Giant Spiders At Incheon Airport, Seoul

As is my usual habit, I arrived at Seoul airport (Incheon) with half a day up my sleeve. The Grand Hyatt is literally two minutes from the airport, I got my boarding pass in Sydney and I have no bags to check in so I’ve done a 5km walk around the airport and it’s great! Of all the airports I’ve visited I’d say Incheon is in the top 10, maybe even the top 5. Here’s why!

It’s full of art.

Sure, some of the art is giant spiders, but they’re *gentle* spiders.

It has comfortable furniture. If I’d had to spend my 19 hour stopover in the airport I could’ve actually stretched out on a couch. Some backpackers are sleeping very comfortably right behind me as I write this. If you’re in Incheon and looking for a lie down, it’s opposite gate 23.

I won’t be rude and take a photo of them, but they’ve pushed a bunch of these together to make a decent bed.

Robots! I’ve seen three different kinds. One for transporting bags, one for delivering food and one that I think was for information.

Luggage robot!
They have QR codes that take you to websites for more info.

Flowers! Orchids must be the floral emblem of Korea because they are everywhere and absolutely perfect. I looked closely, they are all real.

The food is great. Not a vast range, but I had a fantastic meal of bibimbap. I thought I’d see what it was like when it wasn’t actually airline food and it was great! The vegetables and meat were served in a heavy stone bowl that was so hot the food was still sizzling for about ten minutes after I got my tray. It came with soup, kimchi and a bunch of extras. In a moment of excitement I poured in all the chilli sauce, but with three hours to kill it wasn’t a problem and I only sweated through my T-shirt, not my jumper.

As I get older my tolerance for spicy food seems to grow, which was lucky because I poured in about half a cup of chilli.

The cuteness. There’s a giant Lego-style playground for the kids., as well as some giant plush figures around the place.

I think this is the airport mascot.
Lego maze!

Last but certainly not least, being Korea, everyone cleans up after themselves and even the food court is spotless. Everyone in the restaurant took their trays to the rack for the dirty dishes and when I went up with mine there were no spaces left so a teenage boy behind me asked the chef where to put them and we all put them in the racks after pushing back the trays at the front. problem solved!

I thought that was going to be my whole list but as I was sitting here typing, a parade of people in traditional Korean dress and playing music walked in a procession past the departure lounge I’m sitting in, I’ve never seen anything like that in an airport… maybe Incheon deserves a place in the top 3?

A few cherry blossom trees outside the hotel.

Sydney to Seoul

I set my alarm for 5am so I could pack up and leave the hotel in plenty of time for my 9:30am flight. On the advice of the bus driver who drove me to the hotel, I decided to walk back. With the sun coming up and the sky a bright orange, it was a lovely walk and took me a bit under 30 minutes.

It was really easy to follow and I’m glad I got a chance to stretch my legs before sitting down for 11 hours on the plane.

I ended up getting to the counter 20 minutes before it opened so I got through very quickly. Security was very quiet as well, giving me lots of time for a nice breakfast overlooking the main hub of the terminal.

I had time for a video chat with luke and to answer some birthday texts, which were very nice to get. Then I bought myself a little word puzzle book in case I was sick of looking at screens on the flight.

Big airports really do almost all look the same.

I spent the 30 minutes before boarding walking up and down the corridor where the terminal gates were located, trying to stretch my legs. Knowing I had an aisle seat I left boarding until the last minute. I know some people like to get on quickly so they can find space in the overhead compartments but my large backpack comes with two small ‘balance bags’ – little pockets that clip onto the front when hiking to spread the weight around the body. When I take them on flights I can clip the two together to make one small backpack. It’s amazing how much stuff I can fit into them but they easily fit under the seat in front, so I never have to use the overhead space.

Charmaine and I originally chose Asiana, an airline I’d never heard of before, because it was cheaper than the nearest price by several hundred dollars. I’d normally fly out of Melbourne, but I wanted to leave my car in Orange and see my family (Charmaine and I grew up together and her mum is also in Orange) so we thought flying out of Sydney would be a good option, which meant different airlines to choose from.

Weirdly, when searching for flights this time, a lot of flights to Europe via the US were available. Now, I had a great time in America, I know lots of truly excellent Americans, but I’d rather stay home than fly on an American airline for a great number of reasons, not least of which is overbooked flights and the vast number of videos I’ve seen recently of people behaving appallingly on American planes.

Here’s why I love flying on Asian airlines. The other people are mostly Asian so they are polite and quiet and don’t do disgusting things like take their shoes and socks off or spread out into other people’s spaces. It also means all the talking around me is done in other languages, which I find much easier to tune out. The staff are delightful, the food is excellent and you get to stopover in interesting places where everyone will help you get to where you’re going.

