Pretty phones make me weak in the knees

I love gizmos and gadgets, and they can’t be avoided here. Korea, home to electronics giants Samsung and LG, wants to continue improving its electronics so it can compete with its Japanese counterparts. Cell phones, mp3 players and personal media players (sometimes all combined into one) are only the tip of the technological iceberg, and every Korean and his mother are tinkering with one or all of those things on the subway, bus or even while walking.

One of my fatal flaws is that I can’t resist shiny new toys. I got rid of most of what I owned to come to Korea to save money to pay off some bills. The whole minimalism/aescetic mindset is a little harder for me to achieve with the electronic temptations here. During the previous six months, I’ve accumulated a small speaker system, a 22″ external LCD monitor, a DSLR camera (with a handful of lenses) and most recently, a cell phone.

None of these are necessities (even though I’ve managed to rationalize every single decision into a quasi-necessity), and they’ve made a little (read: big) dent into my savings plans. The only thing that will leave the country with me when I do is the DSLR. Everything else is pretty much just a really expensive rental. They can easily be sold to someone else who has the same affinity for gizmos as I do.

These spending tendencies are a stark contrast to my backpacking habits. I’ll eat as much street food as possible (although that may be linked more to my palette’s preferences) and sleep in the cheapest hostels I can find. I’ll haggle over what ends up being 30 U.S. cents. In normal life, though, when I’m bored I’ll tend to do one of two things: eat and/or spend money.

At this point, I can’t imagine making any more large technological purchases. I have everything (and more) than I could ever need, even for a traveler: iPod, MacBook, Canon 40D, fancy mobile phone and Nintendo DS. I suppose that pushes me toward the realm of flashpacking, but I still need to do a little more traveling before I can wear that badge.

Note to self: travel more. Duly noted.

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Angry people make me angry

We’re wrapping up the first week of my staycation here in Seoul, and I haven’t made as much progress in the things I had planned for the week. I’ve still had a good week, though. While I wouldn’t mind traveling some exotic country, it’s nice not constantly having to catch buses and taxis and generally running around a new place cluelessly. Sometimes normal is fine by me.

Tuesday included a trip to Yeouido, an island in the Han River and home to the Korean Stock Exchange and TV/radio broadcasting conglomerate MBC, which earns it the occasional nickname “Seoul’s Manhattan.” I spent most of Wednesday cleaning and organizing my stuff in preparation for moving out of my apartment and ended the evening with a couple drinks. Thursday’s rather impulsive plan included buying a new phone from Yongsan and a long night of debauchery — one that had me arriving home a half hour before the girlfriend had to wake up for work.

It’s been pretty much a ho-hum week, but one event from last night reminded me why American G.I.s have such a terrible reputation here. We were our in Itaewon, which is essentially ex-pat and G.I. central since the neighborhood is literally around the corner from the U.S. army base. At the club, one of my friends — who is half-Chinese, half-Korean, wholly-Canadian and quite single — began chatting with a girl, one who had previously been schmoozing with a G.I. The army man took exception to my friend’s drawing the girl’s attention away from him and delivered an alcohol-fueled diatribe that included calling my friend a “kimchi-eating motherfucker” and boasting about how much the U.S. army has done for his “people.” For goodness’ sake, he’s stationed in South Korea, which is a cakewalk compared to the desert where the forecast is hot with a chance of raining mortars.

Other than the meathead mindset that leads to his solving problems with fights, the G.I.’s ridiculous sense of entitlement and self-importance is the number one reason people — Koreans and foreigners alike — dislike G.I.s. There are even bars that deny admittance to G.I.s because trouble often follows them in the door. I understand it’s completely unfair to paint all soldiers with the same brush, but I’ve seen so many situations where the soldiers expect things to fall in their favor simply because they serve in the U.S. military — like when the idiot at the club decided that we should be the ones to leave as if he and his boys owned the place.

The U.S. military as an entity already gets plenty of bad press from the likes of Guantanamo, Lynndie England, and a couple of wars in the Middle East, so the singular actions of these testosterone-driven brutes are just adding to America’s negative image. It’s a sad situation of a few ruining it for everyone, but it’s especially true for a conservative (and — truth be told — judgmental) nation like Korea.

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I’m not complaining

After coming back from Vietnam, I returned to my normal post as English teacher at my elementary school. “Normal,” though, isn’t the proper word to describe the last two weeks of the school year. The kids had been on winter vacation for six weeks before being forced to return to wrap up the school year. I had spent the same six weeks bouncing between Thailand, Winter Camp and Vietnam. None of us were ready to be in school.

The students, suffering from mental lag from the break, had no inclinations for paying attention — especially the sixth graders who had already checked out before break. I was out of significant lessons to teach, and all that was left were games. The two weeks (including two full days with not a single class for me and a full week of half-days) passed rather innocuously, and here I am on vacation again. This time it’s their “spring vacation,” despite what the 23-degree (I still work in Fahrenheit) weather says.

