A week on the White Isle

I recently returned from my annual trip to the north of Ibiza, a week of things that I love – yoga, good food, great coffee, meandering around markets and what I don’t enjoy….despite the above giving lie to it…frickin’ lashings of rain.

The time of year – end of April, is a good indication that all may not be bright and sunny on the white isle but the Instagrammers of Ibeefa had posted photos of the unseasonably warm weather so I went with a positive outlook but travelled with 5 layers of clothes on (just in case Ryanair did weigh my bag), which turned out to be good practise for the days of rain ahead.

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Bye bye England

Not sure what was going on with the Ryanair staff, but their previous rigorous response to clearly oversized baggage (and I don’t mean the fat birds on hen weekends) was as relaxed as everyone boarding and my concerns were waylaid, although the profuse sweating from layering wasn’t.   Travelling out in the day was a positive experience, less pissed party goers for starters and therefore a quieter flight, and less fighting and thieving going on – that might explain the staff’s laidback approach – they knew it was going to be less ructions in the air at this time of year.

Having removed 4 layers, and after a short loo break, it was a quick 40mins from the airport on the new road surface and around the newly installed roundabouts which were the cause of a lot of trauma last year (randomly shutting roads out of caminas for hours on end, getting shouted at for driving over newly laid tarmac, having to dump vehicles in fields in order to get home being a few examples) and we were sailing by the unlit side road to the yoga place in the pitch black as all previous sign posts had been removed.  U-turn implemented, we were soon arriving down the dirt track to the finca, set in amongst the fields of the local farmer.  Getting out the car you could look up to the clear starlit sky and remind yourself what the night sky looks like without light pollution.  It felt good to be back.  Then I went and laid down on my bed…dammit, the foam mattresses were as bad as ever.  Thankfully, I was boy scout prepared and had stuffed an inflatable air mattress in my bag to provide an extra layer of support to my already wrecked back.

Each day yoga was outside but under cover, and in the cool of the early morning we worked through our 90mins safe in the knowledge that a fabulous veggie brunch with Ibizan coffee awaited.  On day 2 we had torrential rain and howling gales, which resulted in avoiding the drips onto mats and a savasana inside on the various furnishings of the front room.  Eating breakfast under cover but outside, wrapped in blankets and all our clothes was an experience made smugger by having warm hands and fingers that worked thanks to my seemingly mad idea of bringing fingerless mittens.

As well as the discomfort of the beds, the other issue was the plumbing – the hot water took 15-20mins to arrive into the shower head and when it did finally emerge it was like being pissed on by fairies.  Cold, smelly and gloomy, we decided it was a good idea to get warm, get clean and hang out, and whilst there wasn’t a YMCA to head to there was a hotel / spa called Can Carreu which let you have spa access for €30.  Oh heaven is warmth, a hamman and a pool.

Can Curreu car park
The gloom of Ibiza… even the tree looks fed up.  The view from Can Curreu car park

Having scrubbed, soaked and relaxed to a wrinkled inch of my life, it was then a hot shower, soft fluffy towels, and a pootle back down the road for a snackage and coffee at Las Dalias Bar and Restaurant . Nothing like being clean to make everything in the world feel right and on track again.  In the meantime, the plumbing back at the ranch had also had a seeing too and we were rewarded with hot water and proper pressure for the remainder of the trip.

Grafitti outside Las Dalias
A portion of the Las Dalias grafitti

Las Dalias is famous for its hippy market as well, and by the time Saturday rocked around the sun was shining and the weather was good once more, the site totally transformed from the muddy gloom of a few days before.  Tourists were everywhere in overpriced flim flam, crotchet or thin cotton, the sort of stuff that look amazing on lithe, modellesque ‘young slip of a things’ but which look 1664 on those that can actually afford it (16yrs old from behind, 64 in front), and who struggle to squeeze into it.  Whilst it’s nice to wander around in the sun, soaking up Vit D to stave off rickets, it’s also alarming to see the amount of overpriced tat, or overpriced skimpyness on offer and how much of it is being bought.  My friend’s approach to purchasing any item of clothing is to ask, ‘Would you wear it on the Tube?’, the answer by most would be ‘Not on your nelly’, but I’m sure a number of people have persuaded themselves that they would, as long as they were wearing a large mac over the top of their Ibeefa outfit.

We ate out every night, and for someone who had been told to eat dead animal on a plate with veg at the moment I was in the right place.  Ibiza seems to be the central place for the Neanderthal diet, if Neanderthals ate chips with everything.  Ordering ‘drumstick of chicken’ actually means getting half a bird with chips and some salad. Leg of lamb is precisely that – €12 and you get a whole leg all to yourself.  No wonder the waiter chuckled at the little person who ordered it – it was larger than her whole upper body.  You are spoilt for good restaurants in the north of the island, and we made the most of it, with Italian eaten at Macao Cafe, Santa Gertrudis, and where the waiting staff were super attentive and helpful, La Paloma, San Lorenc, booking essential for an uber cool setting and a menu providing something for everyone, no matter your latest intolerance and Ecocentro, Santa Gertrudis for all things veggie, organic or raw.  Thank heavens for the yoga to help burn off the excess calories!

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Squid, with onions and lemon – La Paloma

We even made it to a couple of beaches and pretend we were beside the seaside, beside the sea.  First up after an obligatory trip to San Juan Sunday Market, we headed off to Portineaux, which quickly disappointed, not just because it was windy by the shoreline but because it’s a tad naff, and then we got lucky on the by driving round to Cala Llenya, practically deserted apart from some Dutch families and a guy who seemed to be auditioning for ‘Rocky, the Musical’ in sweats and a hoodie.  Sun shining, the sand soft, clean and warm, the waves far enough away that you weren’t going to get accidentally wet and freeze.  The law of sod would state that the warm weather would hit just before you’re heading home.

Monday and it was a day at Benirras beach, surrounded by more Dutch (seems the kids don’t need to be in school) and the chance to soak up the rays for a full day.  We headed back there for dinner, dead thing on a plate and chips por favor.  Protein overloaded it was home for a final sleep.

Benirras
Benirras, obligatory sunset shot.

Returning to the airport was straightforward enough, despite the petrol filling fun – you have to pay before you fill up which means either making  a stab at what you think you might need to pay or you hand over your payment cards to be held hostage whilst you fill up.  All a bit random but we achieved and after an unrushed breakfast at the airport we were soon shuffling along in the queue to go through security to join a queue to board a bus to board the plane to sit for a few hours to then join a queue to be allowed back into the UK.  Gotta love a queue.

Roll on next year, but somewhere with better beds!

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Yum mung pancake, cheesecake heaven, cats and kakao crayyyy-zeeness

The last few days in Seoul and sleeping on an air mattress was pure bliss – as was the massage at nearby spa.  CC and I were next to each other and the man attempting to unlock the rictus mess that was my back said to her aghast, ‘why are her muscles so tight, what has she been doing?’.  Well, carrying frickin’ ridiculously heavy rucksacks and sleeping on beds of rock it would appear.  Also turns out my sacro-illiac joint decided to join the party and the left side migrated north somewhat, thereby throwing everythin0g else out of whack – so at least we know now (I say, aching like a beee-atch after being manipulated – read ‘stretched’ by the physio).

There was eating to be done during our time left together and eating we did, from Bindaetteok – Mung bean pancakes, which we ate at a market stall, squeezed onto benches designed for little people with short arms, they have a different radius for the sweep from plate to mouth it appears, luckily I managed not to miss my gob too many times as these were delicious.

Bindaetteok
Bindaetteok market stall

In the same place we found a kimchi lady (a lady making and selling it, not made of fermented cabbage).  She had freshly made mustard leaf kimchi for sale and assuring us that it would be safely transported back home (it nearly was, there was a slight oozing) I bought an old fashioned paaahnds worth to sit in the fridge.

We also spent time over in Hongdae, allegedly shopping for beauty products – Korea is facemask central, and you can’t move for the various stores selling product.  However we went to eat at an amazing cheesecake cafe, Mobssie, where the menu is only in French, so it must be good, right?  Oh yes!

Cheesecake and cwaafee
Cheesecakes and cwaafeee

The cheesecake on the left was fresh from the oven and hot, hot, hot.  Patience is a virtue, allegedly, but we were decidedly lacking so we tucked in at the point it was still at molten lava temperature, and it was worth it.  Having o’d on all things fromage-y and sweet, coupled with the caffeine, we set off to enjoy the buzz at the nearby Kakao store.

Yes, I definitely spelt that right – Kakao Talk is the Korean equivalent of Whatsapp, and they have a series of Kakao Friends who are a big hit with everyone and the whole concept store sells everything branded with the friends.  Your whole life can be Kakao’d, day to night…

Tonight Matthew
Tonight Matthew, I’m Ryan, I think…I can see fuck all in this sleep mask

Plus you can have your pbotos taken with large models of the characters too.

