Category Archives: Hikes

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27 Things To Know About South Korea

So you’ve made the arrangements, you’ve got yourself pumped up to travel abroad, and you’ve got your tickets.  You’re coming to visit (or live) in South Korea. But what can you come to expect while in South Korea?  Well here is a list of 27 things to know before arriving in South Korea.

1. You Should Learn Some Hangul, But Can Technically Get By Without 

Korean Phrase Book

Now, don’t get me wrong, it is going to be a lot more difficult for you to manage without knowing any of the local language, but you can manage. If you’re in Seoul, or any major cities, most roads, signs, and other forms of directional or important messages will be in Hangul (written Korean), and English, as well as Japanese and Chinese (usually).

I’m not advocating just forgoing learning the language, but if you aren’t going to be country long, you’re just coming for a visit, or you just struggle with learning languages, it is reassuring to know that you can manage your way through the language barrier (though you will have some difficulty with buses). Many Korean stores have employees who can speak English, and there are frequently people you will run into who will have at least a rudimentary if not fluent grasp of English.

There are also several apps I cover in our navigating Korea article to assist you. If you can though, you should learn to speak at the very least a few words.  TalkToMeInKorean is a wonderful resource to learn the language and Duolingo has just recently launched it’s Korean course.

A few important words you should learn regardless though, are:

  • Anyeonghasaeyo (On-yong-ah-say-you) = Hello / How are you?
  • Gamsamhapnida (Kam-sam-ni-da) = Thank you
  • Ne = Yes
  • Aniyo (a-ni-yo) = No

A few other things to keep in mind are:

  • Bow when saying thank you
  • Give and accept cards/money/gifts with both hands

2. Travel In South Korea Is Easy 

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South Korea is very easy to travel within. Having come from places in the US with virtually no public transportation, I had nearly no experience with public transportation. With that in mind, we had few issues navigating here.

The Metro system can be daunting at first, but everything is printed in English as well and there are English announcements for each station. If you get a T-Money card, you can easily access the Metro and buses with a simple swipe of your card.  These cards can also be easily recharged at Storyways or 7-11s which are plentiful in South Korea.

The Korail system also has some speedy trains that can take you just about anywhere in the country in a matter of hours. Even without a car, you can get just about anywhere you want via public transportation.  On top of that, most everywhere is pedestrian friendly.

Keep in mind though, that while public transportation is pretty easy, it’s not always the fastest method. Our trip from Songtan into Seoul averaged around an hour and half or more depending on the number of transfers needed.

As well, travel to Jeju Island in the south will probably take you a day or two to get to from Seoul along with a mandatory plane ride. Buses also run throughout the country, taking you between neighborhoods, towns, cities, and regions.

3. Korean Toilets Are Not Western Toilets 

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South Korean toilets are where some westerners may run into a few surprises. If you’re in newer buildings you can expect to find a western style toilet or even nice bidets, however in some older locations, you’re going to find squat toilets. These can be difficult and uncomfortable for someone not used to squatting down, or for those who may be a bit heavier.

You have to keep your balance, and if you have long hair you need to keep your hair out of the toilet. Toilet paper is found near the entry way, and not in each stall so grab it before you enter.  And once that toilet paper is used, never flush it! South Korean plumbing isn’t designed to handle paper waste, so a trash bin is provided in each stall for you to dispose of the paper. A solid bar of soap is attached to a stick for everyone to use at the sinks as well.

4. South Korean Home Bathrooms Are Different 

The South Korean bathroom is a true work of efficiency, though a little different from your regular western bathroom.  Generally, the bathrooms are completely tiled and the shower head rests on the wall. You have to hold the shower head generally as it is not anchored anywhere.  There is no shower, curtain, or tub, just a drain on the floor. 

So when you shower, everything gets wets, but this also means that cleaning is super easy, you can just rinse everything down with the shower and let it drain and dry. In the winters though, especially in older buildings, the bathroom floors can become very cold. In our bathroom, we also had the washing machine, so dirty water also would simply drain out onto the floor.

5. Ondol Heated Floors Are Wonderful 

The Korean heating system is pretty unique, but awesome once you experience it.  The Ondol was developed in ancient times and is still used today. Essentially it its a heated floor. In the past, hot air froma fire passed through cavities under the floor, heating the ground and warming the room through convection. 

Today, hot water runs through pipes under the floor. It is nice to have toasty toes in the winter, and you don’t get that weird smell a heater can sometimes create. All I know is, I want one of these in my house. If it breaks though, as happened to us, you will need to use a space heater while it gets fixed.

6. Korean Beds Are Not Comfortable

Because of the Ondol system, most Korean beds, and furniture for that matter, are right there on the floor. The beds usually are plain mats that sit on the floor, these are fine enough. But when you encounter traditional beds that are raised such as when you are in a hotel, they are very stiff. For reasons unknown to me, they prefer their beds very hard. If you want, you can get a western style, soft bed, or foam top, but don’t come to expect it.

We were staying in a westerner’s home during our time in Korea, so we had a soft western style bed from Ikea (they’re even in Korea). However, whenever we were in hotels, we found hard beds.

7. Kimchi Is King 

Homemade Kimchi

Kimchi, as I covered in another post, is pretty ubiquitous here in South Korea. It was created about 300 years ago as a way to preserve cabbage and provide nutritious food for the bitter winters here. Today, the spicy dish is served at every meal with just about every dish and in a wide variety of forms. It’s pretty good, and you’ll have a hard time avoiding it here.

8. Soju Is Wonderful 

Soju

Beer and wine can be pretty expensive here, but have no fear for Soju is here. South Koreans love to drink, more than any other people in the world actually (Soju is actually the best selling alcohol in the world due almost solely to Koreans) and you can expect to drink in most social situations.

