Bargain First Class to Asia: $18,681.60 in tickets for $34.30 apiece and points!

I love paying for flights with points and miles and David and I try to maximize the points we earn on nearly every purchase we make. But, as anyone who’s tried to book awards flights knows, those “free” flights are often hard to find. Airlines tend to raise the amounts required for convenient times and schedules, offer less award seats on a flight than you need, or simply don’t offer award flights at all on certain flights. Taxes and fees on some airlines and at certain airports (I’m talking about you, Heathrow!) can turn a “free” flight into an expensive proposition. For flights to Asia from DFW, we think Korean Air is the ticket. (Our opinion holds even with all the saber-rattling currently going on between our government and North Korea, although we’ll definitely keep an eye on developments.)

It’s hard to beat Korean Air for both award availability and affordability …and we love their product, too. Last year, we flew Korean Air First Class from Bangkok to Dallas via Seoul for 95,000 Korean Air Skypass Miles plus $204.77 each, flights that would have cost us over $13,000. We only flew one-way because we used repositioning cruises to get to Asia. (Repositioning cruises are one of my favorite, most comfortable and cost-effective ways to cross an ocean without jet lag.) Being pampered with super-soft designer pajamas, a down mattress, duvet and big pillow, plus delicious food, high-end champagne and wine, and attentive service turned a miserably long flight into a pleasure.

We enjoyed our Korean Air experience so much, I searched their flights again when I started planning next spring’s around-the-world odyssey. This time, I was able to book First Class again (DFW-Seoul-Singapore) for the same 95,000 miles each, but taxes and fees were a shockingly low $34.30 apiece. If we’d paid cash, our two tickets would have totaled $18,681.60! We could have booked business class for 75,000 each or economy of 42,500 each. Award availability was wide open in all categories. (Korean Air is partnered with American, but it would take 120,000 AAdvantage miles to fly business class just from DFW to Seoul on the same day and there was no First Class availability.) Korean Air flies to more American cities than any other Asian airline and flies to Hong Kong, Sydney, Tokyo and more. Seoul itself is a fun, dynamic city and Korean Air offers free stopovers at ICN on award flights. (If you have enough time in Seoul ICN and are flying first class, stop by the first class lounge for custom engraved metal luggage tags, a free perk.) See my earlier post for details about combining Korean Air Skypass points with a spouse and family on Korean Air.

We’ve found Korean Air Skypass Miles easy to accumulate using Chase credit cards that generate Ultimate Rewards (UR) points and SPG Starwood points we get from Starwood Amex. Starwood points give a 25% bonus when transferred to their airline partners, but the card and points may soon be phased out with Marriott’s purchase of SPG. UR points are transferable 1:1 to Korean Air Skypass (and many other partners) and are especially easy to accumulate. Last year, Chase offered a whopping 100,000 sign up bonus for the Sapphire Reserve card and my husband and I both jumped on it. The Chase Sapphire Reserve is expensive at $450/year, but that is quickly offset for us by a very unrestricted $300 travel reimbursement that applies to a wide range of travel expenses: airlines, hotels, AirBnB, taxis, trains, rent cars, cruises, toll tags and more plus other valuable travel perks that more than make up for the remaining $150/year. The bonus for Sapphire Reserve is currently down to 50,000, which is still good, but I’d keep my eye open for another super bonus if you’re a frequent traveler, or get the same 50k bonus with the Chase Sapphire Preferred for $95/year without some of the other perks. We use Chase Ink to get 5X miles on office purchases (with includes gift cards from Office Depot for Shell gas, Whole Foods, Amazon and more) and Chase Freedom Unlimited to 1.5X points on everything else purchased in the U.S. (Note: The Freedom Unlimited card charges a foreign transaction fee, so Americans should leave it at home when traveling overseas.) Those points are then combinable with our main UR Reserve accounts. It adds up!

Checking luggage on Korean Air at Seoul (train) Station

Access to the airport train from Seoul Station is to the left of Entrance/Exit 3 in this photo

Korean Air offers a very convenient service (unavailable for code-share flights): You can check-in and check your luggage at Seoul Station before taking an express train to the airport. To do this, you need to arrive 3 hours before your flight. (This isn’t really a big deal since they ask you to arrive at the airport 2 hours early if you’re going to check luggage there, and the direct train from Seoul Station is about 45 minutes.)

