Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Break in Thailand: Hua Hin

We started our Thailand vacation with a relaxing few days in HuaHin, a beach town about two hours from Bangkok, where the Thai king resides. This has long been the vacation spot for the royals, and pictures of them abound (they look pretty down to earth, huh?).

It's easy to see why this spot is popular with the royal family and Bangkok's vacationers.

We stayed at a perfect rental apartment, where we quickly got used to enjoying the amenities.

We took in some sights, including the gorgeous old train station and the hotel where The Killing Fields movie was filmed (yes, that was about Cambodia).

While enjoying afternoon tea at the hotel lounging by the beach, we witnessed a passing naval ceremony.

And, we made an (accidental) visit to the requisite giant Buddha (we thought we had pointed to the royal palace on the TukTuk driver's list of sites, but apparently we should have confirmed).

But, to be honest we spent most of the time enjoying the beach and tasting amazing Thai food, especially the bountiful seafood of HuaHin. The night market was a diner and shopper's paradise and the compact downtown of HuaHin was packed with great restaurants and fun nightlife. Being the off season, we experienced a tiny bit of rain but also had the joy of light crowds.

HuaHin would make a great stop on any trip to Thailand, especially if you want to take it easy and avoid the big tourist crowds. If you go, we know the ideal rental apartment. Our host even stocked us up with snacks and drinks and provided us with a traditional memento of our visit to Thailand. We've never stayed in a more well-stocked apartment and I could have spent many more days on our cozy porch or by the pool reading and relaxing.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Seoul Snippets

Beyond the DMZ tour, our trip to Seoul was mostly filled with more lighthearted, fun activities. Our apartment location gave us great access to the Hongdae area around Hongjik University so we had tons of restaurants, bars, shops and people watching nearby. We started the trip off right with some Korean BBQ (and for me, some spicy kimchi and tteokbokki).

Spicy Tteokbokki (Korean rice cakes)
We were also lucky to be able to join some friends (Mr. Twowhotravel's former work colleagues) for an evening out. They showed us great hospitality with a more well-informed (read: tastier) version of Korean BBQ and a visit to a Korean Jamaican/Reggae bar owned by the friend's brother. It is always great to be able to talk to locals and see things through their eyes a bit.

We had also scheduled a Korean baseball game, which was definitely one of the highlights despite getting rained out. We debated just getting tickets ourselves, but in doing research on activities we'd spotted a great food tour company and decided to combine activities since they offered a food and baseball tour. We met up with Daniel Gray, owner of O'ngo Food Tours, at our metro station, for our private tour. Our first stop was an area not far from the stadium for some dinner. Since we'd had plenty of opportunities thus far for Korean BBQ, Daniel steered us to something different. The first option was potentially too spicy, so we landed on a great chicken soup spot. The broth is actually patented and there were pictures of news features on the soup throughout the restaurant. It's hard to describe except to say it was worth a patent. The co-owner showed us the process (including mixing up your dipping sauce, spice level up to you) and we dug in to the ultimate comfort food. Even better, they added my new favorite (non-spicy this time) tteokbokki to the broth at the end.

We waited out some rain (so we thought) in the restaurant and then headed to the game. Our host bought us some traditional game snacks outside the park: dried squid and beer plus sochu (the popular drink combo here...not my favorite thing, but it does seem to match well with the spicy, meaty food).

The game was so much fun, with each side enthusiastically cheering coordinated cheers for their players. Almost everyone wore team gear and each side's dancers also had all kinds of great routines (and new accessories for each).

Our side's cheer "leader"

Unfortunately, after only a few innings, the true deluge began. Our host assured us "they never cancel the game" but when the TVs inside were showing waterfalls in the seats and a lake on the field, we guessed this would be an exception. Our host consoled us with some Korean fried chicken (a trend that has hit Shanghai big time, apparently related to popular Korean TV shows). This particular specialty was topped with a massive pile of garlic. I think next time I need to ease in to all the delicious Korean food a bit more slowly. It was great fun talking to Daniel and learning about his business and personal path to what he is doing today.

The next day we made a visit to the Gyeongbokgung Palace.

Entering the palace grounds
Modern city and ancient palace

On the way back, we visited Bukchon Hanok Village, which is situated between the two major palaces. This is an area of preserved traditional homes. Like most rapidly progressing Asian cities, many of these had been torn down as people moved towards high-rise living. But, recent efforts have helped to preserve this area and make it a tourist destination as well. I'd love to spend more time wandering the narrow streets on a less rainy day some time. We ducked in from the rain for lunch at a great little place called Pan Steak.

