Taiwan calling

I've finally gotten confirmation of next week's press trip to Taiwan, which is not for Lonely Planet but a Singapore publication. Hey, all-expenses-paid travel --- I ain't complainin'.

I'll be in:
  • Taipei (but only in a cursory fashion, I suspect)
  • Green Island (绿岛 or Ludao)
  • Beitou (北投)
  • Penghu (澎湖, another island), and
  • Jinmen (金门, or the island formerly known as Quemoy)
Judging from the itinerary, the main objective of this trip seems to be overwhelm us with the delightfulness of Taiwan's hot springs (温泉) and islands. I'm particularly keen to see Jinmen, which is only 2 km off the coast of mainland China --- after seeing the DMZ in Korea last year, I find disputed border areas quite compelling, even if I'm there just as a layperson observer.

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The quick Hoi An getaway

Vintage Hoi An

Oddly enough, it was only on our last day in Hoi An that we managed to track down a cafe giai khat in the Old Town, where we could park ourselves on child-sized chairs and dawdle over Vietnamese drip coffee. The cafe was less than two blocks from our hotel, yet we had never noticed it all this while.

Local-style cafes aren't easy to find in Hoi An's Old Town. You can't pass a street that doesn't have a tourist-friendly cafe --- you know the kind, occupying a restored Old Town house with street-facing bamboo chairs, free wi-fi and a menu that offers croissants alongside cau lau. But for local-style places, you usually have to head north away from the river, towards Hoi An's other market and into the neighbourhoods with com ga (chicken rice) stalls and karaoke joints.

I didn't do much of that traipsing this time. The restaurants I was writing about were all in the tourist-accessible Old Town, and the rest of the time I mostly lolled about in a cafe or a bar. If you missed my Facebook status updates, they were (in chronological order):
Wednesday, 4 November
[Tym] is in rainy Hoi An, where there's a starfruit tree outside her window and Christmasy lights at the restaurant across the street.

Thursday, 5 November
[Tym] is falling in love with Vietnamese salads all over again.
[Tym] is watching the river rise over shots of Vietnamese rice wine at the Sleepy Gecko.

Friday, 6 November

[Tym] is off to a 'death anniversary lunch' – I honestly have no idea what this will involve, besides Vietnamese food of some kind.

Saturday, 7 November
[Tym] is on a passionfruit binge in Hoi An. So far: chocolate chip semifredo, cheesecake and juice. (Not on the same day.)
[Tym] is going to a Vietnamese wedding. No idea who's getting married, but it seems there will be heaps of food, rice wine and extremely loud hip-hop music involved.

Sunday, 8 November
[Tym] has had Vietnamese coffee, Italian coffee, Vietnamese red sticky rice liqueur and heaps of passionfruit juice – and it's not even 3pm yet.

Monday, 9 November
[Tym] has had her last bite of banana flower salad, last gulp of Vietnamese coffee and Biere Larue, and last inhalation of scorching hot air in Hoi An. Next stop: Danang, then Singapore.
Yeah, I mostly drank passionfruit juice, Vietnamese coffee and Biere Larue, and stuffed myself silly with salads.

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Three days later

Washing the mud off

Been busy eating and drinking and catching up with friends. Hoi An is as charming as it was last year, despite the intermittent rain we've been having, and the food is even more splendid than I remember. I'm thinking I need to start running food tours here --- sign up in the comments if you're interested.

So far on this trip, in between restaurant visits and chilling out in cafes, I've attended a "death anniversary lunch" (i.e. commemorative feast for deceased ancestors) and a Vietnamese wedding (i.e. feast for the wedding couple). The home-cooked food has been great --- who knew that bun and beef stew could taste that good --- as has the exquisite restaurant fare, and I'm wondering why I don't just move here so I can have tip-top meals round the clock.

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Right place, right time

There should be some kind of alluring photo of Hoi An here, but the only photo I've taken today is of the cool gadget charging station at Changi Airport. When we got to Vietnam it was grey and rainy, and though we went out and tramped the wet and sandy streets of Hoi An anyway, it wasn't a good day for pictures.

What I really wish I had a picture of, is my expression when I exited Danang Airport. I was peering at the row of men holding cards for the guests whom they were meeting --- and then I spotted, of all people, a friend I had made in Hue last year. A handshake turned into a hug and several moments of my usual rapid-fire chattering. He was there to pick up some guests arriving on the same flight as me, which is pretty random since he doesn't get a lot of custom from Singapore. Hue is also a good two hours from Danang, so he doesn't make the trip down very often.

The sheer serendipity of the meeting left me sitting rather stunned for most of the car ride from Danang to Hoi An. What a great way to arrive back in Vietnam.

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Just another day

Not every day is about writing.. Today was about scratching things off my to-do list, which is scribbled in ballpoint ink on a piece of used paper.

In the approximate order in which they were completed:
  • Called my mom 'cause it's her birthday. Yay, Mom!
  • Confirmed a radio interview for next week for Singapore: A Biography and drafted some talking points for it. (First time in my life I've drafted talking points for my own use --- it doesn't get any easier.)
  • Made loose plans to meet a Lonely Planet writer who'll be in town next week.
  • Made loose plans to meet one of my best friends' boyfriends who'll be in town next week too.
  • Sent out an email reminder to a rather long list of friends and associates about the upcoming book launch events (which kick off on Sunday at the National Library --- are you gonna be there or what?). Fortunately I didn't break my Gmail doing it.
  • Secured a good freelance writing/editing partner for a small job next month that I don't have the time to do on my own (yay for pay copy).
  • Turned down another copywriting job that totally doesn't interest me.
  • Shilled for the book at the National Education mothership of Singapore.
  • Contemplated the niceties of starting a Facebook Fan page for Singapore: A Biography, considering the book is still at the printer's and will only be in bookstores next week (but you can buy it at the National Library event on Sunday).
  • Made loose plans to meet a couple of Singapore writers at the opening of the Singapore Writers Festival.
  • Emailed some contacts for a Vietnam trip next month.
  • Compiled a bunch of information for a government tender and updated a proposal document that one of my collaborators drafted.
  • Attempted to do a friend a favour and play around with the new Raffles Alumni website, but there was only so much I could do when it didn't send me my password.
  • Daydreamed (although we did this after dinner and via IM) with a good friend about the Really Cool Business we're going to set up --- someday.
  • Ignored Ink whining for more food because he's had his full ration for the day.
  • Bought more bandwidth for the Singapore: A Biography website (I suspect there's a not quite optimised-for-web image that's doing us in).
  • Scratched Sisu's head till she stopped whining at me (after lunch and now, as I'm typing this in bed).
  • Avoided finishing that essay I started a few weeks ago.
Pretty damn productive.

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A crash-course tour of Singapore in less than 12 hours

Taking off

Start time: 1 p.m.

1. Meet at Raffles City.

2. Lunch at Yet Con along Purvis Street: old-school chicken rice, with some sambal kangkong for extra kick.

3. Hop on a bus to Chinatown, where Maxwell Hawker Centre serves as Exhibit A for introducing the concept of hawker centres. Interlude: sugar cane juice and deep-fried sweet potato dumplings. Marvel that at least 15 people are waiting in a very slow line for Tian Tian Chicken Rice.

4. Wander over to BooksActually, so I can pick up Concave Scream's new album. Peek into cool old clan association buildings on Ann Siang Road along the way.

5. Mosey further down Smith Street and the madly touristed-with-souvenir-stalls Trengganu Street. Puzzle over the juxtaposition of souvenir stalls with sex shops with eating places with traditional Chinese medical halls and a doctor's clinic that looks like it's permanently stuck in the 1950s. Admire Majestic Theatre from the pedestrian bridge linking Pagoda Street to People's Park Complex.

6. Hop on a bus to Tiong Bahru. Refresh spirits with ice cream ice kachang (that's not a typo), a cold bowl of cheng tng and a cup of ice-blended cappucino --- all from the same stall at Tiong Bahru market.

7. Maunder around Tiong Bahru, admiring Art Deco architecture.

8. Hop into a taxi to Beach Road market, so that the friend can get a Singapore flag cloth patch to add to his round-the-world collection.

9. Hie over to the Arab Street area and mooch around the food festival going on at the Malay Heritage Centre. Snack of the hour: prawn vadai.

