A quick thank you, again, to everyone who voted in the contest, everyone who has helped me out with Wallace’s cancer bills, everyone who has encouraged me all these years in photography – this trip was very much a culmination of my life up to this point. Photography. Dogs. Madness. It all came together and off I went on a crazy week-long adventure to South Korea.
cheers! Here we go!
Hard to believe a month ago I was in LA, practically vibrating, super excited to fly to Korea! Korean Air was amazing from the get-go, giving us priority at the counter, a swanky lounge very well stocked – even our bags got priority treatment so they were always the first off the plane. The Airbus A380 was the nicest plane I’ve ever been on – and it is indescribably gigantic (and eerily quiet during flight). Prestige (Business Class) was the entire top floor of the plane – we had an entirely separate boarding area and never even saw “cattle class” downstairs. The lay-flat seats were wonderful during the 13 hour flight, although Jason had to curl up a little to fit.
The menu was just as good as it looks in the photos – the bar in the back of the plane just for us Prestige folks was even better. It was nice to stretch, wander to the lounge, order drinks, and sit in the giant window seat and relax with a cocktail in hand. They also had kick-ass jerky in the bar. I also crammed in a movie, and the first season of Sherlock during the flight.
plane vs. Airbus A380
We both slept lightly on the way there, mostly due to the excitement. We had no issues entering Korea, and KAL has a “limo” (also known as a bus, haha) that went straight to our hotel for 15000 won – which is less than $15 US. The won/dollar conversion is simple – drop a zero. 15000=15.00, roughly. The dollar is slightly stronger. But it was easy enough to round up and call it good! Incheon Airport is about an hour from downtown Seoul – and we watched the new scenery roll by, and then started seeing Seoul…it is impossibly, incomprehensibly, large. And the streets are full of Hyundais and Kias.
hotel view by night and day
Our first Lotte hotel was in the heart of the business district, across the street from City Hall, a short jaunt to Gyeongbokgung Palace, restaurants, shopping, markets – you name it. The hotel was also hosting the World Travel and Tourism Council Summit while we were there – so it felt particularly cosmopolitan. The hotel itself was fantastic – beautiful enamel work in the elevators, fresh orchids (even in the elevators!), wonderful service. Our room was small (as are all rooms in Korea) but exquisitely appointed, the bathroom…I could live in that bathroom. Our first big culture shock wasn’t not being able to read a word, understand anyone, or being 16 hours ahead of our home in Washington, but rather the fancy Toto toilets – complete with bidet, power wash, heat settings – the Koreans don’t use toilet paper except to blot, and then it goes in a trash can. You use that toilet for everything – including air-drying. Imagine a hair dryer aimed at your bits! The first 24 hours with one of those toilets…those first few times are alarming. We both shrieked and squealed in shock the first several times. It’s just not something you expect! And yes, you can control the settings – force, temperature, aim… It’s more of a ride than a toilet until you get the hang of it.
we can’t read the safety rules on the toilet, but we get the gist
It was only dinner time in Seoul by the time we got settled, so we walked out into the city to snack and see what was near our hotel. We spent the next few hours wandering markets and streets and alleyways. Seoul is incredibly clean – the cleanest major city EVER I would venture a guess. Cigarette butts here and there (it’s a nation of chain smokers) but no gum, no bottles, cans, trash, bags – the city is just strangely empty of litter. Even more amazing, no graffiti or vandalism. Brightly lit vending machines with high-end prizes dot the city, and they’re all untouched. I have never felt safer anywhere while traveling – ever. Crime is virtually non-existent there – certainly by our standards. It was mind-boggling to wander a new city, thousands and thousands and thousands of miles from home, and not feel scared. A city full of 11,000,000 people. 11 million people. It’s staggering.
we came to call this alley, “Little America”
a busy street on a quiet, late night
the alleyways were full of interesting things
we wandered into what can only have been the “lamp district”
one of many, many spendy prize machines
A few hours on foot and our travel caught up with us – we made our way to our hotel and crashed for the night – and woke up bright eyed and bushy tailed for our first full day in the city! We had a few places we wanted to see, but no real timeline or obligations – so it was a TRUE vacation! We wandered to the shopping area around our hotel and fell into a little hole in the wall open for breakfast. Of course, with my severe food allergies, ordering was an adventure. Jason got a platter the size of a…well. A platter. Covered in spicy ramen noodles and eggs and other things – and was devouring the house kimchee. We managed to have the cook throw together a bowl of sticky rice and eggs for me. Not glamorous, but I could eat it without dying. We had our first laugh – the napkins they handed us were the size of the palm of my hand. Unfolded, they were the size of a baby wipe. Jason held it up and said, “I was just saying the other day I wished my napkins were smaller and more useless.” Our bill came – 6,200 won. It was the first of many delightfully cheap surprises in Seoul!
