Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

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.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

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:


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”.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

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.


Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Welcome to Korea, again: SHINee, ddukbokki and diary decoration in this edition of Letters from Korean Students

We’re back from our travels — and what travels they were. Southeast Asia was good to us (especially Thailand), but it was oddly comforting to be back in the land of anyeong haseyo, norae bang and Big Bang. That’s why I thought I’d share these sentiments from my students before launching into the tale of our myriad misadventures.

One of my winter camp lessons was on e-mail and letter writing. My kids were thrilled about the prospect of writing to my best friend Kalynn, once I convinced them that yes, she would really be reading their letters all the way in Florida.

So, without further ado, here are the burning questions my middle schoolers had for the world’s best biffle (entirely unedited, except for names):

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Welcome to Korea: Should I give my principal a gift?

In the few months before Chickpea and I arrived in South Korea for our new teaching gig, one of the things we stressed over was what kind of gift to give to our co-teachers, principal and vice principal. According to blogs and advice of former native English teachers, gift-giving is a large part of Korean culture and new teachers often give several gifts to the important people at their school. And when you consider how much your Korean co-teacher(s) help you acclimate to a new country, a token of thanks seems reasonable, no matter where you’re from.

But Chickpea and I didn’t want to just bring some oranges or beach sand in a glass bottle. We wanted to make an impact! We wanted to bring something so unique, that when our principal went out for drinks with the other principals around Daegu, he could brag with pride and make all the other principals lower their heads in shame.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

3 things I wish I knew about the EPIK orientation for future English teachers in South Korea

1. I wish I would’ve known that I could arrive at Incheon Airport anytime between 8 a.m. and 10 p.m.

In the weeks leading up to our departure from recession-soaked Florida to South Korea, Chickpea and I were frantically contacting our recruiter and trolling forums trying to figure out what time we should arrive at Incheon Airport so our EPIK handlers could pick us up and take us to our orientation location. This was an important piece of information, because the flights from Florida landed in South Korea at wildly different times. Unfortunately, our recruiter was less than forthcoming, because the agency wanted us to wait until the last moment to buy our tickets in case there was some change in orientation dates or visa requirements. But in order to get the best possible price for our flight, we needed to know before the week prior to leaving.

See the problem?

We eventually just bought a ticket that put us in Korea at 7 p.m. We ended up waiting two more hours for the next EPIK orientation bus to arrive (and that wasn’t even the last one of the night). If I would’ve known this two weeks earlier, I could’ve shaved at least $200 from my ticket.

2. I wish I would’ve known how many times I’d have to lug my suitcase up and down several flights of stairs.

Before you pack those extra few teaching books or 10 pounds of American candy for your students (true story!), consider this: In the first 10 days after arriving in Korea will you have to lug your suitcases around at least eight times and usually up or down several floors. In reality, you probably can’t avoid this fact but make sure you have durable luggage (with wheels) that can handle your death grip as you alternately drag and throw your suitcase down seven flights of stairs (true story!).

3. I wish I would’ve known how packed the schedule was at orientation and slept better before my flight.

My fellow EPIK teachers may disagree with this, but Chickpea and I found the EPIK orientation truly exhausting. The schedule is packed from breakfast at 8 a.m. to a Korean language class that ends 12 hours later with little time in between to just relax. Even the hour-long meal times drained my energy; meeting new faces and holding conversations can be taxing after the fifth day straight. Add to this the dinners and various performances that can run until 10 p.m. And that’s not even taking into account the energy needed to acclimate to the food and just fully realize “Wow, I’m really half-way across the world.”

Don’t get me wrong: the EPIK orientation is a rewarding experience, and a good introduction to the fast-paced reality of Korea, but get your rest. You’ll need it.

Smack dozens of teachers into dorms, lecture at them for 10 days straight while feeding them quasi-Korean food and then smoosh them against a wall and some desks and tell them to pose while saying "Kimchi!" and this is the photo that you'll get.
Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea: Bangkok in Pictures

A pictorial look at our recent trip to Bangkok, one of the most dynamic cities we’ve ever visited. Of course, the photos do not do this dynamic city justice. With pictures, you can’t smell all the sweet, spicy street food emanating from dozens of street stalls or taste the richness of a thai ice coffee with coconut milk. You can’t feel how it is to ride in that glorified go-cart called a “tuk-tuk” — wind in your hair, eyes level to the bumpers of oncoming traffic. And you definitely can’t experience the feeling of exploring this paradoxical city, which blends thousand-year-old temples with the most modern skycrapers and shopping malls, intense spirituality with the sin of Soi Cowboy.