Not all of them are what you think they are – Ryan, in the sweater, is actually a lion with no mane, the rabbit is a radish in disguise (!), Jay-G, with the big yellow hair, is a hip-hop loving mole.

Ryan overdose
Hoodie Ryan overdose.  Is it me or do some of them look a bit like angry teenagers?

The sugar and caffeine did the trick and we went a bit wild in-store.  I ended up with a rather large stationery haul, because you can never contribute enough to cutting down the trees of the world.  Thank you tax-free shopping!

CC’s mum treated us to dinner at the restaurant where she works.  I can see where CC gets her cooking skills from. Looking at the other tables I thought they were merely ordering a whole heap of food, but turns out people mostly order the set of multiple dishes. Turns out this was for us too, along with the inclusion of some bibimbap.  There was so much food for us that it’s brought on a giant wooden tray that slides over the whole of the table.

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Panaramic shot of the table – all (!) that’s missing is the bibimbap.
Total food overdose.
Now complete with bibimbap but we had already started on the noodles and veggies.

Fishes x 3, crab, rice, kimchi, salads, shrimps, veggies, more kimchi, seaweed, steamed spinach, noodles and the bibimbap, plus to top it off we were indulged in some cheongju.  Cheongju is a rice wine, and  was a lot easier on the stomach than soju, and went down a lot quicker too, despite having to ladle it into our pottery cups using a wide mouthed spoon.  I guess it would have gone even quicker if it was in a decanter.

Chin chin
Chin chin with Cheongju

We did our best to clear the table but there was some left over.  It was either that or be hospitalised and have our stomachs pumped.  I tried to practise my Korean to say ‘thank you’ (kamsahamnida 감사합니다 )and also ‘I ate well’ (jalmuggutssahamnida 잘 먹었습니다), however the cheongju had done its work and despite me parroting the phrases repeatedly, by the time we got to leave I turned into a nodding echo of CC, mumbling through to the hamnida point both times. My ear for languages is seemingly shared with Van Gogh – the one that he cut off and threw away.

Our other great meal was at the 24hr joint around the corner from the flat.  It sold a broth made with pork ribs, gamjatang, but without the potatoes (which is what it’s named after). The meat had been cooking for so long it just fell off the bones.  The broth was full of the flavour of the meat and the spices it had been cooked in, and you served it up with rice, and an amazing wasabi sauce.  I was so happy, I’d definitely died and gone to food heaven.  There is no photo of this, only a video of the hot bubbling mess that was the food, (and not me, gurning at the dinner), you can look at it here.

The trip was coming to an end and I was heading back a few pounds heavier, both myself and my luggage. The stash of purchases meant that my bargain bag was turning into a liability sooner than you could say ‘uneven pavement’, and whilst I’d managed to squeeze everything into it that needed squeezing it ended up a bit like me after too many sojus – unsteady on its feet and needing to be leant against something so it wouldn’t fall ouver.  It also proved incredibly fragile as evidenced by it readily falling apart en route to the train station.  Now too heavy to carry, after the wheel brackets detached and the screws fell out, I was still able to ‘wheel’ it by treating it like an invalid, holding it upright at all times, moving it along with no sudden movements and ensuring the ground was smooth / bump-free. My mantra was ‘just get me to the airport’, where I was able to pay to have the wheels secured with packing tape, although I couldn’t do anything about the random screw that was suddenly sticking out of the side of the bag.

CC and I said our goodbyes, I’d already said good bye to her family, and the pets.  I really would miss being with this super friendly people who took me into their home for the duration.  I couldn’t not have asked for more, except for maybe a little less food, but that was down to me and my greed!

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Mr & Mrs (RIP) – Feling went a big shy…

I had visions of watching the conveyor belt at Don Mueang slowly churning out the contents of my bag – face masks, face scrub, Ryan and the gang, a pound of kimchi, my pants all piece by piece followed by the remnants of my cheap-o bag.  I had no choice but to bite the proverbial shopping bullet and get myself a replacement, and duty free was the only option, so lighter of pocket and relieved of my small rucksack now relegated into said new purchase I wheeled myself down to the gate and boarded my flight back to Thailand to collect my other bags, repack, and hopefully repair my broken back before jumping on the plane to London and home.

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Spa-clean in Gyeong-ju

A bus ride from Busan, on a dull overcast day and we were in Gyeong-ju, known as the ‘museum without walls’ due to the number of tombs, temples, rock carvings, pagodas, Buddhist statuary and palace ruins that exist there.  It is also a UNESCO world heritage site. Apparently you need a few days to explore Gyeong-ju, we were there on a whistlestop 22hrs and our first stop was not to whistle but to get clean as the proverbial at a spa in town.

For a tenner we got spa towels,  top and bottoms in baby pink, with XXL for the lardy and access to 4 floors of the 5 floor spa (one floor is for the men, and we wouldn’t be wanting to go there).  After a shower we then had access to the 3 pools at various temperatures – frickin’ hot to the point of wooziness, frickin’ cold to the point of shivering and goosebumps, and ambient perfectness.  I plumped for ambience complete with jets aiming to remove the knots in my upper back. There was a sauna but lounging in a pool seemed perfect, and required minimal movement.  From there I could observe other ladies being brought refreshments.  Others were scrubbing areas of their bodies that should never be aired, let alone given a vigorous going over with the equivalent of a brillo pad, it was DIY hammam-ing at its finest.

We got our outfits mixed up
We got our outfits mixed up

I could have stayed in the pool for the remainder of the day but didn’t have a book to read and my look for the day wasn’t going to be wrinkled prune, so after 45mins of wallowing I forced myself out of the pool.  Deciding against the human Dyson dryer that you could stand on and get blasted dry, I opted for the traditional towel, and once clothed and feeling about 10lbs lighter having removed a few layers of dirt, we headed upstairs to the resting space.  Here you can lie down on mattresses, or head into the cinema room where you get to sit in a comfy chair and watch a film of your choice, or else you can pay a couple of quid and get yourself practically strapped into a ‘massage’ chair and have pieces of metal that are barely covered in material try and force their way into your soft body tissues.  CC fell asleep during the torture, I aimed to put into practice some mindfuless and acceptance that pieces of metal inserting themselves into fleshy parts was ok, whilst simultaneously screaming silently and counting down the minutes till the chair released its steely grip.

Suitably knackered and time against us we binned off the trip to a UNESCO protected temple (always next time, right?) and headed out for a late lunch at a nearby restaurant Sukyoung Sikdang, which turned out to be the second favouritist restaurant in Gyeong Ju, according to TripAdvisor.

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We were so intent on food to avoid full on meeeeeltdown we completely missed this signage.

A tiny little lady served up the food to us, as we sat (or rather I lolled) on tatami mats.  The set up was traditional with the low tables, and underfloor heating, and small cushions to sit on.

The bibimbap was amazing, as evidenced by the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pictures. After stuffing ourselves senseless I utilised what was quickly becoming my standard escape approach of roll, release legs, revert to vertical and we headed off to our guest house via a local bakery.  Not just any local bakery though.  This was the first red bean paste bread (hwangnam-ppang) bakery to be set up in Gyeong-ju.  The bread was invented in 1939 and is a famous speciality of the town. The bakery is family run by the Choi son of the founder.

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The box lid strategically hides those already eaten.

CC stocked up for friends and family.  Each day fresh batches are made on tables by hand behind the serving counter, using the original recipe.  Often the queues are out the door but as we were there at the end of the day we got lucky and were in and out pretty quickly.

Our next stop was the guesthouse, which we got to just as the heavens opened and it started to chuck it down.  Our beds were set up the traditional Korean way, with a blanket on the mattress and a thicker blanket (no sheet) to sleep under.  We got a bonus with electric blankets too and a heater in the room.  Woo hoo – happy days!

Our day was not yet done, on a promise of chicken and beer with other guests for when we returned, we headed out into the rain to go to Donggung Palace.  The palace is supposed to be a great example of Silla architecture. Gyeong-ju was the capital of Silla, the ancient empire that lasted from 57 BC to 935 AD. The palace was a secondary palace used by the Crown Prince, with the main palace of Wolseong located nearby.  In the centuries after both palaces were destroyed and it was only in the early 20th Century when archaeological excavations were carried out were the ruins of these palaces discovered.

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Donggung Palace

It was beautifully lit up, and even the rain couldn’t dampen the view, as we wandered around the artificially created pond that sits in front of the remains of the palace.

Unfortunately we weren’t going to get the opportunity to revisit it the next day as we were leaving before midday, however just being able to see it at night made up for that.  As did the little shop that was open on our street that was selling the tastiest rice flour and almond powder biscuits.  The various flavoured biscuits were each cut into the shape of a particular historical artefact from Gyeong-ju, whether it was the astronomy tower, or images from famous tiles or artefacts found during the archaeological digs.

