Visiting Jeju Island Day 1 – Loveland, Lava, and Beaches

Seoul to Wando
Seoul to Wando

To celebrate National Foundation Day in Korea, and no work Friday, Nicole and I booked a trip to Jeju Island, Korea’s Hawaii. Jeju had been on our radar for quite some time. We were both very interested in visiting Jeju, but everyone we spoke with seemed to have just an alright time. Some people complained about having to take taxis everywhere. Some people ended up paying an arm and a leg to visit Jeju. Other people almost missed work after their trip because the ferry or flight back from Jeju sold out. So for a whole year, Nicole and I avoided Jeju, not because we didn’t want to go, but because it was such a logistical challenge to visit.

The Night Bus

However, fortune smiled upon us this National Foundation day and we found a foreign travel group offering trips to Jeju. We jumped at the opportunity and booked two spots for ourselves on the trip. The tour group was based in Seoul taking a bus Thursday night in time to catch a ferry from Wando at 6am Friday morning, in the far south of Korea. This meant that Nicole and I had to intercept the bus somewhere along its path in the middle of the night. Luckily the bus was making a stop in Gwangju at 3am. Thursday night we took a bus to Gwangju, caught up with some old friends, and then met the rest of our tour group a little after 3am at the Gwangju bus terminal. [divider_flat]

The Slow Boat to Jeju

Our ferry
Our ferry

Nicole and I slept most of the drive from Gwangju to Wando and woke up just in time for free muffins before boarding the ferry to Jeju. I had a chocolate chip muffin. Nicole had a different flavor. Our ferry boat ride took 5 hours and because we arrived late, all of the spots in the 3rd class section (yes, 3rd class) were full, so we sat outside on the deck chairs. Nicole and I discussed the outcome of the ferry sinking. Would we be safe in 3rd class? Would we be locked below while the ritzy first class passengers disembarked on nearly empty lifeboats? Would there be an Irish dance celebration below deck where we could meet other drifters and vagabonds?

Fortunately for us, the boat never sank so we never found answers to our questions. There was never an Irish dance celebration below deck either. I read a bit, watched some Brooklyn Nine Nine, and had cup noodles with Nicole to keep warm. About halfway through our voyage we made a stop at a smaller island for some people to get off. I couldn’t find it on google maps, but I swear it exists. Anyways, we took this opportunity to move from the outside of the ship to the inside where it was much warmer.

Loveland

Early in the afternoon, we arrived in Jeju. There was a bus at the ferry terminal waiting to take us to our first stop: Loveland. Loveland is a park filled with erotic statues of people in various stages of coitus. According to its website it’s “the only sexual theme park in Korea”. I found the claim somewhat dubious. It’s not really a theme park, although I suppose it could be considered one in a very literal sense. It is a park…with a theme. However, there aren’t any rides, or entertainment shows. I don’t even want to think about what they would be if they did exist.

Manjanggul Cave

After Loveland we took our tour bus another 20 minutes up the road to Manjanggul Cave, Jeju’s underground network of lava tubes. The tubes were formed between 200 and 300,000 years ago and they’re in relatively good condition. The tube system is also one of the top ten largest in the world. The caves were really cool, both literally and figuratively. There were a few lights and some walkways, but it wasn’t overly commercialized. I got a few pictures down there with Nicole and myself before it was time to hop back on the bus and visit the motel.

Yusong Motel

Our Motel
Our Motel

I remember the name because our group leader made us memorize it in case we got lost and needed to get back. I can tell you that its near Hamdeok Beach as well. I can also tell you that there isn’t a lobby, just a big messy dining room covered in all kinds of various boxes, the pillows are filled with almonds (or something), and the family that owns it sleeps under the stairs like Harry Potter. Don’t let its ordinary appearance fool you. Its an odd place. The location was nice though. We were right across from the beach and only a few minutes away from several restaurants.

After we checked into the motel, we had 30 minutes to shower and change before dinner. I unpacked, took a quick shower, and tried to relax on the bed. Although, as I mentioned before, the pillow was filled with almonds or something. I never opened it to find out, but it certainly wasn’t soft or fluffy, just very….firm.

Everybody We’re Going Streaking!

Dinner was…interesting. We walked from the hotel to a nice Korean barbecue place on the beach only a few minutes away. The meal was delicious Jeju black pig and it really was delicious. Jeju black pig has a unique taste and origin story compared with traditional Korea pork. Originally, Jeju black pigs were fed human feces in special pig sties located below outhouses. However, that practice was outlawed in the 1960s so now the pigs just eat whatever it is that pigs eat these days. Supposedly feeding the pigs anything other than human poop has adversely affected the taste. However, I felt much better eating pigs that weren’t eating my poop.

