April 2019 – Roaming Rome

If you have been reading my website at endlessroaming.com you would be aware that I have been blogging about previous adventures across the USA, specifically 2012. Ill also write further about other experiences in the USA and other countries I have been to. I am now in Lagos, Portugal blogging about Rome. I’m not sure I can give much of a new perspective on one of the most visited tourist destinations in the world but have a read and let me know what you think?

It had been 20 years since Id visited the city of Rome, last time it was in 1999 when I was on what is called a Contiki tour. If you are not familiar with this its essentially a party bus with a group of drunken tourists in their teens and early 20s not necessarily taking in much history at all let alone fully appreciating the wonders of Rome. In 2019 I figured it would be a good idea to visit the city again with an older and possibly wiser head though if you continue to read maybe you can judge for yourself whether I seem any wiser. First of all onto the tours and amazing spectacles that adorn the city.

I was booked into my accommodation nearby the Colosseum so the first of my tours was obviously this attraction. Built between 70 and 80 AD it is the largest amphitheatre ever constructed and could hold anywhere up to 80000 people. It is one of the 7 wonders of the world and now days attracts tourists from everywhere and TIP I would advise purchasing a ticket prior to arriving at the Colosseum or you could possibly be waiting around for a long time prior to entry. Id arranged a time to enter the attraction and sure enough was not allowed to enter till my allocated time was reached. I spent an hour or so walking around the ancient attraction, climbing up the two stories I was allowed access to and getting a feel for the decaying ancient structure and view the arena below, now you can see mostly catacombs and a small surface where tourists that paid extra could walk upon a part of the surface. I had an interest in Rome as a teenager at high school so it was quite a thrill to be at the attraction imagining the gladiatorial shows that used to go on their approximately 2000 years ago.

Next to the Colosseum is the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill, after approximately another hour of queuing, regardless of the pre-arranged ticket, I entered the ancient site. I immediately turned left and headed up the Hill. The hill contains various ancient temples and stands 40 metres above the Roman Forum so it makes a great viewing spot. The area is quite large and there are plenty of open spaces to sit down, take in the area and even have a nap if you like (I do like naps so I did). I walked to the other end of the hill and looked down at Circus Maximus, the ancient chariot race arena that could hold 150,000 people, not so interesting now as it’s a flattened car park. I then headed down into the Forum, the ancient heart of the Roman Empire. Today what remains are plenty of upstanding and collapsed columns, pathways and remnants of temples which is excellent to take pictures and selfies of course.

After exiting the forum I headed into the downtown Rome area via the Alter of the Fatherland, built in 1885 its relatively comparing to the ancient wonders, has a series of stairs that can be climbed and makes for an excellent place to view the city. After that I headed into downtown Rome which is made up of square spaces known as piazzas and contain various ancient and modern-day wonders / structures. This includes walking past the Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, Trajan’s Column… the list goes on and on. There were thousands of people walking almost aimlessly from site to site, its quite an intoxicating experience and fortunately minutes turn into hours which is great considering all the queuing going on for tours. Fortunately if you start running out of energy their area plenty of cafes and bars in the area where you can stop to have some pasta or a pizza, beer and wine and carb load. After a day of sensory overload, I headed back to the hotel the way I came to take some night photos and get some rest.

In the morning it was off to Vatican City, a 110 acre in area with a population of 1,000 making it the smallest country in the world. I assume the reader is aware but Ill point out it’s the centre of the Catholic church and is another reason as to why this city is so popular for tourists. My first stop were the Vatican Museums, one of the largest and most visited museums in the world. Its full of Roman sculptures and Renaissance art and its very easy to get lost walking around taking everything in. The halls themselves are also art pieces, its hard to describe the sensation of visiting the place and it could take months if not years to pick up on all the nuances of the place, let alone the two to three hours it is generally suggested to view the museum. There is also a constant movement of people taking in everything especially when you reach the end at the Sistine Chapel, this is a series of fresco’s including the most famous Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Some tourists rush through to get to the chapel and it can be quite crowded don’t rush, try to take in as much as possible including a collection of Pope mobiles,

After exiting its onto St Peters Basilica with yet another hourly enormous queue TIP be patient because you won’t have a choice. Its well worth the wait however, as far as an active religious structure, I don’t think there is anything finer to see, perhaps some cathedrals but I’m writing this so its not open to debate. The highlight is the dome with Bernini’s alter sitting below it. There are also many sculptures and over 100 tombs some of which can be viewed in the catacomb below the floors surface. There is also a lot of gift shops where religious merchandise can be purchased. It must cost the Catholic church a lot of money to maintain all this history and selling post cards, rings, crosses and all other religious nick-knacks must go some way in funding this, St Peters is free to enter.

