Burmese Flavours in Hong Kong City

The first course in “The Pansodan’s” tasting menu (counter-clockwise from the cracker): A savoury cracker, Burmese tomato paste on homemade honey toast, vegetable samosa, raw cauliflower and sweet peppers, and Burmese pâté

In this fast-paced, as daily demands in people’s work and personal lives seem never ending, the hyper-present middle class of Hong Kong society value unique and fulfilling experiences. Many of these experiences are centred around food. Over the decades, fine dining has become an increasingly popular way for the busy worker to travel to another country without having to deduct from their annual leave. And as more people seek out one-of-a-kind dining experiences, restaurants must regularly change their menus, carefully curate the ambience, and instill warm and professional manners in their staff to meet rising expectations.

Recently, I was able to take my taste buds on a journey. In recent years, the southeast Asian nation of Myanmar has opened to visitors. A unique location, Myanmar borders the Asian countries of India, China, Laos, Bangladesh and India, and is near Cambodia and Thailand. Surrounded by cultures with varied and complex flavour palettes, Burmese cuisine showcases the signature tastes of these cuisines, harmonizing them in a way wholly unique to Myanmar. Enjoying the dinnertime taster menu, below is an excerpt from my article about the experience, published in the Hong Kong magazine, “Culture”.

The main event: Melt-in-your-mouth tender sirloin steak paired with Burmese laphet and coriander relish

The typical lifespan of a popup restaurant is comparable to that of a mayfly. Culinary experiences can flit in and out of major cities from anywhere between a weekend to a handful of months. A collaboration between the JIA Group and Burmese entrepreneur Ivan Pun, “The Pansodan” pop-up nestled in Sai Ying Pun originally debuted for a three-month period ending on June 23. Popular demand saw this end date prolonged to the end of July, and once again to late October. Praised by online magazines and foodie bloggers alike, “The Pansodan” is an offshoot of a Burmese Brassie in Yangon – another of Ivan Pun’s culinary projects – that bears the same name from the historic road it resides on. While most pop ups come and go at the blink of an eye, “The Pansodan” has already extended its lifespan twice. As Myanmar’s borders open to more visitors, “The Pansodan” provides a unique cultural insight into a country whose flavour palette is influenced by its neighbours – China, India, Bangladesh, Laos, and Thailand.

Like most pop-up restaurants in Sai Ying Pun, “The Pansodan” is a hole-in-the-wall whose entrance lays near the end of an alley. A relaxed three-minute walk from the MTR station, coupled with its delicious food and it is no wonder that when we dined at the restaurant, it was near capacity despite it being a Tuesday night. Upon entering, “The Pansodan’s” ambience immediately sets guests at ease. A low-level warm glow permeates the space from the ceiling lights, affixed with Asian-inspired fishing baskets. The hand-painted wallpapers feature jungle flora and fauna by local artist Laura Cheung of Lala Curio. Rattan panels, cane chairs, and red banquettes point to the traditional brasserie concept that inspired Pun’s design choices. Attentive servers add to the charming atmosphere, happily answering any questions guests may have and promptly refilling water glasses before customers think to ask.

To enjoy the full flavour palette that “The Pansodan” has to offer, we ordered a Tasting Menu – a five-course medley of appetizers, salads, curry, noodles, biryani, steak, and dessert. As we waited for our dining experience to begin, we sipped on the eponymous cocktail. Comprised of Absolut Vodka, lemongrass, lime, pineapple, and basil, the sweetness of the lemongrass and pineapple claimed the initial impression of the drink, tinged with the aromatic flavour of basil and lime’s signature acidity. The first course arrived soon after our drinks were served.

Drinkception: Having “The Pansodan” at “The Pansodan”

Open until the end of September, “The Pansodan” also offers an expansive breakfast taster menu on weekends, which is composed of more than six taster dishes and bottomless champagne. For those looking to broaden their taste palettes, Ivan Pun’s “The Pansodan” is the way to go!

The Saviour of Suncheon Bay

Located in the southern province of Jeollanam-do, Suncheon is a natural jewel. Great mountain trails, calm beaches, and sprawling parks entice visitors to a city that possess all the wholesome beauties that nature can provide and people can facilitate. It is in this marriage of nature and society that Suncheon Bay National Garden emerged. Prior to the garden’s conception, the city was facing an ecological crisis. Suncheon Bay, a marvellous coastal wetlands site, was taking in more visitors than the area could sustain. And so the National Garden came into being. Unveiled in Expo 2012 in Yeosu, the international exposition’s theme of “The Living Ocean and Coast” focused on environmental sustainability and protection of sensitive lands and species. It is here that the Suncheon Bay National Garden was opened to the public.

Covering a little under 1.12km2 of land, the SBNG is recognised as South Korea’s top national garden. Intended to help absorb the sheer numbers visiting Suncheon’s wetlands, the expansive park was designed in cooperation with the surrounding natural landscape. Artists, landscape designers, and many other creative individuals were locally and internationally sourced, all coming together in Suncheon to design a garden that welcomes ten of thousands of visitors every year. Over 860,000 trees (covering more than 505 different species) call the garden home, as do 113 species of flowers that change in accordance to the seasons. After visiting the Suncheon Filming Location, we headed towards the Dongcheon River to see SNBG in the afternoon light.

With only enough time to focus on one side of the garden, we decided to spend the rest of our day on the east side of SBNG. Here we found flora both indigenous and foreign to Korean soil, miniature gardens inspired by the architecture of outside countries and cultures, and a colourful design spirit that made every part we explored a unique and memorable experience.

In the six hours that we spent in SBNG the time flew so quickly, I couldn’t believe it when the sun started to set! Listed below are our Five Reasons to Visit Suncheon Bay National Garden.

The World Around Us and The World That Once Was

Entering the east gate, the Indoor Garden is one of the first exhibits that SBNG offers its guests. Once indoors, the sunlight is muted, radiating the warm glow that lights the building’s interior. Bougainvillea, first discovered by a French explorer of the same name, is the first flora to greet you. The path through the Indoor Garden bends this way and that, slowly leading you forward. Air purification plants, their vines spindly white like unwound cotton, hang neatly overhead and give the air inside a refreshing presence. Floss silk trees are tall and stately, their thorny trunks heavy with water in preparation for the dry season. The Wollemi Pine Tree sits nearby. A tree that dates back to the Jurassic period (201 – 145 million years ago), the Wollemi Pine was thought to be extinct. Miraculously, in 1994 it was discovered in the Blue Mountains of Australia. One of the rarest trees in the world, a few call the Indoor Garden home.

