Monthly Archives: December 2008

The Whirlwind Begins

Wat Chedi Luang, one of the billions of Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai.

Wat Chedi Luang, one of the billions of Buddhist temples in Chiang Mai.

After a whirlwind two days, I’m finally (relatively) settled in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I arrived in Bangkok late Wednesday, where Matt of Nomadic Matt fame was gracious enough to lend me his floor for the night. I spent half of Thursday running around town making arrangements for the rest of the trip. The dizzying rush of finding last-minute bus rides and plane tickets taught me a few things.

First of all, in a place like Thailand where the tourists flock, there is always a bus ticket. Even though I was looking for an overnight ticket for Christmas night — the start of Thailand’s true peak tourist season with foreigners and Thai nationals all on vacation — I found one within minutes of talking to a travel agent. That leads me to my next point.

Travel agents, no matter how friendly and well-traveled they are, are not your friends. The travel agent’s affable nature combined with my lack of preparation for this trip to sucker me into an overpriced tour package that seemed to be a good deal. I should’ve followed my first instincts and booked everything one step at a time. In Bangkok, I should’ve booked how to get to Chiang Mai, where I would find my accomodations and things to do.

Now I’m in a relatively nice hostel called Backpackers’ Meeting Place Resident, but it’s a little more expensive than I would’ve like to have paid. Also, the bus ticket to Chiang Mai was probably a little more expensive than I should’ve paid for it. It’s also outside the city center, but it is close to an open food market, which is wonderful given my affinity for street food. Through this same tour, I’m going on a two-day trek through some jungle tomorrow complete with elephants, huts, and bamboo rafting. Should be interesting.

At least when I screw up in Thailand, it only means an extra six or seven dollars a night, which won’t kill me. Six or seven dollars, however, goes a long ways in Thailand. For example, six dollars stuffs me with street food for three meals, so losing such a big part of my budget to something so stupid is rather annoying. I’ve learned my lesson for my trip to Vietnam in January.

At least now I have everything set and I only have to worry about getting from scheduled Point A to scheduled Point B. The rest of the itinerary looks like this: Chiang Mai for three more days, then bus to Bangkok where I catch a flight to the islands around Koh Samui for New Year’s, then back to actually explore Bangkok for a few days.

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Wherever the Winds Take Me

My best decisions tend to be the ones that occur after the least amount of thinking. As scary as it may be, I like following my gut instincts. One day I woke up and decided finding a new job wouldn’t be as fun as moving to a new country. This morning I woke up and decided going to Thailand for 12 days would be more fun than staying in Seoul for that time. And that was that.

It really began when I started planning my February trip this morning. I was debating between Thailand and Malaysia, even considering doing both in the same two-week trip. Then I took the easy way out: I figured I should just go to each on separate trips. I did some cursory research on all the airline ticketing sites and found that Bangkok was clearly within my financial reach. Armed with a new determination (and an ever-so-open bankbook), I headed straight for the travel agencies after school and booked my flight from Incheon to Bangkok.

The travel agents gave me looks ranging from a clearly perplexed “are you crazy?” to a subtly annoyed “you’re not going to get any flights this late.” Third time’s a charm as the third travel agent found a flight whose dates and times fell right into my desired timeframe and whose price tag fit just right, something for which we owe the Thai PAD protesters a big “thank you.”

This is especially nice because this weekend I was extremely lazy and didn’t have a New Place of the Week feature, figuring I’d do a lot of wandering during my 10 days off before my winter camp. Little did I imagine on Sunday that I’d be headed to Thailand later this week.

The itinerary looks something like this: land in Bangkok, wander to Chiang Mai, fly to Phuket, and bus back to Bangkok. That’s about as much as I’ve planned, and that’s probably going to be the extent of it. Ah, the life of a dabbler.

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Social Experiment Update

Update: Failed.

I couldn’t do it. On December 16, my experiment to live on 180,000 Korean won ended — just eight day shy of my target date. I couldn’t make it, and I even bent the rules (i.e. didn’t count any of my Taiwan expenses, which totaled around 180,000 won for the weekend alone). Even then I didn’t really expect to succeed, and my stash of cash even lasted longer than I thought it would.

I might’ve made it a few more days if not for a few foolish five-day stretch. Two weekends ago, I spent 40,000+ won wandering around Hongdae, which isn’t that much for a night out — more than I really should’ve spent on this budget. The following Monday, I went out with my friend, who was looking for a cheap dinner, but those are hard to find in the tourist/ex-pat district of Itaewon. I ended up spending 10,000 won for an unsatisfying hamburger dinner. That Wednesday, I essentially committed financial suicide by going out for a quasi-fancy Thai dinner, dropping me another 16,000 won or so.