During dinner, we were all given a bottle of soju and some beer as part of our meal. Nicole and I had a bit of each but not much. It was dinner and we were coming to the end of a long day, or rather two days since we didn’t sleep much on the bus. Our group leader felt otherwise. By the time we finished dinner, he had finished several bottles of Soju and was pretty drunk. Somehow he wagered a bet between him and his Korean coleader as to who could drink a full glass of Soju faster. He won the bet but still opted to strip down and run naked out of the restaurant into the ocean. No one followed him. In fact, no one seemed to bat an eye after he left. I think he was a bit disappointed that he didn’t get much of a reaction. Most people just returned to their meal.

Since there’s no topping a performance like that, especially in front of a room full of strangers, Nicole and I decided to call it a night and walk back along the beach to our motel. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s adventures when we visit the beach, see beautiful rocks, waterfalls, wooden sailing ships, and temples.

Last Day in Korea and our visit to Unseo Airport Town

First, its been nearly a month since I last posted on my blog. Sorry everyone. I’ll be posting frequently from here on out as I have oodles to do over the next few weeks. However, before I launch into that, I figured I’d write a short writeup on my last day in Korea.

No Wifi leads to more errands

Nicole and I completely packed our apartments up, sold off the last of our things and ran a few last minute errands around town. We had loads of time since our last days were on Friday and we didn’t need to leave our apartments until Monday and my internet was turned off. It’s amazing how much free time I have when there’s no internet.

Nicole wanted to sell her broken laptop for parts to the Gwangju Mac PC guys downtown, unfortunately, we couldn’t get in touch with them. We ended up getting some coffee and kimbap, at two seperate restaurants. Nicole and I have yet to find a Korean establishment that offers both of these amenities.

Bus to Incheon Airport Attempt 1

After coffee and, more importantly, free wifi, Nicole and I grabbed our bags and headed to the  Usquare bus terminal. Our flight wasn’t until Tuesday morning but it was an 11am flight and the thought of waking up at 4am for a 4 hour bus followed by a day of flying sounded miserable.

We tried to buy our tickets for Incheon airport. However, the last bus to Incheon airport, from Gwangju, leaves at 2pm and it was about 3:30 at this point. We took the second best option and booked our tickets for Incheon with the intention of transferring buses to Incheon airport when we arrived.

Bus to Incheon Airport Attempt 2

Bus to Incheon
Bus to Incheon…look at that smoulder

The bus ride was typical and uneventful. Nicole and I listened to This American Life podcasts and fell asleep intermittently. We arrived at the Incheon bus terminal about 4 hours later and quickly visited the ticket booth to try and book a bus from Incheon to Incheon Airport. The lady behind the counter told us that would be impossible and we should just take the subway.

Bus to Incheon Airport Attempt 3

I left Nicole with our luggage and went in search of the subway. There’s a set of stairs that lead below the Incheon bus terminal and into a giant food court with a Johnny Rockets, a Starbucks, Lotteria, and loads of other restaurants and shops. I traveled through the vast expanse of shops and came to the subway station. After snapping a quick picture, I ascended from the subterranean labyrinth into the glowing light of Mother Gaia. There was a small Korean taxi driver waiting at the top of the stairs, contemplating life, or more likely waiting for passengers. I asked him about the cost of traveling to Incheon airport from the bus terminal and he said $40 which seemed a bit steep. I thanked him for his honest advice and returned to Nicole through a small garden beside the bus terminal.

We convened on the matter of transportation and decided the subway was the best, cheapest, course of action. The two of us loaded up our bags and hopped on the subway. 16 stops later and one transfer, we found ourselves on the train to Incheon Airport.

The Jingabong in the Airport Basement

Nicole and I had planned to stay in a Jingabong, or bathhouse, rumored to be in the basement of the Incheon Airport. Neither of us could confirm that said bathhouse existed or that it had any vacancies.

At the second to last stop, Unseo, we threw away any previous and somewhat vague plan, deciding to get off the train and pass the night. From the train window we could see neon motel signs, noribangs, and Samgyeopsal places. It looked like Pleasure Island from Pinocchio, most likely filled with bad Korean boys who would soon turn into donkeys if they ate enough samgyeopsal.

