#2158 | The Broke Student’s Guide to Los Angeles

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Hey guys,

So I spent two and a half weeks in Los Angeles last December/this Jan, a grad trip of sorts for Shane and I after having just completed our Masters. I feel a bit funny saying that cos the rest of my batch has moved on with their adult lives and here we are still using terms like ‘grad trip’ at the age of twenty five. Ho ho.

Anyway, first things first: LA is an expensive city. I must say that this wasn’t a budget trip per se for me, in the sense that I wasn’t scrimping and I did have a couple of nice meals and all, but I also wasnt living lavishly because I think the broke student spirit residing in me will never allow me to splurge unnecessarily without feeling an insane amount of guilt. But yes, after two and a half weeks there I’m just going to say that Los Angeles is an expensive city, and I wouldn’t recommend anyone on a tight budget to travel there because it’s just too pricey. It’s also a lot less budget-able than New York, where you can essentially walk everywhere or take the extensive metro network, and scrimp on things like museum entries which are mostly donation based, etcetera. But if you’re still determined to go, here’s some notes on how you can make it a more cost efficient trip!

Getting to LA


The only airline that flies direct from SG to LA is United.
It’s a 15 hour flight there and an 18 hour flight back (different routes i think?), and no matter what airline you fly it’s going to cost you upwards of a thousand dollars.

After all the recent controversy with United (and Asian passengers!) the guys were a bit hesitant to take the flight. But pragmatism won out in the end. United’s flight is the only direct flight, as I’ve said before, and they have very good timings. You depart from SG at 11am and land 10:15am the same day in LA, meaning you start the day once touching down, and the flight back departs LA at 8:55pm, which is a nice safe hour that gives you a comfortable amount of time to meander from the city to the airport without having a crazy rush, if you time it right. Time not wasted on flying and transiting means money saved, especially if you had to take leave from work or something. Also, I’d flown United to San Francisco in October, and it was a pretty good experience, so I wasn’t super paranoid about the flight.

There were four of us on this trip, and I firmly believe that this is the ideal number for group travel to LA because so much of your cost savings is going to be predicated on splitting the bill. The regular flight price for United from SG to LA was 1.8k, but because we booked it in a group, the fee somehow went down to 1.3k. I dont know why for sure, but I suspect it’s because United charges a different fee for group bookings. Anyway, we ended up paying 1.3k to fly there.

brunch with all my boyfriends ✌🏻

A post shared by Jemimah James Wei (@jemmawei) on


Friendship!

Note: This was also high season cos we flew in December. If you’re flexible on dates, I think you might find it much, much cheaper to fly in March or something. It’s good to plan early so you can keep monitoring the price. But we were kind of stuck with Dec cos the other two boys were also limited by their EOY leave at work, so I think we did pretty well given these dates.

In comparison, the only other airlines that will give you a comparable price is China airlines and Philippine Airlines with one or two transits, a total flight time of approx 20-24 hours. . Everything else – ANA, SQ, etc, all cost about 1,600 and above for our dates.

Cash or Card

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At some point in the trip I started trying to pay for my coffee in cash instead of card (it’s sooo natural for me to just tap my card, damn it paywave!!) just so I wouldnt be left with USD

LA is very credit card friendly. I could have done the entire trip with only 100 bucks cash, but i was paranoid and changed 500USD. Turns out I had 400 left by the end of the trip because EVERYTHING WAS PAID FOR WITH MY CARD. Oh well.

I think this depends on your comfort level – I prefer paying with card because I earn more miles per dollar for overseas spend, which I then use to redeem flights (makes sense for me because I’m a frequent traveller). Also, I dont have to try and guesstimate how much I’ll spend then risk ending up with not enough/ too much foreign currency at the end of the trip.

But this is also contingent on the fact that i am not a spendthrift. I am extremely cautious with money in general, and I dont get trigger happy in stores. Sure, I like looking at shops, but I very, very rarely actually buy something unless I have had my eye on it for awhile (like the google home) or unless I have thought about it for a long time/ know i will get maximum utility from it. If you are trigger happy in stores and cannot handle a credit card, do NOT plan to use your credit card for anything except emergencies.

Getting Around in LA

Los Angeles is super spread out, which means you cant really walk anywhere. Their public transportation is slowly improving, but it isn’t great either. This means that a lot of cost is going to go to taking Ubers and Lyfts everywhere. Their Uber/Lyfts actually arent expensive compared to Singapore, if you consider the distance taken. Plus if you split it four ways, sometimes it can end up cheaper than taking public transport, and you get a lot of time saved. So do your calculations based on your group size.

I do suggest that once you get a US number, you download Lyft (I assume you already have uber). Lyft is kind of like the Grab of LA, in that it’s an uber competitor, it has frequent promo codes, and it’s often marginally cheaper. First timers to Lyft will get a certain amount of credit, I think it’s two five dollar rides. So just get everyone in your group to sign up for it, and you’ll get eight rides discounted. There are also promo codes like if you take Lyft from the airport to the city, that kinda thing, and they’re usually advertised in LAX once you touch down. On the other hand, I didn’t get a single uber promo whilst I was in LA.

So what we did was, whenever we had to head somewhere, one person in our group would check Lyft and one would check Uber. We’d just take whichever was cheaper. We stayed in LA city (as opposed to LA county), so most of our rides were like seven to ten dollars. When you divide that by four, that’s like two to four dollars each. Compared to the metro, which is $1,75 per ride and takes much longer, you can see how this is a good compromise.

All the two dollar four dollar rides do add up though, so you see how LA becomes expensive really quick.

If you’re wanting to head out to somewhere further, like Venice beach or Santa Monica, you can take the metro which goes straight there. It’s still $1,75 for the base tap-on ride but takes about an hour plus. A car will take half an hour from central LA but cost twenty to thirty dollars. So it’s really dependent on the needs of your group, but as a general rule taking a mix of long distance metros and short distance ubers should work out well. Otherwise, a day pass for the metro is about $7.

Car or No Car?

I used to labour under the impression that one was useless without a car in LA. Its all those damn books about the place, I tell you. Anyway. The long and short of it is, no, you dont need a car if youre only staying in central LA. You can just take the metro or uber/lyfts. And parking is a nightmare anyway, plus what they say about LA traffic being horrendous? Yep. That’s all true.

