Erica and Matt Chua: South Korea

south koreaSouth Korea is a testament to human will.  It is one of only a  handful of cultures that can claim 5000 years of continuous  civilization.  Of those 5000 years, the last century was one of the most  difficult; few populations have ever been put through so much, yet it  stands today as one of the world’s richest countries.  Walking through  its streets today it is hard to believe that just 60 years ago it was a  smoldering war zone, having been leveled twice: WWII and the Korean  War.  From a tourist’s point of view the country has few draws as it  seems like any modern country, until you look around and consider  everything you see around you represents a miracle for even existing.   South Korea jumped as many hurdles as any modern country ever has,  making it a worthy stopover en-route to other Asian destinations.

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DON’T MISS: Busan.  Insert any positive superlatives about a gorgeous, modern, beachfront city here. MUST SEE: SpaLand (Busan), Beomeosa Temple (Busan), DMZ, War Memorial of Korea, Seoul MUST TASTE: A traditional Korean dinner, Hanjeongsik, composed of an array of small dishes (banchan, directly translates to “side dishes”).

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TRIP PLANNING: A whirlwind weekend is enough to see either Seoul or Busan.  Add more time to visit Gyeongju or Jeju Island GETTING AROUND: Public transport is fantastic inside Busan and Seoul, with affordable  taxis everywhere else.  To get between Busan and Seoul, take a bullet  train and travel at 320km/hr (~200Mph).

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OUR COST PER DAY (2 ppl): $54.60 COST OF A BEER: $2-3 at a chicken and beer restaurant, make sure to try the fried chicken, South Korean fried chicken is delicious. KEY MONEY-SAVING TIP: Cabs are cheap, but don’t try to cross the city in one as Seoul and  Busan are huge and the fare will sky rocket quickly.  Use public  transport to get as close to your destination as possible and then a cab  if needed.  In both Busan and Seoul you can get a transport card that  makes subway and bus riding hassle free.  Tourist information centers  can help you purchase these cards.

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YOU NEED TO KNOW: Many/most of the young people know basic English.  They may not be  confident speaking, but if you need directions most can help you. IF WE KNEW WHAT WE KNOW NOW: We would have spent less time in Seoul as it can be done in just a weekend. HELPFUL LINKS TO LEARN MORE: Top things to do in Busan, Top 10 things to do in Seoul, Wikitravel.  Please send us any sites you found useful and we’ll add them!

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WE WERE THERE FOR: 2 weeks OUR HIGHLIGHT: Couchsurfing with an American in Busan.  It was nice to have someone  that understood everything we said after months of broken English  conversations. WHERE WE WENT: Seoul, Gyeongju, Busan WE REGRET MISSING: Jeju-do (Jeju Island).  We’ve heard many great things.

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South Korea Highlights

Short on time? The highlight reel of our 3 week trip to South Korea including beaches, oceanside temples, fish markets, skyscrapers, fried chicken and more.  Tour South Korea in under 15 photos!

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Busan

Busan is the largest port city in South Korea and the fifth largest port in the world. The city is located on the southeasternmost tip of the Korean peninsula and is a source of pride for Koreans.  As it should be, the wonderful beaches of Haeundae to the world’s largest department store in downtown this city should be a must-visit in Korea.

28 Photos

Gyeongju

Gyeongju was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Silla (57 BC – 935 AD) which ruled most of the Korean Peninsula between the 7th and 9th centuries. A vast number of archaeological sites and cultural properties from this period remain in the city. Gyeongju is often referred to as “the museum without walls”.

26 Photos

Seoul

Seoul is the capital and largest city of South Korea. A mega city with a population of over 10 million, it is one of the largest and most densely populated cities in the world.  Historic buildings are tucked in amongst the skyscrapers and apartment buildings are everywhere.  From the indoor markets to the arts district Seoul has many different sides.  While it may not be built for tourists you get a glimpse into the hustle and bustle of living in South Korea.