Korea was a wonderful surprise. So far, this has been true of almost everywhere we have gone in Asia. We are constantly impressed by these great gems. Seoul also has wonderful nature surrounding it, with mountains and easy hiking access right on the metro. Another place I'd love more time to explore (or even settle down for a bit)!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Korea DMZ and Joint Security Area Tour

Seoul is a short jaunt from Shanghai, so we packed up for a quick three-day weekend trip recently. We rented a GREAT Air BandB apartment as a home base and had a number of fun and interesting activities lined up, along with a plan to just have a fun time exploring. We'll share more about all our fun (and delicious!) activities soon, but our first post is on a more serious note.

We had decided to get some important context while in Seoul by visiting the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone). There are various tour options available, and we did an afternoon tour focusing on the Panmunjom area/JSA (Joint Security Area) with TourDMZ. We got a bit of background (and important guidance on behavior while in the DMZ) from our guide on the hour-long bus ride from Seoul before stopping for lunch. Our first official stop was Imjingak park and the Freedom Bridge. This area was set up for visitors to be able to access the DMZ fairly easily and pay their tributes, remember the war, etc. You can see the many ribbons on the fence and notes about peace and reunification.

Map of the DMZ. The DMZ Wikipedia page gives a good overview of this area, history, etc.
Next, we entered Camp Bonifas and the JSA. The JSA is used by South and North Korea for diplomatic engagements. It's the only portion of the DMZ where the two sides stand face-to-face, so it is a solemn and stark reminder of this ongoing conflict.

South Korean forces and United Nations Command run this area and we were given a briefing and provided with guest passes and asked to sign a declaration of the rules while visiting. The American presence is much lighter than in the past, with about 90% of the soldiers being South Korean, but we had an American soldier as escort throughout.
The soldier and our guide were very helpful in answering questions and explaining the area to us. There are two villages within the DMZ, one for South Koreans (they call it "Prosperity Village") and one for North Koreans (the South Koreans call it "Propaganda Village"). 

We learned a lot about Prosperity Village as well as some of the incidents that have occurred within the DMZ/JSA. These include the "ax murder incident" in which several United Nations Command soldiers were cutting back a tree in order to have better clearance on their viewpoint and were attacked by several North Korean soldiers. Two UNC soldiers were murdered. In another incident, a Russian national tried to defect while on a N. Korean JSA tour. The area is run very tightly and the tours are cancelled during times of heightened security, but the stories are clear reminders that this remains an unstable region (the night after our tour, a S. Korean soldier shot and killed several of his colleagues, which obviously was not an issue between the two sides, but clearly had the whole area on high alert).

We were taken inside the conference buildings where the two sides have diplomatic talks. You can see the South Korean soldiers, who stand in a martial arts pose (and also stand with half their bodies behind the building to "make a smaller target" per our U.S. soldier guide). In this conference room, you are essentially stepping foot into N. Korea, though you don't get a passport stamp. We were permitted to take pictures and look around briefly. It is all completely surreal and pretty tense as they tell you both sides record and monitor everything in the building and you think about the discussions that have gone on here.

From outside, we were told more facts about the various building (being reminded once again not to point at anything or anyone). There is a "recreation" building for the North Koreans, which has no recreation equipment or much of anything (we were told this, clearly not something we could see on the tour). Apparently, on occasion, soldiers will be packed in to the room and apparently watch the other side and make provoking/rude gestures. Our group was watched carefully by the sole North Korean soldier standing guard on their side (according to our guide, there is always another soldier also watching from inside the building).
We toured around the area further on bus, with background on the area and incidents as well as better views of the two villages. We stopped to take pictures of what looks like nothing, but is the "bridge of no return" which was used for prisoner exchanges. It gets its name from the fact that prisoners were given the chance to remain captive or return home, but never be allowed to return.
As we rode back into modern, bustling Seoul, there was a lot to process. I am happy we did the tour, as I have tried to learn more about the war, ongoing conflict and North Korea since being in Asia. It is one of the most puzzling and disturbing things in today's world (though there's a lot of competition for that honor) and I think it gave some important context to our visit to Seoul.

For anyone interested, I'm also glad to recommend some books on North Korea and I'll try to put some up on our site's Amazon recommendations.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Capital City: A Visit to Beijing

After almost two years in China, we felt we had no choice but to make a trek to Beijing on the latest holiday weekend. It becomes pretty embarrassing to admit you haven't seen the Great Wall when it's one of the most known sites worldwide. So, off we trekked with millions of other holiday-goers (when we told people we were going to Beijing for the holiday, the reaction was uniformly horrified over what we'd experience with the crowds).

