Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Impressions from Korea 2

This is an ad campaign on the countryside, apparently for potatoes. Question: would you trust this lady in a skirt to sell you potatoes???

This is what the old men in the bakery complained about: young men look like women these days. It's true...although I think this ad campaign is a few years old.

How could this guy be any more gay??? and then the black net shirt....gosh. You can also see in the picture that he couldnt care less about the girl, but rather rather look at the beer...

The same guy....this being Korea I would not be surprised if he actually had a girlfriend. I asked my boyfriend before if he thinks that these girly-looking guys can even (excuse me...) fuck a girl. I speculated that the guy is probably ultra-passive...a straight bottom of some sort.

The boyfriend thought that they might not even have sex...someone who knows Korean men more the I do please explain me this phenomenon of ultra-gay looking guys with girlfriends...

This is the Japanese high school class from Namsan. I was a bit surprised because the boys and the girls seem to come straight out of some porn fantasy...The girls with their mini skirts hugging either other being all "cutey cutey" (god knows how they managed to be cute with a miniskirt at -5C degrees). And the guys with their orange high hair (I could swear I saw some of these guys in a little "movie" before...)

These are our Thai friends....I dont know how words can describe their looks...Both guys were so camp it was not funny anymore...The one on the left came to the toilet straight after I came out. God knows how shocked I would have been if he would have stood right next to me....

Monday, December 7, 2009

I will miss...

And here I am, sitting in front of the computer with a bottle of scotch whisky finishing it up straight from the bottle. That might be a metaphor.

I am also finishing up my stay in Bangkok. Arrived on the 20th of March 2008, leaving on the 10th of December 2009, something like 21 months in Bangkok. As you might have noticed I am leaving with a heavy heart. I fell in love here, not just with my boyfriend again but also with a city and its people.

I am not a good "good-bye-sayer" but this good bye has been so slow it is not affecting me so much anymore right now. First the boyfriend left two months ago and since then, nothing was like it was before with him. Then, sadly a few days too early, my dear friend Kawadjan left too, without whom Bangkok is a bit dull.

Now, I am having friends coming day by day to pick up things I do not need anymore. Surprisingly, despite so much stuff leaving my condo, it still doesnt look empty...

*gulp* ...one more sip from the whisky.

So what's next? I am flying to New Zealand for graduation this thursday. There, I will meet my parents who are already there holidaying for a few days. Then, we head to Switzerland (with a 23 hour stopover in BKK) where we meet the boyfriend again. I will spend Christmas in Switzerland with the whole family this year, for the first time in 6 years. And....with the boyfriend too.

After that, I am moving to Australia...looking for jobs at the moment. That's the next few months in a nutshell.

Bangkok however does not feature in my plans. Even though part of me always remains here of course, I can not continue this blog. It would not make sense.

I think this blog has been very tied to Bangkok. People who read my blog want to know about Thailand, about Bangkok and probably also specifically about gay life in Bangkok. A "Bangkokbitch" can not blog from Sydney, so this will have to end.

I must say I had an absolutely amazing time blogging. It takes much more time than I thought but I really have to thank Kawadjan from motivating me to start my own blog.

Blogging is about saying something for me. People who have something to say, should do so, and blogs are perfect for that! I have always seen my blog as a mix of personal stories, which were a bit naughty at first and became a bit toned down (like my real life too) later on.

Then, there were some opinions mixed in. They were not always appreciated because I probably insulted a few people. Im sorry for that but when people have opinions, that can happen. A blog is not here to appease people but to state opinions too, even in a gay-themed blog.

I couldnt say what was the biggest "high" of this blog, because every reader will pick out something he (or she) likes the most. Some liked pictures of boys, others liked the naughty stories, most liked personal stories, some liked opinions and bitching and others also liked my travel writings.

And that was the beauty of the blog and blogging in general. It's like the ultimate free market. You can consume for free if and whatever you want. If you dont like it, you can go away within a split-second. You can even leave instant feedback.

For the writer, I find blogging an amazing opportunity too. If you manage to get a few readers you can reach their minds within minutes by writing down your thoughts. And unlike in facebook or twitter you can actually write them out properly. You can also upload pictures and be creative in whatever you want to do.

I personally really enjoyed this and I know that I will continue to blog somehow and somewhere. I am not sure if I will link a possible new blog to this. Probably not but who knows. I must admit, I started liking the name of my blog less and less. It is a fun name and very sticky. People tend to not forget it I think.

But, it distracts from the essence. More than once, people commented and wanted to make a point, but then stepped back and said something like: "oh but you are the bitchofbangkok so maybe that's part of the game or character you are playing".

I tried to play a character at first but I must admit I cant do that. I didnt fake feelings or opinions, I was always myself. What you saw is what I am and I always wrote what I was thinking.

So, I want to say thank you to all the reader that have been loyal. I immensely enjoyed my time and without public, this time would have been wasted. Please keep faithful to my blogger friends and if you feel like it, open one too. It's definitely worth the investment!

For now, I want to say goodbye and if you still want to keep in contact with the old bitchofbangkok, follow me on Facebook. If you want to be in contact with the real me, write me an email. The email is on the top right of the blog.

