Sunday, October 19, 2014

Shop and Eat Seoul Part 2: Insadong and Lotte Mart

Insadong was our last stop for shopping.  This time, we didn't have any specific items to buy, but it was nice to stroll around this area for unique specialty items, usually from local crafters and galleries.  I managed to find three special items from here.

We visited Insadong on a Monday afternoon, just before sending off one of our travel buddies.  We took the subway train from Seoul Station to Anguk Station and took Exit #6, walked the street and joined the subway again on the station before Anguk.

The street gives you a bit of the local but modern culture as products sold here are either new creative crafts or art from street galleries.  Souvenirs of course are abundant here, but people are most amazed with the unique finds.

I myself got a miniature set of Korean sochu and beer bottles since I love to collect miniature items.  I also found those cute socks whose design cuts across both sock.  I got a fat penguin design and a Paul Frank monkey design.  At Samziegil, I got myself a personalized casual bracelet made of unique charms like camera, padlock, watch, etc - a little bit like the Pandora style bracelets.

Shop and Eat Seoul Part 1: Myeongdong

Visiting the local shopping streets and markets versus large department stores and malls, is something that I love to do when I travel.  This time though, I didn't have too much time to visit a traditional local market, so I headed to the shopping districts where they at least had individual stores.

Seoul has several popular places to go to for foreign visitors. Itaewon, Dongdaemun, Namdaemun, Myeongdong, Insadong are at least the most common ones. When I visited Seoul the first time, we had visited Itaewon, which is a global fashion and food mecca.  But I wanted to see what Korea has to offer.  So this time, my friend brought me to Myeongdong, which offers a balance of mid to high priced global and local brands.

I love the atmosphere at Myeongdong.  We had just spent a good part of the day relaxing outdoors at Changdeokgung Palace and the Secret Garden.  It was nice change to stroll through a busy and lively street this time.  The weather was just right, getting cooler as the autumn months come in.  The street was crowded, people going into all directions, but I could still stand around and just watch people go by.  I see mostly Asian faces, although I know through their language that they weren't locals.  It was tempting to go and see international stores like Uniqlo and H&M, but I'd rather spend my short time exploring their local stores which were mainly cosmetic stores. Store sales folks invite you as soon as you even spend a second gazing at their products or their store. They immediately hand you a tiny basket and a free sample, announce their promotions and politely lead you towards their store.

Beauty/Cosmetic Products

One of my goals was to get some cosmetic products for which Korea is known for:  BB cream and facial masks ;-)  We stepped into almost all the cosmetic shops: Innisfree, Missha, Nature Republic, Face Shop, Skin Food and Olive Young, some of which are already available back home, but it was nice to scan through their store even just to window shop.  A few blocks away, you'd find the same stores too, so if you miss one, you'll always get a chance to find another one just a few steps away.  I'm not so much a cosmetic product fan, but I am curious as to the secret that Korea offers as Korean skin is one of the best in the world.  I got a tube of BB cream from Missha to try, since I'm the lazy type wherein I hate long regimens.  BB cream stands for Blemish Balm or Beauty Balm, and is an all-in-one cosmetic that often acts as a moisturizer, primer, sunscreen, skin treatment, concealer and light foundation.  Perfect for me, right?  They even have CC cream now and soon, DD cream as well.  They pretty much have the same concept, but some have additional features like whitening and color correction.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Blessed in Bhutan Part 2 of 2

And the stories continue, as I share my personal experiences and impressions of Bhutan through more fast and fun facts below.

If you missed part 1 of my blog, here's the link:

  • Bhutan is the Land of the Thunder Dragon where the Druk, a national symbol shown in their flag, represents Thunder Dragon from Bhutanese mythology.  It holds jewels that represent wealth.

    The first thing that immediately came to my mind about the Bhutanese flag was its colors resemble the colors of Buddhism.  Apparently, the orange does represent the Drukpas monasteries and the Buddhist religion and the yellow represents the authority of the King, which reminds me of the yellow color of the Emperor in Chinese culture.

    The druk represents strength of the people to protect their country.  I think it's a very appropriate symbol for the Bhutanese as proven by their journey so far, where authenticity has never been compromised.  One can find a lot of words to describe them: loyalty, humility, strength, purity, and it all jives into the symbolism of the Druk.

    In addition, I'd like to point out that the jewels here refer to wealth of a different kind.  It refers more to the nation's prosperity, and not material wealth as most people would assume.  And I think that makes Bhutan achieve the personal happiness that they so strongly protect.

