Viking Country 2: Strange Sleeps

I try to save money when traveling by booking affordable accommodation, but I’ve also been burned more than once looking for the best price. These days, I’m a bit more discriminating about things like online reviews and photos, but it still happens that sometimes I get more than I bargained for. Sweden had one of the best and worst surprises for me with my accommodation back to back. And because I’m telling leg of the trip in more or less chronological order within Sweden, you also get to see the roadside attractions I visited between them.


Bed Behind Bars?

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I drove the rest of the way to Stockholm and found my hostel a bit after dark. I chose my Stockholm accommodations based almost exclusively on the fact they had free parking. Taking a car is absolutely necessary if you want to see the small towns and wilderness of Sweden, but inside the big cities, cars are not so welcome. Parking in Stockholm can be upwards of 20$ a day! I found so many cool hostels at good prices that were either “street parking only” or charged an arm and a leg more for a parking spot. When I found a place that had a good rating and free parking, I didn’t look too much harder. That’s how I ended up in Långholmen Prison.

It was dark when I arrived, and I was tired from a full day of being a tourist, so I didn’t quite absorb what I’d gotten myself into. My 2 person dorm room was inside an old prison cell and although the beds were comfy, it was a very unexpected experience. While I was checking in at the front desk, I met a little old lady who’s father had been a prisoner at the Lanholmen back when it was operational and she and her cousins had come to stay at the now-hotel to celebrate his memory. She spoke unashamedly about his crimes, and of her own escape from a girls reform school in Soderskopping where I had just loaded up on ice cream. I stood at the check in counter agape listening to the wonderful and terrible adventures of this lady’s life and looking at photos of her art. She had been through so much and was still thirsty for life and adventures. I want to be like her when I grow up.

A Lazy Day & An Accidental Tour in my Pajamas 

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I woke up much earlier than I would have liked because of some nearby construction, but I headed down to the hotel’s breakfast buffet and was bowled over by the abundance and variety of food laid out. I had thought that I was staying in a hostel, but it turned out that the dormitory style rooms were only one small part, and that it was actually quite a luxurious hotel, museum, and beach resort. Surprise!

Stuffed full of amazing smoked meats, breads, fishes, jams, and cheeses, nothing on my list of things to do seemed half so enticing as the comfortable sofas on the patio. I wrapped up in one of the blankets provided and used the hotel WiFi to watch Netflix while basking in the sunshine and cool morning air. Although I’d had plenty of down days during July, I felt like most of those were forced on me for health reasons. It was so nice to choose to relax in total wellness.

I had not even gotten dressed to go to breakfast. Not realizing it was a fancy restaurant, I’d gone in my PJs, and was still in my PJs when I intercepted a tour group. My bedroom was in the museum wing of the hotel and now that it was operating hours, there was a guide and a group gathered in the hallway examining the items on display and listening to the history of the prison. I thought to myself “free tour” and tagged along. The museum part is not big, but it’s so full of stuff so it actually took a while to get through all of it. When we got to the end of the hall where my room was, some of the tourists had started to realize that the people walking around in pajamas and slippers going to and from the bathrooms were guests. I heard one wonder aloud what the rooms were like, so I opened up my room to show them.

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The Museum included a nice history of crime and punishment in Sweden, focusing mainly of course on the role of Langholmen. Some pretty vivid descriptions of historic punishments were presented in order to provide a context and contrast to the more modern styles of criminal justice. In most of human history, criminal punishments were basically torture such as cutting off body parts, breaking bones, permanent mutilation and disabling, or burning at the stake. The last part of the history reads:

The death penalty was eventually replaced by incarceration as a punishment for many different types of crimes. The justice system began to be based on fines or prison sentences and it was no longer regarded as the state’s job to realize the wrath of God. Fifteen prisoners were executed from 1865 to 1921… The death penalty was officially abolished in 1973.

Now, the goal of the criminal justice system in Sweden is considered to be reform and reintegration into society. The prison population in Sweden is only 66 per 100,000 (compared to 737 in the US, 615 in Russia, 118 in China, and 148 in the UK). Clearly they’re doing something right.

The prison on Langholmen started out in 1724 as a work house known as “the Spin House” where “degenerate men and fallen women” were sentenced to work. The Spin House produced and dyed yarn and cloth for use in the clothing factories. As the industry grew, the demand for more cloth grew and the demand for more free labor grew with it. Guards were paid 6 copper coins for each new prisoner they brought in. There was no such thing as due process, so either you were rich enough to stay out of trouble or you were nabbed. It may have started by sentencing thieves and prostitutes, but it soon expanded to anyone poor and in the wrong place.

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Workers worked from 5am until 9pm in harsh conditions doing back breaking labor with minimal nutrition and no concern for their health or comfort. Only Sundays did they get a slight break from labor when it was time to attend services.

In the early 1800s, the Spin House was closed, and the structure became The Southern Correctional Institution, officially a prison. In 1840, Crown Prince Oscar got very interested in criminal justice reform, particularly by studying the systems used in the United States known as the Philadelphia System and the Auburn System. The Philadelphia system advocated for prisoners to stay inside their cells at all times (or at least as much as possible) while the Auburn System advocated that prisoners only sleep in the cells and spend the rest of the time in groups performing useful work… work which was of course to be carried out in strictest discipline and silence. No one had heard of basic human rights yet.

By 1880, the prison now called Central Prison was a mixture of the two with 208 Philadelphia and 300 Auburn cells in different buildings around the island. One of the rooms in the museum hallway was a recreated cell rather than a modern dorm room. Inside, visitors could see the entire set up including some very early folding / multi purpose furniture like the desk that turned into a bed, a washstand, a small stool, and a cupboard.

In 1945, a new law was passed to change Sweden’s prison system forever.

“Punishment would no longer be carried out as a warning to society in general. Rather than being ‘made an example of’, the prisoner should be treated firmly and seriously and with concern for his dignity as a human being.”

The material upshot of this was a relaxing of the draconian treatments and the addition of cupboards in the cells where prisoners could store a few personal items.

Prisoners still had to be productive, but it became a part of the reform process. In the 1960s the prison had a machine shop, a print shop, and areas for book binding, carpentry, tailoring, mattress fabrication, and envelope production. When prisons finally did away with mandatory work requirements, prisoners were able to spend their time studying or receiving therapy. The prison closed in 1975 and lay in a state of deterioration for many years before the hotel opened in 1989. (photos: then and now)

When the tour group and I parted ways at last, I donned my bathing suit and headed to the nearby beach for some sun and sand. The weather was still a bit cool, but pleasantly so. There were plenty of locals enjoying a swim, so I decided to try it too. The water was brisk, but fun. I also noticed that people didn’t seem in any way fussed about body shape or modesty the way I’m used to in America or Asia (outside a gender segregated spa, anyway). No one was sunbathing nude, but people changed out of wet swimming gear with only a draping towel for minimum modesty and small children often didn’t bother with swimwear at all. It’s really nice to be in a place where people are comfortable with non-sexualized bodies.

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When the sun got low enough to be just a little too chilly for swimming, I headed back up to the hotel and changed for dinner. Despite my attempts to keep to a budget on this trip, I decided to spoil myself with a meal in the fancy restaurant. After all, I hadn’t spent any money all day on my museum tour and beach visit, so why not? I’m so glad I did. I ordered a simple (hah!) seafood chowder that was such a rich creamy blend of so many delicious ocean treats with wonderfully cooked tender potatoes, and for dessert a dense chocolate torte with … well, I can say “cream and cherries” and it simply cannot conjure the flavor of these dark red cherries soaked in liquor and partially candied, and the rich buttery drizzles of cream that tied it all together. Heaven!

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I never expected to be staying at a fancy resort OR a former prison, and I got both! I can’t recommend this place enough.

Stockholm & Gripsholm

On my way out of town the next day I got to find my friends one last time. We’d spent about a week together in Paris and Copenhagen, but I thought I’d seen the last of them when they headed off to their cruise ship in Denmark. It turned out, their cruise stopped off in Stockholm for my last day there. Originally, I’d planned to leave the hostel fairly early and get on the road, but instead, I took advantage of the free parking and took a bus into the city to meet them at a local street festival we thought would be good fun for the kids.

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I tried to go see the Vasa Museum because everyplace online was like “so cool! must go!”, but it turned out that every other tourist had the same idea and the line wrapped around the whole park. Instead, I took the chance to check out some of the metro stations which are quite rightly described as being another must see for the city of Stockholm. I also wandered through some random gardens and the very beginning of what looked like an interesting festival before finally finding the festival I was actually looking for. Summer fun!

I had a good conversation with a man I bought a latte from because he was friendly. He was an immigrant to Sweden and we talked about what that was like and why he’d chosen to come, comparing our home country economic situations and the shared desire to live in a place with less corruption and more opportunity. I wished him luck and joined my friends when they arrived. We had a food truck picnic on the bridge and then set off to play with the festivals various creative stands. The young boy became instantly entranced by an interactive art piece made of kids playing with yarn, and I joined a 10 minute painting workshop where we all made a fast and furious painting of a Swedish fjord.

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When it was time for them to catch the tour bus back to the cruise ship, I headed back to my rental car and hit the road. I have to say that I left Stockholm rather later than my original itinerary called for, so most of the things on my “to do” for that stretch of road were all closed up by the time I arrived and I got an interesting, somewhat confusing, exterior only experience.

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My first stop was Gripsholm Castle where I found an actual runestone. This one was from the 11th century, and the poem was translated on a sign nearby.

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They fared like men, far after gold
and in the East, gave the eagle food
They died soutward [sic], in Serkland

I also stopped at a place called Rademachersmedjorna in Eskilstuna (yeah, Swedish words are fun). It was billed as an interactive historical village? When I was a kid living in Maryland, we sometimes went to these kinds of places that imitated life in colonial America, and I visited some in California as well meant to re-create the Wild West. I was interested to see what a Swedish one might be, however all the people were gone and the buildings closed up when I arrived.

Nonetheless, I wandered around for a little bit looking in windows and reading signs. The town was filled with signs showing people in period dress and very vivid descriptions of the people and their lives. At first I thought it was just “flavor” but I began to realize the stories were connected and finally that there was some kind of crime to be solved by connecting all the clues from the various characters. I wondered if there are actors who play them during regular operating hours, but there was no time for me to back track the next day.

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According to yet more signs, the town was founded as a place to make cutlery by a Latvian businessman and a bunch of German blacksmiths.

Not A Murder House At All

Around 8:30pm that night,  I pulled up to where my GPS said my “bed and breakfast” was only to find myself driving around a farm. Although it was before sunset, it was still darkish because of the rain clouds. The pictures were taken the next day on my way out. After a couple times circling the farm, I finally found a little house that looked like the picture on Booking.com and pulled up next to a blue parking sign under an apple tree, running over dozens of fallen apples. Some friendly Swedes said Hej  (pronounced “hey”, it means “hello”) as they got in their car and drove away.

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I tried my code on the door but it wasn’t working. I was tried and hungry and not feeling especially comfortable about this building being in the middle of nowhere with no staff persons or anything around. Then a random middle aged, very large man opened the door. He turned out to be another guest, and didn’t know why my code didn’t work or where my room was. I messaged the property through Booking.com and tried to fight down my panic when another man arrived at the front door.

There’s me, alone, at a farm house, close to dark, in the middle of nowhere, with two strange men… freaking out. I went outside, thinking of just getting back in the car and driving away when the owner (a woman) showed up. I had to remind myself that this place was on Booking.com, with lots of previous customers who were definitely still alive and not murdered at all and had even given it high reviews. It had to be safe. My amygdala was not having it, and even though I followed her back inside to find my room, the bathroom and the WiFi password, I was barely under control.

When the owner left, I had to drive 8 miles back up the highway to find the nearest grocery store in order to get food for dinner and breakfast. I had a good solid breakdown in the car. I managed to calm down enough to convince myself to sleep there, but was not reassured when I got up to use the bathroom and saw padlocks on the outside of every bedroom door. Not locked at that time but there.

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If you are reading this and think I’m over-reacting, I envy your safe safe life. Please believe me when I say that women raised in American cities are taught NEVER to be in this kind of situation because we’re most likely going to be murdered, raped, and maybe eaten… in no certain order.

Nothing happened. It was not a murder house. But it really made me think about my life and culture that a situation like this made me freak out on a lizard brain level and yet was so normal to other people that no one even thought to mention these details in the reviews online.


Stockholm is about the halfway point of my driving tour of Sweden. I hope you’re enjoying the beautiful and friendly country as much as I did. Thanks for reading!

 

Stories Around Hamburg

My week in Hamburg was cut a little short because of the insane heat wave going on last summer. I spent an unfortunate amount of time simply being too hot and trying to recover from that. 37 C with no AirCon or even fans is treacherous. Plus, my Airbnb was up 5 flights of stairs, no elevator. I still had some interesting and unique experiences while I was there, most notably the ruins of the Cathedral of St. Nikolai, the Hamburg Harbor, the Miniature Wonderland, a wonderful ferry down the Elbe to see some old shipwrecks on the shore, a live music fountain light show in the park, and an interactive haunted history adventure!


Monday Madness

Monday was the single busiest day I had in Hamburg. I started the day with a trip to the ruins of the church of St. Nikolai because I love ruins. The spire stands as the highest point in the city of Hamburg and is quite distinctive sticking up above the surrounding trees and buildings.

bove ground, you can explore the ruins of what remain after the Firestorm of 1943, see some beautiful artwork, and take the elevator all the way to the tippy top of the tower for 360 degree views of the city.

It’s really quite delightful, and included in the elevator ticket price, is entrance to the museum located in the former cellar of the church. I’ve never been one to turn down a museum, but the experience was vastly more than I bargained for, and is getting its very own blog post. Let me just preface by saying, wow, the German’s don’t pull punches when it comes to discussing their role in the Nazi disaster.

After the memorial museum, I continued on toward the warehouse district where I had scheduled a combo harbor tour and Miniature Wonderland experience which I previously shared. I really have no idea what the tour guide said as it was 100% in German, but the harbor is really pretty, and I did get to see sunset from on the river Elbe which was a real treat.


Tuesday Too Hot
Tuesday was the hottest day. I went out for food and the restaurant was lovely but sweltering without Air-con or fans. I decided beer is hydrating. It’s certainly more available than water. I had the most tender pork and wonderful sauerkraut.


I thought I could find a cafe like Starbucks to enjoy AC and iced latte until it was time to go to the park in the evening but if they had AC it couldn’t compete the weather. One cafe that actually had a visible ac was out of ice for drinks.

In the end, I had to give up on everything and head back to my room where at least I could get ice and a cold shower. I’m genuinely worried for the people in Europe if climate change continues to serve up these super hot summers in towns without the infrastructure or social awareness to handle them. Even something as simple as putting a 3/4 full water bottle in the freezer in preparation of a hot day out was a complete novelty to my German hostess. In future, I’m not planning to return to the mainland of Europe during the summer months ever again.


Shipwrecks on the Beach, Cruises on the Elbe, it’s Wednesday!


Way down the river at Blankenese there are some slightly famous shipwrecks. Old craft that were simply not ever cleaned up, yet are so close to the shore that they are completely exposed at low tide. It sounded cool… or… at least interesting, even if the weather was still too hot. Sadly, I had the only day of difficulties with the Hamburg transit that day. The 50 minute journey took 2 hours and I got to the wrecks 45 minutes after low tide instead of 15 minutes before. Despite this setback, I did get to see them mostly out of the water and in the shade with the wind it was a nice place to sit and rest and watch the tide come in.


I don’t much like swimming alone at larger beaches. I seem to be good with smaller places, I was fine in the Philippines in the rivers, but not the beaches. I like swimming in the ocean if I’m snorkeling, but not just wandering into the water from the shore unless I’m with a group. Whatever the reason, I didn’t go swimming in the Elbe that day, but once I cooled in the shade, I was content to sit and watch the river and enjoy the breeze.


On my way to the ferry terminal, I saw a marker on Google Maps called “magic tree” so of course I had to stop and look. I have no idea what it was or how it got labeled on the map, but it was pretty?


This ferry ride was everything I wanted. Very few humans, a seat in the shade with a breeze and a nice view. They even got close to a few points of interest since it’s a tour ferry. Much better than the overfilled boat tour I’d taken as a combo with the Miniature Wonderland ticket.


The ferry dropped me off downtown at St. Pauli’s, a famous bustling cultural hub in Hamburg. I had a delicious salmon sandwich at Pier 10 then went to the night market. It was a little less “market” and more “outdoor bar” with some food trucks but still cool. I drank a beer and got some specialty cheese.


Thursday: Fountains and Flowers and Music oh my!
Another extremely hot day. I stayed in all day, drenching myself in cold water and holding a frozen water bottle to my neck. When the sun got lower and the temperatures dropped back below 30C, I went out to the botanical gardens. I decided to go out before sunset despite the heat because I wanted a chance to see the actual gardens, but my main goal was to see the fountain and light show with live music accompaniment that is a nightly feature at the gardens in summer. I walked slowly, taking my time to enjoy the flowers and take lots of pictures.

The gardens were stunning, if slightly wilted from heat. More locals came out to enjoy the relief of the relatively cooler evening air and to eat some ice cream by the lake. I even ran into a swing dancing group cutting a rug in an open pavilion in the park.

Then, when I was ready for a rest, I sidled up to the in-park restaurant for dinner. I decided to finally try currywurst. I’d seen it all over the place but hadn’t eaten any yet because I was trying to enjoy what I thought of as “traditional German” food. In the end, I gave in because currywurst was so ubiquitous I had to accept it as a local specialty. I’m not really sure it’s related to curry. It’s a wurst (sausage) with sauce that may be tamarind since it tasted a bit fruity and tart, I think it was sprinkled with turmeric powder. It was nice but somehow nether Indian nor German. I don’t know the fascination but at least I can say I’ve tried it.

For the concert, I found a spot by the water early on as the lawns around the lake began to fill up with families on picnic blankets. I watched ducks and geese be unbelievably blase about humans even as toddlers chased then around the grass.

I’ve been to a lot of fountain shows, I love them all, but what makes the Hamburg show so unique is that it’s all live. The music is performed live, and the person controlling the fountains and lights is activating all of it live. It’s not a pre-programmed computer controlled performance, so it’s not as perfect or technically marvelous as some, but it has the tremendous advantage of being totally unique every time, and of involving live performance artists. I was sitting so close to the edge I got sprayed by the fountains from time to time which was a welcome respite from the day’s heat. One day, I’ll buy a better night time camera, but here’s a little snippet to give you an idea of the show.