On this flight I got to try bibimbap, rice with mixed vegetables and pickles and mince. Delicious! I even used one of the two sachets of chilli sauce, although everyone around me used two. I know my limits though!

The idea is that you stir all the separate parts together yourself.

Aside from that, we got a small ham salad roll halfway through and a chicken curry before landing.

When I first boarded the plane I was sitting in a full row of 3, with two ladies next to me. I noticed they there were two empty seats in the row in front so I asked if I could move, that way the two ladies could spread out and I’d be sitting next to an empty seat. The flight attendant didn’t mind and so I moved. Nothing feels more luxurious in economy than an empty seat and I was very happy to spread out.

The last thing I’m going to mention about the plane is the exercise video. Twenty years ago, when I flew JAL via Osaka to London, I was surprised to see everyone on the plane doing a stretching video together. This was the first time I’ve see one since and it was great! Also quite amusing to see a whole plane full of people doing synchronised movements.

Anyhoo, as you would expect, the flight ran perfectly to time and I got to my hotel with no problems, although I somehow managed to enter via a tiny side door (I’m staying at the Grand Hyatt as a birthday treat) and wandered around for a bit before I found the reception desk.

My room is lovely and I ran an bath before I order a glass of sparkling wine and a slice of cheesecake and listened to my new favourite podcast (Urzila Carlson’s ‘Enough Already’ – she talks mainly to comedians about things that annoy them, it’s very funny!) and had another video chat to Luke.

When my room service food arrived the waiter only filled up the sparkling glass half full and I explained with a winning smile that it was my birthday so could he fill it up a bit more ? And he did! But then said it had to be top secret so we’ll just please keep it between us and hope the manager of the Grand Hyatt Incheon doesn’t read my blog.

I still wouldn’t call it properly full though! The cheesecake was pretty amazing however.

The only other thing worth mentioning is the high tech toilet. I tried pressing all the buttons to see what happened but I think you have to be sitting on it for most of them to work. The only thing I managed to do was heat the toilet seat, which really just made it feel like someone else had got off it it right before I sat down.

The control panel on the wall is for the toilet. Here’s a close-up:

Fortunately it flushes automatically when you stand up.

I wonder if people who come from places like Korea and Japan freak out when they get to other countries and the toilets are so basic? Or maybe not all the toilets here are like this?

Anyhow, on to the UK, where the showers are terrible, the toilets less fancy but the scenery is 10/10…. Especially when compared to my airport hotel view.

Why is the weather at airports always so grey?

Chiang Mai, Thailand: A Day At The Elephant Nature Sanctuary.

This was our first trip to Chiang Mai and I hadn’t heard a bad word about it from anyone – but I also didn’t really know what to expect either, except for markets, markets and more markets. My only goal for the week was to find a decent tailor and Lea wanted to spend a day with elephants.

Flying into Chiang Mai was certainly more impressive than landing in smoggy Bangkok. Big green hills covered in tropical forest sit quite close to city and, for the second largest city in Thailand, it has a relatively small airport and few tall buildings.

We caught a taxi to our hotel – Rimping Village. Sitting just over the Ping River from the heart of the city, the hotel had quiet and green grounds and a decent sized pool sheltered by an enormous rubber tree that was filled with epiphytes.

The hotel grounds were full of orchids of various colours, shapes and sizes as well as several frangipani trees. A little oasis in a very busy city.

One of the first Chiang Mai icons we became familiar with was the Iron Bridge (locals pronounce it ‘eye-ron’, this is important to know when telling a taxi driver where to go!), which didn’t look at that impressive to us by day but certainly attracted hordes of self-taking teenagers and fishermen at night. It also just seemed, despite being quite narrow, to be a place to just hang out. People of all ages draped themselves like wet socks over the rails as soon as dusk descended.

While the locals assured us it was winter (ha!) and did indeed walk around in jeans and jackets, it was still 34 degrees during the day and felt about 40 if you were out in the sun in the breeze-less city. We mostly stuck to the pool during the day and wandered out at night.

The Elephant Nature Park

This was our only whole day, relatively expensive, excursion in Chiang Mai. There are many elephant parks around the city but this one is exceptional as a refuge for elderly, injured, and mistreated animals (dogs, cats, buffalo, horses and more as well) and the respect and love the staff have for the animals is evident everywhere. If you are thinking of visiting an elephant sanctuary I highly recommend this one.

We were picked up at 8:30 from our hotel and our group of six for the day included a nice couple from the UK – Duncan and Fiona. During the hour’s drive out into the forest we watched a video on the rules of how to behave around elephants – most of which we ended up breaking at some point during the day.

Our guide was a funny young man named Dave whose love of elephants became more and more obvious as the day progressed. He told us about his favourite elephant dying recently of old age and how, for weeks after, he could not talk about him without crying.

Our first stop was a walk along a forest track with three female elephants. Dave and the mahouts gave us bags of bananas and sugar cane to put in the elephants’ trunks. It was a bit intimidating as they could almost eat them faster than we could get them out of the bags and being followed closely by a hungry elephant is quite a memorable experience.

Pete is pestered by a persistent pachyderm.

Next was a tasty vegetarian lunch in a hut where we waited for the next group of elephants.

We helped prepare food for elephants who were on a high-calorie diet after being semi-starved by their previous owners who wanted to keep the elephants small to make it seem that they were younger than they really were – younger elephants can be sold for more money.

We chopped up watermelon and made balls of rice and dried fruit that had to be put directly into the elephants’ mouths so they didn’t fall apart.

Apparently elephants don’t have to wait an hour after eating before going for a swim as we went straight to the river and got in with buckets so we could splash water all over the elephants. One went out into the deepest part of the river and completely submerged itself and rolled around. I was very glad to have my reef shoes for this part of the day as submerged and slippery rocks were a bit of a hazard.

To get to the main camp we got into rubber boats and did a little bit of white-water rafting down the river, passing some bathing elephants along the way.

The Elephant Nature Park lets most of its elephants roam free around the reserve with their mahouts, who are there to protect and help feed them. Newcomers are restricted to the inner grounds and sleep overnight in shelters with sand heaps(for lying against), water and four nightly feedings.

Dave with one of the oldest elephants at the park. I think she was in her 80s!

It was interesting to learn that the elephants at the park choose their mahouts rather than the other way round. Some mahouts come with their elephants to the park and some meet when they arrive. All the mahouts seem to spend most of the day lying in little cabana shelters or wandering next to their elephant. It would have been very interesting to talk to one of them about their job.

The last thing we did was walk around the sanctuary and see the newer or more injured elephants. One was completely blind thanks to a cruel owner’s punishment. Another had a deformed foot after stepping on a land mine. While the stories at the ENP are often tragic, it is heartening that places like this exist and so many people come to volunteer their time to take care of the animals.

An incredible and emotional day that we all enjoyed!

To finish, here are a few of the gorgeous dogs that are up for adoption should anyone visit the sanctuary and want to take them home.

Every one of the 600+ dogs at the sanctuary is named and many are adopted by people in other countries, especially Britain. No surprise to me after seeing all the dogs in the UK!

Doing Nothing At Lebua In Bangkok

View from our balcony.

I have almost nothing to write about Bangkok because we planned on doing nothing and barely ventured from our hotel.

Luke’s parents, Lea and Pete, were meeting us there and we were all travelling through Thailand together for three weeks.

Luke and I arrived first in the mid afternoon after a ten and a half hour flight from London on which I slept almost the entire way. There is an immense feeling of satisfaction when this happens – like performing some kind of magic trick that makes a whole lot of boredom and discomfort disappear. Luke’s parents arrived late the same night so we met them at breakfast the next day.

The first morning we woke up to huge pink thunderclouds. The view from our balcony was magnificent.

As I have written previously, Lebua does an excellent breakfast buffet, even by Asian hotel standards. There’s food from almost every continent and whether you want crepes, bagels, hummus, roast pork, sashimi, salad, wonton soup, curry or even a bowl of humble cereal, your tastes will be catered for. Thanks to 3am jet lag every morning I made it down in time for a light six am breakfast then a return at eight or nine for food with everyone else.

Breakfast by the pool.

Speaking of jet lag, even though Luke and I came from the same time zone it seemed to affect us completely differently. I struggled for a week and a half with waking up super early and feeling like a zombie at 4pm, Luke sporadically woke up at midnight for several hours and had trouble getting to sleep in the evening. Why is this so? If you know please leave a comment!

After breakfast I would spend an hour walking up hill in the gym while Pete and Lea would hang out by the pool and Luke did some video editing. Pretty soon it would be time for the complementary afternoon tea with all drinks included.

The balcony outside the restaurant where we had afternoon tea.

Lea discovered she quite likes pina coladas (I mean, who doesn’t, amirite?) and we’d all get a bit squiffy before a quiet evening of looking at the view from our balconies and going up to the roof bar and trying to take photos while avoiding buying any overpriced drinks. And I do mean overpriced! The cocktails were all $20-$30 and one of the glasses of champagne was $100.

So, not the most thrilling post I’ve ever written but you can see why we like to stay here – complete indulgence! Although we didn’t spend a huge amount of time outside the weather was noticeably cooler than it is in April (on our other trips), being around 34 degrees rather than 40. Walking around at night (we did leave the hotel a couple of times) wasn’t a sweat-drenched nightmare.

Next we headed to Chiang Mai to experience a different side of Thailand.

Turkey: Istanbul

After six weeks in Africa on what I came to think of as the ‘plague truck’ and not getting ill, I was most dismayed to develop a cold and cough a couple of days into our stay in Istanbul. I didn’t really get the most out of the city, particularly since we stayed an extra two nights after Nikki and Leigh left, just to see more stuff. Still, we did make it to a few notable sights and the place certainly made a good impression.

The view from our first apartment.

The weather was pretty good – a trifle hot but it was August after all, and the nights were cooler. Our first apartment had 70 steps to climb (and me with 20kgs of luggage), so I was very happy that our second place was on the ground floor. We chose the ‘Cheers Hostel’, very close to the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque. Mosques in Istanbul were much quieter than Dar Es Salaam and provided more of a nice touch of  distant foreign flavour rather than a blare of tinny screeching at 4am.

In the ‘old city’ where we stayed at Cheers, there were some really beautiful buildings. Turkish people know how to go to town with colour and I’ve been totally inspired with regards to home furnishings and craft projects for when I get home.

If unicorns became architects they’d design houses like this.

At night all the lamp shops and bars with lamps and just general abundance of lamps made the place look magical. I may have even bought a few lamps myself, but about 97 less that I actually wanted.

Lucas, Luke and I decided to buy a ticket for a ‘hop on hop off’ bus to see more of the city. It was a bit rubbish, to be honest. The buses seemed to run in different directions each time we got on so there was some back tracking and the recorded commentary was dreadful. For a city with three thousand years of history you’d think there’d be something interesting to say but I can remember almost none of it – and usually trivia sticks in my mind. Heck, with an hour on the internet *I* could’ve done a better tour.

Every time I saw the Istanbul horizon I thought of football because of the pairs of minarets, which is ludicrous because I don’t even think about football when I see people playing football.

However the tour, for a small extra cost, came with a boat trip that we took in the evening. Despite looking like we were going to be crammed aboard a boat like sardines into a can (although that’s a bad simile, because if the can sank the sardines would’ve been fine, unlike us) it turned out that there were multiple boats and the view was great and the guide was ok too. Although I was feeling rather sorry for myself by this point and fell asleep for part of it, the boat did go under a bridge that was huge and did fantastic light displays every half hour with a huge number of LEDs. We’d seen it from our Taksim apartment but getting to get right up close to it was excellent.

This photo does it no justice at all.

Apart from that I basically slept most of the days away or dragged myself around like a snot-producing zombie. One of the things I did quite like was the Basilica Cistern, a huge cavern underneath the middle of Istanbul which was, as the name suggests, a water storage area.

About 1500 years old, it shows how we really don’t make things like we used to. Plus there were big fat fish swimming in the metre or so of water under the walkways. They were a bit creepy. Apparently the place was used in ‘From Russia With Love’, many years ago.

Apart from that Istanbul was notable for the vast number of cats everywhere, the fact that everyone’s brother/cousin/uncle’s-father’s-former-roomate-in-college had a carpet shop we should definitely visit, and the foooooooood. Turkish food is great – and dramatic. They do this thing called a ‘testes kebab’ (yes, I know what you’re thinking, but no!) which is a casserole cooked in a clay pot and then the pot is broken when served. We have also been loving the turkish delight and baklava. I’ve always thought baklava seemed like a good idea but never really had much of it. Until now!

On the topic of food, but only just, Lucas and Luke became addicted to something I dubbed the ‘squishy burger’. These were sold at street side kebab and sandwich vendors and would be stacked, pre-made in a bain-marie. They looked … well, you can see for yourself.

Bun, meat and tomato sauce, left to sit in a glass cabinet all day. It’s hard to believe nothing went wrong.

Not exactly appetising. But they were super cheap (the equivalent of $1 each I think) and I’m ashamed to say that I, too, thought they tasted alright. I limited myself to a single one but the boys had at least one a day, by my reckoning.

I’d like to assure all the parents out there reading this that we ate this kind of thing more frequently:

Farewell drinks with Nikki and Leigh.

Next stop: Cappadocia!