South Korea is a country that I intended to visit for a very long time. Contrary to many people who fascinated with neighbouring Japan delve themselves in Japanese language studies, splash out on sushi dinners once in a while or get completely consumed by the lively Japanese pop culture, I became enchanted by the sound of 한국말, the Korean language, and later on the Korean culture.
Whenever I met a Korean traveller surprisingly many of them would frequently about explaining the whereabouts of their homeland, ever so often referencing their neighbour – Japan. It is true, sadly, that the land of sushi and ninjas is far ahead of Korea in terms of popularity. I find that almost everyone is familiar with some part of the Japanese culture, from cute animes and mangas, through the mentioned ninja assassins, insanely wan geisha ladies, ending with raw fish. Who of us has never heard words like sayonara or arigatou? Or perhaps of such urban monsters like Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka? I could go on listing Japanese motor companies, but I think I have already illustrated my point well enough: Korea remains a mystery to many Westerners!
I did a little survey and asked around if any of my friends and acquaintances know anything about Korea. Well, the obvious first thing to come up was taekwondo, the Korean martial art. Few of my acquaintances surprised me with their knowledge of kimchi, a Korean staple in the form of fermented spicy cabbage. And finally there was Kim Jong-Il, the infamous North Korean dictator who complete with massive sunnies features on a number of slogan t-shirts. To my dismay, the colossal companies like Hyundai or Samsung were thought to be Japanese… (This is a point where my lovely Malaysian friend would dejectedly say “facepalm”!).
So, why Korea? Well, the reason why I fell in love with Hankuk, as Korea is known to its residents, is exactly this particular obscurity and mystery in which it is shrouded. While I was studying the language and progressing from beginner level to intermediate, I got to know more and more about the Korean culture. Although, not only through visiting Korean BBQ places or indulging in the delicious bibimbap, but also through film and the growing popularity of K-Pop music. In fact, almost everything I know about the country is a result of my own research. Hardly anything was served to me on the proverbial silver platter, which is a privilege often enjoyed by Japan-lovers. The efforts I spent researching, reading, surfing for information, watching, and listening made the whole process of discovering Hankuk much more rewarding in the end and personally precious.
So, truly, I have become a fan of Korea and therefore try to promote it as much as I can. Other people’s lack of knowledge about the country I grew to love began to irritate me and finally when once upon a time a certain man happily announced that Korea lies between Singapore and Indonesia (!) I thought that dark times lay ahead indeed. And then all of a sudden I seemed to have gained a new and most definitely larger-than-life ally – Psy, the South Korean celebrity.
In the summer of 2012 the world changed forever owing to the rapidly growing popularity of Korea’s musical export: Psy’s hit 강남스타일, more popularly knows as Gangnam Style in the Western World. Complete with its inane and at the same time Makarena-like contagious dance, Psy’s loony little ditty took the globe by storm and, in the minds of millions of Westerners, slammed South Korea on the map of the World.
Yet Psy’s most laudable exploits took place already after my memorable trip, for it was in the late spring 2012 that I boarded an Air China airbus and flew to Seoul, Korea’s capital city. From there, I made my way south to Busan, Ulsan, and back to Seoul through the wonderful city of Gyeongju. It was short but unforgettable journey filled with local food, chats with local ajummas (super friendly Korean middle-aged ladies who just love it when a cute Westerner speaks a bit of their language), modern and historical sights, and many many more exciting things that I shall describe soon!
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Our rental Hondas speed along the occasionally winding road that takes us across the densely forested island. After we pass Loboc, one of the few little towns that actually appear on the map, we go past only a small number of clearings where some unnamed hamlets sprung up on the roadside. Other then that, the road is surrounded by tall subtropical trees, bushes, and thick vegetation that all but encroach upon the tarmac.
After an hour’s drive the road, which is in a surprisingly good condition, leads us out of the forest into a large flatland that the local Boholanos use as a pasture and a couple of small farms. No longer protected by the thick canopy, our faces get pummelled by thick rain that comes down in force – a leftover from a typhoon that went past the islands recently. We’re not wearing helmets and with the speed we’re driving at the rainwater squeezes itself into my eyes, making it hard to drive. Still, we continue making our way across the clearing.
