seoul

Cambodia was the last stop for the rest of my travel companions, they flew back to California while I continued on to Korea to visit family. The first part of my time in Korea would be in Seoul though, where I didn’t have any family. I still wanted to explore Seoul, so I ended up getting a hotel room for a couple of nights in the Gangnam district (hotel Gangnam Style!!!) using my Marriott reward certificate and some points.

it was cold and snowy most of my time in seoul

When I arrived at my hotel I was not feeling very good. My stomach was still hurting from something I had eaten in Cambodia, and I had just come off of an overnight flight. And to make things worse, it was seriously cold in Seoul, it had snowed recently and the temperature stayed below freezing for the entire time I was there, so the sidewalks were constantly covered in snow and ice. I ended up sleeping most of my first day in Seoul, and was on the toilet for most of the rest of that day. It was a pretty miserable way to start my time in Korea, but thankfully my hotel room was very comfortable.

frozen pond. these ducks look like they're pretty cold.

After spending a day recovering, I went to see some of the sights in Seoul. It was almost unbearably cold for me, but I think these ducks had it even harder. They looked miserable on their frozen pond.

inside the seoul national museum

For a little while I was able to escape the cold inside the Seoul National Museum.

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My stomach was starting to feel better, so I started to eat again. I was curious about McDonald’s bulgogi burger, so I stopped by and tried one.

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McDonald’s bulgogi burger was kinda nasty in my opinion. The combination of mayonnaise and bulgogi sauce doesn’t work for me. On a friend’s advice I tried Lotteria’s rice bulgogi burger. That actually tasted pretty good. Instead of buns it had two patties made of rice smashed into a bun shape. I’ve eaten a lot of burgers that have fallen apart as I ate them, but this one literally disintegrated because the rice “bun” didn’t really hold together.

namdaemun gate

One of my favorite stops was to Namdaemun, not so much for the gate that’s there, but for the market that’s nearby. I spent a couple of hours eating my way through the market. I’ll probably devote an entire blog post just to market food in Korea.

another view from bukchon

Bukchon Hanok Village was one of my favorite spots. It’s a neighborhood of old style Korean homes, but there’s a nice view of downtown Seoul from the neighborhood, so you can take a picture here that shows both old and modern Korea. If I had more time in Seoul I’d probably spend a night here, since there are many hanok houses that serve as guest houses which have Korean cultural programs.

Seoul is incredibly huge, so it took me a long time to get to the few places I wanted to visit. That plus the fact that I wasted a day recovering meant that I didn’t get to see as much of the city as I wanted to. I definitely need to return and really explore and eat my way through the different parts of town.

angkor within the frame

When taking pictures at a place like Angkor Wat it’s very easy for all your pictures to start looking pretty similar. So to try and make things a little different from usual I took a lot of pictures that were framed by doorways or columns. Here are some of them.

towers in columns

Two towers of Angkor Wat framed by columns.

the view from the top

The view from the top of Angkor Wat.

steep steps up (i think it was bakong)

Steep steps to the top of the temple.

buddha

Many of the temples had a Buddha shrine in the center.

face in a frame

One of the many faces of Ta Prohm.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are many parts of the temple where the roots of a tree grow over the stone wall. Ta Prohm is especially famous for this.

tree framed by doorway.

Sometimes an entire tree will grow into the stone roof.

monkey guardian in a an intricately carved door frame

One of many monkey guard statues at Banteay Srei. The door frames are very intricately carved at Banteay Srei, they’re actually more detailed than the statues.

frame within a frameFrames within frames.

fallen blocks

Many sections of the temples within the Angkor Wat complex had caved in. What’s amazing is that they’re still open to the public. In America something like this would probably be closed to the public.

