My Top 5 Bucket List: Korean Edition

Bucket lists are all the rage these days. But there’s a huge difference in dreaming about doing things before you die, and actually doing them now. Recently, a blogger I like wrote about her problem with bucket lists, and then challenged her readers to make a “travel priorities list” instead, in hopes that people will actually do the things on their lists, rather than just dream about them. Similarly, another favorite blogger has a “pre-marriage bucket-list,” something that’s obviously too late for me to do, but still a good idea in that she’s set some sort of time limit on herself to pack in the adventures.

So in the spirit of making a realistic bucket list, I’ve decided to focus on just what I want to do with the time we have left in Korea. So here is my top 5 bucket list, the Korean edition!

1.) Tour the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)

DMZ Tour Korea

DMZ Tour Korea: photo by Estelle Pizer

I’ve heard this referred to as one of the most dangerous places on earth–and while this can’t possibly still be true (unless I really am that naive?), it is definitely an exciting place. This small strip of land runs between North and South Korea, and serves as a buffer between the feuding countries. It’s the most heavily militarized border in the world, and the southern side is protected by both the United States and South Korean military’s. Inside the DMZ is a Joint Security Area (JSA) where the leaders for North Korea, South Korea, the United States and the United Nations meet for negotiations.

Amazingly, this area is open to the public through tours. There are several companies that run these tours, but I’ve heard it’s generally accepted that the best tour is run by the United States Military. I can’t wait to do one of these tours, but I’m sure with all of our visitors in the next couple of months, someone will want to do this with us–so we’re holding off for now!

2.) Visit Jeju Island 

JEJU Island

Jeju Island: photo by MIN_Photo

I’ve commonly heard this island (off the southern tip of South Korea) referred to by Koreans as “the Hawaii of Korea.” Our friend Andrew heartily disagrees with this comparison (“just because there are palm trees doesn’t make it Hawaii–especially if you half to wrap them up for winter!”), but still, we hear it’s nice. It’s also insanely popular–so while we do want to go, we’re trying to be smart about it and make sure we don’t go when everyone else in Korea goes!

3.) Take a Day Trip to Nami Island

Lake to Nami Island (1)

Lake to Nami Island: photo by Kelvin Lok

This little island is near Seoul, and it’s so small I’ve heard it’s perfect for a day trip. There are two ways to get onto the island–take a short ferry across the river, or zip line over the river. Despite the fact that it’s triple the cost to zip line there as it is to ferry, after my last zip lining adventure, I am determined to do it!

4.) Visit a Dog (and Cat) Cafe

Untitled

Photo by Ryan Pikkel

Children Playing with Cats

Children Playing with Cats: photo by Chantelle

Before you freak out and think I’ve gone totally carnivore crazy on you, listen up–these amazing cafe’s are just coffee shops/bars where you can go and PLAY with dogs and cats. We’ve heard mixed reactions from people who have visited these–some say they are nasty, others say they are amazing. Because we’re both crazy animal people, I’m guessing we’re going to like them…let’s just hope we don’t try to steal any animals.

5.) Experience the Madness of the Boryeong Mud Festival 

Boryeong Mud Festival Openning 1st day

Boryeong Mud Festival Openning 1st day: photo by Byoung Wook – Toughkid Kim 김병욱

Korea’s usually a pretty buttoned-up place. It’s considered immodest to show your shoulders or chest (for women), and at the water parks and public beaches most women don’t wear bikinis–but rather shorts and tee shirts. So I find it kind of amazing that one of the biggest festivals in Korea revolves around a bunch of half-naked people playing in the mud. It’s like, Korea gone wild. I can’t wait to see this debauchery!

Also, if you made it this far, please check out my article about my scariest travel moment over at Vagabundo Magazine. Be sure to leave me lot’s of comments so they’ll keep hiring me! 

Hitting the Hills: Hiking in Gwangju-si

It seems we’ve really embraced the national pass time of hiking here–in the past we’ve hiked in Bukhansan National Park in Seoul, and more recently, we’ve been checking out the hills surrounding Gwangju. In keeping with this theme of climbing the hills whenever the weather’s nice and we have nothing else to do, we recently decided to check out the hill behind our apartment building.

While the views from up top weren’t as impressive as this view, the hike itself was (in my opinion) through a prettier forest. Plus, this time, Matt didn’t even have to listen to me whine–I was totally on board with hauling myself up this little mountain! Overall, not a bad way to spend an afternoon.

Seorae Village: Seoul’s “Little France”

When we first heard rumors about Seoul’s “Little France” neighborhood, we thought it might be too good to be true. In this cheese-less land of soju, could it be? Could there really be a place to eat authentic baguettes, drink wine and hear snippets of French on the streets?

