Monday, December 30, 2013

The Final Adventure - 3rd Stop: Kandy

Stop number 3 is here and we're back once more to Kandy. We spent half a day in town previously before continuing on northwards, so we have already had a little taster. But now Kandy is taking centre stage, and it's time for us to have a full on sugar rush!

This is Sri Lanka's second city, but you certainly wouldn't know it. The country as a whole has a pretty sizeable population of just over 20 million, so you'd think we'd have a bustling metropolis on our hands, but no. There are little over 100,000 people in the city, and after spending a couple of days here, even that figure seems a bit high. It was just a pretty laid-back, lakeside town, with no big city notions.

Kandy is also famous for housing one of Buddha’s teeth (his sweet tooth presumably!), so of course we paid a visit to the, rather obviously named, Temple of the Tooth. We wandered around the grounds, witnessed a big ritual, and in the end, never even got to see the damn thing! It’s kept in a casket in a special room, so nobody ever gets to see it. Kind of a let down...

You want the tooth? You can’t handle the tooth!

Seeing as it's Sri Lanka's second city, it's also surprising that there's not actually a whole lot to do... Our only real excursions of note were up to a Buddha statue overlooking the city, and then over to Arthur's Seat which also overlooks the city. So, quite a lot of overlooking was done!

We thankfully avoided hornet and cobra attacks in Sigiriya, but we've seen all sorts of animals during our time in Sri Lanka as a whole; in the cities, in the forests, all just going about their daily business - from your regular cats and dogs, to birds of every kind, cows, monkeys, enormous lizards and even bigger squirrels, a turtle crossing the road – it’s like living in a zoo! Not a very good zoo admittedly, but still!

I was even shat on by a bird! Twice! Well, I presume I was shat on by two birds once, rather than a sustained attack by one bird in particular. It's meant to be good luck, but so far I haven't received any such fortune. I haven't been crapped on since (by bird or otherwise), so I guess that in itself is a positive.

As I mentioned in the previous entry, we forgot to make a video diary last time out, so here's a double delight for your audio/visual pleasure:

I guess that's all then. Kinda disappointing in a way. When getting pooped on was one of the highlights of your stay, that's probably a sign to move on elsewhere. And that's exactly what we did. Two days in Kandy done, two days in Ella to come!

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Final Adventure - 2nd Stop: Sigiriya

It took us a while to get here, but now we can finally say - Merry Christmas from Sigiriya in Sri Lanka! We're both huge Christmas fans, but since moving to Asia, none of our Christmases (in Hong Kong, El Nido or Lake Toba) have been particularly groundbreaking, for one reason or another. So, we were eager to buck that trend and have our best foreign Christmas yet! We had three days in town and, as I mentioned previously, had spent a bit more than usual to make sure we had comfortable surroundings for the big day. But that doesn't mean we just lazed about, quite the opposite. As the sun came up on Christmas Day, while all at home were wrapped up in bed, we were rising at 6:45am, ready to climb the 1,200 steps of Lion Rock!

I never even got up that early on Christmas morning when I was a child!

It was worth the extra effort though, as we beat the crowds up to the very top of one of Sri Lanka's most famous and historic sites. From the outside, it just looks like a big rock, and well, it is, but on the very top lies the remains of a 1,500 year old citadel. 

The buildings are now long gone, but there is still the outline of what once was, with walls, steps and even a large pool still in place. And as we had made the effort to get up early, the crowds were minimal, so we largely had the place to ourselves.

It wasn't too grueling an ascent either, and you pass by some other various sights along the way, including some old wall paintings and, on a small plateau before the final climb, there are even a pair of lion paws carved into the rock itself - quite the 'feet' of engineering!

The most worrying part about the climb were the increasingly more disconcerting signs scattered along the route.

Despite those assurances that attacks were likely, we thankfully made it up and back down again un-stung. And on our downward journey, we rather smugly passed by the queues of people, waiting to reach an increasingly packed summit.

And our Christmas morning wasn't finished yet, as we had one more hike to do before we could tuck into our mince pies (or whatever the Sri Lankan equivalent is), as we headed for the nearby Pidurangala Rock, which was arguably even better, as you had an equally incredibly view, but this time with Lion Rock too!