Completely drenched, we laugh out loud and scream in joy at the top of our voices, in volume competing with the roar of our engines and the near-deafening noise of rainwater pounding the ground. We are young, happy, unencumbered – simply free – riding some rental bikes across an island in the Philippine archipelago that just a few months before non of us heard of.It really feels like it’s the time of our lives!
The rain becomes unbearable and at long last we find a shelter on the side of the road. The 3 of us pull up and hide in the unfinished-looking construction that might perhaps serve as a garage or bus stop in the future. We are exhilarated despite being completely soaked! My wet t-shirt and shorts don’t bother me – back in our seedy hotel in Tagbilaran I have enough dry clothes which I suspect are being carefully guarded by a group of king-size Philippine cockroaches.The temperature too is something we don’t have to worry about: November temperature on the island is around 25°C (around 77ºF). We rest while waiting for the rain to ease off. So far we’ve done about 40km (about 25 miles) so we’re definitely more than half way through on our way to the Chocolate Hills – one of the most famous places in the Philippines.
If you’re lucky enough to have the rare chance of seeing the flag of Bohol, right in the centre of it you will spot a long horizontally arranged cluster of what looks like green upturned bowls. This cluster is indeed the symbol and pride of the island and it has been intriguingly dubbed: the Chocolate Hills. This curious geological formation has become one of the main tourist attraction of the country and is definitely the #1 place to visit on the island. Actually, most of travellers reserve their time on Bohol Island only for a visit to the Hills before moving on to some other location in the vast archipelago.
Finally the rain stops. My travel companions Gosia, from Poland; and Franziska, from Germany; and I mount our Hondas and are off. We still have perhaps less than an hour’s drive ahead which on the straight-as-an-arrow Loay Interior Road that lies ahead should be a piece of cake. Our progress is only interrupted once when my motorcycle breaks down. Normally it’s hard not to panic when you find yourself in the middle of nowhere on a road with almost no traffic, with a broken bike, know nothing about motorcycle repair, and this is the first time you have ever ridden such a vehicle. Definitely a situation not to be recommended! Luckily all those thoughts don’t have enough time to burgeon in my brain, because from behind the next turn comes a man on a scooter. It’s a middle-aged Filipino man. He slows down as he approaches and, seeing my problem, kindly pulls over even without being asked to. It takes him less than 5 minutes to repair my bike. Sadly, he speaks no English so I cannot tell him how grateful I am to him, but I think he got the message. He drives off while the 3 of us continue. Soon we spot the first few weirdly conical mounds ahead and shortly arrive at the government-run Chocolate Hills Complex.
The small complex houses a rather dubious-looking little restaurant and a hotel; there are some souvenir stalls in front; some locals are wandering around the small car park selling delicious honey-dipped banana chips. Excited that we’ve finally arrived and that the rain has ceased, we hike up one of the hills that has a viewing deck on top. After a long journey spent sitting soaked on a motorbike, climbing all the steps of the 64m high cone takes us a while. When we finally reach the top we find ourselves in the middle of a vast plane that is peppered with an impossible to count number of symmetrical green mounds. All of them shrouded in light mist – an effect of the earlier torrential rain meeting the hot soil. The 360° panorama that the observation deck provides is stunning. This one-of-a-kind geological curiosity certainly lives up to our expectations!
But what are they actually? Well, definitely not hills made of chocolate – that’s for sure! In the Filipino folklore we find various legends that attempt to explain the origin of those mounds. There are romantic tales of woe, love, death, honour, battles, and tears; and there is also a couple of admittedly not-so-romantic ones in which the Chocolate Hills are a direct result of some incontinent giant’s gastrointestinal distress. Thank heavens for science, for the enlightened modern geologist tells us that the grass-covered hills are in fact made of limestone that over centuries has been eroded by rain and ground water. Yes, all 1,247 of them! Limestone! Not chocolate, not massive dried tears, not anyone’s feces! Just a spectacular example of karst landscape. So where did chocolate come into all this? Well, the grass that covers every single mound turns brown during the dry season. Therefore, when you visit the complex at that particular time it really does seem that you’re surrounded by hundreds of chocolate blobs sticking out of the jungle.
