Siloam Sauna ~ A Day at a Korean Jjimjilbang

Sometimes, you need a hot bath. Since there are few bathtubs in Korean apartments, we are given the public sauna–that mutually nude tradition from Roman antiquity. I’ve always liked baths, hot tubs, jacuzzis, any kind of pool. But a Korean jjimjilbang is completely different. Conan went, hilarity ensued. Anthony Bourdain went (in his show: Parts Unknown), contemplation ensued.

It’s a wonderful place for relaxation, if you can get past the shared bathtubs and the nudity coupled with dramatically conspicuous pubic hair. The pure joy of a 44C tub in winter outweighs any dangling encroachment or short & curly incursion. Don’t misunderstand, it’s a public kind of privacy. Yet one needs to be ready for extreme nudity of all sizes and ages, because, of course you don’t look, but you do see. Once past the initial nude shock, you can sit in dry Swedish saunas, wet aromatic steam-rooms, jacuzzi baths, and tubs ranging from icy to scalding. It’s an exercise in temperature toleration. My skin usually resembles a lobster after about an hour of cold to hot body shocking.

I put on the cozy pajamas they give you, and meandered to the common co-ed room. Here is the real deal. You can find beehive caves where temps hover around 100 C, Himalyan rock salt floors, personal cocoons, ice rooms and all manner of sweat chambers. There is usually a restaurant on-site, or a snack bar. Ice cream, water and ramen are the best choices. Once you’ve gotten the perspiration going and achieved perfect ice cream to spicy soup balance, lie on the heated floor and relax.

The Siloam Sauna near City Hall in Seoul was freaking packed when we arrived on New Year’s Day 2016! There were buses of Chinese tourists outside and I felt like the Star Wars quote: “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Sure enough, it was a mess inside. Bodies occupying every available shower, very little space in the tubs and just too much everything. I posted up in the salt room, got some salt and gave myself a scrubbing. It was a bad idea to come on the universally most hungover and thus most crowded day of the year, but here we were. The buses left after a while, and the place thinned out.

Siloam is a massive place, with an exercise room, large restaurant, plenty of unique common rooms, and clean for its popularity. Dragon Hill (in Yongsan) might still win on size and presentation, but is also consistently and annoyingly crowded. I think on a normal day (not January 1st), this place might be better for the crowd averse.

Here are some pictures of the common chilling areas, and more information here.

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My sample routine for beginners:

  1. Pay the fee (between 6-12,000won) and get a locker.
  2. Undress, rinse in shower, get in warm tub, then hot, then cold. Move to dry sauna, cold shower…repeat.
  3. Once sufficiently heated, rinse with cool water and change to pajamas.
  4. Visit all the available sweat chambers, starting with hot first, and ice room between.
  5. Drink a bottle of water, eat ramen noodles and ice cream.
  6. Nap, read, chill, people watch.

49 Jungnim-ro, Jung-gu, Seoul

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Petite France ~ A Place for Selfies and Romance (if you can ignore the ridiculousness)

“Little France” outside of Seoul, in Gapyeong, could also be called “Gauche France” or “Faux France.” It’s a ridiculous caricature of the world’s most visited country. We saw tiny alleyways made of hollow plaster, fake wooden framed cottages, cute cafes that sell ddeokboki for 7$, lame replicas of Parisian iconography, broken fountains in manicured cobblestoned plazas and generic ideas of France as imagined by someone who believes French culture to be epitomized by puppets, mimes and berets. It’s not wholly without charm, it’s just a smarmy charm. A charm that requires ignorance, the Michael Bay kind of charm. Yes, it’s a movie, but nothing is real. The place is replete with symbolic French roosters, Little Prince statues, and dubiously authentic memorabilia.

Yes, I know. I’m in Korea. What did I expect? You don’t get the moniker “Hermit Kingdom” for hundreds of years and then leap into the modern age with a fully realized vision of globally relevant cultural minutiae. Once I got past the fake, forced cute of the little hillside village asking “you think you’re better than me because you’ve been to France?” routine, and suspended my haughty disbelief, I enjoyed our time there. It’s a beautiful setting, the air is clean, people are happy and holding hands, and if you squint your eyes real tight, only letting in the dimmest glow, maybe you could think yourself among the winding streets of Montmarte or the grand boulevards of the “City of Lights”…until an ajumma pushes you out of the way to take 13 solemn pictures in front of a two meter Eiffel Tower.

Here is a collection of several of the hundreds of pictures we took this cloudy, breezy, late fall afternoon in “Petite France.”

