Tag Archives: Travel

Travel Guide: Seoul and Around

My friend and I took a high-speed train from Busan to Seoul and immediately on arrival I noted the cooler weather and the need to don my trench coat, which was really exciting. I hadn’t been in real fall (or autumn, if you prefer) for a long time!

We were staying in Insadong in order to be at the centre of the action. The neighbourhood is a wonderful mix of contemporary art galleries and traditional crafts, restaurants, clothing stores, dessert cafés, and the Ssamzigil shopping mall that specialises in handicrafts. Food vendors line the streets alongside vendors of yet more crafts and souvenirs.

Insadong has a pretty robust night life, too.

An evening walk took us to Jogyesa Temple, which was celebrating its Chrysanthemum Festival. Jogyesa is the main temple of the Buddhist Jogya Order and, like many temples in Korea, hosts a templestay program in which visitors can spend a day or more at a temple to learn about Korea Buddhist practices and living. (If I have the opportunity to return to Korea, I’d be interested in taking part.) Not having expected anything like it, we were surprised and delighted to see the chrysanthemums in the dark.

The next day was possibly my favourite day of our nine days in Korea and definitely the most unique. We took the metro to the train to the ferry until we arrived at Nami Island, an island in the middle of North Han River. Nami Island considers itself a nation, the Naminara Republic, and has its own passport, stamp, and currency. All of these can only be used on island but the symbolism struck me. Unfortunately, the officials did not stamp our passports after we paid the visa fee before boarding the ferry.

We spent the day enjoying the fall colours; I didn’t realise how much I’d missed them until they were right in front of me. I also really enjoyed the trees, flowers, plants, and animals that we don’t have in Singapore. Nami Island is famous for its appearance in K-dramas, which I don’t know anything about, but I appreciated it as a charming escape from a big city.

Nami Island has a beautiful emphasis on, in its own words, imagination, fairy tales, and nature itself. It also hosts the Nami Concours to highlight and celebrate picture book illustrators. The island was filled with signs of how the Naminara Republic fashioned itself and I enjoyed it very much. Nami Island also has artists workshops, galleries, and souvenir shops, as well as art on display across the island. It was very pleasant to walk around, especially since the sun came out over the course of the day.

This is also the first time And of course, I enjoyed the ferry very much. (I do really miss working on boats.)

We organised our time in Seoul around day trips, so we spent every other day in or out of the city. After Nami Island we were due for an urban day. Accordingly, we spent the morning at Gyeongbokgung Palace, the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty built in the late fourteenth century. Luckily, we arrived just in time for the changing of the guards!

Like much else, the palace was destroyed by the Japanese during the twentieth century occupation but had also been destroyed by fire in the 1500s. The palace is the size of a small city and covers about 410,000 square meters, which is only a fraction of its original size. Today, the grounds are open for visitors as are individual buildings and two museums.

Anyone wearing the traditional Korean hanbok entered the palace for free and we saw all kinds of people in traditional clothes. There were rental studios in every touristy area and it was refreshing to see men, women, and children of different nationalities and body types dressed up. I was initially very resistant (insert self-critical thoughts here) but we ultimately decided to do what everyone else was doing and I’m really glad we did. We returned to the palace two days later in our hanbok.

After our first visit to the palace, still deep in discussion about wearing the hanbok, we walked over to Bukchon Hanok Village, a collection of hilly streets with traditional houses. There were a few restored homes open to visitors as well as a handicrafts centre offering short sessions on different types of crafts.

Still steeped in tradition, we headed back to Insadong to experience a traditional teahouse. This one was built around a courtyard with a room of low tables and floor cushions and a second room of tables and chairs. Tea was served hot or iced with traditional Korean sweets. We chose dried persimmon stuffed with walnuts and Korean rice cakes, as well as iced balloon flower citrus tea and iced cinnamon tea. The presentation and flavours were different from any tea we’d had (and high tea is a common social activity in Singapore) and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

We spent the evening in Hongdae, a neighbourhood near Hongik University. As predicted, it was full of all the quirks of a university neighbourhood, including street art!