If you want to leave central LA for, say, palm springs or Joshua Tree, you’ll probably need a car. We rented one from Hertz for a road trip to palm springs and joshua tree!

Getting a number

You’ll need a US phone number to sign up for Lyft, and it’s generally useful to have a sim card in the states because you can call ahead to check on availability of museum spots, dining reservations, opening hours, that kinda thing. I recommend T Mobile for tourists, which I’ve been using the past 4 trips to the states.

Tmobile has a tourist sim which lasts 3 weeks if I’m not wrong. Prices are as follows:

30USD – 2GB, unlimited texting, 1000 mins.
45USD – 3GB, unlimited texting, 1000 mins.
50USD – 10GB, unlimited texting, 1000 mins.
75USD – Unlimited data, unlimited texting, 1000 mins.

IMO the toss up is really between the 2gb and 10gb plans. If you’re looking at the 3gb plan you might as well top up 5 bucks and get the 10gb. When I went to San Fran I only got the 2gb plan because I was there for only 4 days. But this time I got the 10GB because it was two and a half weeks. I used about 9 out of the 10GB this trip, so I think it was a pretty safe estimate!

Accomodation

Hostels in LA are like, nearly non existent. And they’re not cheap anyway cos you pay per person per bed. Hotels are insane. So we booked an Airbnb for the majority of the time we were in LA central, and then when we did road trips we booked cheap motels that could house the four of us. The key is to book early – because all the cheap places will be taken fast. We literally saw an airbnb booking disappear from under our eyes when we were considering a couple of options, then experienced major fomo afterwards!

Again, when you travel in a group of four, it’s easier to get a whole apartment then split the cost, whereas if youre alone or with just one other person, it might be more economical to book a private room in someones house.

Attractions

Things that you can do in LA aren’t expensive per se. Many things are free, and even more things are cheap. But it’s the getting to those places that will rack up the bills, cos of all your ubers and lyfts. It is not the kind of place where you expect to walk around and stumble onto hidden gems because of how spread out it is, you’ll have to roughly know where youre goin – your trip will greatly benefit from having a plan, basically!

In Central LA, here’s what I suggest:

Museums – The Broad

Start your day by queuing for museum tickets to The Broad. The Broad is my favorite museum in the world, and I honestly think they have one of the best permanent collections ever, as well as a great curatiorial team. They also offer free tours within the museum, which is worth taking if you have the time. All museum staff are mandatorily trained regarding all permanent and travelling exhibitions, so if you ask them about anything they’ll be happy to explain to you the pieces and exhibitions youre interested in.

Entry to the Broad is free. You just have to queue for it, and it’s often a long queue. Yayoi Kusama’s exhibiton was in town the week we were there, and that was ticketed at $30, which meant the queue would be mad no matter what. We made use of our jet lag and went on day two of our trip – meaning we were awake super early and started queueing at 630. There are a couple of breakfast places open nearby catered to the working crowds, so one or two people in your group can be runners and go get coffee and breakfast for the rest while you queue.

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The famous infinity room, part of the Yayoi Kusama exhibition

A useful thing to do is follow @TheBroadStandby on twitter for updates on the queue situation – they will update regularly on how long the standby queue is, and also if the queue is closed for the day.

There is another trick to getting into the Broad fast – they do media passes. So if youre in town on a conference, or if you write for a magazine, or if you have a sizeable social media following lol, just write in and request one. It’ll take a couple of days, but they’ll give you one. I got lucky last year – I had a media pass for the airbnb conference, and they just waved me in. Woohoo!

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(Very) tired faces in the queue at 6am – the sun hadnt even risen yet

Architectural Wonders – The Walt Disney Concert Hall

Entry to the broad is based on timed tickets, so you probably wont get it right away. Take your time while waiting to head to the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which is literally right next to the broad. It’s designed by Frank Gehry, and it’s really a gorgeous structure. You can either walk around the outside of the structure – there are stairs taking you to the top – or take a free tour of the museum during opening hours! Just ask the staff at the front desk. Unfortunately, no free passes or student tickets to the actual LA Philharmonic performances. Those are mad expensive. Sorry, broke students – just do the free tour, then youtube the performance once you’re home.

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Other architectural wonders that are walkable from here: The Bradbury Building, just down the Angel’s Flight (more on that later). It’s the oldest commercial building in LA, and where scenes in Blade Runner were staged, as well as where the last scene in 500 days of summer was filmed. People actually work in this building now, but the building itself is such an architectural star that visitors are allowed to wander up till the first landing but not beyond it.

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At the bradbury building! It’s free to enter, but you’re restricted to the first landing

Also: The Eastern Columbia Building, which is a great remnant from the Art Deco period. It’s very recognizable because of its iconic blue and green structure as well as the giant EASTERN text and clock sitting atop the building. It’s such a visual landmark that no one is allowed to build structures that will block the top of the building! It’s also appeared in many movies, and Johnny Depp has like, five penthouses in it. However, despite hanging around the lobby cafe for like, half an hour, Depp did not appear, so that remains as just a fun fact and nothing more..

One more: The Orpheum Theater. It holds a special place in my heart because this is where the Airbnb Open conference was held last year, and it’s such a beautiful building! It’s a historic theater with a beaux arts facade,

Lunch – Food Trucks or the Lemonade

The Broad is also surrounded by some nice lawns, so you can grab lunch at the food trucks nearby and picnic off the grass. But FOOD TRUCKS ARE EXPENSIVE IN LOS ANGELES!

This was such a shock to me because in New York you can get Halal guys for like six bucks?? Here they have this fake version of the Halal guys and it’s FIFTEEN BUCKS for a gyro. No thx.

The guys got a korean rice bowl from this food truck (also about 17 bucks) but I walked a little further to MOCA, which is across the Broad.Hot tip: The Museum of Contemporary Art is free after 5pm on Thursdays, for those of you interested in visiting. It’s not as good as the broad though. They do have a great eatery at the basement called Lemonade, which does poke bowls or marketplace salads. It’s about twelve bucks, and much healthier than most of the fare you’ll get in America.

Iconic Attraction – The Angel’s Flight

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We got SO lucky with this because the iconic Angel’s flight that you see in the La La Land montage only reopened in late 2017! It’s been closed for years, and technically they weren’t even supposed to be able to film La La Land there but someone in the film team convinced the metro team. Later on the authorities were like, it never should have happened. LOL.

