Choose Your Poison Wisely


It is worthwhile to always know where you are going, and this is especially the case when travelling. I’m not suggesting you do something peculiar like making an itinerary or researching places to stay and see, I’m suggesting that you are aware of what you are letting yourself into. You can look at this from the point of view that you should at least have an inkling of the environment ahead, or have absolutely no comprehension of what to expect. I’m a fan of the latter.

I’ve done a bit of travel in my short amount of years on this earth, most it of it independently, and I think it would be an accurate enough to claim that I’ve never really known what was in front of me. When I first went to Korea in 2005 I had no idea what lay ahead. I glanced through a lonely planet and looked at a few pictures online. I had also heard that Koreans were known for liking a drink, which appealed to the gusto of my age at that time. But that was it, and so I tumbled headfirst into that country and nine years later I’m still tumbling, albeit with a little more composure.

I attach my successful acclimatisation to Korea to this blind dive I took. I think that I had such a lucky streak that I have considered this the best way to approach anything. I travelled down through China and into Laos and then Thailand all overland after my first contract in 2006. I followed this ‘we’ll work it out when we get there’ strategy to the letter, and while I had a great time, Herself back in Korea was none too keen on this randomised approach to independent travel.

In Chiang Mai now, I’m witnessing the second factor in this notion that we should be aware of what we are letting ourselves into. We chose Chiang Mai because we knew it was a big town, with plenty to see and a comfortable enough lifestyle for those who chose to live here. We don’t really have an income, but we’re staying in a small apartment complex with a swimming pool and in decent proximity to much of what we’d like to entertain ourselves with. Did I mention the weather is lovely?

So what of it? Well it’s Thailand, right, so what should you expect? I for one wasn’t one hundred per cent sure, but I’ve lived and travelled in Asia a fair amount since 2009, so I think it would take a good whack of Asia to really knock me off my feet. What we always expect is that Asia will be this different place, full of mysticism, spirtuality, tradition, and I dare say, inspiration.

When I first came to Korea I was definitely without mysticism, spirituality, tradition, and certainly inspiration. I couldn’t say now that I came looking for it either, but I know that I have certainly found them, that’s not to say that I actually care for all of them. Inspiration however has been a major factor in my life since I came to Korea, and it is without doubt one of the most important changes I believe to have experienced since I arrived here.

If you arrive in Asia, you can’t expect to find all these wonderful life changing moments waiting for you as you disembark. For anyone considering a journey east, I beg you to look at the demographics. The populations for many Asian countries dwarf western countries. There are obvious cases like China and India, but even without considering them Japan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia all have well over 100 million inhabitants, the combined population of the two Koreas is larger than that of Germany. While I’m talking about this you’ve got Vietnam and The Phillippines with over 90 million people, and even Thailand has a larger population than France. So what’s my point? When you have this many people living together, what do you expect? If you’re still thinking mysticism, spirituality, and tradition then perhaps you should stay where you are for the time being.

In reality, what you’re supposed to be expecting, in reality is urban squalor, poverty and wealth face to face with each other, pollution, commercialism, greed, violence, and invariably western influences. All of these are mixed in somewhere with all these things you expect, and you can find them, but expect to step over a few open sewers and drunks fighting in the street on your way to get to it.

While of course there is plenty of tradition in modern Asia, what makes it different and more complicated now is that it is not only western countries which are experiencing multicultural challenges. Religions mix in capital cities, rural people welcome city dwellers, developement changes long established patterns of life, and for the visitor familiarity is all to present. You will often here terms such as globalisation bandied about, and I suppose you can argue that this is a good example of it, whatever this is of course, but to accept this concept of globalisation now is to accept that it has always been a factor as long as humans have been living together, just on a smaller scale, it’s just a question of recognising how large your world actually is.

I suppose that is why we came to Chiang Mai for two months. It was of course an escape from the cold (albeit not that cold compared to the few people from Mongolia who are also here) but also to try something we’ve always talked about doing. We came without a plan, other than to be here, and we came to enjoy a time which may be our last opportunity to do so. There is nothing to discover here. There is no search for some kind of beauty or new sense of self.  There is just a chance to be part of a greater world.

If we find inspiration here I suppose we are all the better for it. I prefer to look on this situation to see if we actually get more things done. Productivity is its own kind of inspiration and the mind works quicker and stronger when it is busy and active thinking with direction. A holiday or a change of location can help this, but getting stuck into your experiences is nothing but good food for inspiration. My point is, if you come looking to find it you won’t, but if you come just looking then you will probably find something, whether you expect it or not.

In the end, time will cure the ills brought on by your decisions.

 

Words and photographs © Conor O’Reilly January 2014. All rights reserved.

Is it December Already?


So now that Halloween is over we can all start getting our Christmas decorations down and checking the fairy lights are all working. While we’re at it, order a turkey, and for christ’s sake start knitting that jumper, there’s a 12 Pubs of Christmas on somewhere…

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Is it a bit early to be joking about this?

The thing is I can titter to myself, but I know that for a fact this is how things might as well be. Christmas is a bigger and bigger ordeal as each year passes. The lights in the cities go up earlier, there are more and more elaborate Santa’s grottos in supermarkets, and for some reason many people’s livers do not collapse, despite the increased effort.

If I was back in Ireland I could probably complain about this. But I’m not. I’m in Korea. So if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to invite you, my humble reader to celebrate this phenomenon.

In case you haven’t already noticed, preparations for the Christmas period are already in motion. Not more than two or three weeks ago I was in Costco and not one Halloween thing-a-majig did I see. However, Christmas trees and cribs to abandon were in stock. One crib, which to my eye was a walk-in one, had statues of the shepherds, wise men, Joseph, and Mary, not to mention the assorted livestock which usually comes with these things, all of which would have dwarfed little +1 at full stretch.

In starbucks yesterday, November 1st lest we not forget, they had rolled out their red Christmas campaign with all their Christmas flavoured coffees and whatnot over heating from too much cream and chocolate sprinkles. And this afternoon in Emart, the Korean supermarket chain, there was even a small section of plastic Christmas trees and flashing Santa Clauses.

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There are a couple of reasons why this doesn’t make me irate.

First of all there are more important things to get angry about.

Second of all, I kind of expect it so what is the point of getting angry about it – I wish I could say the same for driving standards in Yeongtong…

Thirdly, it’s Korea.

“What? That’s not a very good third excuse”, I hear you chirp.

Well it is. Korea is not a Christmas country. When I think family and holiday in Korea I think Chuseok and Seolal. When I hear Christmas in Korea I hear day off and drinking. Wait. That sounds the same as an Irish Christmas.

When I first came to Korea in 2005 I was lucky to even see the colours red and white together. I lived near a McDonalds which kind of helped me realise it was Christmas, but otherwise there was hardly any wind of it in the Seoul air. By 2008 I was living in Itaewon and you could kind of pick up on it a bit. I was also working in a much bigger school so they pushed the western holidays or whatever a little more, so I was reminded of Christmas somewhat more.

Around that time, someone in Seoul City Hall had the bright idea that fairy lights all over the place made the city look nice in the dark of winter, so Seoul suddenly looked like it was all lit up for Christmas. Of course these lights persisted until February, but in early Decemeber you could be forgiven for feeling the Christmas mood.

Despite this history of Christmas in Korea, my main thought still is that Christmas isn’t a Korean holiday, and any attempt to celebrate it isn’t going to match the ideas we have of Christmas in our own western homes. It’s not a family holiday for starters, and it’s certainly not one that many Koreans look back on with any amount of nostalgia. Now, you do see some kids getting Christmas presents from Santa Claus, and there’s that phenomenon of couples going to Myeong-dong on Christmas Day, but aside from that… oh yeah, don’t forget the twenty million or so Christians in the country (but since when has Christmas been about Christianity, right?).

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If you want to get an idea for where Christmas stands, maybe you should look at Halloween, which for some reason is called Halloween Day (yeah, I know…). There is no resemblance between the Halloweens in Korea and any of the Halloweens in Ireland I remember. For starters where is the abject fear of teenagers in the streets after dark? I could go on.

There is little point in growling about how Christmas is celebrated here. It’s like a Korean in Ireland complaining about how they just don’t do Chuseok like they do back home. And anyway, the fact that the commercial aspect is sneaking into popular culture should be comfort enough, seeing as it’s probably the most dominant feature of a typical western Christmas.

For me, I can find Christmas in Korea a very lonely time, even with a fantastic wife and now and amazing little daughter to keep me company, but I’ve never found a comparable comfort in the Christmas that Korea provides. That doesn’t mean that I don’t celebrate it. I’ve tried different things and always had a great time, but it’s not what I’d liken to Christmas. This doesn’t make it a bad thing.

The way I see it is there are two holidays here, one in the place it originated, and one attempt to liken it. Neither are wrong, neither will every be better, neither will ever suppress the other. Sure one may be more commercially driven than the other, or vice-versa.

So this December as I’m gradually getting used to red Starbucks signs and cups, mispronounced children’s Christmas songs, I’ll be happy knowing that at least there is something here that helps me get on with another year. What matters to me more than anything is, like any celebration, is who you spend it with and what you do, not what everyone else does.