"Words have no wings, but they can travel a thousand miles" (Korean Proverb)

Welcome to Flying Words, Jon and Aileen's blog of our adventures in South Korea! We will be in South Korea for a year, starting in mid-July, teaching English in a private school. We just graduated from college this past May, and are looking forward to having some adventures before continuing our education. 
We started this blog to keep all our family and friends updated and to share our photos and stories. We hope this is entertaining for you! We will miss you all, and are very thankful to have the internet to keep us in touch. 

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A short break....

Sorry for the scant communication lately. One might think, what with all the talk of globalization and the wonders of the internet, that I could find a decent computer on my travels. Well, the one decent place I've found here, in Hoi An, Vietnam, grossly overcharged me the first time I used it, claiming I'd been there twice the time I had been. This place has the first memory card capabilities I've seen in 3 weeks, but it's incredibly slow and the software needs to be updated like crazy. Everywhere, coincidentally, has wireless. Which helps me not at all. Surprisingly, Vientianne, the capital of a country with almost no infrastructure, had a coffee shop with by far the best internet and computers I've seen since Korea.

Anyway, enough complaining. I wish I could write updates of everything I've been doing...it's been a great past week or so that I haven't written about, but every time I finally search out a computer, I get a headache from the frustration. I know, I'm not the most patient person, but there it is. Slowness, or being surrounded by loads of Vietnamese kids playing and arguing over online games. So, it may be a few weeks until I blog again. I'm headed to China next week, and I'm not too optimistic about the internet there, since it's government-controlled and censored anyway.

I promise, many stories and commentary once I get to a decent internet connection, but realistically, with this backup, it probably won't be until I get back to Korea in 3 1/2 weeks. Urgh. Maybe I'll get lucky.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

A quick stopover in Saigon...

So, I don't really like to be in cities much when I travel. I find the big cities to be very similar wherever you go, and while there are some great times to be had, and each city has its unique personality, that takes longer to get into. And I'm on a tight schedule...only 5 more weeks until I should be in Korea (at the latest) and still Vietnam and China.
I finally stayed in a hostel with a dorm, which I prefer because its easier to meet people. Which I did. The first afternoon in Saigon, I was sitting on my bed, trying to organize my trip from there, when I met a guy from Canada who asked if I'd like to come with him and another guy to find the old American Embassy...the one from the war where they supplied by air when Saigon was under seige, and where they had to airlift hundreds of people out right before the city fell. We found moto drivers who said they knew where it was, but they took us to the new Embassy instead. The guard at the embassy told us the old one was destroyed, so we just wandered the neighborhood of the emassy and beyond.
We ended up walking down some residential alleys, and getting a good feel for the city as the locals live it. We stopped for a soda at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant with plastic chairs and metal tables on the sidewalk. The Canadian guy (sorry but I forget their names!) ordered some chicken by randomly pointing to the menu. I just stuck to my soda.
After we made it back to the backpacker area, we had a few beers at another hole-in-the-wall place, this one with similar seating, but selling just beer, especially the local tap beer that comes in huge metal kegs. You get it in a plastic jar...1liter for about 50 cents. It's not bad, either. Anyway, after a beer, I went back to the hostel to take a nap, then came back out, met up with the same people again, at the same place, for some more beers. We ended up meeting lots of other people, because the old woman who ran the place would push people into sharing tables, and continue to add seats and tables that spilled out into the street. It was a nice night, great to talk to some people after those few days more or less alone in the Delta. But, the next day, I was getting tired of the city and the tourist areas, and headed on a bus north to Dalat, in the Central Highlands.
Today, I was in Dalat. I took a great motorbike tour through the mountains, visiting a waterfall, a minority village, a coffee plantation and other sites. The guide was part of a group called the Easy Riders, who tour people around on their vintage motorcycles (which are awesome!). I had such a good time, I agreed to a 5-day/4-night tour through the mountains, including one night homestay, a boat ride on a lake, some waterfalls, and countless other stops in rural Vietnam. He had a book of testimonials from other tourists who had gone with him, and there will be other tourists doing the same thing, that I'll be with in the restaurants and guesthouses, and some of the stops. I'm really excited...it sounds like a great time, and it'll be nice to get off the tourist trail and where people aren't constantly trying to sell me something. I'll be on the road until Monday night, my time, at which point I'll be in Hoi An, an old city on the coast that I was going to anyway.
Well, off I go. I'm sure I'll have plenty to write about when I get back....and photos to put up, if I EVER find a computer that can read my memory cards! :)

