Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan

September 11th – September 18th 2016

Took a trip to Japan with my parents, sisters, bro-in-law, nephew after our visit to Malaysia. It’s not often I get to travel abroad with my entire family and I had such a blast with them.

I don’t think Japan is a stranger to anyone. We all know visitors go there for the food, culture, history, and to see “weird” stuff. No, I did not see any panty vending machines but I saw more drink vending machines on a single street in Shinjuku than I did my entire year in USA. I loved Japan and would like to go back another day.

Several highlights of my trip:

  • Cramming into a tiny sushi restaurant in Tsukiji and enjoying fresh sushi
  • Eating “tsukemen” (dipping ramen) on “ramen street”
  • Seeing many ppl on the streets all done up and wearing kimonos
  • Walking around on the “food floors” of malls
  • Seeing a Maricar procession at night
  • Eating “unadon
  • Walking the streets of Tokyo
Tsukemen (dipping ramen)
Tsukemen (dipping ramen)
Unadon
Unadon

Click here for more pics of Tokyo and Kyoto

Hong Kong

I visited Hong Kong (HK) at the end of 2013 en route to Malaysia for my buddy’s wedding.

The one thing that is important to me about travel is food and HK is one of the best places in the world to get some delicious Cantonese cuisine. Lin Heung Tea House is the oldest dim sum joint in HK and I would highly recommend anyone visiting HK to make a trip there just for the experience of sitting at community tables with strangers and soaking in the chaotic moments when the dim sum carts get wheeled out from the kitchen with a variety of fresh, succulent dim sum dishes before the swarms of hungry people engulf the staff, creating a quick vanishing act for all the dishes. I witnessed a cart not even make it 5 meters out the door before it went back in, empty, within minutes. It’s not for the passive. One has to assert one’s self in these hungry crowds and wrestle one’s way into the front and get the staff’s attention to acquire a dish of your choosing. There is no line. And people expecting someone to attend to their needs at the tables will most certainly go hungry. Be proactive. And don’t forget to enjoy a cup of delicious hot tea served in big, traditional bowl-sized tea cups and nod at your neighbors (or engage them if you can speak Cantonese), most of who won’t pay attention to you as they chat with their family/friends and/or read the morning papers. For more upscale dim sum, visit Maxim’s Palace which is somewhat hidden away (take a taxi if you must). There, one can experience a completely different dim sum experience. There is order, there is peace. People are seated and the carts do reach the masses, wheeled slowly by the staff as they go table to table, asking if you’d like to check out their wares. Be warned: Maxim’s Palace is much pricier. Personally, food that must be fought for tastes better. I would return to Lin Heung the next time I’m in HK.

Lin Heung Tea House

Click for more pictures of Hong Kong…

Manila, Philippines

Note: I visited Manila in Dec 2013.

I was walking along the coast of Manila when I came upon the local marina. Half of it was filled with small yachts and the other half was littered with old wooden fishing boats. That one image, in my mind, summed up Manila.

The rich and poor, divided.

I had wanted to explore Philippines in more detail but Super Typhoon Haiyan messed up my plans. No Coron (no diving in beautiful waters), no Bohol (no Tarsier monkeys), no Donsol (no swimming with the whale sharks).

My hostel was located in Makati district. It was clean and A/C-ed but like most hostels, the quality of your stay will be dependent on your roommates. One night, I was trying to sleep when 2 guys busted in with their bags, turning on the lights and chatting away. With them came a smell (that I would later figure out to be body odor) that was so foul it wouldn’t go away, even after they took a shower. It was not easy trying to get back to sleep as these guys had no consideration whatsoever for their roommates.

The next morning, I found a group of about 12 black people downstairs, eating breakfast. They spoke English but with very unique accents. I usually have a good ear for accents and having travelled extensively, I can sometimes pinpoint an area of the continent (and maybe even the country) where someone’s from but their accent was absolutely foreign to me. I asked the front-desk who these people were and where they’d come from. They were from Papua New Guinea, visiting Manila for a Christian convention. Of course, I applied and got a room transfer. I just couldn’t take that B.O. for another night.

