Friday, January 3, 2014

Christmas in Thailand: Phuket, Phi Phi and Bangkok

The Christmas break from my school is the longest amount of time we get off for the entire year.  So with that in mind, my good friends from Ireland and I booked a trip to Thailand for a week.  And let me tell you that it was a great decision.  What an amazing place.

We flew into Phuket and because of our arrival time we ended up spending two nights and one day there.  The day we were in Phuket was actually Christmas as well.  The area that we stayed in is called Patong Beach.  It is considered one of the nicest beaches on the island.  We ate our first official Thai meal for lunch and it confirmed the concept that there's no replacement for eating food when it's made by the people who created it.  We spent the day wondering around, relaxing at the beach and preparing for the reputation of the nightlife in Patong.

That night, before heading out to Bangla Street where the bars are located, we decided to go to a Muay Thai fight.  It was one of the most expensive things we did while in Thailand, but for about $50 we got to see 9 fights and have a truly memorable experience.  And we got the week's catch phrase. "Tonight, tonight, tonight..." (Inside joke for Cathal and Debra haha)

The following morning we woke up and took a ferry to the Phi Phi Islands.  We stayed there for three days and three nights and it was easily the highlight of our trip.  If you're ever in Thailand, make a point to go to these small islands for as long as you can.  

As I mentioned, Phi Phi was the highlight of the trip, and the highlight of Phi Phi was taking a sail boat around to the different islands that make up Phi Phi.  The tour was about 6 hours long and we had a chance to go snorkeling, kayaking, cliff jumping, visit a cave with 800 year old drawings, and see the sunset out over the water.  It was easily one of the best days I've ever experienced.  


Finally we made our way to Bangkok for the last two days of our trip.  Honestly, I think the three of us were pretty wiped out by the time we got to Bangkok, but it was great to walk around the city and take in all the sites even though we didn't enjoy the Bangkok nightlife.  I left Bangkok thinking they really love two things there: Buddha and gold.  

It's a trip I will never forget.  We saw so many amazing things and got to relax a lot which was much needed.  Cathal and Debra leave to go back to Ireland at the end of February so it was also good to spend some quality time with them.  I'd love to visit Thailand again someday, but for now I want to focus on seeing more countries in Asia first.  It's going to be hard to top my first trip outside of Korea.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Happy New Year from Korea

As I'm sure many of you have said to yourselves, I can't believe it's 2014.  I've had a few years in my life that really stand out when I look back on them.  One in particular is 2008.  But I think the year 2013 will be the one that brought about the most change, adventure and the best experiences.

One year ago today, I was sitting in my mother's house in Texas watching college football games and wondering what I was going to do with my life.  See, at the time, I thought I had wasted my chance to come to Korea and I wasn't sure if the opportunity would present itself again.  But as they always do, things worked out the way they're supposed to and one year later here I am.  In a future post, I'll explain why my mistake that led to my delay in coming to Korea turned out to be a huge blessing.  Funny how often things works out that way, isn't it?

I love everything Korea has brought me.  The food is wonderful, the culture is great and the history is simply amazing.  I've been able to see parts of the world that I never imagined.  But it's the people that have made the biggest impact on my life.  I've been lucky enough to make friends with people from around the world, Oregon, Chicago, Ireland, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and countless more from here in Korea.  And one thing I really never expected, I met an incredible girl here in Korea, and she actually thinks I'm kinda ok too.

So while I missed being home with my friends and family during the holidays, I can be happy knowing that my life here has been great.  I'm really looking forward to seeing what 2014 will do for me and everyone else in my life.  I wish you all the best and hope that the next year is better than you could have imagined.  

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Gyeongju and the Korean countryside in the fall

Last weekend I took advantage of a 4-day weekend and visited Gyeongju with my girlfriend.  I'm actually quite lucky that my school has a short break in between terms every two months.  It allows me to enjoy trips like this somewhat regularly.

Ever since I got to Korea, my students and Korean friends have suggested Gyeongju as a place to visit because of its significant role in the history of Korea.  Basically, it was the capital of the Silla Dynasty from 57BC-935AD which was one of the longest dynasties this world has ever seen.  You can read more about it here if you're interested.  A lot of the history of that dynasty has been preserved by the generations since, and even a lot of it has been rebuilt.  All of this combined with the fact that the fall season is in full-swing in the southern part of the country made for a wonderful trip.

Definitely one of the more amazing sites that we visited was Anapji, which is a pond in Gyeongju National Park.  It was rebuilt about 40 years ago and it is stunning, especially at night.  Everything is lit up and the reflections off the water are amazing.  If you're in Gyeongju, I definitely recommend visiting this area at night.