Another reason I was visiting Rome was social and to catch up with an old friend of mine who is studying to be a priest. The first evening we caught up involved doing a small tour of some of the sites and getting some incite to Rome that other tourists possibly would not get. My experience became more unique when I was invited to dinner at the English College of Rome. First my friend took me on guided tour of the college itself, founded originally in 1362 it’s the oldest English institution outside of England in the world and is used for training of English and Welsh Catholic priests (and a few Aussies). After the tour I was invited to mass where 14 priests dressed in purple gave readings and there was some singing. After that we went to the kitchen area and sat down for some tasty Indian curry and glasses of wine. I was starting to warm up to this religious lifestyle but mind you after some quality curry and wine I can find a lot of things fascinating.

When dinner was finished, we then headed to the College bar for some after dinner refreshments. This essentially involved a lot of pints beer, some 14-year-old Scotch and inhaling Snuff. Id vaguely heard of snuff which was quite popular in the 16th to 19th century, its the inhaling of incensed tobacco, but I had no idea it was still in use today, well snuff is live and well in the Catholic church. Whilst outside one of the Aussie priests asked me if I was a Catholic to which I answered I’m Agnostic, he started at me briefly and said “Aren’t we all” and laughed, he was kidding I think. After many drinks, conversations with English and Aussie priests about the cricket and other important sports topics I said goodbye to my mate and new friends and stumbled back to my hotel for the evening, a thoroughly pleasant and to my surprise quite the drunken night.

Well that was Rome for me, like I say being the most visited place in the world for tourists, religious followers, history buffs and romantics, I’m not sure there was much I can add regarding new experiences. However, my night at the English College was an absolutely fantastic, insightful, interesting and most of all fun. Rome has it all from history to architecture to archaeology to snuff, ….

Roaming Istanbul Turkey

If you have been reading my website at endlessroaming.com you would be aware that I have been blogging about previous adventures across the USA, specifically 2012. Ill also write further about other experiences in the USA and other countries I have traveled. I am now in Lagos, Portugal blogging about about my brief four day visit to Istanbul.

This is actually my third trip to Istanbul so the city is familiar to me, I came here 20 years previously and 10 years previously so in a way I was doing my decade anniversary of sorts. On both my previous trips Id spent a while in Turkey exploring the countryside as well as Istanbul, this time however I had only four days before heading to my next destination in Rome so here are some highlights of my brief time.

Istanbul has a population of approximately 15 million people, sitting on a peninsula that divides Europe from Asia adjoining the Black Sea with the sea of Marmara via the narrow Bosporus seaway. The city is the largest in Turkey and also its cultural capital containing many historical sites going back to its founding approximately 3000 years ago, essentially there is a lot of interesting stuff to do in Istanbul especially for historical buffs. Id decided to stay in a backpacker hostel in the old city of Sultanhamet where most of this interesting stuff is easily accessible.

The nightlife I experienced was around the hostel bar, a lot of travelers that had come to Istanbul, mostly Australians, Turkey is a hugely popular destination for both Aussies. I had not meant any Australians in the past few months of travel so it was good fun to socialise with people from home my country. Where we were located meant easy access to many restaurants selling all kinds of Turkish cuisine so socialising generally meant a few beers at the hostel bar, head to a restaurant for kebabs, rissoles and salad then some Turkish delight and other cakes before heading back to the bar for more beer.

If you aren’t already aware Australia has a unique history with Turkey which is why so many frequent the country, the Gallipoloi Campaign in World War 1 resulted in 8,709 Australian fatalities at the hands of the Ottoman Empire. This campaign essentially became the catalyst for the Turkish War of Independence and the new declaration of the Turkish Republic and also the birth of the Australian and New Zealand nations creating the tradition of ANZAC. Instead of anymosity between Turkey, Australia and New Zealand, this campaign has lead to a positive relationship has been going on since that battle and Australians are very welcome.

As I mentioned there is a lot of interesting stuff to do in Istanbul so between the beer, laughter and kebabs there are a lot of sights which Ill briefly cover including the…..

Topapki Palace constructed in 1459 is a large cultural museum in Istanbul and the old administration centre of the Ottoman Empire during the 15th century. It’s a massive complex sitting on the ocean an contains a great amount of history of the Turkish Empire. My favourite place is the adjoining Archeological museum with the fake Alexander the Great Sarcophagus and other historical relics. Waking the palace grounds is also an excellent way to past the time and take in the view of the ocean and city.