Hamburg was an up and down experience going from extreme heat and misery to wonderful, captivating experiences when the heat eased off. I wish I could have experienced the city more fully in better weather because I really loved everything I was able to experience while there.

It’s basically impossible for me to fit a whole city into one post, and Hamburg is no exception. I’ve already published the story of Miniature Wonderland, and following this post will be the deeply emotional ride through the St. Nikolai WWII memorial museum, and finally the thrilling conclusion of my last adventure in Hamburg: The Dungeon!!!!!!

Carolus Thermen Spa Experience

I didn’t have many spa experiences growing up. We weren’t exactly poor but we never really had enough money to do things like that. A “spa day” in my house was putting some scented oil in a hot bath and filling the bathroom with candles. A mud mask or cuticle soak purchased at the local corner store sometimes featured as well. I remember once we were able to take a trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas where we were treated to a soak in the “healing waters” but it wasn’t until I was living in Saudi Arabia that I discovered the magical heights that “spa day” can soar to. That experience will probably remain the most astonishing spa experience of my life, and I’m ok with that, but Carolus Thermen comes in at a very close second.


Bad Aachen

It’s not “bad”, that just means “bath” and according to the website “Aachen” is a linguistic evolution of the word “aaaahhh” that people exclaim when they enter the warm mineral spring water that flows naturally in this part of Germany. For 2000 years humans have been enjoying the thermal water there, from the Celts to the Romans, the Victorians, and now modern tourists from all over. Charlemagne actually declared Aachen his favorite place because he loved soaking so much! Royalty and celebrity have been visiting for centuries to “take the waters”, but when I went they were having a summer sale and I could enjoy all the tradition of pure spring water piped in from Aachen’s Rosenquelle spring along with all the modern amenities of pools, waterfalls, saunas and treatments for a mere 26€ for the whole day. I’m pretty sure that a home “spa day” with candles, bath bomb, face mask, and foot scrub would cost at least that much and not be anywhere near as glorious.

On July 18, I was staying in Lanaken, a small town in Belgium that is effectively a suburb of the larger (yet still small) city of Maastricht in the Netherlands. Yes, those are two different countries, but for the most part, inside the Schengen zone of the EU, travel between countries is no more a hassle than travel between two states or provinces in other places. The main complication was the sudden switch from French to Dutch at the border and the fact that the public transit was run by two different nations. More on that in a dedicated transit article, but for now just be in awe that I woke up in the morning in Belgium, rode a Belgian bus to the Netherlands, then rode a Dutch bus to Germany to spend the day at the spa.

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The final bus stop was about 1km from the spa and the walk was through a beautiful green park with lots of shade and fountains. The weather was still unseasonably hot for the area, but the large green space was cooler than the streets around it. I saw my first red squirrel there, too! He was too fast for me to snap any photos, but it was quite a pleasant shock as someone who has spent a lifetime surrounded by grey squirrels to see one of the fox colored ones in the fur, so to speak.

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Thermal Bathing

I ended up coming into the spa complex from the park, aka, the back entrance. I walked through part of the outdoor pool area where I captured my only photo of the day. Thankfully, the spa front desk had friendly, English speaking staff who explained the rules to me and issued my bracelet. No one carries keys or money or even phones around. The bracelet unlocks your assigned locker but also has a chip that you can use to buy any food or drinks, items from the shop, or extra spa services. Then when you leave, they add up your total and you pay all at once on the way out.

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I didn’t have much in the way of spa gear, but I had brought my swimsuit and a sarong I got in Malaysia that now functions as my multipurpose travel cloth: light blanket, towel, scarf, skirt, shawl, dress, swimsuit cover, etc. I was prepared to rent towels and a robe if the spa required such, but no one said anything to me, and I saw plenty of other people who had brought wraps from home as well. As with all shared water spaces, the changing room included showers in order to get everyone squeaky clean before entering the pools. Once I checked in, I couldn’t take photos, so from this point on, all the photos are from the spa’s website.

The swimming area is like a water park for grown ups. There are eight indoor and outdoor pools of various temperatures, the unique brine steam bath “Strokkur”, a beautiful sun terrace and even a beach. The main pool connects with several others and includes amenities like bubbles, waterfalls, and gentle currents. I also noticed a lift for disabled visitors which I thought was great since the warm water therapy would be wonderful for people in PT or with long term physical limitations.

Most of the pools are in the “warm” range (35°C), with a few dedicated to more extreme temperatures. Two pools on either end lead outside to cooler (33°C) water. A small set of pools next to each other were set up hot (38°C) and cold (18°C) to go back and forth between. I perched under a massage waterfall in the hot pool for a nice chance to work out the tension, and I did the ice plunge to get my circulation going and because it feels bonkers when you go from hot to ice to hot. In addition to being a treat for the body, it is stunning to look at.

After exploring every pool on the first floor, I ducked back to my locker to grab my phone (functioning as e-reader) and a sandwich from my bag before heading to the sun terrace for a rest. The sun terrace is a lovely outdoor area surrounding one of the two outdoor pools on this level. There’s a little faux beach with sand and beach chairs, as well as a small bar/cafe where you can get refreshments. I noticed that many of the people who had reserved the larger beach chairs also brought picnic baskets filled with tupperware containers of snacks, some books, extra tanning lotion and other “beach day” necessities. I was a little worried the spa might not allow outside food and drink since they sell it there, but it seemed to be quite common after all.

The Saunas

After lunch, I headed upstairs to check out the sauna. I didn’t think I was into saunas because, except for the one in KSA, I haven’t really enjoyed them. I find them to be too hot and hard to breathe in. Because I read the website ahead of time, I realized that the variety of saunas offered at Carolus was so extensive it would be almost impossible for me not to find at least one I liked. Aside from the sheer volume and variety on offer, they also have scheduled special events inside the saunas that are free, and I was intensely curious about these.

It was amazing. However marvelous the first floor with all it’s pools and waterfalls, it is as nothing compared to the pleasures and sensory delights that awaited me on the sauna side. There are 15 different saunas and steam baths of different humidity and temperatures, a sauna lake, and the sauna garden. 

While the thermal bath area requires swimwear, the saunas are bare skin. People don’t just walk around naked the whole time (although they could), but wraps or robes are hung on hooks outside each room, and you just use a towel between you and the seat as a cushion and heat barrier, and to keep your sweat off the wood, because you WILL sweat. 

Right out of the showers, I first encountered the Feminarium (below), for women who want to sauna nude without any male observers. It’s much smaller but still had a dry and wet sauna option as well as cool showers, foot baths, and reclining chairs so that ladies could enjoy a full sauna experience in gender seclusion. I was the only person in it, and I just stayed long enough to test everything out before moving on.

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The main floor has the dry saunas which are low humidity and often extremely hot. To do sauna right, nearby is a cold pool, a foot bath, and resting area. Outdoors there are even more pools, dry saunas, and quiet places to rest or nap. It also has the no-clothes terrace for those who don’t want any tan lines.

There is a large board displaying the day’s event schedule, showing what is happening in what room when. I was too excited by the variety to sit still and relax yet. Instead, I wandered around testing things out while I waited for the next scheduled event.

Oriental Bathing World

Downstairs from the dry saunas is a pool surrounded by steam rooms. These are higher humidity and had a wide range of temperatures. I enjoyed the Tepidarium (below), which, at 27°C, was just warm enough to feel it without trying to kill me, but my favorite was the Odorium. This room has my “Goldilocks” temperature with just little hints of air current to keep it from stifling. The Odorium is named for its aromas which were truly heavenly.

While the Odorium had my favorite smell, nothing in this place was odorless. I tested every room and only one had a smell I didn’t like. Many of the rooms were too hot for me to spend much time in. The warmest steam rooms were 45°C and 100% humidity! I read the proper way to sauna, but that involved spending 10-15 minutes even in the hottest of rooms and I just couldn’t last that long.

The whole decor of the sauna is dark, but in a refined classy way. It’s gentle for the eyes, with lots of soft lighting, color shifting LEDs and star lights in the ceiling. The dry rooms are mainly cedar benches, but the steam rooms are decorated with stunning tiles and patterns, intentionally reminiscent of a Turkish bath.  Beautiful ornaments, and water fixtures were everywhere. Lamps made to look like cut lace and even globes with holes to let shafts of light out to dance in the steam. Each room was intricately beautiful and completely unique. It’s no surprise that area is called “The Oriental Bathing World”.

Under a high arching dome, in the middle of all the steam rooms, there was another pool with pleasantly warm water (34°C) and LED lights shining upward casting rippling light and shadow in the ceiling, as well as softly changing colors. Just as I was drifting there thinking oh yeah this is that “wow-is-this-real” feeling I love so much, and imagining all my friends reactions to visiting such a space and how happy it would make them to experience this magical crossover of visual beauty, amazing smells and skinny-dipping, I decided to float on my back and watch the ceiling lights. Suddenly there was music!

Startled, I sat up and it was gone. The music was only underwater. As soon as I submerged my ears the sounds of the people vanished and I could hear lovely soothing “meditation” music!!! Floating naked in a near body temperature pool with underwater music in my ears and the mingled fragrances of saunas in my nose (no bathroom or pool smell here) and my eyes feasting on the shifting lights and colors above… It was pure magic.

Steam Sauna Treatment

When it was finally time for the treatment, left the pool with no small reluctance. I needn’t have worried. Nothing in this place could possibly be a let down. The first activity I was able to join was a mystery to me. The name on the schedule was an all caps word I did not recognize and had forgotten by the time I got back to anything I could take notes with. Even though I had no idea what it was, I was ready to explore.  I headed into Halvet (below), a very hot and steamy room, to see what would happen. This picture is nice and clear, but when I went in the room was filled with thick steam and the latticed orbs and windows shone soft beams of warm light.

Plenty of other people had the same idea and soon the benches were full. About a minute later, a young man in a towel came in with a tray of little plastic shot glass looking things that had a lightly golden liquid inside. Having no clue what I was supposed to do, I tried to surreptitiously watch the people around me and discovered it was meant to be applied to the skin. It was a delightfully scented oil! No one seemed hesitant or shy about rubbing themselves with oil in front of each other, and I decided I wouldn’t be either. Friends even helped each other, rubbing oil into hard to reach spots. I was sweating so much I wasn’t sure the oil was going on, but I kept at it until I had used the whole thing. I noticed the others who finished were heading straight to the showers and followed suit.

With only 15 minutes until the next event, I went to lay down in my favorite room, the Odorium (below). I felt like heaven. My skin was singing and so so so soft. The room was cool enough to help me relax from the hot steam treatment while still being warm enough to be comfortable naked. Not to mention my favorite smell of the day. I thought I was going to melt into the lounge chair with sheer pleasure.

Dry Sauna Infusion

The next event was a “popsicle infusion” back upstairs in one of the dry saunas. The dry saunas range from 60°C to 100°C (I didn’t set foot in that one). The infusion room is listed as 90°C (194°F) with a mere 5% humidity. The walls are lined with cedar benches, and a tall cylinder of hot rocks was in the center.

Popsicle infusion was remarkably popular. I have been to naked parties, and gone skinny dipping, but I do not think I have ever been in such a small space with so many other naked adults where no one gave a crap. It’s mixed gender. Men and women together, lining every available seat on the three tiers of cedar benches. Dudes were casually adjusting balls to rest comfortably on the seat, and chicks were wiping boob sweat. There was not one trace of awkward or creepy. The attitude was “sauna” not “sexy”. I felt completely safe and comfortable in a way I can’t even imagine experiencing in the US.

When all the seats were filled, another betoweled employee came in carrying a saucepan and a bucket of ice. He talked a lot and people laughed at certain points. I’m sure the story in German was good, but all I managed to decipher was something about the ice and that the infusion was orange.

When the speech was finished, rock music eased out of the speakers. With some disappointment, he called out to his assistant to crank it up and soon we were well and truly rocking out in these Death Valley conditions. He liberally sprinkled ice on the rocks and I swear it sublimed, going from solid to vapor without even passing through liquid on the way. He then took another towel and used it to fan the steam at us. Not in cute dainty wafting way, no. This was aggressive German air shoving.

Aufguss-jpeg-bd20441e6780d0aba624404db27c711dYou know that blast of heat you get when you open the oven to check on something? It was like that. The force of the hot air hitting us dead on as he went around the room. People put their arms up like in a roller coaster.

Next he added the orange infused liquid. The smell was intense but pleasant, and the moisture in the air was much more noticeable. Once more, he repeated the towel blasting. I was getting into it, but also feeling really hot by this stage and just starting to wonder if I’d have to leave when he picked up the bucket of ice and flung handfuls at the ceiling. It was coarse shaved ice and broke apart on the wooden beams, raining down on us as a cool shower.

As he started on a second round of infused liquid, a girl sitting in front of me headed for the exit. I decided if she could be a wimp, I could too. Honestly it was just as well. I was becoming dizzy and realized I could be flirting with dangerously overheating. I got to some cool water and started to feel better just in time for the popsicles! The staff passed out little orange creamscicles to everyone who had participated. I’d already been thinking that they must have named it the “popsicle infusion” because it smelled like that childhood treat, so the cold fruity reward was the perfect finish.

Break Time

After the intense heat of the popsicle sauna, I took my time to cool off all the way. I had a cold shower, took a walk outside, lay for another rest in my favorite room, and one more dip in the cold pool (18°C) of the Balneum (below).

With plenty of time before the next event, I decided to head over to the sauna’s connected restaurant. You don’t get dressed to eat there, just throw on a robe or towel. It’s separated from the clothed area, and the terraces are protected with shrubbery to keep anyone outside from seeing in. The view was lovely, but the food was disappointing. I ordered the Thai crab soup, which tasted like someone went “soy sauce and ramen that’s Asian right?” It also had no crab or even fake crab, just teeny tiny shrimp. The cheap sandwich I brought in from the grocery store was better. Before you ask why I ordered Thai food in Germany, the restaurant is called “Lemongrass” and claims to specialize in Asian food. However, the staff was kind, and my mood was just to good to want to think about bad food so I just wrote it off, I was planning to pay 36€ that day before I learned about the summer sale. Thinking of it as bad free food it’s much less painful than thinking of bad food I paid for.

Feeling Like Fresh Bread

It would have taken an act of gods to ruin my glow that day, and while the restaurant may have been a let down, good food was the topic of my final experience: the bakery.

It’s a dry sauna meant to be like a red brick oven which is not uncommon in saunas. I’ve seen several in the Jimjilbang in Korea. However at Carolus, there’s actually an oven inside. Although the room is open for use all the time, every couple hours they bake something in the oven while people are there. I read about it before going and it was one of the things I was most looking forward to. I went into the room the same time the dough did and I lay in the semi-dry heat (60°C 40% humidity) dripping sweat and surrounded by the wonderful smell of fresh baking bread. I can’t even properly describe this room other than to say I felt like I was in the oven with the bread…in a really yummy way, not in a gingerbread cottage witch way.

When they were done baking, it turned out to be pretzel rolls. Once she added some coarse salt, the attendant staffer passed around the piping hot treats. They were light and fluffy inside and crispy outside and almost too hot to bite into. It was so amazing to be with the bread and have the aroma as part of the sauna and then get eat it after as I walked around in the fresh outdoor air.

Spa Spell

I never wanted to leave that place. After my baking treatment, I had only about 30 minutes left to visit my favorite highlights one last time before it was time to return to the non-magical world outside. Of course for me, that meant one more float in the musical pool, and a rest in the Odorium to air dry a bit. 

My ersatz towel was completely drenched by this time and would do me no good as a drying method. I was a little worried about carrying my wet bathing suit and sarong home, so I didn’t get back into any of the swimming baths at the end of my day. I underestimated the facilities once again, since the locker rooms had quick spin cycle machines to whip the extra water out of any towels or suits. There were hair dryers, too. I didn’t need one in the summer, but I would have been grateful to see them if I were leaving on a cold winter’s evening.

When I put this spot on my travel calendar, I did not think I could spend 7 hours in a spa with no distractions, but I only read my book for about an hour at lunch. Other than that my phone was locked up the whole time. I didn’t even miss it.  There were many more experiences, treatments, and classes I never had a chance to attend. I thought about trying to find a room in Aachen so I could stay until they closed at 10pm and come back again the next day, but the cost was even more than the bus rides. I thought also about returning another day that week, before I left Lanaken. I could go back every day for a week before I could see it all.

In the end I decided that the euphoria I experienced that day came from the wonderful surprises and the way nearly every part of the day exceeded any possible expectation I had. If I returned and it was anything less than pure magic, I risked disappointment. Lanaken and Maastricht were providing a nearly unbearable number of disappointments already, and I didn’t think I could take another. Better to keep this shining jewel of memory just the way it is. Visiting Carolus Thermen in the middle of some intense emotional turmoil (which I intend to share elsewhere for those interested in my turmoil and growth) was an incredible escape. It elevated me into a realm of calm delight that was not only a pure joy, but gave me the mental clarity to process a lot of heavy stuff. It is and will remain one of the highlights of all my adventures. 


Writing away as fast as I can, I still can’t seem to get all the way to my goal of 2 stories a week. The new semester of classes has brought it’s share of challenges as I try to understand a whole set of course materials and students. It’s also bringing some new joys which may be taking away from writing time. I adjusted my schedule so that I could attend more weekend events out of town. Last weekend, I got to attend my first watercolor class which was a lovely social event and a chance to learn new art skills. I plan on going to book clubs, craft fairs, and of course to some Korean festivals as well. I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve arrived at a place in my life where I get to have so many adventures of all sizes. I’ll do my best to keep sharing them with you, even if it’s not as quickly as before. Thanks for reading! See you next week 🙂

Hello Bohol: Beaches

There are a seemingly endless number of tiny beaches on the island of Panglao, and each one has pros and cons. I wanted to look at several to get a good idea of the best beaches for my tastes. While only the paid beaches (resort run) are “clean” in the sense of pristine sand and crystaline waters, the other beaches aren’t what I would think of as dirty. They do have natural debris, tree branches, leaves, seaweed, driftwood, etc, but I didn’t feel like any of them were trashed by human junk, a few pieces of litter sometimes. If you’re looking for a postcard beach, it’s better to pay the entrance fee for a resort. If you don’t care so much, just get a decent pair of water shoes and have fun!


Momo Beach

Momo was my first beach visit mostly because it was between two other stops we were making on Sunday, and it had decent reviews online.  Momo was almost eerily quiet. Despite the fact that it was Golden Week in East Asia and it felt like half of China had come to the Philippines, Momo’s only tourists besides ourselves were a diving class practicing in the shallows. There isn’t any deep swimming off the beaches of Panglao; it’s all shallow for a long way out, making it great for kids or weak swimmers, and it’s full of life which is fun for everyone.

