Adventures in Maastricht

The Netherlands offered more challenges to me as a traveler than any other country I went to last summer. Despite the host of obstacles in weather, transit, and basic cultural snobbery, I still had several positive experiences while I was there. I chose Maastricht after reading a fellow blogger’s rave reviews, and I can just about imagine that if I went there in better weather… and had my own transport (rental car, scooter, heck even a bike) it would have been a significantly more magical experience. The highlights of Maastricht for me were the caves (because if it’s underground, you know I’m going), the beautiful cathedral converted into a bookstore, and the tiniest Cafe in the Netherlands.


Fort Sint Pieter

The caves I found are part of the Fort of St. Pieter and are such an extensive series of tunnels that it is not permitted to enter without a guide lest one become lost and die. Seriously. I signed up for a combo tour to include the fort, which turned out to be well worth it. Even though you can climb up to the fort and see the outside unaccompanied, the guide has the keys to get inside and also a million interesting stories.

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In 1673, D’artagnan and his army invaded Maastricht under the orders of Louis XIV. Yes, THAT D’artagnan. At the time, there was no fort atop the mountain, and the French army used that mountainside as an attack point to break down the city walls. Later when the Dutch reclaimed the town,  they decided to never let that happen again. Maastricht was a highly contested and often invaded territory for several hundred years, but eventually advances in weaponry made city walls obsolete, but the fortress atop the mountain remained.

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I was surprised at how dark and gloomy the interior of the fortress actually was. I think I expected it to be more like a castle, but the guide pointed out the necessity of thick walls and arched passages to withstand artillery fire. We got to walk though the tunnels and see the different ways soldiers would communicate in such a large space as well as some arrow slits and cannons. The communication was done by means of drums placed in such a way as to take advantage of the building’s acoustics. A leader could issue orders from the center of the building and have a drummer beat out code that would be heard all over. It was quite dark in most places, so I don’t have very good photos.

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The very top part of the fort was used by Nazis in WWII to watch for Allied aircraft, but the tunnels underneath the fort that honeycombed the surrounding countryside for miles were used to smuggle people into free Belgian territory at the same time.

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The caves themselves were originally quarries, but became shelters where fathers could bring families and livestock to hide during invasions, and we’re used from Roman vs Viking times up through WWII for that purpose. There were places to cook and sleep like little apartments carved into the tunnels. They also grew mushrooms and chicory, which my guide was surprised to learn Americans brew into coffee (New Orleans!).

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Now the tunnels are full of art.

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The guide stressed the importance of staying with the group since people still can easily get lost without a guide because there are hundreds of km of tunnels. He told a story of a couple of young men who just barely escaped death because they happened to find a “chimney” or vertical tunnel that led up to a field. A farmer heard them and a rescue was organized, but it was pure luck.

Going underground was probably the highlight of my day/days because it was only 11°C underground, which was a wonderful relief from the 30°C+ weather of the day. Surprisingly, despite the drought, a million beautiful wildflowers grew around the fort and caves which made for a lovely scene to walk to and from the bus stops with.

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Downtown Maastricht

During my week in Lanaken/Maastrict, I was having the worst week of my holiday due to some serious personal emotional stuff, so I spend a goodly amount of time in the Airbnb trying to stay cool both thermally and mentally. I also did more than average day trips away from the city including the Fort and Caves above, the amazing Carolus Thermen Spa in Aachen, and the oddly Disney-esque town of Valkenburg. On my last day, I decided to try out the city of Maastricht one last time.

When I arrived downtown, there was a large flea market in the nation square and it was mostly full of the kind of antiques and knick-knacks I found endlessly fascinating as a child, but don’t really know what to do with now. I mean buckets of old spoons? Art made from driftwood? It’s neat to look at but no room in the luggage. I did buy a nice summer dress, lightweight and a soft gray that reflected the bright blue sky. I changed into it as soon as I could and it made a world of difference. It was easily the best purchase of the trip.

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After exploring the market, I set off to find the bookstore in a cathedral, which is dead cool as a concept. I read about it in other blogger’s “things to do in Maastricht” and decided I would check it out if I was able. I am so glad I made the time! Bookstores are already a little bit sacred space for me, so to combine the deliberate awe-inspiring architecture of a Gothic cathedral with thousands of beautiful books! Stunning.

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Because cathedrals have such incredibly high ceilings, the bookstore installed multiple levels almost like balconies, allowing more book space but keeping the room open and the architecture continuously observable. I’d been in other converted churches that lost a lot of what made the cathedral “style” by breaking it up into usable space. This was by far the best combination. It was awesome to climb the central column of books and see the high vaulted ceilings up close. I got a little vertigo but worth it.

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Not only was it beautifully constructed, it was also a great bookstore! Well stocked and diverse. I saw several books I wanted to make better friends with as well as lots of old favorites. I was amazed by the number of people inside, not just admiring the architecture but loaded down with books to buy. There’s even a small cafe in the back and a kid’s section! If you have to live in a city that has a plethora of leftover cathedrals, I think this might just be the best way they can be put to use in the modern era.

On my way to my next stop I encountered another unique street performance. I was growing used to seeing buskers performing for money on the streets, but this couple decked out in ballroom gear waltzing around accompanied by live, tux-clad musicians definitely stood out!

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Finally I headed over to have vlaai and koffie at the smallest cafe in the Netherlands. Vlaai is a kind of pie that’s popular in the Netherlands. It’s not a specific flavor (I had several flavors while I was there) but more the fact that the construction is mid-way between pie and tart that I can’t really say it’s exactly like any other dessert I’ve had. It does tend to be thicker in crust than either of those treats, which was startling at first, but the more I ate, the more I liked them. The vlaai I had that day was apricot, and so cool and fresh you could believe they just picked the fruit this morning. It was the exact balance of sweet and tart I look for in a perfect apricot, somehow even capturing the texture of perfectly ripe.

In addition, “cafe” doesn’t only mean “coffee shop”. This place has a full menu of food, beer/wine/cocktails, dessert and coffee. It’s also very popular. The indoor seating is nearly non-existent, but the patio seating seemed quite generous, even though it was completely full. I ended up sitting on a cushion on a curb next to the building with a tiny table lower than my knees. It was under a tree and so I had shade, and didn’t mind at all. By the time I finished there was a line even for those small curbside spots!


In the past I’ve read and repeated that the first and last things you do on a holiday define the experience. While Lanaken/Maastricht was in the middle of my summer, and in many ways represents the most difficult things I had to overcome, I’m glad I had these positive experiences on my last day there. It leaves me with a sense of what could be if I hadn’t been so ambushed by my health and the weather that week, and it reminds me that even in the midst of dark times, there are still wonderful adventures to be found and enjoyed.

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Hello Bohol: A Day Around Panglao

One full day itinerary for my Philippine holiday included a driving tour of the smaller island of Panglao. I’d had the chance to drive up to Bohol, I’d had a lazy beach day, and Thursday was my day to find as many points of interested on Panglao as I could. As always, I’m drawn to water, so I found a couple of lakes, one of them underground. I made it back to visit the bees and learn more about the local plants. I saw one of the most expensive and tiniest seashells in the world, and I witnessed my very first “fire rainbow”. What’s a fire rainbow? I guess you just have to read to the end, now.


Hinagdanan Cave

I’ve read that there are a multitude of caves around Panglao, but it seems that most of them are not set up for the safety and convenience of visitors. Several of the ones that are visitor friendly were too far to drive this trip. A few others are exclusive to certain resorts who restrict their private cave spa to their guests, and yet more that are only accessible to divers. Hinagdanan is easily the most famous of all of these, and the advice I’d read online was get there early if you want to swim (before it gets crowded). The reviews on the swimming were mixed, and by the time I finished researching it, I had no idea what to expect. We found the cave entrance easily enough and pulled into shady parking spots amid a hoard of souvenir stalls and snack stands and then bought our tickets. The entrance fee is quite low, but there is an additional fee for swimming. The whole thing is only a couple dollars US. Everything that is maintained (cleaned) has a small entrance fee, but none of them are onerous, and they do seem to be well cared for.