brekkies in Seoul – he’s 6’5″ – the napkin is fully unfolded
Cabs. Are. EVERYWHERE. in Seoul and remarkably easy to flag down. They are also so incredibly cheap – we never paid more than $3 or $4 for a ride anywhere in the city. And no tipping in Korea. The cabbies were also very friendly, helpful, and curious about America. They’d ask where we were from. We tried saying Portland, OR a few times and got blank stares and then had to have complex, semaphore-heavy, conversations about where Oregon was. We gave up very quickly and told them, “North of California.” It seems all cabbies in Korea (the dozens we had) knew California and NY – and nothing else. North of California seemed to impress them – at least excite them that they had heard of California before. Some cabbies were beyond thrilled to practice English – one even gave us a great history of Seoul, and pointed out some of the mountains and their traditional names and roles in the history (there’s a “sleeping dragon” but behind the dragon is a “tiger” in case something goes down while the dragon is napping, that’s what we gathered anyway).
Seoul, fyi, is oppressively hot and humid. And as far as I can tell, no one there is bothered by it, and no one really uses A/C. We had to visit our hotel room a few times during our daily adventures to cool off, actually. We learned, thanks to the interwebs, that many Koreans are actually born without the lovely thing in our bodies that gives most of us BO. So, they might get a little sweaty, but they don’t, as a culture, get stinky. Damn them.
Our first destination was Gyeongbokgung Palace. The Palace was originally built in 1395, the finest and largest of the five palaces built by the Joseon Dynasty. The Palace today is still within city limits – massive walls surround the grounds – and it was incredibly inexpensive for us to visit – 10,000 won for the both of us. We found many tourist attractions had “couples” prices – 7,000 for one, 10,000 for two sorts of deals. We walked in and instantly were in another time and place – despite skyscrapers and horns and 11,000,000 people just outside the gates, the palace was quiet, lovely, in many places all you could see over the walls were the giant granite mountains in the distance. Gyeongbokgung wound up being one of my favorite places we visited – as evidenced by the astounding number of photos I took there. Jason and had a blast wandering around – we found an entire sub-palace on the grounds used just to store the palace-made, special recipe, kimchee and soy sauces, still made to the original specifications today. We saw Seoul’s official bird, silly little black squirrels, and evidence of the lack of crime – Korean children left their backpacks just lined up near the entrance, totally unattended. SO bizarre to see!
Gyeongbokgung Palace – a brief introduction
when you walk in the main gate from the city…you are in an immense courtyard, not even the palace yet!
the creature on the left inspired Maurice Sendak, I think
not built for big white guys
the palace was full of phalluses – we would encounter hundreds during our week
the kimchee part of the palace
I love us.
a pinhole perspective of the feasting hall
this hall was used to entertain visitors with large feasts
this was one of my favorite parts of the palace
this was my other favorite spot on the grounds
this was my other favorite spot on the grounds
one last gem from Gyeongbokgung
After spending a couple of hours at the Palace we set off to find one of the famous street markets – so we could eat, and I was on a mission to find traditional Korean wedding shoes. There was a market we really wanted to visit as it was near one of the famed city gates. We got in a cab, told the cabby the name of the market, “Dongdaemun,” and he got all excited. He dropped us off at his favorite end of the market where he said the food was best. We spent the next hour or two wandering the market, sampling things, doing some light shopping, we discovered that even down alleyways there were more stores, tucked into spaces the size of closets sometimes, we drank a lot of cold Cass beer (1,000 won each!), and once we’d had our fill, we walked to the city gate nearby. Only total confusion crossed our faces – it was the wrong gate – turns out the cabby had dropped us off at Namdaemun not Dongdaemun! But we got a market, and a city gate, so it wasn’t a total loss.
a market for lunch (and more!)