This three-week asceticism trip wasn’t all that tough, though. I had gone grocery shopping beforehand, and with the cold weather settling in, I didn’t have too much desire to be wandering away from my apartment’s cozy heated floors. Saturdays were dedicated to practices for Taipei, which usually left Sundays for my “See a New Thing Each Week” tour. Also, it was a good way to wean me away from the hazy, party-filled weekends.

I’ll probably end the month spending just under 400,000 won, meaning the future budgets of 600,000 won will be plenty. Even as strict as this budget was, I don’t feel like I was missing out on anything. I think I needed a chill month after the craziness of the first two. I feel like I’m really starting to settle into this town and living as an English teacher rather than a wide-eyed tourist.

I think I can chalk this one up as a victory.

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New Place of the Week: Taipei, Taiwan

NPotW now has an international flavor. My most recent travels took me to Taipei for a weekend for an ultimate frisbee tournament. I left Seoul on Friday evening and returned Monday afternoon. I made trips with this kind of quick turnaround at least twice a month in college with my university’s club ultimate team. A whirlwind adventure like this often takes me to new places, but since I’m there for a tournament, I’ll spend most of my time at the playing fields and not see too much of the town. Taipei was no different.

The flight from Incheon International to Taipei Taoyuan International took about two and a half hours. Despite the short flight, the airline still provided a meal and free drinks — reminders that North American carriers suck. After a steak, glass of wine, shot of Courvoisier, and half of “A Complete History of My Sexual Failures,” we landed in Taipei.

It was everything I had expected…which wasn’t much. I had heard Taipei was very similar to Seoul, and the comparisons aren’t unfounded. It’s big, has its own layer of smog, and endless traffic leaves a lot to be desired. Despite being a city with one of the world’s highest population densities, Taipei still manages to have a fair amount of greenery — much more than Seoul. The streets also seemed wider, giving Taipei a noticibly more open feel to it than Seoul.

Like I said, I was there for a tournament, so I didn’t have time to see any of the sights, most notably the Taipei 101, the world’s tallest completed building. Standing twice as high as the next tallest building in the city, Taipei 101 dominates the skyline and can be seen from anywhere in the city. Other than that, not much separated Taipei from any other big Asian city, especially the one in which I’m currently living. In that same vein, though, since I live in a similar city, I’m sure there are plenty of sights to see in this town, but I wouldn’t make a long trip out of it.

As for my business there, our team — the only one of the eight from outside Taiwan — won third place in what was a lackluster tournament. We received bronze medals and a team trophy and then lost them all to a member of the winning team in a series of unfortunate Rock-Paper-Scissors games. I went to Taipei, and all I got were these stupid photos…and a strawberry-flavored Kit Kat bar. [hover over photo for captions; click to enlarge]

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Welcome to Korea, pt. 2

“Korean organization” ranks right up there with “War on Terror,” “reality TV” and “good morning” as some of the biggest oxymorons, and that’s the kind of (dis)organization with which I deal on a daily basis. I accept it as a part of Korean society, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less annoying. Of course, this source of the anger behind this little diatribe is the dreaded winter camp. I’ve actually known my camp dates for a little more than three weeks now and even have some winter break plans organized. The dates of the camp, however, all pretty much all I’ve known — until last week.

The school continues to test my patience as they decided last week (or at least that was when they informed me) to hold a school camp instead of having me work for the district camp — the same school camp that wouldn’t fit in the budget three weeks ago. This camp will comprise 60 students from first to sixth grade, grouped by ability into four classes. It all sounds like standard fare, but we’re in Korea where nothing is standard fare.

Because the higher-ups decided so suddenly to have an English camp for our school, they weren’t able to to find any other native-speaking English teachers. It gets even better: they told me that after trying to put the burden of finding help on me. Everyone I know in Korea is an English teacher — meaning they’re all doing the same thing I’m doing. The talent pool is a bit shallow during that time of year and on this short of notice.

Yesterday the teacher directing the camp asked me to help her with the student interviews by which we’ll separate them into their classes. Of course, I told her it wouldn’t be a problem to figure out a time to do that, especially since camp isn’t for another four weeks. Monday turned to Tuesday, when it became a problem: we have to find a time to do all 60 interviews this week because the camp’s orientation is next Tuesday. This is especially fantastic because I had already re-scheduled a class into the remaining free time I had this week, which was already limited because of the supposedly nine-hour workshop I have on Wednesday — and learned about on Monday.

I don’t know where the breakdown in communication occurs; however, a lack of communication would imply there was information to pass along to me. As with the original dates (and location, even) of the camp, there was absolutely nothing my co-teacher could tell me because there was nothing to know. For a country that seems like its brains should be hard-wired to logic and reasoning (since its educational system excels in math and the sciences), Korea doesn’t seem to be able to keep its days straight.