Hagia Sophia constructed in 537 it was orginally Greek Orthodox until the Ottomans changed it to an Islamic Mosque and today it’s a museum. Most mosques in Istanbul are blue in colour, but Sophia is pink, the inside is impressive as you climb up the steps to look at the impressive decorations etched in the walls and roof and the floor below

Blue Mosque is directly opposite the Sophia museum, completed in 1616 this mosque is active and tourists can only enter at certain times. Unfortunately the interior is undergoing a major renovation so mostly all I could see was scaffolding. Fortunately Ive been inside on my two previous tours of the city, at the tie the floor was covered in Persian rugs, the arched domed roof standing tall and lamps burning various oils and incense, its similar in design to Sophia

Bascillica Cistern – one of several hundred underground cisterns built between the 3rd and 4th century during the time of Rome. Walk down a short stair case and you can see a lot of columns darkly lighten up by reddish lights and some of the column bases have the head of Medusa. Its quite a surreal place to visit. It would also make for a really good nightclub but I dont see that happening anytime soon.

There are also plenty of other destinations nearby within easy walking distance from each other, Tip so there really is no need to go on a paid tour, just get a map. There are plenty of tour guides also available if you wish to delve further into the history. The best thing to do in Istanbul in my opinion is the Grand Bazaar and adorning Spice Bazaar. The largest and oldest covered market in the world, the Grand Bazaar has over 4,000 shops, its globally one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world having approximately up to 400,000 visitors a day. Its an easy place to get lost and contains all matter of items from luxury fake clothes, authentic rugs and other trinkets. You can spend a day in there and not necessarily cover all of the market, its like a monster maze and people can easily get lost. Its also a great place to purchase underwear which came in handy as Id been saving my dirty washing for a big load and was running short on clean clothes. The Spice Bazaar adjoins, is much smaller in size and sells all types of cakes, treats and spices.

Other tourist things include going on a Bosporus cruise Tip or better still just pay for a ferry which is a lot cheaper. I headed over the Galata Bridge which connects the Old City with the Northern area Istanbul, the bridge has upper and lower pathways, includes many restaurants cooking a variety of seafood and kebabs as well as fisherman casting lines into the ocean. Then its 15 minute walk to Galata Tower, medieval in design the cue to enter was to long so I continued my walking trip up an almost endless open air high end fashion mall (not fake goods) to Taksim Square. The square itself has a statue in the middle and there is a mosque being constructed overlooking it

Walking back through the mall I saw many mean wearing headbands on their head, some with blood stains, and many women with tape over their noses and some with black eyes, quite a confronting site. I was approached by a shop vendor and asked if I wished to undergo a hair transplant. Istanbul is a major destination for people requiring hair transplant and nose job surgery at a comparatively cheap price compared to other areas of the world, I can only imagine this is the case due to its affordability, its quite odd to see so many men with patches of hair, sweat bands and blood, being a bald many myself I found it quite fascinating, entry level transplant are around $2,000 which was a little beyond my tourist budget and I’m quite comfortable with my skinned head.

After four days of drinking beer and eating kebabs, taking in the tourist sites, in particular hanging out in the Grand Bazaar and contemplating hair replacement surgery it was time to leave Istanbul and onto Rome. As indicated it was my third visit over 20 years, the most obvious sign of change was the light rail system that had been put in place for travel about the city. The ancient sites however had not changed much though there is a lot more security on the ground than I can recall. If interested in history, a phenomenal shopping experience, transplants, nose jobs and Turkish cuisine Id strongly recommend a visit, Istanbul is cultural and vibrant, but mostly really good fun….

March 2019 – Roaming Georgia and Armenia

If you have been reading my website at endlessroaming.com you would be aware that I have been blogging about previous adventures across the USA, specifically 2012. Ill also write further about other experiences in the USA and other countries I am now in the United Kingdom playing blogging catch up having just traveled through Georgia, Armenia and the cities of Istanbul and Rome, U have some time now write about the experience.

Over the last few years Id heard about the country of Georgia and what a fantastic place it was to travel to, other than that apart from their occasional recent appearances in the Rugby Union World Cup my knowledge of the place was virtually, much like when I booked by trip to Kazakhstan. Something else it has in common with Kazakhstan is Georgia was part of the former USSR and is still now finding its way economically since the break up of the former Soviet State. Whilst Kazakhstan is rich in oil and gas, Georgia has mainly focusing on tourism, English is now the second national language instead of Russian and the majority of younger people speak it fluently, it is essentially an English-speaking country though some of the older generation speak both Georgian or Russian only.

Tbilisi is the capital city and is medieval in appearance or at least in the old area which is where most tourists like to locate themselves. The city was built in the 5th century and has a population of 1.5 million, the Old Town is a great place to locate yourself to discover the city and also the other regions in and around the country. The hostel owner picked me up from the airport and checked me in, I was immediately a drink called cha-cha and a lot of it, it’s a shot of brandy/vodka made from grapes and I believe the percentage is anywhere between 40 and 65 percent, this was home brew and especially strong. I immediately discovered that Georgians are very generous people and also like to drink alcohol, very much the same in Australia, a lot of my time in Georgia was experiencing this type of hospitality.