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Erica and Matt Chua: United Arab Emirates

uaeThe United Arab Emirates is a stage for the world’s super-rich to strut their stuff in pricey hotels, clubs and malls.  For example, mall’s include ski slopes, ice arenas, massive aquariums and more high-end shopping than could ever afford.  If the glitz and glam are too much, neighboring Abu Dhabi provides a taste of culture in the world’s most expensive mosque which puts the Taj Mahal to shame.  For speed addicts, Abu Dhabi’s Ferrari World boasts the world’s fastest roller coaster, while the traditional camel market in Al Ain provides a welcome counterpoint.  Even if you don’t have the money to roll with the Emerati, you can still enjoy their playground.

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DON’T MISS: Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, it has to be seen to be believed. MUST SEE: The Burj al-Khalifa (Dubai), the world’s tallest building, Al Ain camel market, Dubai Marina, Dubai gold souk and Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. MUST TASTE: Possibly there are better choices, but after two years of traveling we indulged on New York’s famous Shake Shack burgers and other American delicacies.

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TRIP PLANNING: See the highlights of Abu Dhabi and Dubai in a weekend, but plan for a week to include Oman. GETTING AROUND: Make use of the excellent buses.  Utilize airline’s free shuttles between Abu Dhabi and Dubai.  Getting around is substantially easier if you rent a car.

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OUR COST PER DAY (2 ppl): $64.71 COST OF A BEER: $5-$12 USD, alcohol is available exclusively at international hotels and pubs. KEY MONEY-SAVING TIP: Use Priceline for the best hotel rates, you can score a luxurious hotel for a great price due to the over-supply of hotels in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

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YOU NEED TO KNOW: Conservative clothing is required and shows respect for Emirati culture, revealing clothing worn by men or women can be quite offensive. IF WE KNEW WHAT WE KNOW NOW: We would have spent more time in neighboring Oman. HELPFUL LINKS TO LEARN MORE: The New York Times recommendations for spending a weekend in Abu Dhabi.

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WE WERE THERE FOR: 7 days OUR HIGHLIGHT: Experiencing 1.7 Gs of force on the world’s fastest roller coaster at Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi. WHERE WE WENT: Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Al Ain WE REGRET MISSING: The view from the top of the Burj al-Khalifa.

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UAE Highlights

Ferraris, gold, mosques and camels.  See the best of the UAE in only 23 photos!

23 Photos

Abu Dhabi

Called the “world’s richest city”, Abu Dhabi is more than money.  Rich with culture, entertainment and beauty it is a sight to behold.

17 Photos

Dubai

“World’s _____” begins many sentences about Dubai.  Home to many of the world’s best, Dubai doesn’t disappoint, see why for yourself.

Erica & Matt Chua: A Buddhist View of Sri Lanka

Palm trees, surfboards, sandy beaches and seafood are the images that come to mind when someone mentions Sri Lanka. The tiny island is known for it’s beaches, however their cultural sights are stunning, if expensive.  The north of the country is definitely worth your time, maybe not all your money, but don’t let the ticket prices scare you away.While visiting Sigiriya, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa will all set you back a pretty penny, Dambulla is an easy and affordable day trip from Kandy.

If all these foreign names aren’t familiar, here’s a crash course: the ancient cities of Sri Lanka that lie north of hill country were formerly known as Rajarta, Land of the Kings.  For 1500 years this was the heart of Sinhalese culture and today offers a glimpse into the past.  In the last decade both Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa were unearthed by archaeologists, revealing an incredible irrigation system.  The enigma of Sigirya has been studied offering both royal and military explanations for the huge rock structure jutting out of the desert as a result of an extinct volcano.  Possibly the oldest of the ancient cities are the rock cut Buddhist temples at Dambulla, which are thought to date back to the 1st century BC.

With the mini-history lesson out of the way we can jump right into photos of the phenomenal Buddhist caves in Dambulla.  There are five separate caves containing over 150 Buddha images.  Most of the paintings in the temples date to the 19th century, however the just barely ten year old structure at the base of the caves is your welcome to this ancient worship sight.  If a spiritual place can be kitschy the entrance to the Golden Temple is just that.  Although the enormous golden Buddha perched on top of the building claims to be the largest Buddha in the world (later research found it wasn’t even the largest one in Sri Lanka).

Past the kitschy entrance, several flights of stairs and hoards of feral monkeys carry visitors to the first of the caves.  Devaraja Viharaya, the Temple of the King of the Gods, features a massive reclining Buddha.  At the Buddha’s feet is Ananda, the Buddha’s loyal disciple.

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Erica & Matt Chua: A Buddhist View of Sri Lanka

Erica & Matt Chua: How to Visit Tibet Without a Permit

Are you interested in Tibetan culture, want to meet the Dalai Lama, do monks make you shutter happy?  Then I have news for you, Leh is the place, not Tibet, to get your fix.  Why head to India instead of Tibet you ask?  It’s much more affordable and less restricted.  Here is a quick comparison of Tibet vs. Ladakh

Having your own transportation makes Leh much more accessible than Tibet, our choice the iconic Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle

Accessibility

The biggest barrier to visiting Tibet are the requirements for entry including a guide and permit.  It took us a painstaking 10 days and many sleepless nights to obtain the appropriate papers and arrange guides for Tibet.However, Leh requires nothing more than a long bus trip or short flight.  Leh is the perfect place to visit for non-planners, the budget conscious and independent travelers.  There’s nothing like the magic of discovering the charms of Tibetan culture at your own pace with your own transport in contrast to being tied to a guide’s schedule.  (Want to learn how to visit Tibet?  Click here to learn how we did it).

The gigantic Sakyamuni Buddha at Thiksey Monastery

Sights/Culture

The history and culture in Tibet are incredible, Potala Palace’s gold and gem encrusted stupas alone are worth the trip.  However, the monasteries in Ladakh are stunning.  Thiksey Monastery in particular not only looks similar to Potala, but offers a 14 meter high Buddha that the Dalai Lama himself purports to be the most beautiful statue he has seen.  In addition, you have plenty of time to explore the monasteries rather than being ushered through with a guide.

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Erica & Matt Chua: How to Visit Tibet Without a Permit

Erica & Matt Chua: Superlative-Worthy Salar de Uyuni

LivingIF is filled with “world’s ____” sights.  We’ve covered the superlatives and self-professed rankings time and again, highlighting local pride points, and sometimes even writing about the world’s largest something, just to visit an even larger one somewhere else (i.e. the 17+ world’s largest Buddhas we’ve seen).  Most of the time, these sights are pretty impressive, even if they are not as world class as they claim.  The lucky few are actually the world’s biggest/tallest/deepest/highest-altitude and beautiful enough to write about.  The Salar de Uyuni, the world’s biggest salt flat, does not disappoint in size, spectacle or superlatives.

EPIC.  Situated on the Bolivian side of the Bolivia-Chile Border, the vast Salar de Uyuni separates more than just countries.  It separates cultures, with progressive and relatively-rich Chile on one side and indigenous, impoverished Bolivia on the other.  It also separates geology, with the world’s driest desert on the Chilean side and the rugged crest of the Andes on the Bolivian side giving way to the Amazon Basin.  Due to the location, geology and history, traveling through the salt flats, usually en route from one country to another, is an epic 3-day trip.

UNIQUE.  Having seen photos and heard stories from friends that had visited previously, I thought I understood how unique the Salar is.  Seeing it was another matter.  I really don’t think there is anything quite like it.  From the size to the surprising variety of colorful sights, I was thoroughly in awe.  Arriving from Chile the first days are spent crossing the high-altitude Atacama Desert.  This area is one of the world’s richest mineral producing regions with copper, silver, gold and lithium deposits, creating unexpectedly colored lakes and rock formations.  The uniqueness of the Salar will cause those who think geology is boring to rethink their disinterest.

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Erica & Matt Chua: Superlative-Worthy Salar de Uyuni

Erica & Matt Chua: The Passage of Time

I always marveled at the way time sped up and slowed down while we were traveling.  A few days could easily feel like a century and a few weeks in a new country could in retrospect seem like only a couple days.  It seems that the mystery of time has caught up with me again as I realize we have been back “home” for six months.  The blog has gone silent and the trip feels like decades ago rather than just half a year.  What have I been doing and why haven’t I written?

