Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Bags are ready...

I never could stay in one place for very long. My bags are packed and I am just one sleep away from my flight to the Big Apple. I'll be crashing in the city for 2 months and doing what I love! Can't wait to see so many friends and family while I am back home :)

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Short weekend in Cambodia

Nicholas and I headed to Cambodia for a Samsung-sponsored long weekend. Nicholas got the Monday off for some anniversary of Samsung something or other. Regardless, we knew we had to take advantage and get out of Korea to see some of SE Asia. We had Angkor Wat on our list of things to see and after seeing the flights worked perfectly for a weekend getaway, we booked and planned to be wow'ed. 
Our first flight schedule, on day 1
Since Nicholas was going to be heading directly from the office that Friday night, he decided to carry his own passport and meet me at the airport... The best laid plans of mice and men oft' go astray. In his hurry to leave the office, he left his passport at his desk. As anyone here in Seoul knows, rush hour traffic is horrible in general and even worse on a Friday evening. Although several of our friends were also leaving town that night and were still at the office, the chances of one of them making it to the airport in time for us to make our flight were slim. We gave it a go and waited for Rafel to arrive... instead of taking the typical hour or so, it took him almost 2 full hours to arrive, well past our flight departure. We arranged to take the only flight out the next day and headed home.

Finally at the gate, day 2. 
Our driver for the weekend
We arrived late into Siem Reap the following day and checked into our hotel. After chatting with the French owners, we headed to bed to get a bit of rest before our 4:30am wake up call to make it to the temples for the sunrise. It was extremely hot, humid and buggy in Cambodia. At 5am, it was fresh and cool, but by 630am the heat was on full blast. We saw all the main temples and some of the second-tier temples in Angkor wat our first day. We then headed back to Siem Reap for lunch, a ridiculously cheap massage, a stroll around town, dinner and an early night.

One of the temples of Angkor Wat, love the trees!!
Angkor Wat details
The next day we planned to head to Beng Melea to see one of the temples that hasn't been restored and is crumbling. Not too long ago, the roads were not in good enough condition to make the journey feasible except for the most adventurous. I have a feeling we probably would have gone previously, but now with good roads it was a no-brainer. This temple was really breathtaking and worth the 1-2 hour journey to get there. After a couple hours exploring, we grabbed lunch (more curry and fish amok and lots and lots of coconuts) before we headed back to the hotel for a swim. We rested, packed our bags then went back to town for another massage and dinner. We were definitely Cambodia'ed out by the end of our second day, so really, it was a blessing that Nicholas did not have his passport Friday night. We were both so happy to head back home.

Curry and Fish Amok served in Coconuts with Coconut water! 
Beng Mealea, love the roots!
Fallen stones with bas relief
I cannot imagine not seeing the temples in Cambodia, but we both felt a bit frustrated with the advantage they take of the tourists. I know you will get that in many places like Cambodia and we are truly blessed to have been able to have this experience. I cannot heartily recommend a trip here, but if you have always wanted to see the temples wrapped in the roots of ancient trees and the lush and beauty of the nature, then this is a place you cannot miss.

Whirlwind with Miriam

Miriam hit the ground running. With just a week to soak up as much of Korea as she could, we didn't have a moment to spare :)
Year of the Rabbit 
I planned an all Korean-itinerary. We spent the first full day exploring the two main palaces, the secret garden, the bukchon hanok village and Insa-dong before we ended the night in Garosugil for Vatos.

Bukchon Hanok Village
The next day we went to Namsan to see the beautiful barefoot garden, see views of Seoul Tower and relax at the Hyatt with a drink, the expansive view of Seoul and the live music of the calming pianist and violinist. That night we headed to Gangnam for a pork bbq with somak :)

Sunday, we packed an overnight bag and headed first to Namdaemun market to explore during the rainy morning and try lots of street food. Once we had full bellies and were thoroughly soaked, we grabbed a cab and headed up to Bukhansan National park to go to Geumsunsa for a temple stay. Once there, we were given our uniforms and relaxed a bit before heading on a tour and a meditation session. This temple is a Zen meditation temple and it was a perfect setting in the mountains to connect with nature and clear your mind. We did the 108 bows and headed to dinner. From there, we went to bed relatively early to rise for our next meditation session at 4:30am. After meditation and breakfast, we napped a bit before we headed back to the city.