And if worrying about wasps and hornet attacks were bad enough, before this hike we had been warned about cobras! But again, we returned unscathed, and definitely deserving of the rest of the day off. So, after spending the early morning sightseeing, we could finally relax, exchange presents and really, just laze about and stuff ourselves silly - what Christmas is all about!

On the first day, we just hired a tuk-tuk driver to take us to the different spots, but on day two, as we ventured to the town of Polonnaruwa (another ancient city), we were feeling a bit more adventurous and decided to brave the Sri Lankan bus system. And to great success! We were naturals; hopping on and off where we needed to be, and even at one point, we trusted our bearings over the directions of a local, and we were right! He was a tour guide too, although on reflection, maybe he was trying to get us lost...?

As for Polonnaruwa, it was nice, but nothing more. It felt like Siem Reap in Cambodia, but without any of the real top class ruins.

If you haven't been to any similar ancient cities, then it might be worth a visit, but otherwise, don't go massively out of your way. We still had a fun day, and again, thanks to our early start, we had the rest of the day to eat, drink and be merry by the pool.

And that was pretty much all for our few days in town. The next morning, we hopped aboard an already full, still moving, Kandy bound bus on the side of the road, and held on tight for our long stand back down south. We also forgot to make a video diary, so you'll just have to make do with a double next time around!

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Final Adventure - 1st Stop: Getting there!

The final leg of our am-Asian adventure has begun! It’s been just over 3 years since we left little, old Ireland as a couple of bright eyed, young travellers – I was, myself, an Asian virgin at the time (I expect the blog to get a few disappointed Google hits for that one), while Aisling had been around the block already a few times, as I’m sure you can imagine… Since then, we've visited 17 different countries and made ourselves a lovely home and an even lovelier group of friends in Hong Kong. But, the time has come to return from whence we came, and more importantly, time to bump that list of countries up to an even 20!

Our first major stop of the trip (and country number 18) came with the town of Sigiriya in Sri Lanka, where we would be spending Christmas. We had a few brief pit stops here and there though before we actually reached that point, so this first entry will just be a case of getting there; seasoned with fleeting visits to Bangkok, Negombo and Kandy – all of which were mere trickles in what we hope will soon become a gushing flow!

Having said that, don’t be fooled into thinking that these interim stays were just annoyances to endure. We had about half a day in each, so plenty of time to fit in a few memories before it was time to move on. First up was Bangkok; a city we always love to visit.

I know I usually berate capital cities, but BK is one of the few exceptions to the rule. It’s a main travel hub here in South East Asia, so we've passed through a fair few times and are always happy to do so. Even this time around when we left Hong Kong, we could've got a connecting flight straight on to Sri Lanka, but as we were going to be in the neighbourhood, we decided to spend the night. We had almost a full day here in total so plenty of time to fit in a trip or two to Pizza Company (our fave), a bit of street shopping on the Khaosan Road, and a little mystery adventure too… And I do mean mystery in the literal sense, as we donned our pipe and magnifying glass to solve ourselves a murder!

Look it up! We can’t recommend it highly enough. They've only been open for 6 months but it’s already the top attraction in Bangkok on Tripadvisor, which is where we found it.

You’re basically put into a room where a murder has been committed and by examining the contents, finding hidden clues and solving various puzzles, you must unearth the murderer and find how to get out of the room yourself (which we did, with just two minutes of the hour left to spare!). It’s based on the idea of the Japanese escape games, try one for yourself here:

The whole thing was very well set up and there are apparently a number of them around the world; definitely something to look up for any future trips. We had booked our appointment online but almost didn't make it in time as Bangkok was at an absolute standstill due to national, anti-government protests.

It was much easier to enjoy the spectacle on the way out when we didn't have to worry about getting through the traffic in time.

That evening, (after giving ourselves plenty of time to get to the airport) we flew to Colombo, and from there made our way north to the town of Negombo, our next mini-stop. We arrived in quite late, so we just spent the night, and then went for a wander around the next morning through some small villages to get our first taste of Sri Lankan life.