The nightlife was excellent fun, I’d arrived on St Patrick’s Day so after a few rounds of cha-cha I headed to one of the local Irish bars. In typical Irish fashion it was in full swing with lots of singing and drinking, the crowd was made up of both expats and locals. After a few rounds of beer and cha-cha I headed to one of the local Georgian night clubs, this involved a lot more drinking, talking about rugby, Georgia, singing and dancing. It was all very friendly and this kind of atmosphere was available any night of the week, Tbilisi being a tourist city definitely makes for a great night life seen Tip I do caution you though, like many cities there are a few bars around that will attempt to lure customers in and and have jacked up prices to rip of unknowing people, its not common but a little common sense is necessary. If you go into a bar with a that has a few attractive women to talk with, some large bouncers and there is nobody about, ask the price and if they don’t confirm, exit the place. After all there is a lot of active friendly bars about the area.

I experienced more than a few heavy hangovers whilst in Tbilisi after all drinking is a past time and its relatively cheap compared to Western Europe, however the cold crisp air and the amazing beauty of the city meant that this was all quickly forgotten the following morning. The Old Town is nestled in a valley with a river running through it and like a fairy tale it has cobbled roads, churches, plenty of art and craft shopping as well as hiking up the hills that surround the city, its really spectacular. The first site I headed to is the Narikala Fort that overlooks the city and is about a 10 minute walk from where I was staying, established in the 4th century, its in a ruinous state which can be climbed all over by tourists and has spectacular views of the city below, its also the location of the Botanical Gardens and one of many churches in the city. Georgia is a Christian country the majority of which follow Georgian Orthodox Church and there are thousands of churches all scattered all around the country. So my next visit was the Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi construction completed in 2004. It is the third tallest Orthodox building in the world and by area one of the largest and is made up of nine chapels, it also overlooks the city and makes for a spectacular setting.

On another day to walk off a cha-cha hangover I headed up Mount Mtatsminda which was about an 1.5 hour walk away to the top of the mountain. Passing another church on the way up the hike took about an hour and was quite steep. At the top I had some wonderful goulash and berry cake at the restaurant and then wandered around the fun park, a large Ferris wheel and yet again fantastic views of the city and the snow capped mountain range beyond that surround the city. After a few more days of historic churches, walking the cobbled streets, eating Georgian food at some super affordable restaurants and plenty of cha-cha of course, I decided that I would leave Georgia for a few days and head over the border to Armenia which is close by,

The cheapest way to Armenia is by bus, otherwise known as a Marshrutka, it’s a bus service mainly used by locals to travel around Georgia, Armenia and other countries in the area. Relatively cheap in comparison to a regular bus service, taxi or plane, what is involved is heading to the central bus station, paying for a ticket and then waiting around to fill an 8-seat capacity van prior to leaving the station. After a 1.5 hour wait it was approximately an hour ride to the border which was easy to negotiate through, after exiting Georgia and a drive of 500 metres though no mans the Armenian border patrol appeared and again very easy to cross. Once crossing the border the road condition drastically changed from smooth to very bumpy, also the Azerbaijan border as only a few kilometres away which Armenia is currently at war with so imagining snipers in the hill overlooking the road made the ride a little more interesting,, that and the excessive speeding along pot holed windy roads.. The landscape progressively changed first open fields with mountains in the distance then old abandoned Soviet style buildings started appearing by the road and a lot of them, very interesting and kind of sad really. Soviet style towns started appearing and we then steadily ascending for four 4 hours.  After going through a tunnel on a steep ascent for about 2km it was then wow, a mountain landscape appeared with snow covered fields, amazing to look at and very different to what I saw prior to entering the tunnel, it was onto Yerevan.

Id decided to check into a moderately priced luxury hotel in the centre of town, Armenia is a cheaper destination than Georgia and is not as frequented, I then headed out for the evening. The first bar I headed to included smoking indoors, not necessarily a surprise but what was is that restaurants also allow smoking indoors whilst eating. I am a social smoker so was not upset in anyway by this but then again, I do enjoy a meal without the next table puffing away on a cigarette. I had a few beers and a kebab, the food is similar to Georgia then decided to walk the streets, downtown Yerevan with a population of 1 million or so is modern and the shopping arcade where I was staying was very new and had all the conveniences of a modern city with American / European chain stores and luxury shopping. The hotel was in the town centre and most of the tourist sites were easily accessible for me, it was getting late so I headed back to the hotel for an early start.

