My Best Travel Experiences of 2016

My Best Travel Experiences of 2016

Travel blogging is a unique and surreal experience. Every little bit of travel is looked at differently than the regular traveller. You digest the places you visit differently, trying to capture any little information and colour. Instead of devouring the food, you taste and experience every little flavour. You mingle with the locals and try and get sense of their character. Travel is a whole new ball game.

2017 promises to be another great year with brand new destinations and experiences bound to be had. But before bounding into the new year and saying goodbye to the year 2016, Let’s take a look at some of the experiences that need to be told or retold in this instance. It was a memorable year of travel.

Travel experiences of 2016.

Fair Dinkum Traveller’s Top 5 Travel Experiences in 2016.

  1. Entering the border at DMZ Korea

    The Blue buildings of the DMZ.

     

    Getting close to the border of North Korea was an experience that I’ll never forget. Entering the demilitarized Zone and into the famous blue buildings was spine tingling to say the least.
    Armed North Korean soldiers could be seen starring directly at us, protecting their side and barely any further than a hundred metres away from where we stood on the south side of the border. I couldn’t help but keep my eyes fixated on the soldiers.
    In terms of safety, it was never an issue. As a group, we were well protected from the South Korean and American soldiers that surrounded the group in large numbers. If you are ever in South Korea, put the DMZ on the list.

    I see you. A North Korean Soldier.

     

  2. Kayaking Angthong:

    All smiles in beautiful Angthong.


    The amazing Angthong National Marine Park was a fantastic experience. Kayaking in the calm waters of the Gulf of Thailand was mesmerising and as beautiful as life can get.
    Paddling in the clear blue waters with my wife was a special moment that I will never forget. The islands all around were different and unique in so many ways, yet all visually stunning. An experience to remember and one I hope to do again.
    Angthong tours are easy to find when holidaying in Koh Samui, Thailand.

    Kayaking Angthong a wonderful experience.

     

  3. Mai Samui the love resort:

    Mai Samui Beach and Spa Resort


    The staff, the spacious rooms, the fine restaurants and the cocktails by the pool, made it a ten-year wedding anniversary to cherish. Not to mention, the fine-dining on the beach and the relaxing couple’s spa treatment. It was 5-star service at its best.
    The Mai Samui Beach and Spa Resort was the perfect resort to stay in at Koh Samui, Thailand and it certainly turned out to be the love nest that it needed to be for the occasion.

    At the bar.

     

  4. Camping at Guilderton:

    What a coastal view in Guilderton.


    I love camping, perhaps not as much as a nice resort, but to be out under the stars is a great experience that needs to be tried from time to time. Guilderton in Western Australia, only an hour from Perth, was great to escape to the great outdoors.
    Swimming, Kayaking, Hiking and sightseeing is all the valuable experiences that I got the pleasure of doing in my few days in this little town. Make sure you check it out for the amazing view of where the Indian Ocean meets the Moore River.

    Camping in Guilderton.

     

  5. Walking the grounds of Gyeongbokgung Palace:

    Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul Korea

     

    The biggest palace in Seoul, Korea. It is a thing of beauty at the Gyeongbokgung Palace but not only for its centuries old buildings and temples, which is decorated with a proud and at times tragic history.
    It’s also a stunning walk through some of the loveliest parklands and water features that you’ll ever see. I was also fortunate enough to sit down with a coffee and enjoy a traditional Korean song and dance concert sith the backdrop a fine traditional building of Gyeonghoeru. Absolutely beautiful.

    Gyeongbokgung Palace

My Top 5 Travel Destinations, So far

My Top 5 Travel Destinations, So far

In my short travelling career, I have seen quite a few different destinations. Fair to say  each destination visited has left its mark in a positive way. I am yet to visit a country that I haven’t enjoyed or been turned off by. Naturally, there have been a few awkward experiences but that is life on the road or life in general.

To squeeze out a favourite destination is a hard task. They’re all so great but it’s a task I am willing to have a crack at. While we always try not to be biased, nonetheless, we all have our favourite travel destinations. I find it appropriate at this time to share my favourite destinations that I have visited thus far.

Laughing Buddha in Koh Samui. Thailand

 

Fair Dinkum Traveller’s Top 5 favourite travel destinations.

Seoul, South Korea

Gyeongbokgung Palace, South Korea

Time visited: March 2005, December/January 2013/14, April 2016

When the modern world meets tradition. One moment you are looking at a modern building or flash shopping centre in the city, the next moment you are looking at a Palace, that is rich in history and centuries old. It is sells me on Korea, while they are always looking for the modern edge, they never forget their past.