The gate was Sungnyemun – Gate of Exalted Ceremonies – and is one of eight from the famed wall that once surrounded Seoul. The gate dates back to the 14th century, was rebuilt in 1447, nearly destroyed during the Korean War, rebuilt – then in 2008 an arsonist torched the roof on the wooden structure above the gate, much to the horror of Seoul and Korea in general – again – crime there is so rare! The restoration just finished this year and we were lucky to see it fully restored! (The history is pretty awesome, before the arson it was the oldest wooden structure in Korea…a quick wikipedia visit is in order for true nerds! Same goes for Gyeongbokgung!)
checking the guide book…yep. Wrong gate.
Well. It wasn’t the gate we were expecting. Say cheese!
After a quick tour and photo break at the Gate we hopped in a cab to go up to the Seoul Tower. The Seoul Tower is located on a granite hill at the geographic center of the city – and is the best viewpoint in the city, without a doubt. A quick tram ride to the top of the hill, and then we found another “couples” deal – for 15000 won each we could go to the top. For 18,000 won we, as a couple, could both go up the World’s Fastest Elevator to the viewing deck, for 20,000 won we could not only take the elevator to the top, we would get a giant bucket of popcorn and two sodas. Done! With our big-ass bucket of caramel corn and a couple of cold drinks we got in the elevator. The observation deck reminded me of the Space Needle in size and touristy-ness. However, unlike the needle, there is no outdoor area. Also, as the tower is on a mountaintop, there’s no need for the tower to be super tall, so although the view is spectacular I didn’t get vertigo looking out the windows. From Seoul Tower we really had the chance to absorb just how massive Seoul truly is. As far as you can see, in every direction, there is city. It stretches beyond sight – skyscrapers full of apartments and skyscraper-sized parking garages. We could see the Han River (which divides the city), and on the other side of the river the madness continued. The only interruptions to the city are the occasional granite mountains that rise up, seemingly out of place amongst the buildings. It reminded me a bit of standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and not being able to see the other side – we were standing in the middle and couldn’t see the end of the city. Truly overwhelming.
we could see our hotel and Gyeongbokgung from the tower
it just. keeps. going.
you can pee on top of the world (I sent my camera into the men’s room for this – props to my other half for getting a good shot)
After our time at the observation deck, we bought a souvenir mug with our picture on it at the tower, and we hung out around the park where the tower sits. As far as I can tell, Koreans love fried foods above all else. Particularly hot dogs. I have never seen so many vendors for hot dogs on a stick in my life. Not just hot dogs on a stick, fried hot dogs on a stick. Some were corn dogs. Some were corn dogs rolled in crunchy bits. There were hot dogs wrapped in thinly sliced potatoes, lightly battered, and fried. Hot dogs wrapped in french fries and fried. Hot dogs wrapped in strange meats or seafood and fried. The list is ENDLESS and vendors are by the dozen on every street corner. We bought a hot dog, wrapped in what can best be called a “rotato,” which was battered and fried and a couple of cold beers for about $4 and declared it lunch. We also began noticing in public spaces there are gyms – made out of iron usually and bolted down – but free gym equipment (free weights, pull up bars, ellipticals) all over the city. Again we were shocked to see they weren’t vandalized beyond use, instead they were all in excellent shape!
hot dog and rotato on a stick with a cold, cold Cass: lunch at N. Seoul Tower, $4
While visiting a few other little markets we stumbled across something we’d read about – a small river walk that runs through Seoul. During construction several years ago an old river was unearthed. Rather than build over it, the city opted to uncover it, and turn it into a small park. You have to take a staircase down to it, and it’s a shallow river maybe only 20 feet across, full of big, fat, lazy fish, with lots of places to sit, relax, and hang out, while the city buzzes overhead.
a river runs through it
A few more markets, street food for dinner, and we retired to our room, exhausted from the heat, the excitement, and the food.
BUT – We had one last place to hit at bedtime – the Banpo Bridge. There are countless bridges over the Han River – and when the city declares it needs a new one, it’s just simply built. I thought we lived in Bridge City here in Portland, but we have nothing on Seoul. (The CRC would have been built four times over by now to accommodate traffic if Portland were Seoul…but I digress.) The Han Bridge is special, as on nights during the summer and weekends during spring and fall it has a light-up water show set to classical music – sort of like the Bellagio in Vegas, but on a bridge. And nowhere near as big. The show lasted about 15 minutes, and then we wandered around the river and neighborhood until we flagged a cab and called it a night.