Have a good time in Bangkok everyone, I will never forget this time!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Alone in Bangkok

I warn you, this is going to be another heavy post.

I have handed in my thesis today, so far so good. I have to defend it on December 18 and then hand i'll be nearly finished. Looking for jobs now...

Actually I am not happy in Bangkok anymore right now. And I am not happy with what I have done in Bangkok during the last nearly two years. I had always thought I am a social person. I usually get along with most people and am quite chatty and I suppose also relatively friendly.

But how can it be that after 2 years of living in Bangkok I am here at home despite really wanting to go out? How can it be that in the next 2 days, I will probably speak to no person except some sales girl at 7eleven?

Well, the two most important people of my time in Bangkok, my boyfriend and bff Kawadjan are currently outside of the country. Then, other friends are busy with their parents and family over the Father's Day weekend.

But these are excuses. I have simply not made many good friends over this time in Bangkok. Time to think back.

I have started here like everyone else does. Talk to a few people on the internet and meet them when arriving here. It was actually quite funny. I arrived in Bankgok at about 1am and was in the hotel by 2am. At that time there were quite some people who wanted to meet me RIGHT NOW. Strange, but I suppose I was fresh flesh.

Then, meeting the first few friends I had made online. Most of them went from fuckbuddy to friends and into oblivion in a few days. With some, I didnt even get to friends. To be honest, I craved sex and being close to someone. I was without it for quite some months before coming here.

Just a few weeks later came the phase of thinking about potential boyfriends. I think that happens with many arrivals here in Bangkok. Although I must say I didnt make the mistake of trying to find them at DJ or at Babylon (although there are certainly nice people in both places).

I like one guy but there was a lot of drama before we were even close to a relationship. That put me off. There was another guy. We had a great time but he was too feminine and that put me off being a top sexually for the next few months. Then there was another guy who lived right next to me. We got along very well too, he slept at my place a lot and went to work in the hotel next door in the morning. Later on there was also a guy who designed baby clothes. I think we liked each other too. But it was nothing serious either. I dont know why but suddenly we didnt meet anymore. Now I lost contact with all of them, which is ok.

By that time, I had already talked a lot to my exboyfriend (at the time, now my boyfriend) who was living in Sydney. He told me he is coming to Thailand to study for a year and basically from the moment he said it I swore myself not to fall in love with anyone until he is here. I wanted to give us another chance.

So I just met people for sex. Sometimes they were friends. I dont remember so well. Some I met at 3am spontaneously, others I went out with them on quite nice dates only to stupidly suggest to "go to my place". Arrived there, we would be bored....and have sex again.

I am not sure if sex destroys friendships but anyway, that's not the point I want to make. I dont even want to think badly about myself for having sex with many people. But, in fact, I just missed out on many other vital things like making friends!

It is actually not so easy. I had a lot of classes and hung out quite a bit with my classmates. We'd always go to Siam together after class and do what Thais love to do: shopping, eat and gossip. But that is not how you make great friends either...

I made good friends with two classmates. One, a girl, lives near me and we meet up quite frequently. I was really moved recently when she invited me to her birthday party as the only outsider (outside her family). It was really nice to be part of her family.

The other one is a gay guy. We were quite close but I dont know why we never became really, really close friends. He was always too shy to ask me if I was busy. And he also lived very far from the city, and then later had a job and I assumed he was busy.

The rest (all Thais) of my class, I was just not interested. They built their own cliques and I wasnt part of that. Apart from school was where I really missed an opportunity to make friends. Just this week I met a friend again whom I met at the beginning. We have similar interests and he studies politics at Chulalongkorn too. He's really involved in NGO work and I should have really gotten involved too.

Chasing boys is really not a good past time...

I had also never met foreigners in Bangkok. How could I? I didnt get involved in anything, I didnt connect with foreigners when I went out. Heck I was even proud of only knowing Thais in the city. But of course, I hardly shared anything with them, so we didnt stay friends.

I had two Thai gay friends. With one I used to play badminton. Then he got a German boyfriend and I wanted to warn him of rushing off to Germany after knowing him for 4 weeks. He was angry at me for that and we never talked again really. We lived near each other in Sathorn and used to just meet up and get a few beers at Family Mart, sit down and talk. It was great fun.

Later, another friend also joined us for badminton. We used to go eat out together too and just talk. that was quite nice....but then things flattened down and when he just kept calling me "fattie", I once threw a badminton shuttle at him and then he didnt speak to me anymore until today.

Then, the boyfriend arrived in Thailand. We spent a lot of time obviously as we became a couple again. I shut off all contact with friends/fuckbuddies because I just simply lost interest in them. since then I have slowly started to talk to people again that I used to get along with, but it's too late now to build new friendships.

In hindsight, the big mistake was to not get involved in anything. No club, no association no nothing. Back in Switzerland, clubs form the backbone of society. Everyone is in a club. Be it the shooting club, the volleyball club, the card came club, the nature and hiking club. Here in Thailand, society is built up differently: first comes family, then comes family, and then maybe old time friends, followed by potential boyfriends and maybe new friends. You dont need to be part in clubs, because you are by default in a "club"....you are in a hierarchical position, which defines a lot of your life anyway. Of course, some people are active in things like Thai dance and music (my classmate), but that's the minority.