The process at Seoul Station is as follows:
1. Arrive 3 hours early. (The location is by Entrance/Exit 3 of Seoul Station, down two floors via escalator and/or elevator.)
2. Buy a train ticket to the airport (either at a machine if you have cash or a local credit card, or at the office just by the machines–to your left as you face the machines–with a foreign credit/debit card). You MUST buy the train ticket first. You’ll need to show it at check-in. Choose a time at least 30 minutes in the future for your train ticket to allow time for check-in and immigration. If you should miss that train departure time, you can exchange your ticket for a later time at the office.
3. Check-in and check your luggage at the Korean Air check-in desk just as you would at the airport.
4. Go to immigration. This is located at a small office just beside the ticket office, at the entrance to the check-in desks. The process was very quick.
5. Take the elevator a short distance away to the train platform. The train is clean, comfortable, air conditioned and (like so many public places in Korea) offers free wi-fi.

At the airport, you take a special entrance, along with diplomats and crew, for those who have already passed through immigration. (There’s a convenient photo of this entrance taped to the Korean Air check-in desk.) Follow the signs to this “Designated Entrance” which was to our right just past a cell phone service shop as we exited airport security.

Photos of entry points at airport taped to Korean Air check-in desk at Seoul Station

The system worked like a charm for us and our luggage was first off the plane when we arrived in Shanghai.

Korean DMZ

I realized I failed to publish two travelogues from our time in Seoul, South Korea, in October 2016, so I’m adding them now, but back-dating them so they will be in chronological order on Wanderwiles. -Tamara, 12/5/2016:

Memorial and prayer ribbons tied to a fence in Imjingak Park

Visiting the Demilitarized Zone (“DMZ”) between North and South Korea was high on my list of things to do in Seoul. At this time, access to the DMZ requires booking an organized tour; you cannot visit on your own. After doing some research on tour providers, I chose Koridoor. Not only was their price competitive, but I liked that they worked with the USO and coordinated with the US Army so that there was an opportunity to hear from US soldiers stationed in South Korea. Koridoor offers two DMZ tours plus tours to other places in South Korea. I opted for the longer JSA/DMZ tour which includes the Joint Security Area. Knowing this tour is extremely popular, I booked a couple of months before we were to be in Seoul. The tour was scheduled to run from 10am-6:30pm and cost $92/civilian adult and $65 for US military personnel. Unfortunately, before we even left the States, I received an urgent email telling me there would be no JSA tours during the week we were to be in Seoul due to some “operational reason in” the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission (UNCMAC). This situation effected all tours to the JSA, not just Koridoor. With no other options, I rebooked for the DMZ Half-Day Tour for $41pp. Our new itinerary was as follows:

  • 08:00 : Departure from Camp Kim USO
  • 08:50 : Unification Bridge
  • 09:00 : Dora Observatory
  • 10:15  : The 3rd infiltration Tunnel
  • 10:50 : Dorasan Station – Free admission (Optional : Admission to platform – extra 1,000KRW in cash)
  • 11:20 : Lunch at the Korean Restaurant (not included)
  • 12:20 : Imjingak Park
  • 14:00 : Arrive at Camp Kim USO

The morning of the tour, David and I caught the Seoul subway from Seoul station one stop to Sookmyung University station. From there, it’s an easy walk to the USO office which sits just in front of the US Army’s Camp Kim.


We arrived on time to find the waiting area full. This is a popular tour! I realized en route that I’d forgotten to bring our passports and was really worried that we’d be turned away. Thankfully, the photos of our passports we keep on our phones were good enough. Judging by the crowd there, I’m pretty sure rebooking for another day would have been impossible. I also doubt the photos would have been good enough if we’d still been booked on the JSA portion of the tour. Whew!

In the USO, waiting to board the tour buses

It turned out there were two buses in use for the day’s tour. We were assigned bus “B” when we checked in, and not long afterward we were invited to board the bus parked on the road out front.

