Korea in Chiang Mai


You spend enough time in Asia as an Irishman and you give up expecting to find Irish stuff. You know you’ll stumble across something here or there, but at the best of times all you can find is a can of Guinness and a Westlife song. Chiang Mai, despite its large expat population and even larger tourist numbers was no better than Korea, or anywhere else I’ve been. I had hoped for half a day or so, but any hopes I had were soon dashed by the obvious.

Not so much of a disappointment was the preponderance of Korean influences. In fact it wasn’t really anything close to a disappointment. Obviously you can make that Asian connection, which in many respects is a loose connection. More significant to this is the economic connection, the good old supply and demand of goods and services. Despite these two, where Korea shined through the most was in its culture – that being its food and its music.

I could be in Suwon

Herself is better at spotting Korean music (do you spot with your ears?), and by Korean music I mean K-Pop of course, than I would be. It’s not essentially because she can hear the Korean, which would stand out, but I think because she has a better idea of what songs are out there at the moment. All I could hear was the confounding ‘jumping, jumping, everybody’ song by Crayon Pop. There were other instances too but for the most part when out and about you’d hear a K-Pop tune or two, and seeing as this wasn’t in Yeongtong where everywhere was playing the same K-Pop tune I was not prone to writhing in misery at all stages throughout the day.

My experience of Koreaness in Chiang Mai was by all accounts primarily visual. There was a fair amount around, but this popularity is clearly surmounted by the plethora of Japanese ramen and sushi places, and the unmissable presence of car after car of Japanese manufacture. The big pick-up Toyotas and Izzuzus rumbling up and down filled gangs of workmen are hard to ignore, and while this is notable in my two months there I only saw one Korean car, and a ten year old one at that. You can shun this but don’t forget that Hyundai-Kia are the fourth largest auto manufacturers in the world.

In the supermarkets though, Koreans could hold their own. There was no lack of ramyeon or indeed gochujang or your usual list of regular supermarket supplies. To add to this Korean cosmetics were to the forefront of most major supermarkets, equipped with a Korean flag and pristine models face; you’d almost think you were in E Mart at times.

Around town as well there was a decent number of Korean restaurants, of which we never bothered to eat in, although I think we promised ourselves often enough. Mostly they were barbecue places, but there was a dakgalbi place, and oh yes now I remember we tried a place called K-Pop Ddeokbokki which was, to be honest, awful. Not just for the name, but because the food was really bad, and not because it was Korean food in Thailand, because it was bad. I think the kimbap we had was passable, but maybe not.

There were a few other peculiarities about, like a Magic water purifier manufacturer store which was proud of its Koreaness, and there was a Tom and Toms coffee shop near where we were staying that seemed to be perpetually waiting to be opened. As much as a novelty as this was, I was happy we missed this grand affair. More random than all of this had to be the woman we ran into who was wearing a Lee Myung Bak election hoodie – yeah like the ones you see the electioneering dancers at the corner wear. She had no idea what it was about.

           

There were no shortage of Koreans out and about either. The familiar sounds of their voices followed us around, and it has to be said, I could spot them well in advance. There were the young university aged independent travelers over protected from the warm sun who wandered up and down Nimmanhaemin in the afternoon, and then there were the golf groups of men and women who stayed in the condo where we stayed. They mostly stuck to themselves, I suppose, and rarely came to the pool which I couldn’t understand.

I met one Korean man who actually lived in Ulan Bator in Mongolia – and to think Myself and Herself complained about the Korean winter – who was baffled by many of his fellow Koreans who just came to play golf all the time. While he played a little, he was mesmerised by the wonders of Chiang Mai and that there was in fact a lot to do. The guy was having a good time it has to be said, and was heartbroken when he got called back to Mongolia for work. He did however leave me a bottle of whiskey which he had yet to get around to putting a serious dent into.

For the most part though, Chiang Mai was comfortable place for many Koreans who lived there all the time. I’m not sure what they did but there is a decent core population who send their kids to the international schools, and they work and live in safety and comfort, although nowhere near on the same scale as the number of Japanese in the city. I suppose it’s always reassuring from our perspective to find a Korean community, even if we don’t necessarily interact with them for whatever reasons.

