Saturday, 31 May 2008

One for the Road

At Incheon International Airport, breakfast before boarding the plane.
Simple noodles, but I think it lacks the "soul" factor.
Regardless, at least we did not have to eat the lousy breakfast on the plane.

1.30 pm, Saturday, 31st May 2008, one week after we started on this adventure (eh, make that second honeymoon). On transit at Hong Kong Airport to connect to Bangkok, where we have about 4 hours to kill, and then finally to home sweet home. Vivian has been having fun cooking for the brother and sister (even making chicken pie) but is glad mom and dad are coming home to take over the cooking. Ah, it was great not having to cook and clean the house for one week. Tomorrow, I got to go clear up some more stuff from the "old house".

A piece of advice. Next time you book a flight, find a route with not too many stops. And find one which does not make you go up one floor and go through all that security screening. It was a last minute booking otherwise we would have gone straight from KL to Seoul. Also having so many stops means you have so many more meals. Everytime your get on the plane for the next sector, you get a meal. Too much food means too much waste, which means more global warming. Oh, but I notice the stewardesses collecting the plastic cups back separately - I wonder if they send them for recycling.

Last thoughts on Seoul? Wife says Seoul is OK. Food was great except for the BBQ 2. Taxi drivers also great, except for the one idiot who sent us to the wrong Gate (West Gate instead of East Gate). Hotel was also great, and staff generally helpful, including driving us the short distance to the Airport Bus Limousine this morning. Incheon Airport looks OK, except no free WIFI and that is absolutely disappointing since Korea boasts very high rate of Internet broadband penetration of 1 Gigabits.

Will we go back again? Hmmm, ask me that again. Probably yes, if only we get noodles everyday.

Friday, 30 May 2008

More Soul-searching in Seoul

Half the population of Korea lives in Seoul. So you can imagine the huge numbers of people everywhere. And most of them seems to be in trading or small businesses. Its incredible. Six to 10 floors inside a building all divided into tiny real estate, each with a business operated mostly by one person, mostly of the gentle gender. I think it is excellent. In Kuala Lumpur, you find the rich businessmen paying through their nose for rental and employing foreign workers or young girls and boys as cheap labour (and keeping obscene profits).

Today was a little weird. For a start the whole day was chilly and even quite cold. And misty. So it was a lousy day to go up the Namsan Tower. If you are not part of a tour group, skip the Tower on misty day. I was also quite pissed off with the staff the Tower. The signs are poor and even though there were nobody else waiting, they insisted we had to go one floor down to take the ride back down. Worst of all, they can't even speak a word of English. I told them off, but I am sure they didn't understand a word I said.

We then took a taxi ride to the Gyeongbokgung Palace. We watched the changing of guards. Since there are no more emperors and by the way the "guards" uphold themselves, I am guessing they are all actors. The palace itself is worth a visit with some pretty scenes. We decided one palace was enough and head for lunch and then to Dongdaemun Market for more shopping.

This is a very, very, very old tree at the Gyeongbokgung Palace.
The base of the trunk is bearly connected to the ground. It must be a very historic tree to deserve such care.
This tree is near the part of the Palace where the Korean language was invented.

Trying to measure up to being Imperial Guards.

We finally took the plunge and conscripted for the make-believe Imperial Army.
Costumes are free. No salary or any other benefits.

Lunch was great at a basement restaurant run by two ladies. The place was deserted but the simple Udong noodle soup tasted great. No meat. Seaweeds and some veges.

Let's see, how many times have I eated noodles in one week in Korea?
Hhmm, I can't remember ... I think almost once a day.

