Monthly Archives: January 2009

Off We Go Again

The Turtle Pagoda in Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi

The Turtle Pagoda in Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi

I’ve disappeared for a while, I know. I’m currently sitting in Hoi An, Vietnam. I was barely back in Korea before gallivanting off to another country again. After returning from Thailand, I went literally straight from the airport to school for my two-week English winter camp. That first Monday back was a long one, and I spent the week always a little lacking on sleep. The camp itself, however, was rather pleasant and entertaining, but rather uneventful on the whole. Each day consisted of some permutation of lessons, games, and snacks.

This country runs on motorcycles.

This country runs on motorcycles.

Now that camp is over, I’m running around Vietnam for two weeks. I’ve been in this country for five days and six nights, and it has been a constant blur of food stands, motorcycle taxis and buses. I’ve run through Hanoi, Ha Long bay, Hue, and now Hoi An. Tomorrow we’re on a bus for 20 hours to Saigon, where we’ll celebrate Tet with my aunt and uncle from my mom’s side of the family. I’m excited to see an authentic Vietnamese celebration of the Lunar New Year — especially since this is my year, the year of the Ox.

This trip, even though it’ll touch more cities than my breeze through Thailand, seems to be much better paced. The cities are much better aligned with the major points of Hanoi and Saigon anchoring everything in between, so travel is rather convenient though long. Also, Vietnam — with the exceptions of the two major cities — has a much more relaxed feel to it than Thailand, which makes it easier to spend only a day or two in each place here. There’s only so much to see in each city, and the nightlife isn’t exactly a Vietnamese strong point.

The tattered flag on our boat in Ha Long Bay.

The tattered flag on our boat in Ha Long Bay.

I’m also meeting some family for the first time in nearly a decade. It’ll be a good Tet celebration just based on that fact, which will make my mom proud. Earning myself another mommy medal is the two-week refresher course in Vietnamese this trip provides me. It’s so nice being able to speak the language of the country instead of being a useless tourist (see exhibits A and B, Korea and Thailand, respectively).

I still have about nine days left on this trip, which should add dodging (more) motorcycles, lounging on beaches and roaming through highlands to the itinerary. Things could always change, though. As they say in Asia: Same same but different.

See you after the (Lunar) New Year! Chúc mừng năm mới!

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Bangkok: End of a Long Road

Objects may be bigger than they appear.

Temples of Bangkok: Objects may be bigger than they appear.

Arriving in Bangkok signaled the beginning of the end of this trip. I had already been in Thailand’s capital twice during my previous nine days, but this was the first time I’d be staying for more than 15 hours. “Whirlwind” was the only way to describe my trip thus far, especially in getting to Bangkok from Koh Phangan. The ferry-bus combination took about 18 hours.

Upon our 5 a.m. arrival, the girlfriend and I groggily stumbled around Bangkok looking for the city’s dirty backpacker headquarters, Khao San Road. We got off the bus and tried to follow the herd of backpackers, but the group quickly thinned and we were left guessing. It turns out we had walked right past the street without knowing it; the flock of knowledgeable travelers had made a quick left, and we somehow missed it.

After backtracking in a taxi, we checked into the first open guesthouse we saw that had cheap rooms: the Chart Guesthouse and Restaurant. Its bar and restaurant downstairs looked quite nice; the rooms themselves, not so much. I remember the word “shithole” escaping my lips upon seeing the room, but in the end it served its purpose — a place for us to sleep at night. For 350 baht per night, we couldn’t really complain.

People gathering at the City Pillar shrine as part of the New Year's celebration.

People gathering at the City Pillar shrine as part of the New Year's celebration.

I had already spent half a day wandering Bangkok and seeing various temples, including the Golden Mount and Wat Traimit. My second stint in Bangkok consisted of exploring more of the west side of the city — a convenient jaunt from Khao San Road. The girlfriend and I wandered around looking at various things, such as the City Pillar shrine, the Giant Swing (which has no swing), Democracy Monument and, of course, more temples. We also stopped at various food stands to sample meats-on-sticks. That was clearly the best part of my day.