Hongdae’s shops were eclectic and fun, densely packed, and extremely popular. It’s very entertaining to see different trends and the lifestyle that goes along with them. In Korea, fashion and cosmetic trends are as popular for men as they are for women and there seems to be relatively little convention around fashion choices. Everyone clearly has a style, but the style itself comes from anywhere under the sun. Contact lenses are even sold like any other type of makeup – as an enhancement of what is already there.

There was a Halloween street party in Hongdae, too, and it was fun to watch the set up for that. It appears that Korea is just like it’s shown in the movies and people really do perform K-pop in the streets!

After a day in the city it was time to get out of Seoul again and take the train 30km south to Suwon. Seoul’s metro system is so sprawling that one train took us all the way there. Suwon is Korea’s last completely walled city and the primary reason to visit is to walk the 5.4km wall of the fortress. It was lovely to spend yet another day outside in cold wind and bright blue sky.

It was really neat to watch the skyline unfold as we climbed higher, too. Korea is a hilly country and the fortress rolled along with the land.

After a day in Suwon we had one final day in Seoul. As discussed and investigated, we rented our hanbok for ₩10,000 for two hours, which gave us plenty of time to return to Gyeongbokgung Palace to take photos. We’d worried about feeling silly and out of place for dressing up, but it quickly became clear that people from all over the world do this because it’s fun! As soon as we walked out of the rental shop a woman stopped us to chat about our experience in Korea. Later on, different people offered to take our photo. It was a lot of fun and a nice little confidence boost.

Just like our first day at the palace, we went back to Insadong for traditional tea, this time in a tea house that opened into a cozy room with plaster walls lined with benches, stools, and tables. Different teas and desserts and a similarly lovely experience.

In sharp contrast to traditional clothes, the palace, and Insadong, our next destination was Gangnam across the Han River, which runs through Seoul. We stopped first at the COEX library in a mall . . .

. . . and then walked through the business district until we reached Gangnam Square and all of the entertainment around it.

It was fun to experience traditional Seoul in the morning and modern, glittery Seoul in the evening. That was something I noticed throughout our trip – the infusion of traditional and modern culture everywhere we went. There was an ease to being in Korea that I hadn’t experienced before, a sense that being whoever you were was just fine and that we should treat others accordingly. The world could do with more of that.

Travel Guide: Busan and Around

I didn’t know what to expect when we decided to travel to Korea for October break. Many of my colleagues started their overseas teaching careers in Korea and everyone spoke highly of it, but visiting a place is obviously different from living there. The only thing I knew for sure was that it would be fall. I hadn’t seen leaves change in a long time and I was really looking forward to it.

We organised our trip based on where we could get direct flights; from Singapore, we could fly directly to Busan and from Seoul. The opposite option, interestingly, did not exist.

We landed in Busan first thing in the morning and the fact that I lost all of my photos from the first day of our trip (no joke, I managed to recover none at all) is actually fitting considering how discombobulated I felt that day. We revived ourselves a bit with coffee before heading to Haedong Yonggungsa, a Buddhist temple famous because it’s built on cliffs overlooking the sea. I loved hearing and smelling the sea, exploring the stone cracks and crevices, and looking at the food stalls on the path leading to the temple.

Busan is located on the southeastern coast of the Korean peninsula and that means it has a beach! Several, in fact. We spent some time that afternoon walking along Gwangalli Beach and enjoyed how quiet it was. October isn’t beach weather and this was a Monday afternoon, but there were lovely art installations and displays of children’s art. It felt really good to walk along the sand and even touch the water, which was about the same temperature as the air. Pleasant enough but jeans and a jacket were required. And again, we smelled the sea. It smelled alive in a way that I forget exists when living in the middle of a city.

Everyone we spoke to promised that public transportation in Korea was cheap and easy to use, a promise that we tested on our first bus ride from the beach to the hotel. Not only are stops listed in English most of the time, but you can pay in cash on all buses and the metro. Alternatively, you can use a Tcard and reload it with money at any metro station. Easy indeed!

Korea has a lot of parks and nature and before dinner we walked over to Yongdusan Park, the home of Busan Tower. The real attraction, however, was getting there. We took a series of themed escalators from street level up a hill and at the top was the park! Each level of escalator was a different colour or played music or was decorated with lights and moving images, which was highly entertaining.