20171005_092425.jpgWe signed the guest book and the guides at the top of the entrance offered to keep an eye on our helmets while we went down. The stairwell looks like a black hole into nothingness, and the cave entrance is more like a sinkhole than a cave mouth. The stairs are steep, but sturdy and have a handrail, and it’s a short trip down. Once inside, there’s plenty of room to stand up straight and look around. It’s a small cavern with some lovely, though not stunning formations. The main attractions are the natural skylight that fills the cavern with the warm light of the sun like a spotlight, and the beautiful crystal clear pool. Looking at the water, I couldn’t understand why anyone had complained about it in the reviews. I suppose it’s possible that weather or too many swimmers might have clouded it up during their visit, but for us, just past opening time, the water was still, blue, and so clear that every rock on the bottom was visible even in the dim cavern.20171005_092702.jpg

We decided at once that swimming had been a great choice, and found a little outcrop to put our things before entering the water. There’s obviously been some man-made construction: stairs, a railing and a little platform to make getting in and out easier. The water was cool and soothing on my sunburnt skin. The bats were mostly sleeping, but occasionally we could hear a squeak or a wing-beat from our neighbors in the ceiling. The water is technically brackish, and I did hear a guide tell someone else that, but all that means is that it is a mix of fresh and sea water, not that it is somehow dirty. You wouldn’t want to drink it, and only mangrove plants are adapted to use it to live on, but it’s absolutely fine for swimming.20171005_093137.jpg

We tootled around in the underground pool for well over an hour. Often we had the cavern to ourselves, but a couple times, the guides brought groups of tourists in who just wanted to have a look and get some photos. The famous photo op there is to stand under the skylight and do a trick shot that makes you look like a saint. A few people waded through the shallow water around the steps, but no one else came in to swim. I took a million photos, and at the time my display screen showed the beautiful clear and turqouise pool, but when I looked back again later they were all black. It reminded me of a story from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld where people can be fooled by illusions, but the photoboxes can only see what’s truly there. I enjoyed the slightly chilling idea that I’d spent the morning in inky black water that was enchanted by some creature to make it seem blue and welcoming, but it turns out my companion’s pictures worked out a little better, and we do have a small amount of photographic evidence after all.20171005_094451.jpg

Songculan Lake

Although I felt like I could spend the whole day in that cool and quiet swimming cave, the time came to move on if I wanted to see the rest of the itinerary before dark, and we got back on the road feeling peaceful and refreshed. My next stop was a large lake that I’d only seen on the map and not found any mention of in other tourism websites. It’s called Songculan Lake, and it’s so close to the cave that it seemed like a shame to not at least go and look at while we were up there. The road that runs along the lake doesn’t afford much of a view since the lake is mostly blocked off by mangrove jungle.

20171005_110603.jpgWe drove around in hopes of getting a glimpse of the water or perhaps some boating opportunity, but mostly what we found was a kind of upscale neighborhood where the people seemed rather surprised to see us. It seemed not unlike other lakefront neighborhoods, and we still had no view of the water which I presumed was visible from the back windows of these beautiful houses. At last we came up to the bridge that crosses the narrow point where the river meets the lake and we got our viewing spot.

20171005_111720.jpgI’m sure everyone thought we were nuts for pulling over and walking out on the bridge to take pictures, but it was very pretty, and we’d driven over there more or less just to find out if there was anything to see at all. At the far end of the bridge I found a staircase that led down to a shaded swimming area in the lake, but it was occupied by a local family and I wasn’t entirely sure of the etiquette so I waved politely and moved on.

 

Bohol Bee Farm Tour

20171005_133031We went back to the Bee Farm for lunch and the “tour”. Arnold, our guide, started us out with a little cooking lesson in the herb garden where we played “name that herb”. I recognized nearly all of them, but the oregano completely stumped me. What? Oregano? How hard is that to spot? Yeah, but this crazy Filipino oregano was completely different with HUGE leaves. The guide asked the names of each plant in English, Tagalog, and Boholano, and when we got to the oregano and everyone saw how surprised we were, we had to explain the differences in the plant’s appearance in Europe and America versus the one growing in the Philippines. Arnold said he’d heard about that but never seen the European varieties. Behind him ranged a huge display of potted herbs with their names displayed, and I recognized most, but had to ask about Pandan.

Pandan is an aromatic, used to add fragrance to things like rice, and it can be used to repel cockroaches, which I thought was interesting. Later I saw it in the ice cream flavors, and now that I’ve read this article, I’m kind of sad I didn’t eat it when I had the chance.

20171005_134343.jpgOnce we were finished in the herb garden, we moved over to the manufacturing areas. Arnold explained that while they do use as many of their own ingredients as possible, the farm has grown too large for them to do tours of the farmland itself anymore. We saw the bakery where they made the wonderful squash bread. We saw the creamery where they were busy making ice cream, sadly it smelled like Durian was the flavor of the moment. And we saw the prepping areas where they made and packaged the teas, honeys, and other goodies used in the restaurant and sold in the gift shop.

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In addition to foods, we got to see some of the other manufacturing they do including the hand woven raffia, mostly mats and wall hangings they grow from a tree locally called “buri” which is more widely known as the coryphe, a type of palm tree native to the Philippines, the leaves of which can be stripped and dried to make the fibers used in weaving. We got to watch one of the ladies doing traditional weaving, a method that can only produce a few feet of material in a workday, but is preserved as part of the local cultural heritage. We also met the seamstresses who turn the woven fabric into bags and other goods to be sold, as well as some furniture restoration where young men worked to give new life to old chairs using the woven raffia and palm leaves.

At last, it was time to meet the bees. Although the majority of the hives had been moved away from the restaurant and hotel, they kept two on hand for the local gardens and for the tourists. These aren’t Philippine bees, but European honey bees, the most docile honey producers available. Arnold had us stand a decent way back from the hives and gave us a serious talk about safety, warning us especially not to swat at any bees who happened to fly around or land on us because it could trigger defensive behavior and result in some major stinging. He also reassured us there was a clinic there on hand just in case. Finally, he went to pull some bees out for us to have a closer look, and boy were we in luck. Not only were these the most chilled out bees ever (not even one took off and tried to investigate us), we got to see the queen in the very first tray that came out!

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As you most likely know, there is only one queen per hive and she never emerges except to swarm, so seeing the queen is pretty special. Although she is visually different from the other bees, that bright turquoise spot is added on by her human caretakers to make it easier to spot her when they’re harvesting honey or doing hive maintenance. Once we all oooohed and aaahed over the royalty, everyone in the group was offered a chance to hold the tray full of bees and pose for photos. Arnold was very careful to hand off the tray gently and with safe gripping spots. At first I was hesitant, but when even the little Boholano grannies did it, and not a single bee was perturbed, I decided it was ok to have a go. It was silly fun and I’m glad I did it.

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On our way back into the gift shop, I passed a curious looking fruit and snapped a photo to ask about it inside. I was told it was called a “mickey mouse” fruit, but that it wasn’t really a fruit like for eating. Once I got back to the internet and had a bit of a rummage around, it turns out that it is the solanum mammosum, also called “utong” which is Tagalog for “nipple” and took me to some strange search results before I finally figured it out.

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Back inside the gift shop, we went and had a few more samples of our favorites from the last evening visit, as well as sampling a few new things. My top new discovery here was a thing called “hard honey”. It wasn’t crystallized honey, which sometimes happens when I forget about a jar in the back of my cabinet, but instead a liquid with a dark color and a texture like soft taffy or thick molasses. Indeed, it tasted a little bit like molasses would if it was made from honey, and my deep need to know things was immediately satisfied by the knowledgeable staff and helpful signs.

Hard honey is a thing that happens when honey stays in a hive for a while and ages. Hive aged honey. I assume the texture is a result of evaporation? And it would seem that the unique flavor is a combination of the honey taking in the flavors around it and a slight fermentation. Either way, it was a magnificent new taste experience which I recommend.

Nova Shell Museum

20171005_153024After lunch I went in search of the Nova Shell Museum, because I like seashells and museums. The whole area of Bohol is filled with tiny little roadside tourist attractions that are so cheesy and cost 20-60p to go see. I realize looking back on this experience that there is a high probability I enjoyed these because they reminded me of the random roadside attractions that we would sometimes visit on road trips when I was a kid. The US has (had? I’m not sure how many are still there) a huge number of tiny local sights setup for families to stop and look at while stretching their legs or getting a snack. None are sights that are destinations in and of themselves but they are fun to see if you’re passing by. This is how I felt about the Shell Museum. Would I have driven out of my way for it? Probably not, but it was right there next to one of my go to restaurants (La Familia) and only a few minutes drive from our hotel, so why not?