And they put in a solid first impression – the people seem very nice and friendly, even the tuk-tuk drivers, who are usually the lowest of the low! Everyone was waving and saying hello, asking where we were from and offering any help, and not in a “I’ll help you if you give me money” kinda way. We didn't have long in town before we had to catch a bus to Kandy, and luckily we got seats right up at the front before the bus became packed to capacity. (We also learned the definition of Sri Lankan capacity...). Still, it was a great experience, and a great way to see a pretty diverse range of characters.

After about four hours, we reached Kandy, and again, just had time to get settled, have some dinner, enjoy a good night’s sleep, and then up the next morning for our final bit of travelling to Sigiriya! Phew! We’ll be back to Kandy again though for two days, so we didn't mind our initial stay being so short. Another bus, another piece of luck to nab two front seats, and three hours later, we were finally there! As we would be spending three days here for Christmas, we decided to splash out on a fancy place, so enjoy our first (potentially risqué) video diary, from our very own jacuzzi!

So, that’s the first part, and hopefully the hardest part of our journey done! Even though we had quite a lot of travelling to do, it was still an enjoyable few days. Here’s to our next stint of staying still in Sigiriya!

Friday, December 20, 2013

Summer 2013 - 14th Stop: Busan

As our summer drew to a close, Busan just proved what we already knew - second cities are the best cities! The last two and a half weeks have been great, with time spent in Busan and Jeju, as well as a small side trip to Gyeongju. They've really clawed back South Korea's reputation after Seoul's less than impressive welcome. As for Busan itself, it was the perfect place to wind down after a thoroughly action-packed summer - a cool city, great beaches and on our first day here, a guy high-fived me for no reason! He didn't even say a word or break stride, just kept on walking! He must have sensed my second city vibe.

Almost identical to Cork really.

As I said, we just enjoyed a chilled out time here, so not a huge deal to report. We were staying in the Haeundai district of the city; a really cool area right on the beachfront. So, we spent a bit of time on the beach there, and also the nearby Gwangalli Beach, with a nice walk in between the two. Sorry, a lot of this isn't going to be that interesting at all...

We also passed by a group of soldiers along the way, marching in formation. When I stopped to take some pics, not only did they not seem annoyed, they actually smiled and waved - a very different reaction to their cousins up north.

On day 2, we visited Jagalshi Fish Market, the largest such market in Korea. Aside from your standard varieties of fish and whatnot, they also had all kinds of weird and wonderful treats on offer; with octopus, squid, shellfish, sea cucumbers, on top of a whole host of things that still remain a mystery. It was basically the who's who of foods we wouldn't touch with a bargepole. We, of course, had no intention of buying, but it was still interesting to walk around and have a gawk at some of these monstrosities, even if we had to hold our breath for the duration of our visit.

Later the same day, we took a stroll around the coastal area of Taejongdae, before making our way to the UN Cemetery for those who fought in the Korean War - the only UN Cemetery in the world, as far as I know. There were plaques with the number of soldiers who died from each country, as well as a full list of names. Nobody from Ireland though... I don't know if that means no Irishmen fought in the Korean War, or if loads of us fought, just none of us died... I prefer to believe the latter.

Back in Haeundae, we were very pleased to find that our hostel was right around the corner from an Irish pub, so we ate there a couple of times during our stay. We're lucky really that even though we're from such a small country, Ireland is extremely well represented on the world stage, and you'd be hard pushed to find a country or major city anywhere on Earth without an Irish pub in it. As I'm sure you know, we can be quite picky with our food sometimes, so finding an Irish pub in a new city is a great little treat. I don't know what we'd do if we hailed from a lesser country, i.e. any other country!

On our third day in town, we hopped on a bus and went on a short trip to the nearby town of Gyeongju (not to be confused with Gweongju or Cheongju which also leave from the same station). We stayed overnight too. It was a nice enough place with a lot of history attached, but in a lot of ways, it was nothing that we hadn't seen before. I know I'm probably sounding like a broken record now, but at this stage, we've reached our maximum temple capacity.

While in town, we also rented a couple of bikes for the day, and pedaled our way around the different sights, including Wolseong Park, and Cheonmachong - a Newgrange-esque hill tomb (but not as good as Newgrange obviously), one of many in the area, but I think the only one in the whole country that you can actually go inside.

Just like our final stop in Shanghai last summer, Busan really served its purpose as a nice breather from a summer of adventuring, before we had to come back to reality again. So in that sense, we loved the place, although I'm sure it's not too thrilling from a readers perspective.