On the streets of Manila, the first thing that really stood out were the vibrantly-decorated Jeepneys that zoom past you, honking its way down the streets, picking up passengers at every other intersection. These Jeepneys were leftover by American army after their time spent in the Philippines in WW2. The key to utilizing a Jeepney as public transport is to know what part of Manila you’re going, then look for the signs that are painted on the Jeepney’s sides. They tend to make quick stops so be ready. The “conductor” and driver won’t take the time to stop long enough to answer any of your questions about its route. Unless you’re a beautiful woman who speaks Tagalog. (Because every man will stop long enough to answer questions asked by beautiful women. It’s universal.) BTW, although English is a main language, I rarely heard it being spoken on the streets; most people revert to their native Tagalog.

It is very cramped inside the Jeepney. I hand my fare to the person next to me and they pass it down the aisle all the way to the conductor, sitting in the front with the driver. (Sometimes, the driver is the conductor. Talk about multitasking.) If there is change to be made, the conductor will pass it back down the aisle until it reaches your hands. The driver, I believe, will make it as a pro driver because he is very good at weaving in and out of heavy traffic at high speeds.

Jeepney. Destinations are painted on the sides.
Riding inside a Jeepney.

There is a variety of food in the Philippines but most of them are variations of foods I’ve had in Southeast Asia. But the one food I had to go seek out was “balut”, or aged duck embryos. It is a popular snack among the Filipinos (and I later learned, in other parts of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam and Cambodia, each with their own aging techniques which control the developmental completeness of embryos. Scientific-sounding enough?). “Balut” can be terrifying, especially with first-time consumers. Most people first eat visually. When they see a half-developed baby duck, what would they think?

I went to the local night-market to find this nasty-sounding snack. There were several stands which had plenty of them and plenty of people eating them. Some became amused when I started to ask about it and how to eat it. A foreigner trying “balut”? That, they had to see. I was taken through the process of removing the shell, exposing the embryo, and was then advised to sprinkle some salt and add a dash of vinegar to it. I then thought “Here goes nothing” and took a bite. It tasted a lot like… egg. What a surprise (not). Even the embryo portion merely tasted like hard-boiled yolk. It wasn’t that bad. I ate about 2-3 and called it a night. I could see the Filipinos around me were happy that I had passed the test. I was now one of them. (OK, that’s not true.)

“Balut” stall.

Could I have done more in Manila? Sure, it’s a massive city. Do I like Manila? Not really, it’s a massive city. I will make it back one day though, for a visit to El Nido and Coron, as well as visit Bohol for those darn adorable looking Tarsier monkeys.

Click for more pictures of Manila…

Sipadan/Mabul, East Malaysia

Note: I am not paid by Scuba Junkie. I was just very happy with their service and I had a wonderful experience with them. Their website is also very informative.

I love diving. I am a certified Open Water scuba diver. I love exploring lands but I also love exploring the world beneath the lands, a world where most of the world doesn’t see.

At the beginning of December 2013, my original plan to visit the Philippines fell through due to Haiyan. As an alternate option, I chose to visit East Malaysia, mainly to dive in Sipadan Island. A journey to Sipadan requires a few connections. One has to fly into Tawau, southeast of Sabah. From there, it takes about 1.5 hours to drive to Semporna, which is the launching point to Sipadan (and islands around) by some dive operators. I had arranged to dive with Scuba Junkies (SJ) and to stay in Mabul Island, a world-renowned location for underwater macro photography (and what a world it is!).

