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Foreign public school teachers have it pretty good in Korea. (A reason I stayed another year). In this job, I get a lot of praise that I don’t deserve. Firstly, I’m commended for a language I never had to learn. Secondly, I don’t have to do much to receive laughs and applaud from children. (Example: find a catchy song on YouTube which explains prepositions and 4th graders will sing it for days).
To make things even better, there is a whole day devoted to teachers. May 15th is Teacher’s Day, and along with the gift of a few cancelled classes, I also got some miscellaneous things from the students (candy, flower pens, a rose made of soap…). But the best surprise was a performance from one of my 4th grade classes to start off the lesson…
(They do it in Korean first, and then English)
*I am a bit behind on the blog but plan on catching up soon. I have been working on a new blog about my previous travels through South and Central America which should be done in the next few weeks.*
Although a bar we frequent here in Seoul is ironically called “Zen Bar”, it has never done much for my mental health. So this past weekend, my friend Vida and I decided to leave the smog, and booze filled debauchery, for some real Zen living at a “temple stay”. From the lotus flower, to the lanterns that hang in the springtime, to the temples and Buddhist statues, I’ve always loved the different aspects of Buddhism here is Asia. For two-days I was a mini-monk and finally got the chance to learn more about this exotic stuff.
We stayed at Geumsansa Temple which is about 3 and a half hours south of Seoul. Nestled in some mountains, the fresh air was a great change. After we took in some big, deep cleansing breaths…the allergies kicked in. Ironically we’ve become immune to the pollution, and now fresh air is the hazard.
The temple was established around 600 AD, and though not all of the original buildings stand, it was a pretty cool place to be spending the weekend.
Temple Stay schedule
When we arrived at the temple, we were given a uniform and name tag to wear. Comfortable and baggy, we didn’t have to worry about our appearance for the time being. After that, we were assigned to our rooms where we would be getting little sleep (and which would be done on the floor, Korean style). After, we met the monk and translators that would be guiding us through the weekend.
After some time exploring the temple grounds we were given a fun and easy activity of making a lotus lantern. Buddha’s Birthday is coming up this month so many people make lanterns and attach a wish to them. After we finished, we let them dry and hung them up to be used later.
Around 9pm, our monk led us to a spot on the temple grounds where we lit a candle in our lanterns. We walked in circle, meditating (or trying to) while he drummed and recited a chant. Watching all of our lanterns float around in the darknes made for an amazing sight.
Later in the afternoon, we experienced a Yebul Service in the main temple. This is devotional chant in which the monks chant along to a mantra while another monk keeps the rhythm by drum. We followed along and did the bows at the appropriate time. The sound of the monks chanting was actually quite hypnotizing and beautiful.
Tea time with our Monk
After dinner, we were able to have tea and traditional Korean snacks with the monk. At this time we were able to ask him any questions we had about Buddhism or his life. The monk didn’t speak English so the answers had to be translated. This proved to be a barrier because he would sometimes give long-winded answers. I was getting the feeling the entire answer wasn’t always able to be translated. Either way, a lot of the things he said gave us an insight on why he became a monk, what his life is like and what Buddhism is about (on the very surface).
Around 10pm we went to our rooms to go to sleep. But only in a few hours we would be waking up…
After a few hours of sleep, we woke up at 3:15am to attend the morning Yebul Service (devotional chanting in the main temple). Like zombies, we all walked through the night to the sound of a gong which was summoning the monks. We followed along with the chant and bows as best as we could.
Around 4:30am our monk led us in the torturous “108 bows”. Every morning the monks do these bows, and each one is accompanied by a wish or a prayer. The full bow starts in standing position, and from there you kneel to the ground. Then you put your head on the mat and turn your hands so they face up. From the ground, you go back to standing position without the help of your knees or arms. Physically and mentally challenging (I started to lose focus probably after bow 30), we were all happy when it was over. This exercise also has left my legs sore for about 2 days. *ouch*
Afterwards, our monk led us in meditation. This was also mentally and physically challenging. We were all restless from the amount of time we had been sitting cross-legged for the entire weekend, not to mention keeping our thoughts in meditation was near impossible.