But hopefully it gives you some idea.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Alex and Chickpea Do Southeast Asia: The Night Bus from Siem Reap to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

First, your hostel proprietor gives you wrong time for the bus.

Well, not necessarily the wrong time for the bus, but the wrong time for the mini-van to come pick you up and take you to the actual bus. After some frantic calls, you finally get to the bus terminal — a small, nondescript storefront with two huge buses in front. You wait. As people of various nationalities rush around you, asking worried questions and receiving no answers from the Cambodian bus operators, you start to wonder if you’re at the right place. After all, there is more than one night bus that leaves from Siem Reap.

You shove your $24 ticket at someone who looks like he drives the bus, or at least has ridden it before. He points to one of the buses. Inside the seats are numbered. A girl agrees to switch with you so you can sit by your girlfriend (the guy who booked your tickets didn’t make sure of that). That girl is headed to a different city (Sihanoukville) and you’re a little nervous that this might not be the correct bus. But when you ask, there is no definite answer.

The bus is a little larger than a Greyhound and has comfortable multi-colored blankets on the seats for you to use, which is great because the bus is freezing. Despite the seemingly unorganized nature of the whole affair, the bus leaves right at midnight. You settle down to sleep, occassionally adjudsting your blanket or peering out of the windows.

At 6 a.m., you arrive in Phnom Penh and the bus driver empties everyone into the parking lot of a small, outdoor bus station. “Wait here,” the driver says and then he’s gone. Your fellow passengers look confused too, heads darting back and forth, looking for any indication of where the connecting bus may be. So we all wait together under a tin awning. Several times, men come by asking where we’re going. When we answer, “Ho Chi Minh City” they say “OK, OK” and walk away.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Isn’t That Nice: South Korea sends birthday balloons for North Korea’s Kim Jong Il

Yesterday was North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il’s birthday. And as they’ve done sporadically for years, a group of South Korean activists sent some birthday balloons.

Of course, those balloons carried about 100,000 anti-North Korea propaganda leaflets  to the North Korean people, but you know, we all get birthday presents we don’t fully appreciate.

Honestly, I’m fascinated by this low-tech psychological warfare. It’s so old school — sending propoganda by helium balloon to incite the masses.

Apparently, it actuallly works. In 2008, The Economist wrote a story profiling a North Korean nurse who came across one of these pamphlets dropped from a balloon. She says  it planted a seed in her mind for a better life and before long, she escaped to South Korea.

In fact, North Korea has been so bothered by these balloons that in the winter of 2008, it threatended military action if the balloons continued to flow across the border (they were bluffing, as usual). Although the South Korean government stopped its own balloon wars in 2004, but they wouldn’t take a stand against human rights activists releasing the balloons. Then, after the North Korean attack of a navy submarine and increased tensions, the South Korean defense ministry announced it would begin the propaganda war anew. When North Korea attacked the residential island of Yeonpyeong, the military immediately responded with 400,000 of its own propaganda balloons. The balloons released yesterday was openly supported by South Korea’s president, President Lee Myung-bak.

Balloons typically carry DVDs and leaflets about the uprisings in Egypt, anti-communist writings, dollar bills, transistor radios and plenty of insults against Kim Jong-Il, including calling North Korea “the Republic of Fat.”

But balloons aren’t all fun and games for South Korea. Last summer, the South Korean government panicked when residents of a small town near Seoul reported 40-50 objects resembling parachutes landing on a nearby mountain. When police and military personnel arrived, they found the objects were just balloons released by a nearby school.

Alex and Chickpea Do Korea

Alex and Chickpea Do . . . Southeast Asia?

It’s true. Right now, Chickpea is on her way to Thailand — I’ll join her at the end the week — for a whirlwind tour of Southeast Asia. And I do mean whirlwind. Between January 19 and February 6, we’ll visit the traffic-clogged, neon-lit, pagoda-stuffed skyline of Bangkok, Thailand; the ancient and mysterious temples of Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia; enjoy a few days of R&R on the beaches of Vung Tau, Vietnam; battle motorbikes and stuff ourselves silly with pho in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; and wrap up in Vietnam’s burgeoning capital of Hanoi before flying back to Seoul.

Visiting other Asian locales is a large part of an EFL teacher’s overseas stay. If you ask 10 English teachers why they came to Korea, nine will list “travel” as one of the reasons.

We’re no different. So we’re using our 2-week winter vacation to see three countries we’ve watched countless travel shows about: Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Consequently, there will not be any new posts until the second week of February. But check back here for a series of posts about our travels, including how to find the cheapest plane tickets and navigating visas to what fried tarantula tastes like.