Surprising Horizons

The Joy of Travel. The Realities of New Experiences.

Category: Travel

Day Trips From Zurich by Train

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On top of Rigi Klum

December. What do you want? Sunshine and beaches to not think about the festive season or cold and snow and mulled wine to soak it all up? If it’s the latter then you can do a lot worse than travelling to Switzerland for the festive season.

We had 5 nights based in Zurich over the Christmas period and took full advantage of the amazing train network they have in Switzerland to explore some of the surrounding areas.

Train Details

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No problem to have a few beers on the train. There is an amazing beer shop in Zurich Bf called “Drinks of the World”

Although convenient they are expensive so do the math and explore purchasing a Travel Pass for the amount of days you need it. We got it at Zurich HB (central train station) and you need to have a valid photo ID with you. Our Singapore work passes were good enough. We opted for the 3 day pass as we would do the bulk of our travelling in the middle three days of our stay. I used the Swiss Rail website to predict how much our train journeys would total without the pass and it was financially worth it to buy the pass. Do it if you will save money.

Zurich

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Zurichsee

Zurich has a reputation for nothing much going for it. True that it is a business city but it’s certainly worth a night or two to see the sights. Perhaps, without the delightful Christmas markets, there may not be much of a vibe apparent but we enjoyed our time wandering around. Looking at how we travelled over the 3 days it probably makes more sense to base yourself in Lucerne. We stayed in the Central Plaza Hotel which was a couple minutes walk from the train station and across the road from a Starbucks (if that floats your caffeine boat).

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Fraumunster Church

So, in retrospect, we didn’t really do much in Zurich apart from walk the old town areas and visit the few churches they have there, wandered down Bahnhofstrasse (the main shopping street), and took in all the festivities at the various Christmas markets. There is a National Museum and a few other museums but time wasn’t on our side with all the day trips we took.

Rheinfalls

A quick 50 minute train trip out on the S9 regional train to Neuhausen Rheinfalls station then a brisk walk over the Rheinfallweg bridge and you get to the Schlosslaufen (Castle overlooking the Rheinfalls). The entrance fee is 5CHF per person which you tap on an entrance gate before descending to the falls.
The falls are a must-see if you’re in the region and the vantage point you get viewing them is very unique. You make your way down right to the falls where you can touch the thunderous water flowing down the falls at a break neck speed. Worth the entrance fee.
There is a train stop right at the castle if you can’t walk back to the Neuhausen stop but there didn’t seem to be a ticket machine there and you can’t buy on the train. So be fore-warned on that.

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Winterthur

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Winterthur is not prominent on the tourist trail but it was another 40 minute short hop on the train from Rheinfalls so we went. Winthertur’s art gallery wasn’t open when we went so we just spent time wandering down towards their Christmas market then looped back towards the train station. Moving on.

Stein am Rhein

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Again, another spur of the moment trip but I heard this place was quaint and worth the trip. 40 minutes on the train from Winterthur wasn’t going to kill us. It IS a quaint and cool little town. Little. And nothing was open for the Christmas period apart from one bar/restaurant where we killed some time downing a Swiss beer before making our way back to the train station. The buildings are cool and walking around the silent streets we could have been in the 16th century.
I would imagine it’s quite a nice place to visit in the Summer with bustling restaurants, a beautiful river-side vantage point, and perhaps some markets in the town square.

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Rigi Klum

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We got up early on one of our days to reach the heady heights of Rigi Klum. No cable cars for us so this was a perfect option due to its cog-wheel train that runs up every hour from Arth-Goldau. So that was our route: Zurich HB-Arth Goldau-Rigi Klum. We then descended the other cog-wheel train to Vitznau and got a boat (boat tickets included in the 3 day travel pass too!) back to Lucerne.
The ascent to Rigi Klum was misty until we got above it then you start to see the breath-taking mountains surrounding the area. It was misty every day in Switzerland in December so I feel we missed out on some lovely scenery while travelling around.

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Being at the summit of Rigi Klum takes your breath away. Literally. Icy blasts pummel you into near submission but the views from the top sate the urge to run for shelter. Something about looking over landscapes from great heights rustle up some primal feelings of power and awareness of life. We had a mulled wine in the small cafe up there before heading back down to…..mull….over existential ponderings.

