July 31, 2013

Welcome to Naminara Republic

A micronation is a self governing entity which has declared independence but not received formal recognition from established nations. Nami Island was purchased by a Korean business mogul, who promptly declared it to be a culturally independent state known as Naminara Republic. There is even a faux immigration counter at the entrance to the ferry boarding gates. The micronation even has its own flag, national anthem, postage stamp, and currency (although the Korean won is widely accepted).

The Naminara Republic promotes a life of harmony with nature. Telephone lines and electricity cables all run underground so that they do not blemish the scenic view of the island. Famed as the location of several beloved Korean television dramas, a tree lined path stretches through the middle of the island. A lot of tourists from Southeast Asia visit Nami Island after having seen it as a backdrop in their favourite K-drama. I visited the popular site along with a Dutch guy and two Korean women. Naminarans share the same racist tendencies as their Korean cousins, as my white friend received a discount while the Koreans and I had to pay the full entrance fee.

The parking lot and welcome area from where to catch the ferry (or zipline) to the island is about an hour and a half drive from Seoul. As tradition dictates, we stopped for chicken at Chuncheon's dakgalbi street en route to Nami Island. Much to my dismay, my three friends showed great interest in cycling around the island as the primary activity of the day. Due to my underdeveloped motor skills I was relegated to the back seat of a tandem bicycle as we did a round of the half moon shaped isle, resulting in many terrifying experiences.


Full of the sweet fragrance of humanity
Nami is a destination out of a fairy-tale where we can make our dreams come true
Near the riverbank where moonlight scatters, hearts pour forth in the misty fog
Sharing thoughts on life with ostriches and squirrels, 
Here I put down heavy burdens of my heart
With the freedom to do or not to do
Here I try to find real me.

- The Naminara Manifesto

July 22, 2013

Arnab and the Plastic Factory: BK Plastic Surgery Museum

The subway station in Seoul's Sinsa neighbourhood is a sight to behold, emblazoned with advertisements of plastic surgery clinics and procedures from one end to the other. Almost every location marked on the neighbourhood maps placed near the exits is a cosmetic surgery clinic. The so-called 'Beauty Belt' plays a significant role in churning out the figurines that strut the streets of Seoul with coffee, gigantic phone, and designer purse in hand and high heels on foot. Korean men also go in for cosmetic surgery, but there are some battles that cannot be won.

The Beauty Korea (BK) Hospital occupies a complete sixteen story tower near Sinsa station, with one floor operating as both a consultation centre and museum. Before going in for a consultation, prospective surgery recipients can browse various forms of body modification and learn a little about the options available to them in their unending quest to appear attractive and desirable.

I explained to the lifelike mannequin standing at the entrance that I wanted to visit the plastic surgery museum. She called someone who knew English and handed me the phone. "Do you want a consultation or just to visit the museum?" she inquired coolly. I did not take offence. She was on the phone and thus could not see that I had already won the genetic lottery. I gave my answer and was told to take the escalator up to museum.

At the reception area a mother and daughter pair were solemnly awaiting their consultation. One of the three identical receptionists pointed out the museum entrance to me. It was quite small but informative, as eyes, nose, hair, face, breasts, hips, and bottoms were all covered. There were diagrams, tools of the trade, documentary videos, and even a few hands on exhibits demonstrating how certain body parts could be augmented.

A glass box where patients drop pieces of their shaved off jawlines eerily quoted a Korean proverb about tigers shedding their skin as they enter the afterlife. The descriptions about each form of surgery frequently mentioned how Western (eg white) standards of beauty appealed to the many Koreans who are intoxicated with improving their appearance to gain a competitive edge over others. However with a few more visits to BK Hospital and its ilk the others may end up looking just like them, nullifying their advantage.


"Oh sexy eyes, sexy nose, sexy mouth, don't you know" ~ lyrics from K-pop girl group T-ara's song 'Sexy Love'

July 20, 2013

National Treasure #1

With public drunkenness rivalling baseball and video gaming in popularity as South Korea's national sport, it comes as no small surprise that the occasional mishap takes place. Five years ago in Seoul, one drunkard wobbled through the streets of the capital city on unsteady legs until he arrived at Sungnyemun. Located near the bustling markets of Namdaemun, Sungnyemun was one of the gates of the fortress walls that encircled Seoul in the past.

Having imbibed an inappropriately large quantity of alcohol, the boozer set fire to South Korea's officially designated National Treasure #1. Despite the best efforts of valiant firefighters, the six hundred year complex was badly damaged by the flames after quietly witnessing several Korean dynasties, Japanese occupation, dictatorship, and democracy.