Banpo Bridge by Night
SPRING BREAK SEOUL! WOOO!!!
Our next day in Seoul we had most of the day to kill before taking the KAL bus to Incheon for our flight to Jeju-do. I actually had to return to Gyeongbokgung to shoot some pinhole photos (I only had a digital camera with us the first day), then we finally made it to Dongdaemun Market. We were cutting through an alleyway and there was a cement staircase up to a shop door – we peered in – and were floored. It was a massive building full of traditional seamstresses who make Korean wedding attire. We walked in – and judging by the looks on the faces of people we passed we may have been the first white tourists to ever stumble into the shop. It was booth after booth of seamstresses surrounded by exquisite fabrics – and shoes. I found a booth with a very large selection of shoes, found the color I wanted, and then bought the biggest size they had – which is about half a size too small for my right foot. But I have the shoes home, have already worn them once, and have a shoe-stretcher in them to ensure I go blister-free next time I step out in my hot pink and electric green brocade Korean wedding shoes! We ate in the neighborhood we’d called, “Little America” near the hotel, did lots of window shopping, and then stumbled our way into a museum we’d read about: Trick World.
Korean Wedding Shoes
There are several Trick Worlds located around Korea, and we had time to kill, so we ran in. Trick World is a “museum” full of trompe l’oeil paintings – the gimmick is you get IN the painting for a photograph. The first painting in the museum was a send-up of one of our favorite Doctor Who episodes, where Van Gogh has painted the TARDIS. Clearly our being there was kismet! Once we’d had our fun at the museum we wandered back to the hotel just in time to get our bags from the concierge and head to Incheon for the next part of our trip – Jeju!
Starry Tardis and me!!!
oh, what a feelin!
stay classy, Seoul
The domestic departures area for Incheon is incredibly small – most domestic flights operate out of the older airport, Gimpo. But again we had no troubles with boarding passes or security (which is so very, very casual!), and we settled into our business class seats for the brief flight to the tropics. Reading the local paper we saw there were 81 “casualties” from jellyfish off the coast of Jeju recently. We read the article to be sure – turns out there were 80 incidents of jellyfish encounters and one genuine “casualty.” It was foreshadowing though I didn’t realize it at the time.
Jeju is a small, volcanic, tropical island famous for its fruit and “black pigs” and horse meat, its basalt crystal cliffs, caves, and waterfalls. It is also home to two Unesco World Heritage sites – one a waterfall, one a massive cave system. We were staying on the opposite side of the island from the airport in a resort community full of $4000 a night hotels – but we had to take a bus to get there! You have to hire a cab for a day there, unless you’re taking a very short trip. We didn’t really want to hire a cab just to take us to the hotel, so we took the very long (hour+) bus ride around the island. The hotel was breathtaking – nicer than even the nicest hotels in Vegas. We had been upgraded to a suite overlooking the pools with its own balcony. The room had two king size beds, a shower, a huge soaking tub, and every amenity you could want – except outlets that were compatible. (Thank god we had a converter!) And unlike Seoul, we found ourselves the only English speakers, quite possibly on the whole island.
in the pool; they made me wear a swimming cap – he’s bald enough he didn’t have to
a snack from the 7-11, made by our hosts, Lotte
The pools…oh the pools! They made me swoon! Warm, with changing colors, waterfall, slide, and various hot tubs of different temperatures peppered around – one with a massive television playing a soccer game. Surrounded by palm trees, giant windmills (I still don’t get the windmill reference), and the sound of the ocean at the bottom of the cliffs nearby – we spent the rest of our night in the pools and eating snacks from the 7-11 near the hotel. It may not sound glamorous, but it was a wonderful night! The next morning we woke up and sat on our balcony. We could see the ocean, the island is full of cuckoo birds who had a lot to say, and the heat was already terrifying, the humidity so thick you could choke on it. I was not looking forward to it getting warmer!