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Tasty, tasty, so very tasty

Managed to inhale a couple of these puppies before dinner….they were definitely a winner for me.

The next morning we left fairly early to get back to the bus station, and to have some breakfast beforehand, as the guesthouse offering was somewhat sparse.  None of the shops appeared to be open until after 10am, but we got to see the town and the architecture as we wandered our way back to the centre.

Traditional building
Traditional building of Gygeong-ju

All around the town are various mounds, which turned out to be tombs of all the various leaders of the Silla empire.

That's them thair tombs in the distance.
That’s them thair tombs in the distance.

With coffee inside me and finely waking up we were homeward bound to Seoul and for the last couple of days of my visit.  Shopping and eating awaited.

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Busy eating eel in Busan

We took the train to Busan, Korea’s second city and to the east of Seoul, on the coast.  This trip was going to be about the fish.

Our AirBnB was a guesthouse not far from the Jung-Gu metro stop, albeit after the climb out of the metro, we then had a climb up a serious series of steps to get to the guesthouse and then climb some more steps to the room.  Luckily their second floor was the UK’s first floor, so that meant two sets of stairs less to climb – woo hoo – you take what you can get when you’re as knackered as me! And I was taking in as much oxygen as I possibly could to help me up all those bloody stairs.

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Partway up the stairs en route to our guesthouse was this smug b’stard.

We dumped our bags and headed out for dinner at the nearby Jagalchi Market, Korea’s largest fish market. Even though it was early evening it was still pretty busy, with the mainly female market stallholders displaying their remaining fishy wares (oo-er) – octopus, tuna, dried fish, even whale meat (!), as well as lots of molluscs, sea squirts, sea cucumbers, crabs all in bowls, or tanks waiting to be picked out for dinner.  I was too busy looking to take too many photos.

I spy octopi...
I spy octopi…
Drying fish
Drying fish
Red mullet
Red mullet?

This was where I decided what else I wouldn’t eat whilst in Korea (the whale meat wasn’t even close to being on the agenda so doesn’t count, no, the first thing being the snails that were served up at the sashimi restaurant we’d been to the previous night in Seoul), it being octopus, as I saw somewhat too graphically parts of writhing and turning in a bowl after being sliced up for someone’s dinner. It wasn’t even a whole tentacle, but parts of one.  To watch it furling and curling was too much.

These definitely weren't moving, they were deceased, dead, dried, dessicated.
These definitely weren’t moving, they were deceased, dead, dried, dessicated.

I was obviously getting to be a bit of a fanny, says the girl who had eaten hongeo-hoe the day before (fermented skate, and as skate excrete urea through their skins it reeks of ammonia). Hongeo-hoe (more like honk-ing) was a shocker – it looks fairly innocuous then you put it in your mouth and realise that it’s practically solid due to the cartilage that it is mostly composed of so that makes it impossible to chew, or swallow, or bite down on.  Then you start to get the stink of ammonia in your mouth, burning down to your stomach and the only way is either back out onto the table or (gag) down,where it burns it way through your now wrecked stomach lining. Urgh…thank heavens for soju….

Fish, fish or fish?
Fish, fish or fish?

Meanwhile, further into the market the restaurants were in full swing, with some of the owners calling to those passing by attempting to lure them in to eat.

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We wandered along looking at what was on offer.

Each stall had its speciality on show at the front, with prices up on the walls.  The stalls were very basic looking but were doing brisk trade.  We settled on eel for our tea and sat down to wait for our eel served 2 ways – plain and with chilli.  No cartilage here.

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Eel for two

Once the main meal was done as much as possible, the leftovers were taken away and mixed with rice and returned to us to be warmed up over the gas burner.  Once it was sufficiently cooked we were let loose on it to scrape off the stuck bits.  The owner and their friends were suitably impressed with my impression of a starving person using a spoon to scrape at the rice burnt onto the foil, and thought I was practically a native, and kept giving us extra bits of freshly cooked eel.  We obviously looked a bit underfed….  Yet again, we were stuffed.

The next morning after skipping the lukewarm shower and trying to unkink my locked up back muscles that come from sleeping on a solid rock hard bed we were on the bus to Haedong Yonggungsa Buddhist Temple, which is right on the coast.  It was originally built in the 1300s but seemed to have been fully refurb’d with concrete fairly recently.

It was heaving, as it was the weekend, there were coachloads of lil’ ol’ folks all turned up wearing duck-down jackets, massive visors, and trainers or full on hiking gear all milling about and trying not to hit anyone with their visors.  There were also families, a few motorbikers on Harleys and the occasional tourist.  We had to queue next to the twelve statues representing the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac to get in, and watch as people posed next to their representative statue.  Mine is rat and he looked too much like Splinter from Ninja Turtles.  Could have been worse, could have been the snake that looked like a sheep in armour….

Splinter
Is that Splinter from the Ninja Turtles on the right?

Then we had to go past a nine storey pagoda that was for prayers for Traffic Safety.  It could probably have done with being a bit bigger and more prominent, maybe on a roundabout on the road in front of the traffic-ly traumatised.  We were then heading down a steep set of 108 steps, which apparently represent the 108 agonies of earthly desire of Buddhism.  There should have been an extra step to represent my agony of a  bad back and my earthly desire for a decent mattress.

Bit busy today
Let’s hope everyone is abiding by the handrail policy. Oh no, that’s right, they aren’t – they’re playing Pokemon Go in a temple!!!

Once over the bridge to the main temple complex there were numerous more tourists and numerous statues, including 2 golden peee-igs who were regularly being patted on the arse.  For luck, apparently.

Least someone had a smile on his face today
Least someone had a smile on his face today
The view up the coast
The view up the coast.

Down by the water there were terrapins being harassed by small children, and randoms were trying to clamber over rocks and avoid major waves to get the ultimate selfie moment – a snap of them being washed out to sea..  All truly spiritual and calm-inducing, if you’re on 5mg of Valium.

Fish sausage on a stick
Fish sausage on a stick Mr Dibbler?

After the fun of being among the screaming hordes, we treated ourselves to a fish sausage on a stick (as bad as it sounds) and after waiting in another queue for a lunch of THE coldest noodle soup in the world (it turned up in a metal bowl that was fresh out the fridge, I had to warm the noodles up in a cup of broth served separately, till that became tepid from overuse).  Apparently cold noodle soup was quite the thing back in the day, and judging by the queue still was a thing, if you liked freezing your mouth off.  The Korean dim sum helped to warm us up a bit before we headed out to go to Haeundae beach to meet a couchsurfer for the afternoon.

Looked good - fucking freezing.
Mul Milmyeon – looked good – fucking freezing though.

The sun was shining and the beautiful white sandy beach was a perfect place to soak up some vitamin D and watch a bunch of foreigner freaks (mainly US grads teaching English) celebrate the Indian festival of Holi by dancing like loons to some tooooons.

Haeundae Beach
Haeundae Beach – a mile long and wonderfully wide, so you can avoid the eejits throwing powder paint.

Basically it seemed to be any excuse to get pissed and plant hand prints on girls’ tits, judging by the behaviour of everyone coming off the beach covered in paint and the fact that every girl’s t-shirts had handprints in the breasticle area.  Strange how none of the boys had handprints around their testicle area.

Is the irony of this lost on anyone else?
Is the irony of this happening lost on anyone else?

Our lil’ couchsurfer was going to show us the sights and delights of Busan, until he ‘fessed up to not being a Busan native and was there studying for government exams.  He was locked away for 6days a week and was venturing out on a Sunday in an effort to interact with other humans before he forgot what it was like to do so.  Tourist responsibilities fell back onto Corean Cimchi and therefore we set off to see a bit of nature at Taejongdae Park, which had a little pullalong train that we could hop onto and thus avoid a long slog uphill.

Choo choo
Choo-choo, all aboard the Bof….

We hopped off at the viewing platform, where you could look out to see to tankers parked out to sea and the cliffs, then the kids wanted to head off down toward the lighthouse whilst this ol’ dear had a breather on some nearby seats.

More view
More view
The view from the, er, viewing platform.
The view from the, er, viewing platform.

I was about ready to keel over but our day wasn’t done and after a strong brew and the opportunity to warm up – it was blowing a bit this side of town, we headed off for our dinner back toward town. Yet another astounding eating experience – what this country can do with a dead animal is nobody’s business!

This time around it was Suyuk Baekba, which is boiled meat, in this case thin slices of pork, like bacon, which came with tofu, kimchi, white rice and a soup.  Any British person served bacon is guaranteed to die from a pig overdose, and happily so.