Barbed wire and our first peek at North Korea from the bus en route to the DMZ

We passed over the Unification Bridge without incident, zigzagging through barriers set up to slow the speed of vehicles. Our tour guide gave the guards a list of our names, nationalities and passport numbers and that was it. After passing a South Korean military base, we arrived at the Dora Observatory, exiting the bus to walk past a group of South Korean soldiers apparently just taking in the view themselves.


We brought our own binoculars, but there were options: A long row of pay binoculars lined the observatory deck, allowing tourists to look across the DMZ to North Korean observation towers so we could watch them watching us watching them…


Our next stop was the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel and DMZ museum. The small museum has models of the DMZ and four North Korean-built tunnels into South Korea, videos, relics and life-size recreations of tunneling. Following tips from a North Korean defector, the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel, considered the most dangerous to South Korea, was discovered in 1978 when water injected into the ground erupted into a geyser. In keeping with the hostile relationship between the two Koreas, each side claims the other dug the tunnel(s), but it seems pretty obvious the 3rd tunnel as well as the other three are North Korean creations.

DMZ Museum and reunification monument
Museum display showing how the tunnels were made, digging holes to insert dynamite
In front of the building housing the entrance to the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel

The 3rd Infiltration Tunnel has a very steep descent followed by a low ceiling. You have to put your belongings in a locker and no cameras or photography of any kind is allowed. Hard hats are required and we soon discovered why: The thwocking sound of hats hitting the low rocks over head came regularly throughout our visit. There are lots of warnings for people with mobility, breathing or claustrophobia issues and they should be taken seriously. It’s a steep–but relatively wide and modern–hike down to the rough rock tunnel where there’s nowhere to step aside or straighten up once you’re at the bottom. It’s also cool down there, too, about 50°F/11°C. Info at the museum and from our guide claims that 30,000 troops could move through the tunnel/hour. We found that hard to believe.

Passing through security to enter the descent to the tunnel. (Yellow hard hats are on the wall inside.)

Our next stop was a weird one: the Dorasan train station. The station was built to facilitate trade and transportation between the two Koreas during a brief warming period. The big, modern station was the last stop in South Korea and was actually operational for a short period, but is now closed for all business save the kind we were there for.

A tour group in Dorasan station

You can buy a 1000 won ticket that lets you pass through a turnstile and walk along the track. At about 86 cents, we figured “Why not?,” but it’s an underwhelming experience.

Unused tracks quai at Dorasan station


Lunch at a “Korean restaurant” turned out to be lunch at an institutional-type cafeteria located upstairs in a building housing the Inter Korean Transit Office.

The Dora Restaurant is upstairs to the right

We had two options for meals, and David and I both went for traditional bimimbap which is sort of the national dish of Korea. “Bimimbap” means “mixed rice” and we put our own bimimbap together from ingredients laid out buffet-style, topping a bowl of white rice with namul (seasoned vegetables), gochujang (a spicy chili sauce), soy sauce, etc. Sometimes you get a raw or fried egg and/or sliced meat. When we finished, we bused our own table, carrying our trays to the cafeteria ladies behind a counter in the back. It really was an uninspiring lunch. Maybe they were going for an authentic “military” experience?

The Dora Restaurant, an institutional-style cafeteria for lunch; bus your own plates to the counter in the back

Our final stop was Imjingak Park. Bizarrely, an amusement park sits to one side of the more somber memorial areas of Imjingak Park. The park was built to console those who couldn’t return to their hometowns and families. It contains the wooden “Freedom Bridge” a former railroad bridge that was used to repatriate POWs returning from North Korea.

Freedom Bridge
Tributes and messages left at the end of the Freedom Bridge nearest North Korea

A dilapidated train is preserved in the park, badly damaged by artillery fire. Along one side of the old track, a barbed wire-topped fence is covered with ribbons representing prayers, memorials and wishes for peace. [See top photo.]