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Vitznau after the descent on cog-wheel train isn’t worth it’s own little section here. We had to wait for the boat so we had a beer and something to eat in a cafe. Nothing much else to see but, again, I’m sure it’s a lovely place to stroll along the water front in the Summer time.

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Lucerne

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When in Lucerne, you must see “the Lion statue”

Lucerne feels a little more lively than Zurich. It seems to be a hub for tourists rather than business. One of the main highlights is the “dying lion” statue which on paper doesn’t really seem to justify so much attention. In my opinion, it’s well worth the attention. It’s one of the most powerful statues I’ve seen. Somehow it’s much much bigger than you can expect from photos. The facial expression, the body position, and the lion’s place embedded into the rock face all culminate in a truly powerful work of art. Venus de Milo? Pffttt in a very distant second place.

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Lucerne also has areas for just wondering around taking in the architecture. Chapel Bridge cuts an interesting slice down the middle of the city. Built in the 14th Century (what?!?!) it provides an interesting angle on the city from the river’s vantage point and adds a unique flavour to Lucerne’s appeal as a tourist destination.
We actually visited Lucerne twice in our travels. On the second visit we spent time at their Christmas market/ice rink beside the Lucerne HB and then popped into see the Art Museum. The Swiss Travel pass guarantees you free access to some museums and art galleries around Switzerland and this museum is part of that package. This art museum was okay, nothing special.

Basel

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This ferry uses the river currents to get across.

Again another hour or so away from Zurich we popped along to Basel. Another plethora of Christmas markets to distract us. Got in from the cold to visit their Museum of Fine Arts (another free admission with the Swiss Travel Pass) which was quite good and they had a Jackson Pollack exhibition on which was interesting to see. Like other towns we wandered around, taking in the architecture and finding a vantage point over the Rhine from a Christmas market.

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Bern

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Finally, our last stop of this whirlwind trip to Switzerland we stopped off in Bern (1 hour train journey from Basel). It was bloody freezing. We needed warmth and food but we settled for more mulled wine at one of their biggest Christmas markets.

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Bern, through my frozen eyelashes, felt older and more historical than any other city. It felt like nothing had changed apart from cars and electricity. The buildings all looked unchanged. Not feeling like any museum visits we took in Bern by walking around and eyeballing the different sights that Google told us we had to (Zytglogge, Käfigturm, Kindlifresserbrunnen, Bern Minster). No, I didn’t just make all those names up.

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Child-eater statue…gulp..

Ende. It was great to see all these areas of Switzerland (and remember my fading German) and left me wanting to see other areas in more affable weather. I contemplated the long trip to Jungfraujoch but maybe next time….

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Bis bald Schweiz!

7 Ways to Survive Airports


I love travel. I hate traveling. Well, maybe dislike is the word. No, actually, it’s hate.

Airports and flying are the irritants at the start and the end of the most amazing adventures you can experience. I’ve talked about the airplane part of that here in a previous post.

So I’ve started trying to make my time in airports at least a little less painful. Here’s how.

1. Get a Priority Pass Card

If you’re not Richy McRich and fly First Class everywhere this might be an option for you. When my bank said to me last year I needed to get a new credit card I looked at their options and saw one that accrued air miles and also gave you a one year membership to something called Priority Pass, I read on. Priority Pass allows you to access certain airport lounges for a fee that would not be usually open to your everyday scumbag economy class traveler like me. I didn’t know about this. This could be a game changer. The membership my bank was offering was one where you get your first two visits to a lounge for free and then you pay $27 for each visit (charged automatically to my credit card) after and you can bring up to one guest. Sold. Whatever.
I have now used it every time I am flying and the relaxation, comfort, somewhat edible buffet food, and free booze makes the start of travel that little bit more manageable. If I can put away a couple of plates of food, a couple of beers, and stretch out and relax I think $27 is a steal.
There are different levels to membership I will look at when my first year is up. The more you pay the more free visits you get. You just have to estimate the amount of times you may be flying in a year and choose the right one for you.
One bummer I found recently with my trip to Australia was the lack of participating lounges in Australian airports (ie. only Cairns had a lounge when I was visiting although now Brisbane and Darwin have participating lounges). From a little investigating this is down to Virgin Australia removing itself from the Priority Pass network in 2011. Also in 2015, United Airlines pulled their lounges from the Priority Pass network greatly reducing Priority Pass’s presence worldwide.