Near the back of the building, an area called Uami Garden is sectioned off. Here all the crucial elements of a traditional garden have been recreated, taking on the look of Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1897) gardens in aesthetic details and the traditional organisation of such spaces. Entering Uami Garden, a Korean traditional totem pole welcomes you. A fake river is constructed to show visitors how pavilions would be constructed to exist harmoniously with their natural surroundings. The Bullo Gate (“Gate of Eternal Youth”) sits across from the pavilion, its sleek and simple design free of all signs of age, promising the visitor everlasting vitality.

The World Garden Zone

You don’t have to leave South Korea to see the world. Within SBNG lies a space where the cultural values and aesthetic tastes of eleven different countries are brought to life. Thailand, America, Germany, and many other exciting destinations are condensed into charming gardens that capture the design elements integral to each country’s global image, as well as the essence that makes each one distinctive.

Of the eleven countries, five hold a special place in my memory. While they are all stunning in their own right, my own tastes made me partial to the Mediterranean opulence of the Italian Garden, the Austen-esque romance of the British Garden, the colourful flowers that surrounded the Dutch Garden’s giant windmill, the Mexican Garden with its colour contrasts that brought Picasso to mind, and the heartbreaking tale of The Butterfly Lovers whose sentimental spirits shone through the style of the Chinese Garden.

Fun for the Little Ones

While I don’t have any of my own, it warms my heart to see children having fun. Summer days can be a logistical nightmare for families. Wanting to enjoy the sun without suffering in the heat, SBNG gives parents reprieve and their kids a way to enjoy their holiday without developing heatstroke. The adorably named Wriggling Garden has both covered play areas for the children and an outdoor water-play station with tall structures that spout water. Its cute name is derived from a long wooden tunnel. Donning every colour of the rainbow, the tunnel turns about like a snake finding its way in the grass. Each colour is a different section with its own means of entertaining the kids (from mirrors, to a ship’s steering wheel, to climbing ropes).

The City Reimagined

When your eyes set on Suncheon Lake Garden, it is difficult to think beyond its beauty. The elegant slopes of its five hills and the seemingly impossible wisp of a bridge that winds through them make for a breathtaking vision. What is truly amazing is that the lake garden, fitting so perfectly with its surroundings, was not always there. The artificial lake is the centerpiece of SBNG designed by American landscape designer, Charles Jencks. A person whose vision combined nature with science, Jencks designed the lake to illustrate the city of Suncheon in miniature. The hills are the city’s mountains, the wooden deck is Dongcheon Stream slicing through the landscape, and Suncheon itself is symbolised by the lake.

A Bridge Made of Dreams

SBNG was made with a vision of protecting and maintaining the wildlife surrounding it for future generations. The Dream Bridge perfectly encapsulates this goal. Designed by installation artist Kang Ik-joong, the bridge connects the east and west sides of Dongcheon River, giving visitors the opportunity to explore Suncheon Bay. Built for Expo 2012, The Dream Bridge was made in the spirit of the expo. Constructed with thirty abandoned and recycled cargo containers, it is charmingly decorated with 140,000 tiles made by as many different children from sixteen countries, reminding visitors that the environment is a global treasure, and that it is the children of today who will have the world of tomorrow.

Bringing the world to this city in southern Korea, Suncheon Bay National Garden is a place where you can spend the day, becoming lost in beauty created by both Mother Nature and the world’s artistic minds. 

Sun, Tea, and Seonamsa Temple

Tall, spindly trees shade the wide footpaths. Beside the elevated trail, the gentle Seonamsacheon stream flows down from the peak of Mt. Jogye. Centuries-old landmarks are dotted around the woodlands that stretch through the western end of Suncheon’s northern Seungjumyeon district. This is the Mt. Jogyesan Provincial Park. Two Buddhist temples, located on either side of the territory, call the park home. After checking into our accommodations, we headed off to visit Seonamsa, a quiet temple in the forest.

Built on the flatlands underneath Mt. Jogye, the Buddhist temple was first established in 529 for the Taego Order. It is now recognized as one of the head monasteries for this Korean branch of Buddhism. First named Biroam, it wasn’t until the mid-ninth century that the temple was dubbed Seonamsa. Doseon, an influential monk who lived through the fall of the Silla Dynasty, expanded the temple grounds in 861. In the 19th century, the complex was rebuilt after facing damage from the Japanese invasion and a large-scale fire. Many monks used Seonamsa as a place to live out all facets of a traditional life. Here they studiously applied their monastic education, cultivated a tea farm, and cared for apricot trees around the temple grounds that have called Seonamsa home for the past six centuries.

The trail leading towards Seonamsa, the more traditional and simplistically styled of the two Buddhist temples inside the park, offers a series of landmarks that have harmonized with the beauty of the natural environment for hundreds of years. Here are Five Reasons to Follow the Seonamsa Temple Trail:

Traditional Flavours in Soothing Tea

In a similar fashion to Seonamsa Temple, a low wall of clay brick and tile surrounds the perimeter of the Traditional Wild Tea Centre. The Centre is divided into two levels. On the ground floor lies the exhibit hall, where visitors can discover the history of tea, tea pottery, the tea-making process, and the particulars of Suncheon tea. It is here that we taste-tested some of the locally sourced teas. Each had a sharp, distinctive taste, and I finished the testing with a purchase of a packet of dried tealeaves gathered from Mohusil’s mountains and fields. Upstairs, the Tea Ceremonies take place on low tables and soft cushions on the dark wooden balcony. Low railings surround the space, giving an uninterrupted view of the Hanok buildings and surrounding mountains. Tea cookie tastings are a smart accompaniment to the traditional tea ceremony, giving visitors a rounded view of the tastes and traditions that have persevered.

