Wednesday, September 18, 2013


Brunei.  I will not judge if you have to pull out a map (more like search on Google) in order to locate this country.  Despite having the 19th largest GDP per capita in the world (WorldBank), there is not much notable about this Southeast Asian monarchy.  But left standing as one of the 4 remaining Southeast Asian countries on my list, me and my roommate, James, took advantage of a 4 day weekend to go check it out.

Sharing the island of Borneo with both Malaysia and Indonesia, Brunei doesn't have a distinct culture of its own, but rather an amalgamation of the other two.  However, their are two prominent cultural aspects one quickly takes note of when visiting Brunei: it is a very heavily Muslim culture and they absolutely love their Sultan (essentially the king).

Although the Muslim influence is existent everywhere in their society, there is zero pressure or animosity towards non-Muslims (the only way that their Muslim culture negatively impacted my visit is that due to religious beliefs, Brunei is a completely dry country).  The people were extraordinarily open and friendly to us the entire visit.  It was so refreshing to have strangers actually acknowledge our existence and smile at us when contrasted to the closed off/somewhat self-absorbed Singapore culture.

Brunei is a monarchy controlled by a Sultan, who is very highly revered.  As aforementioned, Brunei has the 19th highest per capita GDP, but this number is misleading when considering that the country only has a population of roughly 400,000 and that one man is estimated to be worth $40 billion USD.  Nonetheless, he is loved by all and his portrait adorns the walls of almost every shop and cafe in Brunei.  Their constitution even claims that he "can do no wrong in his personal or any official capacity."  Talk about living the dream! Money is imaginary and literally no rules apply to you.  And we got the chance to see this man!  By a stroke of luck, this weekend just so happened to be his make-up birthday since his real birthday fell during the holy month of Ramadan, and what fun is a birthday when nobody can eat?  Every year on his birthday, the Sultan has a morning procession where he drives through the streets of their capital.  Not wanting to miss the opportunity to see royalty up close, we were on the street at 8 am to watch his majesty roll by within 20 feet of us in one of his many Rolls-Royces.  Very cool experience.

Other trip highlights: visiting two stunningly beautiful mosques with extremely long names that I don't remember, the royal regalia museum (museum filled with the Sultan's gifts from different foreign dignitaries), touring through the water village where many Bruneians live and commute to the city through water taxis, getting to drive the boat, tasting the local snacks at the night market, and seeing wild Proboscis monkeys.

 Hello Mr. Sultan

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Good for the Seoul

I planned to have bookend trips to Seoul, South Korea on my way home this summer.  Reason being: 1) I love Korean culture; 2) My flights usually go through Seoul anyways, might as well stop for a few days and enjoy it; and 3) I had been to Seoul, as you might remember, in December, but it was too cold to actually go out and see/do much of anything and I wanted to see the city in the summer time.

For the front part of the trip I didn't really have much planned, which, to me, is a fun way of traveling.  It opens itself up for all types of possibilities.  I knew I wanted to explore a little of the city, meet some nice locals, and gorge myself on as much Korean cuisine as possible, all of which I did with great success.  The first place I decided to explore was Namsan Tower (better known as Seoul Tower).  I could see it from near my hostel and it didn't appear to be too far off so I decided to just walk in its direction until I arrived.  Using the giant landmark as my compass I continued down any street that appeared to be heading its general direction, and eventually navigated myself into a park, which looked promising.  With the tower still in sight I walked around that park for almost an hour, constantly backtracking trying to find a way up to the tower with no success.  Finally I decided to use my limited Korean to ask this nice Korean girl for directions.  My luck was with me and not only did she speak English, but she herself was looking for how to approach the tower as well.  So now I had someone to accompany me in being lost!  However, she eventually found the way and we walked to the top together.  At the top it provided a great view of the city and was a nice quiet place away from all the urban noise.  An extra bonus of this adventure was I now had made a friend who showed me other parts of the city and introduced me to some new Korean foods!

Other places I visited during this front end of the trip were: the Han River (major river flowing through Korea), a few popular markets, and Cheonggyecheon River (an underground man made river that cuts through the heart of the city).

After a five week trip to the U.S., I returned to Seoul for the back end of my vacation to South Korea, this time only for four days.  This time I had tentative plans.  I wanted to visit one of Seoul's nearby islands one day, and most importantly, I REALLY wanted to watch a Korean baseball game.  Through a social website, I was able to meet a very nice host who wanted to not only arrange these events for me, but also attend with me.  I am so thankful for this girl who really went out of her way to make sure I had a fun trip.

The island we went to was called Seokmodo, and the threats of rain had apparently scared off all the tourists, which is nice because it didn't rain and we practically had the beach and island to ourselves!  We rented a pair of bikes and rode five miles or so to the beach, which provided the opportunity to take in the beautiful landscape of rice fields sandwiched between mountains and the sea.  It was a very nice and relaxing day trip that offered another view of Korea aside from the busy city of Seoul.