War-battered train at Imjingak Park
Now unused railroad bridge to North Korea as seen from Imjingak Park

Another unusual tribute interested David and me; it is in honor of a television show we’d seen depicted in the popular Korean movie, “Ode to My Father.” The television show, known as “Reuniting Korean Families” or “Search for Dispersed Families” in English, was created 30 years after the Korean War as a way for separated family members to find each other. People came to be filmed holding placards describing family members, places and/or details they could remember. Many were children at the time of the war, some who couldn’t even remember their parents’ names. More than 10,000 families were reunited via the show. There’s plenty out there on it for those interested, but here’s a link to get you started:

Tribute to the “Search for Dispersed Families” television show with photos of the show around the perimeter

Leaving the park, we headed back to Seoul. It was an interesting day that I wouldn’t have missed so long as we were in Seoul, but I also can’t put it anywhere near the top of things South Korea or even Seoul itself has to offer. I would have liked to have done the JSA portion of the tour, but it’s a troubled area and interferences with these tours shouldn’t be too surprising. From what I saw, most of the tours looked very similar (and things can get crowded because of that). Koridoor offers one of the best deals and I like the idea of USO involvement although we didn’t get to hear from US military personnel due to the UNCMAC-induced change of plans. In sum, if you’re in Seoul and have the time, by all means go to the DMZ. If you don’t have the time, don’t worry about it.

You can learn more about Koridoor’s DMZ and other tours at:





Experience of a lifetime: Korean Buddhist Temple Stay at Beomeosa Temple


From the first time I read about temple stay programs in Japan and South Korea, I was hooked on the idea of spending the night at a Buddhist temple. I wanted to learn more about Buddhism and what, exactly, Buddhist monks did on a daily basis. The stays I saw in Japan (“shukubo”) sounded more like simple lodging in a monastery; interesting, but not as much as I was looking for. When I found South Korea’s Templestay program, it seemed I’d found what I was looking for: a real cultural experience aimed at sharing and preserving an ancient way of life.

Beomeosa Temple just outside of Busan, South Korea, offered a temple stay and I wanted to visit the temple anyway; I had my destination! Beomeosa (pronounced “boh MOH sah”) offers temple stays most weeks, Sat. – Sun. You must reserve in advance and should do so as soon as possible. The temple asks for bank transfers, but kindly agrees to accept cash payment upon arrival for foreign guests. Their temple stays alternate between a “resting” and a hiking program. The day that worked with our travel schedule was the “resting” program which focuses on spiritual renewal and offered a 1-hour, as opposed to a 3-hour, mountain hike. We would have been happy with either, but decided we’d probably been lucky to get the shorter hike since the weather was just clearing from the previous day’s rain and still drizzly.

The “base temple” where we spent much of our time (& which served as the women’s “dorm”)

One of the reasons I’d chosen a hotel near Busan Station (rather than the elegant Park Hyatt for which we had free nights available) was that it made getting to our temple stay so easy. We stored our large luggage with our hotel, walked the short distance to Line 1 of the subway just in front of Busan Station. Line 1 runs directly to Nopo dong Station where we got off to catch the 90 Bus straight to the entrance to Beomeosa Station. [Note: The stop before Nopo dong is called “Beomeosa,” but do not get off there.] The subway ride costs 1000 won/pp, one-way = $.91. The whole process takes about 1 hour 15 minutes: 21 stops/40 minutes on the subway, 1 minute walk out the door of Nopo dong station to the 90 Bus, 6 stops/15 minutes on the bus, and about a 5 minute walk up the hill to the temple. When you exit the subway, turn left, away from the Central Bus Station (for long-haul, inter-city buses) and walk right, outside the station, where the local buses park. The sign for Bus 90 is the first one you come to. Pay on the bus (1300 won/pp, one-way = $1.18pp). There’s parking if you want to drive.

View of the 90 Bus stop on leaving Nopo dong train station
View upon exiting Bus 90 at Beomeosa Temple. The entrance steps are just ahead to the right.

Check-in for Templestay was between 1:30-2pm and we arrived right on time. When we explained why we were there, a friendly man at the ticket/info booth at the base of the hill gave us a map and directions and sent us on our way. We joined groups of visitors and hikers climbing the hill to the temple complex. (Beomeosa Mountain boasts several popular hiking trails through its forests where streams fan out through the trees, flowing between enormous boulders.) As we passed through colorful painted gates and large statues of fierce-faced guardians, we wondered what this experience would be like. We’d visited lots of Buddhist temples and shrines in Japan, read what we could, but still so much of it was a mystery to us.