My friends, it’s true. Seorae Village is a little bit of Europe, plopped down in Asia. It’s home to 40% of the French community within South Korea. The village began to build up in the mid-eighties, when Lycée Français de Séoul, Seoul’s only international French school moved into the neighborhood. Soon French expats, mostly in the country for business, began to move to the area to be near the school. The neighborhood is nicknamed “Montmartre” because of its hilltop location and similarity to the famous Parisian neighborhood of the same name. Since we both really like Paris, we figured we’d better go check this place out.

There’s not much to do in Seorae Village other than eat…but the eating is so good. There are loads of French cafes, French and Italian style restaurants, cheese shops, wine bars and some French chain stores, like L’Occitane. Once we actually found the village (it’s pretty tucked away and a little bit of a jaunt from the nearest subway station), we just spent the day walking around, eating, and taking it all in.

We had lunch at an adorable restaurant called Market Vinoflower (more of an Italian than French place), where we ate an amazing caprese-style garden salad (with pesto dressing, yum!), an extremely thin crust gorgonzola pizza, and some delicious wine. Pricey for sure, but definitely worth it. Plus, after our meal, the waiter gave me a rose!

After lunch, we made our way to the (fairly) authentic Paris Croissant Bakery (there’s also a famous coffee chain in Korea called Paris Baguette, but they are MUCH different!). This little gem devotes one whole floor to breads and pastries, the basement houses cheeses, wines, macaroons, soufflés and cakes, and the top floor serves as a cafe. We sampled a delicious blueberry cheesecake and an amazing cappuccino, and then purchased some rustic Italian-style bread on our way out. Everything was pretty pricey here too, but it was so delicious we couldn’t have cared less.

If you’re in Korea and need a little break from it all, Seorae Village is a great place to go and feel as though you’ve temporarily stepped into Europe. The streets don’t really look European, but the atmosphere is not very Korean either. It feels more like an international village than a strictly French village to me–but either way, it’s lovely and definitely worth checking out!

To get to Seorae Village, take Seoul subway line 3 or 7 to the Express Bus Terminal. Then take exit 5 (we didn’t do this and got super lost at first), and then walk down a long pathway lined with trees for several minutes. Once you reach the highway overpass, turn left, cross over the highway, and then follow Seorae road into the village.

Why I Love Amsterdam (It’s Not Why You Think)

The land of (legal) weed and prostitutes has gotten a bit of a bad reputation as a place that lacks morals and class, but actually, I beg to differ.

Amsterdam is the single most adorable place I have ever been.

I know the words “Red Light District” and “space cakes” don’t usually conjure wholesome up images, but I promise you, Amsterdam is clean, efficient and ridiculously quaint.

When I went to The Netherlands in 2009 with three of my girlfriends, I couldn’t get over how picture-perfect Amsterdam was. Flower boxes on window sills! Cats on cafe tables! Girls in pretty sundresses riding beach cruisers through the city! Couples on boats in the canals! It was like one picturesque postcard after another.

Amsterdam is my kind of place–it has everything I adore. The food is amazing, the people are friendly, the city is clean, the public transit is efficient, and the whole city is drenched in history.

We spent our days perusing the museums–museums of all varieties, like the Anne Frank House (which was equal parts amazing and heart wrenching), and the Sex Museum (which may have been the single most disturbing place I have ever been). We took two amazing bike tours with Mike’s Bike Tours, one through the city to learn about Amsterdam’s history and culture, and one through the countryside, where we saw Amsterdam’s last working windmill and went to a cheese and clog-making farm. So Dutch, so adorable.

When it comes down to it, I’d actually say Amsterdam is one of my favorite cities in the world. It’s so livable–I could easily see myself falling into a routine there of riding a bike through the city, sipping coffee in one of the many adorable cafes, napping in the shade in the parks, and having wine on the canals.

Plus…the Red Light District is actually really fun, and not nearly as raucous as you might expect. (I would even venture to say the nightly parties we saw on Koh Phi Phi in Thailand rival any night in the seedy Red Light District for overall wildness!) All in all, it is an amazing city, and you should definitely venture through if you’re ever in the area!

Have you been to Amsterdam? What was your experience?

What We’ll Be Doing, Where We’ll Be Wandering.

Like I said yesterday, we haven’t been doing much lately. But that will all change soon–we have a lot of fun and exciting plans lined up for the next few months! Since we spent our winter holidays frolicking around Thailand, Malaysia and Japan, we’ve decided to stay a little closer to home for the spring and summer holidays, and explore Korea a little more.

So here’s what we have planned for the following months…

Next weekend is a long weekend because it’s Buddah’s birthday, so we taking three days to explore the southern part of South Korea and check out the city Busan. We’ve been near this area before when we went to Gyeongju and Ulsan, but it was winter then, and I’m excited to hang out on the beach now that it’s warm!

Busan II

Busan: Photo by Jens-Olaf Walter.

