Philippines: Manila, Batad, Puerto Princessa
The morning was cool. Empty. People don't seem to move in the streets before 0600. However the subway was busy. A woman by the subway entrance 200 meters from my hostel was selling 2,000 won sushi. The spontaneous breakfast was super tasty. It was warm and fresh and filling. Best 1.80 USD I spent.
The subway has a fluidity to it. Everyone moves in unison. Seoul moves like an organism. Everyone seemed sorta drone-like. People seem to line up in an orderly manner when boarding the train car. And the car is silent from people fiddling with their devices. Hypnotized by their gadgets. However, I'd say this is quite normal behavior these days. What is really impressive is how Seoul's subways are impressively clean and well kept. If you refer to the video you may notice that the floors and walls are white. The floors are free of shoe marks. Free from stains and signs of wear. It's evident that Seoul takes great care of its infrastructure.
I arrived at Gyeongbokgung palace 2 hours earlier than opening time. Palace hours are 09:00-18:00. As a lover of food, I decided to venture around the city and see what I can try. A decided to ask a stranger for some help - perhaps she could point me in the right direction. She knew no English. My Korean vocabulary was only comprised of thank you and hello. The Converse app is my go to when trying to communicate. This is another reason why having international coverage is extremely helpful. No wifi necessary to translate that I would like to find a place that serves traditional Korean food. A 15 minute walk led us to a place I cannot pronounce. But the long line outside made me curious. This is actually an exception to one of my rules - I tend to avoid places with trip advisor stickers because it robs the place of its authenticity (or at least that's how I feel). When I know that a location is a common tourist spot I tend to steer in a different direction. But after the kind lady walked all this way I disregarded those green stickers.
Mugyodong pollack soup. Their signature soup is what I everyone seemed to be ordering. You usually can have it cooked with your choice of seafood chicken or pork. Condiments at the table are there for you to design the taste to your liking. Make it as spicy or salty as you wish. I've noticed that the same condiments are common in every other restaurant I had visited. Kimchee, pajeori, and chili suace are available with every meal. It was tasty and filling. In fact I was already full from the sushi I had earlier in the morning but the soup was still delicious.
09:30. 8 USD gets you pass to 5 different palaces. Gyeongbokgung was the main one I wanted to visit because it's a partially reconstruction from the Joseon Dynasty. Dating back to the late 12th century Korea it was a the first established form of government in the city of Gyeongju Which is now known as Seoul until it was destroyed in the Imjin war when the Japanese invaded. The palace was burned to the ground. It was partially restored in the 1980s to give us a view into the Joseon period.
A visit to Gyeongbokgung can take several hours as the grounds cover a large area. The entire group of palaces are definitely going to consume the majority of a day. Keep this in mind when planning a visit.
The highlight of my day was myeongdong night market. Shoe shops, food stands, restaurants, outlets of all kinds exist here. You can find squid on a stick, crab cakes, lobster, sweet and sour chicken, a very appetite friendly zone. So much food to try, it can make you too full to subway back to your hostel. An Uber ride was my only option by the end of my visit here.
When people ask me “Why South Korea?” or why anywhere, I can’t give an answer. It’s almost like drawing a name out of a hat, or even better, a puzzle piece from a bag. I never had the patience for puzzles as a kid. But the world is a puzzle that I’m deeply vested in. Anywhere works for me as long as I feel the grand picture becoming sharper. I will admit though that I was in the mood for Asia. My most recent trips were to Europe, and Africa and South America before those. Australia is on the list but when I travel I usually knock out at least 2 countries. I like to get the most out of my outbounds overseas. Australia and New Zealand or anywhere else in the south pacific would’ve been over my budget, even with my tricks on finding cheap airfare. This was a small whisper to peel eyes toward Asia. Choosing the second country was more of a choice than leaving it was a draw. Korea's history is saturated in westernization. I wanted to fly somewhere where not too far but give me contrast to the americanization of Korea. Taiwan, China, Japan and the Philippines were all close by. I have heard stories about the Philippines and what its natural wonders offer. I'm looking for third world - dirt roads and make shift vehicles, villages, views of rice fields and get to learn how to make rice....the choice for my second country was clear. And it was cheaper than the other options. This way I get to try Korean barbecue, Filippino cuisines and stay under fair budget.