Kickin' it in the Delta

Ah, the slow boat. Since I was getting a little tired of buses, and trains weren't an option, I opted for alternate transportation from Phnom Penh to Vietnam-- the slow boat. Aka 7 hours on a wooden longboat with 2 long benches down the sides and 8 other tourists. Actually, it was about 4 on that boat, then after the border formalities, myself and a European couple (she was Italian, he Spanish-- they spoke a mix of the 2) were put on a different boat-- still a wooden longboat, this time with lawn chairs set up in the middle instead of benches. Everyone else got a boat with seats. Apparently we paid for the cheap trip, but it was really perfectly comfortable in the lawn chairs.
We got to Chao Doc, Vietnam, which is in the Mekong Delta. However, the three of us immediately caught a minibus to Can Tho, where there is more to do and more hostels to stay at. A few hours later, exhausted, we arrived. I found a decent hostel and checked in, also booking a river tour the next morning to see the floating markets and the canals.
The next morning, at 5:30 am, I was picked up on foot by the driver of my boat, who spoke very minimal English but was very kind and good at communicating with what he knew. We stopped at another hostel to pick up two more people-- a Canadian aerospace engineer and a British student-- and headed to the docks.
Our trusty craft was a small wooden boat with 2 benches facing forward, with no roof. The driver stood on the back and ran the motor and steering system. The sun was rising, and the river was coming to life, bathed in orange light.
The first two stops were floating markets. These entail boats of all sizes, stationary and in motion, buying and selling mostly produce, but also some clothing and meat. Women in triangular rice paddy hats stood on the front of their small wooden boats, paddling around each other and pulling up beside a boat to make a sale. Boats were laden with one kind of fruit or another, filled to the brim. People bargained, gossiped and weighed produce on the boats, simultaneously selling their goods and buying supplies for their own houses.
Next we went on through the canals, past wooden houses on stilts, people bathing, swimming and cleaning laundry in the river. At one point, we got out and walked around in a village, and our guide showed us fruit trees, a duck farm (where all the ducks had been dyed pink...I'm assuming to keep track of them), and then let us walk down the path by ourselves, while he went ahead and waited for us farther down the river.
Lunch was at a nice little family-run place on an island, with tables under huts outside. Just when we got there, it was starting to rain. While we ate, it poured. Though we stayed mostly dry under the hut, I was chilly for the first time in weeks.
That didn't last long, and soon it was hot again. However, apparently we had had a folding roof on the boat the whole time, which the driver put up as soon as it started to rain. It would have been nice to have that in the hot sun! Oh well, though. It really wasn't too hot.
Later that afternoon, after we finished the tour, I got on a bus to My Tho, another small city in the Mekong Delta. I was planning on going from there to Ben Tre, which is an island across the river, and supposedly less touristed and more relaxing. But, I arrived to My Tho in the evening, so I decided to stay there for the night. The hostel was nice...I was on the fifth floor, and had a great view of the river and canals, illuminated in the setting sun.
The next morning, I headed out for Ben Tre. A bridge had recently been built to the island, so I wouldn't have to take a ferry. I took a cyclo to the bridge with a very nice older man. A cyclo is basically a bicycle with a carriage seat on the front, so you sit in front while the driver bicycles from behind. It's a pretty slow way to go, and I always feel bad for the driver, but this one was nice. He had been an interpreter for the American Army in the war, and spoke excellent English. We had a great conversation on the way to the bridge, where he dropped me off and waited with me for the city bus...much cheaper than a moto taxi (on the back of a motorbike) would have been. However, before the city bus got there, a moto driver came to offer to take me. He started at an exorbitant price-- 50,000 dong, about 4 dollars-- but my cyclo driver talked him down to 10,000--about 50 cents, and maybe 10 cents more than the bus. I took it, since he would drop me right at the guesthouse.
I checked into the guesthouse, then wandered around the city. At this point, I hadn't seen another tourist since I got off my boat tour the previous day. It's low season, and tourism in the region is suffering from the bad global economy and also the instability in Thailand. Many tourists use Bangkok as a base, and fly in and out of the airport there. Since there were protests a few months ago, and a crowd of protesters occupied the airport in December, tourism has dropped sharply. Thailand is the most developed and stable country in the region, so if people don't feel safe going there, they won't go anywhere in the region. (Don't worry...it's perfectly safe as long as you're not stupid, it's just peoples' perceptions)
There wasn't much to do in Ben Tre, and the boat tours were way more expensive than the one I had taken. So, I had a nice, relaxing day, reading in a park by a lake, and spending a lot of the afternoon in an outdoor cafe that for some reason was showing Tom and Jerry on a flatscreen TV. It's a universal show...the Vietnamese people in the cafe thought it was hilarious. I must admit, it was pretty funny.
The next day, I took another minibus to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City. Back to a city, but only for a short while.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

