A Travellerspoint blog

Things to do!

As many of my family and friends already know, I am going to be ending my time of teaching English abroad for something equally scary: starting over in America. It's coming up soon in March 2015. It is now September 2014. That's, like, 6 months.

Though I've lived in Korea for about 8 years, I have failed somewhat on the tourist attraction front. I mean, it's gotten a lot better over the past few years, but I have really missed seeing a lot of stuff. I'm going to try to jam-pack it into this fall because let me tell you, the winters here are awful. I mean, just terrible. They don't salt the sidewalks AT ALL, so walking anywhere is pretty hazardous. When I lived in Seoul, my entire street was covered in a thick sheet of ice for weeks at a time. Walking outside to let Kron do his business was a challenge every day. Fall here is beautiful and mild and lovely, so I'm going to force myself to do something every weekend (starting next weekend).

Over the Chuseok holiday, I finally made it to Namhansanseong, an old fortress that was just declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in June. It was a little too warm for my liking, but it was absolutely beautiful. Kron and I will definitely be going again at least one more time.

I also ventured to Everland. Too hot. Too many people. But cheap! And the T-Express wooden roller coaster was not too shabby. (This coming from someone who LOVES roller coasters.)

I need to make a to-do list for what I really want to do in Seoul before I leave (there is SO MUCH!):

  • Seoul Tower (Namsan Tower) - seriously, how have I never been here?
  • Bukcheon Hanok Village - traditional Korean homes! Near two palaces!

- BONUS! Gyeongbokgung! Changdeokgung!

  • National Museum of Contemporary and Modern Art - I LOVE modern art!
  • Hwarangdae (Gangneung) - burial mounds! Royals buried here!
  • Seonyudo - "Host to a water purification plant for decades, this island was recently turned into a park – but instead of dismantling the plant, it was incorporated into the park’s design: support columns are given over to ivy, chemical settling basins turned into lily ponds."
  • Jongmyo Shrine
  • The Blue House - like the White House, but blue.
  • Seodaemun Prison
  • Kimchi Museum - when I first moved here, I mocked the kimchi museum. Now I want to go.
  • kimchi-making class! Other cooking classes!

I also have one week of vacation in the winter, and I think I'll be heading to Hong Kong for that week. Stay tuned to see if I can complete my to-do list!

Posted by lrbergen 04:52 Archived in South Korea Tagged tourist_sites life_in_korea Comments (0)

Year 8


This year, I turned 30. Quite a milestone, yes? I had to renew my passport because it expired. Yet another milestone. And I got to thinking about another landmark in my life and it gave me pause. As of this month, August 2013, I have been living abroad and teaching English for 8 years.

8 YEARS!!!!!!!!!!

That includes Mexico and Korea.

So what have I learned?

  • Don't really trust your Korean boss. I've been duped into it a couple of times with mildly to horribly frustrating and disappointing results.
  • When given something to eat that you don't know, at least try a bite. More often than not, it's actually good, and it always makes for a great story.
  • Wherever you go, pack lightly. Read up ahead of time to see if you're going to a place that doesn't have, say, tampons (I can safely say most of SE Asia does NOT carry these). Do you really want to be the one tied down to a rolling suitcase? Do you really want to wait at baggage claim because you brought too much stuff? It's so satisfying to get off the plane, go through immigration, and leave the airport.
  • There are trade-offs to everything. You might get a great job with awesome pay, but there will always be something that is not so great. Always. I love my life, but I don't have a house or car or husband or children. Trade-off.
  • Learn to roll with the changes. I am not good at this. I usually take it as a personal affront if there are last-minute changes at my job, but I do somewhat okay outside of that. If you live in another country, you'll have to deal with a lot of difficulties in your everyday life...setting up a cell phone, going to the doctor, figuring out immigration...at least in Korea, no policy ever stays the same. So. There's that.
  • Learn at least a little bit of the local language. I have really slacked off on this in recent years, but on my backpacking trip in Vietnam, I learned a lot of basic phrases and important words. While it wasn't essential to basic communication (a LOT of people there speak English in the more touristy towns), it was just...nice. My Korean is terrible, but I mostly know how to communicate in my everyday life, and that is very helpful.
  • You NEED vacation. You do. I have a friend who didn't take a real vacation for more than a year and I can't for the life of me understand how he did it. I have learned that I need to get out of the country on this vacation, but not everyone can or needs to. I actually just got back after a week from the Philippines and I honestly feel I am much better for it. It's Korean culture, however, to work long periods of time with no vacation. WHY?!
  • Don't keep working at a job you hate. Of course it's hard to get out of it and get a new one, and your life will get upset for a while, but in the end it's worth it. I know teaching here is most of my life. I've quit 3 jobs because there is no reason to be miserable.
  • Change can be really good.
  • But so can routines.
  • It's a bit easy to get desensitized to beauty and wonder and excitement.
  • *This post was written in August 2013. It is now September 2014! Oops!

Posted by lrbergen 04:50 Archived in South Korea Tagged tips_and_tricks living_abroad Comments (0)

Daily life in pictures


Math class

Babushka girls


Me: "Emily, what is a god?"
Emily: "You know...(this gesture)...and make people."

Outdoor Kron

Currently reading

On the way to work

Justin, Kyle, James

I got a smartphone...this is what happens when you try to multitask.

Posted by lrbergen 02:21 Comments (0)

On Teaching in Korea

a how-to guide....kinda

UPDATED 2/14/2015!

I've been asked by many a friend, or friend of a friend, or random person that someone kinda knows about teaching in Korea. I'm always happy to give answers to any questions, but for someone who has never been here or taught abroad, there are usually just too many. So usually I write e-mails full of as much information as I can think of....but I usually end up forgetting lots of stuff. I've written a lot of these e-mails, so now it's time to put it down in blog form. What follows is as much as I can offer about teaching in Korea.

There are a few options of teaching in Korea, but in this post I'm going to talk about the three options that I've done: after-school hagwons (privately run, for-profit businesses), public school, and after-school public school jobs. I've done all three, and there are pros and cons for both, as you can imagine.
(There are also universities, international schools, and institutes where you would teach adults, but I've never done those!)

