The Land of Smiles

21 04 2010

As I prepared to make my trip to Thailand I was ready for the hot weather and relaxation. In recent weeks the country of Thailand has been overwhelmed with protests by the local people wanting to hold another election so they can have democracy. I honestly don’t know too much about the situation but it was quite a view once I actually made my way down to the main protest area in Siam Square, Bangkok. I was off to locate one of the electronics market near the Siam Square and I quickly realized that everything was closed. As I walked closer to the electronics market I began to see people wearing red shirts. It was like no sight that I have never seen before. The weather was a grueling 96 degrees and these people were camped out on the sidewalk. I know in the evening time is when the full protest begin. I figured since it was only 2pm, I would be ok. It looked like they were there for hours. Everyone was wearing a red shirt and had a hand noisemaker. I figured that I could make the most out of this situation by snapping some quick photos and be on my way. This area was occupied by “Red Shirts.” I didn’t see a foreigner in sight. I decided to take my camera out slowly and stand by the guard rail and started taking photos. The crowd was calm and they were very loud. Everyone was using their noisemaker and was yelling. I was in Bangkok for one full day and you really could see how the protest affected the city. Everything was closed. Many taxis refused to go near the protest zone. Bangkok’s subway system, the Mass Rapid Transit Authority of Thailand (MRTA), was on and off with service. The day after I visited Siam square, more than 21 people were killed and hundreds were injured. I was lucky. I decided to spend my time in one of Thailand’s most beautiful cities, Chang Mai. It didn’t have white sand with crystal clear water. It was covered with green lush bamboo trees and forest. I was lucky to be in Thailand for the Songkran festival which starts on April 13-15th. Chang Mai is supposed to be one of the most culturally significant cities in Northern Thailand, according to Wikipedia. We were lucky to celebrate New Years in Vietnam (called Tet), Hong Kong (Chinese New Year) and South Korea (Seollal) this year. Every country has their set of tradition and how to bring in the New Year. In my opinion, I feel that the Thais do it the best! I read that they celebrate by throwing water on you, which brings good luck and washes away evil. I spoke to many Thais while I was there and they all said something different. The most common answer was that Thailand is really hot during New Years and this is they best way to keep cool. I bought that answer and joined in on the festivities. I felt like I was 10 years old being in the streets on Chang Mai. I bought a water gun which was selling for 300 Baht and started washing away evil spirits and spreading good luck for the New Year. The thing about New Year’s in Thailand is that everyone is fair game. No one is excluded from being wet. In the streets on Chang Mai traffic is chaos. People drive up and down with their pick up trucks and there are usually five to six people in the back (all ages) and they have a big bucket of water and they spray water on you or even throw a bucket full of water on you. It’s an all out water fight. The celebration starts from 11am to around 8pm or depending when everyone starts to shiver from being so wet. It’s hard to describe the feeling you get from the celebration. If you happen to be in Thailand during April do yourself a favor and head to Chang Mai.





Many Faces of Japan

16 03 2010

There’s a lot to say about Japan, but in a nutshell: it is the cleanest country on the planet; the people are pleasant everywhere in Japan, but more down-to-earth in the Kansai region; it has an amazing history; the best of electronics and convenience; AND the fashion is equivalent and maybe better than New York’s fashion. As it’s my second trip to Japan, including the Kansai region (Osaka, Kyoto and Nara) and Randy’s first, I feel like we covered a different part of Japan that became our own experience. During my first trip, my sister, Mailena, and her boyfriend, Justin, were great tour guides. Justin knew how to get around Osaka and Kyoto like the back of his hand, of course it helped that he knows the Japanese language. And Mailena took me to her favorite spots in their small village, Nishi-Iya, including onsens (Japanese spa), thrift shopping and ‘country’ restaurants. This trip was very special, as it was my sister’s first major move – out of the country and on the other side of the world – and it was my first major overseas trip, by myself. Although it was three years ago, this trip planted the seed to what I am doing now. Justin was teaching English with the JET program and I got to experience one of his classes. So, thanks Mailena and Justin for a wonderful first trip to Japan! And thanks for introducing me to a new world teaching English abroad.