To dive Sipadan, one has to book with dive operators ahead in advance. This is because there is a limit to how many people can dive in that location, per day. I had the worrisome moment of being on stand-by, despite trying to book one (or was it two?) months in advance. I would recommend people to book about 3-4 months in advance, just to be safe. It’s always nice to have peace of mind when you’re about to make a long journey although I would add that the other islands there offer fantastic diving too. Eventhough I was on standby and was ready to make peace with the fact I probably wouldn’t be diving in Sipadan, I got very lucky. Someone had cancelled and a permit was up for grabs and it went to your’s truly.

It took 1 hour to get from Semporna to Mabul Island, where SJ has a “resort” set up, next to a Sea Bajau tribe, or nomadic and stateless folk of the seas.

Being of Malaysian descent and being able to speak Bahasa Malaysia, I wasn’t too afraid to walk around the island, even in the late evenings. It was very easy to get lost in the local village as the wooden homes all looked identical but I managed to ask for directions and found my way back to SJ. All the Bajau knew SJ because SJ works with them in return for the Bajau’s help in preserving the environment. For example, SJ will pay the Bajau more per turtle egg than if it was sold or eaten. I think it’s wonderful that both sides have needs and both are willing to work with each other to meet each other’s needs.

A group of sea bajau kids, playing amongst themselves.
Kids watching TV on Mabul Island.

Mabul and Sipadan are two different dives; Mabul is for those who like the small things (or “macro”) and Sipadan is for those who like the big things.

During my Mabul dive, I learned about nudibranches. They are super tiny sea slugs but they are some of the most colorful creatures in the sea. It’s very hard to spot nudibranches but the trained eyes of our dive instructors ensured we saw several. Find out more about Mabul “muck-diving” here: http://www.scuba-junkie.com/diving/mabul/

Nudibranch. Now imagine one of about 3000 species in all colors. Image courtesy of wikipedia.org.

The Sipadan dive was one of my all-time favorite dives. The visibility was about 40-50 m (you can spot sea life clearly from a distance) and we encountered many giant sea turtles, some swimming and some resting. These old guys surely must have tales to tell of the sea. Read more about Sipadan dives here: http://www.scuba-junkie.com/diving/sipadan/

Imagine that you are underwater, looking out for sea turtles, sharks, eels…and suddenly, the “sky” above you turns grey and light is slightly blocked out. Those aren’t rain clouds; they are a school of thousands of jackfish. By itself, they aren’t impressive. But as a school, what a sight!

Jackfish. Image by Raimundo Fernandez.

Unfortunately, I did not get to see the barracuda “tornados” at the famous Barracuda Point. Sometimes, it comes down to luck. I did, however, encounter several yellow moray eels who peeked out through their “homes”, wondering what all the pesky humans were doing, mouths opening and closing as they observed us. They are very beautiful, graceful, and aren’t dangerous if you keep your distance.

Overall, diving in Mabul and Sipadan was an experience I will cherish for the rest of my life. There’s so much beauty in the seas and oceans that it is unfortunate that many people only wish to experience it on their TVs because they are afraid of diving. (Not that I can blame them, it’s not easy, at least for the first few dives but you get used to it.)

A wonderful video I found on Youtube that will give you an idea of diving there:

Sarawak, East Malaysia

Back in November 2013, I had originally planned to make a 1.5 week trip to the Philippines after spending a few days in Kuala Lumpur to attend my friend’s wedding. Then super typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines. Many of the destinations I had originally planned to visit were in Haiyan’s path such as Coron and Bohol. It just wasn’t going to be the same although one could argue that “To see the world as it is, even at its worst” should be a “real” traveler’s motto. I might’ve done so had I had unlimited time but it was a long-awaited vacation and I wanted a vacation, as selfish as it is for me to say that.

Thus, after forfeiting $250 in plane tickets, I purchased a ticket to East Malaysia, starting in Kuching, Sarawak.

There is nothing to do in dull Kuching but eat, in my opinion. They had some fantastic food that I hadn’t had in Peninsula Malaysia, such as tomato kuey teow, sarawak laksa, mee kolok, manok pansoh and beautiful kuih lapis. They’re variations of many Malaysian staples. Seafood is also a must-eat and a popular spot to get seafood is Top Spot, an outdoor food court filled with stalls selling the freshest seafood.

