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Where have the last 9 months gone?

28 Jun

Snowboarding at High1 Resort, Korea, December 2011

I remember arriving in Korea last September scared and anxious, sad to leave my family and  friends back home, hoping I’d like it enough to stay the year.

Well I can now honestly say it was better than I could have ever anticipated! I met amazing people, I tried new things, I went on lots of adventures and most importantly to me, I learned to adapt in a country entirely different to Scotland. I taught English to children, even though I’d never taught a class before in my life, I made friends with people who don’t speak the same language, I tried so much new food to remember and I even learned to read Korean!

I’ve had lots of ‘firsts’: my first taekwondo class, my first baseball game, my first time on a snowboard, my first time at a shooting range, my first taste of roller derby and my first sailing lesson. I reckon I’m the first ‘Derval lassie’ to visit North Korea, I went to a Buddhist funeral and  I appeared on Korean TV. I ran a 10k race in a different continent and I was lucky to have 3 people come visit me whilst I was in Korea. I learned how to converse with the crazy Korean taxi drivers, I can order 600 grams of pork at a Korean bbq. I’ve tried roasted silk worms, chicken feet and pigs lungs, but sadly no dog. And even though my time in Korea was cut short and I didn’t get to do all the things I wanted to do (I was going to see the Stone Roses at a Korean music festival, cake myself in mud at Mudfest, jump off a tower and lie on the famous white beach in the Philippines) I’m grateful for every new friend I made in Korea, every new experience I had and everything I’ve learned in the past 9 months. I can confidently say I gave it my all.

Sailing course in Busan, May 2012

So I’ve been back home in Scotland for 5 days now and I’m about to embark on a new ‘adventure’. Sure cancer is terrifying, I might loose my hair and I might not be able to have kids, but trying to think positively, it’ll be interesting to see what I’ll learn about myself and how I’ll view the world differently when I come out the other end.

Wish me luck!

Glamping on Geoje

12 Jun

Summer is finally here! Oh yeh! I don’t care if it’s too hot to sleep or that I sweat 24 hours a day, summer means an average temp of 30 degrees, I can get my tan on and I can go outside without having to wear gloves!

Gujora Beach

I officially kicked off summer a few weeks ago when I went camping on the island of Geoje with some friends. Geoje-do (‘do’ is Korean for island) is the second largest island in South Korea after Jeju. It’s only 70 miles south of Daegu but it is a bit of a mission to get. A 2 hour bus journey from Seobu bus terminal in Daegu (at Seongdangmot subway) to Tongyeong (12,000 won), transfer there for another 30 minute bus ride to Geoje (3,000 won), then a 25 minute taxi to our destination – Gujora beach (20,000 won split 3 ways). Alternatively you can get a bus for the last leg, but it takes an hour…

We got a wee bit carried away with the face paints

The mission was worth it, clean-ish beach (cleaner than any I’ve even been to in the UK anyway), cracking view, good weather, lots of drink, makgeolli funnels, BBQ, banter and body paints! The night ended by singing Oasis songs round a camp fire.  Why doesn’t every night end that way?

Wall murals in Gujora Beach town

And here is a map showing where Geoje is:


My Korean TV Debut

9 Jun

Whilst downtown one Sunday in February with some friends, nursing a hangover and having lunch in Travelers, a Korean TV programme broadcast on SBS asked us if we would mind being filmed as part of the show…

The programme is about unusual and interesting Koreans, and that week it was about a 76-year-old ajumma (old woman) who left school at 12 and has since taught herself English. All we had to do was chat to her for 5 minutes in English then give our reactions to her speaking ability, all scripted of course. And before we knew it, we had made it on to Korean TV!

Being the shy, introverted person that I am, I told all the teachers and students at school about my starring role and told them all to watch the show at 8pm on Thursday. The kids were all suitably impressed with the new ‘celeb status’ of their teacher, but surprisingly they declined my offer of an autograph…

Kickin’ it in Korea

8 Jun

Kickin’ it in Korea is a picture blog that I’ve recently come across and now visit on a regular basis. Unless you’ve been to Korea and/or taught English abroad, you probably won’t find this remotely funny. But having lived in Korea for almost 9 months now and experienced many of these ‘cultural  quirks’ that the Koreans are famous for, this blog makes me roll about the floor laughing! And having been in similar situations to most of the references in the blog makes it all the more funnier!

