Wednesday, March 11, 2009

ain't no mountain high enough

today I took advantage of the brilliantly sunny weather and went on a solo hike up one of the many mountains that surround Seoul. the original intention was to get up early and head out to Bukhansan, one of the highest peaks and most popular hikes near Seoul, but a nasty bout of insomnia last night made me change my mind when I finally woke up at 10 am this morning after only 4.5 hours of sleep. I headed instead to Yongamsan, a much shorter hike that was closer to the city. here's one of the most fantastic things about Seoul -- their public transportation is incredible. you can literally get anywhere on their subway system and a refillable T-Money card can be used as payment for subways, taxis, buses and even at some convenience stores.

after breakfast and a cup of extra-strong coffee I made my way to the subway station near my aunt's apartment for the easy 45-minute trek to the Yongamsan stop. once I was out of the subway station I had some trouble finding the trailhead but after asking around a bit I started making my ascent up the mountain. I pretty much had the trails to myself for the majority of the way up, with the exception of two 60-something gentlemen I encountered as I was trying to figure out which of the many trails would lead to the top. when I stopped them with an "excuse me" in my best polite Korean, one of the gentlemen shouted "yes!" with such eagerness you would have thought he was waiting for me to stop them. they were heading toward the top, so I fell in lock step with them for a few minutes, satisfying their polite curiosity about where I was from (America), was I a student (no), how come I spoke such good Korean (it's just all right but thanks anyway), did I know the half-Korean football player Heinz Ward (not personally, no), etc. eventually I overtook them and they wished me a good hike and encouraged me to "sweat a lot" in my ascent to the top.

I encountered a lot more hikers at the top of the mountain, which I reached after about an hour up a pretty steep incline. the funny thing about Korean people and hiking is that, just like everything else, it's a social activity and they truly enjoy themselves, but they also take it really seriously. the top of the mountain was crowded with 40-, 50-, 60-, and 70-something Korean men and women decked out in fancy North Face trail runners, the latest in insulating and moisture-wicking clothing, expensive-looking daypacks filled with water bottles and extra layers, polar fleece jackets, visors or baseball caps to keep their skin nice and pale, lightweight gloves, collapsible walking sticks, the whole nine yards. some people even had portable transistor radios stuck in their pockets to play encouraging traditional Korean folk songs during their journey (personally I prefer the Rocky theme, but hey, to each their own). you'd think they were preparing for a trek up Mt. Everest, not a two-hour hike on a sunny day up a mountain that is a less-than-one-hour subway ride from downtown Seoul. it was freaking hilarious.

once at the top I took a much-needed rest and sat down on a smooth rock ledge with the sun on my face and a 360-degree view of Seoul and its surrounding mountains. I unpacked the sandwich my aunt had made for me that morning complete with sandwich, fruit, dessert, and hot tea in a thermos (yum), took out the book I'm currently reading and had a thoroughly enjoyable lunch by myself on the mountain peak. right below the peak I encountered one of those rock piles where people carefully make an altar by placing one stone on top of the other. I saw these all over SE Asia and someone explained that people add a stone to the altar when they want to make a wish, so I took a moment to reflect on everything I've gone through over the past nine-ish weeks, said a few thanks, and made a few wishes of my own before carefully placing my small stone on top of the hundreds of other stones gathered there.

eventually I made my way back down the mountain via a different route which was much harder partially because of the more rocky terrain (I felt like I was rock climbing in Thailand again) and also because my muscles were starting to get tired. I got a little turned around at the bottom of the mountain and had to ask a few people how to find the nearest subway station, including two ADORABLE little girls who must have been six or seven years old. both bespectacled and clutching backpacks, they gave me very detailed directions to the subway station ("it's between the bakery and the eyeglass shop, make sure you go straight, not left or right"). one of them bravely asked me where I was from and when I told her that I lived in America, she jumped up and down with excitement over meeting someone from so far away. I seriously wanted to put them in my backpack and take them home with me, but I had a train to catch, so they bowed and said good-bye to me in perfect unison and I went on my merry way, perfectly content with the way my day had unfolded.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

life in korea

for me, visiting korea is an experience that is difficult to classify. i speak the language well enough to get around and i understand the culture well enough not to make any horrible gaffes, yet i am somehow neither tourist nor local. obviously, being a korean person, i look the part, unlike most of the americans who visit korea. i know to remove my shoes when i go into a restaurant or, oddly enough, the dentist's office (don't worry, i didn't have some kind of orthodontic emergency, i was taking my little cousin to get FIVE cavities filled... girlfriend needs to chill out on the candy). i know how to ask for directions and to bow when i meet new people. i always receive and pour drinks with two hands. i try my best to use the formal kind of korean when i speak with elders and the casual kind of korean when i speak with people my age. i am completely comfortable wandering around seoul on my own using the super-easy subway system.