The first place I headed to was the Armenian Genocide Museum, this documents the genocide of reportedly 1.5 million Armenian people by the Ottoman Empire between 1915 to 1923. The museum is very informative and contains graphic detail of the atrocities that were committed during the period and the dramatic effect that it has had on the country, it was a very humbling and sad experience. Armenia has a long history of conflict with various people over the centuries, as indicated earlier its currently at war with its neighbour and also has a long history of Soviet rule, conflict with Turkey and other neighbouring countries for many reasons going back to the conquest by the Mongolian empire, there is signs of conflict in and around the city and nothing describes it better than this particular museum. Armenia is not a rich country but in saying that its actually really safe and the people are very hospitable.

There are a few of the other tourism sites, this included a statue of Mother Armenia, symbolising peace through strength, it stands tall overlooking the city of Yerevan and on a perfect day you can see all the way to Mt Ararat which stands at an elevation of around 5200m. This mountain stands out among all others and is the quadrant point between Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan and Armenia. I then wandered through the adjoining semi derelict fun to another Soviet monument and found something truly beautiful and unique, the Yerevan Cascade. Built in two stages between Soviet era 1971 to 1980 and independent 2002 to 2009, it’s a limestone structure internally a series of escalators and modern art museums and externally sculptures, staircases and gardens. It descends the downtown area and is another viewing spot for Mt Ararat and the city below. After walking down I headed to the town square, Republic Square, a series of fountains surrounded by  five major buildings and at night the area lights up and music comes from the fountains, a great place to spend some time.

The following day Id booked myself on a tour to see some of the epic snow-capped countryside, my first top Lake Sevan, one of the largest freshwater lakes in Eurasia and again surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Overlooking it is the Sevanvank Monastery, constructed in 874 AD, it is part of the Armenian Church. Armenia changed from being Pagan to Christian in 301 AD making it the oldest Christian country in the world, the second oldest being neighbouring Georgia. Just like Georgia the country is deeply religious and there are churches scattered all around the countryside. After that we went into the mountain range and visited the town of Tsaghkadzor which includes another ancient Armenian Abbey, but also a ski resort acceding to 2800m it makes for quite a spectacular view of the snow-capped scenery.

After a couple of nights, I headed back to Georgia, first stop back to Tbilisi for a few more nights of cha-cha, quality food and I even managed to attend Euro Qualifier football game, Georgia vs. Switzerland. Switzerland won 2 0 which was expected it was my first time Id been to such a qualifier and I love football so was well worth the bustling crowd, crammed underground transport system to and from the ground and funny banter with Georgians and Swiss during and after the game. Please note Rugby Union is the national sport of Georgia, also very popular in Australia, something else we have in common along with the love of drinking. After a few more nights I was then headed on a train ride to the Black Sea coast and the city of Batumi for a few days. The train ride through the Georgian countryside was surrounded by small towns, yet more churches, fields and snow-capped mountains, a pleasant way to spend five hours and much less hectic than taking the bus service.

Batumi wow I was amazed by the place, Tbilisi and Yerevan I had certain expectations and it was easy to find out information about those places on Google. A few days earlier Id read that Batumi has an international airport and to go somewhere different I bought an airline ticket and really didn’t think much about the place until Id arrived. Batumi is quite a small city with a population of 200,000 and I now know is made up of clock tours, high rise hotels and skyscrapers, its very beautiful. Later I found out that it’s the gambling capital for Central Asia and as casinos are banned in Russia, Turkey, Ukraine and “Stan” countries gamblers come here. It was quiet season so there were not so many people about, however the impressive coastline, the foreshore park adjoining the port and the mountain range in the background made for some wonderful scenery and walking around. Batumi’s classic 19th century architecture of the Old Town is a great way to spend the day walking around and at night if not into gambling there is a friendly Irish bar to have a few pints, pleasant conversation and some Georgian food. I only had two nights and wish to head back one day and have a few more.

So that was my time in Georgia and Armenia, both very friendly and beautiful places to explore, quality food especially if you like meat dishes and the people are very generous if you like a drink or three. I am sure over time as more people become more aware of the area tourism can only increase, at this stage is predominantly Russian and other tourists from the region however both countries are making strides to attract more tourists from the West. The area is very safe to travel despite ongoing regional conflicts and dodgy roads however if you are looking for something different yet very European and affordable you cant beat this area. Tip Georgia has an unrestricted 1 year visa that can be triggered over and over again if you exit and reenter the country and Armenia 6 months. For those adventurers looking for overseas work with virtually no visa restriction there is plenty of English speaking jobs and apartments are cheap rent. So if looking for an extended break from wherever you are, I’d Georgia especially and I am currently debating doing a spot of English teaching myself……. but for now for Istanbul its off to Istanbul.

Roaming Seoul South Korea

If you have been reading my website at endlessroaming.com you would be aware that I have been blogging about previous adventures across the USA, specifically 2012. Ill also write further about other experiences in the USA and other countries I have been to, at this point now 72. I am now sitting in my accommodation in Almaty Kazakhstan and thought Id cover my four days in Seoul South Korea.

Seoul South Korea is the first new country I have visited roaming in 2019 and I was not really sure what to expect, Tip If unsure about a place always best to check into a hostel over a hotel, more likely to meet other travelers and helpful hostel staff. The hostel had already provided me details on how to get there from the airport which is actually simple enough as there is a railway that runs into the centre of Seoul and then a rather detailed and complex underground / overground rail network with a bit of practice becomes easy to use. With my simcard sorted at the airport I was ready to head into Hongdae where I would be staying. It was also handy to know that there were gas masks on hand in case of any nuclear war occurring involving North Korea over the border.

I arrived at the hostel, unfortunately there were not very many guests (it is winter I suppose) however the hostel owner was really sociable and informative and gave me a plan of sorts to see the best of Seoul for my four-night stay. My first evening involved wondering around Hongdae itself, this is the student area of Seoul, along with the university there is hundreds if not thousands of retailers within the area selling both budget and high-end fashion as well as many restaurants and bars. The locals appeared to be very fashion conscious and there was a constant flow of people eating and shopping. The fashion is of such quality that I would recommend the area for anyone looking for new clothes, so much so that I felt a little out of place with my dusty jeans and sheepskin jacket. I consoled myself with some fried chicken and a few beers at a bar. The bar was quite being a Monday night but the hustle and bustle of people still shopping was still going on when I decided to go to bed around midnight.

The following day I did a self-guided tour of some of the sites with the aid of my phone, the tourist map and guidance provided by the hostel owner and the extensive transport system. After determining which was the right way to go Tip Google Maps does not work correctly in Seoul, it will guide you through the rail network however it wont guide when walking, the owner told me it’s something to do with being so close to North Korea and this level of detail can not be provided. My first stop was the National Museum of Korea, a free entry museum detailing the history of Korea, this includes history on Korean Buddhism, pre-historic and ancient times and a focus on the Joseon dynasty. The most memorable moment for me however was when a security guard came up to me, started laughing and pulled on my beard I assume to see if it was real, very random.

Conveniently next door is the Gyeongbokgung Palace was the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty and is regarded as Seoul’s no 1 tourist attraction. Originally built in 1395 over its history it has been destroyed and rebuilt including by bombing by the Japanese Air force during World War 2. Korea has a history of occupation 1910 to 1945 by the Japanese and in many ways to the cultures today are intermixed and many Koreans are fluent in Japanese. The palace grounds are made up of various temples, its quite an expansive space and is a good opportunity to take photos and get a feeling for the cultural heritage. There were also many tourists that rent Korean costumes of the period when the palace was actively used and nearby there are many shops in the area that rent out these costumes. I learned later if dressed up entry is free, this includes Western tourists. It’s the first time I have been to a tourist location offering this type of free admission entry.

Conveniently again next to the palace is the Buchkon Hanok Village, a traditional suburb of Seoul and not just a tourist attraction but also an area where locals reside. It’s on a hill and has many paved streets where people can walk and look at traditional architecture, there is also traditional market shopping and restaurants. Its quite a picturesque location and I was more and more gaining an appreciation for traditional Korea . Nearby is the National Folk Museum of Korea, there are more temples and also the museum itself demonstrating various traditional period dress. Museum ed and temp led out for the day, I headed back to the hostel, the owner took myself and another hostel guest to Traditional Korean Barbecue, Bulgogi or marinated beef is brought our frying in a pan and chopsticks are used to wrap in leaves and put various condiments on it, roll it up and eat. We sat on mates cross legged, drank some maekju (beer), talked about Korea and had some laughs, Koreans enjoy beer as much as I do.

The following day I was on a tour to the DMZ, if you have not heard of this briefly is a strip of land separating North and South Korea across the entire island, the width being approximately 4 kms all the way across. After World War 2 Korea had no government as the occupying Japanese had been defeated so the country was split in two, the USA governing the south and Russia the north. The Korean war started from 1948 and concluded in 1953 when the border was established. The tour is about an hour bus ride from Seoul and time is limited as to what can been seen, the border being heavily controlled as its active. Our first stop was the Freedom Bridge, a park that includes many monuments to the war. Unfortunately we were delayed there due to the amount of pollution in the air Tip If you have a local sim you will get warnings a few times a day, this isn’t about an impending problem on the DMZ but pollution, neighbouring China creates so much pollution that it effects the weather condition in Korea which appears like a fog, when getting such a warning its advised to put on a surgical mask to inhibit the pollution into the lungs. I would not let this discourage a tourist from visiting Korea, but it is something worth mentioning.

Our next stop was the Third Tunnel of Aggression, one of four tunnels dug by North Korea during the war that have been discovered, there is thought to be 20 or so more, this is the only tunnel open to tourists. No cameras are allowed, a hard hat must be worn and then it’s a 1.6km steeply descending walk and it can get quite claustrophobic, very interesting and worthwhile experience even if there is not much to see, its more appreciation of the effort. Then it was onto the Dora Observatory, the new complex as opposed to what is featured in the link, from there you can apparently see North Korea and the city of Kaesong, there are binoculars for this purpose but because of the pollution I could make it maybe 2km in distance, half way through the DMZ itself. Last stop Dorasan train station, an active station to Seoul, it connects to the north but has an irregular service and is not for tourists, Westerner or Korean. It’s a typical looking train station except perhaps sadly the glassed off customs inspection area which includes luggage scanners you would find at any airport but have never been put to use.

After another night of fried chicken and beers, there was one more museum to see, the War Memorial of Korea. An impressively sized complex detailing the history of warfare in Korea from ancient times but in particular the Korean War itself, including the role of the United Nations, the USA, United Kingdom and the importance of Australia Army during the conflict. There are many details including a large collection of weapons, tanks, planes and a ship. South Koreans have experienced the threat of war for a long time, from the Japanese occupation to the Korean War and now ongoing issues with North Korea. The hostel owner told me that all South Koreans have compulsory military service and can be called upon for active duty till the age of 40. He as so many hopes one day that there will be one unified Korea, I hope it does happen for them and also, I wouldn’t visiting North Korea myself one day.

This is what I got up to in my four days in Seoul, a truly world class city with a lot of tradition and history. Sure there is some tension with an active DMZ but it does not seem to effect South Koreans daily lives and it should not affect tourists from going there either. With top quality food, excellent beer, friendly people and as indicated earlier, quality shopping and fashion sense, I would recommend a visit for historian buffs, lovers of barbecue and shoppers alike. Anyway, now it’s time for Central Asia and Kazakhstan and who knows what….

March 2019 – Roaming Chiang Mai and Bangkok Thailand

If you have been reading my website at endlessroaming.com you would be aware that I have been blogging about previous adventures across the USA, specifically 2012. Ill also write further about other experiences in the USA and other countries I have been to, now Ill briefly go through my latest adventure in Thailand, Chiang Mai and Bangkok including a few Tips.

Chiang Mai is the northern capital of Thailand, originally founded in 1296 it still has the remnants of the Old City Walls surrounding the Old Town in the centre of the city. The official population is around 180,000 though the number of Western expats and others means this is only an approximation. It is also the cultural capital of Thailand meaning there are hundreds of Buddhist temples located around the city. The amount of outdoor activities, spirituality and cheap affordable accommodation for Westerners coupled with quality shopping and a vibrant social scene make it a popular draw card for tourists, both short and long term. It certainly has made an impression on me and first Tip is a great place for any potential budding English language teachers that want to make the move.

Whilst staying here it is crop burning season meaning that there is a lot of pollution from the burning of crops such as sugar and mushrooms, this doesn’t make it unpleasant but for a few months of the year there is a haze that blankets the city. This and the sweltering afternoon heat means another Tip is renting a hotel with a swimming pool a must to get some chillout time at one of the many reasonably priced hotels in downtown area. This means most of my time was taken up by touring some of the temples, going for a swim, looking at markets and enjoying some of the nightlife on offer, not a bad way to spend some time here.

One of my tours was to Doi Inthanon which is the highest mountain in the region and on top of that are two spectacular temples standing elevated at about 2600m. These temples sit on opposite peaks facing each other and are surrounded by gardens and forest, the entire mountain range is worth touring and includes waterfalls scattered throughout the park. The views are spectacular and the my personal impression is they appear like something from a fantasy adventure, its truly worth seeing and only a few hours by tour from the downtown area.

If not keen to head out that way, there are over 300 temples within the city itself, 200 of which are in the old town itself. Wat Phan Tao is in the city centre and is the largest of the temple complexes. There is a series of varying shrines which Buddhist and tourists alike are free to enter as long as they take their shoes off and is an excellent and peaceful way to spend a few hours in the slowly heating up day. Originally constructed as a palace in 1846 it was a few years later converted into a monastery and the monks there are more than happy to talk to tourists at “speaking areas” when approached. At the centre is a large stone temple which can not be entered, but plenty of the shrines can be and there is plenty of gold buildings and Buddha statues on display.

Other activities I managed to fit in included going to many of the shopping markets in the area selling fresh food, clothes and art which is quite cheaply priced. This includes the famous Night Market which is very large area on the outskirt of the old city which is where I was staying, a series of shopping malls, street stalls and food vendors selling all different Thai dishes. I went down to the market a few times to enjoy some dinner, listened to live street performers, drink a few beers and enjoy the vibrant colourful lifestyle, the locals are very hospitable.