But anyway I super recommend taking it because theres nothing like this in Singapore, it’s only 50 cents (as compared to in San Fran where it’s an actual tourist attraction and so, costs 7 bucks), and also, it’s literally up the major flight of stairs connecting you from the MOCA/Broad area to Downtown LA. Which is a pain in the ass (literally) to climb up and down from. So yeah!! I took this three times cos I loved it so much!!

It drops you right at Grand Central Market, which is where you can get a great (and cheap) dinner. Another good to know is that Grand Central Market is one of the only places you can use a free restroom in that area, so if you need to pee, mark that in your map. Coincidentally, there’s also a Tmobile located not far off from the bottom of the Angel’s Flight, so you can get your sim card if you havent already done so. Also, the Bradbury building is only two blocks down – as mentioned above.

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Grand Central Market! Tacos are awesome, also, if youre there in the morning, try Egg Slut

Highly recommended – Two hours at The Last Bookstore

I already wrote a post about The Last Bookstore, which is one of my favorite bookstores in the world, last year after my trip to LA. Here it is for those of you who are interested: http://jemmawei.com/2017/05/10/2083-ladiaries-airbnb-walks-the-last-bookstore/

I spent quite a lot of time here this trip – both bringing the boys to see it as well as spending an evening there during my solo days. They’ve got couches around so they’re happy for you to sit and read, the music playlist they have on is always ace, and they even have a graphic novel section where you can peruse copies of the latest Xmen issue or whatever. The second floor is also wonderful, and is full of photo spots for the instagrammer in you. There are also cute pop up stores and an artist collective on the second floor, where you can buy aesthetically pleasing and pricey kitsch items. Either way, it’s an amazing place, and I cant imagine a trip to LA wtihout dropping by here at least once.

Late night entertainment:

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I was freezing when I took this photo. Heads up – there’s also a cafe with wifi inside serving Stumptown coffee, you can go there and get some work done. But you still have to come out and queue for your show

One of my favorite things about LA is its comedy scene – it’s mostly improv, as opposed to New York’s stand up scene. I went to at least three shows per week when I was there – that’s how much I love it!!

Upright Cititzens Brigade had the best show I watched in LA, but there are lots of comedy clubs, and I spent the most time at the now closed (!! :c ) iO West hollywood. But if youre in the market for comedy, The Groundlings, Nerdist School (now called The Ruby), and Second stage are also all good ones to go to.

If you’re trying to hit Upright Citizen – they do have free shows, but theyre mad popular and you just gotta get there early to queue. Paid shows arent that expensive, they can be five or ten dollars, but they sell out fast so either go early and put your name down on the waitlist (lots of people buy tickets then just dont show up to various shows all over town, not just UCB), or reserve a seat online.

Outside Downtown LA

Fun and free things to do include heading down to the beaches – Santa Monica and Venice beach are both really nice, and if youre in Venice, walk down their famous canals! It’s surprisingly fun to just stare at houses.

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It’s about half an hour by car from central LA.

Nearer to the city center, Griffith Observatory of La La Land fame (ok i kid, it’s always been iconic) is also free to enter and offers some of the best views of the sunset. I wrote a whole post on it when i went two years ago, here: Funny Stories from Griffith Observatory.

There are also free museums and free museum days in LA, here is a complete list from Time Out for your handy referral 😀 If you have a limited amount of time in LA and cant afford to wait for the free days, bring your student ID as many places have discounted student prices.

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Urban Lights, outside LACMA. Free, but the museum is by paid admission – unless its the second tuesday of the month!

Tipping and taxes

One thing that drives me crazy about America is their resistance to being straight up about how much something costs. For the life of me I cannot understand why they dont just tell me how much a pair of shoes cost!!! How hard is it to display the tax-included cost of an item? Instead, if the advertised price is ten bucks for a lipstick or something, it’ll inevitably ring up to about eleven dollars at the counter once they include tax. This is mega irritating, but theres nothing you can do about it, so.

Tipping is also huge in the States. It’s a whole debate, so lets not get into that, only know that you have to tip. Here are some general rules of tipping:

– Cab drivers need to be tipped, but it’s optional if you take Uber/Lyft.
– You need to tip for table service. So if you sit down to eat, it’s gonna cost you an additional 15 to 20 percent.
– Service staff are paid really badly in the States (I have a couple of american friends who worked as waitresses for a long time, so I’m not just talking out of my ass) so they really do rely on your tip to make ends meet. So dont be cheap and not tip if youre sitting down for dinner. Generally you tip more if youre impressed by the service, otherwise it’s a standard 15percent. If its a fancy place like a hotel dinner or something, probably twenty percent.
– If youre purchasing from a cafe to go, pay with cash. Things like buying coffee, etc, it’s always better to just pay in cash because then youre just paying for your cup of coffee. There’s usually a tip jar at the side but my theory is if I’m taking it to go, I’m not technically being served, so I’m just gonna pay for my coffee and that’s it. If you pay with card, they’ll give you this little iPad thing and ask you how much you want to tip right in front of them: No Tip, 15, 17, or 20 percent, and it’s embarrassing to say no tip lol. So it’s usually just easier to pay in cash.

Miscellaneous

If you’re staying in LA for long, figure out where the nearest laundromat is to your apartment and if they have any deals. The one near our place was pretty great, it’s called Aroma Laundry & Water and had old school arcade games. Also, free laundry on certain days of the month – see sign above my head.

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wash wash wash wash

Otherwise, bring detergent and wash your clothes in a sink or something in your apartment. We did laundry as a group because there were 4 of us (again, it only cost us like two bucks each cos we split the price of two big machines) and also because we were there for 3 weeks and that’s too much to be washing in a sink.

Wrapping up

Hokay, this post is long enough as is, and I hope the info was useful to you guys headed the LA way!

You can see why heading to America is expensive – all these small additional costs add up real quick. But well, if you wanna go, you wanna go. So best be mentally prepared 😀 LA is a really iconic place, but I still maintain that lots of what’s great about LA lies outside the city center (Disneyland, Joshua Tree, Palm springs..) so if you have the chance to do an extended trip, you wont regret a little change in scenery by renting a car and heading out of town!

