May 23, 2014

Seodaemun Prison

Japan occupied Korea for much of the first half of the 20th century. The annexation and forced occupation of Korea is well documented, with the Seodaemun Prison History Museum (서대문형무소역사관) in Seoul bearing witness to some of the cruelest acts committed by the Japanese during its expansionist period. 

Torture, rape, and murder are just some of the crimes that Koreans have suffered at the hands of the Japanese. Despite an unwavering admiration of their culture, mannerisms, style, and cuisine, many in Korea still harbour resentment towards a remorseless Japan for their harsh behaviour towards them during this dark chapter of history.

The original facilities at Seodaemun Prison were built in 1907, with a capacity of 500 prisoners. A place of reverence and a place of history, a visit here provides insights that no textbook can. Jail cells, execution rooms, and torture chambers have been hauntingly recreated. Korean independence fighters were imprisoned here, with many never making it out alive to see a free nation. 


I have observed that the prosperity or misery of each people is in direct proportion to its liberties or its prejudices and, accordingly, to the sacrifices or the selfishness of its forefathers. ~ Juan Crisostomo Ibarra

May 20, 2014

Cheonan & the Barbarian

A prominent transportation hub in Korea, Cheonan also boasts a few points of interest such as a foreigner-only prison and the gargantuan Independence Hall of Korea. I only ended up at one of these two sites, and not the one some would presume. From the Cheonan train station I caught a bus to the Independence Hall. The heavy downpour on a rainy Saturday meant there were only a handful of visitors to the museum chronicling Korea’s past struggles and subsequent emergence as a modern day success story despite many trials, tribulations, and Japanese in its path.

The introductory message from the president of the Independence Hall had spurred my interest in visiting the facility:
The Independence Hall embodies the spirit of the Korean nation and informs people of the Korean people's dignity. For thousands of years throughout history, the Korean nation deeply suffered. But we tenaciously protected our ethnicity and country with a national spirit and an intense patriotism. In the modern age, no other people suffered as much as the Korean nation. 
It has been a hundred years since the Japanese imperialist stole our sovereignty and it has been sixty years since we regained our independence. Korea began as an extremely poor country but, even though Korea is a comparatively small country, we became a global economic power. This is a miracle in world history. To this date, no other people or country has accomplished anything like what has happened in Korea. 

The grandiose rhetoric is matched by the monumental scale of all the facilities within the Independence Hall of Korea. Following a long walk across the broad Plaza of the Nation and right before the entrance to the 7 exhibition halls of the museum is the 15 story high Grand Hall of the Nation. It is the largest tile-roofed building in Asia. The Statue of Indomitable Koreans, presumably also the largest such sculpture in Asia, can also be found here.

The patriotic destination was opened to the public on the anniversary of Korea’s Independence Day in 1987. I ended up having a few personal tour guides as I wandered through the exhibits, as many of the friendly staff members had time on their hands. One of the security guards even gave me a sheepish grin while we discussed our favourite K-pop artists. From the prehistoric era onwards, a lot of ground is covered within the many exhibits. I particularly enjoyed the recreated interior of the ancient tombs of the Goguryeo kingdom, which now fall within Chinese territory.


“He who does not know how to look back at where he came from will never get to his destination." ― José Rizal

May 14, 2014

Tongyeong & the Restless

I rose early after a good night’s sleep in Tongyeong. Out on the streets, an elderly gentleman guided me to a set of staircases leading up to Dongpirang Wall Painting Village,  a decaying neighbourhood that was revitalized thanks to painters who had decorated the walls of the houses in the alleys with charming murals. However cold and unfriendly the people of Seoul may be, it is always balanced out by the kindness and warmth of the Koreans whom I encounter in the rest of the nation.

The artsy neighbourhood was situated on a hill. I made my way down using an alternate path and kept walking until I arrived at the Nammangsan Sculpture Park. Every point of interest in Tongyeong conveniently fell within a 15-20 minute walk of each other in the town of 100,000. The sculptures stared out into the distance where the dark clouds seemed to be clearing up, indicating that it was time for me to catch a boat to one of the outlying islands.

