Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Korea Fashion Scene

I'm not sure how to start talking about this other than to say that it's an enormous disappointment. Now, don't get me wrong, there is SO much luxury in Busan it's ludicrous. Louis Vuitton, Bottega Venetta, Gucci, Prada, Ferregamo, Chanel, Armani, Miu Miu, Tiffany, Dior, (Dior Homme has it's own separate store), Jimmy Choo...and not only are all these in one place there are multiples of them all over the city. There are two Louis Vuittons within a 5 minute walk of one another. For those of you who know me you're probably thinking "...why is that a bad thing?" Along with the abundance of extravagance there is a plethora of counterfeit to go right with it. In Japan this wasn't the case. If a Japanese person was carrying a fake Gucci anything they would be like, shamed or something. Japan is full of luxury and you know that 99.9% of the time it's hands down authentic. I'm not saying Korea is China or even Canal Street in New York City in regards to fakes being sold but it is nearly everywhere I look. I can't walk out the front door of my building without seeing ten Louis Vuittons in all shapes and sizes and half of them aren't real. Without sounding a bit snobbish, I can, in most cases, tell you at first glance whether a Louis is authentic or not. Call it a gift. And a lot of them I see are definitely on the not side. I liked going into secondhand shops in Japan (see Louis Vuitton posts from the past) and knowing that what I was buying was authentic without question. Here, I'm much more wary about things like that and I hate it. One spends $800 on a bag because of the quality and because it will last forever and I think that's something to take pride in, not that you got a knockoff for $50 that's going to fall apart next year. Snooty rant over.

As far as normal shopping goes, it's also a colossal disappointment. Again, there is shopping everywhere I look but everything is so dreadfully expensive. In Japan (comparing again) my absolute favorite store was/is Zara. If you've never heard of it, google it or something, it's absolutely fabulous. On the hierarchy of this type of store it would be something along the lines of Charlotte Russe-Forever 21-H&M-Zara, though with Zara and H&M being incredibly close though Zara might be slightly more expensive. I love all those stores with Zara being my absolute favorite because of what they offer in terms of clothes but Forever 21 is my favorite because of what they offer but the prices are great. Not as great of quality, but being 25 and poor means I need a cute $12 top once in a while. I swear I was at Zara every single weekend in Japan. (Everything changes out once a week I think.) Skirts ran from about $10-$30, basic tops could be as low as $12-$20 while super nice tops were about $30-$40. Jeans and pants run about $40-$50 and dresses, especially summer ones were as low as $25 but could run up to $60 or $70. (there were more expensive things but this was the price range I usually picked from) All I could think about before heading back overe here was that I couldn't wait to get back to Zara to do some shopping, especially since 75% of my clothes are STILL in Japan waiting for me to come get them. I walk into Zara, a huge grin on my face ready to do some damage and I look at the price tag of one of the more basic shirts: W49,000. That's roughly $40. Okay...moving on. Next price tag for a regular old sweater: W69,000. ($65ish) What is going on!??! I start getting a bit frantic running about the place pulling out price tags all over and I don't think I saw one less than W29,000 ($25 or so) and that was for a freaking t-shirt which I certainly don't need right now. I nearly started to cry. Okay...well...maybe we can try Uniqlo (another good store, nothing fancy, a cheaper, lesser variety type of Gap maybe?) It was always super cheap in Japan (I got a good bit of stuff there and never spent over $20 for anything I don't think) so we hunted down the Uniqlo here. I go in hoping to find some deals and again...W39,000 for a sweater? W49,000 for a thicker sweater? I could get that for like $20 in Japan! :::facepalm::: So here I am, sweaterless and with no hopes in sight of doing any major shopping. I'm hoping that with warmer weather and less material for clothing will bring cheaper prices but I'm not so sure. And these stores are considered like, the lesser expensive type shops for clothing. Department stores or other types of shops forget about it, the prices are doubled there. They've also not ever heard of a proper sale. Usually in Zara (at all times, actually) there is a wall full of sale items (Uniqlo too, though you have to dig for the good stuff in bins it seems) but not here. Not a stitch of a sale item. Today we went to the World's Largest Department Store (it has an ice rink and driving range!) called Shinsegae in Centum City and I think 6 of the stores were advertising for these HUGE sales but when we went to the Gap there were giant red banners in all the windows that said "SALE 30%!!" 30%?? Well if 30% is what Koreans consider an awesome sale then I have no hope whatsoever here.

I'm still on my Christmas vacation from school and we've been off exploring. The food court in the Shinsegae had some amazing Tonkatsu Ramen (fav) so I was happy about that. If I ever find some good deals on clothes I'll write about it, but don't hold your breath.

