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Matador network recently published  “what not to do in Istanbul.” Suggestions to avoid crowds, tourist traps, deal with time constraints and low budgets, partake in local customs. It can be an overwhelming city and a list of what not to do is very helpful.

After seven years in this surprising megalopolis I agreed with very few of the suggestions.

I rarely contribute travel pieces anymore — focusing more on cultural identity work and pursuing hybrid entertainment — but since the tourism season approaches here are the points I see differently:

Emirgan Grove by A.Ashman

Emirgan Grove by A.Ashman

Ø   *Skip Dolmabahçe*. (It’s a 19th century European-style palace and if you’ve ever seen one of those, this won’t be news). No exhibits and you can’t wander by yourself.

√   *Don’t skip Topkapı Palace* and don’t skip the separately ticketed harem tour. (Just go early after a big breakfast like I suggest here). It’s worth seeing the treasury, and the tiled kiosks at the far end of the compound, as well as the kitchens. Also you can pop into the stupendous archaeology museum on the grounds.

√   *Do stay in Taksim* if you want to experience a more authentic Turkish scene. Istiklal is perfect for dining, bar-hopping, strolling, people-watching, cafe-sitting. Some hotels are on raucous streets (travel with earplugs), but not all of them. (Sultanahmet may be close to the historic sites but it’s shark-bait touristy, and lifeless at night.) Taksim is on the Metro line, with a funicular that puts you on the tram to Sultanahmet. The most painless commute in town. Plus, the trek back and forth between old town and Beyoğlu, across Galata bridge, is one you’ll enjoy having to make as my walking tour for National Geographic shows.

√   *Do take a Bosphorus cruise*, just not the overpriced tourist traps from the Eminönü dock. Catch a lovely one hour $5 ferry from the landing behind the Ortaköy mosque like I describe here.

Ø   *Skip the Princes Islands* if the reason you’re getting on a boat is for the views and breezes.  The high speed boats that carry you to the Sea of Marmara have scratched plastic windows you can’t see out of, and you’re not allowed on deck.

Ø   *Don’t accept tea* if you don’t want to spend your time with a particular person, or in a particular place. Don’t confuse a tourism sales tactic with the fabled Turkish hospitality. As a traveler in a big city, it’s still your time, and your choice who you drink tea with. If you’re interested in chatting or shopping, fine. If not, politely decline and keep moving. When hawkers in the bazaar and tourism district are unrelenting a clucking of the tongue and upward roll of the eyes is Turkish for “no, and don’t ask me again”. Plus, apple tea is only for tourists. If you aim to drink tea in a traditional manner, ask for normal black tea.

What would you suggest we *not* do in Istanbul, and why?

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The fresh perspective of an outsider-on-the-inside releases energy from all directions. What strikes us about a place — and may entice our fellow country-people  – often does not resonate to the same degree with the average native.

I was pleased to meet an expat woman entrepreneur on LinkedIn last week who was once a director at the American-Malaysian Chamber of Commerce. She now advises the Malaysian Tourism Ministry, sourcing products developed by foreigners so I’ve been revisiting a feverish amusement from a decade ago when I lived in Kuala Lumpur.

To enjoy the Newly Industrialized Country where hand-woven palm frond baskets were fast being replaced by pink plastic bags, I conceived a signature line of Southeast Asian travel mementoes, and a database of purveyors of exotic experiences like this on the island of Langkawi, on the island of Penang, and outside Kuala Lumpur. I called the venture first Cool Arts South Sea and then Flaming East.

Cool Arts South Sea self-image

Cool Arts South Sea self-image

Inspired by history but not tethered to it, my Flaming East concept embraced the original wonder of the region’s watery crossroads, from the Renaissance’s Age of Discovery (with its empire-building and search for trade-routes) to the steamer trunks-and-servants Golden Age of Travel. All spiked with the delirium only a good bout of malaria could provide….

homepage

homepage

By the 1990s we were missing the boat, I moaned in my business proposal:

“The part of the world that lies around the South China Sea,” as one European narrator so circuitously referred to it, was once immersed in an illustrious mystique.  Pirates and monsoons held sway on the seas while headhunters and mosquitoes did their part in the interior. Yet for several centuries an international set of adventurers, traders, colonizing industrialists and pleasure travelers risked the tropical hazards. Along with Asiatic goods and unimaginable riches, fanciful tales filtered home: of ancient races, shining temples and blue, impenetrable jungle. Even the air was different here, the east wind apparently laden with the aroma of silks, sandalwood, spices and camphor. Well, no longer.”

To be honest, Southeast Asia’s enveloping assault on the senses continued. But colorful naiveté and uncensored awe were in short supply where I came from. Writing about the past of the place caused my politically-correct, Pacific Northwest spellchecker to protest. I was flaming the East! Didn’t I really mean “cinnamon” when I typed “Chinaman”?

Have you envisioned a tourism campaign, service or product for a locale where you’re the outsider-on-the-inside? What does it show about the place, and you?

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