We also visited Bulguksa Temple which was beautiful and amazing as well.  As I said, there is a lot of history in this city.  Bulguksa is well known in Korea for having been added to the UNESCO World Heritage List.  There are only 981 places in the world recognized on this list, so it's quite significant.  

Overall, it was an amazing trip and it is well worth visiting Gyeongju if you have the opportunity.  It was relaxing and that was needed as I prepared to start my 5th term teaching in South Korea.  Yes, I said 5th term.  Where is the time going?  In just a few short days I will have been here for 9 months.  What an experience it's been so far.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

South Korea vs Brazil Friendly - Neymar didn't disappoint

Last Saturday I got the chance to go see South Korea and Brazil play an international friendly match at Seoul's World Cup Stadium.  Although baseball has gained a lot of attention in the last 10 years in Korea, soccer still is the king of sports here.  The national team supporters are affectionately referred to as the 'Red Devils'.  So my girlfriend and I put on our red shirts and made our way to the stadium.  We joined a record-setting crowd of 65,308 in hopes that Korea could put on a good show against one of the best national teams in the world.  

The scene just before kickoff

Record crowd for Seoul's World Cup Stadium

The first half of the game was very closely played.  The Korean team played aggressive, deciding to go with the strategy of playing very physically.  Late in the first half, with the score still 0-0, things started to get a little chippy between the Korean team and Brazil, specifically Neymar.  It seemed that they were targeting him specifically, trying to use their physical play to take him out of his element.  It didn't work...

Neymar put the Brazilian team up 1-0 going into the half.  Shortly after the start of the second half, Brazil used a quick counter-attack to get past the Korean defense.  Oscar was able to get the Korean goalie to bite on a fake and then chip the ball over him to give us our final score, 2-0.  

I was really hoping to see Korea score even just one goal, simply to see the reaction of the crowd.  They were very enthusiastic the entire game and aside from one successful attempt at 'the wave' they stayed focused on the action for the full 90.  Korea did have a handful of scoring opportunities, with this one probably being the best...

Overall it was a great night.  We met Brandon and his girlfriend for dinner near Hapjeong before we all went to the match.  I've been lucky to be able to go to some great events recently and I'm looking forward to continuing that trend here in the next few weeks.  Now I just need to add a playoff baseball game to the list.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Hanging out with 1.2 million people at the Seoul International Fireworks Festival

Last weekend I went to the biggest event I have ever been to.  And it is the biggest event I likely ever will go to.  Can you imagine a time in your life when you might be at a park with anywhere close to that many people?  Just to put it in perspective, JerryWorld, aka Cowboys Stadium, made huge headlines when it hosted its first regular season NFL game with a record-breaking crowd of 105,121 people.  So we'd need Jerry to build 11 more stadiums to host the number of people who were at the park on Saturday.

The gorgeous Seoul sunset

A view of the mountains behind the city

I went Jennifer, her sister and her sister's fiance and luckily we decided to get there about 4 hours before the show started.  Getting there 4 hours early got us a place to lay out our blankets and set up shop.  After that it was standing room only.  I literally couldn't see the end of the crowd.  It stretched about a mile down the Han River.  Oh, and there were people on the other side of the river watching also.  Did I mention there were 1.2 million people there??  

Getting there was insane.  We took the subway and every transfer getting there was more difficult than the one before.  I've never been crammed into a subway car like I was that day.  So many people had their cameras out taking pictures and video of the crowds in the subway.  And if the people of Seoul think it's a big crowd, then you can trust that it is.  And remember, we left for the park more than 5 hours before the show started.

A small sample of the crowd hours before the fireworks started

Some of the action.  Pretend the tree is there for 'artistic' purposes

The fireworks were amazing.  And lasted almost an hour and a half!  Yet the entire time I just kept thinking, 'How are we getting out of here?'  The subway station closest to the park was closed off.  The police were diverting the crowd in three different directions, to three different subway stations.  So as the crowd divided into thirds, each walking about a half mile or more to the closest station, it looked like a mass exodus from a movie scene. We got extremely lucky because just as we were about to queue up at the subway station and be packed into the train, we saw the bus that goes right back to our neighborhood and not only were able to get on but also get seats.  

All in all, it was a great experience.  Was it a little bit of trouble?  Yes.  Was it as much trouble as you'd expect with that many people all in one place?  Not at all.  The city did a great job making it enjoyable and as easy as it could have been.  Thinking about going next year?  My advice is to show up hours early, pack a picnic and get comfortable.  Enjoy the day and the fact that you're participating in a historic event.  And then try to get lucky and get a seat on the bus for your trek home. 