Friday, December 23, 2011

First Week DONE

It's Friday night and I've finished my first week of classes. I'm not sure how I feel about it yet. All in all I don't believe it's going to be too difficult a job. It's a lot like what I did in Japan, just with a little more supervision and much more advanced children. And speaking of the children, they're HORRIBLE. And when I mean horrible, imagine 15-20 kids all yelling, throwing things, talking, playing video games...and then you are shouting until you are hoarse for them to stop and listen and they don't even bat an eye. You go over to them and steer them towards their seat and they just get back up again, you yell for them to stop throwing paper across the room and they pause, look at you, and continue to do so. (And all theses kids are conversational, don't think they don't know what I'm saying to them) It always reminds me of that scene in Titanic when Jack and Rose are walking and talking along the boat deck and she says "...It's like I'm standing in the middle of a crowded room screaming at the top of my lungs and no one even looks up." Yeah. It's like that.

My previous counterpart, Cody, told me before coming that she had "a discipline problem". I never imagined the extent of that discipline problem. I have two classes twice a week that are entirely too large. They are more than double that of my regular classes and I have no idea why these two classes have so many students. They are my worst classes mostly in part because there are so many of them not listening as opposed to half as many not listening in a normal sized class. The Korean teachers told me that they know that we are just after school program teachers and not "real" teachers so they don't care and know they can't get in serious trouble for acting that way...then again they also told me that a guy just got fired from there two months ago for not being "strict enough" because he got complaints from parents (the parents can wander the school and watch through the windows of your classes if they want) that he wasn't able to control the kids. Great. On Tuesday after I had those enormous classes and after my mini stroke subsided I decided that I have to figure out a way to get them to chill the eff out. Thursday I spent nearly 20 minutes rearranging where they sit. Get them away from their friends, separate them. I'd say it calmed them down by about 30%. I have a long way to go but if anyone has any suggestions on how to control something like that, by all means, send them my way.

The rest of the classes aren't TOO bad. Once the new semester starts (after the 1st) I'll have fixed everything to make it the way I want instead of Cody's way and hopefully I'll have a better grasp on things and a clear idea on how to handle these monstrous kids. They may be smarter than Japanese kids but definitely have worse behavior.

Al is learning Hangul (The Korean alphabet) so hopefully his knowledge will pass onto me like it did with Japanese. It's very helpful with him having that extra special part in his brain for languages. I've not learned how to say anything in Korean, although I do keep accidentally speaking to them in Japanese. And, to a Westerner, Korean and Japanese people do look very similar so to me it's just another day in Japan...until I speak Japanese, realize that I am, in fact, not in Japan and do a mental facepalm while hoping I didn't greatly offend them.

It's FREEZING here. From everything I read I thought Busan had relatively mild (40s-50s) winters. I don't think it's gotten above 35 and that's pushing it. And I have a 30 minute walk to and from school! It's not pleasant. Oh, it's also quite windy. I'm hoping it's just a severe cold front and that it will warm up (just hit 40! Please!) soon.

So, Kim Jong Il died. Awesome. "Were you in Japan when the big earthquake hit?" "Yep." "Were you in Korea when Kim John Il died?" "Yep..." I'm wondering why I wasn't in Cairo during all the riots. It seems wherever I am there is international news of some kind that could possibly get my family stirred up with anxiety. Hopefully this won't directly affect me and it will result in good news for the Korean people and not a direct order from the US Embassy for all the foreigners to get on outta dodge.

Well tomorrow is Christmas Eve...crazy. Can't believe I'm stuck in cold Korea. I wasn't home for Christmas last year either but at least I was off doing something awesome.

It's getting late and I've had an excruciatingly long week. Good night!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Korea: Day 4 1/2

We've been here nearly five days...crazy, considering I feel like I've been here five months. My first few days were full of fear and stress in anticipation of my first day of classes which made those days seem to stretch into oblivion. Now that my first day is done and I have more of an idea of what to expect hopefully my days will chill out and start feeling like normal ones. As I write this it's 9:46am Tuesday and I'm far more relaxed than I was at 9:46am yesterday. While teaching in Japan it was slightly more than playing bingo and Uno for 45 minutes. We went through a textbook, yes, but mostly those textbooks were well past the English intelligence level of my kids. Parents are shamed if their children have to be held back in the same level for another semester so generally they are moved along to the next level whether they have the ability or not. So eventually I have 12 year old kids with a book expecting them to read, write and understand basic grammar and vocabulary and all the while they can't count to 20. Not in Korea! These kids are insane smart. For instance, my first class yesterday the children are roughly  6-8 years old and their "textbook" is just a Nemo book and Nemo workbook. Very basic english with three sentences a page or so. I read the first few pages and the kids shoot their hands in the I point to one and she just reads the next page on her own, no big deal. I just stared at her for a second, amazed. So I point to another and he does the same that was a real eye opener for the rest of the day. My two favorite students in Japan were two 12 year old girls who had great English and I could actually have basic conversation with them....that's the level of my 7 year olds here. This may sound boring to you reading this but to me, it's incredible.

