Qdeemk Ndeemk

The resolution for this long weekend was not to stray too far from home and instead stay and explore the back alleys of Ajman. You might think that there’s not much happening in Ajman, and you would have been right a few years ago, but it’s come a long way since then, especially in terms of the foodie start-up scene. With a number of food trucks set up at the promenade in Ajman and a whole new set that we came across at the Mosaic Market, I was interested in trying something new.

For breakfast, we headed straight to Qdeemk Ndeemk whose modest exterior betrays an absolutely stunning interior.

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Welcome!

The cafe is large, yet cozy and oh so vibrant, with dated decor. Colourful canvases dot the walls and colourful cushions are scattered around, featuring legendary Arab icons such as Adel Emam, the Egyptian comedian, Abdul Halim Hafiz the Egyptian Singer (which got my mum reminiscing), and the famous Kuwaiti comedian, who incidentally was our neighbour in Kuwait.

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Everything about the cafe has a distinctly vintage feel to it, like a refreshing blast into the past. From typewriters (I have always wanted one of these), to radios, phones which would now be considered antique, however much of an affront that is to my not so distant childhood, and old television sets which go back to my parents’ generation. The not so flat screen generation.

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There were two other distinctly awesome things about this place, not counting the food. The car themed decor, which includes an entire bright red Mercedes as the highlight, which got my dad thinking back to his Mercedes days and the teapot chandeliers which I absolutely fell in love with <3

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Half-cut cars… only my brother will get this joke *sigh*

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Well hello there beautiful ^^

When we were finally done ooh-ing and aah-ing at the interior design, we finally settled on three different kinds of breakfasts (Indian, American and Arabic) and of course no meal is truly complete without a cup of freshly brewed…karak ^^ The food was absolutely wonderful and the karak was spot on! Take note, every other restaurant who serves tea as a pot of hot water and tea bag on the side, that is such a no-no. When I’m ordering tea, I’m expecting a cuppa made with love, like karak <3 I would highly recommend anyone coming down to Ajman not to miss breakfast here.

We polished off our meals, headed to the restroom, which also turned out to be a work of art with its mosaic tiles to match the rest of the cafe interior.

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Tiled toilets

As we headed back to the table, we were met with a tray filled with bakhoor and oud to get rid of any annoying lingering smell of food (really, I can’t believe no one has done this sooner, and no scented wipes don’t count) and the bill came with the characteristically Emarati Sharaawi Bros Mastic gum. If you live in the UAE, you know this gum is currency… used as change when supermarkets run out of 25 fils.

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The 4 stages of meal at Qdeemk Ndeemk

Final Verdict: must go again! The menu has so many yummy goodies to sample, it’s going to be hard to stay away.

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Don’t stay away too long!

Miracle Garden 2016

So this has become somewhat of a tradition… visiting Miracle Garden every year as soon the harsh summer shows signs of letting up. You may wonder why we choose to go the same place every year but the truth is, the flower arrangements change every year, which makes it a brand new experience every time you visit. This year, the highlight was the Guinness World Record holding largest flower arrangement in the form of an Airbus A380 (okay, that’s quite a mouthful).

The garden opens at 9am, but we were being lazy this time so we decided to go at 10am, anticipating that the good weather would hold. We weren’t quite so lucky. It would appear every time we’re blessed with a long weekend, the weather turns back to it’s evil summer spirit just to spite us. In any case, we were still early enough not to have any long queues at the ticket counter, so yayy!

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The perks of coming early… no line!

If there’s one thing I noticed the minute I stepped inside, it’s that this year, there are more flowers than ever before. The garden was completely carpeted in flowerbeds, besides the fancy decorative floral arrangements. The familiar arrangements from previous years had been revamped, and there were so many more things to discover.

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Remember me?

The “graveyard of cars” may have disappeared, but no season of Miracle Garden is complete without at least one epic car installation. In this case it was the Beetle Waterfall ^^

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One of the things I absolutely loved this year, was the fact that there were a lot more places to sit down to enjoy the view instead of rushing through. From the pavilions set up around the fountain, to the benches and swings set up around the perimeter of the park, there were so many vantage points from which you can appreciate the beauty around you.

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Pavilions around the fountain

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Garden swings <3

For people who may find it difficult to wander around the whole park, don’t worry! There are special “taxis” to take you around the park for only AED 20 per taxi ^___^

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Floral Dhow

There were also a lot more places to eat this time around, Hardee’s and Krispy Kreme being new additions, but overall having a meal here is going to pack a bigger punch in your wallet than the entrance tickets. A simple shawarma which usually costs AED 5, costs about AED 30 in the park, so I wouldn’t really recommend eating at the garden unless you’re reallllllllllly hungry. Drinks too are super expensive so a bottle of water is probably the best way to go if you’re on a budget.

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Butterfly Windmills

La pièce de résistance though was most definitely the Airbus installation, and not just the plane, but also the landscaping around the plane.

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First glimpse of Emirates Airlines <3

The coolest part had to be the  UAE flag on the tail and the rotating airplane turbines. Way cool! <3

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Emirates Airbus A380

The park is open from 9am to 9pm on weekdays 9am to 11pm on weekends with tickets for adults costing only AED 40 (as of Dec 2016) , so if you haven’t gone already, it’s time to add this to your to-do list ^^

Mosaic Market

As a pre- National Day celebration, we decided to stay closer to home and visit the Mosaic Market which is held every Thursday and Friday at Safia Park in Ajman. We weren’t really sure what to expect, having only seen posters of the market on Facebook and Instagram, but they were convincing enough to get us out of the house on a Thursday evening, which is highly uncharacteristic of us. By the time we got to the park, we had come to one pre-event conclusion…we were clueless about a lot of the development that was taking place in Ajman. Jurf in particular, is like an area transformed.

Anyway, back to the market… the weather was lovely, ideal for a night out, and despite the rush we managed to find a parking spot not too far away from the park entrance.

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Getting in line for tickets

Tickets were AED 5 per head and once we were in, it was time to take the compulsory snap with the event hashtag ^^

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Hashtags are so in

My brother decided it was absolutely necessary to sample as much food as possible from as many stalls as possible, so we ended up having or at least watching him have dynamite shrimps from Foodbox, some concoction of berries and Red Bull, hot sweet corn on the cob, swirly potato chips, karak chai, Monkey Cookies and of course… and I mean of course…. we had to have Oman Chips paratha.

For those of you who’ve never been to UAE before, you must know this. Oman Chips sandwiches are tradition. If you come here and leave without having this sandwich and a karak, then you’ve really not visited UAE. More sacrilege than visiting UAE and not visiting Burj Khalifa if you ask me.

There were so many things to eat that you’d best come with an empty tummy if you’re looking to sample a bit of everything, including sweets from Sophie’s Kitchen and some good old food food, as I like to call it, from Qdeemk Ndeemk.

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So many places to check out!

Apart from the food, there were lots of activities, especially for kids, from an outdoor cinema, complete with comfy cushy bean bags, screening Freej to outdoor slides, paint walls and pull up bars. There was also a stall where you could try your luck and see if you could pick out an oyster with a pearl in it! I’ve only done this once as a child, but trust me… the feeling of opening up the shell and finding a beautiful pearl nestled inside the soft meat is like nothing else in the world, except perhaps winning the lottery ^^

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Celebrating National Day

Since it was the National Day weekend, we were also treated to traditional local plays and local dances, complete with swords.

If you haven’t been before, it’s well worth a visit and if you’re done with the market, there’s an entire park just waiting for a picnic and a running track to help you shed those pounds you put on at the market ^^

Dubai Fountain

Now that the weather is cooling down, at least in the evenings, it’s time to start venturing out and doing outdoorsy things again. Our first stop was The Dubai Fountain, the world’s tallest musical fountain. Since the boat rides are between 5.45pm to 10.45pm and we’re very very much morning people, we never actually thought of taking a ride through the fountain before. We decided we’d do something different, booked our tickets and braved our way through the weekend traffic to head to Dubai Mall. Despite having had to park on the 9th (and last) floor of the parking garage since all other levels and all underground parking was full, we finally made it… just in time.