An Otherworldly Bridge

Its name meaning “The Ascending Immortals”, Seungseon Bridge was a passion project for Monk Hoan. Beginning work on the Joseon Era Bridge in 1713, Monk Hoan completed construction in six years. Blending in neatly with the surrounding stream and wispy trees, Seungseon is considered one of Korea’s most picturesque bridges. The stream’s natural bedrock is used as the bridge’s foundation. Trapezoid-shaped stoned have been stacked atop each other with little interest in aesthetics. The walkway was paved with mud and grass. Below it, a sculpted dragon’s head sits underneath the midsection. Following the principles of pungsu-jiri-seol, the dragon’s head faces upstream to ward off evil spirits. Legend claims that removing the head will collapse the bridge. The arch of the bridge offers a clear view of Gangseon pavilion. With its timeless look, Seungseon Bridge is often used as a filming site for movies and television shows.

A Charming Little Pond

A quaint oval shape holds a small island in the middle. The island teems with vegetation, and the pond’s surrounding waters are covered in lily pads. Seonamsa Samindang, “The Pond of the Three Marks”, was created by monk Doseon in 862, a year after his work on the temple. It rests at the foot of the pathway that veers off from the main trail and leads visitors to the temple complex. This pond design is unique to Seonamsa temple. A plaque sits before the pond. On it this Buddhist ideal is carved – “Everything changes and there is no being. When people realize it, they enter nirvana.”

Iljumun Gate

The first gate of Seonamsa temple, the low walls that make up its perimeter are an architectural feature unique for typical Buddhist temple construction. It is known as the “One Pillar Gate”, as its side profile creates the illusion of the gate standing on a single pillar. This *symbolizes the one true path of enlightenment that supports the world. As the border between the Buddhist temple and a human’s worldly life, Iljumun Gate symbolizes ritual purification. A fire consumed the original gate, which was restored in 1540. The Qing invasion of Joseon led to another reconstruction in 1719.

Wontongjeon Hall

Located in the centre of the temple complex, in Wontongjeon Hall a statue of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy poses gracefully, giving a serene smile to her worshippers. Built in 1660, this section dedicated to the goddess differs from its counterparts at other Korean Buddhist temples because of its unique design. In Seonamsa, the Wontongjoen Hall has three sections that come together to form a “T” – a large front area with two side sections.

“Wongtong” signifies “juwon-yuntong”, meaning “the truth is omnipresent and passes through everything.” Perhaps King Jeongjo (1752 – 1800) was seeking this truth when he asked Seonamsa’s High Priest Nuram to help pray for a male heir. Nuram dutifully set about his task, spending 100 days praying for the king to receive a son. His prayers were answered, and Prince Sunjo was born. To show his appreciation, the king gifted the temple with a simple and elegant tablet written in his own elegant script.

Whether wanting to enjoy a peaceful stroll, or take in the ancient architecture and the craft of tea making, the trail to Seonamsa Temple is a .

A Boat Trip to Bluff Island

As a port city that has drawn much of its cultural identity through the sea, Hong Kong’s history of junk boats goes back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). Originally referring to Chinese wooden sailboats, which are still in use, nowadays “junk boat” is a blanket term for any charter boat in the Harbour City. Private companies and individuals alike hire them to host parties, touring the secluded beaches that make up Hong Kong’s outlying island. With winters here only reaching 15 degrees Celsius at its worst, junk boats can be enjoyed year round.

Growing up in Hong Kong, I slowly began to see summers as being incomplete without a “junk trip”. Comprising of a day out on a rented boat, junk trips usually comprise ten or more people spending the day bathing in the sun, swimming in the cerulean blue waters, or enjoying various water sports. And of course, a day out in the summertime would be incomplete without a veritable feast and ice-cold alcoholic drinks to keep the spirits as bright as the sun shining above.

Our trip took sixteen of us to Bluff Island (Chinese: Sha Tong Hau San沙塘口山, also known as Ung Kong甕缸). More than a perfect title for a spy novel, Bluff Island is located in Port Shelter, a habour south of the Sai Kung Peninsula. It is the key fragment of eight separate areas that form the Hong Kong Global Geopark, a UNESCO natural site. On a perfect day, there is much to enjoy and admire about the secluded island. Its southern side holds Sha Tong Hau Cave, which is one of the four biggest sea caves found on Hong Kong’s eastern waters. Rolling mountains stand sentry behind the narrow beach strip. The rocky coastlines zigzag in height, with the tallest at approximately 140 metres. These columns take on the form of hexagons, staggering to create the remarkable impression of multiple entryways into the island’s lush hills. As Hong Kong’s highest sea cliffs, more and more divers flock to the island to enjoy the high elevations and explore the marine life that thrives here. From above, this natural wonder bears striking resemblance to a swimming turtle.

Most of Bluff Island came into being roughly 146 – 145 million years ago, in the Late Jurassic Period. Waves of magma activity occurred in the area, breaking through stacking fault and pressure points underwater until it came to surface. Huge volcanic eruptions occurred, and the amazing explosions oozed lava onto ancient rock. Ash and fume danced in the air as fires burned below. As the lava cooled, rocks as wide as 400 metres were formed. They connected in a honeycomb pattern, leading to the multi-level hexagonal rock columns that dot the island’s perimeter. Hong Kong faced four stages of volcanic activity, which is sorted into four groups: the Tseun Wan Group, the Lantau Group, the Repulse Bay Group, and the Kai Sai Chu Group, the last of which formed Bluff Island.

I started the day bright and early. Though we weren’t meeting until 9 – 9:30 in the morning, I woke up at 6am. Living on the opposite side of Hong Kong, it took around two and a half hours for my sister, her husband and I to arrive at the meeting point in Sai Kung. After caffeinating at both Pret a Manger and Starbucks, we joined the others at the main pier. After boarding, the boat sped off into the horizon. Quickly, Sai Kung’s low-level buildings became the size of pinpricks.

Two other junk boats left the pier as we did. Cutting through the waters, the heavy storm clouds bothered none of us on our day off. The sun peeked out every now and then, promising occasional reprieves. This was more than enough for us. We anchored a ways from the shores of Bluff Island, joining two junk boats that were already settled there. After inflating the paddleboard, rafting tube, and inflatable mattress, a number of us headed off to enjoy the ocean. I used this time to take photos of the merry makers and sneak in a few crisps between shots. When the sky burst open and the rain beat a steady tattoo on the water’s surface, everyone laughed and screamed out in surprise. Surprisingly, everyone stayed as they were – enjoying themselves on either the dry boat or the rolling waves.

