Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Chuseok 2014

The past 5 days have been the Chuseok (Thanksgiving holiday). Last Chuseok I went to China, and the year before I went to Vietnam. This year I had made absolutely no plans. Friday the 5th was my birthday, so after work I had dinner downtown with some friends and then was out at the foreigner bars and clubs until the early hours of the morning.

Myself with Sarah (those aren't really her glasses), and a university teacher named Juan who is also from Atlanta.
The next day I met up with Jaeyun, as it was his birthday then. We went to the Biennale art exhibit, which had just opened the day before. The Biennale this year was excellent, and I would definitely like to go back again before it closes in November. I am still just so impressed that the most prestigious and largest modern art exhibit in Asia is in my little city of Gwangju. This year, the Biennale is titled "Burning Down the House" and is largely about destruction and renewal, especially politically but not necessarily so. If you want to know more about it you can just google it and read articles in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The Economist, and many other well-regarded publications that have covered it. This year, the Biennale drew a lot of criticism because one South Korean artist's work, depicting a caricature of the current president- Park Geun Hye- in a very unflattering light in the context of the Sewol ferry accident, was censored as right before the opening of the exhibit the federal government pressured the Bienalle organization to remove the painting, or face future funding issues. Of course this enraged not only the artist in question, but a lot of other artists, and the irony that this piece was censored in an exhibit specifically focused on political upheaval and annihilation and eventual restoration was lost on nobody. There were many works there that were critical of other governments and societies (such as Japan, the USA, China, etc), and yet this Korean piece was not allowed.

Despite that problem, the Bienalle was absolutely fantastic. This year it was directed by the curator of international art at the Tate Modern in London. I was so much more impressed this year than during the last Bienalle two years ago in 2012.

This is about women's rights in some (I think) Middle Eastern country.

I think this is by a Korean artist and is showing the transition of women entering the workforce more and the societal upheaval that followed, especially as men were super slow to mentally cope with that.

These two paintings are by a Japanese artist, and his work was my favorite. He attempted to show the modern relationship between people and material goods by showing youths (usually young men) as physically merging into products and goods.

After the Bienalle we got some pizza together and then saw a movie.

A few days later, I went to the May 18th National Cemetery, which is outside of the city some to the Northeast. It was over an hour away on a city bus for me from where I live. The cemetery, which houses the remains of those who were killed in the May 18th, 1980 democratic Gwangju uprising, as well as more recent people who have died (maybe people associated with the uprising but who lived through it and died of old age later? I don't know). It was really peaceful and beautifully landscaped. There were a few families there having picnics at certain graves and bowing down and doing the ancestral honor rites thing. There was also a museum there.

Pictures of those killed:

Bloodied Korean flag:

That's basically all I've done for Chuseok. It's been pretty un-adventurous compared to past years. I guess that's what happens when you're planning an international move in the next 3 months and you are saving up money to buy a car and you have the prospect of being unemployed looming in your not-so-distant future. I spent a good 2 hours yesterday cleaning my apartment and even bleached my floors. I played cribbage with Sarah yesterday for several hours (I won one game, she won another). I'm reading a personal development book called Life and How to Survive It co-written in the early 1990s by the British comedian John Cleese of all people.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Kayaking Trip with Lonely Korea

Last Sunday I participated in a kayaking trip with Lonely Korea, the travel group organized by Pedro. It had been more than a year since I had gone on a Lonely Korea trip- my last one had been the temple stay in April of 2013. Sometime last year Pedro opened a hostel for travelers in Gwangju, and he's been very busy running that. Consequently, he doesn't organize as many trips as he used to. When he posted this kayaking trip, I was really excited and immediately signed up.

Everyone (there were seven of us, plus Pedro) met around 1:30pm at the bus terminal, and Pedro drove us to Seomjin River, which is about an hour east of Gwangju. Seomjin River lies around Jiri Mountain, and the scenery in that area is just gorgeous. When we got to the kayaking site we were given helmets and lifejackets, handed a paddle, told to get into a kayak, and then pushed off. We all paddled around a bit by the site, waiting for our guide to join us. Once we were all in the water with our guide (who, being an expert in kayaking I suppose, didn't wear a helmet or lifejacket), we set off for our relaxing two hour trip down the river.

At first I wondered why we had a guide, but then I realized the river branched off many times, and the guide was necessary for us to know which branch to take. Often when there was a branch-off the water would get choppy, and the current could be quite fast and strong, which of course was a lot of fun as we would get splashed. Otherwise, the river was quite smooth and relaxing. It was a warm, sunny day, but there were many white, billowy clouds in the sky that masked the sun so we didn't usually didn't have direct sunlight on us. It was a perfect day to be out in the country.

