July 7, 2003

bangkok and korea


The following report is about my trip back to the US from Cambodia. I left Cambodia on June 4 and arrived in Maryland on June 10.

The 7 hour taxi ride from Phnom Penh to the town of Poipet on the Thai border was fairly uneventful. The taxi driver transferred me to another vehicle near the end of the trip, but both Camry's had AC which made the ride a bit more comfortable. In the first car I shared the backseat with three other passengers and in the second one I shared the front passenger seat with one other passenger.

khao san road
Unfortunately we hit a rainstorm just before reaching the border so I got to carry my luggage through the immigration checkpoints in the rain. On the Thai side of the border I caught a pickup to a nearby hotel. I got something to eat at the hotel before catching a bus on to the infamous Khao San Road in Bangkok. The bus was nearly empty so I got a chance to sleep along the way. I had never been to Khao San Road before, but it is basically the backpacker part of town in Bangkok so is full of everything a budget traveler could want including travel agents, fast food shops, clothing stores and plenty of street vendors. I basically spent the evening exploring the area a bit before heading to bed in my hotel room.

one of the many buddhist statues in bangkok
In the morning I checked out of my room but left my luggage at the hotel so that I could spend the day exploring Bangkok before catching a bus to the airport in time for my late evening flight. I first wandered around town a bit on foot, then caught a tuk-tuk for a short city tour. Along the way I saw lots of street markets, temples and Buddha statues before ending up at Bangkok's main shopping area. I was feeling a bit overwhelmed with all of the nice buildings and western fast food places, but had a good time visiting such places as Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Dairy Queen and 7-11. I also walked around a couple of the large shopping malls and ended up watching an afternoon movie. After the movie I spent some more time walking around another part of town before eventually picking up my luggage and heading to the airport. Bangkok is a really big city and the bus system is pretty confusing, so after a while I gave up on figuring out which bus to take. A couple of times I just got on a bus headed in the right direction, and then got off when it turned away from the route I wanted to take. I also caught a taxi back to my hotel at the end of the day to make sure I wasn't late for my plane.

typical bangkok traffic
From Bangkok I flew overnight to Seoul, Korea where I picked up my luggage before catching a bus about an hour in to the suburb of Ilsan. From the bus stop it was less than a block to the office where my friends John & Denise McGhee work, and I made it there just in time to meet most of the office staff before enjoying an excellent Korean lunch. They were having a conference so some of the staff had prepared a meal for all of the attendees and graciously invited me to join them.

After lunch two more McGhee friends, Jen and Jondelle, arrived and we all went home to the McGhee family apartment where I spent time visiting and catching up on email. Jen is currently living and working in another part of Seoul, about an hour away from her parents' apartment. Jondelle on the other hand, was just visiting her family in Korea for a few weeks during her summer vacation from college. Later in the afternoon Denise also came home and I walked with her and Jen to a nearby food store. I certainly had some sticker shock in Korea as prices there are very high, much like Japan. I guess prices in most places are pretty high when compared to Southeast Asia, but Korea is particularly bad. After an excellent supper we visited some more before heading to bed.

The following morning Lee, a Korean friend of the McGhees, came over and joined us for breakfast. After eating we caught a train north towards the border with North Korea. When we got off the train we had to wait for a bus for about an hour because the earlier one left right before we got to the bus stop. The bus took us through some relatively rural hilly areas to a "unification observatory". This observatory was set up like a museum with exhibits all about North Korea for the South Korean tourists to look at. They also had a video explaining a little bit about North Korea and the view that could normally be seen from the observatory. The day we were there it was quite cloudy and rainy so we couldn't see very far across the river border area. It was still very interesting to be that close to the DMZ and North Korea and the video showed us what the view would have been like if it was clear. North Korea has set up a village in view of the observatory purely for propaganda purposes with no actual residents. The village buildings are supposed to convince people looking over the border that life is good in the north. Many of the exhibits in the observatory talked about the steps that have been taken recently towards reconciliation between the north and south, but seemed a bit overly optimistic about the possibility of reuniting the two Koreas.

dmz map in the unification observatory
After wandering around the observatory for a while we caught a series of three buses to the part of town where Jen lives and works. Her neighborhood is a made up primarily of young people as there are several high quality universities in the area. Jen teaches English at the Seventh-day Adventist Language institute and helps out with Friday night and Sabbath morning services there as well. I enjoyed visiting Cafe VIP where many Korean English students come and learn about God in a fun, modern environment. After attending Cafe VIP some of us caught another bus back to the McGhee family home, only to return to Café VIP again in the morning for the Sabbath service.