Thankfully, the sun decided to have mercy on us. Winds pushed the heavy clouds away, and warm rays of light reflected on the water. It was then that I joined those in the ocean. First joining the sun-soakers on the rafting tube, I switched to swimming with a colorful noodle before finally asking for a turn on the paddleboard. One impressive athlete had spent a significant portion of the afternoon encouraging others to try the sport, teaching them techniques and offering supportive words. Following the advice I had heard her dole out to others, I utilised my core and kept my knees slightly bent. For my first time on the paddleboard, things weren’t too bad. I fell all of twice and got back on by myself, even accomplishing two circuits around the junk boat. Without the aid of my glasses, on the second circuit I overestimated the boat’s distance and accidentally paddled to a different boat! The partygoers on the stranger ship were very understanding, encouraging me on as I slowly and steadily course-corrected back to my group.

We spent the rest of the day in typical junk trip fashion, eating foods we had all brought and drinking what had been prepared and purchased. Homemade tortilla wraps, chocolate and vanilla cake, sushi rolls, copious bags of crisps, cold beers, champagne, prosecco, and sangria all came together to form the most perfect food babies in our stomachs. Exhausted from the sun, the sport, and the food, the boat headed back to shore at around six in the afternoon.

Spending over six hours together, the time flew by in easy conversation, good food and great weather. At only 6,500 HKD (around 830 USD) for all sixteen of us, the day’s value was far more than the money we all put into making it possible.

Busan’s Own Machu Picchu

Busan, South Korea’s second largest city, is comprised of staggering hillsides and narrow flatlands sit on the East Sea coastline. In the late stages of the Joseon Era (1392 – 1897), ports were opened in this seaside city. Given its strategic location, Busan was an economically sound starting point for businesses to transport their goods to parts of Korea and Japan at low cost. This led to a long and continuing history of economic prosperity.

During the Japanese Occupation of Korea (1910 – 1945), Busan’s flatlands and hillside zones were officially segregated into Japanese and Korean territories, respectively. With the opening of the ports and the birth of a factory economy in the early 1900s, Koreans of all socioeconomic backgrounds flocked to the city. Merchants hoped to make their fortunes in the ports, and farmers and peasants came in search of a better life. Many merchants’ entrepreneurial efforts failed, and they were forced to live in the less costly hillside areas. Their neighbours, once countryside workers, were now labourers and factory hands. As the colonial city developed, many more Koreans were relegated to the hillsides. These areas at once isolated certain groups of people and helped them create communities in which they found peace and comfort.

Following the devastation of the Korean War (25th June 1950 – 27th July 1953), Gamcheon Village was established as a refuge for those displaced by the chaos. In its early days, Gamcheon was a hastily built shanty town. As the years went on, brick houses were constructed and the village expanded.

In 2009, the South Korean government wanted to cast positive attention on Busan’s hillside villages. To do this, they created the “Gamcheon Village Art Project”. Developed by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the initiative was a call to local artists to transform the village into a national gem. Paid for through public funding from these branches of government, the 2 – 3.5 billion KRW project (approximately 1.7 – 2.9 million USD) has aided in the artistic evolution of many villages, Gamcheon being one of them. For their work on Gamcheon, artists embraced the theme, “Dreaming of Busan Machu Picchu”. Sitting between two hills, Gamcheon’s distinctive look of levelled and stacked houses makes it easy to see the general comparison between the village and the ancient Incan citadel.

The art project was a resounding success. Its visually appealing alleyways and walls decorated with murals, sculptures, and art installations, draw in almost two million visitors every year. Work on Gamcheon was restarted in 2012, and is an ongoing project to this day. Ever-changing and ever-beautiful, no two experiences are the same. Having explored the colourful site myself, here are Five Reasons to See Gamcheon Culture Village.

Take in the Street Art

From the get-go, the culture village is a place where your eyes always have something to admire.  Near the start of the main road, a charming mural of a clear blue sky overtakes the entire side of a building. Called “Gifts from Heaven”, the mural features looming buildings surrounding the frame as brightly coloured gifts fall from the sky above. These are imagined presents from Santa Claus for the local community. In this way, the mural was designed as a visual representation of Gamcheon Culture Village’s festive nature. Another stunning creation is Jin Yeong-seop“Fish Crisscross an Alley” – a narrow alley is a communication channel for the villagers, a laundry place for mothers and a front yard for families. The free movement of fish infuses vitality into what would otherwise be an unremarkable urban space.

Strike a Pose

Le Petit Prince

In 1943, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, an accomplished French aristocrat, had no idea that he was about to captivate the world. Confronting difficult themes of our place in an-ever changing world, Le Petit Prince resonates with readers of all ages through fantastical imagery and deep contemplation.

In Gamcheon Culture Village, the spiky-haired prince sits on a short column that overlooks the residential districts and the ports beyond. The fox sits a ways from him, a space neatly arranged between the two that is perfect for whimsical photographs.

The Lighthouse

Every port city needs a lighthouse, and Gamcheon is more than happy to oblige. Located close to the contemplative prince, a one-story building shaped in the likeness of a lighthouse, is a great stop for those who appreciate nautical aesthetics. Clever illusion painting gives the impression that the single room space is larger than it is. A single rectangle, cut out of the middle of the three-walled construction, gives a perfectly framed view of the sea.

The Harry Potter Stairs

Its name alone has visitors flocking to the book-like staircase. Cheon Doeok-Suthe “Wish wells story” – was inspired by local lore about a young man whose faith and dogged determination rescued the village. When droughts ravaged the country, streams dried up and the skies were empty of clouds. Everyone in the village was suffering. A young man wanted to change this. Fighting his hunger and thirst, he began digging a well. His neighbours and loved ones begged him to stop, saying that he was wasting his efforts. But he persisted, working through hot days and long nights. When he could work no more, the young man collapsed to the ground. Looking up to the sky, he begged God to give him a lifetime of pain, if He would promise to take such pain away from others. Touched by this youth’s selflessness, the skies opened and rain poured down onto the village. The enchanting staircase, holding literary wonders such as JK Rowling’s “Harry Potter”, Stephen King’s “The Shawshank Redemption”, and Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot”, these book titles lead visitors up to the well, which has never been dry.