The Chocolate Hills aside, Bohol boasts yet another tourist draw: one of the world’s smallest primates – the tarsier. Tarsiers, locally known as mawmag, live on 4 southern islands of the Philippine archipelago: Bohol, Mindanao, Leyte, and Samar. Being nocturnal animals, mother nature gave them disproportion-ately big eyes that are set in their heads which rotate a complete 180°! Anyhow, owing to the big eyes and defenceless appearance, a vast majority of people find tarsiers simply adorable and go all ooh! ahh! aww! at the sight of a tarsier.
A fairly short drive from the Chocolate Hills Complex is a little enclosure tourists can visit and see the famed tarsier. My travel companions decide to swing by on our way back to Tagbilaran. Once we’re there, it turns out we can not only see but also feed them cockroaches. The insects are already prepared and impaled on small sticks. It’s funny how the minute primates react when they see a tasty cockroach within their grasp – they get all excited, they eyes glaze over and their greedily reach out their tiny hands towards the roach. Quite sweet actually!
Coming back to the enclosure itself, it is just a part of the sub-tropical forest that has been fenced around so that tarsiers don’t escape. Overall it’s a rather small area so once you feed a tarsier, walk around a bit, and take some photos, you’re all ready to go after 15 minutes, really.
Driving back to Tagbilaran along the Loay Interior Road we reach the small town of Loboc that we passed through earlier on our way to the Chocolate Hills. This is our last stop and a chance to catch a final break from sitting on the motorcycle seat. Now, in the Philippines Loboc is known for two things: first, it is the music capital of the whole Bohol Island; the second thing are its floating restaurants that travel up and down the scenic, meandering Loboc River. Gosia, Franziska and I have some time to kill – there is about an hour of daylight left and because the remaining road to Tagbilaran doesn’t lead through deserted middles of nowhere and is generally quite straightforward we are not nervous about covering that distance after dark. We decide to stay in Loboc and hire a small raft to take us up the river to Loboc waterfalls in the middle of the Bohol forests.
Loboc waterfalls perhaps aren’t the most picturesque sight you’ll come across in your life, but if you’re just a 15 minutes’ boat ride away from them why not go and see them, right? Once on the raft, the three of us kick back and relax while the boatman steers the small vessel up the winding river.
The forest that Loboc River cuts across appear virgin – there is no visible river bank, just thick bushes and trees that swallow up the river on both sides. It looks as if no man ever set foot in this land! And so I might easily assume, yet the loud old motor engine attached to our boat reminds me otherwise. Nonetheless, I still feel as if I was on some BBC Nature Programme expedition and was about to see Sir David Attenborough any moment. We reach in the small falls within 15 minutes, just as the boatman promised.
After returning to Loboc town we while away a little bit of our time at the river bank and soon mount our motorbikes again. It’s getting dark and it’s about an hour’s slow journey to Tagbilaran. It hasn’t rained ever since we reached the Chocolate Hills and now it begins to drizzle a bit. We’re going to be all wet again, but I’m satisfied as the whole day has been really well spent. I’m already looking forward to snorkelling tomorrow off the coast of the island. Funnily enough, that will be my second day in a row on Bohol when I’m all wet! Hopefully we’ll get some sun too!
1. GETTING THERE – if you’re going to Bohol Island, then you most probably will head for Tagbilaran. You have a couple of options of doing this: by air or by sea.
By air – Tagbilaran has a small airport so you can easily fly straight from Manila or any other airport. Check Cebu Pacific budget airline website for connections.
By sea – most often travellers head to Tagbilaran from Cebu City. If you’ve just flown into Cebu airport and are not interested in visiting the second largest city in the Philippines just yet, then straight from the airport you can catch a taxi to the pier. I cannot stress this enough: haggle haggle haggle! Together with my 2 fellow backpackers we actually walked away from the airport and caught a taxi off the road. Once at the pier, you can buy a ferry ticket. IMPORTANT INFO:Last ferry departing for Bohol leaves at 8pm so don’t be late and double check which pier number you need to be on! Also, check the Cebu City to Bohol (Tagbilaran) ferry schedule in the links below.