The next day was the day I had tickets for the baseball game.  It was the Kia Tigers v. the LG Twins.  According to the worker at my hostel, this was a highly anticipated match.  Unfortunately though, it was absolutely pouring for the entire day and, according the hostel worker, Korea doesn't play their games in even the slightest bit of rain.  Feeling dejected, I was hesitant to make the 45 minute subway commute to the stadium for what I assumed would be a canceled game.  Miraculously, however, a couple hours before the game the rain stopped and hope was once again restored!  With no cancellation officially posted on the website I took my chances and headed to the stadium.  Reaching the stadium it became very clear that there would be baseball tonight.  I got swept up in the excitement.  Seeing almost every person in either a Tigers or a Twins jersey I decided  that I too needed to display my allegiance for all to see, so I sought out to buy me a jersey.  Wanting to support the home team (although the crowd was almost a 50/50 split) I bought a Twins jersey.  When the vendor asked whose name and number I wanted I instructed her to give me whoever was the best player.  She gave me #16, Jeong Seong-Hoon.  Expecting to see his number scattered throughout the crowd, I was a little worried when I couldn't see anybody wearing his jersey, besides me, that I might have been duped by the jersey vendor and given the jersey of the teams worst player.  However, when he came up to bat I saw that his stats were actually quite good and decided that I would just become his biggest fan and wear his number proudly!  The game itself was an amazing experience.  Totally different than I had ever seen baseball before.  Yes, the rules and strategies were the same, but it was the atmosphere that was different.  This was not your typical relaxing and social American baseball experience.  The best way to describe what goes on inside a Korean baseball stadium is to say it like watching baseball at a European soccer match.  Non-stop singing, chanting, and cheering the entire game!  It is hard, if not impossible, to not get swept up in the excitement and have a boring time.  In the end, my LG Twins came through with a 13-3 victory and my trip in Korea came to an exciting and memorable end.  I feel fairly confident that this will not be my last trip to Korea.

Namsan Tower

Kid's drum performance in the middle of one of the markets

Cheonggyecheon River

Han River

Ferry to Seokmodo Island 

Go Jeong Seong-Hoon!

LG Twins!

Self explanitory

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sri Lankan Birthday

For Chinese New Year this year, which just so happened to coincide with my Birthday, me and some friends (and some friends of friends that I had not met before) decided to go to Sri Lanka for a 3 day vacation.

Unfortunately, time did not allow for us to see all that Sri Lanka had to offer, but we did manage to get to see some pretty interesting things.  For the first night we flew in very late to Sri Lanka's capital city, Colombo.  The next morning we headed for Unawatuna in the south part of the island. Here we spent must of our time just lounging on the beach, tossing the rugby ball around (this was short lived as on the first day some wild beach dogs came and bit right through it and carried it off), and dinning on some good Sri Lankan food.

We also visited a couple cool sites while there.  One day, we headed to the nearby town of Galle, which has the remnants of an old colonial Portuguese/Dutch fort and still has many colonial style buildings.  It was pretty cool getting to walk the ramparts and be surrounded by the Indian Ocean.  While walking around we stumbled upon a cricket match and spent sometime taking that in, which is much more interesting now that I actually know the basics of the rules.  Another site we visited was a local tea plantation that was known for it's Virgin White Tea.  This Virgin White Tea is so meticulously harvested in order to assure its utmost quality.  First, it can only be harvested by virgin women, wearing gloves, using golden scissors, and collected in a golden bowl (these golden tools are no longer a requirement, but this used to be the custom).  In the end we got to sample different teas grown on the plantation, including the revered White Tea, which, in my opinion, tasted not too dissimilar from water.  The last and coolest thing I did was to visit a sea turtle sanctuary.  From every October to March, sea turtles come to the beaches of Sri Lanka almost every night to lay eggs.  Unfortunately, there are many poachers who come steal these eggs and sell them to people who eat them.  As the sea turtle is becoming increasingly endangered, places like this sea turtle sanctuary are becoming more and more important.  This sanctuary actually purchases the eggs from the poachers (as poaching them themselves would be illegal) and then raises them in the sanctuary.  When they hatch they then release them to the wild.  However, as part of a fund raiser for their mission, they always keep a few hatchlings behind for visitors, after making a small donation  to get to actually release the turtle into the ocean themselves!  Me and my friend Paul (the only ones interested in visiting the sea turtles) jumped on this opportunity and we both got to release a turtle.  Very cool!

The next day it was back to Singapore with another stamp in my passport, another journey to a new country, and a whole lot of new memories to take with me.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Christmas Abroad: Japan and Korea

Christmas is the time of year where all the family gathers together and spends quality time together.  Unfortunately, this year I was not able to reunite with my family over the holidays simply because it was not the most logical option for me.  It was definitely hard being away from the family, especially when Skyping with them all being together except me, but it is just part of the life abroad.

