Easing Back Into Canada: Toronto and Quebec City

Our way home was not all that direct. We were sort of easing our way back into Canada with a brief stop in the east. We landed in Toronto where our friend, Mica, met us to show us around a bit. Unfortunately, it was pouring for most of our five days in Toronto and Quebec, so our sightseeing and photos were a little bit limited, but as with all trips where you catch up with friends, we still had a blast.

Much of our time was spent in different cafes and we stopped at a pub called C’est What, which had a fantastic selection of beers and great atmosphere. Somewhere in the mix, the CN tower peeked it’s way out of the clouds long enough for a quick photo, but that was pretty well it for photos from Toronto. We wrapped the evening up with some great Thai food. The only other event of note in Toronto was when Tamara was awakened in the wee hours of the morning by someone peeing the garbage can beside her. Had to come all the way back to Canada for that fun hostel experience.

Trains in Canada are certainly a different ball game than anywhere else we have made use of them. Our Via Rail trip from Toronto to Quebec City was quick, comfortable, relatively timely, and cost as much as we would spend to travel around an entire Asian country!

Comfy, if a little more pricey.

Comfy, if a little more pricey.

We arrived late, but had pre-booked our hotel in the Old City. When we got out the door, the line-up for taxis was insane so we opted to slog it through the rain for the fifteen minutes to the Hotel Acadia. Our room, while small, was a pretty huge improvement from the accommodation we had become accustomed to in Asia.

We were meeting friends who had moved east shortly after we left for Korea and we spent the next three days alternately doing our own thing and spending time with them. Much of our exploring took place in Old City – including the area between the citadel walls and the river.

Given the amount of rain – paired with the fantastic food – we spent a good amount of time holed up in various cafes around the city. There are so many fantastic cafes – including one our friends took us to that roasts their own beans as well.

Crepes, such delicious creations.

Crepes, such delicious creations.

Once our time in Quebec was over we caught a train to Montreal and flights from there back to PG. It was a heck of a trip but boy… it’s great to be home!

Coming in to land in Vancouver. When the plane touched down we had officially been around the world!

Coming in to land in Vancouver. When the plane touched down we had officially been around the world!

The Biggests Day: Dubai Layover

Taking the cheapest flights you can find often means a lot of inconvenience. Cramped seats, low baggage allowances, no food, obscene departure times, indirect flights and long layovers. But every now and then it really works out in your favour. We took FlyDubai from India to Ethiopia and our itinerary included a ten hour layover in Dubai. As an added bonus it was during the day. Unfortunately, it was also a Friday – Muslim holy day – so the souqs along the river would have been closed while we were there. Usually these older parts of town with atmospheric alleys and busy markets are where we would head, but instead we were forced out of character and headed for the Dubai mall (the biggest mall in the world) and the Burj Khalifa (the world’s tallest building).

It was actually pretty cool. When we arrived, most of the stuff at the mall was closed, but we were able to get tickets to go to the observation deck on the 124th floor of the Burj around 9:00. Apparently, later in the day these are liable to be completely sold out. There is also the option to go higher but that would have cost us a few hundred dollars more and we figured it wasn’t worth it. 124 floors is plenty high enough for great views! We did not spend much time up there. Haze meant that we could not see the artificial palm island, but we were able to see a group of artificial islands called ‘the world’ and the Burj Al Arab hotel.

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After wandering around the outside before the heat really took over we headed in to explore some of the mall. We aren’t big shoppers but there were some pretty cool things inside. On the ice rink junior teams wearing jets and flames jerseys were playing. There is a three story artificial waterfall that is pretty interesting. Blake was able to replace the rain jacket that went MIA in Thailand for a very reasonable price and Tamara got to ride on her first real roller coaster, even though it was a pretty little one.

So overall, not bad for only having six hours away from the airport. For those wondering if it’s worth it to leave the airport on those layovers – do it!

Temple-stay and Tea with a Monk

Two weekends ago, Melanie and I made a bit of a last-minute decision to step a little outside our comfort zones and seek out another adventure on our to-do-in-Korea lists: a temple-stay! Our destination of choice: Mihwangsa, a temple located in Haenam county, Jeollanam-do.

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After some confusion the previous day in terms of getting accurate bus information about the quickest/ most convenient route there, Mel and I left USquare on an 11:50 bus to Haenam, followed by about about a 40 minute village bus ride, leaving Haenam at 2:05PM out to Mihwangsa (Mihwang temple) entrance. While in Haenam, we had some extra time, so we grabbed bibimbap at a little restaurant across the street. As a side note, Mel pointed out that bibimbap really is a very different meal in the winter, as it contains more easily acquired and stored sea-vegetables and fewer fresh ones.

As instructed, we¬†arrived at Mihwangsa around 4PM, and promptly¬†found the clearly labeled temple-stay office. We were greeted warmly by our lovely host, Jajae, who gave us some delicious pure apple juice to drink. We chatted about¬†the temple and temple-stay, and paid our ‚ā©50,000 fee. She then gave us our sheets and temple-stay clothes, and showed us our room, after which we were free to wander until our orientation started at 5PM.

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This was our little room, complete with ondol flooring, a tea-table on the left, a bathroom on the right, and all necessary bedding (as you can see, there was no bed, but the floor mats (not pictured) were thick and more than sufficient).

Our temple-stay clothes were super comfortable: a pair of quilted grey pants, which buttoned at the ankles, and a quilted vest. We wore them over our own clothing (I had jeans on, but if you’re going in the winter, a pair of comfy long underwear or thick fuzzy-lined leggings might be more a more practical bottom layer). Mel wore a hoodie under her vest, and I regretted not bringing one. I was, however, free to wear my winter jacket overtop of the temple-stay clothing.

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Dressed and ready for our temple-stay adventure!

The temple-stay orientation was very informative, and gave us the confidence we needed not to make (too many) social mistakes during our stay. We learned about the temple itself, had a tour of its various buildings (including one which is relevant to Korean traditional beliefs, but not to Buddhism), and visited the main hall to learn about temple etiquette, how to do proper bows, and were given run-down of the activities in which we would participate.