2. Gate Awareness

Scope out your gate then scope out other gates within reasonable walking distance that are emptier and don’t have any flights leaving before yours. These are usually emptier and more relaxing meaning you can stretch out and prepare yourself mentally for the flight ahead. This is my main tactic. Sometimes it’s just not feasible but I try this every time.

3. Fuel for the Flight

Eat a snack or two (chips/sandwich and water); don’t gorge on fast food or heavy meals before flying. If it’s an hour long flight do whatever the hell you want but anything longer you don’t want to be bloated or want any unwanted reaction. Eat them in a quiet area (see above) and chill. Don’t forget you also have that healthy and hearty airplane food to look forward to!

4. Keep Informed

Check apps like FlightAware or FlightRadar24 to keep tabs on any delays or gate changes. I also download the actual airport app too just in case. If there is one.

5. Read light

Get some magazines that you would never in a million years read on any other normal day. For me, that’s movie magazines. For others, that might be Fly Fishing Monthly.

6. Chillaxe Yo!

Day dream. Meditate. Whatever you call it. Zone the hell out. Forget about what is happening around you. Airports are full of people who are stressing the hell out. Put in the earbuds and listen to some music that will help with this. Find a quiet place both physically and mentally.

7. Avoid The Rush

Finally, no need to join the mad scramble for the plane. You have a seat number right (well, maybe…)? Wait for the zone number or whatever. Although, this ties in with my method of just putting my backpack under the seat front; I don’t need to fight for overhead space. The longer you wait in the lounge the less time you sit in the opposite of a throne that they call airplane seats.

These barely make airports..bearable for me but every little bit helps. See you at Gate 34. My flight will be leaving from Gate 20.

7 Ways To Cope With Flying

Here’s how I barely survive the hell that is flying in the “cheap” seats in airplanes.

1. PLANNING

My plan of survival starts with planning my travel months beforehand. Fact: some airlines have better planes, seats, and in-flight entertainment than others. I pay more for a better plane and a better airline and start from there. If it’s a route I haven’t taken before I check out a number of third party websites (Zuji, Expedia, Google Flights) to see which airlines travel there. I usually never book on these websites and always go through the airline’s own website. Just a little simpler and there never really is any difference in price and probably slightly cheaper this way. If I know that budget airlines fly in that area and they’re not appearing on the third party websites I will go to their website and check it out.

Tip: If you type in to Google “flights singapore-hong kong” Google will give you a quick summary of what airlines fly that route which will give you a good summary:
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If you have connections, you need to scope out how long it might take you to transfer ( Do you need to pick up the bags from the carousel and place them in a transfer area? Do you have to travel 20 miles between terminals *cough Heathrow* ?) Having a longer connection sometimes is less stressful. I find 3 hours in between international flights is usually a comfortable timeframe.

2. SEATS

You’ve booked the flights. Seats time. I’m an economy guy unless I find an amazing business class deal (Air India Business Class is sometimes cheaper than Singapore Airlines Economy to Mumbai on 787 and KLM Singapore-Bali sometimes has some good Business Class deals). Does the airline offer Premium Economy? You may as well take it if it’s within your budget. What type of plane is it? You must check out SeatGuru.
Travelling as a couple?
On an Airbus 330/340? Choose the two seats on the side option.
Travelling on a Boeing 777/747/ or Airbus 380/350? Choose two seats in the middle three/four as nobody will be clambering over you then or vice versa on the side three seats.
Travelling on a narrow body? Choose two aisle seats across from each other. That way you each have at least some space on one side of you with the chance that the middle seat is empty.
Travelling alone?
On long haul wide body airplane flights choose the aisle seat in middle seating. That way only one person can bother you getting up to the toilet. When choosing your seat online look for empty seats in the middle of the middle section and empty seats in front of you. Maybe, just maybe, nobody will take them up and you wont have a seat in your lap and somebody fighting for elbow room beside you. On short hop flights on narrow body airplanes, choose the window seat if you think you can make it without toilet breaks.

Avoid seats near toilets (bulk row seats are commonly near toilets); the line of people is annoying. And the smell sometimes…well…

Bothered by turbulence? Center seats over the wings are preferable. Seats at the back of the plane tend to move side to side and have a different, more unsettling feeling in turbulence. Let’s face it though, turbulence happens and even though the B787/A350 is said to have a turbulence detection and dampening system, you’ll still ride through it more often than not no matter where you sit.

