Asia is so big and diverse there are so many options when it comes to which are the best. There are so many factors that play into what are the best countries to visit. Do we categorize by cultural experiences? Safety? Cost? Friendliness? Ease of access? Pollution? As there are many different factors there can be no definite answer. If I were to choose my top 5 based on these criteria I would probably rank them:
Last year I was given the opportunity to visit the city of Tainan in southern Taiwan. Tainan was the original capital of Taiwan before the growth of Taipei and has been a food and cultural epicenter ever since.
Settled in the 1600s by the Dutch, Tainan city's architecture is a mix of Dutch, Japanese, and traditional Chinese, with buildings dating back to the 1600s varying in style. Because of it's unique heritage, the city boasts everything from sprawling European style buildings to traditional Japanese hotels and everything in between. This rich history has added to a astounding amount of historic sites that tourists can visit, but many do not.
One of Tainan's best kept secrets is the Anping Treehouse behind the Tait and Co. building in the Anping district of Tainan. Named for the district it's in and for the living banyan tree that occupies the space, this Treehouse is a beautiful reminder of how nature always wins. Originally, the treehouse was a warehouse for a merchantile company called, you guessed it, Tait and Co. Presently, this building is part of a 3 building museum highlighting the merchant trade in Tainan between the Dutch and Chinese, calligraphy and other rotating exhibits. At this time, most of the walls are covered in thick tree branches and roots that give the treehouse it's name. Tourists do have safe, secure walkways that they can use while visiting this attraction.
One can not visit Tainan and not go to a night market. As the unofficial culinary and cultural capital of Taiwan, Tainan has quite a few night markets, however, they are regulated and do not occur every night. Night markets are where you'll see all types of food, games, or small trinkets that you can buy, you might even be lucky enough to see one of the many night market auctioneers selling toys! Here you can fill up on stinky tofu, Taiwanese sausage, fried chicken cutlets and even schwarma! I went with some exchange students and almost everything was $3 US or less (90NTD). It is insanely crowded and the perfect place for pickpockets so beware, however, crime is low in Taiwan so it shouldn't be too much or an issue. They do have seating areas for you if you need them (I would totally sit down and eat things like soup).
Autumn Souffle Cafe was once popular with tourists to the point that it was constantly booked and very difficult to get into. This is in part due to the absolutely insane amount of traffic that INSIDER created for them when they went viral a year ago. I didn't have an issue going to them when I was there and could walk up just because the hype had died down. You have to go though, their pancakes are out of this world! I hate the mango version of their pancakes which at the time was their special and it was crazy good, although that might just be because I love Taiwanese mango.... I've mentioned them before and I will never stop mentioning them because they are so good!
One thing I recommend to foreigners when they travel to Korea is “definitely visit a jjimjilbang while you’re there”. These come in all shapes and sizes, but a jjimjilbang is a Korean bathhouse or spa that caters to Koreans and others as a way to relax and even realign your energies. The typical bathhouse has gendered bathing areas and sleeping rooms, they unfortunately are not yet transgender friendly. Other features may be an arcade, a scrubbing station, Karaoke, steam and ice rooms, outdoor pools, restaurants, masseuses, and even movie viewing areas. In bigger bathhouses, the pool, restaurant and other amenities may be mixed gender.
When you check in, you receive a towel, clothes, and a wristband with a sensor and key. This wristband will allow you to pay for whatever services you use while there, including full body scrubs and massages. The bathing areas are communal and will have a section for you to lock your clothes and belongings in the provided lockers. This, in turn, has an area for bathrooms and getting ready to go back out in society.
The bathing area has between five and ten different pools for you to use ranging from very cold to almost scalding. The bathhouse I visited, Dragon Hill Spa, has gingseng baths which were delightful and so comfortable. The outdoor gingseng bath in particular was awesome as I could relax in the sun and bathe.