So my days are Monday-Friday 1:00-6:35. Not bad. I have to leave my apartment about 12:15 or so and after I get done teaching I write up a daily report and head home. I still get to sleep in but I get home at a reasonable time...I like it. I actually lucked out with my job. Most people who are placed in private schools have extremely long hours (until 10pm mostly) and that's what I had come to accept would be my job. But my recruiter found a position at an after school program in the public schools. Nice.

Everything will become much easier once I learn how to read Korean. Al is already starting to pick up on it very easily and that will be a big help. A lot of things are bi-lingual in Korean in Japanese and I thank the Heavens for it because I can actually read the Japanese part. I find myself looking for things with Japanese on it just so I can have some sense of understanding. Weird concept...being in Korea but getting excited when things are written in Japanese.

We went to karaoke the other night! Not the same as in Japan...this one only had a book to choose from, not a fancy machine, and it wasn't the most up-to-date choices. Did a lot of Kelly Clarkson. The place is directly across the street from our building so I'm sure we'll venture out and hopefully find a better place.

The train system is exactly like Japan so that was easy to navigate...AND everything is in English as well. English menus on the ticket machine. YESSSSSSSS. The train voice does her bit in Korean then miraculously I hear "Next stop - Seomyeon." YESSSSSSSSS. Al went to to beach yesterday while I was at work and said it's amazing. A mix between Honolulu and South Beach from what I gathered.

A lot of choppy random information, I know, but it's late...=)

Saturday, December 17, 2011

In the land of Hyundais

After nearly 30 hours of travel we arrived safely in Busan, South Korea. From start to finish the travelling part really wasn't TOO horrible. Everything went as smoothly as travelling for 30 hours can go. The plane wasn't as big as the last time we came over, it was a 3-3-3 configuration and Al and I were the only two in one of the middle sections. As the plane was loading up, the seat next to me was staying empty and I prayed to God no one would sit there so I could lie down and sleep most of the way. I got lucky. The plane was mostly full with only a few empty seats back in the pauper area (economy) and the one beside me was one of them, heaven! I popped a Xanax, Al popped his Advil PM and my last view of America went out of sight.

13 hours and 50 minutes, two meals, Crazy Stupid Love, and a few plastic cups of wine later we landed in Seoul, SK. Because of Al's visa situation I was panicking before going through customs. But they didn't say a word, took my fingerprints and picture, stamped our passports (yay! new one!) and sent us on our way. We hopped a shuttle to the smaller airport, Gimpo, to catch our last flight to Busan. Once finally touching down for the last time, a woman from our recruiting agency picked us up and brought us to our new dorm room apartment. It's incredibly nice but extremely small. We have nothing but a bed and a tv stand (no tv) as furniture and one fork, one spoon, one knife and a plate. Awesome.

We ventured out today to a Target-esque store called Home Plus. It's ama-za-zing. Anything and everything we need is in there, and we need a lot. Got some towels, trash can, a sheet for the bed...the basics. All of our house things are still in Japan and we won't be able to go get them for another week and a half so we had to get emergency things. While walking around town I realized that I didn't feel the need to take pictures of anything. To be honest, it looks just like Japan but with Korean on everything instead of Japanese. Obviously, I'm now in a city whereas before we weren't, but architecturally everything looks the same so maybe the novelty of this part of the world has worn off for me. I'm sure there are some fun new things to be seen and experienced but as of right now nothing looks new and exciting so I'm kinda just like meh. I'm actually more frustrated because now it's another language I don't know and signs I can't read and I keep thinking "ugh, I just wish we were in Japan, this would be so much easier." So if there is a lack of pictures, sorry, I'm having a hard time trying to find something awesome to take pictures of!

The jetlag flying west is really and truly not bad. It only took a week or so to get over it last time (and that's just starting to get tired about 8 and waking up at 7 or 8) and this time I feel like it's even better. Flying east is a completely different story, it took a solid two weeks, if not more, of waking up at 4am every morning to even start getting over it. It's 8:46pm Saturday right now and I am getting pretty drowsy...Al is conked out already. I'm trying to decide if I want to perk up and wake him up to go karaoke...haven't decided.

As you can see, I changed the title of the blog since before it was centered around Japan. But I figure it should be more of a travelling blog. Though, I can't change the name of the actual blog greatwaveoffshikoku...which refers to "Great Wave off Kanagawa"...probably one of the most famous Japanese works of art. So the name of the blog will stay Japanese-centered.