Stay Cool in a Cute Café

There is no shortage of cafés in Gamcheon Culture Village. Shying away from the peak of summer sun, we relaxed in the cool air conditioning of Star Child Café. Located near Grand Budapest Doll Hotel, the café windows provide marvellous views of the staggered houses. Charming murals decorate the white walls, from a brunette princess whose flowing hair flies over an open window, to a giant heart of varying shades of pink with the word “Love” in its centre. Enjoying fresh smoothies and energising ourselves with cups of coffee, we admired Star Child’s quaint charm as we waited for the peak of the afternoon heat to pass.

Support Local Artists

There are a number of galleries and independent shops scattered throughout the village. Selling handmade jewellery, candles, clothing, and postcards, visitors can experience the double joy of supporting local artists and purchasing unique souvenirs to remember their visit.

My personal favourite was WiGilho Gallery. Founded and designed by printmaker and illustrator Gilho Wi, his designs capture the local culture of life for people who live by the Korean harbour. Much of Korea’s history is linked to the sea, as the ocean surrounds all of the country – excepting the north. People hoping for a better future, escaping rural poverty, and fleeing the conflicts of war made their homes in the Korean south. Wi is an admirer of the distinctive landscape that port-side cities provide. Not wishing for the challenging history associated with these cities to fade from modern recognition, Wi uses bold colours and exotic traces to call attention to the culture and history of places such as Gamcheon Culture Village.

Get Lost

The best way to see the village is to lose yourself in it. A blend of tourist spots and local residential housing, the spirit of the village is alive in the smiling faces of its elderly, and the entrepreneurial spirit of artists who have helped bring funding and global support to this small corner of the world. Back alleys and staircases run through the village like small veins, each connecting you to local and tourist spots and offering different perspectives of this growing community.

Things to Know Before You Go

Ride, Don’t Walk

Gamcheon Culture Village is, above all things, a hillside community. Beyond its array of colours, it is not an easy stroll to what some call “South Korea’s Santorini”. Taxi drivers in the area are all familiar with the village. From Toseong, the closest metro stop, the fifteen-minute uphill drive cost approximately 4500 KRW – a very reasonable 3.7 USD.  

A fun afternoon

With photo-taking, wandering, and eating the local food, Gamcheon Culture Village is a great place to spend anywhere between one to three hours in the afternoon. Open year-round, I highly recommend visiting the area between three and four in the afternoon. The worst of the day’s heat is done, and you’ll also be able to admire the sunset bathe the village and set the colours alight.

Remember it’s a Neighbourhood

Due to its international acclaim, it can be easy to forget that people still live in the village. Be mindful of its residents. Ask before taking photos of people and their pets, and remember to keep your voices down so as not to disturb people in their daily lives.

A village built for survival, Gamcheon Culture Village has helped to elevate South Korea’s second-largest city to a cultural hub that welcomes visitors from both near and far. If you’re a fan of stunning photos and handmade crafts, give Gamcheon Culture village a try!

Stepping into Van Gogh’s France

You don’t need to leave Asia to immerse yourself in Parisian charm. In the heart of Seoul’s shopping district, Dongdaemon, L’Atelier occupies the eleventh floor of the Hyundai City Outlet. Outside the miniature Paris, a young woman wearing a nineteenth-century inspired dress directed us to a curtained wall. In seconds, the grand curtains were drawn, revealing a grand door. A regal voice blares above visitors, going over the finer points of the visit and reminding you to enjoy the experience. Then the double doors swept open. A visual masterpiece that shows its audience Paris as famous painters saw the city, the site is divided into five unmissable sections named after real locations in the City of Love.

Five sections of l’atelier

Moving Pictures and Charming Streets

Stepping inside, we left the modern world behind and entered an idealized nineteenth-century Parisian square called the Place de Tetre. The flooring is decorated to give the appearance of cobblestone. To our left is “Patisserie Gloppe”, a quintessentially French bakery café displaying fresh bread on the left and allowing a peak into the café on the right. Like much of the immersive installation, animated videos of people in nineteeth-century attire and settings add authenticity and a sense of life beyond a visitor’s personal experience. Across from it sits “Boutique Paquin”. Looking through the window, you can see middle-class women preparing for a hat-making course. These two store facades immediately set visitors into an understanding of what the L’Atelier experience will be like.

Past the Place de Tetre sits a room of static and moving portraits. L’Atelier Gallery showcases artistic heavyweights. Largely featuring accurate remakes of Paul Gauguin’s portraits, the gallery adds a sense of magic with animation bringing the works of Van Gogh and Degas to life; the postman shuffling as he watches the audience and the ballerinas stretching and twirling on stage.

The Artists’ District

Taking a glimpse into an artist’s creative space, visitors weave single-file through the art studio of Maurice Utrillo. Paint tubes, finished canvases, and empty bottles lie throughout the studio in their own specific spaces, an organized chaos that many see as synonymous with an imaginative mind. Bridging the space between L’Atelier Gallery and Montmartre, the decision to stage Utrillo’s workspace specifically is an ode to the French district that lies ahead. Born in Montmartre, much of his work comprised of cityscapes of the Paris he loved.

Flowers at La Madeleine

With a sunset comprised of bold shades of purples, pinks, and oranges, the sky blends together in an artist’s passionate strokes. Flower stalls stand to either side, their bright colours tinted an orange-red from the setting sun. Tables stand in the middle of the space, visitors either reading the free French gazette or colouring in the masterful scenes created by their favourite artists. A neat row of vibrantly painted shelving units hold dainty pots of flowers and plants, curating the natural beauty and giving it new context.

In the Musée de I’Orangerie, Monet’s garden landscapes come to life. Starting in a blank white hexagonal room, the sounds of chirping birds and trickling rivers fill the air as the walls and floor become flooded with the moving images of Monet’s work. Butterflies scuttle here and there, lily pads shift their course, and fish deftly avoid the moving feet of awestruck visitors. Led through some of his most renowned works on springtime France,  the interactive experience provides audience members with new appreciation for the country-loving painter.

