Saturday, March 8, 2014

Korea: Final Thoughts

So this is it--my final post on this blog. I know... it's sad! But I'm not taking it down, so if any of you ever feel like looking back at it... go for it. So how do you wrap up a year of your life in another country in a single post? Well... I'll try.

I've always wanted to travel to other countries. I've also always had an interest in Asia. So when I first had the idea to move to Asia for a year and teach, it was a rather exciting prospect. But I'll be honest--half of that excitement came from having a legitimate excuse to quit my job at the high school here, a job I was completely miserable at. So not only was it something I could do to give myself reason to leave that position, and not only would it give me an excuse to travel to Asia, but it also would give one last shot towards the whole teaching thing. And it's funny--most people teach abroad first to see whether or not they like teaching and then go back to their home countries and continue there. For me, it was just the opposite.

And what did I learn? Teaching, at least in a traditional school/classroom setting, is just not for me. I love being around and interacting with kids of all ages. That part I'm good at. But when it came to the actual prime duties of a teacher--disciplinarian and educator--I struggle (moreso with the former than the latter). Kids give me energy and are fun to be around, but I realized I would probably be a much better dad than a classroom teacher.


The school I worked at for the last year was good. Like I'd been at for the 3 years prior to that, it was also a low-level/low socio-economic school. And sometimes that was difficult, but it was rarely aggravating. I found I could still moderately communicate with most students and understand what they needed even if I didn't 100% understand the words coming out of their mouths. Though there were quite a few who spoke English very well and could hold full discussions in it. And, yes, there were a lot of students who hated English and struggled with it, though it was really the few who actually rebelled and acted like jerks who were aggravating. But, again, they were few.

There was also the notion of co-teaching, meaning there were 2 teachers in the room (or... supposed to be. There could be a Korean teacher alone, but you weren't really supposed to have a foreign teacher alone unless they taught L7 (the super-smart kids). But I'll get back to this shortly). I worked with three different Korean teachers. All three were different age groups, had different levels of speaking English, and had three completely different styles in the classroom and how they worked with us foreign teachers.

First there was our primary Korean teacher, the one who was put in charge of us (Naomi and I) for stuff even outside the classroom. She was the oldest of the three, spoke the most English (she had lived in New Zealand once), and was the most motherly. But she had her quirks, too, which Naomi and I were quickly able to figure out. We generally knew how she'd react to most questions or favors. She'd also sometimes show a seeming inability to perform even the most basic of tasks. And while she always showed a drive to want to learn the tiniest differences in meaning in the English language, she'd get really antsy about doing other simple things. In lesson prep, she didn't like to take risks, but she also didn't like to say no. So if you had an idea that she knew would blow up in our faces, she wouldn't speak up and suggest something else... rather, she would wait until it did, indeed, blow up in our faces and then suggest she didn't figure it would work. That was sometimes frustrating, but it came to a point you could read her face and reactions to see if you were suggesting one of these such ideas. In the actual classroom, she was disciplinarian and otherwise supplementary. I was to be the sole teacher in the room, and she was to step in only if necessary with something needing translation and the like. In other words, her style was very "hands off." Discipline-wise, it was somewhere in the middle. She was great during actual lessons, but struggled to keep control during games and activities. So we knew not to plan too many major games where students spent the most of the time out of their desks. I only taught with her in the classroom one day a week (and every day during summer/winter camps... which is a whole other thing). She was overall a very sweet (and often pretty funny) woman, and despite any of our struggles together, I'll probably miss her the most.

Second was the Korean teacher I wish I'd worked with more than I did. Naomi had the fortune of working with her more, but I had her--again--only one morning a week. Age-wise, she was the youngest, but language-wise, she was in the middle. But she was a Wonder Woman (though constantly exhausted for it--the only one of the three who I honestly believed was exhausted when they complained). She not only did so much for her classes, but also so much for the school (and I believe ended up with a Co-Teacher of the Year award for it, which she very much deserved). Not to mention a ton for her own family, as well, but that's neither here nor there. She was strict in the classroom, but also silly and dorky. She kept the most control over our classes during games and activities. During planning, she'd ask for clarification if she didn't understand something. If she didn't think something would work, she'd tell you. But if something failed anyway, she would always have a back-up plan or a way to do a quick fix. In the classroom, she made you feel like a partner (you know, CO-teacher). She wasn't just a prop to be used when needed, nor did she do everything or nothing. There was a perfect balance between us. She was nice, goofy, and incredibly hard working. I'd have no issues giving her a Teacher of the Year award.

Third... I'll try not to dwell on this one too long, but I promise nothing. The third co-teacher was age-wise in the middle, language-wise at the bottom. She's generally a nice lady, so I hate saying mean things about her... but she shouldn't be a teacher. Sadly, I spent most of my time in the classroom with her, as did Naomi (every afternoon, multiple classes). She's constantly late to class. Sometimes she didn't show up at all, yet didn't see this as a big deal. Or she'd ask me to start class without her (meaning she'd be like 20+ minutes late), even if it was a lesson I couldn't possibly do without her. She'd bribe the kids with candy and food to get them to like her. She'd get really petty about being liked, too. The kids clearly liked me more, and she hated that, so she'd go out of her way to make them like her and rag on me. And if she saw something silly that the kids liked that I did, she would mimic it to try and get them to like her, too, often to the point of killing the joke (or whatever it was). She had ZERO skills in classroom management. Half the time she'd let the kids run wild. The other half of the time, she'd randomly yell at them for things so little, not even I saw what it was. During games, the majority of it was pure chaos because she wouldn't even try to keep them under control. If I needed her to translate something (if I didn't have to try and translate/explain it to her first), half the time she'd be at the back of the room just sitting there paying no attention to anything or anyone. She would sometimes put focus on the completely unimportant things and waste time expanding on stuff that did not need to be expanded upon. She would act inappropriately with the littlest kids, often patting their butts or kissing their hands (now... this could be a cultural difference thing, but it was something that always caught me off guard). Sometimes she would take over the class entirely and leave me sitting/standing and doing nothing (in fact, with sixth graders, she made sure to have like 10-15 minutes at the end of class for just her, so I'd sit there doing nothing until my contracted time ran out, and then she'd send me away while she continued with the kids). And other times, she was completely and entirely hands off, refusing to do anything. She was impossible to figure out how to work with, and even after a year, I had no idea how to read her from one day to the next. There was no pattern to any of it (her teaching or discipline). And planning? Forget it... she'd take it and put it away and never bother looking at the plan. I could have written "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" over and over for every lesson plan I handed her, and she would have never known. If she was good at anything, it was actually--strangely enough--explaining English grammar. She actually did this incredibly well and often. But outside of the classroom was crazy, too, as she would complain about being so busy, yet she was never doing anything. She sat at her computer all morning as we did everything for her, only for her to disregard most of it later anyway. And believe it or not, this is probably only about half of the issues with her... so I'll stop now before this just turns into an epic rant post. Like I said, she wasn't a mean or cruel person. She was genuinely nice and wanted desperately to be liked and helpful, so I can't fault her too much there.

In short, I had basically every co-teacher experience a person can have rolled into one year. Everything from absent to perfect. And as far as having an experience, it was definitely a well-rounded one. And despite the ups and down throughout the year, whether they were with the co-teachers or the extra activities we had to do or just the sometimes really bizarre cultural differences that could get frustrating if you let them (though Naomi and I mostly laughed them off), it was a great way to end my career as a classroom teacher. Because of the four years I taught, this was the only one where I didn't actually hate going into work every morning (I didn't necessarily jump for joy looking forward to it, but I didn't dislike going).


Okay, so enough about school. How about the culture? At first glance, it doesn't seem all that different from western culture. At least nothing hugely different. But there are millions of minor differences that end up all adding together. Let's see if I can just list off a bunch of stuff.

-Take your shoes off at the door when entering a home (or a restaurant where you sit on the floor). Also, many work places, like our school, have it where you have special "indoor" shoes or slippers that you'd have to change into.

-Over half the toilets are squatters (meaning in the floor rather than the westernized style we use)... no, I never used one.

-When paying, it's respectful to touch your non-paying hand to the paying arm or hold the money with two hands. The same is also true when handing things to someone. If someone is older than you and they're handing you something, it's more respectful to accept with two hands.

-Nodding/bowing does happen, primarily to elders or people in power (like a school principal, for instance).

-Bus and taxi drivers always have the right of way, even if they don't. Never step out into the street when a bus is coming. They will run you over. Those drivers are crazy people. That being said, I loved the transportation system in Korea. The train system in particular was amazingly simple once you got the hang of it.

-Recycling is huge. To the point where not only every single type of material has its own bin/bag, but there are even sub-categories for objects made of a certain material but had been used for specific purposes. For example, most plastic is recycled... unless it was plastic that contained food and has a particular type of label or stamp on it. It gets really complicated and really confusing.