After finishing typing I've decided I'm going to let Al sleep and I'm going to join karaoke for me tonight, too exhausted! All those Taylor Swift songs will have to wait, unfortunately.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Here We Come, Korea!

So, after 7 months and a few weeks of being home we're finally heading back to Asia. It's been a frustrating past few months considering we were planning on being out of here August 1st. When we came home April 16th we planned on staying the summer and getting back to Japan during hiring season in August. Two of our friends wanted to go somewhere different so they talked us into Korea so we started that process which has been the longest and most irritating and stressful process of my life. So here it is, almost mid-December and we're just catching a plane out. Once we decided to go with private schools it's been a breeze, just came down to choosing the right school. I found the right school, they booked our flights and off we go!

In 2010 when we decided to go to Japan, we accepted our jobs in January, received the fly out date in February and left in April. Those few months between February and April I had plenty of time to adjust to the idea of leaving and mentally prepare myself for the huge change in my life. With going to Korea I got my fly out date on December 2nd and that fly day is December 14th. That is 12 days to prepare myself for leaving. I'm not talking about packing and getting things ready to go but really prepare myself. This time around I'm not scared or intimidated because, for the most part, I know what to expect. Yes, I've been desperately trying to get out of Weston for the last 4 months. And now the time has come and perhaps I should be breathing a sigh of relief and rejoicing but regardless of the exciting aspects of leaving and travelling someplace new I'm still, once again, leaving the comforts of home for quite a while. I'm leaving all my friends and family and just the easiness of familiarity. I'm still trying to decide what I want my last American meal to be on Tuesday night, any suggestions?

Before we left for Japan I was an absolute nervous wreck. Japan had always been on my list of places to see but I never thought I'd actually be calling it home. I had no idea what to expect in any capacity. I didn't know the language, I didn't know what a 14 hour flight was like, I didn't know what food to expect, I didn't know how the train system worked, I didn't know how I was going to do basic things like grocery shop. This time, though I'm going to Korea and not Japan, those things are far less daunting. I don't know a smidge of Korean...but I learned Japanese fast enough to feel comfortable so I know I can do the same with Korean. And learning the language really is the gateway to making things easier for myself.

I'm sitting here now at my Aunt's house, a place that has basically been one of my two homes while being in Weston. It really hasn't hit me yet that I won't be seeing this place anymore in just a little over a week. My last 8 months here haven't been the most difficult. Other than being the cart girl at the resort for a few months it's been pretty easy peasy. Sleeping in every day, doing what I please...not bad. So knowing that in a very short time I will have a legitimate responsibility every day is a little scary. Any normal job search, you interview, you get a job. When you interview for a job you know exactly what you're getting into, exactly what your bosses expect out of you on a day-to-day basis. Taking a job in a foreign country is not like that...because I have very little idea of what my daily life will consist. I know that I have a 30 minute walk to work, I know that I have to make lesson plans for each semester, I know that it's important that my classes get through their books, I know I switch classrooms each class, I know I work from roughly 2-7. That's really it. How does the school want me to make lesson plans? Will I have to interact with parents? Will Koreans disrespect me simply because I am foreign? Are the children as badly behaved as Japanese children? Not only am I going into a new job, in which every person is nervous, but I'm going into a new job in a new culture in a new country where things don't work the same way they do in America. Nerve-wracking? I think so.

Everyone keeps asking if I'm sad that I'm leaving before Christmas...the answer is no. I mean, the idea of it saddens me a little but I was with my family for Thanksgiving and I'm sure they're just happy that I finally have a job. Maybe the fact that I'm leaving in 8 days will hit me soon? I hope so because today seems like any other day and that flight looming in my future...doesn't even seem real.

PS Once we get over there and settled in I'll change the name of this blog!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Life/Korea Updates

Since everyone's eyes tend to skip over the long FB status updates I thought I'd come to my blog (for the first time since February!!) and let everyone who cares know what's going on. I guess once last March and April hit I was too preoccupied with coming back to America to write anything and once I got back to America there was nothing exciting to write about.

Every since being back stateside not only have I gained like 10 pounds from all the food here but I'm getting more and more over the good ol' US of A every second. The plan was to be back in Japan by August 1. HA. It's November and here we are, living in my Grandma's basement because absolutely nothing is working out the way we need it to be.

