Tag Archives: tours

Heart and Seoul

If memory serves, the bus ride from Goeje to Seoul took about 6 hours.  Upon arrival in the big and bustling city of Seoul, we wandered the streets, referred to our maps and eventually made it to our hotel room down a quiet alley.  We stayed in a room on the 2nd or 3rd floor, which was outfitted with a ‘descending life line’ kit for use in case we had to evacuate the room from the window… Definitely the first time I had ever encountered a need for such an item, but I guess in case of emergency (during an earthquake perhaps??) it could come in handy. (?)  In any event, we settled in for our first night, making plans for things to see and do in the following days.

Our ‘things to do and see’ list initially included visiting the N. Seoul Tower, the Namdaemun market and the darling and very quaint Bukchon Hanok Village.  Of course during our street wanders we came across other points of interest, such as the Sungnyemun Gate, Deoksugung Palace and the Gyeongbokgung Palace.

My sister (a shopping enthusiast) was told about the Namdaemun market by a friend of hers, and well, being a shopaholic, we just had to check it out!  Indeed, this market is a shoppers dream come true!  Absolutely anything you could ever imagine wanting could be found there.  Clothes, jewelry, household items, knick-knacks, food, souvenirs, beauty supplies… the list could go on forever!  And it wasn’t just street front shops along the main road of the market, but you could go in to many of them and find your way to a second floor where even more shops existed.  Seriously I think one could probably spend days alone just exploring the vast number of stores available in that market.  Now granted, there were several repetitious stores where similar or same items were sold, but still, it was impressive how many shops were in such a comparatively small space of the city.  We ended up visiting the market a couple of times.  Once to just check it out, and the second to get our souvenirs.

From the market, we headed over to the N. Seoul Tower, which offered lovely panoramic views of the city.  While views were a bit smoggy from a higher perspective, it was certainly the perfect spot to really get a feel for the expanse of Seoul.  It of course was a very touristy spot and seemed to be the main location for lovers or friends to add their love locks.  Hundreds of thousands of locks were attached to various places in the park surrounding the tower.  We hung around for a couple of hours and enjoyed some beers until night came so we could enjoy the lights of the city.

Bukchon village was our adventure destination for the next day.  The brochure for the village describes it as “a village frozen in time for ages” though it is right in the middle of modern Seoul.  That description could not be more accurate, as once we stepped foot into the village, it was as if we traveled back in time.  The homes were no longer modern and the noise from the city seemed to dissipate immediately.  The streets were pristinely clean and immaculately paved.  Lush greenery spilled from every wall giving the air a cleaner, crisper scent.  It was absolutely darling!

We spent several hours wandering the village streets, but once we left, we came upon a tiny local shop with some artwork (my sister purchased a couple pieces) and teeny tiny, itty bitty cactus plants for sale.  Literally, these cactus plants with their pot and all were maybe an inch in height at most!  They were so darn adorable, we just had to get some!  Very smartly, the amount of soil the plants were in, were within the legal limits for Customs, so they could be taken back to the States without any issues.  In the two years since I bought my cactus, it has travelled with me to Japan, lived with me in Hawaii, and now resides with me in New Orleans:)  And while it has grown quite a bit, it is still under 2 inches tall, lol!

We visited a couple of Palaces during our stay in Seoul as well.  What was particularly notable of each Palace at the entrance, was a little kiosk of sorts that rented out clothing designed after original or traditional Korean fashions.  For a price, men and women could rent these traditional clothes to wear while roaming the Palace grounds.  And let me tell you, those rental shops were always full with customers!  While at first it seemed a bit odd, really it added to the ambience of touring the Palaces as everywhere you looked, people in traditional attire roamed about.  And again it gave that feeling of being in Seoul hundreds of years ago.

What was particularly interesting about the way homes within the Palace grounds were built was how they had truly modern accessories.  Though built hundreds of years ago, they had features that even nowadays you would only find in very fine and upscale homes.  For example, homes were built several feet from the ground on top of rock.  The gap under the whole house would be mostly hollow and there would be only one “entrance” to the hollow space in one area of the wall.   In the winter, the “entrance” would be filled with wood and would be set on fire.  The heat from the fire would travel all through the under side of the house and the smoke from the fire would eventually make its way to a chimney on the opposite side of the house.  So essentially,  during the winter, residents had the luxury of heated floors!!  Pretty darn clever engineering if you ask me.