We saved the biggest attraction for our next day: the Grand Palace. The complex, which dates back to the 18th century,  used to be the official residence for the king of Thailand. The current king, though, doesn’t live there but at Chitralada Palace instead. Many official and royal ceremonies are still held there. The Grand Palace is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. They know it, too: Thai people can enter for free, but farangs (foreigners) must pay a 350 baht admission fee — rather steep but the Grand Palace is a must see.

grand-palace-collage

We followed that sight of grandeur with a trip to the grungy Chatuchak weekend market, Bangkok’s largest of its kind. The market’s tunnels of vendor stalls (weaving in and out of the sun) quickly became very disorienting. We went there with the intentions of finding souvenirs, but this was a real market with real things that real people buy. It took a bit more searching than we were expecting, but we eventually found appropriate gifts for friends and family.

That evening the girlfriend left to return to Korea, but I had one more day in Bangkok. I met up with my cousin who is studying at Assumption University in Bangkok, a relative I hadn’t seen in almost 10 years when I visited Vietnam. I spent the night with her chatting (and consequently brushing up on my Vietnamese for my next trip). We spent the next day at a couple art exhibits we stumbled across while trying to get to the Jim Thompson House. We actually spent so much time at these exhibits that we never made it to our planned destination.

I really enjoyed Bangkok as a city. Even though it less than half as old as Seoul, it seems to have much more character. Maybe Seoul’s age works against it, especially with the rapid westernization of Korea. The countless wats around the city are a constant reminder to the beauty of Thailand. At this point, though, I was ready to return to Korea, to a place I can call “home.” I had been on the road essentially every two or three days, and it really wore me down. My journey home wasn’t any different than my trips around Thailand: an overnight flight back to Seoul.

Some things never change — except for my scenery, and I enjoy it every time.

[click images to enlarge]

The Grand PalaceWorking handsKhao San RoadStone lionWater for roses

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Bottle Beach: Living the Island Life

The ocean's soothing waves provided a nice relief from the commotion of the city.

The ocean's soothing waves provided a nice relief from the commotion of the city.

Even with Thailand’s abundance of jungle treks, Buddhist temples and street food, the sand of Bottle Beach was the part of my trip that I had most anticipated. Months of Seoul’s constant metropolitan buzz (and its sub-freezing temperatures) coupled with my five non-stop days in Thailand had me tingling with excitement.

Koh Phangan, the island on which Bottle Beach (or Haad Khuat) sits, lies off Thailand’s southeast coast in the aptly named Gulf of Thailand. To the north is the smaller Koh Tao, renowned for its scuba diving, and to the south is the larger Koh Samui, Thailand’s most popular island destination not named Phuket. Koh Phangan is accessible only by ferry, either 30 minutes from Samui or 2.5 hours from the mainland port of Surat Thani.

Cloudy skies weren't going to stop me from having a good time.

Cloudy skies weren't going to prevent me from enjoying the warm sand sifting through my toes.

Getting there from Chiang Mai was no simple task. With the upcoming New Year’s celebrations, the flights from Chiang Mai to Samui and Surat Thani were either more than I wanted to spend or completely booked. Instead, I took another overnight bus back to Bangkok where I caught a flight to Koh Samui where I waited a few hours to catch the ferry to Koh Phagnan where I fortuitously stumbled across the driver for the bungalow at which I was staying — an hour’s drive through the mountains on the other side of the island. Whew. I was ready for a drink. Or four.

At the beach, I met up with the girlfriend and her co-teachers, who had already been on Haad Khuat for about a week. We stayed in bungalows on the beach: wooden huts with a bed, shower and toilet in each one. That’s all I’d need to enjoy the beach, which is enough of an amenity for 250 baht per night (approximately $7.50 USD).

The weather was less than ideal for lounging on the sand, though. It had been raining for the week before I arrived, and there were no signs of stopping. Also the beach’s remote location — possibly its best and worst characteristic — left very few options for recreation; any transport to and from the sightseeing spots would cost at least 200 baht — quite steep for a Thailand-excursion budget. It also created a quandary when it came to the island’s biggest attraction: the Full Moon Party.