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Looking across at Souq Al Bahar

We’d making the bookings online, so we went to collect our tickets from the At The Top counter, where we were surrounded by an endless mob of tourists. Luckily for us, there was more rush to head to the top of Burj Khalifa and less rush at the fountain, so we were in for a comfy ride.

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Heading out

I’d strategically picked the 6.15pm slot, which meant that we’d have time to watch the 6pm fountain show before sunset, and the 6.30pm show after sunset, during the ride. I’d highly recommend picking a time around sunset so you can enjoy the day and the night views of both the fountain and Burj Khalifa, which sparkles like a gem at night.

The weather was lovely, the boat entirely silent and the ride a smooth sail around the fountain, taking us from Dubai Mall, past Souk Al Bahar and past the recently opened Dubai Opera for a vantage point view of both Burj Khalifa and the fountain.

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The sun going down behind Dubai Opera

If you stand close to the fountain and the wind is just right, you should expect a nice cool shower, but when you’re in the boat, the driver takes you to a sweet spot, close enough for the fountain to seems magical, and just far away enough not to get a drop on you. For the photography enthusiast, it’s a great opportunity to get a non-crowded shot up close, but somehow nothing you capture will be as nice as it actually feels sitting in the boat, away from the crowds, softly rocking, watching the fountains dance to the music.

My biggest tip to anyone who’d like to plan a visit to the fountain would be this… if you’re heading out at night don’t strain your neck trying to get a glimpse of the top of the Burj. Instead, sink a little in your seat, tilt your head back and voila… the top will come down to you.

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Glittering in the night sky

Tickets cost only AED 65 for adults (as of Sept 16) and even if you’re travelling with kids, there’s no need to worry because there are life jackets available on board for adults and kids alike. No excuse not to go and spend a relaxing half hour along with your thoughts.

The Green Planet

We headed off to The Green Planet on their opening weekend, because who doesn’t want to experience a day in a rainforest, while living in the desert. To be honest, while landscaping in the UAE is a testament to human creativity and ingenuity which allows for 24/7, 365 days a year greenery that often makes you forget that you’re living in a desert, there are times when you crave something less manicured and something more wild and green.

Located at the City Walk, the Green Planet can be a bit hard to locate if it’s your first time in the area because there’s still some roadwork ongoing, but the building is easy to spot, and is located right opposite The Hub. We had booked tickets online, to avoid any potential queues at the ticketing counter, and decided that we’d head out bright and early so we’d get in just as the place opened up. We weren’t the only ones with the same idea, but we got our tickets easily enough, and were ushered through for our rainforest experience with two important reminders – No flash photography and No Touching!

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Welcome to The Green Planet

You start your visit at the ground floor, where you get an amazing view of where you’ll be headed (the rainforest above) while at the same time enjoying turtles and all sorts of fish in the aquarium. From the moment you enter, the temperature is a comfortable 20 something degrees, and while it’s humid it’s not uncomfortably so which means you can easily spend hours inside.

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Looking up

Once you’ve had your fill of looking at the fishes, you head into an elevator which takes you right to the top, from where you’ll begin your journey, naturally working your way downwards. The first thing we saw as we stepped off the elevator… were parrots! Just sitting there… comfortably… about to begin their early morning preening. I think the most surprising thing, for me at least and for the many kids who came in after us, was just how loud parrots can be. It’s positively startling, especially if you’re not expecting it.

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Too uncomfortable to preen in front of camera-wielding strangers

The thing I loved most about the place, was the fact that all the birds were free to fly around, which meant you had to spot them in all the dense foliage. There were signs all along the footbridges giving you the names and details of the birds, and you had to hope you were lucky enough to spot them. Free to fly also means free to poop, excuse the French, where and when they please, which often includes on unsuspecting visitors, which is why I’d advise you to keep a pack of wet wipes on you when you go. Just in case!

 

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Look who’s hiding

There were all sorts of birds, from green and red parrots, to toucans and then of course, there were the other animals which we had’t expected like the sloth (who was just beginning his rather slow journey into the rainforest) and rather large sleeping porcupines (in fact, I didn’t even know porcupines could be so big or that they are nocturnal!) There were also a number of fascinating critters, not all free to roam thank God. I wouldn’t quite know what to do with myself if that tarantula had been out wandering. One of the nicest things was that there were guides available everywhere who were willing to share their knowledge with you to help you pick out a male from a female lizard and also to creep you out by telling you just how lathe those lizards can get once they’re fully grown.

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The Frog Leg Beetle looks like an absolute jewel

The animals aren’t the only wow factor at the Green Planet- in fact for me, it was the tree that was perhaps the most awe-inspiring. The tree, as they explained to us, is man-made and other vegetation has been planted in such a way that it will grow over the structure which acts as a support. Which means, while the tree looks amazing now, it will take a few years before the tree is fully covered  in wild green and a place for all those animals to truly call home.

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First look at the man-made tree.

As we made our way down, over rope-bridges and past preening parrots, we met weaver ants making their homes, bees building their hive, leaf-cutter ants being their diligent selves carrying upto 5000 times their body weight in leaves and butterflies just sitting  pretty on the large leaves of the canopy.

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A place to call home

 

The experience was both wonderful and educational and I’m pretty sure I’d like to be back in a year or so to see how much the canopy has changed. The Green Planet is open from 10am to 10pm everyday (closing time extends upto midnight on Thursdays and Fridays) and tickets can be bought online or at the entrance for AED 95 for adults and AED 70 for children (Prices as of Sept 2016).

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The biggest parrots I’ve ever seen… and the cutest

WTC Souq and Mall

There are loads of malls in Abu Dhabi, and while Wahda Mall is my personal favourite, rather my mum’s favourite, WTC Souq and Mall are great places for tourists and for people looking for a good place to eat out with an ambiance to match.

We stopped at the souq first, which is filled with shops selling all sorts of tourist-y takeaways. I wouldn’t say that these are exactly “Emarati” souvenirs, most of them being imported from either Turkey or Iran, but there are plenty of exotic items that would make for great coffee table conversation.

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I need to get me one of these lamps!

Most stores sell decorative items- from the typical turquoise Persian enamel plates to the deep blue Turkish evil eye pendants, postcards (so you remember all the places you’ve visited and all the ones you’ve missed) and antique wooden furniture. Some stores sell spices- there’s one right at the entrance if you fancy some dries rose buds and marjorum. They were also selling something curiously translated as “crumple”- what that is, I can’t be sure. If spices aren’t your thing, or if you’d rather avoid possible questioning back at your home airports, then maybe taking back some traditional clothes would be best. Many stores sell taditional abayas and shailas for the ladies, and kandooras and gutras for the gents. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you could always change into your new local attire and roam the souq instead. And then of course there are the compulsory to camel embossed T-shirts to give to friends, because nothing says UAE like camels…even though you’re only likely to see them if you for a safari or the zoo.

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Anyone need an Aladdin lamp?

If you’re into art, there are also a couple of art galleries where you can pick up something truly unique. When we stopped there, we couldn’t resist getting some paintings by an Iraqi artist, and we weren’t the only ones in prowling the dark cramped aisles in the little gallery with more paintings than walking room, in search of Mr. Right. Always remember, if you’re at a souq… that means you have an unwritten license to bargain…at least a bit. The  best, and most commonly used, bargaining technique is to keep insisting that they tell you their “last price”. I’m terrible at bargaining, but it’s always worth a shot… my mum did end up getting a good discount (or so we were led to believe ;) ) If you’re worried about packaging, they can roll up the canvas for you, or you can have it framed at the gallery itself where you can pick it up later.

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One of the many market scenes painted by an Iraqi artist

If you start feeling peckish as you’re wandering around, there are a couple of coffee shops and a number of restaurants where you can sample Turkish, Lebanese and Indian cuisine and if none of those sound appealing, there a lot more places to eat right across in the mall which is just a pedestrian crossing away.

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“Eat of the good things wherewith We have provided you” – Quran 2:172

The mall itself is no less than a throwback to old souqs, with a similar wooden interior which is actually quite a refreshing change of scenery. The shops are about the same as in any other mall, but when it comes to food, they have a good number of popular eateries under one roof- PF Changs, Shake Shack, Romanos, Nandos and a long line of cafes and of course there’s the food court. Unfortunately, or fortunately rather, we were all fasting that day so we escaped the inevitable hole in our budget and instead wandered around the mall stopping to admire all the artsy sculptures that were up everywhere (except the polar bear which was positively frightening). We even got to enjoy people playing the clear piano that was made available to the public.