Unfortunately sitting at a low table means getting up from very close to the floor, never a good look but even more difficult with a stomach full of pork. We set off to burn off some of the calories at the nearby beach of Gwangalli where the  Gwangandaegyo Bridge lights up as part of sound and music show on the hour. A gentle stroll to the sounds of dance music which finished with a suitably rousing can-can drew our evening to an end and we said our goodbyes and went our separate way to our host, and all of us headed off to own solid beds.

Gin-gan-Gwangalli, gin gan-gooo
Gin-gan-Gwangalli, gin gan-goo – Gwangandaegyo

We walked past here, best sign ever…

We didn't eat here
Best restaurant sign ever

The next day we were off again, by bus this time, to Gyeongju for a night.

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Soju, selfies and Jeju

We flew from the attractively named Gimpa airport, the old international airport of Seoul.  Straight there on line number 5.

I was obviously very out of place, being the biggest person on the train and with unbrushed and undyed hair, no make-up and constantly blowing my nose rather than sniffing politely.  Virtually every Korean woman and most men are impeccably turned out. Make up is an art form as is the 7step beauty routines that many Korean beauty companies recommend. You’d be lucky if I did 2, and only if one of those was sliding my eyes past what was showing in the mirror. Not wearing make up marks you out and I certainly was stand out with the black smudges of tiredness under my eyes, looking like death warmed up and a Rudolph red nose. Also, heaven forfend, I had a tan. Not the deathly whiteness so much favoured (partnered with American tan tights though…). Frankly, I was an embarrassment.  No wonder CC was sprinting ahead of me out in public, and I don’t blame her! Even my hair had rebelled by this point, to the stage where I eventually had a trim at a local hairdressers – reurning to my Sideshow Bob look of a few years back, winner!

It was a short hop to the island of Jeju, and from the airport we were picking up a car.  The airport was particularly empty – all the flights from China weren’t heading that way anytime soon, so it was majority Korean.  Jeju is the seaside island break for a lot of Koreans, as well as hikers heading up the highest mountain in the country, Hallasan.  Wouldn’t be doing that even though I’d schlepped my walking boots all the way with me just for this trip!

This was the point where CC had to ‘fess up to not being the most confident driver, that two day driving course really hadn’t imbedded a strong driving discipline.  That coupled with living in a city where public transport is so endemic and a car is unnecessary, it’s not surprising she wasn’t used to driving.  She initially had a penchant for wanting to seemingly mount the right kerb but as they say ‘practice makes perfect’ and once we were out of the main town the open roads and lack of traffic allowed for CC to get up to speed both literally and metaphorically.  Our sat nav was insistent on talking to us and I soon learnt the Korean for roundabout (ro-ta-ree-a, e.g rotary, although CC was confused and thought the lady was initially saying lotteria – which to be fair, with some of the driving going on, road use on Jeju often was). What was apparent was that most road users hadn’t learnt how to use a rotaree-a and thus various methods of how to deal with them were in operation, with the most favoured being to just get over it as soon as possible and hope that there’s no traffic on it at the time.

Ahhh scenery
Ahhh – scenery. The small stacked stones are offerings from passengers of cars that have successfully made it this far.

First stop was the beach, well, a beach and more precisely a windy and sandy one.  It was full of other tourists with the same idea – get to the first attractive beach and start taking selfies.  Unfortunately for CC, and fortunately for me, we had come without a selfie stick.  How sad…and we initially had to request a fellow tourist to take some photos, until the God of Camera-Phones heard CC’s pleas and she found a discarded one in the mini-dunes.  Deep joy.  With the wind whipping the sand in our eyes, and me layered up in jumper, eiderdown jacket and scarves, we attempted to ‘strike a pose’, or in my case – gurning. CC has particular views on selfies and they must look good, or else there is punishment – more posing….

IMG-20170323-WA0163My preference
Far away from the camera – and my face partially covered, the best way to be. And no, didn’t need a wee, even though it looks like I do.
Paining
Tooooo close for comfort. At least you can’t see the fear in my eyes. But you probably can see the outpouring of snot from my nose.

(Painful) interlude over we downed coffees and after a bit of Chuckle Brother maneouvering – me to you, to me to you with the car reversing out of the car parking space we headed off to the supermarket for snacks, and soju.  Soju is one of Korea’s national drinks, made from rice, and can be bought in anything from smart glass bottles to cheap white plastic bottles. Container is not an indicator of quality it appears.  The taste has been described as resembling that of slightly sweet, watered-down vodka – sort of like sugar dissolved in rubbing alcohol – yum.  The danger comes with the flavoured versions, grapefruit (like flat Fanta), tangerine (synonymous with Jeju – the land of oranges – the government promoted tangerines as a major export item in the 60s!), and other fruit flavours, before you know it, your legs don’t work and you’re wondering why the floor is so close to your face.

We finally got to our AirBnB house,  after a stop off at the market for lunch and a wander, in the traditional village of Seongeup (on the eastern side of the island) in the late afternoon.  As well as staying in a traditional village we were staying in a traditional thick black lava rock walled single storey house with a straw roof, complete with underfloor heating, karaoke tv and hard bed. Outside the stone grandfather statues (Harubang) stood guard at the entrance.

I think CC got the better bet sleeping on the floor!  The host meanwhile was amazing, providing recommendations for places to see, eat out at and generally giving ideas for what to do.  It really did feel like a home from home, even if we weren’t going to be putting on the coloured afro wigs and give it large on a microphone to ‘Let it Go’. Exhausted by the day’s exertions it was a home stay evening with Korean evening drama, soju and strawberries – tres decadent, no?

We started the next day late, we were on holiday after all.  Once the pain from the bed kind of wore off we headed up the road to what turned out to be a Lonely Planet recommended restaurant – who’d have thunk it!  Yetnalpatjuk serves up red bean porridge (patjuk (팥죽) as its local fare. If you wanted it as dan patujuk then you would add sugar to it and people on the next table were doing so with gusto but I wasn’t up for that, and preferred it au naturel, even if it meant it tasted like rustic, commune porridge.  The portion size could have drowned a small baby, although the reality of anything sinking into was unlikely, it was so solid.  It was served in beautiful eathernware bowls, and the traditional style dining room was surrounded by random bird ornaments.  If you’re not a fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds you might feel uncomfortable.

Lunch
Lunch – this one I was a bit sad about, although the crockery was amazing!
The restaurant
Not exactly helpful that all buildings in town look the same….

We headed back out to explore some more of Jeju and Moon had suggested Sagye Beach. Right on the waterfront was a statue of two Haenyo women talking to Mrs. Gorbachev to commemorate the Gorbachevs’ visit in 1991. The Haenyo are the famed Korean women divers of Jeju, and are considered one of Jeju’s valued treasures.  There were a couple of ladies left still selling their catches.

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The harbour
Mount Sanbangsan
Mount Sanbangsan – one of volcanoes of Jeju

We hopped back into the car and drove past a load of nutters paying 1000won (about a quid) each to stand in a field of rapeseed flowers and take photos.  Seems to be traditional fare in springtime – people paying to stand in a field and take selfies. We meanwhile stood at the end of the pier for our posing:

One of us was taking it seriously….

Our day wasn’t done – we were on a full itinerary of things to squeeeeeze in to our short stay, so after checking the scenery we headed off to the Cheonjiyeon Waterfall, along with everyone else it seemed.  Old ladies were hiking the 1 kilometre along the tarmac’d path wearing enough kit to head to Everest base camp to see a waterfall that is about 70ft long.

That'll be the waterfall
That’ll be the waterfall – what you can’t see are the screaming hordes standing in a queue to take photos next to it.

There was a queue – a frickin’ queue (!) of people to stand and have a  photo taken of them ‘catching the water’ from the fall, or to just pose their arses off.  Thus we quick snapped it and high tailed it out of there as we had places to be, that place being a market to buy homegrown oranges to take back to Seoul and then we were ready for dinner.

We had decided to get a bus to a nearby restaurant for bbq.  Big ol’ mistake.  We arrived, after 30mins, to a corner of somewhere in the pitch dark.  It was 7.30pm.  We walked into the restaurant.  Got very excited to smell the cooking.  Got very dispondent and hangry when we got told the restaurant had stopped serving and was shutting at 8pm.  Bollocks.

Back out in the dark and we could not find the bus stop! Let alone know what time the bus would be coming, except at some point in the next hour or so.  Sheeee-it.

Back in the 70s Nelly would have knitted the Ark and Noah out of any situation.  In this one on Jeju, CC super googled us out of hicksville, back to home, to the car and out on the road to Pyeong-dae and barbeque pig – woo-hoo, with a new find Gat Kimchi.  Gat Kimchi is made from Mustard Leaf, and thank god Korean restaurants do free top ups of the sides as I was prepared to o’d on it and the lettuce.  Never been so happy as that evening eating peeeee-iiiiiiiig.

