Tag Archives: travel

Back but gone

Let’s get straight to the point: I’m not in Korea anymore. I’ve been gone for a week now, but I’m not at home. I’m on a six-week tour of Asia.

I spent the last week in Borneo, splitting time between Kota Kinabalu and Kuching. Borneo is an awesome place, and I wish I could spend more time there. In my week there, I went canopy walking, whitewater rafting, island hopping (with some snorkeling), jungle trekking, waterfall swimming, and amateur caving. That’s just a small portion of the Malaysian part of Borneo. It goes without saying, there’s a lot to do on this island. I didn’t even go into the Brunei or Indonesian states of Borneo. I could probably spend a month there and not be bored.

Kota Kinabalu is a small town. I was able to walk from end to end of the city center in about 20 minutes, but it’s a quaint city and nice to walk around. It’s right on the coast, so there’s a waterfront area that overlooks the South China Sea. It’s a nice place to hang out and read a book. Not a bad life if you ask me.

I spent four days there and then three days in Kuching on the western part of the island. It didn’t seem as lively as Kota Kinabalu, but maybe that was because it’s a little too big to completely explore on foot. There’s also a nice waterfront area, but this time it’s along a river. At night, it’s a lot of small lights, so it makes for a nice stroll.

Now I’m in Singapore. I just arrived in my hostel, so all I’ve seen of this town is the shuttle ride from the airport here. In that half-hour or so, I’ve decided Singapore belongs on the list of cities in which I can see myself living along with Chicago and Tokyo. I had planned on being in Singapore for only three days. There’s a possibility I might not make it to Penang now. We’ll see how that goes.

I’ve made it for a week now traveling by myself. It’s not like I’ve been in the jungle by myself, but I have had a lot of time to think. I have a feeling at the end of this journey, I’ll have a good idea of what I want to do with my life and how to get there. If not, I’ll be close, and I’ll probably figure it out when I’m at home. As of now, though, there’s a long way to go.

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Here we go again

This is the street I take leaving school each day. In three months, Ill take it one last time on my way out of Korea.

This is the street I take leaving school each day. In three months, I'll take it one last time on my way out of Korea.

It’s done. I’m officially leaving Korea at the end of August. I told my co-teacher, and it was a much calmer event than I had anticipated considering my co-teacher’s general anxiety and proclivity for histrionics. It still wasn’t any less awkward than I imagined, though. I don’t leave for another three months, but my co-teacher essentially forced me and my other co-teacher to talk to her so that we could get to know each other — almost three months into the job. It was clear to me that the other co-teacher didn’t want to chit-chat all that much since she actually wanted to finish her work. Awkward.

Anyway, if the renewal discussion had come up last week, my life would be completely different. I was pretty set on staying for another year, but then something — I’m not quite sure what — happened over the weekend, and doubt quickly took over. In the end, the fact I wasn’t completely sold on Korea meant I shouldn’t commit to another full year. The worst thing that could happen is I go home, dink around, run out of money and come back. I could fly back here at the drop of a hat. It’s nuts when I really think about it.

It’s very liberating to have this decision finalized, but it’s a little nerve-wracking not knowing what’s coming next. It’s much easier to deal, though, because I have no deadlines or expectations to meet at this point. Except for a couple of bills, I’m free of responsibilities and can fly as far as my money will take me. I could dink around Asia a bit before I head home, where I will definitely bounce around the country. Right now, I’m taking any ideas I can get. I’m nervous, but I think it’s the good kind of nervous.

See you stateside.

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Yes, I’m still alive

Ultimate has consumed my life for the past two months.

Ultimate has consumed my life for the past two months.

I come and I go. It’s an unfortunate cycle really. There are times when I’m everywhere, and there are times I completely disappear from the radar. The past 1.5 months (wow, it’s clearly been way too long) have been rather eventful, and I’ve been nowhere near updating about it.

I spent most of the weekends in January and February in a go out-sleep-play frisbee-go out cycle in preparation for Dream Cup in March. This tournament took me to Japan for a weekend, where I saw the bright lights of Tokyo, the pristine snowcap of Mt. Fuji and a handful of small-time Yakuza. Japan is ridiculously expensive. In a four-day weekend, I spent nearly $500 USD. I spent about that much in two weeks in Vietnam. That being said, however, I’ve added Tokyo to my short list of cities in which I can really see myself living. (Chicago rounds out that list.)

After Dream Cup, I spent many evenings — weeknights and weekends — catching up with friends in Seoul. This may or may not have led to multiple benders lasting three or more days. It probably wasn’t the most effective way to pass the time, but sometimes I can’t say “no” to an invitation for trouble. It’s especially hard when it involves warm weather and drinks on a patio.

Throughout this mayhem, I was also preparing for this past weekend’s party of a tournament on Jeju-Do, an island to the southwest of the Korean peninsula. We played our games on some of the practice fields for the 2002 World Cup in ideal 70-degree weather. Clearly I spent as much time as possible without a shirt. It was glorious.

The school life remains rather stable, but I can feel the stresses of Korea building once again. My co-teacher and I rarely see eye-to-eye on things, and unlike my previous co-teacher, she doesn’t seem to be on my side since she’s new to the job and working by the book. It’s nothing serious, but the many nuisances continue to add up. I’m still undecided whether I’m going to re-sign for another year, but we still have a little time to make that choice.

Unless an offer comes along that blows my mind, I can’t foresee myself moving out of Korea in the near future. Outside of school, I live a pretty stress-free life. All in all, with balmier weather and good friends all around, life is pretty good.

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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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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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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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