We then took a taxi and showed the driver the map indicating the market we wanted to go to. On the ride my wife expressed surprise at how fast the meter was running. Well, the driver dropped us (supposedly) at the Dongdaemun, which means East Gate. So we got down and started exploring. There was a nice little park and it led us to a prison built by the Japanese (the oppressors) to imprison and torture and execute Korean patriots in the early part of 20th Century. Coming out of the prison, we starting looking for the market and we found one but it didn't look like the one we expected. After some on-the-street consultation we were point in the "right direction" but told take a taxi. But looking at the map, we thought it was just down the road. So, we walked and even went through a tunnel. Suspecting that we were in the wrong direction, we consulted cop who confirm the direction but gave us an X with this two index fingers indicating we can't walk there. So, it was quite perplexing. We decided to hop into a taxi. Suddenly, we realised that we were back where we were this morning on the way to the Palace whereas we should be quite far away if we were near Dongdaemun Market. Apparently the earlier taxi driver was either a sneek or had no clue where the market was, or didn't know how to a read map, or just plain cheated us. Moral of the story? There's always one bad apple some where.

Dongdaemun is really big. And we discovered that the Cheong Gye Cheon river rehabilitation is really a big project extending a long way from where we were yesterday. If you ever looking for the Cheong Gye Cheon, just head for Dongdaemun market. You will find it there too.

We first saw this fascinating spectacle at a department store carpark entrance in Chun Cheong.
The young lady is all dressed up and cars entering the carpark are greeted with an elaborate low bow.
Wow, the customers coming by car must be big spenders.

For dinner we decided to go back to the Dongdaemun area for Korean BBQ. And we went to the shop with the most customers. Well, what can I say. Sometimes you win sometimes you lose. Dinner wasn't as great as yesterday. I think the server overcooked the beef. And the taste wasn't that good. Incidentally, both our server last night and tonight could speak Mandarin so that was quite helpful for ordering. It's really a painful task trying to order food in Korea.

Korean BBQ 2 - not up to expectations.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Food is the Soul of Asia

Oh, the MyeongDong Gyoza noodles in thick chicken broth was just heavenly. A huge bowl each and of course I got extras from my wife's bowl. She found the shop through a tourist flyer (now there are some things you can believe in those promos). Had it for lunch right after arriving in Seoul.

Then started walking, heading for Namdaemun Market (the name means South Gate). Incredible array of stuff. Everything you will ever need. The play is huge. What I found really interesting is that each trader occupies only a tiny piece of real estate - very small eco footprint.

This is all the space she needs to make a living. Small is beautiful.
Guess which dress my wife bought?

Delicious fresh fruits? Think again.

Those ear rings would make Vivian really happy.
Sorry, they only sell in 100s.

On the picture frame was stuck a price of 10,000 won.
When my wife enquired, the women punched 12,000 won on her calculator.
We bought it for 10,000.

After walking around for several hours, we started looking for a coffee place just to rest the legs. The coffee was lousy and the ice kacang was not as good either. We then decided to take a taxi to the famous Chung Gye Stream (spelling provided earlier) - an urban river rehabilitation project we had heard about at the Chun Cheong meeting. The project was initiated by the current President of Korea who was then Mayor of Seoul and the Director of IUTC was actively involved in the project. Am not sure if it can be called a urban eco-restoration project but they have cleaned up the river, threw away the covers, constructed nice walkways and planted some riverine vegetation. No birds, fishes or insects yet - may take some time for that to happen. The water is crystal clear, with a slight pungent smell but everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, some even sticking their feet into the water.

Cheong Gye Cheon (the correct spelling) river rehabilitation (above and below).
I wonder if they can come and clean up that filthy Sungei Pinang in George Town?

The soft evening sun provided incredible opportunities for headshots.

Just so you don't think we only eat noodles in Korea, below was our dinner of Korean BBQ. Actually it was more like a earthen hot plate. Fabulous meal. Highly recommended. The waitress refused to take our order for one portion (to share between the two of us) - we wanted to order another dish of noodles (yeah, OK my wife is pampering to my crazy fascination with noodles). Well, it was so good we finished the whole lot of two portions of beef. Wrapped in fresh lettuce or with rice ... uhmmmm, yummy.

Tomorrow, we head for the Namsan Park. And more noodles for lunch.

Heart & S(e)oul

Now in the heart of Seoul. Arrived from Chun Cheong by express bus - took about 1 and half hours, cost less than 9,000 Won. Bus ride a little nauseous but smooth. We were told that the bus station which we would arrive in would be only three stations from the hotel if we take the subway and maybe 1 hour by taxi. Well we ended up at a bus station about 11 or 12 stops away by the metro subway with one change of line.

Figuring out where the substation is also a small challenge. No signs and most don't speak English. The trick to is to ask young people - they are more like to be English-speaking. They are helpful, even if we have to point here and there and keep repeating the name of the destination.
And yes, so far, Seoul is the Soul of Asia (let's give them that). We observe people giving up their seats to senior citizens very promptly on the trains. The trains are spanking clean. And yes, the signs have English and the announcement of stops have English. And most wonderful for commuters is you don't have to get out of the stations to connect to another line. Every train line is integrated (I think there are some 10 separate lines colour coded for easy identification).

The hotel in Seoul looks great. Rooms look ultra modern and my wife got it "cheap" off the Internet. Well not cheap but on special offer at USD190 for two nights. Of course, what is Seoul without free WIFI.
Now, to see if we can find more souls in Seoul.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Chun Cheong, where everyone waits for the green light

Looks like an Imperial Feast, doesn't it. Ah, a lot of it was uneaten ...

Yes, we are in the land of Korean TV drama. Chun Cheong is about one and a half hours from Seoul surrounded by mountains (and snow in winter). When I was busy in the Expert Group Meeting organised by UN-Habitat and the International Urban Training Centre, my wife visited Nami Island where the famous scenes of snow covered avenue lined with pine trees from Winter Sonata were filmed. I am told Japanese, Taiwanese and even Malaysians are crazy about visiting the Island. It seems the foreigners are more intrigued with Nami Island than Koreans - "it's just an ordinary island" was what the Koreans will probably tell you.

One of the things we noticed in Chun Cheong is that the drivers are very calm. No mad rushing around (except for the occasionaly idiot), drivers slow down and wait for pedestrians and my wife says the taxi drivers are very polite (I haven't taken a taxi here yet). And everybody, yes everybody waits for the green light at the pedestrian crossing. Even when there are no cars zooming past. We were a little embarrassed in the beginning when we tried to cross the street the Malaysian way - anywhere, regardless of what colour the light is. Then peer pressure kicked in and we now patiently wait for the green light. But of course the drivers seems to have no hesitation parking along the yellow line.

Traditional Korean food is quite a challenge. In fact, we had Korean food in Penang some time back and vowed never to have Korean dinner again. A lot of it is "weird" - salty, spicy, sweet, sour - quite confusing. But if you know what to eat, Korean food is delicious. One big problem is that we have not met any shop owner who speaks even a little English and the menu are all in Korean. So, we have get up and go point at the pictures and fake food on display. My wife ended up with pig's blood in a soup once.

Me and My Noodles!
This one was good. Seafood and udon. The bowl comes piping hot.

Ais Cacang Korean Style. It was very good.
We had it at a brand new department store were everyone clear their own table after eating.

My wife discovered Dakgalbi through the Internet and it was our first lunch in Chun Cheong.
Highly recommended. The whole street is full of shops selling dakgalbi.
From the left : Moong Nah, Me, Kim, Cheryl and Bernhard.

We walked around the underground mall after dinner and my wife decided to pick up a few things
After paying the cashier kept indicating the plastic bag and giving a look which said "do you want the plastic bag?"
Yes, you guessed it. You have to pay for plastic bags in Korea (50 won, about 15 sens).
On the roadside we noticed bags of thrash are segregated into various types of recyclable.