2. ARRIVAL – once in Tagbilaran, just pack all your stuff into a tricycle and let one of the locals drive you to the town centre. There you can walk around and find some accommodation without any problems. I myself didn’t book anything, and the little hotel I stayed at was completely empty (I’m not counting cockroaches and cute little lizards).
3. TRANSPORT – Tagbilaran is small and definitely walkable, but if you’re not much of a walker, then the tricycle is a cheap and fun option. If you’re thinking of renting a scooter or motorbike to travel to the Chocolate Hills like I did, then you should be able to find quite a few places with bike rentals. If you’re having trouble, then ask a tricycle driver. He’s bound to have a buddy who will rent you one of his bikes for the whole day.
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Sitting comfortably in the heart of Seoul and overlooking its ancient palaces is Namsan (남산), which in Korean stands for the South Mountain. This name, a token of the past, is proof that in times long gone by Namsan Mountain demarcated the southern border of the once small Seoul city, a city that since those times has grown out of proportion. Surrounded by a leafy large public park, Namsan offers a number of hiking opportunities to the locals, while from the top one can admire the panoramic view of the vast urban sprawl that constitutes the South Korean capital.
Although Namsan amounts to mere 262 metres in height, it can be easily spotted from various areas of Seoul. This is due to one of the city’s landmarks. Located on the peak of the mountain is the N Seoul Tower, which amongst Koreans is more commonly referred to as, simply, the Namsan Tower or the Seoul Tower. Needless to say, visiting Namsan deservedly landed on the top of my things-to-see-in-Seoul list, and so it should for any traveller!
It’s a beautiful evening in May and it’s already dark. I’ve met my friend Ju-young for a traditional Korean dinner and now we’re driving to Namsan. With some difficulty we find a parking spot – on a warm evening like this Namsan is particularly popular with visitors. We’re very late and from the parking area need to go at a trot to catch the last cable car to the summit. We manage by the skin of our teeth! Once on top it’s a short distance to the foot of the N Tower. The only problem is that the said distance is made up of a flight of big wide concrete stairs. I speed ahead to catch one of the last lifts going up the tower while Ju-young, owing to her high heels, lags behind a bit. Once again we are successful and within moments are transported by the world’s fastest lift to the observation deck up top. One interesting thing worth mentioning here is that the N Tower’s observation deck, which usually functions as a rather pricey restaurant, is actually revolving! Admittedly, not at a break-neck speed that would make your food fly off your plate along various trajectories, but at the pleasantly sluggish speed of 1 revolution per 48 minutes. Hence, if you do stop by the restaurant it really is worth hanging around for almost an hour enjoying your meal and the slowly changing view outside.
Ju-young and I take our time walking around the deck, taking pictures and trying to recognise Seoul’s other landmarks hidden away in the neon jungle that surrounds us. The panorama around is breathtaking – the lights of the city seem to illuminate everything as far as the eye can see. Seoul’s territory seems to have no limits! To the north we can see the busy Myeongdong, Seoul’s prime shopping district; immediately west of us is Itaewon, the perhaps most international and liberal area of the city that even contains a mosque! The flow of the high-rise buildings is only interrupted briefly to the south by the Han River (한강) that majestically wends its way through the centre of Seoul. Beyond it arise the skyscrapers of Gangnam and Apgujeong, Korea’s plastic surgery capital. After that the lights fade in the distance.
Ju-young and I take the lift down and stay awhile at the large viewing platform at the base of the tower. Most of the visitors tonight turn out to be young couples who arrived here with their locks of love and who can sometimes be found in the shadows stealing the occasional kiss, or even snogging – something that according to the strict Korean social norms is most definitely not permitted in public. Soon Ju-young and I board the cable car and descend.
One last thing I’m going to say here is that Namsan Mountain really is quite an institution in Korea. Probably there isn’t a Korean around to whom the name wouldn’t mean anything at all or wouldn’t bring up childhood memories. Why? Well, over the course of time Namsan snuck it’s way into the Korean folklore and now occupies a warm cozy place within a sweet nursery rhyme Moon (달)that Koreans sign to their kids:
Moon moon what kind of a moon [달달 무슨달]
Round moon like a plate [쟁반같이 둥근달]
Where is it right now? [어디어디 떴나]
It is over Namsan [남산 위에 떴지]
– South Korea (한국).