Uncovering the Man Behind the Masterpieces

In the Place Lamartine, a veil is lifted from the mysteries surrounding Van Gogh’s character. In “The Study of Emile Zola”, a time-travelling historian discusses some of the Dutch painter’s most famous works, such as “Sunflowers” and “Starry Night”. He interviews miniaturized versions of people who were at the periphery of Van Gogh’s life, such as his stern but fair landlady and the postman who regularly delivered correspondence between the brothers. Giving no sign that his discussions with these Lilliputian characters – impressive CGI that interact with the spaces and objects around them – are peculiar, the audience is drawn into the strangeness of the setup. As such, the subject matter discussed, Van Gogh’s perceived peculiarity to his contemporaries, is normal by comparison.

Further along, visitors can head into an impressively large square. Here sits The Yellow House, a lodging in Place Lamartine. Briefly, Van Gogh had rented four rooms in the house, capturing it in a series of paintings. One of these showcases his bedroom, which has been lovingly recreated for the curious to explore. The bedroom is sparsely decorated. Laregly engulfed in shadows, its main features are a single bed, a worn jacket that hangs on the wall, a rickety chair, and a blank easel.

The easel is brought to audience’s attention in “Van Gogh’s Dream”. A charming musical of Van Gogh’s journey through France and his wondrous vision of the world, the thirty-minute musical paints the cityscape in his overlapping brushstrokes, giving character to even something as inconsequential as the floor below our feet. Using a mixture of live action and CGI, the transitions are easy to follow as the character of Van Gogh sticks to a uniform of brown slacks, a blue sweater, and straw hat throughout. Never forgetting the love of his work, the actor is earnest and tender in his portrayal of a troubled artist loved after his time.

A Starry Ending

The twilight of L’Atelier, the lights are dimmed low in the Place du Forum, stars shining on CGI streets and street lamps glowing in warm tones. Here lies the Café Terrace at Night, a renowned Van Gogh portrait. Tables and chairs lie on the cobbled streets and the café’s wooden porch. In the distance, a CGI figure that bears a striking resemblance to the misunderstood artist is busy at work capturing the scene.

Across from the outdoor setting is the Night Café, its interior a burgundy red room crowded with more tables and chairs. It is reminiscent of the bar Van Gogh would visit. Here, much as it would have been in his time, “absinthe” is on offer – its true nature a sugary cocktail drink. “Van Gogh’s coffee”, black caffeine local to the region, would have been all the poor painter could have afforded when he wasn’t inclined to imbibe in heavier substances.

Beyond the café’s lies the post office, a common sight for Van Gogh, who wrote to his brother often. Covering Vincent’s basic living costs, Theo Van Gogh believed in his brother’s work and was one of the few to advocate for it. While their connection was tense, their love for each other was unconditional. A few months after Vincent’s death, Theo himself passed away.

Things to Know Before You Go

Shows Run All Day

Three minutes prior to each show – “Van Gogh’s Dream”, “The Study of Emile Zola”, and “Monet’s Garden” -, exhibit workers in Period-inspired clothing will walk around the area and announce the show’s beginning soon. Shows run from ten in the morning to six at night, so if you miss one, take the chance to wander around the area until the next show is ready!

Everything is in Korean

If Korean is not your mother tongue, fear not! Prior to entering L’Atelier, visitors can download the app on their mobile devices. Here, free English audio guides are available so that guests may enjoy and understand the France that their favourite artists loved.

Bring a Sweater

At the risk of sounding like a Mother Hen, it is better to bring one than wish you did! Set completely indoors, L’Atelier is not afraid of using air conditioning. At times mimicking the autumn and winter months, it is best to bring something to keep yourself bundled up.

If the swirling patterns and lively colour palettes of Vincent Van Gogh speak to you, a visit to Seoul would be incomplete without a day spent in L’Atelier!

Ancient Beauty in Modern Seoul

The second of five palaces built in the Joseon Dynasty, Changdeokgung Palace’s architecture is unique in its intentional harmony with the surrounding environment. Its name directly translates to “Prospering Virtue Palace”. The approximately 58-hectare complex has weathered political revolts and wars. Though architects could have modernised its design during various stages of reconstruction, the palace grounds were always rebuilt in accordance to their original design. Thanks to this appreciation for Joseon-era architecture, Changdeokgung Palace is an oft referred to example of traditional Korea’s beauty.

Building It Up

In 1405 Emperor Taejong (third emperor of the Joseon Dynasty) built the new palace Changdeokgung, a physical symbol of his decision to change the country’s capital from Gaegyeong (modern Kaesong) to Hanseong (now known as Seoul). Construction of the palace complex was finished in seven years. Over a century later, the fourteenth emperor of the Joseon Dynasty, Seonjo, expanded the palace. His additions to the complex included Huwon. Nicknamed the “Secret Garden”, it is nestled at the rear of the complex and houses more than 56,000 different specimens of trees and plants.

The front view of Donhwamun, the main gate

Fights and Fires

In 1592, Japan invaded Korea in aggressive moves that sparked the Imjin War (1592 – 1598). Imperial Regent Toyotomi Hieyoshi met initial success, conquering significant portions of the Korean Peninsula. Shook by the increasing presence of the Japanese army, the royal family fled from Changdeokgung. The citizens of Hanseong were livid. Feeling abandoned by their monarchy, they marched to the complex and burnt the palace down. The damage was repaired in 1611, its reconstruction ordered by Emperor Gwanghaegun two years prior.

This hard work was soon ruined. In 1623 the palace was set aflame. Despite being a skilled administrator and diplomat, Gwanghaegun was widely unpopular. Neither the first-born nor legitimate son of Emperor Seonjo, Gwanghaegun was Seonjo’s second son, born to his father’s concubine, Kim Gyeongbin. The Greater Northern faction suppressed views against their monarch. To silence those disputing Gwanghaegun’s rule, Prince Imhae, Seojo’s oldest son, and Grand Prince Yeongchang, the Queen’s son, were killed. Infuriated by their illegitimate monarch and his supporters, the Western faction staged a coup. The palace was destroyed, Gwanghaegun was exiled to Jeju Island, and two leaders of the Greater Northern faction were murdered. Injo, Seojo’s grandson, was crowned and became the Western faction’s puppet.