Don't Be an Uninformed Foreigner
One of the biggest faux pas you can possibly make in a Korean bath house is not knowing what you should do when at a bath house. Upon arrival, you will receive: 1 small towel (not great for much if you're not used to it a.k.a American), the most unflattering baggy shorts and t-shirt, and a receipt or wristband for the lockers. When you first enter and get your wrist band, you will go to a small locker room where you will store your shoes, the locker number will coincide with either your wristband number or the number on your receipt, as well as a locker in the main gendered locker room where you will store your belongings (bags, clothes, etcetera). Once you reach the main locker room you can choose to either strip down and go straight to the baths or put on the clothing provided and explore, either is great, I prefer to bathe first instead of other things. Don't be afraid, you'll likely be more self-conscious than others will be, just relax and enjoy the experience.
You Should DEFINITELY Shower Beforehand
This is imperative and a massive mistake I made when I was there. I didn’t know about this and I did it wrong. When you get there, showers are set up in the bathing areas for you to wash off shampoos, conditioners, and any body wash. It also helps to remove any natural oils that could cause issues in the filtration system, after all you’ll be using these as well as other people. The same way you should shower before swimming you should shower before going in the pools. This allows them to keep the pools clean and free of any chemicals or particles that may clog them or cause diseases. It also keeps irritants like perfumes from getting into communal bathing areas. If you don’t do this, you may be contaminating the baths as they are not all salinated or chlorinated. This ensures a safe, clean environment for visitors and reduces the amount of work that employees have to do.
You Will Get Some Stares
This is, unfortunately, going to be the case for any foreigner at a bathhouse, especially if you present as another race. The stares are more so because of curiosity than disdain and are not sexual in nature. An important aspect of a bathhouse is that in the bathing areas you are completely naked and as such you may be the first foreigner that they have seen there or have seen in that way. It’s totally okay though, no one will be rude about it and there is a likelihood that you may be ignored altogether. If you have tattoos, that may be the only time you may even have someone look at you in an angry way as tattoos are still seen as taboo by older Koreans. But, if you're looking for a tattoo artist in Seoul I recommend Key.
You’ll Realize That Western Culture is Much More Conservative
As an American you wouldn’t think that we’re all too conservative, considering the normalizing of skin. However, Americans also see nakedness in a sexual way, rather than a natural way. Due to this, Americans are much more conservative than Koreans, even though Koreans typically cover up more.
In bathhouses, you spend a decent amount of time completely nude. As an American, this was a completely freeing moment for me as I did not feel uncomfortable. While there, people of every size, shape, and age (but of your gender) will walk around in the buff while doing things like showering, bathing, scrubbing, and massaging. It feels completely natural and definitely was one of the most relaxing days I’ve had in a long time. I didn’t have to worry about clothes or what others thought about me, I was able to just relax in the moment and lay back.
You Don't Have to Do the Math
One of the best things about bath houses is that they can take the guesswork out of keeping track of extra amenities so that you don’t have to. Their pay at the end of your stay model allow you to use your wristband to keep track of purchases by scanning instead of forcing you to remember at the end. This way, you don’t need to carry cash nor a credit card when you’re out and about in the spa itself.
Most bathhouses have a base price that is increased based on what services you use, getting a massage? $50. Want some french fries at the rooftop cafe? $11. Maybe want to sing some tunes? $2.50. It can add up but only based on what you choose to do and eat. If you’re not planning on spending on the extras, the $14 USD entrance price is NOTHING with the free amenities they have.
Spend the Night if You Like
While you may think sleeping in a room full of strangers is a little weird, it’s a very common cultural thing in Korea. Some spas have separate sleeping areas for each gender but others have family or communal sleeping spaces. This is extremely beneficial if you’re between travel destinations and need a cheap place to crash for a night, or if you drank too much and just need to sleep off the hangover. They do charge by the day, but 14$ a day is much cheaper than a $100 hotel room. Many families will be in these spaces using the amenities and you don’t have to be afraid, no one will bother you. In fact, I got such a great nap in that I was well rested after my day of relaxation.
