Tag Archives: vacation

Koh Samet: I wish you were here, or maybe not.

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I have no intention of making you jealous, but I have to inform you that I am writing this blog post from a beach chair 4 feet from the water on the small island of Koh Samet in Thailand. It is late afternoon and the beach area in front of my resort (My bungalow is $20 a night!) is starting to clear out for the day. I personally think dusk is the best part of a beach day. The sky’s color is spectacular, the sun isn’t as intense as it was a few hours prior and I can finally tell by looking at my skin that yes, I in fact did manage to tan and not burn after hours of frolicking in the surf.

I tell you all this because upon traveling to the island from Bangkok, where I spent 3 days being social and saying goodbye to 2012, I have come to the realization that solo-travel may just be the best thing I have done so far in 2013. I admit I was a bit nervous to embark on my solo winter vacation to Thailand. I had traveled alone before but those trips were always only short jaunts from one place to another to meet friends, family or study abroad groups. Because my other expat friends in Korea did not share my vacation days and I knew I didn’t want to stick around Seoul for another week of winter, I booked flights to Bangkok and a hostel for the first night and hoped for the best.

Bangkok proved to be a bustling yet non-intimidating and easily navigable city. I’m not sure what I expected, but my desire to be beach-side and maybe Hangover 2 clouded my judgements and I hoped to leave the city shortly after my arrival. I was pleasantly surprised by Bangkok. I spent 3 nights at the Refill Now! hostel (Please stay here if you are ever in Bangkok!) and made time to explore the splendidly colorful Grand Palace via water transportation, get lost meandering the hundreds of stalls at the famous Chatuck weekend market, wander the backpacker’s party street of Koh San until the early morning hours, and celebrate NYE with a friend from home who now lives in Thailand.

After a whirlwind tour of Bangkok I was more than ready to find a map of Thailand and choose an island to getaway to for the remainder of my vacation. My friend had to return to work so I was left to travel solo and any solo-travel-nerves I might have had when I booked my trip a few months back vanished as I made my way to the Bangkok bus station. I was ready for some quality relaxation and I didn’t mind that a few couples and groups of friends eyed me curiously (I think this was just in my self-centered imagination.) on the ferry from the mainland of Rayong to Koh Samet. I think the lone traveler is mysterious. I imagined an outlandish alter identity for myself, although I do think ‘English Teacher in South Korea’ is pretty darn cool and adventurous. My 20 year old self would have been self conscious, I know it. She would have told herself everyone thought it was strange she was traveling alone and that she must be a lonely cat lady. My 25 year old self, having successfully matured (a bit!) and gained some wisdom in a large part due to her year abroad in Korea, brushed these people and their non-existent thoughts aside and realized she would probably never see them again and she was about to embark on an epic island getaway.

My first full day on Koh Samet is nearly over and I look forward to 2 mores days of sun and fun. The nice thing about vacationing alone is that you are free to do exactly what you want to do exactly when you want to do it. If I want to sleep in I can. If I sporadically decide to stay in the ocean for an entire hour flopping around pretending to be a mermaid no one is impatiently waiting for me on the beach. If I want to go to bed at 10pm there is no judgement. I have also found that the lone traveler is sometimes the most sociable. While a large group of friends may seem intimidating, when you are on your own you are more likely to be approached by others. On the ferry to Koh Samet I met 2 guys who teach in Japan and were vacationing like me. Many young people at my resort beach have also been extremely friendly.

Although I love to socialize, I am using these last few days in Thailand to relax, work on my tan (using SPF!), catch up on all the books I bought for my iPad in 2012 and recharge for the next few months of teaching in Korea. I would tell you all about the delicious pad Thai I plan to consume tonight, but a beach massage advertisement just caught my eye. A one-hour-full-body-massage for about $9…oh, don’t you wish you were here?

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My Date with PSY: soju chugging, shirtless dancing + some singing

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I almost missed my date with PSY, but I have a long subway ride and my love of Twitter to thank for getting me up front and personal with the man who brought Gangnam Style (722,762,395 views as of 11/15) to the world.

Five days on an island will leave you feeling disconnected. Although armed with a smart phone and tablet, I spent a long and blissfully detached getaway on Jeju this fall. I snapped a few pictures with my phone and did read a bit using my tablet, but for the most part I managed to stay away from the black hole that is the internet.

We arrived back in Seoul on a Wednesday evening with the Jeju travel group and from there I still had to venture further north to my city of Uijeongbu. I sat squished next to my vacation companions on the subway with little left to say to each other after five days of bonding. I took this time to catch up on my Twitter obsession and scrolled aimlessly through a few days worth of updates. All of a sudden I was bombarded with a blast of tweets about a free show Psy was promising his Seoul fans if he made it to #1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. I had to piece together the news, but I gathered that there would be a free concert in Seoul that following night and that Psy might be shirtless at some point during the event. Less than 24 hours later I was on the same subway heading back into the city to finally meet the man who had recently, in the eyes of my family and friends, made my move to Korea an impressive one.