Tomato Kuey Teow.

 

Sarawak Laksa.

 

Kuih Lapis (Layered cake).

 

Top Spot, seafood stalls everywhere.

Among the multitudes of small, low-budget museums scattered around the city, one museum did stand-out; The Chinese Museum. Being of Chinese heritage, it was eye-opening to learn just how many different Chinese “clans” made their way from China to Malaysia during the early 1900s. I was aware of the major ones such as Hakka, Cantonese, Hokkien, Hainanese and Teochew but I didn’t realize there were many more minor ones. The museum had pictures, stories, and even an exhibition which played audio of a single sentence but in all the various Chinese dialects.

A word of warning. Taxis are expensive (by Malaysian standards) to take and many drivers insist on not using the meter. But if you need to get somewhere fast and are willing to pay, it’s the best option. If you stay close to the city center, you can walk everywhere.

Did Kuching replace the Philippines? Certainly not. But Sabah sure did. I’ll write another entry about Sabah soon.

Seoul (Part 2), South Korea

I had to spend 3 more days in Seoul before flying back home to the USA. I made my way back to the guesthouse which I stayed at previously here and found the same roommates, whom I saw more than a week ago, still there.

That evening, our guesthouse had a free dinner so several people staying there showed up to eat and drink. Some people boozed pretty heavily only Korean soju, beer, and “makolli” (a Korean rice wine). A Danish guy then brought out his stash of several different hard liquors which he brought all the way from Denmark, each one bearing a 40% alcohol rating. Needless to say, whoever took a few shots from that ended up pretty drunk soon after.


(Hostel mates.)

The next morning, I missed the DMZ tour. (My story on this a few entries below.) That afternoon, I was about to head out to the Biwon Secret Garden to relax, read, and take my mind off my mistake when I got invited to go visit a park somewhere in Seoul with several people. We took a car and drove about an hour north of Seoul where we visited an observatory where we could see North Korea. I guess all was not lost when I missed the DMZ tour. After that, we visited Heyri Art Valley, a place where all the buildings in it had unique architecture but had a creepy air about it. My friend Alex, whom I met on an African safari, cooked me dinner that night.


(What a North Korean classroom would look like.)


(What a North Korean’s home would look like.)

The next day, I decided to hang out with my dorm mates (Yuki, Sophie, and Yasmine). We bought some “gim bap” and sushi and headed out the Yeuido Park to picnic under cherry blossoms. After that, I accompanied Yuki to Heyri as he’s an architecture student and Heyri was a great spot for architecture buffs. At night, Yuki and I went to go meet up with my friend Josh for one last Korean dinner.


(Yasmine, Sophie, Yuki.)


(Chicken bbq dinner.)

All of us had to pack that night because we would leave for the airport at the same time the next day since our flights were almost the same time.


(Waiting for my last Seoul subway ride.)

Seoul (Part 2), South Korea Pics.

Jeonju, South Korea

Jeonju, South Korea
April 9th – 10th 2011

Another comfortable 3 hours bus-ride took me from Busan to Jeonju. Jeonju is considered

I’ve read about people staying at night in a “jjimjilbang” (Korean saunas) so I wanted to experience it for myself. My guidebook recommended one of the oldest in Jeonju, a place called “Myeong Dong Sauna”. Upon arriving at the bus station, I took a short taxi ride to it. It wasn’t a fancy spa like the one in Busan, just an old building next to a Korean restaurant. I walked in and asked if I could stay the night. The lady in front couldn’t speak English so she picked up the phone and called someone. A few minutes later, a man showed up and he spoke pretty fluent English (!) and told me I could stay there and I could even go in/out at will (it’s not encouraged but since I’m a foreign traveler, they made an exception due to their Korean hospitality). One night for 5000 Won? You can’t do better than that.