A Little History

Founded during the reign of Shilla King Kyoung Deok, Mihwangsa has a particularly intriguing history. It is said that one day, villagers saw a stone boat approaching the village off the coast of Sajapo. The villagers were curious and tried to approach the boat, but it would move away each time they neared it; however if they backed off and stood still, it would come closer. This process repeated itself for several days.

Eventually, after the great master Euijo Hwasang and some other monks and residents purified themselves and offered prayers, the boat anchored itself. However, once aboard the ship, they could find no people: just a variety of statues, a gold box, a black rock, the Lotus Sutra, and a Buddhist wall painting. When they opened the gold box, the black rock broke open to reveal a tiny black cow, which grew into a huge cow.

That night, the great master had a dream about a man in golden robes, who said that he was the king of India. The king said that the shape of the mountains in the area made it suitable for a shrine to ten thousand Buddhas, and he instructed the great master to load the sutras and statues onto the back of the cow to trek across the mountains. The king told the great master to build a temple where the cow laid down. Master Euijo did as instructed. The cow fell down once while crossing the Dharma Mountain, but got back up again. After crossing the mountains, the cow fell down again, and did not get back up. Tonggyosa was erected at the place where the cow first fell down, and Mihwangsa where it fell down the second time.

The name of the temple is also significant, as “Mi” means beautiful, which is one way to describe the apparently¬†pleasing and somehow musical¬†bellow of the cow after it fell. “Hwang” means yellow or gold, and represents the golden robes of the man in Master Euijo’s dream.

Temple Etiquette and Meditation

Jajae explained to us that by putting our right and left hands together (prayer-hands style) in front of our chests (representing the coming together of the Buddha’s mind and our mind) and doing a half bow, we could express hello, goodbye, thank-you, no-thank you and more. As time at the temple is generally used for meditation and self-reflection, silence is encouraged. This bow affords everyone a means of wordless communication. Instead of the way we would normally bow out in the community, we were instructed to greet everyone at the temple (but particularly the monks) in this fashion.

Chasu was described as the respectful posture to assume when walking around the temple grounds. This involves folding your right hand over your left at the centre of your stomach. It is meant to show a humble and respectful mind.

We also learned that we should only enter the main hall through the side doors, as the front one is reserved for monks.

Upon entering the main hall, one should complete three full bows facing the Buddha. This process is more complicated than the one described above, and involves the following (forgive me if it’s overly paraphrased):

1. Put your palms together at the centre of your chest, fingers toward the ceiling, thumbs tucked in, elbows fairly loose.

2. Bend forward, and put your hands down on the mat in front of you, kneel down, and touch your forehead to the mat.

3. Raise your hands, palms facing up, to ear level, and lower again.

4. Lift your head, then knees, then hands, and carefully stand up.

5. Repeat two more times.

Our host explained that contrary to popular belief, this bowing is not an act of worshiping the Buddha statues: it is simply a sign of respect, for the Buddha, the Dharma (teachings of Buddha), and the Sangha (community).

Jajae then led us through some guided breathing meditation. Ahhh, guided breathing… As I learned during university, for some reason, my body takes guided breathing as a signal to go into panic attack mode. Why? I still don’t know. Thankfully, this time around, I was able to cautiously keep up without actually having a panic attack, which I will count as progress.

During meditation time, it was suggested to us that we take one breath for each sounding of the bell, and that we count our breaths from one to ten, and then 9, 8, 7… back down to one again, repeating the process for the duration of the session. The purpose of this is to still your mind and try to stay in the present: no thinking about the past or future or any specific thoughts except for counting your breath. Sounds easy? Not for me! However, Jajae used a great metaphor for its importance, which I hope she doesn’t mind me sharing (I hope I don’t botch it). You see, almost every minute of every day, we find ourselves thinking hundreds upon hundreds of thoughts, bouncing between past and future, and sometimes the present, but rarely allowing our minds to stand still. However, in order to experience growth and to reach enlightenment, we need to be able to reflect on our inner selves. She asked us to picture standing on the shore of the ocean, with big waves, and whether or not we could see our reflections. She compared the waves to our thoughts, and asked, in contrast, if we could see our reflections in a still pond. Some food for thought.

Dinner

At 6:00PM, after bowing upon entering the dining hall, we served ourselves a delicious vegetarian dinner from the various pots and dishes at the side of the room. Our friend Lianne had been to a temple-stay at Mihwangsa before, and raved about the food. She was right. As an interesting aside, we learned that meals at the temple do not contain garlic or spring onions. Can you guess why?¬†These strong vegetables are said to be¬†aphrodisiacs, increasing sexual energy which could be detrimental to meditation and monks’ vows of celibacy.

Evening Activities

Following dinner and a little down-time, we joined in Yebul (evening chanting) in the main hall at 7PM. I had the melodic chanting stuck in my head for days.

After Yebul, we followed four monks in a sort of silent procession several times around a sandy courtyard near the main hall, lit by a single lamp which cast an orange glow over everyone.

We were then invited to Dado (tea with a monk and other participants) at 7:30.

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After tea, we headed back to our room. Before settling in for some reading, Mel braved the tea set and did an impressive job of imitating the tea-preparation demonstrated earlier in the evening by the monk. According to the schedule, we were to have our lights out by¬†10PM and to maintain “noble silence” until breakfast.

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Delicious (not to mention slightly complicated) green tea!

Rise and Shine

The next morning, we were awakened at 4AM by Moktak, which is a wooden percussion instrument, to be called to Yebul (morning chanting) and Jhawsun (sitting meditation). We needed to be in the main hall by 4:20AM,  and were instructed to arrive before the final sounding of a bell.

At 6:30AM, we enjoyed an amazing vegetarian breakfast comprised of the following: Lotus root with ginger, cooked young pumpkin with some mild pepper paste sauce, raddish kimchi, rice, dried seaweed, lettuce and tomato salad with yummy dressing, tofu and mushroom soup, and roll cake with coconut cream filling. This was, by far, the best breakfast I’ve eaten in Korea.

After breakfast, we participated in Oolyeok, which is working meditation at 7:30AM for an hour or so. Our task was to help the monks, our host, and some other participants stuff postcards in plastic envelopes, seal them, and then affix a label. We think they were for an upcoming festival. It was actually kind of fun!