Here’s a few of my favourite personal experiences…

Chocolate eggs no more

25 May

Since I was almost at the legal drinking age, and the chocolate eggs were no more, Easter Sunday meant bank holiday Monday, and therefore you could find me ‘religiously’ sitting in a beer garden with my friends, enjoying a drink or two… But not this year! Easter Sunday started with a 6am rise to make it to downtown to the 10k start line.

Posing for a photo with some ‘fans’ after the race

It was HOT, and despite my training, I can assure you no personal best was recorded! Done by 9.30am, me and my cousin headed back to my apartment to paint our boiled eggs and head up Palgongsan* (Daegu’s biggest mountain) to roll them down.

Ready for the mountain!

This was not the sole reason for going up the mountain. I had been wanting to visit Donghwasa Temple for a while. I’d heard about the large standing buddha, and along with the many colourful lanterns decorating the temple in preparation for Buddha’s birthday at the end May, we weren’t disappointed.

BIG Buddha at Donghwasa Temple

A monk on a bike!

Lanterns decorate the temple for Buddha’s birthday


I have a weird fascination with the eves of temples….

*How to get to Palgongsan: Take the red subway line to Ayanggyo, then take the number 1 bus. It should cost about 1,200 won, and after about 40 minutes Palgongsan is the last stop.

Two burst balls in Busan

22 May

When my cousin was still here, we went down to Busan for the day. Still hungover from another night on the makgeolli, we didn’t get there until 3 in the afternoon – we are officially the worst tourists!

Haedong Yonggungsa Temple (the water temple)

With limited time, we went on several recommendations to visit Haedong Yonggungsa temple (the water temple), having already seen our fair share of temples, we were reluctant to make the hour-long bus ride out from Busan Station to reach it, but boy are we glad we did!

A monk broadcasting a chant from a prayer chamber

Built into the rocks beside the sea is what makes this temple so unique, as most temples are built in the mountains.  As is the way with every tourist attraction in Korea, it was swarming with Koreans – they love an outdoor activity! But even the crowds and the temporary scaffolding didn’t detract from the beautiful setting. What a stunning sight.

By the time we got back into the centre of Busan it was nearly 7pm. We were on a self-imposed curfew because we were running a 10k in Daegu the next day, so we really only had time to visit the fish market. But not just any fish market, only the world-famous Jagalchi Fish Market!

Jagalchi Fish Market: A man who loves his job

The ground floor was where the fish came in off the boats and all the various restaurants could be found upstairs. Quite literally from the sea to your plate. We opted for some seafood shabu shabu – a Japanese version of a hot-pot where you cook the meat, veg or seafood in the big pot of broth in the middle of the table. Along came the seafood, everything from giant muscles, scallops, snails and a live octopus… and being as ‘curious’ as I am, I removed the tongs (I later learned they were for keeping it grounded in the bowl) to take a photo of it and the little blighter squirmed right out of the bowl and onto the floor! What a fright I got! But I got my own back when I cooked it and ate it. Yum.

Seafood shabu shabu

By the time we finished dinner, we only had time for a wee wander round the night markets and a quick gander up to Busan Tower – where we saw a great panoramic of the city at night. A peaceful ending to a hectic day.

Busan Tower

Gies a joab!

13 May

English translation: ‘Give me a job’

Me with the Kindergarten

Since I’ve been in Korea a number of friends from home have asked me how I went about getting a job in South Korea and each time I find myself copying and pasting the same links into an email with the same chat. So I thought if I write a wee blog post, I can direct folk to that instead of getting repetitive strain injury from typing the same speel each time.

Basic requirements
You must have a degree (in any field) and be from one of these 7 recognised native English speaking countries: UK, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, US, Canada and South Africa. When you arrive in Korea you’ll have a full medical including blood and urine tests and if you have HIV or any trace of illegal drugs in your system you’ll be on the first plane home at your own expense.