When I opened up my pictures from Cambodia in Lightroom, I found that I had almost 500 images. Many of them look pretty similar to each other. Framing my shots with a frame in the image helped to alleviate the monotony a bit. I found that shooting like that made it hard to get an acceptable exposure, because typically one side of the frame would be indoors and the other would be outdoors. It shows in these pictures that my camera’s dynamic range was stretched. My little Olympus OM-D camera gives up almost two stops of dynamic range to my previous Pentax K-5 camera. In most instances I don’t miss those two stops (and don’t miss lugging around an SLR), but in situations like this I sometimes miss having a camera with a larger sensor.

My dream camera at this point would be the recently announced Sony A7 II (I know my dream camera seems to change on a daily basis…) That Sony mirrorless camera seems to be the best of both worlds, a large sensor with great image quality, but still fairly compact, the only downside is the price. The lens and camera combination I’d want would be almost $2500. That’s more than I spent on my entire month of traveling, so yeah, I’ll probably stick with my OM-D for now.

candid cambodia

One thing that’s great about travel is that it takes you out of you comfort zone. Physically you’re out of your comfort zone, but also photographically travel takes me out of my comfort zone. I would say I’m more of a landscape/outdoor photographer, but traveling lets me take photos that I wouldn’t normally take. I’m not usually much of a people photographer, but something about travelling makes me more of a people watcher, so I decided to try my hand at people photography.

watercolor artist at work

One thing that impressed me about Cambodia was all the artists. Every market in Cambodia had artwork for sale, and a lot of it was very impressive.

leather work

There’s also a lot of artisans, and they seem to start at a very young age, like this boy working with leather.

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Sadly there are many people who were injured from land mines. At several places around the Angkor temple complex you can hear bands formed from people handicapped by mines.

resting in the shadeSometimes you take a picture that you think tells one story, but find later that the story is completely different. I took this picture of what I thought was a guy relaxing alone with his guide book at the top of the temple steps. It wasn’t until I got home and saw the picture on my computer monitor that I saw the crutches.

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I’m not sure what the story is behind these kids. At several of the temples I saw kids playing alone. I didn’t see any parents, and they weren’t begging for money, they were oblivious to all the tourists around them.

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There were also many kids selling souvenirs. They were obviously not oblivious to tourists. They would literally follow you all the way back to your tuk tuk. I felt bad for this one (partly cuz I took her picture while she was following me) so I bought some post cards from her. Later on at our hotel I saw a flyer that explained why we shouldn’t buy from these kids.

buddhist ascetism aint what it used to be

Possibly because many of the Angkor temples are Buddhist there seemed to be a lot of monks around. To me it’s a bit strange to see a monk with a tablet and a cellphone is in his hand. Buddhist asceticism isn’t what it used to be.

freshly blended fruit shakes

At the night markets there are a lot of fruit shake stalls that will blend you a shake for a $1. They have Jamba Juice beat on price and taste, and it was especially refreshing in the warm and humid climate in Cambodia.

whole family on a motorcycle

We saw a lot of interesting sights from the back seat of our tuk tuk. The families on motorcycles especially amazed me. Back home a 250cc motorcycle would be considered under-powered, but here we could see entire families no one 125cc motorcycle.

These candid photos are a bit different from my usual photos. Something I realized is that I missed focus on a lot of these pictures, I should’ve taken my time and focused on the subjects’ eyes. But then in taking my time I’d probably lose the candid feel of the photos. So I think I just need to continue to practice at getting faster at focusing but at the same time staying less noticeable.

siem reap

The last stop for us in southeast Asia was Siem Reap in Cambodia. From here everyone else would travel back home to California, while I would continue on to Korea to visit relatives. Siem Reap served as a great finale to a trip that had been full of incredible experiences.

the road outside our hotel.