I didn't bring my phone into the kayak, but another participant, Mallory, brought along a water-proof camera and took a lot of pictures. She said I could use her pictures on my blog, so the pictures on this blog post are all ones she took.

The kayaking site where we started from:

Starting off:

 Isn't the scenery great?

The wonderful Pedro:

About 2/3rds of the way through, we stopped at a bridge, got out, and had a snack of apples and beer.

Some people jumped off the bridge into the water:
We resumed kayaking for maybe 20 more minutes, and then once again pulled over. Our guide called the kayaking company people to come pick us up with a truck. After loading all the kayaks onto the truck, we drove back to the site. It was about a 15 minute drive. I sat on the back of the truck with Pedro, our guide, and another participant, Chase. It was such a gorgeous ride back among farmlands and it felt so nice to be sitting up high and have the wind in our hair.

Our guide with the loaded-up kayaks:

Back at the site, Pedro unloaded a camp stove and a bunch of groceries from the van. We had sodas and beer, chicken, dumplings, and vegetables, but Pedro realized that he had accidentally left another bag of groceries back at the bus terminal in Gwangju. He quickly drove off to find a store to buy more supplies at, and returned about half an hour later with sausages and beef and marinades. I am trying to make a conscious effort to eat more meat, as I have had to face the truth that after a year and a half of being vegetarian I am absolutely not getting anywhere near the protein I need, especially for someone who exercises regularly. Pedro quickly cooked up many delicious dishes with the camp stove, and I ate a good amount of them. I will say- the meat was weird, though that was no fault of Pedro's. I really don't have any desire to go out of my way to eat meat, and I absolutely don't want to eat it at home, but I do want to get to the point in which if I'm at someone's house and they serve me meat I will eat it.

We left shortly after 6pm, and I was home in my apartment around 7:45pm. It was a great Sunday!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia Day 5

On Wednesday we got up quite early, and after eating a quick breakfast we took the subway to the Petronas Towers. We really wanted to get tickets to go up on the skybridge, and we knew only a certain number of tickets were released each day for people. I had read countless times that to get tickets we needed to show up as soon as the ticket office opened at 8:30am. At Suria KLCC, the mall adjacent to the towers, we spent a long time looking at directories trying to figure out where the ticket office was. Finally, we found out it was on the bottom floor of one of the towers. We were confused because we didn't really see many other people around looking for the same thing. When trying to enter the tower, a guard stopped us and explained that the skybridge was closed that day for the Hari Raya holiday. So that was a disappointment. We went back in the mall and hung out at a coffeeshop for a while. We also wanted to go to Petrosains in the mall- a science discovery center that is supposed to be very interactive and is also supposed to focus on petroleum (since Petronas is a petroleum company). This science center had been strongly recommended to us by Matthias, a Malaysian researcher Jaeyun works with, and his wife. The mall directory said the science center opened at 9:30, and it said it was open on public holidays, so we hung out with our coffee for a while waiting until the time to walk there.

 The entrance to Petrosains in the mall:
Unfortunately, when we got to Petrosains, we found a sign on the door saying it was closed for several days for Hari Raya. We then went to the art gallery in the mall, only to see that it too was closed. At this point we felt fairly lost, as our plan for that day had been to 1. Go on the Petronas Skybridge 2. Spend several hours at Petrosains 3. Figure it out after that. Now the first two items on our list were off and we had a whole free day with nothing planned. Luckily we had our guidebook with us, and we quickly leafed through and realized we had done almost everything that was recommended to do in Kuala Lumpur. We had seen the caves, been to China Town and Little India, been to the museums, been to the bird park, walked around and seen the street food market areas, been to Merdeka Square, etc. So we started looking at what we could do in the surrounding area outside of the city, and settled on going to FRIM.

FRIM is the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia, and it's just about 17km outside of the city. We got the impression from our guidebook that it was a place we could hike around, and the guidebook mentioned a canopy walkway high over the forest floor which closed at 1:30pm. Our guidebook said we could take a commuter train to a suburb called Kepong, and then take a taxi to FRIM, which is what we did- after stopping off at the hotel to grab our sneakers first.

A snack I got at the train station waiting to go to Kepong. This is Nasi Lemak wrapped in the banana leaf in take-out style.