Although not compulsory to get a teaching job abroad, having NO teaching experience whatsoever, I found my TEFL course really useful as a starters guide to things like lesson planning and class control. I did the 100 hour online and in-class course with TEFL Scotland, and if you’re lucky enough to be Scottish, you can apply for an Individual Learning Account (ILA) to pay for most of it. Win.

South Korea v  Japan
When I was deciding where to go, I narrowed it down to Japan and South Korea, based on standard of living, potential money earned and benefits with the job. You make more money in Japan but the cost of living is super expensive so you come home with about the same at the end of the day. Not that i’m biased, but here’s a good blog post that weighs up the pros and cons of both countries.

Lucky for me, my friend Ellen had already been working in Korea for 6 months, so she pointed me in the right direction. There are a lot of good recruiting companies that can help you get placed, and upon Ellen’s recommendation I registered with  Flying Cows. They were great through the whole process, from my initial application to my arrival in Korea, and I know a fair few people over here that have used them as well with good reviews.

Public v Private
From there, ESL Starter contacted me about applying for EPIK – the public school programme. And this was the initial route I went down.

Benefits of public school: Extensive training/ orientation, less teaching hours, more vacation, job security.
Downsides: 30-40 kids in a class, less money than private, no say in your location.

To cut a long story short I was rejected from that programme about a month before I was due to leave the country, after which ESL Starter dropped me like a hotcake. Cheers. But not one to be put off so easily, I got back in touch with Flying Cows and they arranged telephone interviews with several private schools (hagwons). And within a few weeks I had been offered several jobs and accepted one at a private English academy in Daegu.

Benefits of private schools: generally more money than public, max 12 students per class, choose your city/area, work alongside other foreign teachers.
Downsides: little or no training, only 10 days vacation, more teaching hours, lots of dodgy hagwons out there.

On a field trip to a sweet potato farm with the kindergarten

I just want to point out that private schools are a much bigger gamble than public. A quick search online and you’ll come across an abundance of horror stories about hagwons mistreating foreign teachers. But for every disreputable hagwon out there, there are a dozen decent ones. The best advice I can give you, if you decide to go down the hagwon route, is to speak with the current foreign teacher at the school and ask them any and all the questions you can think of, and if that doesn’t put your mind at rest, then go with your gut and decline the job.

As well as dodgy hagwons, there are several dodgy recruitment agencies too, who don’t give a hoot about your preferences or what school you’re placed in, all they care about is the placement fee. So be wary, use your head. I registered with several agencies to begin with to keep my options open, then I narrowed it down when the interviews and job offers were coming through (this is when you can tell which companies actually listen to you and try their best to match your preferences).

A few other reputable agencies off the top of my head are, AclipseKorvia and Korean Horizons. Although I don’t have any personal experience with them, I know people who have had good experiences with them and they all have excellent information on any given topic about South Korea and teaching abroad.

So, you’ve accepted a teaching position, now your faced with the epic task of gathering all your documents to apply for your working Visa. This is not for the faint hearted.

Documents needed:

  • Degree certificates (notarised and apostilled) – anything from £30-£60 a document
  • Criminal Record Check/ Disclosure Scotland – £20 (notorised and apostilled) – an extra £30-£60
  • School contract – signed copy
  • Health Statement – signed copy
  • 2 x passport photos

(This is only for private schools, you need more documents for public!)

Now for the most important part, the mulla!
You don’t need any savings to teach abroad, except enough to see you through to your first pay check. The school will pay your return flights and also your accommodation for the length of your contract. The only money I spent before hand was on getting the visa documents ready (about £200) and my vaccinations (rabies, Japanese Encephalitis, Hepatitis B, Polio, Diphtheria and Tetanus £300) most of which I didn’t even need! My monthly salary is 2.1 million won (£1,100 approx) and from that I can easily save about 1.4 million won a month. It’s easy to live cheaply in Korea.

It may seem like a laborious process, but it’s worth it in the end. If you are like me and you want to travel but lack the funds, this is the ideal solution! So get your finger out and get practicing your chopstick skills!