We chose to take the high-speed train, which takes just under five hours. Again, some people wondered why we wouldn't just fly (prices are actually about the same) but as we sat back and enjoyed the leisurely journey, we knew we'd made the right choice. No airport security or arriving an hour ahead, a chance to read and watch the world go by (no free meal, but then again, no airline food indigestion) and almost 100% on time. We had a bet going with a friend who was originally going to go along for the weekend, but was going to fly, about who would arrive quicker...I am sure we would have won.

Because this was a quick trip and anticipating the holiday crowds, we narrowed things down to the list of "must dos" and figured we could always come back another time to explore more. We stayed at a great hotel...the Park Plaza Wangfujing (highly recommended!) which was relatively affordable but a really comfortable place with loads of amenities. I had wanted to stay in one of the hutong inns with a little more personality, but the better ones were booked and to be honest, the comforts of this hotel ended up being quite nice. They did the "club level" thing so common in China, where you get happy hour (which typically includes enough food to make into dinner) and breakfast. Both were generous and even though this can discourage exploring local spots, it is a relief on a busy holiday.

Our first stop was for a roast duck dinner. Since we have branches of two of the more famous spots, Quanjude and Dadong, in Shanghai we opted for the third choice the hotel recommended, 1949 (if you don't get the reference, it's time to review your China history). It was probably a bit more posh than needed for a roast duck place, but it was a beautiful environment and the duck was tasty.

If you haven't experienced Beijing duck, the server brings the whole duck to the table and expertly carves it before your eyes.

Typically, you eat it in little pancakes with sliced cucumber and spring onions and a sweet sauce. Here they mixed in a peanut sauce, which was a nice twist. They also provided two small sesame buns to make a little "sandwich" out of the duck as a twist, along with the pancakes. When we've eaten at Quanjude in Shanghai (highly recommended!) one of our favorite parts is eating the crispy skin dipped in the small bowl of sugar, which we missed here. But, it was fun to try a slightly different style. 1949 had an extensive menu of specialties, but only being two of us with a whole duck to eat, we didn't have the capacity to try much this time.

The next day we were up bright and early for our full day tour. We hired a driver and guide to take us out to the wall and other major sites (the wall is quite a distance from Beijing). We choose to visit the Mutianyu section, slightly less crowded and touristy than the most visited Badaling section, but well-restored and easily accessible (and still with plenty of stuff to buy if you so choose).

This was the only time this weekend that the crowds really caused any pain, as traffic was horrible and the drive took almost 3 hours. Once we arrived, however, the wall was surprisingly uncrowded.

We chose to take the chair lift up the mountain and the toboggan ride down (there is also a cable car option, but who could resist the toboggan?). It was so nice to enjoy the breeze after being stuck in the car and what a view!

We had the most gorgeous sunny day for hiking...and the wall provides plenty of exercise as it winds along the mountains and you climb the stairs and cobblestone hills up and down.

Just be sure to follow the rules of the toboggan (meaning you are not "a drinker", "mother to be" or have a "mental disease" or "permanent disability have difficulty getting about, old, weak") and you're sure to have a great ride! Since we have not driven cars in a while, this was our chance to reveal our driving personalities of us got told to slow down several times, while the other created a traffic jam.

After a respite for lunch (some delicious Beijing dumplings, noodles and more), we made our way to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. While our guide got our Forbidden City tickets, we made our way around the enormous Tiananmen Square for some pictures.

Street between the Forbidden City and Tiananmen, Mao's portrait
Tiananmen Square and Dr. Sun Yat Sen
Mao's Mausoleum

There's not a lot to see within the Forbidden City beyond the enormity of the whole thing, so visiting later in the day actually worked to our favor as we were the last group in and crowds had mostly dispersed. Our guide shared some of the history of the emperors, empresses, and many concubines, servants and staff who lived in this well-protected fortress. It brought me back to reading Empress Orchid by Anchee Min, which brought to life many facets of intrigue within the Forbidden City.

The many, many buildings and courtyards of Forbidden City stretching into the distance
 with the park and pagoda overlooking

On our last day, we took some time to walk from our hotel towards Tiananmen and stroll inside some of the preserved hutongs (P.S. some highly recommended reading on this subject: The Last Days of Old Beijing by Michael Meyer). There's definitely a friendly rivalry between Beijing and Shanghai and a certain snobbery among residents of each toward the other. The comparison to Washington, D.C. versus NYC is quite apt. Shanghai is a cosmopolitan, fast paced atmosphere jam packed with skyscrapers while Beijing really feels like the capital city, with low-rise buildings spread out over a lot of space and a real sense of being the seat of government and much important history. We also got the sense of a much more enforced orderliness, where it seems like more of the tarnish and quirkiness breaks through in Shanghai (or maybe just in my neighborhood).