Although not totally destroyed, Sungnyemun would require even more reconstruction work than the average K-girl. A five year, 22 million US dollar rebuild took place and the reconstructed gate was unveiled to the public in May 2013. The restoration team was composed of the finest artisans and historians in the nation. They used traditional techniques and materials wherever possible but also added extra fireproofing to the stone and wood structure.

The current prime minister and former dictator's daughter, Park Geun-hye, was on hand during the opening ceremony. The crowd was composed of many oldsters, who let out a loud roar of approval upon her arrival. Her father was the man they hold responsible for transforming South Korea into an economic powerhouse, and some of that goodwill has trickled down to the lady president decades later. She looked in the direction of International Treasure #1 and gave me a quick wave, before beginning a speech to commemorate the special occasion.


"The rebirth of Sungnyemun means more than just the restoration of a cultural asset. It heightens the pride of the Korean people once again and will serve as a gate to a new era of hope." ~ President Park Geun-hye

July 17, 2013

Green Tea in Boseong

When an extremely rare three day long weekend appeared on the calendar, most of Korea was on the move. A journey from one end of South Korea to the other should take at most around 5 hours. My bus ride to Boseong lasted 10 hours, but bumper to bumper traffic on the national highway was only part of the problem. I was traveling with a friend who was headed over to his hometown of Wando in the same general direction. We were already over an hour behind schedule by the time we escaped the holiday related chaos at the express bus terminal in Gangnam.

The rest areas on the highway were packed, so we were redirected to a makeshift facility which was nothing more than a giant parking lot with several portable potties. The consistently predictable mistake or sadistic tendency of planners and architects around the world to put the same number of male and female stalls without calibrating for the physiological and behavioural differences of each gender proved our downfall here. The men finished their business in around 15 minutes despite the 200 meter long line up. Several cheated and just took leak at the side of the parking lot, away from any prying double eyelids. The women took another hour as the men snoozed on the bus.

At another rest stop we waited for half an hour for two missing passengers to show up, until the driver got a call that the the pair of dimwits had boarded another bus which somehow happened to have the exact same two seats free. That bus had deposited them in the middle of the highway, and we picked them up en route. "I can't even understand Korean but I got on the right bus. How difficult can it be?" moaned an under-skilled yet over-compensated English teacher who was headed for the annual Boseong Green Tea Festival as well.

By the time we finally reached Boseong it was dinner time. My friend and I enjoyed a sumptuous pork barbecue before he continued on to his hometown. I dropped my backpack at a minbak (guesthouse) operated by an old grannie and then enjoyed a cultural performance in the town's main square. I returned to the guesthouse early so the grandmother would not have to stay awake too long waiting for me.

This allowed me to wake up extremely early the following day and reach the tea fields before the holiday crowds stormed the idyllic location, a frequent backdrop for locally produced movies and television serials. The plantations were a vivid shade of green, akin to the colour that my face changes to every time I see an irresistible Korean beauty accompanied by an effeminate boyfriend with about as much personality as he has body hair.

Apart from the green tea itself, I tried out some green tea yogurt and ice cream at some of the festival stalls. As a kind and thoughtful colleague, I bought some green tea crackers at the tourist shop within the grounds of the tea field. I handed the gift to a coworker who laughed cruelly upon examining it, pointing to the fine print on the packaging stating the crackers had been manufactured somewhere near Seoul and not in Boseong itself.


Tea, though ridiculed by those who are naturally coarse in their nervous sensibilities will always be the favourite beverage of the intellectual. ~ Thomas de Quincey 

July 14, 2013

Conversations with K-girls: No Idea

K-girl: <emitting a random stream of English words>

Me: Yes, yes.

K-girl: Do you have any idea what I am saying?

Me: No.

K-girl: Me neither.

July 10, 2013

Ice Fishing at Hwacheon

My fishing skills are about as well honed as the critical thinking abilities of an average South Korean youth. Nevertheless, I could not pass up the opportunity to visit the annual ice fishing festival in Hwacheon. The region is the first part of South Korea to freeze over in winter time. After a hearty dakgalbi luncheon at Chuncheon and a scenic drive past snow covered hills and frozen lakes, I arrived at the site of the Hwacheon Sancheoneo (Mountain Trout)  Festival.

The well organized event is a heavy favourite of young families. The lengthy sheet of ice that plays host to the festival is divided up into plots with separate entrances so that the crowds are distributed evenly across the frozen surface of Hwacheoncheon. Fishing equipment is readily available at stalls beside the entrances, although using bare hands is a fun alternative. The holes in the ice had already been dug, but I am unaware whether it was the handiwork of festival organizers or prior visitors. I tried several different holes of varying sizes.