Traditional Monastic Breakfast
For breakfast, our monk led us in the traditional Buddhist monk way of eating a meal. This was slow, ritualistic and symbolic to Buddhist teachings. We were to value every part of the meal, to give thanks for it, and to understand that eating isn’t always pleasure but can also be pain. (Eating is painful? Never thought that before.. )
There were many steps involved and we all had roles serving each other. We ate in silence and covered our mouths with the bowls as we ate. At the end we were to finish every last piece, and then wipe the bowls down with one piece of pickled radish and some water. From there, we were to eat the radish and then drink the water we used to clean the bowls. After wiping the bowls down again, and rinsing them once again, we would put them back together and wrap them up in the way they came. To close we all recited a chant. With the many steps, silence, and leg cramps from sitting cross-legged, I was even more tired now.
Beads are a very symbolic part of Buddhism. Our monk gave us 108 beads to string a necklace. I was excited about another craft, but then I realized it wouldn’t be all fun. We were to think of a wish or a prayer for every bead we strung. (We also had to option to do a bow with each bead. My legs were tired enough!) After about the fiftieth bead it gets very hard to stay focused and concentrated on the beads. Not the fun craft I imagined, this was actually mentally challenging and really about self-reflection.
Every day the monks do certain tasks to tend to the grounds while socializing with each other. Our task was to pick weeds. I was really enjoying this one because it didn’t involve being silent, sitting cross-legged, or burning my thighs. Our work time was cut short due to rain, and since our monk was so compassionate he let us come inside for tea.
Back to the real world
After lunch, all of us mini-monks packed up and got on the bus to head back to Seoul. We were happy to be going back to the comforts of a bed, chairs and sleeping past 4am, but I’m not too sure if we were happy about getting back to the smog and hustle-bustle. Exhausted from the weekend, it was the quietest 3+ hour bus ride I’ve ever taken. Almost every one of us was passed out, lying down over empty seats. This was a great experience and possibly one of the best things I’ve done in Korea.
Info: I went with “Adventure Korea” for this trip since the transportation was included. Most temples around Korea do temple stays and what they offer vary.
Until next time, byebye!
1. Take pictures of and with flower pots.
When in Korea, you are so damn happy winter is over, that taking numerous pictures of and with flower pots is a completely acceptable activity.
2. Advertise like this.
When in Korea, somehow this counts as profitable advertising.
3. Get matching outfits with your significant other and have your caricature done.
When in Korea…no I still don’t care. This is never acceptable.
Sometimes, while I read and grade the 6th graders’ English diaries, I’ll stumble upon an amusing one and snap a picture. They can write whatever they want, and I get lucky if I can even understand what they are talking about. Enjoy.
Oh, the simple pleasures in life….
6th graders with nicer cell phones than mine. *sigh*
Was that supposed to be a poem? A love letter but completely different with food or stickers?….hmmm.
Another exciting day involving kimchi.
Another exciting day involving Star Craft.
I hope this secret isn’t about the teacher.
That awkward moment when you are late for taekwondo because you read the clock wrong.
Thanks kid, Mrs. Jassica appreciates it.
I’ve taken a bit of a hiatus on blogging recently. This is due to a combination of excuses, but I hope to start-up again. Being that I’m on my second contract/year in Korea now, all the strange and weird things about living here can start to seem very normal. Weird is just a regular (and sometimes draining) part of the day, but I haven’t had too much motivation or ability to put it into words. I’m hoping to turn this around and document the strange/weird/interesting things about living in Asia.
My tone may be a bit more cynical this time around; maybe this is a side effect of being here a while now. ‘Fish out of water’, ‘sticking out like a sore thumb’ and things getting ‘lost in translation’ all describe the daily rhythms of this expat life.
