One of the reasons we stopped in Korea for a few days was to buy some time before going to Japan, in the hopes that we would arrive just in time to experience the Cherry Blossoms! This winter had been unusually warm around the globe, so we predicted (hoped) that the trees would blossom earlier than usual. We booked our tickets for March 29th and crossed our fingers. Since we booked so late (mainly due to work schedule uncertainty), we had a really tough time finding a place to stay. We eventually managed to book a place in Osaka through Airbnb… way higher than our usual price range, but at least it was well located!
The Cherry Blossom forecast website told us we'd be arriving just in time for full bloom.. it turned out we were actually a bit early, so our first visit to Cherry Blossom Alley was a bit disappointing.
We returned 4 days later and wow… what a drastic difference!!
Besides hunting for the perfectly bloomed cherry blossom tree, we also did few other touristy things in Osaka including:
finding the coolest shrine ever - Namba Yasaka Shrine,
and plenty of shopping at an awesome Japanese "dollar store" called Daiso, the "cooking tools street (Doguyasuji), and the electronics/japanese toys area (Nipponbashi / DenDen Town). Jen even made a new robot friend along the way who seemed friendly enough, but it only spoke Japanese... we're pretty sure it was just trying to sell us stuff ;).
Besides reading that eating squiggling octopus is a top thing to do in Seoul, we had also read that it's popular to buy socks. We found it pretty amusing that "buying socks" was actually listed as a "thing to do" here. After arriving, it didn't take long to realize why.
Due to a lack of predators in the area, sock shop populations have overrun and overpopulated the streets, markets, and subway stations of Seoul. Fortunately they are full of cute socks in every style and variety imaginable, and they seem to be sustaining their large population numbers thanks to the many tourists who come in search of cute, inexpensive socks to bring to their home countries and give to friends and family. Think of anything cute that you would want to see on a sock - they probably have it.. and for less than a buck a pair!
After a fun night of food and (too much) soju with Dhal, we decided to take it easy the next day by recovering at a nearby jjimjilbang called Siloam Sauna.
Jjimjilbangs are Korean bathouses/saunas, which are a important part of Korean culture. People of all ages go there to unwind, socialize, and (apparently) people even go there for work meetings. The place is several floors and includes a restaurant, conference rooms, and several entertainment areas with TVs, board games, books, ping-pong, arcade games, even Karaoke!
There are also many different types of sauna rooms with varying temperatures and/or stones (ie. jade, salt, loess, etc.), and spa-like facilities where you can pay extra for a massage or to get your nails/hair done. The price is surprisingly affordable at around $10 per person for the full day, and for a couple of extra bucks you can even sleep there overnight, so it'd be a perfect place to visit if you happen to have a long layover/overnight in Seoul!
We also recommend visiting here if you're looking for a pretty unique / culture-shock / humbling type of experience! The bathhouse part of the jjimjilbang consists of several different baths with varying water temperatures, healing herbs/minerals, and even massage jets. The bathhouse area is segregated by gender and all clothes, including swimwear and towels, are prohibited from these areas.
For many of us raised in North America, being nude in front of strangers can bring about feelings of shy, uncomfortable, awkwardness since it's such an uncommon/unfamiliar thing for us to do. The idea of stripping down and spending a long period of time amongst several dozens of other nude strangers in a very open area can be rather intimidating.. the idea that locals come here regularly to strip down, hang out with friends and co-workers and scrub each other's backs clean seems.. I dunno.. weird(?!)
Prior to coming to the Jjimjilbang, we did google to learn about proper manners and etiquette of the bathhouses. We found it entertaining to see many comments from Westerners who absolutely refuse to go to the bathhouse because they're just too shy/embarrassed to be nude in public. It's good to roam outside of your comfort zone once in a while, so we decided to suck up our pride for the experience :).
In the end it was a really fun and memorable experience despite feeling uncertain about what to do, where to go, or how to behave at times. It was an experience that challenged us and our comfort levels, values, beliefs, and preconceptions. It's experiences like this that are exactly why we love to travel!! :)
We first met Dhal 2 years ago when the Color Nomads came to Mui Ne to do some graffiti. Despite only meeting him for a very brief time, Fabian encouraged us to reach out and meet up for a quick drink. Luckily, Dhal managed to find some time in his busy schedule for us!