And so, I walked through Siam today - alone. There were thousands of people out today. Everyone seemed to have a friend or a partner with them, seemed to enjoy themselves while looking great. For the first time in a few months I actually felt ugly.

I used to walk alone through Siam at the beginning hoping that I could just be with someone or take someone home. Today, it'd not all that different except that I cant take anyone home. So in fact I am even more alone than then.

A lot of lessons to be learned from that. I hope I will learn them for my next stop.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A hot Swiss

Many people would say there are no hot Swiss people, there are only nice and boring Swiss people. Nice and boring this man on the pictures below may be, but he is really good looking I think.

This man is called Stephane Lambiel and is a twice World Champion in figure skating. Is that ringing an alarm bell? Yes I quickly looked at a few pictures of figure skaters and I think they are nearly all gay...

Lambiel is everybody's darling in Switzerland. Old grannies love him because he's a nice, smart and softly-spoken guy. I think they wish they would have son, grandson like that. I am not sure if young girls (and of course guys) like him too, but I do.

He's never publicly come out with a girlfriend and there have been rumours about him being gay. Lets put these aside, I am sure that this young man (he's 25) IS gay.

Do you agree?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Personal regrets and the diversity of humanity

My facebook followers will know it, I have nearly finished my thesis now. Writing a thesis is not a good thing for your social life, I tell you. Writing TWO theses in one year is very bad.

I, with my protestant work ethic have written from morning to evening on these pieces nearly every day in these few months. In New Zealand I stayed at the university from morning to 10pm. Here in Thailand, I stayed at home all day, because there is no way you can work efficiently with Thai friends around. You will end up going to eat, going to SevenEleven, going to buy coffee, gossiping and so on...

So I stayed home. This nearly drove me crazy and my contacts with other people have been limited to chatting and telling each other that we should meet soon. I am a bit sad about that. Now, I am suddenly realising that there are about a dozen people whom I could have made really good friends with, but I just missed the chance.

I hope some of these people are patient and accept my apologies. I have always been too tied up with either the thesis, or my boyfriend that I was just simply too negligent of other parts of life.

I will stop moaning now and take this as a lesson....Our social environment is very important, and the family, boyfriend and a few best friends will not do. We need more than that. I'll try harder in my next destination and hope to come back to Bangkok sometime to catch up on what I missed.

In the meantime, I want to share a link with you. I am a great fan of world politics and also personally like photography a lot. I came across this portfolio of world leaders taken by a British photographer taken during the UN General Assembly.

In total, the photographer publishes 50 portraits and gives a short audi-commentary to every picture. Have a look at this site and find your own leader or your favourite.

Usually, we only hear about leader's policies, but in this case, we can hear a photographer talk about these world leaders' facial features and personal character for once. Interesting.

Maybe without realising it, the photographer has created a celebration of different looks and features of humanity. In my opinion, these looks do not represent power at all but the diversity of humanity.

Here are some highlights:

You can not beat Italian charm and elegance. Silvio Berlusconi.

This man, Rupiah Banda from Zambia has an amazing face, so many crevices and lines.

Lee Myung Bak from Korea. The small eyes with the outer end of the eyelid folded over the eye are so typically Korean.

This is a really beautiful face. Evo Morales from Bolivia. Extremely wide and symmetrical features.

Brian Cowen from Ireland. I'd love to have a beer with this man.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Memories with a great friend

It was not meant to be but today suddenly became a big "good-bye" day.

Earlier this morning the news reached my that my best friend Kawadjan's daddy in the Philippines had passed away. It was shocking news and has deeply saddened me.

Since he would be travelling back home as soon as possible (that being tomorrow), tonight was the last time I saw Kawadjan for many months.

Originally, Kawadjan and I planned to go to Rama XIII bridge near his home, have dinner there and walk around a little bit enjoying the lights and the river. I wanted to see the river again before leaving BKK and this was to be the last time...

But we ended up in Silom with two other Filipino friends (one of them is actually Swiss AND Filipino, so I could even speak some Swiss German). But that is not the point.

The point is that tonight was the last time I saw my friend Kawadjan here in Bangkok. Not forevereverever, but for the last time while I am living here in Bangkok.

I got to know Kawadjan very soon after arriving in Bangkok. We actually met for the first time on April 5 2008 at Saphan Taksin. I think pretty immediately we got along well and had great discussions, even though I talked way to much about myself.

mhmmmm beer lao, my one and only love:)

From then on we shared many great moments, he introduced me to his lovely friends. In the beginning we used to go out to Silom all the time. We'd just get a table in Soi 4, drink beer all night long and bitch and bitch and bitch about everything and everyone. That was sooo much fun.

And then the shopping.....gosh we shopped our asses off. It was JJ market every weekend until we got so bored with it. Then we changed over to Lumpini Night Bazaar until we got bored of that etc....If anyone out there wants to know something about clothes shopping in Bangkok, ask us two, we know for sure!!!

