The Day the Fireworks Were Canceled

I’ve been attending a lot of festivals recently.  Before I even came to Korea, I knew about Busan’s annual fireworks festival, which is one of the best.  I was super excited and planned on going for months.  Finally, the date rolled around and I went.  Of course, that same day, we had some torrential rain and it was canceled.  I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.

Found him.

That doesn’t mean I wasted a day in Busan! Emily, Andy, and I visited Shinsegae Centum City, the largest department store in the world.  It was tremendous… 14 floors, including a golf course, a park, a movie theater, an ice rink, a spa, a wax museum, tons of restaurants and shops, and more.  The basement even has a replica of the Trevi Fountain in Rome.

We were there for a bit of shopping, but afterwards we had a some lunch (next to the ice rink, naturally).  While wandering around, we realized we could do a package deal on Madame Tussaud’s and the Busan Aquarium – both places I’d never been.  We decided to go for it!

Andy and one of his neighbors

Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum was a bit small, but I was surprised by how lifelike most of the replicas were.  A few were pretty poor, but these were rare.  Being Korea, everything was made into the biggest photo op possible, including props such as wigs, hats, boas, microphones, etc.

Group shot!

Next stop: Busan Aquarium in Haeundae.  This aquarium is right next to the sea, and it was crazy to see how massive the waves were due to the storm.  We ducked inside for cover and explored.  The best part was the underwater tunnel, where you could see sharks and other creatures swimming overhead.  Busan also offers scuba diving in the shark tank, something I am considering!

hermit crab in a clear shell

Since the festival was canceled, we caught KTX back to Daegu and ended the night downtown.  It was fun to see everyone’s Halloween costumes, although it’s not huge in Korea like it is back home.  All in all, a good (but wet) day.

Will this be me?
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Mungyeong: Exploring rural Korea

Most Korean citizens live in identical high-rises in the cities.  These white towers climb 20 stories or more.  Having a house is almost unknown, unless you live in the country.  These days, however, younger people are flocking to the cities and droves and leaving the country pretty much empty.  I’ve never really had a reason to visit these remote locations… until recently.

I signed up for a day trip with the Daegu Compass, a local publication for foreigners.  We were originally going to go salmon fishing (with our hands!), but due to low water levels this was canceled.

We did many different things instead, and really enjoyed the countryside.  It’s easy to forget how beautiful Korea is when you can’t see anything but apartment blocks.  So many gorgeous mountains and beautiful rivers!

Omija berries

First, we went to an omija farm and made soap.  Omija is a five-flavored berry used mainly for tea.  We put some of the omija essence in our soap! Definitely a random activity, but we needed something to occupy the salmon-fishing time slot.

Making soap – mine is a robot!

Then we wandered outside to a giant pool full of salmon.  The farm employees hopped in there with nets and wrangled up a few fish.  One of our group was brave enough to try it himself! The water was only about knee-deep in some places, as opposed to chest-high, so it wasn’t as challenging as it would normally have been.

Posing with our lunch

After the fish were caught, the employees cut some up sashimi-style and threw some on the grill.  It was delicious!

on the grill

We then had a lovely bibimbap lunch at a restaurant nearby.  As if we weren’t full enough, we drove to an apple orchard to pick fruit.  The apples were huge! Mungyeong, the city we were in, is well-known for its apples.

Orchard in Mungyeong

One last activity to fill our itinerary… shooting! We went to the Mungyeong Shooting Range, which is located in a beautiful valley.  Koreans are forbidden from owning guns; there’s not even hunting in this country.  The military and police are the only exception.  A shooting range, therefore, is your only opportunity to hold or shoot a weapon.  I’d never been to a shooting range before, but I was pretty excited to try it out.  I opted for pistol shooting, and even got to aim at a paper target on the wall! Considering I’d never held a gun before, I think I did pretty well.

Just check out that inner circle!!
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Jinju Lantern Festival

Jinju, a city in South Gyeongsan province, is well-known for many things.  It is the site of the first and second sieges by the Japanese during the Imjin War (1592-3), home of yukhoe bimimbap, or raw beef mixed rice, and also the location of the annual Lantern Festival.

Pre-illumination

It was the last thing that brought me all the way to Jinju one weekend.  I’d heard great things about this festival – these lanterns are better described as illuminated works of art, from traditional to contemporary.

Just switched on!

