Buddha’s Birthday at 반야사


The nearest Buddhist temple to our place is just across the road. In fact I pass it every time I go to work. It’s small and hidden up a small hill behind ample tree cover. In fact you’d miss it completely if it were for the multicoloured lanterns which line the street from early April, lanterns which are of course in anticipation of today, Buddha’s Birthday.

I’m inclined to think that Buddha’s Birthday is one of the nicer holidays in Korea, where the majority are made up of celebrations for independence and the constitution and such like. Granted that they are all important, but they are in some respects new holidays. Celebrating the Buddha has been going on in Korea for a long time, and maybe something of the history has rubbed off on folks.

Buddhism has been practised in Korea since around the fourth century, and was welcomed in both the Three Kingdoms period and the Unified Silla period. During the Chosun dynasty, while not entirely ostracised, much Buddhism was forced to the side and practice was reserved in secluded mountain areas. Today this could be why many Buddhist temples can be found on hills and mountainsides – or it could be that they are just nice places to have temples.

We’ve been coming the 반야사 for a few years, and it is a different place to the usual mean and impersonal streets of Yeongtong. I don’t want to say that people change when they step on to the green grass looking out over the many high-rise apartments across the horizon, but there seems to be a different attitude. Courtesy is one thing that is in abundance, and smiles, and conversation with strangers. The chanting from the loudspeakers and the moktoks steady hollow tapping has a positive influence on even the sourest citizen it would seem.

To add to this, the sun was shining down warming the small tree protected garden of dry grass and multicoloured lanterns. The colours were lined in neat straight rows, each lantern recognising a donor and that a prayer would be said in their honour. To the side lines of white lanterns were representative of those who have passed away.

The stone pathway which dissected the garden, halfing the garden, with the temple to one side and the a large open area filled with mats for sitting on the other. Here people had gathered in family groups and were sitting and chatting while enjoying the temple food. This was a simple mountain or san-chae bibimbap  – essentially, fresh greens, some bean sprouts, mushrooms, a kimchi, and of course red pepper paste known to everyone else who isn’t a fresh off the boat tourist as go-chu-chang.

We have been celebrating Buddha’s Birthday in Korea for as long as myself and Herself have been a couple. It’s kind of a thing we like to do. Before we would go to Gangwon-do and visit a small temple Herself’s mother used to go to. Again, it was a similar set up without the nice grass, but admittedly the food was better (it is Gangwon-do of course). After that we’d usually go for a walk through Odaesan National Park, for more food and of course the beautiful Seogumgang Valley.

But none of that this year. Lovely Yeongtong was on the cards, and in fairness it didn’t disappoint.

 

For more photographs from Buddha’s Birthday at 반야사 please take a look at my set on Flickr

 

Did you celebrate Buddha’s Birthday? What did you do?

Is there any local festival specific to your home you’d like to share?

 

Opening Day


For the past month or there abouts we’ve been fondly eyeing the monstrosity that is MAYA on the corner. MAYA, to those unfamiliar, is a(nother) shopping mall/centre that has just been built in Chiang Mai, this on the corner of Nimmanhaemin and the Super Highway.  It’s a large cuboid buiding with a funky honeycomb-like wavy pattern snaking around its exterior, with a screen blasting colourful and flashing advertisements into the Chiang Mai sunlight. It certainly stands out from the competition, which is mostly two or three storey buidlings, and the odd tall apartment or hotel not far away.

The opening day, January 23rd had long been announced, and from speaking with the other long term residents in the condo complex we’re staying I got the impression that most people were looking forward to it. It’s a bit of black hole in terms of proximity to everything, the nearest real amenity is a 7-Eleven and street of funky little shops with over priced restaurants around the corner. I suppose most people though were looking forward to the Starbucks and the supermarket, because the one a five minute drive away was just too far.

Also in relation to the opening day, we pretty much saw little to no activity around what looked to be a shell of a building for days, until the week before it was due to open. All day and late into the night trucks and pickups were pulling in weighed down with all kinds of boxes, sacks, and shop fittings, desperately trying to get set up for the deadline. I was convinced it wasn’t going to happen and enjoyed explaining these doubts to Herself, but yesterday there was complete chaos on the corner where MAYA is situated, and I suppose they got their stuff done.