The water at Momo was dark with the sea grass growing just beneath the surface, but it was so clear I could see all the creatures who lived there… including lots of spiky sea urchins. I waded out carefully, working to avoid stepping on anyone sharp, and tested out my underwater camera apparatus. In preparation of snorkeling, I’d purchased a phone bag that was water-safe, and a floater in case the phone strap broke. Although a cursory test of waterproofness had been done before, this was my first chance to try to take pictures underwater. It was harder than it sounds.

The touch screen worked great through the plastic above water, but went nuts as soon as the sea surrounded it. It took a while to get all the settings under control so I could launch the camera and take photos with buttons instead of touchscreen. In the end, I never did figure out how to get it to focus on what I wanted, so my underwater shots are a little hit or miss, but it was nice being able to take any at all. Along with the fields of sea grass and myriad urchins, I found a beautiful brown starfish, colored like a pointed Siamese, and managed to get a single focused photo without having to lift the creature out of the water, yay!

Alona Beach

Also on Sunday, we headed over to the famous Alona Beach. I had read that it was once a paradisaical white sands tropical beach which has become overrun with tourism and is no longer so pleasant, but I wanted to look anyway. Alona certainly is beautiful, but there is none of the quaint island charm that I found at Momo. The beach was better tended and the water cleared of sea grass and urchins, but other than a tiny marked off swimming area no larger than a pool, the ocean was covered in boats.  Just above the high tide line, the beach is lined with restaurants, souvenir shops and diving shops.

Since we were on bikes, we had to park in a lot just off the main circumferential road and walk the rest of the way to the beach. (parking was only 5p, btw). I don’t think this is as bad as the blogs I read made it sound as long as you know what you’re getting into. We passed every kind of food, drink, cultural market, and tour group set up you can imagine. I didn’t want to join any tour groups myself, but if you need a tour experience, you’ll find it on Alona beach. Ok, that’s not totally true, I did want to join one group at least to get myself out to the island with all the turtles for some snorkeling, and I found that there too.

Once I hit the beach, I walked all the way to the right, scoping out the options for dive groups. It’s not a huge place, so within a few minutes I’d reached the end. Vendors were constantly calling out, selling tours, drinks, food, pearls… so many random guys selling pearls out of a box on the beach. They may be fakes or they may be cultured pearls, but I’d say if you like them, just don’t pay more than you would for costume jewelry. I have my grandmother’s pearls, so I’m set. I did cave in and buy from one street vendor: an older lady selling fresh mangoes. It was 20p, probably more than it cost at the market, but she peeled and sliced it for us on the spot and it was ripe and delicious.

I headed back the other direction, trying to figure out which of the diving shops I wanted to patronize. I wasn’t planning on diving (I’m not licensed and also it’s super expensive), but after some internet research and asking people who’ve lived/traveled there, I found the best bet for good snorkeling without being ripped off is to join a dive group and just snorkel from the boat while they dive.

At one point, I thought about doing a tour over to swim with the whale sharks (because how cool would that be?), but as I read more about it, I came to realize that the tours at Oslob are damaging to the environment, and to the animals. Although the sharks are rarely harmed directly (though sometimes by thoughtless tourists or bad guides), the fact is that the Filipinos feed the sharks to keep them there year round as a tourist attraction which interferes with their migration, breeding, and feeding habits. It also teaches the sharks that humans are safe, which is not true outside of Oslob, and it puts them at greater risk elsewhere in the ocean. Whale sharks are gentle giants who eat only krill and plankton and have no teeth to hurt humans. As much as I would love the opportunity to swim among them, I cannot do it in a way that endangers their future as a species.

However, while I was learning about this tourism tragedy, I found a dive shop in Alona that felt the same way and offered all kinds of conservation based dive classes for advanced learners. Even more hilariously, it turned out to be the same dive shop that an old high school buddy who moved to Manila an age ago had recommended, although he’d given me the name of an instructor rather than the shop at first, so I didn’t realize until later. With all that coincidence it felt like fate. This ecologically sound dive shop is called Sierra Madre Divers (on Alona).

Inside I found a very frazzled young man running the front. I explained the desire to join a dive as snorkelers, but it turned out that every spot on every boat was filled for the entire duration of my stay in the Phillipines… by Chinese tourists. One day I’m going to get back on a holiday schedule that is not the same as a billion other people. However, he was kind enough to recommend another company. I figure all these dive shops have to know each other at least a little on such a small island, and I was more than willing to take his suggestion rather than try to filter through internet reviews searching for another by myself. He called over another young man who introduced himself as Rafi (short for Rafael) and told us he’d be happy to take us out the day after tomorrow, just show up at 8:30am.

We paused on the way back up the beach for milkshakes and as I sat on the bench overlooking the water, the most adorable tiny little girl came up to me with a ukulele and began to sing “I Wanna Be a Millionaire”.  I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of money scams in my travels. I still remember the little girl in Petra who gave me postcards “as a gift” but wanted money in return.  I like supporting the locals who are trying to make a living from the tourism trade by doing things like making and selling goods or food (the totally grown up women in Petra I made sure to buy handmade jewelry from, or even the mango seller earlier that day). I also like busking as a way to earn money, though I’m hesitant to give money to bad performers. Not only was this girl so adorable she could be on a cereal box, she was a very talented musician. Her uke work wasn’t complex, but it was solid and her voice was very nice. I am big sucker and I only wish I’d thought to pull out my camera, but she was so close, she was nearly in my lap, and I was genuinely enjoying the song so I didn’t think about filming until it was too late. Of course I gave her money, don’t be silly.

White Beach

The last beach of Sunday was another locals only kind of place. Despite being just up the coast from Alona, it was far less developed and by late afternoon it was occupied by Filipino families doing evening barbecues on the beach. The sand beneath the water was much less infested with urchins than Momo,and we waded out into a clear sandy patch where we could play around in the warm water that came only up to our hips. Some of the locals came by to make conversation, and I felt obligated in the growing darkness to lie once more about my marital status.

I haven’t done that since the Middle East, and I have to wonder if I would have done it in the daylight, but the sun was behind the trees and it was getting quite dark.  I felt exposed in the sea, even with another American woman beside me, as a man I didn’t know asked about my age and my husband. I want to believe he was just being friendly. I’ve learned that in many places the standard questions are “Where are you from?, What do you do?, How old are you?, and Are you married?” I want to be a proud single traveler. I want to scream from the mountain tops that I don’t need a man to do this. And yet, from time to time I feel less than safe admitting to my spinsterhood, as though by admitting I’m single it will become an invitation for attention I do not want, or worse be taken as an admission of promiscuity. So until the day women are safe and independent all over the world, I may sometimes have an imaginary husband in the US military to scare away unwanted male attention. Sigh.

We splashed around in the shallow water, trying to take selfies in the dark and watching the lightening pop in the distance until it got so dark we couldn’t see our bags on the beach. Looking back on it, I need not have been worried about the bags on a local beach, but at the time I didn’t know yet how things were, and although there wasn’t too much in the bags (phones and keys were with in the waterproof bags with us, money in the wallet was minimal, important ID was in the hotel,etc) it would have been a bad first day to end with them stolen. Plus we were getting more looks from the men as women and children became scarcer in the water. I still don’t think anyone would have hurt us there, but there’s never a need to take chances, and I wasn’t sure how long that lightening would stay in the distance before the thunderstorms hit. I did NOT want to be on a motorbike in the dark and the rain.

Dumaluan Beach

After getting a monumental sunburn while snorkeling on Tuesday, I figured a rest day would be in order and decided that Wednesday would be a great time to check out the “semi-private” beach at Dumaluan that had been recommended by both the hotel hostess and the taxi driver. Panglao has three types of beaches: public, private, and semi-private. Most of the very public ones are not what anyone would put on a post card, the sand has debris from the jungle and the sea, and the water has things growing in it that show it’s clean and healthy, but do not promote a turquoise tropical beach vibe. I personally find these places worth visiting, but there is also something deeply luxurious about the postcard beach experience.

There are a couple of hoity toity resorts with private beaches, and some of them will let non-guests use the beach for a day fee. Unfortunately, I found zero information on what that fee is, or which resorts do and don’t allow, or if there’s a limit, or anything really because all their websites are geared toward getting people to stay in the resort, not just stop by for the amenities. The Bohol Beach Club is supposed to be right up on the top of that list, and I had been thinking about checking it out, but when the locals told me about Dumaluan instead, I decided that was a better option.

Dumaluan is semi-private, meaning that it’s tended to and cleaned up, and there’s a small fee for use, but anyone can go. It’s attached to the Dumaluan Resort, but not exclusive to guests. The fee to enter the beach area is only 25p (about 0.50 US) and the parking fee for motor bikes is the same. Plus, there are little cabin/picnic areas you can rent out for the day. Ours was a “B” and cost 350p for the day. I only saw the B and C cabins; the B were granted an unobstructed view of the water, while the C were set farther back. I presume the A were possibly somewhere nicer and the D somewhere less desirable? I looked but never found them. The cabin area included bathrooms, showers, some entertainment options like volleyball and a karaoke room, as well as a little grill serving light meals, fruit shakes, and cocktails.

The cabin had one long table between two benches, and was covered by a thatched roof, making sure guests would have plenty of shade. There were also lots of trees around which helped keep the area shaded and cooler. Although the sun on the beach was bright, making the sand and sea pop in white and azure, there was a nice breeze and I felt comfortable in my shady seat. It seemed once again we were the only tourists there. There were people at the restaurant, in the karaoke room, and in a few other cabins, but as far as I could tell they were all Filipinos. The cabin next to ours was having a big family birthday party for one of the kids and they’d arranged to have a whole roast pig delivered in for their picnic! We were generally surrounded by (but not crowded by) happy families and playing children throughout the day.

And dogs. So many dogs. In Thailand, there was a profusion of semi-wild street dogs which (other than on Koh Lipe where an animal shelter works to keep them safe and healthy) they are generally scrawny, sick, diseased, injured, and very shy of humans. It’s sad. When I got to Bohol and saw dogs everywhere I was worried it was going to be a similar situation, but as I got settled in, I found that most of the dogs here were better cared for and while collarless, seemed to have good relationships with the humans. Someone told us that they were really family dogs who just wandered around at will. I guess they’d have to be well trained or the chickens and baby goats that also wander around unattended wouldn’t last long. Either way, however many dogs I saw, I never saw a single leash.

Many times throughout the day, a dog would wander over and hop up on a bench to lay down in the cabin. I don’t want to  judge, some people might like that. I don’t hate dogs, but I am allergic, and I also had no idea if these were trained, well behaved, or just thought they owned the park. There are safety concerns with unknown dogs when no owners are nearby. I tried to shoo them off with great difficulty several times until finally one of the Filipino neighbors noticed our predicament and told me what to say. For all the world it sounded like “sit” to me, perhaps with a less aspirated “t”? And when I said it the dog obeyed at once getting down from the bench and moving on, so it was clearly a well understood command and a well trained dog. Later on, I found a list of Tagalog dog commands, but none of them seemed phonetically similar, and the island dialect Boholano is too small to be well documented or have a Google Translate option, so I’m afraid I can’t accurately relay the “go away dog” command for I was taught that day.

The beautiful sun made the water more attractive, but I didn’t want to risk worsening my burn, so I hid under the cabin and partook of the snack bar, which was decent, but not really on par with the amazing food I had elsewhere on the island. Finally the sun retreated behind some clouds or trees, and the beach was no longer quite the burn threat. By this time the tide was in full retreat and it was amazing to see the huge swaths of land revealed. The beaches around Panglao are all very shallow for a long way out, so when the tide goes out, it really goes. I got up to have a walk around the beach and try to take some nice pictures. The clouds there are basically stunning all day, so that helps.

Kids and families played around in the wet sand, hunting down clams and other critters that had dug down during the tidal retreat. There were places where the sand was a little deeper and the water hadn’t gone out with the rest of the sea, creating miniature ponds replete with tiny fish who were trapped until the next tide returned. I waded around the shallows, but had avoided wearing my swimsuit that day to let the burn work on healing. Instead I contented myself looking at the textures in the sand, the piles left behind by digging clams and the ribbons left by the retreating waves. I found a few places where cool water came from under the sand, including one where it emerged with such pressure it almost seemed to be boiling, but it was ice cold.

There were resort workers out raking the piles of debris to keep the sands clean and white. I played a little game of how far out can you walk before the water hits your knees (quite far), and had some fun taking pictures in the glassy reflections of the tiny pools left behind.

Doljo Beach

The last beach I visited was a quick stop I made between two other stops on Thursday just to see if it was a beach I wanted to return to a different day. Doljo is another small, local, free beach that’s far away from the resorts. By the time I made it there, the tide was out, leaving a fleet of boats stranded on the wet sand, but I could tell it was still a pretty place. There wasn’t much around, a couple of huts that were falling apart and some guys selling fresh coconuts to a family of Chinese tourists. It’s small, and a little out of the way. I gather there is at least one resort over there which gets good reviews, but I would have been happy to go there when the water was higher, or even stayed with the low tide to see the sunset. It was amazingly quiet and private. However, sunset wasn’t an option for that day, since I’d already booked an evening activity, and I never did make it back, opting instead to spend my final day of holiday chasing waterfalls.

Conclusion

I think a person could easily visit 3 beaches a day for a week and not see them all. Choosing a beach on Panglao depends a lot on your goals, but regardless of your plans, I would advise:

  • looking at a tide chart because the water goes far far away at low tide and although it is still fairly shallow at high tide, it is much more beautiful and easier to swim in
  • getting water shoes because only the pay to play beaches are safe for tender bare feet (although the locals might have Hobbit blood because they don’t seem to mind)
  • using more sun protection than you think you need because you will burn. Double up, sun screen and covering clothes. The locals swim in street clothes, only tourists go in only swimsuits, so you’ll actually stand out more in a bikini than you will in a covering, skin-saving shirt.

Don’t forget to go over to my Facebook page to see more beautiful sunny beaches! Why? Because WordPress charges more for photo storage than Facebook, and I’m putting off the day I have to beg for money to supplement this blog. Enjoy!


It’s hard to reminisce about beaches in December with below freezing temperatures outside. I’ve been busy job hunting for my next posting, and while I know the responsible thing is to try to get hired for the spring semester, a tiny beach bum part of my brain can’t help but wish for a fall start and the chance to spend 5 months living on a beach in SE Asia while I wait. It seems like I’ll be ok either way, but no out of country trip this January :/ I’ll have to make do with a winter wonderland weekend in the snow instead. 

Hello Bohol: Firsts and Lasts

This post is a collection of tales of how I came to spend 9 days in Bohol, and of my first and last impressions of the country. I warned you that this holiday would not be presented in chronological order, and how much more out of order can you get than putting the first evening and last morning together? Read on to find out more about Korean holidays, Philippine toilets, a little about tipping culture, and a little about human kindness.


What Am I Doing Here?

gimhae-airport.jpg

Image Credit: Haps Magazine

What made me think it was a good idea to take a 9 pm flight on a Friday before a major holiday? Considering I bought the plane tickets back in early May, I don’t have a clear recognition of that decision making process, but I’m sure it had to do with some combination of maximizing vacation time and minimizing price/layover time. Regardless of why I made the decision at the time, when the day arrived and I stood outside in the dark waiting on the limousine bus to the airport at a time of the week I’m usually in my PJ’s with a glass of wine recovering from the school week, I asked myself this question.

When I arrived at Gimhae airport to find it more full of humans than I’ve ever seen it before, the line for my check in counter already stretched across the large room, and the flight itself delayed by an hour, I asked myself again. One day, we’ll invent teleporters, or I’ll finally steal a TARDIS, but until then, airports are the necessary evil I face to enjoy the world.

The Big Holiday Gets Bigger

It was Chuseok again in Korea, that wacky lunar fall holiday that moves around more than Easter, but is a bigger deal than Christmas. Last year, you may recall, I took a 5 day weekend in early September down to Jeju, the “Hawaii of Korea” because Chuseok fell on a Wednesday-Saturday, and I also had no idea it was coming until it was almost here, so no real time to plan a getaway (thanks Enjoy Korea for saving me there). This year, Chuseok is in early October, and because of magical lunar calendars, the timing for no work days was awesome. The actual holiday was Tuesday-Friday, but many businesses (including my school) decided not to bother opening on the Monday before. Plus, the Monday after was October 9th, a controversial holiday in the US (I prefer “Indigenous People’s Day” to that other dude), and Canadian Thanksgiving this year also, in Korea, it was Hangeul Day, the day we celebrate the creation of the Korean phonetic writing system that freed them from the complex Chinese writing system and enabled the country to become super-literate. To save you the arithmetic, that’s 10 straight days of not working.

Choose Your Own Adventure

I wanted at first to go back to Koh Lipe, but the island is closed this part of the year due to the weather. *sigh. I pulled up my new favorite flight searching website, as well as several old standbys to see what the cheapest fares to the most interesting places were during my window of opportunity. It turns out that even though I started looking as early as April, most Koreans had been looking since last Chuseok, and the prices were already 2-4x what they normally would be for every destination. It’s also the “rainy season” in all of SE Asia, so trying to pick someplace I wouldn’t simply drown in a monsoon was on my mind. Finally, I settled on going to the Philippines, to the island of Bohol, and the even smaller island of Panglao.

I chose this destination for a combination of 1) ticket price, 2) new country experience, 3) recommended by a friend who lives in Manila, 4) Bohol is surrounded by larger islands, so I hoped they would serve as a weather break to protect me from the worst of any ocean going storms, 5) it’s not a total tourist resort yet. But first, I had to stop over in…

Manila

My flight landed in Manila around 1am. There were huge lines for immigration, and although I had no bags to collect, it still took me a while to navigate the terminal to find customs (no one even looked at me as I breezed through, let alone checked my paperwork or bags), and then to find the only open SIM card vendor at 2am. They gave us vouchers on the flight for a free SIM and I knew that I could try to get one in the morning on my way out of Manila, but when I found a lone agent manning a tiny booth outside the taxi pick up, I joined the short line and paid up for a working data connection. My lifeblood restored, I went off in search of my ride.

I had a 9 hour layover in Manila, which became an 8 hour layover when the flight was delayed, and then 7 because I didn’t get out of the airport until 2am… you see how this is going. But at the time I booked the tickets I did not relish spending 9 hours in a mostly closed airport with unknown facilities (just as well, since the Manila airport is severely lacking in comfort and entertainment even during operating hours, and it was positively barren overnight). While searching for options to rest my feet during the break I found a little hostel right next to the airport that clearly decided to make a business of the long Manila layovers.

