JSA Tour

I have booked the JSA tour(Joint Security Area, an area located in the DMZ between North and South Korea) a month before arriving at Seoul. It is highly recommended to book this in advance as it could be hard to reserve one on short notice. The tour could be cancelled any time by the Authorities given certain situations. In fact my tour has been cancelled and had I not called for alternatives I never could have gone to the next scheduled date.

Before the sunken navy ship incident earlier this year, it was even possible to book a guided tour to a border town in North Korea, but Authorities (North or South I am not sure) forbade this to signal higher tension between the two parties. As of this week the tension has gone a notch up as South Korea formally accused North Korea of launching a torpedo on their ship. I hope that the JSA tour will still be available in the coming days.
I booked the tour using Joong Ang Express tour,  on their web site you will find the stringent requirements for this tour. On this entry I will only focus on my impressions. First off I made the mistake of not bringing my SLR camera, as I thought it was forbidden. It is actually allowed to bring SLR cameras provided that your lens is not longer than 100 mm. There is a strict dress code, once in the JSA you will be monitored by both parties, the way you dress could be used as propaganda for some purposes.
The JSA area was not delimitated by the MDL (Military Demarcation Line) before–  soldiers from both sided were permitted to cross the line within this zone until the Axe Murder Incident in 1976. Today, both parties stay on their respective lines and face each other under a tense mood. There are three buildings that overlay the MDL, the one in the the middle is the conference building,  to this day this building is used as communication line between North and South.

MDL South Korean soldier in front of North Koreans

We were not allowed to go inside this building because of tourists(most of them were Chinese) from the North were there at the same time. We saw them escorted by North Korean soldiers and  on the Southern side, Korean and American soldiers were on alert, our guide told us that it is rare to see such a face-off these days.

Picture taking was limited to a certain time and we had to do this under the conventions that our Military guide has mentioned us(No space for special pose here). Our Military guide was a South Korean who was on the verge of finishing his mandatory 2 year stint within the Korean Army.  He has a black belt in Taekwondo( South Korean soldiers posted in the JSA are elite soldiers), and he is under UN authorities. In fact we wore UN badges in the JSA premises, tourists become UN observers to qualify for this tour.      

I highly recommend the JSA tour(also known as Panmunjom tour) if you arein Korea and are interested in History, especially the Cold War, it is not every day that you get to see such a living relic! 

Korea impressions, the first night

The trip to Korea was quite short. I have not been spontaneous enough to actually post an entry there. Arrival at Incheon airport was very pleasant:  it is a big airport and yet it is easy to navigate your way through it.  I do not wonder why it is consistently voted as the best airport in the world.
To get out of the airport I took the Airport shuttle bus as my accommodation was in Myeong-dong and most Shuttle bus(9000 WON  –  9 USD) do stop at hotels there.  Once out of the shuttle,  I did have a hard time finding my way to my hotel.  Most people did not speak English and I think that even if I spoke Korean I probably would still had problems. To find out my way to places I usually use Google maps and Iphone’s GPS( as last resort as Internet data roaming is quite expensive), alas the hotel address was wrong in Google. I should have verified that information. I found some help by asking a receptionist from another hotel, he gave me a map of Myeong-Dong and pointed out where my hotel was. The map was useful but the receptionist tried to dissuade by telling me it takes 15(he pronounced this as 50!) minutes to go there.
 In Korea, you get to places using landmarks as often times streets would have no names and coordinates are difficult to figure out.  One of the intersections which led to my hotel had a Dunkin Donut shop, from there it was just 2 blocks away.
It was already midnight after I after I got settled in my room.  I was very hungry and was very eager to test the local food,  Myeong-Dong has a number of  food stalls at its fringes.  I did not bother to eat street foods, seeing the locals and the Japanese comfortably seated outside the stalls somehow  assured me of the quality of the food being served.  I am rather adventurous when it comes to food so I didn’t mind just pointing at the pictures of the food to order… No English translation only Japanese and Chinese! This is why I ended up with cold soup on my second day in Seoul