This morning we headed down to see what all the fuss was about. Opening was set for 11AM but we were there before 10, and fortunately it was going to be a long drawn out opening. Anyone familiar with Thailand will know that it’s a fairly religious country when it comes to it’s Buddhist faith. In fact it seems like for even the opening of a packet of crisps they need to bring a monk or two around to give it the go ahead and wishg it good luck, because it’s all about luck, as opposed to medieval practices like marketing and business strategy. Even as you walk down the streets you can see little shrines offering snacks and drinks to the spirits in the hope that it will bring them favour. Of course a certain amount of this probably has to do with keeping up appearances, but it’s still a fascinating display as many of the shrines are colourful and well serviced.

I liken much of this to Ireland’s necessity for bringing a priest around to bless whatever it is that’s opening. While not as common a sight these days (I think/hope/wonder), getting the Church’s seal of approval was an important part of any opening ceremony. Whether there were crucifixes or portraits of the Virgin Mary lying around afterwards depended on the proprietor of course.

Thailand though seems to do it with much more vigour. There were prayers by a gentleman dressed from head to toe in white, who then proceeded to toss colourful flower petals over people’s heads, and then there was a line of monks who sat covered from the sun in a white tent who chanted away for a short while. We, to be honest, were far from enamoured by this performance, so we went looking for breakfast.

By the time we came back we were just in time to catch the opening of the doors. We piled in with everyone else full of oohs an aaahs, looking up at the large skylight full of dancing silver balloons dangling from some invisible tread. Everything was nice and shiny, with the exception of the odd tile or two which had not received the appropriate amount of grout, as Herself discovered when she kicked a piece ten yards down a half empty make-up aisle.

To our disappointment the supermarket wasn’t open, so we went to check out the food options. While there is always an excellent variety here in Thailand, we have become increasingly concerned with the lack of high-chairs for +1. At this stage she is 100% wriggle and run, and anything we can do to save our arms and allow us to enjoy some aspects of our meal takes precedence. We have discovered however that Thailand, to it’s detriment, is not a baby chair place. Maybe they just don’t take their kids out or something…

Anyway.

It’s a fine place this MAYA. We only hung around a short while just to get a feel for it, but we’ll be back I suppose, many times I imagine. Having something like this so close to where you live always makes you feel like you’re living a better life. Still as I walk through there even just window shopping all I can hear is my wallet contorting in agony as I pass buy another thing I think would look great in my possession, or stomach.

For more photographs from the opening of MAYA please follow this link to my Flickr page

All writing and photographs © Conor O’Reilly January 2014

The Maoul Bus*


I walked up and down the street looking for the bus stop on the opposite side of the street. Where I was going was only four stops away in that direction, but I soon realised that the bus only went in the opposite direction, which left me a good fifteen stops away.

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I bit the bullet and crossed the street. Before long a stubby little green bus trundled up to the bus stop. The doors jerked open quickly like a trap and an assortment of people disembarked. Once the bus was empty I stepped on, found a seat, and sat there waiting for what appeared to be the moment when the bus was full enough to move on.

I thought at first there was an age limit, me being the youngest on board by a good thirty years at least. This notion was shot once a school girl got on and buried her face busily in the screen of her smartphone, her hair hanging down over her ears and face providing the perfect shield from the banal surroundings.

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As the bus pulled away a woman carrying her toddler waved it down and she got on, sitting just in front of me, the child’s face buried in the cosiness of her mothers neck. Occasionally the child would peek up at me, and I would smile back, and she would bury her face again in her mother’s neck.

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The bus moved on and stop after stop more people clambered on, the bus seemingly rocking from each additional weight. It felt like it would collapse with every groove and divot in the street the tyres met. It hauled itself around tight bends, up hills, and over speed ramps. All the time the standing passengers held on tightly to the precarious handrails dangling from the ceiling.

There were all-sorts on this bus. An elderly couple who bickered back over each comment shared between them. A primly dressed university student talking quietly on his phone. A short and gnarled man with a glowing winter weather beaten face dressed from head to toe in black. A lady, out of place it seemed, in a long beige coat of smooth wool with a faux mink stoal around her neck, earrings glitzing, and her sunglasses black as her well dressed hair standing out against her pale makeup adorned face.