That afternoon we went to Cheongdam (area known for making people beautiful) for lunch and then had a Korean facial. Once finished, we headed for some spicy yeong-neom chicken and rice cakes before heading home.
Tuesday, we met one of my Korean friends to take us to eat cheonggukchang, aka stinky soup. The meal is a true feast with many many sides and bibimbap, and whatever you order; in our case, pork. After the meal, we headed to Bongeunsa to see the temple across from my apartment before we went to Cheongdam again to see a 4-D movie. We saw World War Z which was a bit terrifying in 4-D, but still a fun experience :) That night, we ate a fresh salad at home and watermelon. After almost a full week of Korean meals, we needed something fresh; neither salted nor fermented.

Wednesday, I introduced Miriam to the Korean baths :) Although it is quite far, I figured if you only have one shot, you should probably go to the largest bathhouse in Seoul- Dragon Hill Spa. We spent the late morning there, only to find out that Wednesday mornings from 10-11:30am is when they do the maintenance and cleaning of the women's baths :( We took advantage by trying all of the saunas and drinking sikhye- a sweet, cold rice beverage. Once the baths were opened we dived into the herbal baths and soaked before we went for a body scrub. I haven't been forever and Miriam has never been, so the scrubbing ladies loved to show us how much skin they were scrubbing away and how "dirty" we were. We did feel like brand new after the very rough scrub down and beating...a.k.a. massage.

We had just enough time to stop at home, grab M's bags and get her to the City Airport. It was a jam-packed week that left me completely exhausted. We crisscrossed the city several times, spending hours on buses, metros, walking and in cabs. I even got to the point where I felt a bit Koreaned out in regards to food, which I didn't know was possible. So happy I got to share this city with another friend and introduce many cultural aspects of our country.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Miriam arrives tomorrow!

What better way to celebrate the 4th than to ring it in with a visitor from home! Miriam arrives tomorrow for her week-long trip to our home :) Cannot wait to show her all that Korea has to offer. I just hope the rain stays away for part of the time!

72 hours in Beijing

I left on a Saturday afternoon and arrived quickly to the capital of China. The flight from Seoul is around 1.5 hours, so it is roughly the same flight time as DC to Chicago, a trip I have taken often.
Chunguang was waiting for me in the arrivals area and we jumped in her car to head to her apartment, drop my bag, and take advantage of the afternoon. I had forgotten how chaotic the traffic is in China. The cars, mopeds, bikes, and pedestrians all seem to believe they have the right of way and will aggressively move to prove they do. Driving, and walking(!), in the city is not for the faint of heart.
My hostess with the most-est

We went to the luxury shopping and foreign area known as Salitun. When we were here 6 years ago, most of this did not exist. I only remembered I had been here when I noticed the Embassies on the other side of the street. We wandered a bit and then met up with our friend Jenny and her friend at a bar. From there, we jumped on the metro back to Chunguang's neighborhood to meet her husband, daughter, and in-laws for a Sichuan dinner. I was looking forward to a spicy meal, but there was no heat in the peppers just excellent flavor. From there, we met back up with Jenny at The Emperor hotel's rooftop bar that had an incredible view of the Forbidden City. My pictures do it absolutely no justice. If you go to Beijing, this is a must see. The bar is removed from the hustle and bustle of the streets and is a quiet retreat with the Forbidden city lit up in the background. Just, wow.
View of Forbidden City at night 
Girls after rooftop drinks

The next day, I requested that we head to the Olympic village, as it was just being built when we last visited in 2007. First, we had breakfast at home of a porridge that reminded me of a soupier cream of wheat and some sticky rice and meat/beans wrapped in banana leaves. It unfortunately rained that day, but we did not let that stop us. We did a quick tour of the village, took photos and got back to the car. For lunch, I had asked if we could have dim sum and dim sum we had!! I do not know how those little bites of food can fill you up so quickly, but this was one of the best meals I have ever had. We had a variety of things including: durian puff pastries, fried chicken feet (a bit difficult for me to eat around all the bones), shrimp dumplings, pork buns, vegetable buns, spicy noodles, and these incredible custard and mango things. We had to be rolled out of the restaurant.