10. Shuffle across the street, just in time to see the men coming out (or is that going in?) for evening prayers at Sultan Mosque. Finger fabrics at the cloth shops along Arab Street, peer at the indie-ish cafes and boutiques along Haji Lane, and nod approvingly at graffiti on the walls wherever you see it.

11. Pop into Parkview Square, 'cause it's the only crazy Gotham-like building we have in Singapore.

12. Nip into the National Library, so that I can use the toilet. Meanwhile my friend finds some kind of nifty touchscreen newspaper-browsing device.

13. Hop onto a train to Buona Vista. We're early for dinner and there are no tables available at the coffeeshop anyway, so poke around in the adjacent NTUC Fairprice supermarket and cool off in the air-conditioning.

14. Settle down at the coffeeshop for dinner.

15. Dawdle for a couple of hours over Peranakan food and Western fare, as one ought to at Big D's.

16. Adjourn to Udders for dessert, since the friend has declared, "I have a separate ice cream stomach."

17. Drop the friend off near his backpacker place at Little India, after helpfully pointing out Mustafa as a landmark and all-night shopping option.

End time: 10:45 p.m.

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Where the week went

I meant to blog this week, but then it seemed like nothing much, er, happened. Work time --- and there was rather a lot of it --- was expended on tedious yet essential details such as endnotes, indexing and incidental proofreading. Non-work time was spent watching Kaki Bakar, checking out an art exhibition at Osage, and chowing down on tau huey (soya bean curd) at Selegie Road and luncheon meat fries at Wild Oats. Yes, first I feed my mind with the good stuff, then it's more plebeian fare for the stomach.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the sudden urge to book an air ticket, pack a bag and get the hell out of town --- not because there was anything I suddenly disliked about Singapore, but because I suddenly felt like, okay, I've had my dose of it, and it's time for something else now. I couldn't actually up and go, because of work commitments, but the urge, augmented by a recent conversation with Adri, has got me flipping through travel guidebooks and thinking about where to go next, even before I finish start my writing for Korea.

Tomorrow I get to play tour guide to a friend I made in Hoi An last year. He's from Australia-via-Vietnam-via-Kuala Lumpur and has done a round-the-world backpacking trip, so I'm not sure what I can show him in Singapore that could possibly surprise him. Maybe we'll just park ourselves at a kopitiam and drink a lot of beer.

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Rambling about Korea

Makgeolli for everyone

If you would like to hear the story behind how I wound up hiking huffing and puffing my way up a hill south of Seoul with these three fine Korean yangban (colloquially, gentlemen), then come by the Korea Culture Event at Woodlands Regional Library tomorrow. My presentation is going to be something along the lines of "Travelling in Korea: Seeing beyond Seoul (even if you don’t speak Korean)". There'll be two other speakers to talk about Korean food, language ("How to learn Korean via YouTube") and pop culture.

I can't find the details on the NLB website (natch), but the event is running 2 - 5 p.m. in the Amazon Room at Woodlands Regional Library. I'm the last speaker for the day, so how long I ramble for depends on how many people are still awake at that point.

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So, about Vietnam ...

Hot off the press

While I was triaging 7 weeks of snailmail on Thursday, I found a chunky package wrapped in white paper (rather than an envelope) with my name and address scribbled on it. I ripped it open as if it were a gift, and it practically was, because the package turned out to be the new 10th edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook to Vietnam.

Of which I wrote three destination chapters: North-Central Vietnam, Central Vietnam and Central Highlands. If you're interested in glorious landscapes, history, the American War in Vietnam, minority groups and cool weather, those are the chapters you'll wanna read first.

On Friday night:
Suzie: how chuffed are you!
ME: very chuffed
ME: i kinda pull it out in a pai sei way to show people
ME: but then they are chuffed, so i am more chuffed
The book doesn't hit stores till July, so if you were planning to pick up a guidebook to Vietnam in the next couple of weeks, hold your horses till you see this one. The new edition has a cover photo with conical hats (predictable, I know) and basket boats on a river. Or buy it here at LP.com.

Meanwhile, I'm toting my first copy around in a protective Ziploc bag, to show to all and sundry.

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Not sick of Korean food at all

Watching the Seoul episode of Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern makes me hungry for some doenjang jjigae (soybean stew). The mee pok ta I had for lunch didn't quite do the trick.

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Amusing ourselves inflight

Every airport needs one of these

Apropos of my recent journey home via Incheon International Airport and Shanghai Pudong International Airport, I have to say that even though Darren Barefoot points out the many ways we can stay amused during flights, thanks to technology, I don't think we're at the point where we can say "we'll never be bored again." Because when my Shanghai layover got delayed by two hours, not even all the unread entries on my FAIL Blog RSS feed could keep me from wishing I was just on the plane and on the way home already. I had millions of RSS'd posts to catch up on (even if Google Reader claimed it was 1,000+, as usual) and another 200 pages of Revolutionary Road to finish --- but all I wanted to do was put my head down (preferably on a soft pillow), pass out and wake up in Singapore.

When I was in Korea, I took bus and train rides that lasted two to four hours, and none of them were as painful as these flights of equal duration. Part of it was that we were literally on the road, so there was always a definite sense of progressing somewhere, as opposed to an inchoate maundering through cloud and sky with no real landmarks. But a more important part of it, I think, was that we had comfortable, wide seats, with plenty of legroom (and headroom, come to think of it). And they didn't even try to serve any reprocessed mulch and pretend it was real food.

I know, I know, the economics of air travel are different. But one can't help wishing things were different.

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Home again, home again, jiggety-jig

Spiky ceiling

Back in Singapore, where the air is still, the sky is a surprisingly glorious blue and the cats are wondrously indolent. Other than dealing with an allergic reaction I picked up in Seoul, things are peachy keen. I'm all unpacked and about to start triaging snailmail.

What you missed of my trip home, as told via Facebook status updates:
9:09 a.m., Seoul
... is off to spend the day at Incheon Airport.

2:40 p.m., Incheon International Airport
... thinks every airport should have a place like the Naver-sponsored internet lounge at Incheon Airport --- super-fast wi-fi and power points built into every seat.

6:57 p.m., Shanghai Pudong International Airport
... is in Shanghai Pudong Airport on a 6-hour layover, where there is decent free wi-fi but no power points.

8:34 p.m.
Found the power points.

10:32 p.m.
... finally finished uploading all her Korea pictures to Flickr (thank you, free wi-fi at Incheon and Pudong).

12:12 a.m.
My connecting flight from Shanghai's been delayed ...
In the end the delay lasted two hours --- the plane was coming in from Beijing, which was enduring apocalyptic thunderstorms. I whittled away the extra time Skyping my cousin in Paris, whining on Facebook and reading Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road.

Since I touched down, I've had roti prata, teh tarik, Peranakan food at Big D's, and chicken rice and Hainanese food at Chin Chin Chicken Rice. I'm not sick of Korean food at all, but I don't think it'll taste the same if I eat any in Singapore this month.

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A social whirlwind

I thought I would have more time to blog and catch up on uploading pictures when I got to Seoul last Friday, but instead it's been a steady stream of friends and friends-of-friends and new-friends-just-met inviting me out. Which is great, don't get me wrong, but the days are just whipping by and I go home in three days and it all just seems too soon yet not soon enough at the same time.

My travel karma's been particularly strong in Seoul. A very dear old friend from college was in town for a business trip --- his first business trip here in several years, so what are the chances, eh? We met in the very first quarter (term) of our freshman year, making it almost 16 years that we've known each other. No, we didn't drink to that. We had a late lunch at the Park Hyatt, followed by more dawdling around COEX Mall, copious drinking of Korean bottled iced teas (more him than me) and lounging in his hotel room eating grapes (more me than him). Note to self: find more writing assignments that throw in five-star hotel rooms.

Yesterday I met again with the trio of ultra-fit 60-year-old men whom I met on my second day in Korea. As promised, they took me for a bona fide Korean hiking experience, i.e. bring on the steep slopes and makgeolli (rice wine). I think I acquitted myself pretty well, considering that they hike three times a week (and one of them cycles 50-60 km daily). Over lunch later at a restaurant they knew well, the ajumma owner reminisced about a young man from Singapore many years ago whom she might just have had a thing for, showed off 1970s Singapore currency in almost perfectly crisp condition, bought some current Singapore currency off me (she insisted on paying me) and gave me three little bottles of Korean liquor to bring home. I can start my own Korean minibar now.