We decided in the summer to give up Japan like a bad job and move on to South Korea with two of our good friends, Jared and Rachel, who suggested we all go together. Fine. I wasn't keen on the idea whatsoever but I was outnumbered 3-1. Nothing to do but do my research and decide where and how to go about a new country. Jared and Rachel taught in the Japanese public school system while Al and I were private. They were tired of the public and wanted to go private in Korea and Al and I decided to go public. Overall, teaching in public schools in Korea seems to be the better choice (you get over double the vacation time from the private schools!) but it's also a way more difficult route. Once we were about two months in to the application process we were hit with the first of many bombs that would slow our process and seriously damper our spirits: the Ministry of Education needed reference letters from our old school in Japan. If you are one of the few people closest to Al and I you know that our experience with our school in Japan wasn't the best. If you didn't know, the school is ran by a tyrranical sadist who makes the lives of most of her teachers miserable to a breaking point. I was a great teacher and I received nothing but praise from my students and parents of students but that doesn't matter in the eyes of GEM School. Nonetheless, very few leave that school on good terms and/or in a happy mindset and there is no way in a million years Al and I could get a reference letter from her (and it had to be from HER specifically). So we gave up teaching in Korean public schools.

Last month we decided that our only option was to suck it up and teach for private schools. (Personally, I would rather teach for private schools but the draw of many, many vacation days kept me hanging on to the public system.) We found a great recruiter who has been a tremendous help and had us hired within two weeks. Since there are no "couple" positions available within the next month (we want out of here ASAP!) we would be taking two single positions and therefore single housing a.k.a. studio apartment. Fine. Whatever. (Did I also mention that teaching in Korea is rent-free?) So Al accepted his job after interviewing and asking questions and I was still waiting to talk to the current foreign teacher before I make my decision.

Since we're moving along quite quickly and smoothly I should have known that, with our luck, something bad was bound to happen. Well, it did. Because Al has previously been a resident of the United States he has to submit to an FBI background check before his visa can start being processed. I got mine done months ago because I had to. It takes 6-12 weeks. Well, there goes Al's job and the thought of us getting out of here in three weeks. So I cried and we both got upset and we were at a point yesterday when we really didn't know what we were going to do for the next three months. I have been working at the golf course up at Stonewall for the majority of the summer but just a few days ago found out that there's no more work for me since the season is over. Bye bye, paycheck! Bye bye Korea jobs! Hello possibility of me going to Korea alone for three months! Let's just say it was one of our worst days yet.

So, here it is, our (kind of) silver lining. Our recruiter called last night to talk about our options and our best one seems to be this: I still take one of the jobs that start in December and Al comes right along with me to wait on his visa. Schools pay for teachers' flight over and back so we would have to pay out of pocket for Al's but once he gets a job (in like, January or so) his school will actually reimburse him for his ticket. So once I get more information about my position that starts December 1st I can make a decision on whether or not to take that one. They already hired me I just don't know much about the school yet. So the possibility of us getting out of here in a matter of a few weeks is still a good one, we'd just be living on one paycheck for a few months (though, over there, it's not hard). Hopefully tonight I will get some info about my school and we can start moving forward for once.

Fingers crossed!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Christmas in SE Asia

So I've put off writing about my vacation because I can only assume it's going to be a monster of a post and I wanted to be able to give it my full attention and time. I have an hour before I need to leave for class and Al is lying here reading a magazine so I found an opportunity, yay!

First, I'll start by saying that I haven't seen many places of the world yet so when I say Thailand and Laos are some of my favorite places in the world I don't have much to compare it to. So on that note, THAILAND AND LAOS ARE AWESOMMMMEEEEE!!!

Our flight was scheduled to leave December 23 at 1:30pm from Osaka but the vacation shenanigans started much sooner than that. Al, Christa and I all travelled together for the beginning bulk of our trip. The initial plan was for Christa to spend the night at our house and we would take the train early the next morning to Takamatsu and then catch the bus from there to Osaka airport. Well thanks to December 23 being the Emperor's birthday (thanks a lot Akihito) the trains didn't start running until well after we needed to be in Takamatsu. Great. So after we all finished our last classes (FINALLY after months and months of texts of "105 days!" "76 days!" "12 days!" "TOMORROW!!!") on the evening of the 22nd, Christa headed over to our apartment and we went all the way to Takamatsu that night to stay at our friend Katie's house and then get a cab to the bus station. Sooooo much trouble, but it had to be done.

So we head for Katie's house and get off the train and all the while Al is saying how he knows exactly where Katie's apartment is in relation to the train station. An hour and a half later, cold from walking and cursing Emperor Akihita's birthday under our breath we finally arrive at Katie's. In reality she lives 10 minutes from the station. Thanks, Al. Katie and her boyfriend are headed for the airport the following morning as well, but for Okinawa, so we're all in the vacation mood and happy and end up staying awake until 3 or so. We get 2 hours of sleep and get our cab to the bus station. Christa and I are cold and complaining but the bus finally arrives and we start the long 4 hour ride to the airport. I think we happened to get the worse bus in the Shikoku-Kansai fleet and it makes for a long, uncomfortable trip, but we arrive in one piece and despite everything we're all in very good spirits and excited to finally be checking in. Christa is on a different flight than Al and I so we say our goodbyes at the gates but we'll see each other again when we all arrive in Bangkok. Christa has a short, easy flight with a stopover in Seoul for only an hour or two...Al and I, on the other hand, have a 7 hour layover in Taipei, Taiwan which has us arriving in Bangkok well after midnight.