Pleasure Island

Samgyeopsal restaurant in Unseo
Samgyeopsal restaurant in Unseo

Unseo is a relatively new city, designed and built for travelers to Incheon Airport. Its filled with cheap Korean motels, western-style hotels, noribangs, and samgyeopsal places. Nicole and I booked a cheap Korean motel with a quiet TV and an uncomfortable bed for $50. We dropped our bags and grabbed some samgyeopsal, our favorite Korean meal. Basically, you gather around a small grill of questionable cleanliness to cook selected meats and veggies. It should be noted that until two months ago Nicole was a vegetarian who insisted upon only eating the scrap lettuce and garlic sides.

Thailand Day Five: Ayutthaya, Banana Pancakes, and Elephants

This is the fifth day of my trip to Thailand during Lunar New Year. If you missed the previous entries, check them out below

This morning, Nicole and I slept in a bit before heading to the bus station for adventures. Today we were visiting Ayutthaya, once the largest city in the world, now a bunch of neat ruins.

On our way to the Skytrain stop, we got delicious street spring rolls. We’d purchased them a few times on previous days. They cost little more than a nickel and they come with a sweet sauce similar to Tijuana Flats Sweet Chili sauce, which I also recommend if you’re ever in the South Eastern US.

We took the Sky train to the bus station. It was located right behind the Weekend Market where we’d gotten all of our awesome souvenirs on day two.

The Bus Station, aka David Bowie’s Labyrinth

The bus station is insane. There are literally hundreds of windows each going to different locations and none of them are properly labeled. Nicole and I went from counter to counter, each time being told “this is the wrong counter, go to counter x.” It was maddening. At our last counter, a man asked for cash only and, after we paid, he left his counter and walked with us to a van out back. Bear in mind we’re at the bus station, not the van station (there is no van station). We hopped in the van and the counter attendant handed some money through the window to the driver. If this was a Liam Neeson movie, this is the part where we would have been kidnapped. Luckily this was not a Liam Neeson movie, and unfortunately I still do not have an IMDB page.

The van was no bigger than a standard church van, similar in size to the bus we took when we visited the floating market days prior. There were a handful of Thai people in the van just traveling around, possibly home, possibly to work, point being, we were the only tourists and very out of place. The van didn’t have a set itinerary per se, and by that I mean it stopped randomly and people got on and got off. About two hours later, when I was wondering if we were going to have our organs harvested, we arrived at Ayutthaya.

Thai-Mexican Standoff

Sometimes you have to crack a few eggs to make an omelet. Sometimes you have to say no several times to a Thai van driver before he drives you to the bike shop instead of the Tuk Tuk depot. A common scam in Ayutthaya, as the internet told me, is to try and drop foreigners off at the Tuk Tuk depot on the outskirts of town instead of in the center of town. Tourists are then forced to get a ride into town from a Tuk Tuk driver and pay money for no apparent reason. It also forces you to spend the day taking Tuk Tuks everywhere because you never make it to the bike shop.

This happened to us. The van stopped in front of a bunch of Tuk Tuks outside of town and the van driver told us to get out. A bunch of Tuk Tuk drivers smelling fresh meat approached the van and in their worst English tried to coerce us out of the van, like some sort of reverse pedophiles.

It was pretty obvious that this was not our stop because literally no one else in our crowded van was getting out. I argued with him a bit until a Thai lady in the back seat told him very sternly, and in Thai, to stop hassling us and drop us off in town.

He grumbled and so did the Tuk Tuk drivers and closed the van door. Begrudgingly, he drove us to the main stop and the nice Thai lady and her friend walked us to the nearest bike shop. We rented some wheels for about $5 and headed off to explore the ruins

Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya, founded in 1350, was at one point in time the largest city on Earth and a major trade port in Southeast Asia as it was in the Chao Phraya River valley. The city was rumored to have a population of 1,000,000 inhabitants in the 1700s. However, shortly after the height of its growth, it was destroyed by the Burmese in 1767. The only ruins that survived were the stone structures such as temples and monasteries.

The remaining temples and monasteries are located anywhere from directly adjacent to one another to several blocks away. The ancient city can be explored in a day with a handy tourist map and a pair of bicycles. Nicole and I rode from one site to another, taking photographs and walking amongst the ruins. It’s remarkable how accessible everything in Thailand has been so far. You can literally walk through the ruins and climb the steps up to these ancient monuments. Nothing was off limits and each attraction was $1-3.

Riding back to Bangkok

Nicole and I, not wanting to brave the van all over again, decided to find a bus instead. Luckily we passed one on the way to return our bikes. Getting a bus in Thailand (outside of the Bangkok bus station) is surprisingly easy. We walked up to a small kiosk, bought our ticket and hopped on the bus. I actually ended up making money on this bus transaction. Our tickets were about $2 and I received a 2 euro coin in change, so I made close to a nickel. It was way better than the ride there.