MNL Terminal 3 and Election Day at the Philippines

I’ve arrived last Saturday in Manila; arrival was at terminal 1. This terminal is particularly old and really pales in comparison to other regions. My parents had to wait outside for me and so they had to endure the heat. I do hope that in terminal 3 people don’t have to wait outside for travelers. Terminal 3 is the “new” Manila International airport which currently is only occupied by one two local airlines. The terminal was ready for use a few years ago but was mothballed because of diverse corruption allegations. One of the structures of the airport has already collapsed before even a first time used. The airport finally opened at the beginning of the year, and I am hoping that they will allow International carriers to arrive there.  I’ll write more about this airport  because today I have a flight with Cebu Pacific(local carrier based in terminal 3) to Seoul, South Korea
Speaking of corruption,  well politics comes in mind and today is the Philippines’ big day for elections. We are electing not only the president but also senators, congressman, mayors, councilors… whew!! the list is long! Today is public holiday,everythings is supposed to be closed….  well they couldn’t prevent the malls from opening  at 12. You can prohibit anything in the Philippines but don’t touch the Malls! You know there is something sacred with people’s relationship with the malls when 3 of the 10 largest malls are found in the country.
I am surprised that there isn’t so much posters around the walls of the country, ordinarily the posters are omnipresent that it actually takes months to take them off! Election period is also a time when money flows like there is no tomorrow. I imagine are money supply tripling in this short period. It is not uncommon to hear from people that in so and so area votes have been for 2000 PHP(around 40 USD) . That is a considerable amount of money especially if you live in the country side. Now you see candidates spending such amount for votes, imagine if they get elected… how eager would they be to recoup up their “investments”.
I am hoping that this election period will not be marred by so many killings.
I’ll need to now… I’ve been monopolising this chair at starbucks for so long!

Destination Philippines Part 1

I depart for Manila tomorrow morning. These past few days there has still been Northern European airports closed due to the volcanic ashes, and since I’m passing by Amsterdam, I have to admit I have a little bit of worry that it would affect me.

I’m flying with KLM, which as of now is the only company that flies from Europe to Manila without any stopovers. Lufthansa, Swissair and Philippines Airlines(To name a few), the airline crisis of the past decade did not spare Manila. Luckily, KLM offers competitive prices in general( and don’t you love Schiphol airport?). I got my ticket for 1000 USD which I believe is a reasonable amount.
May is part of the dry season in Manila, along with April they are the two months of School vacation for summer and so if you go to the Philippines in this period you’ll see a lot of local travelers. One could say that the period from December to May is the best for travel in the country as it is dry season. But March is probably the best of the lot because it comes before  heat and humidity goes off the charts — there is a reason  why school vacation is April!
I will stay at  Malate, Manila as I have some arrangements there,  and if you ask me I think it’s a good base for a stay in Manila. There are a lot of cheap accommodations around and almost all of the cities historic attractions are around that area. Here is my plan for this visit of Manila:
    • Check out the restaurants of Malate, Nakpil street(I have heard accounts of good restaurants moving out of the area to sanitized places like Greenhills in Makati… but I am wishful thinking here)
    • Try out the Malate night life
    • Visit Binondo(chinatown), try out some Chinese food there , have a feel of the neighborhood
    • Check out Quiapo and Binondo in search of the soul of Manila before and a few decades after world war two.
I will not be staying for a long time, thus the short list. Those who will visit Manila for the first time should really check out the following:
    • Intramuros: The walled city of Manila. the place could give you a feel for what Manila was like during the Spanish colonial period.
    • In Intramuros you can find the Manila Cathedral and San Agustin church(Unesco Heritage site under the classification of “Baroque Churches of the Philippines”). Churches in the Philippines are made differently from their counterparts in Europe. For one, Filipinos  had to make them Earthquake resistant
    • Have a stroll at Manila bay, and enjoy its lovely Sunset
    • Checkout the Makati nightlife
I still have to pack, so I’ll have to cut this short. But let me tell you about Boracay, an island down South  which has incredible beaches. I’ve never seen sand as white as could can find there. At midday, walk barefoot on the sand and you’ll feel that the sand is not burning hot. The sand is so white the sun light’s that its deflection is great enough to make you feel comfy on the sand.
Getting there is straightforward, Seair offers direct flight to Caticlan which is just across Boracay island. A small tricycle to the Caticlan’s port and there you take a boat which bring you to Boracay in a couple of minutes. From there take another tricyle and ask the driver to bring you to your destination(Ok…ok, this may look a bit complicated but I twas happy to have done it…. You could always ask your hotel to pick you up at Caticlan airport :-) ).
    • Boat Station 1: Highly priced hotels, more secluded beac
    • Boat Station 2: More like the center of the island Good for nightlife but the beach will have lots of people.
    • Boat station 3: A good place for cheap accomodation
I’ll be updating the site as I travel but let me insert another pic here from my one and only visit of Boracay:
Useful Links:
www.ourawesomeplanet.com : Anton has got some excellent insider tips about Manila
www.clickthecity.com/ : A Manila city guide… what’s on in Manila.