Todai-ji Temple - the largest wooden structure in the world that houses the largest statue of the Buddha Vairocana

As for my second trip to Japan, I fell in love with fashion in Japan. It’s a little out there and I don’t know if Westerners can handle it, but Tokyo is definitely one of the fashion capitals of the world. Not only do the women dress to impress 24/7, but the men dress like they’re about to walk down a runway show. Tokyo is not just a huge metropolitan city with the most modern vending machines that include everything from cigarettes, beer and chicken, but it’s a place to go for people watching. We saw the craziest outfits on the most normal people. Every girl has the same make-up and hair, with fake eyelashes caked on foundation, eye make-up to the max and blonde or orange hair that is curled to the perfect wave. Shibuya is the place to see these women, of which I do not care much for the hair and make-up. But the men have their own style. It seems that every man just came out of an anime cartoon, with their spiked hair and either a suit or ripped up jeans and leather jacket. Enjoy the pictures below!

Harajuku shopping district

Anime-like men in Harajuku

Osaka men fashion





History Museums Around the World

9 03 2010

After our first round of traveling around Asia (Beijing, Hong Kong, Korea, Vietnam and Japan) I have to say that my three favorite museums are the War Memorial of Korea, War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

These three museums are an amazing asset to the local community and to the world. In my experience, some of the best museums charge less than $2 USD. All three of these museums are unique in many ways, sharing destruction and death.

One of the most rugged and in your face museums that I have visited is the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. As soon as you pay (less than a buck) you are directly faced with military aircraft such as big fighter jets, helicopters and military tanks that were used during the Vietnam War (the locals call it the American War). There are hundreds of bullet holes and dents in these amazing machines. It’s great that they have everything in your face and you have an opportunity to see it from Vietnam’s point of view. The memorabilia, photos and artifacts will blow your mind. I kept thinking that in 50 years from now this museum will not be standing because of the poor quality of the glass and security of the items. The glass that separates items from the public is extremely thin and can be easily broken. I wish that the government or some organization would do a better job to protect this museum so that future generations can see a part of history. The pictures in this museum are very real and gruesome, showing you a version of the war that we don’t see back in America. Nonetheless, it’s definitely an impressive museum.

If you’re ever in Seoul, a must see is the War Memorial of Korea.  As soon as you are in front of the museum you will notice the Statue of Brothers, the elder, a South Korean soldier and the younger, a North Korean soldier, which symbolizes the situation of Korea’s division. The Korean peninsula has seen many wars from neighboring powers. The War Memorial was built to commemorate actors and victims in the wars which led to the modern nation state. The museum also has the purpose of educating future generations by collecting, preserving, and exhibiting various historical relics and records related to the many wars fought in the country from a South Korean perspective. If you truly want to see evidence of how Japan invaded Korea and destroyed priceless art and buildings, travel around the peninsula and see with your own eyes. If you get a chance to go to Gyeongju, which use to be the capital you will see the destruction that was left. I have been told by countless Koreans that Japan doesn’t even acknowledge that amount of damage that they did to Korea. Click here to find out more about the Korean War.

Display of the nations' flags that participated with the U.N. during the Korean War

8:15am was the precise time that the bomb was dropped.

One of my favorite museums of all, is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. It’s a funny feeling that you get once you step foot into this historical city. It’s like time stopped here (8:15 am on August 6, 1945 was the precise time the bomb was dropped over Hiroshima). I guess this museum is truly unique because how many other places had an atomic bomb destroy their city. This museum does a great job showing you how it was minutes after the A-bomb was dropped. If you’re ever in Japan, do yourself a favor and visit this part of history. After viewing the whole museum we had an opportunity to walk around this new vibrant city. Everyone says the people have moved on and as well as the city. But, you can’t help to think that one bomb so powerful, that people evaporated into thin air or burned into ashes at the drop of the bomb. Later on that evening as we were walking to our hostel, we had to walk pass the existing A-Bomb Dome. In 1966, the city decided to keep this structure in its original condition as a landmark from the war. The dome was registered on UNESCO’s World Cultural Heritage list in December 1996 as a monument that reminds us of the tragedy of the bombing, according to wikpedia. The city stood quiet as we walked toward our hostel, it was a really beautiful sight but I couldn’t help that the feeling was very eerie. I mean if you think about it, one bomb killed more than 80,000 people instantly. Does the soul ever find peace?

A-Bomb Dome

They said that plants and grass weren't going to grow in Hiroshima for another 75 years - this tree is in the preservation fence of the A-Bomb Dome.





Chuc Mung Nam Moui!

6 03 2010

It was hard to top our first anniversary celebrations, which was in Ireland. But Randy pulled it off. We didn’t get to go to a different country, but we spent the weekend in Seoul. Our anniversary falls on the day before Valentine’s Day and apparently this year, the day before Chinese New Year (or Lunar New Year or Tet [in Vietnam] or Seollal [in Korea]). Chinese New Year is on a different day each year. But this year, we were lucky to have three full days to celebrate these holidays and a very special occasion.