As soon as I landed, my patience was tested. You see, I am a lover of sweets. Swedish fish, cotton candy, sour gummy worms - in other words, 27 cavities later I still haven’t learned my lesson. I landed and had a taste for something chewy. Outside of airport customs were these little shops and restaurants where I knew I could get my kick. But the cashier’s hesitation after I handed him my card turned me sour…
One tip that I’ll be sure to include in my travel tips section of my webpage is that you need to make sure to have a travel friendly bank/card. The bank that I had during this trip was Southeast Financial Credit Union. Before I travel to a foreign country I give the bank notice of which countries I’ll be visiting and the duration. But for whatever reason they block my card every time I travel. And when I manage to get a hold of my bank, the unblock only lasts for 24 hours. For the last 6 countries they have provided me with financial hurdles. No matter what I do, they block my card for fraud and I get stuck on the phone for 30 minutes to an hour trying to tell them to unblock it so I can get money out of the ATM. This is the most frustrating thing that can happen when traveling. To be miles away from home without access to funds is truly a nightmare and can be dangerous if you can’t get in contact with your bank. Southeast Financial Credit Union fails to provide me with a valid reason as to why my card gets blocked every time I travel even though I give them notice. Thankfully, I have left that wretched dumpster they call a bank and switched to Capital One. So far they haven’t given me any problems. The next country I will visit is Haiti in December. I want to provide the world with all the tools necessary to make international travel easier, safer and affordable - which is why I will be sure to leave a blog entry of my experience banking and traveling with them.
It is also important to have an international friendly SIM card or phone service provider. I was with Verizon for several years. But their service features simply did not justify their cost for a single line. After shopping around for other providers and comparing all of them, T-Mobile had a feature that I found to be the most beneficial to me. Their unlimited plan, which goes for roughly $60 after tax, includes unlimited international data. I was skeptical about this at first and wasn’t sure if it was true. And if it was true, perhaps the service is spotty and far between. Considering that T-Mobile would nearly chop off a third of my bill with Verizon, I decided to gamble. I am thankful I made the switch. I had signal just about everywhere I ventured. Posting to Instagram and Facebook worked fine and with the same amount of speed as I get at home in the States. The service can be very slow outside of metropolitan areas. Phone calls (via internet applications) were clean. And there weren’t any fees that popped up on my billing cycle when returned home. I was thoroughly impressed. I didn’t have to rush to a café to get Wi-Fi in order to call my bank. T-Mobile made life much easier for me. If you are a traveler, I would definitely recommend switching to T-Mobile’s unlimited plan.
($350 USD = 370,000 Korean Won after ATM and fees)
After I was able to get money out of the ATM at the airport, I caught a train from Incheon International Airport to Seoul Main Station for the equivalent of $7USD. Incheon sits on an island about an hour's train ride outside of Seoul. When I arrived at the Seoul Main Station it took me a while to figure out if I needed to take a taxi, Uber or the subway to get to my hostel. Since I wasn’t familiar with the map of the city, the best bet was to hire a taxi. In Seoul, Uber’s can sometimes cost more than taxi’s. My ride to my hostel via Uber was nearly double what the taxi driver offered me. I paid her l0,000 won or about 9 bucks to take me 20 mins to my hostel. Not bad.
Seoul is huge. It is brightly lit with neon and decorated with stores, outlets and restaurants. Very metropolitan like New York’s time’s square but much cleaner and not as clustered. Kinda like a really laid back cousin of Tokyo. All the smells made me hungry. I was seeing noodle restaurants, even Popeyes. But God forbid I flew 7,000 miles for anything American. My hostel was a guesthouse. Small and quaint. As I said in my last entry, I tend to suffer from a bit of anxiety when I arrive. I have to hit the town or I'll begin to feel as if my time is being wasted. I met a nice lady, Putri (Indonesian for princess), from Indonesia who was looking to get out for the evening as well. We agreed on Korean barbecue.
Something to note while enjoying Korean eating is that it is common to eat with another person or with a group. Dining is a communal activity. Eating alone is uncommon. Dining is also where culture gets a bit technical. Never pour your own drinks. Someone else must pour your alcoholic beverages. And when he pours, he will do it with both hands. To respectfully accept, hold the cup in one hand and place the wrist that is holding the cup in the other hand. Then you pour his. It was simple when it was explained to me but it’s quite easy to forget to apply it. I caught myself reaching for the bottle several times and only pouring with one hand and pouring for myself. It is a tradition I would have to get used to.
The Korean barbecue was tasty. With a stove in the center of the table you cook the meat of your choice. In this case we chose pork. The lettuce acts as the wrap in which you put your cooked meat, kimchi (season salted and fermented cabbage) pajeori (green onion salad), chili sauce, garlic, and a few other vegetables. Together these make a tasty Korean lettuce wrap. This is rich in flavor and is not too heavy. It’s $10 USD well spent.