The similarities between all three are:
- your airfare and apartment are paid for by the school+
- your school sponsors your E-2 visa
- you will receive a month's pay extra after finishing your contract
as a severance bonus++
- if your school is on the level, you will be paying into the national pension fund and they will match it...at the end of your time in Korea, you get all of that money back! (Per year, it comes out to roughly 1 month's salary.)+++

+ - usually. Some hagwons are trying to worm their way around paying for your flight...and some of them will choose the cheapest, and often crappiest, flights they can find. In these cases, it might be best to get your own flight and then usually your school will reimburse you for most of it. Also, some schools offer a housing allowance in lieu of just providing an apartment...if they do that, make sure they can pay the "key money" (deposit - usually around $5000) and that you have a say in the apartment you'll be getting. I've been unpleasantly surprised in the past to learn I was going to live in a shoe box for a month.
++ - I thought this practice had fallen out of fashion, but it still seems perfectly legal (or at least EXTREMELY EASY to get away with) that hagwons will fire you in your 11th month to avoid paying this. Do some research on your hagwon before you accept a job there...a simple google search will generally connect you to a "blacklist" site that will have reviews by other teachers. If there is any funny business (no severance, late pay, etc.), it's best to avoid that school. In my experience, other foreigners are more trustworthy critics than any hagwon director I've ever worked for.
+++ - a lot of hagwons are getting away with contracts that omit the pension. They claim that you are an "independent contracted individual" rather than an employee, and this is a loophole that they love. I'm not sure if it's illegal, but basically they have found a way to avoid paying you money. If there is no pension listed in your contract, ask about it. If they don't offer it, it's up to you. You pay about half a month's salary over the course of a year and so does your employer. Do you want to work for a company that wants to weasel their way out of paying you? I've worked for 2 such places and in the end quit because of other reasons. But I think the pension issue is indicative of other problems.

With a hagwon:
- you will usually be working with other foreign teachers, which is often helpful when you're first starting out
- you can usually get more money +
- your class size is usually a lot smaller, and you get to know the kids a bit more
- these kids can usually speak at least a little bit of English so it's easier to communicate
- some hagwons can be disreputable: hagwons sometimes don't pay on time, fire teachers with no legal grounds, or sometimes close up
altogether leaving you stranded....among other issues
- you'll be working a bit more than at public school...often teaching 6 hours (sometimes in a row, with no break)
- vacation is usually 1-2 weeks per year...yes, per YEAR
- they hire year-round

+ - meh. I've been here since 2005 and my starting salary then was 2.1 million won ($~2000) per month. I have seen a LOT of listings that still have this as starting pay. I've made more, but it was usually at the cost of my pension. I've seen listings for less. There are also listings for a lot more money, but you'll be working around 10 hours a day in split shifts. It's really ridiculous that average salary prices haven't been raised in 10 years!

With public school:
- you are most likely to be working as the only foreign teacher in the school...this can be daunting, or a nice break depending on your
point of view (I personally didn't mind it)
- you will get paid a bit less, although if you get yourself an online TEFL certificate of more than 100 hours you can start off a bit higher....also, if you live in a rural area, they will give you a bit more money
- your class size is anywhere from 20 to 40...and depending on the size of the school, you will see every student in the school 1-3 times
a week
- don't expect much from the kids in the way of English...some of them will speak it, but the kids are separated by grade level, not
English ability
- you will always get paid on time, and you never need to worry about your contract ending early. Korea is experiencing budget cuts right
now, however, so it's not guaranteed that you'd be able to re-sign for another year. +
- there is tons of free time...you'll have to be there for 8 hours a day, but you'll get around 3 of that to yourself
- you'll be teaching a winter "camp" and summer "camp", during which you will be the only teacher and will have a lot more freedom in the way of what you teach
- if you work at an elementary school, you will have a set curriculum that you will follow...middle and high schools do not have a curriculum
- 4 weeks paid vacation. That's the big pull for public school.
- the hiring season is usually for September or March

+ - they are not hiring NEARLY as many teachers for public school, again because of budget cuts. So you can imagine, they are pretty competitive.

I have just finished working for an after-school program, which also vary wildly on what you'll get. These (from my understanding) are independently contracted companies that work with public schools to provide after school English, which is separate from what the students learn in their regular school day. Some companies are for-profit, like a hagwon, but some (like mine) are through a university. I personally worked with Hanshin University and I had nothing but good experiences with them. They are the only company I've worked for in 9 years that I would recommend.

So, what can you expect from an after-school job?
- shorter work hours. This was 100% the reason I took this job. I worked 4 hours a day, with no office hours, prep time, or desk warming. I came in 10 minutes before my class started and left when it was over. Some after-school programs are around 6 hours, including prep time, but from what I know you will still only teach 4 hours. And 6 hours is still less than 8!
- less money. I mean, it's a trade-off, right? You are working few hours a day, so you get paid less. I also got a housing allowance of $300...they would have put me in an apartment that I didn't like (because it was $300 and you get what you pay for), but I opted to pay more to have a better apartment. They did provide key money though!
- SOME after school jobs will give you permission to work part-time teaching jobs to make up the money. This is a new benefit for E2 holders. I've been working at a private kindergarten for an extra hour a day to make up the difference in money.
- it seems to be a cross between a hagwon and a public school. At least mine was. I always got paid on time, had 2 weeks vacation for the year, had pretty small classes, and was the only foreigner at my school (and quite possibly that entire neighborhood).

As far as recruiting companies' reliability....it's a total crapshoot. There is literally no accountability...recruiters can (and often do) lie with no consequences. And never publicly denounce them, or you can suffer Korea's libel laws. You can get lucky, though, and have a decent one. Unfortunately, there just doesn't seem to be any way of knowing. If you want public school, I recommend Korvia.com. They were wonderful to me. As far as hagwon recruiters go...it's hard to tell. I just recently quit a job because it wasn't at all what I thought it was going to be. That's just the
way it is in Korea...

Posted by lrbergen 21:57 Archived in South Korea Tagged tips_and_tricks living_abroad Comments (0)

Foreign Country Dentistry

not the same as america.


You know the old adage "You pay for what you get"? It's true. Every time I find this statement verified, I'm surprised, though I never know why.