-Saving face affects more than you think. It can be something like hedging your thoughts so you don't really say what you want to say, or it can be like refusing to do something because you don't know how and don't want to admit to it or learn how.

-There's a minor bit of bribery that goes on--gifts can be given to gain favor so that the person can later ask you to do something and you can't turn them down without rightly insulting them.

-People really keep to themselves. Unless they know you, 95% of Korean adults will not talk to you. They'll barely even look at you, much less smile at you. Kids are very different--they're just as bubbly and happy-looking as any other kid. But somewhere in the life of a Korean, something changes, and that smile soon fades from the public eye.

-Many customs come together that might make westerners feel insulted or like Koreans are rude. Some examples... they will not apologize if they bump into you (it's an overcrowded country... they're used to bumping). They will not say Bless You or God Bless You if you sneeze (it's a country that was once primarily Buddhist... why would they?); they just ignore it. Due to language barriers and less sensitivity in their own culture, they will be very direct to you about physical things like weight and looks in general.

-They are obsessed with electronics, particularly cell phones. You think westerners are attached to their phones, you haven't seen anything until you go to Korea. It's absurd. From little kids to elderly, everybody is constantly on their phones in one way or another.

-Music and video games have a lot to do with it. Obviously K-Pop is insanely huge right now, but video games are an unhealthy obsession here. They have 24-hour PC rooms with computers made specifically for hardcore gaming. There are gaming tournaments on regular cable TV. There were even laws that had to be passed to keep kids from playing too many games because it was becoming too bad.

-Plastic surgery is sadly another obsession. Koreans are addicted to looking good, even more than in the US. There's a lot of controversy around it now. But there are kids even as young as like third grade getting nose jobs. A lot of the girls, especially celebrities and K-Pop stars, are all starting to legitimately look the same because they're all getting plastic surgery to have the same general look.

-I've mentioned this before, but Koreans differ in what they can show off in public than the west (at least in regards to girls). In the west, for example, it's fine to show cleavage but a bit inappropriate to show off a lot of leg. In Korea, it's just the opposite. They have to keep their chests covered, but they will wear skirts and shorts so tiny they might as well not even be wearing them (I seriously didn't even know they made skirts and shorts that tiny). Even in the winter, you'll see some girls in those super short-shorts but with stockings on underneath to keep the legs warmer.

-Koreans are absurdly healthy people. Not only is the majority of the food good for it (it's basically the western food that's bad), but you have an insane amount of walking everywhere you go. And not only is it a lot of walking, but it's also a lot of stairs. I've never climbed so many stairs in my life as I had to in Korea. But there are fat Koreans, too, it's just slightly uncommon. Most fat Koreans are just a little chubby, but I have seen some obese here and there. And when they're sick, they wear face masks (which have been proven to be ineffective after like an hour or two, but they still do it anyway). There are even exercise machines in parks and along walking paths just in case you feel like it. Oh, and the healthcare system here is crazy good (which I've already gone into in depth in the past).

-In the US, when you go out to eat, you get pretty much everything on one big plate. And if you ask for water, you get a big ol' cup of it. And a handful of napkins to boot. In Korea, you get a main dish plate and about 10 side dish plates (and side dishes are all free and come with every meal, changing mildly from meal to meal). But if you want water, you get a little metal cup about the size of two shot glasses put together and you fill it up at a station yourself. And then you get a tiny rectangle, super-thin sheet for a napkin. If they do serve you water, it's a kind of rice water. It's a kind of off-yellow color and has a weird taste to it. I never got used to it and always preferred regular water.

-Tea and coffee are huge here. Coffee in particular is treated like some brand new invention that's all the rage, and if you don't like it, you're pretty weird.

-Finally, and randomly... pencils don't seem to often come with erasers attached. They were just rounded at the end and there were separate big erasers like we also have.

I'm sure I missed about 100 other things, but I'd say a lot of those are the main things you might notice.


The hardest thing, by far, was the language barrier. People talk about the culture differences and struggling with those while living in Korea. And I can see some things being annoying after a while. But if you don't let those things bother you, most of them are easy to laugh off or ignore. But the language barrier was much more difficult to overcome. Hangeul--the Korean alphabet--is actually one of the easiest alphabets you can learn, and learning to read Korean is incredibly easy. After a little practice, you can read it fine. Understanding it is different, but reading the words and letters is simple. The language itself is tough, and it's one of those where there are enough subtle differences that can drive you crazy. You can repeat the same exact word somebody tells you, exactly how it sounded to you, and you'll be completely wrong. Mostly because they'll merge a bunch of sounds together into one or say it so fast that it sounds like they're skipping entire chunks of the words when they might not be. In short, while I did learn a few words here and there, I often felt lost or out of the loop because I couldn't understand most of what was going on or I couldn't even ask simple questions if I needed help or was lost.

But on the whole, it was definitely an experience and an adventure. It's something I'll never forget. Being able to experience a different culture (and different world, really) for a year was something very few people get to do. And it also opened me up to so many opportunities to see other things I'd always wanted to see, like Tokyo or the Great Wall.

So while this might have started as an excuse to leave my job, it became an opportunity to change my life. I feel I'm not quite the same person I was just a year ago, and I might be all the better for it. I would love to continue traveling as I get older, as well. This was just a great year full of its definitely ups and downs, fantastic moments and near breakdowns. Would I change anything? Maybe a few things here and there, but I would never trade this experience as a whole for anything.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Living in Asia: Ranking My Experiences

Having lived in Asia for a year and seen so many things in multiple countries, I thought I'd count down my Top 20 favorite and/or most memorable things I've seen or done while here over the last year, as well as my 10 least favorite.

Top 20 Best and/or Most Memorable Events

This was a tough list to put together. First, it's hard to distinguish between best and memorable. Or good memorable and bad memorable. But what if it's good memorable because something bad happened that made it more fascinating? Like I said, it's tricky. So when I put this list together, I tried to include things I see only as positive experiences. These are the things I definitely would not want to change having experienced, and I ordered each by how much I loved it at the time mixed with how well I still remember it. I also actually had a list of things close to 50 when I started. So much has happened over the last year, it was hard narrowing it down to just 20. But I did, so here we go.

20) Beijing Acrobatics Show

Beijing was a mixed bag of a trip for me, but there were two things that really made the trip for me. This was one of them, and it was a perfect way to end the short vacation. I placed it this low on the list because, honestly, I find it a bit hard to remember much of the show when I try to think back to it. But I do remember how incredibly fun and entertaining it was, and I would recommend anyone in Beijing to check it out.

19) Gyeongbokgung & the Seoul Palaces

I saw some of these palaces with Tim and Naomi early on, and then some of them again when my parents came to visit. They're definitely cool places. Not really the coolest palaces and temples I've been to in the last year, but they're still nice... especially the ones that are more green and garden-like than just the dirt-filled, open courtyard lots.

18) Round Trip to Nowhere

This one really walks that fine line between good and bad. I see it as a good day because everything went wrong. It was very early in my time in Korea, and I discovered the Golden Day was coming up, and we had a long weekend. I searched for stuff to do and found that a number of people go to Bongamsa Temple, which opens its doors to outsiders only on the Golden Day every year. Unfortunately, my bus got caught in traffic and it took about three times as long to actually get to the place that would take me to the temple. By the time I got there, I wouldn't have been able to grab a bus back and would be stuck in that place. So I was stuck in a little town and no idea what to do. Fortunately, I had recently sat down and learned to read Korean, which helped me figure everything out. I ended up just going back to the bus terminal and heading back to Seoul. It was a day-long event that allowed me to see a lot of the Korean countryside, though not much else. Still, for such an early experience in my time here, it's hard to forget.

17) Hantan River Rafting

I'd never been white water rafting before this, but I can't really say it was all that much white water. With a couple exceptions, it was no real different to tubing down the Frio River in Texas. But it was still a really fun experience and a memorable day.

16) Nakano Broadway Mall

This was everything I wanted Akihabara in Tokyo to be. In fact, many are calling it the New Akihabara, and it's filled with so many fun nerdy and otaku things. I'm still mildly disappointed in a couple drawings I didn't buy, but it turned out to be for the better. Had I bought them, I wouldn't have had enough money left for my final night/day in Tokyo... where I desperately needed it.

15) The Ballerina Who Loved a B-Boy

This show was great fun. It wasn't the best story-wise, but the dancing and entertainment factor was way up there. And it turns out we ended up going to one of the last shows of its rotation (I haven't seen it as available since). And this was just the start of a year filled with some incredibly entertaining stage shows.

14) 2 Months of Muay Thai

This seems like a lifetime ago. There was a time, 2 months in fact, where I went to a gym in Seoul every Saturday for a Muay Thai class. It was a solid workout and could even be fun at times. But then I started getting sick--cold, then earache, then Bells Palsy, etc. I kept having to put off going until it got to the point I just stopped going. My contract was only for 2 months with the gym, so it wore off at the start of my illnesses, which just led to further excuses not to go. On top of that, it was starting to become less fun, and I was getting burned out on it.