This is not a museum the way that I usually think of them. It is, in fact, the private collection of a Mr. Quirino Hora who has been obsessively collecting shells for more than 50 years and likes to show them off at this tiny building in Panglao. It is said that he collected many of them himself around the various islands of the Philippines, but he has also purchased several. My guide, because you cannot go anywhere without one of those, was clearly instructed to make sure that visitors understood the price and rarity of the shells on display. It was this emphasis on price tags that made me ask about the collection’s owner in the first place, finding it less and less likely that this was some kind of government run museum. I have nothing against private collectors, and I think it’s nice that he’s decided to share this stunning collection, but “museum” might be a bit misleading.

I remember going into the stone and gem rooms in the Smithsonian as a kid and seeing case after case, and drawers and drawers of cases of samples of different rocks all carefully labeled. It was like that, but with shells. Shells were put in groups and there were tiny tags for labels that were mostly taxonomic with the scientific name, the “author” (I’m not sure what that means in context of a shell), and a location and depth at which the shell was found. Sadly, I just don’t know enough about shells for the tags to tell me much, but I did enjoy looking at the huge array of shapes and colors including some naturally party colored scallop shells, some stunningly large nautilus, a kind of critter that liked to decorate it’s shells with the smaller shells of other animals, and three enormous shells of giant clams which I have seen in the wild, but only at about a 10th the size of these monsters.

The pride of the collection is an extremely tiny shell found in Panglao and named after the Emperor of Japan, and the two shells that Mr. Hora discovered himself and are so named after him. They range in value from a few dollars to millions. There are rooms and rooms stacked with shells in cases, behind glass, on shelves, in drawers and eventually just in boxes. Like any worthy tour, it let out in the gift shop where the more common shells were sold whole or made into art and jewelry for sale. Outside the gift-shop, there was a small tree house I was invited to climb around and explore and they talked with me about the museum’s plans for expansion.

Fire Rainbow

20171006_172421.jpgThat night we went back to the Pearl at Linaw for a sunset diner on the beach.  I spent more or less the entire vacation being in absolute awe of the cloud formations that piled up in fluffy mountains around our island, and this night was no exception. I got up from the table several times to walk the few meters to the water’s edge and get the most unobstructed sunset views possible. However, we got treated to something a little more than your average (stunning) tropical sunset. As the sun worked it’s way downward, I noticed an odd smudge of color at the top of the tower of clouds. I thought that it was that beautiful golden lining effect that so often happens when the sun back-lights dark clouds. I took more photos, admiring the glow and the strong beam-like shadow that was being cast into the sky.20171006_172654.jpg

As I watched, more colors than gold began to appear. Soon I could see a tinge of green and purple. And then an entire rainbow spectrum appeared in the crown of light atop this cloud. It did not look like a rainbow, for it lacked the shape and stripes. It looked if anything as though a rift in the space time continuum had opened up. I had no idea what could be causing this unique and stunning visual effect, but I stayed standing on the beach, food forgotten, alternating between taking photos and simply staring in awe until the colored halo receded. Only then did I return to my table to eat, venturing forth once more when the sunset clouds became a brilliant pink.20171006_173842.jpg

Back in Korea, I was finally able to research this atmospheric oddity, and I have discovered that I apparently witnessed something rare and special, well, I knew it was special, but I had no idea how rare. It’s called an “iridescent cloud” or sometimes a “fire rainbow”, and it, like other rainbows is caused by sunlight refracting through water, but this variety generally only happens on hot, humid days with lots of cumulus clouds. Only the tall piles of clouds like I had been admiring on my trip get high enough to cool the warm air and condense into droplets forming the cap, or “pileus”, creating the disc of color that I saw. According to National Geographic, not only is it rare to see such a phenomenon, photos are even rarer. I feel amazingly lucky to have had the opportunity for both!

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Even though it’s a small island with no cities, I found Panglao enchanting and found that 9 days wasn’t even enough to see everything. I’ve been thinking a lot about my island adventures this January, not only because it’s so very cold in Busan, but because I’ve sacrificed my winter holiday this year in favor of running around Korea doing job interviews. Sometime in March when that hair-pulling adventure is wrapped up, I’ll share all the crazy details, but until then I’ll share my memories of Bohol to keep us all warm.

Malay Peninsula 7: Ipoh- Temple Caves

Spring marches on, and Korea is filling up with colorful lanterns to celebrate the Buddah’s birthday. While I work on assembling my lantern festival stories, what better time to take a look at the temples of Ipoh? Despite the fact that Ipoh is not a tourist hotspot, there are certainly some stunning things to see. Just remember to take plenty of water!


Ipoh Caves

The Reggae House was a typical late night backpacker’s party hostel and so everyone was still asleep when I got up in the early morning to start exploring. After figuring out the padlock and iron door trick to lock up behind me, I set off in search of breakfast to discover that Ipoh is a very sleepy town. Only a couple places were open at 9am on a Saturday and these were offering a traditional Malay dish called “mee” (which just means “noodles”).20170121_091629 I managed to order something by playing a sort of 20 questions with the waitstaff, and enjoyed my noodles and mystery meat in a not yet too hot outdoor dining area with views of the neighborhood. There were a startling number of funeral homes nearby and plenty of evidence of the British colonial architecture, although much of it was in disrepair.

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Kek Lok Tong
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After breakfast, I caught another Uber to the Kek Lok Tong Cave Temple. Ipoh is probably most famous for it’s caves, and there are many of them around the city, and by around I don’t mean inside, I mean in a ring out and around. Unfortunately, the public transportation in Ipoh is somewhat lacking and it would have taken over 2 hours to get to my target by bus, but less than 20 minutes by car. Online advice suggested that I should negotiate with a taxi driver for a day rate, and I’ve done this before when I wanted to travel to remote places and be assured of a ride back, but I looked at the costs other travelers were paying for half and full day taxi hires and decided that I’d take my chances with ride-sharing.

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The temple is the star of Ipoh tourism and it’s not hard to see why it’s on the top of everyone’s list. Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur is a Hindu temple, but this is Buddhist. There were extra decorations in preparation for the Lunar New Year and a very short stairwell up to the main entrance. There is no admission fee for the temple. The limestone cave is open at either end, making it a lovely wind tunnel and a cool place to get away from the heat. It was still early enough in the day that I wasn’t uncomfortable yet. The wide cavern is completely day-lit, but does have a few artificial lights to show off exceptional formations. There are stairs to help access different levels, and the main areas of worship house large golden statues on plinths with the natural art of the cave as a backdrop. It was breathtaking.

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The back opening leads down to a lake and garden that is nearly completely enclosed by sheer towering limestone cliffs dripping with lush greenery. Although there was a quarry in the distance, it was far enough away not to disturb the tranquility of the garden. I was surprised to see it so empty on a Saturday morning, but I have no doubt that on the weekend of the New Year it was packed to the gills. I took my time walking around the garden in the relatively cool morning air. I enjoyed the sweeping grandeur of the cliffs, the bright tropical flowers, the miniature landscape art, and even the company of a few geese. In those hours I spent between the cave and the gardens it seemed like all the dirt and grime and inconvenience of Malaysia faded away, focusing my attention on only the calm beauty around me. 20170121_111231

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On my way out, I climbed up a few more staircases to get a closer look at the cave formations. Much like Batu caves, the limestone was in familiar shapes, but so much larger in scale than I was used to. I had no trouble getting another Uber to come out for me, and while I was waiting, I took a tour around a little turtle pond on one side of the parking lot. Most of the turtles were quite shy, plopping into the water to escape as soon as I got within a couple meters, but one large guy was holding his ground and I managed to get a few cute pictures.

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The next cave temple I wanted to visit wasn’t very far away and turned out to actually have 3 temples all along a single short road, so while the other two weren’t on my list it seemed a waste not to at least peak at them while I was there.

20170121_122942Sam Poh Tong is also a Buddhist temple and is said to be one of the busiest and most popular in Ipoh. I could tell it was an active temple from the freshly lit incense, but little else gave evidence that it was maintained or cared for. Even so close to such a large holiday, the grounds looked unkempt and abandoned. The huge numbers of underfed and skittish stray dogs was off-putting, but they were not aggressive. The garden in the front was a small lake with tiny “islands” that became miniature mountains holding tiny temples. As I walked around one side of the temple compound, I came upon a building that seemed long empty, covered in dust and bereft of occupation, yet there was incense burning at the dusty altars, observed it seemed only by me and some monkeys on the fence nearby.