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At 8:30AM individual practice time started, during which we were free to engage in sitting or walking meditation, mountain hiking, or reading. Before we left, though, we were invited to join the another monk, this time the head monk, for tea. We had a chance to ask a few questions (largely through interpretation) and to watch him carefully consider his answers before he offered them.

After tea, we opted for a short walk/ hike in the mountains behind the temple. The weather was not ideal, but it was nice to be out in the peace and quiet of the Korean wilderness. While you can just barely see the temple in the picture below, it was completely obscured by falling snowflakes not five minutes later, as we turned to descend to the temple.

Because it was B&T’s mentee’s birthday, we needed to leave before lunch, which started at 11:30 and which would have been followed by additional individual practice time. Jajae was very kind in offering to drive us to Haenam to catch our bus home.

While it was a short retreat, Mel and I both agreed that the temple-stay experience was both worthwhile and a great way to escape the city and the post-Korea planning and packing frenzy we find ourselves in these days.

The DMZ

After a failed attempt to visit the DMZ in November, we booked a USO tour a month ahead of time to go on December 13th. We headed up to Seoul late on the Friday evening and stayed the night at a jjimjilbang near Seoul Station. This is also relatively close to the USO at Camp Kim. USO tours start early, with guests being requested to arrive by 7:00. This meant that we were up and out well before six. In Korea, breakfast that is not of the rice and kimchi variety can be difficult to come by that early, so we had packed instant coffee and picked up some bread and pastries the night before to tide us over.

The tour starts with an hour and a half bus ride up to freedom bridge, which we were informed is the point that civilian vehicles are not allowed past. After a brief game of slalom with the road blocks on the bridge and a few more minutes on a highway, we pulled into Camp Bonifas, named after one of the casualties in the axe murder incident. We were informed at the time that we were not to take any photos of the camp and were ushered into a theater for a briefing slideshow and to sign another waver basically stating that we would not hold anyone responsible if we are killed while visiting the Joint Security Area (JSA).

After the briefing we got on two military buses and headed up into the JSA. They had explained to us the basic layout of the JSA with the UN buildings on one side and the North Korean buildings on the other. We disembarked  and went through the Freedom House building to the steps facing north across the military demarcation line. In the JSA the basic rule is no photos unless you are told it is OK and even then only into/towards North Korea. From the steps we could see a line of conference buildings running straight along the demarcation line and behind those a concrete building that is the North Korean equivalent of the Freedom House.

After the group in front of ours cleared out, we went into the central conference building and had a look at the layout. The south Korean soldiers inside are standing in some kind of modified Tae Kwon Do stance. It looks pretty imposing, but bloody uncomfortable. At least one of them was soaked in sweat from the effort of staying like that.

From there it was straight back to the buses and on to outpost 5 where we could see propaganda village in the North Korean side of the DMZ. Apparently, it got its name because they used to blast propaganda at the south from there and most of the buildings are/were simply shells. Doors and windows painted on the outside, no floors inside, and a single light at the top to give the appearance that they were inhabited. The lookout was pretty bloody cold with the wind, but the view was gorgeous, although slightly hazy.

The view from Outpost 5 towards the bridge of no return.

The view from Outpost 5 towards the bridge of no return.

Looking out at propaganda village: Kijongdong

Looking out at propaganda village: Kijongdong

Again, we were straight back on the bus and over to the bridge of no-return. This is where, after the war, prisoners were lined up and told they could go to either side. Once they chose, there was no going back. Prisoners had to stay on whatever side they chose. Near the bridge is a marker where a large poplar tree was cut down because it was screening the view between two UN guard posts. In 1976 UN personnel attempted to trim back the tree, but were attacked by North Korean soldiers and two Americans were killed with hatchets. A few days later a large American force went out and cut down the tree under heavy protection and with all forces in South Korea on high alert.

From there we headed back to Camp Bonifas for a brief wander around the gift shop. Pretty well every place we stopped during the tour had a gift shop offering a variety of DMZ paraphernalia from rice to barbed wire. From the JSA we headed to the Dora Observatory. Originally a observation post, the observatory now provides a great view into North Korea and the joint industrial area between the North and South. As our tour guide explained to us, North Korea provides the incredibly cheap labour, and South Korea provides the materials and expertise, while keeping and marketing the goods that are produced.

View from the Dora observatory into North Korea.

View from the Dora observatory into North Korea.

Lunch was a quick stop on the highway that heads into the industrial complex where we were given the choice of bulgogi or bibimbap. It was slightly reminiscent of the roadside stops along the South Korean highways, but strangely pristine and empty. Rather odd, actually.  It is placed quite close to Dorasan station; the last station on the rail line connecting North and South Korea. The connection actually exists, but of course it is impossible to travel between the two. For 500W each we bought a ticket that allowed us out onto the platform. The train itself is actually kind of cute and looks to be almost new.

Our final stop was the 3rd tunnel. ¬†The third of the four that have been located thus far, this tunnel was cut by the North Koreans to infiltrate soldiers under the DMZ and into South Korea. Of course none of them were ever used, but this tunnel could allegedly facilitate tens of thousands of armed soldiers an hour. Going down into the tunnel was pretty neat, although we were not allowed to take any photos. It’s quite low, and blasted straight through the granite bedrock. There is also a museum covering the history of relations between the North and South with a few artifacts from the various events that took place along the DMZ.

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From there it was straight back to Seoul where we were dropped at Seoul station a bit before four, had a bite to eat and headed for the bus back to Gwangju.

Overall it was a worthwhile trip, the highlights probably being the conference rooms at the JSA and the third tunnel. For those thinking of heading up to the DMZ we suggest that whatever tour you choose, make sure those things are on it. The USO tour was good, likely as good or better than most others as there is a limited amount of freedom to be had in the area anyway. It’s not as if it is possible to see that many different things. It was interesting to look into North Korea and our reactions to seeing North Korea and KPA soldiers certainly taught us something about our own perceptions of North Korea, good and bad. A good trip all around.

Gageodo (ÍįÄÍĪįŽŹĄ): The Second Instalment

Despite weather forecasts to the contrary, our second full day on Gageodo dawned beautiful and clear. All four of us really wanted to see what was on the far end of the island, but after hiking more than 15 km the day before we did not want to undertake a 20+ km round trip on foot. Instead we chose to hire a boat to take us to the lighthouse on the northwestern tip of Gageodo. After a quick breakfast in our room, we headed downstairs and spoke with one of the men that had offered us a fishing charter the previous day. With Tamara’s Korean skills we were able to communicate that we only wanted to be dropped at the far end and we would hike back. He charged us 50,000/person which, considering it was Chuseok day, we thought was more than reasonable.