yet i'm still a visitor. the way i think, the way i see things, the way i relate to people -- all american. when i spend a lot of time with older, more traditional relatives, i have to shift my personality a bit to fit in. i force a smile when my grandmother worries about the fact that i'm not married, i eat rice and soup for breakfast when what i'd rather have is a coffee and a bagel, i make my body sleep on the floor with a small bean-filled pillow under my head, i don't stay out too late, i call often when i'm out on my own. it's definitely an effort and sometimes i feel like i'm playing a part... yet i don't mind because i'm visiting their home, their place and i have to respect their ways.

when you look at the history of korea, they come off like the little brother who has always been bullied by his bigger, more powerful neighbors. a long history of being invaded, pillaged, controlled, annexed and taken advantage of has created an intense nationalistic pride and a generally obsessive population and a desperate need to succeed. koreans are hard core about everything. they study hard core, they play hard core, they work hard core, nothing is subtle. you see 70-year-old grandmas decked out in hiking gear on the subway and 13 year olds studying until 2 am. to say that education is important is a ridiculous understatement as everyone, EVERYONE obsesses over whether they will be admitted into a prestigious university. the pressure is intense and it seems like they have few outlets to blow off steam.

in my continued effort to try and be a tourist in korea, next week i think i might make the trek up to the north korean border. it's a place of obvious historic significance, yet i've never been there. i'll try and blog about the experience.

Monday, February 23, 2009

a knock in the night

(alternate title: F U bangkok)

setting: khao san road, aka backpacker ghetto, bangkok, thailand. 2:50 am.

characters: me and my roommate, an australian girl i met on the ferry from phuket

and... action!

it's a typical night on thailand's famed khao san road. the thickly polluted, humid night is the perfect setting for the seedy late-night khao san scene. older white men walk arm-in-arm with one, two, sometimes three young girls/ladyboys who are getting paid to keep them company. heavily made-up girls in plastic minidresses stand in front of bars with signs that promise "strong cocktails" and the reassurance that "we do not check ID." drunken westerners of all ages flow down the street in herds, sweating through t-shirts that advertise singha beer or lao beer as they sip from thailand's ubiquitous buckets (local vodka + red bull or local whiskey + coke, packaged neatly in a plastic pail that might be more innocently used to build sand castles on a beach). silent, grim-faced thai women stand in front of piping hot woks, making plate after plate of $0.75 pad thai for the carousing crowd. cripples vie for the attention of the drunken masses, contorting themselves into painful positions on the filthy sidewalk, shaking their plastic cups in silent desperation.

in a cheap cold-shower-and-fan-only room off a dark alley on khao san road, the two main characters snooze away peacefully despite the chaos that reigns outside. they're happy to have scored a cheap-but-not-so-cheap-it-feels-sketchy room for the night and even more happy to have company for the evening, since that makes the room even more affordable. each girl is on her own twin bed, dead asleep and dreaming happy dreams.

around 2:50 am, i jolt awake to a loud rapping on the door. disoriented and confused, i wonder if i'm dreaming the sound but the knocking is persistent. "helloooo..." whines a voice outside the door. the knocks continue, loud, sharp, repetitive. my roommate wakes up too and in her sleepy state makes the instinctual move to answer the door, but i am fully awake at this point and stop her before she leaves her bed. we consult each other in low whispers and decide to remain completely silent since we have no idea what waits for us on the other side of the door and aren't particularly interested in finding out.

the knocking continues for about fifteen minutes straight, interrupted only by the occasional "helllooooo" by a voice that is neither definitely female nor definitely male. we notice that despite being on a hallway of other rooms, we are the only one receiving a 3 am wake-up call and start to silently freak the fuck out, wondering what the hell is going on and what could be waiting outside our door. we start imagining the worst -- a thief trying to trick us into opening the door so he can force his way inside and rob us (or worse) at knifepoint. a super-sketchy prostitute looking for a potential customer. the possibilities get worse and worse, and we have no phone in our room to call down to reception, no peephole to look out the door.