My friends and I decided to play it safe and we made our way into Seoul around 4pm for a 10pm concert start time. As we climbed the stairs to the Seoul City Hall subway exit we realized that the early arrival game-plan was not exclusively ours. The Seoul municipal government closed off streets around the exit and security and safety officials were already directing fans of all ages as they clamored to find the right sitting spot to wait out the early evening. We managed to find a small patch of grass to claim for the next few hours and the atmosphere continued to intensify as time ticked by.

At first I was impressed with the patient and orderly Koreans who sat quietly waiting for the right time to stand and enjoy the show, but then things got hectic. The section we were sitting in got closed off because too many people were trying to walk through the seated audience members. My friend who had gone in search of food was told she couldn’t rejoin us. Older Koreans who had been waiting for hours grew tired and had to be carried out of the crowd. I even witnessed one older gentleman faint in the middle of arguing with a security guard. One moment I was on the phone telling my detained friend to duck under the security tape and make a run for it and the next moment the Korean crowd simultaneously decided to stand up and rush the stage. Picnics were trampled as little children were scooped up. My other friend grabbed my arm as we were pushed forward and my constrained friend used the instant of confusion to dart into the moving crowd. A few minutes later we found ourselves smack dab in front of Psy’s stage. My lost friend found us and we all stood in silence admiring our close proximity to greatness.

It was only after the fact that I learned of the crowd’s staggering statistics. More than 80,000 people came out to see Psy perform for two hours. Psy was very humble on stage and there was more than one moment where he seemed to stop and just stare at the crowd in disbelief. He laughed and told us, “I did not get here because I was worthy of it. I’m here because of all of you. I’m just a fat man with two kids.” The Seoul concert was an elaborate thank you to Psy’s Korean fans, who supported him before the horse dance was a phenomenon.  I admit, I did not know many of Psy’s other songs, although all were dance-worthy, but I was most curious to watch Psy perform, and boy did he. The crowd loved him and he took many opportunities to thank them for their continued support. He ran back and forth along a long stage that extended into the audience, only stopped dancing at one point to chug an entire bottle of soju, graced us with two versions of Gangnam Style and went shirtless at the end of the show, as promised. I went from watching the video (with no volume) on my iPad back in July, to being a few inches from the front row security guards with my surprised waegook face plastered all over the big screens. Oh, did I forget to mention that? Yeah, that happened. I love life.

photo credit

Check out the girl with the yellow ears at :43-:45.

some of my own pictures
5pm arrival for a 10pm concert start
The security men were all business.
smokey stage after surprising stage fireworks
dance moves for hours
a tad ecstatic
looking right at me
Do you know the lyrics?
Psy must have missed drinking soju during his US media tour.
no shirt, as promised

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No Naps Allowed – Hamilton Hotel Pool in Itaewon

Just last week I was swimming under a waterfall on the island of Jeju and last night I contemplated turning the heat on in my apartment. The weather in Korea at the moment reminds me of the transition from summer to fall back home in New England. The change is quick and if you don’t take the time to look around and enjoy the last bit of summer it will be time for scarves and boots before you know it. Toward the end of August I found my ultimate summer escape in Seoul. I was always intrigued by the loud techno beats booming from the rooftop swimming pool at the Hamilton Hotel in Itaewon, but I had yet to bring my bathing suit, towel and sunscreen with me to Seoul. Each time I exited the subway across from the hotel entrance this past summer I told myself I must plan a day to enjoy this infamous pool. Summer flew by and after some internet research I learned that the pool was closing after the first weekend in September, so I went to bed early and set my alarm on the last Saturday in August and ventured into Seoul the next morning to spend the day poolside.

My friends and I arrived in Itaewon a little after 11am and the pool party was already going strong. The pool was packed with swimmers and sunbathers positioned around the pool making it difficult to walk from one side of the deck to the other. I had imagined a day of lounging on a chair reading my book and listening to music from my headphones but these plans were immediately squashed. This was a pool party and one of the last of the summer so people were making the most of the day. We stored out bags in a locker, grabbed drinks and made our way to the pool. There was no room to lounge on the deck so we spent most of the day floating around the pool.

