August 21, 2012


The northeastern-most point of the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between South and North Korea is about 50 kilometers from the beach town of Sokcho. Of course, calling the world's most heavily fortified border demilitarized is like calling the many hours that Koreans spend in the office productive. I was accompanied by Adrian, an avid rock climber, to the Goseong Unification Observatory.

There was no simple way to reach the viewpoint near the border without an automobile. After taking a succession of buses, each stopping at its terminal and telling us that no buses would go any further, we were given a ride to the DMZ by a friendly mixed race couple. The man was Chinese and the lady was Korean, a rare combination in the land of racial purity and ethnic hierarchy.

We had to climb a hill to reach the viewpoint, passing the cleverly labelled "Last Restroom" on the way  up to the summit. I was able to glimpse North Korea for the second time, with the first being from atop the Great Wall in the Chinese border outpost of Dandong. I used the telescope to get a closer look but could not see much apart from a few foot soldiers and some supply trucks. The scenery was a blend of green hills, sandy beaches, blue skies, turquoise waves, and barbed wire. Chain link fencing on the coastline was an eyesore, but an integral part of the security measures taken by both sides to prevent hostiles from intruding into their lands.

We stopped by at the recently constructed DMZ Museum before heading back. A chronology of the various events that led to the current situation was explained in layman's terms, culminating with a message of peace and hope for a shared future. The couple lived in Sokcho, so they offered us a ride all the way there. We treated them to lunch at a seaside restaurant, and then dozed off in the back of the car as it made its way back to town.


"You have to be able to risk your identity for a bigger future than the present you are living." – Fernando Flores

August 19, 2012

Kuala Lumpur

After enjoying my first taste of Malaysia in Penang, I made my way to Kuala Lumpur. The delicious food, multi ethnic population, tropical climate, and solid transportation system make Kuala Lumpur a very livable city, but not a particularly exciting one. KL is interesting compared to the island sized shopping mall that is neighbouring Singapore, but nowhere near as fascinating as the Beijings and Bombays of the world in terms of tourist attractions, history, or atmosphere. Nor does it boast the exquisitely crafted beauties of the world's plastic surgery capital, Seoul.

A relatively new city, Kuala Lumpur began its life in the mid nineteenth century as a tin mining outpost. The iconic Petronas Twin Towers are the most eye catching of KL's landmarks, with its design based on traditional Islamic geometric patterns. Once the world's tallest structure, it now sits at fifth place in the ever changing rankings. They remain the tallest twin towers ever constructed. An upmarket shopping complex, movie theatre, art gallery, and beautifully landscaped gardens are all a part of the grounds.

In the old part of town, Chinatown, Little India, and colonial buildings can be explored on foot. Merdeka Square, where the flag of Malaysia was first hoisted after it became an independent nation, is a nice place to relax in between. To escape the heat I dropped into the free and air conditioned Textile Museum. The staff seemed surprised to see a visitor. 

At Masjid Jamek, I followed the example of those entering before me and respectfully donned a blue graduation type gown before going in. Men slumbered peacefully in the shade provided by the hundred year old mosque's pavilions. As I perspired, I realized that the gowns were only meant to cover up guys in shorts or ladies that were skimpily dressed.

During my remaining time in Kuala Lumpur, I wandered around the shopping areas of Bukit Bintang, stopped outside the King's Palace, and ate hairy crab with my former Beijing roommate and a Malaysian siren. At the Central Market, I went to a fish spa where the sea critters enthusiastically nibbled away on my dead skin.


"The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page." – St. Augustine

August 16, 2012

Songdo - City of the Future

Continuing my longstanding tradition of visiting modern day ghost cities such as Ordos and Zhengzhou in China, I ventured to Songdo. The aerotropolis, so called because a third of the world's population is within a 3.5 hour flight away, is South Korea's attempt at building a city of the future. Though the supercities may be empty of inhabitants and industry, they are not devoid of hope. These are not ancient towns that have seen history pass them by, but monuments to the confidence of today's rising powers. It is too early to tell whether these sites will turn out to be thriving economic hubs of the future or costly duds, as the cities are still under construction and the story is still in its infancy.

Supercities are planned and constructed before there is an organic demand for them. Blocks of skyscrapers and high rise apartment complexes rise together vertically, with broad avenues, bike lanes, and green spaces separating them horizontally. Construction workers, government officials, security guards, and police officers add a human element to the steel and concrete works in progress. Much of the infrastructure lays untouched, unfinished, or underutilized.

The numbers behind Songdo International Business District are staggering - 100 million square feet of real estate spread over 1500 acres, a 100 buildings completed or under construction including Korea's tallest building, and a US $10 billion investment to fund the endeavour. Compared to China's ghost cities, Songdo seems far ahead in terms of having real people moving in and living their lives. The technologically sophisticated city is very walkable, sprinkled with parks. community gardens, canals, and shopping areas.

