Feb 12

Siem Reap/Angkor Wat

I’m lounging in a hammock while drinking a fruit smoothie in the front courtyard of the dad-worthy hotel I checked into when I hear a familiar deep voice say “Thank you” on the other side of the tall shrubbery. DAAAADDDDYYYYY!!!! Within minutes it feels as though we haven’t been apart.

Over a bbq dinner of ostrich, kangaroo, snake, crocodile, and squid Dad catches me up on his already epic adventure getting to Cambodia. You’ll have to ask him for the details, but suffice it to say that a drunkard, unabashedly corrupt customs officers, and 2 Spanish police officers were involved. We end up having drinks with those same police officers later in the night, a lovely couple named Natalia and Ignacki who become our travel buddies for the next few days. After deciding to call it a night I run into my friends from Phnom Penh, (Jess, Kirsten, and Matt) and can’t resist a reunion/farewell night out with them.

We take it easy the next day, and thank god, because from that day forward the word ‘rest’ is removed from our vocabulary.

At 5 am the following morning we meet Vothi, our tuk-tuk driver, outside of our hotel and pick up Nathalia and Ignacki at theirs. It’s pitch black and chilly. We pass plenty of other chariots and bikes as we drive down the silent, dark roads with trees towering on either side. It’s a pilgrimage to Cambodian Mecca, sunrise at Angkor Wat.

We take a seat next to the reflecting pool, coffee and croissant in hand, still not able to discern any shapes of the temple. The air vibrates with anticipation. Thousands of amatuer and professional photographers wait with cameras poised and ready. A pair of angry ducks approaches the guy next to me and loudly, arbitrarily, attacks him. He survives. Later I see the rascals strutting around the grounds together like they own the place, I love those ducks!

The sun rises behind a thick cover of clouds. A bit disappointing, but nothing can diminish the stunning effect of Angkor Wat.

Once inside my camera promptly dies (old battery). I suppress my rage. This is no time to be upset! Once again I’m forced to be in the moment more fully and I decide to appreciate it.

The intricate carvings, the different shades of gray, black, green and pink stone that are the result of misinformed cleaning attempts, the nooks and crannies, the sprawl of it all, the grandeur, the tangible feeling of history … we get stuck in a time warp and end up spending 7 hours at this one temple. When we find Vothi outside he admits that he thought we had abandoned him.

Angkor Wat is the name of the most acclaimed temple in the area, but the name is commonly used to speak about the entire archaeological park which is comprised of many, many temples and stretches over 400 sq. kilometers. You could spend a week exploring and not see it all. Our next stops were Bayon, a temple covered in massive stone faces, and Ta Prohm (famous for it’s appearance in the film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider), a jungly labyrinth where monstrous tree roots strangle the crumbling structure as if they were taking revenge for man’s attempt to tame nature. Busloads of Asian tourists wearing matching hats help us put humans back in the lead though. At night we bid farewell to Nathalia and Ignacki over beers in a cobblestone alley.

Up before sunrise once again, we head to Kompong Phluk, a floating village. On the way there we ask Vothi to bring us to any breakfast place he likes and he doesn’t disappoint. The 3 of us eat together for the first time and he begins to open up, telling us about his past and his family. From that moment forward he is an integral part of our time in Siem Reap, providing much deeper insight into our surroundings.

The road to Kompong Phluk is bright red-orange and covers most roadside greenery in its dust. The combination of that hue with the neon green fields of rice paddies and the light blue sky create a palette that I’ll always associate with this place.  The rural village scenes we see on the way there are captivating, but the floating village itself is surreal. Since it’s still so early we’re the only tourists around, so we get a private boat tour of the commune. Huts on stilts tower over both sides of the river. Everybody in sight is working with their hands - building boats, fixing boats, fishing, cooking, washing. The whole place is so lively, it’s difficult to take it all in. We pass by floating cages of pigs and lone children navigating their own canoes.

We transfer from the motorboat into a small canoe and are taken into a flooded forest that’s the epitome of mystical. It’s dim and serene in these woods; we tightly maneuver between the knobby, twisted trunks of so many thin trees. Monkeys are huddled in the branches and vines lurking beneath the murky surface threaten to throw us to the crocodiles.

Armed with my new camera battery we return to Angkor Wat at sunset for a proper photo shoot. It’s surprisingly empty and we take full advantage. I fall more in love with this place in the twilight.

On our final day in Siem Reap we manage to fit 2 more temples in. Bantay Srei is a tiny but gorgeous rose colored masterpiece.

Preah Kahn’s my favorite. Similar to Ta Prohm, this one’s wild and free, but a bit more preserved. Also, since it lacks the cachet of the Tomb Raider site, it’s free of crowds!

Vothi drops us off at the airport and we’re off to Koh Tao (an island in the Gulf of Thailand) to get SCUBA certified and go diving! 

