Thailand Day Three: Floating Market

This is the third day of my trip to Thailand. If you missed the first and second days, check them out first.

van to the floating market in bangkok thailand

Our third day in Thailand was a Monday. The real enjoyment of a vacation doesn’t seem to hit until you find yourself vacationing on a weekday. I was enjoying my time on Saturday and Sunday, but, once Monday rolled around, it really sunk in that I was on vacation. Just knowing that normally I would have to be at work, teaching, grading, and making assignments, but instead, I was visiting an exotic country, was thrilling. It wasn’t all relaxation though.

This morning Nicole and I got up early (7:30am) and packed a bag for our first tour of the trip. Nicole had booked a tour on Travel Zoo for the Railroad market and the Floating market. We met downstairs at 8am and took a van with some very quiet, I’m guessing Chinese, tourists. The trip was about 2 hours to get to the railroad market.

The Railroad Market

Fresh veggies at the railroad market in Bangkok Thailand

railroad depotThe van dropped us off at the end of a very rustic rail depot in a small town. Our guide said “the market is over there”. He pointed to the other end of the rail depot. Then he instructed us to meet back at the van in an hour and promptly disappeared. Left to our own devices, Nicole and I walked to the end of the rail depot and into the market.

The railroad market is called the railroad market because its literally built on top of a set of railroad tracks. Everyday, several times a day, a train comes through and all of the vendors and patrons must promptly move out of the way. All of the stalls, if you can call them that, are on wheels and they quickly roll out of the way to make room for the train. After the train comes through, the stalls roll right back out and carry on with their business.

The railroad market was very different from the weekend market we visited yesterday. The weekend market had a bit of everything and I got the impression that if you were a local you went to one part and if you were a tourist you visited a different part. This market was very much locals-only. There were all manner of spices, fruits, vegetables, and meats. I don’t use the term ‘all manner’ lightly. There were both fruits and meats at this market that I had never even heard of, let alone seen.

Lunch

Lunch Time at the railroad market in Bangkok Thailand

After we walked around a bit, Nicole and I stepped into a little cafe and had a bite of that delicious soup we seem to find everywhere. As usual, it was amazing and less than three dollars. After soup, we found some little coconut balls that looked and tasted amazing. They weren’t sweet like you would expect, they just tasted like actual coconut meat with a dash of salt.

Delicious Coconut Balls at Railroad Market in Bangkok Thailand

Train Time

After about 30 minutes, I noticed that the market started to clear out. People were moving out of the market and lining up along the side of the road between the depot and the market. Nicole and I joined the crowd to watch the stalls move out of the way and the train come through. I was grateful for being so tall. I got a great photo of everyone else taking photos of the train coming through.

people photographing the train at the railroad market in Bangkok Thailand

After the train passed, Nicole and I met up with our guide and hopped back in the van to head to our next stop

The Floating Market

If the railroad market was locals-only, the floating market was tourists-only. It was a neat experience and I’m sure at one point it was made for locals, but the uniqueness of the experience, buying things from a boat, eventually became saturated with tourists.

We hopped out of the van about an hour later at what looked very similar to the rail road depot, minus the railroad tracks. We walked through the depot and down some steps into a waiting boat. The market, or should I say canal, was packed. It was like rush hour traffic but with boats instead of cars. People were cruising up and down the canals taking pictures and buying wares.

On each side of the canal were stalls right out in the water with enthusiastic vendors pulling your boats over with long hooks. It kind of reminded me of the Mexico ride at Epcot. Fortunately, the vendors were content to let you keep floating by if you said ‘no’. Nicole and I bought a scrapbook for our trip, but that was it for our boat ride.

At the end of our 30 minute ride, we hopped out and walked around the land-based stalls. Nicole bought some more souvenirs and I bought some more postcards. (Sophie, get ready for a ton of post cards!) We also had a small lunch, more Pad Thai and some more Coconut ice cream…so delicious.