Busan 008

Busan Beach: Photo by Kimberly Hiller.

At the end of June, my sister and her boyfriend are coming to Korea to visit us! They are pretty awesome–they’re essentially doing a “mini” round the world trip in two weeks: one week in Belgium for a friend’s wedding, then flying straight to Korea to spend one week gorging on kimchi and drinking soju with us. I AM SO EXCITED.

My sister Jillian and her boyfriend Conor.

No firm plans for July yet–but it will be our one year wedding anniversary (holy cow, time flies!), so we’d better think of something fun to do! Suggestions are welcomed…anybody know of any good weekend trips around Seoul?

I can’t believe this was almost a year ago! Photo by Jenny GG Photography.

In August we have about a week of vacation time we can use, so we’re thinking of exploring one of Korea’s islands, perhaps Jeju Island or Ulleungdo Island. Again, I am open to suggestions–I’m worried both of these islands will be too crowded and crazy this time of year, and I really want to find a peaceful place with a beach to just chill out…anybody have any ideas for me? Please, send them my way!

Jeju Island 제주도

Jeju Island: Photo by Justin De La Ornellas.

Harbour at Ulleung Island

Harbour at Ulleung Island: Photo by watchsmart.

Now I’m getting a little ahead of myself, but I might as well keep rolling with it…in September my awesome friend and long-time roommate Meg (from the adorable style and lifestyle blog Wear To Go From Here) and her boyfriend (who also happens to be one of Matt’s best friends from college) will be coming to visit. Side story: these two starting dating after our wedding, so basically, we are the best unintentional matchmakers ever!

Our friends Frank and Meg are coming! Hooray!

And THEN it will be October before we know it, which will mark one year in Korea, and my parents are coming to visit!

I don’t know if Korea is ready for my family…

We certainly have some fun and crazy times coming up. We hope you’ll stay tuned!

We’ve Been Being Lazy, But You Would Be Too.

I feel like lately I don’t have anything exciting to talk about…instead of doing cultural things in Seoul like we did when it was cold, lately we have been being lazy and enjoying the gorgeous sunny weather and eploring our local area a bit more.

Rather than bore you with descriptions of our lazy days, here are some photos that sum it up pretty well!

We’ve been people watching and reading in our local park.

We went to a rooftop barbecue.

We’ve been walking around and exploring Gwangju more.

We’ve been eating more duck than usual. Recently, the bloggers from World Flavor hoofed it over from Incheon so we could give them a taste of our favorite Korean food. You can read their thoughts about it here.

We checked out a Western-style restaurant and bar in a nearby town–free pool and delicious fries!

…and that’s about all. Basically, we’ve been thoroughly enjoying spring in Korea.

How are you spending your spring-time days?

My Love/Hate Relationship with Korea

Being over halfway through our year here in Korea, I feel like I have a new perspective on a lot of things regarding the culture and customs here. Now that we’ve had time to settle in, learn some things and fall into normal day-to-day routines, I feel like it’s time to share the things I love (and hate) about this country. I’ll start with the things I hate so we can end on a positive note…

What I Hate About Korea

1.) There is an extreme disregard for personal space in this country. I don’t know if it’s because it’s just a crowded country (48,875,000 people in a country about the size of Indiana), or if it’s more of a cultural thing, but being pushed or crowded while walking, lining up or attempting to get on or off public transportation is the norm. It’s the kind of thing I can’t get used to, and it oftentimes still makes me livid. I know it’s not considered rude here and so I should accept it…but I just can’t. I want to scream “GET OUT OF MY BUBBLE!” every time some old lady shoves me to get on the bus.

2.) Everything you buy from the grocery store comes in about 5 times too much packaging. Same with take out. Expect your take out, fruit, veggies and even eggs to not only be in cardboard or Styrofoam (the worst!), but also covered in plastic wrap and probably some ties as well; then the whole thing will be double-bagged in plastic bags. This one kills me, because in Seattle I made a very conscious effort to buy things with minimal packaging and to avoid plastics. That is nearly impossible here. I still make an effort to bring my own reusable grocery bags, which nearly always causes some some nervous laughter and or confusion as I refuse the plastic bags. At least they have a good recycling system here…

3.) Squatter toilets are the worst. No need to rehash this one, I already thoroughly over-shared about the bathroom situation in Korea here.

4.) There are so many drunk, old men. Drinking is a big part of the culture here–there are many rituals surrounding drinking, including how it’s served, and who serves who, etc.–especially among men, and even more so among old men. It is way too common to see belligerent old men stumbling down the street, sleeping on the subway, or puking on the sidewalk. Not a fan.

To be fair, I have no proof this old man was drunk. But it’s not an uncommon site to see people passed out drunk on the subway.