I can’t quit you fish and chips

Fish and Chips
Fish and Chips

Back in Bangkok, Nicole and I got some delicious fish and chips at a New Zealand restaurant. This may sound strange, so bare with me, but I think the staff thought either I was famous or Nicole was famous. When we arrived at the restaurant, several of the wait staff came over to greet us. When we sat down, one of the waiters came over and gave us a complimentary appetizer and called me “Boss” a few times. Now this might just sound like great service, and maybe I’m blowing this out of proportion, but no one else at neighboring tables was getting free appetizers or nearly as much attention from the staff. At the time, I thought it was a bit odd, but maybe the restaurant just had great customer service.

Nicole and I ordered some fish and chips and fish bites. They were both incredibly delicious. I think the fish and chips might have been the best fish and chips I’ve ever had outside of the UK.

After dinner, we’re getting ready to pay and the waiter comes back with a complimentary shot for each of us. He talks to us for a few minutes and then asks Nicole where she’s from. She tells him America and he says “oh, I thought you were Australian”. Maybe he thought Nicole was some famous Australian or maybe the restaurant just had great service and I’m reading too far into it. The world will never know.

Today was such an exciting day. We took some sort of off-the-books van service to Ayutthaya. We got to explore ruins by bike, and we enjoyed delicious fish and chips and free food. There were ups and downs, but it was fun in the end.

I’ve had a great time in Thailand so far. I’ve explored weekend markets, railroad markets, and visited palaces.

 

Sunflower Festival and Beach day

After our busy day of tea fields, baseball games, and night clubs, Nicole and I could only follow it up with an equally busy Sunday of sunflowers and beaches.

Bus Terminal

Last Friday my Korean co-worker, Jade invited me to a sunflower festival with her and some of the other foreign teachers. Nicole and I met Ted, Patrick, Alyssa, and Jade at the bus terminal and caught a bus to Gochang, about an hour away from Gwangju. The ride was uneventful and the destination was even less eventful. This was perhaps the least interesting town in Korea, luckily we weren’t here for the town, we were here for the sunflowers.

The Cab Ride

Jade spoke to two cab drivers and asked them to drive all of us out to the sunflower field several miles away. By Korean standards this was the most expensive cab ride we’d taken so far. Split 3 ways it was roughly $7 a piece. The ride was insane. Korean cabbies in Gwangju drive uncomfortably fast for being in heavy traffic, but get them out in the countryside away from traffic and they really floor it. We were whizzing around turns and speeding past green blurs which I assume were farms. There were a few turns where I was shocked the tires were able to hold traction and keep us on the road. I thought for sure we would slide off the road and bounce down a mountainside like dice on a craps table, but we survived and made it to the sunflower field.

Sunflower Festival

In Korea the term festival is loosely applied to all events, things, ideas, and concepts. You’re never really certain what a “festival” will entail, but it almost never involves a Ferris wheel.

Sunflowers

This sunflower festival happened to be a field of sunflowers many of which were dead. This was partly our fault for visiting the field on the very last day of sunflower season. Jade told us the pictures she saw from earlier in the season were beautiful. I was able to get a few good shots of sunflowers and the field was still mostly green so the pictures came out well.

Sunflower

Us walking

We spent the next hour or so walking through the field taking photos and observing the majestic beauty of the partially decomposing sunflowers. I saw it as a metaphor for the fragility of life and the ever-looming specter that is death, but mostly I just took pictures. Many Korean couples wandered through the field in their hiking gear or high heels, some wearing a combination of the two.

Koreans in Sunflowers

There was a little pagoda in the center of the field and from all sides of it you could see endless green and yellow sunflower plants. We hung out in the pagoda for a while just talking and recovering from the soul-crushing heat. In case I forgot to mention the temperature in previous posts, assume that it’s been at least 90 degrees outside in all of my posts.

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Lunch

After our well deserved escape from the heat we left the pagoda and ate lunch at a café/visitor center on the outskirts of the sunflower field. Nicole and I shared a squid pizza (more like an open-faced squid omelette) and bibimbap (rice, egg, and veggies in a bowl). It was delicious. Across from the restaurant was a sunflower gift shop selling various sunflower-related products such as a tea-like drink mix and some sunflower seeds in different size bags. Nicole and the other ladies on the trip got soft serve ice cream, vanilla, since the swirl option was broken.

After lunch, we returned to where the cab drivers had dropped us off. The two drivers were milling around the parking lot doing cab driver things, probably discussing beaded seat cushions, awful car fragrances, or the best way to drift around turns and scare your passengers.