Our ride around the island.

Our ride around the island.

As it turned out, he was not just taking us to the end of the island. He was also giving us a tour of the coastline. It was really beautiful to look up at the cliffs we had walked above the day before and to get some idea of what the coast actually looks like.

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The ride took 20-30 minutes and we were dropped at a small pier with a boathouse and a set of steps leading up to the lighthouse complex. The lighthouse complex is government run and is a very tidy area. It is also the only set of buildings on the island that is not connected to the main port by road. Through trails or by boat is the only way to access it. Given that we had asked only to be dropped off, we knew we would be walking the rest of the rest of the way home.

 

There are three trail options. One leads back down the west coast to the second village, one goes straight up and over the main mountain, and one goes around to the third village on the north eastern coast. We chose to head around and see the third village. It was almost immediately apparent that these trails were nothing like those we had experienced elsewhere in Korea. We headed into a bamboo tunnel and the brush just kept closing in. Apparently all the trails on the island are like this. Given that one guy we talked to had already seen a snake that day and all the rocks were covered in moss and dew, it was a bit of a hairy 2 km trek to the village.

When we did reach the village, we found it strangely deserted. Not one villager was seen, yet there was an AC unit running beside one of the houses and Tamara caught a whiff of something cooking. We settled into a shady area on the pier and had a mini lunch after attempting to wash out the various cuts and scrapes accumulated on the trail. During lunch, we decided that our best bet was to head back on the road through the centre of the island (yes it is there even though naver and google don’t show it) rather than taking on the trail that swings out along the coast. Given the condition of the first trail and what we could see of the second one, we would have been cut to pieces by the time we made it back to our pension.

After a quick look around the village we started up the switchbacks. All the roads on the island are concrete rather than asphalt and the reflect heat like crazy so we were all pretty soaked by the time we broke onto the ridgeline just south of the mountain summit.

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There is a gazebo at the crossroads and we settled into the shade for a brief rest. From the Gazebo there is a road to the main village, a road to the summit, a trail that follows the ridgeline back to the main village, and the road we had just walked up from village three. Given that we were so close, we couldn’t pass up the summit so we left Pat and Mel resting at the gazebo and headed up to check it out.

It was the strangest summit we had ever seen. After walking about 500 meters up the road we hit a military guard post. The entire top of the mountain is a military base. The guard at the gate (police) checked us in taking our names and addresses before waving us up the wooden stairs to the summit. On the summit we were greeted by another policeman coming out of a guard hut. He indicated the summit marker to our left and made it quite clear that we were only allowed to take photos of an area about a meter square around the marker. He even took the picture for us. We were then ushered back down the stairs and checked out at the gate. Very odd.

The extent of the photography area on the summit.

The extent of the photography area on the summit.

After rejoining Pat and Mel, we headed down the road towards the main village. The road crosses the ridge running the length of the island so we were walking above the coastal road from the day before.

It was a surprisingly short walk back to the village and we got there before 3:00. We headed straight to the mart for ice cream and then back to the room to dump our gear, grab swimsuits and head for the beach. When we first arrived, there were several Korean families just finishing off a picnic. We headed down to the other end of the beach. From there it was straight into the water. And boy did that draw some shocked looks from the Koreans! We lounged on the rocks for a bit before heading back to the pension.

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Dinner was once again fish-centric, but this time it was anchovy soup with tofu and a large dried fish of some kind as the centrepiece. It was actually really delicious.

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We followed this up with a moonlight walk around town and out to the beaches. It was a full moon, or close enough that we couldn’t tell the difference, and a beautiful clear night.

Moon over the harbour.

Moon over the harbour.

Moon over the beach.

Moon over the beach.

Our final morning on Gageodo was slightly overcast, but that didn’t slow us down much. After a leisurely breakfast in the room and some reading time at the village gazebo, we headed back to the beach for one last dip. It was the first time we had been there when the tide was coming in. We found that there was a section of smooth, sloping rock (the same ones we had reclined on the day before) where the waves were washing quite strongly. The rocks were so smooth that we could ride the waves in and out across them without any difficulty. Great ride.

Sadly, we had to get to town for lunch, to settle the room, get our tickets and board the ferry home. Gageodo was an amazing trip – one of the top trips we have taken in Korea. There were so few people, great beaches, and decent hiking. It was easy to just relax and enjoy our time there. Such a great place.

Logistics and Advice

Let’s start by saying these are just suggestions and we are far from authorities on this stuff.

Getting there takes a while, but is not that complicated. Buses from Gwangju to Mokpo start at 5:20 AM and run regularly throughout the day for a little under ‚ā©6,000. From the bus terminal it’s about a¬†‚ā©6,000¬†cab ride to the ferry terminal. That’s when things start to get pricey. There is only one ferry to and from Gageodo each day. It leaves Mokpo at 8:10 and makes several stops along the way and costs over ‚ā©60,000. Coming back, the ferry leaves Gageodo at 13:00 and costs slightly less. It takes between four and five hours. The ticket office opens at 11:30 and is located just behind the police building on the waterfront.

There are several different accommodation options in the main village including minbak, motels, and pensions. There is also a minbak at the second village. We think there is one at the third village as well, but the deserted feel to the place would suggest that it may not be operational. We paid ‚ā©60,000 for the room we rented that had more than enough space for¬†two couples. We looked at another room in the pension for¬†‚ā©40,000 that would have comfortably held only one couple.

Once you’re on the island, getting around is largely by boat or on foot. It may be possible to hitch a ride. We were offered one as we climbed the hill out of the village on the first day, but we chose not to accept so we can’t say if there would have been a cost involved. For our boat trip, to the end of the island we paid ‚ā©50,000 per person. Trails on the island are, in general, poorly maintained and overgrown with some nasty thorn bushes. Those who plan on hiking them will need long pants and should probably wear light long sleeves as well. There are roads, albeit narrow ones, to all three villages and the mountain summit, but not to the lighthouse.