In between all that, there's been, er, shopping and wrapping up the last of my research work and watching indie films and also Terminator Salvation (meh for the latter, and going to a cinema in Seoul is pretty much the same experience as going to one in Singapore) and, er, more shopping. Today I'm off to peruse the DMZ. We'll see how the tour compares to viewing North Korea from afar at Goseong and Cheorwon.

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The pink shoes in question

Hello, new shoes

Previously mentioned here and here. Yeah, I suppose they don't look like real hiking shoes ...

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Some days are like this

I took a bus (from Seoul to Taean), where I waited for another bus (to Cheollipo), to visit the Cheollipo Arboretum for less time than it took me to get there. Then I took another bus (to Taean), to catch another bus (to Seosan), to catch another bus (to Haemi), to see an old fortress that really wasn't very impressive and merited less than half an hour of my time.

Then I took a bus (to Seosan) and finally one last bus for the day (back to Seoul).

Thank goodness I fell into the company of a fellow foreign traveller for the day, plus he knew his plants, which was helpful for the arboretum visit. Now I know what red hot pokers are.

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Going solo

In a week's time, I'll be in Seoul, with only a couple of sightseeing items left on my Lonely Planet to-do list. In two weeks' time, I'll be trying to stuff all my things into my backpack for the flight home.

The thing about long trips like this that aren't vacations per se, is that at the start they feel as if they're gonna go on forever, in both good and bad senses of the word. I flew into Seoul in late April and skidded into May, which passed in a blur of hiking, cave visits, bus rides and banchan (the side dishes served with a Korean meal). Now I'm in June and I don't know where the time has gone. If next year someone asks me, what were you doing in May 2009, all I'll be able to muster is, "I was in ... Korea?"

This is also the first time I've travelled solo for such a long stretch, which is remarkable because I've never been very good at doing anything solo. BoKo once remarked that he was surprised I'd decided to become a freelancer because I'd always struck him as the kind of person who liked being around other people. I think that's still true, but since I split up with Terz, I've also had to learn to be more comfortable with being by myself.

And I mean that in a very deliberate way, like choosing to go watch a movie by myself, without asking anyone else along, or having dinner on my own at a Thai Express outlet. These are not extraordinary things, but as someone whose first impulse is always to call friends and see who's free to hang out, it takes a little pep-talking to myself, to stop worrying about what other people will think, to get myself out there.

So in a way, this whole trip has been about getting myself out there, even though it was a professional decision to come to Korea, not a personal one. I guess I was ready for the personal challenge, though, because even though I'd established early on that unlike Vietnam, probably no one would be travelling with me this time, I was surprisingly not freaked out by it. Yes, surprisingly, because I've found in the last two years that far less demanding situations can be disproportionately upsetting.

And now I finally get why Adri was always so thrilled about packing a bag and just going, solo, wherever, whenever. Sure, I've got a job to do here, I can't ditch a town just because it's boring (Chungju, I'm looking at you), but there's still some room for day-to-day whim and fancy. I've even gotten used to the stares and questions. Solo travellers are a rarity in Korea, where the culture is very group-oriented, especially when it comes to eating. I think there's the added mystery of the fact that I'm a solo traveller and Asian and (if I get to the point of mentioning these details) 35 years old and not married.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I've taken this trip in my stride better than I thought I would, despite some bumps and hiccups along the way, and in no small part it's due to family and friends who have been my personal cheering squad along the way (not just for this trip, either). I don't think I could have made this journey at any earlier point in my life, but for now, everything seems to be in place.

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An update for the sake of an update

I don't really feel like writing, but I'm headed to a new town tomorrow, so I figure I should stick something up here.

For the past three days I've been in Daejeon, which is the fifth largest city in South Korea and the largest city that I'll be writing about. Unfortunately, it doesn't have much by way of real sightseeing, so the most interesting time I've had is checking out the nightlife. It's been nice to sit in a bar and loiter over drinks again, and at Lucky Strike last night I had a very nice mojito --- made with love, truly, by the dedicated Korean bartender.

Friends at home have been asking me how things are here, with the former president's suicide and the North setting off missile tests willy-nilly. Truth be told, because I don't speak Korean, it's not like I can get under the skin of any of these issues. All I know is that with the former president's funeral being held today, there were plenty of emotional scenes playing on the news. Yesterday afternoon I stopped at a memorial for him outside Daejeon's City Hall to leave a flower, because a Korean friend in Singapore had asked me to. At night there were many more people lining up to pay their respects.

As for the North Korea missile tests, a friend in Seoul told me that as the USO and tour companies are still running their DMZ tours, things are status quo. So ... we'll see. One of my goals for the trip is to see all three places where one can visit or see something of the DMZ. I was at Goseong Unification Observatory three weeks ago along the eastern coast; there's still Panmunjom and Cheorwon to go.

The other thing worth reporting is that I am officially tired of having to handwash my underwear and socks, and re-pack my backpack every couple of days when I move on to a new town. Still lovin' the travelling --- I just wish that clean clothes could magically be awaiting me at each new stop.

So Daejeon's been fun, but I'm ready to get back to small-town Korea, with its helpful bus drivers and less hectic traffic.

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Not homesick, but ---

It's very strange to dream of being in Singapore and wake up still in Korea.

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Hiking right

So here's the first thing you gotta remember about hiking in South Korea: the country is 70% mountain, which means most hikes involve going up, up, up, and just because there's a well-worn trail from thousands of hikers passing through there every year (the Koreans do love their hiking) doesn't mean that it's going to be an easy one.

I'm getting used to all the climbing, because visiting just a simple temple or other sightseeing spot that's only 1 or 2 km from the trailhead usually involves some uphill work. Two thoughts keep me going when I get tired:

  • It's all uphill now, which means it'll be all downhill later --- yay!
  • If that old man/old woman/kid can scramble up and down this trail, so can I, dammit.
Today I went up Birobong, a peak in Sobaeksan National Park. Not many old men or old women on the trail, though there were a couple of boys with their dads. But it was the downhill-is-faster theory that betrayed me. The trail was pretty rocky, so coming down was a little tougher to navigate in terms of finding firm footholds. Now I understand why my Lecaf sneakers previously attracted concern from other hikers (a couple of them gestured at the shoes today too): while they're certainly comfortable, they simply haven't got the right traction and support for slithering down rocky paths.

I made it down okay, but next time I'll remember to wear my other shoes. In the remaining three weeks of my trip, there's one more national park on my must-see list and I might do a little extra hiking on my own around Seoul.

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Not quite gone native

Although I've been mistaken for Korean a few times, it doesn't happen as often as it did in Vietnam. I think my short hair and backpack are a dead giveaway, as well as the fact that I'm often toting the Lonely Planet or else scribbling frantically in almost illegible English in my notebook.

Not looking local can trigger the most entertaining encounters, of course. Today, while I was working my way up a hiking trail at Woraksan National Park, I fell into the company of two men, both dressed to the hilt Korean-style for their hike: lightweight outdoor gear, backpacks, gloves and sweatbands. (Actually, the sweatbands are pretty anomalous for male Korean hikers.) After establishing that I was hiking solo, one of them gestured at my shoes and murmured with concern. I guess my new Lecaf sneakers --- pink! with flower details and a rainbow band --- weren't garang (Singlish, not Korean, for serious, hardcore) enough for him.

More surprising was when I was cornered by two well-dressed young women at the bus terminal. One of them did all the talking: First she established that I was foreign and English-speaking, then she gave me something "to read", about how to deal with life (that triggered my Spidey sense, of course). Then she asked if I knew God (aha!). I said yes, and she asked if I knew the name of God. I was stumped till she prompted, "Jehovah." To which I said, "Oh, you're Jehovah's Witnesses." If she was surprised that I'd heard of it, she covered it smoothly by asking for my telephone number "so that we can talk more about this." Which was my cue to murmur something about leaving town the next day (truly, I am!) and booking it out of there.

Of all the experiences I imagined having in Korea, being solicited by Jehovah's Witnesses was not one of them.