Korea is one of the wealthiest nation in Asia but I see a lot of old ladies selling their small stock of vegetables by the roadside near the market - which is good because they are independent and active. And lots of old men and women with their tricycles collecting recyclable cardboards - which is also good because recyclables don't end up in the landfill.

Tomorrow morning we leave for Seoul, the Soul of Asia. See you there!

Thursday, 22 May 2008

They're so sweet ... and cute

No, no, no, not this. This is nasi kerabu, a traditional dish of Kelantan. Vegetables and fishy-salty sauce.
We visited a primary school which in Kota Baru where a group of USM scientists and doctors are working to improve the education system through brain-based activities.

Now, here's the sweet and cute ones.
One is a Professor (guess which one). The other is a future Professor.
More sweet and cute ones below.

The group of participants from various RCEs (let's see, they are from Africa, Philippines, Denmark, India ... and Malaysia) with students from the Zainab 2 Primary School in Kota Baru.

Asma with more sweet ones.

Dzul and wife working with the kids.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Moving House - are you superstitious?

The red banner is what Chinese call "Ang Chai".
They hang it over the main door when they move into a new house and during Chinese New Year.
My children tells me that its to scare away monsters. I wanted it for the kick of being "traditional".
Our curtain supplier gave it to us with compliments, after I made some noise about the expensive curtains.

The traditional Chinese will consult the stars and the almanacks to find the most auspicious day to move house. So while we were having dinner, my nephew-in-law, who is also my renovation contractor and is ultra supertitious fished out his handphone, checked the Chinese Calendar and said that my moving date (Sunday 18 May 2008) was no good. We have moved houses quite a number of times and never bothered to move with the stars and the moon. Damn, but when someone tells you its not auspicious, what do you do? So, my daughter suggested that we do a "test sleep" a few days in advance, specifically, on friday night. So, technically, we would have fooled the spirits.

By friday afternoon, the satellite TV was in. Broadband and landline fixed and operational (thanks to my wife doing all the magic). Meanwhile, my neighbour is carrying out major renovations and extensions with a huge pile-driver pounding 12 40-foot concrete piles and in the process shaking heaven and earth, and our house.

By mid-morning of Saturday, my nephew-in-law (NIL) announced that I am about to strike lottery. I looked at him puzzled - I never win any lotteries. He pointed out that water was leaking from the master bedroom toilet down through the Astro piping right down to my newly mocha-painted living room. He gave me various possible scenarios, including the original contractor doing a shoddy job with the waterproofing to the vibration from the piling next door breaking the seal and, the worst, a water pipe has been twisted and leaking. He knew what to do - wipe the whole toilet dry and wait ... if the dripping eventually stops, we are in luck. We just need to seal the edges of the bathroom with silicon. Else, all hell will break loose ... actually, there will be a lot of haking to find the source of the leaky pipe. Meanwhile, we can't bath in our beautiful bathroom.

So, we continued with the moving. Sunday would be the big day. Luckily, my sister-in-law's husband who has a pickup truck and handy with the drill offered to help. So I woke up first, washed up and went down to watch some TV. Guess what? The signal appeared to be weak. Damn again. They just installed it 2 days ago. I had a similar encounter in the earlier house were I had to go up on the carporch to adjust the dish. Not a good start isn't it?

Close to noon, the cavalry arrived and we started moving the big stuff like the couch, flat-screen TV, dining tables, electric piano and stuff. When we got the piano in place, I told my daughter to test it. Great. Everything OK. Then the 2-door fridge was allowed to settle down before being switched on. Just before have late lunch close to 3 pm (pizza), my NIL ceremoniously connected the fridge, turned on the switch and ... Pop! the power tripped. That led to speculation that water had seeped into the wiring and motors. And I remembered that there was an automatic ice-maker inside which we had not empty its contents before moving. Luckily for me, the NIL and sister-in-law's husband are electricians. So they went on a hunt to find the source. And the electric power must have tripped 10 times. Meanwhile, we set up the washing machine. What do you think? Hah, it was working perfectly. Meanwhile, all our frozen items are going into the thrash. The detective work continued way passed dinner time. Eventually, they zeroed in on the heating element in the freezer as the culprit. So, we went for seafood dinner (as promised, for their "services") and came back to confirm the post-mortem. And yes, for sure it is the heating element, nothing to do with the water. And this could have been caused by having to switch off the fridge the night before .... and. ... and ... (well, you get the drift). But we now don't have a fridge. We have to eat out. And we can't buy any stuff which needs refrigeration. Man, life without the ice-box can be a little tough.