Feb 10

Sihanoukville & Koh Rong, Cambodia

Alone once again I sat on the bus waiting for it to depart. I watched out the window as 3 travelers loaded their luggage onto the bus, had it taken off, disappeared, reappeared, and finally boarded. One of those travelers, Andy, took the empty seat next to me, and by the time we unboarded in Sihanoukville it was decided that I would look for a room with him and his friends Chris and Katie.

Chinese New Year celebrations were underway, so most places we inquired at were full. Eventually we found a decent hotel just a short walk from the town center. On our way out after checking in we passed a crowd of Cambodian men gathered in the hotel’s driveway. They hollered loudly and gestured for us to join them, holding up cans of beer and cucumbers as bait. From the looks of it they had been there for a while and weren’t going anywhere fast, so we decided to continue on our quest for lunch and come back later.

Beers in hand to replenish the supply, we returned a couple of hours later and were immediately welcomed into the fold. We sat quietly, mostly listening and smiling since the language barrier was large. Andy mentioned that this is how cavemen probably communicated, lots of signs and sound effects. It wasn’t awkward though, it was clear that we were all enjoying each other. At regular intervals they pulled up their shirts up to reveal their beer-filled bellies. Music blared from the stereo and I was excited to realize that they were playing Korean Pop. Some guys left and returned with platters of unrecognizable meat. I was handed a piece that looked like a rippled black mushroom. YUM YUM EAT ‘EM UP!

I ended up in a conversation with a guy who spoke English pretty well. He complained about the heat and his tan (a side effect of his job in construction), and boasted about his girlfriend’s white complexion. Where were the women? Children ran around the outskirts of our circle, jumping on tables and climbing on scaffolding, but there were no other women in sight.

Night fell and an impromptu driveway dance party started up. Momentum built towards the club and we ended up jumping on motorbikes in groups of 3 to get there. Definitely the best way to travel. Before entering I scarfed a bowl of noodle soup street side that forced out sweat and tears but thankfully no blood.

The club was crowded and crazy and full of Cambodians. We got a table on the upper deck but it wasn’t long before we ended up on the dance floor.  I faded around midnight and fell asleep happy.

Two days later the 4 of us decided to venture out to Koh Rong, an island off the coast. A stroke of luck landed us 2 beautiful beach side bungalows, and within hours we were walking along a rickety wooden dock and stepping on to white sand so fine that it squeaked when you walked. There was a sign that said “We Have the Boat For Rent” and upon glancing around we were inclined to believe that there was actually only one boat. Chickens, children, and water buffalo strolled the sand path. We soon learned that only a couple hundred people live on the island, and everyone we met on the boat was unintentionally re-met at the local bar later that night. People jump roped over fire, we played cards and beer pong; Andy broke out his ukelele for a brief but beloved Beatles singalong.

We hiked to an even quieter part of the island in the morning and all agreed we had found paradise. I would have stayed there for weeks, but my dad was due to arrive in Siem Reap the following evening. Over and out!

Cambodian kids watch Chris build a sandcastle.

Feb 01

Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh was emotionally exhausting. We visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (aka the Torture Prison) and the Killing Fields. Both of these places showcase the unspeakably evil massacre of 3 million Cambodians by its own government, the Khmer Rouge, between 1975 and 1979.

While the Torture Prison was difficult, the Killing Fields hit me harder. An audio guide is included with the ticket; everyone wandered around silently with the same pained looks on their faces. There were deep compressions in the ground everywhere I looked - former mass graves. Anyone could have easily tripped and fallen into one. I noticed a few teeth on the dirt path and started to tear up. I won’t go into the gorier details.

The contrast between what happened there and the serenity of the place was off putting. Butterflies hovered around patches of wildflowers, birds were chirping, and a light breeze ruffled the leaves of the many massive trees. There was even some background music from a nearby Chinese New Year’s celebration penetrating the air of solemnity. I sat on a bench near a fence for a while where some children were playing nearby. I’m not sure what happened, but one started wailing and I couldn’t help but think that it was a more appropriate soundtrack.

I’ve been to tragic sites before that left me feeling oddly numb and wondering if I might lack the emotional capacity to feel bad enough. This visit quelled those suspicions. During our tuk-tuk ride back the city Matt and I tried to discuss what we had seen but found that words didn’t suffice; we were both in shock. I watched the people passing by outside and realized how few elderly people I’ve seen here. Any Cambodian over 33 lived through this.

There’s no easy way to transition from the Cambodian Genocide back to the more lighthearted joys of traveling, but I had a great time in Phnom Penh. Some scenes from the city:

After a couple of days I decided to head South to Sihanoukville (a beachtown) on my own, I needed a vacation from my vacation. Thumbs way up, stories/photos will follow.