There are so many features of Korean Jjimjilbangs that you will come to know and love as you spend time there. From the bathing areas to the sleeping rooms there are things to do for everyone. Not all bath houses are the same nor are they going to charge the same prices, however, you will always be able to enjoy your time if you plan accordingly.
I went to Dragon Hills Spa and Resort so if you're looking for a clean, safe environment I really enjoyed their service, you can check out there services here
For more information on Korean spas and bathhouses check out this link from vloggers Simon and Martina of Eat Your Kimchi.
Disclaimer: This is not a post that is meant to scare you or lead you to not want to go there because of this event. Instead, by educating you on the way that it happens you can be aware in the event that you ever experience this. Overall, to me, South Korea is a very safe country and I have never had any ill will befall myself.
You’ve heard of cults before, be it the Heaven’s Gate cult of yesteryear or the modern day cult followings of celebrities. To us, they are groups that only really exist in the media and we really don’t see them very often, at least in the USA. There’s something almost otherworldly about them as the only experience some people will ever have is through their tv or computer screen. However, in some countries, like South Korea, cults are flourishing. I should know, I almost joined one. Here’s the story about how I almost ended up in a cult and how you can avoid it.
So Here's What Happened....
Seoul, 2017. I exited Hongik University station into the blazing sun, hurrying on my way to Hongdae Shopping District to see some busking (basically the Korean version of performing for cash) while I waited for a friend to go to the Trick Eye Museum. As it is a generally safe country, I had very few reservations about traveling alone, since, up to that point I hadn’t had any real issues, even late at night. I feared nothing except running out of cash and having to find an ATM (in South Korea cash is still king).
As it so happened, today was the day that I would have to get cash from the ATM as I ran dangerously low. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to get on the subway to go to my apartment or anywhere else. I doubled back through the streets of Hongdae and arrived where I had started, Hongik University exit 8 where I knew a Citibank was close by. While I waited to cross the street, a pair approached me and struck up a conversation. Later I would find out that this was a common practice. Comprised of a tall, lanky Korean gentleman and a short, stout Korean woman, no older than 25. By this point, I had been approached by random people who wanted to help me if I seemed lost or needed anything, so I didn’t experience any true red flags. The couple introduced themselves and said they were headed to a tea ceremony and then food afterward, immediately my mind went into overdrive. I read about this before, it was a common ploy to convince foreigners to go to their “cultural events” which were thinly veiled meetings for their respective churches (aka cults). While I decided what to do I was flanked on either side, the woman holding an umbrella over my head. As it’s not unusual for Koreans to do so. This is where things started to get weird.
The woman held the umbrella and tried to cover me entirely with it, commenting on my white skin and how beautiful I was. By this point, those red flags were raised and billowing in the wind. I knew I had to get out of there before something else happened.
My survival instinct kicked in, I knew I needed to shake them while staying as visible as possible on the street. As South Korea is the land of CCTV I had few reservations save a concern that the umbrella would block anything from view. I had to think fast, any time wasted could mean I would be led to a side street and out of view. The first thought that I had? The bank. Banks have cameras everywhere, near ATMs, at ATMs, and surrounding the building. All I had to do was get myself and my followers to the bank where I could be caught on camera. We exchanged pleasantries as we walked, I fed them false information about themselves, while they asked questions about my trip thus far, “was I a teacher?” “no” and “was I alone?” “meeting a friend” were two questions that cemented my concerns, a teacher might be missed at work there while someone traveling alone may not be missed until much later. I pretended to be as naive as possible, answering the questions as if I had no idea what was going on, aware that at any moment things could turn ugly.