A final note about the pink Lecaf shoes: yesterday an ajumma on the bus complimented me on them and asked me how much they cost. She was impressed that they were only about 20,000 won (a little more than S$20). I couldn't decide if I was happy my new shoes had caught her eye --- or if I ought to be worried about my fashion sense. To quote an American teacher I met a few towns ago, "Have you noticed how Korean women hit 50 and then they all get a perm and a pink jacket?"

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While waiting for the bus

I spend a lot of time on this trip waiting for buses. To get to lot of these national parks and other lovely sightseeing places, I have to wait for a bus that comes every hour or so. To be fair, most buses leave scrupulously on time, but sometimes --- as was the case this evening --- the bus doesn't appear as the schedule suggests it would. In tonight's case, it was only after asking for directions at various grocery stores, plus randomly overhearing an elderly Korean gentleman asking about the same bus, that I figured out I'd been waiting at the wrong place for the wrong bus. And that I had to wait an hour more for the right one to show up.

So I sat down and did some journalling instead.

The waiting does put a damper on things. It means I can't get to places as quickly as I'm used to (at home, I check the bus timings online obsessively before I get to a bus stop, so that I can already plan the quickest route), and there's a lot of downtime when, um, nothing happens. I suppose I oughta go with the zen and enjoy the fact that I'm not dashing from place to place, but sometimes I'm just itching to get on with it.

Sometimes, however, waiting isn't so uneventful. During one of today's hour-long waits: A mother arrived at the bus stop with her son, who's three or four years old. He started obsessively following around an older boy at the bus stop, the latter maybe eight or nine years old, and it turned out he wanted to try the orange drink the older boy was drinking. He got to try it, then he wanted to hold onto the drink (it was more than half-drunk by the older boy), and the older boy was like, whatever, you can have it.

So the mother and younger boy came back with the orange drink, at which point the boy's grandmother insisted on paying the other boy for the drink. Which set off this whole darting and ducking going on at one end of the bus stop, as the boy tried to decline the money but the grandmother kept stuffing it into his hand (or pocket).

The grandmother won, of course.

Meanwhile, I was still amazed that the mother allowed her son to drink from a stranger's cup. Cooties! Or something.

More buses (and waiting-for-buses) tomorrow. Which reminds me: I should go to sleep.

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Pushing on

I've always been a city girl and I've always loved taking vacations in cities. Shanghai, Paris, London --- all good.

But after two days in Seoul, I needed to get out.

I blame it on the previous three weeks in small(er)-town Korea, where the pace is more laidback, the people are friendlier and the streets are less crowded. Plunging back into Seoul, with friends taking me out on the town both nights, it felt too frantic and too, too much.

So when some plans for day trips from Seoul didn't quite work out, I decided to get the hell outta there and push on with the rest of my trip. There'll be time enough to soak up the city vibe at the end, before I fly home.

Today I'm in Cheongju, where I poked around in a museum commemorating Korea's earliest metal printing press (which purportedly pre-dates Gutenberg's by more than 70 years), then took off on a 4-km hike on some fortress walls outside the city. It wasn't quite of Great Wall of China proportions, but the uphill sections certainly took the wind out of me. It's not customary in Korea to drink alone, but afterwards I sat down to dinner and ordered a bowlful of dongdongju (rice wine) to make it all better. Now I know why Koreans are always drinking after they come back from hiking (actually, they're happy to toss back a swig or two mid-hike too).

More national parks and limestone caves to come. As Yan Wei well knows, I had severe waterfall fatigue after we visited Dalat in Vietnam last year. We'll see if Korea gives me cave fatigue.

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A little R&R

The sun came out at lunchtime

It's surreal to be back in Seoul, three weeks after I touched down here. The sun is out, again. I had to visit the Korea Tourism Organization near Cheonggye Stream, again (though the lanterns in the above picture aren't there anymore). I did lots of walking all over town, again. In fact, while out on an errand, I wound up in the same neighbourhood as the backpacker place I stayed at the last time --- and ran into someone whom I'd met at that backpacker place then. What are the chances, indeed.

I gave myself two days here to recharge and regroup, not so much because I was travel-fatiged (that hasn't hit, yet), but just to make sure my stuff was in order. Also to meet friends and sup on some good Korean barbecue --- that's one of the Korean meals that's well nigh impossible to order as a solo traveller.

There's plenty of free wi-fi in Seoul, so I've been uploading pictures to my Flickr account. I'm not going to be able to upload everything before I head out again tomorrow, so it'll be catch as catch can.

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Gone caving

I've spent three days in this town (Samcheok) and seen three limestone caves. The first one, Hwaseongul, was fabulous. The second one, Cheonguk Donggul in Donghae, was meh. The third one, Daegeumgul, was pretty neat.

The only downside was that all of them were overly illuminated with garish coloured lights; that seems to be the trend in Asia. Phong Nha Cave in central Vietnam suffered from the same decorative affliction when I saw it last October.

I saw my first cave when I was 10: Yallingup Cave in southern Western Australia. My parents bought me a souvenir book, which I remember paging through for months (years?) afterwards. It's amazing how much I still retain. I could declaim "Helictites!" when I spotted them these couple of days, and tsk-tsk at visitors who touched the limestone formations (hello, way to contaminate the calcium carbonate). I mean, seriously, there was a guy at Daegeumgul today who touched every other formation hanging over our path as we finished the tour, with the kind of rapping one usually associates with checking for secret chambers. What, did he think the limestone formations were hollow and fake?

Besides the caves, there've been countless beaches, and the usual rounds of restaurant and hotel visits. This is the last I'll see of Korea's east coast on this trip. Tomorrow I'm headed inland to more national parks.

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Top 10 tricks to happy backpacking in Korea

Without being able to speak Korean, that is.

1. Okay, so you gotta learn some basic Korean:
  • annyeong haseyo ("hello" and all-purpose greeting)
  • gamsa hamnida ("thank you")
  • annyeong-hi gyeseyo ("goodbye", if you're the departing party, as I usually am)
  • hana ("one", for a solo traveller)
  • eolmayeyo ("how much is it?")
  • masi sumnida ("delicious")
  • an apologetic chon hangug marul mot'aeyo ("I don't speak Korean").
(PS: I'm trying to use the Korean government-sanctioned spelling style, but I might've made a mistake above or lapsed into the previous McCune-Reischauer system)

2. If you need directions, show someone the name of the place you're trying to find in hangeul. English text will throw most Koreans off. Maps are helpful only if they're in hangeul.

3. On that note, learn to read hangeul. Even if it takes you 10 minutes to parse a five-item restaurant menu, it still beats faffing about cluelessly. Also useful for spotting motel names, checking schedules at the bus terminal or destinations posted in the bus window, and reading toilet signs (though the latter tend to have appropriate graphics or English text as well).

4. Bring a phrasebook, and bookmark or dog-ear it so that it's easy to flip to the phrases you'll most often use on your trip. (I have about 10 pages dog-eared on my increasingly bashed-about copy.)

5. Don't spend all your small change. You'll always need 1,000-won notes and 100-won coins for bus fare.

6. Sometimes you won't know what you're eating. As long as you're not allergic to anything, just roll with it. The ajumma knows best!

7. Everyone knows about kimchi, but have a go at all the other banchan (side dishes) too. I'm currently addicted to the heavily salted-and-spiced anchovy-like fish that've been appearing with all my meals at these seaside towns (it reminds me of ikan bilis). And yesterday I had a braised beef side dish that was just divine. I almost abandoned my main course doenjang jjigae (soybean-paste stew) for it.

8. Always, always wear socks or stockings. At some point you'll probably have to remove your shoes to sit down at a restaurant, and showing your bare feet is a no-no. (I'm ashamed to admit that this didn't dawn on me till the end of my first week in Korea, but I've since been diligently atoning for my earlier faux pas).

9. Smile. A lot. It doesn't cost anything and it can smooth the way before you start stuttering in makeshift Korean.

10. Start accumulating some good travel karma by being considerate of people around you. Like don't hold up the entire queue at the bus or train station if you have a lot of questions. Or take the cue from the locals and give up your seat on the bus to someone who needs it more, especially the elderly or someone with a baby. Or be patient with people who want to hazard their English on you --- it's much harder for them to overcome the fear of making a mistake, than for you to wait and try to understand.