The 2nd entrance gate to the temple complex

We passed through the last and largest gate into a wide courtyard dominated by a main temple just ahead and several surrounding temple and shrine buildings, all painted in bright shades of red, green, blue, yellow and white. (Although I’ll refer to “Beomeosa Temple,” it’s not one building. There are many temples and shrines of various sizes, as well as living quarters, a drum tower and more which make up the temple complex.) Mounting a last flight of stairs, we turned left as we’d been instructed passing temples on our right and living quarters on our left with signs forbidding entry and stating that meditation was in progress. Later, we’d learn this was where the monks lived. At the far end of a row of temples, we arrived at a gate marked Templestay and climbed one last small hill to a temple much like those we’d already passed.

One of the many temples at Beomeosa

A young Korean woman met us, quickly found our names on a list and handed us our clothes for the weekend, indicating where we could change. Although, the instructions I’d received upon booking said we could wear “light clothes” under our temple clothes, both David and I found it made no sense to wear anything other than underwear beneath the soft washed cotton of our new clothes. We were given identical outfits, different only in size: a purple front-buttoning tunic with 3/4 sleeves and loose-fitting gray pants with stretchy waist and ankles. Both top and bottom had pockets which came in handy since we stored away our other belongings and gave our valuables to be locked in an office. Once dressed, the same Korean lady gave us a brochure with a map of the temple and surrounding mountain and general instructions about temple etiquette and mindset.

Our “base” temple is #15 on the map
Tips for temple life and mindset

Our fellow templestayers began to arrive and also don the uniform; they included a Russian, an Argentinian living in Busan, an Australian woman whose sick husband left before things began, two women friends from Seoul, two Chinese sister-in-laws, and ten Korean foster/orphanage kids–8 boys and 2 girls–ranging from middle school through high school and the sweet lady who chaperoned them. An exhausted German couple fresh from an overseas flight and a missed train from Seoul arrived just as we began dinner.

With the younger members of our group, just before things kicked off

Our first activity began with an instruction to grab a cushion from a stack in the corner and form a circle. A monk had joined us and took the lead at the point of the circle nearest a golden bas-relief altarpiece featuring a Buddha among a host of other companions. The young woman who checked us in stationed herself nearby with a clipboard where she jotted notes before translating things to English. A Korean, she’d lived many years in Vancouver and spoke excellent English. The monk introduced himself and the translator began by explaining that while in Catholicism or Protestant Christianity you might call a priest “father” or a minister “reverend,” in Korean Buddhism they referred to the monks as “sunim.” Sunim asked us to introduce ourselves and tell where we were from and why we’d come. He looked to me to start so I gave my name and home and said that I wanted to learn more about Buddhism and the culture around it as part of my trip to Korea. The translator translated my words for sunim and the Korean visitors and so it went around the circle. The younger members gave their grades in school and a few of the less shy ones added their goals and ambitions in life.

Introduction time

After introductions, we took a short break then formed our cushions into rows to listen to a younger sunim explain etiquette of the temple and what was expected of us. As we’d read in the brochure, he explained the proper way to greet monks we might encounter while around the temple, with palms pressed together at chest level and bowing at the waist, a “half-bow” or “hapsang.” We were told to walk with our hands clasped in front, right hand over left, left thumb resting over the right thumb in the “chasu” body posture. We shouldn’t swing our hands vigorously, etc. This was to encourage slower walking and contemplation. Silence was encouraged as a way of having a conversation with yourself. Also, we should not walk or stand with our hands behind our back as that was considered impolite. When in a temple, we should take a cushion from the ever-present stacks in the corner, then sit cross-legged with our hands resting clasped in front of us or with our fists closed, fingers down, resting on our knees. When finished, we should return cushions to where we’d found them. We were taught how to do a full bow; first dropping to the knees, then the elbows, then placing our foreheads on the floor, palms resting beside our head. Then, turning the palms upward, then back down, before rising. A half bow upon entering a temple, facing a Buddha or pagoda, was then followed by three full bows and a final half bow. We practiced the various bows, to the loud cracking noise of a split bamboo rod that sunim slapped against his palm to signal the time and pacing of bows and half-bows. All of this instruction was given in a friendly and welcoming manner and we were repeatedly assured that anything we couldn’t do or weren’t comfortable doing was fine. Our hosts were especially considerate and concerned that people with knee or back problems or stiffness from sitting cross-legged should feel free to extend a leg or two and move about as needed. We all knew that we were supposed to do 108 full bows during an evening ceremony following dinner and there was some apprehension; sunim and the translator both took pains to assure everyone that nothing was mandatory, only encouraged if physically doable.