In other news, my dad met me in Siem Reap on Friday!! We’ve been waking up at 5 am every day to pack as much of Angkor Wat and Cambodia in as possible. The fact that I’m actually enjoying being up before dawn says it all. Took 2 flights today and arrived in Southern Thailand. We’ll settle on the island of Koh Tao tomorrow where we’ll learn to scuba dive. Stay tuned.

Jan 29

The 34 Hour Bus Ride to Phnom Penh

The 34 hour bus ride from Vang Vieng to Phnom Penh deserves some description, although now it feels like it happened months ago. The first 7 hour leg from Vang Vieng to Laos’ capital, Vientiane, was cake. The next 12 hours were spent horizontally on a double decker bus full of beds. I was blessed to receive a tiny Korean woman as my partner on a smaller than twin mattress. I lay facing the window, a huge sheet of glass, and at times it seemed as if there was nothing keeping me from rolling out of the bed and into the night. We bounced along the unpaved road and right before I fell asleep I saw a large bright orange fire raging in a distant field.

I woke up while the sun was rising and soon after we arrived at the bus station in Pakse. From there most people continued on to a place called the 4000 islands, in Laos. Just 2 hours left for them, another 14 for me, Kirsten, Jess, (2 Canadian girls) and Matt (a Brit). We missed the connecting bus to the border due to a middle of the night breakdown that we were all unaware had happened. By the time our van arrived we had already agreed to stick together in Phnom Penh. We sped down the road honking furiously at the herds of cows who lackadaisically entered our path but were delayed once again when backpacks started to fly off of the roof and tumble down into the roadside brush. We pulled over and split up for search and rescue then finally made it to the border. After going through Laos emmigration we were pointed towards the Cambodian immigration huts, a 5 minute walk away. Another forest fire was blazing just across the path from us, not 20 feet away, and had started to creep its way up a telephone pole, but no one seemed to care or even notice. I turned to my new friends and anxiously suggested we start moving, the afternoon sun plus the flame was too hot to handle. Finally on board the bus that would drop us in Phnom Penh I grabbed the only available seat next to the opposite of a tiny Korean woman. It was hot, it was sweaty, my personal space was more than violated, but at least I wasn’t part of the unlucky standing group for the next 9 hours. WE GOT THERE.

Backpacks on, Kirsten, Jess, Matt, and I jumped in a tuk-tuk and proceeded to face rejection after rejection at all of Phnom Penh’s reputable guesthouses. The place we ended up at didn’t have a sign outside or toilet paper inside; no one spoke or understood English. It did have cockroaches, drunk girls in clear plastic heels, and condom wrappers in the hallway. I can hear your sounds of fright and disgust mom …  and mom’s friends, but we didn’t know about the latter two amenities until the morning! Anyway, it was a difficult decision, but we moved hotels in the morning. It’s all a part of the adventure, right?!

Jan 22

Mostly Luang Prabang with a dash of Vang Vieng, now I’m in Cambodia

Every morning at 6 am local people line the streets to offer donations of food to the parade of saffron robed monks. Sarah (a new friend from Australia) and I rose at dawn along with plenty of other tourists to witness the ceremony known as morning alms. The long line of monks had just begun to approach when 2 Laos women took us by the hand and led us to the roadside bamboo mats where they were kneeling. They handed us trays of crackers and pots of rice and frantically motioned for us to stuff food into the monks’ baskets. The line was passing by so fast and the monks aren’t allowed to break stride; it seemed natural that the women needed our help. There wasn’t much time to think, but the sense that this was a special moment surrounded us.

The monks had passed, the food was gone, and the women were counting up the empty trays. “Nine” one said, a look of concern on her face. “Oh, did we use too much food?” I asked, in the rush of things I thought I might have given out over-sized portions. “Nine trays each. Ninety thousand kip each.” They were holding out their hands now. Deflation. We settled on half of that amount, roughly 10$. On our way to morning riverside yoga we digested the event. “What a scam! I can’t believe they didn’t tell us it would cost money first!” “We’re so nieve!” “We’re such easy targets!” “Well, it was still a great experience, let’s just forget about the money part which wasn’t so expensive anyway.” “Yeah, it was worth it, better spent there than on beer.”

It’s true, but I still had a bitter taste in my mouth. I would have been happy to donate if she had asked rather than demanded. This situation helps to explain why so many travelers strive to get off of the beaten path away from other tourists, to see the “authentic” and “real” part of the country. In places where there are heaps of wealthy tourists (and the locals have less than the visitors) it can feel as though people are constantly trying to take advantage of you.

On the other hand, before Luang Prabang became a tourist destination the locals probably enjoyed their morning alms ceremony in a more sincere and spiritual manner. By attending and photographing such an event I’m helping to corrupt it, so maybe I deserve such treatment. Back to the first hand though, tourism greatly helps their economy, and I’m trying to learn about and appreciate their culture. If conducting myself with care and consideration should I still feel guilty? Also, I’ve already had plenty of lovely, organic experiences with locals that didn’t involve money. Focus on the good.

