Tag Archives: vacation

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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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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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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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: 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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