If any of you have additional tips for saving money in LA, please send them my way and I’ll compile a list. Otherwise, happy trails, yall. Till next time:

x
Jem

#2155 | The Korean Demilitarised Zone and the case for visiting landscapes of trauma

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Wandering around a controlled area in the DMZ during my lunch break

Hey guys,

So I was in Seoul recently and finally visited the DMZ, which I’ve wanted to do for years but never found the chance to. It started out mainly as idle interest in seeing history’s physical manifestation, but over the years, my desire to see the place became inseparable from my growing interest in the relationship between tourism and remembrance, especially with regards to landscapes of trauma. This duality of public and private is something that I’ve been preoccupied with for many years, in academia this manifests amongst other things in my study of traumatic landscapes (via geographical disasters, physical warfare, medical warfare, and how this affects the people linked to these places), in real life, it is the source of my perpetual wrestle with the commercialisation of the public self. You know how it is.

As someone who travels a lot, I believe strongly in the importance of tourism, but I’ve also seen my fair share of very badly behaved tourists. When you’re being rudely shoved at Disneyland you can, on some level, roll your eyes and shrug it off, but there are cases that sit in a far greyer zone – when tourists obliviously disrespect the cultural customs of a place, when they cause disturbances through ignorance, when they feel entitled to certain modes of behaviour because they’d put their dollar down to access a destination. Things like this give rise to the widely concurred cliche that tourism is often a negative force. But the alternative option isn’t feasible either – no country is going to close up against tourism, not in the age of wanderlust and slashed airfares, not in the age where it’s such a major economic driving force, and so most people just accept it as something that’s a necessary irritant with a sort of grumpy tolerance.

I do think, however, that there is a case to be made for the necessity of tourism in relation to landscapes of war and trauma, and it’s something that my recent trip to the DMZ confirmed.

We can see the coexisting relationship between tourism and landscapes of trauma globally (auschwitz) and closer to home (fort canning/siloso), but the DMZ is unique in the sense that the two sides are still at war. The DMZ currently wraps around one of the most dangerous borders in the world, and that alone draws curious tourists to it by the droves. It’s mad hard to get tickets to visit the DMZ, you have to book way in advance. I got my tickets on Klook, but due to fluctuations and security concerns from the UN, the operator checked back with us several times to update us on the situation and confirm that we were still interested in taking the tour given the UN’s stance. Any illusions I had about the DMZ’s political issues being simply a chapter in a history textbook dissolved then, and yet, this didnt deter tourists in the least: when we finally got on the bus to go to the DMZ, it was full.

Visiting the DMZ is so strict that you’re not allowed to drive in by yourself or anything like that. It’s the safest and currently the only option to go with a tour bus because the DMZ has now restricted civilian access and requires mandatory military clearance and escort. But with a tour, everything is arranged for you, and you can actually ask the guide when you dont understand something (I was constantly running after my guide to ask her stuff, I think she was starting to feel guilty for neglecting the others). The DMZ isn’t like a regular tourist destination where you can just wander off by yourself, you’re not allowed to, first and foremost, and don’t think you can sneak off and go look for the actual border because it’s prohibited for a reason – it’s one of the most dangerous borders in the world and the most heavily militarised, so there actually have been several terrible instances with civilians and soldiers on both sides of the border, and I’m surprised (and thankful) that we’re allowed to visit at all.

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In we go.. past a million of these military lookouts throughout the entire journey

Being in the DMZ was a strange and eerie experience. Nothing less, I suppose, from the place Bill Clinton once labelled as the scariest place on earth. The bus went on and on, and I stared out of the window for miles without seeing anyone. We drove by security checkpoints and armed guards stared back at us. At intervals, a soldier would come up and check all our passports. I got nervous the first time this happened, until the soldier came up close and looked at my passport. He was so young. And he looked even more nervous than me.

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The military checkpoint and soldier who comes on board multiple times during the day to check everyone’s identities
Most photos in this post are taken on my phone, it felt too conspicuous to be using my DSLR

Later the guide told me that these soldiers were mostly serving as part of their mandatory military service. It’s a two year service here, she said, then nodded somewhere in the general direction of North Korea, but over there? It’s ten years.

The soldier got off, we trundled on.

Once we got into the heart of the DMZ, we started the tour off by being hustled into a dark theatre where we were shown a film on the history between the North and South. It consisted of a very intense five minutes of telling us that North Korea ruined life for Koreans as they knew it with their penchant for warfare and bombs, and ended off by totally changing track, informing us that the DMZ was a haven of peace and nature, where flora flourished and animals roamed freely. This is true – I did some research later and found out that the DMZ is a kind of accidental nature park – it’s so dangerous for humans that no one can live there, so nature has taken over and it’s now one of the most world’s most well-preserved areas of temperate habitat. They wanted to turn it into a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve because so many endangered plant and animal species live there, but this was eventually blocked by North Korea because it violated their Armistice agreement. A pity. But none of this was apparent when we were actually in the DMZ – partially because of the Spring-Summer transition and partially because of the mood, the entire place looked moody and deserted, and nothing like the land of life and freedom that the film purported.

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The Film

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The actual DMZ, as seen via the bus windows

This sense of hopelessness persisted throughout the rest of the tour, nestling in the disconnect between the determined cheerfulness and optimism of the DMZ’s narrative and the reality of the situation. We visited the Third Tunnel of Aggression, a tunnel extending from North Korea under the DMZ which, when discovered, was passed off as a coal mine tunnel rather than an infiltration tunnel. We were shown the dynamite holes and ushered down the tunnel, where we walked in a straight and claustrophobic line to see the third barricade between the tunnel and the actual Military Demarcation Line. I thought to myself, if this tunnel collapses now I will literally die. I felt a heat rise up from within me and I batted it away. The tour guide said, We’ve only discovered four tunnels so far. Who knows how many more there are! and I felt her despair infect me.

Later a friend related what his South Korean friend described to him as the essence of his lived experience: sea legs, always feeling like his internal balance was off, trying perpetually to regain balance while knowing that at any time the ground below them could explode upwards and they’d be back in the heart of the war. Desperate anger, in other words. And espousing an intimate fear so different from the technicolored face korea typically showed to the world.

