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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.

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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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One last American jaunt

The Sears Tower from the front steps of the Art Institute of Chicago

The Sears Tower from the front steps of the Art Institute of Chicago

As excited as I am to move to Seoul, I know I’ll miss plenty of things from the midwest. One of those things will definitely be Chicago. Though I’m sure I’ll get a similar feeling of the hustle and bustle of the big city in Seoul, I do have a special place in my heart for Chicago. As a suburban-ite, I’ve always liked having a little bit of a rush around me, and Chicago fulfills that and then some.

My brother (from Texas) visited me in East Lansing, and since I’m unemployed, I figured I’d show him Chicago since he’d have no real reason to see Chicago anytime soon. We took a two-day whirlwind tour of the town. The trip started somewhat ominously: As soon as we left my house, my iPod — the entertainment for the 3.5-hour drive — died. Despite that, the rest of the trip went quite swimmingly.

We arrived on Wednesday in the early afternoon to my friend’s apartment which is somewhere between Lincoln Park and Lakeview. My friend had some errands to finish, so my brother and I hiked to the free Lincoln Park Zoo. It didn’t seem so far on the map, but it turned out to be about a 2.5-mile walk, which was fine since we got to see the town firsthand. To the zoo, around it and back was by far the most I’ve walked in a long time, but that’s Chicago for you.

Then later that night, my friend joined us downtown where we wandered out to dinner and then Navy Pier. Navy Pier is clearly for tourists — idiots like me and my brother — as evidenced by the kiosk selling disposable cameras and sunblock and the gratuitous twice-a-week fireworks show. It makes sense, though, since it provides a fantastic view of the skyline, especially at night.

Thursday was a long day. We started with the Art Institute of Chicago, one of the most famous art museums in the United States. My favorite exhibit, maybe because of how surprisingly interesting it was as it sat among more classical pieces of art such as “A Sunday on La Grand Jatte“, was probably the paperweight collection.

The paperweight collection at the Art Institute of Chicago

The paperweight collection at the Art Institute of Chicago

Who would’ve thought there would be so much work put into paperweights? They were so intricate and ornate, especially for hunks of glass that are supposed to sit on stacks of paper. I usually just use a stapler for that purpose.

Once we finished strolling through the Institute, we headed off to the Korean Consulate so I could drop off my paperwork for my E-2 visa. It all went very smoothly, an in-and-out job. It was especially easy because I didn’t have to do an interview since Korean immigration issued me a notice of appointment instead of a visa confirmation number. Finally getting the last of the paperwork out of the way is quite liberating. I’m almost there.

With only an afternoon left in Chicago, my brother and I did a lot of wandering, up to the north end of The Magnificent Mile back through Millennium and Grant Parks to the south end of the downtown loop, the Museum Campus. Throughout the final 2.6-mile trek, the city — with its people and towering skyscrapers — always felt alive, which isn’t something that can be said about most places.

The Chicago skyline as seen from the Adler Planetarium

The Chicago skyline as seen from the Adler Planetarium

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