We also spent some time that evening wandering through Gukje Market and BIFF Square. The market was a lot of fun because it backed right into high-end restaurants and designer shops, and the food sections of the market existed on the same roads as non-food shops. Picture pancakes frying in the middle of the street in front of a shop selling scarves and then imagine the smells of oil and wool. Put a smile on your face and that’s where I was. BIFF Square, built for the Busan International Film Festival, had its own collection of food and souvenir vendors and even fortune tellers!

The next day we headed out of Busan to Gyeongju, the capital of the former Silla dynasty. The bus ride was really pretty and took us past rolling hills and small cities. We were there to see the burial mounds of Silla kings, most of which are contained in one park area but some are dotted through the town. (And now I have photos, yay!)

Turns out there’s a method to keeping the grass level, too!

I was also really taken by the fruit trees.

We were able to go inside Cheonmachong, an excavated mound named for the white horse motif painted on the outside. The mounds are built initially as platforms and then hollowed out at the top, which is a pretty cool feat of engineering.

The town of Gyeongju itself was pretty, too, with restaurants, cafés, and lots of little shops. This is also the first place we encountered the emphasis on Instagram – cafés were literally designed for this purpose and advertised as such!

The other reason to visit Gyeongju was to get to Bulguksa Temple, which meant another bus ride through a landscape of hills, trees, and flowers. Korea is home to birds I’ve never seen before, either, and it was a really nice to experience so much of the land around us. Bulguksa was built in the eighth century and, like most of Korea, was destroyed during the wars and has since been restored. The colours were remarkable and we got very lucky with the blue sky, late afternoon sun, and autumn leaves beginning to change.

We returned to Gyongju for dinner and found more street art, which is always a highlight for me.

We spent our last full day in Busan at Gamcheon Cultural Village, which I’d really been looking forward to. We spent hours wandering through the twisty alleys and streets, browsing souvenirs and handcrafts, and pointing out the large variety of snacks available for purchase.

Gamcheon Cultural Village is still home to many artists and other residents and I really couldn’t shake the feeling that we were dancing on people’s heads the whole time we were there. It was first built in the 1920s and 30s and the restoration and community building that is still prevalent there was really impressive.

There was art everywhere and we were completely immersed in it.

On the walls . . .

. . . and on the stairs . . .

. . . and installations everywhere you looked.

I particularly loved the book staircase . . .

. . . and the Peace Museum. A man came by with markers for us to add messages, so of course we did so.

Gamcheon also had a local market because, as I said, people live there! The market was one of our last stops so it was mostly closed for the day but I was delighted to be there.

Since we visited a beach on our first day in Busan, we thought it fitting to also visit a beach on our last day. We took a really nice bus ride to Haeundae Beach, which, I learned, has the record for the most umbrellas on a beach at one time. (Note: This fact came from my travel friend and has not been independently verified.) We reached the beach at sunset and watched the sky change.

It was a rather poetic way to conclude the first chapter of our trip to Korea and left me with bright thoughts for chapter two: Seoul! Stay tuned!

Travel Guide: Yunnan Province x2

I’ve been very privileged to be able to travel abroad to wonderful places with students. Just like last year in Yunnan and the previous year in Battambang, Cambodia, my school worked with the JUMP! Foundation who develop, design, and manage our programs. As trip lead for the past three years, I have a close relationship with JUMP! – and in all honesty, they make me question my career choices every time. It is an honour to work with them.

Yunnan is in Southwestern China. It borders Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam.

For many students, this was their first time playing backpacker. We took an overnight train, three bus rides, and a short train throughout our trip. There’s a lot to see and do in Yunnan and we were all over the place in our six days of travel.

Our first stop was the town of Baisha. We arrived there after flying from Singapore to Kunming and taking a nine-hour night train from Kunming to Lijiang. This was my third experience on a night train and I slept surprisingly soundly. The earplugs probably helped, as perhaps did having the lower bunk. From Lijiang, Baisha is only about thirty minutes away by bus.

Like most of where we go on these trips, Baisha is a small rural community and it’s beautiful.

I was particularly fascinated with how buildings are constructed and how space is used.