Sunday, September 29, 2013

My first visitor in Korea

Last week I got my first visitor during my time in South Korea.  The one and only Jordon Holmes came out during some time off from work and stayed for a week.  Now this is no easy task, just a quick 14-hour flight.  Luckily there is now a direct flight from Dallas to Seoul, which makes the travel that much easier.

We had a great time while he was here.  But as we usually do in these situations, I spent months looking forward to his visit only to feel like it went by really quickly.  I was very fortunate that his trip coincided with a major holiday here in Korea, Chuseok.  So I only had to work one full day while he was here.  I was able to meet him at the airport when he came in, and within the train ride from Incheon to Bucheon he got to have his first cool experience.  An elderly Korean man sitting next to him grabbed his leg, and in near-perfect English said, "Welcome to Korea."  The people here really are about as kind as I've ever met.  And they genuinely care that we enjoy their country.

I did my best to show him around Seoul and my city, Bucheon.  We visited Gyeongbokgung, a Korean palace, and a traditional Korean neighborhood called Insadong on the first full day.  Actually, on my very first day in Korea back in February, I did the exact same thing (see more here).  It was a cool thing for me to see him enjoying it all and definitely brought back a lot of memories for me.

The next day was Chuseok so we were limited in our adventures due to most places being closed.  So we got together with Dawn, Tamara,  Jamie, Micah, Michelle and Ross to eat together and spend some quality time.  We found a western-style bar that was open that night as well.

On Friday we spent most of the day resting before we went to Jamsil Stadium to catch a game between the Doosan Bears and LG Twins.  The coolest thing about this game was that Jamsil is the home stadium for both teams so the crowd was huge and very divided. That plus it being the home stretch of the regular season and both teams fighting to save their playoff spots equals huge and loud crowds.  They sold about 5,000 standing room only seats to the game, so even the aisles were crowded with 2 people sitting on just about every step.  We got lucky and got one of the last good spots in the very back of the stadium.  Two floor mats, snacks and some beers were enough for us.

The crowd was loud

And there were a lot of people

On the weekend we played screen golf and disc golf.  Yes, we found a disc golf course in Korea.  Now it only had 3 baskets up and there was no set holes, but that didn't stop us. We made up our own course and played for a few hours.  I hadn't thrown a disc in over 7 months, and Jordon has really just started playing in the last 7 months, so it was our first time ever to play together.  Screen golf is huge, no let me correct that, HUGE in Korea. There's one in my building, one in the building next to me, one in the building a block down, and you get the idea.  

Look at that form!

"I'll bet you a hundred bucks you slice it into the woods." -Al Czervik

The view from the first 'tee box'

Pretty decent baskets

On Monday I had to work the entire day so Jordon used that time to visit one of my classes, get some souvenir shopping done and rest before his trek back to Dallas on Tuesday.  Overall it was a great time.  We ate an insane amount of Korean food, all of which Jordon appeared to like (He's already found and gone to a traditional Korean restaurant in Dallas).  It made me want to have everyone from the States come over to visit.  So seriously, ever wanted to visit Asia?  Mi casa su casa.   

Monday, September 9, 2013

Suamgol (수암골) Village in Cheongju

I spent the weekend visiting some friends of mine in Cheongju, which is about a two hour drive from my home in Bucheon.  Micah and Michelle are headed back to the states, which is really good for them, and really bad for us here in Korea.  They've become very close friends of mine and I know we'll be friends for life.  I understand their situation, but inside I'm throwing a pity party.  

So my new friend and I went down to Cheongju on Saturday, which was a first for a couple of different reasons.  Big news here folks....I got to drive a car in Korea for the first time!  It had been almost seven months since I drove a car, so this was a bit of a big deal for me. Luckily for me, Jennifer was feeling tired so she asked her copilot to step in and take over.  

When we got there on Saturday, we had a chance to visit Suamgol Village.  It was previously a very rundown neighborhood which was surely destined for being replaced by an updated apartment building.  But some artists stepped in and provided a way for the neighborhood to attract some attention and more importantly, preservation.  

The view of Cheongju from Suamgol

Overall, it was a great weekend.  It was my first road trip with Jennifer.  I got to spend some good time with Micah and Michelle before they abandon me.  I got to catch up with my good friends Deborah and Cathal.  The weather was terrific.  We had a trip to the noraebang.  And did I mention I got to drive?!?