Back to Bangkok

The bus ride back was uneventful (naps, etc.). However, back in Bangkok, we left our souvenirs at the apartment and went to see the Jim Thompson House…

The Jim Thompson House…and Protesters

We took the sky-train to the right stop for the Jim Thompson House (JTH), and promptly took the wrong exit and got lost for 5 minutes. Several overzealous Tuk Tuk drivers directed us in the right direction and we found the JTH in a few minutes. The drivers tried to convince us that the JTH was closed, a common scam, and that we should instead go on a trip with him to some jewelry stores.  We declined his offer and walked to the JTH.

The area surrounding the JTH and the sky-train stop was surrounded by protesters just sort of…hanging out. Many of them were in tents or sitting on the sidewalk. They didn’t pay too much interest in us and we just walked on by. Many of the hotels in the area were closed because of the protests but the JTH, despite what the Tuk Tuk drivers said, was open.

Who is this Jim Thompson?

Jim Thompson was a CIA agent who got really into the silk trade after he left the CIA. He built a beautiful house out of 6 smaller Thai houses and completely changed them around to make them very western. About 8 years after Jim Thompson built this house, he was hiking in the jungle and disappeared, never to be seen again. No one knows exactly where he went.

It was a great tour and the home was beautiful. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed inside the actual house, but, I took a few outside the house of silk looms, the gardens, and wood carvings.

After the tour, Nicole and I had a mango smoothie and some curry at the Jim Thompson House cafe before taking a boat up the Chao Phraya river.

 Wat Arun

We took the Skytrain to the boat and headed up river. There are a number of boats that drive up and down the Chao Phraya river and they are packed. When we got on, the boat was relatively empty but, by the time we got off, there was standing room only and, I’m guessing, not nearly enough life vests.

Nicole and I missed our stop by one and ended up getting off at a park adjacent to the Wat Arun temple, but we managed to get some great photos right before and right after the sunset.

Chinatown

After the sunset, Nicole and I went to visit Chinatown and grab a bite to eat. Because Lunar New Year was right around the corner, Chinatown was decorated for the holiday. There were paper lanterns hanging on almost every street and banners everywhere. We stopped at another small outdoor cafe that appeared to be run out of a small food cart. Where they got all the food, I have no idea.

Fish Dinner in Chinatown

We ordered fish…and received a fish, all of it. It was a massive fish of indeterminate species, but I can confirm it tasted incredible.

After our very busy and eventful day of markets, the Jim Thompson house, Wat Arun Temple at sunset, and Chinatown, we were beat. The two of us took a Tuk Tuk across town and back to our apartment for the low price of $3 and we didn’t even have to stop at sketchy jewelry stores along the way.

Our third day in Bangkok was our busiest day yet. Despite being so busy, it was a relaxing day and a relief not to be at work. Stay tuned for Thailand Day Four: Palaces, Tapas, and Temples.

Japan Vacation – Kyoto and its Temples

Today marked the fourth day of Nicole and my Chuseok adventure in Japan. We arrived on Wednesday and spent the past several days visiting Osaka, Nara, and now finally, Kyoto.

Breakfast

Coffee and Bun

We started the day with coffee and buns at a nice little café around the corner from our AirBnB residence. Up until this point in Korea, I had only had commercial coffee from cafes that were franchises. This place seemed like it was transported from New York City right into Osaka. The shop was small and quaint and seemed to be filled only with regulars. Nicole and I got a bun and coffee for a few dollars and made our way over to the subway station across the street.

The Slow Train to Kyoto

Perhaps it was our outstanding record of getting on the right train every time over the past two days, perhaps it was our own hubris, but Nicole and I were becoming train experts and it was starting to go to our heads. Cue the fall. Nicole and I ended up taking the regular train to Kyoto as opposed to the express train. This meant we had to stop at every stop between Osaka and Kyoto, which greatly hindered our progress and doubled our commute time.