Basic map of Gageodo trails. Note that the lighthouse is actually the northern tip rather than the western as suggested by the island's orientation on this sign.

Basic map of Gageodo trails. Note that the lighthouse is actually the northern tip rather than the western as suggested by the island’s orientation on this sign.

Travelling the islands we learned that you should bring your own breakfast, unless of course you are OK with Korean style rice, fish, and kimchi for breakfast. This trip we brought oatmeal, trail mix and a bit of fruit. We also brought trail food for when we are out and about, including energy bars, nuts, dried fruit, etc. Basically, we only planned to eat out for dinners, and even one of those was made up of mostly¬†ramyeon. If you don’t like fish, bring¬†a lot of food, because it is hard to find anything else. Just because it’s on the menu doesn’t mean you can order it. The first night we ordered samgyupsal (which was listed on the side of the building) and were served maeuntang: spicy fish soup. It was a case of shut-up and eat or go hungry.

Bring cash to the islands. As much as you think you will need to cover all your costs. Some places might accept cards and some islands might have an atm. But there are no guarantees they will have them or that the machines will be working. There is not a lot of English on the islands, so be ready and willing to try Korean and get by with hand gestures. While we were snubbed pretty hard a few times, people generally seem more friendly and more willing to try to talk to you, laugh with you, and welcome you.

 

Gageodo (ÍįÄÍĪįŽŹĄ): The First Instalment

Last year on Chuseok we opted to head out to Heuksando and Hongdo and had a fantastic time, so this year we thought we’d¬†join Pat and Mel for a trip to an even more remote island: Gageodo. It takes roughly four hours to get from Mokpo to Gageodo, including a stop at Heuksando.

We caught the earliest bus from Gwangju to Mokpo and were on the ferry heading out to sea just after 8:00. We landed at Gageodo shortly after 12:00. The main village on the island is set back among several high rocks behind a high seawall. Aside from the (apparently) recent addition of a huge orange dry-dock structure.

 

Our first look at the village once we stepped of the boat.

Our first look at the village once we stepped of the boat.

A view of the village from above.

A view of the village from above.

The island is remote, rocky, and sparsely populated. Perfect for a quiet getaway from the noise and people usually associated with travel on mainland Korea and especially amplified on Chuseok.

First order of business was to find a place to stay for the weekend. There are several minbak and motels available on the main street of the village, but we opted for a pension. The first one that presented itself to us was¬†ž†úžĚľ ŪéúžÖė (Best Pension). We had a look at a few of the rooms and opted¬†to share¬†one on the third floor looking out over the harbour for 60,000‚ā©/night. Once we were settled in we had a few snacks before heading out in search of a beach.

There is a public beach just across a headland from the harbour, but we opted to explore a little farther can found one that is a bit more secluded and is surrounded by high cliffs. Gorgeous. It also has large rocks that are nice and smooth for sunbathing or taking a nap in between dips in the ocean. Pat headed off birding but the three of us opted to lounge on the beach and swim. Despite the fact that beach season is officially over in Korea, the water was really warm and relaxing.

After a long and relaxing time on the beach, Pat rejoined us with some fantastic news; he had spotted his 700th species of bird. We will leave the birding side of the trip for Pat to deal with on his blog here. We headed back to the pension to change, explore the town, grab some beer to celebrate, and find some dinner. Given that we had all been up before 4:00 AM, we suffered a slight setback in our plans.

Tired? Whose tired?

Tired? Who’s tired?

However, we did eventually manage to head out into the village for a bit of exploration. There are only two roads in the village, one along the waterfront and one across the top of the village to the school. Everything in between are these little alley-like paths and stairs. They are actually really neat.

There are two small stores on the main street. One, the one with a green awning, serves as something of a gathering place in the village. Throughout our stay, there were always people sitting outside the door or drinking and playing cards inside.¬†We had dinner at the restaurant in the bottom of our pension — Žß§žöīŪÉē — spicy fish (bone) soup. When you’re on the islands, fish is the centrepiece of pretty well every meal.¬†We wrapped up our evening with celebratory beers under the light house and were passed out by 9:00.

The village as seen from the lighthouse

The village as seen from the lighthouse.

Our first full day on the island, we headed up the road behind the village and out along the west coast. At the hill above the village the road forks, running high and low along the side of the mountain. The high road eventually crosses over the ridge to the other side of the island, but the low road goes along hillside overlooking the ocean and cliffs until it terminates at the second village about 6 KM away.

Hangri village sits in a low point between the main island and a large peninsula. There is a minbak and a restaurant (not selling food on Chuseok) that basically make up the entire village. There was also a goat which Tamara could not resist doting on. When we hiked into the hills on the peninsula we discovered several small herds of goats grazing. In some ways, the entire area feels like it could be on the coast of Scotland or the east coast of Canada.

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After a short time, we headed back down to the 2nd village and down a series of steps to the beach where we found a sheltered little nook, had lunch and then swam for the better part of two hours. It was amazing to be able to relax and swim and not be surrounded by other people. This is probably the most amazing part about Gageodo: you can actually get away from the people and the noise and the lights and just relax.

On our way back we stopped at the minbak to ask if we could fill our waterbottles. They were more than accommodating and just as we were leaving the lady came out and offered us a huge platter of japchae (made from noodles and vegetables) apparently in the spirit of Chuseok. We sat outside on a raised platform overlooking a gorgeous harbour and coastline while devouring the delicious dish.

After we thanked our hosts we headed back along the road to the main village for a bite in our room before crashing in short order.

On Missing Places…

Something that I never really thought about before I headed overseas to teach English in Korea was how much I would miss specific places back home. I knew I would miss family and friends, some days especially so. However, right now I want to talk about the peculiar intensity with which I sometimes find myself missing familiar places. Some might call it homesickness, but I feel like it’s a little different: perhaps more acute and less sad than it is intense.

It happened twice today: once it was an oldies song playing that made me miss a specific spot in Chetwynd, BC, where we used to stop occasionally on our way to Dawson Creek to visit relatives when I was little. Immediately following this auditory trigger was a snapshot visual memory, coupled with a specific sort of semantic memory, and an intense longing to be in that exact place. The intensity of these feelings is strangely hard to describe. It felt rather like my heart was actually a magnetic object, and someone had brought a huge earth magnet near my chest.