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I sat there watching as the bus winded through so many alleys I forget. It groaned up a steep hill and slipped back down on the other side, revealing a panoramic view of Seoul and its river Han adorned with highrise dressings on its far bank.

These streets it wound through were narrow and a constant battle for space ensued. Cars slipped into every possible space, while men and women walked up and down next to the bus arms full of bags and the likes. The bus wove its way through expertly and without apparent complaint.

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These streets were full with businesses whose trade was only barely recognisable through the window trappings. People gazed in at mannequins fashioned the same way for twenty years. Proprietors stood on doorways and gazed out at the world going by. The bus moved on, up another hill or around another corner.

And then I arrived. I pulled myself through the throng of passengers, pushing the stop button on my way. The doors flung open again with a clatter and I jumped clear before the shut on me as I escaped. I turned and watched as the diesel engine spluttered exhaust fumes as it excelerated away full to bursting with bundled black silhouettes destined for somewhere else in the locale.

(* the maoul bus – 마을 버스 – is a local bus service which services neighbourhoods in the bigger towns and cities of Korea. This particular bus was located in Yongsan-gu, and serviced Hanam, Bogwang-dong, and Itaewon)

Words and photographs © Conor O’Reilly 2013

Flea Marketing


Myself and Herself have half a kind of a hobby these days. By these days I mean Autumn, as its kind of a seasonal thing. We go to flea markets and sell our *ahem* stuff.

The reason why we say it’s kind of a hobby is because we’ve only ever done it three times, and at the same time we only have so much to sell. But yeah, we’re well into it. We’ve a big black suitcase packed full of old but decent clothes, a few other bits a and pieces, as well as our mat for sitting on, and we head off and start selling our stuff. It’s good fun, social, and we usually come out with a few quid in our pocket.

I think it’s kind of a fad at the moment, because there seem to be flea markets for all sorts of occasions. There are a couple of charity ones, and of course there’s one in Hongdae, and for some reason they seem to be getting a lot of attention of late. Don’t ask me why. Probably because of Hongdae, but who am I to presume?

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We got into it last year when our local neighbourhood, 4 danji (4단지), in Yeongtong organised a small one in between the three main apartment complexes. There is nice treelined laneway which cuts in between the three big apartment complexes. Here vendors set up their stuff on one side, while people were free to walk up and down checking out what people had to sell. There was also a stall selling noodles, or to be specific 잔치국수, and a person with a long table full of pickled roe and squid.

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We did alright that day. In fact we did so well that we set our sights on next year as we headed up the steps to our appartment double counting our thick bunch of 1000 won notes.

It was also good fun. We paid for dinner that night, but we also found a rare sampling of community which is hard to find in the often bland and solitary apartment complex. As it was a Saturday, there were all kinds of people out getting involved. Of course there were familys selling all their household bits and pieces, like clothes, books, toys, and of course ornaments, jewelry, and kitchen wares. There were also plenty of the same kind of people walking up and down haggling for the best deal. It was really just a bit of fun, and I don’t think we sold anything for over 5000 won.

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This year we thought we had our secret weapon, the diamond we could sell for millions and retire off the takings. We had for the past ten months building up a bounty of baby clothes and other baby related goodies, which had gone beyond their use for obvious reasons, and we now planned to put their former owner through university with the proceeds from their sale.

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Ready for our onslaught of the flea markets of Suwon, Herself found our first battle ground. There would be a flea market on a Friday on the roof of the AK Plaza at Suwon was our destination, and the customers were sure to be women, but more importantly young or expectant mothers keen to snap up a few bargains in the hunt for appropriately equipping their little bundles of joy – and by appropriately I mean with as much stuff that the other kids don’t have and at as cheap a price as possible.

We set the bar high, asking for high prices on most of what we had. We had done some research and found stuff in no where near as good quality as the baby clothes we were selling on the internet, and it was going for what we thought to be unreasonable prices. Let’s not forget we had some good stuff, especially for a baby about to be born in October or who wasn’t that old. +1 was born in November and we needed as much winter clothes as possible, and now that they were too big we needed to make room for more. There were some other things as well, nice stuff that you couldn’t find in Korea, including some fancy brands and the likes.