We had heard that Seoul is the place known for eating squirming live octopus! (yes, you read that correctly! ..but they're technically not still alive when you eat it them..) We wanted to try, so Dhal met up with us at Seoul's Wholesale Fish Market, Noryangjin, to start us off on with an awesome authentic Korean food experience!
We stopped at one of the stalls and Dhal asked us what we wanted to eat. Since we had no clue what half of the sea creatures even were (!!), we asked him to recommend something. He picked octopus, sea cucumber, and some other sea critter called gaebul, which looked a lot like bloody intestines (we later learned that it's a marine worm with a pretty funny/appropriate English slang name.. click here to see an entertaining and informative post about it :)). We left with our little bag of live sea animals and continued wandering through the stalls.
Our next stop was a stall with an aquarium, where the seller asked Dhal if we wanted a rock fish. We said sure, so Dhal pointed out the one he wanted, and within seconds our live little rock fish was scooped out and sliced up into sashimi. We proceeded to the small eating area across the aisle.
This is what makes the fish market experience so unique - you browse the aisles, pick what you want, then bring it to a restaurant stall where they "prepare" your purchases for eating. Dhal told us all of our selections were best eaten raw, so... when in Rome...! The one cooked item we did have was a wonderful soup that they made with the remaining rock fish carcass. We were also sure to accompany our meal with a local rice alcohol called Soju. Dhal told us it's important to drink with the meal to help disinfect the raw foods.. so we made sure to drink a LOT! :)
For the not-so-squeamish, here's the video of the octopus that is so freshly chopped up that the tentacles squirm and stick to your tongue as you chew!
The fish market was so much fun that we weren't ready for the night to end just yet! We took a taxi to a restaurant nearby Dhal's atelier and tried some Korean Pork Belly BBQ. We've had Korean BBQ before, but in Korea the meat is a little different than what we're used to - super thick slices of meat with a lot of fat on them. To our surprise, the taste was amazing and of course you can't have another Korean meal without... another soju (or 2)!
We stopped by for a quick tour of Dhal's studio and since it was still early we went to a nearby local bar to try stir fried tofu & kimchi.. and more soju, of course!
This is where our super fun night with Dhal ended....Thanks Dhal!! :)
What do you do when you're walking down a quiet market street and suddenly see a hoard of Korean ladies pushing and shoving their way toward what appears to be a "lineup", near a rather indistinct looking stand? Fortunately, our many years of travel experience has taught us the answer to this universal question.. you push and shove your way in the same direction, and order whatever they're having!!
That pretty much summarizes our first, but certainly not last, amazing food experience in Seoul, Korea. The Korean food scene in Canada is relatively small compared to other Asian cuisines, so food-wise, we didn't really know what to expect (other than kimchi)! Within our first 2 nights in Seoul, we quickly discovered that our Korean food experiences to-date were fairly poor examples of what cuisine is really like in Korea. Korean food is soooooo good - we LOVE it, and now understand why Seoul tops the "best street-food" list for so many travellers!
It's not surprising that our original plan of visiting tourist sites quickly evolved to instead revolve around visiting markets to indulge in the variety of Street foods… Our rule was simple - if there's a line up, we have to try it! The best part about sampling street food here is that it's so inexpensive that there's no risk of spending a lot of money on something that turns out to be gross (which surprisingly never happened)! Here are a few places and foods we tried:
Myeong-dong Market - Gyeran-ppang (egg bread) and potato spirals
We discovered Hodduk at Namdaeum market and it immediately became one of our favourites! It's a bit like a thin doughnut/pancake stuffed with brown sugar & cinnamon and fried.
Gwangjang Market - for Bindaetteok (mungbean pancakes) and Gimbap (Korean "sushi")
Insadong - we found so many deep fried (Twigim) goodies here like Tteokbokki, Croquettes, Noodle Hotteok... we went a little overboard and nearly ate ourselves sick!
We also tried an assortment of interesting-looking restaurants where we tried Bibimbap (meat/veggies/rice in a sizzling hot stone bowl), Galbi (BBQ meat).