I went back to the main gate and into the cave itself. The differences were striking. Where Kek Lok Tong had been left mostly natural and had only a few additions of statues and stairs, Sam Poh Tong looked almost like a building inside the cave.

20170121_124426The walls were painted and florescent lights were on the ceiling, while piles of furniture and other stored items crowded the rooms. The floors were finished and there were windows and doors installed into the stone. It felt less like a cave and more like a basement.

O20170121_125808n the other side of the cave was a small enclosed garden. The walls of the garden were more towering limestone formations and the greenery within was Jurassic in scale and seemed to be overgrown with no concern for trimming or arranging, dead leaves carpeting the ground. There was a small turtle pond behind a fence filled with turtles of all sizes that could be fed fresh greens and veggies bought from a 20170121_125305stand inside the cave. The stand and it’s sales person were some of the only signs of tending I saw. At the back of the garden behind a locked a fence and a forest of unkempt branches was a bright red pagoda that seemed more like something in an abandoned jungle than in a living temple.

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20170121_132845I crept around the cave rooms from one altar to another, plastic cups and cleaning materials lay scattered around, the tile floor was cracked and uneven. I followed a treacherous staircase up a flight, but it ended only in a tiny window and more dust. It was so easy imagine that I was exploring a temple long forgotten, and then I would find a lit candle, or a smoldering joss stick or even a lone employee selling souvenirs. Outside once more, I continued on to the cemetery. In Buddhism, cremation is the norm, so there were small buildings in another alcove that housed the remains. Despite signs requesting that no incense be burned, there were sticks shoved around all the doors and soot marks as well. The buildings were grown over with moss and leaves, the paint peeling and the ground cracking under the pressure of new roots, yet the incense showed me that human presence was recent.

20170121_133150The farthest end of the compound was an area designated for ritual burning and another weedy and overgrown garden that seemed to be turning into a dumping ground. As I made my way past more dogs and tourists, I couldn’t help wondering at how this temple had been so highly rated by so many visitors when Kek Lok Tong was so clean and well cared for. I enjoyed visiting Sam Poh Tong, but it felt like an archaeological excavation rather than a place of worship.

On my way out, an elderly gentleman on a bicycle greeted me in excellent English and as we chatted he told me that this was his regular temple. He was not looking forward to the coming new year celebrations because he said the temple would be overrun by traffic. Scalpers would charge for street parking and people would come just to show off. I was torn between hoping the extra income would help the temple recover and being bewildered as to how it could still be so shabby when expecting the year’s biggest visiting weekend in less than two weeks.

Nam Thean Tong

20170121_142613Next door is Nam Thean Tong, which turns out to be a Taoist temple. It was sparkling clean and in excellent repair if somewhat empty. The floors were also finished tile, but the rooms felt more like natural cave than basement room and the altars were small but beautiful and well cared for. In front of the main altar was a place to do a fortune telling by a traditional method that involves a cup filled with sticks. The supplicant shakes the cup in a rhythmic way until one stick comes up and out and then the meaning is interpreted. I didn’t partake myself, but I watched another do so. There were carvings and paintings on the walls and lanterns hung around for the coming celebration. Another staircase led me to a viewing platform and a small bridge where wishes were tied to the chain railings. When I came across a steep stairwell leading into darkness, I paused for a moment to consult my own oracle: Google. It transpires that the top few floors of this temple are in total darkness and are rumored to have a haunted house combination of cobwebs, unsteady floors and ghosts. Yet even the most avid ghost hunters seemed to think the climb was a little unrewarding, so I decided to save my energy.

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Although the beautiful artwork and unique architecture was a treat, it’s hard not to think the best part of these cave temples were the wind tunnels created by the rock formations that allowed visitors to have a seat in a naturally cool and breezy spot, gaining some respite from the oppressive heat outside.

Rojak

I was finally drawn back outdoors by hunger. The afternoon was getting on and my noodle breakfast had long since worn off. There were some little shops along the outside, mostly selling souvenirs like a local tea and charms, a few selling drinks and ice cream, and one had a handwritten sign advertising a food called “rojak”. 20170121_145104I looked it up to make sure it wasn’t something too scary, then ordered myself a bowl for lunch. Rojak just means “mixture” but fruit rojak is a common dish made of crisp (less than fully ripe and therefore slightly tart) fruits and veggies. Jicama, cucumber, mango, and apple are standard ingredients. The sauce is the magical part. The recipe gurus of the internet assure me it’s made with shrimp paste, hot chilies, sugar, soy sauce, and lime juice (with some regional variance). To me it tasted for all the world like molasses with chili, ginger and lime. I don’t know if mine was made with molasses or if that’s just what it tastes like when you mix soy sauce, shrimp paste and sugar together, but it was yummy!

The outside area was under some reconstruction, but it was a spacious courtyard with plenty of trees and benches, a giant golden statue of what was probably Lao Tsu, and a brownish pond with a moon bridge.

Ling Sen Tong

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20170121_151734Just one gate over is the third and final temple on this street, Ling Sen Tong. This temple mixes Taoist and Buddhist imagery along with other folklore in a big colorful Chinese melting pot. It is an all singing all dancing color fiesta. There are beautiful facades of buildings and temples, giant statues in fresh bright colors, elaborate scenes of mythology played out, and everything was touchable/climbable so visitors were having a blast posing for photos. There was only one small, dark cave. The ceiling had turned black from years of candle and incense soot, and it was chaperoned by a figure whose offerings exclusively included alcohol (for some reason, especially Guiness…) I enjoyed exploring the many statues and hidden rooms. I even found this one guy who looks like he’s checking his phone in the bath! I’m sure there’s a better explanation for it, but along one wall was a series of statues in sunken pits that had all filled with water. I don’t know if it was meant to be a kind of wishing well or something else entirely, but this one in particular stood out to me.

Hostel Hangouts

Finally, I couldn’t take the late afternoon heat anymore and had to call a car to come and rescue me. It was my intention to have a meal and a rest in the hostel before heading out in the evening (and cooler air) to check out “old town Ipoh”. However, I ended up meeting a trio of backpackers from Europe who dealt me into their game of Uno and chatted for a few hours. Then when they went upstairs, I ended up talking to the wifely part of the duo who runs the hostel for quite a while more. She is a Japanese lady who had spent so much of her young adult years in Malaysia that it just seemed natural to her to find a husband and move there. So it was that I spent my whole evening happily in the hostel chatting with new and interesting people from around the world until I was too tired to stay awake any longer and headed up to try and sleep.

As kind and wonderful and gracious as the hosts were, the Reggae House was a little hard to sleep in. The lack of full walls meant that light and sound easily came in from the spaces around my room, and the visiting rat didn’t really set my mind at ease, but I was settling in to the “roughing it” mindset and managed to persevere.


Stay tuned for the next installment of adventures in the Malay Peninsula wherein I go hunting for Ipoh White Coffee and learn more about my favorite bean on the way. Don’t forget to check out all the photos of Kek Long Tong and the other three temples on Facebook and keep an eye out for more spring colors in Korea coming soon! Thanks for reading ❤

Malay Peninsula 5: Kuala Lumpur & The Batu Caves

I’ve totally given up trying to predict my work life. It seems chaos and uncertainty are this year’s watchwords. In an attempt to retain sanity, gratitude, and joy, I’m going to focus more on things I can influence and enjoy. This week that means cherry blossom soda, cherry blossom beer, cherry blossom frappuccino and of course cherry blossom viewing. So until I can write about all those blooms in Korea, here’s another tale from Malaysia, and a much happier one since Kuala Lumpur is less scary by daylight.


Batu Caves

20170119_100407The morning after my late night and less than welcoming arrival, I woke up early, scarfed down my leftover convenience store sweet buns and took off to find the train station that would lead me to the Batu Caves. In recent years, the Malaysian government has added a train stop at this popular tourist attraction, and now it’s much easier to get to. The train itself was a new experience. When you purchase a ticket, you are given a plastic token with an RF chip inside. When entering the platform, you hold the token up to a pad to be read and it opens the gate, but hold on to that chip! When you disembark, you need to feed the chip into a slot to pass through the exit gate.