Injeongjeon, the Throne Hall

Pungsu-jiri-seol, Korea’s answer to Chinese Feng Shui

Translating to “wind-water-earth-principles theory”, Pungsu principles are a study in geomancy – the art of arranging sites to draw from the auspicious aspects of the natural environment. Changdeokgung palace was built in accordance to these beliefs. Behind the complex lies the peak of Mt. Bugaksan, the main guardian mountain for the area. In front of the palace, river Geumcheon steadily runs along. Also in agreement with Confucian ideology, the overall style and layout of the palace grounds are relatively simplistic. This compatibility with the environment makes Changdeokgung unique among Seoul’s palaces.

While the location harmonises with nature, the buildings align with traditional palace composition. They are wooden constructions atop stone foundations, largely consisting of tiled roofs and aesthetic additions such as corbels and carvings. Utilising the principles of “sammun samjo”, there are three main gates:

Donhwamun, the main gate, is a two-storey wooden pavilion. Built in 1412, it was set on fire during the Imjin War and restored in 1608.

Jinseonmun, the middle gate. Before it lies Geumcheongyo Bridge, built in 1411 and the oldest bridge in Seoul.

Injeongmun was built in 1405 during Emperor Taejo’s reign. It precedes the throne hall, for which it shares a name.

Two modern princesses posing inside Nakseonjae Complex

and three main courts:

Huijeongdang, the administrative court. Originally the emperor’s private chambers, daily meetings were shifted here from Seongjeongjeon when more space was needed to discuss matters of state.

Nakseonjae, the royal residential court. In 1847, Emperor Heonjong built the residential compound. It was separated from the rest of the complex, having been built for his concubine, Kim Gyeongbin.

Injeongjeon, the official audience court. It is a two-storey building where the emperor conducted official business and received foreign visitors. Its construction was part of the original development in 1405.

Must-See Sights

If time is of the essence, here are structures of Changdeokgung that capture the spirit, style, and history of the awe-inspiring compound.

Among the Palace Buildings

Injeongjeon, the throne hall, was built in the fifth year of Emperor Taejong’s reign. It was among those destroyed by fire in the Imjin War. Approximately two centuries later, Injeongjeon was ruined by fire once again. In 1804, Emperor Sunjo ordered the hall’s repair. Aside from being used for official duties and meetings with visiting dignitaries, the grand hall was also a site of commemoration. Many coronation ceremonies were held within it, and when the royal family found cause for celebration, their festivities would take place in Injeongjeon.

Seonjeongjeon began as the meeting point for the emperor and government representatives to talk about state affairs. A narrow corridor connects Seonjeongjeon to Seonjeongmun gate. This corridor was used in the funeral procession when the building was reestablished as a royal shrine.

While Huijeongdang, the administrative court, retains its traditional Korean exterior, its interior is a reflection of Western tastes from the early twentieth century. A fire ruined most of its interior in 1917. Occurring in the early years of Japanese occupation of Korea (which lasted from 1910 – 1945), the Japanese government reconstructed Huijeongdang’s inner workings with modern amenities such as wooden floors, electricity, glass windows, and curtains. In this way, Huijeongdang is unique to all other buildings within Changdeokgung.

A true labour of love, Nakseonjae Complex was intended as a place that Kim could call her own, free from the prying eyes of the court. After Emperor Heonjong’s first wife died, his mother Queen Sunwon arranged the selection of brides for her son to choose from. Among these accomplished and beautiful women, Heonjong was most interested in Kim Gyeongbin. But his mother preferred another, Hyojeong. And so his mother’s choice became the emperor’s second wife. When it she could not conceive, a concubine was needed to produce an heir. Gyeongbin was brought in, and Nakseonjae was built. Overlooking the lower palace grounds, the simple and elegant complex was opened to the public in 2006.

Within Huwon

Previously known as Geumwon (“Forbidden Garden”) and Naewon (“Inner Garden”), the large garden holds pavilions, ponds, and carefully maintained trees, flowers, and lawns. 32 hectares in size, the garden was accessible only to the royal family. Excepting the military, which performed inspections and parades at the emperor’s behest, few were allowed to wander its magnificent grounds.

The first stop in the Secret Garden Tour, Buyongji Pond and Juhamnu Pavilion are remarkable in style. The pond sits before Juhanmnu Pavilion, a two-floor structure. Its construction coincided with emperor Jeongjo’s ascension in 1776. The first floor comprises of Gyujanggak, the Royal library. Heading up to the second floor, the reading room overlooks the tranquil pond. A gate named Eosumun sits before the pavilion. Its name is derived from the Korean adage, “su eo ji gyo” (水鱼之交), meaning that like fish and water, the emperor is inseparable from his people.

Due to the heat and humidity, our tour of Huwon was abridged from an hour to forty minutes. Jondeokjeong Pavilion was our last sight, and one that ended the tour on a high note. Built in 1644, Jondeokjeong is the oldest of the palace pavilions. A solid wooden structure with a tiled roof and pillars painted red, the inner ceiling is decorated with twin dragons bearing cintamani, a wish-fulfilling jewel found in Buddhist and Hindu traditions. A powerful symbol of compassion and knowledge, it is suggested that this design reflects Jeongjo’s desire for a return to emperor’s holding full royal authority.

Things to Know Before you go

Remember to Buy a Ticket for the Palace and the Garden

Simply purchasing a ticket to the palace grounds limits you to seeing only the first third of the entire Changdeokgung. To see Huwon as well, you have to pay extra. Definitely worth the price of admission, in cooler temperatures the tour covers the entire garden, with the guide spending between an hour to an hour and a half discussing its history and giving people plenty of time to get that perfect picture.

Wear Comfy Shoes

We spent an entire day exploring the palace grounds, and our feet certainly let us feel it the next day! Most of the path is a mixture of concrete and dry, compressed dirt, both of which put a strain on your feet after some time. If you start to feel aches and pains, give yourself a moment to stretch your hamstrings before continuing on.

Changdeokgung reflected inside Hongsigung café

Eat Out

There is all of one café located inside Changdeokgung (a small establishment that shares a space with the gift shop), but fear not. Once you’ve purchased a ticket, visitors are allowed to leave and re-enter. To break up the palace grounds into manageable portions, I recommend wandering the surrounding area for a bite to eat. We took a break from the Korean sun in Hongsigung. Situated on the second floor, the café offers a clear view of the palace’s outer walls and a sneak peak of its tiled roofs. Its interior, a powerful contrast of concrete, wood, grey tiles, and marble tabletops, tall plants scattered around the area add to its intriguing atmosphere.