“Joe” (or was it “Cho”?) was really friendly and accommodating, showing me around the place. Like any sauna/spa, there were lockers for shoes, then a separate area with lockers for personal belongings. My large backpack wouldn’t fit in there so they stored it in the office. Men walked in and out the shower/bath areas nude. The space upstairs was the common area with a large-screen TV and separate rooms for men and women, as well as a room where both men and women can sleep on the floors together.

It was 4:30 pm and I wasn’t ready to shower and sleep yet so I took a walk to see the Hanok Village, which was a popular spot with the tourists. It was about 15 minutes on foot and I had to get some directional help from people but it was straightforward enough. I visited several sites in the area, among them the “Gyeongijeon”, a “park like shrine area full of ornate buildings and beautiful trees” (per Rough Guide). The whole area was filled with Korean hanoks (traditional houses) so it added to the atmosphere. I visited a house producing “hanji” (traditional Korean paper) using the old traditional methods which looked rather repetitive and painstaking but a unique sight nonetheless.


(A view of the Hanok village.)


(Hanji-making.)


(Different-colored hanji.)

For dinner, I had Jeonju bibimbap which is supposedly different from regular bibimbap. I went to one of the more popular restaurants that served it. The presentation was different and some of the ingredients they added were unique but after you mix everything together, it doesn’t taste any different from the regular version. I’ve heard that only Korean taste-buds can discern the difference because they are subtle. I wasn’t completely blown away by it, especially for 10000 Won.


(Jeonju bibimbap.)

That night, I took a hot soak and showered, part of the perks staying in a sauna. Then I donned the provided grey t-shirt and orange shorts and walked upstairs to the common room, picked up a soft mat and small pillow, found a spot on the floor, read, and went to sleep. I woke up a few hours later and found more people lying all around me.


(Common room in jjimjilbang.)

The next day, I decided to pay another visit to the Hanok village to walk around some more as well as sample some other foods and snacks in the area, ranging from walnut cake (10 pieces, hot and sweet) to “seaweed galbitang” (seaweed and beef-ribs soup). I brought my book, found a quiet spot, enjoyed a bottle of “Mozu” (low-alcohol Jeonju rice wine), and read while occasionally lifting my head up to people-watch. For dinner, I had some “Kongnamul gukbap”, another Jeonju favorite, a bean-sprout filled broth with rice. A bit bland but cheap.


(Kongnamul gukbap.)


(Seaweed galbitang.)

I spent another night at the sauna and left the next morning back to Seoul.

Jeonju, South Korea Pics.

Missed the DMZ tour.

It went so horribly wrong.

I returned to Seoul with one mission in mind : The DMZ tour. I signed up for it, paid $80 in advance for it, and all I had to do was show up.

After a night of drinking with hostel mates, I shook off my slight hangover, woke up early, wrote some directions down on a scrap of paper on how to reach Camp Kim USO, got to the correct subway stop, then exited and this is where it went all wrong.

I was under the impression that like most numbered exits in subway stations, there would only be one direction leading out. This station’s exit presented me with an intersection. I didn’t know which one to take. I only had 15 minutes to make the meeting point or the bus would leave without me. I had to find “Holly’s Coffee”, which was about 2-3 minutes walk, hook a right, walk straight another 3-4 mins and I’ll be at Camp Kim.

So I picked “LEFT”. I had asked several people around me where “Holly’s Coffee” was but they all couldn’t speak English and didn’t know what I was saying. So I walked, found a traffic cop, told him where I wanted to go, then he told me to continue going for 5 minutes and I would be there. WRONG. I didn’t see “Holly’s Coffee” nor Camp Kim USO, just bare deserted road and empty buildings. At that point, I SHOULD have retraced my steps, ran all the way back to the station and see where “RIGHT” took me.

