Archive by Author | mattvanni

Prague: Unexpected Jewel of Europe

From the desk of Matt Vanni: runs slower than a bullet, can leap over …some small people, super-cool husband, and all-around awesome guy.  I hear he even writes blogs for his wife when she gets too busy!  Oh, and of course, amazingly handsome.  At least that’s what all his students yell (appropriate word) at him daily.

A few years ago I took an amazing trip to Europe with my best friend Joe.  We hopped from city to city, trying to get in as much of what Europe could offer in the short time we were there.  It is my favorite vacation (so far).  We went to many of the same cities Andrea has already written about here, but I’d like to share some photos and comments about one she missed out on: Prague!

Outside of Rome and Paris (maybe), Prague is the most beautiful city I’ve been.  Joe and I went in the spring of 2009 when the Czech Republic was part of Euro zone, but was still trying to meet criteria to become a full member (using the Euro, etc..).  Regardless of what the outlook is for the Euro now, back then it meant (at least for tourist) that the Czech Republic was making huge investments in public infrastructure and doing everything they could to boost their economy (I guess that’s what EVERY country is trying to do…but they seemed to be really putting in the effort at the time).  For us this meant great transportation and hotels, while still being really cheap!!!

The mix between the Gothic buildings and red clay shingles was amazing.

Saint Vitus’ Cathedral

The city was astoundingly beautiful.  I had never imagined that we would find castles and churches that dated back to the 9th Century; I thought everything would have been lost in the many wars that have torn apart that part of the world.  It seemed like no matter where we went, there was something amazing to see!  And after traveling through most of Western Europe, the architecture so strikingly different.   More than once we found ourselves just standing and staring.

The Prague Orloj is a medieval astronomical clock. Yeah, we sat infront of this at least once a day, every day we were in Prague.

When not walking around, we were eating.  Of course.  The food was so good at one restaurant we found that in the 4 days we were there, we ate there 3 times.  And the beer was delicious too!!!

Here’s the place to eat! I don’t think I’ve ever had more fresh tasting food. And yes, Joe did pose for every picture on our 1 month trip with his eyes closed.

Proud to say this was not posed or photoshopped at all! Just an incredibly cute old couple, and the amazing photo skills I have with my trusty point-and-shoot PS A540. Take that big camera junkies! (Yeah, I know Andrea’s one.)

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Amusement Abounds! – Lotte World Seoul

Seoul has everything, even an underground (partially) amusement park!

About a month after we arrived in Korea, I (Matt) was pleasantly surprised by a random day off school!  The middle and high school students were all taking one of the many nationwide standardized tests…SO I had a Thursday to play around with a friend in Seoul.  I had heard rumors of a couple of amusement parks in the area, so I decided to hit up LotteWorld.

The stuff of fantasy and nightmares. More of nightmares at times.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, but I did know a few things going in.  LotteWorld is owned, like everything else in Korea it seems, by Lotte (pronounced “low-tay”), a huge company with grocery stores, low to very high-end shopping malls, gum and candy, insurance, apartments, hotels, and even has their own kind of burger fast food joint called “Lotteria.”  (More on information on this HUGE conglomerate is available on the official Lotte site: http://www.lotte.co.jp/english/group/index.htm).
I won’t deny I was a little overwhelmed when we entered the park.  I had to take a few minutes of staring to really take it in before I could start walking around!  I came up from a lower entrance, so it was like rising out of the ground into a different world.  The best way I can describe the theme is “It’s a Smallworld” meets knock-off Mickey Mouse characters.  The park is half inside, half outside.  The inside consists of a 8-10 story mall; the lower levels are shops, including an ice rink, that don’t have access to the park which is on the top 3 floors.  The entertainment inside was everything you would see in a normal amusement park, with a pretty legit Korean history museum thrown in.  Outside had the larger rides, and not as many small carnival-type games.