Bring Water

The large palace complex provides water in all of two areas – the gift shop and a water fountain located at the foot of the entrance to the Secret Garden. Water bottles are allowed inside, so bring as much as needed for a day out.

I hope you’ve found this information fun and informative, and wish you luck on your travels – feel free to share your experiences, a traveler’s world never has too many stories!

Glasgow: Good for a Wander

Spending almost a month in the city of Glasgow, the time flew by. Venturing into the city centre as often as possible, I always made sure to wear boots made for walking as I explored the cityscape of the Dear Green Place.

From the get-go, Glasgow stunned me with the familiarity of its metropolitan manner. Throughout the entirety of my stay, I couldn’t help but feel as if the city was an old acquaintance, someone I’d known once before who was at once recognisable and mysterious. It started, as it so often does, with food. Standing at the street corner just a few metres from the train station was a sight I thought I’d never see in the UK. The unmistakeable red and white of the Tim Horton’s brand called my name. Who was I to ignore her siren call? In my extended stay, I visited the Canadian coffee chain at least a dozen times.

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All that sugar and caffeine fuelled me for the long strolls around the city. Most exciting was discovering the various murals adorning buildings. Created in 2008, Glasgow Council developed the City Centre Mural Trail, an exciting way to explore all four corners of the city’s downtown sector. Leading you through main roads and narrow alleyways, the trail is an exciting way to experience Glasgow, a fantastic activity that is enjoyable in both daylight and moonlight.

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Of course, coffee alone wasn’t able to sustain me. While enjoying the mural walk, I stumbled upon an establishment that called out to my love for Japanese animation. Located on Saltmarket street, R-CADE is the city’s first retro arcade gaming café. Fun for all ages, playing sessions at R-CADE are charged by the half-hour or hour at amazingly affordable flat rates covering all the games in the store. Numerous gaming consoles are in play here, including Nintendo 64, Sega Saturn, Xbox 360, and Atari 2600. Between gaming sessions, the café boasts a number of Asian comfort foods. I enjoyed vegetable and pork steamed gyoza, a cup of Instant Noodles, and a warm mug of green tea as I chatted with the staff, who were eager to talk about the store and what made them interested in Asian gaming and animation.

Meeting fascinating people and testing the limits of the soles of my shoes, Glasgow is a city I’d happily wander around with camera in hand and an eager smile.

The Long-Ago Charms of Valletta

Starting off our island vacation with the slow, easy pace of a turtle with time, we began our first full Maltese day at noon. Leaving our accommodations, the weather was wonderful. The sun was high in the sky, warm rays of light causing us to shed off our coats. A strong wind kept things interesting. In response, our steps were steadier, filled with the determined purpose of people with places to go and things to see. We joined many others in waiting for the ferry to Valletta. Arriving every fifteen minutes, we had just enough time to spread our arms wide and engage in photosynthesis. Even in the middle of December, many people were exploring the beautiful island. I couldn’t blame them. While temperatures remained comparable to Europe, the sun and the stunning sights made it feel like summer. The ferry ride was all we could have hoped for. Short and stunning, at the low cost of 2.80€ for a return ticket, we certainly got our money’s worth simply by wandering around.

Valleta is a district to be enjoyed at all angles. From street view to sky, there is always something to captivate you. The rolling nature of Valletta’s steep streets gave us a proper workout. We were both glad to have worn shoes fit for the task. Our walk around the district comprised of many short breaks. Stopping to admire and capture the beauty of its architecture, the day was spent discussing our favourite parts of each building and imagining the charmed lives of the people who had the good fortune to call this island home.

Alongside exquisite residential architecture, Valletta is a place proudly preserving its cultural past. Of these gems, our favourite was St. John’s Co-Cathedral. Located in the city centre, the Roman Catholic Co-Cathedral was constructed in the late 16th century between 1572 and 1577. Unique to St. John’s are its inlaid marble tombstones. Covering most of the flooring, these tombstones celebrate the lives of Knights of the Order, as well as illustrious aristocratic families of Europe. Immaculately preserved, these marble slabs are cordoned off, lest the details get worn away over time.

Most impressive were the portraits detailing the ceiling. Framed in gold and with shocking detail and expressive colours noticeable even at ground level, the ceilings were a tribute to the artistic talents of the 16th century, a solemn nod to the painters and carpenters that made such awe inspiring works bring even more life and admiration into these houses of worship.

After a day of admiring the beauty that Valletta had to offer, we stepped back in time for dinner. A space enshrined in the beauty and simplicity of the 1940s, Jubilee’s Café was exactly what we needed. Reasonably priced, most of the dishes came at under 10€ each. I ordered the lampuki – a fish native to Malta’s waters , more commonly referred to as mahi-mahi – pie and an infusion of ginger, lemon, and green tea. After a long day of walking and photographing, this hearty meal hit the spot. So hungry after our wandering, we finished our meals in half an hour, heartily thanking the staff for the energising meal.

If cities that belong in fantasy novels are your cup of tea, Valletta is definitely a place to see.

Going Around the Getty: A Beautiful Day Seeing Art in LA

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With the sky a perfect shade of blue and the occasional breeze complimenting the warm rays of the sun, my Saturday in LA was too lovely to stay indoors. Easily making my way to the hillside site of the Getty Centre, a free tram system led visitors from the foot of the hill to the museum entrance. Even though I arrived half an hour prior to opening time, the line was considerably long. People mostly came in groups, and all wielded a camera to capture their favourite pieces for posterity.

What I enjoyed most about the museum was how it shifted between eras and genres of art; from Renaissance theistic art to Roman-Greek statues, furniture from Versailles, a modern installation on the changing nature of the written word, and even a cactus garden. There was something for everyone, and not a soul I passed was without a smile.

There is always something to be gained from exposing yourself to the past. In art, something fantastic and awe-inspiring can be discovered in any and all forms. There is always wonderful to be discovered within weird. Through enjoying varieties of art, maybe you’ll find a way to enjoy parts of yourself you’re less certain of.