I've had a good first two weeks in Korea. Five more to go ...

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My day began at 6 a.m.

This is very unusual for me, even when I'm doing on-the-road travel research. Most places in Korea don't open that early, so it's not like in The Amazing Race, where showing up at 7 a.m. sharp at the gate of the national park guarantees you the first chance to lurch in and find your clue.

But I was up at 6 a.m. anyway, because getting to Odaesan National Park from the town where I'm staying (Gangneung) involved an inter-city bus ride that needed to be timed right with the shuttle bus servicing different parts of the national park, so that I could optimise my time at all my stops and not spend all day waiting for the next bus (the shuttle bus runs only every hour or so).

In the afternoon, there was a painstaking wait outside another bus terminal --- this time in the nearby town of Hoenggye --- for another shuttle bus --- this time headed for Yongpyong Ski Resort. Ironically, at the national park in the morning I'd bumped into an Australian who'd commented that some of the transportation instructions in his copy of the Lonely Planet don't provide sufficient details about where one catches the bus. Now I got screwed --- it was only when the puce (yes, puce) coach glided by me with "All Seasons Yongpyong" emblazoned on its side, that I realised I'd been waiting in completely the wrong spot.

That shuttle bus also runs every hour or so.

So I said screw it, and took a taxi. It's not ski season, but a diligent Lonely Planet writer still has to go make sure all the buildings and services (and prices) are in place for the next snowfall.

Through sheer good fortune, I've been meeting older English-speaking Koreans who are more than happy to show a foreigner around while they exercise their English. One of them even took a course at my university (albeit a good decade before I was there). That has to be one of the most astonishing coincidences of my trip.

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Nature rambling

I've spent the last two days at Seoraksan National Park, doing lots of traipsing and tripping along hiking paths marked mostly in Korean (and helpfully stocked with food and drinks stalls). The paths were mostly rock and gravel, but there were also steel staircases to help amateurs like me over the difficult bits. Don't knock those steel staircases --- without them, I would never ever have made it up as majestic a face as that of Ulsan Bawi. It took me one hour to make it up 1 km of fairly vertical distance, hitting the summit at about 3 p.m. Yeah, maybe that wasn't the best time to go climbing up an exposed rock face.

Remind me also to show you the photograph I'm calling "Fallen gimbap".

Tonight I'm staying in the coolest backpacker joint in Sokcho, The House Hostel, where I've met another Singaporean (the first one I've randomly met this trip) and two Thai women. Tomorrow I'm off to another coastal town, Gangneung, which is also known for having a "Tofu Village". That'll be a nice change of diet from the meat and fish I've been eating.

I feel like I ought to say something wittier here, since I don't know when I'll have internet access again. But I think my brain is feeling sympathy fatigue with my sore feet and calves, so I'm going to toddle upstairs with my beer and go chillax now.

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I hope I don't smell of fish

I've spent the last two days in and around the fishing port town of Sokcho, along the northeastern coast of South Korea. I've eaten a good bit of fish, and squinted at a lot of dried squid and dried fish for sale in the markets and ports. Last night's dinner of raw fish took less than ten minutes to go from wriggling-in-the-water to sliced-and-served on my dinner table. I'm sure some travellers might find that disturbing.

To wrangle my way to the Goseong Unification Observatory today, I had to not only take an hour-long public bus ride, but also effectively hitchhike the last 10 km uphill to the observatory proper. As luck would have it, the ticket office hooked me up with a young Korean couple with two toddlers. The family barely spoke any English, but between my phrasebook and a lot of smiling, it worked out well. We figured out that they were headed to the same places I was for the rest of the day --- the aquarium and former presidential residences at Hwajinpo --- so we ended up spending most of the day together, before they dropped me back at Sokcho. Plus at lunchtime, they bought me instant noodles from a beach vendor and shared their homemade kimbap (Korean sushi) as well.

When I think of the phrase "the kindness of strangers", I will always think of this pleasant young couple.

Tomorrow I'm heading to my first national park of the trip, Seoraksan National Park. This is South Korea, so I'm sure there'll be internet access in the mountains --- if I have the energy after a day of hiking to use it.

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All walked out

I think I must've walked at least 15 km today, and cycled another 5 km or so. The walkathon day began when I got to the ferry pier at Soyang Dam so early that I had 1.5 hours to kill before the first ferry departed. So I walked around to kill time. Later, traffic was bumper-to-bumper to get to Namiseom Island (of Winter Sonata fame), so I walked somewhere between 3 and 4 km, from the bus terminal at the town of Gapyeong to the ferry point for the island. And back, after visiting the island.

(In true Korean style, the island has declared itself the Republic of Naminara, with its own flag, currency and passport. Ticket counters on the mainland are marked "Ticket/Visa". They didn't check anyone's passport, though.)

The cycling came later, when I was back in Chuncheon, with about an hour to kill before dinner. So I decided I should go do that sunset cycling route that the previous guidebook author had recommended. It was a very pleasant way to round up my sojourn here, but man, with the wind blowing against me on my way back, it was harder than I bargained for.

Chuncheon has been full of little surprises: quirky cafes, unexpected finds, and lovely people who try to help me even though they don't speak a word of English and I can never remember Korean for "I don't speak Korean". The blisters were worth it.

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No pictures, just (a bit of) text

Unlike the previous Lonely Planet research trip, I'm finding it harder these first few days to find the time to stay sort and label my images, which means I haven't gotten round to uploading any to Flickr. Meanwhile, just imagine the land of Winter Sonata (minus any actual winter), and you pretty much have an idea of what it all looks like around me.

When we return to our regularly scheduled programming, remind me to tell you about the story of the three jovial 60-year-old men I met at a rural bus stop. Also about funky university cafes in Chuncheon, huffing and puffing my way up an inclined road on a bicycle because I'd missed the (level) bicycle path, inhaling allegedly jade-infused air to improve my qi and wasting time looking for a room key that (duh) was in the power-activation slot for my hotel room in the first place.

(Uh ... forget about the last story. I'm pretty lame that way.)

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Sleepy in Seoul

Arrived. Checked in at my humble backpacker lodgings. Showered, etc.

Now must sleep.

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En route to Seoul

There would be a picture of my two backpacks here, taken this morning before I left for the airport to prove that I'm really travelling that light --- but the USB cable for my camera is in my check-in luggage.

I'm at Shanghai Pudong International Airport, where contrary to what the internet would tell you, there is free wi-fi. So I caught up on email, Facebook and RSS feeds instead of swotting up on hangeul. That can wait till I board the 1.5-hour flight to Seoul.

My flight from Singapore to Shanghai was packed with a couple of tour groups from China. This was the first time I've ever heard cabin crew sternly, shrilly yell, teacher-style, in Mandarin, "Please stay in your seats!" This was prompted by passengers who were unfastening their seatbelts and getting up from their seats the moment the plane lifted off from or hit the ground.

My ineptness with Mandarin is so embarrassing. I wasn't sure of the term for bottled water when the flight attendant was coming around with the beverage trolley (she simply used the generic word for "water"), and I could not, for the life of me, remember how to say "credit card" when I was ordering drinks at a cafe in the airport. I remember how to say "Korea", but I can't remember how "Seoul" is translated in Mandarin.

However, I did manage to work my way through a six-page inflight magazine story on "the spirit of art" in Melbourne. Just don't make me take a test on that.

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Gathering it all together

Looking good

The problem with gearing up to go on the road for seven weeks is that it's so all-consuming, I haven't been able to write to my satisfaction about what's going on with AWARE (if you need to catch up , the indefatigable Ovidia Yu has been providing excellent daily updates), or done anything sparkling and creative at all of late, or had enough time to store up cat-cuddles for the time I'll be away.

I have, however, managed to pack a lighter bag than I took to Vietnam last year, which is a pretty neat achievement considering that this time, I have to pack for 10-25 degree weather. Maybe I'm just getting better at squeezing the air out of Ziploc bags. Well, and travelling with a HP Mini instead of my usual Macbook helps.

If everything proceeds according to schedule, by this time tomorrow night I'll be in Seoul. You can start making your own Seoul-related puns now; I'm going to forbear for as long as I can.



My mind is full

In the run-up to my departure date, things are much more under control than they were the last time, but I still find myself with not enough spare braincells with which to write an energetic, witty post.