Instead, I saw a taxi at the side of the road with a sleeping driver. I woke him up, then beckoned him to drive me. He didn’t know where he was going, just following any directions I gave him. As time was running out, I took him down the road and instead of going back to the station, I told him to take yet another wrong turn. Worst decision ever.

We ended up going for a few minutes and Holly’s Coffee was nowhere. It was 7:30 am. The bus would be leaving now. My heart sank. I stopped the taxi, paid my fare, ran to the nearest PC cafe, frantically got on the net, found the GRAPHIC MAP and PHONE NUMBER, begged several ppl around me to let me use their cell-phones (at which the PC cafe owner let me use her cell-phone when she saw how desperate I was), called the tour company up. It was 7:40 am. They said the bus had left. I was too late. I pleaded but there was nothing I could do.

So feeling crushed, I walked outside, hailed the nearest taxi, asked the driver if he knew where Camp Kim USO was, and he DID. Why didn’t I have this taxi driver before? I would’ve been on that bus to the DMZ already. The guy spoke English, was real nice, took me there without a hitch. When I saw where I made the wrong turn and how close I was, I felt so sick.

I went into the tour company office, pleaded my case again, but to no avail. The bus was riding a highway, there was no way it would stop for me when it had 80 other passengers on it. The tour ladies felt sorry for me and I had hoped to get some sort of partial refund. No deal. It was all my fault and I admitted it. Sure, they gave some shit directions but if I had looked at the GRAPHIC MAP they sent, I would’ve been home free.

The only “consolation” I got was that I paid my tour fee AGAIN but in USD. While in Busan, I had no choice but to pay my tour fee with a credit card over the phone. With a CC, they would charge me in Korean Won; 92400 Won to be exact, which was $85. If I paid in USD, it would be $77. So in the end, I saved $8 but at the cost of my tour, the cost of taxi fees and PC cafe fee, $8. And most of all, the chance to see the DMZ. I leave Korea in two days, no chance to getting another tour anytime soon unless I return to Korea again one day.

The walk back to the subway station was the longest 5 minutes in my life. I couldn’t believe how close I was, yet so far. If I had went “RIGHT”, I would’ve seen Holly’s Coffee almost immediately. Why did I choose “LEFT”? Was there some sort of lesson I should be learning here, maybe about how ill-prepared I was, or how I didn’t think logically enough when I first encountered directional problems? There were THREE PC cafes right in front of the subway station. If I had been feeling lost the moment I stepped out, I could’ve walked into any one of them, got the map, verified my bearings, then made my way there with 10 minutes to spare. It was as if every single decision-making bone in me FAILED at the moment I needed it most. I pride myself on good decision making and this moment was so low. There were 80 ppl who went on that tour, and I was the only one to miss it.

I got back to my hostel, decided to catch up on sleep. My dorm-mate had drunk too much last night and apparently threw up all over her wall and bed. The room smelled of vomit. But I felt too crushed to care as I wrapped myself up in my blanket and tried to dream of taking “RIGHT” turns, literally and figuratively.

Busan, South Korea

Busan, South Korea
April 7th – 8th 2011

Another 3 hours bus-ride brought me from Andong to the 2nd most populated city, Busan. It’s best known for its beach (Haeundae Beach) and the Jagalchi fish market.

Not much happened on the 7th. I arrived late so all I could muster up in the cloudy, wet weather was to check into my hostel, then take a walk at night to check out the “Golden Gate Bridge” of Korea at a nearby beach, which was supposedly lit up very pretty at night to go with the lit up coastline. Spent a lot of the night catching up on my entries on Korea.

The next morning, I woke up early to visit the fish market, hoping to catch the locals unloading fish from the ships but arriving at 7:30 am isn’t going to cut it for that purpose. It was another wet cloudy day and my trusted (but already semi-broken) travel umbrella was fighting the strong gusts of wind. At the rather large fish market complex, I walked around and saw so many varieties of seafood that I’ve never seen before. I can’t list any here since I don’t know their names so please check out the pictures. It was an interesting place and although I was saving my fish market enthusiasm for Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, this was a fine substitute. I went upstairs where all they served fresh seafood. I had originally pictured a place where all the local fisherfolk to be eating seafood for breakfast but the area upstairs was empty and the patrons lit up when they saw a potential customer and the prices were quite high (ranging from 20000-50000 Won) so instead, I left and stumbled upon a local joint nearby which served simple rice and broth at 3500 Won.


