Tuesday, 31 August 2010


Finally made the trip up to the DMZ on the weekend with my girlfriend, Sarah. We had to go up there on Friday night pretty much straight after work (well it was straight after work for her... I still had time to enjoy a seafood buffet at a work's dinner. Lovely it was. Sarah was starving when I met her) because we had to be at Camp Kim in Seoul by 7am. So we stayed at a cheap place Sarah knew in Noksapyeong and we were off bright and early the next morning. We met my mate Andrew at Samgakji (the stop closest to Camp Kim), went down to the USO base, sat around for 20 minutes and we were on the coach and off by 7:30. Like clockwork.

It took just over an hour to get to the JSA briefing room from Camp Kim, which was just enough time to use up a lot of Sarah's iPod touch battery playing 'Plants Vs Zombies'. Before we knew it we were getting our passports checked by a U.S. military policeman, who was also our tour guide, and being told what we can and cannot do. I've got a sheet detailing all of the things we were prohibited from doing but basically we should just listen to the guy, stick with the group and try our best not to provoke the North Koreans, i.e. don't wave or gesture - I was gutted about the not waving part :( I wanted a cool picture.

As we were escorted into the main DMZ part that everyone sees on TV (the coolest part) we were greeted by the sight of a huge gray building in front of which were a few North Korean guards, one of which was looking at us through binoculars. It's hard to describe how I was feeling at this time because as I walked into view of the main area the sheer significance of this place hit me. I've never really viewed history in the making, outside of TV anyway, but I really felt like it was a place that I probably shouldn't be. Like it was too important for tourists. Too real. Nevertheless, I took uber tourist pictures like I always do, posing like I was in Disneyland. Difference is the people in uniforms at the DMZ are more likely to hurt you than a teenager in a Donald Duck costume.

Here are some pictures:

This is me at the DMZ. We all had to wear those JSA and USO tour badges.

This is Sarah looking much sharper than me and taking a way better photo.
That gray building is North Korea. In fact, on the path there is a noticeable division line. Over that line is North Korea. As you can see it travels through the two blue buildings, but we'll get onto that later.
See the ROK (Republic of Korea) soldier on the right? Well, he is standing in a Taekwondo stance 'ready to defend' apparently, as were all the ROK soldiers. You might've noticed he has half of his face covered by the wall of the building. Why? It's so he can get into cover quicker if fired upon yet he can still see them with one eye in the meantime. I wonder if he is constantly winking during this time or if he sees half blue, half North Korea.. Also, you can clearly see a North Korean guard in front of the gray building. You might have to click the picture to get a larger view to see him.

After this we then wandered into that blue building on the left of the picture which is where all the North Korea/South Korea & allies meet for discussions. Guess what? Here are some pictures:

If I was standing on the other side of the ROK soldier then I would be in South Korea. As it happens, I'm standing on the guys left, which meant I was in North Korea. I know this because the military police guy told us. But its also because those microphones running down the center of the table there mark out the border between the North's side of the DMZ and the South's side. Those mics are monitored 24/7, which I thought was pretty cool.
Sarah in roughly the same position as me, except standing further from the guy because she was 'scared' :) To be honest, with good reason.
This is the good reason. Behind that door is North Korea. This guy is guarding that door. We were told not to pass the guy. Some dumbass American tourist stepped past him for a photo and the guy kicked off and slammed his foot on the ground and almost punched her.. Like, he got out of his Taekwondo stance and his arm shot up and almost hit her. The tour guide was like 'there's nothing I can do, so, seriously, don't pass him'. She just had to laugh it off, but in that kind of nervous, 'I almost shat myself' kind of way. I was genuinely laughing, however.

This is the flag pole on which is the world's largest flag. Guess which country it belongs to... The story goes: the South built an 100m tall flag pole and the North, who has a huge inferiority complex, if you didn't already know, built a 160m flag pole (see above) with the world's largest flag slapped on it. It doesn't help that below it is the propaganda village which is just for show. I don't know if they know any old tourist can walk up to the binoculars situated at Dora Observatory in the South and see that there's nothing going on there.