Jorvim Apartelle arranged an airport shuttle, a comfortable room (shared bathrooms), working AC, and a fresh breakfast before the return shuttle as part of their package deal. Maybe I could have paid less by doing it all piecemeal, but it was worth it not to have to hunt down a taxi at 2am or worry about feeding myself at 6am. It wasn’t a long nap, but I was horizontal and cool and I awoke much refreshed. Breakfast was a simple egg, fried slice of spam and scoop of rice with Nescafe on the side, but it enough to be getting on with, and the driver made sure we all got to the airport in time to go through all the security.

Oh the security. Manila is going through some weird stuff politically, which I’ll get into later, but I’m assuming that is part of the security set up at the airport. While customs had seemed wholly unconcerned with what I brought into Manila, once I was going on to another port, I had to pass through a gauntlet of x-ray machines. Simply to enter the terminal, one must pass through bag x-rays and metal detectors. I didn’t have to stand in line to check in since I already had my boarding pass, but to get to the gates, I had to pass another screening. I’m not sure what they thought we might put in our bags or pockets between the front door and the boarding gates, but there it was.

For a major international airport, the Manila airport is pokey. At first I thought it was just because I was on a domestic flight, but my wait in the international terminal on the way out was not much better. I went to get an iced coffee, only to discover that this just meant nescafe over ice… and it tasted awful. The first time it was so sweet I felt I was drinking sugar syrup, when I went back and reminded them I’d asked for no sugar, I got something that sort of tasted like a mix of coffee and chalk. It seems that the Starbucks invasion of the Philippines hasn’t reached the airport yet. It did not bode well for my coffee prospects on holiday, but I consoled myself with the idea of beach drinks instead while I discreetly tipped my cup in the bin.

Tagbilaran

When we left Manila, I stared out the plane window at the bustling city, tall buildings and concrete from one coast to the other with little spots of green here and there. When we flew in over Bohol, it seemed the opposite was true. Not a single high rise building or city-like cluster tainted the green below us. I could see the rolling dark green of mountains and the brighter green of farm land.

As we got closer, I could make out palm trees and rice fields, and the Chocolate Hills that are the most famous land feature of the island. The water we passed over was so clear and shallow I could see the outlines of the reefs from the air. I began to seriously wonder about the “city” we were supposed to land in as we passed over more and more jungle broken up with the occasional road or group of houses.

When we finally landed in Tagbilaran, the entire airport was a single building that was smaller than the hostel I’d stayed in in Manila. The runway was short and the tarmac could not have accommodated more than one plane at a time. We disembarked via stairs and walked to the terminal a few yards away while bags were unloaded onto carts. There was a small luggage carousel in the building, but to be honest, I’m not sure why. The flight was so small it seemed like it might have been easier to simply let passengers claim bags as they came off the plane rather than use the tiny moving circle inside.

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A Word About the Bathrooms

Because my hotel at least 30 minutes away, I stood in line for the restroom in the airport, only to discover that Philippine toilets don’t come with seats… They weren’t Asian style squatters, they just looked like Western toilets without a seat. I thought maybe it was broken, but I saw many more like this any time we were in a very Filipino place, so I’m thinking it’s normal there. Plus, the first non-Muslim country I’ve seen the hose regularly installed. Toilet culture.

I found a decent article later on about the bathroom situation in the Philippines. I think it’s gotten better in the last 9 years since the blogger wrote this, but some of it is still true. Even in Bohol, most of the places “for tourists” had toilet seats. Many had paper (although still best to throw that in the trash and not the bowl). But when I did go to a less touristy area, I was greeted with seatless bowls, flushless toilets (like the ones in Koh Lipe that had to have water poured down them), and either the Arabic style hose or the Philippine traditional tabo (bucket and ladle) for cleaning. I’m reasonably open to doing things like the locals, but I still bring my own paper when I’m touring in case of emergency.

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Image Credit: markblackard.com

Finding Food on Foot

The hotel I’d chosen was only a couple km from the most famous Alona Beach, but far enough away to be much cheaper while still being quite nice. There were animals everywhere. Goats, cows, dogs, chickens… and I could hear the roosters from my room, but they weren’t too loud inside so I didn’t think it would be a problem to sleep through them. Once I got in and had a little look around, I asked my hostess, Becca where to get some food.

Becca is the best, by the way. I seriously recommend everyone who wants to go to Panglao go to Imagine Bohol and stay with her, because she is wonderfully attentive, speaks great English, and will recommend or arrange anything you’re looking for.

20170930_113725There were no food delivery options nor any restaurants in walking distance and although it was my plan to rent a motor bike (scooter) for the week, I was waiting until my travel companion arrived on a her flight 4 hours behind me so we could handle both rentals at once. However, my breakfast had been a long time ago, and I needed something to quiet the growling tummy. As we reviewed our options, she mentioned hesitantly that there was a small convenience store just down the street where I could get some ramen. Done! She said she’d show me where it was and I expected it to be hidden or at least farther, but when we got to the gate of the hotel drive, she pointed at a sign barely down the street, less than 2 minutes walk.

I headed over, meandering my way, taking in the flowers and greenery on the side of the road as well as playing a short game of peekaboo with a shy child hiding behind a tree. A man came out from a house and began to purposfully cut small branches from a tree, but he was collecting them, not discarding them, so I assumed it was not merely pruning. I asked him what the tree was and he replied “mulungway”. “What’s that?” I asked, not yet understanding how strange a question it must have seemed to him. However, his English was not up to the task and he simply said, “for eating”. I didn’t recognize the tree and vowed to look it up when I got back to the room, but sadly I had forgotten it by then and didn’t hear it again for several days.

The convenience store folks were surprised to see me, and were endlessly helpful as I bumbled around the tiny aisles looking for lunch. I ended up with cup noodles, an egg, and an ice cream cone. As I was paying, the ladies wished me farewell, and I said, oh, you’ll probably see me again since I’m staying right down the street. This seemed to make them happy and we chatted some more before I finally left.

I had heard from other travelers how friendly the Filipino people are, but I was starting to understand that it was not actually an exaggeration. I mean, I like talking to locals everywhere I go, and usually I find kind and helpful people and have good experiences, but dang if every single school kid didn’t break into a grin and wave and say hello when I passed by. Leaving tourist spaces can be scary, but I think in Panglao is well worth it.

Leapin’ Lizzards

20171005_182724As the sun set, the lizards came out, and when I went back to the room, I was greeted on the porch by a gecko. It was maybe 6 inches long, not huge, but so unexpected I let out a little yelp, and Becca sent someone to save me. I insisted they did not need to shoo the little lizard away with a broom, but Becca said sometimes they bite. She also pointed out the tiny 1-2 inch lizards elsewhere that were totally safe. I asked if the gecko was poisonous, but it’s not, and it wasn’t even slightly aggressive, but I still kept a distance from the others I saw so as not to add gecko bite to my list of minor travel injuries.

Grateful Farewell

The last morning of vacation, it was time to settle our account with Becca, the hostess with the mostest at our little apartelle. Like most places in Bohol, they only take cash, and she’d been careful to politely remind us the day before in case we needed to get to an ATM. Tipping culture in the Philippines is not yet standard, but I’d read up a bit before coming, and I’d seen many things I’d read confirmed. Fancy restaurants tended to add a 10% tip into the bill, most places didn’t expect a tip but were happy to get one. Tips are still expressions of gratitude there, and so when we felt we were treated especially well, we left a special tip, and if we felt the service was adequate, we left 10% (often included) at fancy places, and not at all in “regular” places. But when it came to the hotel we were both in agreement that Becca and her staff deserved more, and to be honest, it wasn’t a very expensive hotel to begin with, so 20% was still only about 40$. I don’t know if that seems big or small to you. I’ve never stayed in one hotel for 9 days before. I’ve left tips for housekeeping before, but usually only when I made a mess or when they did extra work for me. But Becca was so gracious, always there for us, making sure we had everything we needed, the apartment was cleaned up every day, fresh towels and sheets, she arranged our motorbike rentals (at a much better rate than other places around the island), scheduled our firefly tour, recommended beaches and restaurants and was just generally a fantastic part of the holiday.

I took our rent and her tip bundled together and brought it to her room in the morning, letting her know that the extra money was for her, and not waiting around for her to count it before heading back to finish packing up. A few minutes later she came by our room to see if we’d made a mistake. This is I think the most amazing insane part of this story. We gave her 20%, like I said about 40$US in tip. I can almost imagine someone questioning a mistake if we’d given her hundreds, but in the grand scheme of my life, 40$ (or really 20$ from 2 people) is not that much even to loose accidentally. But she was so honest that she came back to see if we gave her too much money by mistake. No, I told her, you’ve done so much to help us and make us feel welcome and cared for, this is our way to say thank you.

She teared up. Actual tears in her eyes, and she asked if she could give us hugs and told us we had been such wonderful guests. It blew my mind a little bit that such simple things as appreciating her with words and a small gift meant so much. This was obviously not an everyday occurrence in her life at the hotel and it struck me not for the first time how the people here are treated simply because of the reputation of their country as a source of cheap labor and maids.

I hope in some small way that sharing my experiences of Bohol and it’s people can help paint the Filipino people as a caring, friendly, generous and worthwhile group of people who deserve the same respect and courtesy as all of us no matter what their job is. A little kindness goes a long way here, so spread it around.

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The weather in Busan is decidedly cold these days, and the mountain outside my window has turned from green to russet as the trees change for autumn. I’m still pressing though a monumental amount of healthcare. It turns out that suddenly having access to good and affordable care means you actually go. I’m totally fine, I’m just a dental and medical anomaly and require more specialists than the average bear. Despite this drain on my time and energy, I try to stay grateful that I’m doing this here and not in some country with totally inadequate health insurance plans. Hopefully by January I’ll be able to do some kind of adventuring again. Stay tuned for more tales from Bohol as I get my first (and only) motorcycle lesson, and the wonderful freedom and unique experiences that came with this new mode of transportation in our next installment: My Own Two Wheels. Thanks for reading! ❤

Malay Peninsula 12: Koh Lipe part 2

This beautiful, glorious day was all I could have asked for in a tropical island vacation. After several days of mediocre or downright unpleasant experiences, the holiday gods smiled upon me once more. This day is the reason why Koh Lipe has made it to the top of the return destinations list. I’d be worried about singing it’s praises, but since this post isn’t going to be seen by more than 200 people, I don’t expect that I’ll spur a tourist revolution.

What I’ve read about Thailand seems to indicate that it was full of island paradises 30 years ago, but the tourism industry has turned nearly everything into a marketing scheme and the trash tourists bring with them has destroyed once pristine beaches and coral reefs. Koh Lipe is the only island in a national park where permanent (non-government) structures are allowed. It has no big roads and limited access to any transportation other than the small longtail boats and scooters. Boat access to the other islands in the park is relatively easy from Koh Lipe and it makes for a cleaner and less crowded experience than other Thai island destinations.


Good Morning Koh Lipe

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I booked a snorkeling tour package ahead of time. I needn’t have bothered, however, since a stroll down walking street showed dozens of companies doing boat tours, snorkeling tours, and scuba instruction. Plus, most hotels and hostels rent out basic snorkel equipment, and one can simply walk out into the water from any beach and see cool stuff. I booked with a company called Paradise Tours. The tour I chose had access to multiple reefs across several islands and the absolute coup de grâce, glowing plankton!

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The boat wasn’t set to leave until 1pm , so I took myself down to Pataya for breakfast. I found a little shaded cafe overlooking the beach which was dazzling in the early morning sunshine. I was relieved to see that the storm clouds had passed since rain can cloud up the water and make snorkeling less fun. I ordered scrambled eggs and got served a massive portion and a complimentary slice of sweet fruity bread that they made on site. My Thai iced coffee came in a tall thin glass that made me feel posh and decadent. I took a food pic but only later realized that the plate and glass were both large enough that it’s impossible to tell the scale, but trust me it was generous.

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After breakfast I headed out to find a beach bag. Well, a waterproof bag anyway. These are sold in abundance on walking street in many sizes. The idea is that it’s a bag you can put your phone and wallet in (or even towel and change of clothes) then take it in the water (no diving, but surface swimming is ok) and your stuff will still be dry. This was great for me since I had no one to watch my things on the beach if I went swimming (one more reason for beachfront accommodation next time), and I definitely wanted to make sure that my phone stayed dry on the afternoon’s snorkel excursion. I’d already had to replace my Korean sandals that came apart in the rain, I wasn’t risking anything else. The shops on walking street have everything you could need on the island. Swimsuits, sandals, diving gear, beach wear, even pharmacies and a hospital are all available. It was easy as pie to pick out my water bag and head back into the jungle once more to fill it up and leave the non-essentials behind.

I went through more sunscreen on the island of Koh Lipe than anywhere else, but when you are a pasty, porcelain skinned, melanin deficient, sun wimp, the main line of defense tends to be clothes, hats and sunbrellas, none of which work well when swimming. Ergo, beaches mean the all over application of sunscreen. Follow that up with a liberal dose of mosquito repellent and while you may smell a little odd, you’ll be more comfortable in the long run. I managed not to burn at all and only sustained one mosquito bite that left any lasting impact. Better living through chemistry!

Snorkeling Adventure

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Wearing my swimsuit and new sarong, armed with my waterproof bag, I joined the expedition at the headquarters on walking street. Once our party was assembled, we headed down to the beach to board our boats. They split us up, and I ended up with a group of 4 young westerners who were quite happy to include me in their day. It was a pleasant surprise because they clearly had a group vibe, but still worked hard to make sure I felt included in the activities when we were above water. The early morning insanely bright sun had gone behind a light gray cloud cover for which I was relieved. I know that UV can still be dangerous on a cloudy day, but it’s easier on the eyes and it’s less hot. The downside is that all those photos you see online of the crystal turquoise water are a result of the intense direct sunlight and my photos are a little less stunning. But I’ll take a comfortable experience over a stunning photo, since my adventures are about memory and I am not a paid photographer.

I don’t have a large number of photos of that day anyway, since I still haven’t managed to do a fundraiser to get a go-pro or other underwater camera in my life, the underwater pictures here are all from the Paradise Tours page to give you an idea of what I experienced. For whatever reason, they didn’t take any photos the day I went, even though it’s supposed to be part of the package. All the other photos are, as usual, mine unless otherwise noted.

Tarutao National Park

dive-sites-mapWe went to three different snorkeling spots around Koh Lipe, all of them a part of the Tarutao National Park chain of islands and each one even tinier than Lipe: Jabang, Hin Ngam, and Koh Yang. It may have struck you by now how many places start with Koh, which is because เกาะ (koh) means “island”, so saying “Koh Lipe” is the same as saying “Lipe Island”. You can see from the map that there are two larger islands, which I gather are the main part of the national park and are nature preserves where the only accommodation is camping by government approval. Thus even though it is much smaller, Lipe is the  place people stay when they want to explore the islands.

Underwater Life

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I guess that people who dive all the time get disappointed on dives when only the plain fish come out. I didn’t see any giant sea turtles or whale sharks or anything rare, but that didn’t make the experience less stunning to me. Coral reefs are like giant underwater gardens filled with multicolored life at all levels. Just enjoying the rock and coral formations is a treat as you feel like you’re flying above the ocean floor. The sea is teeming with tropical fish that most of us only ever see in an aquarium or “Finding Nemo”.

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Not counting the myriad of fish I could not hope to identify, I know for certain that I saw clown fish, angel fish, parrot fish, trigger fish, fusilier fish, sea cucumbers, anemone, starfish, giant clams, sea urchins, bright blue christmas tree worms, stunningly enormous moorish idols everywhere (that’s Gill from Finding Nemo, btw), a wide variety of rainbow hued wrasse, balloon and box fish, and a thing called a cornet fish. The coronet fish totally weirded me out. At the third reef of the day I encountered this odd looking fish, but unlike the other fish that day, the coronet froze and stared at me. I froze and stared back as we both tried to decide if the other was dangerous. At the time, I only knew the names of maybe half a dozen of these, but i was able to identify the rest using my trusty friend “Google”. All these links lead to pictures of the creatures on Florent’s Guide.

Three Reefs and a Rock Island

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Jabang is famous for it’s red coral. It was our first stop and we arrived about the same time as another tour group. It was amazing to me how many people on the tours didn’t know how to swim. Everyone in my boat was a strong swimmer, but I observed a large number of people from other boats in life vests and clinging to the buoy lines that had been put up to mark the reef’s location. I didn’t realize that the snorkeling equipment listed didn’t include fins, and I didn’t do much downward exploration because I am a natural flotation device. People in Asia seem to use life vests for everything, even shallow water or narrow, slow running rivers. Of course I wear them if I’m going too far from shore to swim, icy water, or otherwise dangerous situations, but it’s still a bit of a shock to see them while snorkeling!

The current was strong and I found that I had to work hard just to stay in one place. But we were surrounded by boats, each one with a dive captain assigned to it, so I wasn’t worried about getting lost. It had been almost two years since my last coral reef swim in Aqaba. I was excited just to be there. The reefs are huge and filled with fish at all levels, including some that will come right up to you to see if you have anything interesting. Toward the end of our time there, it got a little crowded, but since more than half the people were glued to the buoy lines, it didn’t take much effort to swim a short distance and get space to myself.

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The swimming site on the south side of Hin Ngam was less crowded, had much less of a current, and I felt more comfortable exploring. I drifted around and finally started to get used to swimming without fins. Normally when snorkeling, you keep your arms to your side and use gentle foot motions to glide forward. Without fins, I started out splashing way to much while kicking my feet, but I eventually settled into a reverse style where I left my feet still and used a variant on breast stroke to pull myself forward through the water. With less of a crowd and feeling more at home in the water, I soon found myself immersed in the rhythmic breathing of the snorkel and the entrancing experience that is a coral reef. Before I knew it, the guide was waving me back to the boat and it was time to move on to the next spot.

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We took a break from swimming to go check out the north side Hin Ngam itself. The island is not accessible all year, but is a unique attraction because its north beach is made entirely of smooth rounded rocks. Every other beach is smooth white or pale sand, but here the shore is mounds of round rocks of all sizes. There is a myth that whoever removes a rock from the island will be cursed, and another that says whoever can make a stack of 12 rocks will have their wish come true. The Thai government is all for supporting the first myth as the island would soon vanish if tourists removed rocks; however, the tradition of stone stacking is also frowned upon. There were more signs warning us not to stack stones than there were warning us not to steal them. I could not figure out the logic behind this at the time and have since been entirely unable to find any other reference to the stone stacking ban online. There is only blog after blog inviting visitors to stack their own. I am trying to imagine what damage could be done to the park. Could the stones be breaking when they fall over? Could the human rearranging of small and large stones be interfering with the structural integrity of the island? Why does the Thai government object?