A day in Phnom Penh...ancient statues and recent genocide

I didn't see much of Phnom Penh. I got there one evening after a long bus ride from Siem Reap, found a hostel and walked down the river in search of dinner. The next morning, I got up relatively early, as I'm getting used to early starts, and headed to the National Museum.
The National Museum is housed in a beautiful building in traditional Cambodian style, and houses mainly scultpures and statues from the pre-colonial period. Including many of the pieces that would have filled the temples I had just been to, and relics from before that time. It was nice to see what would have filled the empty altars I'd seen, and to get a sense of where all that architecture and style came from. The building also had a beautiful courtyard.
After that, I had lunch at a great restaurant that doubles as a training school for street kids...they have a few restaurants, and a school for kids, too. The place was great...very delicious food, and it was nice to feel like I was doing something. There are beggars all over the city, and you just can't give everyone money....
That afternoon, in the driving wind and rain, I took a tuk-tuk to the Killing Fields. The Killing Fields is a memorial on the site of former mass graves from the Khmer Rouge regime that terrorized the country for years and killed thousands of citizens in the name of a communist revolution. It the sad story that, unfortunately, has happened too many times. International forces that could step in frozen by their projections and interpretations of the situation, and how they interpret their best interest. The memorial was sobering, to say the least. It was still a dreary day, and the field was filled with pits where they dug up the mass graves. There were, apparently, bones still showing up in the dirt. I didn't see any. Luckily.
After that, I went to the genocide museum at a former detention/torture center. That, also, was sobering. And depressing. You walked through the old cells, where you can still see dark stains on the floor from blood, and old bed frames and torture instruments. They have massive displays of photos of all the old prisoners there, that the Khmer Rouge had taken when they came in. Their expressions ran the gauntlet from scared to surprised to angry to defiant. It hard to deal with, but something I know I'll have to deal with in my life, since one of the things I'm thinking about for a career is war crimes prosecutions, and dealing with the aftermath of genocide and other human rights violations. It's something I know would be hard, and this didn't put me off it, but it was still sobering to see these things in real life.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Can I Pleeeeaaase Play Hide-and-Seek in the Ancient Temple Ruins?! Please?!

Ah, Angkor Wat. Glorious, ancient temple surrounded by jungle. Actually, Angkor Wat is just the biggest, most famous of a huge complex of temples, palaces and other ruins that have been eaten by the jungle and painstakingly cleared and partially restored by many, many people from many countries. Either way. It's amazing.