Maybe it's because a significant amount of my energies today went towards thinking about how to wrangle budget accommodation in Seoul, since I 'd procrastinated on making a reservation and my top two choices were fully booked. (Lucky for me, in this case it worked out for the better, because I've landed cheaper accommodation at a more central location.)

Maybe it's because the AWARE situation shows no signs of imploding or being amiably resolved. (More detailed thoughts to come later. I'm still working on it.)

Maybe it's because the weather it's so hot, it makes it difficult to think. On the bus back from Beach Road market today (I bought cheap army raincoats again), Ming and I were equally listless in conversation, thinking more about when we could reach the cool comfort of our respective homes. In fact, it was so hot last night that the cats came into my air-conditioned bedroom and slept on (not under) the covers.

I hope my brain gets to chillax soon.

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I forgot how much I hate Windows

... till I started using a HP Mini today.

The machine itself is great. I had it in my bag for most of this afternoon and evening, and didn't feel the weight at all. It runs pretty fast, and while the keyboard takes a little getting used to, that's mostly to do with the placement of my hands with respect to the touchpad; the size itself is fine.

Now if only these machines could run OSX. I also miss Adium. Miranda looks positively like ICQ circa the late 1990s.

But all in all, I ain't complainin'. The nice folks at Edelman Singapore were nice enough to rustle me up a loan unit for the next few months, so I can bring it to Korea and not have to lug the Macbook everywhere. The latter held up very well against the rigours of on-the-road travel in Vietnam, including being bumped in a backpack against some rocks during an unexpectedly steep descent at Cuc Phuong National Park and enduring the rough vibralto of many motorbike rides throughout the entire trip. But my back and shoulders will be grateful for not having its weight bear down on them every. Single. Day. of the next trip.

So now I have one sparkling white Macbook and one snazzy black HP Mini. And a white cat and a black cat. Can we say photo op?

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A meme-like blog post

Because I'm feeling a little under the weather and I can steal the questions from Tricia instead of having to think up entirely original material. And yes, even though I didn't bother with the "25 Random Things About Me" Facebook meme.

1. Do you like blue cheese?
I don't mind the odd daub of it.

2. Have you ever smoked?
Once. If I ever picked up the habit, my mom would kill me.

3. Do you own a gun?
No. I live in Singapore.

4. What flavor Kool-Aid was your favorite?
Clearly whoever came up with this list of questions is American. I must've tried Kool-Aid at some point during my university years, but I can't remember a single instance.

5. Do you get nervous before doctor appointments?
No. I just get impatient.

6. What do you think of hot dogs?
Yums! But only if they come with the trimmings.

7. Favourite Christmas movie?
Love Actually. I stole Packrat and Ondine's copy last Christmas and, er, haven't returned it yet.

8. What do you prefer to drink in the morning?
Black coffee.

9. Can you do push-ups?
Kind of. Been practicing somewhat during Pilates class.

10. What's your favorite piece of jewellery?
A curvy silver bracelet I bought at a jewellery stand in the basement of Norris University Center, some time in the mid-1990s.

11. Favourite hobby?
Every time I see the word "hobby", I immediately think of "stamp collecting", even though I was an indifferent collector at best. I think hobbies are so 1980s.

12. Do you have A.D.D.?
We didn't have that in my generation at school.

13. What's one trait you dislike about yourself?
I don't have a very good memory.

14. Middle names?
Not telling! Some things are best kept private (or forgotten).

15. Name 3 thoughts at this exact moment.
What am I thinking?
Damn, I type fast.
My wrist is itchy.

16. Name 3 drinks you regularly drink.
Black coffee, ice-cold water and green tea (out of a bottle or a can).

17. Current worry?
I'll never write that novel.

18. Current hate right now?
When I was a kid, my mother told me not to say that I hated anything because "hate" is a very intense word and not be bandied about lightly (I don't think she used "bandied" though). So, uh, yeah, not really hating anything specific right now.

19. Favourite place to be?
I've been thinking a lot about Hoi An today, partly because a friend there has been Facebooking about eating at Casa Verde, and I'm trying to pitch a related food article. But I think my answer from before still stands: I don't really have a favourite place, though there are many places that I've liked dearly and would be happy to revisit.

Also, my apartment's still a good place to be, though it's not the same apartment that I wrote about the last time.

20. How did you bring in the new year?
Do you mean "ring in" Anyway, it was at a friend's apartment, with the clink of champagne and the riotous chorus of local TV station MediaCorp's New Year countdown event.

21. Where would you like to go?
Paris (again)! Iceland (was just watching a Bizarre Foods episode of this)! Also (in no particular order): Melbourne, Laos, China and Taiwan.

22. Name three people who will complete this.
Um. No.

23. Do you own slippers?
I'm going to steal Tricia's response because she said it best: "This is Singapore. We were born wearing slippers."

24 What shirt are you wearing?
A grey pajama top.

25. Do you like sleeping on satin sheets?

26. Can you whistle?
Yes, passably.

27. Favourite colour?
Red and its attendant hues.

28. Would you be a pirate?
Yes, if I can look as hot as Keira Knightley and get my pirate swag from 826 Valencia.

29. What songs do you sing in the shower?
None. I'm an execrable singer.

30. Favourite girl's name?
This changes regularly, but one perennial favourite is: Min.

31. Favorite boy's name?
Can't think of one right now.

32. What's in your pocket right now?
Nothing. After all, I'm going to bed.

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Almost, anyway.

I went to Tan Tock Seng Hospital's Travellers' Health and Vaccination Clinic today because I leave for Korea in less than a month and I hadn't checked if I needed any shots. Plus the American CDC seems to recommend anti-malarial protection for some of the rural areas I might be passing through.

As it turns out, the local travellers' clinic doesn't quite snort at the idea of one needing any preventive treatment for a visit to South Korea --- okay, they almost do. I believe the hospital staff member's exact words were: "It's Korea. It's safe."

So I just got the last-of-three hepatitis shots I was overdue for, and then I waltzed out of there after less than ten minutes. This duly impressed G-man, with whom I'd parted ways at Novena Square after lunch, but who had just barely made it out of the car park before I exited the hospital.

This last hepatitis shot is supposed to make me immune to Hepatitis A, and I'll have to get a $14 blood test in two months to see if I snagged Hepatitis B immunity as well. I'm sure I'll forget by then, though.

Related post: I got my shots

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All the gansik that's fit to eat

More Korean food than you'd expect to see at NTUC

Yesterday I discovered that one of my nearby supermarkets as a special "Best of Korea!!!" aisle. I'm not sure why because there aren't that many Korean expats in the neighbourhood. But the first thing I thought was, "Now I know where to go to practise reading hangeul ..."

However, this morning I inadvertently wound up practising how to read Chinese characters really quickly instead. As part of a pre-trip cultural immersion of sorts, I've borrowed the Korean TV series Woman of the House on DVD, which has Korean and Chinese language tracks, and only Chinese subtitles. I'm definitely not reading the subtitles fast enough to get the full details of the story, but it's amazing how much one can pick up from situational context and body language.

I'll be visiting Chuncheon, where Winter Sonata was filmed, so that's next on my must-watch list.

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Travel talk

Serendipity is:
It was my first time sticking my toe into anything meetup-ish, which turned out to be about ten adults sitting around a cafe table and talking mostly about travel. A lovely couple who'd recently been to Bandung, Indonesia did a little show-and-tell about their trip, then people just mingled. That same couple has lived in Seoul, so quite naturally we got to talking about Korea, then Vietnam, then Thailand, and finally Singapore.

Interestingly, the couple asked me if I knew of any particularly canonical Singapore fiction and I was stumped. I'm not a fan of Catherine Lim, Philip Jeyaretnam's writing doesn't quite strike me as being canonical and Alfian Sa'at's Corridor, which I like, feels premature nonetheless. In the end, I suggested they stick to theatre instead.

It's nice to be able to gab with new acquaintances for something on the order of two hours without noticing the time.

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All shoed out (almost)

In the last month, I've acquired four new pairs of shoes. I'm not sure if, like the dress situation, this is some kind of delayed side effect of last year's backpacking trip.

