Monday, October 2, 2017

Seoul, solo

With Andrew still away in NZ I needed a breakout from Vientiane.  12 hours after I booked flights to Seoul there was an escalation in the rhetoric surrounding North Korea and US/Japan.  However nothing significant happened and I got on a 22:45 flight from Vientiane to Seoul.  It was a 5 hour flight and I arrived into Incheon airport at 5:30am local time.

It was a breeze to get through an empty immigration hall and I headed off to find my wifi device.  $3 a day for unlimited internet made my 4 days in Korea so much easier!

The airport is about an hour from the city itself and a bit bleary eyed I got on the train and watched everything around me.  The metro system is comprehensive, but the signage is not the best in the world so internet apps make it easy to cope. 

seoul1

The hotelwas very kind and let me check-in early and I had 2 hours sleep.  Somewhat refreshed I wandered off to check things out.  I chose the Insadong area because was close to the metro and I could walk to 3 sites I wanted to see nearby.  It was a good area with lots of little laneways and access to food options

I visited the Changdeokung Palace and it’s secret garden''.  The secret garden  (another name for a royal garden) can only be visited if you join a tour so I pre-booked on-line and chose 11:30am using the theory I would be tired and maybe wake late. Nope, awake early as normal.  As a result I went to the palace early and walked around. I accidentally walked past the meeting place for the 10:30 tour and joined the earlier tour.  Yes, perfect timing for once!  The palace and gardens were nice and a very good way to ease into Seoul for me.  One interesting comment from the guide in the garden was when we looked a pond deliberately shaped like the outline of Korea.  She said, Yes, the shape includes North Korea….I could not imagine Korea without the North. 

seoul2

There was a trip to the National Museum of Korea.  Three floors of interesting collections but the ground floor was the most interesting.  I visited on a Saturday and there were endless groups of school children doing small group (6 or 7 per group) study.

seoulmus

I did notice there was a high level of safety equipment everywhere.  In the hotel room there were descending ropes if you needed to leave in an emergency.  In every metro station there were emergency supply cabinets with breathing masks and other protective equipment.  This seemed like community preparedness as opposed to any particular concerns.  But I am basing that on 4 days, as opposed to any real knowledge.

seoulprep

I went to check out a market in the university area and while I didn’t see anything I wanted to buy, it was certainly interesting seeing an area with a completely different vibe and really busy on a Saturday afternoon.  I also found a highly recommended café and had a mega-lunch including homemade ginger beer. 

Food-wise I didn't starve Smile  I am NOT a fan of Kimchi (or most other fermented or highly acidic foods)  But I certainly didn't say no to massive plates of fried chicken (non-greasy and a little spicy, mmmm)  so much, but so good.  There was so much I had a doggy bag and took it ‘home’ for my evening meal.  There were Mandu (meat dumplings) from a shop that sold 2 dishes only – dumplings or soup…simply lots of good food.  I went to an evening market and was not tempted to eat the spicy meals or the offal – but everyone was enjoying.  I later even found the Turkish ice-cream sellers, tormenting small children with ice-creams on poles – just like they taunted Andrew when we were in Taipei.

seoulfood

I managed to get to the night market at Dongdaemun Design Plaza (DDP) designed by Zaha Hadid.  I went “early” at about 19:00 and enjoyed seeing the building illuminated, the people, entertainment and food.  Apparently that district doesn't really get going until 22:00 when the wholesale clothing stores open and trade through to early morning. The design market itself is open 24 hours a day.
  
seoulnight
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Wat Phou and Hue

In early September I finally got to visit Wat Phou in southern Laos.  Wat Phou is the 2nd of 2 UNESCO World Heritage sites in Laos (Luang Prabang town is the other).  Wat Phou is part of the Khmer trail of which Angkor Wat in Cambodia is the most famous.  

We had a company meeting for all staff in the southern city of Pakse, and included an outing for all to the temple about an hour out of Pakse.  The complex has waterways and ruined buildings.  The climb to the temple itself is a killer.  I raced up wanting to get there before the other 120 people in our party (they took the longer official approach route to get the steep steps while I went the shorter way after organising everyone’s tickets Smile
wat phou2
wat phou1

Getting to the top I sat for a few minutes to get my breath back  Smile  But it was worth it to see the site in relative quiet.  And I managed to get on the 1st bus back to town - one NOT playing karaoke.  Lao love it.