That being said, ways to describe Luang Prabang:
enchanting, magical, chimerical, bewitching, mystical, romantic, a dream, one of the best places in the world, I love it, oh my god, let’s move here.

Night Market

As I was wandering around one day I stumbled into the courtyard of a monastery. A gold temple to my left, trees and a garden surrounding the other sides, an orange cat to match the monks’ robes who were sweeping the ground and creating a rustling rhythm. My heart started to pound really fast and I received a rush to the head. I was planted there in the middle of the scene, taking it all in, overwhelmed by it all. Attempting to walk away I finally came to understand the term “staggering beauty”.

The view from Phu-Si temple. One day I went to get a 5$ manicure. I was the only customer and ended up sitting with a group of Laos women watching English dramas dubbed in Thai while one cleaned my nails with lemons and painted them bright pink (the only color they had). I asked them, “What should I do in Luang Prabang?” and they kept repeating “Phu-Si, Phu-si!” only it sounded like something else and I was laughing hysterically.

On our way to the waterfall

Sarah and I swimming. Where can I find Ursula? I’ll trade my feet for fins!

Sunset on the tuk-tuk ride home

Another perk of Southeast Asia, puppies and kittens and all other types of baby animals abound! I just left Vang Vieng, a town that 7 hours of winding, narrow mountainous roads brought me to. That place was bizarre, what would be just a typical sleepy Laos town has been transformed into party central for travelers. Every day people flock to the river to lazily tube down it, beer in hand, or just drink all day at one of the many riverside bars. Dramatic cliff faces surround, making it an exceptionally gorgeous place to lose track of time. There are rope swings and water slides. Every bar employs a few fisherman who stand outside throwing their lines to tubers, hoping to reel them in and get them to buy buckets of vodka/red bull/soda concoctions. People dance around covered in neon paint. Once the sun sets people head back into town where the laughtrack from Friends echoes through the streets. Almost every bar on the strip plays reruns of that sitcom, a few opt for Family Guy, “special” menus are available. It was definitely fun, I even ran into a friend from South Korea and got to celebrate his birthday with him! Two days was more than enough though, so on Thursday I began a 34 hour bus journey that dropped me in Phnom Penh, Cambodia late Friday night. That was a doozy.

Cambodia is intense and exciting, stories to follow soon.

Today’s the first day of the Lunar New Year, Happy Year of the Dragon!

Jan 13

Thoughts from the Slow Boat to Luang Prabang

Just finished a 3 day journey from Thailand to Laos. I spent 2 days on a slow boat floating down the Mekong River. The days were filled with reading, getting to know other travelers, and appreciating the scenery. Supremely relaxing.

An excerpt from my journal, day 2 on the boat:

Gliding down the Mekong, mist shrouded mountains tower on all sides.

The same scenes are repeated on the riverbanks, in the foothills, hour after hour.

Children roll down sandy dunes, tackle and chase each other up and down the crags of rock that hug the water. Men build fires and fish.

Bamboo huts are huddled together between palm and banana trees.

It’s as if a reel from the real life Jungle Book is being fed through the slot of open window in front of me as I sit in an old displaced car seat. My experiences are so often filtered through a media flooded mind.

Buffaloes graze and laze.

What’s happening in all that green? So calm as the eye can see on the surface, like the river, but within?

Yesterday was sunny, we were rowdy. Clouds bring calm.

SO yeah, floating down the Mekong was super awesome, and I met lots of cool people to hang out with in Laos! That’s where I am now, in Luang Prabang to be exact. It’s a really cute city that was colonized by the French at some point and you can really tell. Plenty of quaint cafés and wine bars all around, and beautiful architecture. Its speckled with its own Indochine flair though - lots of temples, street markets, tuks-tuks, plus waterfalls, palm trees, and the river. Life moves reaaaaaalllllyyy slow here, so if you’re prone to cranky moods when hungry you should probably head to a restaurant and order food at least an hour before you expect to eat it. I love it here!

Also, before I left on my journey to Laos I did a 2 day jungle trek in Northern Thailand. I rode an elephant bareback, or rather bareneck. My legs still hurt from gripping on for dear life! And don’t worry, this place treats its elephants well. Only 2 days of work a week, then 5 days off to graze and wander the jungle as it pleases. (How do I get that job?) I bought bananas to give them and before I knew it I had trunks coming at me from all directions. Scavengers! The picture above is of an elephant reaching for my bananas.

Such tiny hairs all over its giant head!

Next we hiked through the jungle for a few hours. Here’s me and my friend Janneke on a water break:

We arrived at the top of the mountain just as the sun was setting. It would have been a gorgeous photo but my camera died. Oh well, the best moments usually happen when you’re not worrying about documenting them.

