all eventually become focused on profit and start using cheaper ingredients than they would if they were cooking for their own family.
At this restaurant the lady owner cooks the food in the traditional, often slow, ways, even if it means some ingredients need to be prepared the night before. "If she uses vegetables they will be fresh from local farms, if she uses olive oil it will be Tuscan olive oil" the guide told us.
We didn't get to choose the food. The guide had ordered it the previous day. That's the only way that you can eat in this restaurant. You can't just turn up and get a table.
Before the food arrived half the group had to leave as our tour was already running over schedule. That meant more food for the rest of us. Everyone was completely stuffed, except for me and my insatiable appetite for delicious food.
The last thing to arrive was Manti, a pasta similar to ravioli with yoghurt sauce and spices. Making this dish the correct way is a very laborious processes and I'm pleased to say that I was the sole beneficiary of the fruits of that labour. Everyone's bellies were full so I had the full bowl of deliciousness all to myself.
The tour ended about 5pm, so it was really a full day experience and a very enjoyable one at that. We were all given a free book with recommendations for restaurants in Istanbul so that we could continue food exploring on our own.
The Culinary Backstreets food tour cost $125 USD, but I got a 50% media discount for owning such an awesome blog, and also because I contacted them and asked if I could join the tour for free and they met me half way. The discount didn't influence any opinions written in this blog in any way. As you know, I'm a man of integrity.
I think that at half price it was good value but at the full price I'd consider it expensive. Most of the food was pretty cheap and we shared it. There were 9 of us on the tour and I'd estimate that the total cost of the food was in the region of $150 - $200. I would guess the guide gets paid about $100 for the day, so that leaves around $800 - $900 profit.
Seems like a very profitable business. I'd like to do it myself if only the food in my native land was worth eating. I'm not sure I could convince tourists to pay me $125 each to show them around my favourite places in Scotland to eat deep-fried Mars bars, deep-fired haggis and Pizza Crunches (which are also deep-fried FYI).
After the tour I was full of energy so continued walking around the streets of Istanbul. I found a street market where I was able to buy a pair of CK boxers and a Versace t-shirt for a couple of bucks each. Fake of course, I just needed some cheap clothes until my luggage arrived from the other side of the world.
Having worked up an appetite again I was on the lookout for a tasty treat. Tasty treats are not hard to find in Istanbul and I quickly found myself a nice slice of cake consisting of sponge, cream and honey.
Walking back to my hotel in the evening I must have passed more than fifty shops that sell nothing but Turkish Delight, or 'Lokum' as the locals call it, in the space of half an hour. I'd already eaten way too much but I decided to buy some to take with me to Ireland the next day. There were free samples of every flavour and I decided on the pomegranate and hazelnut variety as being the most delicious.
Of course, I couldn't help but eat a piece right then, then another, then another. A sugar-induced coma ensued and I was dead until the next morning.
I woke up too late for the hotel breakfast but found myself a nice big pastry full of pistachios for brunch.
I headed back to the airport. Fortunately my luggage arrived there from Malaysia two hours before I was due to check in for my flight to Ireland. Nothing like cutting it fine. I did receive a $90 USD compensation payment from Malaysia Airlines a couple of months later so I actually went from paying very little cash for the flight to being in profit for it.
After a fun time in Ireland I was back in Istanbul for another stopover on my way home to Bangkok. The Sultanahmet Newport Hotel where I stayed previously was very comfortable and exceptional value at around $44 USD (29 GBP) per night on Agoda, so I booked it again. It was in the old town, very close to a tram stop which meant that I could get to and from the airport quickly and cheaply.
The public transport system in Istanbul is excellent and very cheap. With an Istanbulkart RFID card, which costs 6L, you can load it with money and ride the bus, metro, tram and ferry for only 2.15L (£0.50 GBP / $0.76 USD) per ride and another 1.45L (£0.34 GBP / $0.51 USD) if you're transferring.
A trip from the airport to my hotel meant riding metro then transferring to a tram, taking about 45 minutes and costing 3.60L (£0.84 GBP / $1.27 USD). For comparison, a taxi ride would have taken between 35 - 75 minutes depending on traffic and cost around 50L (£11.62 GBP / $17.66). Of course taxing a taxi is more comfortable and convenient but there's also a fair chance of getting scammed when you're a foreigner.
I arrived in the evening and went food exploring again. I visited a durum restaurant called 'Sehzade Erzurum Cag Kebabi' that the guide had pointed out to us during our tour but we hadn't visited.