Teaching in public school, I have a LOT of vacation. I haven't taught a full day since December 15 (the week before Christmas, we showed "Elf" to the kids). February is full of downtime...the kids come to school for only a week and March starts the new school year. Weird, eh? That's one of the reasons why I decided to have my wisdom teeth taken out. They don't usually bother me, sometimes they're a little sore, but they haven't surfaced (I'm almost positive that's not the correct term but oh well) and they don't threaten the other teeth any more than normal. So why did I decide to torture myself this way?

A bit of background: Growing up, I never had any major problems with my teeth (I'm 27 and am going on 28 years with no cavities).....this is extremely fortunate because we always had little to no dental insurance. Teeth cleaning alone cleaned us out. I had to have dental x-rays as part of my Peace Corps application in 2005. The dentist said because the bottom ones are impacted, in the US it would be $1000 per extracted tooth. That equals $4000. FOUR THOUSAND DOLLARS. For non-threatening teeth. (Ha...from that sentence, I imagine them holding little knives to my other teeth.) Obviously, I didn't go through with it.

I've had my teeth cleaned twice since I've been in Korea (it had been a looooooooong time before that first one) and because I've gone to a....luxury dentist, it's been 60,000 won, or around $60. That's the most expensive I've heard of. My friend started the wisdom tooth trend, telling me hers would be a grand total of 20,000 won. Yep. 5,000 per tooth.

$4000? or $20? Hmmmm...I listened to other stories of friends getting their wisdom teeth out (in the US or Canada) and it didn't sound like it would be all that bad. I had a whole week to recuperate...so why not?

To reiterate: I decided to get it over with because it's cheap and I had a lot of time to recover. But doing this all in Korea is VERY different than what I heard about Canada and the US. Examples follow.

  • In Canada and the US, dentists speak English. So do you. Therefore, you are told what to expect beforehand and given clear care instructions after.
  • In Korea, some dentists speak English. Mine didn't. Usually someone else working there will speak English. No one...NO ONE at my dentist spoke English. I chose this particular dentist because it's a 2-minute walk from my apartment and I thought the whole language barrier would be less frustrating than it was. It was way more frustrating than probably any other experience I've had so far. Should something have happened (it didn't), I wouldn't know what was going on. Fortunately, a very awesome friend of mine was available to translate. We spent a lot of time on the phone that day.
  • In Canada and the US, they will usually extract all of the wisdom teeth at once. This makes sense to me...why spend 2 weeks recovering when you can just spend one?
  • In Korea, they don't. When I made the appointment, the lady did a lot of miming and I understood "Which teeth do you want out?" I responded "All 4." She said OK. I came back the next week for the procedure, and as I was sitting in the chair, they mimed that they would only take out one side at a time, with 2 weeks in between procedures. We called my friend, he confirmed. I kind of already knew this was common beforehand, but because of that blasted language barrier, I thought they were making an exception when I made the appointment. Nope. That's not how they roll.
  • In Canada and the US, they sometimes put you completely under. They sometimes only give you local anesthesia. It just depends.
  • In Korea, they only give you local. You can prepare yourself mentally beforehand if your dentist speaks English and tells you how it's going to be. Mine of course didn't, so I brought along a friend who could make sure I got home okay in case they put me under. It was nice having him there anyway. For those of you who have never had this done, they stick a big needle into your gums. It sounds (and looks) scarier than it is. (And it's really odd that I freak out when getting poked by a medical needle, since I have 6 tattoos...and counting.) Eventually, your lip will go numb and you will start to feel like you're drunk (though...that may have just been mental). At some point, the dentist will come back in and he'll start. (All the waiting was due to the fact that there was ONE dentist on duty and several other patients that he had to attend to...also, I'm sure he's making sure you're completely numb before he starts.) Here's the thing though...you can't feel most of the pain, but you can definitely feel that something is going on. It's standard procedure that they break the bottom wisdom tooth and remove the pieces. You definitely can tell when he's doing this. You feel pressure, and it sucks feeling that someone is trying to literally break part of you. In Korea, they put a cloth over your face (with a hole for your nose and mouth) for most procedures (even cleaning) so you can't see what's going on (or into your mouth). I am really thankful for this, because I'm sure seeing it all would have made it worse.
  • In Canada and the US, I'm guessing if they give you local anesthesia, they give it to you all at once and do all of the teeth at once? I don't know, really. I do know that the whole thing is really fast.
  • In Korea, at my dentist, they numbed the bottom, took out the bottom tooth, injected the top, then took out the top. In between all of these things, they waited a loooooooooong time. That's why I was there for 3 hours. The actual procedures didn't take that long (the bottom took about 15-20 min and the top around ...5-10). It felt like I was there forever.
  • In Canada and the US, they put in dissolvable stitches, so you don't have to go back and get them removed.
  • In Korea, they don't. I have to go get mine out today, a week later. The bottom ones have already pretty much come out though (and are just kind of...there) and it's pretty annoying. Not painful, but annoying.
  • In Canada and the US, they realize that they are breaking part of you and removing it. It doesn't feel good. So they give you pretty strong painkillers as to make it bearable.
  • In Korea, they give you motrin. I'll let that sink in. MOTRIN. This is what I take for my menstrual cramps, not having teeth taken out of my skull. After all was said and done, I had to bite on that gauze for 2 hours before I could take it out. I was in...pain. Not excruciating...not the worst I've ever felt in my life, but definite, REAL pain. I had to wait 2 hours to take my pain medication, which I thought was stronger than your ordinary run-of-the-mill motrin. After 20 minutes of taking it and feeling it was doing nothing, we googled it. (Korean medications have different names than back home.) "MOTRIN?! Where's the vicodin? The codeine? The lovely little pill that is going to get me through this?" We actually packed it up and went back to the dentist. They said they don't give anything stronger for just wisdom teeth. Policy in Korea. If I was in too much pain, I could go to the 3rd floor doctor and get a shot. Fine! We went down and sat there while he finished up a phone call. I went in and described my pain (the dude speaks a bit of English) and asked for whatever he could give me. He told me I was being impatient and needed to wait the 2 hours it takes for the drugs to kick in. Wait...it takes TWO HOURS to kick in? So I'm sitting there, unmedicated and bleeding, for a full 4 hours? This has to be a joke. A very cruel...sick...joke. I think this was the worst part of the whole thing, because it really did feel like they couldn't care less about how I was feeling, about my pain.