Bottle Beach II, complete with a "young, distracted staff."

Bottle Beach II, complete with a "young, distracted staff."

Located on Haad Rin — the opposite side of the island from Bottle Beach — the Full Moon Party attracts anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 revelers each month to carouse under beams the full moon. While the New Year’s edition wasn’t technically a Full Moon Party, its crowd would be no smaller than usual. It was a sight to be seen, but the hassle of getting to the party and not know exactly how or when we’d get back to our bungalows deterred us from attending. Instead we had our own small party to ring in 2009.

Let the reversion to kindergarten begin.

Let the reversion to kindergarten begin.

Complete with Full Moon Party-esque body paint, we sipped our own buckets of cocktails while waiting for the new year. Fortunately enough for us, at least one person out of the 20 or so who remained on Bottle Beach had a watch — an integral part to the annual countdown. Soon came the chants of “five, four, three, two, one, happy New Year’s!” accompanied by sprays of…Sprite.

There was no Dick Clark, Times Square or champagne this year, but the warmth of a tiki torch-lined beach and the waves of the ocean made for pretty good substitutes. The celebration continued until 4 am or so, when it was time for bed. I couldn’t wake up too late because the girlfriend and I had to catch a noon ferry back to the mainland.

Up next: Bangkok.

[click images to enlarge]

The Stars of Bottle BeachSparklingI love khom faiThe fluorescent body paint got a little messy, and it showed under the black lights.

UntitledUmm?

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Chiang Mai: New Adventures in an Old City

The 300+ temples in Chiang Mai are, as the famous Thai saying goes, "Same same, but different."

The 300+ temples in Chiang Mai are, as the famous Thai saying goes, "Same same, but different."

After twelve hours and one free meal (at what I deduced to be a Thai rest stop), I had arrived in Chiang Mai — at 5:30 in the morning. I had actually slept pretty well on the double-decker tourist bus, but tourist attractions (except for maybe some seedier ventures) aren’t open at that time of day. I checked into my room and conked out for a few hours before exploring the town.

While it isn’t the sprawling metropolis Bangkok is, Chiang Mai still has plenty of places to wander. For starters, the city, founded in 1296, has more than 300 wats, or Buddhist temples — supposedly about the same number as the nation’s capital. It seems like there’s a wat on every other block in the moat-surrounded city center, which only buttresses Chiang Mai’s reputation as Thailand’s cultural center. While it would be easy to loiter in and out of random temples, I asked the staff at my guest house to point out the important spots to see. On my map they circled Wat Chiang Man, Wat Phra Sing and Wat Chedi Luang.

The two-thirds of the chedi at Wat Chedi Luang left after a 16th century earthquake.

The two-thirds of the chedi at Wat Chedi Luang left after a 16th century earthquake.

One of the buildings at Wat Phra Sing, one of the city's most important temples.

One of the buildings at Wat Phra Sing, one of the city's most important temples.

After intentionally losing myself among the streets of guest houses, tourist agencies and food stands, I decided to meander toward Wat Chiang Man. Constructed in the 13th century, Wat Chiang Man is the oldest temple in Chiang Mai, so I had some pretty grand expectations — especially since the weather had turned sour with downpours throughout the day. Unfortunately, the wat was being renovated, so scaffolding and tarps surrounded the premises and left me with little to see. Wat Chedi Luang, dating back to 1401, and Wat Phra Sing, built in 1345, were, however, quite impressive.

This guy really likes bananas.

This guy really likes bananas.

I spent the next two sunny days on a trekking tour through a jungle about an hour outside Chiang Mai. It was the typical tourist package: two days with one night in a native Thai village, complete with elephant ride, waterfall viewing and bamboo rafting. We started with the elephant ride — an hour-long loop through trees and fields along with stands selling bananas for the elephants. It definitely felt kitchy, but the elephants seemed really sweet even though they were probably bored from walking the same path day after day. Every so often, my elephant would stop and curl its trunk over its head in hopes of finding a banana reward from me or my riding partner.

