Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

A look at the Daegu Orions Basketball team [video]

As the basketball season comes to a close here in South Korea, I wanted to post a montage of two games we attended. I’ve even included footage of our home team, the Daegu Orions, winning one of those games — a rare sight indeed! The video also features my favorite parts of basketball in Korea: the strange mascots, generous audience contests and always entertaining cheerleaders.

If you want to learn more about the Daegu Orions, check out this post by the team’s biggest fan. (Hint: She writes for this blog.)

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Isn’t South Korea close to Japan?

Yesterday, Chickpea and I were talking about the tragedy in Japan and speculating about  our friends’ and family’s geography skills. Do they know that just a few hundred miles of water separates us from the earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster that is Japan?

I can’t help feeling like we dodged a bullet here in South Korea. Sendai, the hardest hit city in Japan, is about 700 miles from us in Daegu – about the same distance from south Florida to North Carolina or San Diego to Mendocino in California. There’s still some worry about possible effects from the explosions at Japan’s nuclear reactors, but we probably won’t be affected. The winds and distance are in our favor, for now. (This has not stopped the English teacher community from speculating.)

UPDATE: The New York Times has an interactive map showing where the radioactive plume is headed.

Luckily, South Korea does not have to worry about its own earthquakes. They’re possible, but rare and not powerful. This is a good thing, because roughly 80 percent of all buildings in South Korea are vulnerable to quakes. That includes about 9 out of 10 schools. Not what I want to think about while writing this post at my elementary school desk.

Japan, on the other hand, was prepared. Looking at photos of the devastation, it’s hard to believe that Japan was possibly the most prepared nation for an earthquake/tsunami disaster. They’ve had early warning systems in place years before the 2004 Christmas Day tsunami. After all, tsunami is a Japanese word. If this quake had hit another country, we might see a catastrophe two or three times as deadly.

Still, it’s been tough to get the images of this tragedy out of my head. That might not seem like a feat, since the media is awash in pictures of the tsunami carrying away cars, homes and people, but with a new school semester I actually haven’t read one article about it before this post. Just a few clips on CNN were enough for me. It’s painful to watch these clips, knowing that dead bodies are beneath the water rushing through those streets. You can’t see them, but you know they are there.

It makes that 700 miles just a little too close for comfort.

On a more positive note: If you’re near Daegu next weekend, there is a benefit concert at URBAN in downtown Daegu. All the info is on the DIY Daegu Live Facebook page. It sounds like a great way to help out and cheer yourself up at the same time.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Alex and Chickpea Do Southeast Asia: Breakdancing B-Boys in Bangkok [video]

Our first night in Bangkok, Chickpea and I decided to check out infamous Khao San Road. For those of you who didn’t see “The Beach,” Khao San Road is the main hub of backpackers and young tourists in Bangkok. Not surprisingly, this has also made it the epicenter of Thai kitsch and a kind-of counter culture-themed tourist trap. Fortune tellers, palm readers, beggars, scammers, tattoo artists, and a diaspora of people hawking college humor T-shirts, hippie accouterments and roasted scorpions, line every inch of this 4-block-long road.

Luckily, we escaped to a little mall hosting, of all things, a breakdancing tournament. Dozens of Thai b-boy bands battled each other for dance supremacy. Here’s a video montage of some of the best performances:

 

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Alex and Chickpea Do Southeast Asia: Cambodia in photos

Ten years of watching travel channel shows could have never prepared me for Cambodia.

It’s a beautifully sad country. Beautiful rice paddy and palm tree vistas. Sad, slumped wooden shacks in the distance. Beautiful, bright-faced children, their sad voices pleading for dollars. Amazing stone temples seemingly created by the gods. Broken arms and decapitated Buddha statues sad reminders of looting and the descrution of the Khmer Rouge.

It might be cliché, but it really is a beautifully sad country.

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Alex and Chickpea Do Southeast Asia: The quest for the elusive Vietnam visa

As I’ve mentioned before, the winter vacation for English teachers in South Korea is one of the most important times of the year. After nearly six months of cultural assimilation and the onset of winter blues, a few weeks on a beach in Thailand is just the rejuvenation many teachers need to continue their contract. For many teachers, this is the closest they will be to many of the Asian countries they’ve only read about and they take full advantage of the opportunity.

We’re no different, the only exception being we wanted to visit ALL the countries. So, in addition to Thailand and Cambodia, we planned a trip to Vietnam.

Planning the trip was the easy part; getting the visa was a different issue.

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Flying the ‘Greyhound of the Skies’: Adventures with Air Asia

Since noon the previous day, I’d been traveling. First by taxi, then by train, then by subway and bus for a failed Vietnam visa attempt, then another train, a plane and soon another plane.

At the 20-hour mark, I was in Kuala Lumpur; specifically, I was inside the Air Asia transfer terminal, which gave me that first feeling of being in another part of the world. And yet, it was also vaguely familiar. It wasn’t until the blown-out speakers woke me from my failed attempt at sleeping that I figured it out. It was just like a Greyhound bus terminal: dirty glass windows; blown-out intercoms that were too loud but still unintelligible; a mass of people moving at once to clear out to the gate; second- and third-rate eateries with dubious menus and even more dubious prices; uncomfortable seats filled with travelers contorting themselves in an attempt to sleep somewhat comfortably; an entire world mix of ethnicities brought together by cheap seats.