If not keen on the night market there is plenty of quality restaurants along the river which are also reasonably priced. There is a vibrant nightlife within the city including plenty of backpacker Western bars as well as kitchens where locals tend to frequent and Girl Bars where tourists can buy a woman a drink and choose whether or not they wish to pay a Bar Fine and head out with their companion. This is not behavior I personally choose to participate in but it seems to be part of the way of life, strictly speaking Thailand made prostitution illegal in 1960 though this law does not appear to be enforced. I found myself a local bar where I could watch some live kickboxing, chatted about Thailand with a few locals and enjoy a few beers. I wasn’t particularly interested in hanging out in Western bars nor paying bar fines so finding a place where I could sit relax and have a laugh was much appreciated.

After a few days of relaxing Chiang Mai, it was off to the madness that is Bangkok, with a population of maybe 10 million people the traffic is chaotic hundreds of thousands of cars on the road, Tuk Tuk drivers weaving in between and the air is polluted by not necessarily just from burning crops. It’s a very different experience to Chiang Mai but just as Chiang Mai is full of Buddhist temples, shopping markets, street food and friendly Buddhist locals, so is Bangkok.

There are plenty of tourist attractions within Bangkok and there is a lot written about the place so I won’t go into detail about the history of the city. A few of the activities I got up to included cruising up the Chao Phryaya river watching the mix of new buildings, old housing and temples along the river, also plenty of water taxis and other ferry services making their way up and down the river, it acts as a motorway. My first stop was the the Grand Palace, unfortunately I could not enter the palace at 11am as royal officials were still inside and would be leaving at 1pm so a tour guide organised me a Tuk Tuk to kill a few hours and see some of the Buddha shrines and check out a few textile factories. I saw a few shrines including the 32m tall Standing Buddha statue covered in gold it towers over the shrines below. There were hundreds of locals engaged in activities I have no understanding of though I think a lot of it was to do with praying for wealth as there were ropes on display with bank notes hanging off them…. I really don’t know. The textile factories were actually just an attempt get me to buy a suit but the temple and hurtling around in a Tuk Tuk made the experience worthwhile.

Upon my return to the palace I had to TIP purchase pants as shorts are not allowed to be worn on palace grounds. When entering the grounds, I was made to stand in an area whilst the a motorcade left the ground and then after purchasing a ticket, I was allowed within the palace complex itself. A series of shrines and the palace building itself is spectacular and must visit from the thousands of tourists coming into the complex itself. The shrines are obviously spectacular and the detail that has gone into creating them is intricate and complex, the palace itself is large in size and can’t be entered, well at least not by me.

Another activity I participated in was a few hours out of Bangkok at the Damnoen Saduaok Floating Market tour. This was a totally amazing experience, the tour included a personal taxi to and from the market, my own guided tour boat and of course the shopping experience itself. The market appears to be an endless maze of crisscrossing waterways with long boats hooked up to old car motors and a series of stalls selling all kinds of touristic and local goods. I pulled up to my first stall, purchased a bottle of beer and then engaged in some haggling with many of the friendly stall owners, all very friendly, colourful and a truly unique cultural shopping experience. After a few hours of river cruising, having some lunch and a few more beers it was back to Bangkok.

I’m sure there is nightlife in Bangkok far more sophisticated than what I experienced, rooftop bars and or backpacker bars. At this point in time however and from what I understand the main areas to go out in are the red-light districts, these include Patpong and Soi Cowboy. Patpong was near where I was staying so I tried this area first, a maze of night market shopping, food vendors and Girl bars, I drank in one of the regular bars nearby and watched the crowd go by majority of which being tourists, Western couples and Chinese as interested as me in what went on there. Most of the bars appeared to have Thai lady boys standing out front attempting to draw in customers, great for people watching. Around some of the streets were also gay bars, it seems that Bangkok whilst being deeply religious, is also very tolerant regarding sexual preferences. The Soi Cowboy, one long street of neon light and a seemingly endless amount of girl bars with all types of tourists watching and or experiencing what’s on offer, as indicated whilst bar fining women has no appeal for me it is an interesting people watch.

I have really enjoyed my time in Thailand and comparing two of its major cities, the casual relaxing Chiang Mai and the hectic fast paced Bangkok. As you may be able to tell my preference is Chiang Mai as its a little more easy going and relaxed whether its walking to a temple, getting a cheap meal or catching up with the some friendly faces for a few nights. Bangkok is more for those that really want to chase the nightlife and love of the big city feel, but it also has enough for those that want to experience some of that spirituality and friendliness that is Thailand, to which both cities have in abundance.

Well anyway I’m now in Seoul which I hopefully will have a blog about shortly, just killing some time before I head out to Kazakhstan, should be interesting….