On our way to the Gyeongbokgung Palace, we came across an unexpected detour.  In the pedestrian passage between city traffic, Shoes of Hope had several tents set up.  We stopped to check it out and participated in their charity event.  They gave us a “passport” where each of the 8 stations had something educational about their program.  Once you visited each station you would receive a stamp of completion.  To be honest, we really had no idea what most of the stations were about, because well, they were all in Korean, however what was clear was the purpose of their mission.  While I don’t recall all the details, essentially Shoes of Hope is a charity program whos mission is to ensure every child has shoes, in every country around the world.  Their message was about spreading love, compassion, and making sure every child that needed shoes would have them.  Pretty cool!  One of the stations we visited allowed us to decorate a pair of shoes that would be donated and to add a message to that child that would receive it:)

One last point of interest that we enjoyed while visiting Seoul was to take in a show.  Nanta, a non-verbal comedy/musical, originated in South Korea.  It started in 1997, making it the longest-running show in Korean history (thanks Wiki!) and has earned worldwide fame.  It was indeed a delight to see!  Though no words were spoken, they weren’t needed as the highly entertaining actors, through their animation, were able to convey a joyously funny story of three cooks attempting to finish preps for a wedding party while given the challenge of having a clueless new chef added to their mix.  It was a delight to be able to see the show, especially in its country of origin:).

Back to South Korea

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Reunited with Horses

For two of my weeks on the island of Langkawi, I took time out from volunteering at the Bon Ton animal shelter and headed over to Island Horses to volunteer there.  I had originally planned to volunteer there longer, but due to an unforseen event, was only able to do two weeks.

I’ve been a rider for most of my life but hadn’t been near any horses for over a year at this point, so needless to say I was so thrilled to finally be back in their presence.  Perhaps only horse people will be able to relate to that the smell in the air when approaching a horse facility.  It is perhaps my favorite in the world as it smells like coming home to me!

Island Horses is a working stable with three main functions.  First, they train endurance horses and have a team that competes worldwide (in fact during my time there the owner and his son were in Argentina for a competition!).  Second, it’s a breeding facility for Malay Arabian horses and finally, they offer jungle and beach riding tours for tourists.  They are very safety conscientious when it comes to taking riding tours out, which of course is very important!

As a volunteer at Island Horses a bed and bathroom were provided (shared with staff) but meals were not.  However the GeoPark (where the cable car was located) and the seven falls waterfall national park, were only a 5 to 10 minute walk away.  There, a variety of foods could be found all reasonably priced.

As a volunteer I was assigned 5 horses to care for and an aisle of horses to water 3 times a day.  Our days started at 7am until 7pm with a lunch break from 12-2:30pm.  All that was expected of me was to groom each horse twice a day as the stalls and feeding were done by the staff.  While I did spend my first day simply grooming my five horses (essentially with a fine-toothed comb so I could get to know every inch of them to get a baseline for any changes during my time there), three days didn’t even pass before I’d incorporated other little tasks to my daily duties.

I will admit that the first several days there were tough for me.  And not for any other reason except perhaps a bit of cultural differences and the natural environment.  The way I’d been raised to care for horses was not the standard I’d found there.  I’m not saying the horses were not cared for, because they were all fed quite well and watered appropriately and such, but other things in my opinion, were not up to snuff.  However, what made it extra tough was the natural terrain and weather of the environment, which made caring for horses in general that much harder.  Wounds don’t heal as fast as they would in dry environments and keeping stalls dry is equally difficult during the wet season.

As someone who was simply coming and going in only two weeks, my business there wasn’t to complain and point out all the things I thought weren’t right, but rather to simply lend my hand and do my job (so to speak).  So it was by the third day I’d made up my mind to take care of my five horses as if they were personally mine.  On top of daily grooming I also began to take care of cleaning their stalls, treating their boo-boos and cleaning equipment used for them.

In the short time I was there, I rode twice on the beach and through the jungle.  It was such an amazing feeling to be back on a horse!!  Words simply can’t express the exhilaration I felt!  It was also funny to me because while I’d been used to riding draft horses and having to physically put in a lot of work just to make them and KEEP them moving forward, I’d almost forgotten how easy it is to get Arabians to move forward, lol!!  And while I would have loved to have ridden more, since I was young it’s been instilled in me that as horse people our primary concern is for the care of the horse.  Riding is a privilege and comes only after all the needs of the animal are met.

The facility itself is undeniably in one of the most beautiful locations on the island.  Surrounded by lush jungle, nestled at the base of one of the mountain ranges and only minutes from the beach, I certainly got spoiled living in such a beautiful environment.  The wildlife in the area was also fantastic.  Aside from the horses, cats and dogs at the stables we would also be frequently visited  by deer, two types of monkeys, water monitors, bats, snakes, wild boar and stray dogs!  It practically was its own zoo!

While I was only there two weeks, leaving was just as hard as if I’d been there years.  Leaving the animals of course was the hardest part for me but also leaving Amirah (my staff roommate) and Shanto (a 12 year volunteer) was very tough.  Even in that short time I felt like part of the family and welcomed in ways I hadn’t imagined.  I think of them daily, as I do my family at the Bon Ton shelter, and look forward to being able to return there again.