[Sidenote: I hear it's common to under-medicate for pain here. We were wondering...is it because of the...war? Like...Koreans (and, whatever...I guess foreigners too) are expected to be stronger because they've been through so much? Or...kimchi helps? Or...the West just over-medicates? I don't know, and I don't care. When I know I need it, I want it available.]
[Sidnote #2: The motrin is really all I needed after the first day. I wasn't in too much pain for the rest of the week.]

There were a lot of tears on this day. My friend, who was coming to support me, and I had miscommunicated about where to meet and then he couldn't find it right away, so when I thought he wasn't coming... that was upsetting. I came in scared but, I thought, prepared and when nothing, no nothing, was how I expected it to be, that was upsetting. The bottom tooth came out and I was freaked out, but for me the top (and easier to remove) tooth was horrible. There was way more pressure and I completely tensed up, started shaking, started crying. Then, when I found out I'd be in pretty bad pain and there's nothing that anyone could (or in my mind, would) do about it, I cried. Maybe I had just needed a good cry.

This scared me probably way more than it should have. People get this done all the time. I always think I'm so strong, but when it comes to this I'm a huge baby. I'm supposed to go back and get it done all over again next Monday. But...I don't want to. Yes, I'm scared, even though I know what to expect. Maybe if I could get some better painkillers for the first day, I might consider it. Or maybe if they put me under, I might. As it is, the right side can stay put for now. Indefinitely.

Posted by lrbergen 19:27 Archived in South Korea Tagged dentistry living_abroad life_in_korea Comments (0)

Korea: Year 4

no longer a hagwon peon

This is mostly a personal update. Because it's my blog and I'll whine if I want to!

Things have been going smoothly, for the most part. The weather has turned, and it's pretty cold here. My school is about a 20-minute walk from my school, and there IS a bus that goes there, but it only comes every 15-20 minutes. I spent 10 minutes waiting for a bus yesterday morning, but had to make a quick decision and take a taxi at the last minute. It was under $3, so that's not too bad. I mostly walk, just to get a bit of exercise. To and from, it's about 40 minutes a day, which is better than nothing!

There have certainly been some adjustments.

First, my school: I'm now the only foreign teacher to almost 400 students. I work full-time with 3rd-6th grade, and each grade has 3 classes each. I see each class twice a week. In addition, they asked me to teach "overtime" to Kindergarten-2nd grade. I teach K twice a week and 2 1st and 2 2nd grade classes once a week each. This makes me about an extra 400,000 won (~$400) a month. 3rd-6th I teach with a Korean co-teacher, and K-2 I'm on my own. This past month, she has been doing most of the regular classes while I get adjusted, but I'm actually not too sure what my role is. She teaches the book (with interactive CD) and I plan games / other activities. I've mostly been walking around and making sure kids are doing what they're supposed to and correcting behavior/work. I usually try to lead the games as well, but I don't know how effective my role is because she always has to translate. The levels are varied; I have about 3-4 kids in each class who go to academies (like I used to teach at), or lived abroad. Sometimes these kids are helpful, but mostly they seem bored. It's an experience. The job itself is really easy, but it's hard to see my role, as I said. I really like my co-teacher, whose English is pretty good.

Another good thing about my school is I get free lunch. It's Korean food, of course, but usually it's pretty good. I've noticed that I'm basically Korean now, in my tastes and in a lot of my mannerisms and habits. Today's lunch was really bad, though, so I could only eat kimchi and rice. However, my Korean co-teacher agreed and bought Papa John's for after class. :D It was her treat today, but it will be mine the next time we have to do this.

Second, my apartment: Now, I've lived in tiny apartments here. And really, none of the apartments I've lived in have been HUGE. I know some lucky foreigners get those ones. Over the summer, the budget for my housing was cut and they had to move me to another place. I thought it would be comparable. It's not....it's about half the size, with no storage space. It's tiny. I've been there for about a month now, and while I've gotten used to it, I haven't been able to get over the principle of the thing. Maybe I shouldn't complain, but I have, and it's expected that I'll get to move in February, to an apartment in the same building that is much bigger with an extra room (mostly used as a closet). This was a big source of stress in both mine and my co-teacher's life for a while. I felt bad complaining, but at the same time I have enough experience to know that this isn't right. My recruiter was a HUGE help in negotiating all of this. And I actually really don't mind the area...these appear to be pretty new apartments, and it's really quiet. Though on the weekends,when I want to sleep in, there are always people playing soccer outside (I live by a middle school). I don't have a bed yet, so I bought a mat and have been sleeping on the floor. At first I was a little indignant, but now I've grown accustomed to it. In lieu of a bed, I've requested they buy me a sofa bed, which is mostly like a futon. I'll also be getting a nice big bookshelf, and I've already gotten a microwave and toaster.

Also, Korea has been hosting some pretty sweet concerts as of late. Back in July, Usher! Then Stevie Wonder, which was sold out and I didn't get to go to....but last Saturday: MEW! And this coming Saturday:


It's really exciting.

More to come later, because I'm going to Laos for 2 weeks in December-January. OH YEAH!

Posted by lrbergen 01:33 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

Bloggin' 'Bout WILD Borneo

Part 2: Gunung Mulu National Park (in Sarawak)

Borneo is most widely known for its pristine rain forests (which are being logged, but is that really surprising?). I had never been to a rain forest. So, despite the countless reports online and in the LP about leeches and coming prepared, leech socks at the ready, I booked my trip to Gunung Mulu in Malaysian Borneo's eastern state, Sarawak.

I'm not a super-adventurous type (I'd prefer four walls to a tent any day of the week), but I'm also not a namby-pamby. Mulu has plenty of accommodation: a four-star resort, private rooms with private bathrooms, and dorms. I chose the "roughest" (read: most budget-friendly) of them all: the dorms. What can you expect from a dorm in a rain forest? They were clean and neat with minimal amounts of huge scary bugs. There was no air conditioning, but I think I preferred it that way. The showers, however, were rampant with geckos, huge bat-sized moths, plenty of mosquitoes and other unknown insects that I warily kept my eye on while showering in the freezing-cold water. It could have been "rougher," yes, but I think I did pretty well.