After dinner we walked around the area of Mapo Gu which is where most of the youths hang out. It’s an area filled with students because of the university nearby. One can find tons of places to eat, drink, dance, and shop. There’s tons of nighttime entertainment. Street performers are abundant like in New York. I had the chance to engage a crowd. A street performer pulled me in. I didn’t have much of a choice. I did a little jig, nothing extraordinary. An applause let me know I gave the kids what they wanted. Unfortunately the performer pull me in so fast i didn't have a second to tell Putri or Louis to catch it on my camera. But the memory is still there.
We stumbled upon a tri-level arcade. It reminded me of the arcades you would see in Tokyo. Large spaces with lots of racing games, games with prizes, and Dance Dance Revolution. I consider myself one who can hold his own in Dance Dance Revolution. I had to indulge. But I didn’t catch that the arrows were not up and down and side to side. Instead, the arrows were all diagonal, which threw me off. And what made it worse was that Louis had the nerve to set the difficulty to the max as if I was the one who invented the game. He learned quickly that my street dance moves don’t translate equally to this game.
Across the street was a café that had pastries I was dying to try. Blueberry cream cake. Let the record state that the cake was beyond exceptional. It was the perfect cake. Texture, level of sweetness, flavor intensity and all. Perfect I say. I’m angry I ate it before I took a picture. As the itis set in and Dance Dance Revolution and the blueberry cream cake, Putri, whose profession involves interpreting calligraphy, decided to give us a reading. (Refer to the video above)
Because I work in the night scene as a DJ in Nashville, I have grown somewhat numb to clubs and loud music (unless they play Michael Jackson or Bruno). Having helped to coordinate DJ parties for the better part of 2 years, when I walk into a club with a mediocre sound system, lighting rig, or DJ that plays to himself instead of the crowd, I have already made a list of things that would make the entire venue a better attraction. I also feel that very few places do it correctly. Dance music is popular among club scenes across the globe. It almost seems like a go-to for most venues. Top 40 is thrown in here and there but only to keep the DJ’s up to date instead of the rhythm alive. As you might observe, I’m very critical when it comes to nightclub scenes. Which is why I turned down waiting in line for Cocoon, a popular nightclub in Hong Dae. Instead we continued to Thursday party, which was only a block away. Thursday Party is a fun place to have drinks with friends and play a few rounds of foosball or darts. It is a youth oriented environment due to its proximity to the university. But there is no cover to get in. Drinks are made well. And the atmosphere is welcoming. We ended up spending the majority of our night here. It was a great closer for the night. It was 4am by the time I reached the hostel. It's 3 hours of sleep before the next thing on the agenda - Gyongbokgung.
It was the night of December 23rd when I arrived it Rjeka. While I was on the train from Salzburg, Austria, my mom sent me a photo of her Christmas tree. I wasn’t missing it. I was not bothered by not being close to family for the holidays. Squint at it if you will. I was enjoying myself.
Though some of the most fun, Salzburg was cold. THIS was nice. Mid winter and the weather was great. A long sleeved shirt was all I needed. I certainly over dressed for a day’s walk. Rijeka sits right on the water. It’s cupped in an inlet of the Adriatic Sea. Kind of like the armpit of Croatia – physically speaking. Rijeka is not an armpit in the least. Rijeka is stunning. Especially Opatija, which was a short 30 min bus ride north of Rijeka. Not a single photo I took while walking along the coast did Opatijia any justice. The city put me in the mind of a tiny Barcelona at times. But not entirely. I say Barcelona only because it’s European and on the coast. But this city is not like any I’ve visited. Perhaps the holidays had something to do with it but the calmness left a lasting impression. It wasn’t overly energetic or lacking any vibrancy. It was peaceful. A place where I would frequently vacation if I lived in Europe. Warm, quaint, friendly.
At night, Christmas Eve, I was in the city center where tons of people were out partying and drinking in public. Carried away by wine and the festivities I neglected to take pictures. But I do remember being hungry. I was looking for food but everything was closed. The only options I had were the sausage stands that served hot dogs, and sausage with mustard. No ketchup! That was it. A herd of people crowded around one in particular and it peaked my curiosity. I ordered one hotdog. It came back to me as this gigantic sausage accompanied by a bun. The bun did to the sausage what a bowtie does to a person. The width of 4 or so typical Oscar Myer weenies. It’s a hotdog that I had to wrestle for one bite. Then it left me wondering how the line was justified. Basic the hotdog was. Also, ketchup would’ve been so nice. I can’t do just mustard only. I don’t get how people do that. Enough about the hotdog. I danced, talked, socialized as liquor usually inspires me to. But there was more to be desired in the city center.