In our last couple of days here, we did very little at all. We had planned a trip up to the city of Daegu, to meet up with a lovely guy that we had met a couple of weeks beforehand in North Korea (he was Irish, not actually North Korean), but when we got to the bus station, the queue for Daegu was a mile long, for some reason, and there was no chance of us getting there any time soon. (We later found out that there been a train crash on the Daegu line, and so that's why the buses were packed out). It was a shame, seeing as we had actually planned to do something, so instead we just went to the cinema and ate ice-cream! And on that climactic note, Busan was done! Here's your customary video diary:

All that was left to do was pack our bags, and get ourselves back to HK. It was a very scenic flight too may I add!

And that was Busan, a lovely city and definitely the heart and soul of the country (well, the heart at least. I guess the Seoul is already taken...) It was also a nice way to round off our most memorable travel stint yet! All the way down from Russia, through Mongolia, China and the Koreas, North and South - you couldn't hope for a more diverse and unique array of destinations. This will also be our last extended summer break, as we will very soon (tomorrow in fact!) be leaving HK for good. But fear not, we've still got one big adventure in us before going back to the real world, so fasten your seatbelts for our last three months in Asia!

You want Sri Lanka? We've got you covered!
India? How about six weeks worth?!
Nepal? It would be rude not to!
China?! ...well, it's a big country, you'll have to be more specific...
Yunnan Province? Hell to the yes!

So stay tuned! Live updates will be coming soon!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Summer 2013 - 13th Stop: Jeju

Naaaaa, na na, NA-NA NA NAAA, NA-NA NA NAAA, Jeju...

Bonus points to anyone who correctly sang the above to the tune of Hey Jude. My deepest apologies to those who didn't. I guess as songs go, it doesn't really translate that well into text...

So, as we head to the south of the South, we meet the island of Jeju! And what a great time we had. Really great! In terms of fun factor, Jeju packs some serious heat, well up there with our top destinations ever. It ticked all the boxes and then some! Some boxes we didn't even know existed! We spent nine days here overall and were thoroughly entertained the entire time, with something new around every corner. Not many places can boast that level of potency. It's like a whole island perfectly designed for tourists, and not in a tacky way at all, that's why it's so perfect! Nice beaches, natural wonders, quirky parks and museums; I defy you to come here and be bored! And not too far from HK at all. So, all of you Hong Kongers, if you're looking for an ideal spot for a short break, Jeju's got you covered.

We arrived on the night of August 17th, after a short flight down from Seoul, and then hopped on a bus from the airport in Jeju City to the town of Seogwipo on the opposite side of the island. Tired and hungry, we checked in to our hostel and went for a wander around town to rustle up some grub. I did say Jeju ticked all the boxes, but well, to be honest, all except for one - food. On the island, (at least where we were on the south coast), your options were limited to simply: Korean or cafés. Now in fairness, we never actually tried any of the Korean places. They might have actually been very nice, but they just looked too strange and intimidating from the outside. Regardless of that, what's the harm in having a bit of variety? And I don't just mean Western stuff; what about some Indian, or Thai, or Vietnamese? Something! Anything!? Instead, we survived almost exclusively on café cuisine for the 9 days; bagels here, paninis there and more muffins than you could shake a stick at. We really pushed the limits of human bread consumption. I was half expecting to end up with a yeast infection by the end of it (presumably, that's how it works...).

As I mentioned, we gave ourselves plenty of time here, so for our first full day, we really just took it easy with a nice day at the beach.

The next day was a different story as we were up and active, exploring the island's many sights, starting with Majanggul Lava Cave which was a bus ride and short walk away. But actually, before that, only 500m down the road was one of the island's highlights, or rather, a highlight in a sea of highlights - Kimnyoung Maze Park. I was unbelievably excited about this beforehand and it did not disappoint. I just don't understand why they don't have life-sized mazes like these all over the world, they're so much fun!