Extreme Sightseeing in Seoul

11 May

Padlocks smothering the fence along the observation deck at Namsan Tower, Seoul

At the end of March I took another trip up to Seoul to meet my second and third visitors to Korea. My cousin Nic came over from Oz and my friend Arlene from home came on her way back from New Zealand…  I was so excited to see these guys!  And lucky for me, they arrived within a day of each other so I didn’t have to do all the tourist stuff twice.

On the Saturday we went to North Korea (yep really, see last post), so Sunday was dedicated to Seoul, but after too many soju’s and makgeolli’s the night before, Sunday did not get off to the best start. Not one to be defeated by a hangover, I downed my Paris Baguette ice-drink , gulped down the painkillers and appointed myself chief tourism coordinator for the day… with the help of  my friend Ellen – a gal who knows her way around Seoul.

Namsan Tower

Namsan Tower
First on the list was Namsan Tower (or N Tower/ Seoul Tower).  At 237 metres tall, it is a communication and observation tower located on Namsan Mountain, where you can see the city stretch out for miles and miles. You can take the scenic cable car up or the steps, but being hungover as we were, we took a taxi. There’s a rotating observation deck and restaurant at the top of the tower, which you can go up for a small fee. But the non-moving observation deck at the foot of the tower was quite enough for us hungover lot.

The view over Seoul from Namsan Tower

My pilgrimage to H&M
Next stop was Meong-dong. It’s one of the main shopping districts in Seoul, and more importantly, where the only two H&M’s in Korea can be found! After a power shop around the 4 floors of H&M I came out 70,000 won lighter and a bag full of new clothes!

Hanging with the guards at Gyeongbokgung Palace

The Royal Palace (Gyeongbokgung)

After a quick dukboki refuel we headed to the Gyeongbokgung Palace. This is the royal palace, which is really just a big temple, and it’s in the middle of modern Seoul surrounded by skyscrapers and the likes. First constructed in 1394, it was the main and largest palace of the Five Grand Palaces built by the Joseon Dynasty (Wikipedia). Gyeongbokgung translates as ‘Palace of Shining Happiness’, but as far as temples go, it’s not the prettiest/ most interesting I’ve been to (the Doi Saket in Chang Mai in Thailand is still top of my list), but it is still worth the 3,000 won (£1.80) admission fee even if just to appreciate the sheer size of the place. And the guards are good for a photo too!

Inside Gyeongbokgung Palace

Playing dress up


Wilting and getting hungry, we headed over to Insadong for lunch. Insadong is a popular area for us tourists as it claims to have 40 percent of the nation’s antique shops and art galleries as well as 90 percent of the traditional stationery shops (Wikipedia again). Not to mention the oldest bookstore in Seoul and the oldest tea house! (Haud me back!) Even without all the mind-blowing stats, it’s a quirky wee area where you can buy traditional Korean souvenirs and see some street performers do their thing. I bought my wee Aunt Anne’s birthday card here.

Lunch time in Insadong

Two for a pound!

The final stop of the day was DongDaemun market – the biggest market in Seoul. It’s MASSIVE. But by this point we were done in, and the endless streets of markets and underground shopping centres where just far to big to even make a dent on that late in the day. You’d need a whole day there just to look around it! After half an hour we gave in, defeated.

Absolutely shattered, I said goodbye to the girls and headed to Seoul Station to catch the KTX back to Daegu, scared to check my bank balance, but chuffed with what we managed to accomplish. See you again soon Seoul!

The day I went to North Korea

18 Apr

For the past few years, I’ve been fascinated with North Korea and how little the rest of the world know about it. I’m both fascinated and saddened by what I read, and since coming to South Korea my curiosity has only increased.

A South Korean soldier keeps watch over North Korea

Having done some research before I left Scotland, I knew that you could only visit the North as part of an expensive organised tour where you had to be accompanied by a government official the whole time (except when in your hotel room) and the tour guide only told you what they wanted to tell you. This option didn’t appeal to me. The only other way you can visit North Korea is by going to the Joint Security Area (JSA), or Panmunjon as it’s also known.

Hanging out at the DMZ


The JSA is the jointly controlled truce village in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the two Koreas. The DMZ is a strip of land that runs across the whole 160 mile (25okm) breadth of the Koreas. At 2.5 miles (4km) wide, it  acts as a buffer zone between North and South Korea and it has been in place since the cease-fire in 1953. Technically the countries are still at war since no peace treaty was ever signed, which is why it is the most heavily militarized border in the world. Exciting stuff.

