A Little bit of Paradise— Ao Nang, Krabi, Thailand

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Hello readers! In this blog I am going to share with you my adventures to Krabi, Thailand! It was an incredible experience and also my first time traveling alone.

Krabi is located in the south west coast of southern Thailand, facing the Adaman sea.  The most popular destinations are Hat Noppharat Thara, Ao Nang, Railay, and Ko Phi Phi National Park. There are also over 80 smaller islands that are an ideal location for adventurers, divers, or anyone looking for a day trip to the beach. I chose to stay at Ao Nang, while also exploring some of the nearby islands.

My trip started early in the morning in Bangok. If you read my previous blog, then you will know that I only had maybe an hours worth of sleep the night before. I booked my flight from Bangok to Krabi for only about 50USD. My flight left at 6:30 am and arrived around 8:00am.

I had not done much research, so I ventured off with no reservations. I think that  sometimes not knowing and having little expectations makes the adventure more exciting. I talked to a few people on the plane, and most of them suggested Ao Nang, because it provided access to other islands by boat.  The airport in Krabi was very tiny, but that made it very easy to find where to go. I followed the other foreigners, picked up a map, then jumped into a shuttle bus.

On the bus I met an older English woman who was also traveling alone.  She told me how she was traveling around taking cooking classes and how she was excited to have the opportunity to travel, since her children were now grown up.  It was nice to have her company as I aimlessly wandered around.

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Once we got to Ao Nang,  my new friend and I got some breakfast at a resort with a beautiful ocean view.  A new wave of energy instantly hit me as soon as I arrived.  I was glad that I had arrived so early with the whole day ahead of me.

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After breakfast, I walked around to check for room pricing and availability. At first I was a little discouraged, because everything was already booked.  Also, being an inexperienced traveler, I had definitely overpacked, and hauling around the luggage from place to place was beginning to be a burden.  After about 30 minutes of looking around, I stumbled upon a massage parlor/guest house.  To check in you had to take off  your shoes, then enter a rustic nail salon.  I really liked the quaint energy of the place, so I decided this would be where I was calling home for the next few days.

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The room only cost me about 18USD a night, and it had plenty of space with two beds. It made me kind of wish I had someone to share it with, but then again I was also excited to be on my own.  Once I unpacked I walked about 2 blocks down to the beach and found some tourist information centers.

The tourist information area kind of reminded of places like Orlando or Myrtle Beach, because there were so many visitor centers trying to haggle customers to buy tours and resort packages.  Then next to the stores were cute little beach shops selling a variety of sunglasses, jewelry, clothes, and other beachy items.

After picking one of the many tourist shops, I decided that I wanted to book a jungle kayaking tour. The lady spoke amazing English and was incredibly helpful. While I was there she also showed me how to get to Ton Sai, and she booked my airport shuttle to Phuckett for my last day.  It was nice to get everything done all in one stop. I had about two hours to kill before my kayaking excursion, so I spent the next two hours exploring and taking photos of Ao Nang.

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One thing I noticed about the Thai people is how much they smile. Though not everyone could speak English,  I was constantly greeted with a head bow and grin. I really enjoyed how laid-back and slower the atmosphere was, as it was a nice break from the fast-paced nature of Seoul.  One particular moment that I found amusing was watching a baby bathe in a bucket. The baby was surrounded by female relatives who were selling fruits and snacks. They were very amused at the look on my face as I observed the baby splashing around in a tiny bucket. I pointed to my camera and then to the baby to see if it was appropriate for me to take a photo. The ladies gave me a thumbs up and a smile to communicate a “yes”. After taking a few photos, I showed them the digital images on my viewing screen, and we shared a laugh.

Afterwards, I headed back to the tourist information center where a truck was waiting to take me on my jungle kayaking adventure. I hopped in the back of the rusty truck, and off we went. I was joined by a French couple, and a group of older Canadians who were all traveling together.

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After we arrived, an English-speaking guide introduced himself, and geared us up with life jackets, water-proof bags, water bottles, and paddles. They briefly explained how to operate the kayaks, then we went to the docks and got in.  I was glad that we were able to get started quickly, and we did not have to wait around long.

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The views during the trip were breathtaking! I was fascinated with how the limestone rocks created beautiful cliffs covered with greenery.  The way the soaring cliffs emerged from the ocean was very majestic. I was amazed at how the water had eroded the rocks and created small caves and indentions in the stone.  I was glad that we moved slowly so I could reflect and take in the beauty around me.

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As we entered the jungle a rush of vibrant sounds filled the air.  I had this funny feeling that I was being watched through the thickness of the trees. I felt unaware and curious of the secret worlds that hid behind the thick branches.

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It was really exciting to be able to see animals in their natural habitats. When we got deeper into the jungle, we spotted a family of monkeys playing in the trees. Our trip leader advised that we did not get too close, because the monkeys have been knows to try to jump into the kayaks. I did my best to capture some photos, but it was difficult because they moved too fast.

The total Kayaking journey took about 3 hours, but it seemed to go by really fast. I wish it had been a little bit longer, however I was very satisfied with my experience.

Once we were back to the resort area, I was ready to eat! In general I do not like to eat alone, because there is something special about sharing food with others. I felt a little awkward about dining by myself, but I realized it gave me the opportunity to think and observe my surroundings in more detail.

I decided to eat at one of the resorts, so I could watch the sunset on the ocean. The meal was a bit pricier than the places on the main street, but I felt I should treat myself to something nice.  Though my meal was considered “expensive” by Thai standards, it still only cost 10-15$.