The plane ride there was pretty much breath-taking, as much of a cliche as that word is. I mean, really. It was incredibly beautiful. Know what? I'm going to just let those pictures (that you've probably already seen) speak for themselves:

Not even the presence of about 20 Korean ajummas and ajoshis could damper it for me.

When I arrived it was, of course, raining, as it tends to do in a rain forest. The cafe that is attached to the dorms is pretty accommodating. There is the traditional Malaysian fare, but they also have hamburgers and french fries. Breakfast is included and their pancakes were DELICIOUS, though they attracted their fair share of bees.

After a quick snack and some more reading, I embarked on the night hike. Without a flashlight. Oh dear. I also neglected to bring my camera for two reasons: 1) I am clumsy and didn't want to worry about falling off the path and landing on the camera and 2) I thought, wrongly so, that taking pictures with flash would disturb the animals and insects and be discouraged by the guides. On our hike, we saw large insects, millipedes, some mammals up in the trees (eyes only) and a tarantula in its nest. Our guide told us to be vigilant about seeing snakes because if we saw one, there was about a 90% chance that it was poisonous. At the end of the night hike, we saw a very very large stick bug...I mean freakishly large. It was sweet. Then I went back to my dorm, where I was sharing pretty much the whole room (about 15 beds) with a big Malaysian family that woke up at 5am, before sunlight, to rustle their plastic bags around. Earplugs are a great invention.

The next day, I had more tours planned, but decided to venture out on my own for a bit.
The trees were really big. And there were these fern-like plants that seemed to be hanging around everywhere. I am interested to know what sort of relationship they have with the tree: are they part of it? Is there a symbiotic relationship between the plants and tree?

These ants, much like the stick bug, were really big. Mutant big.

There was a whole lot of moss on the trees, the ground, the walkway, and pretty much any other surface that has been around there for a long time.

The stagnant water was murky, but also kind of pretty.

I signed up for the Canopy Skywalk, which seemed like a good opportunity to see more animals and birds. It was not, but it was still pretty cool. You're about 15-25 meters above the ground, crossing a series of rope-ish bridges to get from platform to platform. Overall, I felt pretty secure, except for when I decided to stop and take a picture from the bridge. That was when I felt like I would go careening over the side, headfirst. Again, no real fauna to speak of, but it was a nice walk.
View of a mountain from the bridge.
The bridge.

From there, we moved on to the Deer and Langs Caves, but not before walking 2.5 km.
A river that we passed.
Rain forest friend. Look at that color!

Deer Cave is massive, but Langs Cave is much smaller.
Both of these are Langs Cave. With Deer Cave, it was really difficult to portray just how big it was using a camera. (It has the world's largest cave passage...ooooh....ahhhhh...)

Then, there is supposedly a Great Bat Exodus every night at dusk. It started raining, however, and after about 45 minutes I decided to head back the 3km. By myself. In the rain. It was not a super-fun hike, I can say that much.

My final day, I took a longboat up the river to Clearwater and Cave of the Winds. The longboat ride was really pretty; we were able to see people who live along the river: kids in school uniforms, whole families washing their hair, women washing clothes. I felt a bit like I was intruding on something, but they all just smiled and waved.

The one really great photo I got on the water.

We stopped at the Penan longhouse market; I was expecting a tour, they were expecting customers. So I bought some stuff and saw a pet monkey.


We stopped at the Cave of the Winds, which has natural winds going all through it. Apparently, the clouds sink down and seep through the cave roof, providing a constant stream of air. No good pictures though.

Our final destination was Clearwater Cave. At this point, I was getting a little caved out, as I'm sure you can imagine.

I still took some pictures, though!

And with that, I was finished at Gunung Mulu National Park. Time to head back to the hustle and bustle of Sabah's Kota Kinabalu. Sigh.

Goodbye, Mulu!

We got a nice rainbow to send us off.

What are those lines on the ground? I don't know!

On the ground in KK.

Stay tuned for the final installment of the Borneo Blogs!

Posted by lrbergen 01:35 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Bloggin' 'Bout Borneo

Part 1: Kuala Lumpur - Kota Kinabalu

I admit this is going to be difficult to recap everything since it's been nearly 2 months since this trip actually happened. Bear with me.

I arrived in Kuala Lumpur on the mainland first for two reasons: a) I wanted to get out of Korea ASAP and b) I wanted to see the Petronas Towers at night. Done and done. Kuala Lumpur was hot and humid; you always think you've prepared yourself for the difference, but you can't really. It was cold and rainy in Korea so I could only imagine the heat in theory.

I found my hostel pretty painlessly (on a side note, the BackHome Guesthouse has to be the best one I've ever stayed in. Ever.) and went and got a beer with one of the girls staying in my room. We had the added bonus of a man following us around and even managing to sneak into the hostel to "hang out" with us before the lady running the place shooed him out. KL was alright, but just alright. It reminded me of Bangkok and other bustling dirty cities in SE Asia. The garbage/sewage smell, the puddles of indeterminable liquids that you step in...in flip-flops. The one redeeming quality was the Petronas Towers, which were totally worth the stopover on the mainland. I didn't get to ascend, but just being there was pretty cool.

Yep. That's them.

It was hard to get a good night's sleep because of the 24-hour street traffic noise, and by the next day I was pretty happy that I was getting out of KL.

Mmmmmm....breakfast. (Roti with all the dipping sauces. DELISH!)

Cool graffiti

Some of the buildings in the morning.


I didn't include more photos here, because I've already posted so many on my Flickr account.

The trip to Kota Kinabalu (Malaysian Borneo's main city) was smooth and painless...I even got to eat some tasty chicken biryani on the plane - seriously...Malaysia Air's food = some of the best you can find. It was a bit rainy / cloudy / overcast when I arrived when I went exploring.



That night, I went for dinner at the Filipino Night Market, where they had amazing barbecue. I mean really amazing. They had fish, squid, chicken; all fresh, all grilled while you wait. And you can totally eat with your hands, which I love doing.

Chicken Satay, which I got the 2nd time I came.