I’ll be spending this week organizing my stuff to move into a new apartment — one that I still have to find. I plan on doing some local sightseeing (i.e. playing with the camera) as well, but this weather might be a deterrent. Next week, if everything goes to plan, I’ll be touring around Korea, seeing what this country has to offer. It’ll be me (and someone else, in theory) and Lonely Planet Korea.

After this little spurt, it will have been 10 weeks or so since I’ve taught a serious class, but even the first week back won’t be a return to normalcy since it’s the first week of the new school year. I’ll be adjusting to new students, new co-teachers (teachers change positions every year and school every five years) and new class rules. I’m excited to see how these new classes turn out, but I’m slightly nervous about having to learn my co-teachers’ tendencies all over again. I was starting to get used to my last set of co-teachers.

I don’t see how all this commotion can be good for the educational system, but I’m sure the students and teachers are all conditioned to the change. I suppose I should be, too, since I’ve already experienced a few too many unexpected changes. They always turn out okay, though, and I expect nothing else from this school year.

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NPotW: Vietnam

The Têt celebrations were in full swing by the time I got to Saigon.

The Têt celebrations were in full swing by the time I got to Saigon.

It had been almost 10 years since I last set foot in Vietnam, so I was long overdue for a return. The only other time I had visited the country was a month-long family trip to Ho Chi Minh City — known locally as Saigon — when I was only 14. Consequently, my travels consisted of being dragged from one previously unknown relative’s house to another.

I spent a lot of time on buses, a couple of which were sleeper buses complete with individual bed.

I spent a lot of time on buses, a couple of which were sleeper buses complete with individual bed.

This time around, I’m 10 years older (but not necessarily that much wiser) and able to gallivant the country on my own accord, and gallivant I did. In a fortnight, I visited six cities (and one bay), but it never seemed as frenetic as my tour of Thailand. After landing in Hanoi, the itinerary looked like this: Ha Long Bay, Hue, Hoi An, Saigon, Mui Ne, Nha Trang, and back to Saigon to catch my plane home. I made entire trip (other than the venture into Ha Long Bay) via bus; by my rough estimate, I spent nearly 70 hours on the road during my trip — an average of 5 hours per day[1]. On this trip alone, I saw more of the country than my Vietnam-born parents have.

I did manage to fit in a little bit of sightseeing between the bus rides. Because each of the cities had its own distinct charm, it’s hard to put any of the cities as my favorite over the others. Saigon is the business capital of the country and clearly the busiest. Hoi An is quaint reminder of the many cultures that have passed through the country — and only four kilometers from the beach. Hue gets its points just for being my mom’s hometown. Nha Trang, a growing city with a population of more than 300,000, exudes the air of tourist beach town — something Mui Ne epitomizes. Hanoi is the political capital, but its history is its signature; it’s the Chiang Mai to Saigon’s Bangkok.

Despite their quirks, none of the cities really had an exclamation point landmark (except maybe Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi’s Old Quarter) that symbolized it. They all felt like…Vietnam. It’s hard to explain, but I think it was harder for me to differentiate the cities than I would in other countries. Like my trip to Thailand, the trip’s most interesting points came from the people I met, but this time instead of meeting other tourists, I was able to meet the locals. Growing up in a Vietnamese household allowed me to overcome the usual language barrier and talk to everyone I met.

The Vietnamese people seemed to be generally very friendly, but they might’ve bumped it up a notch for a Việt Kiều — a Vietnamese person who resides in another country. Most of whom I met seemed simply intrigued by an outsider who spoke fluent-ish Vietnamese. Instead of past travel tales, I heard the voices of the cities — insight into how Vietnam really ticks. The locals pointed me in the right directions and gave me tips they wouldn’t normally be able to communicate to a foreigner; many times I even got a discount for being Vietnamese.

Being able to speak the local language made this experience completely different from my time in Thailand and in Korea. While I find each of the latter places quite interesting, I never felt as comfortable as I did in Vietnam (for obvious reasons). Maybe it’s because I’ve been gone for so long, but at points I felt even more at home there than I did in the States.

Vietnam (read: Saigon) is definitely a place I can see myself living for a short while. The traveler in me wants delve deeper into more sights of this country, but the Vietnamese in me wants to take in Vietnam and really understand its culture, and subsequently my background, better. Even though it’s much different than 20 — even just 10 — years ago, Vietnam still has a lot to teach me about myself.


[1] The number is a bit skewed by the supposed 20-hour bus ride from Hoi An to Saigon. It ended up taking 25 hours. I was not happy with this development, and I’m sure my aunt wasn’t either since I had no way to tell her we were going to be five hours late. [back]

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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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