The next day a small group of us got on another bus and went on a study tour to Vietnam.  

It is only 370km from Pakse to Hue, but we left at 7:30am and arrived in Hue about 5pm.  The border in the middle adds 30 minutes at each end and there are mountain roads.  But main contributor to the length of journey was due to the bus driver not driving over 80km at any time.  When we returned to Laos, we noticed he immediately put his foot down and drove at the speed limit.  But fair enough he was being careful, particularly when the police target foreign drivers.

We saw a lot of trees as we drove, but we also visited a MDF factory, a wood-chip factory, and a port.
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Hue itself was a nice Vietnamese town.  And the food, as always, was great.  The Bun Bo Hue (Pho with a lemongrass and shrimp paste influences) was fantastic. 
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After visiting the port we had a seafood lunch at the beach.  Most of the local staff had never been to the sea-side before – one of the downsides of living in a poor, land-locked country.  They loved swimming in the sea.  One was heard to ask ‘so how far out does the water go?…

At the end of day 2 we had an hour at the main tourist site in Hue, the Citadel (old palace).  it was enormous and a great walk to end the day.

vn citadel

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Return to Kapas Island, June 2017 version

In July last year we had a week in Malaysia on Kapas island.  We decided to do it again – we had not been to beach since then.

Before this, there was a weekend in Bangkok doing some errands: fixing phones, going fabric shopping etc. Andrew was so good and sat in the gentleman’s waiting chair.  He agreed that a stretch Hummer was not the most practical of vehicles, and that no, we neither needed a lap dog nor a dog pram to push it in.  But a fan is a very useful piece of portable kit when you are sitting in a humid train station waiting 10 minutes for the airport train to arrive.

thailand

Then it was the trip to Kapas via KL and then KT.  KT, Kuala Terengganu, is the town nearest Redang, the Perhentian Islands and our quieter and less touristed destination Kapas Island.  Last time we did this trip we were supposed to spend the night in KT but when Andrew left his iPad on the plane and we had to do a detour rescue mission to retrieve it, that plan went by the wayside.  So this time we deliberately added a full day there.  The town turned out to be a quietish, provincial city, worth a look but not a destination in itself.

KT
Then it was onto the small boat that ferried us to the island.  There had been a bt of rain the day before but Monday was clear and sunny and made for a pleasant 15 minute ride.  In fact it did not rain at all the entire stay even though quite a bit of rain was forecast

Turtle Valley is a laid-back place with simple accomodation and fantastic food.  Sylvia and Peter and the crew do it well.  This year it was Ramadhan and although that had no impact at Turtle Valley it did mean there were not the dining restaurants open at lunchtime each day.  We did not starve , we adapted our routine to be back at Turtle Valley each day for a lovely lunch.
kapas
The water was good, and we swam and snorkled.  The walkways that had been built around the island are quite an asset.  The island was quiet with only a few tourists mid-week and at times we had beaches entirely to ourselves.  The one thing that did not leave Andrew alone were the mosquitoes.  They LOVED him and left lots of bites.  He had time on his hands and actually counted what he could see.  He thought there were 300+. 
kapas2

We had 4 relaxing days there and then it was back to KL for a couple of days.  We arrived into KL Sentral station at about 6pm on Friday night.  We took the circle train to our hotel.  We have never been squashed into a train carriage as much as we were on that leg.

After checking in we decided to head out for dinner.  But outside the heavens had opened and a massive tropical downpour was happening.  We stood and waited 15 minutes or so, and finally decided to brave it as it was sort of easing off,  And the restaurant we wanted to go to was about 400m away.  We got sooo wet and the restaurant was over-airconditoned and freezing, but we had a good steak. 
kl
We walked, did some shopping and generally enjoyed a little bit of city.  One of the highlights (unexpected) was visiting the Japan Store by Isetan.  A new concept store with beautifully curated products, simple and sophisticated it was a visual treat and we spent quite a lot of time looking around all floors. 

Stayed @ Holiday Inn express and ate well The Ship, Lot 10 and Taps beer

Friday, May 19, 2017

Taipei, just a bit more

We spent a lot of time eating this trip, and did not have a single bad experience. In all the guidebooks it says if you see a line join it,  it doesn’t matter if you don’t know what you will get – the line pretty much guarantees it will be worth it.  One of the best was a stall selling green onion pancakes.   The line was long, but the reward was delicious!!!!