There are so many different ruins, in different states of decay and covering by jungle. The best part, to me, was that you can walk around in practically every part of the ruins....there are some parts that are marked off-limits because of the danger of collapse, but for the most part you can wander in the laberinthyne passageways and rooms of the temples. Since I was there in the low season, and visited some of the outer temples, there were many times when I was practically alone in the ruins, so I felt like I was exploring for real. There are countless intricate sculptures and engravings on the walls, and Buddhist and Hindu statues at every turn. I felt like Indiana Jones...actually, I felt like I should feel like Indiana Jones, but mostly felt like I was on Legends of the Hidden Temple, that old Nickelodeon show, since I never really watched much Indiana Jones. My favorite temple was Bayon, which has giant faces coming out of the walls, and lots of fun places to explore. It would be a great spot for an epic game of hide-and-seek, but there were too many Korean and Japanese tour groups and the sun was too absolutely baking to attempt it.

On the way to Siem Reap, the town that plays base camp to the temples, I rode a bus with a big group of Koreans who were on a "soccer mission trip." I talked to some of them for most of the ride...they were a friendly bunch who spoke pretty good English. I also met a Chilean woman, who I ended up sharing a room with at the hostel, since they only had double rooms. She was really nice...we spoke in Spanish the first night, but I never really saw her again, as each was out when the other was in the room. Siem Reap is an interesting place...full of cute cafes and restaurants, even the markets seem more like a boutique, in the middle of impovershed Cambodia. Most of the places, though, are Cambodian-owned, and clearly it helps the economy. It's just wierd. The whole country uses the dollar as de facto currency, since the riel, the official currency, is not exchangable out of Cambodia. They'll give you change in riel as they don't have American coins, but anything over $1 is almost always American money. It was a bit annoying, as I don't have dollars. I've been travelling with the Korean won I had to withdraw during that whole immigration thing and didn't have a chance to transfer home.

I rented a bicycle the next morning and headed towards the temples. Just after I had looked at my first temple, as I pedalled past rice paddies, palm trees and water buffaloes, a voice came from a tuk-tuk (kind of motorbike-pulled taxi) passing me. I heard my name, and looked up, and it was Sandie, a friend from Korea who had lived in our building. I knew that she and her boyfriend Bryce would be traveling now, and would be in Cambodia approximately when I would be, but I hadn't heard from them in weeks. Now, they had shown up in a tuk-tuk in the middle of the temples of Angkor. They stopped, and we chatted for a few minutes, then made plans to meet up later.

I ended up spending the next day with them, touring temples in a tuk-tuk, which was a luxury compared to my exhausting but fun bike ride of the previous day. It was nice to be able to spend time with people I knew. That afternoon, it started to rain when we got to a temple. We waited it out under a roof at a food stand, next to some vendor stalls. It was pouring outside, and we ordered hot coffees. Sandie and I browsed the stalls, and I started bargaining for a tank-top. The vendor was a man in his late 20s/early 30s, and he was very gregarious. The bargaining went something like this:

Vendor: "$3. Very good price. Best price."
me: "$3? That's a little expensive. I'll pay $2."
Vendor: "$2? No! How about $3 and I give you a bottle of water."
Me: "No...I have water. (pointing to my bottle of water on the table."
Vendor: "Ok, how about $3 and a coke?"
Me: "Nooo....I just ordered coffee."
Vendor: "A beer would be nice."
Me: "Haha, ok. $3 for the tank top and a beer."

I had to. It was so funny. And random. The beer? Crap. Some beer I had never heard of that was barely carbonated and tasted like apple juice. But, it was funny.

Once the rain stopped, we went to the temple, which was another rambling set of ruins and corridors and doorways getting eaten by the jungle. But, it started to thunder when we were in the depths of the temple, a good walk from the exit. So, when it started to really pour, we waited it out in the temple, taking shelter in a doorway out of the dripping roof and talked about religions...I tried to explain the theory of Buddhism (which is so different from the practice), and then we ended up discussion how religions differ from the theory, and basically everything and anything about Buddhism, Islam, Christianity....it was fun.

We ended up having to cancel our plans for the sunset, since it was cloudy and rainy. We walked around Angkor Wat one more time, then headed back to town. I left the next morning for Phnom Penh.