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Outside the entrance to the Third Infiltration Tunnel

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At the Dorasan Station, the northernmost stop on South Korea’s railway line and part of the Civilian Control Zone. The unused track leads to North Korea and you can buy a train ticket … which remains a symbol, because in spite of hopes otherwise, the train never leaves for pyeongyang

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Sold at the train station. Guess you can’t escape the concept of the tourism dollar anywhere!

We broke for lunch after visiting the Dora Observatory (the part of South Korea closest to the North, you can put in a coin to have a peek at bits of North Korea through a binoculars) and the Freedom Bridge. At lunch we were seated next to some Canadians who were very excited about the Joint Security Area portion which was to come after lunch – the father had done the exact same tour a couple of years ago and was now bringing his son to see the same. He tried to describe to us what it was like: the difference between tagline and reality with the JSA purporting to be a supposedly neutral zone in times of war yet in his experience being the most tense place he’d ever visited in his life. He was explaining it to us halfway before visibly realizing he’d never be able to fully share the experience with us verbally, so he leaned back, had some beef soup, then said you know what? You’ll see.

After lunch we wandered back to the bus and waited for the JSA portion of the tour to start, all hyped up by the Canadian dad. We got on the bus and it started moving. Less than five meters later it stopped and someone got on the bus, muttering to the tour guide. We were all staring at her at this point, kind of because there was nowhere else to look. And then she said into a mic:

Very bad news sorry. The UN has closed the JSA indefinitely. You need to go back to South Korea now. Very sorry.

Someone else on the bus started protesting, asking if they could reschedule. She shook her head.

We dont know if it’s going to open again. You’re going back to South Korea now sorry. You can get a refund for the JSA portion later.

We had no choice in the matter, back we went. And so the physical experience of our tour concluded.

But the lingering effects of the tour moved forward with us. Later on, while walking back to our hotel, Martin and I mused over the strange sense of insecurity we harboured throughout the tour. It was clear that despite being marketed as a tourist attraction, we were expected to be more like observers than active participants in the tourist activity, and the sense of tense anticipation that had cumulated in being blindsided by a UN order to close the JSA only released us when we’d been deposited back in the city center. I couldn’t imagine living under the thumb of such situational uncertainty, I realised then that despite my previous belief that everyone more or less feels uncertainty regarding their future, there was an invisible privilege in feeling that uncertainty only because of an individual conundrum re: one’s career/life path/ choices. When it was a situational uncertainty that pervaded the entire nation, the uncertainty became a low level humming that you carried everywhere with you, that you didn’t want but had no way to be rid of. I suddenly remembered the glances my korean friends had exchanged when I had cheerfully told them several days prior at dinner that I’d be visiting the DMZ, and I felt embarrassed.

It seems timely that I am now in April 2018 recounting my experiences there – just a couple of weeks ago, rumours surfaced that the North and South Korea might finally be putting an end to their 65 year war. The South Korea speakers that blast propaganda nonstop across the borders have just been silenced for the first time in 2 years. And with the Trump-Kim talks on the table, every major news outlet is convinced that the demilitarisation is either on its way or going to stay exactly as status quo. A time of flux, in other words, with the future’s uncertainty taking on a more optimistic tone than it has in ages. But even so, what comes ahead does not negate what came before. And so remembrance is more important than ever.

Which brings me back to my initial point – that tourism has its unique place in the ecosystem of remembrance, especially in relation to landscapes of trauma and war. Tourism is certainly not the only thing mediating memories of war, there is already an existing framework in place that plays out in many ways throughout pop culture – we have movies (pearl harbour, die leben der anderen), books (pachinko, a dictionary of mutual understanding, the book thief), songs (dixie chicks’ travelin soldier), poetry (Julia Vinograd’s GINSBERG), and so on. All of it comes together to form a web of myth that mimics the tradition of verbal storytelling, and the cumulative effect creates an empathetic acknowledgement of traumatic historical events.

And this is also where tourism fits in. When done properly, the tourist experience creates a cognitive phenomenon by manufacturing an emotional and spatial proximity to war (Geoffrey Bird, University of Brighton). It acknowledges, on an individual level, the traumatic experiences lived by people past. And it goes on to become part of the continual negotiation between the country’s representation of their memories of war and an international recognition of the nation’s culture.

Additionally, the act of tourism and remembrance is especially important with regards to the DMZ in light of recent developments and movements towards peace. When I began this post I spoke about landscapes of trauma generally, but intrinsic to the very definition of trauma is the fact that all discussion of trauma is past. In the same way that the term “survivor” is only used in context of an incident that is now over, trauma at an individual level is also only discussed after the event because the traumatic incident is incomprehensible when happening. The DMZ differs from the traditional landscapes of trauma because the act of visiting it is the tourism of a landscape of trauma that hasnt been fully created yet and therefore is still being lived and experienced. As compared to auschwitz, which has passed and therefore is indelible, the DMZ represents the present struggle between two sides of Korea, the effects of which leak into the everyday lives of koreans. We have not yet reached a point where the dialogue around the DMZ has been romanticised and coloured by the lens of nostalgia as so many historical sites often are, but we soon may, which is why now is precisely the time to see it, talk about it, and remember it for what it is. Which is, essentially, to become the witness – part of the process of the creation of history.

One last note on tourism. The active engagement with a place’s history as it is being created and lived allows you, the tourist, to fully appreciate the delicacy of the situation in present tense. But with that comes a responsibility to engage thoughtfully and respectfully, which entails a code of conduct whilst there (basic sensitivity, an awareness of language used, and respectful dressing). There is much of tourism and travel that can be taken at face value: the visual splendour of foreign scenery, the childlike excitement at seeing first snow, the first bite of an incredible meal.. but we would do well to remember that there are also some forms of tourism that can literally take us further, that can broaden our perspectives, our capacity for empathy, and help us appreciate our humanity on a deeper level. Herein we find the mythical quality of travel that modern wanderlust culture frequently touts, the type of tourism that catalyses personal development and eye opening experiences. The DMZ tour is one of them. And that alone renders the trip totally worth it.