A bit of Rome as you come out of the subway at Jamsil

It was a fun experience.  I would definitely recommend an early start, hitting up the bigger rollercoasters/rides as soon as you can because the park will inevitably get packed with what seems like the entire population of Seoul.  Patrons can get fast passes for some rides, limited to 1 or 2 within some time period (sorry, can’t remember).
Jamsil Station, lines 2 & 8, exit 4.  You will exit into a shopping center, follow the signs to the underground entrance to Lotte World!

Bottoms Up: All-You-Can-Drink Seoul

For as much as I might like to think of myself as a seasoned drinker (or at least been around some seasoned drinkers), Koreans put everything I’ve seen to shame.  It’s like drinking is a national past time!  And I’m not talking about a glass of soju at dinner. I do have a limited travel experience, but I have never been or heard of a place where it’s a weekly occurrence to see belligerently drunk men stumbling down the street or yelling in the subway (actually it’s more like three times a week).     More times than not, when out at a restaurant we’ll see at least 1 table with at least 10 bottles of soju emptied and two or three very happy Koreans.  This is not about bashing Koreans, on the contrary, it’s quite impressive at times.   These people know how to drink, and how to drink a lot!

And now my point to all this build-up:  all you can drink bars!  Before coming to Korea, I had never heard of such a thing.  Apparently, these do occur in other countries, but the two we have been to here are pretty amazing.  It’s not happy hour, it’s happy ALL NIGHT!

Club C-bar:  Sillim Stop, Line 2 – exit 6.  The club is in the buildings directly behind the stop, but you have to walk down the street about a block, take your first left, and again your first left.  On the third floor.  After you leave the subway, it’s almost like your walking in a big circle.  C-Bar’s facebook page

This is an all you can drink beer, tequila, and vodka bar.  Ladies get in for 10,000 won and the gents have to pay 30,000 (so much for equal rights!).  The place is meant to be a club, and the dancing is pretty fun.  Other than drinking until 4 am then going to a Noribong (singing room) until 5 or 6…the most amazing thing about our evening at C-bar was when all of a sudden ever Korean on the dance floor broke out into synchronized dancing!  This wasn’t your weak Electric Slide either, but full on hip-hop moves.  It was crazy! Well worth the painful morning after.

Lobby entrance to the Intercontinental; all the colored lighting shifts to other soft colors. Fancy!

Intercontinental Hotel at Coex: Samseong Stop, Line 2 – exit 6.  The hotel is down the street, past Coex.  Intercontinental Hotel at Coex

Looking for a bit more class, the International Hotel at Coex was our next venture in the all-you-can-drink department.  This was a wine bar, plus sampler buffet that is hosted by the hotel Saturdays from 6-9pm.  A little more expensive at 35,000 won a person, but the good wine and decent food is worth it.  We recommend calling ahead to make reservations, as they do get busy.  We have been here twice, and walking into the elegant lobby, it amazes me that a place as nice as this would host a regular winos night.  In fact, having gone to the Intercontinental the Saturday before the 2012 Seoul Nuclear Security Summit, we had the odd chance to rub elbows with lots of press and some security details for the incoming diplomatic bigwigs.  No drinks with President Obama, though he would have been welcome!

Yes. 5 people SHOULD drink this much wine.

Jurassic Park, Pineapple-Style

A park with living biological attractions, so astounding they will capture the imagination of the entire planet…

…excitement courses through my veins as the golf cart pulls up.  It’s yellow, a little strange looking because it can fit six people, and it has a pineapple for a roof.  What gets my blood pumping is that there isn’t anyone driving!!  No tracks either!  What is happening!?!?  I try to stay calm as we get inside, and the automated future cart pulls away.  Not going to lie, I held my breath, listening for the steps of a giant screaming pineapple-dinosaur.

Once I pull myself together, I realize there’s a narrator to our magic pineapple ride.  One of the best moment of the 15 minute tour (yeah, there was more than one) was when our guide tape explained where the word “pineapple” came from – apparently from the words “pine” and “apple.”  Whodathought!?!  Pine for the pine cone-like outside.  Apple for the sweet, fruity inside.  Knowledge abounds!  Yes.  This is what we’re learning in Asia.