eventually the knocking fades and the feet shuffle away, but not after we hear a distinct sound of someone writing something on our door, which freaks us out even more. have they marked us for a later visit? are they passing on a message to an accomplice? we're both wide awake and far too scared to go back to sleep. we say over and over again how glad we are that we decided to share a room so we didn't have to deal with this alone. we start telling each other horrible stories of things that have happened to us or friends of ours in the past; in retrospect, this was probably not a good idea. my roommate remembers that she bought a ninja-style throwing star as a gift for a friend and pulls it out of her backpack, reasoning that it probably won't do anything but it makes her feel better. we program the phone number for the bangkok police into her cell phone and try, in vain, to go back to sleep, which we finally do about an hour later.

* * * *

the end of the story is ridiculously harmless in comparison to the 3 am certainty we felt that OMG WE ARE GOING TO DIE. what had happened was the brainless, idiotic, hapless, retarded, stupid, horrible night manager who checked us in and took our payment realized as she was balancing her books at 3 am that she was short 950 baht. she was convinced it was either us or another room who had neglected to pay up, so she decided to knock on our door at 3 am to resolve the issue. you know, because that's a TOTALLY LOGICAL WAY TO DEAL WITH THE PROBLEM, WTF. we realized this in the morning because the scraping sound on our door that had scared us so badly had been the night manager leaving us a note, telling us that we hadn't paid for our room yet (which was totally not true). we went to the reception desk at 9 am the next morning, tempers blazing but trying to respect the asian mentality by keeping our cool and proceeded to firmly but politely resolve the problem with the new manager on duty. i was really, really, really tempted to go uber-american on them and cuss them the fuck out but decided that wouldn't help matters at all and besides, all's well that ends well aside from the complete and utter freak-out at 3 a.m.

* * * *

just because i wasn't having enough fun already, later that day i encountered an impressively smooth-talking con artist by wat pho temple. i was having trouble finding the entrance to the temple and was sort of wandering around the block. now, i've traveled enough and am savvy enough to know that as a solo female traveler, i should really try and NOT look lost in a heavily touristed area, since this is basically a wide-open invitation for every hustler to jump on me and try to offer their expert help... so i was keeping my face neutral as my eyes scanned the street beneath my huge sunglasses and i discreetly consulted the map in my lonely planet.

but someone started talking to me. i tried to ignore him but he was persistent, first trying to direct me toward wat phra krew (temple of the emerald buddha, which i already seen) and then deciding to help me with wat pho. he asked where i was from and upon finding out that i am american, told me joyfully he was a fan of barack obama (why bring an innocent president into this scheme? i mean really, that's just bad manners). we commiserated about the heat and humidity of the day and he told me that wat pho was actually closed for the next few hours for a private ceremony and that i should come back at 4 pm when it would re-open to tourists. he borrowed my map and showed me a few other temples i should check out and advised me to find a tuk-tuk driver who would take me around for 30 baht, mind you, if he says 60 baht, make sure you bargain hard and get a price of 30 baht because some of these drivers, ha ha, they drive a tough bargain.

at this point i was hot, sweaty, exhausted, irritated and paused momentarily in our conversation to consider the idea. noting my hesitation, he promptly waved over a tuk-tuk driver and "bargained" for me. in retrospect, it was a pretty elaborate and impressive ruse. the tuk-tuk driver asked for 60 baht and my man "fought" him to get him down to 30 baht for me... how nice huh? at this point i realized what was going on and said thank you politely but firmly, took my map back and walked away in the opposite direction. he started yelling at me as i walked away but i kept walking, not looking back, eyes straight ahead and hands on my bag.

needless to say, i found the entrance to wat pho a few minutes later. it was indeed open to tourists, teeming with them, actually, and i was in a foul mood for the rest of the afternoon (it may also have had something to do with my interrupted sleep the night before).

so, then, you understand why i almost titled this post "F U bangkok." what a note to end my amazing trip on huh? i put it past me though with a scoop of ice cold berry sorbet and a few restorative conversations in an air-conditioned internet cafe and then a fantastic and cheap dinner of seafood green curry and papaya salad. i left bangkok late last night on a red-eye flight and am now coming to you live from my aunt's apartment in beijing, where the weather is a frosty 20-something degrees and i am feeling completely disoriented. the backpacker part of my journey is officially over and it is now time to hang out with the extended fam back in the motherland. i doubt i'll be blogging much from here on out (maybe i'll post a few pics), so if i don't write again soon, i'll sign off here with a thank-you for coming along with me on my travels. hope you enjoyed my stories!