Seoul is the city that never sleeps, the nightlife is hectic and that is a good thing as the city is truly lit up when at dusk. For the shopping enthusiast it is simply paradise for those needing their retail therapy, especially in the great shopping districts such as Myeong-Dong or Insadong.

Then there is the food and plenty of it, dine in at the thousands restaurants serving their local Korean cuisine, or get a taste of western food for those seeking a familiar feed. Don’t be afraid to take a walk down the side streets to find some hidden gems. Seoulis a city that truly surprises and one I love going back to.

Book a hotel in and around Seoul from TripAdvisor

Traditional Hambok, South Korea

 

Koh Samui, Thailand

Great travel destination in Chaweng Beach in Koh Samui

Time Visited: July 2016

The Love island, at least it was for me. Koh Samui was the destination for my tenth wedding anniversary and the best bit was, the kids were left at home.

Amazing beaches, stunning waterfalls and palm trees full of coconuts, gives you all the indicators that you are in paradise and Koh Samui is all that and much more. The food was cheap but the quality was excellent. The beer was cold and even better by the Resort swimming pools.

A trip to the major shopping district in Chaweng is a must, with plenty of restaurants, bars, shopping markets and massage centres to keep you occupied all day and entertained at night. Be sure you drop in at Chaweng Beach and catch up on your sunbaking or jet-skiing, whichever it is you prefer. Or do bugger-all and let the cocktails come to you

The best part about Samui, was not the island itself, but a day cruise to Angthong National Marine Park. A perfect day out with lunch provided, go kayaking in stunning scenery and climb treacherous hills, only to be rewarded with one of the most beautiful views on this very planet.

Book a hotel in Koh Samui with TripAdvisor

Angthong Marine National Park

 

Denarau Island, Fiji

A small island off Fiji.

Time visited: June 2013

The best part of Fiji are the locals themselves. So friendly, so humble and pure entertainment. To sit in a restaurant or a tourist bus and listen to their soothing voices sing with a guitar in hand was majestic. I can still hear their tunes today.

Fiji is undoubtedly paradise and much like Koh Samui it is great to swim by the pool with a cocktail in hand. However, getting a dose of reality and visiting a local village really is an eye opener to see their struggles at times, still the locals are smiling. It makes you appreciate what you have got.

Taking in a daily trip to the Port in Denarau is always high on the agenda, even if a little pricy. Here you’ll find restaurants, bars, expensive shopping outlets and cruise boats ready and waiting to take you out on a day cruise.

Remember in Fiji, you are on their time. Be prepared to wait a while for a drink or a meal.

Book a hotel in Fiji with TripAdvisor

Cruise ship off Fiji

 

Muju, South Korea

Muju, South Korea

Time visited: December 2013

The home of my only white Christmas and how It brought a warmth to the heart. Even though I was shivering all over. Muju-gun is smack bang in the middle of South Korea and it is pure majestic through winter as you are surrounded in a cloud of white.

Muju is great for hiking through mountains, follow the trail of hikers that are out in their numbers every morning and eager to escape up the mountains. The icy valley below the trail is something to withhold, you will certainly feel at piece in this little town.

The Deogyusan Resort, is the main resort in Muju, it’s where the skiing takes place with several slopes to get your adrenalin racing. Take a ride up the Gondola and take in the breathtaking views of the area. The resort has plenty for everyone including the kids with a fabulous fun-zone area, where the kids themselves can slide down the slippery slopes.

Muju, South Korea

 

Sanur, Bali

Ellora Villas

Ellora Villas Sanur, Bali

Time visited: December 2014

Away from the hustle and bustle of Kuta. Sanur is a lovely strip on the western side of Bali. Located within close proximity of a popular beach, Sanur, while a little more laid back, still has its markets, bars, restaurants, villas and hotels, cafe’s and massage centres.

Don’t get me wrong, you will still get begged to buy useless items in stalls and see the odd thing or two in some restaurants, like cats jumping on your table as you eat. But Sanur offers everything you need for a holiday and I’ll never forget the fabulous Ellora Villas.

Book a stay at Ellora Villas with TripAdvisor

Great food in Sanur

Honourable mention: I need to squeeze in Hamilton Island. I visited this amazing island in North Queensland, in the year 2000, of course I don’t have any photos of the trip, just memories and they are all great, especially snorkelling the Great Barrier Reef.