A group of friends and I caught an early bus to Jinju and wandered around the city until we found a motel.  We then tried the delicious yukhoe bimbimbap you read about earlier.  The lanterns were all over the river and neighboring parks.  We strolled around a park and witnessed the first signs of fall – crisp, cool air and changing leaves.  As we were admiring the soldiers, the lanterns turned on.

Superman

The river is where all of the action was… not only were the lanterns beautiful, but the reflections on the black water made it twice as pretty.  It definitely created a new challenge for me and my DSLR, but I think some of the shots came out okay.

OMG a dinosaur!!

While sitting on the riverbank and admiring the view, some of the homemade paper lanterns came floating to our spot.  These paper lanterns each contained a small candle.  Due to the current of the river and the small bushes by the bank, they were gathering in a small mass.  Unfortunately… some of the lanterns caught on fire! We were watching this for a while (out of any danger) until some police showed up.  They seemed pretty baffled and just poked the lanterns with a big stick until the fire went out.  Crisis averted.

A moving, smoking dragon

The next day, we were pretty tired, and caught an early(ish) bus home.  I definitely recommend this festival for any interested parties!! We took a bus from Daegu to Jinju and easily found a motel the day of.

in the lantern tunnel

Doing their job
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N Seoul Tower

At over 1,500 feet above sea level, the views from N Seoul Tower are fantastic.  At the base of the tower, there is a park where visitors can relax and children can play.  There are also multiple gates on which to affix love locks, a popular symbol in South Korea.

Love locks are personalized padlocks that couples lock onto something to symbolize everlasting love… pretty cheesy.  Korea loves love, and so that’s right up their alley!

Seoul, South Korea

Andy and I visited Seoul Tower right before Chuseok in October.  The park was surprisingly busy, and we were even lucky enough to witness a Joseon Era weapons display.  Due to the holiday, many people were also playing Korean traditional games.  It was a fun atmosphere to say the least!

Playing yutnori, a traditional Korean boardgame
N Seoul Tower
Love locks – so heavy that the gate is bending!
Ancient weapons display

We took the subway to Myeongdong Station, and then walked to the cable car station.  If you’re interested, you can buy padlocks there.  You can then ride the cable car to the base of the tower.

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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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Boryeong Mud Festival

Last weekend, I attended the Boryeong Mud Festival.  Held annually at Daecheon Beach, this festival attracts Koreans and foreigners alike in honor of one unusual item: mud.  All of the Boryeong (보령) mud is actually trucked in from nearby mudflats.  What started as a natural celebration of skin-softening mud has become a celebration of all things downright dirty.

Boryeong is about a 4 hour drive from Daegu

Early Saturday morning, 300 foreigners and I met at the Novotel to board six buses headed west.  About 4 hours later, we arrived in Boryeong.  Located on the West Coast of Korea, this normally quiet beach town was bustling with activity.  After checking into our Korean-style motel (a floor with some blankets), several of us headed towards the beach and festival.  The beach was lovely – it was nice to see the other coast for the first time.  The best way to describe the festival is simply one word: insanity.  Foreigners and Koreans were everywhere, completely covered in mud.  Music was blasting from every corner.  Mud pools, mud wrestling, mud slides, mud races, mud prison… as far as the eye could see.  Even colored mud for the artsy types.  And Korea wouldn’t be Korea without long lines for everything.  Even the nearby shops were covered with mud, complete with muddy footprints on the floor.

Cleaning up: the next day, festival workers started breaking everything down (Photo by Natalie Bester)

After wallowing in mud for a few hours, most people wanted to rinse off.  Luckily, the Yellow Sea was only a few yards away.  Some people waited in line for the showers, but most festival-goers went au naturel and plunged into the chilly water.  I have to admit, it was pretty satisfying to watch the mud disappear almost instantly.  A shower or two later, I was clean as I was going to get and grabbed dinner (gamjatang… yum) with some friends.  Later still, it started to pour and most people were driven inwards to one of three restaurants/bars.  After milling about for a few hours, we headed back to the motel and hung out below the deck, where I acquired over 100 mosquito bites (no exaggeration).  The next day, we grabbed lunch and headed home.  It felt like a long weekend, but it was a unique experience and I’m glad we did it.  It was strange being around so many foreigners in one place after about 4 months of being a racial minority.  In Boryeong it was reversed!

Dirty Daegookins
The Yellow Sea (West Sea to Koreans)
The photographers seemed pretty interested in us
Our group – hitting the beach one last time before boarding the buses

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