We left full and happy, so happy, and full, and did I mention happy?The sky was amizzin’ – probably looks shit below but it was wowzers!

Is that aliens in the sky?
Is that aliens in the sky?

But we weren’t done with that being the only fabulous meal of the stay, oh no, that was for tomorrow too en route to the airport.   After a 30minute walk in the forest – because, you know, we had time and we may as well tick it off the list we headed back to Jeju town to drop off the car and then stopped off at Dragon’s Head Rock (Yongduam Rock) and had lunch, amazing fresh soup with pork, noodles – joyousness.  So happy with FOOOOOOD!

More poi-k

We definitely were leaving Jeju on a high after that lunch.  We rolled ourselves back out, had a look at the lunchtime offerings by Dragon Head’s Rock – raw seafood as fresh as possible served on the rocks, literally, as the waves hit the shoreline.

Staggering over the rocks with all our luggage and full stomachs, we to find a taxi and we were on our way back to Seoul, just for a night before we headed out to Busan, Korea’s second city.

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A short interlude about…

Frickin’ sunsets.

Laos 2012 - on the Mekong
Laos 2012 – on the Mekong

I’ve had my fill of sunsets and there seems to be an obsession with ensuring you’re in the right place at the right time to capture that ‘poifick moment’.  Reality is – sunsets are like farts – force them and they’re probably shit.  Thus in Bagan I ignored the randoms who were stopping and asking tourists where they were going and did they want to follow them to a good spot to watch sunset and headed to a restaurant to congratulate myself on surviving my e-bike experience rather than traipse up an overpacked stupa and stand amongst a group of other tourists to have a group-share disappointment of a disappearing sun that doesn’t hit the horizon. 

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Just a bit shit – day 1 of Bagan, watching from the roof of a monastery.

Reality is I’d only be wanting to watch a sunset if I was sitting in the restaurant at the end of the universe, and not fighting for space amongst the plethora of long lensed tourists. I’d never felt lens envy so much, not since the 10incher we clocked on Lake Titicaca in 2014 and that only stood out because, ironically, it was covered in camoflague. 

Sunset over Lake TiticacaMyanmar was bad because the haze of dust that lingers over the horizon invariably ensures that the sun vanishes a good ten minutes before it’s supposed to. Ditto the major cities – although this time the smog is to blame.

And...it's going, going...
And it’s going, going…gone behind a cloud.  Crap sunset – day 2 – Bagan

In Goa, the same thing tends to happen, the sun never quite hitting the horizon. 

Nowt much to see here...
Nowt much to see here…except haze and hippies. Ashwen 2008

Or otherwise you just get unlucky, and it’s shit.

Bit better - Palolem 2011
Hmmm – Palolem 2011

A group of Chinese businessmen turned up at the resturant, so no-one gave a care to the lardy Brit lady who was just grateful that her e-bike hadn’t ploughed into the dirt on the off-tracks, or ploughed into a historical building as it sped off on its own, or ploughed into other vehicles on the road as I attempted to turn a corner. 

This being ignored however wasn’t to the liking of the other Brits that turned up, retirees of the Daily Torygraph set, led by Mr Look at my Red-fucking Trousers (in linen, due to the heat dahhhling), and he put in an order for beer ahead of the other 3 in his ‘party’ arriving.  They however weren’t down for beer, and thus followed a detailed review of the drink menu – ‘G&T?’ ‘Oh yes’, ‘beers are in the system, but we can get G&T’,’yes, let’s’, ‘oh, no apparently they don’t have any spirits’, ‘how about the Red Mountain?’ (Winery near Inle), ‘oh yes, by the glass?’, ‘apparently it’s only by the bottle’, ‘how much is the bottle?’, ‘oh no, $25, well we didn’t pay that there’, ‘let’s have a beer’, ‘yes let’s’.  After that 10mins of drivel, they moved onto deciding what shot of the sunset they should send to ‘Amanda’, as she’d seemingly recommended the place.  Sheesh kebaobs, shoot me now.

That's a bit more like it.
That’s a bit more like it, but let’s face it, it’s just the sun going down. Day 3 at Bagan.

As the sun went down that gave them their excuse to start getting pissed.  I downed my water and high-tailed it out of there.

And it's gorrrrrn

The shot at the top of this piece was taken on the move as we headed back to Nyaung Shwe. Totally not planned for. My best ever sunset shots were taken from the loo of a riceboat on the backwaters of Kerala.  30mins stuck on the shitter, and these were some of the results, photography-wise.  We won’t discuss the results happening at the other end:

Just goes to show, it’s best to not plan to much, but I wouldn’t recommend eating dodgy prawns to instigate a toilet-sitting sunset session.

Around the DMZ
Around the DMZ, Vietnam 2012

I’m not sure I totally understand the need to watch the day end, even when I’ve done it myself.  Sure, watching the sky change colour and the clouds picking up the last rays can be beautiful.  However it’s not as if we’re all rushing outside to see the sun descend to the horizon when we are back in the reality of work and day to day normality, so why do it on your holibobs? Answers on a postcard please.  Preferably one with a nice sunset on it.

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Sunset over Thaland as seen from Laos – 2012

 

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Seoul Searching….

See what I did there?

Soooooooo 12 days in South Korea and it’s a country that is on the revisit list for sure. Not just because it’s home to Corean Cimchi and her family who opened up their small but perfectly formed home to me nor the unbelievable array for foods on offer but because despite an itinerary that’d make any Asian proud, I barely scratched the surface of what to see and do. That’s down to the fact that South Korea has much to offer, I was short of time & we were spoilt for choices.

I arrived on the Sunday looking and feeling like shite, I’d turned into my very own snot-making machine with sore muscles and a fever. Being in a country where nose blowing isn’t polite I spent the trip being highly inconsiderate and having to decongest whenever there was any exertion, e.g. breathing or putting one leg in front of the other. It was either that or drown in mucus. I know that the Koreans would rather drown but I had serious eating and sightseeing to do so I was all up for remaining able to breathe.

We took an airport bus which afforded us a view of the rather grey skies of Seoul and the rather hideous Sunday drivers. Unfortunately they tend to drive that badly the rest of the week too, the old driving test being 2 days of getting to grips with 2 tons of metal with 3 pedals and away you go out into the world at large to reek havoc on the roads. It was rush hour so luckily the madness was somewhat curtailed.

CC lives to the east of Seoul in Gangdong, and across the Han River that bifurcates the city just like the Thames does to London. It’s a low-rise part of town, with wide roads, a busy market, shops and entertainment area.  If we were to talk in numbers then the family were in a 3 room apartment, on the 4th floor of a 5 floor building and was housing 6 of us for around 7 nights….CC lives with her sister and mum, aged little dog who is a very demanding old auntie and Feling the 4yr old grey cat (never met a cat who loves to sniff at everything with such deep interest)…and for a period of time the lardy lump that is me was squeezing in there too. The flat was like the tardis, deceptively large – with a laundry area tucked behind the sisters’ bunk beds, a shoe cupboard that’d put Imelda Marcos to shame and a walk in fridge freezer that all those 3 lovely people could have squeezed into if it wasn’t for the groaning shelves of food that took up the space.

CC’s mum is a chef and works at a traditional Korean restaurant and the first night I got to experience her amazing cooking with a banquet of food that covered the small table on the kitchen / living room and which made me realise that any weight lost over the duration of the trip would be coming right back at me whilst in Korea. CC rustled up some bulgogi which we ate with lettuce and a flat leaf called Perilla, plus a couple of types of kimchi. Also on the table was dried squid, seaweed, a miso and tofu soup. Oh my, where to start – with trying not to be a chopstick chump – failed. No wonder their fridge was so big – it was leftovers central – the food would have fed a wedding party and the waiting staff.

Evening meal - day 1
Evening meal, and a struggle bus option of chopsticks.

It was not as cold out as I’d expected it to be – although the wind was sharp and cut through you at night. It was a welcome change from the incessant heat of the past few weeks, and it became perceptively milder as the days wore on – Spring was sprung fo’sure.

Monday was our day out into Seoul – a bit of cul-cha – and my recognition that I was totally ferked from being on the go in the preceding weeks and that there wasn’t going to be any let up. Not with my guide and itinerinerary-wonder CC in charge. I was quickly to become a breathless and aged laggard. Seoul’s underground system is particularly deep under the city and seemingly built with less thought to the infirm, thus long stairs are the norm into and out of stations.  Escalators are few and far between as well. Staggering up from the metro I was often wondering if oxygen masks would be readily available at the top of stairs and not just on the platforms in large glass cabinets.

We went first to the north of Seoul to visit Gyeongbokgung Palace, Gwanghwamun Square and Gwanghwamun Gate.