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Rhino alert!

There were also, surprisingly, places to sit that did not involve going to the food court. This is somewhat of a rarity in most malls across the country – so if you do see an empty bench, sit down and savour the moment.

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Don’t forget to look up and enjoy the architecture

 

The mall and souq are open from 10am to 10pm on weekdays and upto 11pm on weekends so there’s always a way to squeeze them into your itinerary.

Emirates Park Zoo

Now that the weather is getting better (I admit there’s still a long way to go), Emirates Park Zoo is  a great place to put on your list of places to visit on the weekend, especially if you have kids. It makes for a great day trip, and they even have a hotel you can stay at if you want to enjoy the experience for more than a day :)

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Lots of things to see!

I would recommend going in the morning in this weather and only attempting an afternoon visit once it cools down a bit, but in any case, you can always buy hats and water bottles right at the entrance so there’s no reason to worry. Also, they have mist sprayed outdoors which helps cool you down as well.

The best part about this place is that you actually get to interact with a lot of the animals- this includes being able to feed some animals like the giraffes and elephants. (I admit- this is why I was really here. I love giraffes <3 ). They also have lots of shows held throughout the day, which they periodically announce over the speakerphone in case you forget ^^

You can buy food for feeding at the entrance but it turned out the giraffes were happily fed by the time we reached. Some people still insisted on feeding them (and the wrong food at that!) despite clear signs asking not to. :( If you do get a chance to go, please don’t be tempted to do that.

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Don’t forget to feed the giraffes

There are all sorts of animals, ranging from the more domesticated chickens and turkeys to the exotic ostriches, gazelles and leopards. I experienced several firsts at the zoo- seeing my first Frizzled Chicken and also my first Capybara (I only ever read about Capybaras in the Noragami manga…go figure ).

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Smile for the camera

A lot of the birds and ducks aren’t kept in cages, which makes me wonder why they stick around… the promise of regular food perhaps? I suppose it’s a mark of how well the animals are looked after at the zoo.

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Time for a morning stroll

While we can escape the summer heat by heading to the air conditioned areas of the zoo, it’s a bit more difficult for those animals who aren’t used to the scorching temperatures, so you’ll normally notice those particular animals hiding out in their feeding areas, which are shaded and probably a lot cooler. So don’t feel too disappointed if you don’t see them roaming around. They’re just resting and will probably be up and about when it cools down ^^

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Did you know zebra stripes are unique like fingerprints?

It’s easy to lose track of time at the zoo, and you’ll probably find yourself spending about 2 hours there before wondering what time it is :) If you get hungry while you’re there, there are a couple of restaurants there that have you covered (yayy for Subway!).

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Hello sleepy :)

The zoo is typically open all year round,including on public holidays. Tickets for adults only cost AED 30 and similarly priced tickets are available for some of their special shows (prices as of Sept 2016).

Last Exit

It’s no secret that food trucks and pop-up restaurants are the new craze in UAE. Some of the more recognizable names include Salt, which now has a permanent home in at least three different emirates, Moti Roti, the Ramadan favourite and of course Parker’s, no key no entry. So it’s no surprise that a permanent food truck park has finally opened up in Dubai.

Last Exit is located on E11 on the way from Abu Dhabi to Dubai, just outside Jebel Ali which makes it a great alternative to stopping at the Adnoc service stations on the way back from Abu Dhabi.

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Welcome to Last Exit

What’s great about the place is that not only does it have a drive-through in case you’re in a hurry, but there’s also plenty of parking if you want to get some rest before hitting the road again.

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Drive through Big Smoke Burger

An interesting thing to note is that despite the absence of most of the big names, there are plenty of new-comers which shows the food truck business is alive and well. From burgers at Burger Pit, to coffee at the prerequisite Starbucks and dessert at Clinton Street Baking Company, you’re all set for a hearty meal. And of course, no food truck park can be complete without karak and parathas from My Karak.

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Nothing like starting the day with karak

With its vintage 1950s feel, the park is a great place to visit, even if you’re not a foodie (is there such a thing?). Not only are the food trucks painted with 50s themes, the indoor dining area is a blast into the past complete with a pinball machine and a juke box.

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Taking the 50s theme very seriously

From the gas pump nozzle door handles to the bicycle spoke lights, there’s no place left without decoration.  I didn’t go into the restroom, but later found out even that is a work of art.

While the indoor dining area will be the obvious preference in summers, the outdoor dining area will be a hit in winter. The seats are made from re-purposed tyres and the tables are old barrels. What’s not to love!

If you do get a chance to go, leave me a comment and recommend something yummy to try on my next visit :)

Emirates Palace

This Eid holiday, we decided to head down to Abu Dhabi and visit Emirates Palace. We couldn’t make up our minds whether to visit in the morning or wait till after sunset to catch a night view of palace, but the uncharacteristically hot weather made the decision for us and we ended up visiting after dinner.

I called in ahead to see if we could book a tour, but as it turned out, all tours were booked until the end of the month. The front desk said the only real difference between the tour and visiting on your own is that the tour includes a visit to the rooms. We figured we’d just enjoy the views of the lobby and have a nice gold-flaked cappuccino at Le Cafe instead.

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Le Cafe

If you are planning a visit, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. There is a dress code so say no to shorts, flip-flops, beach wear and generally looking like a bum. Smart casual is the way to go. The other important thing to remember, is that you may be turned away at the entrance if you can’t satisfy security that you’re not just going there to loiter. If you’re planning on going for dinner, or a cup of tea, then know the name of the cafe/restaurant, if you’ve booked a tour have all related information ready. “I’m just going to look around” does NOT qualify as a good answer.

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Waiting for someone? Wait in style!

From the moment we entered the hotel, it was as though we were surrounded by gold. Everything had either a touch of gold or was bathed in relaxing soft gold lighting. It was interesting to note that there were not a lot of skylights to allow for natural lighting, except for a few openings in the main dome area which I thought was a pity only because I’m a big fan of natural lighting. Looking up at the dome is rather mesmerizing and if I could I would lie down on the cold marble just look up and appreciate the structure.

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Looking up

While we were wandering around, I ran in to a friend and after catching up we decided it was time for a good cup of tea or coffee and started looking for Le Cafe. The signs aren’t very obvious, so we had to peek at the boards in front of several seating areas to find the cafe, and the mix of my bad eye-sight with the dim relaxing lighting made everything seem a bit more hazy. We found it eventually, and while the gold-leaf coffee was really good, I would probably not recommend the Masala Chai to anyone. It isn’t chai if they’re serving milk on the side.

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A great spot for a touristy picture!

We left after drinks, leaving behind people closing business deals and other people digging in to their dinner.

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It was a lovely experience, but next time I think I’d prefer to just wander around the hotel grounds during the day and take in the architecture, the landscaping, the beautiful fountains at the entrance… and a little bit of sun.

Chillout Ice Lounge, Dubai

If you haven’t figured it out already, the summer’s not showing any signs of ending any time soon. So how does one chill out in Dubai.. .apart from going to a mall that is? Well, there are more than a few icy options around to turn your summers into winter… there’s Ski Dubai in MOE (which has recently started overnight camping!), several ice skating rinks including the one in Dubai Mall and then… there’s the Chillout Ice Lounge! If you’re just looking for a place to relax, have a coffee and a bite to eat in the comfort of -6C then this place was made just for you.

The good news is you don’t need to lug your own snow boots and heavy jackets with you. Both are provided to you before you enter, along with a nice warm cap and gloves. The gloves, though aren’t as warm as we would have liked so I’d advise you to carry your own as well. Also, do come wearing jeans because there’s nothing to cover your legs. Once you’re all bundled up and look like you’re heading for an Alaskan expedition, that’s when you’re allowed in to the cafe which is full of beautiful ice sculptures.

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Fairies and Dragons

While some of them are just for admiring, there are even some that you can climb into, like chariots and cars, for that perfect photo op! (If you can bear to take your hands out of your gloves, or if you’re lucky enough to have gloves that work with your smartphone!)

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Some of the epic sculptures!