On Sabbath they had a Korean potluck so I got to sample some more tasty Korean food, including the sauerkraut-like kimchee and many other interesting dishes. In the afternoon I caught up on some sleep and then we visited the home of a local pastor for a house warming party. At the party everyone crowded into a small room and sat on the wooden floor for worship. After worship tables were brought in and we had spaghetti, salad and sandwiches while sitting on the floor around the low tables. The food sounds pretty western, and for the most part tasted like I would expect it to. The main exception was the sandwiches which had grape jam, carrots and some other vegetables between the two bread slices. It was a combination I haven't tried before, but it wasn't bad at all. After supper we said our goodbyes and headed back to the McGhee home for a good nights sleep.

a scene from the nanta show (from the web)
I pretty much spent Sunday morning relaxing, but in the afternoon we headed downtown along with Calvin Smith who was in town for a few days. We first stopped at a very large book shop which was located underground. They even had a large English section and we all enjoyed browsing for a little while. Our next stop was at a show called Nanta. It's pretty hard to describe exactly what the Nanta performance was like, but I'll try. Basically, it is a cross between a cooking show, a tap dance performance and the three stooges. The plot is that the chefs are preparing a wedding banquet with "help" from the boss's nephew. Throughout the show they keep getting distracted and use all sorts of kitchen implements to play music, primarily using percussion. Over the course of the show they performed some amazing vegetable chopping using knives on cutting boards, had sword fights with broom handles, beat on pots and pans and even got audience members up front to help out with making dumplings at one point. They had the entire crowd cheering for two teams and then left the stage so that the selected audience members were doing all the work with the rest of the crowd cheering them on.
posing with the nanta cast
It was a very unique and entertaining show. In another part of the show I was selected from the audience to come on stage. They had me put on an apron and hat and then taste the soup because the cast members couldn't agree whether it was good or bad and needed a tie breaker. They also pretended that a fly landed in the soup behind my back when I wasn't looking, but the vegetable soup tasted great anyway! The "fly" landed on my head at one point as well, but they didn't really hit me to kill it, the smack was only a pretend one. Near the end of the program they showed a digital picture of me posing with the other audience "volunteer". It turned out the clothes that we had to put on were actually traditional Korean wedding clothes, so after finishing the cooking preparations they played the wedding march while showing our photo. Photography by the audience wasn't allowed during the show, but we did get a picture with the cast afterwards while they were signing autographs. I also found a couple of pictures on the Nanta web page which I have added to my online photo album. Neither my description nor the pictures come close to really explaining what the show was like, but it was truly a fun experience even if they did make me get up front.

soccer fans enjoying the game
After the show we walked a few blocks to the City Hall area of downtown Seoul where large crowds of people had gathered to watch a soccer match on the many giant screen televisions strategically located throughout the city. The actual game was taking place in a stadium across town, but they had a stage with music and cheerleading near city hall as well. It was fun to experience the excitement and energy of the Korean soccer fans, and I can only imagine how much more they got into watching the matches when the world cup was co-hosted in Seoul last year. It was nearly impossible to find seats anywhere near a TV, and many people were also standing to watch the game. I think it was just an exhibition match and the Korean team didn't do very well, but they still had fireworks downtown when the game was over. Just as the match was ending we caught a bus back to the suburb of Ilsan where I enjoyed another good night's sleep at the McGhee home.

city hall
Monday morning we met up with Lee again and headed out of Seoul on the train. I was interested in seeing something outside of Seoul and so was Calvin Smith so we decided to take a day trip out of the city. Lee graciously agreed to come along and help us find our way and Denise also joined us since she had the day off from work. The train ride out to the town of Chunchon took about two and a half hours and was scenic with hilly terrain along the way. In Chunchon we took a bus out to a reservoir where we walked around for a while before heading back to town for something to eat. We ate at a nice Korean restaurant where our table was set with many small vegetable dishes. Each person then got a hot clay pot with some salad in it and we all tried the other dishes, mixing them together in our clay pots along with tofu.
It was very nice to have a native Korean speaker along since she was able to easily order good vegetarian food for our group. After lunch we caught the train back to Seoul where we met up with Jen to visit for a little bit before heading back to the suburb of Ilsan.

Tuesday morning I caught a bus to the airport and flew nonstop from Seoul to Dulles airport in the Washington, DC area. The flight was fairly long (around 14 hours) but uneventful.

tasty korean restaurant food
Overall I really enjoyed my visit to Korea. It was of course fun to catch up with some old friends, but it was also interesting to explore a new country. Korea felt a little crowded with apartment buildings and lots of people everywhere. I didn't realize before that South Korea is actually more densely populated than Japan, India and China. I also found Korea to be a very developed place compared to many other areas of Asia with higher living standards and good access to technology in all of the areas that I visited. Obviously, I couldn't see all that much in the few short days I spent in Korea, but these were some of my quick observations.

Well, that's it for now. Stay tuned for a report on my drive from Washington, DC to Portland, OR.

Until next time,


Posted by andrew on July 7, 2003

Hey Andrew it looks like your having a good time travelling around. You must be racking up some frequent flyer miles. It is good to see you having fun enjoy yourself.

Posted by: Quentin Campbell on July 9, 2003