King Sejong the Great
King Sejong the Great

At the Square, set back from the statue of King Sejong the Great, who created the Korean (Hangeul) alphabet and that of Admiral Yi Sun-Shin, famed for his victories against the Japanese, there were placards, puppets and tents still in situ from the demonstrations against the former president Parks.

At Gwanghwamun Square
At Gwanghwamun Square – Korean Spitting Image.

It seemed to be winding down, although there were still tents set up as a memorial to a tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry that happened in April 2014.  The government had been heavily criticised for the response to the disaster at the time and the tents were a reminder ahead of the raising of the ferry that was due to happen late March.

From the entrance through the southern gate we went inside to explore the palace. It was originally built in 1395, however it was systematically destroyed by the Imperial Japanese following their annexation of Korea in 1910. The Korean government has had a policy of rebuilding historical monuments since the 1990s, so what was inside the walls was a reconstruction of a percentage of the original palace, some 500 buildings over a 40 hectare site versus the 7,700 that existed and had been restored in the 19th century,  under the leadership of the Prince Regent.

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The entrance to the palace

Most of the buildings were not accessible, you could only view them from behind a barrier, however we were able to visit the rooms at Gonnyeonghap to see an exhibition relating to the murder of Empress Myeongseong by the Japanese in October 1895.

Inside Gonnyeonghap
A reconstruction of how the Empress’ rooms would have looked, inside Gonnyeonghap.
Portrait of the Empress, behind a screen of flowers
Portrait of the Empress, behind a screen of flowers

She had been seen as a great strategist and political influence, who had been trying to forge closer links with Russia in an attempt to loosen the ties Japan had with Korea.  She was seen as a threat and the exhibition was to commemorate her life and her assassination by the Japanese and the subsequent burning of her body nearby.  The King left the palace a couple of months later never to return and the Japanese government demolished the building completely in 1909. You kind of started to understand why Korea may not have the best relations with Japan, and after the visit to the Seodaemun Prison History Museum on my last day it was even clearer.

Many of the sightseers appeared to have made a bit of an effort wearing traditional Korean costume.  Turned out that dressing up meant discount entry.  Women were floating about princess styleeee in hanbok with wide skirts, decorated with embroidery,  beading or faux gems.  Guys wore traditional hats and kimono style jackets.  The dressing up wasn’t left to the Koreans either, the few Chinese kicking about (there’s currently a travel ban enforced by the Chinese government) seemed to favour a discounted opportunity to wander the palace too, as did a few Americans. When the wind gusted it revealed their jeans and trainers underneath – the more preferred clothing option of Seoul it seemed.

Reservoir Dogs - Seoul Style
Reservoir Dogs – Seoul Style

From the palace we wandered to Insa-dong area for a cup of Korean tea (which contained plums, pine nuts, and some other dried bits and pieces).  Not tea as you know it but both were supposed to contain health-giving ingredients.

Tea for two
Tea for two, with floaters…tasted good though.

The area of Insa-dong is preserved as a traditional area, all signage in Korean, including major companies such as Starbucks.  Lots of shops were owned by artisans with handmade product for sale, and it had a calm, uncluttered feeling despite the tourists milling about.  I think it was the money in the air, it wasn’t a cheap area.

For a complete contrast we hit Myeong-dong. Here was shopping central and both the school kids and tourists were out in full force, along with street food-sellers selling green lipped mussels bigger than my (admittedly midgety) hands, sausage on a stick, dried squid on a stick, Korean crepes, snack heaven. It was heaving, claustraphobically so, worse than Oxford St the weekend before Christmas.  I was just thankful that the Chinese were currently not allowed to travel to Korea as it’d been even worse (turns out, they’re all in Bangkok clogging up the malls there – that I can confirm ).

We fought our way through the melee toward a hill in the distance and Namsan Tower aka N Tower. It’s site states that it ‘has become a resting place for the citizens of Seoul and a tourist attraction for foreigners with the living nature of Namsan.  I think that means they were too knackered to do much other than sit down after they hiked to the top. It was starting to get cold but we were ensuring we weren’t going to be feeling it any time soon as we were walking all the way. To be fair CC offered the chance of taking a bus but I thought I’d make the effort, as a result it was slow-going,  I was worse than I thought energy-wise, but we finally made it just as the sun disappeared behind the smoggy greyness of the overcast Seoul day.

Sunday setting over Seoul
Sunday setting over Seoul
N Tower - top of the hill
N Tower – top of the hill

The reward for the struggle up was not in heaven but at the bottom if the hill at a fried chicken restaurant. Chicken and beer (Chimaek – a compound word formed from Chicken and Maekju, the Korean word for beer) is traditional fare, so is serving up the chicken with chopped raw cabbage generously doused in ketchup and mayo, which then got mixed together.  The chicken didn’t disappoint, unlikely that it could tbh, we’d missed lunch and were totally hank.

 

Chicken and beer
Chicken and Beer – couldn’t ask for more – except maybe the sauce and mayo not on the cabbage….courtesy of CC

Day 1 was done and dusted bar random Korean tele – no show is less than an hour long and ideally two. Next stop after a wee day of rest – Jeju Island, famous for wind, women and rocks, or was it rocky, windy women?  Certainly no-one mentioned the penis headed statues carved from volcanic rock, but that’s for another day.

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The home straight…

Two nights in Kinpun (aka Kinmun – no idea why p and m are interchangeable) to see Mount Kyaiktiyo (pronounced Jai-toe but not Chay-cho), aka Golden Rock, one of the three most sacred religious sites in Myanmar. The rock is said to cover a hair or two of the Buddha, which holds the rock in place.  It was all a bit unerwhelming, but that maybe because I was coming own with yet another cold and was feeling rubbish.

The bus journey had allowed for more sleep this time around, but even so we had had to change bus at 4am to transfer onto the bus that had actually left Nyaung Shwe 30mins before we did.  Bus swapsies in the middle of the night on a dual carriageway was weird enough but to see 3 guys laid out inside the luggage compartment fast asleep was something else.  We arrived into Bago about an hour later and transferred to a rust bucket minivan an hour later.  Rust bucket would be a generous overstatement, there was no rust under my left foot, just a hole showing the road below.

Kinpun was boiling hot, and packed full of the faithful, either queuing to go up the mountain by truck or fighting their way off of a returning truck.  I deferred going up till the next day, taking the time to catch up on sleep and get over the feeling of being kicked in the arse that being ill gives me.

The trip up the moutain is done by a truck which seats 7 rows of 6 seats.  Each truck waits till it’s full before it sets off at a fair lick up the winding mountain road, the road is winding, and very much like a rollercoaster in parts.  The seat belts are not in use, merely providing decoration on the back of each row of seats. Predictably people were vomiting, in fact the trucks stank of vomit, even when there was no-one heaving their guts up. It was either unbearably grim or I was being a negative Nelly as I wasn’t feeling particularly well.

Once you get to the top there’s a 20min walk to the rock itself.  The area was pretty grubby, the ground was not as clean as other religious sites, despite the heavy footfall. Stalls and hawkers lined the paths both into and upto the rock.

Fashion statement headgear
Fashion statement headgear for this season’s young monks and nuns. It’s all about the towel for him and the pink faux fur animal hood for her.

People were dumping rubbish over the side of the mountain, and it was strewn just beyond the boundary.  Families were up at the site for the day, bringing picnics, blankets, mounds of food, setting up camp under trees or within a small bit of shade, where possible .  There are porters there who will carry it all, for a fee, in their baskets and will even carry people (larger than a child) in reclining sedan seats made of bamboo and cloth.

Alternative taxi option
An alternative to a taxi, I guess.

At the rock itself only men were allowed to touch it, so the women had to view it from afar.  The rock wasn’t quite so precariously perched as perhaps perceived (try saying that after a pint or two), however what wasn’t clear is how they’d managed to gold leaf the entire rock.  Maybe it is on a pole and gets spun round by degrees, who knows…(actually, just looked it up an it gets a repaint every 4 years, so now we all know).

Golden Rock - exactly what it says on the tin.
Golden Rock – exactly what it says on the tin.

Getting back down the hill proved to be slightly more challenging than getting up as there was some sort of methodology associated with getting in the trucks that wasn’t communicated to the foreigner.  Climbing up a 6ft high rickety metal ladder to get into a truck is bad enough, being told to go back down it against a streaming tide of humanity that is all boney elbows and baskets and bags is another.  It did get to the point where I was prepared to take out a granny or two in my attempt to get down the steps rather than being pushed off the edge of the step ladder.  I apparently had to get on truck 3, rather than any of the other part empty ones, dems da rules, so you do as you’re told.