I sauntered to the ferry terminal. I asked a ticket seller what the best island to visit was and bought a ticket there. I sat on the open air deck as the boat made its way out to sea, the waters choppy and the sky again downcast. With the youth of Korea busy staring at their smartphones and getting their faces carved by the medicine man, I was surrounded by the same colourfully dressed members of the 40+ club who I run into when hiking Korea’s mountains. They generously offered me several cups of the national rice wine soju and some baby tomatoes.

After I had imbibed adequately I headed inside to the covered section of the ship, which was just a floating model of a traditional Korean home. There were no seats or tables. Shoes had to be removed at the entrance, and passengers were either sitting or lying on the floor. Many were fast asleep. As the sea churned, the boat swayed from side to side. I used my backpack as a makeshift pillow and indulged in a light nap, occasionally sliding a few inches in either direction as the currents dictated.

As we passed several small islands and ventured further out into open waters, the weather began to clear up. The sun reared its head among the clouds, emerging victorious just as we reached our destination - Somaemuldo. A small town had formed on the hillside beside the pier. On each side were jagged rocks and ancient trees. I climbed a cliff to get a quality view of the return passengers boarding the vessel I had just disembarked.

I had about four hours to explore the island before the last ferry of the day would set sail back to the mainland. After completing a small looping trail on one side of the island and stopping for a quick lunch, I decided to hike to the top of Somaemuldo to get a glimpse of the lighthouse constructed by Japanese colonialists on the adjacent island of Haegeumdo. A small land bridge is available to reach the tiny island from Somaemuldo when the tide runs low. At the top of a mountainous ridge, I reclined on the bare rock and took in the view. The fog cooperated occasionally to give me brief glimpses of Haegeumdo before covering it up again.

According to my rough calculations, I had about 45-60 minutes to spare before the last ferry departed for Tongyeong when I arrived back at the township by the docks. I entered a coffee shop perched on the hillside, ordered a cup of coffee from a rare natural Korean beauty manning the counter, picked a seat with a direct view of the port, and plugged in my phone charger. Just as I was getting settled, the coffee girl approached me with a panic stricken look on her face.

Our communication to this point had been silent and continued thusly. She pointed at the boat and urgently ushered me to go aboard. I pointed at the time and indicated that I still had a good half an hour before the final boat departed. She shook her head, unplugged my phone, handed me my coffee, and made a running motion. I could not ignore her heartfelt concern for my well-being so I waved her a long goodbye (which was reciprocated) and hurried to the ferry, which in fact was the final one of the day and soon set sail back towards Tongyeong.

May 08, 2014

Tunnelling to Tongyeong

It took several bus rides to voyage cross country from the tea fields of Boseong to reach the picturesque coastal town of Tongyeong. I was to transfer buses at Masan, but at the bus terminal I could not find any onward transport to the port town. There was another bus terminal in town and the lady at the ticket counter explained this to me using only her fingers as a mode of communication. Luckily I am as adept at adapting to unforeseen situations as local surgeons are at adding double eyelids to K-girls, so I was soon on my way to Tongyeong.

After I reached the terminal at Tongyeong, I took a local bus to an area that seemed somewhat near to were I wanted to be - Asia's first submarine tunnel. Opened to the public in 1932 after 16 months of construction, the Tongyeong Undersea Tunnel is for pedestrians only. A sign at the entrance proclaims it to be the "Dragon Gate Connecting the Mainland to the Island". I strolled through the tunnel nonchalantly. A group of old women saw me wandering about. I asked how to get to a certain temple after I got out, and one of the grannies who was heading that way dragged me along and deposited me in front of it.

I wandered around the harbour area for a while soaking up the atmosphere and scenery before taking a taxi to Hallyeohaesang National Park, known to have the best views of the town and its outlying islands to catch the sunset. The panoramic view was noteworthy, but there were too many couples about. A noticeboard warned "Garbage gets his back" and "Let's make national parks do not smoke". Bus service was infrequent so I was trapped atop the mountain park for about 2 hours before a bus showed up to deposit me back in the city proper. By now darkness had set in and I needed both dinner and a place to sleep.