In my own defence, only the first two pairs were premeditated buys, in anticipation of old shoes that were going to be retired soon. The latter two pairs were emergency acquisitions: on Tuesday and today, the soles of the shoes I was wearing went a-flap-flapping in the middle of the day, and because of my respective dinner plans, I couldn't just make do with a cheap pair of slippers till I got home.

Fortunately, on both days I was in town and within a short walk of a decent shoe shop. But now that I have four gleaming pairs of new shoes, I really need to stop.

Except that since my only pair of tramping-around-the-countryside shoes died in Dalat during the aforementioned backpacking trip, I still need to get a new pair (and break them in) to go tramping around the countryside in Korea next month. I'd really love a pair of Onitsuka Tigers, but I wonder how well that will go down in ex-occupied territory Korea.



Too darn wet

It's been unseasonally rainy, the kind of rain we're supposed to get in January (but this year we had just a lot of wind instead). It's odd having to deal with monsoon-style rain at this time of the year --- it just doesn't feel like March. But I don't really mind the wet. Gadding about in flip-flops brings me right back to last year's Vietnam trip, especially when I'm wearing the pair of black slippers I had to buy in Hue because my Tevas were giving me blisters. And I'm grateful for any cool weather that Singapore gets.

Nonetheless, I hope it's not going to be so wet in South Korea, which is where I'm headed next. It'll be spring and there's supposed to be "light rain"; I'm going to hit Beach Road market to pick up another $3 army poncho before I leave, but I hope I won't have to use it much.

What have been too wet lately are my pasta sauces. I failed to drain the diced tomatoes before chucking them in last week's bolognaise, resulting in a soupy sauce, and I messed up the proportion of chicken stock to sour cream on tonight's stroganoff, making for another liquidy concoction. Taste-wise both were fine, but these little screw-ups are the reason I never trust myself to cook a full meal for family or friends.

Cool things I found on the web today:

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There's Australia, and then there's Tasmania

During the last six weeks of intensive writing, the only film I escaped my hermit-like existence to watch was Australia, which I liked despite its flaws and overreaching (perhaps a little because of the overreaching). You know: Baz Luhrmann, epic film, sweeping Australian landscapes and overweeningly will they-won't they love story.

Today I stumbled across Tasmania the Movie (via Hackpacker):

There's a full campaign. I've wanted to go visit Tasmania for a while now, but I want to see it even more now that I know that their tourism authorities have a fair dinkum sense of humour.



The Top Gear take on Vietnam

I finished writing the first draft of my Lonely Planet text last night, so it was a good time to watch the Top Gear: Vietnam Special, which turned out to be an excellent episode of travel TV and made me want to hop on the back of a motorcycle in Vietnam again.

Big welcome to Phong Nha

But let me tell you: never mind the show's premise that they weren't travelling fast enough to meet the 8-day deadline to reach the finishing line at Halong Bay. The real reason they took a train from Hue to Hanoi is because there is nothing very interesting between Hue and Hanoi. I should know, I'm writing an entire chapter on that region.

I'm not a huge fan of Top Gear like, say, G-man, but this was a good episode. Also a great PR exercise for Vietnam. I fully imagine that legions of fans are going to show up in Halong Bay looking for Ba Hang Bar and in Hoi An to make zoot suits.

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On the tourist trail, then off again

Pose in front of the emperor's tomb

I've been plugging away at the writing since I got through the unexpected move and banged through Hue, Danang, Hoi An, Kon Tum, Pleiku and Buon Ma Thuot in about a week. If that sounds like a lot, it is: Hue, Danang and Hoi An comprise about half my total word count, while writing about Kon Tum, Pleiku and Buon Ma Thuot takes some diplomatic finesse because of how murky things are in the highlands (the social-political relations, not the air or the views, which are great).

Here's some of what I can't squeeze into the book about each town:

Hue (pronounced 'hway' or 'way', not 'hue' or 'huey') was where I first started to overdose on cultural sights. There's only so many imperial whatsits you can look at in a day before the ironic voice in my head withers in fatigue. I've never been one to diligently work through all the royal doodads that any culture puts on display (that's why I spent most of my time at Versailles lounging in the royal gardens rather than meditating on the royal fripperies), but now that the job called for it ... Well, I sucked it up and did it.

I don't like to play favourites, but I will say that of all the imperial tombs I liked the crazy Khai Dinh construction best, mostly because it seemed the least traditionally Vietnamese after all the others I'd seen. Also, I saw it around lunchtime, which is why its blazing blackness is forever seared into my memory.

This be Danang

Danang was great because it was a regular non-touristy city and every expat I met there loved it for being a regular non-touristy city. It's always been panned in previous editions of the guidebook, but I give it a big thumb's up. When you can walk for blocks without a single person trying to hawk you a postcard, conical hat or xe om ride, that's a precious thing.

Also it had excellent Vietnamese food. I'm not crazy about the local noodle speciality mi quang, so I went marginally upmarket and hit all these neat little Vietnamese restaurants instead. Writing the Danang restaurant section was hard last weekend when I was stuck at the laptop without a hearty meal within reach.

Lights for sale

Hoi An I didn't like when I first met it. Too quaint, too much like a movie set and too many damn tourists. After Danang --- when locals would do a double-take at seeing me pass them on the street and I wouldn't see another foreign face for hours unless I popped into Bread of Life or Bamboo 2 Bar --- Hoi An seemed like some purgatorial outpost wherein I'd been cast to test my patience with relentless street sellers --- "Hey you! Come here!" --- and bellyaching tourists.

Then I met some really lovely people. Then I heard some really lovely stories (personal ones, that don't get disclosed here or in the guidebook). Then I figured out that "Hey you!" is a direct translation of the Vietnamese term for addressing a stranger (the way in English you would say "Excuse me"). Then I lingered in Hoi An longer than I'd planned to --- also because Yan Wei joined me and hey, who am I to deny her a few days of Hoi An magic (especially since we spent most of our time out of town)?

I'd go back to Hoi An in a heartbeat now, mostly to hang out and eat lots of fabulous food (Morning Glory, Mango Rooms and Casa Verde, I'm lookin' at you). But not cao lau. I don't care if it is Hoi An's pride and joy, it just doesn't do it for me.

Kon Tum Village rong house

Kon Tum, then, which was very dusty and very poor. These are towns in Vietnam that you visit not for food or nightlife or ancient relics, but because they've got exotic minority (read: marginalised) villages in the area. These are places where you smile at the kids but keep them at a distance because how on earth can anyone do enough to help them all. I felt growly inside when we saw a packed tour bus leaving a "popular" orphanage and later a foreign couple dropped in on the orphanage's nursery with their guide to cuddle some poor babies (though I was a drop-in too, even if I did forbear from the cuddling).

I still feel growly. Ask me about it some time.

Reach for the sky

Pleiku was like the older sibling of Kon Tum, with slightly better but not necessarily trendier clothes. We found a cool cafe to hang out in and Yan Wei picked up a fan (the kind that wants to practise her English with us) at the market, which led to an earnest but awkward hour spent in that same cafe.

Buon Ma Thuot (pronounced 'boon me tote') had no good restaurants. All our sightseeing outside the town was great, but when we got back and had to scrounge up dinner --- well, let's just say that 'scrounge' is appropriate because there really wasn't much to pick from, even including street food options. You know a town is lacking in dining options when even our well-informed tour guide couldn't recommend us a place.

I knew a suspension bridge would be involved

I'm skimming over the details, of course, but I have to conserve my strength for tomorrow's writing. One more major town to write about, then I switch into editing and cutting-text-to-meet-the-word-count mode. I hope I've set aside enough time for that.

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A war zone, once

Tam Toa Church

I've spent the better part of this week writing about Dong Hoi, Dong Ha and the DMZ, which means I've spent the better part of this week getting a crash course in the Vietnam War/American War in Vietnam/the Second Indochina War/the quagmire that the war in Iraq is constantly being compared to.

(We're calling it the American War in the guidebook.)

