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.
Filed under NPoTW, travel
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]
Filed under job, NPoTW, travel
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. 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.” 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.
The debut of this feature takes me to Suwon, more than an hour’s subway ride from my apartment. Suwon, considered to be outside of Seoul’s city limits, is the capital of Gyeonggi, the province (do in Korean) surrounding Seoul. The attraction that drew me out of Seoul was Hwaseong Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site constructed at the end of the 18th century by King Jeongjo to honor his father’s remains. The wall, which stretches for nearly six kilometers, still surrounds much of Suwon today. On top of adding to my “See a New Thing Each Week” tour, it was a good excuse for me to break in the new toy.
 Even though the province of Gyeonggi surrounds it, Seoul is considered to be separate from Gyeonggi-do by way of its designation as a special city. Seoul is directly governed by the central government, which puts it on the same level as provinces.