We decided to make the most of our layover and leave the airport for a few hours and see Taipei and check another country off the list. We got through customs and immigration easily. Taiwan is actually a part of China, it even says "Republic of China" in my passport. Let me say that getting through immigration into CHINA is much more of a breeze than trying to get back into my home country of good ol' America. American immigration = nightmare. We didn't have too much time and I know nothing about Taiwan except for the Taipei 101 (second tallest building in the world, was the first until 2004 or something) so we decided to tell the cabbie to just head there and drop us off. IT'S HUGE. I mean that building is gargantuan. But it's strange because it's not in some metropolis like Manhattan amongst a lot of other large buildings oh nooo. It's just this colossal building in the middle of nothing. It just looms over everything in this ugly, dusty city.

We get dropped off at head inside and what do we find? A huge line of Japanese tourists waiting for the tour to the top. Okay. Pass. We'll head on to the shopping plaza part of the building, thanks. So we just walked around for a while, ate (we wanted to eat some real Chinese food, but then I read the menu and discovered what real Chinese food consists of and opted for an Italian restaurant instead) and got a cab back to the airport. All the while listening to "Black and Yellow" by Wiz Khalifa on the Taiwanese radio station along with an English DJ. Weird.

After an already long day (and it's only early evening) we hop our plane to Bangkok. We arrive at 12:30 at night and once through immigration are bombarded with Thais with signs hounding us to stay at their hotel or take their cab service. It was like trying to get through a throng of paparazzi. Before leaving Sakaide I had a friend print off all our flight and hotel papers so I could have them with me. (we had 7 flights and 5 hotels to keep track of, I needed those papers) Well, one was forgotten and that one happened to be the hotel we were staying at when we arrived in Bangkok. For the life of me I couldn't remember the name of the hotel so we had to choose another hotel to stay at for the night. The one I couldn't remember was already paid for (oops) but at least Thailand is cheap and it was only $30 or so. We hop in the hotel's "shuttle van" which ended up being some kind of old Buick LeSabre with a hotel logo on it and start the terrifying 10 minute journey to the hotel. Thai drivers are worse than Japanese ones and that's saying something. There is absolutely no organization on the highways and people are all over the place and swerving in and out and...I really don't think I could ever describe that 10 minutes to anyone. Just pure horror while I held on for my life in the backseat. So, we finally arrive to the hotel (total crap) at 1:30 or so and get a few hours sleep before meeting Christa again at the Bangkok airport at 7:00am to catch another short flight to Udon Thani, a small town close to the Thailand/Laos border.

Once we arrived in Udon Thani we took a short bus ride north to the border town of Nong Khai where we were meeting up with our friends Jared and Rachel. (They had arrived a few days before us) We chilled along the Mekong River for a bit, marveling at the fact that we all finally made it and could relax. The main mode of short-distance transportation in places such as these is a tuk tuk. A tuk tuk is little more than a motorcycle with a covered mini trailer hooked to the back with two benches. Actually, it's not a little more than that, that's exactly what it is. A normal sized one can fit maybe 4 or 5 people but trust me, I saw probably 10 locals crammed into one more than a few times. So Jared and Al took one tuk tuk and Rachel, Christa and I took another and we headed for the border to cross into Laos. Laos was our first communist country, woo! Going into countries like Laos isn't like taking a nice trip across the border to Canada...or even Mexico. You are crossing into a country where they don't observe the same kind of ethics and morals as the Western world. If you are caught doing something against the law here, they could very well just kill you if they feel like it and no one would hear about it and they don't even have to let your home country know what happened to you. It's pretty scary but you just have to keep a smart head about you.

Once we did the border protocol we exchanged our Thai Baht into Lao Kip (we got nearly one million Kip from the exchange, millionaires!!!!!) and crossed the border into Vientiane, the capital of Laos. With our tourist visas and gangster roll of cash in hand we headed for the bus station. We still have another 4 hour bus ride until we eventually reach our destiation: Vang Vieng. Once we arrive at the "station" we realize that we've missed the legit tourist buses that head for Vang Vieng. So we negotiate a price for another bus heading that way and hop on. The trip takes 5 hours and a lot of it was on a dirt road winding through the mountains...albeit beautiful ones. We stopped in every little village along the way to pick up things that needed to be delivered to this remote town we were headed towards. Once those grueling and sometimes scary 5 hours were over we had to climb over 20 or so boxes of fish sauce that had been loaded in the aisle of the bus that travelled with us to VV. It was well past dark when we arrived so it wasn't until morning when I walked out of my room that I saw the striking scenery of Vang Vieng. I could have taken a million pictures and use a giant thesaurus to describe what I saw and nothing could convey the sheer beauty of my surroundings. The magnificant karst mountains for a backdrop with the Nam Song river flowing in front of me and the lush tropical landscape of this part of the world absolutely took my breath away.