A prayer for everything: This one in the ladies’ toilet area cracked me up!

Next up was a tour of the beautiful temple complex. We walked, hands clasped, when we remembered, and bowed our hapsang and received return hapsang from monks we passed, but our group was not great at keeping silent. There were too many comments to share, too much to ooh and aah over.

Sunim explaining the gates
Sunim showing us around the main courtyard

After the tour, it was time for our vegan dinner served in the traditional and formal communal style known as “balu-gongyang.” A carefully prepared set of four nesting bowls, placemat/napkin, small towel, chopsticks and wooden spoon was set out for us in a private room off the temple cafeteria. Sitting in a large circle, sunim explained the strict guidelines for each step of the meal. First, we unpacked our set, placing each bowl in a specific spot on our placemat. Hot water was poured into the largest bowl, swirled, poured into the next smallest bowl, poured again, until the water remained in the smallest bowl where we’d also placed the eating ends of our chopsticks and spoon.

Pouring hot water for the dinner ritual

Next, food was served on a low rolling tray. Each dish was to be put in a particular bowl: rice in the largest, soup in the next largest, and side dishes (kimchi, cold greens, pickled vegetables, etc.) in the third largest bowl.

Our balu-gongyang dinner

We ate in silence, a sign posted at one end of the room proclaiming our prayer for the meal which proclaimed, “…I am ashamed to eat this food…” the idea being that eating was only to sustain life so that one could strive for enlightenment. Happily, the food was actually quite tasty and I really wasn’t at all ashamed to eat it.


After we finished, sunim taught us a ritual cleaning method whereby we cleaned our bowls in sequence as before with fresh hot water and using one slice of pickled yellow radish which we’d been instructed to hold back to “scrub,” adding the water at last to the water remaining in smallest bowl. Finally, we were encouraged to drink the final water and eat the radish as a way of humbly avoiding waste (and finally getting a drink). Our translator and sunim laughed at this and told us the final step, like everything in the program, was optional, but encouraged as an authentic experience. As she pointed out, there was nothing in the water we hadn’t already been eating in separate bowls. Fresh water was available just outside the dining area. And, we did a final cleaning in the cafeteria kitchen before returning the bowls to numbered cubby holes in the private dining room.

Final dinner clean up in the cafeteria

The highlight of the evening came just after dinner when we were led to watch the evening drum ceremony. David and I expected some ritual banging on the huge drum that hung from the second story of the drum house (which also housed dragon and cloud-shaped gongs and a huge bell for awakening the spirits). Instead, we witnessed an unbelievable display of talent that went on for quite some time as three monks tag-teamed each other to play pounding rhythms on the drum. They stood facing the drum skin, which was much taller than a man, and proceeded to beat a driving call using both the skin and the sides of the drum, arms extended over their heads, to the side, below, above, over and over. A video of this beautiful ceremony is posted on Wanderwiles’ Facebook page.

The evening drum ceremony (Video on Wanderwiles’ Facebook page)

As the monks finished their drumming, a line of other monks passed below to begin their evening prayer in an adjacent temple. We were led to a facing temple for our own evening prayers joined by locals. The temple was thick with incense and the chanting of the monks and the worshippers (including some of our young companions) was moving. We did our full- and half-bows to the cracking sound of the bamboo rod.

Back at our “base” temple, the time for our 108 full bows had come. A bag of wooden beads and a long cord awaited us before our prayer cushions. The young sumim who’d instructed us earlier explained that the 108 bows symbolized 108 impurities that we were to think on and try to free from ourselves. At the end of each bow, we were to string a wooden bead on the cord, rise, then begin the next bow at the sound of the bamboo rod. As always, anyone who couldn’t or didn’t want to do the full 108 bows was reassured that it was no problem, but we were encouraged to try “using the energy of the group.” David and I both managed our full complement of bows, but it was a different experience than I’d expected. The stringing of the beads was tricky and the whole thing got to be a little more frantic than meditative and I found myself laughing at myself and others as we scrambled to thread the elusive little beads, then get back up in time to throw ourselves back into the full bow at the crack of sunim’s bamboo rod. Still, it was fun and there was definitely a sense of accomplishment when we were done. We finished off our string of beads with a “4-cord braid” capped with a “mother” bead and 4 “baby” beads, scorching the final knots to make things permanent. Korean Buddhists use the beads somewhat like a rosary, running them through their fingers as they pray, or wrapping them around their hands in a figure-eight/google symbol of infinity.