Cassie and Josh

AH!!!  Pineapple Carts!

Who's driving the cart!?!?

After the way-too short (but awesome) pineapple cart ride, we were led to a ridiculous 45 minute walk through a maze of gift shops.  Not quite sure if this is the right order, but here we go:  pineapple ride, shell museum/shop (really only 3 rooms), pineapple wine tasting, pineapple vinegar tasting, pineapple juice tasting, pineapple jelly/cake/chocolate/face scrub, and straight pineapples.  THEN there were another 5-10 rooms.

Even though we basically bought tickets to walk through gift shops, we all were just so excited to make it out of the (again, awesome) cart ride without being crushed by the aforementioned pineapple-dinosaur (come on, Jurassic Park folks!).  It was worth it.  Oh, and I guess we also picked up a couple of delicious pineapples…and wine…and jam.  So the gift shop maze worked on these suckers.

Stay perfectly still...it can't see you if you don't move!

Favorite City in Asia – So Far

From ancient Hindu caves to the (former) tallest building in the world, all with only one subway transfer.

We started out the day a little later than expected (which you think that we WOULD expect it at this point…), but finally got going just in time to see the beginning of the state of the union speech!  It is uniquely strange to see this while in southeast Asia, sitting in one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, in a hostel lobby with at least 20 other people who most likely speak 3 languages each, watching America’s first black president speak to one of the least culturally and gender diverse governments in the world (heads up folks, we are way down on the list of diversity in our government.  Countries in the middle east are above us!)  It was a surreal experience.

Batu Caves

Off to the caves!  Or should I say Andrea’s monkey photo shoot.  We hopped on a train right by our hostel in Chinatown, and headed to the Batu Caves.  They were pretty cool, giant caves full of (I think) long-tailed Macaque monkeys.  There were 2 main caverns we saw: 1 main cavern at the top of the stairs with an open-air space after walking through it, and about halfway up you can pay to go into a dark cave tour (we chose not to do this).  As you can see from the pictures, Andrea REALLY liked the monkeys.


After about 3 hours at the caves, we hopped back on the train and headed to the Petronas Towers.  When we got there, we found an enormous mall situated at the towers’ base.  Most of the mall was underground, but at least 3 of the 7+ levels poked up above street-level.  Since we had already sweated through our shirts, and the tickets to go up in the towers were sold-out until after we left KL, we decided to wander and relax in the air conditioning for a bit.

The mall was amazing, and I don’t even like shopping.  The words “I want to live inside here” actually came out of my mouth.  We spent almost 7 hours inside the mall, including the movie we went to see.  What struck me the most, and seems to really encompass KL, is how we could be shopping alongside one woman wear a see-through shirt with a sexy bra on AND a woman in a FULL burka (full full – she had eye holes cut out, not even just the strip that shows the bridge of the nose and eyes).  This city is amazing, and hands down my favorite so far in Asia.

In true Vanni fashion, we ended the night by going to a movie at the mall.  Andrea continues to love the fact that all theaters in Asia seem to have Carmel corn, and I have to say I really enjoyed my cup of mashed potatoes and gravy (something new to my theatrical experience).

Arrival in Phuket

Phuket greeted us kindly with instant sweat and mosquitos while we waited in customs for at least 30 minutes.  Not the best start to our “relaxing” portion of the trip.  Even better was when some white guy (couldn’t tell where he was from, but I don’t think an English speaking country) ran into a restricted area and was bodily carried by 4 armed security guards towards us as we came out of the bathrooms right before getting into the Customs line.  And he was NOT going quietly, twisting and thrashing about.  Andrea was all hunky dory about it, until I pointed out that the guy could have actually been up to some shit and we just needed to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible.  Thankfully (as usual) my wonderful wife was correct and all we had to put up with was watching security try to interrogate the guy while he continued to thrash about.  Our best guess was that he was either mentally handicap (sad) or ridiculously drunk (pathetic yet impressive).