Kyoto like Nara, is really well laid out for travelers. The city of Kyoto provides maps of local attractions and bus routes between them in English. Nicole and I were able to easily map out our day of adventures in a matter of minutes. The two of us bought bus passes for the day that allowed us to travel everywhere for one day.

Kinkaku-ji The Golden Pavilion

The Golden Pavilion is on the outskirts of the city and it was our most remote stop of the day, but it’s absolutely beautiful and only about $2 each. The temple is situated on a pond surrounded by lush forests and beautiful gardens. Every part of the temple grounds looked like it was straight out of ancient Japan. The pavilion itself is covered entirely with gold leaf on the top two stories.

Nijo castle

Our next stop of the day was Nijo castle. It was a short bus ride away and centrally located right in the middle of Kyoto. It’s so strange to travel around Japan and see these ancient buildings and monuments adjacent to modern apartments and offices.

The castle was incredible. It sits on several acres in the heart of the city and its surrounded by these well manicured gardens that are incredibly peaceful. We spent several hours walking through the castle and its grounds. I kept having to remind myself that this castle was 400 years old. It was built on such a grand scale it was hard to imagine people 400 years ago constructing something as ornate and detailed as the castle.

Lunch Time

After several hours of observing ancient buildings and monuments, Nicole and I had worked up an appetite. We stopped in across the street from the castle at a little restaurant selling udon noodles. Udon noodles are like fat ramen plus delicious toppings and they’re so much tastier. Nicole and I split an order of noodles with mushrooms, green onions, and pork. The pork was so tender it was falling off my chopsticks.

The Bus to Kiyomizu-dera Temple

After lunch Nicole and I visited Kiyomizu-dera. The temple was a short distance away from Nijo Castle and our noodles. However, the bus ride there took nearly an hour due to traffic. It seemed that all the traffic in Kyoto had to pass through this one intersection that Nicole and I waited at with the rest of the bus passengers crammed in like sardines.

In Japan the concept of personal space on a bus or subway does not exist. Nicole and I were crammed into the bus literally shoulder to shoulder with everyone else. Nicole said it best “I’m touching 5 people right now”. It was like twister but vertical instead of horizontal. The most difficult part was getting on and off the bus. It would have been fine if everyone was going to the same historic temple as us, but most of the passengers were going about their daily lives and had no time for honoring their country’s illustrious past.

Chawan-zaka or Teapot Lane

Nicole and I fought our way off the bus and walked the steep hill to Kiyomizu-dera. The walk up to the temple was really fascinating. To get to the temple you have to walk along this narrow road filled with shops and cafes. The architecture of the buildings along the road made it feel as if we were walking back in time on our way to reach the historic temple. Before reaching Kiyomizu-dera, Nicole and I stopped at Tainai-meguri, a temple to the right of Kiyomizu-dera. The temple has an underground tunnel beneath it that is pitch black. Visitors are invited to take off their shoes at the door and walk through the tunnel feeling their way along the walls. The journey beneath the temple is symbolic of entering the womb of a female Bodhisattva. The only part of the walk that was illuminated was a rock about halfway through the walk. Spinning it in either direction is meant to bring good luck to the spinner. Nicole and I both spun it; we’ll see how our wishes work out.

Kiyomizu-dera

Ah Kiyomizu-dera, the temple I have alluded to for the past 4 paragraphs. We finally arrived after an excruciatingly slow bus ride, and passing through the womb of a female Bodhisattva…still better than flying through O’Hare am I right? All kidding aside, Kiyomizu-dera was incredible. It’s a Buddhist temple originally founded in 778. However all the buildings that exist today were built in 1633. The temple is built on a mountainside with a large veranda protruding out over the mountain 13 m above the mountain’s slope beneath it.