The Hostel 1W is a place I would recommend for budget travelers. Each wing has a themed after a continent. Each bunk had its own power socket, closet and lamp. The bathrooms are private with heated towel racks. And the breakfast is superb. All for less than the equivalent of $15 USD a night. Remember to pack lightly because there is no elevator. There are tall spiral stares that make it quite the workout if you’re lugging.
A last morning stroll through the town and the coast before leaving for my afternoon bus to Zagreb. The bus station was close to the water. And maybe 300 meters from the hostel. The sun rise on Christmas day made it one of the best Christmases ever. Everything was overflowing with gold light. I regretted having to leave.That afternoon, it was a $20 USD, 3-hour ride to Zagreb.
I arrived at dark. The first thing I noticed was the difference in temperature from Rijeka that was only 3 hours away. Back to cold again. My hostel wasn’t walking distance to the station. I had to take a 10-minute trolley. But the ride was so spectacular. The city was brightly light with Christmas lights. It was beautiful. Something to see. The markets are so alive. From the window to window of the trolley, it was busting with energy and food. I was anxious to find my hostel so I could get up and out. From my stop the hostel was well hidden. An alley on what seemed to be a major street led me to the Swanky Mint Hostel. I would later find that this hostel would be among my top 3 favorite hostels. The service here is second to none. Music, a bar, lounges, swimming pool, open kitchen…help yourself to free food if you’re hungry. People from all walks. I immediately felt right at home. I slept in a room with bunks made of particle board but don’t let that stop you. Each guest in the room was given a key card for the room and a personal lock. The bathrooms were private with heated towel racks. I will say that the amenities were not as nice as the Hostel 1W in Rijeka BUT…the atmosphere is what makes this hostel so incredible. The hostel enriched my stay in Zagreb. Refer to Hostel World under the Travel Tips tab to read more about my experience at the Swanky Mint Hostel.
I decided to take a look into the bar where everyone was gathered around, drinking and dancing. And I immediately found someone who was also interested in strolling through the Christmas markets. William from London. The markets and the city center were all within walking distance from the hostel. Mulled wine, cotton candy, ice-skating, churros, donuts. Santa hats, roasted chestnuts, glazed walnuts and pecans, candy apples, ice cream, snow cones, hotdogs (served with ketchup)…so much to stress out about at the gym. It is so easy to get carried away with the food. There is no stopping someone like me who wants to try everything. The churros were right on time. I’m a sucker for churros. Oh and chestnuts. I love it all.
The next day started early with breakfast. Outstanding! Cereal, waffles, toast, everything I needed for the day. The station wasn’t busy or crowded. After a short line I purchased my round trip ticket for the equivalent of roughly $15 USD. After boarding the bus I realized that I had eaten too much and it pushed me into a a coma for the better part of the 2.5 hours. When I arrived, there wasn’t much to see. There was a pavilion and a trail. The lakes were hidden. It wasn’t long on the trail before I caught a glimpse of something sparkling in the distance. Spectacular! Wooden planks that lead you through the lakes. The water was deep turquoise and still. Not many people. No distracting tourists that rob me of the authenticity. It was clean. Well protected. The air and wind and weather were all so tranquil, I knew I was going to spend the entire day here. It’s easy to take your time, and take in the sound of slow streaming water. My mistake was not bringing enough water. The water is so clear and appetizing; it’ll make you lick your lips.
When I made it back to my hostel I had one last night on the town. I wandered and found The Johann Frank, which is a restaurant and coffee shop. I know it to be a very unforgettable night club. Great music to dance to. People here dress up. Open dance floor. VIP section and waiters and waitresses who take your drink orders. It seemed to me like the place to be on any night. I will admit that stranger than normal looks were passed in my direction. I am used to standing out. I have been told I have that kind of charisma. But this was amplified on an exponential scale. After mingling with a gorgeous young lady she disclosed to me that not many dark skinned westerners are seen in Zagreb. Being rare, it was assumed I was “some celebrity from MTV or something” as she put it. That’s when I said, “oh you don’t recognize me? Kevin Hart is the name.” I have never been a fan of people comparing my likeness to his, so I ended the joke there. In reality I am a celebrity…just not yet. Without a doubt I had a fantastic night. If you visit Zagreb, you must come to this beautiful night club. It feels rich. It is a great place to enjoy yourself. And for me, the perfect spot to have ended this leg of my travels.
Croatia is an lovely country. The portions I got to experience were absolutely stunning and filled me with memories that I’ll forever cherish.