A DJ in the corner pumped out dance music and the pool guests danced, drank and swam away the day. I was impressed by the Korean women who easily maneuvered their way around the pool in skimpy swim suits and super high heels while many of the men continuously applied tanning oil to their buff bodies and strutted by each other making sure to flex and convey how much time they spent each week at the gym. The pool atmosphere was one I had yet to experience in Korea and I thoroughly enjoyed watching the entertaining show that was the pool party until the sun began to set and we were ushered out of the pool facility by the hotel cleaning staff.

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I only made it to the Hamilton Hotel Pool once this summer and I regret this statistic. The pool provided a great escape from the summer heat and humidity and it was easy to get to in Itaewon. If you are in Seoul next summer I recommend checking it out, but don’t bring a book or expect to take a nap poolside. There will be dancing and loud music and you will love it. Just consider yourself warned.

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Directions: At Itaewon Station (line 6) walk out Exit 3 and you will find the Hamilton Hotel directly to your right. The pool is on the 5th floor.

The pool is open from 10am-6pm most days during the summer. Arrive early if you want to rent a chair and secure a spot on the pool deck. You can also rent towels and lockers. The pool is closed on rainy days.

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Vacation Travel: Don’t forget to pack the right people.

I arrived in Seoul smack in the middle of February, an unsympathetic month following the excitement of holiday cheer in December and the promise of new beginnings in January. February rudely reminds you that winter has no plans to retire anytime soon and you better start planning a vacation if you want to remain sane. Shortly after settling into my new life of teaching and living in Korea, I met a handful of new friends and we compared teaching jobs, living arrangements and vacation dates. I was ecstatic when I realized I shared the same summer vacation with two of my new friends. Even though we had just started our lives abroad, we quickly began planning our first adventure outside of Korea. I think the planning is half the fun!

We decided to spend a week in Taiwan in late July. We booked our flights in the spring and then we all became busy teaching and living life. Time flew by, as it does in Korea, and before I knew it, it was a week before my vacation. I found myself panicking and I soon realized I was stressed about my upcoming week off from work. Is that even allowed? I was nervous about traveling for a week with new friends. I loved meeting them for coffee and laughing over teaching stories and exploring Seoul on the weekends, but would we work together as a traveling trio? Perhaps one of us might surface as an annoying diva and make us all suffer for the week? Would another throw caution to the wind and make irrational and dangerous decisions in a country we knew little about? Was it possible that one of us was secretly a vacation dictator and would order the group around with daily itineraries and little time to rest or be spontaneous? I knew these girls socially, but would we mesh in vacation world?

Sadly, for those of you hoping for an entertainingly disastrous story, we got along splendidly. With only a hostel room booked for the first two nights and a travel book in hand, we made the week a pleasant one and came back to Seoul still friends. The three of us worked well together. We each brought something to the table.

One friend shared with us her country connections. She had studied abroad in college with a girl from Taipei. On our first night in the country’s capital the friend and her sister gladly met up with us near our hostel and took us on an exclusive tour of one of the city’s famous night markets. I can say with much certainty that I would never have tried Stinky Tofu  if it were not for these sisters coaxing us to hold our noses and “just try it”. They were extremely generous and proud to share a bit of their culture with us. Throughout our stay in Taiwan, even though we eventually ventured outside of Taipei, this Taiwanese friend stayed in contact with my friend and gave us travel advice and even made sure we were safe when an unexpected typhoon greeted us at the beach.

My other companion, having been in Korea for 2 years and an avid traveler, was the one who got us places. She told us early on in the trip, “I never guess, I ask for help.” When I almost wasted $15 in buying the wrong metro card, she quickly squashed my idea and marched us over to the information booth a few feet away. She showed the attendant by pointing to a map which station we needed to get to and he then sold us individual trip tickets that were less than $1. This friend was confident and direct in getting the right information. In situations where I might tend to swing and hope for the best, she made sure we made contact with the right people and got us what we needed as travelers in a foreign country.

Toward the end of our vacation as we sat enjoying drinks at a beach-side bar one night, we eyed a few foreigners lingering nearby. We assumed they were like us: teachers from Korea on vacation. With a deck of cards, full beers and little knowledge of actual card game rules, we knew we would benefit from more friends at our table. After a few awkward moments I turned around and called them over. “Could you help us…?” I offered a silly question that made them smile and move their seats, and from there we went on to have an epic night of cards, beers, beach and new friends. The next day my travel companions complemented me on my ability to socially ‘break the ice’. I have no shame in being the first one to confront strangers, just as long as I can rely on my friends to keep the conversation going once it has begun.

I hope to travel much more in the coming months. I have a few long weekends, a winter vacation and the option of travel after I leave Korea to look forward to. My first vacation taught me that as important as logistics are, it is crucial to make sure these plans involve the right people. I lucked out and packed the right companions without even realizing it. Now I just need to decide where to travel to next…

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