It would not have been so bad if the previous seven hours on my Air Asia flight from Incheon, South Korea to Kuala Lumpur wasn’t so uncomfortable. Dirty plane. Small seats. No free meal. . Confused flight attendants. Horrible music that came on every time I managed to sleep for a few minutes. Not even free water. Air Asia is truly the “Greyhound of the Skies.” In fact, some flights are actually cheaper than a Greyhound bus ticket, so I guess you get what you pay for.

That is, if you can figure out how to pay for the ticket. Air Asia has some major problems with accepting major credit cards on its website. Some people contend these are intentional, others insist it is just bad programming on their website. Either way, when you’re trying to pay for your vacation and only have one or two credit cards, it’s maddening.

A few more hours in this terminal, then a few more thanks to a flight delay, and I’m off to Bangkok. Luckily, the next time I board a plane (about two weeks later), it isn’t Air Asia.

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Alex and Chickpea Do Southeast Asia: A street food lunch in Bangkok, Thailand [video]

Yes, you finally made it to Bangkok after several hours on a sub-par Air Asia flight without a meal. But before embarking on your first tuk-tuk ride, or strolling through a golden wat, or catching your first Muay Thai fight, you must eat.

Luckily, no matter where you’ve ended up in the city, there’s a cart full of food on the corner. It smells good, it looks even better and it’s cheap.

Foodies have written whole books and filmed entire TV shows on the joys of street food in Thailand, so we won’t delve too deep here. This is a video of just one lunch — dare I say the best of our trip — easily and inexpensively collected near the U.S. Embassy. Enjoy!

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Alex and Chickpea Do Southeast Asia: Muay Thai fights in Bangkok [video]

Experiencing a Muay Thai fight is one of the must-dos when visiting Bangkok. Muay Thai is called the “Art of Eight Limbs” and limbs were certainly flying in this shortened series of matches at Ratchadamnoen Stadium in Bangkok, Thailand. This video also features the traditional Wai Kru pre-fight dance, something you won’t find at a MMA event.

A few tips if you want to catch a boxing match in Bangkok:

1) Buy your tickets from the ticket booth. The Muay Thai fights are one of the more expensive entertainment options in Bangkok. We paid the equivalent of $30US a ticket for seats on a concrete slab behind a fence. The better seats can go up to $60US. So don’t take chances. Ignore the ladies in red or green vests in front of the building; they may look official, but they’re not.

2) Bring some snacks and beer. A series of matches typically run about 3-4 hours, and sometimes consists of lots of yelling, so you’re bound to get hungry and/or thirsty. Not surprisingly, the small concessions stand at the stadium is overpriced and not conveniently located near the cheap seats. But you are allowed to bring in outside snacks and drinks.

3) Don’t talk too much smack. The vast majority of Muay Thai fighters are teenagers and often weigh under 120 lbs. They look a little laughably skinny to be boxing, but don’t be mistaken: They are pure muscle. The last match I saw pit a white guy from the U.S. against a younger, skinnier Thai. The match lasted about 20 seconds, with the U.S. fighter knocked out cold.

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Alex and Chickpea Do Southeast Asia: Vietnam is NOT my Facebook friend

Once you land in Vietnam, you realize fairly quickly that you are in a communist country. In the main cities, red flags line the streets. On corners, propaganda-laden billboards and the face of Ho Chi Minh stare down at you. Yet, after a little while, you just view these as just another part of the curious scenes that unfold daily.

For us, the full realization of what it means to live in a communist country didn’t come until we tried to log in to Facebook:

Denied.

It’s true. Without a fake IP address or some other workaround, you can’t access Facebook from within Vietnam.

It wasn’t always this way, which added to our confusion (some businesses proudly displayed Facebook websites). But in 2009, Vietnam began to crack down on Facebook, supposedly because some news events — easily controlled in the state media — began to run viral and, of course, unmanageable.

According to a recent Economist article, the Vietnamese government began another crackdown in late 2010 — just in time for the 11th Communist Party Congress, a five-year meeting among leaders to decide the country’s policy for the next 5 years.

Of course, we didn’t come to Vietnam to spend a day on the computer, stalking our friends back home. I would’ve liked to send a few messages to friends with birthdays and Chickpea had some addresses for postcards in her inbox, but it wasn’t anything major. Unfortunately, the Vietnamese aren’t so lackadaisical:

Internet-savvy Vietnamese quickly Googled solutions, shared them, and then used their blocked Facebook profiles to voice their annoyance at the Facebook block. One English-speaking city-dweller phrased their collective spirit succinctly: “FUCK YOU GOVERNMENT DON’T YOU HAVE ANYTHING BETTER TO DO THAN BLOCK FACEBOOK”.

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North Korea upset over ‘birthday’ balloons

Earlier this month, I posted an item about North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il’s birthday and the “birthday balloons” sent up north by member of the South Korean government and activist groups.

Well, as it turns out, Mr. Kim doesn’t like balloons. At least not those with propaganda pamphlets and instant noodles attached.

From the Korea Times:

“The ongoing psychological warfare … is a treacherous deed and a wanton challenge to the demand of the times and desire of all the fellow countrymen to bring about a new phase … through all-round dialogue and negotiations,” a North Korean military official told the regime’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

A defense official said the North warned of firing on South Korean facilities involved in “psychological warfare” in a “self-defense action,” unless the South suspends its propaganda campaign.

This talk probably won’t deter South Korea, which is set on releasing another round of balloons soon, containing information about the revolts spreading across the Middle East.