Friday, February 20, 2009

winding down

in retrospect, i made a wise decision to end the backpacking portion of my travel in the thai islands. i started off the thai portion with an adventurous stop in northern thailand, where i rode elephants, went white water rafting and learned how to make pad thai, but then i ventured southward to the famed thai beaches... and now that i'm here, my brain has sort of switched into beach mode and i can't really imagine strapping on my backpack, putting on sneakers and heading off in search of adventure.

instead, my days are filled with simpler questions. am i wearing enough sunscreen? should i have a pineapple shake, or a mango shake? do i want a thai massage or a regular massage? how did i get this many mosquito bites? do i want noodles or rice? should i buy yet another $8 sundress? eh, why not? i'm still somewhat active (i've gone rock climbing, snorkeling and kayaking), but i've also gotten a heavenly beachfront massage, watched the sunset over the sea, spent an entire afternoon floating in a pool on an inflatable raft, lost in my own thoughts, ordered a pineapple daiquiri at a swim-up bar and drank bottles and bottles of cold grape gatorade from the 7-eleven.

suffice it to say that my brain is slowly winding down from the non-stop adventures of the past month. i'm trying to prepare my mind to switch gears as i look ahead to the final leg of my trip, a quick pit stop in beijing and then a few weeks in wintry korea with my relatives. the solo backpacker part of my trip is almost over, and while i'm looking forward to not having to live out of a backpack, i'm also a little sad to see the adventure come to an end. the down time here in ko phi phi has helped me start to process the many profound ways in which this trip has influenced me, humbled me, inspired me, changed me. my mind is starting to wander ahead to what lies ahead, what decisions i'll need to make, what questions i'll need to answer. i don't have many answers yet, but i'm having fun trying.

Monday, February 16, 2009

just to reassure you that i'm not dead

i'm in thailand now, sitting in an outdoor internet cafe on the southern coast. reggae music is playing in the background and the accents i'm listening to are everything but thai... french, american, aussie, english. the air is humid and thick with mosquitoes, but there's a nice breeze in the air and the sunset tonight was out of this world. tomorrow i'm going rock climbing, and the next day i'm going to take a boat to the famous place where the film "the beach" was made.

i haven't written in a while b/c i was faced with the dilemma of doing justice to my angkor wat experience. words cannot express, as they say, and in this case, a picture is not worth a thousand words. how do you explain what it's like to watch the sun rise over an ancient khmer temple while the moon is still high in the sky on the opposite end of the park? how do you capture what it's like to channel your inner indiana jones / lara croft as you climb temples all day, clambering over crumbling rocks and staring at the serene faces of buddhas? how do you explain the strange combination of exhaustion and exhiliration that comes with watching the sun set over the horizon while sitting on top of an ancient temple, cracking open an ice-cold beer after a 12-hour day of hiking and climbing with new friends? how do you describe the sensation of placing banana after banana in the trunk of an apparently ravenous cambodian elephant?

it's nearly impossible. and that's why i haven't written. because i can't capture angkor wat in words or pictures. i can't explain what it's like to play with the local cambodian kids for hours... kids who were irritating the hell out of me a few hours before as they hassled me to buy their little trinkets, but as soon as we got past that, you realize they're kids and they're happy and they just want to play. they wrote me notes, taught me khmer, asked if i had a boyfriend, put flowers in my hair, gave me free bracelets, and completely absconded with my heart.

but, i'll try. here are a few shots...

playing with elephant trunks (that sounds sort of wrong):

the cheeks!!

hungry elephant trunk:

dawn breaking:

the view when i first walked in at 6 am:

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

the real adventure begins

so you know all that stuff I said about China being totally exotic? Vietnam being an epic adventure?