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Who knows. But I’m sure you can predict that our group did not honor the signs, and at least two of them set about constructing a lucky tower. It’s harder than it sounds. Because the stones are round and smooth, there is no way to efficiently stack them. The trick is to start with the largest stone and get progressively smaller, and to find stones that are more elliptical than round. While my boat-mates were constructing, I wandered a little further inland to see a small display that showed the curse for removing stones in several languages and a small shrine that I didn’t quite recognize. (I would see several dozen more like it while in Thailand, but more on that in a later post). The stones were beautiful, a muted gray color and banded with stripes of yellow, white, blue and green. Their soft shape is caused by the unique way the water has pounded them over the millennia.

Our next stop, and our final coral reef, was at Koh Yang. This was the shallowest of the reefs we visited, which was a mixed blessing. Although in shallower water, it is easier to see the bottom dwelling fish without free-diving, it also means the coral are much closer. Much much closer. It was not as shallow as the reef I went to in Jeddah which had barely enough water to swim in without touching the corals below; however, while I was treading water and talking to people still on the boat, I managed to whack my foot into a boulder sized coral growth resulting in one of the worst types of injuries you can get for its size. At the time, I was in the water, and full of adrenaline and endorphins, so I glanced quickly at it to make sure I wasn’t gushing blood and then promptly got distracted by the coral reef. This place was much emptier than the other spots we’d visited as far as people, and the crystal clear water gave me plenty to look at. Of course it’s fun to see the stars of the ocean, but even an ordinary neighborhood coral reef is a feast for the eyes filled with tiny, intricate creatures and the wonderful illusion of flight as you soar over them.

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Counting my coral injury, 3 of the most interesting things happened at this reef. The other two were 1) my encounter with the coronet fish, which was odd both because I had no idea what he was and because he spent a good long while watching me, when other fish simply ignored me or glanced in my direction momentarily. When all ocean life is just going about it’s business and one fish pauses to watch you, it’s memorable. And 2) the parrot fish feeding. I had seen the odd parrot fish at the other two reefs, but they were everywhere here and multiple sub-species/color patterns.

Parrot fish are named for their “beaks” because they eat coral. Some reserves even worry that they may be endangering what’s left of the reefs and work to limit the population. Thailand doesn’t seem to be on that list because “don’t eat the parrot fish” signs dotted the beaches. Nonetheless, the fish eat coral, crunching it with strong beak-like mouths and digesting out all the nutritious bits before excreting the remainder as sand (sorry if I just ruined your barefoot beach walk).  At first I was confused by the sound i heard underwater, but soon realized that it correlated to each mouthful the fish took from the reef and I remembered that documentary (because I adore ocean documentaries) and realized I must be hearing the chomp chomp of parrot fish jaws. The reef here was shallow enough and the parrot fish plentiful enough that I could hear them crunching away on their dinner.

12552862_1774943286067791_30421379723713114_nWhen it was time to get back in the boat, I got a better look at my foot, which bled for about a minute, then stopped. I rinsed it out with fresh water and the scrapes seemed shallow and sparse. I think I’ve had worse carpet burns. I knew the complications that are possible with coral scrapes from my last run in with the sharp sharp critters, but at the time, I thought it looked ok and had been rinsed sufficiently. (this is what we call “foreshadowing”)

Sunset BBQ on the Beach

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We boated over to an isolated beach on Adang for dinner and sunset. The beach looked like the set of Lost and we joked that the black smoke monster or possibly a maniac wearing a Dharma Initiative jumpsuit would burst from the jungle behind us at any minute. While the guides were cooking our barbecue, we wandered up and down the beach, found a little freshwater stream that was ice cold in comparison with the warm sea water, took an endless number of photos of and for each other (including a little Dirty Dancing reenactment), and generally splashed around on the amazing paradisaical beach.

Dinner was simple grilled chicken and salad, but it was plentiful and we were hungry after all that swimming. Afterward we were treated to an amazing sunset. The cloud cover from the day provided a dramatic outline for beams of sun to play hide and seek and for the dying day to cast a golden crown along the edge of the sky. We watched until the last glimmer of glow had sunk and in the purple twilight, we re-boarded the boats for our final stop of the tour.

To Neverland

I have an addiction to bio-luminescence, maybe to pretty lights in general because I find myself drawn to every lantern festival and fireworks display I can find, but there’s something magical about living things that glow. I was lucky enough to live in a part of the country with fireflies as a child, but I haven’t in years. The glowworms of NZ were one of the highlights of my trip there. Glowing living things are awesome.

You know those lists on Facebook that say, “50 amazing things to see before you die” or “20 beautiful places you didn’t know existed”? Most people look at them and go, “ooooh aaaah”, and then forget about it because we’re never going to get there. One such list I looked at years ago included the bio-luminescent plankton in the Maldives. I made grabby hands motions at my computer before realizing at that time in my life, there was just no way to make it happen. Years later, when I was researching Thailand and what to do in the tiny slice of it that shares the Malay peninsula, I ran across repeated mentions of glowing plankton. My dreams rekindled. I had to put that on the itinerary, no excuses.

I had no idea what to expect. The photos of the glowworms had been dramatically different from the reality (not at all a let down, but not accurate either), and I knew that most of the pictures and video of the plankton was from the famous beach in the Maldives where the glow is especially strong or simply time lapsed or otherwise enhanced. Understandably, looking at tiny specks of light on a black background is not a great photo. Pictures show a beach at night where the normally white foam glows blue, or people wading/floating in water that seems to have a diffuse blue LED glow. Maybe those things exist somewhere I haven’t been yet, but they weren’t here.

Our glowing spot was just off a boat access only beach back on Lipe. As we sped across the water, the sunset diminished and the stars began to come out. We pulled up to our beach a little early, and the guides said we had to wait for full dark. One of the girls on our boat had done a tour in Australia with glowing plankton, but she said they only put their feet over the side of the boat and kicked at the water, creating a soft blue glow. I looked at the water and at the surf on the beach for any sign of light, but could only detect reflections. Finally, they told us that the plankton were present and it was time to get in. We still couldn’t see anything and our guide swished his hand around in the black water, trying to show us. I thought I saw a tiny sparkle, but couldn’t be sure. You have to look under the water, he said.

I fixed my mask in place and descended into the ocean carefully because it was now too dark to see the bottom and I didn’t want another collision with rock or coral. Knowing that the plankton’s glow was activated by motion, I put my face down and waved a hand tentatively in front of my eyes. I nearly swallowed seawater in my utter shock at the response I received. As I drew my hand through the clear water, tiny sparkles emerged and trailed behind my fingertips. I was the first in the water. Everyone else was still on the boat, nervous because they couldn’t see anything. To catch my breath and get my bearings, I popped my head up long enough to exclaim my delight and wonderment to the other passengers before returning to the underwater marvel.

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I wasn’t angry Tinkerbell, but this gif shows via fairy cartoon the way the sparkles trailed from my hands and feet when I moved.

Despite not being able to see anything from the surface, once looking underwater, there was enough light to make out the large rocks and corals on the bottom. Similar in many ways to a meadow by moonlight, the detail was vague and the shadows intense, but it was far from a black abyss. While observing the reefs, the strategy was to move as little as possible, here we thrashed, flailed and spun with vigor. At one point, without any communication, we formed a ring and kicked our feet in the middle to summon the largest glow we could manage and then broke apart to revel in our private magical flights. Each movement of hand or foot brought a new ribbon of sparkles, exactly like CGI magic effects, but made of living light. As I looked down at the nightscape beneath me, fairy lights trailing from my toes, I felt an overwhelming sensation of being in Neverland, dusted by Tinkerbell and flying with my happiest thoughts.


This tour – boat, equipment, guide, snacks, dinner all included came to about 25$ US and there are way more than 3 places in the National Park to find good coral reefs. I long to go back and spend a week or more alternating between lazy beach days, snorkeling, night diving, and maybe a night of camping on one of the uninhabited islands. I hope you’ll check out the rest of my photos of Koh Lipe on Facebook and stay tuned for further adventures in Thailand. Thanks for reading!

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Malay Peninsula 11: Koh Lipe, pt. 1

For those who have just joined my Malay adventure, be warned that this is not an idyllic tropical vacation. I didn’t book a package tour and the consequence of managing all my own transportation was an increasing series of unfortunate events that at best forced me to learn and grow as a person, and at worst made me want to drop Thailand off the edge of the galaxy (it’s a disc, it totally has an edge). Koh Lipe is a tropical paradise. It came so close to being the real blue ocean, beach bumming, umbrella drink having vacation that I’m dreaming about. Maybe next year.


The Langkawi Ferry Terminal

20170124_091315The only way to get to the small island of Koh Lipe is by boat. I booked online in advance because I didn’t want to worry about tickets selling out. The only reason I was in Langkawi in the first place was to catch this boat to Koh Lipe. After the walking fiasco of the day before, I opted to get one of the islands fixed rate taxis back to the port and arrived 2 hours before the ferry’s departure time, as I was advised to do.

The ferry terminal on Langkawi is like most transportation terminals in Malaysia in that there are a million teeny tiny travel agency booths selling tickets for all the same things. All I had to do was find the agency I booked  with and check in. After going around the entire block without spotting it, I was forced to approach another booth for directions to one of their rivals. The first people I asked tried to tell me that it had closed down.

Trying not to freak out on anyone, I pointed out that I’d already bought my tickets online and once they realized that I wasn’t looking to buy tickets (read not a prospective customer) they pointed me in the right direction. This turned out to be nowhere near the other offices and in a totally different building on the second floor “above the Baskin Robbins” (information that could have been included in the email, thanks not thanks Tigerline).

When I found the office it was not open. The email said it would be open 2 hours before and it was now 90 min before. I was told 10 minutes (this is never true, it’s a mythical number that people in developing countries have learned to say to people from first world countries because it’s short enough to keep us from complaining or going someplace else). I sat down to wait, and about 20 minutes later someone came by to have us fill out paperwork and collect our passports.

I had not had breakfast or even coffee yet, as my base plan had been to check in and get my ticket, then to eat at the terminal where I had seen many restaurants the day before. I also had to change my Malay ringits to Thai baht because we would have to pay the longtail boat fare and national park fee in cash as soon as we got to the island. However, when Tigerline told us to show up an hour before departure, they really meant show up and wait around in their tiny waiting room. The staff (when they showed up) were helpful and friendly, however, and I was able to get away when I explained my predicament with the promise I would be back at the meeting point on time. I was in such a hurry that I did things out of order, changing my money before buying food. Since most places in Malaysia only take cash, I ended up at Starbucks for a breakfast I could buy with a card. This is my sadface. Especially since I loved the Malaysian coffee so much.

Where Are You From?

When your skin color doesn’t match the local population it’s a little obvious you’re a foreigner. The “good news” (no, not really) is that white privilege exists everywhere and that the worst thing that’s likely to mean for me is getting overcharged. More often than not it results in people going out of their way to be gracious hosts and good representatives of their country to me. The question I get asked most often is “where are you from?”.

I have hated this question my whole life because my parents are military and we moved for the first time in my life before I was even a year old out of the US and to a foreign country. With my family I lived in 3 countries and six states within the US. I’m not even sure how the word “from” applies to me. Now that I live abroad it’s even more complicated. While I’m in Korea (where I live right now) it’s easy enough to tell people I’m from America, but taking vacations I’m like “uh, well, I’m American, but I don’t live there anymore”, or “I’m American, but I live in…” whichever country I happen to be calling home these days.  It’s not just about distancing myself from the negative perceptions of American tourists (although that is a part of it). It’s an attempt to give an honest answer. I may be an American and a tourist but I’m not going back to America at the end of the holiday, and I think my cultural perceptions are at least bit broader than the average tourist.

That morning in my tired, rushed state I just said, “Korea” when I was asked and then watched the look of confusion spread on the baristos face. “You don’t really look…”, he started, but was clearly unsure of how to finish the sentence without sounding offensive. I realized my mistake and came to an awkward rescue with my patented “English teacher abroad” explanation. The poor guy looked so relieved I couldn’t help but laugh.

Entering Thailand by Sea

20170124_111025There are no piers on the island. Instead, the ferries anchor a ways out either at floating piers or just in open water. The one I arrived on docked with a patch of floating platform where we could transfer ourselves and our luggage from the speedboat to the smaller longtail boats that would take us to the island. I was amazed to see people arriving with massive piles of baggage considering the situation and was once more grateful for my decision to keep my luggage under 7kg.

20170124_112040The longtails are small boats, named for the motor at the end of a long pole that juts from the stern and into the water. No more than a dozen people can board a longtail together, so the ferry passengers broke up into smaller clusters. Once the longtail arrived at on land, the local operators would hop out and drag the bow a little way up the beach and tie it to a mooring anchor there. The only way for us to get out was to take a splash in the sea. I quickly shed my socks and shoes and tied the laces to my bag, then rolled up my pants and took my first steps into Thailand through the sparkling turquoise water.

The immigration and national park offices are on Pataya beach, and I trod barefoot through the pale sand to join the queue. Best immigration line ever.

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Getting Settled In

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Koh Lipe is 2km long and 1km wide. There are no cars, although it does boast a fair number of scooters which are the only taxis and freight transit around. The bright blue pavement of the main street, nicknamed “walking street”, is perfectly friendly to bare feet and most of people walking around were wearing some version of swimwear plus a light cover. Even outside the rainy season, SE Asia is subject to plenty of rain. I had arrived in sparkling sunshine, but shortly after I began to explore there was a brief but intense shower. It was strange that so many people dressed in swimsuits still ran for cover from the warm rain. I was still carrying my backpack and didn’t want every piece of clothing inside to wind up wet, so I huddled under my umbrella.

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Getting a SIM card on Koh Lipe was so easy and cheap I only mention it so anyone looking for advice won’t be worried. Just follow the blue street till you see a sign for SIM cards and inquire within. After getting back online, I stopped in at a cute restaurant for my first pad thai in Thailand (but not my last, I love that stuff). The rain came and went a couple more times while I was eating but finally dried up enough for me to feel safe heading out to try and find my cabin.

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Lipe Camping Zone

Google maps is not the most functional thing on a roadless island. It doesn’t do walking trails. Following the paved roads toward my cabin’s GPS co-ordinates took me the long way around the island. Eventually, I ran out of paved road and walked cautiously down a muddy path that had deep chasms cut by the rainwater making the walk a little more like a hike. Finally I found the campground deep in the jungle. Ok, you can’t get that deep on a 2x1km island, but it was halfway between two popular beaches on a muddy path surrounded by trees. It
felt deep in the jungle. As I stopped moving a cloud of mosquitoes descended on my sweaty ankles.

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20170124_144512The hostess was wonderful and kind. She brought out some repellent for me even before we finished checking in and got me settled into my cabin. Walking past the tents on the ground, I was extra glad I hadn’t made that choice given the rain. There were no real walkways in the campsite, so I was picking my way carefully down steep slopes and muddy banks. The cabin was equipped with a sort of futon on the floor, a mosquito net, and a fan. While I settled down to check the dryness of my bag and sort out my belongings, the rain began again in earnest. The path in front of my cabin turned into a river. Knowing that tropical rains are often breif, I decided to wait it out. My main activity for the day was written on my itinerary as “beach bum”, so I wasn’t in a particular rush. 

Sunset Beach

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When the skies finally stopped falling, it was late afternoon and I emerged from the cabin to head over to Sunset beach and find out if there was any sunset to be had. Koh Lipe is stunning. Even in the rain it is beautiful. I followed another tiny mud path to the far side of the island where I enjoyed taking gray sky pictures of the beach and mountains until the rain drove me into the shelter of a nearby cafe/bar. As I sat there enjoying my happy hour mojito and watching the rain, I was awestruck by the trees across the bay where white clouds rose from the canopy like the breath of hidden dragons. I once saw a documentary on rain-forests that explained how the moisture from a jungle would evaporate in great plumes, but this was the first time I got to see it in action. 

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The rain eased up, but the cloud cover prevented any sunset light from reaching the shore. When it became apparent that the night was closing in, I headed through the jungle path to back to Pataya beach. I had hoped to spend the evening on sunset beach watching the famous sunset and seeing the stars come out in a low light pollution zone, but mother nature had other plans. Despite the rain, I enjoyed my first day on Koh Lipe. I liked the cozy atmosphere of the island and the ease with which I could go from a nearly empty beach to a bright nightlife spot. I have to say that while there was no sunshine, “beach bum” accurately describes me for the day, since I spent as much time as I could in site of the shore or with my feet in the surf. I finished off at a fancy restaurant which made me really appreciate the contrast between my own accommodations and what else was available on the island.

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About the Accommodation

SE Asia is so cheap. So. Cheap. My cheapest room was in Ipoh and was less than 5$ (US). My average price was about 13$ per night. The cheapest thing I found on Koh Lipe (besides a tent) was cabin for 25$ a night. I looked at other places that were 5-10 times what I was paying elsewhere on the trip and went “oh no!” because somehow I lost perspective. Learn from my mistake. Spend the money. Hostels can be great, and I don’t mind shared bathroom facilities if it’s a clean place. I’ve been camping before. I’m usually ok with it. This is because I had never done so in a humid jungle before.

Did I mention I love Koh Lipe? I had a nice time in many other places on this trip, but Koh Lipe is a place I’m plotting how to get back to. One of the things I’m plotting is biting the bullet and paying for some lux accommodation. Why?

  1. Bathrooms. Most of Koh Lipe not only can’t handle paper (ok no problem. I’m used to putting my paper in the bin from China and Korea) but doesn’t even flush. Next to the toilet is a big tub of water and a ladle or small bowl that you use to transfer water from the tub into the toilet allowing gravity to swish away the waste with the added water. It’s not unusable, but getting to use the fancy toilet in the restaurant made me appreciate real plumbing. Plus, campsites or cabins with detached toilet facilities mean you have to get up and walk through mud and mosquitoes if you have to pee in the middle of the night.
  2. Mosquitoes. My cabin gave me a net, but by night two there were mosquitoes inside the net. There are fewer of the critters on the beach than the jungle, but fewer still in a solid room than a bamboo cabin.
  3. Sand. It sticks to you. You bring it home with you, and if there’s no way to rinse it off before you get in bed, or if your room is so small that bed covers ¾ of the floor, then you have a sandy bed. Ugh.
  4. Wet. It’s humid and it rains. By night two, everything in my room was damp and sandy. Having a separate space for changing out of sandy clothes and an air conditioner which dehumidifies the room are crucial to comfort.
  5. Soundproofing. Not only did I get to hear every word of the conversation my neighbors in the next cabin were having, I got to hear the guy on the other side hoarking up everything he drank that day.