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What I gather now is that people go to these things expect everything to be 1000 won. That’s the only explanation as any time we quoted a price people would turn the nose up, complain it was expensive, and then trail off. The odd time they’d come back, showing interest, ask about the price, expecting us somehow to suddenly go “oh that one, oh, sorry we meant to say it was free, not 10,000 won”. I gather that these things are suppsed to be a good way of getting your hands on some cheap stuff, but clearly the notion that people were also trying to raise a little cash was beyond them. I won’t even start a discussion on value.

We persevered and came out relatively well. We didn’t sell half the amount of things we hoped, and we left with a very full and heavy suitcase. Regardless, we made almost 200,000 won. I’m not really sure how much stuff we sold, but if we were to do a comparison, I sold about 15,000 won’s worth of stuff whilst herself, a shark in her previous life, seemed to do better. Despite our attempted tenacity our prices probably quartered from what we had discussed the night before, and to add insult to injury (not that there really was any), herself’s friend who sat next to us sold four things and nearly made as much as us. I suppose in the end it depends on what you’re selling not how much you’re selling it for.

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Today we were ready to go again with another flea market. This time it was again our local 4 danji neighbourhood annual event. We brought down our wares and set things up. Unfortunately, baby clothes were not considered to be as hot a commodity as we’d hoped. Most of the people there had kids who were actually doing the selling while the mothers and fathers stood around chatting and drinking coffee mix.

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The location for this flea market makes it nicer, as it is covered over by trees, and pretty much everyone has to follow the same route. The people are mostly friendly, inquisitive, but also keen not to spend more than 1,000 won on anything. I don’t think we were much better. As was to be expected we sold a few things, but we didn’t have the diversity of bric-a-brac which are suitcase had last year, and the clothes we were trying to sell just weren’t suited to the customers. As Herself said, we’ll have to go to Hongdae ot sell half of this.

But these things aren’t all about selling stuff, because people have to buy things right. We did a little shopping of our own and came out in good nick with a bread maker which we scooped for 10,000 won, and I picked up a stack of baby story books in English for +1 as they’re pretty hard to find here without forking out top won for them. We had some more nice noodles, chatted, met some people we hadn’t seen for a while, drank coffee, joked with customers, and at the end of the afternoon we trudged back home and the three of us collapsed on the bed for a hour and a half long nap.

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(All photographs were taken today in Cheongmyoung Maul 19/10/2013)

Photographs and text copyright Conor O’Reilly 2013©

***

I want to add to this post that perhaps the best flea market you can visit in Seoul has to be the one around Dongmyo Station. It probably sells nothing you will ever want to buy, unless you need half an obsolete mobile phone or a violin with only two and a half strings. This one is purely for those who wish to explore, and it is a mecca for that resource.

Seoul Suburban gives a more in-depth analysis:

“The median age of both vendors and buyers is somewhere north of 50, and interested parties stroll through the spillover from the larger area of flea market near Sindang Station: cleaning supplies, power cords, remote controls, artwork, comic books, portable cassette players, bass guitars, and just about whatever else you could throw on a pile, which, in some cases, is exactly how things are organized.  Not everything here is junk – a few antique shops can be found in the back alleys nearer the stream, and even some decent vintage pickups are available; the shop just outside of Exit 3 sold L.L. Bean flannels, which I haven’t seen anywhere else in the city.  And even if you aren’t looking to buy anything, simply wandering through and taking a close look at what’s there is sport enough.  My favorite spotting was a sheet of stamps from Sierra Leone featuring the Disney characters, including one that pictured the head mouse himself operating a backhoe underneath the tag, ‘Mickey mining bauxite.’”

Instagramming My Environment


Friend and travel blogger Steve Miller a.k.a. The QiRanger, has started a new October series of videos titled Eye on Your Environment. His aim is to look a little closer at the world around him, and to talk about what makes his environment special to him. I can see a lot of worth in this kind of post (and have tried myself before), but especially because Steve doesn’t live too far away from me and in an environment which is not too dissimilar to Yeongtong.

I thought after watching Steve’s video that I could do something similar. Regulars to this blog will know that I don’t really do video, although I do do photographs, in fact arguably too many photographs. Although that may be others opinion’s of me sneaking into my work, but still lots of photos is me, regardless of the quality.

