Jeju: The Volcanic Island

So it’s been a while since my last post. I’ve been pretty busy with my thesis and stuff lately so I’ve neglected posting anything new here. But I’ve hit a bit of a lull in my work so it seems like a good time to add some content!

I’ve been living in South Korea for almost three years now. It’s pretty crazy when I think back to my time here. It really doesn’t feel like three years, but numbers don’t lie. In my time here I’ve visited a bunch of places, and aside from the south-eastern corner of the peninsula I’ve been all over this country. So, I’ve decided to write a few posts about three of my favourite places to visit, starting with Jeju Island, the largest island in Korea.

As an island south of the mainland, it’s a lot more tropical.

I’ve only been to Jeju once, and that was actually pretty much this time two years ago. I really enjoyed my time there and always planned on going back, but alas I haven’t went back in the time since. Of all the places in Korea though, Jeju is definitely the one place where I actually want to go back to.

After living in Korea for so long, one thing that becomes pretty apparent is that every city is like the same. Seoul is obviously the big city and Busan has the ocean and the beaches, so they’re the most unique. But a lot of the cities just feel.. similar. All the buildings in the cities here are built relatively recently, and probably around the same time too, and they’re all just boring grey buildings. You can go to a completely different city and not even know it sometimes since so many parts of the cities in this country look alike.

This kinda extends to the nature aspects as well. When I first got here I was really amazed at the Korean scenery since it actually looks pretty nice. Lots of rolling mountains, the ocean, and a decent amount of forest cover. But again, the country is quite small so the entire country looks the same. There’s just no variety. Coming from Canada, which is obviously a big country, we have a lot of variety in our landscapes which is something I enjoy. Variety is pretty key, and I think that Jeju is the most visually distinct when it comes to Korea.

Mountains in Jeju are a bit spikier looking.

Being a volcanic island situated south of the mainland, Jeju actually looks and feels different. The air is a bit clearer, the mountains are a bit spikier, and the small villages and towns also have a bit of a different feel to them as well. Pretty neat atmosphere.

Of course, you have to leave the city. Jeju City was pretty boring to me to be honest, since it just reminded me of any other coastal city in Korea. But, the naturey sightseeing spots in Jeju are actually really nice and it’s by far the main reason why you would want to go to the island to begin with. Sure, they also have random stuff like the African Museum of Art, but I’m not really looking to check that stuff out if I visit a volcanic island in Korea though you know?

The main thing in Jeju is Hallasan, the tallest mountain in Korea. It also happens to be a volcano in the center of the island, so it’s hard to miss. There’s hiking trails that go up the mountain, and despite it not being a very difficult hike up, I’m still not sure if it was worth it.

The crater lake at the top of Hallasan.

It took us four and a half hours to go up, and then another three hours coming back down. I’ve done my fair share of Korean hikes but man, that was a long hike.

The actual crater lake at the top was.. disappointing. Plus there were a ton of flies when we went so it was really gross cause they kept flying around. But I do admit the mountain itself is quite scenic and the fact that you could turn around and look over the island at the top was pretty fantastic. On a nice day you can even see the edge of the island, which we were lucky enough to see. There’s something pretty awesome about seeing that far away and actually getting to see where the landmass ends.

Jeju pretty much positions itself as the volcanic alternative to the mainland. The lava tubes is one of the major attractions as well, and definitely pretty neat. It’s not mindblowing, but it was still pretty cool to walk through this cave and check out the lava formations and stuff.

Lava formations, kinda neat.

It wasn’t the first time I’ve been in a cave but it was the first time I’ve been to a volcanic cave though, which was cool.

When I went to Jeju I pretty much just hit up a lot of the main touristy areas since that was the easiest way to do it. But now that I’ve been there once I kinda wanna go back and just, explore a bit more. Either by renting a car or even biking around the island. Jeju has a lot of cool stuff that’s heavily featured in tourist resources, but I have a feeling that there’s a lot of random cool stuff to just discover on your own, which is something I want to check out if I ever go back.

Like we also went to Udo as well, which is a small island off the coast of Jeju. So like, the Jeju of Jeju. We ended up taking a bus around the island but you could also rent scooters or whatever, which in retrospect seems like a more fun option. Having the freedom to just explore is pretty nice.

Even the algae is different.

So in conclusion Jeju is nice. It honestly might be my favourite sightseeing area in Korea, so I do recommend it to anyone that enjoys traditional culture and nature. If possible, rent a car or some other form of transportation that gives you a bit more freedom though, I think that’s what I would do. When we were there we ended up covering maybe half of the island, but not fully of course. If I ever go back I’d definitely want to check out the western and southern sides of the island.