After the ride and lunch, we set off on a hike up a mountain to a Karen village, where we would spend the night. Our trekking guide, who called himself Mr. Ton, threw together a scrumptious dinner, which came with a show. The children of the 200-person village sang traditional village songs for us and then asked us to sing songs from our respective countries. I couldn’t think of one (I was prepared to go with the national anthem), but the Canadian sitting next to me suggested “Take Me Out to the Ballpark.” How un-American of me to forget that one.

The khom fai (hot-air lantern) is one of the coolest things in Thailand. After it floats away, it looks like a new star.

The khom fai (hot-air lantern) is one of the coolest things in Thailand. After it floats away, it looks like a new star.

After lighting a khom fai (hot-air lantern) with the children and listening to some out-of-tune cover songs from Mr. Ton, the 10 of us in our tour group retired to our single hut, equipped with thin sleeping bags, blankets and mosquito nets. The sleep was great — except for the mosquitoes, cold air and the roosters that decided sunrise was time to wake up.

The next day consisted of hiking down the mountain and riding a bamboo raft after lunch. One would imagine a bamboo raft to be a slow, pleasant ride — unless you’re one of the ones driving it. Each raft had a Thai guide (ours being a 12-year-old boy) and a tourist pushing it along with — what else? — bamboo shoots. I happened to be that tourist on my raft, but it wasn’t too bad. Every so often the guide/boy had to turn around and tell me which side to be pushing so that we didn’t die. I still can’t believe they put our lives in the hands of a 12 year old.

Chiang Mai was easily the most adventurous portion of my sweep through Thailand. It was also the part of the trip I was traveling solo, but I had plenty of company along the way — people at the guest house and those I met on the tour. Also, Chiang Mai isn’t so big that I ever felt lost in the expanse of the city. I was quite comfortable traversing the streets aimlessly. After essentially five days of constant movement, though, I was ready to sit down and relax…and what better place for that than the beach?

Up next: Bottle Beach, Koh Phangan.

[click images to enlarge]

Floating ByA Walk in the RainLight at the Guest HouseSitting PrettyMr. Ton, trekking guide and photographer Blue Skies Eye in the Sky

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New Place of the Week: Thailand

The Land of Smiles...floating away on a happy balloon.

Thailand: The Land of Smiles...floating away on a happy balloon.

Happy belated New Year’s to everyone as this edition of NPotW shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, seeing as I posted about my bewildering day and a half in Thailand. Known as the “Land of Smiles,” Thailand provided a tropical retreat from Korea’s crisp winter climate. The sticky heat that engulfed me upon exiting the plane inspired my fondness for flip-flops and substantiated my not-completely-unrelated aversion to socks; this was going to be a nice break from Seoul.

My trip lasted 11 days and consisted of three buses, three flights, a ferry and countless tuk tuks. It went a little something like this: Seoul, Bangkok (via Taipei), Chiang Mai, Koh Phangan (via Bangkok and Koh Samui), Bangkok (via Surat Thani), and back to Seoul. I might’ve only spent time in three locales, but I never really felt like I settled my feet. It was busy to say the least.

I landed in Bangkok and spent the first half day on my own, but the joy of traveling, I learned, is finding others heading the same way. Traveling soon became less about the places and more about the people, including — but not limited to — the Parisian who lives in Bangkok because she doesn’t like French people; the four Germans who happen to stay in the same guest house and book the same tour; the Thai tour guide who likes singing his songs despite not knowing half of the words; and the German carpenter/yoga instructor who cycles everywhere he goes.

Clearly, though, I spent time doing things other than talking to people (which will be detailed in a city-by-city play-by-play). I’ll always remember the things I did and places I saw, but a story isn’t a story without characters. Everyone brings something different to the table, whether they’re old or young, new or experienced, European or Asian. It was amazing how much I learned about places I had never been by just talking to my fellow nomads. I now understand how travel begets more travel: I hear their stories, and then I want to see them.

But before doing that, I’ll have to survive the remote jungles, busy streets, and mouth-watering food markets of Thailand. First step: an overnight bus journey to Chiang Mai. Now we’re on our way.

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