Lately we have been more into the Khao San scene. I'd catch a taxi to Kawadjan's place, we'd get ready and walk to Khao San, eat something at the Khao Gaeng (Rice Curry) place and then hit the Burmese makeshift bar on Rambuttri Street and we drank and giggled and bitched and choz-ed.

My favourite times though were when, sometimes after a night at Khao San, we would grab a beer at the 7eleven (just past the arrogant but divinely cute tea seller) and sit down on Kawadjan's rooftop.

These were among my best moments in Bangkok. The quietness, the lights of the city, the neighbourhood and the cool wind. These were also the moments when we talked a lot about our feelings, ideas, fears or anything else.

The craziest songteaw ride forevaaa

We also went on three trips together: To Sukhothai/Tak, to Sam Roi Yot in Prachuap Khiri Kan province and to the South of Laos last August. All the three trips were extremely memorable. We had great fun together and were a good travel couple I think.

In Tak province, we werent quite sure what to do so we just caught a songteaw to Umphang, which is like the last village in Thailand before Burma starts. That trip took four hours each way and will forever be the most memorable songteaw ride.

There were frogs next to me feet, vomiting ladies next to Kawadjan, little boys sleeping on my lap and a Karen lady who could make it to Paris fashion show with ease...

In Sam Roi Yot, I convinced Kawadjan to rent a motorcycle, and we both had great fun with it. I will never forget the beautiful sunlight when we drove back from the mountain we climbed.

In the South of Laos, we couldnt stop looking at the hot young Laotian boys showering right in front of us in the river. We also biked virtually to Cambodia and slept under a romantic mosquito net.

Anyway, I could go on and on and on. We really had so many great moments and discussions together. and...I nearly forgot it, he also introduced me to blogging. Were it not for him, bangkokbitch would have never been born...

A night at the Burmese

G, I am really grateful for all of this. You have been an awesome friend and I hope we can still spend lots of time together at a later stage in life...

Dont forget to smize and keep posing fiercely with an elongated neck that shows your jaw line!!! Choz!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

My geography of bliss and happiness

Im back in Thailand for 4 days only and have already been offered a boyfriend - by a noodle seller...

After badminton, I always get something to eat from the market just next to the court. Usually, it's dry yellow noodles with dumplings and red pork. Delicious. This time, when I got my noodles, the seller said that I should take the person behind me as my boyfriend. Just like that.

Now I was not sure who he meant, but early I spotted a cute face selling desserts. Still not sure whom I was offered as my new boyfriend, I walked past the cute face. It looked absent, but as I passed, it was suddenly wearing a knowing and little smile.

This is Thailand. In Korea I was offered a girl but in Thailand, people have better sensors to gayness...

In this post, I want to write about a book I read while I was in Korea. It's called "Geography of Bliss" and is written by Eric Weiner, an American journalist who used to be the foreign correspondant for the National Public Radio in India, Japan and Israel.

Anyhow, first I need to really thank Kawadjan for recommending this book to me. He is my most reliable source for interesting book ideas!!! Thanks buddy:) He also wrote a short review of the book in this post here.

The book is basically about the author travelling to 10 different countries on a mission to find out about the people's happiness. Can it be measured? Can we find universal factors which make people happy? Does money make us happy? etc...

The countries the author travelled to are: the Netherlands, Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, Moldova, Thailand, Great Britain, India, United States.

Not all chapters are equally interesting, but in all chapters, we can learn something about human nature, happiness and about ourselves, and how we might relate to this particular country.

For me, this book has actually been a great eye-opener. I learnt a lot about myself and my home country, Switzerland. It is hardly believable, but Switzerland is one of the happiest countries in the world (behind Costa Rica, Iceland and Denmark).

Why is that surprising? Well, when I lived there and when I travel there, I remember how grumpy the people are, how sensitive to the weather they can be, how Swiss people really do have the worst humour in the world, if any....

But, this rich country in the middle of Europe nearly tops the worldwide list of happiness, which is compiled annually in a worldwide survey of all states of the world. (read more about it and see the rankings here)

The author, who shares my initial thoughts on Switzerland, is also puzzled. But when he travels to Switzerland, he finds out why the people are actually very content with their lives. He doesnt coins a new term for the Swiss people's happiness, CONJOYMENT. Something between enjoyment and content.

In the Swiss chapter, the author describes Switzerland as a country guided by invisible rules which people conform to and thus create a healthy and balanced social environment. I agree. One of the most important rules is that creating envy is a "nono". Because the Swiss know this, they do everything not to create envy.

I once read that in Germany, bigger cars with smaller engines are sold frequently while in Switzerland small cars with expensive engines and interior are sold more often. This does not surprise me.

Part of the rule of not creating envy is that Swiss people NEVER talk about money. Ask a Swiss how much he earns and he'll stop talking to you. Monetary imbalances create envy and are therefore simply not discussed.

Another thing which the author is writing about is the peace the Swiss people can find in themselves and nature. I guess it might be called boredom but the Swiss are exceptional at calmly doing something and letting time pass. In Switzerland, there are countless "Wanderwege" (hiking routes) and dotted along these routes are wooden benches.

Sometimes they are in scenic places, sometimes surprisingly not at all. Often, you can find people just sitting there and looking out into the scenery. This is what the author calls living with the slow process of nature.