And in the midst of all this, my NIL said "I told you the date is no good!". As for the ASTRO, apparently my NIL had taken out the cable the day before when he moved the TV to check on the water leak the day before. On Sunday morning, I only connected the power supplies without plugging in the ASTRO cable. It was hilarious. Luckily I didn't call up ASTRO to blast them for shoddy work.

So, what do think? You gonna look for an auspicious date the next time you move house?

Monday, 12 May 2008

Dream House ... and nightmares

See my sad face? I have collected alot of "junk" over the last 10 years or so, since coming back from the US. Been staying in this rented double-storey semi-D since 1995 May. So that's 12 years renting a house. At one time, my relatives (especially) and friends kept asking why I don't buy my own house. Afterall, civil servants pay only 4% interest on the housing loan. Belief it or not, I didn't want to buy a house which we don't like to live in. The ones we like are too expensive. OK, OK, my brother-in-law says I am just trying to rationalise my irrational thinking. Well, I finally bought our dream house. It's so big my daughter is getting a lot of exercise cleaning the windows. Talking about windows, I have lots of complaints about architects who design buildings without thinking about how difficult it is to maintain it. We are still figuring out how to clean the windows on the first floor without resorting to spiderman antics. BTW, old newspapers really gets the glass windows sparkling clean.

Anyway back to the sour face (up there). On my right hand is over 15 years of 3.5 inch diskettes which I have finally decided I should send to the recycling facility. That's about one foot high. My daughter commented that all that could go into a tiny thumb drive (or USB drive or pen drive, whatever you want to call it). On my left hand is an old mass-storage device with a capacity of only 44 MB! Yes, the world is shrinking. Hey, that ink-jet printer in the box was bought in 1992 in Seattle. That was used to print my Ph.D. thesis. Hey, shouldn't I keep that? Nah ...

And bags ... too many to count. On the left are many from my attendance at conferences. Conference organisers should stop giving people bags. Just give them a USB drive will all the papers in it. So, those are going to the recyling centre. Those on the right? Maybe we will keep them.

Am on annual leave, cleaning up the new house and moving stuff over in stages. We do it the quick and easy way. Since the new house is just across the main road on the other side, we just take the clothes from the cupboard (hangers and all), put them in big bags, then quickly drive over to the new house and put them on the new cabinets before they get crumpled. Neat huh? I can imagine the nightmare of having to neatly pack and cushion all the breakables in boxes and then moving in a big lorry.

Talking about more nightmares. Our contractors and construction workers are the worst in terms of habits. They buy takeaway food, eat at my house and throw the styrofoam containers in my garden like it was a rubbish dump. Same goes with plastic drinks bags. Cigarette butts. They drip paint and cement on the floor ... but don't worry (they say) they will clean it up later (right!). Do you know that electricians get shocked (electrocuted) all the time? The one working in my house had to go for a CT scan the other day when he got zapped (not in my house, not that it makes any difference).

More nightmares? Have you ever noticed how much your house will cost by the time you pay up, 15 or 25 years down the road? About double. So if you buy say, a RM350,000 house, plus interest and insurance, you will end up paying about RM700,000 or more. Does that make sense? Who's making the money? And we still thinking real estate is a hedge against inflation. Or worst, real estate as an investment. How are the future generation going to afford houses?

Photos courtesy of Vivian.