It took me three subway transfers and two hours to reach Songdo from Seoul. Although Korean youth of both genders usually go out of their way to avoid making contact with aliens, the occasional drunk old man grasps the opportunity. One such fellow sat beside me on the journey back from Songdo. We discussed the stories of our lives and how it had bought us to this strange intersection of fates. He had grown up on an island 30 kilometers off the coast of Yeosu. A freelance survey taker, he had been sent to Songdo to canvas the population on some plans to open schools there. After work he had enjoyed a few drinks and a walk through the 100 acre Central Park, modelled after the New York landmark.

The topic soon shifted to one of utmost significance. "Do you have Korean girlfriend?" he queried. I shook my head dejectedly. "Why not? You are still young and handsome. You must challenge them!" he exclaimed. "But what if they do not accept my challenge?" I asked the man earnestly. "Then you should go to church" he responded. I figured he meant to pray, but that was not what he had in mind. "There are many pretty girls there".


"Don’t confuse your path with your destination. Just because it’s stormy now, doesn’t mean you aren’t headed towards sunshine." - Unknown

August 13, 2012

Siem Reap

"You get to see my country, but I no get to see your country. You lucky, but I not so lucky." my driver Kim reflected, putting things into perspective as I held on tightly to the back of his motorcycle. At the Siem Reap airport, Kim had been assigned to be my driver at the pre-paid taxi counter. Kim was a likable guy, and became my guide for the rest of my stay in Siem Reap.

After navigating the Tonle Sap and before setting foot in the fabled grounds of Angkor Wat, I perused the remaining sights and sounds of Siem Reap. We sped through several small villages and back into town, stopping at the open air War Museum. Row after row of rusting tanks, heavy artillery, guns, bombs, and landmines were neatly arranged in a grassy field. It was a grim testimony to the not too distant past of Cambodia, one filled with death and destruction at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

The Angkor National Museum provides a good introduction to Khmer history and how the temples of Angkor came to be. Nearby the National Museum is a splendidly manicured French garden maintained by Raffles Hotel. Kim was a driver during the day, but a volunteer English teacher to the children in his neighbourhood in the evening. He headed home to fulfill his duties, leaving me to explore Siem Reap by foot. I explored the local markets, sipped coconut milk, ambled along the riverside, and received a haircut, my pace as relaxed as my surroundings.


"The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are." – Samuel Johnson

August 10, 2012

Fun Times

A pretty Chinese girl once told me "The longer I know you, the funnier you are". Before I could beam with pride, she went on to finish her thoughts. "It is not that you are getting any funnier, it is just that my English is getting better".

August 08, 2012

Busan Motor Show 2012

I caught a high speed KTX train from Seoul to Busan, South Korea's second largest city. I planned to visit the Busan International Motor Show. The theme of the event was "voyage of the green car across the ocean". Korea has a strong automotive industry, featuring brands such as Hyundai, Kia, and Samsung Motors. The aftermarket modifiers had set up stalls outside the main entrance to the exhibition hall, replete with local talent. I enthralled the paddock girls by posing for a few photos with them, and continued doing the same once inside the venue. After my volunteer duties were fulfilled, I had time to peruse the cutting edge technology on display.

I made my traditional stop at the BMW VIP area, casually resting my arms on the second floor balcony and sipping on an iced tea. Beautiful girls shot me hot glances from below, while their boyfriends clenched their fists in fury and quickly ushered them past the platform. Like China, luxury items such as high end cars, gourmet coffee, and designer purses are all the rage in South Korea. A new car is such a status symbol that many show off their recent purchase by not removing the blue door guards glued on the sides of vehicles for protection during initial transport from the factory to the dealership.

I came to the motor show because cars are both a passion and an integral part of my daily work, but most spectators came for other reasons. The brands made sure to capture these eyeballs by providing copious quantities of non-vehicular entertainment. There was such an abundance of models, actresses, and girl groups that I had trouble taking pictures of the cars without one or another appearing in my shots. Whenever large crowds formed around the pavilion of a particular car manufacturer, it was a sign that some celebrities had made an appearance there. I caught a glimpse of the K-pop group Dal☆Shabet performing their critically acclaimed song "Hit U".


"I would rather cry in a BMW than smile on the back of my boyfriend's bicycle." ~ Ma Nuo, a girl on a Chinese dating reality show

August 04, 2012


"When I was child and saw foreigner first time, I start crying. I saw his blue eyes and thought he is alien. I said to my father, let's run away from here." ~ Korean man

August 02, 2012

Rainbow Fountain

Along with other recently monied nations like China and oil rich Middle Eastern nations, South Korea is an enthusiastic participant in the superlatives game of tallest, highest, longest, and fastest used to demonstrate their prowess on the world stage. One of the zanier accomplishments stemming from this competition is the Banpo Bridge Rainbow Fountain. The world's longest bridge fountain connects the two sides of Seoul bisected by the mighty Han River.

The nightly sound and light shows dazzles spectators, with 200 tons of recycled river water shooting out from the many nozzles spread across a distance of 1140 meters. Most of the audience enjoys the show from riverside parks. Another bridge runs underneath the Banpo Bridge so it is actually possible to walk across the lower deck and view the fountain show from an unique perspective there.


"But which is the stone that supports the bridge?" ~ Kublai Khan