Later this afternoon, I was drinking water out of a mug at school, and, out of nowhere, smelled Morfee Lake, exactly as it smelled when I used to float, face-down, on airmattresses and blown up plastic tigers when I was a little girl, searching for fish just off shore. This olfactory trigger brought, once again, an immediate snapshot visual memory, and even the sensation of floating on the refreshing, cold water. This sort of longing for places across the ocean has brought me back to many different locations, including Colleymount Road on Francois Lake (near Burns Lake), specific sections of Highway 97 north through the Pine Pass, Ospika Blvd in Prince George, and more.

Fellow¬†travelers, if you’re reading this blog: do you experience the same thing? What sort of places do you miss the most?

Tamara’s Seoul-o Adventure

As  planned, the weekend before last, I took my very first solo trip to a big city РSeoul (population: over 10 million)! The purpose of the trip was threefold: to visit with my main co-teacher from last year and to see a friend from our EPIK intake, as well as to prove to myself that I can, in fact, navigate a big city on my own. Those who know me well are probably aware that the latter endeavor is a rather big feat in itself, given the fact that I am beyond directionally challenged. However, somehow, perhaps for the sake of survival, my sense of direction has improved dramatically since moving overseas. I have learned to trust my gut and have definitely developed a better internal mapping system.

On Saturday afternoon, I purchased an express bus ticket at Usquare and within 20 minutes I was off to the big city, backpack in tow. The express bus takes about 3 hours and 20 minutes, but you need to be sure of which terminal you wish to wash up at. At the brief stop en route, I loaded up on Pepero and some other chocolate indulgence before continuing my journey. Thankfully, I’d remembered to charge my Kobo, as it provided great company for the trip.
I managed to arrive in Seoul at around 4pm. I gave myself lots of time to get oriented, as I knew I had a 9-line metro system to contend with. Having grown up in a town of 5,000 people with only two pedestrian-controlled traffic lights to its name (and having rarely even used the skytrain system in Vancouver), I was a little nervous. As it turned out, I managed to successfully locate the metro system, purchase a ticket, get through the turnstiles, AND make it onto a train going in the correct direction. I was on cloud nine.
Through Kakao Talk & Facebook, I arranged to visit both of my friends the following day, so I had the evening to myself to explore the city. I opted to head to Insa-dong first, as this was an area I’d explored briefly with Blake and his parents when they came to visit. I thought it might be wise to give myself a chance to further explore something a little familiar before I ventured off to new areas of the city. After a botched attempt to use google maps to get myself into Insa-dong proper (I never said¬†anything about getting¬†better at using maps), I eventually began my wander around part of the perimeter of the area. I stopped along the way to snap up some¬†žßÄŪĆ°žĚī žēĄžĚīžä§ŪĀ¨Ž¶ľ (stick or cane icecream).¬†It tasted¬†okay – if you’re looking for the flavour¬†and general texture of good ol’¬†Captain¬†Crunch cereal, combined with sweet, vanilla icecream. It was a worthwhile experience, but I don’t think I’ll get one again. Captain Crunch and I were never really friends.
Most of the shops that sell these have HUGE line-ups out the door, but I must have found this one just in time.

Most of the shops that sell these have HUGE line-ups out the door, but I must have found this one just in time.

As it got dark, I hopped on a bus that I thought would take me directly to Itaewon, as I had a craving for some international cuisine. I’d poked around online and found a few interesting-sounding foreign restaurants located there. I happily rode the bus for at least ten minutes before checking my progress on Google maps on my phone. At that point, I jumped off at the next stop, as I discovered that I was, in fact, somehow further from my destination. Intending to get on the same bus going in the opposite direction, I made my way to the other side of the road in search of the corresponding bus stop. I couldn’t find it. What I’d forgotten was that, in some areas of Seoul, there are actually bus stops on the boulevard in the middle of the street. After a lengthy delay, I successfully caught a bus to Itaewon. Unfortunately, I was never able to find the restaurant I was looking for: Comedor, which I’d read serves Paraguayan food. Instead, I had a delicious buffet meal of Arabian cuisine at Marrakech Restaurant. As it happened to be the weekend before St. Patrick’s Day, I had to wade through a few crowds of green-clad foreigners to reach the entrance. Marrakech Restaurant, which is on the third floor of the building below, is very near Itaewon Station, Exit 4.
I then opted to take my one and only cab ride to the žč§žė§žēĒ (Siloam) Sauna in Jungrim-dong, Jung-gu, near Seoul Station. In fact, I had what was perhaps my longest and hopefully most articulate conversation in Korean to date with the cab driver, whose hometown turned out to be Gwangju.
Given my inability to either receive or give directions, you'll want to look elsewhere for a description of how to get here. I will, however, note, that you will want to look for long set of steps that ascend to the sauna, and that the entrance is actually around the side of the building to the left.

Given my inability to either receive or give directions, you’ll want to look elsewhere for a description of how to get here. I will, however, note that you should look for long set of steps that ascend to the sauna, and that the entrance is actually around the side of the building to the left.