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Creeped Out in the Spider Museum of Namyangju, Korea

During Chuseok:

IMG_2542the Korean Thanksgiving, after swimming in the Han River near Gapyeong, we showered off and headed to quite an odd little place. Up a winding mountain road, past elderly hikers and tiny houses, we found it: Spider Museum!

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IMG_5675Yeah, I know. That’s a big dong. But it was in the parking lot and the first thing we saw.

It turned out the man collecting the tickets (7$ per person) was also the doctor, designer, and arachnid loving founder of the place called, Arachnopia. His pictures were all over, prominently displaying his prestigious position in the world of entomology. Hershey dog accompanied us, but had to wait outside as we entered the living spider area. An eager young man immediately placed this beauty upon us.

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IMG_2539We were both scared at first and then his little fuzzy legs started to feel comforting in a way. The man described the spider thusly: “She’s a good girl.” We moved down the line and saw dozens of varieties of tarantulas, bugs, turtles, and assorted weirdlings. He fed the alligator turtle a bit of food and the snap of his mouth sounded like a door caught in a gust of wind. But, check out these caged critters.

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IMG_5684Leaving the poor, sad creatures trapped in the small boxes aside, we moved onto the poor, dead creatures in smaller boxes. It is a training area for budding university students, so expect plenty of formaldehyde.

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IMG_5700It was impressive to see all these skin-crawling nightmares so well contained and preserved. It gave me a perverse pleasure to look upon these eerie symbols of dread. In our early evolution, spider bites could be incapacitating, or at times, a death sentence. We have been “conditioned” to fear them, more than a fly or a needle from mostly a survival instinct. Therefore, if you’re not at least a little scared of them, you’re probably an alien.

We moved outside as a light drizzle began to fall through the dusk. The bugs were hunting us in the warm, humid air. There is a little research bubble to view spider anatomy, a playground park with a haunting abandoned pool and also a cool statue area. We played a little then ran away from the mozzies.

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Dr. Kim Ju-Pil is  immortalized behind this massive spider. We left with goosebumps and a little wiser about our spider “frenemies.”

On the slow drive back to the highway, we caught a glimpse of the golden rice of early autumn, before finishing the day with some grilled eel.

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Thanksgiving in America ~ 2014

It was my first time to celebrate the holiday on the actual day, with my family, in the house I grew up in, since 2007. Also, the first one to celebrate with my beautiful lady from Korea, Jordyn. She had never eaten American food, so why not learn with the biggest food celebration of the year. It’s a quick holiday, unless you’re the one cooking. My mom runs on that mysterious motherly multi-tasking autopilot. The kitchen windows open, oven blasting, stovetops burning, football on the TV, wine bottles scattered, firewood evaporating in the chimney, friendly chatter and cheer abounds. We had 14 people this year. Taking pictures during chaos is hard, add hunger to the equation, and I’m lucky to have snapped any photos. The dishes for our house were: turkey, ham, gravy, mashed potatoes, yam casserole, green bean casserole, canned and cooked cranberries, stuffing (aka dressing), carrots, rolls, pumpkin and apple pies, wine and beer. There was also a nice serving of various appetizers.

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This was my second plate and not quite as full as the first, but you get the idea.

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And, for dessert, the Philadelphia Eagles manhandled the Dallas Cowboys 33-10. It was a treat. Here you can see the Cowboys pinned against their own end zone.

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The day went as planned and we ate together for the first time in a long time. Thanksgiving holds a special place in my heart as a day set aside to eat, watch football, and nap. The real thanks should be given to the chefs who make it happen, Thank You!

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Cats! of Koh Phi Phi

Koh Phi Phi is a spectacular island in the Andaman Sea. It was completely wiped out in the Asian Tsunami of 2004, and quickly rebuilt. It is a small island without cars. It’s got lots of chill beach areas, lounge bars, party bars, international food, quality local flavors, plenty of island characters and abundant cat life. These cats are perfectly calm and easy to approach due to lack of predators, lack of cars and human trash acting as daily snacks. It was a relief to have cool cats to hang with instead of the blank eyes of city cats. City cats don’t even recognize you as a possible chance for petting, they stare with fear and dart away. Phi Phi cats look at you and yawn or roll over. The cats represented here are just from a short walk from hotel to bar. Some were quite portly and pleased with themselves, kittens crawled in the plant pots pretending to be jaguars, and others laid on the floor of 7-11’s air-conditioned marble entrance.