 

Hangang Park, South Korea

 

 

 

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Dreaming of my Only White Christmas

Dreaming of my Only White Christmas

Don’t get concerned, I am not about to start singing Big Crosby’s White Christmas. I will need a few more drinks before I start singing. But the song does remind  me of my one and  only Christmas in the magic of snow.

I remember it as it was yesterday. The place was Muju, the country South Korea and it was breathtaking, bringing a whole new meaning to Christmas. At least for myself and family.

Fun in the snow.

Fun in the snow.

Why does it mean so much?

I am an Aussie, and that means Christmas is snags on a barbie, beer out in the esky, swimming at the beach as the melting sun scorches your skin and you are dressing down rather than rugging up.  Yes, Christmas in Australia doesn’t sound so bad, it’s great to be truthful. But you know the saying, a change is as good as a holiday.

Now I am not a winter fan, I despise it. The part of Australia that I live in come winter time gets cold, wet, windy and just plain miserable. But it doesn’t snow. And to me snow adds something extra to an occasion. A tinge of excitement, even happiness. I know it did for me and my family.

Others who live in such a climate may tell me I am crazy, perhaps you are sick of the snow, sick of the freezing cold and maybe you have the endeavour of having Christmas in the heat of summer. Not me however, how I would long for another White Christmas.

Family fun in Muju

Family fun in Muju

What is about Muju?

Muju was something special. Tucked away in the middle of South Korea, the scenery was divine. Mountains saturated the region with blissful white snow covering the peaks. It was a site to see.

The township was friendly, laid back and unique. It didn’t come with the hustle and bustle of capital city in Seoul, or the modern features. It had a small town feel about it, where all the locals knew each other and everyone wasn’t in a hurry.

Old ladies would stand in front of their own restaurants, willing people to come and eat at their shop, almost begging. The town itself offered plenty of little guesthouses, restaurants, ski shop and general stores.

Muju is spectacular in the white snow and ice.

Muju is spectacular in the white snow and ice.

Hiking is the number one thing to do in Muju along with skiing in the winter. And for good reason too. The breathtaking scenery as you slug your way through the thick snow, into the forest, up the mountain and along the valley was pure delight. Make sure you bring your camera as million pictures wouldn’t be enough in Muju.

Your only sense of modern in Muju is the Deogyusan Resort. A European style resort it is where you go for the ski slopes, fine dining and your only escape of Western food, not that you particularly need it when Korean food is so good. The resort is expensive but if you like being where the action is, you will be in the right place.

Deogyusan Resort

Deogyusan Resort

Christmas time in Muju?

It is different. You could easily be forgiven that Christmas doesn’t exist. There is little celebration going on in the township and decoration are limited. Still, it didn’t take away from the romance of a very merry White Christmas.

How could it? Everything was white, from mountain tips, to the trees, to the railings and houses. Then you add the enjoyment of making a snowman with the kids and of course snowball fights, it brings family fun goes to another level. The only type of fun you can only enjoy when snow is involved.

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If you do want a little Christmas touch, all you need to do is head to the resort. Decorations are on show and at night the resort is well and truly lit up and looking spectacular in its Christmas lights. Carols can be heard throughout the resort, belting out popular Christmas carols, whether it is in Korean or English, it doesn’t matter you still know the song and sing to the tune.

Now maybe other regions in the world do their White Christmas with a little bit more passion. I am sure it is the case. But it won’t stop me from having a very special attraction towards Muju and my only ever Christmas in the freezing snow.

Merry Christmas to all you travellers from your Fair Dinkum Traveller.

Muju lights up in Christmas

Picture of the Week: Looking into the North

Picture of the Week: Looking into the North

Picture of the Week: Looking into the North

Looking into North Korea.

Looking into North Korea.

It was a special part of the DMZ Korea. Looking into the North. Of course that is North Korea that I am talking about. While you could only see into a little bit into the country, it was still fascinating to gaze upon a local village. The villagers were farming and operating like it was a place time forgot.

There were no roads, no modern technology of any sort and the land you could see was completely bare as the trees were all knocked down, to be used as warmth in the cold winter months. We were fortunate to be on the tour on a clear day, so we could have a clear view of the mighty Han River that separates the two countries and spy into the neighbours across the river.

The day I met A North Korean Defector

The day I met A North Korean Defector

A pretty girl, aged around thirty. That was my first recollection of the North Korean defector when I first saw her on a bus tour in Seoul, Korea. I certainly couldn’t speak to her, but my South Korean wife certainly could. So this is her story, which is one of bravery, but also very sad.