For less than 15,000‚ā© ($15), I was able to move about their six floors, which offer the following (and more):
Basement: gender segregated showers and public baths (including a cold pool, a jade bath, a mugwart bath, a charcoal bath, and more – I can only attest to the womens’ side though).
1st floor: washrooms, lockers and open changing area
2nd floor: resting room and restaurant
3rd floor: entertainment rooms, including noraebang (singing) rooms, board games, workout equipment, and massage chairs
4th¬†floor: fomentation rooms (What?!?! – that’s what I said. Basically various sauna rooms, including a rather hot jade room (with the floor covered in, you guessed it,¬†jade stones), a salt room (this was the most interesting one to me, as I was actually able to sit on the floor and cover my legs completely in thick salt crystals), and an ice room (the walls are actually covered in dry ice), along with many other rooms.
5th floor: sleeping rooms (these ones actually had bunk beds – sort of), including a separate area just for the snorers!
The facilities were very clean, the signeage adequate, and the staff generally friendly.
I wish I’d taken photos, but, alas, I was sort of followed around the jimjilbang area by these two¬†middle school boys.They were very sweet but inadvertently thwarted any covert photo ops.
By 12:30 or so, I was completely exhausted and opted to tuck myself in under¬†my scarf on the top bunk of one of the beds on the fifth¬†floor. This WOULD have been a lovely enough experience (so long as you can stand a hard mattress), but it was WAY too hot for me. In hindsight, I wish I’d scooped up one of the little cubbyholes in the “oxygen room” (room temperature space). You live and learn.
In the morning, I ventured down to the public bath to get squeaky clean and enjoy a little tub time before heading out into the city for day two.
For those who plan to spend the night at Siloam sauna but would really prefer to pop into a caf√© for breakfast in the morning, don’t count on one being open anywhere in sight of the front entrance. Once I managed to find it, I opted for a bagel at Angel in Us in Seoul Station, as I needed to hop on the metro to meet my previous year’s main co-teacher at Anguk Station at 11am.
I arrived just on time, and as soon as I located Ara (and her daughter, husband, and brother), we drove off to Ūēúžė•ŽßąžĚĄ (a traditional Korean “Hanok” village). It was lovely wandering around the village together, and I had a delicious lunch of žāľÍ≥ĄŪÉē (Samgyetang), a whole young chicken (stuffed with rice, ginseng, and a date)¬†in a savory broth.
Paintball - Mohusan T 041 Paintball - Mohusan T 043
Next, we walked along part of Sejongno Avenue, where there are several statues (including one of King Sejeong the great, which you can see below), two guys making some pretty amazing spray-paint art, and a few musical buskers.
A show with a view.

A show with a view.

Ara, her husband, and their daughter saw me off to the metro station when it was time to go see Billy in Gangnam.¬†I hopped on the correct¬†line, located my stop, and emerged above ground¬†at Exit #8… of the wrong station. After a few moments of “But I’m AT Exit #8…” I backtracked. We finally found one another and snagged some delicious (albeit pricey) chocolate frappucino drinks at a chocolate shop. We wandered awhile before sitting down on a rickety bench to finish our drinks and chat.
Before long, it was time to make my way to the bus station and back to Gwangju. On account of traffic, my bus was nearly half an hour late to arrive at the departure gate. In the end, I arrived home, safe and sound, around 11:30pm.
Seoul can, at times, be a little overwhelming for me, it also reminds me just how much I love Canada, and all its wide open spaces. That being said, I had a lovely visit, and I actually hope I can make another weekend Seoul-o trip trip later this year.

Bali: Tips, Logistics, and Final Thoughts

Now, we only spent ten days in Bali and we certainly didn’t see all (or even all that much of) the island, but here are a few thoughts that we hope might help anyone else thinking of visiting. Keep in mind that these our just our opinions.

General

  • 99% of the time, any price you are given is negotiable (restaurants are an exception).
  • Because everything is negotiable, most prices start out really high – cut it way down for your first offer.
  • During low season, there are lots of accommodation choices and they will negotiate price to fill the rooms.
  • Tipping is expected for most services. Depending on who you ask the amount varies, but it is not percentage based. Say 5-10,000 rp.
  • Everyone knows someone to give you a ride, the best place for you to stay, and the place you absolutely must see. It’s their friend, their cousin, and the the place where their brother is a guide. Sometimes it’s awesome, sometimes it’s not. Do you research (especially on accommodation) and don’t be afraid to shop around.
  • Carry travellers-diarrhoea medication and, if you are at all prone to seasickness, gravol or something similar.
  • When it comes to massages, you pretty well get what you pay for. It’s not worth saving a few dollars to get an exponentially crappier massage.
  • Related to the above, keep the exchange rate in mind when you are deciding on prices. Is it really worth arguing over that extra dollar?
  • Getting around is not that hard. Pretty well anywhere you ask, people will get you in contact with a private driver. Be aware of what the going rate is for where you want to go and don’t be afraid to walk away. Always set the price ahead of time.
  • For those planning on using ATMs we were never able to withdraw more than 2,000,000 rp ($200) at a time and often not even that. This resulted in some significant bank fees from our home banks. Take a fair amount of cash with you or go into bank branches where you can.
  • Temples: they are nice, but are also where you get the worst tourist traps and pressure sales. Go to one, but you don’t really need to see more than that. Carry a sarong with you so that you don’t have to deal with buying one when you¬†need it to get into a temple – not an ideal bargaining position to start from. Gunung Kawi was the nicest one that we saw.
  • Laundry is relatively cheap but not fast. People don’t have dryers, so they need at least 24 hours to do your laundry, assuming it does not rain.

Ubud

  • If you are in Ubud, you have to see the Monkey Forest: it’s great entertainment and you only need an hour.
  • The main streets of Ubud are pretty busy. It is probably best to find accommodation that is a 5-10 minute walk out. It’s nice to have somewhere peaceful to go.
  • Ina Inn was very nice: we would certainly recommend it.
  • The dancers were pretty cool. Apparently there are a lot of different shows, but it is worth it to see at least one of them.
  • From here you can day-trip to see some of the traditional terraced rice fields. This is definitely worth your time. When you get there, pay the money for a cup of coffee at one of the valley-side caf√©s and enjoy the view.

Nusa Lembongan

  • You must visit here. End of story.
  • Scoot fast boats was a great service, but in some ways we wish we had taken one of the local supply boats just for the adventure.
  • There are several small reef breaks here that are not crowded at all, so it was a great place to take surf lessons without having to fight over waves.
  • Diving or snorkelling with the Manta Rays is something you really should do.
  • Rent a scooter and check out more of the island.
  • Based on our short time visiting it, Mushroom Bay is not a place you want to stay.
  • There are a couple of places (Indiana and the Beach Club) along Jungubatu Beach that have beach-front loungers as part of the restaurant. Spend at least one evening sipping drinks and watching the sunset from one of these.
  • Tarci Bungalows were excellent with great service and friendly staff. They are towards the end of the beach though.
  • New Bros Surfing are a great company if you want a surf lesson. At least this is true for beginners.

Padangbai

  • This was one of the larger let-downs of our trip.
  • Blue Lagoon was not as beautiful as it appears in the pictures and there is great wade-out snorkelling in several other areas along the coast.