After staring out my door for like 50000 hours we ate some breakfast. I had a giant $1.50 plate coconut sticky rice with pineapple. A-M-A-Z-I-N-G. I've already found a recipe so I can make it myself. We wondered around the town (if you can even call it that) to see the local area before meeting up with everyone. We all stayed at the same guesthouse but Al, Christa and I shared a room on the river and Jared and Rachel  had a room in the main building...I think they paid a whopping $6 a night for their room. (Did I mention Laos is dirt cheap?) I soon discover that foreigners, mostly American, Australian and British, outnumbered the locals by about 10 to 1. I knew before coming here that Vang Vieng was overrun with 20 somethings all here for one reason: to party on the river. I read that tubing down this river is somewhat of a rite of passage before backpacking throughout SE Asia...and here we are.

We met up with everyone, including one of Rachel's friends who met us here, Kiri, and started Day #1 of tubing. We walked the few short steps from the guesthouse to the tubing office, or rather a dirty garage filled with tractor innertubes, paid our 60,000 Kip for the tube rental and piled into the tuk tuk. The local man took us about a kilometer or two through town and up the river to the start point.

We carried our tubes another 400 meters or so to "Bar One" which is the first stop on the river. We immediately put down the tubes and got some buckets to share. (bucket =  about the size of a normal sand-castle making bucket but filled to the brim with whatever alcoholic concoction you come up with all for the low price of about 50,000 Kip) Christa, Rachel, Kiri and I head straight for the sunshine to soak up some Vitamin D and hopefully get some color while Al and Jared hang out in the shade with a little puppy that's roaming around. We finish the buckets, grab our tubes and head down to the water. We all very ungracefully flop in our tubes into the not-very-warm water and start the slow trek down the river. There are many, many ramshackle bars all down the shore, you just choose when and where to stop. The owners of the bars throw out ropes when they see passerbys and if you feel like taking a break they'll pull you in. We took advantage of one of the ropes and stopped at Bar #4 so we (not me) could have a go at the rope swing. I was too much of a weiner, I have no upper body strength and I don't think I could've held myself on so I passed. After a few more buckets and quite a few rounds on the swing we got back into the tubes and floated down the river some more. We stopped once or twice more then headed back into town before it got dark. After some dinner, questionable green drinks and a very long night we did it all again the next day. We finished the tubing route and at the last bar (or so they say it was the last one) we spray painted hearts on our skin and the boys took a shot of some local liquor that had bumble bees fermenting in it. You know like the worm in tequila? But bumble bees. Pass.

Our last day we woke up and had some breakfast, bought a few souvenirs (a pair of shorts, three shirts, swimming trunks and 3 pairs of sunglasses all for the low price of $12) and chilled until our bus arrived to take Al, Christa and I back to Vientiane. While waiting, Al bought a street vendor sandwich that would eventually give him some vicious food poisoning. We hopped the bus (a real one this time, not a fish sauce one) and started back for the border. Once there and back through customs and immigration (all with a very nice sign saying if you bring any drugs across with you, you will be "put to death") we cross back into Thailand and back to the Udon Thani airport. We say our goodbyes to Christa and Al and I board our $40 AirAsia flight for the beach segment of our vacation.

We arrive in Phuket at midnight and take a shuttle to our hotel for just the one night. We wake up the next morning and take the hotel shuttle to the ferry port where we took a 2 hour ferry to Phi Phi Don, the island that will be our home for the next 8 days. We're now in the southern part of Thailand and the weather is hot. The ferry docks and we're starved so we find a restaurant and I had the most delish soup I've ever had...Tom Kha Gai. It's a sort of chicken coconut soup. Heaven. Once fed we walked down the main road...but it's not really a road because there are no cars on the island...and look for our hotel, Bay View Resort. It's the last resort on the first of two main beaches on this side of the island. We check in and are taken up to our bungalow which is so cute and bungalowy and I love it. Al's food poisoning has now severely set in and he can't even leave the room. I walk back into town and find a pharmacy and since in Thailand you can get any kind of meds over the counter, I just tell the lady what's wrong with him and she gives me some kind of strong antibiotic and a Rx level pain killer. I take him the meds and I go down and start my vacation by getting a $12 massage on the beach. *Sigh*