Although I could not be back home, I did, however, do the next best thing, which was to plan an awesome trip traveling around in Asia.  Me and my roommate, Jason, decided that we wanted to go skiing.  Originally, I had imagined knocking out two birds with one stone by going to ski in Korea, as Korea was the next top country on my very extensive list of places to see.  But while researching, we discovered Japan had better skiing and opted for the more expensive but also more entertaining trip and planned to go to Japan for skiing, and still visit Korea for one week.

We skied for four days in Niseko, Japan, located on Hokkaido island, and made National Geographic's list of top 25 places to ski in the world.  Being an amateur skier at best, and only having skied one other reputable place (Salt Lake City) prior to this trip, it is easy for me to claim this was the best snow I have ever skied!  For one, there was plenty of it.  It snowed everyday we were there and for the first two days it snowed the entire day.  Secondly, it was amazingly light and  fluffy that our skies just cut through it no problem.  The best illustration to describe exactly how light the snow was is when I went to throw a snowball at the back of Jason's head while he was not looking, the snowball disintegrated almost immediately after leaving my hand and I ironically got hit in the face by a mist of snow as I walked right through it.  One of the nice parts of this resort was that the lifts stayed open at night.  It was incredibly to seemingly have an entire mountain to ourselves.  As we skied, it was tricky to know the difficulty of the slope because the Japanese only have three identifiers: either green, red, or black.  (In the U.S. you have green, green-blue, blue, blue-black, black, and double black) So the variation in reds and blacks was HUGE.  Due to this, every once in a while I would have been skiing really well all day and get a little over confident, and maybe see a challenging course I THOUGHT I could do, and subsequently have my confidence restored to a safe and reasonable level.

Our last day of skiing was on Christmas Eve and it was by far the most beautiful day of skiing we had on our trip.  The skies cleared up which exposed the nearby volcano which had previously been veiled by the thick snow storms.  After skiing the entire day, we went and ate a nice steak dinner (AMERICA!) and retired to our hotel room feeling well beyond my years physically from all the skiing.

Christmas day was a traveling day for us because we had to fly out the next morning for Korea, and the earliest bus for the airport would make us miss our flight.  Because of this, and the fact that we were in Japan, the day lost a little bit of its allure and feeling.  It took constant reminders for me to even remember that it was Christmas!  But that night I Skyped with my immediate family on their Christmas morning, so a small part of me got to feel like I was there with them, so I am thankful for that.

The next day we flew off to Seoul, Korea.  Having many Korean students in my school, I have gotten to know and love the Korean culture.  It was this that made me so eager to visit.  I even have taken Korean as the second language I want to learn in order to satisfy one of my bucket list items.  This will be a very long and slow process but I hope to make it there one day.  As of now, I have about 20-30 common words and phrases memorized and stored in my Korean arsenal, which came in handy a little on the trip.  There were not that many sights in Seoul, nor many things to do.  Plus, the -10° Celsius (5° Fahrenheit) temperature made going out for long periods of time very difficult.  Despite this, I had a wonderful time in Seoul.  I found that the people were extremely friendly and helpful almost to a fault.  One older gentleman who was with his son noticed that we were studying the subway map rather intensely one morning.  Confident through our traveling experience we thanked the man and explained that we knew where we were going, to which he then asked where that was.  He then said that he and his son were going in that direction so we could just follow them, and proceeded to take us somewhere totally different than where he had told him we were intending to go.  We were not upset, as he showed us a neat market area, we just found it funny that after learning where we were headed he essentially said, "forget your plans, follow me and I'll show you somewhere totally different".  Another thing I really loved about Korea (typically what I love about anywhere I go) was the food.  The street food, the traditional restaurants, and everything I ate that was Korean was delicious.  One of the highlights of my trip was meeting up with one of my student's family for a traditional Korean meal in a traditional Korean house (hanok) and even sitting in the traditional Korean style, which is on the floor.  the meal was fantastic! Must have been at least, no exaggeration 25 different dishes brought to our table.  The food was great, the company was great, it was a real treat.  I felt slightly like Anthony Bourdain in that moment, except much younger and not nearly as cynical.

New Year's Eve was our last day and Seoul, and we were fortunate to be invited to a party that a friend of mine from Singapore, who was also visiting Seoul and had lived there for four years, was throwing with her friends.  It was a fun time of meeting new people and a great way to cap off our trip.  The next morning it was up at 6 AM to start a very long and torturous journey back to Singapore.

 Enjoying the fresh snow

 One of the slopes

 Skiing an almost white-out at night

Mt. Fuji from my airplane

 Inside a traditional Korean home (hanok)

 Wearing a traditional Korean hat

 Eating a traditional Korean meal with my student's family

 Part of the palace of the traditional royal governmetn

Happy New Year!