One way of photographing I’m also quite passionate about is with Instagram. Now, frankly I don’t care about your opinions of the photo sharing phone application, as I have mine, and if it’s something you feel is close to the most evil thing in the planet then I imagine you should reconsider your priorities, or whatever.

I use instagram to basically chart my motions and impressions, although I limit it to those which I believe to be aesthetically pleasing (in my own eye) or particularly interesting. As I live in Yeongtong you can rest assured that a lot of my images make a big deal of trying to make Yeongtong look aesthetically pleasing. This may be the biggest challenge at times.

I stem from the belief in photography that there is a certain amount of beauty to be found in everything ugly. In fact, I find that so-called ugliness is in fact more pleasing to photograph as it is the effects of humans on the environment which interests me. And with regard to the environment which is itself a human creation, the effects of time and weather and lives interchanging in all the multitude of ways it does is where my eye will usually be drawn for a closer look.

Instagram, the social photograph sharing app, is ideal for showing what I see as unique, and worth letting others see also. Of course the fact that the app is linked with my twitter, flickr, tumblr, and facebook, and there’s the convenience of having it always with me on my phone allowing for me to be in a position to have a photograph taken, tweeked, and shared within moments. I think I do have a problem with over-tagging, but then one must do one’s best to try to attract more followers. This is the internet afterall and if I don’t stake my claim (which is basically the same as screaming my side of the argument as load as possible), who is going to listen?

Back to the QiRanger and what I started out to say.

Yeongtong itself is not a pretty place. It seems to constantly shape itself into a copy of everything else in the neighbourhood. It is a place where you can imagine everything constructed or used to construct sitting on a shelf with a pricetag. You can feel that all which was made here was in the imagination of an architect, and not a particularly good one at that. Everything was once shiny but now after fifteen or so years the price paid for the sparkle has proven to be a poor substitute for the more durable alternative.

The broken paving slaps and cobblelock tiles where the poorly levelled earth has come uneven. The benches have detiorated and but still usable. The footpaths are uneven and the streets are a mess of cars poorly parked and those basing the rules of the roads on their chances of not getting caught by the police. The facades of the buildings are long past any notion of contemporary, not just because of the red-blue-green neon flashing constantly, but typically tacky bad christmas decoration like attachments to the painted concrete. Lets not even start with the now unwashed glass that gives a eerie mottled effect to so many businesses. Let me not forget to mention the constant buzzing of delivery scooters.

But Yeongtong has its charm. It has its coffee shops and it has, for the most part, clean streets. It has restaurants and children ploughing the streets between hagwon hours and drunks jostling for each other’s shoulder space as the leave restaurants later in the night. There are parks and trees which fill with sunshine, laughter, and silence as the rest of the neighbourhoold rumbles around it arguing with car horns. There is an independence about Yeongtong in its many boutiques and restaurants which can be found away from the usual franchise filled streets. There are people who smile when you walk in and talk with you like a person, who share a story, and ask you about your day. And this may not seem like something to talk about but often you forget in some places that there are people working there, not just teenagers programmed to chirp 안녕하세요 in the same nasally annoying voice.

From where I work on the outskirts of the neighbourhood to my home on the twentieth floor, Yeongtong is a vista on a world in motion. Yeongtong was made to facilitate living both for the Samsung behemoth and Seoul behemoth. It is not a perfect place, nor is it so imperfect that you cannot live there. Its perfections and imperfections are in many ways subtle, and in that regard I feel that the immediate displeasure you may have here will soon be overrided by the time you find what it is that gives Yeongtong its own sense of place, and that is its livability. Yes all places are livable, but for me Yeongtong will never be perfect and I could not stand living in the perfect home.

Home is where we do our best to subsist and survive. It is where we go to escape from the outside, and where we delve into for our own pleasures, be they a favourite chair, a flatscreen television, complete silence, or every so often a stunning sunset or the brightest of sunlight streaming inside right into the late evening.

Yeongtong is where I live, it is my environment, and I document this with Instagram as my medium. Please join me for my so-called ride of living in the bellows of Korean suburbia.

Instagram: conzieinkorea

Please click on photos for larger images on flickr