She (her name is unknown) triumphed and risked everything to give her daughter a better life. She lost so much also, forced to leave her native land. However, the end result was freedom, a better world and a better life. This is the story of the first and only defector of any kind that I have ever met. It’s the day I met a North Korean defector.

Leaving North Korea

It was at least twelve months of planning. To find the right authorities, a secret group so to speak, and escape North Korea to the borders of China. She kept it all a secret to those close to her, including her husband. She explained that he would not have had anything to do with such an escape and would forbid it at all cost. So secrecy it had to be. I can only imagine how difficult that would have been for her.

In the middle of a night, after months of preparation, secrecy and fear. She left her house with her daughter in tow, forced to drug her daughter with sleeping tablets so she would be quiet during the escape When all appeared safe during the still of the night, this brave woman, her daughter and a group of other hopeful defectors they headed for the borders. The escape went smoothly as they made it to China without hiccup and freedom was so close.

Settling in South Korea

Transition was quite smooth into her new life in South Korea, with The South Korean government helping her and the daughter get on their feet and well settled in Seoul. She received grans such as getting an apartment, education, money and a job.

The sacrifice she made and the bravery she showed had been rewarded with a life away from poverty. She now had a job of portraying her story to tourist and to top it off, her daughter was well educated in a modern school. While I only saw her this once, she certainly appeared to be happy, go lucky person and a sure sign that her life’s brave decision had been the right one.

Sacrifices

Sacrifices were plenty. The risk of getting caught could have meant death or years of hard labour in a North Korean prison. No doubt losing her daughter who would have been taken from her.

Through it all, she lost her husband, he never knew of the escape and if he did, it would have been forbidden. She knows there is no hope that she will see her husband again, “he would never have understood,” those were her words, in Korean of course.

She lost her parents, although she communicates with them regularly by telephone, using a Chinese telecom service, it means her calls can’t be traced and she has to be very careful not to put any harm on her family in the North. Her Hope remains she will still see them again but that is all it remains, is hope.

It is a story of bravery. She went through hell and she ended up with freedom. There is many like her who have attempted to flee the country, some have succeeded, many have failed. But this woman triumphed over adversity and that is the story of the only North Korean defector I have ever met.

The North Korean Defector now lives in freedom in Seoul, South Korea

The North Korean Defector now lives in freedom in Seoul, South Korea

It is well known that the South Korean government are always keen to help those who are wishing too free themselves from the north and receive a little information from the neighbours in the north. For security reason pictures were not allowed taken of the North Korean Defector.

DMZ Korea – Into The Border

DMZ Korea – Into The Border

It is a moment in history that not only divided a nation but also the world. A war that pitted brothers against brothers and families were separated and never to be reunited. Thousands of lives wasted by a cruel fate forced upon them. It was the tragic tale of the Korean War.

Picture this. A border that stretches 241-kilimetres long and four kilometres in width. Inside those boundaries is what is called the demilitarized zone. The DMZ. An area where Military action is forbidden inside. As of today, it is the most guarded DMZ in the world, with a large number of military from both the South and North Korea protecting their boundaries.

A trip to South Korea is not complete without reaching out and soaking in a huge part of a nation’s history. It is like going to Ho Chi Minh City and not visiting Cu Chi tunnels, or going to Turkey and not visiting Gallipoli. You get where I am going with this. The world is a history, explore, learn it, be fascinated and see how far a country a comes since it hardship of the Korean War.

Looking into North Korea.

Looking into North Korea.

The DMZ tour

It starts at the fabulous Lotte Hotel in downtown Seoul, through Panmunjeon tours. By bus you are taken to Paju, a good hour from Seoul and right on the edge of the border. It is officially the start of the tour as you get escorted through various locations on your to the demilitarized Zone.

The Blue buildings of the DMZ.

The Blue buildings of the DMZ.

–          The defector

The first thing I need to touch on is the North Korean defector who joined us for the first part of the tour. She was not allowed inside the DMZ for protection purposes. Her story is sad but truly brave. With her only child, she left her husband and family and escaped the borders of North Korea to China.

With the help of the South Korean goverement, she was able to set up life for herself and her child in Seoul. She openly admitted through translation that she would never see her husband again, who never would have supported her defection and she had kept her plan to flee a secret from him. She did however, harbour hope of uniting with her parents again one day.

Her story was brilliant and Inspirational for someone who wanted the best for her child and would risk her life to do so. For obvious reasons, pictures were not allowed to be taken of her.

–          The Observatory:

The first port of call is to go the Observatory. It gives you the best view of the North, from the South. It starts with a mini slide-show about the Observatory and its history before taken to the top to take a look into a North Korean village through the installed binoculars.