As we neared the bank my heart began to beat faster, I needed to get there and bide my time, maybe they would leave. I walked straight to the ATM and ducked inside. To my chagrin, they remained there, waiting for me to leave and continue with them. I was out of options, unable to communicate with anyone, and stuck. Everything I had learned about situations like this came back to me. I had to lose them. I exited the ATM and made the only excuse I could think of “I’m meeting a friend soon” in hopes that they would just give up once they realized that. They persisted, insisting that they walk with me to where I needed to go. I agreed, not wanting to cause a scene. I took the lead, going straight for the spot where we met just minutes before. Not to dissuade they followed.
When we arrived back at the corner where we had met, I pretended that I had seen my friend in the crowd, walking away from us. I said my pleasantries and made my mistake, weaving through the crowd near the station. For the next 10 minutes, I ducked in and out of stores along the shopping street, sometimes doubling back to ensure that I couldn’t be followed. For a while, they followed but gave up after about 5 minutes. To be sure, I went into a coffee shop and sat with a drink for a while just to keep myself from being seen. I am lucky that I am able to speak about this today.
How You Can Avoid Become A Victim
There are many cults in South Korea, but there are two churches that created the most prolific cults, The Unification Church and the World Mission Society Church of God. I was approached by followers of the Unification Church, you may have heard about them in the media. This church aims to create marriages for their followers, to whatever extent that they can, even tricking foreigners into it.
Their modus operandi is to send out followers in groups of two, usually a male and female or two females into the street. There, they will approach women, usually foreigners, and introduce themselves followed with an invitation to a cultural event that they’re going to. They prefer foreigners because there is a higher chance that they don’t know what is going on and will go willingly, happy to have a free event to go to. If you follow, you might find yourself in a pseudo wedding ceremony with a strange man, usually older.
Be diligent and always aware of your surroundings. They are less likely to approach you if you’re in a group or walking with a friend. Typically that is enough to keep them away. If you’re alone, make sure that there is someone who is aware of where you are, be it a friend or family member through some sort of tracking software, I suggest Life360. I would also arm yourself with knowledge of where CCTV cameras are and how to remain in sight, the last thing you need to have happened is for there to be a blind spot.
If you follow along with them and start to realize that you’re lost or are unaware of your surroundings, fake a phone call or text message to have an excuse to leave the situation.
In terms of the World Mission Church of God group, as I didn’t have any experiences with them, I would suggest reading Travel With Karla’s post on the matter.
When we first travel somewhere new we can encounter issues that we are not used to. Things like the heat and humidity, hygiene and just plain cultural differences. Below are my top 5 biggest lessons I learned while in Asia.
1. No Soap, No TP, No Toilets: Hand Sanitizer, tissues, and bracing for life
One of the biggest issues I found while traveling in Asia is the lack of soap, toilet paper, or "western toilets", things we take for granted in the USA. More often than not, I would find myself in a situation where I only had the option of squatting toilet (a popular choice in Asia). I being the graceful person I am, I would have to brace against the sides of the stall only to find when I was done there was no toilet paper. The best way to solve this is by keeping a pack of travel size tissues in your bag or pocket. When you go to wash your hands if there's not soap, just get some hand sanitizer, it works well in a pinch and will substitute soap.
2. Your International Debit Card DOESN'T WORK: find a Citibank branch or 7-11
For some reason, some ATMs in public areas do not accept foreign cards, even the ones in popular tourist shopping destination. This can be a major issue if you're in a country with a cash-based economy. For the most part, I was able to always find an ATM that took my card, but there were times where I struggled with getting money, such as places like Songshan Cultural Park which only had ATMs for Taiwanese and Chinese consumers. If you wanted to skip these issues for the most part, the best cards for travel in Asia are Charles Schwabb (USA) and Revolut (Europe/USA/Asia) cards, which forgo typical credit card fees and work worldwide. I have a debit card from a small local bank near my house, however, I have met people who swear by these accounts.