This pot and basin were provided for hand-washing before and after the meal.

I had the help of a friendly local sitting next to me on ordering and how exactly the logistics of eating my meal should properly go. It's not just something you sit down and can do immediately. He ended up paying for my meal and he and his business associate and I went for some drinks (which they invited me to "have some beers"...however, because they are Muslim, I was the only one with an actual beer). They were very helpful and nice, which was totally a running theme with 99% of the Malaysians I met on my trip. Everyone was friendly, and I even had long conversations, in perfect English, with my taxi drivers. People are SO friendly and everyone speaks English.

The next day, I walked out onto the Gaya Street Sunday market...which had a plethora of different things for sale. Like...


After, I decided to check out one of the islands off the coast. Their trips are mainly marketed to snorkelers, but I figured I could lay on the beach with a book. WRONG. It's snorkeling or nothing there. Also, the waters are pretty full of trash. I've heard that the nearby floating village residents just sort of dump their trash into the ocean, something I noticed all around KK as well. I did not go into the water, but I got a lot of my book read (A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving - way better than Cider House Rules).

It was pretty, though!

That night, I think I went to go see Iron Man 2...mainly because of the air conditioned theater, but also because the movie was $3. Fun had by all.

The next day, I left for Gunung Mulu National Park in Malaysian Borneo's other state, Sarawak.


Posted by lrbergen 18:51 Archived in Malaysia Comments (0)

Seoul in May

yes...2 months ago

So two months ago, I took photos and posted them on Travellerspoint, never actually blogging about them. Since then, I have gone to Borneo and still need to post photos/blog about it. I also went to the DMZ. I have had plenty to write about. Next weekend, I will go take photos for the first time since ...June? Time to get caught up!

First, we went to the Noryangjin Fish Market in Seoul. There were tanks upon tanks of fish, shellfish, baby octopuses (octopi?), and squid. There were lots of people there to shop and take pictures, and the hawkers were happy to oblige. After you've had your fill of the sights, you can pick up some fresh sashimi, sliced right in front of you (or, as was our sashimi's case, sliced only very recently) and take it to a little restaurant and eat to your heart's content. We also got ourselves some fresh raw oysters. How much would you pay for this? Back home in Indiana....a lot. Here in Korea...less than $15. YES!

What does this look like...?
Sea cucumbers
This lady was only too happy to pose for my camera
Just like Mr. Peanut!
Tools of the trade
What kind of fit?
Lots of kidd-os there, fascinated by the creatures
Fish market lamps!

So our trip to Noryangjin was a great success! Not long after that, I went into Seoul to do some shopping/sightseeing with Michael and his wife, Dixie. This was before Buddha's birthday, before I went to Borneo, before Michael and Dixie took off to SE Asia. I always forget how lovely walking around in Seoul can be.

First, we hit up Insadong, which looks very different now than it did in the winter, the last time I took photos there. It's much more crowded, especially because it was the weekend.

Chicken-on-a-stick (dalk kkochi) seller
Fortune tellers are pretty popular here...they decide how "compatible" couples are for future marriage and sometimes decide names for unborn babies. I never really noticed them before, but now that I know what they're used for, I see them everywhere.
Ceramics shop; Insadong is pretty well-known for its ceramics
Man carries boxes
We stopped for lunch: kimchi jjigae, kimchi pancake, and makeoli (rice wine). Delish!

Then we decided to walk to Namdaemun, the huge outdoor market where you can buy EVERYTHING. We passed Jogyesa, the Buddhist temple, and the surrounding religious paraphernalia shops. This time of the year (well...THAT time of the year, May) is the most beautiful around these parts because of all the lanterns being made and sold and hung.
Lotus lanterns for sale
The lanterns strung around Jogyesa
They made the yin-yang from the Korean flag
Reflection of the lanterns
Tired of lotuses? There are plenty more options

Reflection in Jongno
Jongno tower
Saturday Seoul traffic
Chunggye stream, Seoul

And that was May in Seoul. Hooray, May!

Posted by lrbergen 01:20 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

Toyohashi is for Lovers

small-ish town, japan

For the Lunar New Year holiday (and coincidentally, Valentine's Day) I went to visit my friend Matty J in Toyohashi, about an hour away from Nagoya. This was my 4th trip to the Land of the Rising Sun and I enjoyed it just as much, if not more, this time around.

I had just a brief amount of time after flying into Nagoya then taking the train to the main area. After I bought my JR ticket to Toyohashi, I set my ipod down on the ticket counter...I think I had about 30 things in my hand. What am I, a rookie? I've been backpacking by myself for the better part of 6 years and yet I made quite the amateur mistake. After frantically checking all of my bags, it occurred to me that I was in JAPAN and should probably check the ticket counter just in case. Sure enough, the man behind the counter went into the back room and came back with my ipod, telling me to "Be more careful." Crisis averted.

Nagoya building.

And another (I have to give my camera's lomo style setting full credit for how this turned out).


I hauled it to Atsuta Shrine (the 2nd-most sacred in all of Japan) just in time for sunset. The amazingly beautiful roosters were pecking all about.

Shrine at dusk.

I had really miscalculated my travel time, especially just barely missing the subway and having to wait for the next one. I had to be that "ugly American" and push my way through rush-hour foot traffic (people for as far as the eye could see) and then sprint to the JR platform to make my train to Toyohashi in order to make it there in time to meet Matty as he got off of work. And I just made it!

Cautionary tale. I don't know...would it be worth it to look this cute?

Toyohashi is well known for chikuwa. Apparently, it's not just for eatin'.

Matty took me to his favorite yakitori place, which was DELICIOUS. SO DELICIOUS. Omg. Japanese food.

Edamame for an appetizer.

Chicken heart yakitori. Surprisingly awesome.

Bacon-wrapped mushrooms. DELICIOUS.

After, we went to his friend Mune's bar, Bar Rosie. Then we proceeded to drink jager bombs (in honor of Jersey Shore...I wish I could say that I was kidding) like we were 21. It got messy. We took a taxi home, my first time in one in Japan. They have automatic doors. And the driver was incredibly polite, unlike many of the creeps in Korea. The next morning was not enjoyable. Until I rallied and we went for ramen. Real, Japanese ramen.