This post was written in collaboration with Klook Singapore

You can book your tour to the DMZ on Klook here
There is also a $10 off Korea activities promo on Klook, running till the end of May
T&Cs apply, obviously

x
Jem

#2149 | Destination Chiang Mai

Whats up, guys. Reporting from Chiang Mai today, a place that has long been on my radar but that I somehow never got to go to. I was there in Feb filming a travel campaign for Klook and Tourism Authority of Thailand, and the destination video just launched this afternoon so I thought I’d pop in and add some notes of my own, for those of you planning a trip there! 🙂


Chiang Mai: In general

A lot of people describe Chiang Mai as a mini Bangkok, which I think is a totally unfair description – Chiang mai has a pretty strong character of its own that isnt derivative at all. There are so many things to adore about Chiang Mai – the vibrant old town, the cool weather (if you dont know why this is a plus point, you obviously have never been to singapore), the fact that a zillion natural wonders are totally accessible via car. When we were younger, Chiang mai used to be associated almost exclusively with OCIP programs and camps, but ever since then it’s gained a lot of global attention thanks to it being a featured movie location in the media, and has opened up to tourists everywhere. Still, it retains a sense that it’s an undiscovered gem (although trust me, it is very, very discovered already) while having the infrastructural benefits of a tourist destination, which gives you a best of both worlds kinda experience.

Chiang Mai: First things first – Things to note:

– Not a credit card friendly city at all, so bring cash.
– Many points of interest are located outside the city center, so if you get car sick easily, bring pills.
– Dress conservatively. That’s not to say that you have to wear long sleeved shirts everywhere, but it’s a pretty conservative city and you’re going to be weaving in and out of temples during your stay, so just be sure to have a cover up or something with you at all times.
– Always bring mosquito repellant. Don’t wait till you get there to buy it, it’s overpriced in Chiang Mai.
– Toothpaste in Chiang mai is SALTY! If you dont think you can handle this (if youre not used to it, it can be very strange), bring your own toothpaste.

Chiang Mai: Arriving

The airport is small, clean, and well located. It’s also a very scenic airport. Our return flight was during sunset, and it was just gorgeous because from the runway we could see the sun setting over the mountains in the distance.

You can and should pick up a SIM card from the airport. I didnt notice many wifi spots during my trip, so if you need to be connected, get a SIM card. For us, we had pre-booked an airport transfer, so the driver was waiting for us with pre-loaded SIM cards.


Chiang Mai: Getting around

Within Chiang Mai, you can walk or take a tuktuk/red truck (the price has to be pre-agreed on, and thus, haggled). Strangely, there are no traditional taxis or motorcycle taxis.

When we were there though, mobike had just launched! There was a Feb special too, like a promotion where the first twenty days were free or something, so we essentially biked everywhere FOR FREE. It was amazing. It was great alternative to walking or cabbing, especially when we were trying to get somewhere that was too far to comfortably stroll to yet too near to justify hopping into a tuktuk. The only thing is, as with all bike sharing services, the bikes are pretty basic, so the steering was a bit funky and I’d only suggest this if you’re relatively comfortable on a bike already.

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Had to take a selfie to commemorate the moment

Still, a great way to get around the city center!

If youre headed out of the city to waterfalls and the like, you can book an uber, a private car, or ghetto it out by going to the market and seeing if any other tourists want to share a van with you. But that’s only if you have time to spare lah, cos there is no guarantee of success for that method.

However, if you already know where you want to go, chances are you can get a tour that includes entry prices and the return transfer, and they probably can pick you from your hotel/accommodation too. This is actually very similar to booking a private driver and telling them which places I’d like to go to beforehand so they can advise me on whether it’s a feasible day plan or not, which is what I do in places like Bali. The advantage of doing it with a legitimised tour operator is that there’s a guarantee that the operator wont default on you, and also that you not only have the day planned out for you but access to feedback on the same tour via other customers in the comments section. I’m talking about Klook, obviously – they have a best price guarantee, and you can read reviews before booking anything. Then once you book it, it goes into your phone’s app and you can download it for offline and easy access. Technology for the win!


Chiang Mai: Things to do

I think the video actually covered Chiang Mai’s offerings super well. Everything we did was awesome. Watch it, is what I’m saying!

There were a couple of things we didnt get to do because of our tight schedules though, so if i were to return, I’d probably want to do a Mae Kampong Homestay and take a traditional thai cooking class!! We met some Americans on their retirement tour (they were all like, 60, and had biked across the length of thailand, putting us to absolute shame) and they said that their cooking class experience was revolutionary. I super want to take a cooking class but somehow have not had the chance yet. It’s on my list.

But yeah, if I return to Chiang Mai, i’d probably re-visit the elephant sanctuary. I think that was hands down the best thing I did on the trip; I’m probably going to write a post on it soon. 🙂


Chiang Mai: The Classics

As with many southeast asian destinations, there are really great night markets, massage parlours, and affordable bars around. If you just stroll down the river, you’ll see a ton of places that look interesting and that are buzzing with excited locals and tourists. But I do think that unlike Bangkok, youre not guaranteed great experiences whereever you go. I did have a pretty crappy thai massage on my first night, so I started googling and Yelping reviews the rest of the days, and I had great experiences the rest of the trip. Same with food – some places weren’t very good, and some places were amazing. This, along with the fact that so much of Chiang Mai lies outside the city, means that Chiang Mai is really a planned sorta destination – I probably wouldnt just show up and wing everything. Definitely, definitely pre-book your accommodation too, because if you show up and try to check into a random hotel/hostel you might just be turned away.


Chiang Mai: Unexpected hits

The two things I got that surprised me the most: aromatherapy oils and strawberries.

I’ve recently gotten pretty into aroma diffusers because they make your entire room smell like a legit spa, and I got my boyfriend one for christmas too. They really transform the entire vibe of your living space, but damn, those oils are expensive. Imagine, then, my delight when I discovered them selling mega cheap at every corner in chiang mai!!!!!

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different places selling aroma diffuser oils

Many of these stores sell ghetto bottled oils in a variety of scents, but if you’re unsure about getting it from pop up stores, there are plenty of local brands that make their own oils and have set up boutiques around town. I bought at least 20 bottles of essential oils whilst I was there. The prices ranged from about 60BHT for a small bottle to 250BHT for a big one. That’s like 6 to 10 SGD. In Singapore, these tiny bottles can cost up to eighty dollars, so, SCORE! is what I am saying.