On a related note; KEEP YOUR SEATBELT ON! It beggars belief that there are still injuries occurring in those cases of severe turbulence because people are smashing their heads on the roof because they’re not strapped in.

3. STAY ALERT

Plane looking a bit empty and boarding is well under way? Always ask the flight attendant about the load and about moving to a more spacious area. I’ve often won the race to get 3 side seats to myself by asking early. Sit on the aisle/middle seat until after cruising so nobody gets an idea to share the three seats with you!

4. NOT DYING OF BOREDOM

I can’t sleep on planes. So I watch a lot of in flight entertainment. Start with short episodes, then move on to movies, then end with short episodes. Your brain won’t want to invest too much energy in Gone With The Wind near the end of a long haul flight. Short and snappy episodes are better. If you have a tablet/laptop load it up with your favourite movies/TV shows; you never know when the in-flight movie/TV choices will be pretty lame. Netflix now allows you to download shows so get to it!

I can’t sleep on planes so sometimes I drink alcohol. Yeah, that’s right. Everybody says don’t do it. I say I’ll handle my own dilemmas thanks very much.A couple of wines/beers puts you in to a more sedate mode; you might even nod off for a bit. If you are a violent and miscreant drunk then please skip over this paragraph. I find that I never lose any sense of common sense with alcohol on planes no matter how much I drink; I’ve tried. Believe me. Ethiopian Airlines from Addis Ababa to Bangkok; I may have depleted their weekly allowance of Heineken. There was no in-flight entertainment…I had to do something…
Anyway, it works for me but it might not work for you and I tend not to drink on narrow bodies as access to toilets is less..accessible.

5. FOOD

Bring snacks on board. If at all possible put a carry-on under the seat in front of you for easy access. You will never know how inedible the food they serve you will be.

6. COMFORT

Economy Comfort/Premium Economy I’ll pay for within economic reason. Extra leg room like bulkhead row or emergency exit? I don’t go for it. More often than not at the bulkhead it’s beside a family with newly borns (not their fault etc.). Bulkheads usually go hand in hand with being beside the toilets too. With the evolution of in-flight entertainment being available the minute you get on board with some airlines (eg. Singapore Airlines or Emirates) you will be stuck until cruising altitude until you can take the screen out of the armrest.

Person in front has reclined in to your knee caps? Nothing much you can do about it unless you buy this which might just end up with you in a 40,000 feet fist fight. You can make a big deal about forcefully changing the angle of your TV and making sure you let the flight attendant know to tell them to push it forward when meals are served. When you are getting out to go to the bathroom make sure you bump as much as you can in to their seat; it actually will probably happen naturally anyway due to your confined space.
I just get really irked if they aren’t sleeping and are just watching TV. How much more comfortable are you right now? You are now reclined a few inches back. Congratulations.

7. LOSE TRACK OF TIME

A watched pot never boils. I always try and ignore flight maps and flight time left. Just pile on the TV shows and movies and embrace the inner couch potato you have inside you. You’ll know when you’re getting closer when they either a) start serving the final meal or b) the captain comes on and mumbles on about descending soon, thanking you for flying with us and hoping to see you soon mumble mumble mumble.

That’s about it. There’s not a lot you can do to actually immensely enjoy economy class flying. Especially on long haul flights. See you in 45D. Weeping.

Flying Premium Economy on Singapore Airlines A380


Fate and circumstance led me to recently purchase Premium Economy seats on Singapore Airlines’ A380 from Singapore to Zurich return. Fate and circumstance being that I was booking stuff last minute.

I’m a bit anal about airplane seats. I know what I want. I want First Class. But I can’t. It’s all about the Benjamins.
So I have Economy or Premium Economy (or whatever the airline is calling it) to choose from. Flying is hell, especially long haul. So any sense of added comfort or service can be very welcome. I will choose different airlines based on what seats and seat configurations are available. Yeah, that’s right.

Singapore Airlines’ Premium Economy is pretty expensive. Take for example, a flight in June 2017 to London below:

I would estimate you probably will be paying double-ish the price of Economy seats on any of the airlines (obviously that will go up as the months go on towards flight date). If you’re lucky. Seatguru has made a comparison list of all Premium Economy seats available on airlines worldwide which I have embedded at the end of this document. It’s an interesting read.