As you step inside, of course your natural reaction is to find the exit as soon as possible in the spirit of competition. Yet, there was another part of us that wanted it to last for as long as possible, to really get our money's worth. So, we first set off casually, just wandering about, taking random turns here and there, nothing methodical, we didn't want to bring our A-game just yet. Impressively, we found ourselves hitting dead ends and going back over old ground again and again - this was actually going to be a challenge! So we quit messing around, focused on the task at hand, and planned our route more carefully... and we still had trouble getting out!

They give you a map at the very start "for when you get lost" but we felt that kinda goes against the spirit of a maze (besides, we like to live life on the hedge!) And thankfully, we never had to resort to using it, as we eventually worked our way through this pleasingly pruned puzzle, to ring the bell at the end. So much fun though!

Afterwards, we continued on to the lava cave, which ultimately failed in comparison (well, what wouldn't?!). It was very well recommended and that's why we decided to go, but in the end it was a bit of a let down. It's our own fault really. When we were in Borneo, we saw some of the biggest and most incredible caves in the world, so anything after that will always be a let down (Snobbish traveller alert!). It's probably a lesson for the future though, and a mistake we always make - less caves, less temples, more mazes!

We got a bus back to Seongsan, and after lunch visited the uniquely shaped volcanic crater of Ilchulbong (known as Sunrise Peak), probably Jeju's most famous and recognisable landmark, jutting out of the sea like an impregnable rock fortress.

Like pretty much everything on the island, the admission fee was minimal and there was a nice view from the top after a sweaty 25 minute climb. At the summit itself, you're restricted to a viewing platform, which was a shame really. I mean come on, take a look at that picture above and tell me you don't just have the strongest urge to run around inside the crater!

There was also a tour guide up there whose job it was to chat to tourists and give out information about the site (which is apparently an example of a 'tuff cone' volcano). At first we were a bit wary, as we're used to encountering people like this on our travels who try to provide a service you never asked for and then expect money at the end. But no, he was employed to just be friendly and helpful! No ulterior motives at all! Developed countries FTW!

The next morning we got up extra early (well, half eight) to do a bit more climbing, this time tackling Mt. Halla, the tallest mountain in South Korea, which probably sounds more impressive than it is. It's really not that big at all (although, still twice the size of Ireland's highest point). You can get to the top without too much effort, but in the end, we didn't even attempt that much. Instead, we just opted for the route nearest our base in the south of the island - the Yongsil Trail, and returned back down on the shorter but steeper, Ermiok Trail. We chose these two as, like in Seoraksan, we didn't want the unpleasant experience of spending the whole day climbing under the hot, summer sun. But as it turned out, it was probably the cloudiest day we'd had since arriving in the South. And while that meant much easier hiking, it also fogged up any views that were there to see. On the plus side, we were able to zip up and back down again in less than three hours.

And from massive rocks to massive cocks (how about that for a slick transition!), introducing: Jeju Love Land, another of the island's quirky attractions. It's just like a regular park really; nice greenery, statues, fountains, the usual. Except for the fact that those statues, and fountains, and every other feature kind of have a unique theme running through them... Maybe not somewhere for a family day out.

And if this isn't enough to satisfy your appetite, there's even a fully dedicated "Penis Park" on the mainland for serious enthusiasts. I think we're good for the moment though...

It certainly gives a whole new meaning to statue-tory rape!

Jeju has an abundance of quirky little parks and museums like this and the next day we visited a few more, starting off at the complete opposite end of the spectrum to Love Land, with Jeju's very own Teddy Bear Museum. If you've ever wondered what history would look like if everyone was a bear (and honestly, who hasn't?!), then this is the place for you!

From historic moments to famous figures, ancient wonders to works of art; the Teddy Bear Museum has everything you could ever want, and more! If only all history, and every subject for that matter, was taught through the (vastly under-appreciated) medium of 'teddy bears dressed as people'. My only complaint would be the complete absence of any sort of bear related puns. I mean, there was no 'Bearlin Wall', no 'Bearacotta Warriors'. Not even an 'Abearham Lincoln'! Serious opportunity missed.

You'd think the novelty would wear off quite quickly but it just didn't! It actually became more fun, the more we saw! They even had an outdoor area complete with a teddy bear's picnic! How unbearably cool is that?! Pun very much intended.

But seriously, where else in the world could you have such a contrast of attractions? Love Land one day, Teddy Bear Museum the next. We've gone from naked statues to clothed teddies - from bare cheek to bear chic! (I just high-fived myself for that one).