During Chinese New Year or Seollal, which is what the Koreans call it, Koreans spend time with their families. The holiday is similar to Chuseok. Families get together, cook traditional foods and pay respects to their ancestors and elders. Chuseok and Seollal are similar to our Thanksgiving and Christmas. But, it’s also similar to one childhood memory, Tet, which is what the Vietnamese call Chinese New Year. We did all of these things, but would also receive “pockets,” or red envelopes with money inside for good luck from our elders. Although I didn’t receive any “pockets” this year, I received a great weekend with my favorite person in the world and good friends.

Because our anniversary was in between two major trips this year (Vietnam and Japan), we needed to save money. It’s somewhat hard to do in Seoul, but I think we accomplished it and also had star treatment. We arrived on a Friday night as usual and stayed in a jjimjilbang or sauna. Although the overnight jjimjilbangs are nothing like Spa Land in Busan where you cannot stay overnight (click here to see the entry about Spa Land). In Seoul, we stayed at the Hamilton Spa, which is located in the Hamilton Hotel in Itaewon. It costs about 10,000 won ($8 USD) per person per night, which is a lot cheaper than even the love motels, which costs around 35,000 to 80,000 won ($70 USD) per night. You get a shirt and shorts and a blanket to sleep on the heated floors. It’s definitely an experience to try once. We’ve slept at a jjimjilbang several times though, mostly in Busan at Vesta Spa.

After a refreshing early morning spa and sauna, we checked into the star treatment hotel that Randy picked out. Hotel Elle Inn, although tucked away from the main street and standing out from all of the other buildings, was a little treasure. The room wasn’t massive, but the details and Jacuzzi were amazing. For a really nice hotel, the price tag wasn’t too terrible. It would probably be around $200 in the states, but this hotel was only about $100 USD per night. He also surprised me by picking out a place with a beautiful night view of Seoul. We had dinner in the Jongno Building on the 33rd floor at a restaurant called “Top Cloud.” But the most surprising event was that Randy had his first steak! I was so proud of him. Of course, from working at the American Meat Institute, I know how to enjoy a good steak, and I’m glad that Randy and I could enjoy the same entree that night. It’s really great to get to see each other grow as a person while in a foreign country, whether it’s with trying different types of food, interacting with people or learning both from each other.

As we keep learning from each other and seeing each other grow as a person, we continue to learn about Korea as a country. The War Memorial of Korea is a place we need to revisit. It’s a museum that shows the 5,000-year-old history of how Korea has with stood many foreign invasions. There is also a magnificent display of how the world came together to help South Korea during one of the most tragic wars in history, the Korean War. What’s best about this museum is that it’s free. It’s a five minute walk from Samgakji Subway station, near Itaewon.





A Beautiful Ending to a Short Trip

22 02 2010

Other than all of the heartache and pain that went on in Phu Quoc those many years ago, it is a tropical paradise with the most beautiful beaches and amazing accommodations at the more luxurious places. It’s an island about 15 km south of Cambodia and an hour plane ride from Saigon or two-hour ferry ride from Rach Gia. The seafood is the best here, especially at the Night Market. You can find a meal for two people at local restaurants including the Night Market for less than $5 USD! And any dish you choose will be amazing.

Long Beach on Phu Quoc Island

Of course, poverty still exists here. We visited a family who lives in pretty much a shack. The mother was cooking on the side of the street, while her 1-year-old daughter was playing next to the speeding cars and motorbikes. We walked inside to find her walls filled with paintings that her husband had painted, cement floors and a wooden bed with one sheet on it. Her kitchen was outside by the street. But, regardless of the situation, she and her daughter were happy. She and her husband sell the paintings for reasonable prices. Randy bought a painting for about $7 USD, which probably helped them out a lot, considering that the average family in Vietnam makes about $150 per month.

Apart from the realization of how the majority of Vietnamese live, Phu Quoc is a beautiful island with a large part dedicated as a National Forest. You can find deserted beaches or beaches with many people participating in a variety of water sports. I chose to refresh my SCUBA diving skills. It was my second time diving in an ocean. It felt great to get back in the gear and under the water again. I didn’t have time to finish my certification here, but it’s a great place to do it. The sights underwater weren’t that exciting where I had dived, but the waters weren’t too choppy and the current was pretty calm. The instructors are great and it’s relatively cheap to get certified in Vietnam. Click here to find a list of dive operations and more information about Phu Quoc.

SCUBA flag and the Vietnam flag

Lodging in Phu Quoc is hard to find if you want to find a place online during the peak season (December – February). Also, hotels and resorts will charge more during this time. But many places don’t have web sites, so it might be a better bet to just arrive in Phu Quoc and then find a place to stay.