So what do you get with the extra (EXTRA) money spent on your seat? Inches yo, inches.
38″ inches seat recline instead of 32″ in Economy.
19.5″ instead of 19″ seat width in Economy. Now that may not read as much but the armrests in between seats in Premium Economy are huge and puts an end to the great elbow wars of the 21st century.
You also get two USB ports instead of one! Along with the standard power port too. Food wise, the only advantage is you can pre-book a set meal before you fly. Still the same airline food quality. Although I got a good piece of beef tenderloin on one of the legs.
The in-flight entertainment, naturally, is the same but the screen is 13.3 inches as opposed to 10.6/11.1 inches in Economy and they also give you over-ear noise cancelling headphones.
There is also a small amenity kit handed out with socks, toothbrush and toothpaste.

Boarding wise, you can avail of priority boarding and separate check-in counters (at least in Zurich we walked straight up to Premium Economy Check-In whilst guffawing at the throngs of Economy class passengers queuing up, I didn’t see a specific Premium Economy check-in at Singapore but it was quick anyways).

Specific experiences on these flights?

It was fine. On the way over SIN-ZRH the screens would flake out once in a while and on the way back we saw some passengers’ screens never work at all. So I think they have an issue there. I would not have been happy if my screen didn’t work at all!
I’m in two minds about non touchscreen displays which Singapore Airlines A380 has. On the one hand it stops people from banging your head with their excellent film choices from the seat behind you but on the other hand it’s cumbersome to twist your hand down to the remote every time to adjust volume or change what you’re watching.
The headphone sockets are pretty inconveniently located (behind and in between seats) and every time you take your tray out of the armrest your headphone cable gets caught up. Bad design in my opinion.
I didn’t find the leg rest and the foot rest added any comfort to my 5’11” skeleton, if I was a little shorter, maybe. Stretching out without them in place was good.
It also seems that the aisle seats C and D (not sure about H on the other side) have an inconvenient seat support from the seat in front that greatly restricts on foot space (see above video).
I guess the feeling of the small Premium Economy cabin space is nice, it doesn’t feel as mooooo cattle cart-esque as the seats behind. Although you have to walk all the way back to the Economy toilets so there’s that traipse through all that humanity has to offer.

Is it all worth it?

The A380 is a spacious plane as it is. It’s probably the best Economy seat experience you will get anyway so you really have to figure out what you want and what you can handle. Are you traveling as a couple? The two seat format by the window in Premium Economy can be nice (not having to deal with anybody else in your “area”) and the 28 seat cabin area can feel a little more spacious than the rest of Economy. When the person in front reclines fully it really does invade your space quite a bit though.
Service wise, there’s no real difference. Singapore Airlines is always going to have a very attentive and high level of service throughout. Don’t expect anything on the level of First Class Suites!

Would I choose Premium Economy again? Yes, of course, anything to alleviate the torture of long haul economy class flying will be entertained. IF it’s within economical boundaries ie. would it be cheaper to pay my way through flight school, rent a plane, and fly myself?

Here’s Seatguru’s Premium Economy Seating comparison which is pretty informative:

Seoul Survivor

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Changing of the guard at Gyeongbokgung Palace.

We recently visited South Korea (with a few footsteps into North Korea) for the first time since we arrived in Asia all the way back in 2008. I don’t know why we waited so long but I guess there were other places clambering for attention before it. So South Korea was that quiet kid in the corner patiently waiting to be picked for the sports team at lunch time. WHY WAS I ALWAYS LAST?!!?

Anyway.

We flew Korean Air for the first time. It had a pretty good reputation. It was okay, food was not good (is it ever?) but the in-flight entertainment was immense.

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Didn’t fly on this 747 but they still are the coolest looking planes around.

After much trundling around the various tourist websites I decided to pick Metro Hotel Myeongdong (my Trip Advisor review here) for its location and proximity to grab a tour bus to the DMZ which left from the nearby Hotel President. Why not stay there then I hear you splutter through some oat cakes?! It was quite bit more expensive. So there. The Metro Hotel was small but it was comfortable and there was a Starbucks in the lobby. And if you didn’t manage to grab a Starbucks in the lobby there was another one around the corner. And another one. And another one. Oh, but the aircon was right over the bed and just blasted our heads with icy wind all night. I think it helped in me getting a weird headache in the coming weeks but that’s for me and my health insurance company to figure out.