Dorasan Station is South Korea's train link to North Korea. Apparently, pre-Cheonan sinking the South traded with the North through this rail link. But they sunk their battleship so they stopped it.
Fancy popping to Pyeongyang for a cheeky bit of duty free?

The tour guide said it's both her's and South Korea's dream to reunify with the North. Prior to this tour, I didn't really realise how much the South actually cares about the North. Maybe not the system it runs, maybe not the people in charge of indoctrinating it's millions, but the people under the mess at the top are Korean's too and the South want the two to unify as they once did. Many South Korean's have family in the North, which is one of the reasons why there is a 6 month background check for Korean's to take the tour we bumbled on in 4 days because the South are worried about what these people will do when presented with the Korean border. A lot of people in the West see North Korea as the enemy. South Korean's, however, perceive them as their family... except maybe Kim Jong Il. He probably won't receive a hug and kiss. Poor guy :/

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Summer Vacation: Part Two - Hong Kong

It was a shorter trip than I thought from Manila to Hong Kong. And when we turned up at Hong Kong Airport it was like going forward in time. Not literally though (Hong Kong and Philippines are in the same time zone I believe) but compared to the budget airport in Puerto Princesa with all the third world-esque trimmings - the dirt roads, the oh so many insects - it felt like what the 21st century should look feel like. So, we rolled into the airport and I have HSBC bank staring at me waiting to give my debit card a big hug. And so it did :P (Dad: It reminded me of the scene in National Lampoon's Vegas Vacation when Clark Griswald goes to the ATM and gets a ton of money out with an excited grin on his face like he's just won the lottery :P)

So, the big guns were out and I was ready for Hong Kong.

Hong Kong

First port of call was the hotel. Now I use the word 'hotel' very generously here because what we stayed in was actually some scummy guest-house that let no light in and had warm (lukewarm) water. It let so little light in that we woke up to what felt like 5am but we couldn't get back to sleep for some reason so we checked the time on Beth's iPod and found that it was 10:30am... :( Budget. It was near some place called Chung King Mansions, which apparently is a little bit famous. Overall though it was only a place to sleep in between hitting up Hong Kong.

So, after getting our stuff sorted in the guest-house we went for a bit of a wander. Beth said something about a ferry to Hong Kong island so we jumped in a taxi 'cause we didn't know where it was :S We rolled up to the ferry terminal and I don't think I'll ever forget the view that hit me. I just didn't expect it.

This is me in front of the most amazing skyline I've ever seen. My camera doesn't really do it justice :/

These are the two towers in 'Batman: The Dark Knight' that I didn't realise was in Hong Kong until someone said. We tried to go up to the top of them but they're actually proper finance towers where people actually work so we just had a beer at a smaller rooftop about a third of the way down. Amazingly, I saw my friend Kara at the bar here just chilling out so it was nice to catch up with her... Unplanned meeting too. So random. But things like that always seem to happen to me.. saw my mate Andrew at Namsan tower randomly a couple of months back, but that doesn't compare to this chance meeting halfway around the world in Hong Kong at some random bar.

Anyway, this is me eating 'beefy balls' at a place Lonely Planet recommended:

It took a while to find because it was stuck in some warehouse looking thing which turned out to be a market where they seemed to sell only raw meat, other various food, and this stuff. It was like a sweat box in there but it was cheap, and actually pretty filling and tasty. Good fun.

Later that day we took the ferry over to Hong Kong island again and then took what was described by Lonely Planet as a 'short taxi ride' to Stanley Market. 30-odd minutes later and we were there :P It was a pretty cool place. They had plenty of souvenir stands, pubs, and this pretty nice view you can see from the above picture.

Victoria Peak

Victoria Peak is THE view of Hong Kong. The viewing platform structure appears on the back of the 20 HK dollar bill and it's jam packed with tourists. Basically the place to visit in Hong Kong. Shame it was a smoggy day :/

Oh wait. It cleared up at night.