The Nest 
The Cube
Dim Sum remnants

Due to the rain, we decided that an indoor activity would be best, so they surprised me and took me to a really cool spa for a foot, neck, shoulder and arm massage. It was a perfect afternoon.
Private room for our massage
Relaxing during the foot massage

I had told Chunguang that I wanted to see the local Beijing, that the last time I had followed my guide books, but it was all the touristy things, so I just wanted to eat what she normally ate and do what she normally would do with her friends. That night, we went to their neighborhood restaurant for another mouthwatering dinner. They ordered far too much food but it was hard not to keep eating, each dish was different and delicious. On our walk back to the apartment, I saw beautiful watermelons and asked if they were expensive here. They said no and bargained with the woman to get a good deal and we walked home with a big fruit :) In Korea, they are prohibitively expensive, so even though I had no room, I couldn't pass up on a taste of the famous Beijing watermelon. That night, I slept like a baby.
Local restaurant, enough for twice as many people and cost about $15 with beer
In the morning, we went to her local breakfast shop and we ate dumplings, soup, porridge and a fried dough reminiscent of a churro, but not sweet. She had told me that she did not order much food, but we could not finish everything. The total for the two of us? Just over $1.50. From there we wandered around some of the old hutongs, or tiny streets with traditional Chinese style homes. We had to stop and try some street food. The first was a strange crepe/omelette thing stuffed with some fried dough and three different types of sauces then sprinkled with cilantro and green onion. My stomach kept saying no but my mouth and heart kept saying yes. Then we got to the small "sea" or lake and walked a bit and then tasted the fresh Beijing yogurt that everyone seems to eat, as can be guessed from all the little ceramic bottles littering the tables outside small shops. I have lived in Switzerland and this may have been the best yogurt I have ever eaten. It was so fresh and creamy and tangy. I had no idea that they even made yogurt here! It is so fresh, it is only covered with a piece of paper and a rubber band, no plastic seal or expiration date.
Small breakfast... 
Street food- crepe/omelett goodness :) 
Cluster of empty yogurt containers
Delicious Beijing Yogurt
With even fuller bellies we headed to the Lama Yonghe Temple. We prayed for money, health and happiness and took many photos before heading to our friend Tingting's home. We had a drink and chatted for a while before we headed to dinner. As you can guess dinner was spectacular. I drank Chinese rice wine and ate many delicious dishes. The girls were so impressed with how I handled the spicy food they challenged me to a lunch of hotpot the next day. I heartily accepted the challenge.
Blue skies in Beijing, rare site :) 

The next morning, Chunguang, Jenny and I went to 7.9.8 area, which is a really cool artist neighborhood that used to be old factories but was converted by poor artists who were eventually kicked out by wealthy ones once they had made it popular (sound familiar lower east siders?).  It was really funky and cool. We sat in one of the coffee shops and chatted over a very light breakfast of a latte, all I could bare to eat. After spending the morning there, we met up with Tingting and Chunguang's husband for hotpot.
Chunguang's awesome daughter! 
Jenny and I arrived first, so we ordered some fried rice and spicy noodles, so I had something in my stomach before I ate spicy, oily food. Albeit, the spicy noodles might not have been a good idea for the cause, but they were super tasty!
Hotpot! Check out those peppers :) 
Plum juice- yum! 
We split the pot and had one side completely mild and the other spicy. Although some of them thought it was spicy Chunguang and I thought it was just flavorful. I have no idea what I must have done to my tastebuds, but I do not seem to sense spice anymore. They were so happy that I eat and try anything so they ordered what they normally would, including lots of vegetables and then other things I have never had before, like cow throat and coagulated (think jell-o) blood. I didn't think I would be able to handle the blood, but I found it to be really enjoyable. The cow throat, not so much. The texture was hard for me to handle. We washed it down with flavorful plum juice.

From there, I had just enough time to grab my bags and head to the airport.

This trip was more of a culinary tour and catch up than a touristy one for me. Just how I like to travel :) If you head to Beijing, send me a message for recommendations!