Amed Coast

  • If you are looking for somewhere relaxed to visit, this is a good place to go because the road essentially goes to nowhere.
  • Despite there being only a few listings in guidebooks, there are actually quite a few places to stay spread out along the coast.
  • We were really happy with Wawa Wewe II. Good service, clean rooms, and a decent location.
  • Things here are spread out, but the traffic is light, so it’s probably best to rent a scooter to explore.
  • While you’re doing the above, take lots of pictures.
  • Many places accept only cash and there are only a couple of ATMs along the coast. Plan accordingly.
  • Dive the Liberty wreck. We did not do it but it looks amazing.
  • Be aware that if you stop in some of the more remote villages you will quickly draw a crowd.
  • Sails restaurant locally sources its food (according to the menu) and it’s delicious to boot.
  • Although we did not have time, there are several hiking trails ascending nearby volcanoes. Most hotels appear to be able to direct you to the trail-head.

Bali: The Amed Coast

After our inland tour, we washed up in Amed a bit after four and were taken to a little guest house that our driver recommended. It was a cute little place right on the beach just outside Amed, with two little bungalows that are well put together and relatively private for only 300,000 ($30) a night. Sadly, the neighbours had opted to use their stretch of the beach as a chicken coop and, in aid of this project, had spread cow manure on the beach in front of their property. Combine this with the mess of the chickens themselves and the stench was overwhelming.

We dumped our stuff off in one of the rooms and wandered back out along the road to get our bearings. We knew that the area was pretty spread out, but also that it is relatively quiet so we decided to rent a scooter from the nearby Paolo’s Guest house and headed south-west down the coast. At this point we had decided that our accommodation was just not going to work for us and we were searching for good alternatives. Despite the fact that Lonely Planet notes only a few options along this coast, there is a plethora of guest houses, hotels, and inns of varying quality and price.However not willing to take our chances¬†and end up with another bad experience, we decided to focus on those listed in the guidebook.

Adding to our little adventure, in the middle of our exploration our scooter ran out of gas (we had asked about the fuel level before we left and were informed that the gauge was broken – well in this case “empty” was bang on!). We rolled down a hill and came to a halt in front of a little Warung and Tamara popped in to ask where we might find petrol. The people who owned it were amazing. The lady first tried to get us to borrow her scooter to go get petrol for ours, but there was some confusion about where to go. Next thing we know, her son (maybe?) jumps on his scooter, tells Blake to jump on, and¬†takes off. It’s a good thing too, as the nearest place to get petrol was a couple of kilometres away, and you really had to know what you were looking for. Twenty minutes later, they returned with Blake holding a plastic water bottle of fuel on the back of the bike. They filled up the scooter and off we went. Not one request for money or an attempt to sell us anything. So refreshing after a day of dodging vendors at the temples. We left a very healthy tip there!

In the end we settled on the Wawa Wewe II (pronounced “Wah-wah Way-Way 2” – one of the places listed in the guide) and headed back to our original accommodation. Now, we had several things to juggle: our luggage was at one point, the scooter was from another about a kilometre away, and Wawa Wewe II was three of four kilometres in the other direction. We arranged for the Wawa Wewe staff to pick us up at Cafe Garam across from where we rented the scooter. A quick stop at our original¬†accommodation¬†to grab our bags (and pay for the room for that night to avoid any complications), and¬†then we jumped on the scooter with all our crap and returned it, before grabbing a couple milkshakes at Cafe Garam and waiting for our ride.

We finally got settled into our room a little after nine and grabbed a bite to eat at the restaurant before turning in. Even though it was a pretty crazy evening, it was well worth it. We got a great room for 500,000 ($50) a night. The bathroom was open air with a cool stone wall going around three sides of it and the room included a loft area with a second bed. An infinity pool looks out over the beach, making a perfect spot for a quick dip to cool off. The restaurant also had a great view of the ocean and down a part of the coast.

Our first morning on the coast we had a quick dip in the pool before renting snorkelling gear from our hotel and heading to the beach (about 10 meters away). Big sections on the coast have pretty darn good wade out snorkelling, complete with coral, sea life, and even two different shipwrecks.  One of these is the American transport ship Liberty which was torpedoed by the Japanese in 1942. Although we did not see the wrecks, it is certainly something that is easy to do and the photos look amazing.

Who doesn't love snorkelling?

Who doesn’t love snorkelling?

After a leisurely morning breakfast overlooking the ocean, we rented a scooter from the hotel and headed out to explore the area.

Ready to ride!

Ready to ride!

The entire coast is a series of small bays with headlands between them and mountains behind. Each bay has its own little village with fishing boats pulled up along the sand. The further we got from Amed, the fewer tourists and tourist amenities we saw. There are places to stay all along the coast, but as you get closer to Aas there is less and less development between the villages. There are several points where streams flow right over the road and you have to just drive through blindly (although we always waited for a local to go through so we could follow).

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We stopped several times to take photos and at one of these stops, several teenagers and kids stopped to talk with us. They were pretty friendly, but we as we started to draw an increasing crowd we decided that perhaps a narrow road on the edge of a cliff after a blind corner was not the best place to draw a large crowd of people and vehicles so we headed back towards our hotel.

Chickens were a regular hazard driving through the villages. There were chickens everywhere in Bali!

Chickens were a regular hazard driving through the villages. There were chickens everywhere in Bali!

These two kids were the first to stop and chat and as soon as they saw our camera they wanted their picture taken.

These two kids were the first to stop and chat and as soon as they saw our camera they wanted their picture taken.

Food was a big part of our day. We had a great lunch at Sails restaurant which, according to their menu, sources all of their ingredients locally. The food was great, especially the desserts. Once the rain storm was over we headed down the coast cruising through one little village after another and stopped in Lipah to try the Smiling Buddha restaurant. It was a nice open air restaurant with a view out to sea through a red gate. Much of the food is more traditional Balinese fare than we had seen elsewhere and everything we tried was great. We rounded out our day with dinner at Puri Wirata Dive Resort, right next to Wawa Wewe II, which was delicious.

Our final day in Bali was a quiet one. We took one last dip in the ocean and a wander down the beach before we packed our bags and boarded the van that would take us to the airport.

We had arranged transport through our hotel the day before, so we did not have to worry about dealing with logistics. It took us a little over three hours to arrive at the airport, much less time that we had expected, so we caught a taxi to a nearby mall for a bit of last minute souvenir shopping before heading through security. We watched the sun set over the runways and sadly said goodbye to Bali.