Exploring for dessert I was spoiled for choice with the many varieties of pastry-honey-nut combinations available but settled for this one. And by one I mean two.
After an early night I woke up early to some beautiful weather and decided to explore the city by foot. I must have covered over 20 km that day (about half a marathon), not all of it on flat ground either. But what better way to explore a city and counteract my ludicrously high calorie intake at the same time?
I skipped the main tourist sights which were mainly religious buildings. While I do realise that religion has a massive influence on the culture of any civilisation, as someone who is strongly atheist I just have no interest in visiting these huge expensive monuments to religion. "Imagine all that money and time and effort had been put into something productive?" is what I think as I walk by them.
I visited the Grand Bazaar, a famous indoor market close to my hotel in the old town. I took the advice of the guide from the food tour who said "Turkish people don't shop at the Grand Bazaar or the Spice Market. These places are for tourists, with tourist prices." So I went there to look around and eat copious amounts of free samples from the many Turkish Delight stalls.
The sellers are quite pushy there and do get a little pissed off when you try six or seven samples and then leave without buying anything. Muttered words in Turkish as I walked away, probably calling me all the bastards under the sun.
I kept walking until I was away from the tourist trash, to where everything is real and the prices are real cheap. I found a man making fresh pomegranate juice at 2L (£0.46 GBP / $0.71 USD) per cup. So sweet, so refreshing, I gulped it down in two seconds and asked for another.
I drink pomegranate juice a lot in Bangkok but in Istanbul it's much better. It's a darker and sweeter fruit than they have in Thailand, who actually import from China, and it's also half the price.
Having walked up a bit of an appetite, I wandered into a small local restaurant in search of some sustenance. They didn't have a menu but the owner tried to tell me what they serve in broken English "Chicken soup, chicken *something*, chicken *something* and *something* chicken". OK I guess I'll have the chicken soup then.
There were four tables in the joint, all of them empty, so I was a bit surprised when an old man walked in and sat directly across from me at my table. Maybe it was "his table" where he regularly sits, or maybe he just wanted some company. I don't know because he spoke no English, but we did our best to communicate with each other using hand signals.
He ordered the same as me, chicken soup which was a clear broth with shredded chicken. We both gave it a thumbs up!
The owner asked me if I wanted to dessert. Of course I did. I was given a fairly ordinary looking milk pudding that had a slightly unusual taste to it. It turns out that what I was eating was 'Tavuk Göğsü' - a dessert made with chicken breast meat. Everything in this restaurant really did contain chicken!
After eating the chicken dessert I went on the hunt for some sweeter treats. I searched my guide book and it seemed that 'Karakoy Gulluoglu Baklava' make some of the best 'Baklava' in the city so I took a long walk over there.
Crispy pastry on top, crushed walnuts in the middle and soft chewy pastry soaked in honey on the bottom. Mmmmmmm mmmmm mmmm mmm mm!
It seems like every Turkish dessert is just a different combination of pasty, nuts and honey/syrup. Still, that's no reason no to try all of them.
Full of energy I just kept walking without any idea of where I was going and eventually saw a big tower with a line of people outside it. It looked like it would be a nice view from up there so I joined the queue.
It was Galata Tower which was built in 1348. The medieval dudes building it could never have imagined that seven centuries later some Scotsman would be using it as a vantage point to take an awesome selfie to post on Instagram.
I ate some more kebab style food but it was very ordinary and disappointing to what I'd previously eaten so I returned to the dürüm restaurant where I ate on the food tour. I'm all for exploring new places but sometimes you just want a guaranteed good meal.
My final food destination in Istanbul was to visit Haci Bekir's original shop. It has been there since the year 1777 and was the first is where the original Lokum (Turksih Delight) was sold.
I took full advantage of their free samples but this time actually did make a purchase. I don't usually buy souvenirs or gifts for people when I travel but how can you return from Turkey without bringing your friends back some Turkish Delight?
My flight home was business class with Royal Jordanian IST-AMM-BKK which I also bought with BA Avios miles. This ticket cost 65,000 Avios + £101 GBP, again excellent value.
The first leg was only a couple of hours, then I had a few hours to relax in the Crown Lounge at AMM airport in Jordan. They have some nice facilities there such as a full size pool table and personal TV rooms with reclining chairs.
After a hot shower (I was playing Tinder at the airport but unfortunately couldn't get anyone to join me) I returned home to Bangkok on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner where I ate some nice food and then slept really well, especially knowing that I'd paid a fraction of what people sitting in economy had paid for the flight.
Baller on a budget. #ThriftyScotsman