Archive for August 2009

Seoul World Heritage Sites

Hwaseong FortressI traveled to Seoul in June (I wanted to avoid the rainy season and enjoy the weather before it became too humid) to see the city for the first time. Seoul is home to four UNESCO World Heritage Sites and I made it a priority to visit as many of them as I could while I was there.

My first stop was to Hwaseong Fortress in Suwon, a satellite city located just 20 miles outside of Seoul. Built around 1800, much of the fortress was damaged during the Korean War. It was repaired in the 1970s and walking up to it today it still seems impenetrable. What makes it so unique and visually appealing is that it was built as a combination of designs from Europe, China, Japan and Korea. Its hybrid nature, while obvious in photographs, was truly beautiful up close. I toured the walls, the four gates and the artillery towers.

I was lucky that I was there on a Sunday because they have a demonstration by the “royal guards,” a reconstruction of what the guards would have looked like when the castle was built in the late 18th century. It was colorful and fairly enjoyable but I wouldn’t build my plans around it in the future. My trip to Hwaseong Fortress and Suwon city took an entire day but it was worth it. On my second day in Seoul I visited Changdeokgung Palace. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997 because of the way in which the architecture harmonizes with nature.

While that sounds sort of flowery and pompous, UNESCO got it just right. Buildings on the palace grounds are beautifully integrated with the property’s extensive gardens. It was all built in the 15th century and while some of the buildings on the site have been rebuilt, the bridge is the oldest bridge in Seoul.

I will say that I was initially put off by the fact that you have to be a part of a tour group to see it but it was well worth the cost and the English-speaking guide was really useful. Hwaseong Fortress was impressive and beautiful in its own stark way but the palace gardens and pavilions at Changdeokgung were gorgeous. I wouldn’t have traded my tour of the palace for anything.

Because my tour of Changdeokgung was fairly brief (about 90 minutes), I managed to see the Jongmyo shrine on the same day. The shrine was visually pleasing but it certainly wasn’t stunning. Built in the 14th century, dozens of Korean kings and queens are buried at Jongmyo. It was an important site for royal ancestor worship where five rituals took place each year to honor the royal dead.

These rituals are reenacted once a year in May (I missed it by a month) and would probably make the site much more interesting to visit. I decided not to visit the fourth World Heritage Site in Seoul (the Joseon Royal Tombs) because I wanted to spend a few days enjoying modern Korean culture but the three sites I did visit were well worth the time. I’d recommend them to everyone and if I go back I’ll be sure to visit the Joseon tombs.

How to Factor Climate into Your Plans

monsoonAsia is a great vacation destination but a trip to the East can easily be ruined if you don’t plan ahead for weather. In a region dominated by varied weather, rainy seasons and dry seasons, it’s important to plan for the climate and understand how different seasons will impact the price and enjoyment of your vacation.

If you visit a nation such as Thailand during the rainy season you simply aren’t going to be able to do everything you want and spend time outside every day of the week. In Thailand, the rainy season is basically May to October and during that time the weather fluctuates between heavy downpours and clear skies. You may have perfectly clear days in which to tour outdoor attractions but your plans can be easily interrupted by a heavy downpour that comes on without warning.

If you’re trying to save money, traveling to an Asian nation during its rainy season will cut down on costs. Because most people don’t want to travel during the monsoon, hotels and tours will cost less during the rainy season. Equally, sites and accommodations will be much less crowded so if the presence of lots of people is something you want to avoid, plan to visit a country during its rainy season. Remember too that the climate will vary between the regions of whatever country you are in.

For instance, Southern Vietnam is still fairly temperate during the rainy season but the North can be much wetter. Take this variance into account when traveling and if the region you’re in looks like it will be miserable for a week, travel somewhere else. You really don’t even need to leave a country to find more amenable weather.

Flexibility is important when visiting a nation during its rainy season. If you’re a rigid traveler then this isn’t the season for you to be in Asia but if you’re willing to go with the flow, change your plans based on the forecast and are interested in seeing lots of indoor as well as outdoor sites during your Asian trip, this could be the season for you.

Remember also that even though the whole season is identified as rainy, certain months are worse than others. Look at monthly precipitation before you travel during the rainy season and identify which months would be tolerable and which would not. On balance, the rainy season is a good time for the cost conscious traveler to visit Asia. It’s not a season of constant torrential downpours but this image keeps a lot of tourists out of the region.

Use this to your advantage by getting better deals on everything from hotels to transportation to tours. And while you’re saving money you’ll also be enjoying a quieter, less crowded trip as many tourists who haven’t done their research will be staying home out of fear of vast rainstorms and flooding. Most importantly, plan to spend your time in and outdoors on your Asian vacation. The rainy season can’t ruin trips to museums, palaces and great restaurants.

Asia Travel Safety Tips

singapore streetWhen traveling to Asia, it’s important to see the historic sites, enjoy the nightlife and visit important cultural venues such as museums but it’s also important to keep your personal safety in mind. Tourists are targets of crime because they don’t know all the local customs, don’t know which areas are crime ridden and don’t know anything about the local police.

When you travel, it’s important to take certain safety precautions. To start, visit the State Department’s website and read the current information on your destination before you travel. The State Department’s current information includes a summary of recent crimes committed against tourists, where they happened and what to look out for. The information will include warnings about everything from crime hotspots to upcoming protests so it’s an important resource for any traveler.

If the State Department has issued a travel advisory about a particular country, it might be a good idea to postpone your trip. You don’t want to end up in the middle of a coup or civil war. If your destination isn’t about to be plunged into chaos and there hasn’t been a string of murders around your hotel, it’s time to start thinking about what to take with you and what to leave behind.

The most important rule is to not look like a target. Don’t wear expensive jewelry or clothing that will make you stand out as a rich mark to footpads and cut purses. You don’t want to attract their attention by wearing copious amounts of diamonds and gold.

It’s also not a good idea to carry cash and what cash you do carry should be stored in a money belt. Money belts have zippered compartments where you can store cash and documents out of reach of thieves and for this reason they are an invaluable travel accessory. Rather than carry cash, bring credit cards and travelers checks. Unlike cash, you can replace both these things if they’re stolen.

Of course, credit cards and travelers checks aren’t the only valuables you’ll be bringing with you so anything of worth that you won’t be carrying on your person should be stored in your hotel’s safe both day and night. If you have to bring a laptop with you, spend $20 before you leave to buy a laptop lock.

In many ways, being safe in an Asian city is the same as being safe in an American one. Try not to wander off the beaten path into alleyways or slums that could conceal criminal elements. If you stay close to other tourists you may make yourself a target of pickpockets but you won’t be the target of violent crimes.

As a tourist, you have a lot of control over whether or not you are perceived as a target based on how you dress, where you travel and what you do. As long as you exercise some common sense, dress modestly and pay attention to State Department warnings, you should be fine. By consciously minimizing the risks to your safety you’ll be better able to enjoy your vacation.