FRIM ended up being super cool, though the canopy walkway was unfortunately closed for maintenance. We hiked in the forest for about two hours, and we both really enjoyed it as we saw numerous tropical plants we hadn't seen before. It was a much different experience than hiking in the US or Korea. The actual FRIM complex is huge, and it has dozens of buildings devoted to research and showcasing the flora and fauna of the area. All the research and museum type buildings seemed closed- probably due to the holiday. There weren't many other people there with us.

The trail started off easy but soon got more difficult:

This is a rubber tree!

This is a traditional Malay house outside the forest on the FRIM complex.
It was a lot of fun to be out in nature and away from the city. Near the end of the hike, when we were drenched in sweat, we found a shallow, small pond of water and took our shoes and socks off and relaxed there for a while with our feet in the water. It felt so good!

Getting out of FRIM was a bit of a hassle- it is very far removed from the actual town of Kepong, so we had to walk quite a ways- like maybe an hour- out of FRIM and towards Kepong before we finally found a taxi that could take us to the Kepong train station. During out walk when we were still in the FRIM complex we saw a huge monitor lizard!! This guy was just chilling by the sidewalk and really startled us. It was close to three feet long.

When we finally got back to our Kuala Lumpur and our hotel we showered, and then headed across the street to check out Berjaya Times Square- the giant shopping complex. This complex has 48 stories total, and includes like a 9 story shopping mall, an indoor amusement park complete with a roller coaster, hotels, condominiums, an IMAX theater, etc. It's the ninth largest building in the world in terms of floor space. It's absolutely humongous. What surprised us, walking around, was many of the stores were tiny and were what Americans would call "ghetto". A lot of the stores seemed really old and needed to be renovated, and the clothes didn't look like good quality. It was clear that Suria KLCC, by the Petronas Towers, is the "fanciest" and "nicest" mall in town, while Berjaya Times Square was actually where people went to buy affordable things. We found a place that had the Dr. Fish spa treatment in which the fish eat the dead skin off your feet. I was really happy we had found a place for this so Jaeyun could try it. Jaeyun ended up loving it and said it was his favorite thing he did in Malaysia. He said he really liked the symbiosis involved.

After the Dr. Fish, we left Berjaya Times Square and very quickly walked to Menara Tower. It took us maybe half and hour to get there. Night was falling fast and we wanted to get to the top of the tower before it feel completely, so we'd still have some light left to see the city. We made it just in time.

The observation deck on the Menara Tower is actually taller than the skybridge on the Petronas Towers.

Here you can see the Petronas Towers:
 After leaving the Menara Tower, we went back to Jalan Alor Street for dinner. We decided to just get different kebabs from these street kebab places. You can choose what kind you want and they grill or fry them for you. They had dozens of kinds of kebabs- all sorts of meats, seafood, and vegetables. We got several kinds and I also got a deep-fried whole frog. I've had frog legs before but never a whole frog. I was pretty excited about it. Jaeyun refused to eat it.

Skinned frogs:

My deep fried frog! It was delicious.

  After eating we headed back to our hotel, packed up, and went to sleep. We were up a bit before 5am, and took a train to the airport about 30 minutes away. Our flight was at 8am, and we got to the airport around 6:30. We thought we had plenty of time, so we had a nice sit-down breakfast together. When we went to the check-in counter, it was around 7:10am, and the AirAsia staff refused to let us check in, saying AirAsia customers must check in one hour before their flight. They told us we could not get on our flight and we must buy a ticket for a flight later in the day. We ended up getting tickets for a Vietnam Airlines flight to Seoul at 8pm, with a 2 hour layover in the middle of the night in Ho Chi Minh City. We had no choice but to hang out in the airport for close to 12 hours waiting for this flight. It certainly wasn't a fun experience, but it wasn't the worst thing that's ever happened. The time actually passed faster than I thought it would.

And that is the end of our vacation! I had a blast and we both really enjoyed it. We both commented several times on how diverse and multi-ethnic Malaysia was, as everywhere we went we saw native Malays, Indians, Chinese, and people from all over Southeast Asia. We were constantly hearing a variety of languages. We saw many western white tourists, but I rarely heard anything resembling a North American English accent. I heard a lot of British accents and for some reason I heard a disproportionate amount of French. Like if I saw a white person and got close enough to hear them speak, it seemed about 70% of the time they were speaking French. I was very impressed with how modern the parts of Malaysia we saw were- especially contrasted to the other Southeast Asian countries I've been to. We rarely saw homeless people or beggars, and the ones we did see did not pester us like they do in some countries. We walked all over Kuala Lumpur, and I didn't see anything that I would classify as a "slum", though we certainly saw some lower-income housing areas. All in all, I was quite impressed with the infrastructure and general atmosphere of the country and city.