(Seafood heaven. Just follow the light.)


(There were a lot of these red-shelled mollusks around.)


(Sting rays.)


(I call these “sea roaches” because they have feelers.)


(For lack of a better name, “sea-penises”.)


(Terror from the seas.)


(Working together to clean the catch.)


(A long morning deserves a nice nap…)


(… or a good meal.)

A subway ride, a short walk, and another short bus-ride uphill brought me to Beomeosa Temple. There were colorful lanterns lining up the paths and the temple complex. A bunch of Buddhists were praying inside the temples and there were several monks about, wearing their grey robes. The architecture itself was what I expected from most Korean temples so it wasn’t mind-blowing but it gave a peaceful feeling.


(Stairway to heaven?)

That afternoon saw me make my way to a Korean oncheon (hot spring spa). The Hurshimchung Spa in Busan is considered the largest indoor spa in Asia. I’ve never been to a Korean spa before so why not now. After getting off the subway, I walked about 15 minutes amongst beautiful sakura-lined streets before arriving at a nice looking building where the spa was located. I paid 8000 Won, put my shoes and bag into appropriate lockers and didn’t know what to do. The place is segregated by gender so I was around a lot of nude Asian men. No one wears bathing suits around here and it would be silly to do so. I never brought one anyway so I stripped and walked around and as long as you don’t make extended eye contact with anyone (or walk right into them), you’re fine. The spa was indeed a very nice-looking place although its architecture lacked the old beauty that was present in the Gellert baths in Budapest (old Euro spa with lots of history vs new Asian, it’s expected). I sampled each of the different pools available, each at different temperatures, going so far as to sit in a pool that was filled with (and I’m not kidding) bright neon-yellow looking water that looked a lot like piss (holding the water in my hand, it looked transparent, so it may be the tiles or lighting playing tricks on me). I see guys just sitting around in the nude, soaking up the heat, and some were lying face up in their beach chairs, taking long naps. Oncheons are popular places to get away from it all. This was a higher-end spa and I don’t think they allowed people to sleep overnight, unlike most other oncheons in South Korea (which you’ll read about in my next entry on Jeonju). So after 2 hours of soaking and napping, I took a shower, got dressed, and left.

By the way, no pictures. (!!)


(Cherry blossoms.)

Haeundae Beach was like any other beach. Most Koreans consider this THE summer beach spot but at this time of the year, no one was in their swimsuits. It was sunny but very chilly and I could only spend an hour sitting around before it got to me. It was a good spot to people-watch.

When the girl working at my hostel told me that Busan was home to the biggest department store in the WORLD, I had to make my way to Shinsagae to see it so I could brag to all my lady friends about it. The only thing I bought there was some octopus bibimbap (which was dreadfully bland) in their impressive food court but the floors and stores upstairs were another matter. So many shops, most high-end. Did I mention I have store burn-out? With so many stores, I made my way briskly to the top before going back down and leaving. A shoppaholic with a massive wallet (or more appropriately, purse) would’ve been in heaven.

Busan, South Korea Pics.

Andong, South Korea

Andong, South Korea
April 5th – 6th 2011

One of the things I was recommended to do while in South Korea was to visit a traditional folk village so I thought, why not visit one of the best, Hahoe Folk Village near Andong, about 2 hours bus-ride from Gyeongju.