If you’re worried about how long you can stay inside, no need to worry! You can always warm yourself up with a steaming cup of tea or hot chocolate and of course, there’s always lunch to take your mind off the cold. Did I mention, your first drink is complimentary? ^^

One of the things I loved about the place was the fact that the lights keep changing colour, so you get to see the sculptures, literally, in a new light.

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The red dragon!

Tickets are only AED 75 per adult and AED 35 for kids (as of Aug 2016) and since you can stay in for as long as you can stay in, it’s definitely worth a visit!

Spring in South Korea- Day 12

Day 12, also known as The Last Day, in the nicest sense of course ^^ There’s only one flight from home to Korea- at midnight- which meant we had the whole day to kill before heading to the airport. We were supposed, of course to check out of the hotel at midday but what of all our luggage and where exactly were we supposed to go? I had been counting on the hotel extending our check-out to at least 3pm but they weren’t too big on the extended check-out concept so instead they suggested that we could pay for half a day but the rates since booking had shot up considerably so that was a no-no. We decided to check out as planned at midday, ask the hotel to hold on to our luggage and head to Gangnam to meet up with my friend for lunch and a stroll around the area.

After breakfast, we finished packing everything in our new suitcase (yayy!), except the strawberries (what on earth does one do with fresh fruit when travelling?)  and after a smooth check-out we were all set to go to Gangnam by metro. (I think we used almost every imaginable form of public transport on this short trip- plane, taxi, car, van, bus, ferry, metro, train!)

The National Assembly station was right outside the hotel, so we headed down the escalator to buy our tickets at the machine. Again, we hadn’t bought transport cards so we had to use the one-time cards. My friend had told me that there was an express line to get to Gangnam, but I hadn’t the faintest idea if that would be at the same platform or another so we ended up taking the all-stop metro. As soon as we got out of the station, we realized we had to make a pit-stop before my rendez-vous… when you see Kyobo in front of you, you don’t just walk away!

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I could live here

There was so much to see in Kyobo and it’s hard to resist buying something, so I ended buying another Scratch Night View and gave me a discount coupon to use on my next visit. When we finally emerged from Kyobo, we ran into my friend who was coming to look for us ^^

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Nothing like flowers to remind you it’s Spring

We headed straight to lunch at the nearest Paris Baguette where there were a million and three things, out of which only three were halal sigh Self-control in the face of all those heavenly looking cakes was, I suppose, good practice since Ramadan is now right around the corner ^^ We had a nice lunch, filled with conversation and after we were nice and full, we hit the streets to explore Gangnam.

I’ve realized the pace of walking in Japan and Seoul, is really a world apart from back home- everyone is a power walker. I imagine it’s because most people walk to places or ride a bike since the weather is so nice most of the time…or else they take public transport because it’s so convenient. The killer weather most of the year back home doesn’t look too kindly upon people who’d like to walk outdoors … 9 months of the year to be exactㅋㅋㅋ

Most of the stores in Gangnam we’d come across in other places, but the great thing about this place was the fact that it was not filled with tourists so you got more of a life-in-everyday-Korea kind of feel. We walked all the way, through the subway, and back up to the popular Gangnam Style stop where of course mum and Z had to pose for pictures ^^ (Even all those stairs couldn’t stop my mum from posing) Mum had really wanted to come to Gangnam and I’d left it off my itinerary, but fate has a way of putting things in place I guess :)

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Time to pose!

From there, we went strolling along, mum looking for some nice age-appropriate clothes and a mobile phone cover. We didn’t manage to find any of those things, but what we did come across was a sign advertising a shoe that weighed as much as an egg. Mum was intrigued and it turned out the shop was just ahead. This was turning out to be mum’s lucky day-  not only were the shoes practically weightless, they looked amazing and…most importantly… came in her petite size! With our last-minute shopping in hand, we finally decided to head back to Yeouido where we’d relax for a while at a coffee shop and then catch the airport limousine bus to the airport.

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Just another day in Gangnam

On the way back my friend pointed out to us the Samsung headquarters (very chic) and I noticed a Gangnam tour bus. For someone short on time, I think the tour bus would be a nice way to see all the sights and pick out favourites for the next, hopefully longer, trip ^^

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Tour of Gangnam anyone?

My friend was awesome enough to take us all the way down to the subway, where we bought our tickets, and she showed us how to refund the money from our one-way passes and told us if we were in for some more shopping we should head to the Express Bus Terminal underground shopping area. We said our good-byes with promises of meeting again soon and headed off to find our platform. This proved to be the real challenge- probably even harder than mounting Seongsan Ilchulbong had been. We went up and down, and up and down, and somehow couldn’t find the platform going towards Yeouido, we always ended up at the platform heading onwards from Gangnam. -___-  Since my voice had been pretty much MIA since the day before, I wasn’t very willing to scare people with my hoarse voice to ask for directions. A girl who was passing by probably notice how lost we were and helpfully directed us back to the same platform, but I wasn’t convinced so I decided I’d ask someone waiting at the platform instead. She finally pointed us in the right direction, saying we were on the opposite side of where we should be and let us know how to get there. At laaaast, we had reached and managed to catch the express train straight to the National Assembly Station.

When we finally reached, we realized that none of us had taken down the exit number so we weren’t sure which exit would lead to our hotel. We decided anything was better than being underground with lost bearings, so we emerged from an exit and realized we had passed the same exit when walking back to our hotel from the cherry blossom festival. ^^ We walked back and stopped for some hot tea at  Cafe 7 Gram and a place to rest our weary legs. The tea was really good, or maybe that was my dead throat talking, but we’d finally found a place that didn’t serve tea the size of an upsized latte.

We were aiming for the 7pm bus to take us to the airport so collected our luggage from the hotel, walked across to the bus stop and as we waited, we watched the police clear up the scene of an accident that was holding up the traffic. It was interesting to see how they used white spray to mark the locations of the front tyres of both cars, took photos, then directed both cars to the side where they then had a discussion about the incident. We don’t do the whole white spray and photo thing back home so it was pretty informative to watch.

As the traffic cleared, our bus arrived…6030 to Incheon airport. The driver helped us with our luggage, we boarded, took a cue from the only other passengers on board, reclined our seats, closed our eyes and settled in for the night drive to the airport.

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Saying goodbye to the National Assembly building from the bus

The drive was not very long and when we got off at the airport, there were three main items on our agenda… 1.Dinner 2. Tax-free refund 3. What to do with our strawberries and umbrellas. I had check-in online to save time, but since the online check-in counter wasn’t manned they told us to go ahead to the business class counter where the guy at the desk was on his phone for forever and a bit. When he was finally done, we got our luggage checked in and asked him what to do with our umbrellas and strawberries. He said we could take the strawberries in hand, but said we couldn’t check-in the umbrellas. I was a bit confused when he said the umbrellas needed to be packed, because even if I couldn’t check them in, I should still be allowed to take them as a carry-on. In any case, we ditched my favourite umbrella ever at the nearest bin. Z stopped for a sandwich while mum and I then went to discover the world of tax-free refunds. I’m kind of glad we didn’t waste time filling out all those receipts since everything at the airport was automated. We had to show our receipts, which got scanned at the machine, along with our passport, then get receipts of over a certain value stamped at the customs counter before we could go to passport control.

In order to make sure everything went smoothly, I made sure everything was in my jacket pocket so I wouldn’t waste any time at the scanner. That kind of backfired when the security officer asked if he could check my hand-baggage which was in the same basket as my jacket. He asked me if I had change in my bag, to which I said yes.. I had a some change in my bag but I wondered why that would be of any concern. In any case, I thought it would be better to tell him where else I had change just in case there was some problem. I had in my jacket pocket, my mobile phone along with a whole bunch of coins that we’d collected in the morning to spend at the duty-free so we wouldn’t be left with any coins. It turned out that there were so many coins that even the security officer laughed before waving us on ahead. Note to self: I must learn the art of spending change when I travel, instead of jingling my way to the airport -___- The lady at passport control didn’t look like she was having a good day at all, she looked positively upset at having to be there doing her job, but she did it anyway and we were finally at the duty free.