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Dine in the Dark

I had heard about a place like this once. Blacked out, curtained, dark dining. Simple enough idea, let blind people serve sighted people dinner. Two girls and I left our hostel with anticipation running high for this surprise tasting menu to be consumed in pitch black settings. The interior has mild purple lighting with trendy white leather seats. We all ordered the “international” four course meal. Our waiter, a blind man of slight build affectionately and inexplicably called, “Manbaby,” led us up stairs, through doors and curtains to our table where he helped us acclimatize to the darkness. There was no change when you blinked, so I just let my eyes rest. We were giggly and giddy. The wine poured, we gingerly toasted our goblets of red. The first course came and food is blindly shoveled onto a fork, perhaps avocado and shrimp? Second course, a lamb in light sauce with broccoli? Third course was three shot glasses of soups, we guessed cucumber, pumpkin and mystery. Dessert was unmistakably pineapple and some chocolate. Dinner was delicious, our waiter was extremely helpful in our sightless situation, and the taste was heightened by lack of visuals. We made jokes about “putting it in our mouth, can’t find it because it was too little, hold it harder, who touched my leg” and other “that’s what she said,” comments. Afterwards,each plate was explained in pictures via Ipad. It was a great experience, and this “dark dining” idea is found in many cities over the world. Check to see if you can support one in your area.

Da Lat ~ “Crazy House” and Datanla Waterfalls

A few minutes ride from the main area of Da Lat resides an avant garde hotel/tourist trap called Hang Nga Guesthouse, or The Crazy House (03 Hunyh Thuc Kang). It was designed by a woman holding a PhD in architecture, a love of Gaudi and a wild imagination. It’s fun to walk around inside the house, and feel the lack of right angles smoothing out a cluttered mind. There are plenty of photo ops and really narrow staircases.

Nearby you can find Datanla Waterfalls. They weren’t as crowded with tourists. For 50,000 dong (3$), you can ride a self-controlled bobsled down the mountain to the base. As long as you don’t get a slow-poke in front of you, you can go as fast or slow as you want because you control the brakes! It was a sustained smile the whole way down. Afterwards, explore the fragrant pine tree walkways and then pop back in your bobsled which gets tow-roped back to the top of the hill.

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Massage in Asia

No, I don’t mean that all too frequent use of the word, as in “happy time massage.” I mean a true, therapeutic relaxation for the achy muscles of the body. Asia is a mecca of cheap, excellent massages. I’m a big believer in massage to relieve tension and toxins, especially after long transit, carrying heavy backpacks or party nights. I tried a few places around the world, and here’s what I’ve learned:

1) Don’t let a pretty girl standing outside her shop be your masseuse.

They can be distracting (to men) and usually have no idea what they are doing. It will end up being an hour of gentle rub-down leaving you feeling tingly like gerbils just ran around on your skin, but not deep muscle relaxation. You can let her coerce you inside, but make sure the girl trained or knowledgeable about the body does the massaging.

2) Don’t go to a shop where you can’t see inside.

If there are blinds or curtains or no chairs visible, it’s not a good sign. They are probably hiding something.

3) Don’t go if it’s dirty.

The shop should be immaculate. Everything should smell new and fresh and pleasing to the senses. Dirty could mean dirty towels, tables, water, oil, hands etc.

4) Don’t get pressured into more than what you want.

This is hard, because they make it sound amazing. Think what you want before (30, 60, 90 min) (face, feet, back) and make a good deal with them. But sometimes you should listen if they say they are experts in a certain style.

5) Don’t be afraid to show them your problem areas / communicate.

If they speak English, great, if not, use body language. Make sure you get the correct muscles taken care of during your time. They will usually ask a few minutes in, “Okay?” That’s your chance to say, “Stronger, softer, faster, slower etc.”

6) Make sure they are wearing a uniform.

If they are in their casual attire, they’re not taking their job seriously. This rule isn’t necessary if you are just doing a foot massage. Anytime anyone touches your feet it’s a good thing.

**Bonus Tip: Don’t even bother going if you’re sunburned. Just get the baby oil, aloe; put on some soft cotton clothes and pump the A/C.

So essentially, common sense, yet I have made all these mistakes. Find a professional, clean looking place; a happy, helpful staff; tell them exactly what you need and relax. Different countries specialize in different styles. Taiwan and China are great with foot acupressure. Korea does extremely strong sports massages. SE Asia usually does a version of Thai/Swedish.

I’ve found in SE Asia, you can pay between 7-15$ for an hour massage at small shops, and 30-70$ at higher quality resorts. Quality always ranges, so start with a 30 minute test run, then you will know if you want more. They are always happy to oblige. Some places use oil and may require you to be naked or in underwear. Others will use a towel over your shirt. Also remember to rehydrate immediately after to flush all the toxins that have been released through the muscles into the bloodstream. Coconut water, with the added potassium, is great if available. And don’t drink alcohol for a few hours as your kidney is overworked with the released waste.