Phu Quoc was the perfect place to relax. We spent about four hours at the massage salon on the first day! Our hotel didn’t have a massage salon, so we went to Phu Quoc-Saigon Resort to get pampered. Even though this was one of the nicer resorts, we got a great package deal for our manicure, pedicure, spa and sauna, full-body hour-long massage and facial. In the states, we would spend about $400 on something like this, but in Vietnam, you can get a relaxing, refreshing spa treatment for only $36! The women who work here do an excellent job. One lady gave us a manicure and pedicure and facial. And another lady gave us a calming body hour-long massage. We felt like royalty after the four-hour session. But, this wasn’t the last of it. We got another hour-long massage in Saigon for $10! I’m sure there are cheaper places that are just as good, though.

We definitely got star treatment in Vietnam. Although, I was afraid of everyone despising me because I cannot speak Vietnamese, I was wrong. I had only one encounter with someone who was slightly prejudiced, but that happens even in America. As a Vietnamese-American, it was great to visit Vietnam as a tourist. But having a father who didn’t instill in me the Vietnamese culture and a mother who was adopted during the war and deprived of her Vietnamese culture, I feel that it would be even greater to learn more and more about the Vietnamese culture, not only for my generation, but for the next. This is not the last you will hear about Vietnam from us. We will go back soon to discover more about the culture and its people, not only for my sake of knowing more about where my family is from, but for the next generation.





Attempting to Learn about Vietnam’s Past

21 02 2010

Aside from all of the hustle and bustle of the Saigon, the city has a history that not many know about. Like I said, we learn one side of the story in history class. We learned that the Americans were trying to save the South Vietnamese from becoming a communist country controlled by the North Vietnamese or Viet Cong. But, little did we know how torturous and gruesome war can be, until we went to the War Remnants Museum. The pictures they had on display tell the story of how horrible the war was a how it destroyed parts of Vietnam and its people. They were held in prison camps and exposed to Agent Orange, one of the most dangerous dioxins. The U.S. Army used this dioxin to get rid of the trees and shrubs in rural South Vietnam. Little did they know that it not only caused disabilities among American soldiers, but also thirty years after the war, Vietnamese babies are still being born with physical and mental birth defects. It’s a tragic reality. We actually saw a baby with physical defects that was probably a result of Agent Orange.

Propaganda against the Vietnam War

We also learned about another reality of Phu Quoc Island. Two days before going to the beautiful beach, we learned that the South Vietnamese government with the help of the U.S. Army kept a prison camp on the island, where they would torture and kill the Viet Cong in tiger cages and much more. Tiger cages were a box made of barbed wire. The Viet Cong were forced in these, sometimes three or four people at a time and they would pretty much bleed to death together.

Tiger cages that South Vietnam and the U.S. used to torture the North Vietnamese.

We have to learn these facts through museums and books. The war was really harsh for the Vietnamese, which is the reason why many don’t talk about it. Unfortunately, the younger generation, such as mine, has no idea what the story is behind how we are alive today.





Shopping Madness

19 02 2010

Sixty percent of Vietnam’s population is under the age of 30, according to business-in-asia.com. This interesting fact shows the youthfulness as a country and how Vietnam is one of the fastest developing countries. These characteristics of the third-world country are prevalent in the people. The Vietnamese people are so sincere, helpful, hard-working, kind and open to foreigners. It seems that they are much more accustomed to working with and interacting with foreigners. For example, a lot of the older men know how to speak English very well because they worked with Americans during the war. And a lot of the younger generation knows how to speak English because they interact with tourists from Europe, North America and other parts of the world. Because foreigners usually can’t speak Vietnamese, they communicate with English. I didn’t realize that English is really a language that everyone around the world knows a little bit of and uses even in countries like Vietnam. Surprisingly, the U.S. Dollar is accepted in Vietnam as well.

Vietnamese people will go out of their way to make you happy, especially if they are trying to sell you something and if you’re willing to give them a good price for it. For example, we bought tons of gifts and souvenirs from one lady in Ben Thanh Market. I asked for certain items that she didn’t have, so she went to the next store to get it for me. In addition, Randy bargains like crazy. His strategy is: the more you buy the more of a discount you get, which is true. Walking through Ben Thanh Market is madness. Women will pull you left and right to eat at their place or buy their items. But when we went to An Dong and Binh Tay Markets, there were no foreigners. All of these items are for the wholesale price. Hardly any bargaining can be done here. But, it’s still madness. People are buying things in bulk and lugging it out of the four-story market filled with people.








Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.