part of the view by day – you can just see a dragon behind the waterfall
our view in the morning – the ocean beyond the windmills
Our first adventure was to find our way down the cliffs to the private, sandy beach. There was a staircase with nearly 300 stairs – which were just punishing (and numbered so you can track your misery on the climb back up). And as we looked at the flowers surrounding the staircase, we began to notice the spiders. GIANT SPIDERS. Everywhere we looked. I would not be going off-trail on Jeju! But once we made it to the beach, all was right with the world. White sand. Electric blue water, warm as a hot bath, basalt cliffs behind us, and not a care in the world. We spent a lot of time just wading and playing and taking photos – and had to drag ourselves away so we could go see some more of the island. Staying at the beach all day was so very, very tempting!
making our way to the cliffs (and beach below)
the Bataan Death March. I mean the 300 stairs from hell. I mean the stairs to the beautiful beach below the cliffs.
one of thousands of Harlot Spiders we saw
setting up some camera gear, and half waving, and generally looking fabulous
we’re that cute and romantic still, one year in
We took the bus from the hotel to the closest town, Seogwipo, which is where one of the famous waterfalls is located – and it’s also home to a submarine tour company! We got to the docks just in time to board the ship to take us to the sub. It was about $40 each – and was probably the most expensive thing we did on the whole trip! The boat ride was great, I even saw some dolphins in the harbor briefly. Once off-shore we boarded another vessel – the sub! I have no idea how the next 40 minutes went, as the entire thing was narrated in Korean. We were the only two on the ship who were English speakers. When we first started the dive a man in scuba gear entertained us by feeding fish. At the bottom – 40 meters – we visited a shipwreck of an old fishing boat. Then we stopped and observed a coral reef. When we got back to land we were all handed copies of our boarding photos – with silly little certificates of sea exploration. TOTALLY worth our $40!
a view of Seogwipo’s harbor
leaving Seogwipo behind
Duran Duran: The Retirement Years
a shipwrecked fishing vessel at 40 meters below the East China Sea
what’s long and hard and full of seamen?!
we each got a *very official* certificate of sea exploration
We took a short cab ride to Cheonjiyeon Falls, where one of the funniest things happened. Cheonjiyeon is a World Heritage Site and I had really been looking forward to seeing it and photographing it. I nerded out for a bit taking photos while Jason read little signs and relaxed. He noticed a local man set up with a digital camera – and two traditional Korean Hanbok outfits, one for a man, one for a woman. For 10,000 won he would put you in the outfits and take your photo, print a copy for you, and send you on your way. SOLD. While gesturing back and forth to set it up, we noticed the biggest wasp we’ve ever seen in our lives on the hat that’s worn with the male Hanbok. This wasp – no exaggeration – was pushing 3″ in length. It didn’t have a stinger – it had a shiv. And it was cutting the hat like a prisoner stabbing a guard. We were alarmed, to say the least. Giant spiders, oppressive heat and humidity, and now terrifying wasps. I was ready to go back to Seoul at this point.
Cheonjiyeon Falls, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
The man started to dress us in the Hanboks – and I saw the wasp was still on Jason’s hat. He screamed like a girl and swatted the hat to the ground. When the man who owned it saw the wasp he looked at us like we were children, grabbed the wasp by one of its massive wings, and threw it in the bushes like it was a candy wrapper. We heard it THUD. And we were both scared out of our minds that he’d just made it angry. As he was fussing over us, and amused that we had no idea how to put these things on, other tourists began to circle us. They were no longer photographing the waterfall – they were photographing the giant white people in the silly old clothes. We had become the tourist attraction. We were surrounded by a hundred Korean and Chinese tourists (Jeju is a major destination for the new middle class in China – it is a special self-governing province, and as such, the Chinese don’t need a special visa to visit – it’s just a short plane ride from China and boom, vacation). The tourists began taking our photos, posing with us, flashing peace signs, laughing – it was turning into a major event.
one of the most terrifying wasps on the planet
He seated us in front of the waterfall and took photos with my camera for us, and then a few of us with his camera, while hundreds of other cameras and phones snapped in our direction. He directed us to kiss, and when we did the audience was scandalized! Gasps and laughter and pointing and more photos.
I have no idea what we actually paid for. We might be married in the eyes of the Special Governing Province of Jeju-do for all I know.
The man gave us three prints – and we laughed as he started selling copies of the photo of us to other tourists who wanted copies. We also set his business on fire – couples were lining up to have THEIR photo taken, after all, the funny white tourists had done it. I’m pretty sure he got more business from us than he’d had all day.