3. In Between Lodging and Have Luggage: Use a Luggage Locker
When you're on the go or just in between hotels, carrying luggage from place to place can be a complete drag especially if it's the middle of summer and 100% humidity. You may be backpacking a country or just switching hotels and your check-in is not until 4:00PM. This can be stressful for anyone, however, I've found there is a viable solution. In many regional rail and subway stations there are luggage lockers where you can lock your luggage away for a predetermined amount of time. It may be a small fee, but if you're tired of lugging things around it is a Godsend.
Similarly, many museums have lockers where you can keep your luggage for a refundable fee. In Seoul, South Korea, I found that most museums would charge 250-500 Won, while similarly in Taiwan it was around 10NTD. These fees are under $1 USD and are paid in coins. While museums in the USA have this feature they usually don't have very large lockers, but I've found the ones in Taiwan are quite large and can easily fit a full-sized suitcase or carry on. This is a cheap way to explore a city until your check in time.
4. Summer Heat is Oppressive and Taking It's Toll: Stay Hydrated, Eat HOT Foods, and PRAY
While this may seem like a no brainer, you would not believe how often I woke up dehydrated after a day out in the sun in Asia. No matter how many bottles of water I drank I was still perpetually dehydrated. I realized later that I was not doing basic things to keep myself from having issues. First, bring a refillable water bottle with you wherever you go. While it may be easier to buy a 50 cent bottle at a 7-11, you will be adding to the crazy amount of plastic waste already in Asia. Instead, there are many public places where you can find a water fountain or water cooler (Most restaurants have one).
Also, if you're someone who wants to stay cool, eating hot food (spice and temperature) is a surefire way to cool you down. While this may seem redundant, you are more likely to sweat more after eating spicy foods, allowing your body to cool itself down faster. This doesn't mean you can't eat cold food, especially when patbingsu or baobing (Korean or Chinese Shaved Ice with fruit) are so delicious in the summer, it just means if you need to cool down fast, add some hot sauce to your lunch or dinner.
5. Bringing too Much to Carry on Day Trips: Invest in Multi-use Storage and Minimize Heavy Objects
I admit it, I'm a serial overpacker, even on day trips, and when I'm overseas in a place where it's hot, humid, and I can't communicate well I've made some mistakes. One of the biggest mistakes I've made? Carrying guide and language books around on day trips just in case I need them. These items are heavy and don't really help very much when out and about. While you can purchase them prior to a trip, keep them in the hotel, your phone may be a better option with live offline translations et cetera at your fingertips. You can also create offline maps on Maps.me which uses GPS coordinates and no data to track your location. This will significantly lighten your load and make it easier to enjoy your trip, without cumbersome bags. This tip goes for books you read for pleasure, if you can download it to your phone or Kindle it takes up less space and provides some relief.
Your backpack or purse is your best friend. If you like to bring your camera like I do, I would suggest buying a bag that has a padded section for your camera (Here's my bag). I carry a DSLR for most of my travels and it can be HEAVY, plus all of your day to day travel items are rattling around the bag with it. When I was in Korea, I made the mistake of using a regular purse and putting a smaller camera bag inside of it. By the end of the day my shoulder was covered in red marks from the straps being weighted down with my camera. Travel camera bags are not much more expensive than a backpack or purse, and they have larger straps to distribute the burden. The backpag I use is a GoGroove bag and it was fantastic, compact but really used space well!
If you don't feel like carrying a bag, buy a fanny pack or money belt, this will keep items out of your pockets (and away from any pickpockets) and secure credit cards, passports and phones. I would suggest even investing in one that hangs around your neck instead of going without.
Finally, you carry a lot in your hands when you travel: maps, phones, the odd beverage or to go food item. If you can find one, purchase a drink holder from a street vendor. These holders have straps that you can slip on your arm and allow you to carry any drink with ease as it frees up your hands. If you're in a country like Korea or Taiwan you will see a lot of these as they are so useful for carry other items as well.
“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” – Saint Augustine