The short answer is catching my breath, and pinching myself (did this all really happen?).

The long answer is, processing.  I have been decompressing from the rush of the last three years. During our travels, we packed up our bags and moved every three to four days. So, it has been quite an adjustment to be in one place for the last six months. As we catch up with friends and family it’s hard to explain the lapse of time and all that has happened in our lives and theirs.

Reconnecting with friends and family after so much time away is the best part of being back. Me and my brother as we biked 300 miles across our home state of Minnesota just one week after I returned home.

I often yearn for my traveling life, I miss the extreme freedom, the anonymity and the constantly changing tomorrows with an unknown around every corner. However, operating in my native language, having a comfortable bed to sleep in with a
refrigerator of familiar food in the next room is not a bad trade off. What I miss most from the road is the child like wonder and excitement in achieving even the smallest of goals.

Perhaps never again in life will getting on the right bus or receiving the dish you thought you had ordered be considered a victory. However, when you are navigating in a foreign language and have little to get your bearings these small achievements are the equivalent of winning the lottery. It’s also possible that never again will an 18 hour bus ride be as fascinating and eye-opening as it was when we were on the road. The prospect of a new place when the bus stopped often made the time pass much faster.

Without these experiences on a daily basis I spend much of my time wondering “what’s next”, but also celebrating our journey.  Time is once again playing tricks on me as I try to stay in the present moment, but seem to be caught in processing the past and planning for the future.  A wise friend of mine, whom lived abroad, shared the following with me as I prepared to come home, I couldn’t have possibly known at the time how true her words were:

“The question you will be asking yourself after your return will become “what would my life be like if I hadn’t done what I did?” We can only imagine … I’ve done it dozens of times, but only with true appreciation that I actually did step out of the mold and do something different. Your life will be so rich because of it … and you will enjoy the memories for the rest of your lives.”

I share these same words with you to remind you that no matter how you pass your time, you will always be glad that you lived life on your terms by making conscious decisions and chasing your dreams rather than by looking back and regretting what you did with that time.

Erica & Matt Chua: Superlative-Worthy Salar de Uyuni

LivingIF is filled with “world’s ____” sights.  We’ve covered the superlatives and self-professed rankings time and again, highlighting local pride points, and sometimes even writing about the world’s largest something, just to visit an even larger one somewhere else (i.e. the 17+ world’s largest Buddhas we’ve seen).  Most of the time, these sights are pretty impressive, even if they are not as world class as they claim.  The lucky few are actually the world’s biggest/tallest/deepest/highest-altitude and beautiful enough to write about.  The Salar de Uyuni, the world’s biggest salt flat, does not disappoint in size, spectacle or superlatives.

EPIC.  Situated on the Bolivian side of the Bolivia-Chile Border, the vast Salar de Uyuni separates more than just countries.  It separates cultures, with progressive and relatively-rich Chile on one side and indigenous, impoverished Bolivia on the other.  It also separates geology, with the world’s driest desert on the Chilean side and the rugged crest of the Andes on the Bolivian side giving way to the Amazon Basin.  Due to the location, geology and history, traveling through the salt flats, usually en route from one country to another, is an epic 3-day trip.

UNIQUE.  Having seen photos and heard stories from friends that had visited previously, I thought I understood how unique the Salar is.  Seeing it was another matter.  I really don’t think there is anything quite like it.  From the size to the surprising variety of colorful sights, I was thoroughly in awe.  Arriving from Chile the first days are spent crossing the high-altitude Atacama Desert.  This area is one of the world’s richest mineral producing regions with copper, silver, gold and lithium deposits, creating unexpectedly colored lakes and rock formations.  The uniqueness of the Salar will cause those who think geology is boring to rethink their disinterest.

Read the rest of…
Erica & Matt Chua: Superlative-Worthy Salar de Uyuni

Erica & Matt Chua: Oman

Oman_cnt_21Dec12_iStock_b_646x430Oman is a country that wasn’t our radar before we booked a flight to the UAE.  Then our friends told us we had to visit Oman while in the area…how right they were!  It was a highlight of our time in the region.  We were intrigued by the mystery of a country covered in sand with reportedly gorgeous beaches, incredible hiking and a goat market that has to be seen to be believed.  Oman delivered on all counts!  Better yet, it was easy to get to from the UAE.