The Tour

After much deliberation in deciding which tour to do, I booked the combined tour run by TourDMZ for myself, my cousin, and two friends, and at 120,000 won (about £70) for a full day tour – it was well worth the money! The  tour  included the 3rd infiltration tunnel, the Dora Observatory, Dorasan Train Station, Imjingak (Freedom bridge), the JSA and the Bridge of No Return’…. and not forgetting the lovely Laura – our English speaking tour guide. She was a cracker!

Point to note: you need to book 4 days advance incase your nationality is on the restricted list and additional background checks are needed.
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The museum without walls

25 Mar

The good thing about South Korea, much like Scotland, is that  because it’s such a small country, you can travel to almost anywhere within a couple of hours. So yesterday myself, my friend Carly and her friend Katherine who was visiting from England, went to Gyeongju for that day.

Mopeds for hire in downtown Gyeongju

One of my Korean teachers told me that Gyeongju was the original capital of the ancient kingdom, and Wikipedia can confirm that it was indeed the capital during the Silla dynasty (57 BC – 935 AD). The small city is also nicknamed the ‘museum without walls’ because of the huge number of archaeological sites and cultural properties from the same period…. I’ll stop now with the history lesson.

Gyeongju lies on the east coast of Korea about an hour from Daegu by bus. We arrived about 1pm in the afternoon and popped straight into tourist information at the bus station – where a very helpful English speaking Korean told us the best places to visit in the time we had, what buses to get to and from and sent us off with an English map. Efficient sightseeing – just the way I like it!

Outside the front of Bulguksa Temple

A few of the main things to see in Gyeongju are the Bulguksa Temple, the Gyeonju National Museum, the Cheomseongdae observatory (apparently it’s the oldest surviving astronomical observatory in East Asia), the Anapji royal pond garden, the Tumuli park royal tombs, the traditional Korean folk village and the teddy bear museum! Unfortunately we didn’t have time to see them all, but we did see the Bulguksa Temple and the royal tombs. But not before some lunch!

Ssam bap

My Korean teacher also told me that Gyeonju is famous for ssam map – which translates as lettuce wraps. As soon as we got off the bus at the temple we were hustled by an ajumma to come eat at some restaurant, but when I mentioned ssam bap she whisked us off in the other direction into a tiny wee ‘restaurant’ which I’m sure also doubled as the owner’s living room! This often being the case in Korea, we sat on the floor and got stuck in. Ssam bap is basically lettuce leafs used as wraps that hold rice and sauce and whatever else you want to put in it. The meal, as always, was accompanied by loads of side dishes including fish, some spicy tofu soup and pajeon (kimchi pancake) which was delicious! All three of us fed and watered, we headed for the temple.


One of two stone pagodas

The Bulguksa temple is tucked away in the hillside, and out of all of  the two temples I’ve seen so far in Korea, it was the prettiest – although I think the sunshine helped me reach this conclusion! We spent about an hour walking around the various buildings in the temple, and had a peak in some of the prayer rooms and shrines, but the most interesting bit for me was learning about the stone piles that I always see at temples and on top of hills and mountains.

Stone piles

Some of the reasons I’ve heard are that  people build the little piles outside temples to honor their departed ancestors. Another belief is that stones are believed to have special powers (this is my favourite one), and a prayer wish will be fulfilled as the rock is put on the pile. And third, I read that a visitor can add a stone to a pile or tie a piece of colored cloth to a tree branch as an offering to the local spirit – that’s what I did, and I was cheered on by a wee Korean man when I did it.

My contribution - the wee stone at the top

After we finished at the temple we went to see the royal tombs in Tumuli Park – this is where kings and important people from the ancient kingdoms are supposedly buried. There are 20 or so of these grass mound tombs all varying in size and height – up to 23 metres. Kind of like a poor mans pyramid if you like. After a walk round the tombs, we headed back to the bus station and jumped on the bus back to Daegu – overall an interesting, cheap day out – and it’s always nice to get out of the big smoke isn’t it.

My humps - the royal tombs