So over the next year, I hope to keep up documenting my experience in hopes that someone out there enjoys it/connects with it/connects with me even though I’m far away….whatever it may be (or whatever the purpose of this blog is). And I also plan on documenting the other travels I hope to take. I have big dreams of a long trip when I finish my contract in February. When times get rough, and Korea tugs at my patience…taking some of the money I’ve earned and traveling will be *the light at the end of the tunnel*
A real post coming soon.
Thailand is a place of contradictions. It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, but also one of the craziest, mixed-up and disgusting. Maybe its the ups and downs, and ever-changing contradictions that always had me intrigued by this place, and then left me wanting more once I left. Though rife with tourists, and maybe spoiled a bit due to it, this was probably inevitable as soon as the world discovered all that Thailand has to offer. Two weeks really isn’t much time in comparison to all there is to see there. The remote north is drastically different from the white sand beaches and limestone cliffs of the south. After most trips, I am quickly thinking about which country to visit next. But there is something about Thailand, and all that is left to discover there, that has made me already start thinking about the things I want to do if or when I return.
In the two weeks I had I visited a few different places. I’ll briefly touch on some of the places.
A big chaotic city wasn’t originally on my top list of places to visit right after leaving Seoul. But only after a few days in Bangkok I realized there was much more to explore. A place people seem love or hate, there is still something for everyone. Beautiful palaces, temples, shopping…mixed up with sex shops, strip clubs and sinful streets.
Chiang Mai is up in the northern area of Thailand. We had an amazing 4 days roaming around the city and taking different excursions. There is so much to do in this area and anyone would be entertained. The city center is surrounded by a moat and old city walls. The charming center is full of cooking schools, cafes, bars, temples and restaurants. A very pleasant city with a small town feel. Around the outskirts of the city we visited a tiger sanctuary, rode elephants and visited a temple up in the surrounding hills by motorbike. Due to the people we met, the hostel we stayed at, and the friendly city vibe, this was probably one of my most pleasant visits to a new city.
Crowded, chaotic and popular with the sex industry, I was confused on why I was encountering so many families vacationing here. Maybe some resorts and beaches are nice, but with so many other amazing islands to visit around Thailand this area didn’t seem like the place to be. We spent two nights here, mostly as stop-overs on the way to other places. One night we went out to experience the nightlife, and now my mind is tainted with awful images of things I never thought possible…. well, that’s Thailand. Table tennis and beer pong will never be the same.
Koh Phi Phi
Arriving to Koh Phi Phi is arriving to a slice of paradise. Limestone cliffs tower above the island. Beautiful long-tail boats float in the crystal clear waters. Sadly, this paradise has been a bit tainted from commercialism and tourism. More trash than one would like to see can sometimes be spotted on the popular Tonsai Beach. Also, the town is full of people wanting to sell you clothes and western style food. Still, Koh Phi Phi and its surrounding beaches were beautiful. A hike to the viewpoint shows the beautiful twisted shape of the island and the limestone cliffs surrounding. Koh Phi Phi Don is the inhabited island, while the other island, Koh Phi Phi Ley, is a protected national park and not inhabited. (This island rose to fame for the setting of the movie “The Beach” with Leonardo DiCaprio). I had the amazing chance to camp on this island when all the day tour groups were gone. For one night I experienced complete paradise and woke up to the sun rising over the cliffs. At night we swam in the swallow waters and experienced the bio-luminescent plankton light up in an electric blue color with every movement of our bodies. Floating in the water the bright stars were a backdrop to the dark cliffs that surrounded the bay. I couldn’t imagine a better way to enjoy this tropical wonderland.
Paradise has a cost, and after some time staying in Tonsai on Koh Phi Phi Don we decided to head to a calmer, cheaper and more laid back island. On Koh Lanta our only intentions were to lay on the beach and swim in the ocean. We ate and had drinks by the pool and werent bothered with much else. Koh Lanta would be a great place to rent a motorbike and drive around, but by the end of our trip we were just looking for the perfect place to do nothing.