forget all of it. you want to come to another world, come to Cambodia. as much as I resisted the American temptation, the phrase that kept coming to mind as I gazed out the window during my 13-hour bus ride from Saigon was "third world." because, as snobbish or pretentious as it may sound, that's what it is here. I saw minibuses crammed fulled with people -- and when I say crammed, I don't mean every seat was taken, I mean every possible free space was occupied with some human limb or another -- barreling down the dusty highway with eight or so people sitting on top of the roof. grandmothers held onto babies and children held onto the sides of the roof as the hot sun turned their brown skin even browner. I even saw several buses with motorbikes tied to the back of the roof behind all the roof-riders.

when we stopped for breaks during the ride, kids would swarm the bus, selling plastic bags of chopped pineapple or mango (served with a spiced salt that somehow intensifies the fruity taste -- I kept trying to figure out but eventually gave up and just enjoyed the flavor). women squatted behind baskets of fried spiders (big, fat, shiny black ones) or crunchy cockroaches, mindlessly tending to a half-naked toddler playing near them. there was more than one occasion on which our bus driver had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting a herd of water buffalo (I think?) that had wandered into the road, much to the dismay of the stick-wielding 11-year-old who had been charged with herding them.

here in Siem Reap, I spent the day wandering around the town, getting my bearings, buying a few small things in the market, exchanging smiles with the friendly locals, drinking 75-cent Angkor beer, tasting the local Khmer cuisine, shaking my head no to the constant calls of "hello lady! you want tuk-tuk?" and trying to avoid the pleading gaze of the many many amputees who roam the market area, begging for spare change or selling photocopied versions of Lonely Planet guidebooks. like the locals do, I shelled out a dollar and bought a traditional Khmer "krama," a small, hand-woven cotton scarf good for keeping the sun of one's neck or the dust out of one's mouth during roaming walks or rides on a moto taxi.

tomorrow I will get up before sunrise to get to Angkor Wat before dawn and watch the sunrise over an incredible horizon before spending the day roaming through temple ruins, doing my best Indiana Jones / Lara Croft impression. wish me luck!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

pics! finally!

Lest you think that my trip is one happily epic adventure after another, I was going to write an expletive-filled post last night to reflect my pissed-off mood. I was tired, I was hungry, I was sick of feeling like everyone viewed me as a walking ATM, I was mad at myself for not planning a few things better, I wanted some good old Western DAMN PRICE TAGS ON ITEMS so every single stupid transaction didn't have to involve haggling, I was filled with rage at the Hoi An post office, etc etc etc etc. Grr, I tell you!!! I even contemplated playing the playlist on my iPod titled "pissed off" which almost never gets played. I barely know what's on it. I think it has a lot of Eminem.

When I finally landed in Saigon around 11 pm last night, exhausted, dirty, hungry, and hotel-less, I was in no laughing mood. But then I got to chatting with a nice German wife /Australian husband couple (who met while backpacking... hmm!), who let me share a cab with me from the airport. And then I tailed them into their hotel in the off chance it would be decent, affordable, and have vacancy. And then it was -- $25/night for a clean and air-conditioned room with hot water that spewed out instantly (my first since.... well, since Rockville) and American cable channels on the flat-screen TV and an actually shower stall with a door (hard to imagine). And then I went to a cafe on the corner and got a cheap beer and some chicken curry and chatted about German castles with the train engineer sitting next to me. And then I had a good night's sleep and woke up to a brilliantly sunny day in Saigon.

And then I felt better.

So yes, long-term travel can be filled with once-in-a-lifetime experiences a la hiking the Great Wall practically solo or kayaking through the endless rocks of Halong Bay, but it can also make you feel completely broken and inexplicably hateful toward whatever country you happen to be in for the night. The good thing is that the bad feelings usually disappear as soon as you have a hot shower, a place to stash your stuff and some food in your belly, whereas the once-in-a-lifetime experiences are branded in your memory forever.

Anyway, the post is entitled pics, so why am I still prattling on? You probably skipped this and went straight to the pics anyway, it's okay, I'm not offended. So, then:


cyclo or bike lady, who will win?

sunset on hoan kiem lake:

early morning, taken from the top of the boat:

fellow kayakers going underneath a huge rock formation:

jumping off the top of the boat:

motorbike on cat ba island:

local girls, cat ba island


local beach in hoi an:

ladies at market (right lady's lips are stained red with betel nut):

my spring rolls with fresh rice paper!

hoi an streets:

silk lantern vendor: