Up the Colombian Coast: Santa Marta & Taganga

Early morning in Taganga, Colombia

I definitely shouldn’t have tried to start blogging again during the holidays.  Now that they’re over, stories of Colombia await.  Up first: Santa Marta.

Santa Marta is an improbable city nestled between the bright blue Caribbean Sea and the Sierra Nevadas, the highest coastal mountain range in the world.  Palm trees and cacti dot the landscape.  The winter winds blow ferociously.

This port city is the site of the first Spanish settlement in Colombia.  It’s also one of the best jumping off points for nearby Tayrona National Park and the 6-day trek to La Ciudad Perdida, Colombia’s lost city that predates Machu Picchu by 650 years.

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Chuseok Vacation – Kyoto, Japan

Every fall, Korea observes its annual harvest holiday, Chuseok.  During Chuseok (추석), Koreans leave the cities and return to their ancestral hometowns.  In many ways, it is similar to American Thanksgiving (without the turkey!).

Unfortunately Chuseok fell on a Sunday this year (so much for the three-day holiday…), but we still managed to take a trip.  Andy and I choose Kyoto, Japan.

This post is very picture-heavy.  If you’re interested in seeing my photos, click the following link.

Andy at a ramen shop
conveyor belt sushi – this one is tuna
at Fushimi Inari, a Shinto shrine famous for its thousands of orange gates
5-story wooden pagoda at Toji Temple
maiko (apprentice geisha) outside of Gion Square, a well-known theater in the neighborhood
sukiyaki (Japanese hotpot with meat and vegetables) at an izakaya (Japanese pub)
Tenryuji, Temple of the Heavenly Dragon
Andy in the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove
Salmon roe (fish eggs) for sale at Nishiki Market

The trip was super fast 🙁 although it might have been a blessing in disguise, because Japan is certainly the most expensive country I’ve ever visited.  Even more than Switzerland in my opinion, although some people might disagree…

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Thailand: One Night in Bangkok

The final day and a half of my Thailand trip was spent in Bangkok (Krung Thep to locals).  After almost a week in island paradise, Bangkok presented a sharp contrast to the relaxed lifestyle.  Like any city, the City of Angels was hot, noisy, crowded, and smelly.  But it was also full of beautiful sights, delicious food, and friendly (and not-so-friendly) people.

As with the rest of this trip, nothing was planned in advance.  We caught a cab and told the driver to take us to Khao San, the popular tourist street.  Near this area we found a hostel called Wild Orchid, which I would recommend.  Definitely cheaper than the islands, if you can believe it!

While in Bangkok, we
– saw the reclining Buddha at Wat Pho
– were approached by gem scammers but avoided trouble and scored a cheap tuk-tuk ride and free visit to the Golden Mount (as well as a free admission to a fake Buddha)
– explored the infamous Khao San road… on a Buddhist holiday on which the sale of alcohol was prohibited! A few bars paid off the police and served alcohol in coffee cups, however.
– took lots and lots of riverboats

We only had one night… so we made what we could of it!

Khao San
Making our pad thai
in a tuk-tuk
Wat Arun from across the river
in front of the reclining Buddha at Wat Pho
Plinking satang (essentially Thai pennies) into 108 pots for good luck
A Thai man and a Buddhist monk
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Thailand: Return to the Phi Phi Islands

One of the greatest parts of my trip was camping at Maya Bay on Ko Phi Phi Leh.  The Beach, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, was actually filmed on this very beach.  Every night, Maya Bay Camping organizes an exclusive trip to the island.  Included is transportation, several meals, camping equipment (no tents, the weather is perfect and there is definitely no need), and lots of fun activities.  Of course, having the entire island to ourselves was the real draw.  My group had 17 people plus some staff, all on an uninhabited island.  In the daytime, the tourists come by the boatload and congest the place, but in the evening – it was ours.  Just after sunrise, the water was so clear we could see a small shark chasing a school of fish.  It was an unreal experience.

Our boat
To access the island, we had to swim to this location despite the choppy waves
Maya Bay
Sunset on Maya Bay

We also did some things on Ko Phi Phi Don, the inhabited tourist haven.  We decided to spend one more night on Hat Yao (Long Beach), as we had done before.  The next day we had to catch the ferry to Phuket so we could fly to Bangkok!