For some reason I had expected Siem Reap to be pretty undeveloped, with dirt roads everywhere. But when we arrived I was surprised to find that everywhere we went there were paved roads. Well, everywhere except for the street that our guest house was on. For some reason the street that we were staying at was still a dirt road, with chickens and stray dogs roaming around. When we rounded the corner to our guesthouse for the first time I was thinking, “Really?! What just happened? This does not look promising…We literally went from first world to third world when we turned onto the street our guesthouse was on…” The guesthouse turned out to be really nice though, with comfortable air conditioned rooms, and super friendly staff. There even was a nice swimming pool.

riding to the angkor complex by tuk tuk

Just about everyone who visits Siem Reap is there to view Angkor Wat, so the day after our arrival in Siem Reap we took a tuk-tuk to the Angkor Wat complex. A tuk-tuk is a carriage attached to the back of a motorcycle. Riding in one takes some getting used to, because there are of course no seat belts, and the streets can be chaotic.

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This is the famed Angkor Wat. Apparently many people wake up super early to take a picture of the sunrise here, but we were too lazy to wake up that early. We heard it was overrated anyways, because the bazillion other people there trying to take the same sunrise picture at the same time kinda ruins the experience.

asian tourists seemed to be everywhere.

The temple complex definitely was crowded, especially with Asian tourists. Apparently (and surprisingly) Koreans are the biggest tourist group in Siem Reap, followed closely by the Chinese.

climbing the steps to the top of angkor wat

There are mobs of people at all the famous tourist sites, but the biggest crowd was at the steps to the top of Angkor Wat.

first view of the bayon. this ended up being my favorite temple.

Angkor Wat is the temple that most people have heard of, but there are actually quite a lot of temples in the Angkor Wat complex. My favorite within the complex was this one, the Bayon.

more faces

The Bayon is interesting because all of the four sided towers have faces carved into each of the sides.

nose to nose

You can get nose to nose with the faces of the Bayon. Okay not really, but our guide pointed out a bunch of interesting spots to take photos, like this one where it does sorta look like you’re nose to nose.

incredibly detailed carvings on one of the towers at banteay srei

Another of my favorite temples was Banteay Srei. This one actually wasn’t in the Angkor Wat complex, it actually was a fairly long tuk-tuk ride away from where most of the rest of the temples are. It’s worth making the trek out there though, because it’s a bit different from the rest in that the sandstone is a brighter pink color, and the carvings in the sandstone are much more intricate.

ye old market in siem reap

The temples are the main attraction in Siem Reap, but the markets are pretty interesting too. These markets have a lot of stuff that is unique to Siem Reap, such as beautiful oil paintings of the Angkor Wat temples, or paintings of the floating villages on the lake outside of Siem Reap.

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The night markets were especially interesting to me, because you can get a lot of food for cheap, and there’s some really interesting and exotic foods. I tried this snake on a stick, and it only cost me one dollar. I also had frog and cricket, though I wasn’t brave enough to try the tarantula. It was all pretty cheap too, though I ended up paying for it later in toilet time because I ended up with some pretty bad diarrhea by the time I left Siem Reap.

Siem Reap was a great finale to an amazing journey, I really enjoyed my stay there. Exploring the temples was amazing, the food was cheap and good, the night life seemed fun (and not at all sleazy like it can be in certain parts of Asia), the only thing that put a damper on the enjoyment was the stomach aches and diarrhea I had. If I’m here again I think I’ll stay away from the snake and frogs and insects.

ah phuket, lets go diving

Landing in Phuket was a bit of a culture shock for me. I knew Thailand was not going to be as developed as Singapore or Europe, but I wasn’t prepared for how different it would be. In Europe and in Singapore transit was pretty easy, there were subway stations or trains for the most part to get us where we wanted to go. For the most part it was a matter of just looking up subway lines on Google maps.

Landing in Phuket immediately felt different. When we landed at the small airport in Phuket, we had no clue how to get to our hotel. There’s no train or subway. What they did have were these minivans and taxis. We decided to go with a minivan, mainly because it was much more cheaper than the taxi, but also because it seemed like everyone else was picking the minivan as well. So we went with the minivan, and found that it wouldn’t leave until it was completely full. And then before the minivan would drop off any of its passengers at their respective hotels, it would make a stop at a tour agency to try and sell us tour packages. We had already planned out our days in Thailand, so thankfully it wasn’t too hard a sell. We really only had two full days in Thailand, the first of which was dedicated to scuba diving.