Blessed in Bhutan Part 1 of 2

Many of my friends have asked me why I chose Bhutan as a travel destination. It's not a common place to go on a vacation, and access is still quite restricted and expensive.  I guess Bhutan is the closest thing, next to Nepal or Tibet, that will bring me to the Himalayas.  Being the home to the highest mountain in the world, Mt. Everest is not only a goal for the mountaineers but it also represents a vision of success, of hard work, or reaching a dream, of overcoming challenges, of completing a journey, of gaining great satisfaction, and these serve as an inspiration for any regular human being, in almost every part of our lives.

So when the opportunity called to go with a photography group to Bhutan, I was ecstatic and excited. Everest is not attainable by many, at least in the physical or literal sense. This trip sort of serves as a preview, or a peek or even a short cut, depending on how one looks at it.

Well, I didn't get to see the Himalayan mountain ranges as thick clouds covered the view both times we drove through Dochula Pass, where one can enjoy a panoramic view of the Himalayas. Nor did I get to see Mt. Everest on our flight in and out of Bhutan. But 
Bhutan turned out to be a bag of surprises for me, unexpected but very welcome.

I hope to share my personal experiences and impressions of Bhutan to supplement some of the fast and fun facts below. 

Fast Facts and Fun Facts

  • Bhutan is a landlocked country in the Himalayas.  It is bordered by China in the north and by India in the east, west and south.  Nepal is to the west of the Indian border connecting Bhutan

    Bhutan has the most dangerous airport landing pads in the world. Only 8 pilots are certified to land here, in Paro International Airport, which is 2,300 meters above sea level, and lies in a valley surrounded by steep and high mountains

    Little did I know that Bhutan wasn't even beside Nepal or Tibet, despite the fact that they are all part of the Himalayas.  I never expected it to be surrounded by India nor China.  That shows you how little I know about our geography!

    Before embarking on this journey, I didn't know about the risk factor associated with the Bhutan take off and landings.  I knew that I didn't have any choice for getting there except through their national airline, DrukAir, the Royal Bhutanese Airlines.

    So there we were almost reaching Paro, I noticed as I looked out the window, that we were flying below the tips of the mountains beside us. In a few minutes, the pilot made several turns, left and right, as we flew through the valley densely compressed between the steep mountains. For a moment there, I felt like I was flying in a fighter aircraft with Tom Cruise (Top Gun) or Josh Lucas (Stealth), pressured to find a flat landing somewhere. Or maybe I was actually in a Flight Simulator game or IMAX movie after all. I'll give it to the pilots, and yes, he's one of the few eight, yes eight, pilots certified to fly to and from Bhutan.  In fact, the flight was so smooth.  As I looked out my window, there wasn't any bit of fear, instead I felt that I was in a dream adventure.

    As we landed in Paro International Airport, we disembarked through the back door.  We breath the first of the Bhutanese air and stepped on the land of utmost happiness, and so they say. We could literally see the entire length of the runway, which is surrounded by a range of steep mountains. A giant billboard of a beautiful young couple in traditional attire, probably in their early to mid 30s, welcomes us as we walked towards the airport structure that looked more like a temple than an airport.  I assume the young couple was some sort of a celebrity, and celebrity indeed they were, just of a different kind.  This young couple is actually the King and Queen of Bhutan.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Maui No Ka 'Oi: Walking Above the Clouds in Haleakala

"Maui No Ka 'Oi" means Maui is the best!  But then every island in Hawaii will tell you they're the best anyway! ;-) To be fair, Maui has been voted best island by many for many years.  So does Maui really deserve this?   After visiting every island in Hawaii, I think it's hard to compare them to each other as each one has a distinct character for me.  While Kauai has the best nature, Maui is probably best for a mix of action and nature.  Oahu, in my view, is more about city life, and the Big Island is all focused on its live volcanic action.  But let's go back to Maui and consider some of the best things to see and do.

We spent a late afternoon at the Haleakala National Park ("House of the Sun") hoping to catch the sunset and see the glow of the sun over the craters.  Haleakala Volcano is a dormant volcano at the East side of Maui.  Legend says the Maui demigod lassoed the sun from the volcano's summit to slow it down from its descent so that the day will last longer.  We didn't really know what to expect except for a warm sunset over highest peak in Maui.  But we were baffled by the tip to bring warm clothing as we were advised that it gets really cold up there.  And as any human nature would dictate, there will always be someone in the group ignoring those tips, thinking "Hey, this is Hawaii, how cold can cold get?"

