It’s fair to say that geography isn’t my strong point. Prior to this trip, I had no idea either Singapore or Brunei were carved out of Malaysia – I thought the latter was in the middle east somewhere, and the former . . . gosh . . . maybe nearer Australia? Anyway. I can’t be the only one who didn’t know that Penang isn’t a city at all, but an island.
Yet there it is. And more, actually: it’s a state. (Or even a country, if you believe the Wikipedia entry and understand the political and semantic complexities of designating something “a country”, which I don’t, so for purposes of uneducated brevity let’s call it a state and move on). It consists of a 300 km² island (Palau Pinang), and a chunk of mainland west-coast Malaysia. But the bit people mean when they talk about Penang – and indeed the names of which are used interchangeably – is the island’s largest city, George Town. Or Georgetown. Poor old George/Town, people barely know it exists and nobody seems to know how to write it.
Now if any of you have been thinking “this is all very nice Robyn, but where’s the “flash” part of your flashpacking? This just sounds like slightly more civilised backpacking to me”, then my answer to you would be two-fold. Firstly, as far as I’m concerned, that’s what flashpacking is, to be honest. And secondly: you make a good point. Let’s get a bit flashier, shall we?
Enter Malaysian Airlines. Did you know that they offer us poor cattle-class plebs the opportunity to upgrade our experience without turning up to the airport in high heels and hoping for the best? Instead, you can bid to fly business class. I originally only chose Malaysian because they were so inexpensive: just £200 to fly economy from Tokyo to Bali, a 7 + 3 hour flight with a 6-hour stopover in Kuala Lumpur. They’re clearly struggling in the aftermath of MH71 and MH370. This bidding gimmick is presumably their way to try and drum up some new custom, and I was happy to bite!
My interest in Japan owes much to one of my favourite authors, Haruki Murakami.
Whilst in Tokyo, I had hoped to identify some of the locations he describes. I thought I might perhaps even gain a glimpse into the psyche of the Japanese men who form the bulk of his protagonists: forgettable loners, quietly plodding through life and barely leaving an imprint. It had seemed a strange universal character to choose, but after only a few days in the city I could understand why they provided him with such rich potential. It’s a place dedicated to solo living: the tiny apartments, the individual seats at ramen bars, the anonymity of the packed subway car. Like no other city I had visited, Tokyo invited people to disappear, even when living a life surrounded by other human beings.
Day three was dedicated to seeking out the weird and wonderful world of Japanese collectables.
I’d been pointed in the right direction by my friend Josy, she again of the Japanese intel, and headed towards Nakano Broadway. I had been promised “old movie posters, models, panty vending machines, godzilla statues etc” – basically everything I could possibly want from four days in Tokyo, or indeed any holiday destination. Primarily I was after the vending machines full of pants, if only to confirm that such a thing actually existed, but I figured I might as well take a gander at the other stuff too.
Nakano is an old-style shopping mall: countless outlets, some barely bigger than a cupboard, are crammed into the centre, lining both sides of the maze-like corridors with nary a window in sight. Five floors are filled with incredible amounts of kitsch, collectables, badges, dolls, trinkets, retro goodies, anime and manga (I still don’t know the difference), vintage toys, clothes, comics, video games, and items for which I don’t even have a name. I explored the whole place, rounding every corner thinking “this surely must be it, there can’t be anything else left to collect”, only to be proven categorically incorrect. If you ever thought it wasn’t possible to dedicate an entire shop purely to anime posters, or plastic dinosaurs, or muscle-bound statues of WWF members, then you would be very wrong.
The deal was that we would go to Japan together, at a later date. It was a country we both longed to visit and therefore deserved to be taken on its own merits without any other distractions.
But the cheapest flight from Vladivostok to Melbourne went via Tokyo, so Peter reasoned it would be simply churlish not to extend the stopover from two hours to two nights.
And if he was getting two nights in the city then damnit so was I. Although flight prices being what they are . . . two became four. And so I found myself bound for Tokyo with five days to play with and strict instructions not to leave the city limits.
I wasn’t going to visit the Korean peninsular without attempting to get into North Korea.