So this was Korea in Chiang Mai, or at least the Korean stuff which I experieced. I was pretty happy to see this all round, and hope that next time I visit there’ll be a better representation of my adopted home.

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In conclusion I should add that while Chiang Mai did appear Irishless, it did triumph in two particular areas – Tayto (once but once can sometimes be enough!) and cans of Bulmers!

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For those not in the know I spent two months in Chiang Mai from late December 2013 until the end of February 2014. It was a good time.

All photos taken with my aging iPhone 4

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©

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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.’”

Love to Hate Korea: Costco


It’s no secret that Costco in Korea is the epitome of a modern hellhole designed to rip your soul out, divvy it up with a rusty and blunt axe, chew it, then spit it right back at you, so you you put it back inside, then turn around and do it all over again. This place steals so much attention and causes so much heartbreak and frustration, but let’s not forget that all it is is a bloody supermarket!

But why is the place just destined to constantly infuritate me? I blame people. Because, let’s face it, all the ills of the world are brought about by our fellow humans, and Costco in Korea is a perfect example of this.

To get into the place you have to tackle the car park (because let’s be honest only an amateur would take the bus or train to Costco), where the wonderful Korean driving etiquette phenomenon is magnified. Here, the larger and more foreign your car the more entitled you are to be a fucker, while the little guy who has been bullied really doesn’t care who or what you are, and just drives straight over you. Do you see the difference? That’s right, there is none. Rules out the window to beat the band!

This is a mild description, as the car park is really only a primer for the zoo downstairs. In this Parthenon of consumption every man is equal (but some believe themselves to be more equal than others) and wealth and status can no longer be displayed by the make and colour of your car.

I used to think people were just so damn disgusting towards me because I was a foreigner, but the more I have observed this phenomenon I can steadfastly proclaim that no one gives a shit about anyone but themself in this passage to hades of a glorified 광장시장! In fact it’s worse than there. A. Lot. Worse!

It’s like people take the shopping trollies merely as a tool to beat other people out of the way as they browse. Not only do they not look where they’re going, generally I believe they study the area they want to go before hand, and then plot the most insane crowd inducing route possible, including where they can dump their trolley. I find the people who buy one or two things, like a packet of Calvin Klein underwear and some dried jujube, to be the worst perpetrators.

For else that may be right or wrong with Costco in Korea, it’s the culmination of so many people milling around oblivious to the fact that there are a few million within spitting distance of them, and then when they notice these other people they look at them as if they are something disagreeable inside their shoe, that really makes Costco an awful experience that I would reluctantly wish on my worst enemy.

And I am not even going to go into the details of the food court (and here too!)!

But…

I am a consumer and Costco is fantastic because the stuff they sell there is so much better than any other bog standard Homeplus or Emart, and that’s a fact; (generally speaking) better meat, better fruit, better vegetables, better selection of bread, drinks, alcohol, dairy, and whole lot other stuff. And I like eating nice food and buying over priced goods that I probably don’t need Yes you can find better quality stuff in Korea, and cheaper too, but if you are talking about better quality products at an affordable price then Costco is your man.

(Added bonus tip: Costco has a decent electronics section, which is good value, and they also are very helpful with returns and damaged goods, which a lot of the cheaper websites will not even look at you sideways when you’ve even a whisper of complaint)

Yeah I know I’m repeating the same draft that so many other people trump the place by, and believe it or not, the insane fellow customers are in fact worth the battle to get your hands on all that crap which make living in Korea more doable. Hell, I’d do it every week for the bread and cheese only.

Of course, having and car and being able to take home a whole boot load of food makes this whole experience worth the madness.

Mine’s a can of ‘ass, please!


Today, I am at Incheon International Airport – a wonderful place full of coming and going and, I imagine, Korea’s proud welcoming mat to the world.

It’s quite a lovely place and has been recognised so by some shower of cowboys  for its wonderfulness. I’m sure most people who read this who are in Korea are familiar with said ‘ness. Lots of glass and steel and luxury shopping (because everyone who flies wants a Fendi handbag). Continue reading