It was a lovely 1-1/2 hour drive from Kahului and beautiful views meet us along the way especially along Haleakala Crater Road or Highway 378.  This is the fastest ascending road up to the peak, just 38 miles ascending to 10,000 feet.  Wally, our driver, was an excellent narrator.  He kept us all awake with his interesting stories and with his hoarse throaty voice, he keeps building excitement as we go.  As we near the park, the roads turn left and right through a series of switchbacks, and we are finding ourselves on top of the clouds.  Yes, clouds!  Then sun seems to be shining and we still feel the warmth from it through the windows, until we got off the bus somewhere in the middle of the ascent to take a good look at these great views.  And boy, was it getting chilly!

Monday, May 05, 2014

Taking The Diamond Head Trail Challenge

I'm not really a fan of hiking, especially on steep terrains, but somehow I keep getting challenges to hike so that I see and enjoy the places I dream of visiting!  I guess challenges make things more interesting and when one is able to experience a challenge whether they actually overcome it or not, it frees our mind from wondering if we can do it or not, thus creating inner peace.  It also helps us discover things about ourselves and helps us accept ourselves for who we are and who we are not, thus self-discovery, self-acceptance and self-love.

Taking the psychoanalysis aside, this was all about enjoying the hike to Diamond Head Summit, because I know at the top, I would be blessed with breathtaking views as wide as the eye can see, and these would put me in awe and pull a string in my heart every single time.  I can't help but sigh loudly as I try to breath in the beauty of everything around me, hoping I can capture it and keep it within me.  These moments remind me of God's amazing creations and how we are all part of this beautiful world we often forget about.  Being part of a society that has turned more and more worldly material and to a certain extent negative, this yearning is odd to a lot of people and a touch irresponsible to some.  But this is precisely why we all need these reminders from time to time.  Call it a mission, a crusade, a pilgrimage!  It can be addicting!

Having heard that the 1.5 mile Diamond Head Summit Trail only takes about 1.5 hours to hike, I quickly put this in my list to do when I visit Oahu.  Despite the moderate rating coming from some hikers, the trail is mostly paved with actual steps versus rough terrain and testimony from many that this is suitable for non-hikers also because of the short trail.  I am no hiker and I knew my limits.  My biggest enemy is the steep elevation.  I am normally a very risk averse person but I know that getting out of my comfort zone and taking a bit of risks is key to living a full happy time.  It doesn't always have to be the best. I didn't have to outrun anyone.  I just had to at least try and experience it for myself.  Besides I needed the outdoor and physical exposure given my normally sedentary indoor lifestyle.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Flying Over a Live Active Volcano

An experience of a lifetime, flying over a live active volcano may sound like a ridiculously unsafe thing to do, but hundreds of people do this every single day in the Big Island in Hawaii.  They are actually made of 5 active volcanoes altogether and the one currently erupting is Kilauea Volcano.  I just had to add this to my list of thrill activities to do before I die.

I decided to take the helicopter tour, another first for me.  This is my first time to ride of a helicopter, add in with doors off and over a live active volcano!  What else can one ask for, for a once in a lifetime experience?  Although excited, I have always been a bit wary of my height phobia but surprisingly, I was not at all worried during the whole ride.  It probably helped that I had shoulder straps too in addition to the waste belts since I was sitting on the right front side of the helicopter.  There is probably only one tiny second when I first looked directly below me through the open door when the chopper was turning right that I had a slight phobia attack, probably because of the strong winds too, but succeeding looks were not a problem.  I even wanted to sit facing the side if I could instead to get a better glimpse of things but the type of chopper we had, had seats all facing front.

During the orientation, we were surprised to see a lot of people at the airport, and even more surprised to see that they didn't have anything else aside from their shorts, sleeveless shirts and slippers.  And here we were, looking like idiots with our long sleeve shirts, closed shoes and even a jacket in warm tropical Hawaii.  But it turned out we were the smart ones.  The couple that rode with us was not prepared since they didn't know about the doors off option.  Apparently, they booked at the last minute, so they weren't given a choice, so they had to put doors on their seats.  Even if they wanted to pay extra, they staff wouldn't allow them up cause they said they will freeze without the proper clothing.  So our chopper was half doors off, hahaha!  Luckily they have those easily removable and reattachable doors. But it didn't matter to us cause we were in front anyways and still had the full experience of doors off.

Doors off Helicopter with the doors left behind

Friday, May 02, 2014

Kauia's Paradise: The Na Pali Coast

No words can describe exactly what Kauai's Na Pali Coast looks like!  No photos can capture it's true grandeur beauty!  That's how mysterious this place is!  How can one place be so magical?  I get goose bumps!  Is this paradise? Are we dreaming?

This is exactly what goes through my mind as nature reveals the more than 6000-acre stretch of mountains so uniquely represented by its razor-sharp jagged giant cliffs towering 4000 feet up high, right from the blue ocean water below.  Barely any flat shores where one can land on except for a few sea caves, this place can only be seen from the sea or air, and by the adventurous heart by foot.  Even an experienced hiker will need to thread the 11-mile (each way) goat trail over valleys after valleys from Ke'e Beach to Kalalau Beach, camp out and return the following day.