Well, by “attempting” I mean “paying for a trip” and “North Korea” I mean the Joint Security Area.
The DMZ, or demilitarised zone, is a strip of land around 2km wide which covers the entire border between North and South Korea. The JSA is a tiny section of this where talks and negotiations take place: a makeshift hut slap-bang on the border, precisely half in each country, is the epicentre. It’s arguably the most interesting place to visit and an essential part of any trip to South Korea.
It was also temporarily closed to visitors.
This was due to imminent talks taking place three days later between the leaders, so I deemed it a reasonable excuse not to let me in and went on a tour of the DMZ anyway, sans JSA, and feeling rather aggrieved at their ill-timed political processes.
After the wash-out that was Busan, I was determined not to make the same mistake twice. So I gave myself a week’s notice and pored over Seoul’s accommodation options before choosing one with universally excellent reviews and the promise of a beautiful breakfast.
I had high hopes but low expectations and it was with some surprise that I discovered that my guesthouse was nestled deep in the heart of Bukchon Village: a higgledy-piggledy district of alleyways and single-story hanoks, the oldest part of Seoul, and bordered by two palaces and three mountains.
There is a peculiarly Korean activity and it is to spend the night in a sauna.
It’s not quite what you’re thinking. For one, you’re not literally in the sauna itself . . . unless you want to be. And secondly . . . it’s not remotely dodgy.
Jimjilbangs, as they’re known, are essentially bathhouses, and you’ll find them in every city, town and village throughout the country – although most are significantly smaller than the one I visited. They’re open 24/7 and you can enter or leave whenever you want, which makes them the ideal crash pad for exhausted office workers or late-night clubbers or just a safe, friendly space for a gang of friends to spend an evening. I knew I had to experience this before leaving and had heard good things about Siloam in Seoul: not as glitzy or touristy as the much-touted Dragon Hill Spa, but still attended by enough foreigners that there would be some English instructions, and my flabby white body wouldn’t receive too many curious/disgusted glances.
Do you want to know the hardest thing about staying in Korea? Wrapping my brain around the similarly-named cities. I stayed in eight places altogether, three of which were called Gyeongju, Gwangju, and Gongju. That said, either my pronunciation is top-notch or the bus stations employ really excellent staff because I ended up in the right place every single time.
Although I didn’t know it before I got there, Gwangju is infamous for being the site of a horrific government-sanctioned massacre of protesters. The “Tiananmen Square of Korea” happened in 1980 and eventually sparked significant changes in Korea’s political situation, leading to the government of today. Nonetheless it remains deeply controversial, not least because nobody is entirely sure how many people died; 207 minimum, but some sources suggest ten times that.
There’s a knack to enjoying short, sharp visits to large, intimidating cities.
Book yourself some bloody good accommodation.
By “good”, I don’t mean expensive, plush, or in the thick of the action. A balcony on the 18th floor and crisp Egyptian cotton won’t make a blind bit of difference when you’re sitting there alone, wondering what to do with the empty hours stretching out before you. No, what matters primarily is the host: someone who is besotted with their city, and not just willing but actively keen to pass on their inside knowledge so that you, too, will grow to love it as much as they do. That’s why I’m such a huge fan of AirBNB which (when you get it right) embodies all of these glorious traits. (I wish I were paid by AirBNB to advertise their services. I’m not though, sadly. I’m just a fan. Although if you’re considering trying it then use this link and we’ll both get £13 off when you make your first booking. Everybody wins).
Of course, this didn’t happen when I went to Busan and left it far too late for decent accommodation. So I ended up in my worst kind of place: a basic, faceless backpacker hostel next to the train station, and I arrived in bucketing rain which took away any remaining joy. To make it even less appealing, I’d paid for a single room, but all this meant was that I got shoved into one of the 4-bunk dorms with the promise that nobody else would be joining me, and strict instructions not to use the linen on any of the other pre-made beds. And so it was that I spent my first night in Korea’s second city sleeping on a lower bunk with rain-damp clothes hanging next to my face, and a cardigan rolled up under my head to bolster the pathetically thin pillow.
It’s so glamorous, this travelling lark.