Preparing for the 108 bows and the bead-stringing
108 beads waiting to be strung
Finished beads

Finally, it was time for bed. David went off to sleep in a separate building with the male members of our group while the women and girls prepared palettes on the floor of the temple where we’d just strung our beads. Toilets and communal showers were in a separate building just in front of the temple. Lights out was at 9:30pm; early, but no one had any complaints about that! Nearly everyone simply slept in their temple clothes. I found myself quickly lulled to sleep by the sound of stream water cascading down the mountainside and the light breeze drifting through the sliding door near where I’d made my bed.

Bedtime in the temple

A 5am wake-up had us scrambling to put away our palettes and clean up for the day. Then, it was morning prayers and meditation followed by a vegan breakfast served cafeteria-style in the main dining hall. Once again, the food was simple but tasty.

Sunim leading the breakfast line
Vegan breakfast

The drizzle of the day before had given way to a beautiful morning. The air smelled of greenery, wood and water. After breakfast, the young sunim led us on an easy hike up Mt. Beomeosa to a hermitage.

Leading us on our hike to the hermitage

In Korea, a hermitage is more like a remote temple than a place where a hermit might live. Inside the hermitage, Sunim led us in meditation, facing the windows over the valley rather than the altar. The mountain afforded a great view of the temple complex and an absolutely magical view of Busan in the distance, rising like a fairytale city above the clearing mists.

View of the Beomeosa temple complex from the mountain
View of Busan from Mt. Beomeosa

Back at our base temple, we had an hour break before our final activity: “conversation with a monk over tea.”

Break time at the temple

We formed a circle on our prayer cushions while the senior sunim prepared tea for us. We were each give an bar of unsweetened glutinous rice topped with dried berries, raisins and nuts. It was filling and just-right after our hike, but I noticed that sunim only drank tea. He then took questions from anyone who had them, expounding on such diverse topics as how one becomes a monk (monk “college”), are there women monks (yes, they shave their hair and wear the same robes so you might not recognize them), his/Buddhism’s views on war, how to treat illness, etc.

Tea with a monk: time for questions

After changing back into our street clothes and saying our final good-byes, David and I made a last visit through the main temple courtyard before heading down the hill through the three gates. We passed people just arriving, knowing that the temple would soon be crowded with visitors. What a privilege it had been to enjoy the peace and beauty of the temple in quieter hours while experiencing a bit of daily life there.

Korea’s Templestay program now has a dozen or so temples across Korea that offer stays with English translation, and many more that are Korean-only. (Beomeosa Temple has English and Chinese translators available; verify in advance. No other languages are currently offered at Beomeosa.) Day visits without an overnight are also available at some temples. You can find out more at Our temple stay cost 70,000 Korean won (approximately $63) per person which includes everything I described. Although photos are usually prohibited in temples, Beomeosa Templestay allowed us to photograph most everything we wanted. (Although, we of course tried not to be rude or intrusive so did not take photos during prayers.) They also took photos themselves and posted them online for us to view and download afterwards.




What to do when it rains in Busan, South Korea

Outside of the Jalgachi Fish Market

Unfortunately, we woke to driving rain our first full day in Busan. Hmm. When you travel, bad weather happens, so good to have a Plan B. In Busan, Plan B was the hop-on/hop-off bus. We were pretty sure that we weren’t going to do much hopping off unless we saw shelter nearby, but what the heck? At least we’d see some of the city and we were kind of ready for a slow day anyway. Busan offers several hop-on/hop-off buses and, happily, they all pick up by Busan Station very near our hotel.