The next few days are spent in utter relaxation despite our weather being horrid. It was overcast nearly every day and rained for about an hour each of those. We found a bookshop and bought a bunch of books and spent a lot of the rainy times out on our porch. What's kind of sad is that also during those rainy times we discovered that Thailand has English TV channels. OMG. We don't get to watch TV in Japan so actually sitting there flipping through channels and being able to watch MTV and the news IN ENGLISH was almost as Heavenly as sitting out on my porch watching the ocean. Like I said, sad, I know. New Year's Eve rolled around and we spent it eating the biggest buffet dinner ever at our hotel then headed down the path into town to find someplace to hang out for a while. We got a few buckets (WAY more expensive than in Laos) and settled in to enjoy each other's company and wait on midnight. Al ended up meeting some guys from France and I got bored listening to their French chatter that I can only understand maybe 50% of so a little after midnight I headed back to the bungalow and Al stayed out with them.

Our last few days we finally got beautiful weather. Phi Phi is made of two islands: Phi Phi Don (inhabited) and Phi Phi Le (uninhabited). Phi Phi Le is renowned for being one of the most beautiful places on the planet so I wasn't going over there on a cloudy day. We waited until the weather cleared and charterd a longtail boat (one of those iconic Asian boats you see in all the pictures) to the island for 6 hours. Our nice Thai man named Kip took us all around the island to different snorkeling spots and finally stopped at the famed Maya Bay where they filmed the movie "The Beach" with Leonardo DiCaprio. The scenery around the island and the view from the beach was astonishing. The turquoise water with towering sea cliffs nearly completely surrounding the lagoon was something that, just like in Vang Vieng, I'll never be able to capture with a camera to fully register how beautiful it was in person.

While relaxing on Maya Beach we thought it was strange that there were a lot of bodyguard sized men and cops running around the place. It was kind of like "it's Thailand, who knows" while rolling our eyes. It turns out that the Thai royal family was there! Random. But they left soon after and took all the badged men with them. As we were walking back towards our boat to head back for Phi Phi Don we noticed a large, long overhang in one of the cliffs on the beach. Congregated under this overhang in the shade were at least 50 Japanese people. We laaaaauaghed and laaaaaughed. Those Japanese. Just as weird on vacation as they are in their home country. So with the funny image in our minds we scrambled back into the longtail boat with Kip and he took us for a few more stops then back to the hotel by sunset.

The last day or so is kind of a blur, I think it was all the relaxing. We did end up running into a Japanese family at the pool. I hear "Samui, des ne?" enough in Japan so we hightailed out of there quickly. We bought some more souvenirs and headed back down the dock to board the ferry back to Phuket. Sad face. Once back in Phuket we had all day to kill before we boarded our plane back to Bangkok so we found a giant mall to roam around in. Also in that mall was a SIZZLER. Oh yeah, I'm talking the tacky, salad buffet, family style restaurant in all it's glory. We don't get this kind of food in Japan! Rejoice! It was absolutely delicious. REAL American style food for once.

After we stuffed ourselves stupid with Sizzler food we still had a ton of time to kill so we decided to see a movie. It turns out the Phuket mall has one of those luxury cinemas so we splurged and saw "The Tourist" in absolute bliss. They're quite extravagant, luxury cinemas. We buy our $18 tickets and wait in the fancy lounge where there's free food and cake and drinks. They call everyone in when it's time to start and you have a Lay-Z-Boy, a blanket and pillow and your popcorn and pop of choice is there waiting for you on a stand beside said Lay-Z-Boy. It was well worth my $18.

We finish the movie, get to the airport and hop our plane back to Bangkok. We arrive at 11pm or so and wait on our shuttle to hotel #4 of 5. It was pretty nice for a Bangkok airport hotel. Our flight out of Thailand the next day didn't leave until evening and by this time we were running very short on funds so, unfortunately, we didn't have the money to take a quick trip into Bangkok to see the sites for a few hours. We just had some lunch, went to the airport and checked in and chilled in the airport for 3 or 4 hours, ha! Booooring. We boarded our flight and started north. Just like our trip down we had a layover in Taipei but on the way home it was an overnight layover. So we land and check into our last hotel of the trip, a veeeeery nice Novotel. It has been the nicest hotel I've ever stayed in. Loved it. We board our LAST flight the following morning bound for Osaka.

Once in Osaka we had to wait on our bus time, which was about 2 hours after we landed. But WAIT! Al forgot to set his watch to local Japan time so we missed that bus and have to wait another 2 hours for the next one! Let's just say I was less than amused.

So 7 flights, 5 hotels, 2 tubes, 6 buses, multiple tuk tuks and 6 passport stamps later I'm sitting back in cold Japan wishing I was still on this amazing vacation with good food, good drinks and great friends. (cheesy ending)