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I enjoyed some delicious fried spring roles as an appetizer. Then for dinner I had Tom Ka Gai (Coconut Chicken Soup). It was the most amazing soup I have ever had in my entire life! The sweet and tangy flavors were coupled with spicy hot peppers, which made each bite new and exciting. The chicken was soft and tender, and the mushrooms were savory and cooked to a perfect texture. I was in Thai food heaven! Not to mention I had a delicious Mai Tai rum drink, so I was in paradise.

After dinner I decided I would try out a Thai massage. Earlier in the day, I had met a lady who was advertising  with fliers. As I was walking to the resort, she saw me and remembered me from earlier. She told me she would reduce the price she offered earlier, so I decided I would give in. I thought she would take me into the resort, but instead she took me to a cabana right by the beach.

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I had to remove my shirt for the massage, so that was a little awkward, as the cabana was open to the public. But I used a blanket for privacy, and decided I would just go with it. I have been to public bath houses in Korea, so I am not as bashful as I used to be.

The massage was incredible. She used lavender oils which made me feel very relaxed. And I was able to listen to the waves crash into the shore as she relieved the stress in my muscles. After the massage, Took-Took (my masseuse) talked  to me about  my life in Korea. I told her about dating Korean boys, and how they were very handsome and romantic. Took-Took was very excited to hear about that, and wanted to ask me if I knew Kpop music. It was really enjoyable being able to discuss and relate with her about my experiences living in Korea. She enjoyed our conversation so much, that she painted my nails for free and gave me an extra foot massage.

After a day of jungle Kayaking, delicious eating, and rejuvenation, I was ready for some rest. I went back to the resort, uploaded some photos to instagram and facebook, and then hit the sack.

Stay tuned for the next post where I will tell about my adventures to TonSai. :-)

Thailand Part Two— Bangkok’s Got Me Now

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Bangkok Night One— Silom Soi Cowby

When I first decided to visit Bangok I was not sure what exactly to expect. The only thing I had to base my expectations on were scenes from the infamous movie “The Hangover 2″ and travel books, so my preconceived notion was that Bangok was going to be wild, a little dangerous, and that anything could potentially happen.

For this leg of the trip, I still had Sam to show me around. Also I met up with  Tess, a good friend from high school. I only spent about a day and a half total in Bangkok, so I don’t really think that I can truly judge this city. But I can say, that of the four places I visited, it was my least favorite  (though I still had a blast)

Readers be warned, some topics in this post are going to be R-rated (sorry Dad ), but I feel that, if I am going to capture the true essence of Bangok, I am going to have to write honestly.

After my trip to Ayutthaya (read previous blog to discover more), Sam took me downtown to have some dinner.  I tried laab which was a spicy minced pork dish served with some noodles. The dish was bursting with sweet, salty, and spicy flavors! It was delicious!

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After dinner,  Sam met up with his ” boyfriend” and took me to the gay/redlight district. I knew previously that Thailand was very liberal and tolerant towards transgender communities and homosexuality, however no travel book could ever prepare me for the reality of what I was about to see. I was very excited, because for the first time I was in an environment that could be dubbed ” a cultural shocking” experience.

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The streets were alive with glowing neon lights. Mopeds and Tuk-Tuk weaved around the busy street corners. People were bustling everywhere, and street vendors were persistently trying to haul in customers to sell their goods. Also along the side of the streets, were various club representatives trying to attract you to their shows. For me it was very exciting, but also slightly overwhelming.I was very thankful to have Sam, because he walked around as if he owned the place, and he did not let any of the persistent promoters bother us. We then found a smaller outside bar to enjoy some drinks and people-watch.

Lady boys pranced down the street in feather boas and elaborately decorated outfits. Very fit and attractive men paraded around in their underwear. Everywhere you looked was just sex. I could not help but laugh due to my awkwardness. I enjoyed watching all the excitement from my barstool with my vodka-tonic in hand. I really admired the free nature and kindness of everyone around me. No matter who you were, you were accepted. Culture, class, gender, religion, sexuality, race . . . none of these were an issue.

All the sudden a particular older man caught my eye. He was probably in his mid 60’s, but he was with a Thai boy that looked to be in his teens. I was not sure how to feel about this. I assumed the young boy had been paid to keep the old man company, which I found a bit disquieting. I wondered what is it like, and to have this be your life everyday? Do they feel shameful? Or are they content with selling sex? I am so used to prostitution being taboo and hidden from the public’s eye, so having it be so transparent challenged my perspective.

The rest of the night was filled with numerous drinks, Sam and I swapping memories and stories, and conversing with the Thai locals. It was such a fun time, but eventually the alcohol got the best of us, so it was time to retreat back to Sam’s apartment. Though my first night was a lot to take in, my curiosity still remained about what went on beyond the streets. Stay tuned, because later in the blog I will discuss “Silom Round Two”.

Day two– Saturday Street Market 

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The next day, I woke up and met my friend Tess in central Bangkok. Tess had previously been traveling on a sail boat in the Philippines as well as traveling through South East Asia, so I was anxious to catch up about her adventures. We met at a shopping mall to run some quick errands and have lunch, then we hit up the famous Saturday street markets.

The weather had been a little rainy, but that did not keep people away. The streets were bustling with tourists and locals trying to find the best deals. The streets were packed with fruit stands and a variety of delicious street foods. The aromas of fish sauce, noodles, and grilled meats made my stomach growl. It was a very enjoyable atmosphere.

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When shopping in Thailand it is common to haggle with the vendors for the best deals. Tess was a pro at this, which made my shopping experience a breeze. I don’t know why, but I just don’t quite have the knack for striking a good deal. I was very amazed at how cheap everything was. My first purchase was a 60 litter backpack, which only cost me around 40USD. Normally backpacks like that range from $150-$300 or higher, so I was happy about the great deal.