Afterwards, and just across the road, we visited the Ripley's 'Believe it or not' museum, which was also extremely good fun, featuring weird and wonderful stories, pictures, videos and items from all over the world. Jeju just gets better every day!

Day 6, and after visiting Jeju's World Cup Stadium from the 2002 tournament, we popped around the corner to yet another maze park. We just can't get enough of them! Seriously though, someone in the Irish tourism board write this down: buy a field, build a maze, make millions! The recession would be over in no time!

We were a bit unsure at first about this particular maze, as it was in the middle of a theme park for little kids, but it turned out to be just as good as the first one! In fact, it was doubly good as there was nobody else there, so we could have a laugh and go at our own pace.

Back in Seogwipo, we went to a real life batting cage! The Koreans seem to be as big into baseball as the Japanese, although we never saw one of these anywhere last summer. In fact, I had never seen anything of the sort outside of American TV! We played a few rounds anyway, and I actually wasn't too bad at all, if I can be so immodest. Wasted potential there maybe? If only I had grown up in Korea, I could've been the next... eh... good Korean baseball guy...

The next morning, we got a bus and a ferry across to Udo Island - an island, off the coast of a bigger island, off the coast of the South Korean mainland which, for all intents and purposes, is an island itself, seeing as its only connection to the continent is its border with the DPRK.

Upon arrival, there was a broad range of options for our next mode of transport; scooters, ATVs... but because we didn't have an international licence, we had to settle for a pair of simple old bicycles. We never had such problems in Vietnam or Indonesia! I guess that's one of the downsides of visiting developed countries, people actually take the law seriously! It was even worse watching the locals scoot off on their motorised vehicles while we had to pedal ourselves along like a couple of North Koreans!

In all honesty, we shouldn't have needed an international licence at all. The mere fact that we weren't Asian should have been proof enough of our driving credentials! Sorry, sorry, I shouldn't propagate racial stereotypes. I'm sure Koreans are great drivers...

40 mins later...

The island is quite small, only 17km full circle, so bikes were fine in the end (we didn't want your stupid motorbikes anyway!). There were a few rain showers over the past couple of days too, so we were lucky to avoid a downpour, but it did stay quite cloudy and humid for the afternoon. We had a lovely day out though. It's a great little spot, and with better weather and a few more hours it could've been a real gem.

After handing in our bikes and getting a ferry back to the (relative) mainland, we made our way to the Trick Art Museum - another of Jeju's off the wall attractions. And like all the others, buckets of fun! We just love things like this! As the name (and photos) suggest, it's a museum of zany and interactive paintings where you can jump in and be part of the picture. From famous works of art with a slight twist, to optical illusions, there's definitely enough to keep you, your partner and a camera busy for an hour or two! Not much fun I'd imagine for a solo traveller though, unless you don't mind asking strangers to take photos of you in embarrassing poses.

And to continue the theme, the next day we went to the Alive Museum, which is, well, pretty much the exact same thing! Now, most people would think this was a waste of time, but we actually enjoyed it even more the second time around! It was, being honest, a bit better than the Trick Art Museum, so if (for some strange reason) you only want to see one such attraction while in Jeju, the Alive Museum is the better call. It's a lot more centrally located too (and with great pizza!) but inevitably, also bigger crowds.

In the end, visiting the Trick Art Museum beforehand served as a kind of warm-up for the new day's many photo opportunities. It was almost stressful at some stages, making sure we got each one perfect!

Don't think all we did here was go to novelty museums either (although, they were undoubtedly the best part). Earlier that afternoon, we also went to Cheonjiyeon Falls and Seonimgyo Bridge, which were both very nice but unfortunately the weather didn't help us out. We can't really complain too much though, it is the rainy season here after all.

We took another swing at the batting cages on our final day before heading to the airport. We were planning on making an extra special video diary there too - hitting and narrating at the same time! But it was too crowded in the end, so we made an extra un-special one by the side of the road instead:

And that's it for Jeju, an incredibly fun spot with something to satisfy every taste (especially if you have a taste for teddy bears and giant dicks!). Only one more post to go for the summer, as we make the short flight over to South Korea's second city, Busan. See you there!