13) The DMZ/JSA

When my parents visited late last year, I finally made my trip to the DMZ and JSA... a spot anyone who comes to Korea must see. And it was definitely interesting, even if it was raining most of the time. 

12) Train Ride - Death Railway

This one was pretty cool in and of itself, what with going over the Bridge on the River Kwai and then seeing a bunch of cool scenery. But what made this really memorable was the fact the train actually broke down near the end, and we all had to leave the train and walk to the road to get picked up by our driver. But I consider that a positive experience, as it made something that was already pretty cool even more memorable and unique.

11) Siam Niramit

Hands down the most intricate and mind-blowing stage show I've seen thus far. Saw this one on my birthday in Thailand. And even if it wasn't the most fun show (which would have been in DisneySea)--and don't get me wrong... it was fun, but in a different way--it was easily the most fascinating and intricate.

10) Yeouido Park & the Han River

This one is on the list, and this high up, for more sentimental reasons. It was one of the first big trips into Seoul I had with Tim, Naomi, and Kira (and Kira's friend Hyein, who has since moved to the US for studies, I believe). And the end of the day brought us through Yeouido Park on a hillside spot next to the Han River (and right across the spot from an island that is central to a film I had recently seen). And it resulted in one of my favorite group pictures (that I'm not in).

9) Everland

So the rides were nothing to scream about, but this makes it so high on the list for two reasons. First, it was just a really fun day out with Tim, Naomi, and Kira. Second... the haunted house. That place was simultaneously terrifying and a blast. If you're ever in Everland, you must check out the haunted house. It's a little extra money, but it's worth it.

8) Ueno Zoo

The coolest zoo I've ever been to. They had everything, and not to mention the place was enormous. I was there for hours, and I loved every minute of it.

7) MaiDreamin Maid Cafe

The second most embarrassing thing to happen to me in the last year, except this one was planned. I knew I couldn't go to Tokyo and not visit a Maid Cafe. It was silly, and I certainly don't have the personality to soak that kind of experience up... but it was definitely memorable. And the food wasn't bad, either.

6) Angkor Wat & the Cambodian Temples

I saw about a bajillion temples over the last year, but these Khmer temples were easily the coolest and most fascinating. Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, Beng Mealea... those three being at the top of the list. But they were all pretty cool, and seeing Angkor Wat at sunrise was worth getting up early to do.

5) Tiger Temple

I touched some tigers. 'Nuff Said.

4) Tonle Sap Lake & Floating Village

A really fascinating boat trip to see how these local fishermen and their families live. The stilt houses were really interesting and seeing everyone at work was cool, even if it gave off a mildly weird vibe that you were going through a human zoo.

3) Mt. Fuji - The Sunrise

Yes, specifically the sunrise. I'll get to the other part later, don't you worry. This was just a beautiful thing to see, and yes... it was worth it.

2) Tokyo DisneySea

Easily the most fun I've had all year. But how can you not love going to a Disney park? (Even if it's not technically Disney themed.) I had a blast on this day, and it just made me want to go to Disney World in Florida again... and soon. And with family, because going to Disney alone so isn't as fun.

1) The Great Wall of China

Um... it's the Great Wall of China. Or, as one of my co-teachers said... it's just a wall. But yeah, seriously... this was a cool day.

Bottom 10 Worst and/or Most Aggravating Experiences

On the other hand, I actually barely reached 10 on this list. I really haven't had too many major things go all that wrong while here, even though it might seem I have due to constant bad luck. Honestly, it's not really until the Top 5 that things get actually bad. So let's take a look.

Runner-Up: Not getting into the Ghibli Museum

I don't count this because it's not something I did, but rather something I didn't do. I was excited to go only to find out it was completely sold out. Oh well.

10) Beijing Night Market

I went to go see the bugs and stuff, which I did end up seeing... and one guy desperately tried to make me eat a tarantula and got angry when I refused. What made it worse, though, was I tried at least 2-3 different types of food here (desserts, fruits, etc.) and all of them were disgusting. I think I only finished one, and that one was basically like a dry pastry dough--not inedible, but not special. And then right after, my friend and I could not, for the life of us, get a taxi to get back to our hotel. It was a night of bad food followed by a really frustrating journey.

9) Akihabara

This wasn't bad... just incredibly disappointing. This was really at the top of the list of things I was looking forward to in Tokyo. I'd heard so much about it for like a decade of otaku obsessions... and I was so let down. It just wasn't all that interesting. The shops were nothing special. The arcades were OK, but not wow. And to top it all off, it was raining the entire time I was there. I suppose that's why I loved Nakano Broadway Mall as much as I did... it was everything I had hoped Akihabara would be.

8) Beijing Hotel

Let me clarify first: The hotel itself was perfectly suitable. The location, however, was atrocious. I had an easier time getting to my guest house in Bangkok, and that was down an alley that was down another alley. Nobody had ever heard of this place or knew how to get to it. Going anywhere was a nightmare because you never knew how fast you'd be able to get back. Even the tour guides made it all complicated because it was never clear whether they'd meet us at our hotel or a much bigger one off the main road. Again, the place itself was fine... but man, that location.

7) Lost in Shinjuku

This one borders on hilarious when I look back at it. Everyone, including the Japanese themselves, get lost in the massive Shinjuku Station. But I'm not talking about the Station. I'm talking about the district itself. Every... Single... Time... I left that Station, it would take me roughly an hour to find my way back to my hotel. And I'd end up taking a different route every single time and have no idea how I kept accomplishing that. It finally took me up until the last day or so in Tokyo to realize what I was doing wrong and how to get back to the hotel properly within about 10 minutes. But still, I wandered around Shinjuku like an idiot for hours on end during that trip, and it was pretty frustrating.

6) Beijing Rip Offs

If there's one thing that would make me not want to go back to China, it's this. Of course, I was not used to the art of bargaining when I went, nor was I aware I had to at first. I'm also not an incredibly assertive person, making bargaining really uncomfortable for me. So that meant every single person in Beijing tried to rip me off on everything, and I basically did get ripped off on everything I bought. One lady even told a guy I was touring with (who could speak Chinese) that she was trying to rip me off. And the one time I did bargain and got the price down to a suitable amount, the lady took my money and didn't give my change--ripping me off anyway. In other words... not a fan of the bargaining culture, which I experienced again a little in both Cambodia and Thailand, but not to the aggravating degree of Beijing.

5) 24 Hours Home - Thailand to Korea

The most recent of my dilemmas. Driving 3.5 hours from Kanchanaburi to the Beijing airport. Waiting in the airport for 6 of the most boring hours ever just to check in and then wait another 3 for the flight. Then another 3 to get to my transfer in Macau so I could wait another 3 hours for my second flight. And that was another 3-4 hours to get to Seoul. And then another 4 hours to get from the plane back to my apartment in Gunpo. And all of that after an excruciatingly hot day of hiking and sweating. Man, that was a long day.

4) The Dark Ages

And the earliest thing on this list... the first month in Korea. As you might could tell from the previous entry, I don't do terribly well with boredom. The first month in Korea served up a lack of basically everything technological (at least for a good 2-3 weeks when I finally got the proper cables for my PS3). Total first world problems but having practically nothing to do for an entire month gets to you after a while. Thankfully, I barely remember what that was like now.

3) Locked Out

And here's the most embarrassing thing to happen to me in the last year, also quite recent. The night I went to take some trash downstairs and forgot the passcode to my door. I was locked out all night in freezing cold weather (and snow!) without proper clothing, barely any money, and no phone. And I ended up having to stay in the hotel my parents stayed at in Geumjeong when they visited.

2) The Medical Problems

I think I came to know the Sanbon Hospital almost as intimately as I know my school. Colds. Earaches. Bells Palsy. Inflamed Knee. Kidney Stones. I think I pretty much ran the gamut during my tenure here. The short version... my body hates me, and it decided to hate me most when I came to live alone in a country where I don't speak the language. If for no other reason, this is the one thing that makes me want to get back to the US... so if anything does go wrong again, I'm at least somewhere I can deal with it with family and in English.

1) Mt. Fuji - The Climb

This now-legendary adventure almost borders the line between good memorable and bad memorable. But I put it here because, despite the outcome, I was genuinely fearing for my life on this night. The actual climb up Mt. Fuji was literally the most exhausting--physically, mentally, and emotionally--thing I've done thus far in my life. I think one day, if I'm ever in better shape, I will attempt this again and hope to conquer it. It also didn't help that I spent the last of my money getting shelter for the night and had to pull out a miracle to pay for the bus to get back to Tokyo for my flight back to Korea. Though while it might be at the top of the worst list, I also want to say it's probably the single most memorable thing I've done in the last year. For good or bad, I'll never forget that night.

Thursday, March 6, 2014


The trip home wasn't nearly as grueling as I thought it was going to be. I found out that the bus stop was right next to Seoul Station, and I'd have to cross the highway for that one... so it'd be easier and faster (and cheaper) just to take the train.

So after waiting a few hours to check out of my hotel, I do so around 11:50 AM. The closest elevator that takes you down into Seoul Station was just a short walk from the hotel... one made a lot longer by the fact I had about 150 pounds in luggage with me. And one of the suitcases had a broken wheel. And my jacket was slick enough that my backpack kept slipping down my arms.

The airport train was also on the complete opposite side of Seoul Station (which in and of itself is enormous). I had some difficulties there and had to stop and take a few short breaks to catch my breath and rest my arms (those bags were heavy). Walking without the bags would have been maybe a 15-minute walk from my hotel to the train. With the bags, from leaving the hotel to stepping onto the train itself took 45 minutes. And then the train ride was another 50-ish minutes. My flight wasn't until 5:50, and by the time I got to the main check-in lobby, it was only about 1:30 or 1:45 or so.

I did an self-check in and then only had to sit and wait for a little bit before a line started forming to check my bags. I went and waited there so I didn't have to end up at the back. The desks didn't open until around 2:50. At one point I accidentally dropped my coin change everywhere and everyone helped me pick it back up, which was mildly embarrassing (one even rolled all the way to the counter, and one of the worker girls brought it to me).

When I finally got to the counter, the check-in girl was super nice. I was checking two bags (which was the free limit), but one of my bags was over the weight limit. I knew this would happen and was prepared to pay. But she actually let it slide for free, just saying next time to make sure it's at the right weight. But then I had to check my hiking stick I got in Mt. Fuji. She had to check with her manager, and they said the only way I could get that on the plane is if I pretended like I needed it to walk. But I couldn't pull that off, and the compartments would have been too small, meaning I would have to had held it the whole time or something. So I decided to check it in as a third luggage... which cost $150 bucks. I decided to just tell myself that was a charge for the overweight bag, so I wasn't paying $150 bucks for a 1-pound stick. But even then, I had to go and pay to have it boxed up and then brought back to the girl to have it checked.

Once all that was done, I went through security and eventually made it to the terminal. I ate at small food court and then waited for about an hour at my gate before boarding started. I had been dreading this flight back. It was like a 13 or so hour flight from Seoul to Dallas, and I remember it was (strangely) the same length from LA to Seoul when I first went. And that was super uncomfortable and eventually painful to be sitting that long. Thankfully, it turned out the plane had quite a few empty seats (rows, even), so the guy who was sitting next to me decided to move elsewhere and I had a whole 2-seat row to myself. That was nice. Even still, though, the overhead luggage compartments were super tiny, and like all of them were full up because they were so small. People were having trouble finding places to put their stuff. So that was a bit crazy.

The flight time also seemed to just (forgive me) fly by. I started watching Ender's Game, but there was a technical issue about 2/3s of the way through and it cut off. Then I rewatched Frozen for like the hundredth time. And then I "plane slept" for about 5 hours. And by plane slept, I mean I slept, but in a non-deep sleep where you're like half-awake the whole time anyway, so it's more resting your eyes than actual restful sleep. I eventually "woke up" and watched Finding Nemo. And before I knew it, we were in Dallas. The seats got mildly uncomfortable from time to time, but never too bad. Oh, and we got there like an hour ahead of schedule, too.

But Dallas is where things got annoying. The Dallas-Fort Worth airport is really annoying because you have to go and uncheck your bags, carry it all through customs, and then re-check your bags all over again. And then go through security again. And the customs guy asked me what was in my hiking stick box and asked if there was an easy way to open the box and look, but it was all taped up so I said no. But he was like 'whatever, I believe you' and let me through anyway. And one of the guys at security was just some young cool dude who didn't have the same stuffy meanness as most of the other security guys. The only other problem I had there was my backpack somehow took forever to come through the machine. I was kinda worried that someone had stolen it, as all my other stuff had come through. I guess maybe they rescanned it or something and had to send it through again.

My gate was all the way on the opposite side of the airport, so I had to take a train to get to it. Then I had trouble finding/remembering my gate number as they didn't have it on my boarding pass, so I had to look at a board at one point and then ask at an information desk at another point. My transfer to Austin was set to start boarding at 6 and would leave at 6:30. So I found a Subway and ate a little something before waiting until 6.

But I noticed in the couple hours I had to kill that roughly every 5 minutes, there was an airport announcement that different flights were changing gates for some reason. I have no idea why, but seemingly ever flight was now happening at a way different gate. So come 6 PM and it's time for boarding, I hadn't heard any announcements for my flight or any change of gates. But the sign still had its destination as "Ontario, California" (of which I didn't know even existed), a flight that was supposed to have left like 45 minutes prior. Half the people are confused as to what's going on. And... then they make the call. Our flight was now at another gate... which was in a whole other building. So like 100 people are now walking down the airport together toward the train car. It was funny--one guy was on the phone with I'm assuming his wife or some family member and mentioning how all these people would have to cram onto this train. And in my head I'm like "Well... that's nothing new." I manage to jump into the thing last second, and we all head to the new area.

We get to the gate, and there's still people coming in from a different flight. And there was maybe a flight at that gate next that was then moved to a different gate on the other side of the current building, so that was a huge mess, too. And there was like one lady working the counter, so she was trying to check people in one group at a time while also answering the phone, etc. It was a total disaster. By the time I actually get onto the plane, it's like 7 PM. The flight was originally supposed to leave at 6:30 and arrive by 7:30 in Austin. The plane didn't end up taking off until about 7:20. The captain said it would be a 30-minute flight. Ended up being about 45 minutes... and even longer because we had to circle the airport twice before we could land. But I eventually made it down, found my parents, and got my stuff. But then on the way home, we got lost on the highway for a bit and went in circles for a while. But we eventually found our way.

And I finally got home around 11 PM. So if you don't count that 5 or so hours of "plane sleep," I'd basically been awake from (roughly) 6 PM Tuesday (Texas Time) and didn't get home until 11 PM Wednesday (Texas Time). So you could say it had been a long day... and I gave a bit of a glare at this lady sitting in front of my on the Dallas-to-Austin plane who was talking to another lady about flying from some other Southern US State to Dallas, then Dallas to Austin and how it was such a long day. Oh really, now?

I did notice a few major cultural differences right off the bat, as well, between Korea and the US:

#1. US teens (and/or college-age young adults) definitely have a different air about themselves, even in the ways they walk, stand, and/or move. Boys are much cockier and walk with this false bravado. Girls are very stuck-up and/or clique-ish... which everybody kind of knows, but you don't really see the huge extent of it until you've seen how a different culture acts for a year.

#2. Customer service in America is like 85% fake or uncaring. Like, they'll say hello or ask how you're doing or say have a good day... but there's like a deadness to their voices (not everyone or everywhere, but a good chunk). You can tell they mostly don't really care and just want to go through the motions of it. Whereas in Asian countries, they really want you to have the best service and best possible time wherever you're at. Now that's not the case in, say, Korean grocery stores or check-out lines. (In fact, of all the Asian countries I visited, Korea was the least commonly bubbly in its customer service. The main places you'd see it were restaurants and theme parks. And Seoul Tower. It was most common in Tokyo and Siem Reap.) But when they were 'on', they would go out of their way to make sure you were going to have an awesome time doing whatever. It's pretty insane.

#3. When you go for quick meals in Korea, it's either healthy or hearty. You'll get an adequate mix of the food pyramid, and all of it freshly prepared and hot. When I get to Dallas and go into Subway (the 'healthy' fast food, mind you), the first thing I see is an add for a new sandwich that is chicken in enchilada sauce over a layer for frito chips. Yeah. 'Murica!

#4. Americans are much louder than Asians. They're also more likely to speak their mind, especially if they don't like something. If something is going wrong or if something is annoying, you will definitely know an American's feelings about it... even if they don't say anything. Koreans? No way. And if they do say anything, it's all hedged to be polite. But also just talking in general. On a plane to any place in Asia, it was relatively quiet. On the plane back to America which was filled with foreigners (re: non-Asians)? Not only talkative in general, but friendly, helpful, and talkative to other strangers.

#5. That South Texan landscape... so much flatter and wide open than Korea. And the sky seems so much bigger.

And that's about it... for now, anyway. It'll take some time to get back into the swing of things. I even found myself paying like a Korean when I got my Subway sandwich (left hand's fingers touching right arm as I paid)... just out of habit. But I'll get back into it eventually.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Seoul Day: The Final Chapter

(I almost went with Jason Lives as the subtitle, but only like 2 people who read this blog would have gotten the joke. Anyway...)

So here we are, my last full day in Korea. Soon after arriving in Korea, I made a list of things I'd like to see or do. Near the top of the list was Seoul Tower. But for some reason, I just never brought myself to go throughout the year. But now I knew it was my last chance, so I decided I'd finally go see it today. It didn't hurt that my hotel is actually within a decent walking distance from it. The only other thing I thought about seeing was Namdaemun Market, which is the oldest and largest market in all of Korea. So after a way over-priced breakfast at the hotel, I got ready and headed out.

The idea was to head to Namdaemun Market first, since it was closer. So I start walking and walking and walking... I seem to get lost, but I see Seoul Tower in the not-too-distant background. So I head for that instead. Figure I'd just go there first. So I'm walking towards Namsan Park.... when I stumble into Namdaemun Market. The place was basically a huge maze. You can get turned around there pretty easily, which I managed to do. Not much of interest to share there, though. It was just a cool big street market.

From there I found my bearings and continued towards Seoul Tower. After a decent-length walk, I find the glass elevator (no, not the Willy Wonka variety, sadly) that takes you from ground level to the cable car. So then I buy my ticket for a round-trip cable car ride to the tower grounds. After some waiting, I finally get on the car. It takes a few minutes to ride up. On the journey, I had a nice chat with a Korean lady who spoke pretty much perfect English and minimal accent. She had apparently been a high school English teacher, which explains why she was so good (probably the best I've heard a native Korean speak English over the last year). She was taking her little handful of a son up to the tower.

So I finally get to the area, and it's pretty cool. There's a large open ground area like a stone park. But I just bought my ticket to the observatory. They seemed to really try and make this place like a mini-theme park almost. All the workers, especially around the elevator areas, are super chipper and friendly, like you're about to enter Disney or something. I get on the dark elevator with the girl, who tells me to look up at the ceiling. We start going up, and there's a video like we're blasting off into space or something. Then I get off and walk down a path where they take a picture that you can choose to buy at the observatory. And finally I get to the observation deck. It was pretty cool. The view was a bit hazy, but you could still see stuff. I took some pictures, as well.

I wandered around for a bit looking all around at the view. On the glass they have different city names from around the world and how far they are from the current spot. Also on the deck were a souvenir shop and a candy store. I then headed back down to grab some lunch, as it was coming on to 1 PM or so by this point. I found a burger place that claimed to be "The best burger in Seoul." Now... I've been looking all year for not even a good hamburger, but even just a halfway decent one. Any chance I got, in any of the countries I've been to, I tried different hamburger joints just to find a decent burger. And so far, I'd failed. This was pretty much my final attempt to find a decent-to-good burger in Southeast Asia. So... how was it? Good. Really good, actually. Not sure it was worth the price I paid for it, but it was actually quite good--the best I've had over the last year, anyway.

And then it was time to head back to the hotel. I made my way all the way back down the cable car, down the glass elevator, and down the walking path to find a taxi that could take me back to my hotel. I'd been walking relatively non-stop for about 4 hours, so I didn't feel like wandering about lost, trying to find my way back to the hotel. The way I'd even gotten to that place was by luck in the first place. So I find a cab and show him the address in Korean. He basically laughs in my face and, in Korean, tells me it's "that way." It was too close for him to bother driving me, apparently. Clearly he doesn't know me. Something can be at the end of a street and it will take me an hour to find it. So I walk in the direction he pointed and, of course, get lost. I find another cabbie and ask him for directions. He kinda hooks his hand in a general direction (like walk and turn left). These cabbies would be much better off just driving me than me figuring this out on my own. I follow his directions and, still, fail to see anything that looks familiar. I come across the entrance to the subway station one stop over from Seoul Station and decide to just take that--I knew how to walk to the hotel from Seoul Station. So I go, and of course the exit I need it a huge walk away. But I manage to get there and find my way back, eventually to the hotel.

And that was my final Seoul adventure! (Well, at least until I inevitably do something stupid trying to get to the airport tomorrow.) I will only have a couple more posts to this blog--one being a "journey home" post and the other being a kind of epilogue to the whole trip. So keep an eye out on those, also to be posted this week!

Leaving Gunpo

Saying goodbye is never easy... especially when the universe makes things so difficult on you when you're just trying to go.

So I was originally supposed to work today (Monday, March 3), which was the first day of school. But because there would be nothing for me to do, and it would be overall rather silly for me to go to work on that final day, the principal let me stay home. So Friday (February 28) was my final day at work. My co-teachers took me out to a farewell lunch at a Korean pizza place called Mr. Pizza and then decided to go to my filthy, still-in-the-process-of-cleaning apartment because they had to get a view of things for the school to take or leave. You see, normally, the tenant would just pack their stuff and be on his or her way when the time came. However, our school is going from 2 to 1 foreign teacher this year... and that person is replacing Naomi rather than me. This means my apartment is going to just a regular Korean person, so the school has to confiscate everything that belongs to them and clean up everything else for the regular tenant. I'll get back to this in a minute. That afternoon, I said my goodbyes to two of my three co-teachers (I'd be seeing the third on Monday again), and we took a nice couple pictures.

Left to Right: SangMyeong, me, Yun-June, Sun-Young

Left to Right: Naomi, me, Yun-June, Sun-Young
That evening, I had a farewell dinner with Tim and Naomi. It was rather delicious--a donkatsu place in Suwon that Naomi had heard about. But it on top of the greasy pizza earlier that day, gave me a pretty bad stomachache, so I ended up cutting the night short and going home early. And so I spent the next 2 days juggling relaxing and cleaning. I did the bulk of the cleaning on Sunday after heading into Sanbon one last time. The place was pretty spotless, if I say so myself.

But then Monday came. We had gotten in contact with the internet people to come today to disconnect my internet and have me pay the final bill. We'd also be canceling the gas and my phone and all that, as well. Around 1-ish, the gas guy came. I signed and paid for it and the guy left after just a few minutes. But I was really waiting for the internet guy, who was supposed to show up around 2. But eventually, about 2:15, it was my co-teacher SangMyeong and some guys from the school showed up (and she complimented my cleaning job and said it looked like a totally different place than just a couple days ago--she was actually stunned). And this is when things got crazy.

They weren't just switching my bed into Naomi's room (mine's bigger) and taking the microwave and few little knick-knacks that the school owned. Oh no. They were turning the whole place over. Anything that wasn't nailed down or attached to the wall was removed. Everything I was just gonna leave behind, like all the stuff that was left behind for me? Tossed. And more. Bedsheets, mats, pillows, covers, hangers, my old coat, the old converter boxes... all of it was thrown away. They took the desks, tables, chairs, sofa, TV, drying racks (both clothes and dishes), and everything in the kitchen cupboards. We gave a handful of stuff to Naomi, but everything else was thrown out. By the end, it was a completely empty room. Not a single bit of anything was left anywhere in the entire apartment. And it was filthy again from the dust under the big furniture, so I had to sweep that up... but I had to borrow from the maintenance crew because they'd taken my broom, too. This whole process took at least a couple hours. And during this whole time, the internet guy still had not come. In fact, they had also accidentally taken the internet box, so SangMyeong had to run after them to get it back.

The highlight of all of this was something that was a long-time coming. Some of you might know my dislike of a grouchy old man who works in the garage area downstairs, the same area where I have to take my recyclables. Early on when I first got to Korea, every time I'd go to take stuff down, he's either hover over me or yell at me. Or both. I really didn't like him. It came to the point I didn't take stuff down for quite a while, in which I began accumulating quite a bit of stuff that needed to be taken down in chunks. And I decided to do this on Sunday nights when he wouldn't be there to bother me (this practice led to my being locked out of my apartment last month, if you recall, when I forgot my passcode while taking some stuff down). Anyway, during one of our ventures down to discard numerous empty bottles, mostly old laundry detergent bottles and cleaning supplies the tenant before me had left, we had another run-in with this man. SangMyeong (SM from this point on) was with me, and he proceeds to yell at her about her separating of items. Ohhh boy. You don't mess with SM. I've seen her mad in a classroom. So she fusses back at him. Oh, it was a glorious moment, a moment that made dealing with that man all year worth it. We talked about him again in the elevator, and she said he was just a mean, rude old man who yells at everyone and isn't like most Korean men. She felt my pain.

Anyway, we eventually went to go wait in my empty apartment for the internet guy to show up. She had called, and they were sending someone over. After they were late again, she calls, but the guy was just down the hallway. So he comes in, takes the box, and starts to leave. Uh... something's wrong with this picture. I have to pay my cancellation fee still. But apparently there's some kind of mixup and, long story short, SM has to wait and get a bank account number from the company to email to me so I can make my final payment online probably tomorrow.

So now it was time to cancel my phone. Apparently in Korea, they really don't want you to do this. You can sign up for a contract in any given store, but you can only cancel a contract in a few specific ones (some stores are owned by the company and most are owned by individual managers... you can only cancel with one of the former). So we had to try and locate one of these, which fortunately was actually almost right next to the store we activated it at. I had to pay a huge cancellation fee, though, because they only had like a 3-year contract, and I didn't even finish 1 (I got the phone like a month in). So... yeah. Boo on that.

SM was pretty tired after a supposedly long day on her end, so she asked me if I would be OK with just taking the train home instead of her driving me back. Regardless of whether or not she was actually tired or making an excuse, I knew this was gonna happen, so I wasn't thrown off by this whatsoever. I said my final goodbye and took the train home... to begin the second part of what turned out to be a much longer day that it really needed to be.

So by the time I get home, it's coming up on 5 PM. I have a backpack and 3 suitcases (two big ones and a little one), as well as the walking stick I got at Mt. Fuji. I'm able to put the stick in a suitcase pocket--sticking up and out, but at least in a way I don't have to carry it--and place the small bag on the top of the biggest bag. I would say in one hand I have roughly 70 pounds, and in the other I have around 50. And on my back, I'd wager maybe 30. Altogether, I'm lugging somewhere close to 150 pounds--over half my own body weight.

Let the trek begin.

The walk from my apartment to the train station usually takes me roughly 10 minutes. I'm pretty sure today took me closer to 20, if not slightly more. The bags were heavy. My arms and hands were already exhausted. The small bag kept falling off the big bag. The wheels on the medium bag didn't work right. I had to keep figuring out how to best work these things. And on top of all that, I was getting countless stares from basically every Korean person I passed.

I did eventually make it to the station and got in the elevator to take me up. And after a bit of confusion, I used another elevator to take me down onto the platform just in time for the train that would take me to Seoul Station, where I got a hotel to spend the next day and a half. It's like 50 degrees, and I'm sweating from this workout. Thankfully, the train isn't really packed. I have to stand for a bit, but then I'm able to snag a seat at the end so I can keep my bags to the side and hold on to them.

After about 45 minutes or so, the train reaches Seoul Station and--of course--the elevator is on the complete opposite side of what turned out to be a WAY too long platform. It felt like it took me 10 minutes just to get to the other side. And even when I did... I saw no elevator. I had to backtrack slightly until I saw where I'd passed it. I make it up, and a guy helps me through the special exit since I had all the bags. I find yet another elevator to take me up to the street level... and discover, yet again, I'm on the complete opposite side of the lot from where the taxis are. So I carry these loads all the way over to try and find a taxi to take me to the hotel. I get in one of the black deluxe taxis (which I'm pretty sure I read not to get into when I first came to Korea, as they'll rip you off on price... but at this point, I truly did not care). We get the bags into the car and, you guessed it... he has no idea where my hotel is. So after a bit of deliberating (and even having to write it out in Hangeul so he could read it... I'll admit... I was a bit proud of that one), he finally gets a general idea and takes me there. By the time I get there and get to my room, it's just about 7 PM.

The hotel is a pretty nice place. And it turns out, I got a free upgrade to a suite because they ran out of the regular rooms. Which I'm all fine with considering the price I ended up having to pay for a regular. Let's just say it was more a price deserving of a suite. But I was just happy to be on the final leg of this whole thing. And I believe there's an airport bus across the street, so I don't have to bother about taking the train come Wednesday. Oh, and I also finally got to watch the Oscars... and I did pretty well! 21 correct predictions out of 24. And Ellen was a great host.

And... that's all I have to say on that.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Final Thoughts: Cambodia & Thailand

Now that everything's all said and done, what are my final thoughts on these two countries and/or trips? Let's first look at it one country at a time.


If you exclude things like DisneySea in Tokyo and the Great Wall of China in Beijing--because how do you seriously compete with things like those--Cambodia was probably one of the best vacation experiences I've ever had.

First, the cultural experience alone is completely fascinating. The countryside scenes feel like a whole other world, a vision most people will probably only ever seen on television or in movies but still not really grasp just what it's like until they see if first hand. But then you get into Siem Reap which is a whole other kind of fascinating. It's the capitol city of the Siem Reap province, but it only has roughly 175,000 people (the province as a whole has something like 900,000). It's a place that's hard to describe. The city is small with no big buildings and looks a bit run down. But the closer you get to the center of the city, the more vibrant and westernized it gets. This is basically the French Quarter of town, hopping with tourists (I seriously saw more white people in Siem Reap than almost anywhere else combined within the last year. This place is a serious tourism hot spot). And I've already described numerous times what the streets and transportation looks like.

Again, the people here are ridiculously kind, friendly, pleasant, and any other positive adjective you could give their personalities. Even if they had some ulterior motives, like trying to score some extra cash in varying degrees (excessive offers for Tuk Tuks, massages, and prostitutes at the top of the list), they would do so in the friendliest possible ways. With only one exception that I found (the massage girls in the back road), nobody was aggressive or rude. Also, almost all Cambodians seem to speak English. I never once found myself in a situation where I couldn't communicate. Every single person I came across spoke relatively fluent English.

Around November, when I started making plans for the trip, I contacted Mr. Sam's Tuk Tuk about basically chauffeuring me during my trip. He also had set packages and prices for different places and things to see/do. We spoke on and off for the last 4 months. When it came into the last couple weeks before the trip, he started sending me emails about possible changes to the itinerary. He had some personal obligations come up, and he kept me updated on the situations. Things flip-flopped for a while, but I appreciated that he kept me in the loop the whole time and was completely intent on helping me have the best possible trip. He hired a personal tour guide and had a friend act as driver for the first day of the tour since he couldn't be there. But then the second day it was him and the same guide. And both were wonderful. I would fully endorse using Mr. Sam if you were to ever come here.

I also fully endorse using the place I stayed--The Golden Temple Villa. The staff was absurd in how welcoming, positive, helpful, etc., they were. I mean, even the cleaning ladies seems to be having a good time when I came back the one day, and they were cleaning. They acknowledged you every time they saw you. And if it's your birthday while you're here, they will even come to your room and sing you happy birthday (I heard them do so to a guy down the hall--not sure if anything else came with it the song, since they were there for at least 5 minutes chatting afterwards). And they give you two free bottles of water daily (since you can't drink from the tap). They also give you a farewell bottle of water and a gift scarf, as well as take a picture with you, which they emailed to me later. For 3 nights, I only paid $45 bucks, and everything was perfectly serviceable for that price. Keep in mind, though, it's not a hotel. It's more a guest house. The room was a decent size. There was only one outlet I could find, and it was in an awkward place. Your room kept very cool (cold even). The bathroom dried quickly after a shower. And, even more importantly, the restaurant food was actually quite good, especially for the price. It's also in a fantastic location close to many good areas, though your Tuk Tuk drivers might not be able to find it on the first go.

All in all, if you can stand to be covered in sweat for however long you'd visit (minus the times you're in your room), I strongly recommend checking out Cambodia. It's a beautiful albeit very poor country filled with fascinating culture at every turn. Everything is priced really cheap. The food is good. The people are great. There was very, very little to dislike about this trip. If you're interested in different cultures and could choose only one place in Southeast Asia to visit (and don't want to go to China and/or the Great Wall), come to Siem Reap, Cambodia.


Despite the fact I only stayed in Thailand a day longer than in Cambodia, it feels like a lifetime ago that I was there... mostly because so much seemed to happen in Thailand. I would rank Thailand along the same lines as my Beijing trip, but with much nicer people (which makes all the difference). The temples and palaces were all pretty cool and interesting, but as time goes by, they kinda blend together. Even doing my write-ups, I had to double check which things happened where and in what order. Don't get me wrong--they're all pretty stunning to look at and be amongst. But over the last year, I've seen so many temples and palaces and mythological spirit animals and Buddhas that my brain starts to melt after a while. I think that's why I liked Cambodia so much, because its temples and palaces were so different to the other ones I've seen. (Though the long-tail boat trip down the Bangkok canals was rather unique and pretty cool.)

That being said, what made it all worth it and infinitely more interesting and entertaining than it might have otherwise was my tour guide, Pepsi. I went through the website Travel Hub (who are a bit pricey for a solo traveler, but whatever), and Pepsi was the guide they gave me. I've raved about him before, but let me say it again... the guy is pretty dang personable, like you're just hanging out with a friend rather than some guy who is just doing a job and moving you along from one place to the next. Though I did keep hearing that in the years he's done this job, I'm one of the very few (like less than 3) he's even done that was solo. Most are families or big groups. So that might have had something to do with it. Still, no matter where we were--temple, palace, or otherwise--he made it fun.

There was one day I had without him, though, which was my birthday when I saw the Siam Niramit show. And that whole thing was pretty cool. It's about 80 minutes long and gives you a brief look into the history, culture, and mythology of Thailand... all in the single most stunning stage performance I've ever seen. They did things on that stage I still can't describe, and the parts I can were so grand in scale that you just have to see it to believe it. If you're ever in Bangkok, this is easily the one thing not to miss.