I walked a bit till I came upon a fish market that was still abuzz with activity despite the late hour. I found the busiest restaurant and settled myself on the floor after taking my shoes off at the entrance, as is customary in traditional Korean restaurants. I placed my order and enjoyed some delicious saengseon hoe (aka Korean fish sashimi), served to me by a Tongyeong belle. The older staff members nudged her towards me but she was all business, the mischievous twinkle in her eye only visible as I bid farewell after finishing my meal.

By now it had started raining heavily, so I wanted to secure accommodation  before I was drenched further. I walked into the centre of the town, near the harbour where a model of Korea’s famed turtle ship used to thwart Japanese invaders was docked. In the back alleys I found a motel with vacancy after a few failed attempts. The old woman at the front desk threw me a key and told me to go upstairs, while she finished watching her TV show. She showed up several minutes later, knocking on the door and asking for the night's rent as if she were the landlord and I an unreliable tenant. After she left, I unrolled the mattress onto the heated floor and fell into a deep slumber.

May 04, 2014

2 of 3

Two of my friends in Vancouver were planning a get together.

Friend #1: You bring the food. I'll bring the drinks. Arnab brings the girls.

Friend #2: Excellent... so we will have plenty to eat and drink.

May 02, 2014

A Day by Manila Bay

After a particularly interesting cab ride, I made my way up to my hostel. There were two Israeli girls in my room who had also recently arrived. They had just wrapped up their mandatory tour of duty with the Israeli defence service and were beginning a 3 month journey across Southeast Asia before heading to university. Israel, like South Korea, is surrounded by enemies on all sides and utilizes conscript soldiers.

Israeli youth over 18 are required to serve in the military. Guys have to serve for at least 3 years, while gals have a minimum 2 year term. The former soldiers invited me to join them on their exploration of Manila. I was spending a few days in the capital city before jetting off to the island of Palawan to catch up with my Dutch friends, so I headed out with them to get my first taste of a new city and a new country.

There are two modes of mass rail transportation in Manila. We took the MRT to Taft Avenue, and then transferred to the LRT all the way to United Nations station. As we went down the station stairs an elderly Filipino gentleman approached us and cautioned the girls to wear their backpacks in the front, so that no one would have a chance to unzip the bag from behind and empty it of its valuable contents. We would find out how much weight his warnings carried later on as we walked towards nearby Rizal Park. A child appeared to be tying his shoelaces in front of us. Suddenly he leapt up and buzzed past us. One of the girls let out a yelp. Her necklace was gone! Our eyes followed a blur zigzagging through the heavy traffic to the other side of the street and disappearing, never to be seen by us again.

“I thought having a guy around would have kept us safe, but apparently I was mistaken” groused the girl whose neckless had been pilfered. I maintained my silence, but not my dignity. Our spirits soon lifted as we headed into the park, packed with Filipino families celebrating the first day of 2014. We tried a variety of the snacks and drinks being sold at the stalls peppered throughout the length of the park. My favourite was the buko shake, a coconut smoothie designed to beat the heat.

The eponymous Dr. José Protacio Rizal Mercado y Alonso Realonda, or José Rizal in short, was a national hero, scholar, poet, and revolutionary who knew 22 languages and dialects (or about 21 more than the average number known by a Korean). His execution by firing squad on the grounds of the park later named after him ignited the Philippine Revolution against Spain. Kilometre Zero, the point in Manila from where distances are traditionally measured in the Philippines, is also located within the park. The flag of the Philippines proudly waved from atop a massive flagstaff at one end of the park. From there a short walk led us to Manila Bay and a lovely sunset.


It is a useless life that is not consecrated to a great ideal. It is like a stone wasted on the field without becoming a part of any edifice. ~ Jose Rizal