It’s great that the bottles are so affordable. I was an idiot and forgot to bring mosquito repellant, so I bought a bottle of lemongrass essential oil and dabbed it on my pulse points everyday in chiang mai. Didn’t have much problems with mosquitoes after that. If you’re looking out for oils, I also recommend you get at least one bottle of moke flower oil, it’s special to Thailand and the locals are pretty proud of it. It has a pleasant, light scent, and is often used in thai spas.

Please note that not all oils can be used in an aroma diffuser, so let the shopkeeper know if youre buying it for your diffuser and they will point out which oils you should be looking at.

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Another sleeper hit from our trip were the amazingly sweet and cheap strawberries. I think strawberries are MAD expensive in singapore because they’re not native to our region, so seeing them go for 10BHT(40cents) was mind blowing to me. I got a cup and they were SO fresh and sweet, and in Chiang mai they also serve the strawberries with this interesting mix of salt, chilli flakes, and sugar, which sounds strange but is incredibly addictive. I bought another cup of strawberries for the road after this, and then bought a giant bag to bring home to Singapore.

Wrapping up

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All smiles at the White Temple, which is actually a privately-owned art exhibit in the style of a Buddhist temple. Whaaat? I visited this as part of a longer day tour, linked here.

Alright, I think that’s it for now! This post turned out way longer than I expected, I was actually just intending to share the video and then jot down some personal notes on the city. But I totally got carried away, which happens way too often these days, ha. More activity-specific posts from Chiang Mai to come, but till then, Sawasdee Krab x

x
Jem

#2147 | Seoul damned good – Noona Hol Dak Chicken

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Seoul, South Korea
All photos in this post taken on the Samsung S9

Is it totally excessive if my first post about Korea this year is about fried chicken? Is that terrible? Does it really matter? Here are the questions I preoccupy myself with, these days. Anyway, anyway. I just had to jot this down before time passes and weathers away the intensity of my current emotion, and I start to second guess myself and wonder if I really meant it when i thought one fine evening in myeong dong that it’s true, all that they say about knowing it’s love when you find it, like how after six trips to seoul i have finally found and fallen in love with the best fried chicken i have ever had in korea.

The name is Noona Hol Dak Oven Chicken and Beer, and the game is oven baked crispy chicken. Martin and I were wandering the streets of korea looking for a quick dinner so we could get back to work, it was an unfocused sort of wondering, guided by a general trust in the infallible quality of korean food. We were talking about something idealistic and dreamy, like how this trip was kind of exactly like what our future lives would be like if we moved abroad for work and became housemates – meals together, and then working on our individual projects silently in each other’s company. We were marvelling in the delights of adult friendships that weren’t bound by institutionalised obligations (school, work); the pure joy of comfortable companionship. We looked up and found ourselves in front of Noona Hol Dak.

Noona means older sister in Korean he said, with a sense of epiphany.
I said, Maybe this is like one of those themed maid cafes in Japan and some noona will give us chicken

We giggled like kids, we went in.

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Super bustling place even though it was past prime dinnertime

The place was buzzing, tipsy korean businessmen were shouting happily at noisy sorority girls, office ladies were trying to get the server’s attention, some kid was looking for the ketchup tray. And above all, the crackling of fried chicken skin being bitten into, everywhere. Martin turned to me: this place looks amazing. I nodded, taking credit for the place as if I made the chicken myself: thanks, I know.

We ordered the most basic thing on the menu, a plate of boneless crispy chicken to share. I had a beer, as I do. Martin had a coke after trying to ask for a coke zero and giving up after failing to communicate exactly what a coke zero was. No one in Korea knows what coke zero is, he complained, normal coke is so unhealthy and I stared at him. Martin, I said, we’re in a fried chicken joint.

More ineffectual conversation that I don’t remember, etcetera etcetera. If we had said anything of importance in between ordering our food and it’s arrival, neither of us remember the details: everything was overshadowed by the arrival of the chicken, which was squarely planted on our table by a korean uncle (there goes the noona concept). I took a bite and I think I blanked out for a bit. When I remembered where I was, we were already halfway though the plate. I’m confused, I said, with reverence, by how ridiculously good this is. Martin didn’t reply: he was chowing down.

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national jewel of korea

It’s hard for me to explain why food is so good when it is. I have a million and one ways to complain about bad food, but when it’s good, I’m usually just stunned into silence. I dont know the specifics of food science, I dont know what makes it specifically good. For this dish, it might have been just the fact that something so simple was so damned well done. The chicken was juicy and tender, the skin was crisp and cracklin. The fact that it was baked gave it the illusion of being healthier than straight up fried chicken (though i have my doubts about the truth of this hypothesis), and after we were done with the meal, neither of us felt stuffed nor guilty. We left the restaurant feeling pretty proud of ourselves, in fact, for having a satisfying meal that wasn’t excessively filling.

I’ve had fried chicken in korea before, obviously, but for some reason I have never been rendered this speechless by a plate of chicken. I have spent the past few hours wondering on and off why I was so impressed by this: I think perhaps it is because it hits the sweet spot between incredible food and a good price point (if it were a hundred dollar meal, would I feel the same way? Who knows – but I suspect my own principles won’t allow me to ever pay a hundred bucks for fried chicken). The entire meal – oven fried chicken, a beer, a coke, cost a total of 23,000 won. Writing that down now, I feel an unreasonable sense of pride, I am so pleased with myself for paying essentially twelve singapore dollars for my share of a damned good meal. Am I hyping this up too much? Am I setting everyone else up for disappointment? Doesn’t matter right now – in this current narrative, the best chicken I’ve ever had still blows my mind. Yum, essentially. Yum and yum.

누나홀닭 명동점 Noona Hol Dak Oven Chicken & Beer
Seoul, Jung-gu, Namdaemun-ro, 78 SK 명동 빌딩 1 층

x
Jem

#2146 | Dream Dinner Destinations: Camp Meating, Chiang Mai


Camp Meating, Chiang Mai

Hey guys,

I don’t use facebook much, but when I do, I get super lucky. Camp Meating popped up on my facebook feed a couple of weeks ago, one of those re-shared photo albums with an attached comment from an acquaintence, something along the lines of, omg, goals, ded, etcetera. Normally, I would have browsed and forgotten all about it, but as it happens I had just gotten booked for a travel campaign in Chiang Mai with Klook and Tourism Authority of Thailand. I cross-checked it against my itinerary and realised we had no scheduled dinner plans, so a hop and a call later, we found ourselves booked in at Camp Meating for our last dinner in Chiang Mai!