On to The Majesty of Kuala Lumpur

Back to Malaysia

Isla Bastimentos

I arrived to the JAMPAN tour office with my gear and groceries ready to go.  We loaded up and were heading out shortly after that.  The boat wasn’t huge by any means as it really didn’t need to be.  Just a simple commuter to get between the islands that made up the greater area of Bocas.  I learned on my way over that the tour owners, a couple from Florida had moved down to Bocas after first vacationing there and simply fell in love with the place.  So much so that they gave up their “normal” lives in the States and opened the boat tour business in Bocas.  I should also mention that acting as a shuttle service is only one of what they offer.  They also took out snorkel trips, dolphin sighting trips and day trips to the various beaches.

For my needs however, I only used their shuttle service.  We hummed silently (apparently they had just updated their engines to make them more eco-friendly and therefore less of a noise nuisance to the marine life, YAY!!) along for perhaps 10-20 minutes and finally arrived on the very modest but sturdy dock of Isla Bastimentos.  From there it was just a short hike along a trail to the (apparently) only hostel on the island: Bocas Bound.

Now, as I’ve mentioned before I had seen several advertisements of this particular hostel while traveling to Bocas, and even a few before.  Normally I would not go with a hostel that was so heavily advertised, but what did attract me considerably was the price.  They were running a special of sorts that basically gave you a third night at 1/2 price, and since the original price was only $10, I thought heck, 3 nights it is!  The other benefit to this hostel was a free breakfast, cheep beer (yay!) but BEST of all, unlimited and free access to the famous red frog beach!  They even had a trail that went through the jungle from the hostel cabins to the beach.  Quite convenient and fun to walk through!

So I paid my hostel fees, settled in the dorm room, put away my groceries in the outdoor community kitchen and immediately hiked down to the beach!  I had been itching for quite some time (basically since leaving Costa Rica) to once again be on a beautiful and inviting beach and since I was now on the Caribbean, I salivated at the thought of the warmer waters and pristine sands that I imagined in my mind, but so far had not encountered (even though Bocas is an island too!!).

I made my way down the trail and finally emerged onto a scene that finally took my breath away!!!  A beautiful, inviting, soft sanded, warm and bright Caribbean beach!!  I shed off my cover-up dress and all but sprinted into the warm waters until fully submerged.  I can’t say how long I was in the water, but I was out there for several hours at least simply playing in the shallow waters, floating on my back along the gentle waves of the sea, and sunning myself on the sand in between bouts of swim sessions.

There was a little rock formation off the beach, not a very far swim at all that I thought would be fun to swim to and maybe climb on to explore a bit.  I swam up to the formation and with bare feet hoisted myself up on the rocks, being careful not to step on any of the inverts that were clinging to the rock.  I wandered around for a bit seeking out the different critters making their home on the rocks and generally watching the ocean from a rocky point until plunging back into the water and swimming to shore again.  I had to specifically mention this part of my swim because, well… Let me go back a tiny bit.

When I was first checking into the hostel I asked the helpful staff if they by any chance had snorkel gear for the beach.  They said they did but no longer lent or even rented them out because many of the hostel patrons apparently ended up ruining the gear, so it was just not worth it to them to deal with snorkel gear rental anymore.  However, they did say that there was a “kiosk” on the beach that did rent out gear.  After my first “dip in the pool” I walked along the beach and found the rental kiosk, but sadly they too did not have any snorkel gear to rent.  It wasn’t as if they were out of the gear because of all the people on the beach (I was one of maybe 4 others there!) but rather they simply didn’t have any anymore.  So after I finished my first beach fun and went back to the hostel, I spoke with the staff just to let them know that those particular individuals no longer rented snorkel gear, and the lovely young lady felt so bad that she had “led me astray” that she allowed me to use the snorkel gear that they had (even though she wasn’t supposed to!!)!!  Needless to say I was very appreciative of this and just had to go back again for another swim, or snorkel rather.  I did of course promise to take good care of the gear, and true to my word did:)

Ok, so now fast forwarding again… With the snorkel gear in tow I decided to swim yet again to the little rock formation to check out all the sea life around the rocks that lived below the surface.  Man-o-man… Was I EVER LUCKY!!!  As it turned out, with goggles to actually be able to see everything in my surroundings, I realized that as I had climbed up the rocks barefoot on my previous trip there, I had just narrowly missed stepping on one of several dozens of long-spiked sea urchins!!  Those things were just everywhere!! Tucked in every nook and cranny of each rock yet hidden from the surface by just a few inches and further disguised by the water crashing against the rocks were sea urchins!!  I have no idea how I missed stepping on at least one, but goodness am so very THANKFUL that I never did!  I guess in my previous ignorant bliss it never occurred to me to watch out climbing on sea rocks in bare feet!

The rest of that day went by peacefully and soundly.  There was only one other person that was staying in the hostel at that time, which was fine by me so needless to say it was a quieter night.  The next night however, slightly different story…