Our primary reason for being in Yunnan was to engage with the environment around us and the minority groups that live there. Our first real activity was a hike up to Fuguo Monastery, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery that has been around since 1601. The hike was beautiful and we really enjoyed the cool air. We don’t get air like that in Singapore.

I’ve been to many temples and monasteries and I really enjoy them. I enjoy their beauty, their quiet, and their overwhelming sense of peace. I do sometimes wonder if that comes from shutting out the outside world and its problems, but that did not seem to be the case here, such as when the monks utterly defeated our students in our annual basketball game.

Our exploration of the landscape continued the following day. We hiked up to a reservoir located just outside of town towards the monastery and then down to a village located alongside Wenhai Lake. The terrain was steep and damp from the previous night’s rain and it changed as we walked. Once again, the air tasted different from the air that we have in Singapore and the wind came from a different direction. There were times during our walk when I lost myself in the forest and in the sensations of being somewhere foreign yet completely familiar.

It is a true pleasure to feel like I’m somewhere new and to look around at a completely different sky. Singapore is dense and full of tall buildings; our time in Yunnan gave me some much-needed solace and an escape from a world that I often feel is moving too quickly.

From our forest walk, we visited the Baisha Naxi Embroidery Institute where we learned traditional Naxi Dongba calligraphy. The symbols are pictographs that can be combined in a variety of ways to create many different messages. It was a lot of fun to use the calligraphy brush! We also learned traditional embroidery, which the kids really enjoyed and which reminded me of the sewing I used to do in elementary school.

We did not stay still in Yunnan, however. After two nights in Baisha we took a three-hour bus ride to Laojunshan. If I’m going to return to any part of Yunnan on my own, Laojunshan is it. I didn’t know it before I arrived, but the area is China’s traditional climbing heaven and as soon as we got there, I understood why.

The buildings are beautiful, too, and fit so completely into the red sandstone that was everywhere.

Many people from the Lisu minority community live in the area around Laojunshan and are known for their music and dance. We visited the home of famous Lisu musicians who have performed as far away as France. We spent an afternoon with them to make bamboo flutes and learn traditional Lisu dances. A week later, my flute still tastes and smells like wood and smoke, which I love.

Later that evening we had the opportunity to put our Lisu dance steps into practice, which was great fun. Laojunshan is basically one long street and the nightly entertainment is dancing! We gathered with the community after dark in a large courtyard with lights, tables, and benches and followed along as best we could. The Lisu women had beautiful costumes and many men were involved in the dance, too.

When we left the dancing, I looked up at the stars. It was so dark and there were so many stars. We don’t see that in Singapore.

Another thing we don’t see in Singapore is mountains. The following day we climbed Thousand Turtle Mountain, which was astonishingly beautiful. The views are glorious and the day was fresh and new from rain the night before. I loved watching the light and the mountains appear from the mist. I took some time to write and to sit and breathe the air; there aren’t many occasions when the world feels right to me but this was certainly one of those, for which I am grateful.

Thousand Turtle Mountain feels like a different world from anywhere but it was starkly different to Lijiang, our final destination that afternoon. Lijiang is about three hours by bus from Laojunshan and the home of the closest airport to where we were. At just over a million people, one of my Chinese colleagues pronounced it tiny. Considering we’d spent the week in towns so small that you could count the number of streets, Lijiang felt huge.

Rather than spend any time in the city, though, we headed straight to Lijiang Old Town, which used to be the market district. It maintains that character and flavour through winding, twisting, narrow streets full of shops but the shops today are for tourists. They sell souvenirs, food, and beverages of every kind. I do enjoy a market in any form and it was fun to wander around and see what there was to see. I really did like the architecture, too. Most buildings in the parts of Yunnan I have visited have exteriors far grander than I would have expected and it always catches me by pleasant surprise.

Throughout our time in Yunnan, I photographed flowers. We have lots of flora in Singapore but I love exploring the beauty of the places that I visit. It’s all so different! And there were so many purple ones!

The following day, we were back at the train station for a high speed train to Kunming to catch the flight that would take us to Singapore. We spent six days in a different world and I am grateful for each one of them, and for the people I spent time with along the way. It is experiences like this that make me feel right in the world and this one came at a good time.

Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt. – John Muir