5.) Korean winters are absolutely terrible. Maybe I’m just a huge baby, but this last winter was so cold I thought I was going to die on the spot every time I stepped outside. Three months of snow, ice, arctic winds, subzero temperatures and gray skies was not my idea of a good time.

6.) Nothing in Korea is ever a comfortable temperature or volume. I actually stole that phrase from our friend Andrew, but I definitely think it’s true. When it’s cold here, the heaters on the bus are blasting and the busses get way too hot, but the opposite was true for our schools this winter. Despite the fact that it was usually below zero, the school windows would be open, and the heaters barely trickled heat. Now that it’s getting warm, I’m noticing a lot of teachers still won’t use their fans, and the busses still have the heat on. I DON’T UNDERSTAND.

As for the volume–it’s always loud, no matter what the situation or place. When you go into stores, salespeople will scream at you in a microphone–as if that would ever make me want to buy anything! The students shout their answers back at me instead of just speaking normally. Television commercials are too loud, and the music in bars is always FAR too loud. I will be amazed if I haven’t lost some of my hearing by the time we leave Korea.

Apparently loud music and yelling in megaphones is supposed to make me want to vote for someone…

7.) None of the coffee shops in Korea have soymilk. I take this one as a personal affront since I can’t drink milk. I love lattes…and yet in Korea, I’m (mostly) deprived. The only coffee shop that carries soy in Korea is Starbucks, and there are no Starbucks’ in my town. I guess if I’m looking on the bright side it helps me save money and gives me something to look forward to in Seoul…but still. I really wish Korea would jump on the soy bandwagon already.

Drinking black coffee…but not enjoying it nearly as much as I would if it was a soy latte!

…so now, lest you think I actually do hate Korea, here are the things I love about this country!

What I Love About Korea

1.) Korean food is so cheap. Matt and I frequently eat out and barely ever pay more than 15,000 won (about $15) total. Usually it’s less than 10,000 won. Plus, almost all Korean food is delicious.

2.) Korean people are friendly. While strangers might point and/or giggle, if you actually smile at them, you are sure to get a huge grin back. Little old ladies are constantly babbling away to me in Korean, big grins on their faces, totally oblivious to the fact that I don’t understand a word. I just smile and nod, and they seem to appreciate that. On a deeper level, the Korean friends we’ve made have been absolutely invaluable to us–once they know you, Koreans treat you like family, which is awesome.

3.) Korean public transit is amazing. Seriously, amazing. Subways and busses are cheap, clean, they always come on time, and for the most part, everything is easy to understand. Busses not so much if you can’t read Korean, but the subways are heaven for tourists–everything is translated into both English and Chinese, and the entire system is both numbered and color-coded. It is so nice to have reliable public transportation–one less thing to worry about!

4.) Even the taxis are cheap. I’m talking dirt cheap! Never in my life would I have taken a taxi from the grocery store if it would only be a ten minute walk home, but these days, if my arms are full of groceries, I’ll pay the 3,000 won to be dropped off at home. I’m not joking–most taxi rides we take here (within our town) are less than $3. I find that insane, and thrilling. Taxis in and out of Seoul are never more than $50, which is at minimum an hour away, some parts about two hours away. To put that into perspective, I once paid $200 for a two hour cab ride in New York City.

5.) Korea is shopping heaven. If you like ridiculously overpriced designer handbags, you’re in luck–because swanky department stores are abundant. If you think $3 is too much for a shirt, you’re also in luck–street shopping and subway shops are literally all around you. For me, these little booths and shops (plus a ton of cheap boutiques) are where it’s at. Too bad I’m trying to save money to travel…I could easily quadruple the size of my wardrobe here.

6.) Korean springtime is breathtakingly beautiful. Koreans deserve this gorgeous spring to make up for the horrid winters. It’s between 70-80 degrees Fahrenheit everyday, humid (but not too humid), and sunny. Flowers are blooming everywhere, suddenly all that was gray is green. I hear it’ll all go away soon when monsoon season starts, so I’m trying to soak up every moment!

7.) In Korea, I’m like a celebrity, especially among the children. People I don’t know say hi to me, parents make their kids wave at me, people take my picture, and when I walk around school or town, people yell my name. I’m not joking. I don’t think I’ll ever again have a job where people both bow to me and tell me I’m beautiful all day, so I might as well enjoy it…

Fan mail.

8.) And lastly, I think we might have the best apartment in Korea. I certainly didn’t think so when we first arrived, but after seeing other peoples places (so small!) and hearing people complain about not having bathtubs or room for a double bed (we have two double beds in our place), I think we hit the jackpot. We also have killer views from our 14th floor apartment–my new favorite thing to do now that it’s warm is to sit on our sun porch with a drink and read or watch the city below. It’s the perfect way to end a day, or start a weekend morning.

So there you have it…my love/hate list. What’s your favorite thing and least favorite thing about where you live?