We camped in a bamboo hut at the top of a mountain, in a village where a hill tribe lives. There were children, puppies, pigs, and chickens with chickadees in tow running all over the place. We ate dinner by candlelight, played a French version of the game Mafia, then went to sleep underneath mosquito netting. I woke up in the middle of the night and stood outside on a deck overlooking the blanket of fog that covered the mountains. Only their peaks poked through. The full moon shone like a spotlight, I’ve never seen it so bright! A rooster began crowing beneath my head way too early. But literally, it was under the hut, right below me. Can we have chicken soup for breakfast?

Another day of hiking led us to a waterfall where I met a girl who also taught in South Korea. We discovered that we have a mutual friend. I sat alone in front of the waterfall, on the closest rock I could find, and let the mist spray my face.

A bit more hiking and then white water rafting. Our guide was like a drill sergeant, shouting “Forward!” “Backward!” “to the right!” and “GET DOWN!” as we bounced over rocks.

Back at the hostel I met a girl from Long Island who’s teaching English in China this year. We got dinner and wandered around Chiang Mai some more.

The next morning I left for Laos. A temple we stopped at on our way to catch the slow boat had a really bizarre mural inside that included paintings of Kung-Fu Panda, Batman, and Freddy Kreuger:

Jan 08

Bangkok - - - > Chiang Mai : : : THAILAND

Everyone I met on Khaosan Road told me that they hate Khaosan Road. It’s overflowing with street vendors, bars, massage parlors, fake ID shops, and tourists. It’s tacky, dirty, and abrasive, but everyone seems to end up there at some point. There are tons of cheap hostels. This is where I began my Southeast Asian adventure.

It was 1 am and I stepped out of the magenta cab that I took from the airport and onto Khaosan Road, confident I would find a decent hostel quickly. After being turned down at 4 different places I approached a small guesthouse in a dark side alley. The man at the front desk had a badly scabbed and bandaged face; he greeted me with indifference. He showed me to my single room and I was happy to have some privacy in which to adjust to my new situation, especially considering the state of most people I was surrounded by in the street. I fell asleep quickly to the sound of pounding house music and carousal only to be awoken a couple of hours later by a loud voice outside of my room. Someone, I assume an older Thai man, was groaning and yelling and clanking things in the bathroom. It wasn’t your typical drunken racket, it was despondent and disturbing. His rant went on for what felt like hours and was repeated in the morning. I was scared to go to the bathroom. As I lay there alone in the darkness listening to him I couldn’t help but think “Can I do this? Am I going to survive this trip alone, or will I be eaten by a zombie on the first night?”

I survived, found a better place to stay ASAP, and the next two days in Bangkok were spent wandering around aimlessly.

On Thursday night I caught a bus heading North, and after 12 hours I got off in Chiang Mai. This time I had done some research and written down the name of a hostel with good online reviews. I showed the address to my cab driver and ended up in a garden at dawn, waiting for my room to be cleaned. An hour went by, and just as the receptionist was breaking the bad news to me (she had made a mistake, the place was full) a young couple strolled up. The guy had a reservation but the girl didn’t, so we joined forces and set off to find a place together. Janneke is from Holland and met Steven (California) on the train up from Bangkok. The three of us have spent the past few days together.

Chiang Mai is lovely and serene, a welcome contrast from my first stop. Glittering temples are scattered across every block, trees and parks are plentiful. Although it’s the second largest city in Thailand its population is only 200,000 (Bangkok’s is 12,000,000).

The greater part of yesterday was spent exploring by bike, stopping in at different temples along the way. We found a small park and basked in the late afternoon sun. Janneke and I got massages and then we all continued on to an enormous night market where we also caught a Muay Thai boxing match.

Today was lazy, we wandered around some more and then laid in the hammocks behind our hostel (J and I moved in to the originally intended place this morning) listening to music, reading, and writing. The days are punctuated by fresh fruit smoothies and curry. Tonight the staff, their friends, and other travelers sat around a campfire sketching each other, chatting, and drinking. I met too many interesting people to write about.

Tomorrow I’ll head into the jungle for a 2 day trek. I return to this same hostel on Monday night before departing for Laos on Tuesday. Feeling free and fortunate and grateful. Life is excellent.

Jan 04

Toto, We’re Not in Korea Anymore

Christmas, my last week of work, New Years, a slew of events and goodbyes in between. My school told me that I had to move out of my apartment on Monday, January 2nd since I was due to leave on the 3rd, so naturally I left everything until that day. At 11 am that Monday I got a knock on my door. I opened it and a short older Korean man was standing there. “You leaving? 12?”  I nodded, “Yes, 12 midnight.” “Midnight?” “Yes, tonight.” “OK!” and he left.