After a brief tour of Seogwipo on foot (a hot, miserable experience) we were ready to spend the rest of the available sunlight while at the beach. We got back to the hotel, hit the beach, bought some cold Cass beers, and into the ocean we went. Jason went snorkeling, even spotted a puffer fish. I, not actually being a fan of the ocean as it’s full of things that want to kill you, spent my time in about 4 feet of water just watching Jason swim, enjoying the beach, thinking about my time there and everything we’d done, and jumping in the waves as they came in. After a rough patch of waves, my left leg was a little sore. I didn’t think much of it, even talked with Jason a bit who’d come in to show me something he’d found and hand me a nice piece of beach glass (I’d like to turn it into a cool necklace). My leg still wasn’t feeling right and the sun was setting – so I made my way to the chaise where I had my things.
I toweled off and realized my leg was positively on fire. And swelling. And covered in welts. And bright red and hot to the touch. And it dawned on me – I’d become a jellyfish casualty. From my ankle to the top of my thigh I was covered in welts and felt like I had the sunburn from hell, being touched with a curling iron, snapped with rubber bands. It’s not a sensation I’d wish on many people. The resort staff had a bottle of lotion – with a rubber, bristle applicator, I was able to apply to the leg to take off the worst of the stinging. I sat on the chaise crying in pain, while Jason finished up enjoying the ocean. Between the sunburn I’d gotten earlier, the Jellyfish Incident of 2013, the giant spiders, the terrifying wasps, the heat exhaustion – I was ready to leave paradise. I had grand plans of doing a long exposure night shoot at the beach that night – but with all my pains and those 300 stairs…I decided to forgo the late night photo adventure in lieu of enjoying a nice dinner, some quiet time, and air conditioning.
I became a jellyfish casualty – this photo scratches the surface of how ugly my leg got
We washed up after the beach and got all dressed up for one last adventure – a fancy dinner on the island. There’s a famous restaurant that was near our resort – they serve both horse and the local black pig. The restaurant had a beautiful courtyard with outdoor seating, though the bugs from earlier made us choose to sit inside, just in case. And yes – we did it. We ordered both the black pig AND the horse. Horse we had as an appetizer – we had horse carpaccio. Which means it was raw, and thinly sliced. I personally don’t dig the texture of raw meat – but I had some horse – and it was delicious. I would eat horse again in a heartbeat, though I’d prefer it cooked a little. It’s leaner than buffalo, and very, very mild – distinctly a red meat like cow, but mild and wonderful. Jason said it was like someone had sliced up the baby jeebus and served it to him, but he’s offensive like that. Black pig is an island specialty – it’s a breed of pig raised there, very teeny and succulent, and traditionally fed a steady diet of human waste. That changed in the 60s supposedly, but we can’t be sure. It was cooked at our table with garlic and onions and all the traditional side dishes (all but one I couldn’t eat) were brought out for us. It was the most expensive meal we ate on our whole vacation – but it was very, very worth it.
all dressed up for dinner with Mr. Ed.
Mawon Restaurant, Jeju
horse carpaccio and Jeju black pig – the Korean word for the black pig translates to “poo pig”
We got back to our hotel just in time to go out on our balcony to watch the water show. Every night at 8pm the hotel has a giant water/fire/hologram filled experience in the pool. It’s a dramatic telling of the creation of the island, about fire vs the ocean. It’s like Vegas vomits on a tropical island for 15 minutes a day. Giant fireballs erupt (we could feel the heat from our balcony!), water shoots into the air, a giant dragon appears from the “caves” behind the waterfalls, it’s quite a spectacle, and such a strong contrast to the natural beauty of the island.
Lotte Jeju also had a Hello Kitty Floor – which I visited for a quick photo
We had a late afternoon flight to Seoul our last day on Jeju, so we decided to do a couple of things close to the hotel for the sake of convenience. We visited a famous bridge that spans a gorge which is home to more waterfalls – one only runs after heavy rains. The waterfall was far more beautiful than the other we’d seen the day before, and despite being protected at the bottom of a gorge from the worst of the heat, just standing there taking photos we both became miserably hot – even Jason who lived in Thailand for a while and loved the weather. After our waterfall and bridge adventure I collapsed in our hotel room in our air conditioning until it was time to check out. The sunburn, heat, and humidity were really taking it out of me.