The Ride to the Beach

We all piled into the two cabs and drove to the beach. The drive was about 20 minutes and the cab drivers didn’t take their foot off the gas once. It was exhilarating and terrifying, but the fare was low so I can’t complain. About halfway through the ride the cab driver turned to Nicole in the backseat and handed her his business card and a paper fan sponsored by the police department condemning domestic violence. I don’t really know what to make of that gesture. Either Nicole happened to say something in English that sounded like Korean for “please give me a business card and information on domestic violence” or I still have lots to learn about Korean culture.

Beach

The Beach

We arrived at a little town on the coast, I use the term town loosely, there were four to five buildings and a beach. We walked through town, all of it, and out to the beach. A concrete wall surrounded the beach on the coast side, immediately on the other side of it was a rocky outcropping where Koreans were sunbathing. We laid our towels out on the hot rocks and basked like lizards beneath a heat lamp. Once we were sufficiently heated on both sides, like lightly toasted English muffins, we walked down to the water. It was low tide so the water was about a half mile away. I expected to be cooled down by the water on such a hot day. However, I was in for a surprise. The water was hot, not just warm but hot. It was not refreshing.

Rocks

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The time in the water was relatively uneventful so I’ll take this time to tell you about Korean beach attire. Koreans fear the sun like vampires, and cherish whiteness like Aryans. Consequently, it’s not unusual to see Koreans in either incredibly modest swimsuits, or completely covered up head to toe with long sleeves, pants, and a hat. As a foreigner, I have been repeatedly warned to check for “whitening” in my sunscreen, because some sunscreen not only blocks the sun but also makes your skin whiter than when you left for the beach.

Koreans at Beach

After our swim, we returned to Gwangju via a bus to a bus.

 

Boseong Tea Fields

First off, what a weekend. The past two weekends were slow and I want to apologize to everyone out there for not having more to write about. I just needed some time to recoup and reorganize before hitting the ground running this past weekend.

The weekend started out, as usual, at the bus terminal. Nicole, Kayla, and I met up with Will and Ted at the ticket booth. If the ticket booth attendants didn’t see so many people everyday, I’d be convinced they knew me. After all, I am there every saturday.

Boseong Tea Fields
Boseong Tea Fields

This weekend’s first adventure was the Boseong Tea Fields. The ride there was a little over an hour and only a few dollars. If you aren’t traveling between major cities in Korea the bus rates tend to be inexpensive.

Once we reached the Boseong bus terminal, we caught a cab for another few dollars and 5 minutes later we were at the tea fields. The Boseong Dawon Tea Plantation is on the southwest coast of South Korea. Its temperate climate is ideal for growing green tea. The plantation we visited was established in 1957, and it is a sight to behold. The plantation spans across several rolling hills reaching heights of 350 meters and comprising several million tea plants. The best times to visit are in the summer, May through August so we were there just at the end of their season.

The entrance to the plantation is lined with trees and a small brook. Once inside, you’re greeted by a giant fountain surrounded by benches and rocks to sit and relax on. There’s a small shop selling iced green tea and a few other snacks and a larger shop and restaurant on the other side of the fountain. Behind the shop/restaurant is a set of steps that seems to go on forever leading you up to the top of the tea fields and a beautiful view of the plantation.

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From the top we could see seemingly endless rows of identical green tea bushes, snaking around the hills and valleys below us. It was like standing on a topographical map, with each row of tea bushes representing a change in elevation. I imagine from a high enough altitude the plantation would look like a giant fingerprint with each row of bushes comprising a different line or ridge in said fingerprint.

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From the top we took several pictures and walked back down the backside of the hill. The backside of the mountain was covered in shaded forest and there were no tea plants, just a winding path and another small brook. The plantation was as beautiful as it was hot. I’m sure you’ll notice from the pictures we all got gradually sweatier and sweatier. It was about 95 degrees that day and so humid so the shaded path back down was a welcome reprieve from the oppressive heat.

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Once we reached the bottom of the mountain we stopped in at the restaurant/café for tea snacks and beverages. I bought a grapefruitade, which is lemonade but with grapefruit. I don’t know it if was just the heat and dehydration speaking, but that beverage was one of the tastiest and most refreshing drinks I’ve ever had in my life. Nicole got another iced green tea and a green tea ice cream.

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In the gift shop they had all kinds of green tea snacks: green tea chocolate, cookies, granola-like bars, crackers, and of course green tea. After our little shopping experience we hailed a cab back to the bus terminal and eventually Gwangju.

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The tea fields were one of my favorite trips so far. I was in the company of good people having good experiences. The trip was relatively inexpensive as well.