Here’s what we did in Seoul….to survive…nah, doesn’t work. Not changing the post title though…

Panmunjom Tour

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North Korean soldiers used to stand at the blue sheds too but have stopped. I wonder why…?

I have a fascination with North Korea. I want to go there. This will have to do for now. I did a lot of research on what tour to take. A lot of people said just take the Panmunjom tour as the whole DMZ tour is not worth it. Panmunjom is what you see on TV. You know? The steadfast, ready for action South Korean soldiers and the baggy uniformed, emaciated North Korean soldiers facing off against each other in between United Nations blue coloured huts.

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View from the North.

The tour I chose from Tour DMZ took half a day with a departure at 7:30am and arrival back in Seoul at 1:30pm. This was perfect as we didn’t feel like being on a tour for a full day as was the case with most of the other tours on offer.
The tour itself is, obviously, a surreal journey. If it was anywhere else in the world it would be a bit “meh” as most of the time is spent on the bus. As it is the border between North and South Korea it elevates the whole experience to something that is definitely worth doing.

The amount of time you spend in the secure border area is very rushed as you try to take in what you are seeing. Yes, those are North Korean soldiers about 100 meters away! Yes, where the well manicured gravel stops and the dusty brown dirt starts is the difference between two warring countries! Yes, the building a couple of hundred meters away with the soldiers looking through binoculars IS North Korea! Yes, if you did run a few meters of gravel you would cause a major international incident!
After very little time, it is all over. Worth it? Yes. Enough time to analyse what you’re seeing? Hell no.

Deoksugong Palace

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We walked to this palace through a Gay Pride festival and the opposite of a Gay Pride festival – an anti-homosexual religious protest vomit gathering. It’s always weird to see religious people spew hatred and anger towards something they should care less about. Get on with your lives idiots.

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Twats.

Deoksugong is nice enough if a little underwhelming. It was 1,000 Won to get in. I was instantly befriended by a Korean tourist who wanted his photo taken on his broken screened phone. Pleasure. Walking around is quite pleasant and peaceful as overly busy streets surround the palace grounds on all sides.

Yeah, you may as well visit this place, it’s right there.

Gyeongbokgung Palace

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Another palace, this one built in 1395 and the biggest of the palaces from the Joseon Dynasty. It’s been rebuilt since a big fire so it’s a bit dubious to what is authentically 14th century and what was plastered together by a drunk builder-hack in the 20th century.. It certainly is interned in a huge garden and palace grounds. It’s a pretty popular place but didn’t feel too crowded. The koi pond is a nice area to make your way towards. Take a few hours and head here.

Lotte Giants v Busan Bears Baseball Game

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Buying a baseball ticket online for a Korean game is impossible. Don’t even try. Don’t even bother researching it for weeks on end, like I did. Don’t ask anyone. Just go to the stadium it’s at an hour or so before the gates open and line up like everyone else. Which is what we did. We were quite unsure if we could make ourselves understood where we wanted to sit as it was one of those “talk through this 5 inch thick glass window and see if we can understand each other” which is hard enough when both speaking the same language. But worry we should have not, the lady spoke enough English to get our preferred seats.
The game was enjoyable in the way an amateur game can be. Lots of walks, lots of dropped balls, so lots of runs. The constant singing, cheering, dancing, and overall noise from the crowd makes the game a worthwhile thing to go to while in Korea. We didn’t eat any of the local faire on sale there but saw enough of it to deem our decision was a good one.

Well, that’s our South Korea trip in a nutshell.

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Other things to note:

Vegetarians don’t have a good time in Seoul.

The 6015 Airport Limousine bus from the Airport to Myeongdong (and vice versa I would imagine but it was raining hard for our return to the airport so we grabbed a taxi) is cheap, pretty reliable and stress free.

You may have issues getting money from ATMs. We did. There’s something weird about international cards and ATMs there. The ones that worked for us were in one place: underground at the Euljiro 1-ga metro stop. There’s a bank of 5 ATMS with one or two that say International on them. Or something like that. Head there.

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