Spend. The. Money. The most expensive luxury hotel on Koh Lipe is still only about 200$ a night. When you think about it like a 20$ a day backpacker, it’s impossible, but if you think of this in comparison with, say, Hawaii, it’s amazingly cheap.

Avoid the inland accommodations unless you just like jungles. They are cheaper than the beach front, but there’s reasons for that. I imagine with the right accommodation, Koh Lipe would be a 2km wide slice of heaven. Even with my cabin, it was quite possibly my favorite stop on this trip.

Cabin in the Woods: Night 2

My second night in the cabin was even worse. I had an amazing day full of snorkeling (which I will tell you all about in the next chapter) and finished off with dessert in the fancy restaurant again. When the whole day of exertion and excitement finally caught up with me, I meandered back inland to my tiny jungle hut. I couldn’t put on my shoes without the sandal straps rubbing the tender area on the top of my foot that had scraped some coral earlier in the day. My cabin had not dried out in the slightest during the day, resulting in a muggy, damp experience. While fighting to reassemble the mosquito net, I managed to spread more sand around the damp and lumpy mattress.

I also found a tiny frog and had to chase him around the bed for a while before he took off. I’m not scared of frogs, but I didn’t want to roll over on him in my sleep and hurt him. The campground shower was just enough to rinse most of the seawater out of my hair. I struggled to clean my injuries with inadequate facilities, tried unsuccessfully to sweep the sand off the damp mattress, sprayed for the mosquitoes that made it inside the net, and fantasized about staying in just about any other hotel on the island. Indeed, if I had stayed any longer on Koh Lipe, I would have booked a new place, but I decided I could rough it one more night and lulled myself to sleep with the memories of my amazing day.


The moral of this story is that Koh Lipe is a magical place, but I am not rough-it enough for jungle camping. Fortunately, there are other options for next time. And if the dour tone of the last few posts has got you down, stay tuned for Koh Lipe part 2, where I share the wonderful 4 island snorkeling trip and my first experience with glowing plankton!

Good Bye 2016

As the year drew to an end (finally), I found myself in the land of festivals (Korea) for some super holiday times. While nothing on Earth is likely to oust the Dubai December for birthday/Christmas spectaculars, I have to say that I had a pretty good December here in Busan. Commence countdown to 2017: T minus 2 weeks.


Two Weeks Till 2017: Boseong Tea Fields

Starting with my birthday (also known as Saturnalia), we decided to take a day trip down to the Boseong Tea Feilds. I personally didn’t put tea fields high on my to do list but there was a big ol’ light festival going on and that sounded like fun. So we piled onto the bus around noon for a three hour drive. It’s not as agonizing as it sounds. I had good company and the seats are comfy. When we arrived, it was still light and although we could see the framework of part of the light show, it wasn’t quite time yet, so we headed into the tea field area first. This area is a small farm that was about half shut down for the winter (the fountains were drained and many of the shops were closed), but once we got past the tourist buildings and onto the path, it was far more beautiful than I ever could have expected.

20161217_150819Green tea looks like very well kept English hedge,.
and because Korea is 70% mountains, the tea bushes are grown up the side of steep hills, creating a beautiful terraced landscape. As we wandered up one side of the hill, I had the chance to munch a tea leaf right off the branch. It was a robust flavor and while different from the drink that it makes, still pleasant. I even found one lone tea flower to admire in the winter greenery.


We found a small waterfall on the way up, but the winter dry season meant it was barely a trickle. The best part turned out to be that since we’d gone up the opposite side from nearly everyone else we had the shaded little path to ourselves. A rare treat in Korea!

When we emerged onto the main path across the hill, I was totally swept away by the view of the tea around us. I admit that from the bottom looking up, it had been.. well ok, but not spectacular, and even from the high points looking down it was only so-so, but right there in the middle of the hill, with the winding, whirling rows of green tea hedges making patterns all around us, the sun barely above the line of trees and mountains to the west casting long golden rays into the valley, it was breathtaking.

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Of course we took our turn to stand on the picture spot (which did have an amazing view), but it wasn’t too crowded. We had plenty of time to admire the scenery and take lots of silly selfies. We passed a wide variety of blossoming fruit trees (that is to say, fruit trees with beautiful blossoms in the spring), so I can only imagine how beautiful the scene is when both the trees and the tea are in bloom. In addition, we were surrounded by tall evergreens similar to the cedars of the PNW makingj us feel a little more like we were in the Cascades and a little more Christmassy, since pines and firs are scarce in Busan.

We stopped in at the local Green Tea restaurant, where every dish is made with green tea in some way. I had a bowl of jajangmyeon with green tea noodles, and a friend got some bibimbap with green tea rice, but my other poor companion is allergic to caffeine and couldn’t eat anything there! (don’t worry, she didn’t starve).Even though it was cold, and even though I’ve had it more times than I could count, I still got myself some green tea ice cream, cause why not?

20161217_171556.jpgOn our way back to the main entrance we took a quick side detour to the bamboo forest. After a short walk through some more evergreens, we emerged into an open space facing a dark and mysterious bamboo forest. The sun was low and the shadows were long so we couldn’t see far into the mass of stalks. Once we entered, it was as though a twilight had encompassed us, the lush leaves cutting out nearly all the late afternoon sunlight. The birds went bananas, screaming like jabber jays, making us feel as though we were in an arena from the Hunger Games or at very least in an ominous Korean horror movie. I wasn’t sure if we should expect kung fu masters or monsters. (click for more pictures of Boseong tea fields and lights)

A Beam of Hope

20161217_175826We left the tea fields behind and headed back down to the main parking lot that would lead to the lights. There were plenty of stalls with a wide variety of food (green tea added and regular) so my allergic friend was able to find something tasty, too. The light show wasn’t quite as spectacular as Taean (seriously that light show), but it was loads of fun. There were animal shapes, dragons and dinosaurs. There were scenes depicted on the hillside. There was a cupid’s arrow that when “fired” by guests shot a beam of light up the wires to the distant target. There was a beautiful rainbow display of that year’s theme, “A Beam of Hope”, and my favorite was the tunnel of lights that went from the bottom to the top of the whole shebang.

We wandered up through the smaller displays, posing with 20161217_174926.jpgdragons and hatching out of giant glowing eggs along the way. Like most lantern displays here, everything was meant to be posed with and interacted with, so it was easy to walk up to any set and play around. It’s a small and childlike pleasure, but after so long in the US being forced to stay behind the railing, it is fun to get a little more hands on. On the way back down, we took the tunnel of lights, pausing every time the colors shifted to take more pictures and pose in the rainbow glows. We didn’t feel rushed at all, and got back to the bottom in time to grab a hot drink and warm up by the fire before hopping on the bus to our third location.

A word on keeping warm in Korea in the winter. It gets cold, not Canada cold, but often around freezing temperatures. The buses and subways are super warm, but office buildings and of course outdoor festivals don’t get so much heat. Koreans rely on the “hot-pak” to solve this problem. This is a chemical warmer that last for about 15 hours once activated. There are small ones you can tuck in a pocket (I like to slip one in a glove or under a sleeve just over my wrist where all the blood flowing to my fingers gets warm), and there are ones you can put in your shoes, or stick to your inner layer of clothing. I bought a 6 pack for about 5$, it was an absolute life saver for enjoying the wintry outdoors after dark.

20161217_191948.jpgOur third and final location was near the beach where another tunnel of lights and light decorations had been put up. One large tree had been colored in white and green to make it look like it still had leaves. There were reindeer and Christmas trees, but also a giant chicken floating just off shore. I’m not sure why a chicken, but I saw another similar giant chicken in the sea back in Busan the next day.

(Eventually I realized that the next animal on the zodiac is Rooster, so it’s less a Christmas Chicken and more a New Year’s Cock.)

We oohed and aaaahed some more, posing with giant glowing horses, and peeking out from between light wrapped branches. There was a light maze, but it was only about a foot off the ground, so we didn’t get lost. Finally we popped back into the food tents one last time before calling it a night and heading back.

One Week Till 2017: Christmas Eve

20161212_185531The next Saturday was Christmas Eve, and we decided we needed to do a blending of American and Korean activities. We spent the afternoon inside making eggnog and gingerbread houses. I have never made eggnog before. I thought about it a lot, especially when I wasn’t doing dairy. I thought there had to be a better tasting nog than Silknog. But somehow, I never got around to it. This year, although I seem to have no health issues with milk here, there was a complete absence of nog… everywhere… Koreans either have never heard of it, or they are all in the hate eggnog camp.

I turned to Alton Brown, my culinary hero, who provided me with a super simple recipe. It took me about 15 minutes to make, and I added a leeetle bit more brandy, but it was quite possibly the best nog I have ever put in my face. The secret is separating the eggs and beating the yolks and whites separately, then adding the whites at the very end to a cold mixture.

Btw, 20161224_152318.jpgbased on past non-dairy culinary experiments, I’d say if you’re a dairy free nog fan go with unsweetened almond milk and coconut milk– the stuff in the can that is dense and creamy, not the stuff that is a regular milk sub.– Use 2c almond milk to 1 c coconut milk, otherwise just follow Alton’s instructions. If you’re a vegan who wants eggnog… well, one of us is confused about what those words mean. May I suggest a Brandy Alexander made with non-dairy milk or some vegan Irish Cream? (I have some recipes for those if you ask).

Anyway, eggnog which is fresh, creamy, rich and frothy is my new best thing about Christmas Eve.

20161224_173459While we imbibed our culinary delight, we worked on assembling a gingerbread house. Every month here in Busan there is a foreigner’s market where expats sell things they make (or sometimes import) to give us all a taste of “home”. During November and December, one lovely lass was selling her homemade gingerbread cookies and gingerbread house kits. That’s right, no factory made house kit for us, but a local small business! #supportlocal #smallbusinesssaturdays The kit was originally meant to be just a house, but my friend decided to turn the foil wrapped base into a frozen lake and make some green corn-flake treat trees to decorate the grounds, so our house turned into a cabin by the lake before we knew it. Who says you need kids to do fun Christmas crafts?

Christmas Dinner

After our crafting, we headed out to find the French restaurant we’d made dinner plans for. Both of us looooove French food (still trying to figure out how to live there!), and decided that we were ok bypassing “traditional” Christmas dinner (which was exactly the same as Thanksgiving dinner) in favor of a nice restaurant. We opted for Le Jardin which is a small French place near KSU. They had some extra set menus for the holiday and were very accommodating about my friend’s allergies. They were quick to respond to emails and both the service and the food were excellent. We also splurged on a bottle of Viognier since there were 3 of us. I got to try this nice little white for the first time in a French restaurant in NZ this summer and fell in love. I’m not a sommelier or anything. I’m not going to try to describe it, but it’s distinctive and delicious. I recommend if you have a chance to try it.

20161224_191643.jpgIn addition to our delightful wine, I enjoyed pumpkin soup, a goat cheese/bacon/honey pastry for entree, a superbly well cooked slice of salmon with a light lemon flavor and a unique mushroom risotto which had been made into a breaded patty and lightly fried, and finally a chocolate pear cake that tasted more like it was a ganache or very dense ice cream rather than a cake, too decadent! Nothing will compare to the food in France, but Le Jardin made an admirable effort and gave us all a taste of Western flavors with just a hint of haute cuisine that was perfect for a holiday feast.

More Lights!
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Although we lingered perhaps too long over the meal, we made it out in time to get to our final Holiday outing: the Busan Christmas Tree Festival. This year’s theme was the Three Wise Men, and many in Korea felt it turned the holiday tradition “too religious”, which is a marked contrast from the US’s annual war on the Starbuck’s holiday cup not being religious enough. The highlight of the tree festival is a tiered wedding cake looking tree made of thousands of LED lights changing to different colors and patterns as we watched. The main streets were overhung with a veritable river of lights and fun Christmas themed decorations adorned the street waiting for passersby to pose for photos or tie paper wishes for the coming year on them. 

20161224_233656.jpgToward one end of the festival, I found an old man with a traditional candy game called ppopgi. It’s a simple candy made from sugar and baking soda, but a shape is pressed into the candy. Kids (and a few adults) can use a little pin to try to break the candy around the shape without shattering the brittle sugar. If they succeed, they win a prize (often more candy). The vendor was using a tiny copper pot to melt sugar over an open flame, adeptly pouring out the steaming satiny brown concoction, pressing it flat onto a popsicle stick and letting his fares choose their shape before pressing a cookie cutter down on the hot surface. I noticed that while adults had to be perfect to win, the little kids were often awarded a prize for a good effort.

After a few hours of glowing fun, we made our way home and fell asleep to the less spectacular but still very holidayesque glow of my own modest 2d Christmas tree. (click here for more pictures of the Busan Christmas Tree Festival)

Christmas day abroad is always an interesting challenge. Traditions that hinge around friends and family must be abandoned or at least altered, but this year I was fortunate to have one friend from home here with me and our Christmas adventures enabled us to both enjoy some of the traditions our host country had to offer while still enjoying our own cultural holiday.

One Day to 2017: New Year’s Eve

20161231_141930.jpgA mere week later, the New Year celebrations were upon us. I had done some research and found that here in Busan there is a bell ringing ceremony in Yongdusan Park at the large bell at the foot of the Busan Tower. It’s a big event with musical performers and guest speakers that is televised much the way that the New York Time’s Square ball drop is. Yongdusan park is nowhere near as big as Time’s Square, and the majority of people don’t ascend the multiple flights of stairs until 11pm. Knowing we had plenty of time, we spent the day reveling in some seasonal sulbing, a screening of Rogue One, and a totally accidental Japanese dinner. 

20161231_225932.jpgNonetheless, it was a wonderful day and at 5 minutes before 11, we found ourselves in a long line of people patiently trudging up the stairs to the peak of Yongdu Mountain. Normally, this pathway has a series of escalators going up so that anyone can access the park, but tonight the escalator had been closed down and reserved as a dedicated emergency access stairwell. When we arrived at the top, we saw many TV vans and we shuffled with the crowd into the standing space behind the VIP seating. To my surprise, through crowd motion, we soon found ourselves close enough to the bell to get a decent view of the proceedings, and there was a jumbo-tron screen off to one side that allowed us to view the performances.

Despite the bitter cold of the night air, the press of bodies meant that I was soon warm enough to take off my jacket, and we joined in the crowd enjoyment of the music. Koreans are a very reserved people and it was strange to be in such a large crowd that greeted each song with polite applause rather than raucus cheering, but as the musical numbers progressed from Annie’s “Tomorrow” through some Korean favorites and the ever popular “Uptown Funk”, more of the people around us began dancing in place and singing along while holding up phones to snap pictures of the bell and of course lots of selfies.

As the minutes drew to a close, the announcer came back to guide the crowd in the traditional countdown (which I almost managed in Korean, it’s hard to count backwards in a foreign language). At the stroke of midnight, the crowd erupted in cheers and hundreds of golden balloons with wishes written on them were released into the night sky. The bell began it’s 33 tolls, 11 strikes for each of the 3 blessings. As we quite literally rang in the new year, confetti cannons blasted the crowd with fluttering white squares, reminiscent at once of snow and cherry blossoms. My compatriots popped a bottle of bubbly (the benefits of an open container country) and we toasted the New Year with pink ‘champagne’, the cheers of the crowd ringing in our ears even louder than the blessing bell. When the tolling finally fell silent, the MC directed our attention behind us where we were treated to a stunning fireworks display.

Welcome to 2017

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The final Korean tradition we decided to indulge in was to head down to the beach to watch the first sunrise of the new year over the eastern sea. After a few hours of sleep, we woke in the pre-dawn dark and walked down to the shore where tents and stages had been set up for the sunrise celebrations. Although the beach was crowded, we managed to get down to the water line where we could sit in the chilly sand and watch the sky redden behind the beautiful Gwangan Bridge. Many in the crowd were holding colorful balloons in anticipation of the first sign of the sun, and several floating lanterns already drifted through the blue and pink sky out over the ocean.

( I know that releasing balloons results in an unfortunate amount of damage to animals and birds as well as litter in the environment. I myself did not partake in the release and I hope that one day soon Korea will find a way to celebrate these events with less environmental impact)

 

All eyes were on the horizon when I heard a series of ooohs and gasps ripple through the crowd. The first deep red sliver of light had crested the sea and as we watched the rising orb, the sky was flooded with the colorful array of wishes for the new year floating on hundreds of multi-colored orbs. We scampered along the shoreline following the arcing rise of the sun as it bloomed into a full sphere and soon laced through the steel cables of the gracefully arching bridge. A drum performance welcomed the new day and the crowd surged from the sea to long and twisting lines to partake of the traditional Korean new year soup. (click here for more pictures of the first sunrise)


My first year in Korea has been full of adventure, lights, festivals and new experiences. Although I didn’t expect it, and despite the country’s recent political upheaval, I am not ready leave. With the signing of my new contract, I look forward to another year of adventure in “Creative Korea”. Happy New Year, and may your 2017 be full of hope, peace and joy.

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Chuseok in Jeju: Part I

Just two weeks after returning from the southern hemisphere and still trying frantically to write all my adventures in New Zealand, I had the opportunity to visit one of my South Korea bucket list destinations: Jeju Island. Even though October is nearly over as I publish this, the story itself takes place back in early September. Korea is just so darn full of adventure that I often don’t have the time to sit down to write, polish, and publish between each one. Don’t be jealous, just come to Korea for your next holiday and enjoy it all for yourself!