Scallion
Din Tai Fung our favourite Xiao Long Bao chain of restaurants originated in Taipei and we made the trip to their original restaurant.  The wait was 45 minutes when we arrived so we took our number and went for a wander around the streets.  I left Andrew to his own devices for 15 minutes and came back to find he had sourced a poppy seed bun/cake. 
DinTaifung
We had planned to do a guided market tour on our 2nd day in Taipei as a introduction to Taiwanese food.  It was postponed and we ended up doing it half way through the trip – but it was a good way to get some good off the beaten track insights.  We went with Taipei Eats and Jean was lovely. We sat in the streets and tasted smoked shark, sausages inside rice sausages, beef noodle soup, rice dumplings  etc etc.  Some of the stalls had been operating for 40 or 50 years. 
night market
And we spent some time eating our way again Ningxia night market not far from our apartment.  Busy and full off options including an ice-cream wrap with peanut toffee  shaved with a carpenter’s plane and finished with coriander.
night mkt
We spent some time on cultural pursuits visiting the Confucius  Temple and the well-restored Baoan Temple
confucious
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Another highlight was the National Palace Museum with it’s superb collection of Chinese artifacts.  The porcelain and metal work were particularly stunning.  What was not stunning was the sea of humanity otherwise known as Chinese tour groups.  We went early in the morning but they were still oppressive.  The guides are pushy and the people often just as pushy as they press their phone cameras against the exhibits. Leaving your water bottle while visiting the exhibits and collecting it on exiting was a new one for us  (we didn't have water bottles, just observed others doing it)
museum
Taiwan is a highly recommended destination with it’s green spaces, friendly people and great food!
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Sunday, May 7, 2017

Taipei as a base

We came back to Taipei and a lovely apartment in the Zhongshan district.  A short walk to the metro system, plenty of restaurants and a supermarket nearby, and very quiet.  One of the pleasant aspects of Taipei is the number of small backstreets and small boutique/specialist shops.  We used this as a base to make a number of day trips and activities.
apartment
There was the trip out to the end of the MTR line and the sea-side suburb of Tamsui.  We headed off around the coast and Andrew spotted an ice-cream vendor.  We watched the funny spectale as the vendor teased a small child by offering the ice-cream then taking it away. He was a true showman knowing how far to go and having the crowd in fits of laughter.  Eventually he gave the child the ice-cream.  Andrew decided he would have one too.  He did NOT think the many would toy with little Andrew.  How wrong he was.   With sleight of hand he offered and took the ice-cream away from Andrew
Icecream2

If that wasn’t bad enough.  Little Andrew spent the 1 minute with an empty ice-cream cone in his pocket.  He still doesnt know how the man managed to put it in there without him knowing.
icecreams
And the ice-cream was delicious.
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We wandered around the Fort San Domingo.  Built originally in the early 1600s by the Spanish, the Dutch came through and re-built it, the Chinese had control of it for a while and it ended it’s active life as the British Embassy in the 1980’s when Taiwan (China)  took back control.

FortSanDomingo
We spent a morning up Maokong Hill.  A ride on the MRT takes you to a semi-rural area with plenty of walking and views back over the city.  Here there are tea plantations and camphor forests.  We took the gondola up and wandered around. 
Maokong
mao kong
Down at Taroko, there were plenty of sandfly/mosquitoes.  As usual Andrew was an insect magnet and spent the remainder of the trip itching the 80 or so bites he got.  And, yes, he did spend time counting them.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Biking and walking down the Taroko Gorge:

We headed to the East Coast of Taiwan for two nights.  Our destination was the Taroko Gorge, one of Taiwan’stop tourist destinations.  The Gorge is a part of a large national park with steep mountains and narrow valleys. 