We had set a couple of goals for the duty free: 1. Find dinner 2. Spend all change 3. Find a souvenir for my best friend 4. Get tax-free refund

Our progress was as follows: We finally managed to find a snow-globe at a souvenir store for my friend who collects them- why is it so hard to find snow globes these days. :( We went on to the tax-free counter, where they proceeded to refund us some but not all the cash against the receipts saying we’d have to go to another counter for that. The other counter, it turned out, was a million miles away and after half a million miles, mum was too tired to go on, so I went on ahead. It turned out, though, that the receipt was in Zs name, so he had to be there with his passport -__- He joined in a bit, we got that sorted and retraced our steps to get my mum. As we walked towards our gate, we kept an eye out for any place where we could get a bite to eat and some water, but a la Japan everything was either closed or closing. By the time we got to our gate, me and mum were positively starving so Z went off to look for  something to eat, while I quickly grabbed water from the nearest Mos Burger which was also about to close. We ended up having bread buns from Angel In Us which was pretty much the last coffee shop standing at that point.

I really liked Incheon airport, but at that point I was wondering how on earth it had been ranked number one for so many years (pushed to number 2 only in 2016), when everything including the duty free closes at night- what are late night passengers expected to do? I think Dubai has spoilt us in more ways than one, the airport being one of the things we take for granted. Remind to vote, if there is such a thing, for passenger’s choice of airport.

The flight was on time, and the only notable incident on the flight was the turbulence as I was waiting to use the restroom, it made me feel so dizzy that when it was mum’s turn to go, I wasn’t willing to accompany her ㅋㅋㅋ When it was time to eat, they brought out fruit yoghurt- a Korean brand but of course halal and I wished it had been easier to spot that brand while we were there. We finally landed at around Fajr and decided to have currency changed at an exchange near baggage claim before we got too lazy to do it later on. Not a wise decision – the exchange charged us a “service fee” for the conversion, which of course they didn’t tell us up-front -___- I only realized after I counted the change and looked at the receipt. Another note to self: change currency close to home where agencies won’t rip you off just for being there.

We got in to a taxi loaded with our luggage, the sweet smell of strawberries and sped off home. We had landed on a weekday though, so as we headed home, we watched the morning rush build and our driver’s anxiety increase since she was supposed to hand in her car at the end of the shift which was ending after just half an hour. There was no way she was going to make it back on time in all that traffic. ㅜㅜ As we got off, we gave her tips on how to get back from the fastest route and then headed… home.. at last <3 Alhamdulillah.

 

 

Spring in South Korea- Day 11

Day 11- Also known as “The Strawberry Icing On Our Cherry Blossom Cake Day” ^^

It’s safe to say that the most time spent during planning was on picking out reliable tour guides in Korea for the two tours we wanted to do – one in Jeju and the other one a tour of Nami Island. We were lucky that my friend helped me get in touch with Mr. Song in Jeju who turned out to be an incredible guide (let me know if you need his details ^^ ), so all that was left was scouring the internet for reasonably priced, reliable and highly rated tours of Nami Island. We were looking to do a combination of Nami Island, Petite France and to squeeze in a visit to a strawberry farm just because it’s strawberry season, so finding a ready-made package proved insanely difficult. Tour operators who offered custom day tours proved incredibly expensive and since I’d figured that by Day 11 we’d be too tired to do everything by ourselves we were in a fix.

Luckily though, I somehow came across Andy Kim Tour – a reasonably priced, highly rated, seemingly reliable (from all the pictures they posted from their almost daily tours) tour operator on Facebook (hold the skepticism) who would even do custom tours! I didn’t hesitate, got in touch and before we knew it we were booked for Day 11 and all set to meet Andy at 10am ^^

We had gone to Angel In Us the night before so I could catch a glimpse of the KBS building. The temperature had dropped suddenly, so much so that we actually need the hoodies on our jackets too. The coffee shop had been nice and cozy so we woke up early on Day 11 for breakfast at Angel In Us and a walk around the park right across the street and a morning view of KBS (no I’m not a celebrity stalker).

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Early morning walks laced in pink blossoms

By 10 o’clock we were all set to go. Andy had messaged earlier on saying he’d been held up in traffic, but he reached soon afterwards. ^^ Since Mr. Song had been a middle-aged man, I was for some reason expecting more of the same so we were pleasantly surprised when Andy turned out to be not much older than my brother and I ^___^

We settled in for the long ride to our first stop- the strawberry farm. I’m a long drive kind of person provided I manage to escape my motion-sickness. Thankfully, I did on this trip (not so lucky for Z who had to close his eyes most of the ride) and ended up enjoying a beautiful drive through mountains filled with trees, getting ready to green. Throughout the trip, I began to truly appreciate what a different experience spring is from summer. For a person like me, who craves the green that only summer can provide, spring was like watching the birth of the season I love best- leaves sprouting on branches just awakening from their winter slumber, and brilliant flowers blooming with the promise of more life.

When we finally reached the strawberry farm, the thing I remember most is the silence. I would have been happy just to spend an hour enjoying the sound of absolutely nothing. But even the delicious silence can’t beat the thought of delicious strawberries so we headed straight in. Now the farm isn’t a farm per se, it’s more of a greenhouse, which is another thing that we noticed since Jeju. Greenhouses are big here… so popular in fact that the Jeju landscape was positively pockmarked with them. I can’t help but wonder if that’s just done to protect the plants in winter moving through to spring. In any case, we walked in with our empty boxes, and our simple instructions – to put in what you pick and make sure you can close the lid ㅎㅎㅎ

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And that… is what strawberry plants look like!

Never once in 27 years did it occur to me to imagine what kind of plants strawberries come from so this was a fun experience and I was surprised how easy strawberries are to pick! (I need to visit a farm at some point in my life). We picked and picked, the luscious red hanging below the green leaves and finally had our packed goodies ready to take away.

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완성!

My dad likes strawberries so we decided to pick up a bottle of freshly made strawberry jam for him before heading off to Nami Island. When we reached the parking lot for the ferry to the island, we could see scores of buses lined up and lots of people opting to take the zipline to the island instead of the ferry. Very adventurous! The ferry shuttles back and forth every few minutes or so. We got on to the waiting ferry which was jam-packed and in a minute or so we were getting off at Nami Island!

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Welcome to Nami Island!

Nami Island in spring was a paradise of tall trees coming to life. There are so many different paths under the trees, it’s hard to pick out a favourite. We walked past bridges and train tracks, lakes and flowers, church groups on outings, squirrels and ostriches until we finally reached  the Asian Family Restaurant which serves halal food and even has a prayer room. ^^ Andy was awesome enough to take pictures of us at every scenic spot and if it weren’t for him, I’d probably have no family pictures on the island because we were so busy taking everything in.

 

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Bridge to another walk of life

Lunch was yummy vegetable spring rolls and some chicken dish that Z will probably remember and for the second (third for Z) and last time in Korea, we used chopsticks. My rusty skills clearly indicated we’d been away from Japan for far too long ^^ We had fun chatting with Andy about UAE and travelling and a million random things- a great complement to the already yummy lunch.

We headed out after lunch and first stopped at some souvenir shops to take back some memento from Nami Island. The most popular ones are snowmen, thanks to Winter Sonata but mum opted for a picture frame showing all four seasons in Nami instead.

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Walking down another tree lined path. Say hi to Andy!

If I ever get a chance to visit Nami Island again, I’d like for it to be in autumn, another season I’ve yet to experience. The pictures of the island covered in red and gold are enough to entice anyone back. In fact as we walked, Andy showed us to a hotel on the island, which has just a few rooms, typically booked way in advance, for people who truly want to get away from it all – there’s no Wifi either! Now that’s something I’d definitely like to do.

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Yet another go-to spot for couples

After a while my throat starting hurting and it was the uh-oh am I about to lose my voice kind of hurt. I grabbed a hot tea, but it didn’t help much so I decided I’d just enjoy the experience of my voice growing hoarser and hoarser until it was gone. ㅋㅋㅋ We walked past upside down cows (I really don’t get this kind of art), handwritten signs and water shimmering in the sun until we finally got on the ferry back. Andy was awesome enough to go on ahead and get the car so my mum wouldn’t have to climb any more slopes (that quota was exhausted a long time ago).

We headed next to Petite France which was not too far away. The weather had been nice and comfortable all day, a light sweater was all we needed, but as we entered Petite France, it started to get really nippy.