20170119_105910I met a tour group on the train platform and we chatted during the train ride. I hung around with them and their guide to hear a few of the explanations offered about the caves. The guide rushed us past the dozens of sales stalls (saving us from souvenir swindles), gave a brief presentation under the statue of Hanuman (the Monkey King) and landed us in the main square at the base of the stairs and the giant golden statue of Murugan (a god of war, made of concrete and painted gold colored). There was a tremendous flock of pigeons in the main square and it seemed to be a major tourist attraction to stand in the flock and have them hop onto your hand to get some food. Occasionally construction in the background caused a loud boom that set all the birds a flutter, which was surprisingly pretty.

20170119_111631After a few obligatory photos with the tour group and the giant statue, we began the climb. The stairwell is not insanely long, a mere 272 steps. They were so popular as a form of exercise that the government had to ban fitness use of the staircase to keep it clear for tourists and worshipers. With my kryptonite-like response to humid heat, the staircase became a long haul obstacle, but there were plenty of interesting things to stop and look at on the way up, like the expanding view of the courtyard and city below, the rock formations on the cliffs along side, and of course the hordes of monkeys roaming freely through the grounds. Given that the monkeys are wild, I was totally happy to keep my distance, but they were not shy and enjoyed coming right up to tourists or even forcing a showdown over who got to use the hand rails. At one point there were two monkeys perched on twin posts on either side of me and I managed to get a cute double monkey selfie, checking off a bonus square in the Batu Caves tourist bingo.

20170119_113054When I finally got to the top, I was greeted with a large cave mouth opening that led to an even larger cavern. The entrance of the cave had small buildings installed for souvenirs and police. Once all the way inside, I could see that although this huge open space was graced with a few decorative statues around the edges, it was largely left in its natural state. The cave mouth was wide and there was a natural sky light further on, so the cavern was well lit. There were a few artificial lights in strategic places and an area of worship off to the left. Finally, there was another short staircase leading through to the open area beyond. At the top of those stairs was the rearmost chamber of the cavern, another broad space; however, the roof had long since fallen in and the walls soared up into open air, creating a round room with no roof.

Here a few more monkeys wandered around the main area of worship and some wild roosters serenaded us with late morning greetings to the sun. While the monkeys weren’t looking to steal any watches or cell phones, they were out to grab any food or drinks they could find, and had no problem at all photobombing everyone. I decided to step into the little shrine in the center of the chamber, donating a small amount and lighting a candle in gratitude. I am not Hindu, but I like to donate to historical sites and there is no entrance fee to the Batu cavern. The symbolic gesture of the candle was a good way for me to donate to the preservation of the site and to solidify my own expression of gratitude for getting to live a life where I can have experiences like this one.

I spent a little more time in the cave, just enjoying the surroundings and watching other tourists interact with the monkeys. Responses ranged from the insanely forward to the blatantly cowardly, but the monkeys themselves were so bold that they would simply walk where they wanted to go, trusting the humans to get out of the way.

Dark Cave

20170119_135901As I exited the temple section to descend the stairs again, I detoured off to the right to investigate a “dark cave”. The Malaysian government has taken this side section of limestone cave and created a conservation space. The limestone quarries and careless unregulated tourism of the recent past had wiped out a lot of the cave ecosystems. Efforts to restore the guano based ecosystem of living limestone caves are now underway in many parts of Malaysia and this cave was for both preservation and education.

I couldn’t pass up a chance like that. The cost of entry was 35myr (less than 8$US) and while it was the most expensive thing there, the entry fees all went into the environmental conservation efforts, so I don’t mind. I signed up for the next tour and sat down to wait in the cool cave mouth.

The cave has 3 chambers, but only 2 are open to view. The third is closed off as part of The Science (micro-climate study). The Dark Cave is the most studied cave in the world (they claim). People are only allowed in with a tour guide to prevent damage to the cave and it’s creatures. There are no lights inside. We were each equipped with a flashlight and helmet before entering, but the lights were not needed for most of the tour because of the amount of sunlight that makes its way far into the cave. Our guide was very knowledgeable, talking to us about the history of the cave, the near extinction of the ecosystem and the restoration projects. She then taught us about the ecosystem which is based almost entirely on the bat guano. Bats are the only thing that leaves the cave to bring nutrients in from the outside, so their droppings become the source of a tiny but thriving pile of life.

20170119_125933Nearly everything that lives in the cave is so tiny you wouldn’t even notice it if no one stopped to show you. When we see nature documentaries, there’s often nothing for scale, so it’s easy to imagine the animals as being similarly sized to their daylight counterparts. When our guide showed us a picture of the little white snail that lives on the rocks, I imagined a tiny snail, but not nearly as tiny as the ones we found! The biggest of the snails was about the size of a grain of rice, but there were smaller ones dotted around.

On our journey through the dark, we got to see a number of beautiful cave formations as well. These are similar enough to the limestone formations found just about anywhere there are limestone caves, but they were 4-5x bigger. Photos do not do a good job with scale, and my photos in the dark are a little meh, but if you think you don’t need to go because you’ve seen it before, can I just say, no.  We passed some adorable spiders (although we didn’t get to see the trapdoor guy who is superfamous there), and met the Godzilla of the cave ecosystem. Nearly every creature in there was ultra teeny (even the spider really only had a pea sized body), but this cave centipede was massive. An average currency bill would have covered his body but not his legs. In comparison with his rice grain sized prey, he was a leviathan. Our last fauna sighting was a nearly microscopic troglobite that was about 2mm, but still had a distinctive spiky pattern that made it stand out from the rock on which it sat.


Our entire trip was serenaded by bats. The bats were mostly resting, hanging from the ceiling above us, but they were not silent sleepers. Because of the need to preserve the bats’ environment, we were asked as a group never to point our lights above our own eye level. If you go late in the afternoon, you may even get to see the bats waking up for dinner, but I was there around 1ish, so it was a purely aural experience.

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At the end of the path, the cave had another skylight, revealing the bats’ back door and creating a stunning lighting effect as a single beam of light pierced the blackness of the cave from high above. With just a little light, photosynthesizing algae had coated the rocks and gave the entire area a soft green glow.

The walk back out was much faster, since we were simply retracing our steps. If I spent more time talking about the Dark Cave than the temple, it might be because I was greatly impressed. It has not been long since developing economies were not able to give resources to research and preservation that didn’t directly lead to feeding more humans. In the recent past, these caves were unprotected and used as places for who-knows-what, leaving the land covered in litter, cigarette butts and graffiti. Not that long ago that the monkeys were fed potato chips and soda, while today they are given nuts, fruits and flowers. It’s amazing to me what a society can achieve toward a relationship with nature and our past when we make it a priority. As I watch the power and funding of US national parks and the EPA come under fire, it gives me some hope that other countries will take up the stewardship.

Other Attractions

20170119_140630.jpgAs I descended back to ground level, I passed still more monkeys, several sets of mother and baby wandered around, and some tourists were feeding them peanuts (despite the do not feed signs). I noticed that the dominant males were very protective of their snacking rights and would drive off the mothers aggressively. Of course, no trip to a monkey colony would be complete without a little fornication. I happened to be standing right next to a female when a male walked up, took her butt in both hands and peered at it closely, then proceeded to mount her, much to the shock and amusement of tourists from 6-7 different countries. No, I did not take monkey porn pics.

At the base of the stairs, I detoured into a little shopping area where I was able to get some much needed water (bring more than you think you need!) and a little snack. I wandered through a shop selling Malay and Indian styles of clothing that was just to die for. It was all overpriced because Batu is such a tourist location, but it was still fun to look, and gave me a strong desire to return to Malaysia one day with a bigger suitcase!

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There were more attractions along the walkway between the stairs and the train station. I passed the “Cave Villa”, but a short search on Google advised me that this area (which had once been an art gallery and museum) was now hosting a sad number of mistreated animals for paid photo ops. I wish this were outdated information, but I found another one while writing this that was written since I got back. It’s very disappointing, considering everything I just wrote about the good steps that Malaysia is taking toward environmental preservation, but sadly, animal rights and animal welfare are another area that humans at large have only recently started to be concerned with. Animals often have a link to one or more deities in Hinduism and may be involved in rituals or (as in the case of the monkeys) given free reign at a temple. However, it is NOT a tenant of Hinduism to mistreat animals, and this display is likely merely a tourist attraction since visitors toss money into the small cages and pay to pose with the snakes and birds. I didn’t go in, and I hope if enough tourists reject this treatment of animals, the government will upgrade the Villa to a cruelty-free art gallery.