After purchasing my backpack, the saleslady gave me some fruit that I had never seen before. It  was called Rambutan. It is a really beautiful fruit with very vivid colors. I was not sure what to do with it at first, but then the woman showed me how to open it up. It had a very delicate sweet flavor with a soft and sort of chewy texture, kind of like a grape, but not sour.  It was very delicious!

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Next Tess and I perused the clothing and jewelry vendors, and we bought an array of different items. We had so much fun trying on funky clothes and jewelry.  I was excited to buy some warm weather clothes, even though I was not going to able to wear them until it was summer time in Korea.

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Once the sun went down, Tess took me to a district that was famous for street food.  It was a funny environment, because you order from the street, then you go inside a shelter-like building to find a table. There is no AC, so it is hot and humid, but I did not mind at all. We enjoyed some local beers, Pad Thai, and some mango sticky rice for desert. I think I could live off Thai food for the rest of my life, because it was absolutely amazing!

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After dinner, Tess and I checked into our Hostel. The place was called “Lub*d”, and it was super funky! In the main lobby, they had a bar, a computer lab, and a lounge area. There were four types of rooms (ladies dorm, coed dorm, double room, and single room), and they were very clean and comfortable. I stayed in the ladies dorm which cost around 10$. Here are some pictures from their website  . . .

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I really enjoyed the hostel environment. There were people from all over the world, and it was very easy to meet and talk to other travelers. I had not really planned my trip out throughly, so I talked to a few people, and they suggested I fly into Krabi, and skip Phucket.  I logged into one of the computers in the lobby, looked up flights on Air Asia, and chose the early morning flight for the next day.  Best of all, this only cost about 50$.

Once I organized my plans, Tess and I discussed what we would do for the night. Another guy from the USA also joined us. I told Tess about my adventures in Silom, but how I did not have a chance to check out any of the clubs  or shows. The other guy also had not been there yet. We decided it was one of the things in Bangok you just had to experience, so off we went for Silom Round 2!

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We hailed down a tuk-tuk, squeezed in together, and headed off . It was just like the night before, club promoters were hustling the tourists, and the streets were crowded with an array of people and a variety of street vendors.

We decided that we were going to the ping pong show (Dad, this is the part you might want to skip reading).

Tess worked out a deal with the bouncer to give us a free entrance since we intended on having drinks. We were then escorted to a seat, which of course was front and center. This made me very uncomfortable, as I kind of wanted to view this spectacle from a distance. When we entered, the room was dark with a dimly lit stage. On stage were about 3 or 4 girls/ladyboys dancing. All of the sudden the light became brighter and a naked lady came on stage with a variety of props.

For those of you who do not know, a ping pong show is a strip show where ladies use their pelvic muscles to do a variety of tricks with their vagina. This includes blowing out candles,  smoking a cigarette, and many other unimaginable things.In one of the acts the lady put a tube to her pelvic region and shot darts at balloons. Once my mind decided that this was just a vagina magic show, I was able to feel a little more amused. However, I also wondered what these women feel everyday? I wondered if they were exploited or treated decently. Just like the night before, I was conflicted whether I should just accept this life-style for what it is, or should I feel sad?

 Surprisingly the night scene in Bangok ends early. I assumed that on a Saturday night everything would be open all night like it is in Seoul, however things wind down around 2:30-3:00am. This was probably a good thing, because my flight left at 6:30am for Krabi the next morning.

Once we got back to the hostel, I only had about an hour to rest/nap, then I had to wake up again at 4:30am to shower and catch a cab to the airport….. stay tuned because the next blog is about my adventures in Krabi!

Thailand Trip Part One — Day trip to Ayutthaya

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Hello readers . . . Today I want to share my journeys about traveling through Thailand. Though I only had 8 days,  I crammed in as many experiences as possible. It was an incredible trip, and I can’t wait to go back again! I don’t want to overwhelm you with all my adventures all at once, so I am going to break this entry into segments. This is part one of my journey, Bangkok and Ayutthaya!

My trip to Thailand could not have come at a better time. Just as I was leaving,  a 3 day snow storm and record low temperatures took over the Korean peninsula. I was very ready for some tropical sunshine!

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Unfortunately the snow storms caused many flight delays. Originally I was supposed to depart at 9:00am, fly to Guangzhou, China, have a 3 hour layover, then fly to Bangkok.  When I checked in, the attendant informed me that I would miss my connecting flight, so they rebooked me with a different airline that flew out later in the afternoon. The airport is over an hour from where I stay in Seoul, so I really did not want to journey back and forth again.

Luckily, Incheon Airport is one of nicest airports in the world. Inside there is a movie theater, spas, and even an ice skating rink. The night before, I had slept like a child does on Christmas eve, so I decided I would take a nap at the airport jjimjilbang (spa). For those of you who do not know, a jjimjilbang  is a public bathhouse/sauna which also provides  public sleeping areas. The first time I experienced a jjimjilbang I was a little nervous and uncomfortable, but afterwards I really enjoyed it. Now I go regularly on Sunday afternoons, especially during the cold winter months.  Even though I was anxious to get to Thailand, I figured some extra rest couldn’t hurt.

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When I arrived, the jjimjilbang was not very busy, so I was able to sleep in the “female only” room which is much darker and quieter than the coed room. I took a 3 hour nap, then relaxed in the hot bath. After my bath, I got ready ,had a late lunch, then checked in for my flight. It was finally time to head to Bangkok!