Even though I know it won’t come anytime soon, all I want is a little more notice and organization. Korean inefficiency will continue to boggle my mind.

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New Place of the Week: Cheonggye Square

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Contrary to NPotW’s debut, this week’s edition kept me within the Seoul city limits. In fact, it took me to downtown Seoul. Near City Hall is Cheonggye Square, the starting point of the recently restored Cheonggyecheon (cheon meaning “stream” in Korean).  The stream played an important role in the city even before Seoul was designated the capital of Korea in the 14th century, but by the mid-20th century, the stream had become so polluted, citizens’ biggest concerns involved the spread of disease from seasonal floods[1]. To prevent flooding as well as to implement more urban infrastructure, construction began to cover the stream in 1968. Eventually the flowing stream became a bustling concrete skyline that accumulated traffic, which got so bad and ironically necessitated further construction of an overpass expressway.

In 2003, then-Mayor Lee Myung-bak announced a restoration of Cheonggyecheon, envisioning a place “where the citizens bask in happiness as they enjoy the beautiful natural environment as Mother Nature intended it to be.”[2] The project stretches for almost seven miles before meeting the Han River. Now a visit to Cheonggyecheon is a simultaneous trip to the past and to the future. Whether they’re looking for one of the newest sights in Seoul or just a break from its concrete sprawl, people can walk along the stream that once ran alongside the earliest dynasties in Seoul but now carries the city’s hopes for a cleaner urban culture.

Fortunately and unfortunately, it was snowing more than I had expected when I made the trek downtown to Cheonggye Square. The dusting of snow added a magical “winter wonderland” feeling to the lights of the stream, but the frigid temperature kept me from staying too long. Here’s what I saw before my toes fell off. Click the thumbnails for the full-sized photos.

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A Social Experiment in Economics

One of the biggest reasons I chose to teach English in Korea over other countries was that I would be able to save a significant amount of money in a relatively short amount of time. Without having to pay for housing, gas, and other monthly nuisances here in Korea, I estimated I would bank at least 60 percent of my paycheck each month. Even inadvertently, I had saved about that much (which, however, resulted in the counter-productive purchases of a 22-inch LCD monitor, a DSLR camera, and a round-trip ticket for a weekend in Taipei) but now that the Korean won has fallen faster than Sarah Palin’s approval rating with turkeys, I need to be more critical of my expenditures.

Again, it’s all about setting goals: I’ve decided to put myself on a strict budget. I believe I can live comfortably in Seoul for 600,000 won per month. All it takes is finding some new things to do instead of carousing two nights each weekend in a bar or nightclub. My personal pledge to see something new every weekend helps with this as well; I can’t wake up at 2 pm with a throbbing headache and expect to make sightseeing a priority over drinking water and sleeping more.

After receiving my monthly paycheck, I’ll take out the 600,000 in cash and live from that. The more interesting experiment comes in its first run-through this month: I spent 420,000 won booking a flight to Taipei for an ultimate frisbee tournament, leaving me with 180,000 won for essentially a month. Ignoring the exchange rate[1], think that anything that would cost $1 in the States costs roughly 1,000 won here; I have the spending power of about $180.

Obviously the nightlife will be a bit tamer (I was getting a bit jaded toward the bar scene, anyway), but it’s the little things that will need to be reined in to make this work — mainly my insatiable desire for snacks. I constantly eat, even when I’m not hungry and especially when I’m bored. The stops at 7-11 on the way to school will have to be reduced, and I’ll have to fight off my constant urge to devour street food every time I see it. Chicken on a stick is hard to resist.

While this might be a bit extreme and I might be able to talk myself into ignoring the cost of the plane ticket as an outlier that shouldn’t be figured into my monthly budget, it’ll be interesting to see whether I can do this. I have a reputation to be a free-wheeling playboy with my excess savings, so I’ll have to learn to be more disciplined — especially since I’ve *knock on wood* bought all the tech gadgets I’ll need for this leg of the journey. Maybe the occasional lens will set me back a bit, but in theory, I’ll have more than enough for that.

I’ll probably disappear off the social map for a while (except for my inexpensive “See a New Thing Each Week” tour), but I’ll have more time to be productive for myself and maybe tick some other things off my “To Learn/Do” list. Saving some money and actually doing new things isn’t all too bad.

See you in the black.


[1] At the time of this post, $1 USD equaled 1,456 Korean won. When I arrived in Korea, I exchanged $1 USD for 1,050 won, which means I’ve lost nearly one third of my paycheck in the three months I’ve been here. Because of the Korean economy’s instability, I constantly check xe.com to add a sprinkle of depression to my day.

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