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Welcome to France… in Korea!

I don’t know who came up with the idea of Petite France or its Swiss counterpart Eidelweiss, but all I know is I like the concept a lot! From the multi-coloured houses, to the outdoor puppet shows, from the art gallery to the typical French interior decor, I liked it all. It’s a quaint place which makes you feel you’ve been transported somewhere new.

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I think all houses should be painted pretty colours

There were nice places where you could sit outside and enjoy a cup of coffee, weather permitting, and I feel like it’s a nice place to go if you’re looking for some inspiration. There was a souvenir shop too, but like most tourist sites, the shops are usually overpriced.

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I finally found “Beyond” ㅋㅋㅋ

My favourite place in Petite France, though, was not inside any of the houses, nor in the square, nor surrounded by Pinocchio, nor down the many stairs. It was high up, with an incredible view of the rolling hills in the distance. This view reminded me of my favourite awe-inspiring view in Japan at Lake Kawaguchi. I realized I’m pretty consistent in the things I love. <3

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Some views are best seen firsthand ^^

I could have stayed up there for hours surrounded by the butterfly sculptures with a view to  kill, but it was getting late and we had to head back to the hotel. We followed Andy out and began the long ride home.

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Time to head home

We were all pretty exhausted, Z drifted off and I had fun chatting with Andy about everything from Hello Talk to  버스커버스커 to 김광석 (he was nice enough to play some of my favourite songs for me too ^^) to ordering things from G-Market. After a while though my throat decided it was ready to go on vacation too, so I decided to give it some rest so it would reconsider. The traffic heading back to Yeouido was a killer, and after a while even Andy was in danger of drifting off- nothing a KitKat couldn’t solve ^^

When we finally reached the hotel (completely nausea-free 아싸!), we had exchanged contact details and I realized the best part of travelling has to be making new friends.

I can’t remember what we had for dinner, all I remember is we finalized most of our packing for the trip home on Day 12, my throat killing me, feeling terribly terrible and then my stomach going and dying on me in the middle of the night. -____- Way to steal the show but I’m grateful that it happened back and the hotel and not when we were stuck in traffic. Day 11 was kind of like that.. a day to be grateful for all the things we take for granted…

 

If you’d like to get in touch with Andy:
Whatsapp: 0082-10-7225-6248
Kakao Talk / Line: rookiek1
Email: andykim1118@gmail.com

Spring in South Korea- Day 10

Day 10 was the day we headed out from the heart of Seoul to our next hotel in Yeouido where we were going to enjoy the Cherry Blossom Festival. We woke up early enough and decided to have breakfast somewhere new… namely Paul Bassett which was just next to our hotel. The cafe is much bigger than it looks from outside- in fact, it’s positively huge! We got some goodies to eat and a tea to share (tea is way too big in Korea) and that’s when my brother came across… wait for it… a cricket through the years book in their bookshelf. Did not see that coming… cricket in Korea? Maybe one day. We pored over the pages and watched as businessmen popped in for some coffee on the go while others tapped away at their laptops in the middle of business breakfasts.

After a while we headed to our last stop in central Seoul and one so important that no one should ever miss- Kyobo Bookstore! The bookstore is huge and for a book lover like me, you’ll probably want to pitch your tent there for forever and a day.

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On the way to Kyobo

The main reason I wanted to stop by Kyobo was to pick some TTMIK books. I wouldn’t have a chance to visit the You Are Here Cafe so the next best thing was to pick up some of their books, sans shipping fees. ^^ I had no idea how to change the keyboard from Korean to English to search for the English title so I gave up and went to the information counter instead. Think of Kyobo as a big library- they give you a slip that lets you know exactly where to find your books ^^

We left Kyobo and headed back to the hotel, ready to check out and move on to Yeouido- the Manhattan-like business area of Seoul.

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In remembrance

We had a crazy amount of luggage that was not packed in our luggage so the hotel tried to get us a bigger taxi but they weren’t accepting bookings so we had to catch a regular cab instead. The hotel staff who caught us the cab looked like he’d walked out of a Korean drama but all illusions were shattered when he kept asking if we were heading to Yeo…i…do? as though he’d heard of Yeouido for the first time. ㅋㅋㅋ He hadn’t heard of the hotel either but luckily there’s nothing that isn’t on Naver maps so that problem was sorted out in a jiffy.

We had booked rooms in Glad Hotel at the last minute since Koreana had been fully booked, and by the time we got there, we were really happy about our last minute choice. The hotel is, in a word, chic. The interior is black, the rooms’ black and white going really well with their whole minimalist theme. The hotel was very different from the other ‘classic’ hotels that we had stayed at which makes me think it’s high time hotels revisit their standards (sorry, that’s the engineer in me talking).

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Definitely glad I booked rooms here ^^

We decided to have lunch first and since there’s no halal place nearby we decided to do another online delivery, this time from Subway. The delivery fee was more than the food sigh but there was nothing else to be done. Z decided to roam around outside after we ordered lunch, my tummy decided to be naughty and the result was a baffled deliveryman waiting for someone to pick up the delivery ㅎㅎㅎ

After lunch, we figured we’d first sort out our luggage problem and headed straight to the closest E-Mart. The taxi driver was nice enough to take the scenic route, but I’m beginning to think that all of Yeouido constitutes a scenic route. We roamed around all of E-mart, found no sign of a suitcase so I asked one of the staff, who said that this particular E-Mart didn’t stock any suitcases. -___- So much for that trip. We ended up spending a long time looking for other options, and I ultimately messaged another friend to see if he could help out. He suggested either Homeplus or Lotte Mart, but after several failed attempts to catch a cab because no one was willing to go in the other direction towards Homeplus, we ended up deciding to play it safe and go to Lotte Mart at Seoul Station. Before we left for Lotte Mart though, we took a stroll along the cherry-blossom lined roads to de-stress.

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Strolling under the blossoms

It turned out that we were at the Yeouido Ecology Park and what a beautiful place it was. As we walked, we came across more cotton candy (how could we say no) and the oddest 아저씨 who kept asking me if I had heard of the old song that was blaring in the background. I’m a big fan of golden oldies but the fact that I hadn’t heard the song didn’t deter him from asking me to dance along to the song. Umm… no? ㅋㅋㅋㅋ

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When we got to Lotte Mart, we finally found two stores selling suitcases- never has the sight of suitcases been so welcome than on that day. I must admit though, when I say everything in Korea is expensive, I mean even the suitcases. It took us forever to decide because everything was so expensive (and here I was complaining about getting a good deal back home… even the normal deal is cheaper than a good deal in Korea =O ) but we finally settled on one, had it covered and wandered around Lotte Mart for a while before heading back to Yeouido. There was an outdoor sale going on just outside the mall, mostly hiking clothes and shoes, so we roamed around for a bit, got water from the vending machine, caught a cab and went back… home ^^

The rush on the way back was just massive. I felt like we were crawling through Sheikh Zayed Road all over again so as soon as we reached Yeouido and started seeing the signs for the Cherry Blossom Festival, we took the opportunity and asked the driver to drop us off there to save us both the trouble. He willingly obliged- so there we were, suitcase in hand wandering through Yeouido’s famous cherry blossom festival, roads packed with food stalls, couples, families and their selfie-sticks. ^^

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Welcome to the cherry blossom festival!

As we walked through the tree-lined roads, I noticed that there were a lot of physically disabled people in Yeoudio and as I later learnt, a lot of protests for the rights of people with disabilities take place in Yeouido in front of the National Assembly building, which is also where the festival is held.

We ended up walking all the way back to our hotel and on the way back passed a stall where they were asking for people to sign a petition against the killing and eating of dogs. I gladly signed the petition and sadly noticed that most signatories were foreigners, not locals.

We were pretty tired by the time we got back to the hotel so after another Ankara Palace dinner, we decided to skip the night cruise we’d planned and instead take some much-needed rest before our day-long tour the next day to Nami Island, Petite France and a strawberry farm. ^^

Spring in South Korea- Day 9

Day 9 was our “Meet Friends and Buy Souvenirs” kind of day. After a long Day 8, we were scheduled to go Bukchon Hanok Village in the morning, so we headed to Starbucks for breakfast. On the way back it started raining so we stopped at a grocery store, picked up nice clear umbrellas..oh and Z’s red one…and continued on our way. (PS. I absolutely loved that umbrella! It was so unlike the flimsy umbrella that got turned inside out in NZ ^^) Armed with umbrellas, we took a short taxi ride to Bukchon where we ended up enjoying the cool rain more than the beautiful architecture.