When I arrived, my friend Sam met me at the airport. It was so great to see him again. Sam and I know each other from living in Atlanta, GA. He also used to teach in Korea, but he left a month after I had arrived. It had been a year since we had seen each other, so we had a lot of catching up to do! Originally we were going to go out drinking in Bangok and have a nice dinner, but since I arrived so late (1:30am), we decided to go to Sam’s place and rest up for a big day of exploring.

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The next day Sam and I took a van to the train terminal in downtown Bangkok. The transportation is not as systematic and convenient as Seoul. In Seoul, the subway goes everywhere and even extends to remote neighborhoods. In Bangkok, the subway only goes to the main popular districts. Most people travel by vans, tuk-tuks, rusty old buses, or taxis.  Sam lives about 30 minutes from the center of the city, so the most reliable form of transportation is the commuter van.  We told an old woman where we needed to go, she hauled us a van, then we jumped in. I am glad I had Sam, as it would have been difficult to figure everything out on my own. When we got in the van, I was very confused about when and how we were supposed to pay. Before I could mutter my question, someone nudged me with a basket. I found this to be amusing, because I am so used to systematic nature of Seoul. In Korea everything is payed for with the swipe of a card, so passing around a basket seemed  quite rustic in comparison. Also the traffic flow was very different. The streets of Bangkok are filled with motor bikes, and everyone weaves in and out of traffic in a very unorganized fashion. I decided that is was best not to pay much attention to the driving, otherwise I might get car sick.

Sam decided that the best way for us to get to Ayutthaya would be to take the train, because it only cost about 1$. We bought our tickets, then decided to grab a few beers and people-watch while we waited for the train. I was most fascinated by  watching the monks.  I was very curious about where they were going. In the airports and train terminals, there were special seating areas designated for them, and I frequently saw large groups traveling together. I particularly admired their vibrant orange robes. It was much more exciting than the dull grey robes Korean monks wear. Also people in Thailand show much more reverence to monks than they do in Korea.

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Another interesting thing I noticed were all the pictures and memorabilia of the king. Sam told me that it is a crime to say anything against the royal family. If one speaks against the King, they will surely go to jail, and  depending on the case, sometimes even get a death penalty.  The kings picture is in every public building, on all of the currency, and even plastered on giant billboards and buildings.

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As we sat and waited on the train Sam told me all about cultural etiquette and customs in Thailand. Here are some that I found rather interesting:

Do’s and Don’ts to Observe in Thailand:

Remove your shoes: Whenever entering someones home or a temple, one must remove their shoes. There were even instances where I had to take off my shoes when entering hotel check-in areas.

Hand Gestures: In Thailand, the wai is a prayer-like gesture with the hands together in front, and the head is slightly bowed. It is impolite not to return a wai, however the king and monks do not have to return a wai.

Use your right hand: Apparently the left hand is considered dirty, because it is used for functions in the “squat” toilet. Therefore whenever paying or handing over an object, you should use your right hand. If you want to be really polite, touch your left hand to your right forearm.

Use a spoon for eating: The proper way to eat Thai food is with the spoon in your right hand and a fork in your left. The fork is used to rake food into the spoon, and the fork never goes into the mouth. Chopsticks are rarely used or available.

Respect monks: Monks receive a higher wai than ordinary people, and monks are not required to return the gesture. Woman are not allowed to touch a monk. If a woman needs to hand something to a monk, he will use a special cloth to receive the item.

Don’t point your feet: Resting your feet on a chair is seen as extremely rude. When sitting on the ground do not cross your legs or leave your legs extended out. Never ever use your feet to pick something up. Also never step on money, as it seen as disrespect to the royal family.

Don’t touch someone’s head: As the feet are considered the dirtiest and lowest part of the body, the head is seen as the most sacred. Therefore it is important to never touch someone’s face or head. This means to not playfully touch someone’s hair, and do not step over people who are sitting or laying on the ground.

Ok now that you know the etiquette of Thailand, let me get on with my adventure. . .

Sam and I decided to buy the cheaper seats to get a more authentic experience of how Thai people travel. There was no AC, instead just open windows and fans. I could smell delicious wafts of street food fill the air. I was very excited to see the sites from the train.  Occasionally someone would come by and offer to sell mangos or a variety of snacks.

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As the train took off it moved very slow, and kept stopping every 5-10 minutes. Sam and I realized that we had definitely chosen the slow route to our destination, but we did not care. It gave us time to talk, enjoy a beer, and see Bangok and the countryside.

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After an hour-and-half snail-paced train ride, we finally arrived in Ayutthaya! Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 and it was the second capital of Siam after Sukhothai.  In the 1700’s it was the largest city in the world with a total of 1 million inhabitants. It was also know as the trading capital of Asia as it was conveniently located centrally to India, China, and the Malay Archipelago. In 1767 Ayutthaya’s grandeur came to an end due to the Burmese invasion, where the city was almost completely burned to the ground. Though most of the city was destroyed, the remaining structures give tourists a glimpse of how impressive this city must have been.

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 Before deciding where we would go next, I decided to use the bathroom. As I was walking in, suddenly I was stopped by an attendant asking for money. I then realized that you must pay to use the public bathroom facility.  It was slightly inconvenient, because I was really anxious to pee, and was not in the mood to hunt for spare change in my wallet.  Also I was not paying for some glorious toilet, instead it was a disgusting squat toilet. Luckily I have been exposed to the squat toilets in Korea, so I was not shocked or surprised, but I was hoping to at least get my money’s worth for a nice commode. Using the bathroom cost 3Baht which is equivalent to 10 cents in USD.

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After the bathroom, I was ready to finally get on our way.  Sam and I perused a line of tuk-tuk drivers looking for the best deal. I was glad to have Sam, because I was clueless about what a “fair price” should be. Sam has a very sassy  and confident nature, so he was very good at negotiating  a bargain. We ended up paying 600 Baht (16-17$) for a tuk tuk driver to take us around for 3 hours to anywhere that we desired. Apparently that was actually a little expensive, but having our own private driver for less than 10$ each seemed like a deal to me.

