Think of South Korea or, specifically, its capital city, Seoul. What images does this evoke? Cherry blossom trees? Radiating neon signs? Kimchi? Or, most likely:
None of these are incorrect by any means, although like most stereotypes, they contain grains of truth and harvests of imprecision. Actually, from my (unfortunately very) brief stint in Seoul, the following graphic neatly sums up the city:
(Courtesy of Quartz)
The city was vibrant; pulsating at every moment. It also felt safe. Whether that was because South Koreans were always in a moment of serene enlightenment courtesy of the soju (which neatly translates as ‘burned liquor’) they were drinking or because of Confucian culture, is a conversation best saved for academia the pub.
Ultimately, the end result was that the city possessed an interesting balance between dynamism and calmness. Indeed, the streets were often so broad and spacious that it felt far-fetched to believe that this is one of the world’s largest cities (and by some accounts, with over 20 million citizens, the world’s second largest metropolitan area).
The introduction aside, I was kindly guided and put up by Alex Sawyer, a close friend of a close friend. My time there comprised eating some of the most delicious food in the world (exhibit A), climbing and almost falling off the side of a mountain (I jest not) (exhibit B), indulging in a national pastime by languishing for a day in the dragon hill spa (which was replete with hot tubs – sometimes reaching temperatures as high as 50 degrees -, an ice room and spontaneous Gangnam Style dancing competitions) (exhibit C) and visiting the demilitarised zone and joint-security area bordering North Korea (granted, this is outside of Seoul, but it only a 40 minute or so drive away) (see exhibit D).
The other noteworthy point is the cold. I recall reading about how the American GIs during the Korean War struggled with the debilitating weather, but I did not appreciate how bitter the wind is and how quickly it could drop. It was around 10 degrees on the evening of my arrival. Three days later it was minus eight. Needless to say, this was one of the reasons why I almost fell off the side of Mt. Bukhansan – that, and my ‘hiking’ footwear:
Exhibits to Seoul experience
Exhibit A: Food
Exhibit B: Mt. Bukhansan (and the views from Mt. Namasan which was a less fraught experience)
Exhibit C: Dragon Hill Spa
Exhibit D: DMZ and JSA
Following Seoul, I flew to Myanmar. I did not know what to expect. Friends that have visited in recent years have returned with mixed reviews: some have exalted it and urged me to visit before it becomes an enclave of Thai backpacker, ‘bucket’-ridden tourism (not that there is anything wrong with that per-se, it just depends on your perspective), whilst others have told me not to bother in the first place. By the end of the trip, I was firmly in the former camp.
Yangon, my first destination, and the capital city of Myanmar until 2006, surprised me with its multicultural flair. It has a scintillating combustion of Thai, India, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Western expat and distinctly Burmese influences. The food was great (particularly the tea leaf salads), which was surprising considering that Burmese food seemed to be universally dismissed as oily and insipid. The risk of succumbing to temple fatigue – that is, by visiting a dozen plus more temples, they all form a single memory in your mind, with none being memorable – also eluded me. The Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon was monumental, but my next destination, Bagan, was magnificent solely because of the sheer number of temples dotted around the horizon.
Indeed, as my map attests, there are over 3,000 temples dotted around Bagan:
As with all these things, I will let the pictures speak for themselves. The experience was made all the more enjoyable by Josh Wu, who was someone I met, like all great people, at 4am in the morning on the back of a pickup truck once we had arrived in Bagan from Yangon.
Following Bagan, we visited Inle Lake. It was pleasant; more overtly touristic, but having a boat to ourselves was a pleasantly meandering experience. From the adjoining town of Nuang Shwe, we also rented bicycles and visited, amongst other things, a local vineyard: the views were great, but alas, never judge a picture by a book. Let’s just say that I would not lug any wine home for a Christmas present (although, the vineyard is still impressive considering that the vineyard has only existed for approximately 15 years).
From Nuang Shwe, Josh and I also went on an overnight hike through the Eastern mountains where we stayed with a local monastery.
Following Inle Lake, Josh and I departed ways and I headed to the old colonial British capital of Mawlamyine. You could sense an old, archaic sense of pride and bombast in this city; the architecture of some buildings, although fraying, gave a sense of what once was. The city had a tranquil tropical ambience which made it easy and relaxing to jaunt around. I was also joined by an Aussie named Quita who I met in a restaurant upon arrival.
After Mawlamyine, I travelled north to Kipun to visit Mount Kyaiktiyo. This mountain is renowned as being one of the holiest Buddhist sites in Myanmar, largely (or solely?) owing to the rock perched on its peak which appears to be one push away from rolling down the side of the cliff (quite like me on Mount Bukhansan in Seoul). This was by all means a local tourist attraction: military-style planning courted hundreds of people on the back of pick-up trucks in order to reach the summit of the mountain for a 21st pilgrimage experience (why walk when you can bus?).
Then, I bussed back to Yangon and spent the day in the city before flying back home (via a six hour stopover in Seoul which allowed me to take the train to the city – grab some local snacks – and jump on the train back to the airport).