Chuseok 추석

Chuseok is a Korean holiday. Some people say it is like Thanksgiving, and I thought that seemed inaccurate. I always thought Thanksgiving arose in the US out of our near starvation in the New World because we couldn’t grow anything there. The Natives saved our butts and we later repaid them by nearly wiping them all out and confining the survivors to the worst land in the continent. Then I read the Wikipedia article and learned about the strange Puritan fasting holidays, Guy Fawkes, and Martin Frobisher. Let’s just say we’re better off removing the comparison between Chuseok and Thanksgiving altogether.
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It is a harvest festival, however, so there’s lots food around. It’s also a time when Korean families honor their ancestors and clean the graves. For weeks before Chuseok, the stores were filled with gift boxes. Common items were apples, fish and SPAM. I saw boxes of 9 apples sell for 130,000 krw (that’s $113 US) and one box of fish for 1,500,000 krw (just over $1,300 US)! I asked my co-teachers why these boxes were so expensive and they told me that it was important to offer the very best of the harvest to the ancestors during the ritual. In addition, certain foods, like the special fish, were not common anymore but could not be replaced or substituted if one wanted to perform the ritual correctly. It seemed exploitative to me, but at least it made some sense. What about the expensive boxes of SPAM? 20160902_173151They told me that’s the normal price for SPAM, it was just in gift boxes this time of year. This led to a whole side discussion about the cultural dissemination of SPAM, it’s various levels of value from trailer trash food on up to gift box delicacy, the etymology of the current spam email concept, and my discovery that South Korea out consumes everyone else except the US in SPAM purchasing (which is staggering considering the population difference). And if you’re not singing the Monty Python SPAM song in your head by now, it’s only because you’ve never seen it.

Getting There

Needless to say, this very important holiday entails several days off work. Since I and most of the other expats here have no family or ancestors in Korea, we are free to take this time to travel and relax. With 5 days out of the classroom, it seemed like the perfect chance to explore Jeju. All summer long, any time I mentioned I was going to Jeju for Chuseok, Korean people would go wide eyed with worry and ask, as though inquiring the health of a sick pet, “did you make all your bookings yet?”. In this way, and perhaps this way alone, it is like Thanksgiving: the dreaded Travel Blackout. Lucky for me, Enjoy Korea made all their arrangements well in advance, and I snatched up the last two seats on the Busan bus way back in June. The price tag seemed unbeatable. The trip included all our transportation, not just to and from Jeju, but around the island to various sightseeing highlights, our accommodation (breakfast buffet included), and the entrance fee to the various attractions we were scheduled to see for around $370USD.

20160914_073107.jpgThe only real hitch was that we were taking the ferry from Mokpo instead of a plane. This meant a 4+ hour bus ride and a 4+ hour ferry ride, plus all the time in the ferry terminal on either end… we had close to 12 hours from when we left Busan at 3am Wednesday morning to when we arrived at the hotel in Jeju Wednesday afternoon. I dozed on the bus and slept better on the ferry where we could actually lay down. After checking in, the tour bus drove us up to nearby  Hyupjae beach. I’m not sure if everything was closed because it was Chuseok or because it was 4 in the afternoon, but we were greeted with lots of interesting looking restaurants that were shuttered and dark. Finally we found a Tonkatsu place where I confused the heck out of the staff by ordering in Korean instead of English. We had a little view of the sea from our table and the food was tasty enough for me, since I hadn’t eaten anything but cookies and a latte all day.

hyeopjae-beachAfter we ate, we headed down to the water to frolic! The weather was gray, but warm. At first the water seemed chilly, but as I waded in further, I quickly adjusted. This beach was wide and shallow. We walked out for ages from the shore but the water didn’t even come to our hips. There were some Koreans playing in the water as well, but it seemed that only the Westerners wore swimsuits, everyone else went in the water in clothes. I’ve seen this at the beaches in Busan as well, and I’m still not sure what the cultural aversion to swimwear in the ocean is.

When we noticed all the expats leaving the beach, we came inland and rushed back to the buses. It became obvious we were the only ones to have taken a dip and our bus driver gave us an enthusiastic double thumbs up when he saw us come in dripping with our towels wrapped around us and our bare feet caked with sand.

After a quick rinse off in the room, we got down to the poolside in time for a beautifully colored sunset. We finished off our first night in Jeju with a pitcher and some nice conversation by the pool before collapsing into actual beds (instead of the floor mats I had anticipated).

Waterfalls with a Side of Disappointment

Breakfast was served starting at 7:30 each morning for 2 hours. I was fearing/expecting a sad continential breakfast of weak coffee and dry pastries, but it turned out to be a long buffet table with Korean and Western foods both hot and cold. The coffee was still weak, but there was a tiny cafe in the lobby, so I figured I could buy a cup after eating. I got in line for the coffee well before bus departure time, but sadly, never made it to the front, so my very full day of waterfalls and museums would have to be done sans caffeine.

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Our first stop that day was Cheonjiyeon where we would walk through the woods and see the most beautiful waterfall on Jeju. Heavens help me, I’m writing the segment about waterfalls from New Zealand elsewhere at this moment and it’s just not a fair comparison. One must take one’s waterfalls each as special and unique without trying to measure any one up. My decision to visit Jeju in September was motivated by the Chuseok special, but also by the idea that September temperatures should be back in the tolerable range. Two small problems with that. One, this was the hottest summer anyone remembers in Korea for a long while, temperatures in Busan regularly went over 30 and reached 35 several days while I was away in the wintery southern hemisphere. This is compared to the highs in previous weather data being something like 28. Second, I failed entirely to account for exactly how much worse humidity makes everything. Weather that says 24 on the thermometer, suddenly feels like 29. Everything in your body swells with fluid retention and it seriously feels like someone’s sucked all the oxygen out of the air. For a while, I was worried this was just me. I knew from my recent trip to New Zealand that I wasn’t just “out of shape”, and that my exhaustion and fatigue in Korea had to be something else. During this holiday, I heard from many other expats (several in as good or better shape than me) how tired they were, how hard the hikes were and other physical complaints. The combination of heat, humidity and low pressure (typhoons a comin’) made many of us feel uncharacteristically bad.

When we arrived at the park, we had limited information on what there was to see along the trails, and I didn’t want to miss this “best waterfall”. We decided to walk straight to the farthest point and then work our way back in so we didn’t end up far away from the parking lot without time to get back to the bus. We chose this because the maps made it look like there was only one access to the parking lot, at the main entrance… this turns out not to be true.. I also failed in doing my pre-research because I was just relying on the tour group to fill me in on what I needed to know. Ooops.

The retrospective research shows that there are 3 “stages” of this waterfall at three points along the river. The first is not usually falling unless there is heavy rain. It is also not clearly marked, but it IS a beautiful blue pool that is seriously worth spending some time at. We walked past it thinking we’d come back, but only had a few minutes when we did return. Path onward to the second waterfall is beautiful. There are many unique trees which have informative signs in Korean and English in case you’re into botany. There are some slopes and stairs, but they aren’t onerous. The second waterfall is the most visible. The viewing platform is in a good place and it’s not too hard to slip past the ropes and onto the rocks for a photo op or even to dip your toes in the water. Sadly, we didn’t have time for these things either and only managed to snap a few pictures around the one white guy who decided to go swimming and be in everyone’s vacation photos that day.

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On the way to the 3rd waterfall is a BRIDGE. I use all caps because this thing is massive. It’s beautiful and very much worth going to see, waiting in the line for the photo op spot, and schlepping across. Because of our go-far-first plan, we got to the bridge while it was still largely unoccupied and the line for the best photo spot was short. There were some people setting up vending stands and what seemed like a camp site nearby. There was also another short path to the parking lot.(facepalm) From here, hikers can go across the bridge or continue straight toward waterfall 3. The bridge arches high above the river below, offering some stunning views even in the misty weather. In a small courtyard on the other side is a wishing fountain with 5 animals, each representing a blessing. You stand in front of the one you wish to recieve blessings from and throw your coin. If it lands in the jar in the middle, you get your wish. There was also a pagoda and a viewing platform that provided a long distance view of the falls.

Feeling a bit rushed, we didn’t have time to explore the other trails that led away from this side of the bridge and headed back to the waterfall 3 trail. This trail is all stairs. I’m not unwilling to hike some stairs. I’ve done some stair-a-thons in my time, but never in such soul-sucking humidity. You know how when you get the flu, just getting from your bedroom to the kitchen to make a cup of tea seems like a Hurculean task? It’s like that, but without the other flu symptoms and sauna levels of sweat. I think if I’d gone in the spring or fall these stairs would not have phased me, but being limited on time and trying to hike in the late summer weather made this the most unpleasant section of the walk. Nevertheless, I persevered because I love waterfalls. The final set of stairs passed under an arch of vines and flowers and I was just starting to feel like it was all worth it when we emerged onto the viewing platform.

I keep saying viewing platform. This is because Koreans don’t like getting involved with their nature too close. While in New Zealand I had been able to climb all over the waterfalls that were right off the main roads, and even in WA I was able to climb off the path and explore the falls that were hiking distance from the road, here in Korea the waterfalls are for looking only. Not in a Niagara Falls, you could die if you get caught in this water kind of way either. These waterfalls and pools were not a safety hazard by NZ or US waterfall standards, so it was more than a little disappointing when we trudged down all those stairs (knowing we would have to climb them again) to get to a viewing platform from which the waterfall was not wholly visible. 20160915_115317.jpgThe best view of the falls was obscured by the trees and vines growing around us and was from quite a great distance. I felt cheated. I think it may have been a beautiful waterfall, but the fact that we weren’t able to find out after so many stairs just felt like a bad con. And unlike waterfall 2 which was relatively easy to hop the fence and get closer to, this platform was high above the pool with a very steep and overgrown hillside, making navigation any closer dangerous and difficult.

On top of this, we were running out of time so we felt like we had to push back up all the stairs as quickly as possible. We made it back to the trailhead for waterfall two and decided to go for it. The walk down to the platform was much shorter and easier than three had been and when we arrived on the platform, we breathed a sigh of relief to see a truly stunning waterfall. There was a dude-bro swimming in the pool. I don’t really blame him, the day was hot and the water looked cool and inviting. If we’d had time, I might have gone down to at least wade in the pool with my shoes and socks off. The only real problem was that everyone (Koreans and expats alike) who was following the rules was stuck taking our postcard photos with this guy in them, and again (I won’t say it enough) we were pressed for time so we couldn’t just wait around for him to get out. I ended up snapping a couple picks when he went behind a large rock.  

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I don’t feel like I had this kind of problem in NZ even when lots of people were around because we could all move around the falls at will and get different angles as needed. Maybe I’d feel different if I’d gone in summer and the water was full of people, I can’t say for sure. I also have to admit, I’m not the strongest advocate for always following rules just because they are rules, but there is an issue of courtesy when someplace is popular and crowded. If you need to go illicit swimming, come back on a day or during a time when there aren’t so many people hoping to take nice pictures.

We had a breif debate about whether it would be faster to go to the parking lot via the direction of falls 1 or the bridge, but we hadn’t seen falls 1 so we scurried back up the path we’d first come down. With less than 10 minutes before our scheduled bus departure, I only went partway down the path to the pool. The falls were not falling, but the pool itself was a stunning deep clear blue and it seemed that unlike the other stops, there was very little barrier to visitors walking right up to the waters edge, and maybe even swimming legally. I saw some signs warning that swimming could cause a heart attack, but there wasn’t much English on how or why.. Perhaps it was in reference to the water being cold enough to cause a cold-shock response, at least that’s the best explaination my Korean friends have for it. Either way, a warning about the consequences of swimming seems more promising than a “no swimming” sign. My heart was once more crushed by our lack of time and the poor representation of the map provided resulting in only the briefest of glimpses of this serene azure expanse.

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In summary, I recommend visiting this place, but leave at least half your day to do it. Bring swim gear or at least wading gear and comfortable walking shoes. Spend your time at falls 1 & 2 and the bridge, but really don’t bother with 3 unless you just feel like extra stairs that day. I personally plan to go back to Jeju at some point while I’m living here in better weather and I will be returning to Cheonjiyeon to follow my own advice.

Museums: Believe It or Not

Our next stop was Jungmun Beach. This is a famous surfing beach and also has many museums just inland. I’ve been trying to find a comprehensive list of the museums on Jeju, but it’s not so easy. Despite the fact that these unique niche museums are a cornerstone of Jeju tourism, there isn’t a comprehensive list or a map (in English) showing where they are in relation to one another and other main points of interest. Maybe some day, someone will offer to pay me to make one, but it’s just too much research to do for free. Our tour group told us about 4 near Jungmun: Chocolate Land, the Teddy Bear Museum, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and “an African Safari themed museum”. I saw one about K-Pop while there, but I didn’t go in, so I have no idea what it was like. We thought about taking a taxi to the Hello Kitty Island museum or to the Mini Land which is full of tiny scale models of famous architecture from around the world, but my old enemy TIME kept getting in the way.

20160915_124525.jpgWe went first to Chocolate Land because, well, chocolate. For some reason there was a giant statue of the Incredible Hulk outside. I don’t know what I was expecting, maybe giant chocolate sculptures or the world’s biggest M&M, possibly a history of chocolate exhibit, or a making of chocolate section. What the ‘museum’ turned out to be was a room (just one) sparsely populated with display cases showing off packaged candy from various countries. Even this could have been cool if they’d said something about it, why is the Arabian chocolate this way and the British chocolate this way… I tried the Kazakhstan chocolate my friend brought me from her visit home after all and was fascinated to learn the pride that the country takes in it’s national brand. But no, these cases just held boxes of chocolates. Some cases made an attempt at silly displays, like a taxidermied chicken with Cadbury eggs or a Nativity Scene made with chocolate coins, but it was incredibly grandma’s yardsale chincy.

20160915_132851.jpgHalf the room was filled with what seemed like Christmas themed facades that were, I assume, photo ops as well as a cafe where one could get some coffee, soft drinks, ice cream or candy and relax from the arduous walk through the musem. There was a chocolate making “class”, where for 12,000W you could pour some melted chocolate into molds. Outside there was a statue of Willy Wonka, but the Depp version, not the Wilder one. The final room was divided between more odd displays that seemed to have even less to do with chocolate than the ones before and the gift shop where one could redeem the 3000W entrance ticket toward the price of a sovenier. It turns out Jeju chocolate is quite tasty. They make it in fruit flavors that are unique to the island like Hallabang, Jeju Mandarin and Jeju cactus. The same boxes of chocolates are on sale all over, so it was basically like getting a 3000W discount on some chocolate I would have bought anyway for walking through a weird display room.

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We bypassed the Teddy Bear Museum and headed next to Ripley’s. I watched the show as a kid and it might be one of the reasons I love travel and weird stuff and also fact checking. I think I went to a Ripley’s museum in California eons ago, but it still seemed like a fun thing to do. It was a much better museum than Chocolate Land. It was stuffed full of interesting things to see and informative blurbs about each item. The walls contained copies of the Ripley’s newsprint in 4 languages. Where original artifacts were unavailable, models and photographs were supplied. Perhaps my favorite thing was outside. 20160915_155951.jpgThe trunk of a California redwood had been taken apart, transported and reassembled there so that the Koreans could see the stunning size of the redwood trees and experience walking inside the hollow trunk. It struck me that this was as close as most of them would ever get to a redwood and reminded me that museums aren’t just for history, but for the exchange of personal experiences. The most ridiculous thing there was the map of all the places in the world that Ripley had travelled. The map was covered in numbered blue dots with a key below. As we started to try to identify some of the places in the US, we realized that the geography was woefully inaccurate since Siam, Yugoslavia and Burma were all listed as being in the continental 48. Yugo-Slavia [sic] is in Florida.

Roaches and Riptide: the Beach is Closed

After lunch we finally headed down to the beach. There were plenty more types of entertainment on the waterfront including (sadly) a dolphin show, and more happily some boat tours, diving experiences and submarine rides. Unfortunately, either because of the weather (stormy) or the holiday, everything looked non-operational. As we made our way closer to the water, more and more attractions and restaurants were obviously closed, but we were there for the water and sand, so that wasn’t too discouraging. The waves were coming in heavily and it was obvious from a distance that we were dealing with riptide conditions and would not be able to swim safely. We decided to go down to the beach anyway and dabble our toes in the surf. There was a sign on the way down the hill that advised us the beach had closed at the end of August. I know our beaches in Busan technically “close” for much of the year also, but it usually just means don’t go too far out. 20160915_180010On our way past the beach restrooms we reached a point where the floor and walls seemed to move and I realized with horror that the whole path and retaining walls were COVERED in cockroaches. Horror movie levels of roaches. I am not afraid of most bugs. I can be startled by unexpected bug and I have a healthy respect for things that can hurt me, but there is something deeply lizard brain *ACK* about realizing that a good portion of your surrounding landscape is made of bugs. Fortunately, they didn’t want anything to do with us and moved clear of the path as we approached.

The beach wasn’t clean, and not just from the flotsam of a high wind, there was a lot of litter and broken beach furniture. The cliffs surrounding the cove were nice and I could imagine if it were cared for, the beach would have been quite pretty, but between the cockroaches and the garbage I was seriously confused as to why our tour group had chosen this location for “chilling at the beach all day”. We found a leaning canopy to hide our bags under so they didn’t get rained on and headed down to the water.
The ocean is a good remedy for a lot of things and as I watched the stupendous waves breaking just beyond the shore, and felt the salty foam on my toes I just wasn’t worried about the state of the beach anymore. There was plenty of seaweed catching on our legs and the powerful tide buried our feet in the sand it dragged back in.

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At one point an especially large wave knocked me over, which while a little scary, was probably a good thing because having my center of gravity lower and more in contact with the ground prevented the current from pulling me out to sea. I know better than to go far into a rip tide, and most of the waves didn’t come even to my knees, this one was just that big. I heard later from some of the group who had hit the beach earlier that a couple of guys had gone out too far and gotten stuck and had to be rescued by the surfers. My own fall had resulted in a swimsuit full of sand, but it was impossible to rinse it out in the ocean, since each wave just carried more swirling sand. As the tide got higher, it became obvious that the path up to the road could wind up underwater soon, so we gathered our things and headed back.

The public bathrooms had showers, but since the beach was “closed” the doors to the shower rooms were locked and we had to walk sand covered all the way back up the hill to the parking lot restroom where we found a cold water only place to rinse off. It took me a loooong time to get all the sand off, but finally I got clean and mostly dry. We found the only open restaurant which was serving an overpriced buffet style dinner. Finally around 9pm the bus came to take us all back to the hotel. Our best intentions were to enjoy a couple beers at the pool, but by the time we got back, the walking, the heat and the ‘swimming’ had all caught up with us and we crashed out right away.


It does look like I’m complaining a lot here. Not every adventure is perfect or amazing. It was a challenging day and not part of a typical island getaway vacation, there were parts of the day where I was upset, disappointed and even angry, but I had a good friend with me and we were able to help each other remember to take a deep breath, release our expectations and enjoy what was in front of us. I didn’t do any research going into this trip so I didn’t know what was available at each tour stop beyond what our guides told us. I was prepared for rainy weather. I understand a bunch of people got so put out by the rain they went back earlier in the afternoon. Certainly the chocolate museum and the beach weren’t what I might have expected but I don’t feel like it was a waste of time to have seen them. Even the swarm of cockroaches makes a cool story, after all. 