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The first place we visited was Wat Yai Chai Mongkhon, or otherwise known as the ” Great Monastery of Auspicious Victory.” I wish I knew more about the history of this sacred monument, but from what I read it dates back to around 1357, though some historians think that it may date back to later periods. When I first arrived I was in awe of the beautiful architecture and spiritual essence. When looking at the rows of Buddha statues, I could not help but feel serene coupled with a sense of wonder. It was an incredible feeling, that also made me realize how lucky I am to travel and see the sites of the world.

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I do not remember what the other temple was called, but it was just as amazing.  I am not sure why, but there were elephants roaming around which were decorated in beautiful ornate garments. It seemed as if they were setting up for some sort of  festival or event, but we did not stay long enough to find out what was going on.

The elephant was not the only animal we observed. There was also a sweet little dog that followed me and Sam around the temple grounds. We were not sure why she liked us so much, because we were not carrying any food or treats. She stayed with us the whole time, but not in an annoying way. When we left, she seemed that she wanted to come with us, and she even tried to chase our tuk tuk as we drove away. I am not sure why, but Sam and I were very moved by this dog’s companionship.

There was one particular moment that I found to be the most captivating;  it was a Buddha head that had been overgrown inside of a tree. I was not sure if it was originally placed inside the tree, or if enough time had passed to cause it to become overgrown. However, I could not help but stop in awe of its presence.

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As we left the temple, the sun was setting and we were ready to head back to Bangkok. We decided to take a commuter van which was much faster than the train. Sam and I were a little tired from our day of exploring, however we were ready to take on Bangkok! Stay tuned to my blog for more of my Thailand adventures . . .

One Year Reflection– Teaching in Korea

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Hello readers. Sorry I have been MIA for a while. With the new year coming soon, I am making a resolution to write more. I  finally have my first DSLR camera (thanks Dad), so I am excited to start sharing some better quality photos as well. Since I have not been writing much I want to catch everyone up on what its been like teaching in Korea.

 

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In Korea,  modern society is focused on extreme competition, and its foundation starts in the school system. Korean students are some of the most hard working and ambitious in the world.  When I first moved here, I expected English teaching to be more hands on with activities and games. A lot of my friends had taught in schools in Thailand, Taiwan, and China, and I heard that teaching was a breeze. Well Korea is a different ball game. Korean society thrives off competition. There is pressure from every aspect of life to be the best. This pressure comes with a price, as Korea has the highest suicide rate in the world, with many of them being high school students. Students start learning English in kindergarden, and sometimes even before that if the parents are wealthy enough. Once children are in elementary school, parents enroll them into various academies, so students can study subjects such as math or English.

I worked at a franchise academy that focused on teaching a debate and an integrated English curriculum. Each student studied at my academy for 6 hours a week, and most of them attended at least one or two other academies on top of that. My work hours were from 2-10pm. When I first heard that, I figured I stayed late for office work, but students actually come until 10pm. Honestly I think they would stay later if Korean law did not enforce academies to close by 10. Many of my students did not want to be at Topia, which caused a lot more behavioral problems than I had anticipated. But how can you blame them? I remember when I was forced to do ballet for a few years, I would sometimes pitch a fit too. Observing these children’s work ethic is heartbreaking. Many of them hardly get a chance to just imagine and play freely, and this intense and methodic way of living will continue into the rest of their lives.

There is one moment that really demonstrated how intense the daily life of a Korean child can be. There was this one student in particular, that I admired because of his hard work and dedication.  I remember I was checking homework and I got to this student’s desk, in a very embarrassed and ashamed voice he told me, ” Teacher I am so tired, so please forgive me, I do not have my homework”.  I looked at his face, and it looked like he had not slept at all. I asked him, “Teddy, why can’t you sleep?” And he told me that he was attending two academies a day, then had to go home to finish homework. He then told me his mother would be angry that he did not do his Topia homework and he was very worried to show her his bad word test score. As I saw the anxiety on this 11 year olds face, I did not even know what to say to him. I told him not to worry about it, and that I was not angry at him, but that did not cure the fear he had of disappointing his mother.  Eventually this student somehow broke his collar bone, which may have been the best thing that ever happened to him, because he was able to take a break and rest for once.

 

 

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As I got to know my students, my heart ached for them. I knew they hated being forced to learn English. I felt as if I was trapped between the expectations of my boss and the emotional needs of my students. Instead of letting this pressure get to me, I decided to be creative. I found ways to put on a show for my boss, while still creating a more fun and relaxed environment for my students. Unfortunately I was watched like a hawk on CCTV monitors in every classroom, so I had to be cautious.  One way I decided to connect with my students was having them teach me Korean. They would laugh at my foolish attempts to try to pronounce words, and they were so proud to make me say it correctly. I showed them my vulnerable side and that I was not “all knowledgeable”. I felt they appreciated the fact that I was willing to learn as much from them as they learned from me.

I decided to leave Topia, because I don’t agree with the academy system. Forcing children to study English until 10:00 at night is impractical and just absurd. Though I am not fond of the academy system, I am thankful for my experience. I think it was exactly where I needed to be, because it helped me understand Korean culture on an intrinsic level.  Next year I will fortunately be working day time hours in a really fun and interactive camp program. I am very excited about my new opportunity, because the program emphasizes creativity, and I will also have a lot more freedom to teach as I choose.

I already miss my students. One of them has even been calling me every time he is at Topia, asking me if I will come back. Many students send me cute text messages and left me notes on my last days.  Here are some photos of some of my classes . . .