However, I'd honestly say the most memorable stuff of my Thai trip happened outside of Bangkok in Kanchanaburi. From going down a river in the rain to being at the Bridge on the River Kwai to riding a train down the Burma Railway (and then having said train die right near the end point)... it was all really cool and definitely memorable. That final day, though... Erawan National Park and Tiger Temple are really, really cool (in the awesome sense, because it was exhaustingly hot that day). If you ever go to Thailand, I would strongly suggest checking out these places... and bring your swimsuit for Erawan. I think my biggest regret of the trip was not swimming there.

In fact, whereas I feel maybe 3-5 days is perfect for Siem Reap/Cambodia, I'd say 2 weeks is probably a good amount of time for Thailand. The first week should be Bangkok, Kanchanaburi, and Chiang Mai (which I didn't go to). You can easily do Bangkok and Kanchanaburi in 4 days and then head to Chiang Mai for another 2-3 days. And the second week should be the islands and beaches (which I also didn't go to).

The people in Thailand are nice, but there was also sometimes a sense that they're just doing their job (there were some exceptions to this, the main ones being Pepsi and anyone he encountered that he knew, as he seems to bring out the best in people). But for example, the workers at my guest house in Bangkok (which I'll get to in a minute) were kind, but there was a type of blankness to them, like they were going through the motions. Even when they sang me happy birthday, you could tell they just wanted it to be over as soon as possible so they could go back to their corner and hide away. All in all, though, I never met any rude people that I can think of. There was, though, a considerable decline between Cambodia and Thailand in how many people could speak English and how well. Even Pepsi wasn't completely fluent, and I had to word a few things carefully when I tried to explain something. Strangely, the only issues the language barrier gave me in Thailand was when I tried to show directions in Thai. This just confused cabbies, especially the one who couldn't read his own language.

The two guest houses I stayed at were nice. The first was Phranakorn Nornlen, which is a place pretty difficult to find as you have to travel down a couple different alleyways to get to it. But the design and layout of the place is fantastic. You'll forget that you're actually in the middle of a bustling metropolis. And it had pretty much anything you could ask for. If you're looking for high quality at a cheap price and don't mind being a bit out of the way to get there, this is a solid place to choose. The hotel in Kanchanaburi was actually the only true hotel I stayed at the entire trip, and there was that noticeable escalation in shininess and artificiality that comes with hotels over the quaintness of the guest houses. It was called Sabai@Kan, and it was still a really nice place. I can't tell you to what degree as I stayed there less than 24 hours. But in the time I did spend there, it seemed really clean, nice, and pleasant, and with a legitimately friendly staff and good food.

So really, Thailand was a mixed bag for me. None of it was a negative experience (except the heat, but that was to be expected. And also Bangkok traffic, which was a nightmare). I would recommend checking it out if you're interested in going, but I also recommend putting more focus on things like Kanchanaburi or the beaches than Bangkok. Bangkok isn't bad, and there's definitely some worthwhile things to do there, but you can knock most of the big stuff out in a day and a half to two days (major temples and palaces in the morning and Siam Niramit at night... boom--the essentials done).

Special Note

I did want to bring up one more thing that I didn't talk about much in my blog posts, because I didn't want to put much worry on people reading. And that's the current Bangkok Anti-Government Protests. The presence was definitely there throughout the city. There were signs and notes to tourists and travelers all over the place. Traffic is apparently normally terrible in Bangkok, but it was made infinitely worse by the protesters. The first time going into the city toward my guest house, my driver and I passed at least a couple hundred cops in full riot gear preparing to go down and deal with the protesters. And that same day, soon after that, one of those cops (I presume) made some big news. A protester threw a grenade at the wall of cops. The officer tried to kick the grenade away to save his fellow officers, but in the process got his legs nearly blown off. He was in stable condition last I read, but of course his legs were pretty badly injured. Now, I never saw any of the protests, nor was I ever in any danger. But you could still definitely feel it all in the vibe of the city. Had it not been for the protests, I might have ventured out more on my own. But with my habit of getting lost, I was a bit more wary to do so. Still, despite everything, I'm not upset I went to Bangkok... and I can now even say I was there during these events!


I guess to wrap things up, I'll say that I'm really glad I went to Cambodia. It wasn't even on my radar when I was thinking about trips I could take during my stay in Korea. I just happened to come across the idea by chance after the Philippines were hit with that typhoon. And it was probably the best choice I'd made. Such a cultural experience, far beyond my expectations. Thailand, while not equally fascinating, was still definitely a worthwhile trip. There was some gorgeous scenery and some fun events, and I even got to touch some tigers! But I think if I ever go back, my itinerary would be quite a bit different (and if I had to do it all over again... I'd still do the same things, but I'd give myself more time to be there to experience a couple more places, like anywhere with water). It was a great trip all around, and I'm glad I took it.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Thailand (Kanchanaburi): Day 5

This was, by far, the longest and most exhausting day I had… maybe even in the last year. It started at 6:45 AM. Pepsi and the driver would be around at 8, and I wanted to have some time to get ready, pack everything up, and maybe even have a little breakfast.

Unfortunately, despite waking up early, I still got behind schedule and was running late. It was nearly 8 by the time I had finished getting ready, and I still hadn't packed up my stuff yet. So I threw on my last set of clean clothes--including my jeans (the day before had had the coolest temperatures of the whole trip, so I figured it could hurt).

The second I stepped outside, I knew I'd made a mistake. It was 8 in the morning, and the heat was already hitting hard. And Pepsi, even though he was usually 10-15 minutes early, ended up being about 10 minutes late. The front desk ladies practically had to beg me to go down to the restaurant to wait. But I didn't want to have breakfast and waste time for when he showed up. Just the previous day, he had told me a story of how a group he had taken a long time ago kept postponing their leaving. They were supposed to leave at 8, and it wasn't until 11 that they all decided to come down together. And then they needed breakfast. So, yeah, I didn't want to pull that on him, too.

Anyway, they finally show up, and they ladies call me back upstairs. I'm already sweating as I get into the van. First up for the day was Erawan National Park and waterfall. It was about an hour away. And when we finally got there, Pepsi asked me if I'd like to swim. I did bring a swimsuit with me just in case, but I didn't feel like pulling it out and changing into it and hiking in wet clothes. Plus, I didn't have a towel with me. So I said no.

After my decision to wear jeans, this was my second mistake. (I was also wearing an undershirt and a long sleeve button-down, but I had rolled the sleeves up. It was the only clean shirt I'd had left.) Let's just say before this hike would be through, I would be soaked from head to toe and was mighty uncomfortable. And besides maybe wet socks, there's nothing quite so uncomfortable as sweaty jeans.

So we start the ascent. When I say hike, I mean it. Not quite Mt. Fuji hike, but it was still going up the side of a hill and/or mountain. The waterfall has like 8 or 9 levels to it, so you have to keep going up to get to each new level. It started off mildly easy with just a ton of stairs (some more steep than others). Then it got a little more difficult. And more difficult still as we were climbing up rocks. Basically, we were trekking through a jungle (with a path), and it wasn't always the simplest path. It was about halfway up to the 5th level that Pepsi decided to tell me he was surprised, as most Americans ask him to stop around Level 3. I was one of the very, very few American who had decided to go as high as I did. Needless to say, that was good enough for me. Come Level 5, I told him I was happy to go back down from there. He said it was probably for the best, as it got even more difficult and more steep from that point on, and I was already about to die. You can even see the exhaustion in my face in some of my pictures. Speaking of…

Monkey looking for some food.
We eventually got back to the van. We had actually come to this first because it would be better to miss the huge crowd that eventually came, so I could get better pictures. I'm also thankful we came earlier because the heat would only escalate from there. So as we get to the van, Pepsi asks me if I'd like to change clothes now, to which I quickly obliged. I just switched to my shorts, which made things so much better. I would have to switch back into my jeans when I got to Seoul the next day, though, because of cold temperatures. But we'll get to that point later.

Despite all of that complaining--much like with Fuji--the end result was worth the hassle. The scenery was gorgeous, and the waterfalls were pretty cool. My one regret is that I didn't change into my swimsuit, because (for starters) the water looked amazing and rather refreshing.

We finished up with that, and then it was time to head for Hellfire Pass. This is the area of the Burma Railway where they had to cut and blow through mountain and rock to make paths for the train. A lot of people died here. Pepsi warned me there would be more walking, but assured me there was only 170-something steps. Oh, good. So after the museum portion, I decided on with the show, and we headed down the wooden path that led to the pass. Honestly, going down was easy. It was the going up that was killer. But the pass itself was pretty interesting, as well.