I personally am not a calm person. I am emotional, can change moods quickly and sometimes very impatient. But in the right moment, especially when I am in nature, I can become a typical Swiss too and just sit at a spot and enjoy calmly.

The other chapters of the book are also interesting, but the Thai chapter is a bit of a letdown. The author basically spends a few days with a sexpat friend of his in Bangkok and sees Bangkok, and indeed the whole of Thailand through this lens .

Not enough I think. There isnt much about Thailand apart from the usual cliches of "mai pen rai", the Thai smile and the "jai yen" ...yes I cant think about much more.

There are still some valid points the he makes. To think in Thailand is to be unhappy, and to worry is a recipe for disaster. Inconvenient truths and issues are simply not discussed and avoided at all times. Conflicts are therefore solved as indirectly as possible.

Interestingly, there are big similarities between Switzerland in Thailand, especially in the way social interactions take place. In Switzerland, it is virtually forbidden to cause envy whereas in Thailand it is forbidden to cause someone to loose face. In both countries, people really go far to not cause either.

In the survey however, Switzerland is a far happier place than Thailand. Why could this be?

As we find out throughout the book, very important factors in determining the people's happiness can (but dont necessarily have to) be the social fabric of the society and the personal environment, the level of trust between people, any type of security, someone's own expectations, hope, etc...

Interestingly, monetary wealth and the warm weather have hardly anything to do with our general happiness as a people. Neither the thought of "the richer the happier" nor the concept of the "noble and happy savage" holds up. And the hot Thai weather generally doesnt make Thais happier people either.

Personally, I do think money plays a role indirectly. If we have monetary worries, it can seriously impact our feeling of security and social relations with other people. Even more extremely, if we dont have money to buy food, how could we be happy?

In the case of Thailand, I think people are not happy because they are unsure about the future of their country, adverse to the politics in the country and also distrust each other deeply. Thai society in fact, is very unhealthy.

Developing countries in general do face a difficult task of how to not only advance a country's wealth but also the social fabric of a country. Most developing countries do not succeed and that's why we see fights between the old elites, the new elites, the poor, the middle class and all sorts of other groups.

Switzerland has none of these problems. I wouldnt call it a classless society, but in general, people have enough wealth so that there is no need to worry. This actually results in a certain smugness.

I have some of this too I know. The Swiss are so secure in their status as a wealthy and prosperous nation that they become oblivious to the fact that other countries might perhaps do a few things better than the Swiss themselves. This smugness is probably one of the main reasons why it always takes the Swiss so long to become part of international organisations. (the UN for example, and the EU to come later...)

There are some general things that I learned from this book, apart from some rediscoveries of my own Swissness.

On Eric Weiner's tour of the world through 10 very different countries, I realised that the world is just so amazing. We are all human and, we dont necessarily "strive" for happiness, but we certainly all enjoy being happy. But, our paths to happiness are very different.

There is the Bhutanese national policy which focuses on Gross National Happiness, there are the Thai way of "not thinking", the Swiss way of not creating envy and thus creating harmony, the Indian spirituality, the Icelandic embrace of failure, darkness and national pride, the Qatari status symbols and shopping tours for imported art etc etc.

Every country seems to have a way of trying to achieve happiness and it is nice to read about all these different ways, and perhaps reflect on our own way.

For myself, I have learned that I should not judge people so easily. True, that sounds like a simple truth indeed. But here goes the thought: How could we know about people's happiness just by seeing them quickly.

Maybe they drive a big car, have a beautiful boyfriend, earn a lot of money, travel to exotic places, seem in a harmonious relationship, smile a lot....whatever we might think of people in that moment, we might become jealous.

But this jealousy is nonsense, because how can we even know whether someone is truly happy just by judging them because of a possession or a moment in which we see them.

I often get bothered by other people openly displaying apparent happiness, but I am now learning that I shouldnt. I should rather look at myself and think my own path to happiness.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

An affair with Seoul

I am back in Bangkok. We arrived late last night after we apparently had strong headwinds. It was more like three Thai passengers who arrived late for our departure in Seoul...but never mind.

The taxi boy at Suvarnabhumi thought he got himself a gold mine and he excitedly told his friend that he's now going to Saphan Kwai with the farang. But the farang surprised him by speaking Thai and he suddenly lost his cheekiness and got very courteous.

Welcome back to Bangkok. I used to feel the heat and excitement as soon as I left the Terminal. This time, none of both was there. It's wintry cold now and I am not so happy to be back in Bangkok.

Lets see if my mood picks up again when I meet my friends. For now, I am married to my thesis for another week.

For the last two weeks, I had an affair with Seoul. You all know I am a great Bangkok lover and I dont know how it happened but there I was in Seoul all feeling comfy, homely and happy in this monstrous city of 30 million people.

Seoul is a giant metropolis, no doubt about that. There are literally thousands of apartment blocks lining as far as your eye can see. And there isnt just Seoul. You can ride on the metro for over an hour, and what do you see? You guessed it, apartment blocks.