The view was spectacular. Like you can see, we initially went up to the viewing platform during the day but figured that it would be better at night. So we had dinner at some awesome Chinese restaurant to pass the time and fill our bellies. But during the dinner the storm started. And when I say storm, I mean thunderstorm. And when I say thunderstorm, I mean the worst storm I have ever seen. We were so high up that we were actually in a cloud for most of it so we could only see flashes when there was lightning. It was actually a little scary. I mean I didn't wet my pants but it was a little unnerving because we were so high up. The rain cleared but the storm continued and here were the results (it gets good around 27 seconds so don't give up on it):

It was like this for ages but I only managed to capture this little bit of it on film for some reason. My skillz are letting me down :/

Avenue of the Stars

Next day we went to the 'Avenue of the Stars' (Chinese/Hong Kong stars). Here are some pictures:

The master... and Bruce Lee :O

Think my hand was roughly the same size as Jackie Chan's.

Me and the Hong Kong skyline.

Other general Hong Kong stuff

After all this we went to Hong Kong Park. It was surprisingly beautiful for something that looked like it was dumped in the middle of the city. It had an awesome aviary where we saw plenty of tropical birds; some weird, some just pigeons. They also had a load of Koi and some terrapins that were basking in the sun. This is me at the park:

There was a Tai Chi garden in the park in which they had a tower with 151 steps (I think) and this was the view from it. It was humid. We were knackered.

This is my dessert at the place we ate at in the park. Again, you can reach me at leeisprophotographer@bigtime.com

Me sitting at an awesome side street restaurant that had great food at a pittance. Not sure how clean the kitchen was and the bathroom was worse than the one in Trainspotting but I loved it.

Giant Buddha... almost forgot to write about this

On our last proper day in Hong Kong we decided not to go to some random waterpark and instead to hit up the 'largest seated Buddha in the world'. It sounds a bit of a farce like 'the world's largest cat fed only on salmon' or 'the world's smallest boat with two fridges'.. but that aside, it was an awesome sight to behold. We could either walk it, coach it, or take the cable car up to it. Seeing as we didn't know anything about the coach and the walk would've taken about 15 hours in the blistering heat, we decided to take the cable car up and enjoy the view. 45 minutes in the non-air conditioned queue later and we were up and enjoying the scenery:

The cable cars we went in. Here you can see the Buddha in the distance and part of the path you can take if your mental enough to want to walk there.

Me with Giant Buddha. I felt slightly bad taking pictures like this because there were actual Buddhists praying around me and there's me eating an ice cream and acting like an inconsiderate tourist :P

World's largest seated Buddha.
Me with a general that is supposed to represent my Zodiac sign, the rabbit.

Well that's pretty much it. Roll on Chuseok!

Friday, 13 August 2010

Summer Vacation: Part One - Palawan, Philippines

Palawan is a great place. Full of ridiculously beautiful scenery, friendly people, good food, and you can turn up with a pittance and do everything you want and more. Overall, not including the plane tickets, I spent around 550,000 Korean Won on the trip, which is about 300 pound and we stayed for about 8 and bit days. Where's the 'but'? There is no 'but'... unless you don't like insects or food poisoning or sweating. OK, OK, maybe food poisoning is a bit harsh, just don't ask for ice in your drink, let's put it that way...

Rather than babble about different stories and things that happened I'm just gonna do what I did with my girlfriend and narrate some pictures and if a story crops up then you'll hear about it.

Puerto Princesa and the Journey to El Nido

Actually I'm going to start off with a video.

So this is me and Denis in something that results from a motorbike mating with a car on our way to the hotel. When we turned up at the airport we were hunting for a taxi. Some guy approached us, like they always do outside the arrivals bit in airports, and hassled us to get into his cab. Today we wanted to be hassled by a cabbie because we wanted one but when he pointed to his car/motorbike freakshow I was like 'Car, please. You know, "beep! beep!"' and done a condescending 'driving a car' gesture with my arms. He said 'no car' and at that point we looked around and actually noticed that there were no cars. 'Sod it', we thought, 'lets go for it'. Turned out to be a brilliant little 5 minute trip to the hotel on which I managed to professionally shoot this video:

We got to the hotel, found a small lizard in the room, drank, ate, slept, and then the next day we were off to El Nido!

'What was that? 10,000 pesos to El Nido from Puerto Princesa? Is... that... a... good deal?' - turns out, yes it was as most other 'people who own a mini-bus' (I shouldn't really call them mini-bus companies cos it's literally a 'man-with-a-van') in the area were charging 12,000 pesos and over. Between four of us this price was negligible and the hotel decided to reduce the price of the tour that we got talked into taking that day because a German couple, who we actually got on with pretty well, wanted to do the same thing that day. So for a 6 hour trip to El Nido from Puerto Princesa with stops on the way at some 'mangrove' tour; an unplanned trip into some mini-rock climbing excursion, which we did in flip flops because we didn't know how demanding it was gonna be (very, as it turned out.. in flip flops anyway); and add onto that lunch and the underground river tour, which was hands down the best thing of the day, made it an awesome 'first proper day' in Palawan.

This is the view at the top of the climb that I previously mentioned. You can't make out all the sweat from this picture but I assure you that I am drenched (the German guy had to strip and change his t-shirt :/). Around the time this photo was taken we first realised, if we hadn't already at the hotel the previous night where they had karaoke set-up, that Filipinos love to sing and our tour guide decided to bust out a tune at this lovely location. I didn't know what to do or say so I just clapped a little bit and went about my business of staying in the shade and taking pictures of the scenery. He wanted us to sing but we weren't really having any of it.

This is the entrance to the underground river. There were thousands of bats screeching in and out and throughout the cave, which was awesome. I'm not afraid of bats :) I did jump a couple of times though when some flew near and people were getting pissed off because I had the job of holding the only torch on our boat - a job which was short lived as I got fed-up and handed it to Denis.
This is me in the underground river, all 'health and safety'-ed up. If you look closely you can make out the shape of a bat just above my helmet.

El Nido

El Nido is, in one word, beautiful. The island hopping tours are a must-see. If you go to Palawan without island hopping on a rickety boat that you hired all-day for chickenfeed then you don't know what your doing. We snorkeled at pretty much every island we visited on the tour and the coral and the fish were so beautiful. I say we... I only managed to muster up the courage to risk it on the last island (nicknamed Helicopter Island, on the count of it's shape) because it's no secret that I'm a shoddy swimmer but the coral at this place was in the shallows so I managed it OK with my friend Beth's help. I owe her one because I instantly noticed what I had been missing when I stuck my head under the water and saw all the beautiful coral and colourful fish. It was seriously one of the most amazing things I've ever seen. Beth said she saw two little reef sharks at another place we went to. If I had seen 'em I would've panicked and needed rescuing... The sea is another world and not ours to be messing about in. I would've bricked it, honestly. Talking about that I actually had a dream last night people were snorkeling at the side of a boat and a huge shark turned up and attacked someone. I was on the boat watching and waiting for the sea to turn red but it turned out that the person who had been bitten only had a tiny little nip like they had been snapped at by a small dog :/ Anyway, here are some pictures of our island hopping adventures:

First place we went to. Not sure what it was called but it was gorgeous. When we rolled in on the boat we saw a huge monitor lizard wandering about on the beach we were going to be sitting on soon. I think that's when I first realised that we were in the wild now and that if I was going to get hurt in some way then hospitals were few and far between. It was cool to see the lizard, even if it was from a distance, but it did make me think and I was more cautious/worried from then on. I'm not a pansy, it's just that there's snakes and sharks about! and I didn't wanna get munched on...
This is the boat we hired for our tour. All the boats in Palawan pretty much have the same set-up: large frame jutting out to keep it stable, crewed by a couple of guys who just chill out on the boat for 5 hours while you chill out on beachside sipping at a cocktail :P