Legend has it that if someone were to jump off the veranda and survive the 13 m fall their wish would be granted. Apparently 234 people jumped off the veranda in the Edo period and more than 85% survived. However when Nicole and I visited, jumping off the veranda was not an option so we opted to just walk around. On our way out of the temple Nicole and I were stopped by a Japanese News team who interviewed us about our Japanese vacation. If anyone happens to see me on Japanese TV, please send me a link.

Geishas and Gion

A Blurry Geisha
A Blurry Geisha

Part of Nicole’s and my Kyoto goals was to see a geisha, but they are far more reclusive than one might imagine, or just as reclusive as one might imagine. Either way we didn’t see a real one all day. I did however get a photo of a blurry geisha impersonator along teapot lane. This was not enough for either of us though and we decided instead to search Gion, the teahouse district, for geishas.

The geisha district was an older part of Kyoto completely insulated from the main roads around it. There may be an easier way of finding it, but Nicole and I both stumbled upon it by walking several blocks off the main road. The streets were cobblestoned instead of paved and little bridges traversed a small canal running through the district.

Along our stroll, Nicole and I saw many tea houses, but alas no geishas. The teahouses are closed to foreigners, so we could not go in to investigate. Inside a traditional teahouse, a geisha would entertain her clientele with traditional music, singing, or dancing. In ancient times, geishas would entertain samurais. However today their clientele are more often business men.

Back to Osaka

Dejected after Nicole and I could not track down the elusive geishas, we returned to Osaka via another incredibly crowded bus and an equally crowded subway. Back in Osaka, Nicole and I got another round of conveyor belt sushi and returned to the AirBnB to pack and prepare for our return flight to Korea.

 

Second Weekend in Seoul: Color Me Rad II

Continued from Second Week in Seoul: Color Me Rad I

BREAKFAST
Nicole and I packed our bags at the hostel and got some breakfast at a local brunch place. Brunch isn’t too common in Korea, so most brunch places are in the foreign parts of town such as Itaewon. I got real buttermilk pancakes with thick cut bacon, and I mean thick, like bacon steak if that was a thing. This place had real delicious coffee as well, a welcome change from yesterday’s McDonalds. Coffee in Korea, and in most places outside of the US does not exist the way it does in the states. Most places have lattes, cappuccinos, and espresso, but rarely do they have traditional american coffee. I often order an Americano (espresso plus hot water).

Sunday in Itaewon is an immensely peaceful place if you’re up early enough anytime before noon. In the afternoon shoppers wander its streets eating international food and shopping in various boutiques. At night Itaewon becomes a crazy club district and its packed with people, Korean and foreign alike. 

BONGEUNSA TEMPLE
After breakfast Nicole and I caught a cab to
Bongeunsa Temple, a place even more tranquil than Itaewon on a sleepy Sunday morning. Bongeunsa Temple is a Buddhist temple dating back to 794. Its located close to the center of Seoul, ironically surrounded by shopping malls and some of the most expensive apartment buildings in Korea. We spent the afternoon wandering around the temple, observing its majestic beauty and instagraming its secrets.

Bongeunsa Temple
Bongeunsa Temple

I got the impression not many tourists westerners visit the temple. Nicole and I got a lot of curious looks as we wandered the temple and one gentleman stopped and spoke with us for about 15 minutes telling us about the temple’s history.

Bongeunsa Temple
Bongeunsa Temple

CONVENTION CENTER
After leaving the temple, Nicole and I walked across the street to the convention center on the off chance something fun was happening. Indeed it was, there was a Korean children’s character licensing convention. I’m not 100% on what that means, but there were tons of children’s characters in costumes handing out autographs and taking photos. It was a madhouse. Nicole and I wanted to go into the convention and take photos, but there was an admission fee and it didn’t seem worth it since neither of us knew who any of the characters were.

SEVEN LUCK CASINO
The convention center is massive and it connects to a hotel & casino next door. That’s right, a Korean casino. Nicole and I had to go, and we were not disappointed. We had both expected a casino similar to one in the states where you can wander in off the Las Vegas strip in shorts and a t-shirt and gamble to your hearts content, that was not quite the case here.