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DON’T MISS: The Friday goat market in Nizwa.
MUST SEE: Nizwa’s old souk, Wadi Shab and Muscat.
MUST TASTE: Hummus and meat…think about it…it’s as decadent and delicious as it sounds!

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TRIP PLANNING: Plan on at least a week to enjoy this beautiful country.
GETTING AROUND: Rent a car, there’s no way around it as there is no public transportation, however make sure you have the correct insurance if you are renting a car from the UAE.

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OUR COST PER DAY (2 ppl): $123.22. Half of which was the car rental from Dubai to Abu Dhabi.
COST OF A BEER: Let us know if you get your hands on some in this beer desert (literally and figuratively).
KEY MONEY-SAVING TIP: Fill up your car in Oman as the gas is so cheap!

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YOU NEED TO KNOW: It is hot and dry, even if you are in an air-conditioned car you’ll want a stash of water.
IF WE KNEW WHAT WE KNOW NOW: We would have budgeted many more days to explore Oman and do some hiking.
HELPFUL LINKS TO LEARN MORE: WikitravelNizwa goat market information.

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Erica & Matt Chua: Oman

Erica & Matt Chua: Tibet

tibet_chinaTibet is the highest region on earth, with an average elevation of 4,900 meters (16,000 ft) and one of the most fascinating places we have visited on our trip. The incredible spirituality and devotion of the Tibetan Buddhists just add to the intrigue of this region. Nestled among the Himalayas the location is stunning and a place you have to see to believe.

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DON’T MISS: Potala Palace, one of the most spectacular palaces on earth.
MUST SEE: Mt. EverestLhasa, Gyantse and Shigatse
MUST TASTE: Yak butter tea, though you may not like the taste.  It’s a staple of the Tibetan diet, but is definitely an acquired taste.

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TRIP PLANNING: Traveling to Tibet is strictly controlled, foreign visitors must arrange a tour through a licensed company.  Read this to learn how to visit Tibet.
GETTING AROUND: We recommend using a full service tour agency for visiting the key sights in Lhasa and getting from city to city, this will save a lot of headache and time lost setting up guides, drivers and permits.

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Erica & Matt Chua: Tibet

Erica & Matt Chua: Thailand

ThailandPackages4Nights-5DaysThailand needs no introduction.  It is one of the most visited places in Asia because it offers a well-preserved culture, some of the most delicious food on earth and stunningly beautiful beaches to boot.  Being a tourist mecca it offers well-established, comfortable and affordable transportation.  The downside of being a tourist mecca, is that affordable areas are loud and crowded.  While it is true that you can find better beaches, trekking and culture elsewhere in Asia, nowhere is it more accessible, affordable or tasty as Thailand.  Thailand should be the first stop on anyone’s Southeast Asian itinerary.

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DON’T MISSBangkok, it is one of Asia’s great cities with some of the world’s best food and has many historic sights within the city limits.
MUST SEEAndaman (such as Koh Phi Phi) and Gulf of Thailand Islands (such as Koh Samui, Koh Pha-ngan)Muay Thai boxingChattachuk Marketplay with tigers at the Tiger Temple (Kanchanaburi), world’s most interesting temple(Chiang Rai)and the ancient temples of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya
MUST TASTEEverything sold by street vendors, especially the freshly made fruit juices.

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TRIP PLANNING: The beaches/islands can be enjoyed in as little as a weekbut plan on two weeks if you want to island hop. The north (Chiang MaiChiang Rai and Pai) can take 1-2 weeks depending on the trekkingcooking classes andmuay thai you want to see. Bangkok is worth 3-4 days itself, including the Chattachuk Market and Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall…then again, you may want to stay a week to enjoy some of the world’s best cheap food! GETTING AROUND: Buses and mini-vans. Get used to traveling at uncomfortable speeds in a full mini-van.

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Erica & Matt Chua: Thailand