the bridge has gorgeous nymph carvings – seven of them
below the bridge at Cheonjeyeon Falls, being a nerd, with my Ona bag and my pinhole camera
Cheonjeyeon Falls – which I found FAR prettier and less touristy than Cheonjieyeon
back up on the bridge – ocean behind me
We left our bags with the concierge, as we still had a few hours before taking the bus to Jeju City for our flight. We sat at a nearby, famous Dunkin Donuts to plan the rest of our afternoon. The Dunk’s has been used in several Korean TV shows as it has a heart-shaped bench out front. Jeju is the premier destination for honeymooners in Korea, Japan, and now China – and we thought it was incredibly hokey and hilarious that anyone would think a Dunk’s is romantic!
the greatest love of all
Based solely on the heat and humidity we chose an air-conditioned destination within walking distance of the hotel. Not a place either of us would go typically, but we were just too hot and tired to do much else – so we would up at Jeju’s own Ripley’s Museum. Maybe it was the heat, maybe it was the Konglish mistakes on the signs, but we actually managed to have fun. A quick, late lunch and we grabbed the bus for the airport.
something was lost in translation
Jason and I had grand plans for an elaborate photo shoot on the beach our last morning in Jeju, and we were both too hot and tired to care. But he had, in his carry on suitcase, his coconut bra and one of my wigs. He also had some electronics we didn’t want to check. At security at Jeju, we got pulled aside so they could check the electronics in his bag. When they opened the suitcase, the wig spilled out. The four little Korean girls started blushing and giggling. When they pulled out the coconut bra, all hell broke loose. Jason and I were crying we were laughing so hard, the girls were all somewhere between scandalized and incapable of doing anything other than pointing and laughing about Jason and his suitcase – and they never even really finished the bag check. They threw the bra and wig back in the bag, and laughing and pointing, sent us on our way. It was one of my favorite moments of the whole trip.
at Jeju airport
Our second hotel in Seoul was on the other side of the Han River from our first hotel; near Olympic Stadium and Gangnam. It also took an hour and a half to get there from Incheon, on a bus where the driver refused to put on the air conditioning. We also had a Russian family behind us the whole time who had never heard of deodorant. I wanted to die by the time we got to Lotte World Hotel.
annnnd….there goes Olympic Stadium!
Lotte World Hotel is home to one of the biggest and most exclusive malls in all of Korea, a giant indoor/outdoor amusement park, and a massive hotel, not to mention restaurants, cheap department stores, etc. It was distinctly western in comparison to our other hotels, and nowhere near as nice. (I wish we’d stayed there first so things would have improved in quality as we switched hotels, haha.) Our room had a view of the massive dome over the indoor amusement park, and little else. I was so exhausted, and so sick from my sunburn and the hot bus ride and the malodorous Russian tourists I laid down in our bed and sobbed. Jason went out to explore the neighborhood and bring back food and drinks. I set the hotel A/C to 16 degrees (60f) and didn’t move the rest of the night.
Jason returned to tell me that the street in front of our hotel had THIRTEEN LANES. 13. You can’t make that up. We were also surrounded by Lotte Marts, Lotterias, etc – seemingly everything was owned and operated by Lotte for a several block radius. We would both spend the next two days missing the charm of the other hotel and its unique, local flavor.
We got up bright and early the next day, donned our absurd USA themed, matching shirts, grabbed breakfast at Krispy Kreme (no joke), and marched ourselves in to Lotte World – the amusement park. At first glance it appeared to be little more than a mall, with a skating rink, food court, some shops – but the multilevel amusement park wound up being a LOT of fun – and had a really excellent roller coaster. It was a blatant rip-off of Disney – we even saw cartoon characters such as Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, expertly rendered to exacting Disney specifications, except for their giant, anime style eyes. We bought matching leopard kitten ears and wore them around the park all day – and once again found ourselves the subject of countless tourist photos.
Lotte World, here we come!
Lotte and Lorry are the mascots
matching kitten ears? check! we wore them bowling two weeks ago. Just because.
the view from the “hot air balloon ride”
the view from the “hot air balloon ride”
copyright, schmopyright – welcome to Dismey!
the most memorable experience you’ve never had!
Christmas card photo opp!