After all this, it was around noon and already time for lunch. Pepsi had been asking me a lot over the last few days about my thoughts on Thai and spicy food, to which I replied I liked it and didn't really think it was that spicy. I was used to spicy food. Turns out, he was kind of testing waters to see if he would take me to a place not a tourist trap buffet as we'd been going to. It was a local joint off the side of the road where Thai people actually came to eat. Authentic Thai food with actual Thai spices, not the watered down westernized stuff. He was actually really worried that I wouldn't be able to handle the spiciness, because the majority of foreigners can't. But we did it anyway.

We got a handful of different things, but only one that was the average Thai hot. It was wild boar with a red curry/pepper paste sauce (homemade by the owner of the place). Pepsi told me to just try a little first and then I could have more if I wanted. I tried it, and… just as I thought, it barely phased me. I actually didn't even break a sweat, which was a miracle considering I hadn't stopped sweating since leaving my hotel room that morning. Yeah, it had a kick to it, but it was a good kick. But I've definitely had much spicier (unless my tongue has just gotten used to it over the last year). Either way, I actually thought it was the best dish we had at that lunch.

Fish and chicken soup in a coconut milk sauce.
The red one to the side of the fish is the wild boar.

Chicken and noodle
After lunch, we stopped by another small waterfall where tourists come to picnic and swim. That only took about 5-10 minutes tops.

And then it was time for the one thing I was probably looking most forward to… Tiger Temple. It's basically a wildlife resort full of, you guessed it, tigers. And other animals like pigs, water buffalo, etc. But the biggest attraction was the tigers. They raise the tigers from birth to domesticate them… but it's also pretty clear they have them tranquilized for the tourists, since you're getting right down with them for the pictures. Yeah, it was kinda sad to see the Tigers treated as they were… but at the same time, I got to touch tigers. They had a worker hold your hand and take you through to each tiger, sit you down, and another person would take pictures with your camera. Then the guide would take your hand again and take you to the next, etc.

So we left there by roughly 2:30 or 2:45-ish. It would take 3 hours to get from there to the airport in Bangkok, so we were on our way. We did make one pit stop, and Pepsi bought me a snack (a kind of coconut desert. The texture was somewhere in between jello and rubber… somewhat like that old GAK slime from the 90s). It was actually pretty good. 

But then about 5:45, we had finally reached the airport.

And my adventure would finally begin.

OK, so let me explain what happened here. When looking for my exit flight, there were strangely very few solid options from Bangkok to Seoul. Almost all of them had like 12-hour layovers (at minimum) in between, no matter the airline. The best possible time I could get… was a 2:55 AM flight with a 3-hour layover in Macau. It would put me in Seoul by about 2-ish PM on Sunday.

But, as you can probably gather… that still left me at the airport at 6 PM with a flight that didn't leave until basically 3 AM. That's 9 hours. And what I soon came to learn is that you can't actually check in or check your luggage until the counter opens… 3 hours before the flight. So, if you do the math, that means I had to wait in the main lobby of the airport for 6 hours until midnight before I could do anything. I had to sit, for 6 hours, in the busy check-in lobby in over-crowded sitting areas (from which I moved to and from multiple different ones throughout the evening). Also, there are no plug outlets in this area (or, as I would later discover, in any area in the entire airport). This means that when my laptop ran out of battery… that was it. If my phones died, that was it. If my mp3 player died… you guessed it. 

Also keep in mind that all of what happened from this point on happened on top of the day I just finished explaining--the walking, hiking, heat exhaustion, etc. I'd been awake for nearly 12 hours at this point and had done enough stuff that would knock me out on an average day. That being said...

I had 6 hours of sitting and limited battery lives. I bought a 24-hour Boingo Hotspot password so I could at least attempt to grab some wifi on my laptop… though it was terrible wifi that could barely load a webpage. I ended up spending like 10% of battery life just waiting for one page to load. Needless to say, my laptop ran out of battery really fast, even though I did try and stretch it out throughout the night.  I also didn't want to turn my phones on and waste the batteries because I needed them for when I got back to Korea. This basically left my mp3 player, which fortunately had an ebook on there that I was listening to.

I also remembered, after a couple hours, that I'd also brought my 3DS with me, so I played a game for a couple hours. But come around 10 or 11 PM, I was getting exhausted. I was tired of doing the stuff I was doing as well as being tired of doing nothing. I was bored out of my mind. And it didn't help that this huge family of like 20, mostly little kids (I dunno if they were Thai or Cambodian… they seemed Cambodian), were taking up over half the seats around me and being really noisy and annoying. And I was pretty irritable at this point, which also didn't help matters much.

I tried to rest my eyes at various points, but it was hard to really sleep there. When I did eventually stand up to leave, the whole family just kinda paused and stared at me walk away. It was rather awkward. But it was like 11:45 PM and the counter would open at midnight, so I was gonna go stand nearby and wait there.

And then a whole bunch of people--apparently another large family and/or group--had been waiting there, too, and all jumped in front of me before I could get in line. And they (even to the annoyance of the workers there) took up all 3-4 open counters for the flight, not letting anyone else get in and all mingling amongst themselves and flip-flopping luggage, etc.

But I did finally manage to get through. I was pretty starving at this point (no restaurants or anything in the lobby area), even though it was after midnight (and technically after 2 AM Korean time, so my body was doubly tired). After getting through everything, I walked a further distance past my gate and made my next mistake of the night--Burger King. I haven't had Burger King in… I don't know how many years. And I haven't had food this greasy in quite some time, either. But I was hungry, and it was the best option. So I made myself absurdly sick and went back to the gate area.

Now things got even more interesting. My gate was something like D8. However, there was a D8 and a D8A right next to each other, and D8 was closed. It was very confusing. I asked someone, and they told me, as if I were an idiot, that boarding doesn't start for like an hour… so that's the reason the gate sitting area was locked up. So me, along with everyone else for that flight, had to sit around in the hallway area in seats or on the floor. And a ton of people were being really rude and laying across like 4 seats to sleep and not allowing anyone else to sit there. I did grab a seat, though, and managed to maybe get in like 5-10 minutes of not very deep sleep.

The gate opened finally, and we moved to go sit in the waiting area at the gate for ages until they let us through there, too. To speed things up here, let's just say things were annoying even up until we were walking into the plane. This first plane had put me in the Emergency Exit row. There were very few people actually on this flight, so a bunch moved around to sit with people they knew. I ended up having the whole row to myself, and it was an extended row so I had like triple the leg room. This flight was about 2 and a half hours, and I actually managed to sleep through almost the whole thing.

But I was still exhausted as we landed in Macau, and I had a 3-hour layover. I hoped maybe there would be some lines we'd have to go through that would take time, and I wouldn't just be sitting for 3 hours. Nope… it went super crazy fast, and I did end up sitting there for 3 hours. (And some Burger King disagreeing with my system.) Fortunately, I got another half hour or so of light sleep. I played more 3DS and also fidgeted with my laptop until my battery was officially too low to bother with. When the sun finally came up, I looked out the window to see a pretty cool sunrise in the Macau airport.

And then I just walked around the shops a bit when they finally opened. I was super excited to see in one of the Duty Free shops that they had re-released action figures based on the original design of the 80s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. I came so close to buying one, but they were just re-released updates and not original figures, so I didn't bother.

And the time finally came for the next flight. This one would be longer--about 3 and a half hours--from Macau to Seoul. I also managed to grab a bit of sleep on this one, too. Though now my sleep pattern is probably all out of whack considering I basically slept off-and-on from 5 AM to 2 PM (Korean time).

The luck fairy must have been in a good mood today, though. Upon reaching Seoul, I was like the third in line at Immigration, meaning I was there and out in about 5 minutes. And my bag was practically the first one out of the carousel, already going around by the time I got there. Which has never happened. But I suppose that's what happens when you're one of the first people to check your bag when the counter opens. I also ended up catching the train to Seoul Station right before the doors closed. But I'm getting ahead of myself now. First… it's cold in Korea, so I had to change.

I found a bathroom and took the big stall to try and fit all my stuff inside. And… my jeans were still mildly soaked. Not only that, but they were freezing from being in the cargo hold for hours. Needless to say, it was incredibly unpleasant putting those things back on. But I had to--I couldn't wear shorts outside. I also put my jacket on, which I had left in my suitcase, as well.

The last thing of note for this story is as I reach the platform in Seoul Station to head back towards Gunpo, a guy comes up and asks if I'm American. We strike up a conversation--he's Korean-American. He'd been adopted in America and had come to Korea to discover his roots. He'd been there 3 weeks and was a bit overwhelmed by everything. So we just chatted about Korean culture and the language and people and all that. He was a pretty friendly guy. He was off to discover Itaewon, which he'd heard about and wanted to check out. He was off the train after a few stops, so we didn't get to talk long, but it was an interesting interaction, especially at the end of such a long day.

And that's about it! I got home right around 5 PM (3 PM Thai time), meaning I had literally been traveling for just over 24 hours straight with maybe 4 hours sleep mixed in there somewhere. It was quite a long day, and I'm sure I'll sleep well tonight.