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I want to conclude this entry with one more thought. When I was first considered teaching I was inspired by this particular quote from Emerson:

“The great teacher is not the man who supplies the most facts, but the one in whose presence we become different people.”

As the time my aspirations was to be this type of teacher, however I think Emerson forgot to mention how the teacher also grows and changes from the students as well. I hope that as a teacher I can play a positive role and guide my students to be the best they can be, but I also want to acknowledge that they do the same for me. I am so grateful that I found where I need to be, and I look forward to the lessons that lay ahead.

 

Coming Full Circle —- Alchemy to the Korea Burn

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Hello readers! I am very excited to finally share this post about the Korea Burn.  Generally when I write I just dive right in, but for some reason I was not sure where to start when writing this entry. Going to a burn is a profound experience, and it can be somewhat daunting when trying to explain it to someone who as never attended. Even when I first heard of Burning Man, I was not sure how to comprehend it or know what to expect. It is one of those things you just need to experience. Right before leaving for Korea I attended Alchemy, the Georgia regional burn. After attending Korea Burn, I felt like I had come full circle. It had been exactly a year since Alchemy, and since then I have made some astounding transformations in my life.

I wanted to make sure to not write this piece to seem as the burn was just a party on the beach for foreigners. So in order to accomplish that I want to share some of the history of burning man and share with my readers what burn culture is all about.

Burning Man was started in 1986 when some friends met together on Baker Beach, in San Francisco to celebrate the summer solstice. The group of friends built a wooden man which was about 9ft tall and burned it as an act of “radical self-expression”. In 1987 the man grew to be about 15ft tall, and then the following year it was around 40ft! Each year the event grew in size, and now over 50,000 attendees gather in Black Rock City, Nevada for the Burning Man festival.

Burning man is founded on 10 principles

1. Radical Inclusion– anyone can participate. There are no strangers or requirements to attend. All types of people are welcomed and encouraged to participate.

2.Gifting — Everyone who attends is expected to give without any expectations to receive anything in return. There is no value attributed to a gift. A gift can simply be teaching a skill, sharing a drink, setting up a theme camp, or giving people a smile and a hug. Also when receiving a gift, one should accept graciously and not attempt to make it a trade of any kind.

3. Decommodification –no commercial sponsorships or money transactions are allowed.

4. Radical Self-Reliance — Participants are expected to bring in what they need, as well as bring something to share. Participants must come prepared.

5. Radical Self-Expression — this is probably one of my favorite of the 10 principles. Participants are encouraged to wear costumes and express themselves through any artistic fashion they choose.

6. Communal Effort– participants are expected to help others in need and to look after one another.

7. Civic Responsibility — participants are responsible to act in accordance to local, state, and federal laws.

8. Leave No Trace — participants are expected to pack up EVERYTHING they bring with them. The objective is to leave the place nicer than you found it originally.

9. Participation — To me this is the most fundamental of all the principles. Participants should come to the burn with an open mind. Transformative change only occurs through intrinsic and cognitive participation. We should focus on the art of  being in the present moment and embracing each breath we take. Everyone is invited to participate whether it be work or play. We can create a beautiful wonderful world by only being open and willing to participate.

10. Immediacy — to have an “Immediate experience” means overcoming barriers that stand between the recognition or our inner selves, the reality of those around us, our active role in society, and contact with the natural world. Burners should strive for awareness and recognition of deeper spiritual realms.

I attended my first burn (Alchemy) right before I left for Korea. It was supposed to be my last hurrah before leaving the country. I had always heard a burn could be a spiritual experience, so I figured it would be the best way to fill my soul with positive energy before embarking on my journey abroad.

Alchemy was held in the hills of north Georgia, right outside of Atlanta. As soon as we arrived greeters embraced us with warm smiles and hugs and told us, “Welcome Home.” The vibe was amazing. Everyone was so colorful in their costumes, and you could feel love beaming from each individual. No one seemed like strangers, but instead it felt like seeing long lost friends or family members. As we drove into the festival site, the hills were covered in various themed campsites. I had no idea how much people put into making this such a spectacular event. There were  bars set up that provided food and drinks to over 3000 people over the course of the 4 days.There was a giant blow up igloo, and inside the entire floor was covered with beanbags, while light specialists and DJ’s collaborated to create an ultimate sensory experience and relaxation zone. Even though we were there for three days, it was impossible to visit every campsite.

In the center of the festival was the large wooden structure referred to as “The Effigy”. This is what would be burned the last night of the festival. Before the “burn” people could climb and sit on the effigy. My friends and I just sat there for hours talking to people as they would come and go. We met people from all over the country, and even all over the world! It was amazing how a burn could bring people from so many backgrounds together to this beautiful place.

The best part of the festival is when the effigy gets burned down . The first thing that happens is a parade of fire spinners does a collaborative performance around the effigy. Then fire work specialists put on the best firework show I have ever seen in my life.I really can’t fit words to describe how spectacular it was. Trust me, it was better than any 4th of July or Disney World show. As soon as the firework finale ends, the effigy is instantly engulfed in flames. As the cheers emerge from the crowd, you just can’t help but feel connected with everyone around you. Everyone embraces one another with hugs and smiles, and just celebrates being aware of this moment in existence.

