After conferences, I slept soundly, had a sweet day of cheap Thai massage and doing absolutely nothing. Packed and got on a 5 hour, red-eye flight with two good friends, Korea bound.
"Why Korea?" Honestly, I wouldn't have cared if I never made it to Korea in my lifetime, but living in Asia makes it much easier and cheaper to travel to other Asian countries and experience cultures I previously knew nothing about. Also, a high percentage of our International school is Korean. Here was an opportunity to see their home country and develop a better understanding of who they are. I'm all for understanding who people are, where they come from and what they are about. And finally, friends and I found super cheap round-trip tickets...couldn't pass those up!
Here is a condensed version of my Korea travels and highlights (check out some pics above):
What a site! The temples and palaces differ from Thailand in many ways, although Korea is also a predominantly Buddhist culture. The colors are more vivid and are a wash of blues, greens, yellows and browns. A nice change from always pure, gold leaf temples...the colors make it look more rustic. The architecture of the buildings of Bukchon village was illuminated in contrast from the skyscrapers and huge buildings that surrounded it. Looking out, you could see the mysterious mountains in the distance, speckled with fall color.The history and a mock royal procession/changing of the guards performance was a definite insight to the culture, with traditional clothing, as was the traditional Korean dance performance that was so interesting and mesmerizing to watch...including a lady drummer!
Throughout the trip we tried (did not always like) noodles, egg, seaweed, vegetables, pork ( bibimbap) in a broth mixed together which was a favorite, kimchi (cold, wet, spicy, cabbage mix) which was not a favorite and lots of everything deep fried! Who knows what we ate? The chocolate was definitely not chocolate and was red-bean paste instead...not as sweet, but not bad. I don't know any Korean (now I know 'hello' -"ann-yeong-ha-sey-o"- and that's about it) so that made it difficult to communicate sometimes [especially the cute, older Korean couple that hosted us in their pre-Korean war era traditional ondol (heated floors) house]. Lots of charades went down! The population of foreigners and English speakers in Chiang Mai, Thailand is a lot more than the number of English speakers we interacted with throughout the entire week in Korea. Also, the signs are mostly written in Korean.
I'm thankful to travel with friends who wanted to explore, yet had no expectations or plans. It was fun to spend the days journeying through the huge city of Seoul by train, subway and bus. We each got a subway card for the week and had fun mapping out routes and figuring out where each stop would take us. This was the best way to explore the city. We strolled through outdoor markets, both traditional Korean and western alike, ogling over the different fruits and vegetables and strange meats (is that dog???) Also, we decided to let into our "Asian" side and step-foot into cat cafes, dog cafes, and the Hello Kitty Cafe. Yes, we sat around drinking lemonade and petting cats and dogs. It was interesting for sure.
One of the biggest highlights of the week was our day trip outside of Seoul with the USO at Camp Kim going to the DMZ which is the most heavily militarized zone in the world. This strip of land that separates North Korea from South Korea is a beautiful valley, clothed in fall colors surrounded by craggy peaks. In this quiet wilderness, there are numerous mine fields, barbed wire, and military towers rising among the trees with North Korean military looking back at you through binoculars. There is a present sadness. The juxtaposition of a natural beauty and an eerie silence from across this vast trench where labor camps and humane injustice is clearly present on the other side. North Koreans who are kept away from the rest of civilization and the world as we know it.
We toured the most northern point you can go in South Korea and met face-to-face with North Korean military "crossing over the border" into North Korea in the Joint Security Area (JSA) where North and South Korea have briefings. Standing there, was very uncomfortable. One of those moments where you just cannot understand the fear and brutality that people go through on this Earth.
Late at night after returning to Seoul from the DMZ tour, we took a subway to the bus station to catch a two-hour bus ride to Sokcho, which is a city known for it's mountains and craggy peaks that meet with the Sea of Japan. Early morning, we arrived to our little pre-Korean era B&B in the middle of a small village on the way up to a national park. The next day we spent the entire day soaking in the fall brilliance and colors that all of us are currently missing out on in the States. It was so exhilarating to be in nature and beauty of the craggy peaks covered in autumn beauty. We hiked up to see some waterfalls and took a cable car up a peak to see the sea from above.
The downside to all this beauty was there were ridiculous hoards of Koreans everywhere. I had never seen so many people in one park...not even Estes Park in the fall with Elk. I learned that Koreans NEED to be with others ALL the time, whether eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom etc. everyone goes together. This means the WHOLE family including grandma and grandpa in wheelchairs on the trails. Something that our cold culture does not do...I like my space. Also, everyone is dressed in insane amounts of North Face, Columbia, Eddie Bauer, Merrell, Patagonia and other expensive outdoor gear brands. Colorado has nothing on these people when it comes to outdoor fashion...head to toe!
The day after the mountains, we spent chilling by the Sea of Japan. We took a bus from our little B&B to explore the coast. Lots of fish markets, fried foods, a lighthouse, small tide-pools on this warm fall day and traditional Korean pagodas on sides of cliffs. It was a calm, sweet day of just resting and appreciating the beauty around us, reflecting on Korean culture and debriefing the first quarter of teaching in Thailand.
After a week away from my new reality in Thailand, coming "home" was so good. It was actually nice to be back, although I did not miss the heat and humidity of this tropical land. It felt good to be back with the warm Thai people and culture. I feel so blessed to be presently living in Thailand! I have a better understanding and appreciation of where God has me after this trip. More importantly, I walked away with a better understanding of Korea and the history and culture of the people there.