Rainbow to welcome our visit

Getting Lost in Magical Kauai: Kalapaki Beach and Nawiliwili Harbor

We had a couple morning hours before leaving Kauai, and we didn't want to waste an opportunity to see more of Kauai, even if it's just staying near the port area.

We heard about Kalapaki Beach which people claim is a nice beach.  We've been disappointed in previous Hawaiian ports where claims to have a nice beach turns out to be a small dirty shore area with some sand.  Coming from a tropical country which boasts of having the best beaches and having seen the beaches in Kauai's North and Eastern coastlines, I am of course bias, but even compared to our city beaches back home, beaches near the ports of Hawaii are often subpar.  Kalapaki Beach on the other hand, is a pretty decent one, given that it's also the beach area outside the busy Kauai Marriott Resort.

Near the harbor are small shopping malls offering specialty products like the Harbor Mall and the Anchor Cove Mall.  From here, access is available to the nearby Kalapaki Beach as well.

Harbor Mall
Moving Toy Train Set from the nearby Hobby Shop

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Getting Lost in Magical Kauai: Kilauea Lighthouse, Kong Mountain, Coco Palms, Nawiliwili Harbor

Topping off Kauai's North Shore was a visit to the Kilauea Lighthouse, located at Kilauea point, which is in the northernmost part of the main Hawaiian islands.

Deep blue seas, rugged mountainous coastlines, cool ocean breeze, flying seabirds such us frigates and shearwaters from the nearby National Wildlife Refuge, a tiny lighthouse out of the cliff, this is one of my most favorite sceneries where I get lost in the beauty of God's creations.

Kilauea Lighthouse, Kilauea Point

Getting Lost in Magical Kauai: Hanalei

Getting lost in a magical island sounds like a great adventure!  Not that we got lost physically, but we fell into its magical spell.  To me, Kauai is the most beautiful island in Hawaii.  It sits in the Northernmost part of the group of Hawaiian islands.

Instead of going the usual touristy thing to visit Waimea Canyon, which is the popular Grand Canyon of Hawaii, we ventured out into the more rugged and off the beaten path Kauai with a lovely local couple, Karen and Jay, both Kauai guides, who brought us around.  We are not hikers but we love the secluded outdoor nature sceneries that simply take your breath away, where the mountains meet the sea.  And that is why Kauai is popular to moviemakers who have ventured to for those perfectly breathtaking backdrops for movies like King Kong, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Jurassic Park.  More recently, movies like Lilo and Stitch, Catching Fire, Six Days and Seven Nights, and Soul Surfer, amont many others, have continued to be added to the list.

Kauai's charm is brought about by the successful preservation of this natural beauty.  Quaint charming houses and shops line Kauai's beautiful little towns tucked between valleys.  Our favorite was of course Hanalei, which is sort of an artsy sleepy town graced with timeless beauty, with population of 450.  It's popular for its art galleries and famous beaches.  Hanalei was also supposedly referenced in the song, Puff the Magic Dragon, despite no proven acknowledgement of this interpretation by the song writers.  Although from the Hanalei Pier, we can imagine the exact scenery painted by the song, complete with the autumn mist that covered the mountains shaped like a dragon which lived by the sea.

View from Hanalei Pier on a rainy afternoon

Getting Lost in Magical Kauai: Princeville, Hihimanu Twin Peaks, Anini Beach

As we approached mid day, we made our way from Anahola further up north.  We get a glimpse of the Hanalei Mountains and specifically Twin Peaks as Jay pointed out the perfect timing to take the photo as we drove by.  I can't get over the sharpness of the edges of these mountains.  It's almost like asking a small kid to draw their first mountains.

Hanalei Mountains
Twin Peaks, 2400-foot Hihimanu Ridge (Hihimanu means beautiful)

Getting Lost in Magical Kauai: Wailua Falls, Kealia Beach and Anahola Beach

As we ventured out from the Nawiliwili Port for a day of rugged and off the beaten path Kauai with a lovely local couple, Karen and Jay, both Kauai guides, who brought us around, we were met with a smashing first highlight at the Wailua Falls.

Ever watched the TV series "Fantasy Island"?  If so, you're probably old enough to remember stories of visitors being flown each week into a hidden magical island resort.  At the start of every episode, the character of Tattoo would ran up the bell tower and shout the popular catchphrase, "The plane, the plane" to announce the arrival of the new guests. The shows were filmed with the gigantic 113-foot Wailua Falls as a backdrop.

Wailua Falls