Nicole and I stroll in off the streets in Seoul in our shorts and t-shirts, because its 90 degrees with 100% humidity. Immediately we’re greeted by a staff of 5 or 6 koreans in full suits. The small lobby is immaculate with crystal chandeliers and fountains. Clearly we are underdressed, but we decided not to let that dissuade us from seeing this Korean casino. I greet the first gentleman in a suit and he asks for our passports. In Korea you cannot go into a casino unless you are a foreigner. I believe Koreans are not allowed to gamble. After we get our passports back, we walk around the corner of the lobby and take an escalator up to a small gambling floor with maybe 50 slot machines and a few tables for poker and roulette. Everyone gambling in the casino looks Korean, which is odd since this should be foreigners only. I suspect that there is some way around this passport check or maybe they bribed the doorman.

Nicole and I aren’t gamblers so we mostly just look around until we spy in the corner, past the flashing lights and slot machines, a juice bar. That’s right, this casino has free juice, and by that I mean there are several pitchers of airplane-quality juice available to drink out of tiny paper cups. Nicole and I go over and start slamming back shots of juice with reckless abandonment. The fact that its cold and free almost makes up for how bad it is. I feel like whoever made this juice had never had real juice. Someone probably described juice to him and he said “oh yeah, I know what you mean” but really had no idea.

Juice Bar
Juice Bar

Nicole took a picture of me drinking free juice and several casino security guards came by and told us not to take photos. At that point we’d seen everything we wanted to at the casino and decided to head back to Itaewon and gather our bags for the bus back.

4D MOVIE EXPERIENCE
Nicole and I took the bus back to Gwangju and made it back early enough in the evening to see a 4D movie at the bus station. The Gwangju bus station has everything, tons of shops, restaurants, a department store, and a 4D movie theater. Its awesome. In the 4D movie theater you get sprayed with smells, your seat shakes, you might get wet, and you occasionally get air blown on you. Its just like a 4D ride at disney but its during a full length movie in a theater.

4D Movie
4D Movie

Nicole and I saw Pacific Rim, a movie about giant transformer robots fighting giant monsters from an alternate universe. Its probably the perfect movie to see in 4D because its so over the top. The movie itself wasn’t too bad. The action was massively epic, but the character development was nonexistent and I didn’t really care what happened to any of the people in the film.

If you think there are a lot of previews before movies in the states, don’t see movies in Korea. There were easily twice as many previews and general advertisements before the movie along with several warning screens about motion sickness. Overall the 4D experience was a lot of fun, but after the first hour or so I started to get tired of the 4D part and just wanted to watch the movie without being shaken or having air blown on me, but the gimmick was a fun one time thing.

Lazy Sunday, just kidding, I Climbed a Mountain

Gwangju, South Korea
Gwangju, South Korea

Sunday morning rolled around and Nicole headed over to her temporary apartment to move her things into her real apartment. The teacher she was replacing overlapped her contract with Nicole by a week so Nicole was placed in the temporary apartment until the other teacher moved out. Fortunately for Nicole, the previous teacher left a ton of stuff so Nicole’s apartment is fully furnished.

While Nicole busied herself with moving into her new apartment, I updated the blog and edited some photos from our most recent trip.

Around three I walked from my apartment over to Nicole’s place. Gwangju is divided into 5 areas (Gu’s). North, South, East, West, and New West. I’m in Namgu, which is South I believe. Gwangju is further divided into neighborhoods called Dongs, yes Dongs. My school is in Bongsun Dong and Nicole’s school is in Hak Dong. Walking, we’re about 30 minutes away, or a $3 cab ride. Anyway, I made it to Nicole’s place and we set out on our adventure for the day.