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Rain!

Bukchon is not just about walking through a neighbourhood of traditional houses to feel like you’ve stepped back in time, there are also lots of “museums” where you can get hand-on and do some actual traditional handicrafts. If you live in Seoul, you can also take classes on a regular basis here which is just plain lucky! We had opted for the Donglim Knot Museum where you can opt to make bracelets or necklaces, which make for great souvenirs. Photography is not allowed inside, so you’ll have to take my word for it when I tell you it’s a great place to go to  learn how to make knots and a really good place to take away souvenirs even if you’re not the craft-making type yourself. My brother decided to sit it out and enjoy the weather outside, while my mum and I ventured inside. There were already two Japanese ladies who were busy learning how to make bracelets, so we look around inside first, before it was our turn. I ended up having a nice conversation in Korean with our teacher who’s mum is a real master. He told me that often it was easier for him to teach foreigners than locals because foreigners, not knowing the language well, would focus on his hands and how to make the knots as opposed to the locals who would just listen and not watch and learn. I ended up asking my mum to make most of my bracelet because I felt I had somehow unwittingly fallen into the second category of learners. ㅋㅋㅋ

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Stepping into the Donglim Knot Museum

We left the museum with our pretty bracelets, my poor memory and our umbrellas to wander down the streets in the rain. There were lots of young Koreans who had come down all dressed up in their hanboks and sneakers conveniently hidden to take pictures. Looking at deeply ingrained couple culture, I think it must be hard being single in Korea. ㅎㅎㅎ

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Looking inside a traditional Hanok

I was supposed to meet my friend for lunch in Insadong, so we took a cab there for some souvenir shopping before lunch. Our first stop was a shop selling name stamps, also known as dojang 도장. We all decided to have our stamps made on the spot, which took longer than we expected. 역시 we had the hardest time picking out which name to put on the stamp for my brother whose names are just not Hangul-friendly. ^^

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Heading to Insadong

From the stamp store we headed straight to Ssamziegil for 5 floors of sheer awesome. I loved how the floors are sloped, one leading to the next so there’s no need to use stairs. The shops are designed to make you go bankrupt thanks to the cuteness overload, much like Loft in Japan. My favourite stores were 마음화분/Emotipot and 오르골 뮤직박스/Moony Orgel where you can get mini plants and music boxes (coincidentally both are on the second floor, right opposite each other). These are some really unique souvenirs to take back and you could tell by the rush that it wasn’t just tourists who were in love with these two stores. Moony Orgel was so packed that we had to make our design, pick out our tune and leave the details at the store so we could come back and collect it after half an hour.

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Cutest place to go shopping

We made our way all the way to the top, where you’ll find the famous, Poop Cafe. Yes, you read right. Everything on the menu is the shape of poo because it’s somehow really cute. The cafe was packed so we didn’t stay long and decided to do another round of window shopping on the way down.

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Can you see the poop cafe?

There’s also a place here for couples to leave notes, much like the love lock area at Namsan Tower…sorry single people… ㅎㅎㅎ It would be find to leave a note here and come back to look for it ^^

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Wall of Love

Once we were done with our adventure on a slope (read, once we escaped going bankrupt) we met up with my friend for lunch at 오세계향 (Osegyehyang) – a great place for vegetarians and Muslim/Hindu/Buddhist tourists since they serve traditional Korean vegetarian food only! This was probably one of my favourite restaurants on the entire trip, after Ankara Palace. The food was really good  (I mean seriously…how can vegetarian food taste that good) and I had a heavy lunch after a long time, consequences be… put off till later :P I think the awesome company made the food taste even better, as we spent the whole lunch catching up and making plans. Mum and Z wanted to visit Gangnam which I had left off the itinerary thinking we’d be too exhausted, but my friend gave us details on how we could get there by subway from our next hotel so we were set to meet her again in Gangnam on our last day ^^

From Insadong, we caught a cab and headed straight back to our hotel so we could walk to Deoksu Palace where I’d be meeting my pen-pal and her daughter. By this time it had gotten pretty chilly and we were glad to have both our warm jackets and umbrellas on hand. We met up at the entrance (we meet at laaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaast! ) and strolled through the palace grounds. My pen-pal had only come once before with her daughter when she was younger, so it was as much a tour for them as it was for me.

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Deoksu Palace

The grounds were beautiful, filled with blossoming trees and buildings in red, green and blue. I can’t imagine how lovely the place would look in autumn and even summer… this is definitely a place to visit any time of the year. While the grounds are much smaller than Gyeongbok Palace or Cheongdeok Palace, it’s still worth a visit especially if you’re short on time.

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Scattered petals and beautiful entrances

There are even guided tours in English where they explain the historical significance of each building, but we skipped the tour, instead choosing to focus on the architectural beauty and to appreciate the landscaping. ^^

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Everything seems more alive in the rain

We left the palace, and by this time we were officially freezing. The temperature had dropped suddenly and it was as if we were back in Jeju. We thought of going for a cup of coffee first, but then decided we’d first take a walk along the palace wall, which apparently is a great dating spot (You see what I mean… everything in Korea is a couple activity).

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Hello beautiful!

Unfortunately, being a Sunday, my friend had to say goodbye after our palace tour thanks to work and school :( so we said goodbye near the hotel, exchanged gifts (Korean snacks FTW!) and headed off. We set off to the nearest Holly’s to warm up our freezing hands first and after a nice long rest for our weary legs we decided to go skip Seoul City Hall and headed to Donghwa Duty Free to see if we could find a suitcase since our luggage had just happened to fill itself :P The duty free is great for anyone looking for branded cosmetics, watches and the like, but there was only one store with suitcases which turned out to be wayyyy too expensive. My friend had advised me to try E-Mart, Lotte Mart or Homeplus if the Duty Free idea didn’t work out so we decided we’d skip Lotte Mart near Seoul Station because we were too tired and go to the E-Mart near our next hotel instead. This was going to prove to be a clear case of “Don’t put off what you can do today…”

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Pink hues of sunset

By the time we reached the hotel, the sun was setting, the skies streaked with pink and tummies rumbling with hunger. We decided to try something new for dinner so we picked Kervan, a halal Turkish restaurant, in Insadong and ordered online from Ynot Takeout. The food wasn’t bad but it was no Ankara Palace… we ate up, packed up and got ready to check-out the next morning when we’d be headed to Yeouido on Day 10.

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Dinner Time

 

 

Spring in South Korea- Day 8

Day 8… the busy busy day after the trip to Seoul on Day 7. In order to keep things light, I had decided to remove I Park Mall from our itinerary, despite the allure of the Gundam store and all things crafty. So we woke up on Day 8, ready to take the Seoul City Tour Bus straight to Itaewon. But then, our love of all things waiting to be built decided that I Park Mall deserved a place back in the itinerary. ^^ The ticket booth is just next to Koreana Hotel, so we decided to get tickets after breakfast at Holly’s Coffee. Breakfast was a safe sweet honey bun and coffee. My brother was feeling a little unwell after last night’s spicy dinner so we waited for him to settle down before taking off to get the tickets. I chatted with the lady at the ticket counter making sure we got down the times for the buses at each stop and after she explained everything she was so surprised that I had understood it all. ^^ Yayyyy! The bus was, surprisingly, filled with mostly local tourists and the odd foreigner, like ourselves. The bus has headphones at every seat so you can listen to the description of each stop as you go. The first stop was Deoksu Palace, but being right behind our hotel, we had decided to put this off for the next day. We went straight to Yongsan, and the stop was right in front of the mall.