Ramayana Cave

20170119_151445Farther on, beneath the looming statue of Hanuman we passed at the beginnging, was the Ramayana Cave. This attraction was much more highly reviewed and was only 5 ringgits to enter, so I decided to give it a shot. There is a stream inside the mountain that comes out and is used as part of a beautiful fountain depicting the chariot of Rama and Sita. If you’re not familiar with the Ramayana, it’s a very popular dramatic tale from the Mahabharata (one of the most important Hindu religious texts). In addition to being a big part of the faith, the Ramayana is a soap-opera-esque tale of love and betrayal that is to this day one of the most popular television series ever aired in India. Kind of like if the Iliad were still relevant and cool today.

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The cave had two entrances (or more probably one entrance and one exit, but there were so few visitors that it wasn’t enforced). I first found myself in a section of the cave that appeared to be preserving the graffiti of the recent past or maybe even inviting new graffiti, giving visitors a place to scrawl to spare the other areas? Escaping the graffiti tunnel, I discovered the main chamber of the cave to be filled with larger than life depictions of scenes from the story. I’m ashamed to say I’ve forgotten most of the plot, since I read it longer ago than I want to admit and only once, but there were a few informative signs to help out.

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There was a stone arch leading up some stairs that gave a closer view of the cave’s internal waterfall, as well as a bird’s eye view of the main cavern, complete with birds. There was a LOT of graffiti in the cave, but most of it seemed to be on smooth walls rather than on the cave formations, and it was clear in any case that with all the electric lights and colorful statues that the cave was not likely to grow any further (all the more reason to be supportive of that Dark Cave!). I can’t hold the modern Malaysians totally responsible though, because evidence suggests that humans had been using these caves for centuries, and the modern laws prohibit building or excavating in living ecosystems. All in all, I consider the Ramayana cave worth the visit for both the cave and the man-made additions.

Batu Cave is often depicted as the giant golden statue and sweeping staircase, but there are plenty of other things to do there. I visited 3 of the 4 “attractions” at Batu. Only the main temple cave is truly free; however, I think it is worth the less than 10$ I spent to visit the Dark Cave and Ramayana Cave. On the other hand, the prices of souvenirs is high and the quality is low, so unless you really need something from Batu, it’s best to do your shopping elsewhere. On the way out, climbing the train station up a couple stories, there’s a nice view of the temple complex from the air as well.

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MORE KL

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There are times in a journey when the universe just opens a path. I was ridiculously hungry by the time the train got back to KL but didn’t know where to get food because I’d only eaten at convenience stores since arriving. Instead of taking the same path out of the station that I’d come in by, I followed a beautiful sky-walk that lead out and around, giving me a nice view of the city and of the river swollen with rain that had fallen while I was coming back from Batu. The sky-walk ended in a large, clean, and above all air conditioned building of indeterminate function. I think it may have been an office building, 20170119_170032but the main floor had a few shops and restaurants. I pulled into the first one I saw and confessed my massive ignorance of Malaysian cuisine, asking the staff for a recommendation. Moments later I had a heaping plate of some kind of fried rice dish that was smokey and pleasantly but not overwhelmingly spicy. Sometimes you just gotta walk on the road that looks more interesting.


Having discovered that Kuala Lumpur was not actually a rat-infested cess-pit, I had a very nice time. I wish the heat did not affect me so adversely because Malaysian cuisine is unique and delicious and I too often had mild heat exhaustion related nausea that kept me from properly enjoying it. If this trip taught me one thing about travelling in tropical climates it’s to plan an indoor/air-con activity every other day. For more photos, please check out the full album on Facebook, and stay tuned for the next chapter which includes some up close and personal with animals in the city’s wildlife sanctuaries/gardens. As always, I hope you enjoyed and thanks for reading!

 

Chuseok in Jeju Part II

Wasn’t that in September? Yes, it was. Beleagured by work and play, by deadlines and soul crushing political discourse, it’s taken me a little while to get everything put together. The good news is that the second half of my Jeju trip was much better than the first half and includes a glimpse into Korea’s kinkiest theme park. My Loveland photos may be NSFW for you, I know they were for me! 



Seongsan Ilchulbong Crater

ÇѶóDBThe weather was once more gray and drizzly, hot and humid, but with some sleep, breakfast and coffee behind us, we were enthusiastic to hit the road. I had done a bit of research on the crater that morning because of how the walk around the waterfalls turned out. I found some bloggers who claimed it was a 20 min walk if you just went straight up and about 40 minutes if you were a slow hiker. (it still took me about 45 that day). I felt better prepared for the hike ahead, but then we arrived late due to heavy traffic.

Our original schedule would have allowed us to get up to the top and come back down in plenty of time to see the famous “diving women”. However, the delay meant that the only way to climb to the top and see the divers was to race up. I decided that it wasn’t worth making myself ill, so I chose to climb at my own pace. It was another one of those hikes that should have been fairly easy but was made challenging by the weather. I soon realized that it wasn’t just us pudgy white girls that were having to stop and take breathers regularly. The Koreans, who so often zip by on mountain climbs, were also struggling in the humidity, and people of all ages and shapes were taking frequent breaks along the way as well as showing signs of being out of breath.

PS, the humidity was so bad that nearly all of my photos from the trip were adversely affected by the moisture, creating blurry and haloed pictures that I’m ashamed to put online. I tried to pick the best for the full album on Facebook, but I’m borrowing some tourist advert pics here. Sorry!

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When we finally reached the top, it was clear the effort was worthwhile. The crater was formed by a volcanic eruption about 5,000 years ago. Since then, the wind and water erosion have moved the vocanic soil around and connected the crater with the mainland by a narrow land bridge. The view from the highest segment of the ring overlooks the deep bowl and surrounding stone ring. The crater itself was filled with green and the sea spread blue-gray in the distance. We bounced around the viewing platforms, which were made as giant steps to allow people to stand above those in front of them and not have to jostle for the front line. We took photos for ourselves, for random strangers, and had strangers take photos for us as well. Everyone at the summit was in a celebratory mood and it was exhilarating to be at such a beautiful natural display while shoulder to shoulder with a hundred or so happy and excited people.

As I predicted, we missed out on the diving women, but further research shows that it’s not actually that much to see, since all the action takes place under water. We managed to find some pure Hallabang juice (which I was very curious about since it’s famous and unique to Jeju, it’s a variant on the orange/tangerine theme, sweet and light, not at all tart) and a place selling chicken skewers in time to scarf down lunch before the bus headed off to the next locale.

Lava Caves

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The lava caves at Manjang Gul are a unique kind of cave formed by flowing lava rather than by water erosion. We have some in North America. In fact, I got to hike the Ape Caves’s by Mt. St. Helens a few years ago and those are the longest congigous lava caves in North America (Hawaii boasts the longest in the world, btw). I was interested to see the ones in Jeju, but was a little sad to find out only a 1km stretch of the tubes is open to the public. Safety, safety, safety. In Oregon, we hiked the Ape Caves alone with only our own flashlights for guidance, scrambling over piles of rocks and at one point navigating an 8ft wall with only a short length of rope secured to the rock to aid us. In New Zealand, there were limestone caves that would require special gear and plenty of squeezing through narrow gaps and were still open and unguarded. But in Korea, the cave was carefully lit with color changing lights and each rock formation that might have been even the teeniest bit not-flat was cordoned off to protect people from climbing on it. It certainly helped me to understand why my students thought my trip to NZ was so dangerous.

Nonetheless, as we descended into the cave opening, the cool underground air was a welcome change from the stifling late summer humidity above. It was also fun seeing sections of the cave fully lit. The last time I’d explored a lava cave, I could only see a small portion of it at a time. There were signs and infographics explaining various formations, and there were certainly better photo opportunities than in any of the unlit caves I’ve been in. I really appreciate the fact that Korea has made so many interesting things so accessible to people with small children or physical limitations. My only complaint? You can guess by now, not enough time. I hear there’s a pillar of sorts at the very end of the tunnel, but we never made it because about ¾ of the way down, we realized we had to turn back if we hoped to make it to the bus on time. And I wanted to be on the bus on time, because our final stop for the day was Korea’s kinkiest theme park: 

Loveland (NSFW pics)

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When I first saw Loveland on the tour itinerary, I thought, oh it’s probably some romantic couples oriented thing with tunnel of love rides and romantic couples cafes and two person everything. Then I did a Google Image search, and channeled the voice of George Takei.