This is me at the same beach but on a different day (our next island hopping tour included the same beach so...). I think this was when I got the most sunburnt, which wasn't much. Sarah told me to be careful cos I'm pasty and I didn't fancy peeling everywhere (I peeled everywhere :/). By the way, those shorts weren't really by choice... I forgot to bring the Speedo swim trunks I bought at Grand Mart and I was desperate :/ I grew to like em though :)

This is Helicopter Island where I managed the snorkeling :) It was brilliant... found some cool shells here too.

Don't think I really need to say much about the next picture except that it was taken on a beach in El Nido with a beer in hand :)

Next stop, Port Barton! The weather on the night before we were supposed to be going to Port Barton was horrendous. The roads were all muddy and wet and generally treacherous so it took us a while to find a mini-bus driver who was A) up to the task, and B) was offering a good deal. 6,000 pesos I think it cost us direct to Port Barton from El Nido.

Port Barton (a boatman we met there said it was called something else by the locals but how am I supposed to remember...)

We stayed in some cool little cottages that were 'more pricey' than what we were used to in Palawan, but not really. It still was dirt cheap. 1,400 pesos per room (so split between two) for a awesome little cottage thing with a good view. So about 10 pound a night each. Ridiculously cheap. This is what we stayed in:

On this beach:
First day: Spent all day in bed reading books because I was sick. I won't go into details but I think good advice would be not to ask for ice in your drink. My mates all went out and got the most sun that day that's why in any group pictures you might see of us on Facebook I look like a vampire in comparison.

Second day: Went to a place called 'Blue Cove' about 40 minutes boat ride from where we stayed. It was like a paradise island, seriously. We rolled up and had a beer and a cocktail almost straightaway (I say 'almost' because the service in Palawan is so slow it's unbelievable. They are so chilled out you almost have to preempt how hungry you are gonna be in an hours time because you know the food is going take that long again once you've ordered. I was a bit annoyed at times but I was on holiday so I was in no rush :P). Again, here are some pictures:

The beach at Blue Cove. There were a lot of coconut trees dotted around and my mate, Derek, threw something at the coconuts in the one of the trees near me and the noise it made made me literally leap out of the way because I thought I was gonna take a falling coconut to the head.. :/

Me enjoying my first hammock experience. You can tell it's me by my nose sticking out over the top of the hammock like a sharks fin.

Back at the cottage in time to enjoy another Palawan sunset:

Check out my website 'www.leeisaprofessionalphotographer.com/bigtime'.

My friend Beth (who is a genuine pro-photographer just like me) took this of me.

Puerto Princesa

Back in Puerto Princesa after our epic journey around the northern half of Palawan and we stayed at the hotel where we stayed on our first night there, which I recommend (Del Loro it was called). Though their 'continental breakfast' consisted of 3 slightly toasted slices of bread with butter and a choice of tea or coffee.. ;) Oh, the night before though we went to eat at some foreigner run restaurant down the street from Del Loro hotel and I had the best steak I think I've ever had in my life... again, so cheap. If you go there order the cheapest steak on the menu (Filipino beef (angus and porter house is twice as expensive and wasn't as good)) with blue cheese sauce... it's making my mouth water just thinking about it. Might try and get a steak tonight actually..

I don't think this blog would be complete without commenting on how many times I thought I was going to die on this trip... The mini-bus drivers are mental. The streets are so botched and muddy and treacherous and then they go diving around corners on the wrong side of the road (if there is a 'side' of the road you were supposed to be driving) whilst overtaking other cars on blind bends.. We had to change a tyre at one point because the roads were so bad. Driving in the dark is worse. Oh well, we played '20 questions' and Beth's Boggle game on her iPod touch to pass the time. Anyway, I'm alive :P

[By the way if you looked for the bat above my helmet in the underground river picture then you have been successfully tricked by me. So, one-nil.]
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