After viewing a couple of brochures and comparing routes, we chose the BUTI Bus. Although it claimed to offer free onboard wi-fi, our bus had none. Strike one. The app I’d downloaded didn’t work either. Strike two. The tour was mostly in Korean. Probably should be Strike Three, but we were in for the long haul, so we stayed on. Given our experience, I’d try the other hop-on/hop-off called the Busan City Bus Tour. [This is really confusing as both the BUTI Bus and this other bus use the phrase “Busan City Bus Tour. There may be a third bus also using the same name. The price is the same for all of these buses, 15,000 Korean won (approximately $15).) We got off at the last stop which was the underground shopping area near Gwangbok (Exit 6).] We were only idly curious about the shopping, but we hoped to be able to use the sheltered areas to reach the Jagalchi Fish Market.

The underground shopping areas turned out to run for what seemed to be miles in both directions.


Sure enough, we could get to Jagalchi. Exiting the underground at a sign to the fish market, we walked straight ahead to the first intersection, then turned left to see the covered market just beyond. Hurrying through the rain, we found shelter in the huge two-story fish market. Tank after tank displayed fish, shellfish and other unidentifiable sea life.


Upstairs, many small restaurant stalls blend together, all hawking fresh to order seafood. We picked one with windows overlooking the water and settled onto cushions in front of a low table. Perplexed by some of the menu options, we finally settled on crab soup and grilled fish. We were surprised with several dishes arrived pre-main course, making it plain we’d ordered way too much. Oh well, it was still raining and we had time to kill so why not indulge in a lunchtime feast?


The crab soup was delicious, but frustratingly difficult to eat. The crab was hacked in to rough quarters and we had no tools but chopsticks and a spoon. The fish was tasty, but equally tricky given all the bones. The side dishes, especially the “seafood pancake,” were the sleeper hits.



Lunch lasted long enough that the rain had finally lightened a little and we had fun watching several chefs in a seafood competition set up under tents outside.



Back in the underground shopping area, we spent a little more time browsing the Lotte Department store before heading back to catch the BUTI bus back to Busan Station. Not an ideal first day in Busan, but not bad either.

The Busan City Tour bus I’d try next time. (Not the BUTI Bus)

Two-and-a-half months in Asia!

So we leave tomorrow on the trip that inspired me to start this blog: a 77-night ramble through Asia. This trip runs the gamut of lodging, transportation methods, and weather. It’s been a challenge to plan (and a challenge to pack for). We’re excited!

In a (large) nutshell, this trip includes:

  • Our first trans-Pacific cruise [the Aleutians, northern Japan, Yokohama/Tokyo]
  • 2 weeks in Japan [Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Miyajima island (where we’ll stay in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn), Fukuoka]
  • a ferry to South Korea [Busan, a Buddhist temple stay, Seoul, the DMZ]
  • a cruise from Shanghai to Singapore [Okinawa, Hong Kong, Chan May/Hoi An and Phu My/Ho Chin Mihn City, Vietnam]
  • Singapore and Kuala Lumpur
  • Siem Reap, Cambodia, to see Angkor Wat
  • Luang Prabang, Laos
  • a 2-day open-boat trip up the Mekong with a stop at some to-be-determined-when-we-get-there guesthouse in tiny Pakbeng, Laos
  • 2.5 weeks in Thailand: Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai (a day with elephants and a Thai cooking school), Krabi (scuba diving the Phi Phi islands), the Bridge on the River Kwai at Kanchanaburi, Bangkok
  • a 1st class mega-flight on Korean Air from Bangkok to Seoul to Dallas (courtesy of airline miles and credit card points, a favorite game of ours)

I’ve tried to anticipate the trickier bits and done an incredible amount of research, but I know there will be things I overlooked or had no way of knowing. There are liable to be things that don’t pan out as we’d hoped (or maybe don’t even pan out at all). It’s the nature of travel, and also part of what makes it exciting and interesting. And besides, I don’t want to plan every moment anyway. I intend to focus on experiencing the trip rather than documenting it, but I’ll blog about it when I can. Hopefully, there will be fun as well as useful info to share…and, no doubt, our portion of clueless-fools-in-a-strange-land moments. Wish us luck!

[We’ll be incommunicado for most of the 16-day Pacific crossing, so other than a possible post in the Aleutians 5 days out, we’ll be in Japan before I do any posting. I know going off-grid is a weird way to start a blog, but that’s the plan.]

– Tamara

August 31, 2016