Climbing to the Phi Phi Viewpoint
At the Viewpoint.  The thin strip of land is Tonsai Village.
Killing time before camping… those are fish nibbling on my feet.  Good for your skin, supposedly?
Site of our post-camping Thai massage… a woman walked on Andy’s back! At Paradise Pearl, Hat Yao
Sunrise and Ko Phi Phi Leh (where we went camping the day before)

Read more about my trip:
Part 1 – Ko Phi Phi Don
Part 2 – Ko Lanta

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Thailand: Ko Lanta

After exploring Ko Phi Phi, we took the ferry to nearby Ko Lanta.  Ko Lanta is considerably larger than the Phi Phi islands, but it’s not quite as touristy.  Pair this mellow atmosphere with ongoing Ramadan (most of Ko Lanta’s residents are Muslim), and you get a sleepy slice of paradise.  Just what we wanted.

Our beachfront bungalow
Lanta Miami pool with ocean view
So close to the waves!

Due to rainy season, accommodations were ~50% off and definitely available.  Some resorts do close for the low season, but many remain open.  Upon disembarking, we took a free taxi to check out a resort.  We decided it wasn’t for us and went through the hassle of finding alternate transportation to check out another place (by alternate transportation I mean sitting in the back of an open pickup truck).  Finally we settled on the Lanta Miami Resort, full of beautiful bungalows, ocean views, and a great pool.  We decided to “splurge” and got a room literally 10 feet from the ocean waves (and poolside).  The bungalow cost 2000 baht, or about $65.  Amazing.

On Ko Lanta, we mostly relaxed at our resort, but one day we did rent a motorbike to fully explore the island.  Highly recommended, costs less than $8 for 24 hours.

Since everyone on Ko Lanta drives scooters, you can buy bottled gasoline at any roadside stand.
Ban Ko Lanta (Lanta Old Town)
Fill ‘er up
Typical architecture in Old Town; dates back to Arabic & Chinese trade routes between Phuket, Penang, & Singapore
Rubber tree plantations covered the interior parts of the island


Another highlight was eating at the Cook Kai restaurant.  We actually ate there both nights since it was so good! One of the best things I ate in Thailand was yam wunsen, a glass noodle salad with lots of citrus and fresh seafood.  Sooo good.

Cook Kai, best restaurant on Ko Lanta!

We left after two nights in order to return to Ko Phi Phi (Leh this time) for some isolated camping. Read about it here.

a beautiful sunset
one final balcony view

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Thailand: First leg of the trip

I recently went on an incredible trip to Thailand.  It would be way too long and wordy to properly explain here, so I’ll break it up into a few parts and share some photos.

The first day was spent mostly traveling (Daegu-> Shanghai -> Bangkok).  Less than eight hours after touchdown, Andy and I had a connecting flight to Phuket and then a ferry to Ko Phi Phi.  Needless to say, we were very tired!

Ko Phi Phi was absolutely beautiful.  It’s a tiny, touristy island located in the Andaman Sea.  It’s so small that there are no roads on the island, and so everyone travels by bicycle or push-cart.  To get to a different part of the island, it’s better to charter a longtail boat.  We got dropped off at the pier in Tonsai Village, but wanted a quieter locale.  100B (~$3) will get you to Hat Yao, Long Beach, which was perfect.

Longtail boats docked at the beach at Tonsai Village, Ko Phi Phi Don
Our bungalow! Paradise Pearl Resort, Hat Yao, Ko Phi Phi Don
Buddhist spirit house in Tonsai Village, Ko Phi Phi Don
Breakfast on Hat Yao, overlooking Ko Phi Phi Leh, the smaller sister island

As much as we loved Ko Phi Phi, we decided to check out Ko Lanta for the next few days.  My cousin and several friends raved about this quiet island, and for good reason.  After just one night, we boarded the ferry to Ko Lanta, which you can read about here.

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First trip to Busan

Early Saturday morning, Andy, Kaylyn and I caught the Mugungwa (Korail) train to Busan.  It cost 7,700 won (6.75 USD)  and took about 1 hour 30 minutes.  While not the most luxurious train, I would definitely recommend it and you can’t beat the low price.

As soon as we exited Busan Station, we could smell the sea and I was pretty happy! We took the subway to Jagalchi fish market, the largest fish market in South Korea.  After securing a delicious lunch for Kaylyn, we walked around admiring the beautiful and tasty seafood swimming around in buckets.  I was familiar with some of it, like crabs, oysters, and flounder, but other creatures were new to me.

Fish and other creatures for sale
Octopi
 
In America, this is just decoration.  In Korea, it’s food.

 Jagalchi Market is a sprawling, outdoor market, but it also has a few large buildings.  In these buildings you can choose your seafood and they’ll cook it for you on the spot.  All of the vendors were eager to please and hopefully entice a few new customers.

Posing with a baby shark… yum?