Aside from being photographed constantly we had another strange cultural experience – there is no, and I mean NO counter culture in Korea. People listen to classical music or K-Pop (which is the worst garbage I’ve ever heard in my life), and no in between. There’s some hipster looking teens, but even THEY listen to crap music and tow the line. Tattoos are still strictly reserved for hardcore criminal underworld types there and are rarely, if ever, seen in public. Jason and I both had people quizzically and almost timidly reach out to us and touch our tattoos. Then they’d sort of shriek and pull their hand back when they realized they were real. Sometimes they’d touch again and smile at us as we smiled. It didn’t feel invasive or strange to be pawed at – it was oddly cute and charming – these people had honestly never seen tattoos in real life, EVER.
After the amusement park we visited a classic Buddhist temple, Bonguensa, which was awesome. The main hall was lined floor to ceiling with little gold Buddhas, and the ceiling was covered in thousands of little paper lanterns. There was a huge Buddha on a hillside, and lovely private green spaces and gardens, all with offerings to Buddha.
take one down, pass it around, 4,995 buddhas on the wall….
Buddhas – thousands of them
it was so beautiful inside!
Namaste, mister lion!
looking back from Buddha towards the city
our last night in Seoul we found a Korean Tardis
The next day would be our last in Seoul – and our flight was not until 8pm, so we had plenty of time to go get into trouble. The sad thing though was that we woke up to a monsoon – literally a monsoon – over the city. The spotless streets were covered in ankle-deep, rushing rainwater, the rain was horizontal and I’m pretty sure raining up at times, and it was still in the 90s outside. The least exciting day we had – it was all spent in massive shopping malls like Techno Mart, which is a mall a good 10 stories high, each floor dedicated to different electronics – with a rooftop garden with a view of the Han River. Sadly, all we saw was blinding rain.
the roof top garden at Techno Mart
Techno Mart was not made for men 6’5″
We spent some time exploring the Lotte World where we were staying, and had to talk ourselves out of bringing home a puppy we both fell in love with in one of the stores. We had a grand, late lunch of bulgogi, and then made the long trek to Incheon, where we were thrilled to relax in the Prestige Lounge, charge our electronics, and watch the monsoon outside.
this little guy nearly got a free ride to the US
We boarded our flight to LAX at 8pm – had a wonderful dinner, and fell asleep watching tv (thank you, giant, lay flat, sleeper seats!). We were woken up about two hours outside of LA for a grand breakfast, we stretched out, cleaned up, packed up all our things we’d unpacked during the flight, and as if by magic, landed at 4pm on the same day we’d left Seoul at 8 pm. Time travel!!! I had a cranky man at immigration who was yelling at the Koreans from my flight that he’d send them all home if they didn’t stay in line until they were called – but we had no issues and breezed through. A short flight home to PDX and our whirlwind tour of Korea was officially over.
farewell, South Korea! On our KAL flight to LAX
A week without the three dogs, the three cats, the boxes I had waiting for me to unpack from the move, a week without phone or email, a week without work or talking to anyone but each other – it was glorious. And it was just as exciting to sleep in my own bed again! My brain was on fire for a couple of days – it was really jarring to go from not being able to read or understand any spoken words to having EVERYTHING in English – it was a sensory overload, a reverse culture shock. And it took me a good ten days to feel normal again, sleep wise. We were 16 hours ahead in Korea and was a tough adjustment coming home, despite how easily we’d fallen into their schedule.
The photos come from my pro DSLR, two different point and shoots, my iPhone, and a pinhole camera loaded with medium format film. It feels like a lot of photos to me – I took over 1500 and processed/kept over 600 – considering how much time I spent just BEING there. I very intentionally wanted to experience Korea, not just take photos of it. And I did just that. Instead of filming out the window of the bus as we drove through curious neighborhoods, Jason and I pointed things out to each other and talked. Most of the photos we took were of us DOING things. Something I’ve learned as a photographer is that the photos I hang up in my home, or at my desk, are the photos of me and loved ones doing something cool. There are a few photos I am going to use to make canvases with for the house, don’t get me wrong – but the photos I love the most are the snapshots where you can see us having a GREAT time together – and it just happens to be somewhere very cool, thousands of miles from home. I am incredibly glad my photography won us this opportunity – and I’m gladder still I didn’t let my photography take away from our shared experience there. There’s a time to put down the camera and live a little.
last one…one of my favs of us in Korea