Tag Archives: photography

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.

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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: 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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New Place of the Week: Hwaseong Fortress

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[1]. 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.


[1] 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.

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Camera Shopping in Seoul

I have a new toy.

I have a new toy.

I keep collecting hobbies as my list of pursuits continues to grow, and photography is the newest realm of dabbling. My interest in photography actually began in college during my photojournalism classes when I got to play with some fun toys. As part of the class, the college issued me a Nikon D100 for a semester — my first exposure to a digital SLR. It only got better in the higher-level course when we had an arsenal of nicer lenses — such as a 70-300 mm telephoto or an 8 mm fish eye — at our disposal.

While I didn’t develop into a strong photographer, my interest in the visual arts continued to manifest in my graphic design. Photography took a backseat to Illustrator and InDesign, but it never left. Fast forward to now, a time when I’m making a little extra money and DSLRs are a little cheaper abroad — especially after the exchange rate. The little shutterbug whispering in my ear combined with my penchant for expensive things  led me to this question: Where does one go to get a camera in Seoul?

How to get there

It’s impossible to find anything around Seoul at a decent price without knowing where to go. It’s not like the States, where you can peruse the Sunday ads and walk into Best Buy and match the best price you find. The area in Seoul where you can find the best deals on cameras is in the Namdaemun Market. After doing some homework and ultimately deciding on a Canon 40D (but not before also considering the Nikon D80 and Nikon D90), I got directions from friends who had been there before and jumped on the subway to the Hoehyon stop on line 4.

Exit 5 of the Hoehyon subway station put me right into the Namdaemun Market fray.

Exit 5 of the Hoehyon subway station put me right into the Namdaemun Market fray.

After leaving the station via exit 5, I immediately turned right, putting me on a path through the heart of Namdaemun Market — a dizzying array of lights and merchants. Although the street looks like a complete mess on first sight, the storefronts and food stands are rather organized for an open-air market. The straight-line walk through the market is about 200 meters long and ends at a major cross-street. There will be a sign that indicates “Gate 2” of the Namdaemun market. There I turned left toward all the camera stores were — the strip of sidewalk lit by gigantic “Canon” and “Nikon” signs — and began my quest to find my Canon 40D. This is where the fun part begins.

There's a lot of stuff going on here other than cameras.

Namdaemun Market: There is a lot more going on here than camera shopping.

How to find the right price

The best/worst part of shopping in Korea is that — especially in markets like Namdaemun — prices are often subject to haggling. The best rule is to check out as many stores as possible. Not only will prices vary between stores, but some vendors will be more willing to throw in a freebie or two to keep you coming back. On the other side of that coin, there are also vendors looking to cheat a wide-eyed foreigner. Here are some tips on how to get the best deal for your camera:

Know what you want

I knew what camera and lens I wanted long before I arrived at any store. There are several reasons for this. First, while most of the stores speak decent English, any possible language barrier can be overcome with the make and model of the camera and/or the length and brand of the lens. Next, nothing perks the ears of a dishonest vendor more than the sound of an uninformed shopper. The online resources are endless, but sites that proved helpful to me were The Imaging Resource and Digital Photography Review. Along with knowing what I wanted, I also made sure to find prices on sites such as Danawa (a Korean site that can search in English) to use as benchmarks in haggling. Their prices are always negotiable, so they’ll try to sell the novice buyer an expensive price as a good deal — usually by throwing in some useless freebies that cost them nothing. Also, beware of anyone willing to sell you something at an absurdly low price. Odds are that they’re giving you an inferior product, such as a used camera being sold as “new.”

Be patient

Never buy from the first store you walk into. Get quotes from as many stores as time allows. These stores, all crammed on the same street, are competing with each other for your patronage, so they’ll usually match reasonable prices from another store. Some vendors pressured me to buy from them immediately, telling me they were giving me the best price. This shouldn’t happen; the most reputable sellers understand the process behind making a big investment in a DSLR camera and will let you look and leave as much as you need. It will be very apparent which stores are looking for the quick sale. You can use this greed against them if you carry cash and threaten to leave for another store; they’ll often cave to your asking price, but make sure you’re getting the exact product you’re searching for and nothing less. Don’t be afraid to say “no” if you don’t like what you see.

Pay in cash — lots of it

Vendors will give you the best prices when you pay in cash for two reasons. First, cash transactions cannot be tracked like credit card transactions. Some vendors use this to their personal advantage when it comes to tax season — maybe dishonest, but it benefits the buyers. Second, credit card companies charge the vendors a fee for each transaction, and that fee is passed down to the buyer. It usually runs around an extra five percent of the total, but on a 1 millon won purchase, that’s an extra 50,000 won. If you make a large purchase, vendors will usually find creative ways to give you a package discount and/or give you some free stuff. I bought a Canon 40D body with an 18-55 mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens, lens hood, 4GB SanDisk Compact Flash memory card, extra battery, and bag, totalling nearly 1.1 million won. In addition to that, the vendor gave me two cloth camera wraps, a lens cloth, rubber lens blower, and UV filter as “service.”

Where to buy

If you get a business card that looks like this, beware of that seller.

If you get a business card that looks like this, beware of that seller.

As I’ve said before, there are good shops and there are bad shops. One store immediately agreed to my lowball price (I just wanted to get negotiations going) and tried to sell me a camera that he said was new, even though it was clearly used. The name of the store is Sung Do, and as soon as I asked to see the camera, he asked whether I had cash and tried to pressure me to buy that night. The store from which I eventually bought my 40D, Hyosung Camera, was very helpful from the beginning. The most helpful thing about this store is that there is a fluent English-speaking employee pretty much there to help out any foreigners. His name is Paul, and he studied in Australia for more than seven years. If he doesn’t have the answer, he’ll find someone who does. If you manage to wander into that store, mention that Daniel sent you, and he’ll get a good chuckle out of it. He’ll definitely give you things like blowers and lens cloths if you need them.

I bought my camera at this store.

I bought my camera at this store.

I’m excited to learn more about my new toy, especially since I’ve only shot with Nikons before this. Hopefully dropping a pretty penny will be incentive enough for me to teach myself some photography basics and improve whatever skills I might’ve acquired in college — and eventually add a new dimension to my young blog.

What are your tips/suggestions/experiences?

Author’s note: I’m in no way affiliated with Hyosung Camera or any other camera store in Seoul. My recommendation of Hyosung comes only from my positive experiences there, and I receive no compensation for doing so.

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