But these apartment blocks are born out of necessity rather than out of enthusiasm. Korea is a tiny country with nearly 50 million inhabitants. Most of the country is hilly and mountainous so where things are flat, high-density building takes place.

But Seoul is not as soul-less as it might sound. Look beyond the facades of the white monstrous apartment buildings and you will find a lot of character.

The old lady with the red coat in the picture is tending to her garden, in the middle of Seoul. There's a moment of serenity in this patch of green just next to the walls of the Seoul of the old dynasties.

In fact, Seoul is blessed with a lot of green. I used to live on the 14th floor of an apartment in Bangkok and all I saw is grey and the sparkling lights of the illuminated bridges over the Chao Phraya river.

In Seoul, there are trees everywhere, and even more importantly, mountains. I am Swiss and you can never ever separate a Swiss from mountains. We love it where the mountains are and I have this innate feeling of needing to go up a mountain to see the view when I see one.

Then, there is the changing of the seasons. Well, we have 25 degrees in Bangkok now but the change is minimal to what Korea experiences each year. During my two-week stay there, the day temperature changed from 20C to just above 0C. From autumn to winter in a few days.

It's really a marvellous thing to see and many a European or North American in Bangkok will probably miss the feeling of seasonal changes.

One of the more surprising things I found out about Korea this time was its abundance of good fruits. Of course, there are no local mangoes, pineapples and guavas there, but the pears, the apples, the mandarins - and most surprisingly the persimmons are very good.

The persimmon is a fruit which was a delicacy when I grew up. In Switzerland, we used to get them from Italy and mum made persimmon cream by mixing the flesh of the fruit with cream once in a blue moon.

This curious fruit, seen here in the middle of the picture apparently becomes ripe when the weather approaches winter...a very late-comer, this curious fruit. All the leaves are gone, but the orange fruit is left.

One other thing which became obvious during this trip is that Seoul has a bustling arts and design scene, which has grown quickly over the last few years. When we walked through this neighbourhood in the centre of the city, we suddenly found a group of contemporary dancers practicing for their show in the open.

This same neighbourhood (located around Hyehwa station) boasts over 100 theatres alone and is a place where cute cafes, bookshops and second hand clothes shops are abundant.

Sadly however, the large majority of cultural happenings are entirely in Korean. This reflects on the one hand that Korea has become a not only proud (which it always was) but also confident and culturally adventurous country.

On the other hand, Korea is still very much a mono-racial society. As a Swiss with a history in Oceania visiting Korea I was an odd appearance. Most Westerners in Korea are American English teachers.

Some apparently become very lonely. There was Mark, a middle-aged guy from Nebraska who just came up to me in the subway and shook my hand and introduced himself. I was shocked.

First, I thought that I am in a movie or something. This man had such a typical American accent and behaviour it was almost comical. But it was true. Mark was looking for someone to talk to, even though I know have absolutely nothing in common with him except that we can both speak English, we are both men and we are both Caucasians.

I actually do have an American friend. She is from New Hampshire, but calls herself Lithuanian, because her grandparents were from Lithuania. We met in New Zealand when I studied there and later on, she taught English in Southern Korea for a year.

She is back in New Hampshire now, but misses Korea. I remember though that at the time, she complained very much about Korea. It was hard for her. She is quite a big girl, so the Koreans made fun of her. She took offense when people hit her on the street with their elbows (something you just have to get used to in Korea) and she didnt like the food.

I have to admit. Korea is a rough place. I cant pinpoint why I love the place either. It's not particularly pretty in the cities (apartment blocks again), the landscape is nice and even quaint but not stunning, the people are nice but they dont even come close to the natural sweetness of Thais.

As a foreigner, you absolutely must learn the Korean language. Otherwise you will just be excluded. You will not be served by some people and ignored by others. The bf's family talked admirably about the Nepalese workers, who are abundant in their neighbourhood. They said that within a year, these Nepalis can apparently speak Korean fluently.

So, within a few decades, Korea has grown from a dirt-poor farming country to an economic and cultural powerhouse. It apparently attracts migrants and visitors from all over Asia. People are crazy over its pop culture (just ask a few Thai teenies).

I dont know how they did it, but I admire it.

As I said above somewhere, there is a price to pay though. Koreans work very hard. You can see it in people's faces that they are tired. People walk quickly and if you are in their way, they will push you away.

Personal freedom in Korea is minimal. The apartments are tiny and the grip of most families on their children is iron. Additionally, most Korean men must serve in the military for 2 years.

The most obvious signs for the lack of personal freedom are the abundant (Love-)Motels. They are literally everywhere. These motels are not just used by men and women for a little fun besides the marriage but mostly, it seems for couples who do not have a place for love-making to enjoy a bit of company. Besides, they are cheap and comfortable too!

Two men kissing in this ad. This has nothing to do with gay by the way.

Just like the love-making in motels, gay life in Korea seems quite subdued. Do not expect anyone to flirt with you on the street. And do not make the mistake of taking every effeminate guy as a potential target.

I am still confused, but when young men looked at me in Korea, I wasnt sure if they thought I was an alien and they wanted to kick me in the butt or if they wanted to do something else with my butt ;)

But all this is changing. The boyfriend and I went to the gay clubbing area of Itaewon on our last night. He was amazed and excited because he never expected to find an entire street populated by gays in his country of birth.