It was a relief to be back down at base camp, safe in the knowledge that I’d be away from the smell of vomit for the rest of the day and I could go back to my hotel room and atrophy before packing again for the final destination.  The next morning, after swerving the oil filled omelette,was to head back to Yangon for the final two nights in Mynamar and a lil’ bit of shopping and afternoon tea at The Strand Hotel.  I was staying at The Loft Hotel in Yangon, a treat for two nights, where I was safe in the knowledge that my omelette wouldn’t be fried – that’s not a euphemism, it’s just a weird thing that seems to happen at some places here.

The Strand had recently been refurbished and was looking suitably swish, all monochrome loveliness, and fragrant roses everywhere.

Oo la la - The Stand chic
Oo la la – The Stand chic

The eleganza of the establishment was brought down a few pegs by me completely covered in sweat, looking as if I’d walked through a shower fully dressed before wandering in there in order to drink my body weight in Twining English Breakfast and eat a small but perfectly formed afternoon tea.

Pot one of two - got to get your money's worth
Pot one of two – got to get your money’s worth.
Get ready for sugar overload.
Get ready for sugar overload.

It was a nice opportunity to pretend to be civilised for an hour or so, but it was soon time to head back out into the boiling 36degree heat and burn off some of the English Breakfast and then return to the hotel for another round of packing in order to get set for a couple of nights in Bangkok doing ‘feff all (quickly becoming a theme) before flying off to South Korea, and 12 days with Corean Cimchi.

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Snack-attack and non-leaping cats

Our third and final day for messing about on the water and after a visit to the (closed) wildfowl sanctuary where from the somewhat broken down steps we watched rogue fisherman indulge in a bit of fishing in illegal waters, we headed out to see the snack-arge cottage industries of the lake in Khaung Daing.

You couldn’t move for every householder steaming his nuts, roasting his nuts, or drying his nuts in the sun, and not just nuts, but soya beans, pea beans, tofu (made from chickpeas, not soya)  or whatever protien-y goodness was to hand such as sunflower seeds and a small pocket of rice cracker producers.  Mornings are a veritable hive of sweaty industry over boiling pots and naked flames.  Once the cooking was done, then it was sorting out the slightly burnt bits of skin or nuts before bagging.  In Khaung Daing, it seems that if you could roast it then you could coat it, bag it in cellophane and sell it.  Business was good too, judging by the number of new breeze block houses going up that were replacing the previous woven bamboo ones, and the piles and piles of product drying out in the sun on woven mats.

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An you thought that hair in your nuts was human….
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sorting the roasted soy
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Drying chickpea tofu
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Once dry, the tofu takes on the colour and look of slices of cheese.

We stopped to talk to one lady who ferments soy, rolls the pats and flattens them out before setting them out to dry.  They have her mark on them – a star, which is carved into the mould she flattens them out on, she’ll make about 5000 a day.

Her business had helped to send her niece to university, where she was undertaking a PhD.  Her and her family talked about the village having a lack of land for people to farm, hence the need to produce the snacks.  In other villages people were selling land, as the prices were going up, however they weren’t investing the money for the long term, spending it then ending up broke, a pattern I’ve heard repeated in other countries, such as Laos.

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The fermented soy patties drying out.

We also saw toffee brittle twists being made.  Not quite Willy Wonka’s Factory, certainly a lot more rustic. Ladies take the sugar blocks were saw the day before and return it to a semi-solid state before pulling it into a more elastic state over a hook outside their room.  Once it’s suitably stretched and softened it’s taken inside and then lengths of it are pulled, snipped with giant scissors and twisted into little knots before being packed.

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Tugging the toffee.
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Focus on the toffee twists and not the potential environmental health concerns.

Before lunch, which turned out to be the most middle class stops ever, complete with retired banker (slight typo there but I’ll leave it) in pink shorts, pinkie ring and rugby shirt with the collar turned up and his trim blonde wife no.2, we stopped off at Nga Hpa Cheung Monastery, aka Jumping Cat Monastery. This was previously a stop for tourists to see cats jumping through hoops, the previous abbot having trained the felines to do tricks. Apparently  people (e.g. tourists) complained, so now people (e.g. tourists) get to see a vast array of buddha statues and a teak monastery and some very lazy cats that do sod all. It wasn’t as if they were jumping through hoops of flames or broken glass folks!  Now there’s no real distraction to the overdose of Buddha in various repose.

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See a monk robe, lay on it.

Lunch done and we headed off up a small canal that soon became a ditch with no water, in order to visit a local monk.  Mr Lien wanted to use his monastery / village hall to have the conservation meeting in as it was pretty central for everyone.  Knowing protocol but knowing there was no way I’d be able to bow down so all 5 parts of me that needed to be on the floor at the same time were meant I resorted to fey Princess Diana nodding of head and looking all doe-eyed and respectful as Mr Lien, some local women and head monk discussed the meeting.  All was fine-ish till I went to stand up, a dead leg and an ankle bone that had become overly sensitive meant that a small array of swear words may have escaped my lips as I attempted to become upright.  I say ‘stand up’, what I did was sort of roll to one side using the momentum to try and bring me to the vertical.  Nearly worked too, if it wasn’t for that pesky pain and lack of blood in required parts.  Still, I managed to hobble my way down the stairs and senior monk said ‘See you again soon’ very politely in perfect English, which made me suspect he may have sussed the swear words weren’t gestures of goodwill and thanks for his hospitality.

Our final stop was Maing Thauk bridge, a mini U Pein of Inle, a pretty decent location to see the floating islands up close more than anything.  A tourist had paid to build the bridge a few years ago to enable schoolkids to walk to the landside of the village to get to school, and due to it’s location it had become a destination point to see Inle, with a couple of restaurants popping up and snack sellers and the like. Mr Lien suggested I could cycle out here on my remaining couple of days, as well as stop off and visited the vineyard nearby and / or see the hot springs.  I listened attentively, looked at the route on the map with him and nodded with a real sense of determinedness to do it, but my reality was nowhere near the tourist dreamland Mr Lien was suggesting.  I was knackered, with the onset of another lurgy heading my way, which would in some part explain the out of breathedness and wooziness everytime I ventured up a few steps.  We finished up the final day with me totally templed out and overloaded with Inle info. I  knew that I wasn’t stepping foot outside of Nyaung Shwe until I got on the bus to Mount Kyyaiktiyo and ideally wasn’t stepping beyond the bottom of my road if I could help it.  The only exception to that was when I wanted to go and eat, and even that was becoming an effort. 

What I hadn’t bargained on was that I’d end up on my last night working in a restaurant doing the washing up out the back in the dark, rather than out the front nursing a beer and a curry.  For two nights I had eaten at a little Indian place next to the hotel, it was run my a mad Eminen fan and Ali G character with betel stained teeth and a hyperactive manner.  It was him as front of house and he insisted on not writing down your order, plus it was slightly erractic when you got a menu, got your drink, got a seat or your food.  As everything is made fresh there was then a 45min to 1hour wait, but worth it, particularly for the mutton masala, and finally the raita that I ordered the first night which finally came good on the second. For my last night I wanted something light so went to Paw Paw which seemingly did light Burmese food, all freshly made.  What I hadn’t anticipated was that a) it was heaving, b) front of house was an 85yr old woman, c) the daughter Zizi was the only one cooking and d) their boy help had minimal English and was equally overloaded by the mayhem. 

I got a seat at a table that 2 Americans were vacating, or so I thought.  The husband was sitting there as his wife had taken on waitressing responsibilities for some of the other tables.  Zizi was drowning under the weight of orders, people were waiting for over an hour to be served, and other tables were waiting for tables to be cleared.  The interim help managed to palm her duties off on a British guy by the kitchen, as she really did want to get back to her hotel for the night, and a French woman who had got to know Zizi pitched in with veg chopping so that left clearing tables and washing up, and so having put my order in with Zizi’s elderly mother I set to work.

The sinks out the back were lit by one candle, had no plugs and no running water.  The water came out of butts, big butts.  Turned out I used the water for cooking for the first big round of washing up…only me and their boy helper knows that…it was difficult to spot the other water butt in the pitch dark!  Still I managed to get myself a system in order to work through what was a massive backlog of crockery, cutlery and glassware.  It also meant I was away from the 2 miserable German guys on the table I was sat next to, who were whinging about the delay and the other bonus was I got my food a lot quicker – a deliciously light pumpkin and lemongrass curry with rice.  The food was what I needed, full of subtle flavour, the pumpkin texture still firm, the dish not oily at all, just good food lovingly made in the madness of a randomly overfull restaurant being helped out by volunteers.