I leisurely strolled to the post office to get packing materials. I returned, turned on some music, pondered going to get some coffee before starting to pack up in earnest. My phone rang and it was Melissa, my former co-worker who runs the desk at school.

“Chel? What are you doing?” “I’m starting to pack.” “Starting? You have to be out of there by noon!” “Noon? A man just came by and said midnight was ok!” “He told you it was ok but then he called me freaking out! The new tenant has hired movers and they’re ready to start bringing their stuff in!” OY. “Well, uh … can they wait a couple of hours? No? Ok, I’ll clear off all of the surfaces so we can take the furniture out …is this going to be ok? I’m sorry! I’ll hurry, I’ll hurry, BYE!”

I had no sooner started to shove all of my belongings into boxes when another knock resounded through my apartment. This time when I opened my door there was a Korean family standing there with a few guys whom I took to be the movers. When they looked past me and into the apartment many many words started to fly out of multiple mouths and I was thankful not to understand Korean for the first time this year. They stormed the place and began taping up boxes that couldn’t close and carrying everything away. It was stressful, but moving out has never been so efficient!

The difficult part came when I had to carry every poorly packed thing, little by little, to my friend Edwin’s apartment. Edwin (the teacher who replaced Brandon a couple of months back) was at work until 5 pm, along with almost every other person I knew in the area.

At one point I hailed a cab, tried to explain that I needed to load up his car, take it 3 blocks, then return and load it up again. I waved twenty bucks, pointed at my boxes, used my finely tuned charades skills, but it was no use. Oh well, that was the best workout I’ve had in longer than I’m willing to admit.  After 4 runs that took 30 minutes each my fairy godfather came to the rescue. Hyojin pulled up in his car and within 10 minutes flat we had everything moved from point A to point B. Ta-Da! Friends and cars are good things to have sometimes, especially friends with cars.

Scenes from 2 farewell parties:

CI Academy co-workers at my apartment:

Hyojin hosts a dinner at his new bar, Mul Dwinda:

Also, I was going to make a list of all of the things I’ll miss about Korea, but it really boils down to this, in no particular order:

1.     People

2.     Food/Drink

I’m in the sky, somewhere between Korea and Thailand. (Well, I was when I wrote all of this, now I’m at a hostel in Bangkok.) The reality of my departure has just started to sink in now that I’ve physically left. I wish I could summarize my thoughts/feelings regarding my last month in Korea, but there’s too much to say and I’m not ready to reflect yet. Everything needs to settle, percolate. I don’t think much of that will happen until after these next 2 months of traveling, but that’s (more than) alright! Keep it coming! Happy and healthy 2012 to one and all. Ok, I’m in Thailand, time to go seize the mangos!


Dec 21

Just in case you’ve been living under a rock, Kim Jong-il (North Korea’s infamous dictator) was pronounced dead on Monday (ironically enough it was the same day as South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s 70th birthday!). His 28 year old son, Kim Jong-un, is now in charge of the “communist” country. That same afternoon I asked my students in South Korea what they had heard and how they felt about the news. Watch the above video to hear what they had to say.

Dec 12
If it gets any bigger it just might explode! I love this kid.

If it gets any bigger it just might explode! I love this kid.

Dec 07

Monk’s Meat

It’s really strange to wake up before dawn when you’re used to falling asleep after it breaks.

SBS (Seoul Broadcasting System) contacted Hyojin a few weeks ago asking if they could film a documentary about our makgeolli adventures. He gave them the green light (of course!), so we met up with the camera crew and a group of other people at the RDA (Rural Development Administration) where we took a quick tour before hitting the road. 

I won’t bore you, my family and friends, with the details of Saturday. Suffice it to say that we visited 2 makgeolli breweries and a winery/ brandy distillery.

Photos of the three owners:

Mid-interview. See the kitty? OOOOH boy was he YEOWlin’!

The ever-elusive Korean stars were out when we arrived at the small temple where Hae Sook (the soon-to-be chef of Hyojin’s new bar) lives with 2 monks. I had been there in the spring with Beryl, and Hae Sook’s food was and remains the best Korean food I’ve ever had. We were hungry, and a new Korean friend was complaining about how there’d be no meat, this being a temple and all. She was wrong though, soon after we gathered around an open fire great big slabs of bloody meat were slapped down on a piece of slate. Everyone squealed with delight and Haena turned to me and made sure I was aware that this was a special event, “most Koreans have never had meat at a temple!” We were outside of the temple in the cold; loopholes are loopholes.

At this point I was more than ready for bed, but no. It was time for something else that doesn’t usually happen at temples, it was time to drink, and I had to prove myself. We sat down for a tea ceremony that was followed by a makgeolli ceremony that was followed by a cup of tea then more makgeolli, tea, makgeolli, tea, makgeolli and so on and so on and so on for hours.