Coming as I do from Seattle, where 50 Shades of Gray was dissected in minute detail for it’s many inaccuracies and misrepresentations, I might have a culturally different idea of “kinky” from most of the rest of the world, so, just to be clear, Loveland is really Sexland, but not anything wild. Pornography is not legal to make or own in Korea yet, so the park is a much more unique experience for Korean visitors than it is for those from countries with a thriving pornography industry. It’s mostly vanilla with the occasional nod toward the existence of other flavors. However, if artistic renditions of naked sexy parts offend thine eyes, scroll past quickly to the next section.

The park is filled with larger than life statues of erotic and sexual poses. Full bodies, body parts, foreplay and coitus. There is a giant hand stroking a giant vulva on the ground, as though someone is trying to bring mother earth to orgasm. There are several climbable giant penises. There are no “do not touch” signs, so basically everything is interactive for all the photo ops you want and several statues are designed to be only part of a picture and are clearly in need of a partner. There are a couple of gift stores and a sort of museum of smaller sexual art depicting vibrators and masturbation aids from around the world, wooden carvings of penises, and miniature dioramas of sexy scenes in ancient and modern Korean cultural settings.

The best part about the park, however, was the fact that once inside it, all the people seemed to be totally free from sexual embarrassment. People who, in normal life, would blush or stutter to talk about sex were suddenly giving full belly laughs at the little clockwork couples who you could make fuck with the crank of a handle, they were grabbing statues’ breasts and butts, gender roles mattered less and less as people posed with sexual statues the same gender as themselves without fear or homophobia, they asked total strangers to take pictures of themselves in compromising poses, and even when I squeezed my breasts into the outstretched statue-hands of a woman in ecstasy, I got no rude glares, but only smiles and thumbs ups. It was like some unspoken agreement that hey, we’re all adults, we all do this stuff or wish we could, so there’s no point pretending today. Oh, and not once did anyone of any national background try to use the freeing atmosphere of the park to skeeze on or harass another live person.

Rain Rain and more Rain

By the time we got back to the hotel, we knew 2 things: 1) there was no way on Gaia’s Green Face we were climbing Mt. Halla for 7 hours in that weather, and 2) we were definitely having a good vacation. We stayed up far too late, sitting by the pool and chatting while watching other groups around the courtyard play a variety of drinking games, and even got to help one lucky girl ring in her birthday by joining the sing-song. We went to sleep hapy in our decision to skip out on the mountain and to spend our last day of vacation on the beach, enjoying the water even if it rained and maybe even finding a secret hidden cove on our own.

The next morning brought a slightly different reality. Some time while we had slept, the weather turned for the worse, from merely rainy to outright typhoony. The main difference is of course the wind. For beach going, we weren’t too bothered by rain, since you get wet when you swim anyway, but the experience at Jungmun told us how bad the riptides here could really be, and we didn’t want to sit on the beach all day and not be able to swim again. During breakfast I watched the palm trees blow sideways. Our day’s buses were scheduled to leave late, so my friend and I tried to go sit outside under a canopy for a while to see what it might be like. Even under the canopy, we quickly became soaked and we had to hold on to everything we brought with us lest it be blown away by the wind. Finally, we had to admit defeat and start looking for a rain plan.

The tour group decided they would run an extra bus to the downtown area, so we started our search there. Downtown Jeju City is not terribly different from other large Korean cities, but we still wanted to do something unique to Jeju. The main obstacle here is that Jeju is famous for it’s outdoors. No one comes to Jeju to stay inside. All the activities are outside, even many of the museums are combination museum and park. Finally, I located the Yongduam Seawater Sauna and Jimjilbang. Jimjilbang are all over Korea, but I hadn’t actually made it in to one at the time of this trip, and on top of that I gathered that this one is unique because it pumps in water from the sea for some of it’s bathing pools.

Samseonghyeol Temple

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When the bus dropped us off, we spotted a sign for a museum and headed toward it, but before we arrived, we passed by the gates of a temple. I’m a sucker for temples. I expected it to be Buddhist, because so far that’s what every temple I’ve been to here in Korea has been. In Japan, there were Buddhist and Shinto temples, sometimes side by side. In China, there were Budhhist, Daoist and Confucian temples. Since arriving in Korea, I’ve realized how little I actually know about Korean religion pre-Buddhism, despite the fact that I actually minored in East Asian Indigenous Religions at school. It’s not from a lack of interest, but I realize I haven’t read a single book on Korean religious history. As a result, I was surprised and delighted to discover that the Samseonghyeol Temple in Jeju city is not Buddhist at all, but rather it is a temple to honor the three gods of Jeju Island. (side note, this doesn’t mean I know more about Korean religious history, since as it turns out, Jeju history and culture is separate from mainland Korea. Mainland Korean shamanism is called Muism or 무교 and I’ll be reading about that for while.)

tumblr_ndl8rli3vk1qkyzm3o1_1280According to the legend told at the temple, the first inhabitants of Jeju Island were three demi-gods who came to earth in a great flash of light and energy, and emerged from three holes in the ground. The temple is built on the site of these three holes, and no matter how much it rains, the holes never fill up with water. The demi-gods were named Go (고 / 高), Yang (양 / 良), and Bu (부 / 夫). They wore animal skins and hunted for food. They were of great strength and cunning, but they were alone. One day, a ship arrived on the coast and an old man came out to meet them. The old man said that he was a king of a distant land and that when they had seen the great flash of light, he knew that he must travel there with his three daughters to find husbands worthy of them. The demi-gods accepted the women as their wives and their new father-in-law gifted them with the five grain plants and several livestock animals including cows and horses. In fact the last horse to leave the ship landed so hard that it’s hoof left an impression in the rock that can still be seen today.

The marriage service was held at what is known today on the island as Honinji (literally “marriage pond”). Before the wedding ceremony, the young demi-gods bathed in this pond. Neaby there is also a cave called Sinbanggul that has three rooms and where the brides readied themselves beforehand, and the newlyweds spent their honeymoons afterward. Both the pond and the cave are landmarks preserved as the three holes are.

The couples used the gifts of grain and livestock to establish the first farms of Jeju. They began to trade with other countries including China, Japan and mainland Korea (which historical records support). Once the farms were well established, they decided to each create their own separate governments.  In order to decide where each family would begin their own districts, the three demi-gods each shot a single arrow into the sky. The arrows landed on three different parts of the island: one in Il-do, another in I-do, and the third in Sam-do. These names are still in use today.

I find it interesting that the founding demi-gods were effectively hunter-gatherers. The descriptions of their animal skin clothing and hunting lifestyle indicates that they were very similar to our own understanding of pre-agrarian human cultures. Typically, gods and demi-gods in origin myths have all the trappings of civilization which they then bestow upon the humans as gifts (or sometimes have stolen from them). When the king and his daughters arrive, they are depicted as wearing beautiful clothing of woven and embroidered cloth, and bring gifts of grains and livestock. This is an obvious transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural civilization. The transition is often told in myths, but this one was unique to me because the roles of human and divine were reversed.

The Tamna Kingdom remained a separate country until the 1400’s when it was absorbed into the Jeoson Dynasty of Korea. Even after this, the people of Jeju were still treated as foreigners and travel was restricted so there were many conflicts and more than one uprising. In 1910, Japan annexed Jeju along with the rest of Korea. And finally, today, the Island of Jeju is the  first and only self-governing province of Korea.

20160917_153121.jpgAfter watching an informative film about the history and mythology of the shrine and the island, we wandered through the paths in the quiet woods. There are almost 1000 trees in Samseolhyeong. The other buildings included the museum where dioramas of the myth were displayed along with some of the original writings and ceremonial clothing from the earliest rituals performed starting in 1562. Additional alters, shrines, dormitories and halls were added over the years, but most were destroyed during Japanese occupation. Although the site of teh three holes is the same, the modern temple complex was rebuilt here in 1970. The walk through the trees was a refreshing break from the hot and humid weather. We admired many bangsatap (small stone towers built for luck) and more than a few dol hareubang (the stone grandfather statues that are the iconic image of Jeju).

We emereged feeling newly educated and refreshed and ready to enjoy our afternoon plans at the spa.

Jimjilbang at Yongduam

Just about every blog I’ve read about Korean jimjilbang starts off with “eeeek! Nakedness!” or some equivalent. I’ve seen people refuse to even try to go for fear of nakedness, and I’ve seen people talk about how they plucked up their courage and averted their eyes and tried it anyway. But pretty much everyone feels the need to talk about how scary it is to have to get naked, be seen naked, or see other people naked. It seems a great many westerners are well and truly freaked out by the prospect of being naked in a non-sexual setting. This may tell you some things about western culture?