Some of the 10,000 daily visitors were heavily invested into the activity, sticking their heads into the holes to see if they could catch a glimpse of any sea creatures. Others were more nonchalant about their participation in the festival. A K-girl was glued to her smartphone, operating the gigantic device with one hand and weakly holding the fishing rod with the other as if it was an overpriced vanilla latte. It was speculated that she was playing an addictive fishing game on her phone.

At regularly scheduled intervals a truck would pull up to the edge of the river bed. Festival staff would throw hundreds of trout transported from parts unknown into the water. A frenzy of activity would take place around this time, with many yelps of excitement emanating from attendees of indistinguishable gender as they celebrated their catch. The event is staged to ensure everyone comes out a winner, but despite an hour or so of focused effort and Korean office worker-like diligence I was unable to capture any trout.


Many men go fishing all of their lives without knowing that it is not fish they are after. ~ Henry David Thoreau 

July 08, 2013

Mr. Toilet and the House of Poo Poo

In Beijing, I once visited a poop themed restaurant. The seats were life-sized toilets, and the covers could be lifted up to see if a special brown souvenir had been left behind. Instead of tissues, there was a toilet paper dispenser. The food itself was not feces flavoured, although it was still crappy. It was served in miniature toilets. An artificial turd was affixed to the bottom of each cup, emerging into view only after the drinker had almost finished their beverage.

The Koreans and the Chinese seem to share this love of turds, as the city of Suwon boasts a toilet museum as one of its top three tourist attractions. I have also seen several eateries around Korea selling dung shaped desserts.

The toilet museum is dedicated to a former mayor of Suwon who was reported to have been born in an outhouse. Sim Jae-duck, aka Mr. Toilet, had encouraged the construction of many public toilets in the city. He also helped established the World Toilet Organization (WTO) to promote the worthy cause of global sanitation.

I dropped by the manure museum near closing time, so I could only experience the well fertilized grounds. I did not have time to enter the house that Mr. Toilet built, missing out on a chance to see the winning entries of the first annual Golden Poop Painting Contest. This year's theme was 'Humorous Poop'.

The outdoor sculptures are a sight to behold, with the ecstasies and agonies of defecating etched into each man, woman, and child's face for all eternity. One exhibit was about the legendary ddong dwaeji of Jeju, a pig that fattens itself on man made brown gold before being eaten themselves. The black pigs are known for having extra flavour.

July 03, 2013

Turtle Island, Bali

I took a trip to Indonesia with two close friends from China. For our last day in the island paradise of Bali, we rented a car and driver to take us from Padang Bai to Kuta. When my two travel companions decided to head to a generic children's water park in Kuta, I swiftly distanced myself from them and headed for Turtle Island instead. This resort area is teeming with water sports activities and the aforementioned island has a collection of turtles and other local critters.

My Indonesian driver spoke English well and was a friendly guy. This fact is worthy of mention only since I was making a trip to Indonesia from South Korea, where even a PHD candidate in English Literature can have significant trouble composing full sentences without consulting an electronic dictionary. We discussed topics such as Bollywood movies, family life, and other deep subjects. He joined me on the boat ride to Turtle Island as he had never visited it either. Once out in open water, I took the helm and piloted a boat for the first time.

I had not expected to indulge in water sports on this day, so I did not have any aquatic wear with me. The resort staff provided me with a body hugging wet suit. As I walked to the beach, slowly running my fingers through my curly black hair, I drew many admiring glances. Tourists and locals alike licked their sun-chapped lips at the sight of my toned figure. Since I was in a wetsuit I was allowed to enter the pool where gigantic turtles lazed about. I also had close encounters with snakes, bats, and Komodo dragons.

It turned out to be a day of firsts, as I also tried out a jet-ski (e.g. SeaDoo) and scuba walking. Of the two, I much preferred the freedom and excitement of a jet-ski compared to the constricted environment of scuba walking. For those that do not have any scuba diving certification, scuba walking is the next best thing. I was transported to a platform in the middle of the sea and equipped with a massive dome shaped helmet. Something that resembled a toilet seat was put around my neck to seal the space between the helmet and the top of my wetsuit, so that no water could seep in. A tube attached to an air canister was also attached to my back and I was lowered into the sea.

Looking like a cross between a Russian cosmonaut and a string puppet, I went down a ladder from the platform and then dropped to the sea floor. Although its not possible to go down to any significant depths while scuba walking, I was still submerged beyond my comfort level. With the large helmet weighing me down, I swayed back and forth like a drunken sailor as I walked the seabed and witnessed schools of fishes swirling around me.


Try to be like the turtle - at ease in your own shell. ~ Bill Copeland