Delicious! But....$10! But...I didn't pay! Matt's really sweet lady-friend, Hiroko paid for lunch.

Then she took us to the Toyokawa Inari Shrine, well-known for its red-bibbed stone foxes everywhere.

Matt and Hiroko reading their fortunes. I think mine said I would come into some money. That has yet to come true.
This place looked like the setting of a fairytale.
The famous stone foxes. We learned that the red bibs are meant to protect them from evil, not just a messy dinner.

Lady with hand-protectors from the cold.


That night, we went to eat more yakitori. I liked this place. They used sake crates for seats.

Matt's friend Mune. Smiling. Candid.

Oh, Matt.

Head and all. Delicious.

Japan cat band. I bet they can really wail.

Downtown Toyohashi on a Sunday:

Fascinating. $20 for a cantaloupe.
But! $1 for a Mexican avocado!

Best Valentine's ever! Matty cooked me dinner!

Was totally bummed to leave Japan and Matty, but I had an amazing time. And whatever...Chicago is only 2 hours from South Bend so I'll see you in a few months, Matty!

Posted by lrbergen 07:08 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

Hiking Bukhansan

we did that like...4 months ago.

Oh, readers. It has been far too long, hasn't it? I apologize for my tardiness and when I greet the "readers" I can only greet the IDEA of readers since I've been so inconsistent with my posts.

This post is meant to commemorate the great hike of '10, wherein Antony, James and I had the great idea to go hiking in the snow. It was fine going up...wearing double everything, it was relatively warm. It heated up even more on the steep stairs/trails. Going down, however, was a might bit tricky. I've always had a hard time making it down mountains (read: Falling Down a Mountain) and it was made much more difficult by the record snowfall, which totally covered any sort of trail there might have been. That, the loose snow, and the pine needles and dried wet leaves made it very difficult indeed.

Pre-hiking kimchi chigae.

This cute puppy was NOT impressed.



Korean Buddhist version of the diorama.


The house that makeoli built.

I reeeeeally regret not getting a clearer shot of this dog, who is just hanging out over the fence.

We slipped and slid down the mountain, and at the end were covered in dirt and sweaty. We had a nice hour-long cab ride back to civilization, had dinner and a couple of drinks, then called it a weekend. Wouldn't you?

Posted by lrbergen 05:57 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)


frozen fingers and sylvester stallone impressions

Due to our 2 days off of school (which we now have to make up with a 12-hour shift on Saturday...but that's another story for another time), we had a lot of free time on our hands. Monday was spent trekking through the snow (which spread up to about ...my knees) for a couple of hours. Tuesday, a buddy of mine and I went into Seoul for another photo shoot.

Now, I still don't claim to know what I'm doing with this camera. It's getting easier and I'm definitely more interested in what settings go with which lighting, the subject, the angles, the focus...there's SO MUCH to learn. But practice makes perfect, and Korea offers a lot of subjects. One such place, even in the frigid winter (at night it's -1 °F, about -18 °C...not much warmer during the day), sliding along snowy slippery streets and inadvertently dancing like James Brown and sounding like Sylvester Stallone, is Insadong. Insadong is full of souvenirs, but for the most part it's not the tacky polyester and plastic things that you can find in most parts. There are lots of art galleries, pottery shops, paper shops, hanbok stores, traditional teahouses, and antique stores. Sure, it's being infiltrated by the cheap Chinese knockoffs, but for the most part there is a really good atmosphere.

The perfect place to take pictures, right?

Besides my fingers feeling like they were being bruised anytime they brushed against ANYTHING, the fact that I couldn't feel the lower half of my body, or that when I started walking I usually accidentally got on the good foot like the hardest working man in show business...well...it was pretty great.

We ate at a very touristy Korean restaurant. There was some good lighting in there.
Kimchi pancake!
Traditional Korean dolls.
Snack seller.
Hanging stuff.
Candy sellers. (Men...would you be caught dead wearing those hats? Just curious.)

The already-narrow street was made more so by the snow piles.
A funny photo op. (James' idea...I stole it!)
Spices/mushrooms/nuts...all dried.
Lotus with a snow hat!
Motorized Egg man.
This man had just swiped some scrap metal. And was very...slowly...getting...away.



Posted by lrbergen 05:34 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

Snow-covered Seoul

SNOW DAY!!!!!!!!!

Today was the start of a new year of work. Most schools, such as ours, were to start special winter vacation English class fun with the kids...at work at 8:40, classes start 9:10.

When I stepped out this morning, sure it was snowing a lot. To the trained Hoosier eye, though, it's just another snowy day. It was hard to walk through the sidewalks...most people trudging single-file through paths made by other trudgers. The roads were no better. When I got on the subway, it was packed, but this was nothing new either. As you may recall, I played the role of sardine crushed in a tin can when I used to take the subway 40 minutes into Seoul. At school, right before classes were about to start, classes were cancelled. The end. Go home.

I recently bought a new "real" camera, the Canon EOS Xsi 450D. I was able to go around and test the thing out yesterday; I was overjoyed at the prospect of a full day out in the snow, snapping photos.

It continued to snow...and snow...and snow. Looking in the news, we had record snowfall; 25 centimeters (about 10 inches). To a Hoosier, this is a cakewalk. In Korea, the whole country shut down. The subway stayed busy all day, people were shoveling for hours, and all of us amateur photographers took the day off and ventured out. Three hours and pants soaked halfway up to my knees, shoes completely destroyed, I came home exhausted but satisfied.

Without further ado:


Snow day in Seoul! (And no school tomorrow either!)

Some other test shots from yesterday:

Posted by lrbergen 08:05 Archived in South Korea Comments (1)


chu seok at seoraksan in sokcho

So far, my get-everything-out-of-Korea-I-can attitude is off to a good start. For Chu Seok (Korean Thanksgiving) holiday this year, with only one day off of work, my friend Tina and I took a night bus to Korea's east coast. Our destination: Seoraksan, Korea's jewel of a mountain just outside of Sokcho, right on the Sea of Japan.

Sokcho is a sweet little town with beautiful clean beaches, reliable transportation (something very common here in Korea), and awesome seafood.