I arrived in Andong bus station but was a bit lost because it wasn’t located where I thought it was on the map. I later found out this was the new station and my 2008 guidebook map was outdated. So I took a taxi into town (7000 Won, I later round out there’s a bus stop outside the bus station that could’ve taken me into town, those run at 1200 Won a ride which is standard no matter the distance traveled, just make sure you have small change.) I went to find a “yeoinsuk” which is a cheap guesthouse where we slept on the floor with a blanket and usually a shared bathroom. I figured it was time to return to my backpacking roots after my splurge in Gyeongju. This run at around 12000 Won/night. I was looking around when an old man invited me to check out his guesthouse, as the one I checked out previously was full (and really crap looking). Sure enough, he showed me a room where I had to sleep on the floor (adjustable heater pad underneath!) and it had its own bathroom (toilet, sink, working hot water) and even a small TV (with many channels). He wanted 20000 Won/night but I told him I would stay two nights and I got the price down to 15000 Won/night. Good deal. I had to get out of there soon because I had to catch a bus to Hahoe that same morning. (Not many buses run to Hahoe so if you miss one, you would have to wait another hour or two for the next one.)

There are no restaurants within the folk village itself so I had to go eat at some place just outside near where the bus dropped us off. Some Korean girl named Eun Ji from the same bus who’s also visiting Hahoe asked me if I wanted to eat lunch with her so I said why not. We ordered what she said was an Andong specialty, some chicken and vegetable dish with transparent noodles. Luckily there were two people because the price and portion was fit for three. (Did she know this? Was I being used?! But a foodie should never question, just eat.)


(Andong special chicken dish.)

We checked out the Hahoe Mask Exhibit first because it was right next to the place we ate. It was cool to see all kinds of masks worn all over the world. I thought it would’ve been cool to collect these personally but that was before I found out how most masks worn in plays/dances all over the world were ghoulish and monstrous. Only the Spanish Carnival masks were mysterious and sexy. The rest were more fit for Halloween.


(Some masks. These were tame compared to the monsters upstairs.)

Hahoe Folk Village was brilliant. It’s old and traditional and meant to be kept that way by the villagers living there, all 200 or so of them. Farming’s a way of life out there but at this time of the year, the ground was mostly bare. Most homes, called “hanoks” were heated by a fire lit under them. It’s too bad we couldn’t enter them to see what they were like inside. But the countryside was plenty peaceful and walking around was nice. We found a tree which had so many pieces of paper wrapped on it which apparently contained wishes of people who came to see it. I wrote something down and so did Eun Ji. I later read that we had to actually walk around the tree three times first before writing our wishes but oh well.


(Farmland.)


(A walk through the quiet village streets.)


(Inside the compound of a home.)


(How they warmed their hanoks.)


(The old tree with white paper leaves.)

Later, we came upon a playground which had a traditional swing, see-saw, and other things. People didn’t sit on see-saws. One person would have to stand one on end, the other person on the other end, then each took turn jumping to bounce the other person on their end. Not easy. The river there was dry and no boats ran to the other side where there was a cool looking residence on the riverside. All in all, a good look inside what life looked like in Korea many hundreds of years ago.


(You have to stand. They’re too close to the ground.)


(Traditional see-saws.)


(What they prepared for Queen Elizabeth when she visited Hahoe.)

The next day, I went to visit the a Confucian temple called “Dosan Seowon” which was started by the guy on the 1000 Won note. His nickname was “Toegye”. I read that he was a scholar and good guy who fought against corruption back in the day. The academy itself was very quiet and empty save for the occasional visitor. Every writing was in Chinese.


(Dosan Seowon compound.)


(Government exams were given here.)

One of my favorite foods in Andong was another specialty; salted mackerel. There are several restaurants selling it (fish + rice + banchan) so I had it for two dinners. Another day, I also had some good noodles at a noodle shop. It’s called “kal guk su”. There were no pictures to point out nor did I know what they sold or the prices but luckily, one of the servers said “kal guk su” and I immediately recognized the name from my L.A. days and I gave the affirmative.


(Salted mackerel.)


(Kal guk su.)

Off to Busan next.