On top of the main building, there is an observation deck.  (Also included inside… market, restaurants, guest house, noraebang/karaoke room, screen golf, wedding hall… Korea is odd sometimes.)  Look how pretty Busan is on a clear day!!

Busan Port

After the market, we took the subway to Haeundae Beach.  In the summer, every inch of sand is covered with Korean beachgoers.  Luckily for us… it’s still spring! There were still a good amount of people on the beach, either sunbathing, throwing a frisbee, or walking their dogs.  I found it ironic that all of the Westerners took off their shoes, yet the Koreans kept theirs on… since in Korea, you have to take off your shoes in any number of locations.

Haeundae Beach

Later that evening, we visited another beach – Gwangalli.  Gwangalli has the pretty Diamond Bridge which lights up and changes colors at night.  It just so happened that a fishing festival was going on (Gwangalli Eobang Festival), so we watched some of that ridiculousness and even got to see some fireworks! In October, Busan holds a tremendous fireworks festival in that same spot, and I would definitely like to come back for that.

Gwangalli Eobang Festival
Diamond Bridge from Gwangalli Beach

That night we wandered around in a group, checking out the local restaurants and bars.  The next morning was overcast, so we didn’t do much other than wander up and down Haeundae.  Andy and I took the KTX (high speed) train home, which took only 40 minutes and cost 11,000 won (under 10 USD) and was a considerably smoother and quieter ride.  Both trains were great but obviously the KTX was nicer and more luxurious, not to mention faster.

Our group, from left to right: Claire, Emily, Kaylyn, Keir & me on top of course!
Somewhere between Busan and Daegu, taken from the KTX

Some details for any expats reading this:
– Stayed in the Story Guesthouse in Haeundae, would recommend for the price, level of service, and excellent amenities.
– Korail and KTX were both great, although Korail offered standing room and some guy sat on my armrest.  Negative points.
– Cabs in Busan are expensive and the subway takes forever! This is more of a complaint than actual advice.

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In South Korea!

I am writing this post from my kitchen in Daegu! After nearly 24 hours of traveling, Andy and I finally made it.  Our director was super nice and bought us some bread and cream cheese so when we woke up this morning we had something to eat (as well as plates, OJ/water, silverware, etc… very helpful).  We definitely need to go buy some things for our place, but we have enough for now.

Our flight from JFK to Seoul/Incheon was pretty nice.  We flew Asiana Airlines and I was overall impressed with their operation.  One of the best parts was the slippers they gave each passenger – so much more comfortable! That flight was about 14 hours, and then we had a ~2 hour layover in Seoul, which was just about enough time to go through immigration and customs.  The Daegu flight took less than an hour – we were happy about that!

When we arrived in Daegu, we were greeted by Ms. Lee (our direct supervisor) and two Korean coworkers.  They helped us with our bags and drove us to the school to meet Mr. Kim.  Everyone was super friendly and nice (and spoke pretty good English).  The school was BEAUTIFUL.  It’s a brand new building, and even has a Starbucks downstairs! It looked kind of like a high-end office building to me.  Anyway, then Mr. Kim drove us to our apartment and explained how to work a few things, such as our ondol heating* and keypad (Korean apartments don’t have keys – you enter a pin on the code on the door instead).

After he left, we made the bed and went to sleep… it was a long day!

*Ondol heating is different than we’re used to back home.  Instead of vents, there are pipes under the wooden floor.  You just turn the water on to whatever temperature you want.  It works surprisingly well.

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Inch By Inch

So a lot of small things have happened in the past week… we got our visa permission numbers which means we will get our visas very soon! Just have to go to the Korean Embassy in DC and go through an interview process.  Apparently this isn’t extremely formal but I’ll probably overprepare anyway.  I’m excited to have a second visa in my passport (currently have one for Spain)– makes me feel like a real world traveler! Ultimate goal: need extra pages.  We’ll probably do that this week.

Second thing – Beth emailed me a few details on our apartment.  We’re going to have one in the same complex as them, which is great.  It’ll be nice to have someone close by who knows the ropes… I’m afraid of small tasks such as using a washing machine since it’s all in Korean! We’re going to have a three bedroom apartment with a balcony.  I’ve been brainstorming uses for the two extra bedrooms.  Sure, we could go the normal route and each have an office or something, but we could also have a giant ballpit.  Only time will tell (read: Andy will put his foot down).

Once we get our visas, Mr. Kim is going to buy our plane tickets.  I can’t believe we’re getting closer and closer to our departure (92 days!).  It doesn’t feel quite real yet, but I know it will soon.  Then there will be the biggest challenge of all… packing…

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