The jimjilbangs are not unlike the Japanese onsen. These are strictly gender segregated, and they are about enjoying the baths. Nakedness is not shameful, scary, or sexual here, it’s just how you bathe. When we got to the front counter, I managed to communicate to the woman there that we wanted to do the baths and the saunas (it’s a different price point, but only by about 2$). We were given pink T-shirts and shorts (the men had blue) and a few small towels then directed to the women’s entrance. This place seemed to be owned or at least operated by and for Chinese tourists because the vast majority of the signs were in Chinese and Korean (not much English around). We put our shoes in lockers in one room and headed further in. In the main changing area, there were more lockers where people were able to change and store clothes and bags. I wasn’t sure yet what our pink clothes were for, but as we tried to change into them, a somewhat beleagured staff member patiently explained in Korean and then again in Chinese that we only needed the pink clothes to go up to the second floor.

We quickly stowed everything in our lockers and headed, yes naked, into the bathing area. This room had 6 pools of different temperatures and mixtures as well as a dry sauna and a wet sauna. But before we could start soaking, we had to scrub. About a third of the room was dedicated to getting clean. It’s important when sharing a bath with strangers that everyone cleans up first, so we got some soap and scrubbed down with the rest of the ladies. We were the only non-Asians in the place, but people mostly ignored us. The scrubbing process is not a shy rinsing off. Think about everything you do in the shower to get really clean and know that that’s what everyone was doing here. It seemed it was also possible to hire someone to give you a massage, or even give you a good scrubbing while you sat at one of the cleaning stations.

Once we were scrubbed, we headed over to investigate the pools. There were several sea water pools, as wells as some fresh water, and some herbal infused. Some pools were still and others had jacuzzi jets. One pool even had a jet in the ceiling that when you pressed a button, sprayed an intensive force of water downward, letting you stand under it to pound away at the muscles of your back and shoulders. We started in a marginally hot sea water pool that was filled with volcanic rocks along one edge. When we got too hot, we moved to the cool water pool. We tried the super jet. We wandered in and out of the jacuzzi pools. We even tried the iciest pool to maximize the hot cold contrast. Gradually, my stiff muscles from days of bus rides and hiking began to unwind. The dry sauna smelled intensely of cedar and was too hot and dry for me, but my companion enjoyed it. I visited the wet sauna which was hot and steamy, but the walls of the room were made of a mosaic of semiprecious stones like amythest and rose quartz in geometric patterns.


After a couple hours of this, we decided it was time to investigate the mysterious “second floor”. We dried off and put on our pink clothes and followed the signs to the stairwell. The second floor turned out to be a clothed co-ed area where people could relax, eat, watch tv, and sleep. Jimjilbang are a popular overnight destination for people traveling on the cheap because they are open all night and offer these communal sleeping areas. (It turned out the basement had even more sleeping areas and a dedicated DVD room!) We got a simple meal from the small restaurant there, enjoyed the coin operated massage chairs, ate some ice cream while admiring the view of the sea, and finally decided to explore the unique jimjilbang rooms.

jjimjilbang-insideThere were 3 special rooms along one wall of the second floor: the red clay room, the amythest room, and the gardenia room. The rooms had little doorways and were quiet and dark inside. Places where people sat on mats or lay with their heads on wooden blocks to relax or nap while enjoying the atmosphere. The red clay room was warm, but not quite sauna warm. The walls were red clay and it resembled the inside of a clay oven. I don’t think I could have stayed for long in the heat anyway, but we were driven out by one man’s snores before that. The gardenia room was a truly sauna level of hot. There was a stong floral (presumably gardenia) smell in the air, but the heat was too oppressive. My bare feet singed on the floor as I hopped to a reed mat for protection. There were many women sitting on the mats but the air was too hard for me to breath for long and I hopped back out without even sitting down.

20160917_185732The amethyst room is by far my favorite. I had fallen in love with the beautiful stone mosaics in the wet sauna below, but this room put them to shame. Jasper, quartz, amythest, and many others were used to create beautiful scenes of village life and cherry blossoms. The temperature in the room was Goldilocks level’s of “just right” and I lay on the floor there for a good 20 minutes enjoying the play of the low light on the colored stones, feeling like I had crawled inside a geode.

With only an hour left, we headed back down for one more round of soaking in the baths and it was with some reluctance that we took our final shower and donned our street clothes to make our way to the bus rendevous. Even leaving ourselves 45 minutes to travel what should have been 10, we almost didn’t make it. There were no taxis anywhere to be seen and the city bus stop had no timetable to show us if another bus would even come. We asked some clerks at a convenience store to call a taxi for us, which they did attempt to do, but we were told no taxis were available! Just as it seemed all hope was lost, we finally flagged one down and made it back to the group with minutes to spare.


The Moral of the Story

This trip taught me a couple very important things.

One is that even if I’m going with a group, don’t rely on anyone else to know what’s going on. By the third day, I had no choice but to do my own research because our entire primary and secondary plans for that day were scratched. I skimped on researching Jeju because I spend so much energy researching New Zealand (and then speeding through my rough drafts to get them done before leaving for Jeju) and because I thought a tour group of locals who had done the annual island trip more than once were likely to know what they were doing. I basically looked at a few pictures on google enough to know that I wanted to go to the places they listed on the itinerary and left it at that. I know now, based on my experiences and research that I would have chosen a different plan for myself even if I’d still ended up going to nearly all the same places.

The other is the value of traveling with a good friend. Experiences that would have been a big fat bummer if I’d been alone became endurable or even fun and silly because of the company. I like travelling alone, too, but just like Taean’s many travel disasters were mitigated by the presence of my Busan Buddy, the Jeju trials were made well by my Seattle Sister. We took turns managing each obstacle and when one of us got overwhelmed, the other was there to pick up the slack. I really do believe that it turned what could have been a mediocre holiday into a great memory.

There were hours of bus rides and long evenings by the pool and crazy mornings trying to pack everything we needed for the day in tiny bags and that made up at least as much time as the beaches, museums and parks. I’m not dedicating a lot of blog space to the story of how I got irrationally upset my towel wasn’t dry overnight and she busted out a hair dryer to get it dry for me, or how she got super seasick and I spend a couple hours of ferry ride dashing around the boat to bring her things to help her feel better, or how we stayed up late into the night philosophizing about the better angels of our nature or the etymology of the suffix -izzle, but that does not mean that these were less meaningful and impactful portions of my holiday experience.

Sometimes the company and the journey are the destination.

My Walking Shoes

Tonight I went out for a stroll among the local parks. We found a playground and a bog. There’s something really magical about public parks at night. Lit only by the reflection of the city lights off the clouds, they are tiny little oasis of beauty and solitude. On my way back home, I found myself looking at my feet. This is not something I do often, as I was taught to look up while walking, especially at night, however within the safety of my locked apartment building on the way to my door, I looked down and saw my walking shoes.

wpid-20140605_031219.jpgMy walking shoe of choice is the high-top, black and white, converse. I have loved this shoe since high school, and have probably owned 5-6 pairs since then. I don’t wear them unless I’m planning on doing more walking than from the apartment to the car to the office because I really love taking my shoes off whenever I possibly can, which includes at home and under my desk at work. Sometimes, they live in my car so I can take spontaneous walks. Tonight, I put them on to leave the house, because I knew that we were going in search of the really neat looking playground I spotted last week during the day.

Perhaps because of a somewhat reflective and poetic state of mind brought about by the summer night’s air and the croaking of frogs mingled with the whooshing of cars, I noticed how completely dingy my shoes had become. And then I really thought about that dirt… all the places that dirt has come from. The craggy steps of Huashan, the lava tube caves beneath St. Helen’s, the mulch of the giant Redwood forests, cities, countries, farms, fields, caves, and mountains… my shoes are colored with the grime of wonders.

What color are your walking shoes? What scuffs and stains and ground in dirt from your adventures are they carrying. These shoes do not merely protect our feet, or convey us to our destination. They are a legacy in grime of every great moment they carried you to.

So the next time you put on your walking shoes, stop for a moment. Appreciate that dirt, and remember where it came from, how it got there, and how each step in your journey has colored you with wonders too.