When you try so many new things, you're bound to encounter something... different. The night we arrived in Seoul, we popped into a nearby restaurant for dinner - one of the only places still open. Dom ordered the "seafood soup", which should more accurately have been translated to English as "seafood-guts-and-other-unidentifiable-innards soup".. or at least that's what we "think" he got..!! Dom was a real trouper though and managed to polish off the whole dish!
Since we did not kite too much and we love Thai food, we decided to spend one afternoon taking a Thai cooking class with Hua Hin Thai Cooking Academy.
After looking at all the options, we picked the Friday menu since it included some of our favourite Thai dishes:
- Panang Curry
- Tom Kha Gai
- Mango sticky rice
- Thai spring rolls
We started with the usual market tour.
We then did a quick vegetable carving lesson where we made beautiful flowers out of peppers. We learned that leaving the peppers in cold water after cutting them, makes them open like a flower.
We then prepped and cooked our ingredients, including curry paste that we made from scratch with a traditional stone mortar and pestle.
The food was delicious, but there was way too much! Luckily, we've taken so many cooking classes now, that we've learned our lesson and came prepared with plenty of empty tupperware containers from the condo :)
One of the Hua Hin attractions is a small hill at the end of the beach called Khao Takiab (aka Monkey Mountain). We decided to walk there on a lovely Saturday to go see what it was all about.
As soon as we arrived at the base of the hill, we saw monkeys hanging around the rocks along the seashore, all along the paths and on stairways up the hill. There are warnings all over the internet not to bring food here or the monkeys will attack and bite you for it, so we came completely empty-handed. As you walk between them, some even approach to check you out, so it's immediately clear that they're not at all afraid of humans.
Where this place gets its nickname became even more evident as we reached the top and encountered hordes of monkeys scurrying around. The funny (or sad?) thing is that there's a huge sign that says "Do not feed the monkeys in this area" and about 10 paces later, there are locals selling food for tourists to buy to feed to the monkeys. We happened to be there while other tourists bought food to feed them.. hence the gathering swarm. It was pretty crazy to witness such a large number of monkeys all converging to one point, hissing, screeching, and jumping on each other to get food.
After the feeding stopped, some dispersed, but many still blocked our path to the temple. Walking through them felt like an eerie scene from The Birds.
We also saw the fattest chunky monkey of them all! When we arrived, it was sitting with a real/live cat and petting it on the head like a human would! The cat was loving it - pretty cute!
Since our condo was a bit further from the beach and we had done a LOT of kitesurfing for the past 3 months (ie. almost daily) in Mui Ne, kitesurfing in Hua Hin wasn't our main focus. That being said, we were keen to try a new spot with flat water, so we did spend a couple of afternoons kiting :).
We met up with Phu's friends, Fawn and Bobby from Surfspot, to rent a board and get some excellent local tips on the best restaurants, markets, and attractions to visit.
Hua Hin's beach is super long and unbelievably clean! We spent several hours just strolling up and down the beach on our way to dinner or the market.
Just a bit of info for our kiting friends: the kitesurfing was really nice at this time of year (March) - South wind and mostly 9m to 12m kites, though we also saw people riding 7-8 meter kites in the late afternoon. Compared to Mui Ne, it's far less busy on the beach, waves are super small and the water is warm and shallow. Unfortunately there were jellyfish.. you can see them while you're riding! Most of them are the big white ones, which we were told are not dangerous and only cause itching. Occasionally you see some small brown jellyfish that we heard can cause painful stings. The chances of actually hitting one is probably quite small, but it was enough to make us feel a bit nervous to try any new tricks!
After Bangkok, we went to a popular Thai holiday beach town called Hua Hin.
We chose Hua Hin for a couple of reasons.. it was a very short journey from Bangkok, neither of us had been there before, they have kitesurfing, and because we managed to find a really great condo with a pool and gym just across the main street from the beach, for only $18USD/night!
Our condo had a little kitchen, but we didn't do much cooking.. why cook when you can visit the cute little markets and eat yummy Thai curry for less than 3$ each!
And let’s not forget our favourite... Roti with egg, banana, and condensed milk!! Every night, a local came just outside our condo with his bike cooking platform, and we could order Rotis/Crepes for around 1$... sooooo good.