We took a comfortable train on a two hour journey, much of it along the coast.  The sea views were interesting.  The large number of processing factories was a little unsettling – were we headed to a spoiled playground? No, of course not. It was a well managed natural area, untouched by large scale industry. 
Xingchen
We were picked up by the lodge host and taken to the Taroko Lodge.  We went for a brief walk before we met the other guests and were taken to the nearby larger town for dinner in a simple local restaurant.  The other guests turned out to be 2 international families and 2 international school teachers from...Bangkok.  In a small town, on the edge of Taiwan, there were 13 people taking advantage of Laos/Thailand New Year holidays.  It’s a small world

The next day were were driven in seperate group up the Taroko Gorge for a day of walking and biking.  This was a very pleasant way to see the natural sites at a pace of your own choosing, without being on a tour bus.  The weather was mild, even verging on cooler by the end of the day.  It made for pleasant walking conditions.  And the general direction of travel was downhill so we couldn't complain about the biking leg either.
taroko walk bike
The scenery was stunning and there were some impressive tunnels through the rock.  Traffic was not too bad, but when biking we didn't stop too many times for sight-seeing aiming to get to the next destination. 
Taroko valley
 There were plenty of tunnels on the walks and in half of them a torch was needed to light the way.  And there were plenty of ‘danger of rockfall’ signs, encouraging you to keep moving.
Taroko
As well as the general natural beauty and trails, we walked to a number of temples.  Bicycle theft is not a major issue here.  At each stop we parked our bikes and wandered away for the time we wanted.  The Lodge owner was following the group as support in case of flat tyres etc, but was not checking on the bikes.
man-made taroko

  It was a very good day, which we enjoyed and recommend.  We wanted to stay another night in the Lodge, but it was fully booked.  We instead took the train 12 minutes down the line to the larger town of Hualien where we spent the night and had a wander around before returning to Taipei.

A couple of uncanny likenesses?
taroka

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Taiwan, escape to the ‘Heart of Asia’

Lao New Year is a great opportunity to make the most of some statutory holidays to get a good break away.  And it is a perfect time to visit Taiwan, not typhoon season, warm not hot and only a bit of rain in the forecasts. 

We arrived into Taipei and got onto the train into the city.  Two things immediately stood out: the transport system is well signposted and efficient and there is plenty of green spaces around the city, obvious bike lanes and families using them…are we really in China?…actually not really.

We had a hotel Relax V, near the Taipei Main railway station and it was the ideal base for the first two nights.  We arrived late in the afternoon and then wandered out for a reconnaissance mission.  We concluded we were not going to go hungry in this city based on the enticing street stalls everywhere we went. And that proved to be the case. 

Our first find was the superb Pepper Pork buns.  Like a small pie, the ball of meat is placed on a bed of green onions (scallions) and the bun dough shaped around the filling. 10s of buns are prepared waiting for current batch to come out of the the tandoori type oven.  And all the time more and more people line up eagerly awaiting the buns.  And when they are ready they are crispy, almost short pastry like and the filling is delicious.  All for NT$50 (about NZD $2.50)
pepper buns

We had also lined up a coffee place, Notch, and then just around the corner some of the most delicious bread for breakfast.  The girl in the bread shop was so kind the first day explaining to us what each bun was.  A hip cafe Drip, provided some comfort food ( so good we returned one other day as well) and a dark “Japanese style’ Beer
taipei food2
We also managed to do some sightseeing!  Thankfully most Chinese signs are supplemented with English, and even if we got lost, someone would have helped us.  We stopped once to decide which direction to go, and someone came up and asked if we wanted help.

The Longshan temple was one of our first destinations as we walked the neighbourhood.  Buzzing it was the centre of community life.  Also appealing was the large (man-made)waterfall feature along one wall. 

Longshanb
Longshan2
Everywhere we walked there were parks or masses of flowers.  It is a very tidy, green and pleasant city.  And we have never seen so many turtles in the ‘urban wild’  Almost every pond we saw, had masses of turtles piled up in water feature rocks.
peace park
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We visited the Chiang Kai Shek Memorial – a massive-scale edifice.  In the memorial Hall, a smiling Chiang Kai-Shek beams down, guarded by two soldiers.  The changing of the guard is a tourist spectacle and plenty of people crowded around to watch the spectacle.

Chang Kai Shek
Chang Kai Shek2
change guard
Outside we saw an interesting man walking his 5 or 6 tiny white dogs, with their tails and ears dyed pink (just the dogs, not the man )  There was also a rather good park sign prohibiting all the normal activites in public places such as littering or overnight camping.  There were a few other prohibitions such as no clothes drying  or own desks and chairs – which suggest these may have been an issue in past?
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