I was a little bit underwhelmed because for such a huge city, this little strip of bars was minuscule. Most of gay life in Seoul is probably not taking place in bars, but rather on the internet or among friends or perhaps even at public baths.

I dont know but this was no Silom. Nevertheless, I loved that little strip of bars. It was much more friendly and lovable than the market that is Silom. There were genuine people of all races which seemed to enjoy themselves. I thoroughly enjoyed myself!

So again, what is it that makes me love this place? I dont know. Perhaps it's the familiarity. I have known my boyfriend for over 4 years, and in this time, I learned so much about Korean food, language and culture that I was never really foreign to the country.

Now, I have moved onto a different level in my relationship with Seoul. Koreans may seem distant but when you become part of a group or family or society, you will be 100% part of the group. They are extremely generous people.

In my boyfriend's family I have found such a group of people who welcomed me with open arms. I am not sure how many of the people I met know that I am not just a chummy mate of my boyfriend, but much more. I suspect it was most people actually.

The dad, I am now sure, knows that we are a couple. When we walked down the street to the airport bus, the boyfriend said: "I think dad really likes you". Just after he said that, the dad came around the corner with a very sad face and said good bye to me. I thought he was going to cry and I nearly cried too.

So...lets see if this affair with Seoul will become more one day. I certainly hope so.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Korean mountains

Before I am heading back to Bangkok tomorrow, we decided to go on another trip within Korea. Since, as a Swiss, I am eternally bound to mountains and the sea, the choice was easy.

We boarded a bus to the East coast town of Sokcho, from where we could access the supposedly most scenic mountains in South Korea: the Seoraksan range.

It doesnt require a lot of description I think, the pictures do the talking. The mountains, even though of course not as high as Swiss mountains, or even the Himalayas, are beautiful. All the more beautiful because from the top, the sea and Sokcho itself are visible too!

Thai people visited the Seoraksan area too and wrote many messages on plates. I didnt actually really see many Thai people around but they might not be so interested in going up the mountain, as we did. Who knows....but they must have been cold for sure!

One thing I like the most about Korea right now is the soft, organgey winter light. Somehow, I have the feeling the sun is going to set any moment from about 2pm. Because the sun is so low and setting slowly, it casts spectacularly long shadows for several hours.

The sunsets are slow and even though the sun seems weak and not very bright, it still provides for some warmth. Winter hasnt quite arrived yet in Korea, but I surely like the weather now!

The is the sunset in Sokcho city. The city is surprisingly pretty. It sits on a lagoon and has a large harbour, which is still intensively used for fishing. The city centre's main artery is a neat and cute road with many lights and a surprisingly large amount of women's fashion.

Surprising because I didnt really see many people shopping at all...but then again it is really low season at the moment. Apparently most people come here during the summer months (it's only a 2.5 hour ride away from Seoul) and around the festive season at the end of the year.

On our last night, we also went to this cute harbour, which serves Korean sashimi. We had some but I wasnt impressed. The fish seemed all tasteless and chewy. Apparently this is how it should be though...

In general I really love Korean cuisine. A lot of vegetables, which are always included in the meal and dont just sit on a plate idly like a piece of broccoli in Western cuisine. Plus, I cant get enough of the Kimchi (fermented cabbage with chilli). To end the day, we had stuffed Octopus. Yummy!

Today, we are off to some souvenir hunting. My Thai friends all love Korea, so I suppose I need to bring them something besides all the creams they ordered me to buy here. (Korean brands in Thailand are extremely expensive whereas here they appeal to the mass market and are a lot cheaper)

Later on we might even have a look at the gay clubbing scene. I am not sure if that's a good thing, judging from how good-looking Korean guys have proven to be so far. I hope I can still find "mine" among all these guys and that the boyfriend still has a heart for this "average farang" as opposed to all these handsome Koreans.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Scenic Seoul

Immediately after we got back from the countryside, dad took us on a ferry on the Han river. Traditionally, Seoul was not built on the river but rather next to the river. I dont know when or how the city developed along the river, but now the Han river is somewhat in the centre of Seoul.

On both flanks of the river, multi-lane highways go a long way, to make this otherwise dull river even uglier. But this is about to change. the government has started the "Hangang Renaissance" project with the aim to convert the large majority of the riverbanks into parks.

And these things really happen. Not like in Bangkok, where creating a new park would be akin to a new world wonder.

The ferry ride was actually really interesting, as we could see various areas of redevelopment, the different style of apartment buildings, and occasionally catch a glimpse of the gorgeous mountains around which Seoul is built.

Towards the end of the ride, we arrived at Yeouido Island, where my favourite building in Seoul stands, the 63-building. I am still debating whether the shape and surface of the building make it look retro-cool or just plain cool but I love it. Rarely can you see a building from a few decades ago keep such a graceful and modern aura.

Then we took the bus up Namsan, the mountain just to the south of the ancient Seoul. This is the view towards the Northeast. Apartments as far as the eye can see. It's really impressive.