When I heard that there was going to be a Korea Burn, I almost could not believe it. As with all the awesome things I have found in Korea, I also found this event through facebook. At first, the burn was supposed to be held at Muuido Island, but so many people were interested in attending that it was moved to Gijipo Beach. Last year Katlyn  (one of the years burn organizers) held a small gathering called the “Man on Fire,” which was a gathering for Korean people and foreigners to share in the burning man culture. Originally the producers of the event expected this year’s gathering to only be about 100 people, but over 1,000 people requested invitations!! In a short amount of time (about 2 months) the organizers were able to find a new location and set up everything possible to make this event happen. They did an amazing job and put in a ton of hard work to make this possible.
I was fortunate enough to meet some of these wonderful organizers at Inner Trip festival, and was even able to play a small role in planning for the burn. I wish I could have been more involved, but it was still really awesome to see everything happen behind the scenes.
Generally burns charge admission in order to cover costs of medics, bathrooms, property rental, and other essential parts of the festival. What made the Korea burn so special, is they did not charge admission, but instead only relied on the support of the community to come together and donate. At first there were some dilemmas getting the donations organized, but as the event came closer, more and more people pitched in, and they were able to reach their goal. Because the event was in Korea, many people had never attended an actual burn, but that did not limit the creativity of the campsites. Even though this was a much smaller festival than Alchemy, the Korea burn stayed true to the principles. There was a DJ tent that played until dawn, a camp that gave out bacon if you read them a poem, a cuddle area to relax, a flow arts camp that taught flow and hula hooping, yoga lessons on the beach, body painting, and many other amazing theme camps. Foreigners in Korea come from all over the world, so it contributed to an amazing international atmosphere.
Again, the highlight  was gathering with everyone on the beach to watch the man burn down. Originally I was supposed to be one of the fire dancers in the fire conclave, but due to to unfortunate circumstances with traffic and our rental car, I was not able to participate. Though I was bummed about not being able to spin fire, it was easily forgotten when I was surrounded by all the love and positive energy around me.
One of the most special parts was being able to share this experience with some new friends I have made in Korea. I went to the burn with my friend Laura, Beyong-Jun, and Jun. None of them had ever been to a burn before, so it was special introducing them to this culture. Laura and I spent the car ride decorating t-shirts for the boys to wear with their costumes. Our theme was The Protection Patrol and we made sure to carry around sunscreen, bug spray, and of course condoms in case anyone needed protection.
I titled this blog “Coming Full Circle” because the Korea burn almost marks my one year here. Attending this festival really played a symbolic role in how much has changed over the course of this year. It seems like yesterday that I was at Alchemy talking with Suzie and Emily about how scared I was to make this move, but how I just knew it would be the right choice.  Boy was I right about that! It has been the best decision I have ever made, and I am so grateful for this opportunity. Something beyond me was drawing me to explore the world, and it has led to the best chapter in my life so far. I have learned so many things about myself in this past year. I have met so many amazing people from all over the world. In addition to these fantastic experiences,  I am also in the best health I have been in years. Life moves fast here, so I am glad the Korea burn gave me the opportunity to reflect about everything that has happened since I left the states.
I am excited to continue this journey and see what else is to come . . .

Innertrip Festival — A Korean Music Festival Experience

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As summer arrived in Korea, I got my first real feelings of homesickness. As my facebook news feed got flooded with posts about upcoming shows and festival line-ups, I began to notice the distance between myself and best friends back home. It truly has been amazing to be so connected through skype  and social networking, but as my friends statuses showed excitement for the festival season, I finally began to feel the distance between myself and home.

I am a jam band fanatic (or maybe I should say phanatic haha), so generally during the summer I meet up with friends and hit up various shows and festivals. Last summer (summer 2011) my best friends and I did the North Carolina Phish shows in Charlotte and Raleigh.

At this time I was just finishing my TEFL course and was submitting all my documents for jobs in Korea. I knew that once I went abroad, I would have to temporarily close the door on this part of my life. Well that was what I thought until .  . .

I discovered a music scene in Korea!!!!

Facebook really has been my saving grace in Korea. It has not only connected me to my friends and family back home, but it has allowed me to establish so many connections here in Korea as well. I have been able to find hiking groups, volunteering, and then best of all … A music scene!!!

The Electronic scene is booming in Seoul. Seoul hosts “The world DJ Festival” and “Ultra Music Festival Korea”. Acts such as Tiesto and Skrillex headlined in some of the festivals in Seoul this summer. Also, Korea hosted Jisan Festival with headliners such as Radiohead, James Blake, and the Stone Roses. Unfortunately due to money and my lack of days off, I was not able to attend any of these three festivals. I was beginning to get bummed out that I missed my only chance of actually embracing a music scene abroad, but then I suddenly found one last glimmer of hope . . . Innertrip festival!

Innertrip festival is a small festival held in Chuncheon right on the Sinyeongang River. It was a beautiful location tucked right along the river next to beautiful luscious green mountains.

To get there I took the subway to the Gyeonchun Line which takes you East out of Seoul. Since I live in the North East part of Seoul, the trip only took about an hour and a half. At first I traveled alone, but as soon as I transferred to the Geyonchun line I found a fellow hippie chick from England to accompany me on the train ride. We both could immediately tell we were heading in the same direction, as she was dressed in tie-dye, and I was carting my hula hoops. Finding her reminded me of the times that my friends and I would travel to a show or festival, and see cars that were obviously going in the same direction. We would get excited when we saw a car covered in grateful dead and peace stickers, and we would always honk and wave. Seeing other friendly faces only made the anticipation and excitement of seeing the show that much greater.

After we arrived at Gangchon station, we instantly saw other festival attendees waiting for the next shuttle. The organizers of the festival generously provided an hourly free shuttle to take people from the train station to the festival. This definitely made the trip there simple and painless.

As the shuttle dropped us off at the festival entrance, bass notes filled the air. My heart began to beat fast with excitement. There is nothing I love more than losing myself in the energy of a dancing crowd.