Taipei: The Food City

About a month ago I took a few days off from the lab and went to Taiwan. I figured since I was in Korea, I should make the most of it and visit as many Asian countries as I can. Since Taiwan is relatively close (and small), it seemed like a good place to go to for a short break. I also wanted to go because I’ve heard good things about Taiwan, and after living in Korea for so long I needed a break and just get some Chinese food too.

I wanted to write a post about it soon after I got back but I had a lot of work to do for my lab so I never had the time or energy for it.

But, I’m writing one now so it’s ok. My trip was mostly centered around Taipei, but we took a short day trip out to Jiufen and Shifen as well. Despite the title of this post centered around Taipei, I’ll talk about those two places as well because they’re close enough and don’t really deserve a separate blog post (despite being amazing).

Taipei skyline taken from Elephant Mountain.
Taipei skyline taken from Elephant Mountain.

So despite only being in Taiwan for a few days, I had a pretty good time. Taipei was a nice city and honestly seems like a great place to live. It has all the things you’d think of when you think of a big Asian city, but it feels more.. free? than other cities. Aside from the fact that it seems incredibly liberal, like I don’t think I have seen so many openly gay people ever, the population of Taipei is lower than a lot of other cities like Tokyo and Seoul, so it doesn’t feel as crowded and there’s more open space.

I like open space, open space is nice.

The actual city was pretty interesting too. Some parts of it look like they’re straight out of Japan, which I guess makes sense if you consider historical elements, and others look very Chinese, which again, makes sense. There’s a pretty interesting blend of cultures in Taiwan and as a dude that loves Chinese and Japanese food, I honestly felt very at home in Taiwan.

Ximending looks like it could've just been some part of Tokyo.
Ximending looks like it could’ve just been some part of Tokyo.

The food selection in Taipei is fantastic. Taiwan has like, everything. They have a ton of restaurants catering to different types of food, and to me it was especially important that they had so many different types of Chinese food. They even have a lot of street markets with a lot of random street food that is both cheap and delicious. Just walking down the many street markets they have, sampling just some of everything, is an adventure in itself.

Everywhere, from the restaurants to marts, had good food. And I love me some cheap and delicious food. You could eat different food for days, even weeks on end probably, and still have a ton to eat. I wish I had more time just to eat more food really.

But I guess if you weren’t interested in food, then you’d probably go sightsee right? Well, to me, Taipei wasn’t that exciting for sightseeing.

Seeing snakes outside of snake restaurants is pretty cool.
Seeing snakes outside of snake restaurants is pretty cool.

Normally when I travel I like to see and experience things that I can’t find anywhere else. But when I went to Taipei I didn’t really have that feeling. A lot of times when I was walking around and looking at stuff, I kept having feelings of Hong Kong or Japan, and nothing really struck me as “super Taiwanese”, if you know what I mean. The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall was probably the most unique thing I saw in Taipei, and despite that being really cool by itself, it didn’t really blow me away like the Burj Khalifa in Dubai or the Gardens by the Bay in Singapore.

Taipei 101 is also heralded as one of the big landmarks in Taipei, and I do admit it kinda looks cool, but it’s not that special. I was only in Taipei for a few days so I probably did miss some stuff, but I think I covered the major things when I was there. So in that way, the trip was a bit disappointing. That said, we did a one day trip out of Taipei and that was really awesome and definitely the highlight of my trip.

The atmosphere in Shifen is amazing.
The atmosphere in Shifen is amazing.

The first part of that excursion was to Shifen, a small town that is known for their sky lanterns. A lot of tourists go out to this small place in the middle of essentially nowhere to write their dreams and wishes on lanterns, and then light a fire and see it rise up into the sky. It does sound super touristy, but man, that was a cool place. The whole mix of the sky lanterns being constantly launched into the sky and the people hopping around on a train track was really unreal. It was even cooler when a train did come because people had to like, evacuate the track, which sounds kinda dumb but just adds to the experience.

I really enjoyed that. It was fun to write stuff with my friends, and even more fun to see our lantern fly into the sky. That was cool and I highly recommend it.

Afterwards we went to Jiufen, which is a nearby town that many people say was the inspiration for the town in Spirited Away. Going at night definitely makes the experience a lot nicer, but I think that it wasn’t really that special. Taipei has a lot of night markets already, and the old town in Jiufen just kinda felt like a more traditional looking night market. The “landmark” there, the tea shop, was kinda cool I guess, but I’m not sure if it’s really worth the trip out there.

The Ah Mei Tea House, a very cozy looking building swarmed with tons of tourists.
The Ah Mei Tea House, a very cozy looking building swarmed with tons of tourists.

So overall Taipei was nice, but I think that if you were to visit Taiwan, it might be a better trip if you took some time out of the cities and went to the countryside. That’s what I’ll be doing the next time that’s for sure. I liked Taipei, and I probably wouldn’t mind living there, but aside from a brief respite for food and stuff, it doesn’t seem too exciting from a tourist perspective. Granted maybe I just didn’t appreciate it as much as I could have. Like we went to the National Palace Museum too and I just didn’t get it.

Regardless, would go again, but definitely want to check out some more naturey and traditional spots the next time I go.

Kuala Lumpur: The City with Three Towers

Finally, the last stop in my February trip. Before coming back to Korea, me and my friends went back to Malaysia to check out the capital, Kuala Lumpur. As the capital, I expected more from the city as compared to Malacca, and honestly I think it was more of a fun place to visit.

For one, there’s more stuff to see and do. Kuala Lumpur (from now on KL because I can’t spell) is a fairly big city with a decent amount of things to check out. We weren’t there for very long though, about a day and a half, but we still managed to see a decent amount.

The moment you get into the city, the most striking thing you see are the towers. Many cities have towers and they add to the overall atmosphere of the city, typically towering (heh) over the rest of the city and thus making it a pretty significant landmark.

The KL Tower in the early afternoon.
The KL Tower in the early afternoon.

So KL is pretty unique because it actually has three towers. The first tower is the traditional one, KL Tower. It looks like any other regular ol’ tower with a standard plain base and an observation deck. It also lights up in a bunch of different colours at night.

The other two towers are definitely much more spectacular. Technically, the Petronas Towers are not towers, but rather skyscrapers, but they’re called towers so here we are. Those are probably the most iconic buildings in Malaysia as they are twin buildings that are also connected. Being twin towers is important because by themselves, they wouldn’t be that impressive.

But the fact that there’s two and they’re joined by a giant mall makes all the difference. They’re actually pretty spectacular to look at, especially at night when the towers are just awash in light and look magnificent

The Petronas Towers at night.
The Petronas Towers at night.

The three towers are within walking distance of each other too. My hotel was close to the KL Tower but after maybe a 10? 15? minute walk you could reach the Petronas Towers too which was cool.

The least cool part though, was that I actually didn’t go up any of the towers. This is surprising because I actually really like going up towers to check out the city from observation decks. Pretty much every time I go to a city I check out the tower there. I did that in both Malacca and Singapore and also had the plan to do so in KL as well, but the theme of the trip was just, bad coordination and planning.

The stairs leading up to the Batu Caves.
The stairs leading up to the Batu Caves.

The first day went ok. We went out to check out the Batu Caves which was really cool, probably my highlight of the KL leg of my trip. The next day was a lot less coordinated. I thought that KL had a lot to see, but when you get actually get there you realize you don’t really need to spend that much time there.

For example we took the city bus for a bit. Out first stop was the Istana Negara which was really nice, but you weren’t allowed in. So you essentially got on the bus, got driven to a palace, walked around for five minutes, then got driven back to the city.

A lot of the city was similar too. Lots of nice scenic and interesting spots, but you walk around for a few minutes and realize there’s actually not too much to do.

Istana Negara, the residence of the Malaysian monarch.
Istana Negara, the residence of the Malaysian monarch.

Although I will admit, a lot of the city is nice. It’s just that I thought that there wasn’t much to do. Maybe I was just doing it wrong, and I probably was doing it wrong. But whenever we went to a park or to a random tourist attraction, we just ended up walking around for like 30 minutes and moving on because there was nothing there to keep us there.

I feel like KL is one of those places that has a lot to offer if you spend more time there. There’s enough stuff in there that I’m sure you can really find some unique stuff there. But being there for only a day and a half really limits how much you can do, especially considering you want to see as much as you can, which naturally results in spending minimal amount of time actually indulging in what the city has to offer.

But anyways back to the towers. I went to the base of the Petronas Towers and went into the mall, but we never went up. And my hotel was literally next to the KL Tower, but due to a massive fail in timing, we got to the tower at like 9:30 and just missed the last entry for the observation deck. Which really sucked because I really wanted to go up the tower to look at the Petronas Towers.

The National Mosque of Malaysia.
The National Mosque of Malaysia.

Malaysia was the first Southeast Asian country I went to, and also the first Muslim country I’ve been to. It was different and pretty neat to go visit, but I don’t really feel an urge to make a trip out of it and go again anytime soon. That said, I wouldn’t mind doing another short trip, like a day or two, to KL where I can check out a bit more of the city and reconsider my first impression. Even like a eight hour layover or something would be acceptable. I totally wouldn’t mind going up one of those towers, considering how I missed out last time.

And this is it! I’ve finally finished the recap of my February trip. Just in time for the end of 2016 too which is good because I was worried I wouldn’t get it done in time. Luckily this means that I have entries on this blog about every trip I’ve done (going home doesn’t count), which is pretty neat. I’ll write about travels again when I go somewhere new, but for now, other types of entries!