Despite the name, Camp Meating isn’t actually a glamping location nor an accomodation option. It’s a weekend outdoor dining experience styled like a glamping site, which is why the entire place looks so dreamy. When I ran a search on it online, many reviews mentioned that it was a hidden gem, but I didn’t realise they meant it quite so literally. As it was, getting there was an ordeal. Located half an hour by car from Chiang Mai city in the Mae Rim district, I 100% suggest you get a taxi or uber, or if you have a car, drive. I cant even begin to imagine what it would have been like if we’d tried to tackle it by public transport. We booked an uber that flat out refused to take us (are they allowed to do that?!) because it was too far, and then we got another uber which struggled to find the location. On Google Maps it actually pins the place as Unnamed Road, which as you can imagine, is pretty worrying. It’s buried deep in the recesses of what looks like a miliary camp, and driving in, you’re constantly like, is this correct?? Well, it is. And when we tried to get an uber home afterwards, the driver asked us to give her an extra tip because the drive in was so scary and dark (we gave her 150Baht extra). So yeah, it’s not easy to get it. But I think the isolation of the place is half of what makes it so incredible once you do get there.

Aside: We paid about 170BHT to get there by uber, and gave an extra 40BHT as a tip. Then the ride back was 180BHT, with an additional 150BHT tip.

The place is buried so deep in the foilage that we only realised we’d reached when we were about five meters from the entrance. Once we got out of the car, we could the faint sounds of old school American swing music drifting towards us, and see the glow of lights somewhere down the road. As we walk towards it, the foilage suddenly cleared up, and suddenly I forgot all about how difficult it was to get there. Because, look at this:

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GORGEOUS

INSANE. IN-SANE! I heard a gasp then realised it came from me. Before I could start to feel embarassed I realised my companions all had their mouths open too. It was just so damned magical, it was like it emerged from the pages of a storybook. Lights everywhere, lakeside tables, and the smell of barbeque, all to the background soundtrack of American swing music. Someone designed this experience and designed it well.

We had reached just as the sun was about to set, because of our filming schedule for the day as well as the delays in getting a ride there. So we’d missed golden hour, but we caught the last vestiges of dusk. It was so, so beautiful. As we made our way to our table, we were handed vouchers for the different food stations, and then left to take pictures and explore before starting our dinner. After we’d finished a round of exploring the campsite, the server magically reappeared and started explaining how the dinner worked. Each table came with its own cook, like a personal chef. You could go to three different stations to get your food: the main tent for your main dish and sides, a bar counter, and the smokehouse, for sausages and bacon. The sides and smokehouse were unlimited, and dinner came with a standard chunk of pork and a welcome drink (punch or water), with the option to upgrade to beef or lamb for 500BHT more.

Pictures from the area!

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Snippets from the main station, located in a giant tent!

The set up is super cute. At the main tent, you get a little basket which you can fill with sides – sliced bread, chips, different kinds of veggies like asparagus, capsicum, corn, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, and baked potatoes. You can also collect your main meat there – Mabel and I stuck to the original pork option, and Lock upgraded his to a beef steak. Then you season your food the way you like it – there’s a table with a bunch of herbs and spices you can use, and if you dont know what to do, the staff are on hand to help you. Then you hand it to the staff and they take it to your table to barbeque for you!

The drink station lets you have water or punch for free as a welcome drink, and you pay extra for anything else you want. Soft drinks are an additional 40BHT, and I got a hoegarden, which was 160BHT. Super pricey for thai standards, especially since in the city center you can get a beer easily for 50BHT. But, yknw, it’s still cheaper than Singapore so I still went for it anyway.

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Drink station, but the punch was nearly all gone by the time we got there cos we were so late!

And the smokehouse station is literally a little smokehouse where sausages and thick cut bacon strips are slowly being smoked. When you go to this station, they fill a little wooden tray of sausages and bacon for you, and you can head back to your table and have it while waiting for the rest of your food to cook.

Your table’s personal chef starts cooking once you’re ready, and everything goes in – ours chopped and roasted our veggies, did our steaks of meat perfectly, and even buttered and toasted our bread slices for us! After she’s done she kind of just goes back to chill at one of the stations, so I assume if you need more help you can either ask her again or do it yourself. We were super stuffed just from whatever we had though, so we didnt go for round two, I cant imagine how hungry you have to be to get a sausage and bacon refill because it’s just so much food. But the option is there, I guess. The pork was a really good cut, very tender and juicy, and the beef (I tried a mouth from Lock) was really delicious too. And the portion was pretty generous – each slab of meat wasn’t just big, it was thick. Same goes for the bacon – it’s like British bacon where each slice is thick and meaty, not like the American variation where it’s all crispy and crackly. Anyway, the point is, there was a lot of food, and it was all delicious.

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delicious. one of the rare times i enjoyed pork more than beef, even.

We were left to have our dinner in peace, then as we were finishing up, the chef returned with a pan of s’mores that we could DIY roast over the barbequeue. I havent had s’mores for so long – and they were really the perfect way to end the meal, especially fitting since the entire place was decorated like a campsite.

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WHAT THE HECK THIS WAS DELICIOUS

The dinner cost us 1,200BHT per person (without upgrades), which is about 50SGD, and I think it’s so, so worth the money. Everything about the night was perfect. The only thing I would do differently if I have the chance to come back is to arrive earlier – the campsite opens from 5-930pm, and I can only imagine how beautiful it would be during golden hour! Apparently sometimes they also have the option for you to try canoeing and horseback riding before dinner, though that option wasnt available the day I was there.

Hands down the best meal we had in Chiang Mai. It wasnt just that the food was good, it was also the whole experience – the setting, the music, the atmosphere. Despite the climate in Southeast Asia it wasn’t humid at all, and we didn’t break a sweat sitting there all night even though we’d mentally prepared for the outdoor dinner to be a sweaty affair. That’s thanks to the lake, I think. I recommend this so, so hard.

Camp Meating
Reservations required – I did it by phone 2 days in advance.
Cash only
Weekend dining – Friday, Sat, Sunday

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X
Jem