When I first arrived I had no tent or anything to set up. My plan was to meet a friend of a friend of mine to camp with. While I waited for her to arrive, some hilarious guys from England and Canada let me stash my bags in their tent, so I could go dance without worrying about my things.

The girl who I was meeting (Tessa) and her friends arrived about an hour later. Tessa is a friend of my friend Kara, who I know from Charleston and some music friends back in Atlanta. Tessa also lived in Charleston, so it was really cool to connect with her for the first time at this festival, when all along we had been running in the same circles back home.  She came with some other awesome folks who graciously shared their tents and soju drinks with me. I instantly felt like I was friends and part of their crew.

As the sun went down the craziness began. The festival had two stages that were placed back to back. One stage was designated for only electronic DJ’s while the other one hosted Reggae bands. At first I was confused and thought the stages sounds would clash being so close together, but it actually worked perfectly.Generally festival goers have to trek from one stage to another at festivals back home, so having them back to back made it very easy and convenient.

The last part of the festival that made me feel whole again was being able to hula hoop dance and spin fire.  Though I am able to occasionally break out my hoops at parks in Korea, hooping alone is not the same as sharing and appreciating it with others. I miss teaching people tricks and sharing ideas with fellow hoopers; but most of all, I miss being able to lose myself. There is something magical about stage lights, heavy bass beats, and just completely losing all thought while dancing in a hoop. It makes all distractions and worries disappear. It is my favorite way to dip into a meditative trance. 

Also at the festival, I decided to invest in my first set of LED poi. There are not very many hoopers in Seoul, but there is a poi scene. I had not spun poi in a long time, but I guess the movements are like riding a bike, because as soon as I picked them up, the moves came back to me. I was even allowed to play with the fire poi which made me VERY excited! I wish I could articulate the feeling I receive when spinning fire. Its almost like nothing else exists except you and the fire. The light of the fire makes everything else around you a faded blur. The whooshing sound of the fire balls moving sends a rush of excitement through every bone in your body, and the slight fear of burning yourself sends adrenaline that just leaves you feeling energized. It is an amazing experience that I have greatly missed. Now if I can only find a fire hula hoop, my life in Korea will be complete . . .

Buddha’s Birthday and the Lotus Lantern Festival

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Buddha’s Birthday is a national holiday in Seoul, where most of the population gets to take a relaxing break from work, school, and daily pressures. Many temples invite guests to visit and learn about Buddhist traditions. The temples invite visitors to attend tea and lunch ceremonies. There is also a Lotus Lantern Festival the weekend before the holiday to kick off the festivities.

The Lotus Lantern Festival is a must see event for anyone who is interested in traveling through Seoul. The streets are adorned with vibrant lanterns and the city is bustling with exciting exhibits and chances to experience Buddhist culture. It truly is a spectacular sight to see! The lighting of the lotus lanterns is a significant Buddhist tradition, because it symbolizes a devotion to performing good deeds. It also represents bringing light to areas of the world that are filled with agony and despair.

Thousands of foreigners and Seoul natives gather for the festival’s events. The main events include an opening ceremony, an exhibition of traditional lanterns, a lotus lantern parade, a post parade party and celebration, and a street festival filled with cultural exhibits and events. A second smaller parade is held on Sunday evening to end the festivities.

The lantern parade is the highlight of the festivals activities. The parade route starts in Jongno in front of the Dongdaemun gate to the Jogyesa temple. To arrive in Jongno you can take subway line 1 to Jonggak station, or Jongno 5-ga station. You can also take lines 1,3, or 5 to Jongno3-ga station. The parade runs from Dongdaeumun History and Culture Park, through Jongno, and then ends back at the Jogyesa temple. The parade lasts approximately 2 ½ hours.

One other option is to arrive in Insadong by taking line 3 to Anguk station. If you arrive early in the day, Insadong is one of the most famous traditional neighborhoods to explore. It is filled with tons of shopping, amazing food, traditional architecture, and two famous palaces. It is my favorite district in Seoul to spend the day walking around.

Each temple is represented by various costumes and floats. As soon as the sun goes down, the streets become alive with music and tens of thousands of unique lantern designs. Each temple is dressed in distinctive costumes and robes. Korean traditional music and drums fill the air.

At Bonguensa Temple there is an exhibition of traditional lanterns. The lanterns are handcrafted from silk and traditional Korean paper (Hanji). The lanterns take many shapes such as animals, fruits, flowers, or anything you can imagine! Each shape and pattern is symbolic for different wishes such as health, longevity, and a bountiful harvest.

On the last day of the festival, a street festival is held right in the heart of the Insadong district. If you have an interest in Buddhist traditions and culture, this is definitely a great opportunity to dive right in. The entire street is divided into stages, booths, and tents. They are exhibits that represent each Buddhist tradition from various countries all over the world, guided meditations, lotus lantern making, buddhist monk sand art sculptures, and dance and music performances.

My favorite exhibit at the street festival was being able to watch the Buddhist monks create spectacular sand mandalas. Creating sand mandalas is a Tibetan Buddhist tradition where monks create ornate detailed artwork from colored sand. Every grain of sand is meticulously placed to create a beautiful and perfectly symmetrical art piece. When the monks finish the art piece, they ritualistically destroy  it to symbolize the transitory and impermanent nature of human life. Watching these monks brought back memories from my University. The Dali Lama is a presidential distinguished professor at Emory University , and I was fortunate to have him and fellow Tibetan monks visit while I was a student. I remember watching with utter fascination as the monks created the sand mandalas then dumped them into the creek that flows through campus. I found it to be an incredibly moving experience; so seeing it again in Korea brought not only a sense of admiration and appreciation, but a sense of nostalgia as well.