The monk explained that this is the temple style of drinking called “cha go cha go”. “Cha” is Korean for tea, and “Gocha” is a word used in the temples for alcohol. Apparently it’s part of Korean temple tradition for monks to drink in moderation, that it’s actually considered healthy, and alternating with tea prevents hangovers.

At one point Hae Sook held up a bowl, explaining how it symbolized a breast and how you never lose the desire to suckle from your mother’s nipple she then filled it with makgeolli. At another point a bottle of purple champagne makgeolli was popped and sprayed all over everyone. We ate candied anchovies and deep-fried chili peppers. Finally it was time for sleep and I’ve gotta tell ya, sleeping straight on a heated floor is splendid.  

After a 9 am feast the camera crew suggested that they film a segment of Hae Sook teaching me some recipes. We made kimchi, pumpkin pancakes, persimmon salad, and fried acorn jelly, seaweed, chiles, and potatoes. I got a glimpse into the life of Anthony Bourdain as I cooked alongside her, listening to Haena’s translations of what Hae Sook had to say about her food and giving the camera feedback of my own.

While recounting the experience to a friend I fully realized how much I admire Hae Sook. She ‘s a warm ball of positive energy who never sits still. She spends her days cooking meal after glorious meal, each of the 3 served on Sunday consisted of over 10 dishes and it didn’t seem like an unusual effort. In between meals she’s busy gathering fresh herbs and vegetables from around the temple grounds. We couldn’t communicate directly, but I felt her strength. She’s a badass. It was easy to see that everyone around regarded her with the utmost respect, but that they loved her too.  She seemed genuinely happy with her life, laughing and hugging freely. It was an absolute inspiration just to be around her.

Can this count as a fashionably late Thanksgiving post? So much food, so much thanks.

Nov 25

What Is The Worst Injury You've Experienced? & What Three Things Would You Save From Your Burning House?

  • Hyo Seung: Once I slipped and fell while running to the TV because I was late to see my show.
  • Lee: I went skiing, and the next day I was sore.
  • Chris: I broke my finger playing basketball.
  • Harry: I poked myself in the eye with a straw.
  • Euh Bin: I walked into a streetlamp by accident.
  • Next Question . . .
  • Kyu Jin: Family Photos, Letters, Cellphone
  • Dave: Money, Clothes, Food
  • Pot: Pencil, Ruler, Pencil Case
  • Min: Wallet, Mother's Wallet, Sister's Wallet
  • Questions posed to my 16-year-old students.

Nov 15

The Bathhouse, Some Breweries, and The Owner

We stood at land’s edge in the pitch blackness of pre-dawn. In the city of Haenam in Jeolla-do province, we were at the southernmost tip of mainland Korea. Another weekend, another series of makgeolli brewery tours mixed with adventure. With an appointment to go to in just 3 hours, we were unsure of what our next move should be, but we were sure of our exhaustion. A brief rest at the jimjibang (public bathhouse) seemed logical. These establishments are quite common around Korea, and aside from offering multiple hot tubs, saunas, and other spa services, they usually have large sleeping rooms where you can rent a mat and pillow for around $5.

We entered the grungy, run-down bathhouse at around 6:30 am. In my mind’s eye everything there has a beige tint to it. The man at the front counter was a grouch and spoke in harsh tones as we gave him our money.

I entered the women’s section and found my locker. I changed into the uniform that reminded me of high school gym class and began to look around for a place to curl up. All I could find was a small, dark room with hard floors and no sleeping mats. Everyone around me was over 75 years old, hunched over, and naked. Two old women came over to me and began stroking my arms. They seemed sweet, but they still freaked me out.

I went back to the front counter to attempt to mime out a request for a sleeping mat. The man yelled at me as he pointed upstairs, so up I went. People were sprawled out across exercise machines and snores were coming from all directions. I opened the nearest door, found an unoccupied mat, and decided to give sleep my best shot. At one point I woke up to find a man passed out, spread eagle, right behind me. We all groggily piled back into the car 2 hours later, and Brandon regaled us with stories from the men’s section. These included a man shaving his entire face- like, nose and forehead and everything; someone simultaneously gargling with a full pressure shower head and screaming; and, err, dyed hair down-there. Yeah, the roots were showing.

The twilight-zone theme song faded into the background as we set out to visit two small makgeolli breweries. They were both run by adorable older couples who have been in the business for decades. I loved seeing how these couples had melded their business and personal lives– their houses and breweries were one in the same.

We spent more time at the second one, Sanni makgeolli, and witnessed how they lovingly produced and consumed their product whist tending to household chores, gardening, cooking, and relaxing. Their faces were worn and kind, and the manner in which they hosted us spoke volumes about their laid-back attitude. Plates of fresh fruit and vegetables were set out in the sunlight on overturned plastic tubs. Mismatched ceramic glasses were filled and refilled with freshly made makgeolli that had a hint of Juicy Fruit gum in the aftertaste. As we were departing, the husband admitted to drinking 3 bottles a day. The wife, 3 cups. If those habits yield these results, sign me up!