Recently, Namsan has also become a romantic hotspot. In a country of couples (is it just me or does really every gorgeous man in this country have a girlfriend?) and TV-drama induced kitschy romance, this means something. Just have a look at the thousands of locks with romantic messages chained to the fence.

Some actually had cute messages, while others were just pathetic (I will love you forever and ever and you are the man of my life (after 3 months marriage)). Good luck to these couples...I would like all to know how many of these locks have been "unlocked" already.... (e.g. the couples are not together anymore)

Of course, being on top of Namsan is gorgeous and the view around 360 degrees is great.

It was actually an interesting spot to be. Up there, we saw Japanese high school kids in their uniform. Why would they wear their uniform overseas??? And we also saw gay Thais. Two TV presenters wore just about every single colour that exists and nearly made me vomit with their style of dress and looks. I wanted to go tell them but then I saw that they were filmed for some TV show, so I was lucky I didnt say anything.

There was also an Uzbek ex-flight attendant who made friends with a Japanese couple. He was obviously gay and oddly looked very much like my boyfriend. It was a bit spooky, but I am now thinking the Central Asian guys could be a new fashion soon!!! For my part, it made me think that if every gay Uzbek would look like him I would like to visit sometime...

Back to the roots in the Korean countryside

Before travelling to Korea, I made up a plan that I would like to visit mainly the countryside, since I had been to Seoul before. I thought, about 3 days Seoul and then off to the countryside, perhaps even touring around the whole of Korea (this country is about as a bit as Isan so this should be possible)

Such things however hardly go according to plans. We were somewhat stuck to Seoul in the first few days because it's an interesting and exciting metropolis where you can visit countless neighbourhoods and discover new areas, museums and not to mention the thousands and thousands of restaurants in every street.

Since we included the bf's dad more and more in our plans, he began to enjoy our company too and started taking us to all sorts of places. Suddenly, it became a family affair and this culminated in the visit to dad's home city over the weekend.

Dad's family hails from a proud dynasty of previously Chinese confucian scholars and is very rooted in his hometown. The town is very provincial and situated in the middle of Korea.

Here you can see a picture of Goesan (괴산), on this nice sunny winter day.

I was curious how the countryside would compare to the glitzy Seoul. Korea as a country is not as rich as its neighbour Japan, and nowhere near as rich as the main Western European countries. That doesnt show in Seoul, but it shows on the countryside.

The bus terminal had not been renovated in a few decades and in the shops, old people were heating up the room with an old-style oven, on which they brewed hot water for tea and coffee. It is not a charming place, but hardly anything is in Korea anyway.

I however am a countryside boy too and enjoy a bit of grittiness. It gives this place a real feeling. Nothing is pretended. Even though Goesan seems to be underdeveloped compared to Seoul, the enormous changes that have come to this countryside town in the last few decades illustrate the rapid development Korea has gone through.

The dad told us how they had no continuous power in his house until he was in middle school (about 40 years ago) and how there were no asphalt roads until a few years ago. His grandma was apparently brought to Goesan from the neighbouring village to marry the grandad on tiny dirt roads.

Now, the old house has been renovated and has a modern feel to it, included with a nice warm floor heating system, which is common in all Korean houses. There is cable TV and anything you could wish for.

But the family still own some rice and chili fields in the area. Anyway, the region is heavily agricultural, especially focused on chili, ginseng and cabbage, of which tons area needed for the famous Kimchi (conserved cabbage with chili), which is eaten to EVERY meal in Korean cuisine.

Everything Chili: Bus stops and taxis!

As the three of us arrived in Goesan, dad immediately said that there is nothing to see here and we'd better get on a bus to see the national park, 30 minutes up the mountain. After eating the local speciality (River Snail Soup, Olgaengi guk), we got on a bus to an even smaller town.

If Goesan was something like the capital of a very rural region, we were now in a small town of a very rural region. People in Korea, who normally do not care about Westerners were now surprised to see me and some local men even asked whether my boyfriend is a girl or a boy (he really doesnt look girly, just has a soft face).

The man said that these days in Korea, you'd have to strip people naked to see if they are a girl or a boy. How fitting, looking at the ads of ultra-femme boys in pink clothes smiling at us constantly.

We then proceeded to Songnisan National Park, which was gorgeous. The dad also showed us an ancient palace area, which was apparently where their distant ancestors lived. It was also freezing cold, so we didnt stay for long.

We then went back to the family house, which is usually empty most of the year. This weekend however, other people were there too, so 7 people shared a two-room house. This is easily done in Korea, where just before going to bed, people unfold a portable mattress, and just go to sleep.

These mattresses seem comfortable at first, but not not protect you much from the hardness of the floor. I am looking forward to the Thai massages in Bangkok to get my back sorted again:)

In the morning we woke up to a powdered white landscape and freezing temperatures. See the view here:

We then took the car for a short ride to the cemetery of my bf's grandad (and a range of other ancestors, seemingly). Family cemeteries in Korea are on peaceful hills, which is actually really beautiful I think.

On the back of the grave, my bf's name was engraved in the stone. This astonished him and he said: "I am surprised to see so many traces of me so far away." It made me happy because it was nice to see that he is rediscovering his family in a place he hadnt been to for many years.