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Rochester is a small town in Kent county, south-east England. Its history dates back all the way to the pre-Roman times, so over 2,000 years ago! On arrival one might think it is a pretty little place. Conveniently located by the River Medway, Rochester sports a beautiful medieval cathedral and a well preserved Rochester Castle which is famed for the 1215 siege that lasted for 2 whole months.
I passed through Rochester a number of times when on a train journey to or from London. Observed from the window of a train, the medieval cozy high street and the wonderfully rectangular fortress always succeeded to catch my attention, making me wish for a stroll around the town’s small streets and stop over for a pint of ale in the local pub. Yet it wasn’t until the summer of 2011 when I finally set foot in Rochester and it was not due to the medieval charm of the above-mentioned attractions but due to Rochester’s other draw of quite a different nature: its annual Dickens Festival.
Ever thought what it would be like to live in the Victorian times or find yourself for a little while in the world you saw in the BBC’s TV adaptation of Bleak House? Well, think no more and head to Rochester for a fantastic day. I did so, with a bunch of friends, and shortly after leaving the station we started running into more and more people wearing period clothing. When we finally reached the lovely High Street we were greeted by band of Scottish buskers – playing bagpipes, naturally. The further we went the bigger the number of people we encountered wearing wonderfully detailed costumes. It was a sign – the parade was due to start soon – so my friends and I hurried to find a good spot on the pedestrianised street from where we and other out-of-towners could admire the procession, and take some great pictures too!
The highlight of the Rochester Dickens Festival is, undoubtedly, the early afternoon parade. It draws crowds of people: travellers like me, families with kids, people from neighbouring towns, etc. And it’s quite a sight too! Some of the costumes are simply stunning and make you think if someone here hasn’t actually got them from a high-budget period drama set.
As I stood there with my friends, I beheld all sorts of characters taken from Dickens’ novels and other people in splendid attire. I saw little East End boys going past, soldiers of the 19th century British Empire long gone, ghosts bound in chains, ladies in fabulous dresses, men in top hats, petty thieves, beggars, and, yes, Scrouge himself! The parade is definitely a sight and an experience. If you’re a tourist visiting England, then on a lovely sunny afternoon in June you could probably think of very few more interesting things to do, particularly if you are after something that doesn’t necessarily feature in your standard guidebook.
The end of the parade is not the end of attractions. There are street acts done by local students, there are Victorian plays being performed and the best thing is that you can see them for free! The Victorian play we saw was particular amusing as it involved the audience to a great extent. So there we sat, in the Guildhall Museum, booing and shushing and shouting and cheering – generally having awesome fun – while we watched the actors doing a great job of bringing Victorian comedy drama to new spectators.
Usually before I travel somewhere I do a bit of research. I did so too before going to Rochester. Had I not done it, I would have never known of the existence of a tiny little street a few minutes walk west of the castle – Love Lane. Agreed, it might not be a must-see item on your Rochester things-to-do-and-see list, but it struck a romantic chords somewhere within me and I just had to go. After all, 10 minutes walk both ways plus a few minutes walking along the small lane wouldn’t kill me. Love Lane itself isn’t perhaps the most beautiful lane in the whole of England, but I do think it’s worth visiting at least to take some pictures with a few Love Lane street signs or gates, especially if you’re a couple. If you’re a guy visiting Rochester with your lovely girl, and you think she’d get excited by this, surprise her!
Once you’re done with all the above, and been to the pub for some local ale you should definitely head for the fun fair which is located in the Rochester Castle grounds, right next to the Cathedral. Once you’re there, get some roast hog in apple sauce and go have a few laughs watching the quintessentially English, traditional and, perhaps, a little bit too violent for kids puppet show – Punch and Judy! After that get on a few rides – because no one’s too old to have fun, right? – and you’re done. The Rochester Dickens Festival outing could be considered complete. Now you can go sit near the river in the sun, go to the pub again, or head back to the train station with a big smile on your face and a great feeling of satisfaction from the fact that you were lucky enough to happen to be in the county of Kent during that one weekend in the summer.