The mall, though, was closed! The good news was, there were people waiting for it to open, so we knew it couldn’t be long before the shutters opened. After about 5 minutes, all the doors were open and we headed straight up to the hobby floor. My brother headed straight to the Gundam store, while I explored the wooden craft kits outside. Going there had been a great decision, since I managed to find myself paper nano, a wooden craft kit and a Gundam model for my friend. ^^ There was even a Studio Ghibli store on the same floor! It was like walking into Japan in the middle of Korea which meant I was in danger of going bankrupt again. =O Too many models, too little money :P

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I Park Mall.. home of hobby items

As we were leaving, we realized that the mall was tax-free and we should learn how the whole tax-free thing is done, having decided to skip over it in Japan. We came all the way downstairs, only to find no information booth so went back to the fourth floor where the lady at the counter told us that we had to head to another information  booth… on the ground floor, to get to which we had to go through H&M and countless other stores. There was plenty of time, so my brother went on ahead while we roamed around H&M and Charles and Keith. Receipts in hand, we then headed back out to the bus stop. There’s a list of timings at the bus stop which tells you when the buses are scheduled to come and the bus wasn’t too far off the timing given. As we waited, we were given a little flavour of how election season works in Korea. There was a truck parked around the corner, blaring slogans in support of the candidate 박태광 who was running for Yongsan, and at one point there was a speech broadcast by the candidate’s son who assured everyone that his dad was an upstanding citizen. This was followed by a lot of enthusiastic cheering by supporters in front of the mall and a lot of dancing to the candidate’s… campaign song? I must admit it was a rather catchy beat which my brother kept randomly bringing up throughout the rest of the trip. ㅋㅋㅋ

We eventually climbed on board a packed bus and realized that we had to stand till our next destination unless the seats freed up, which luckily enough they did- at the next stop. We got off at Itaewon, in front of Hamilton Hotel and it was as if we had entered Halal food heaven. Every second shop was advertising halal food and I wished I had more than one stomach so I could refuel for the rest of the trip. ^^ We were spoilt for choice and eventually a lady handing out flyers made our choice for us, by inviting us up to Ankara Palace. It was the best decision we never made. There was elevator up so mum was happy… and the food… the food was so0o0o0o0o good! Real Turkish food in the middle of Itaewon. I felt like I was back in Dubai.

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Yummy yummy!

We were so full and consequently so happy that I wished they’d have a bumper day filled with loads of customers. My wish came true pretty much instantaneously when a large Muslim tour group arrived and took up pretty much ALL the tables! We decided it was time to head out and give them another empty table to fill up. Our next stop was Seoul Central Mosque in Itaewon. We asked the Turkish ice-cream maker, who was busy teasing his customers, for directions.

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When you’re done teasing the ice-cream out of the cone from your baffled customer, can you tell me how to get.. how to get to Seoul Mosque? ^^

It was already past Zuhr, but we went ahead through narrow roads lined with shops, halal restaurants, clubs, laundries, bakeries, business associations, bookshops until we finally came to the mosque… which is on a rather steep climb.

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Walking through Itaewon

We managed to get my mum to make the short climb and my brother went on to offer prayers at the mosque. There were lots of Malaysian tourists who had also come to visit and as we roamed around the area, we got to meet people who work at the mosque and make brochures introducing Islam to non-Muslims. I was happy to find that there were brochures available right outside the mosque and even the Friday sermon was available to everyone.

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Seoul Mosque

As we left, my brother decided he was hungry again, so this time we stopped at Eid – a halal restaurant run by Korean Muslim reverts. The restaurant is small and cozy, an iPad for a menu with three main dishes on offer – 삼계탕, 불고기 and 찜닭 .The best part of the restaurant is that it’s authentic Korean food that’s halal ^^ My brother opted for the Bulgogi which was really good, while my mum and I settled for… the best cold tea we’ve ever had… ever! Mum’s not a big fan of iced tea so when she says she loved this, you had better believe it was good ^^

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We left Eid and went back to catch our bus so we could head on to Myeongdong where mum wanted to do her cosmetic shopping. The ride was not too long, but we weren’t sure where to head from the bus stop, so we did the best… follow the general flow of people. Sure enough, we entered the bustling streets of Myeongdong, filled with enough make-up products to make over an entire nation.. twice. Most of the people in Myeongdong, though, are foreigners, primarily tourists and I later learnt that most Koreans have moved on to other shopping areas where there are fewer foreigners.

The first store we stepped into was Innisfree. The lady waiting on my mum turned out to be a Korean who had worked in Qatar, met her Pakistani husband in UK, got married in Lahore and was now in the process of finalizing the papers to bring her husband to Korea. Globalization FTW! She was awesome enough to help my mum and brother pick out things and we left our bhabi (sister-in-law) of sorts with lots of smiles ^^

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Vibrant colours of Myeongdong

It turned out that most of the employees speak multiple languages, to cater to the many tourists who come here… Korean, Chinese, Japanese, English… you name it, they speak it. It’s an awesome way to polish your language skills if you ask me. We wandered down the whole street, got ourselves pomegranate juice while my brother went into his favourite ABC Mart to pick up the new Converse 2.0. After that we picked up the compulsory 천원 양말 (dollar socks) and decided to go back to the bus-stop. By this time, the streets had become packed and crowded with vendors selling all kinds of yummy food – from the seasonal strawberries which my mum couldn’t say no to, to steaming 계란빵 (egg-bread)… We had somehow managed to lose ourselves…again.. but with the help of Naver and some landmarks we managed to navigate out of the street and onto the main road where we were supposed to catch the bus. We thought we saw the bus and made a mad dash to try and catch it but it turned out to be another bus altogether ㅋㅋㅋ and we went back to the bus stop. We looked at the sign at the bus stop to check when the bus was supposed to come and we were surprised to find two signs plastered on, both of which were different from the one we had picked up from the ticket booth back at Gwanghwamun. The bus came eventually (phew) and we settled in for the ride to Namsan Tower.

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First glimpse of Namsan Tower

The bus wound its way up Mt.  Namsan and dropped us off at the crowded bus parking. The drive up is beautiful and I can only imagine how much more beautiful it is in summer when the leaves are all back in their green glory. From the bus parking, we had…wait for it… yet another steep climb. I’m “inclined” to think this trip had the most inclines I’ve ever climbed in my life. ^^ We took it slow but by the time we reached the tower mum was pretty exhausted so we decided to skip going to the top and instead decided to roam around in Alive Museum. The museum is loads of fun, especially for kids, and you end up with pretty hilarious pictures of yourself (none of which will ever be posted online :P )

By the time we were done it was past sunset, so we got to see the tower lit up as well. The colour of the lighting depends on the condition of air pollution at the time and the brilliant blue meant it was a great day to be spending outdoors. I’d be inclined to agree. The weather was beautiful and we could see the city for miles.

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A good day for a walk

What we couldn’t see though, as we made our way down, was the Seoul City Tour Bus. alarm bells. When we reached the stop, we looked up the bus timings only to find yet another poster with timings that didn’t match the timings we’d picked up from the ticket office. Uh-oh. We thought we’d wait for a while and see if the bus shows us but there was no sign of the bus anywhere and most people had cued up for the green inner-city buses. Now, there’s no option of taking a taxi from there… you have to take a bus down or walk down and it is… a looooong way down. So we decided to be adventurous, look up the routes for the different buses and pick the one with a drop-off closest to our hotel. We hadn’t bothered get a T-money card so we had to pay by cash and we were lucky enough to have exact change on us for the tickets. When we got on to the bus, we were in for another surprise- the fact that there were hardly any seats on the bus. It was mostly just standing room only. We managed to get seats, but I can’t tell if that was a good thing or not considering that that meant we’d have to negotiate our way through the packed bus when we’d have to get off. In any case, we got comfy, listened to the stops being announced over all the conversations and watched couples walking down the mountain. I feel like they have a much healthier lifestyle in countries where you can actually walk outdoors without boiling to death -____-

We finally got off at the familiar Seoul Station, the only place where we had seen drunk people on the street during our entire trip.  We caught a cab easily enough and headed back to the hotel. We’d decided that we’d use an online food delivery website to have our halal dinner delivered. Now there are a couple of websites you can use such as Bird Riders or Y Not Takeout but the delivery fees is INSANELY high… in some cases even more expensive than the meal you’re ordering. It’s definitely not something to use everyday, but definitely something you’ll have to use if you’re running short on halal food options. We had a good dinner and got ready for the relatively relaxing Day 9 when I was going to meet up with some friends in Korea… including my pen-pal of many years who I’d never seen before!