My plate of food at the Buddhist Buffet. The bread was amazing
My plate of food at the Buddhist Buffet. The bread was amazing

Our first stop was to Nicole’s favorite restaurant in Gwangju, a Buddhist buffet with a name I don’t remember. The restaurant is on the outskirts of Gwangju towards the Southeast and surrounded by mountains. The seating at the restaurtant is really neat. All the chairs are really comfortable Baroquesque chairs with intricate wood carvings surrounding soft padded backs in various vibrant colors.

Buddhist Buffet
Buddhist Buffet

The buffet is 6000KRW or about $6 and its all vegetarian. There are two massive buffet tables with tons of different dishes. The buffet starts with several giant stacks of plates that are about my height, then every variety of white rice you can imagine (so 1, but there were actually 3), then several soups and veggie dishes. The other buffet table had salad stuff, I didn’t go over there, but I’m told its good. My favorite food was this really dense bread that was spongey and delicious, and definitely the best bread product I’ve had since I’ve been in Korea.

Nicole at the Buddhist Buffet, note the awesome chairs.
Nicole at the Buddhist Buffet, note the awesome chairs.

After our meal, Nicole and I started our trek up the mountain immediately behind the restaurant. The road up to the hiking paths is packed with various outdoor supply stores like Northface and Redface (the Korean knock off) and I mean literally packed, like 15 stored in two or three blocks. The shops are all in the alpine ski lodge style of architecture and it really felt like Vail or Aspen in Summertime, aside from all the Korean obviously. So how can such a small area support so many stores? Korea are obsessed with outdoor gear, and I mean obsessed. On our walk up the mountain we passed numerous Koreans wearing every possible piece of gear one could imagine: hiking jackets, pants, hats, backpacks, hiking poles, boots, everything you could think of and more. Also, keep in mind its about 90 degrees outside.

My new shirt
My new shirt

I stopped into one such shop with Nicole and bought myself a Redface quick dry shirt. The shopkeeper was really nice and let me try on the shirt and helped me find various sizes. The fitting rooms had bags that you put over your head before you put clothes, presumably so your face doesnt touch the clothes. They were really odd, but I tried one.

The river along our path
The river along our path

With my sweet new shirt, I was now ready to conquer Mudeungsan mountain. Nicole and I spent the rest of the day walking uphill towards one of the lower peaks. The peak we climbed to was about 460m, while the highest one is about 900m. Along our walk we passed numerous Koreans in their full gear. Many of them gave us bewildered looks because we had no gear and we were climbing the same mountain as them.

The path we took wasn’t just for hiking, we passed a very modern looking contemporary art museum, an old  wooden waterwheel, and several buddhist temples. I was captivated by the level of intricacy in the temples. The woodworking along the base of the roofs was incredible. I made Nicole hang out for a few minutes while I took a ton of pictures.

Buddhist Temple from afar
Buddhist Temple from afar

The temples and occasional buildings began to fade away as we climbed higher and higher. Eventually it was just nature and the occasional wooden stairwell. The forest of Mudeungsan mountain was dense, but none of the trees were particularly large, just plentiful. After another half hour or so, we reached a ridgeline where we could see for miles.

Buddhist Temple Woodwork
Buddhist Temple Woodwork

 

The view was incredible, mountains seemed to go on forever in every direction. Looking back towards Gwangju I was reminded of the dichotomy between man and nature. As big of a city as Gwangju seemed when I was inside it, once I got outside the city, I realized how small it was in comparison to the nature around it. Towering buildings that seemed so large when I stood beside them were easily dwarfed by the mountains surrounding them. The city seemed constricted by the mountains, confined to the scraps of flat land that nature discarded for man to inhabit. I was humbled by the experience and pleased that in the rivalry between man and nature, nature was still winning.

Man vs Nature
Man vs Nature

Nicole and I made our descent back down Mudeungsan mountain and into the city. That night we watched Netflix, ate Ramen, and prepared for our first day of teaching the next day.

Amazing View
Amazing View