Our first destination was the Hwajinpo Aquarium, which the guidebook said was shaped like a whale. That is why we went...BUT! Unfortunately, the guidebook people can't tell the difference between a whale and a ship or they did a complete overhaul in the past two years. Both seem possible.

The first floor was full of dead things. Stuffed creepy seals that smelled awful, creepy mannequins with assorted limbs, and creepy stuffed and shellacked fish / aquatic life that had googly-eyes glued on in lieu of real ones. CREEPY.

Blowfish. That just ain't right.

When I said assorted limbs, I meant it.

We finally made it to the actual aquarium where there were fish that were...you know...ALIVE.
This fish was pretty cool. I can't remember the name of it though...

The boy wasn't part of the picture, but he was stunned at the sight of us, so he stayed. Yes, that is a fish tank. And yes...that is a dinner menu advertised right above it.

Some more Sokcho sights:
Hwajinpo (Hwajin Lake) from the beach.
Man fishing in the Sea of Japan.
A fish ...cannery? On the bus ride back to Sokcho proper.
Cute street lights!
Fresh fish market.
Dried...something-or-other. Some type of seafood.
There are eleventy billion kinds of kimchi. These are just some of them.
Making pajeon, Korean pancake.
Sang-tae chigae, fish stew. It was different...lots of bones, and not very filling.
Ojingeo sundae...squid stuffed with spices and other things that I don't really care to know about.

Saturday, Tina, Prut and I made it to Seoraksan for a day of hiking in the mountain air.
Jjambong, spicy seafood noodle soup. This was breakfast! (Note: it is as spicy as it looks.)
The marquee seemed out of place among the natural beauty.
The road to Biryeong Pokpo (Biryeong Waterfall), our first destination.
The natural springs are put to use to cool the canned and bottled drinks for sale.
We made it a bit too early for significant fall colors, but some of the trees were already starting to change.
It was an easy hike there. I look pretty pleased with myself.
We found a friend on the trail. One of my friends said it's like he was giving the typical Korean peace sign.
Gosh, it's beautiful here.

I kind of knew there was a big giant Buddha somewhere in Seoraksan, but it was a real surprise when we came upon it.
This couple was posing in front of the statue.
I'm not sure what these tablets were on the left...I think it was some sort of donation system. If you gave some money, you got to write a message on them.
How is this rock stack still staying up? MAGIC!
The temple of Sinheungsa / Seoraksan in the background.
Reeeeally nice.
Some lanterns. You know...no biggie.
We saw some more foliage.

The second trek we took was to Heundalbalwi, a giant 16-ton boulder near a Buddhist hermitage.
This is the view when we finally reached it.
One of the little Buddha statues on a rock.
Inside one of its temples.
Supposedly, the way it's positioned, you only need a few people to rock it back and forth. We were not those people.
As we climbed back down, we stopped and saw this amazing view.

Our last day, Tina and I tried to soak up the beach as much as possible before our 12:00 bus left for Seoul.
Matching outfits!
There were fences with barbed wire all along the beaches to keep out North Korean spies.

It was really sad to leave Sokcho...the air, the friendly people...just like with most small towns, it was hard to return to the big city.

Posted by lrbergen 05:25 Archived in South Korea Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Back in Korea!

back to work...

As you all know, I am back in Korea. I arrived about a month ago and have already started getting back into the swing of things. This trip will be different though...I plan on making my time here well-spent. A lot of the free time I have during the day has been devoted to fitness...I've started running again and some basic strength training, usually because I am bored. I have also been watching a lot of TV on the internet. Yikes.

I am also awaiting my first paycheck. I thought about it the other day, and I haven't gotten a paycheck in about 3 months! How is that possible? Lots of help from friends and family.

I'm planning on seeing more of Korea this time. I went to Busan once and Gangwon-do three times in the entire 2.5 years I was here before. Since I'm trying to save money this time, my travel bug will have to settle for domestic trips, which I am happy to take. Apparently there is some pretty amazing stuff here. Go figure.

Anyway, I have been doing things lately that I had forgotten about...unique experiences only in Korea. And since I already wrote a mass e-mail about most of these things, I will let the pictures speak for themselves.

Red peppers drying on a bridge overlooking the Tancheon.

This kimchi stew is in contention for my favorite Korean food EVER. The kimchi is buried in the ground in clay pots and ferments for 3 years. Sound disgusting? Makes for some amazing food.

I got to hang out with my friend Jay (who apparently loves Popeye) and his friends from high school.

Korean bar food is very different than American bar food. And you can get it at all hours of the night.

Like...barbecue squid.

...and seafood soup.

Maehwasu...Korean lady liquor. It's very dainty.

Cass lemon. Cass is terrible, Cass lemon is no exception.

Sam gyeop sal! YUM!

Kyelin chim...fluffy egg soup.

Kim McJong Il!

Here my friend Tina and I are having the dead skin on our feet and legs eaten by tiny little fish. It feels really crazy at first, but then you get used to it. Sometimes they even went in between toes.

At Castle Praha brewery in Gangnam, they had these decorative pigs for sale.

We went to Rainbow Hookah bar...one of my faves from before!

This was on the inside.

My dinner...Mr. Wow spicy sausage on a stick...with mustard! (Street food in Korea! AWESOME!)

There was a concert in Korea last night, called Global Gathering. I didn't really care about this concert, not a fan of electronic music, but my one of my favorite bands, Royksopp was in the lineup! Tina and I decided to...ahem...loiter outside of the grounds to hear the music. For free. We had to walk to Nanji park from World Cup Stadium and a nice Korean girl gave us directions...in Korean. If I had been able to understand, I think she was saying "But guys, you're going to have to walk for like...an hour." Here is the riverwalk by the Hapjeong River (which eventually...a long way down the road...flows into the Han River). It was a really pleasant night and we ended up making it for the last half hour of their set!

Character of a Japanese Izakaya in Hongdae.

There is a mini-bar called "Vinyl" that offers to-go cocktails in little plastic pouches.

I got a vodka lime!

Tina karaoke...with Tina!

Cute little owl bar.

Ok! That's it! My next post will most likely be after Chu Seok...we are planning on going to the East Coast, to Mt. Seoraksan for some hiking!

Posted by lrbergen 04:18 Archived in South Korea Comments (0)

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