Once we got through all that, we stepped out into the Thai night, got a cab and proceeded to our hotel for the evening.  This, too, was somewhat of an experience.  About 15 minutes into the 40 minute ride, our driver tell us he needs to stop at the work office along the way to “sign something.” We watched as he didn’t sign jack-crap, and we had the pleasure of having a private speed boat ferry ticket pitched to us by a very aggressive Thai woman.  I swear we said “no thank you” at least 10 times.  Finally she gave up and we got to our hotel.  Incidentally, our trip BACK to the airport from the ferry only took at most 20 minutes, so I’m sure the first taxi driving went well out of his way to “sign” that “something.” Not impressed with Thailand at this point at all.

Thankfully, that changed quickly once we got to our lodging.   The hotel staff informed us that they sold out of rooms, so they had to up grade us to a suite!  Getting better. The room was just what we needed.  Not that our hotel in KL was bad, this place was just awesome.  Air conditioned, bug free, big clean bed heaven.  Goooood night.

Rattana Residence, Phuket - Suite for about $40. Great price, about 20 min by taxi from the ferry.

First Impressions

From: Matt

So my school asked me to do a quick write up on how my experience has been so far in Korea for a book they were putting together.  What’s below is a slightly modified version of what I gave them…

I have been in Korea for a little over a month, and I can’t help but notice the differences and similarities between my life here and in America.  So many things, from the way I do laundry, to how school lunch takes place strikes me as unusual.  Strangely enough, though, there are other things that are so alike that it makes me feel right at home.

For the past month, I’ve really enjoyed the adventure of this new place and culture!  There are so many new things for me to try to eat, see, and understand.   Some things that have really stood out for me have been how different my teaching job in Korea is verse back in America.  First and foremost, the welcome shown me by students is so kind it’s almost unsettling.  Koreans in general have been very kind and eager to help.  When walking through the school halls in America, one or two students would say hello (EVERY single korean student says hello when I walk past) and never did I hear “Oh, teacher so handsome!” or “teacher marry me!”  shouted down the hallway.  Also, I’m getting used to all the exercise I get at school:  in my school teachers are the ones that move from class to class, which means I have 5-6 different classrooms in a given day with all of them on different floors (and frequently in different wings of the school).  If nothing else, I’ll stay fit while here!

Some of the other differences I’ve noticed so far are: the rarity of trashcans in public places, no toilet paper dispensers in bathroom stalls (not all over, but it happens frequently enough), restaurants specific to 1 type of meat, paying for shopping carts (just a deposit that you get back), differences between “inside” and “outside” shoes, heated floors, cellphone stores on every street corner, street food stands, frequent use of microphones by salespeople (they YELL at you to buy their products), no ovens, no clothes dryers (BIG change), and bathrooms in which the shower is the whole room (not ours).  My favorite difference so far, though, has been the amazing couples’ outfits (men and women will wear the same thing…down to the shoes they have on).

There has been plenty here that’s kept us comfortable.  Before coming here, I would never have expected to be able to communicate so easily; almost ever Korean I have interacted with spoke or understood enough English that I have been misunderstood only a few times (one of those times happened to be an accidental 45 min taxi ride into Seoul…).  Also, while the food here is very different, it is surprising to see so many American food brands in the grocery and convenience stores.  Furthermore, it’s nice to know that other foods such as pizza and a variety of American fast food chains are here (even though I didn’t normally eat fast food while still in America).  The bus and train system here is actually much better, making it easy to get from place to place without too much confusion.  Some other things that have made me feel more at ease have been: extremely fast internet, electronic door locks (I really like not having to carry keys), fancy western toilets with BUTTONS (I have yet to actually enjoy using one of these — Andrea has one of these at her school, I’m jealous), and free side dishes with every meal!