All you really need to know is this:
  • Dong Hoi is the town immediately north of the DMZ that got pretty much shelled to bits by American bombing because it was the town immediately north of the DMZ (and hence used as a main staging area by the North).
  • Dong Ha is the town immediately south of the DMZ that also got pretty much levelled thanks to its proximity to the border.
  • The DMZ is the demilitarised zone that used to be a highly militarised area pockmarked with US bases, but almost everything was stripped by the Americans when they left or picked apart by successive militaries or people scrounging for scrap metal.
In short, none of these towns look very much like what war veterans remember, and a layman would have to really use his/her imagination to get something out of seeing these places. Not that I'm saying one shouldn't visit or respect the memory of what happened there --- just don't expect it to look like a scene out of a Vietnam War movie.

The airstrip at Khe Sanh today

But let me backtrack a little first. Dong Hoi wasn't a DMZ stop. We were there to visit the Phong Nha Caves --- very nice, despite the crazy lighting scheme inside and the pouring rain outside. The only unnerving thing was feeling a mild wave of claustrophobia while we were inside the cave, even with Deanna for company. I never used to get that way.

We stumbled on other cool stuff in Dong Hoi, but for that you'll have to wait for the book. Onward to Dong Ha and the DMZ, to see grassy patches where men and their weapons once slugged it out in battles that became the stuff of legend. Seeing all the sites in one day means they all sort of blurred into one another. It's only in the writing that I've now finally sorted out a lot of the details, and thank goodness for friends who just happen to be military buffs. I now know what "Leathernecks" are and I'm replacing all references to "McNamara's Wall" with "McNamara's Line" (it just sounds better).

On a more sobering note: I didn't think too much about unexploded ordnance while I was in the DMZ, even though I pretty much followed in the footsteps of our guide, but yes, there's still heaps of it around (see Mines Advisory Group and Clear Path International for some updates) and this is one place where you're better off sticking to the beaten path.

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Oh, cardboard

Beach detritus

Ah, Vinh. Most people don't know where it is, but those I met in Vietnam who did, when they heard that I'd been there, were quick to offer a sympathetic gaze. "Oh, Vinh." They might as well've said, "Oh, cardboard."

It's nice to know I wasn't alone in finding Vinh utterly uninteresting, unsalvageable and uncommendable. We had to spend three nights there, right after one night in ho-hum Thanh Hoa (which isn't making a comeback in the book --- as I emailed my editor, "unless people have been clamouring for it? The town itself has little to recommend"). And even after Thanh Hoa, Vinh seemed, well, blah.

Fine, so it's a port/industrial city, and it can't help that it was bombed to bits during the war and got ugly Stalinist buildings from East Germany thereafter. But why are the streets so empty of all the street food and street life one finds in almost every Vietnamese town (even in Dalat on a cold November night)? What do all the people do when there isn't a 220th anniversary of the city's founding to celebrate? Why is there nothing to eat on the street except bun bo Hue? And why do some hotels rent rooms by the hour?

If not for the fact that Vinh is a common stop for buses to and from Laos, I don't think it would make it into the guidebook either. Sure, there's Cua Lo Beach half an hour away (see image above), but that's not a beach I'd come all the way here for.

I made a friend in Danang who had spent several months in Vinh. When I asked her how she had stood it, she said dryly, "Oh, I looked around for a bridge to throw myself off, but I couldn't find one."

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First impressions

An excerpt from Sunday's IM conversations:
Wahj: what have you been up to?
Wahj: besides writing
ME: writing and procrastinating
ME: if i'm not doing one, i'm doing the other
ME: today i cleaned my shower curtain and shower in lieu of writing
ME: (altho i have written quite a bit after that)
Wahj: The power of procrastination is amazing
Wahj: I'm convinced the best way to do something is to have something else to do
True dat, but I think after a week of giving in to procrastination, I finally have text on the page that I'm reasonably proud of.

However, there are also lots of stories from my seven weeks of travelling that won't make it to Lonely Planet. I mean, it's a guidebook, not a travelogue or a memoir.

So since I've been getting storyteller's block when I'm with family and friends, plus there are more stories than can be told in one sitting anyway, I thought maybe I could try blogging some of them as I'm writing about the respective places.

First stop: Ninh Binh.

Van Long Nature Reserve

When people ask me what my favourite place on the trip was, I usually hesitate to give a reply because they were all good in their own way (except for Vinh, but more about that in a couple of days). Philosophically I also don't see much point in trying to single out one travel destination or experience and elevating it as the superlative. It smacks of a certain consumerist approach to travel that I'm none too crazy about.

The blithe answer to the "favourite place" question, though, is Ninh Binh.

Ninh Binh was easy to love. The weather was positively glorious for the three days we were there. The flowers were blooming and the buffalo were amiable. The rice fields were a ripe, rich green, and the farms were buzzing with harvesting activities (including a memorable skedaddle on motorbike past a small roadside fire fuelled by dried rice plants; I made it unscathed but my friend was unfortunately singed by a stray ember).

And our motorcycle guides made things easy. The lead guide always spoke pretty good English, everyone drove safely, and all they had to do was whip us off the main path and down some country lane for me to be happy.

In the living quarters of a 14th-century temple, we sat down for tea, bananas and persimmons with an elderly nun who wouldn't let Deanna take pictures of her until she put on her official robes. On an empty river coming back from Kenh Ga village, the boatman let me take the wheel because, you know, that's what they let tourists do. Deanna led forth to breakfasts of pho ngan (duck pho in a heady broth, which I never saw again on the trip) and other market foods that I promptly forgot the names of.

When you spend most of your day looking at mountains (okay, limestone karsts) and blue skies, it's not hard to like a place.

There were other mountains and other blue skies over the next seven weeks, but it was Ninh Binh's that I saw first.

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Inundated by coffee chains

Coffee good

Hot on the heels of learning that Tully's Coffee from Seattle has opened two outlets in Singapore, I just learned tonight that there's a Trung Nguyen as well (via The Travelling Hungryboy). And only yesterday I was whining on Facebook to a friend that I miss my daily dose of ca phe sua da.

Having said that, I don't think Singapore really needs more coffee chains when it already has Starbucks, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Coffee Club, Gloria Jean's and TCC (I'm sure I've forgotten someone). And the fact that Trung Nguyen doesn't serve ca phe phin (drip coffee) kinda negates the whole point of ordering Vietnamese coffee.

As I was lamenting to Yan Wei last week, what Singapore needs are more indie cafes like Saigon's La Fenetre Soleil.

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Degrees of separation

Thanks to the new friends I made on my travels in Vietnam, I am now:
  • two degrees of separation away from Michael Bolton, via a relation of his I met in Hoi An.
  • three degrees of separation away from Aung San Suu Kyi, via someone who's related to her husband's family, whom I also met in Hoi An.
  • two degrees of separation away from Dustin Nguyen,* via my friend in Ho Chi Minh City.
A less upbeat version: a few minutes ago, I learned I'm three degrees of separation away from the a Singaporean being held hostage in the Mumbai attacks.

Edited to add (November 30): Scratch that. I do know a family member of the poor woman who died in the Mumbai attacks. Which really brings a new cast to it being a "small world".

* Being able to identify Dustin Nguyen is also a good indicator of one's age/generation. I immediately identified him in a portfolio of Vietnam advertising images; my much younger friend Yan Wei had no clue who he was.

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Settling in

Where's my balloon?

In a cab on my way to a family brunch this morning, I realised how quiet our roads are in Singapore. Just the inevitable engine noise, that's all. I sorta missed the rhythmic honking that's the soundtrack to every thoroughfare in Vietnam.

Later, at brunch, I was giving Packrat my two cents' worth of advice about shepherding junior college students on a fieldtrip around Ho Chi Minh City, and it seemed unreal that three days ago I was plodding around on those pothole-ridden sidewalks and today I was all dressed up for Prego's (in a skirt, Yan Wei!).

Even later, after brunch and the Anime Festival Asia and coffee with friends, I was waiting in a cab line at Marina Square as the monsoonal rain poured down, and I missed how easy it is to get a cab in Vietnam. They're always loitering on street corners, the drivers looking completely uninterested in picking up a fare, but if you approach them they're generally amenable to take you where you need to go. Yes, there are taxis with rigged meters that jump three times as fast as they're supposed to, and some drivers will deliberately take you the long way round --- but hey, at least there are taxis.

I know it sounds like I'm a little hopelessly stuck on a Vietnam loop, and I think it'll take me a bit of time to get things out of my system. But it's also nice to be home: cats, family, friends, food, apartment, Singlish, all.

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