An hour later we arrived at a large industrial hongju brewery. Hongju is 40% alcohol, and its taste and red color have led me to dub it “the devil’s drink”. 

Brief and Relevant Anecdote: During my first month of being here I was invited to a neighbor’s birthday party. Wanting to bring something for the birthday girl, I ventured out to a grocery store and perused the alcohol section. My eyes landed a vibrant, ruby red bottle and in my ignorance I thought ‘perfect!’ When I arrived at the gathering and presented my friend with the gift, she was appreciative. After it had been poured and swallowed, she was not. She actually GAVE IT BACK! The bottle is still in my cupboard, and considering my recent-post-grad-poor-English-teacher standards, that’s saying something. It wasn’t until I arrived at this brewery that I made the connection.

This place stood in direct contrast to our morning’s visits, and so did the owner. He was pot-bellied, solemn, and intimidating.

In an extremely generous gesture he took us out for a 5-course seafood meal that seemed like it was never going to end. Note Brandon’s expression as he realizes that even more food is arriving at the table.

When it finally finished I thanked him for the meal, and he looked me up and down before turning his back to me. (apparently I forgot to use the ever important suffix “-yo” that one adds when speaking to elders) It was to our great surprise that when it came time to leave, The Owner jumped in the car with us, heading north. We got stuck in 3 hours of traffic. South Korea’s the size of Indiana but has 46 million people, 2 lane highways, and a prosperous automobile industry. Don’t drive, especially on the weekends. Just don’t.

We were excited to arrive in Jeonju, where we had planned to stay Saturday night. It was crowded due to a food festival that was going on there that weekend, so we made due with rooms at a love motel called “Motel Rich”. These places are usually reserved for sneaky spouses and young couples, but their price makes them a pretty good option for budget travelers.

Hyojin had told us the tales of Jeonju’s famed “Makgeolli Alley”, a street full of cozy  and crowded makgeolli bars where every consecutive kettle you order brings a whole new and improved slew of side dishes with it. We pulled up to the energetic street where there were lines snaking out the doors of many establishments, but The Owner was not pleased. Apparently this spot wasn’t classy enough for him. Pulling the Confucian “I am the oldest man here and therefore you will all obey” card, he made all 9 of us pile into taxis in search of a better restaurant. We ended up having an awkward and quiet dinner of bland boiled beef soup at a run-of-the-mill place while this guy talked Hyojin’s ear off about the ways in which Hyojin could help him promote his hongju business.

It was to all of our disappointment when Hyojin transparently announced that he had to turn in early due to the long drive back tomorrow afternoon. He took one for the team though, since The Owner followed suit, and the rest of us were afforded a jolly night out in makgeolli alley.

The next day we walked around the folksy town where the food festival was taking place. We hung out at a house that was selling ceramics and watched as a team of dancers practiced their routines in the backyard.

Read her t-shirt: “Black Sunday: It could be tomorrow”

It was really upsetting to watch how The Owner treated Haena, (Hyojin’s assistant and one of our best friends). He was generally condescending towards her the whole weekend, and during lunch he demanded that she switch seats from our table to his. She was noticeably pissed, but cultural norms dictated that she submit. The situation gave me a bigger glimpse into the chauvinistic reality that Korean culture can be for some women, but it also made me appreciate how awesome Hyojin and other men who I work with are for not playing into those ingrained social norms.

However, when I really think about the patriarchal social system, I have to admit that things aren’t all that different in America. It’s definitely not as extreme as in Korea, but I think the main difference is that it’s just not out in the open. Haena explicitly knew and explained why she had to respect him, but I’d bet that if the same situation arose in our own country we might act in a similar manner. I’ve been in plenty of situations at home where an older male was disparaging and rude, and I accepted the behavior to be polite. Of course this has happened with women too, especially in the workplace. The fact is, there are self-important assholes everywhere, men and women, and most of them aren’t worth getting all worked up over.

The Owner finally took a bus back to wherever he needed to be, and the rest of us enjoyed each other’s company during the long drive home.

Oct 26

Every (week)day I walk this way.

Scenes from my route

from apartment —-> school.

A whole lotta cuties live on my block, awwww yeah.

Hwajeong Subway Station, so conveniently located!


Wait for it …

shit’s tight



Oh mandus (large steamed Korean dumplings), how I love you.

Oh mandu man, I love you too.

Best part of the walk, especially with a mandu in hand.

*Disclaimer: Running into Brandon while he’s waiting for the cobbler to fix his sandals is not a typical part of the route.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have now arrived at our final destination. Before you continue on with your life please take a moment to notice the caricature of my boss, Mr. Oh, drawn in a baseball uniform. Head and body are drawn to scale. Thank you and good day.