Once I’d eaten I stayed on to help in the kitchen, as did Pascale, the newly created sous chef, and Brit waiter boy, who also managed to find some new volunteers for the next night too.  Pascale and her table finally got to eat about 10pm as the restaurant shut, and once they were done we packed up and I said I’d pop back in the morning to see Zizi for a proper chat.  Heading home having done an honest few hours of work, I also popped in to see Ali G at the Indian to wish him well for his sister’s wedding the next day.  He promptly invited me to pop in before I headed off on my bus  journey the next day and to pick up a lil’ bit of bus ride dinner – how sweet is that?

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Investigating Inle and its environs

Like Mr Soesoe I am gradually winding down. As I get to the end of my trip I’m slowly running out of energy, so I decided to take it easy on arrival and also have an extra day in Inle to do fuck all too. However I ended up doing a bit more than I bargained for before I left Inle.

I arranged a guide, Mr Htet Lien, for a three day itinerary covering various parts of the lake.  Having guides has been a real benefit, as otherwise I really don’t think I’d have got anywhere as much insight and information on the sites I saw without them. That does assume that none of them were talking bollocks for the duration of their time with me however.

It were nippy out in the morning, which made a nice change from the stifling heat and dust I was failing to get used to.  Being on and around the lake meant that even the jeans got a showing in the evening, as did the cold weather clothes for Korea.  Everyone is muffled up against the cold, the locals are in layers, with hats and gloves likes it’s winter. All the boatmen provide fleecy blankets and giant umbrellas for those sitting on the boats, to help stave off the breeze, however as the day draws on it quickly burns any mist off the lake and warms up in no time.  However once the sun goes down it is soon cold again, also pitch black, as they don’t have lights on the boats.

Here’s the bad news. There’s about 4000 boats on the lake, and the lake is at risk from many different factors, the diesel pollution from boats, invader fish species, declining fish stocks from overfishing, overuse of fertilisers on the floating island farms, rubbish and run off in the water, also the water table has dropped by over half to not more than 2mtrs in some parts and the lake has shrunk by about half a mile across its width in recent times. Mr Lien is part of a conservation group that is looking at how to come up with sustainable solutions before it is too late, as it is it’s already a depressing site. We spent a bit of time, as part of the trip, visiting some people to get them involved, this included an abbot of a small monastery who agreed to hold the meeting of the interested parties in a couple of weeks. The government wants to find the solutions to how to resolve the many issues impacting Inle but everyone knows that there is a balance to be had between ensuring it can continue to provide income for so many locals and recover.

When not using an outboard motor, the fishermen on the lake row using one leg. The legend is that about 100yrs ago a one armed man tired of waiting on mates for lifts decided to figure out how to propel himself and a boat across the water, and thus the unique leg rowing was born.

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Hands free fishing
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Fisherman on the lake.

Some of the guys on the water are not even fishing, they dress up in traditional Shan outfits and pose for tourists, then demand cash.  You could tell who the real fishermen were, as they were dressed in their work-a-day clothes.

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Faux fisherman waiting for tourists in the early morning gloom wearing his Shan outfit.

As well as fishing the biggest cash crop is tomatoes and other vegetables, garlics, gourds and rice.  People create floating islands from lengths of compacted water plants that have composted down creating a semi-solid mass. Long sections are cut and are floated to areas of gardens where they are pinned in place by bamboo poles. Water weeds are harvested to mulch and compost. Everyone was prepping for new planting, collecting the weed, clearing the land or transplanting seedlings.

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Collecting water weed for the floating islands.

Our first stop was a visit to the 5 day market happening at Indein.  The market works on rotation at various sites around the lake.  Guidebooks talk of the mysterious magic that ensures that all locals know where the market will be, and when.  Turns out it’s actually posted up on calendars everywhere, and the fact it’s written in Burmese means no tourist is going to know that the local person they’re asking isn’t actually doing ‘woo-woo’ when he’s staring into space before telling you, he’s actually looking over your shoulder to the right date.

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Market day boat frenzy

The channel to market was cluttered with boats, and a narrow walkway was equally full with stalls selling row upon row of tourist tat – jewellery, textiles, headgear made of teeth (whose teeth I didn’t discover), Buddha stories on dried palm leaves, wicker baskets of various shapes and sizes, fake silver, beaded necklaces, carved wooden dolls in couples that appeared to share a coffin, these turned out to be representatives of each tribal group.

Once you negotiated all of that and the hordes of backpack clad tourists all haggling with the stall holders through the use of a laminated card listing numbers up to 200, you came to the proper part of the market where the locals actually did their shopping.

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Shopping done, and heading back to the boat.
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Heading into town for a bargain.

The catch of the day was laid out on the ground with different varieties and sizes of fish gasping for breath, bunches of them were linked on strings made of banana leaf or something similar, eels writhed in buckets.  Not all were from the lake, some of the larger carp were farmed, and had been brought in from elsewhere.

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Fish for tea

Further into the market were snack sellers everywhere, both sweet and savoury.  Massive rice crackers at least 12” across were piled up in stacks 3’ high, skewered by thin bamboo sticks to keep them together, baskets contained various sweets made of brown sugar – peanut or sesame seed brittle, bright red chicken heads on sticks, thick pancakes, steamed sticky snacks in banana leaves. Mr Lien bought a crème caramel type dessert made of sugar, and some fried snack made of chick pea flour like you get in Bombay Mix.

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Looks like the puppet show has gone drastically wrong…

We had a cup of coffee at a small shack and Mr Lien told me about his daughter, 15 and at a private school about 40mins away.  Private schooling costs him about $4000 a year, however it was clear that he wanted to ensure his daughter got a good education.  He had dropped out of university in his second year when he realised the only way he could succeed was to be able to bribe his way to good exam results and he didn’t want to do that.

Education in Myanmar is extremely basic and only recently was free schooling introduced for children.  It’s apparent that many families send their children to school, preferring to send them out to work after the mandatory schooling stops around age 9.  Only 75% of children finish primary school in Myanmar. At the teashop across from my hotel were 2 girls of 12 and 16 working for the owner, they don’t receive a salary per se, it’s akin to indentured servitude. At least they are working in a legal trade, girls are also regularly trafficked over the border to Thailand or China, promised good jobs they are bought and sold by agents to be used in the sex trade.

On that happy note, we wandered back to the boat and headed south for about 60miles through a narrow channel past Shan, Intha and Pa-O villages to a manmade lake for lunch and a visit to Sankar. This artifical lake was created in the 1960s by the Japanese, and was created to provide power to a plant which serves Yangon.  It was a case of sit back and relax, and watch the world go by for the next couple of hours.

Everywhere something was being washed, pick-up trucks, motorbikes, oxen, kids, clothes, women. You name it, it was getting scrubbed.

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Washing day on the water.
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Buffing up nicely
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Stopping off for some water weeds, and a bit of oxen washing.

After lunch, a quick tour of the rice wine barn out the back we then walked up to the top of a nearby hill (complete with pagoda, and monk in a woolly hat that matched his robe, smoking a cheroot – no photo) to see the view and then headed off to visit the ancient stupas.

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View from the hilltop.

Some of the stupas had been renovated by benefactors of the previous regime, new brickwork, new whitewash or updated umbrellas.  All a bit out of place, but seemed to be a common theme across Inle, shiny newness was the order of the day it seemed.  It wasn’t just Burmese benefactors chipping in, at another site there had been fundraising for works by Singaporeans, Chinese and others.

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Spot the new kid on the block.
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Offered – stupa, major renovation required…

Heading back to Inle and we stopped off at Takhaung Mwetaw Pagoda for a bit more stupa staring. You can never have too many shrines to Buddha!

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Umbrella, ‘ella, ‘ella…
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Takhaung Mwetaw Pagoda – mixing the old and the new.
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Buddha at Takhaung Mwetaw Pagoda, just in case you’d forgotten what one looks like.

A quick tour of Naung Po, to watch pottery in action. One of many of the cottage industries I’d be seeing over the next few days.  It always felt a bit weird turning up and us being able to potter about and have a good nosey in what is basically people’s homes or villages.  Nobody seemed to mind, or if they did, they hid it spectacularly well.  It’s also disconcerting the way parents would encourage their kids to wave and smile and pose for photos being taken by the tourists.

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Sort of like the Generation Game but without Larry.

This village makes a variety of pottery items, but mostly large pots, which they produce to mainly sell to Karen State (where the ladies wrap heavy brass coiled around their neck, and sometimes arms and legs too) for their alcohol.  Sounds like quite a niche market!  The kiln was in the back yard, buried about 2mtrs down, the fire kept going for about a day before it’s left to cool for another two, before being opened up.

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Pottery field

The noise of the boat engine droning on was almost hypnotic, a backdrop accompaniment to the setting sun. It was an ideal way to end the first day on the lake, although being at the front of boat that had no lights in the pitch black and the cold wasn’t and it was a relief to be back on dry land 30mins later.

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Accidental decent sunset.

 

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