The difference between the two countries, from the view point, couldn’t be more startling. The North Korean village has unfinished infrastructure, no roads and barely any trees at all as they have all been cut down to help with heating during the cold winter months. The locals can be seen out in the paddocks doing their duties mainly farming the old fashioned way, with hard labour and no machinery. You can’t help but think it is a village long forgotten by their own government.

The Observatory.

The Observatory.

–          Imjingak Park:

Imjingak Park is next on the map. A tourist zone best known for its freedom bridge where the South Koreans crossed to come home after the signing of the Armistice agreement. It also the home of The Last Train, named appropriately, as it was the last train to cross into North Korea before the war ended. It has remained in its location ever since and is now a photo sensation for the tourist who visit daily.

Imjingak Park also has another Observation point to check in on those North Koreans, it doesn’t reach the great height of the Observatory but it is still worth a look. But it is a great place to stop and be a real tourist, with cafes, traditional Korean dancers and great insights on the history of the DMZ.

–          Barb Wire Fence and Lunch

The one thing that is clearly evident in the tour is the barb wire fencing that stretches for miles. Inside the fence is the official The Demilitarized Zone, it is so close, but first there is one more stop before going into the border, Lunch is bulgogi, grilled marinated beef, at a restaurant near the border.

Next stop is into the DMZ.

All fenced of from the DMZ.

All fenced of from the DMZ.

 

–          Entering the DMZ:

It is time to enter the DMZ itself, a war zone you could say.  At the entrance to the DMZ, which is quite hectic at best. It starts with both United States and Korean Soldiers, getting aboard the bus and checking everyone’s passport (oh don’t forget your passport). From this point a US soldier is with the tour for the duration inside the DMZ.

–          Camp Bonifas:

In the bus and within the DMZ, the cameras are put away, unless given permission to take photos of certain areas. You are guided in the DMZ, past the one-hole golf course, which Sports Illustrated once named the world’s most dangerous golf course. It got a good laugh.

The bus stops at Camp Bonifas and a group photo is taken. From there you go inside a buiding for a twenty-minute presentation on the history of Korean War and how the DMZ became. There are some real hard stories told like the bludgeoning of South Korean soldiers within the DMZ in the 1970’s with added pictures. It was quite chilling.

Looking into North Korea. Do you see the soldier?

Looking into North Korea. Do you see the soldier?

–          Joint Security Area

Back on the bus, next is the Joint Security Area (JSA) and the famous blue buildings. You are so close to the North Korea side of the border and while you always feel safe, you can’t help but have a little fear. You walk into a building on the South Korean side, it is flanked by South Korean soldiers, standing guard, protecting us. On the other side of the building is the blue buildings. You look across past the blue building and North Korea is right in front of you, with their own soldiers, standing guard and looking directly at us.

Once inside the blue buildings, two South Korean soldiers are standing guard once again, they don’t move muscle, their discipline amongst tourist is admirable. You venture to the furthest point in the building, you are officially in North Korea. It feels strange, eerie even, if only for a few minutes. But I can reiterate how safe you feel the whole time.

Photos are allowed to be taken. Everyone is snapping away and posing next to the soldiers, it is incredible feeling. This moment is what you do the tour for and it is well worth being inside a huge part of history and to mention you have been to North Korea, even if doesn’t feel so real.

Inside the blue buildng.

Inside the blue buildng.

–          Leaving the DMZ

The tour is concluding. The bus takes you on anther little tour within the DMZ area. We go past the historical “Bridge of no return.” The name came from the prisoner repatriation operations after the Armistice Agreement was signed. The prisoners were given a choice to either return home or remain on the side of their captors upon the agreement being signed.

This rod leads to The Bridge of Nowhere.

This rod leads to The Bridge of Nowhere.

Next up is the Taesung-Dong “Freedom Village.” A special village that has been farmed since before the Korean War. The only way you can live in this village is to be born in the village or married to someone from the village. Taesung-Dong is not blessed with technology of the South and belongs to neither the North or South. The population is understandably small.

The tour finishes back at the Bonifas Camp, where you can have a little shop in Souvenir store full of memorabilia of the DMZ, the  war and you can even purchase North Korean money. It wraps up the tour before being taken back to the magnificent Lotte Hotel in Seoul, which takes a good hour. A nice to nap after an exhausting day.

If you ever visit Seoul, South Korea, take the DMZ tour you won’t regret it. It is history before your eyes.

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