Enjoy the remaining photos on my Facebook page and stay tuned for Part II where things stay rainy but looking up gets better. Plus, the kinkiest theme park in Korea and my first Jimjilbang experience.

Boryeong Mud Festival 2016

After a month of a bad news fueled fug, I finally got back out. All due respect to the horrors, the death, the downward spiral of the election cycle, but nobody can stay in that headspace for long without going crazy. We all need a balance. It’s also important to remember why we are going through all the hardship, and why we have to keep fighting for what’s right. So I headed over to Boryeong for the big famous Mud Festival. This post is about 30% a report on the festival and the rest is focused on the great things that happened to me there to help me recharge all my joy batteries.


One of the tour groups here (Enjoy Korea) which had taken me to the Namhae Anchovy Festival decided to offer a trip to this muddy event and after some research I decided that it would be overall better to take their chartered bus and let them deal with the pension than to try to do it myself. I saw amazing pictures like this one mud1all over their website, Facebook and the internet in general. It’s on the beach as well, which is always a winning proposition. So I got all packed up, bathing suit, all the sunscreen, extra clothes and of course my towel, and set off for an adventure.

It’s becoming stunningly clear to me that Korea has a subtle disconnect between expectation and reality. Historically, reality has shown me that if you read a great description, but show up and it’s not true that you’re in for a disappointing time. In Korea, however, I’ll read a great description, show up to find it isn’t true, expect to be disappointed, then actually have a great time and walk away wondering why they didn’t just describe the real awesomeness in the first place. This trip was no exception.

The Expectation vs The Reality

korea_mapBoryeong is on the opposite side of the country, a little south on the coast of Taean, where we went to see the tulips. It took us about 5 hours to get there, but it was nice because we were on one bus the whole time and didn’t have to think about anything. We got there around 2pm, and quickly went to drop our stuff off in the room and change. We also had to go hunt down booze and waterproof pouches for our phones and wallets. So, it was probably after 3pm by the time we got TO the festival. This may be the only real complaint that I have about the tour trip. The main festival attractions closed down at 6pm, so we didn’t have a lot of time to try all the activities before they were done.

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Our group (right) expectations were all pretty much the same. We had been led to believe that there would be a giant mud pit on the beach where people went crazy with mud wrestling and mud chicken, and mud races, and that off to the side there would be some pools and water slides. When we arrived, we kept looking past all the inflatable slides, trying to find the mud pit without success. Finally, I stopped a couple of caucasian dudes who were reasonably muddy and asked where it was. I was informed to my shock and dismay that people were basically getting muddy by going over to one of the large pots of mud and splashing it on each other. … Wut.

mapIt turns out that the main festival is on Daecheon Beach, which is a beautiful sandy beach, and the mud has to be trucked in for the array of water slides and inflatable games. No wonder it was watered down. Several of the photos I’d seen online were not actually from Daecheon at all, but from the actual mud flats themselves in Namgok-dong, where smaller events, including a 5k mud run, are held. The mud festival lasts about 2 weeks and we were just arriving in town for the last weekend. I didn’t even learn about the mud flats until after we got back, but we wouldn’t have had enough time to visit them that day anyway. Don’t take this map as gospel, because all I could find was the name of the mud flats, so this is just a rough idea of how far the mud beaches are from where the big party is. And while the mud beach looks totally like everything I was promised, the Mud festival itself looks like this.

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At Daecheon Beach, the only way to access the mud was to go inside the fenced in area, which also meant abandoning our booze and shoes. So we chugged our soju and headed in to see what there was to see. What there was to see were lines (or queues depending on where you’re from). Queues forever. As we selected a line to stand in, we looked around with a great deal of skepticism. The mud wasn’t mud, it was more like pottery slip (grayish brown water with some clay dissolved in it). All the activities were filled with this muddy water and people are mostly clean (if wet) because going into an activity means you wash off any of the thicker “mud” you may have acquired being splashed while in line.

20160717_123352The line we were in was for the football (soccer) arena. It was an inflated pool with inflated goals on either end. The muddy water was about mid-calf depth and the ball was an inflatable beach ball. It did look fun, but after the first 30 minutes of standing in line, we were seriously questioning our life decisions . We took turns holding the group place in the queue so people could get out and go pee, and finally it was our turn to get in the arena. We lined up against a group of Koreans and began to chase the beach ball around the pool.

So. Much. Fun.

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Something magical happened in the moment we began to play. All of my adult cares suddenly drifted away and the whole world was splooshing through the slippery not-quite-mud with a bunch of other grown ups who were all busily engaged in reviving their inner children. I don’t know how many times I fell down, trying to take a kick at the ball and loosing my footing, but I couldn’t stop smiling. I don’t know what the rules were supposed to be, or how many points were scored, but eventually, a referee came by to stop the game and pronounced the Korean team the winner. We lined up across from each other and we bowed to them and promptly got splashed to oblivion by the winning team.

My jaw hurt from laughing and smiling so hard. I felt like the Joker (pre-Heath Ledger), a permanent huge grin stuck in place. All I wanted to do was get in line for every other game available, 13728502_10101483396628871_1233761723_obut my top goal was the giant slide. My friend described it later as “a dirty inflatable playground for drunk adults. It was all my dreams come true.” And the best part is that there was a dirty inflatable playground for kids in a separate area, so we didn’t have to worry about any rugrats underfoot!

The line for the tall slide wasn’t too bad, but we lost a few people to the short slide and to the bathroom line. Korea has figured out that women need more bathrooms than men, so there’s been a standard 3:1 portapotty ratio at nearly every festival I’ve been to. This has usually been successful, but for some reason, the lines for the men’s bathrooms here were awful.

The weather was also being (at least for me) amazing. I was expecting to spend a day blistering under the sun and worrying about my sunscreen washing off, while using mud like an African elephant to cool my head and shoulders. Instead it was cloudy and barely warm with a lovely breeze. I don’t think it could have been more than 24 C, and I was blissing out on the total absence of heat and humidity, but some people were cold. North Americans formed heat barriers around South Africans while standing in line in an attempt to keep them warm.

20160717_122025I was surprised to find that the giant slide dumped me outside the fenced in area, especially since my shoes were back on the other side at the entrance where I’d been asked to leave them. I reconnected with some of the group and managed to get back inside right before they closed down. We got in one more line for the floating hamster wheel (which is a serious upper body work out, by the way, especially when it’s slippery!) but alas when we got out, the other attractions were closing down.

This is not to say the festivities were over, just that the inflatable pools and slides were no longer open and we had to rely on the simple pleasures of booze, beach and interesting people. The cool weather was also accompanied by some rough seas, so the “no swimming” signs were up and we were limited to wading in the fierce waves. The sea water was surprisingly warm, however, and we lingered around the surf for quite a while.

Your Moment of (Femini)Zen

The girl I was hanging out with is quite pretty and was approached several times by very flirty guys. One very determined guy came over to us in the waves and started chatting. His body language was very much “hey baby” and she was clearly interested in return. It looked like they were off to a good start, but then it got neggy. For those of you who don’t know, “negging” is the tactic of using subtle insults to break down a woman’s self esteem and raise a man’s own social value by comparison, thus making her feel vulnerable and perceive him as desirable. It is widely advocated by pick up artists.

First, he started talking about his sister. How can this possibly go well? Because “you remind me of my sister” is already not a sexy pickup line and he decided to go with “My sister is hotter than you” instead. She was  staring at him like, did you really just say that? But she was also doing the thing we’ve been trained to do as women, and not making a big deal about it. She did point out how weird it was, but in a kind of lighthearted “ha-ha” way. I flat up called him Jamie Lannister, but it didn’t even make a dent. He tried to deny saying it, but never actually retracted it even when we both insisted he had said it more than once.

At this point I was not happy about the situation, but I didn’t want to make her more uncomfortable, so I leaned over and whispered to her that if she wanted help ditching this guy to let me know. She was still into him, I guess because she wasn’t looking for a long term relationship here, she was willing to overlook some drunken weirdness. Then he busts out telling her she looks old! Now, I don’t think old people are necessarily unattractive, but in the patois of courtship, telling a woman she looks old is a crazy insult. I can tell she’s still trying to keep it all fun and funny even though it’s bothering her. Finally, she asked me what I thought about going back to this guy’s room. You don’t really want me to say, I told her. (because I’m going to drop a feminism bomb and generally people at parties don’t groove on that) But she insisted.

So, I let it go in the kindest way possible. I point out that he’s using these destructive techniques of insulting her to break down her self esteem and make her a more vulnerable target for the hook up. I also point out how crazy and unnecessary it was because she was into him before he started doing it. I even tried to give him the benefit of the doubt and told him he probably wasn’t even aware he was doing it, but had just been trained to treat women that way in order to fulfill the equally toxic version of masculinity he’d been taught he had to live up to. (the alternative being to accuse him of actively engaging in pick up chicanery) I told him I didn’t think it was his fault, but that he could start changing by being nice to the girls he wanted to be with instead of breaking them down.

I’m not telling this story to toot my own femism horn. I was really nervous to say these things out loud. I was scared the guy would get hostile. Worse, I was scared the girl I was trying to help would reject me, tell me I was overreacting or reading too much into it, or that it was “just a joke”. I’m telling this story because it was scary and hard. So if you think these things and are scared to say them out loud, know you aren’t alone, but also know this:

I watched her face as I was talking and it was like this gargantuan wave of relief that someone else was saying what she was thinking. She instantly agreed with me and after the guy gave up and wandered off (yay no agro), she thanked me for saying those things. And the nice part is, later in the evening, when she eventually found the guy she wanted to hook up with, I felt confident wishing her well because I believe that she’d been reminded of her own self worth and had found a guy that would make her feel good.

Oppan Gangnam Style

20160717_123546Returning from the beach to find the eerily abandoned mud park, it didn’t take me long to get to my other favorite travel activity: talking to new people! I ran into someone I’d met briefly in one of the lines who had also ended up separated from his group. We wandered around the waterfront chatting, and ended up having a great conversation about our lives and travels which was totally unmarred by any awkward flirting. Why I love A-spectrum folks: you can dive straight into a deep and meaningful conversation without  all that useless weather-sports-job chit chat.

psy-daddy-notesWhile we were talking, I found out that the K-pop sensation Psy was scheduled to perform on the beach. Which, again, just goes to highlight how bizzaro Korea is about promoting events, because there had been no mention in anything I read about this. In case you’ve been living under a box, Psy is the singer of the international sensation “Gangnam Style”, so he’s not just famous here in Korea, but nearly everywhere. I mean, imagine if you went to a festival and then halfway through someone was like oh yeah, Beyonce is gonna perform, too.

My newfound conversation buddy had a bus out that night, so was anxious about getting to see the show, and of course, whether or not the number one hit would be performed before he had to take off. When the music started, we were up on the street. The whole bluff overlooking the sea was packed with people, most of them holding up phones to see the stage. Maybe they were recording, but generally they were using the phone screen as a kind of remote lens so they could see over the heads of the crowd.

It was impossible to get close to the railing and get a view, but I noticed through the throng that the beach near the water was almost completely empty. The stage was set up on the beach as close to the bluffs as possible, but it’s not a deep beach and the performance area was less than 30 meters from the ocean. We started walking away from the stage to find a place to break through the crowds and get down onto the sand, and by following the shoreline back up, we got very close to the stage indeed.

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I don’t get star-struck too much, but I have to say that it was a highly surreal and awesome experience to be standing in the sand with the waves crashing a few meters to my left and Psy performing a few meters to my right. There’s something intoxicating and fulfilling about a huge crowd of happy people, and I will never get tired of looking around and going, “This is really my life! Wow!” And, in case you were wondering, my conversation companion did get to see Gangnam Style and we danced like idiots in the sand.

Serendipity

After the music, I drifted back to the sea to do some more wading. It didn’t occur to me to take my shoes off since they were waterproof sandals. Unfortunately, the tide was dangerously strong, and in addition to taking the sand out from under my feet, one particularly intense wave took the shoe right off of my foot! After a few minutes of feeling around in the sand with my toes to see if it was buried there, I gave up on the shoe and headed inland where I promptly met some more friendly people who chatted with me and shared their beer, while I looked for a cheap pair of beach sandals to replace the ones I’d lost to the sea.

When they set off, i found myself alone once again with zero idea where any of my original group had gotten to, but I was entirely sanguine about it. As I walked up to the bathrooms before beginning a quest for food, I looked over and spotted my Busan Bestie standing in front of the convenience store chatting with a group of blondes. I can’t even tell you how many thousands of people were there that night, but we found each other without the aid of any social media. My bestie and went down to sit in the sand and one more of our starting troupe wandered up to join us. With our core group reassembled, we chatted about our experiences from the day and generally enjoyed ourselves. After a while of holding still on the waterfront, I finally started to feel the chill everyone was talking about and we got up to try to find food.

It’s not that food is absent from Korean festivals, but they don’t have food stalls the way we might see in the West which are full of food that’s meant to be eaten while walking. Korean food is a very social event, so even at festivals, they serve food alongside a place to sit down with big group and eat it. As a consequence, the mud festival did not have much food on offer because there was nowhere to sit and eat it. Most of us hadn’t eaten since before leaving Busan and had a hefty appetite by midnight.

We found a chicken and pizza shop on the main road, but then because there were no tables, we joined a couple more military guys at their booth and they promptly shared their chicken and beer with us. We had ordered the cheese chicken, which is not like chicken Parmesan, and is instead a sort of fried chicken coated in the kind of cheese powder more often associated with cheese flavored popcorn. It’s actually not bad, and when you’re starving from a long day of drinking and playing on the beach it’s practically food of the gods. Of course we shared back with the Army guys, and they left us most of a pitcher of beer when it was time for them to take off.

The chicken was really filling and the pizza took foreeeever. Just as I was starting to think it might be worth taking the loss just to get out of there, they finally brought it to us in a box. I figured I’d eat it for breakfast, but then we became the bearers of serendipity rather than the receivers. On the way back to our pension, I ran into some more revelers who were super eager to find out where we got the pizza. Since it was still hot and untouched, I offered to sell it to them for what I bought it for (no pizza profiteering). I think the Korean girlfriend was going to cry she was so happy, and just couldn’t believe that a pizza fell into their laps. It makes me happy to know that somewhere, someone is telling the story of how they were drunk and starving at the Mud Festival when this white chick came outta nowhere with a hot pizza for them.

Ondol Again, Off Again

Sleeping arrangements were sparse but adequate. At least this time, I knew I was going to be sleeping on the floor, so it wasn’t a shock. To cut down on costs, the tour group had assigned us all roomies, and we stumbled in sometime after 1am, waking ours up with many apologies. The Korean Ondol is the magical heated floor that I was so grateful for in February and March. However, this has led to adoption of a sleeping “mat” that is quickly becoming one of the great cultural mysteries to me. When I lived in China, I was struck by how hard the mattresses were, and one of my Chinese coworkers even complained about how the mattresses in American hotels were too soft for her to sleep on. In Japan, I had a futon on a tatami frame. The futon was thin, maybe 6-7cm, but it was cushy enough to take the edge off, and the tatami underneath was also a little springy. So, both of these Asian cultures certainly liked harder sleeping surfaces than we do in the West. Fair enough. But the Ondol mat is really just a blanket on the floor. Not even a thick blanket. You could almost imagine that being ok with like a squishy fluffy comforter, but no. It’s a thin quilt. In the winter I can understand not putting much between you and the heated floor, but in the summer all it does is protect you from sticking to the hardwood.

20160717_123909I like the notion of the pension, but the number of nights per year I’m willing to sleep on the floor is shrinking as I age. Just one more reason I really need a TARDIS. Anyway, thanks to alcohol and exhaustion, I did manage to sleep. And woke up the next day with only a mild hangover and several more hours to explore the festival grounds. I hadn’t known that we would still be at the festival for so long, and only had one set of clean clothes. It turned out that the water attractions were closed anyway, so while there were still people getting muddy, it was limited to the mud water jars placed around the plaza.

20160717_124405We managed to stay clean and took the time to better explore the area. As it turns out, the Boryeong mud is famous for it’s mineral composition and use in cosmetic products. The festival was once an advertising campaign for the cosmetics and has since become an epic party. There were several things that seemed to be permanent beachfront statues that were all about the mud, but since the mud itself is a major commercial export for the town, it wasn’t so surprising that they had statues devoted to it.

20160717_124420We also found the performing native Americans again. I feel like it’s starting to become some kind of David Lynch-esque running gag for my time in Korea that there are always guys dressed in intense and often highly mixed Native American garb playing flutes and pan pipes and selling dream catchers. One of them had bright neon fringe this time. And I saw more of them playing at a rest stop on our drive home! What is the deal Korea, seriously?

The Verdict?20160717_123521

Overall, the Mud Festival was a stunning success for me. I still think it could more accurately be called the muddy waters festival, but once I got over the initial shock of how different it was from my expectations, I had an amazing, endorphin fueled, oxytocin generating, dopamine flooding time. (Which is big brain chemistry talk for “AMAZEBALLZ!”) If I go back next year, I’ll make an effort to arrive Friday night or at very least earlier on Saturday so that I have some more time to play on the mud toys before they close down, and I’ll try to find a group that is hitting up the mud flats proper as well. I might also recommend getting a camel pack for water in addition to the waterproof pack for your phone and money. There were convenience stores everywhere, but most of us didn’t drink enough water, and it took me a couple days to fully re-hydrate. As far as fun things to do in Korea, I wouldn’t make a special trip to the country just for this one, but it was definitely a great reminder of love, friendliness, and joy that I really needed. And since there’s no bad time for love friendliness and joy, I absolutely recommend the festival to anyone who happens to be in Korea in July.

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As the first semester draws to a close, I find that I’m still completely enjoying myself in Korea and at this job. I’m looking forward to some more fun adventures this summer including a vacation to New Zealand! I’m being joined soon by a dear friend and fellow globetrotter Jane Meets World, who is finally moving to Asia for the first time, so I get to use her arrival as an excuse to do even more fun things in Busan. And I’m already planning our “Korean Thanksgiving” holiday weekend trip in September. As much as I hope that things in the US make a turnaround for the sane, and as hard as it is to watch my friends and family to live there endure the hatred and vitriol that is being propagated, it’s important for us.. for me to remember that most of the things in life have the potential to be great, and that most of the world (including large parts of the US where the cameras aren’t always pointing) is a beautiful place filled with amazing people who can be your friend for a minute or a lifetime if you just open your eyes and your heart. Love is quieter than gunshots, but there is more of it.