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This might be the first selfie I’ve ever posted on this site, me and my dive buddy Tim. Unfortunately for us the one time I post a selfie is the one time it’s impossible to not look like a dork. Being underwater makes for an automatic bad hair day, and having a scuba regulator in your mouth causes extreme duck face.

DCIM101GOPROMy first impression of our divemaster wasn’t too great. He introduced himself as Philippe.  He barely said anything to us in the beginning, and on the boat ride to our dive site he basically went off by himself and chain smoked. But he actually turned out to be pretty cool. He was a diver for the French navy, and had served a tour in Iraq. (I didn’t know that the French navy had any part in the Iraq war– you learn something new every day.) When our boat started to get close to the dive site, he started to get friendlier and went over the safety protocols and dive site information with us. And at the end of the trip he talked about his life as a divemaster in Phuket, which actually sounded like a pretty sweet life.

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Philippe had a little pointer with him that he would use to point out stuff to us from time to time. Unfortunately for the most part I didn’t really understand what he was pointing at. He did point at some cool stuff that I did see though, we saw a little string ray that was camouflaged in the sand, and we saw a little parasitic fish that was latched onto a larger host fish. Unfortunately I didn’t get any pictures of that stuff, for some reason every time I pulled my GoPro camera out of my buoyancy control jacket while he was pointing I got nothing.

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This dive trip resulted in a number of firsts for me. It was my first time diving from a boat. It was a bit scary at first, taking that big first step off the back of the boat. And dropping down to the bottom was a bit scary at first too, since it was my first dive in a couple of years. When we got to the sandy bottom our divemaster had us practice regulator recovery and mask clearing, which eased my mind, and as we started swimming around the bottom I began to relax a bit. Getting back on the boat was a learning experience too. We had to hang onto the ladder and pull off our fins, meanwhile the boat is rocking back and forth and there’s a heavy tank on your back making things a bit more challenging.

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Another first for me, swimming through an obstacle.

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Being underwater all day made us crave fish for dinner. We found a little outdoor seafood restaurant that seemed fairly popular, we stopped there and ordered some fish. It turned out to be pretty awesome, it was covered with aromatics, lime, chili, garlic and cilantro and steamed to perfection.

elephant high five

Our second day in Phuket was spent doing an elephant tour. I’m not usually big on organized tours, but the high five with the elephant at the start of the tour made me think that this would be pretty awesome.

the amazing view during the ride

The tour started with an elephant ride. During the ride there was a beautiful view of the bay. I think one of the islands at the far end of the bay was where we had gone diving the day before.

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The tour wasn’t all just elephants, it was a cultural tour of Thailand. They had Thai cooking demonstrations with amazing fresh made curry powder, along with coconut oil making, rice farming, and rubber harvesting demonstrations.

water buffalo tuk tuk

They even had a water buffalo tuk-tuk to ride.

thai buffet on a junk boat

The tour ended with a buffet on a boat ride in the bay.

patong beach

After the tour we walked around a bit to work off the buffet. We explored the touristy areas of Patong (the town in Phuket we were staying in) and walked on Patong beach. There are a ton of tourists from all over the place, but it seemed like the majority of tourists were European.

My first impression of Phuket wasn’t too great, but by the end of my time there I was enjoying it. I can see myself coming back. The food is awesome and cheap, and the scenery is beautiful. There’s not too much of the shady go-go bars and massage places that I heard other parts of Thailand has, it’s definitely more family friendly, especially if you stay away from the center of Patong. And apparently the diving is pretty good, our divemaster was telling us that the Similan islands which we could reach by liveaboard boat from Phuket has some world class diving.