There are no laws against public drinking or intoxication so you can drink to your hearts content and not be judged. Soju is a fermented drink from rice, with a similar taste to vodka and a ABV of around 20%.  Soju is great for sipping, and wonderful for mixing. But your first drink is always supposed to be taken as a shot.

Recently, they’ve introduced flavored Soju that is a little lower ABV but great tasting. We prefer to mix regular and flavored for a little extra kick with our flavor (this is not traditional though). But be warned, because of the sugar content it can pack a killer hangover.

9. They Don’t Do Dairy (Much) 

South Korean cuisine does not have much, if any dairy in it. So most dairy products are pretty new here for the most part. In the past few years, cheese has begun to make a huge impact here, however it’s just not quite right. It’s highly processed and there is just something different about it.

It doesn’t melt right, it tastes weird, and it is sometimes mixed with meat product, collagen, and other things. We don’t like the cheese you can get here. But if you really need to get your cheese fix, you can find the real stuff in some of the larger markets like E-Mart or Home Plus. You’ll be paying a far steeper price for it than you would elsewhere though. South Korea is the world’s fastest growing market for cheese though. So it can be expected that higher quality cheese should become more available in the coming years.

10. It’s Hard To Be Vegetarian In South Korea 

Bacon Meat

South Korea is not super vegetarian or vegan-friendly (since they aren’t big on dairy it vegans and vegetarians will be in a similar situation). Meat is viewed as a part of being healthy as well as a measure of wealth, so most people want to eat meat and view not eating meat as unhealthy. Most dishes center around meat, and have some form of meat in it. Fish, beef, chicken, pork, and all manner of seafood find their way into most dishes.

It can also be difficult because if you say you are vegetarian, many here won’t understand what you mean unless they have traveled abroad as well. If you say you don’t eat meat, they will assume you mean you don’t eat beef. So you have to say you don’t eat beef, or pork, or chicken, or fish, etc. And even then, you may find something has been slipped in.

With some luck, you can tell them you CAN’T eat any animal because it will make you sick, and they might get the point. But be warned, it will be difficult to eat out at local restaurants. You will mostly be relegated to Banchan (side-dishes) such as kimchi.

Aside from some restaurants which specialize in western food, there are only a select few places such as the Loving Hut in Seoul which can cater to you. Otherwise your best bet is an Indian restaurant or a Buddhist restaurant if you want to be safe as a vegetarian.

However, you can easily cook your own food with traditional Korean ingredients at home by visiting a local grocery which is what we typically did and you can find the occasional place to eat out.

11. South Korean Food Is Seasonal 

In the US, you take for granted the fact that we can import anything from anywhere at any time (though it might be more expensive for part of the year). But in South Korea, the foods are more seasonal. When you go to the store, expect to see fresh produce from this season. So if you’re really craving a certain food, but it’s just not ready, you’ll have to wait for it to come into season before you get to eat, either that or you will be shelling out money for imported goods.

12. Shopping In A Grocery Store Is Familiar But Different 

Tofu Section

How different can a grocery store really be right? Well, it is pretty familiar, but as I said above, food is seasonal, so things change every time you go. You have to bag, weigh, and tag produce such as potatoes yourself before getting in line. So unless you can operate the machine which is not in English, you’ll have to settle for pre-bagged items (though you may be able to get someone to help). 

Because of the seasonality of foods, as well as South Korea’s more northern location, most fruits including tomatoes are imported and carry a pretty high price, as high as triple or quadruple what you might find in the states. Meat is pretty expensive as well. Other items though run much cheaper. You can find ice cream bars for as low as $0.25 each, so have fun with those.

Of course, you’ll also run across all the unique foods that only South Korea has to offer. An interesting aspect is the fact that they have a live announcer at the store, who I can only assume is giving information regarding food deals – but they sound like they are running an auction the way they talk.

13. You Can Get Your Creature Comforts

American Food Isle

Regular South Korean grocery stores don’t carry much for the western palate, such as bread, cheese, dairy, chips, chocolate, and a few other items. So when you need to get your fix, you can head to an E-Mart or Home Plus, both of which carry just most things you could want. While I won’t go into too much detail because you can simply read our post about them specifically here, be assured that they have a wide variety of items (though some things from back home may cost a little more). They are very similar to a Super Walmart back in the U.S., only much nicer.

14. South Koreans Love To Hike

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South Korea is a pretty mountainous country, and with mountains comes a love of hiking. There are beautiful national parks all over. You can even find several mountains within Seoul or give a shot at hiking the Seoul City Wall. You can go hike a mountain and not even leave the city. Just spend a little time here, and you’ll see why people love to spend time outdoors. It’s even South Korea’s national past time.

15. South Korea Is Filled With History

Korean War Memorial

South Korea, like many places around the world, is filled with both recent and ancient history. The peninsula has had pottery found dating over 8000 years old, and you can still visit many ancient sites all around the country. Even within the city of Seoul you can visit several UNESCO World Heritage sites such as the East Palace, a Buddhist temple over 1000 years old, and many other cultural sites.

South Korea has been subject to invasions from China and Japan over the centuries and has a very colorful past. But not everything here is ancient, it still bears scars and memories from the Korean War, which can be remembered and honored at the Korean War Museum. If you want to know even more about the people, you can check out the National Museum of Korea or the History of Korean Culture at Gyeongbukgung Palace.

16. South Korea Is Space Efficient

Spicy Pepper

South Korea is a mountainous country, which means that much of its land isn’t habitable, nor arable. The country also has a population of 50 million, pushing them to have some of the highest densities in the world. Seoul alone has 25 million people in it’s greater metropolitan area.

Because of this, Koreans have learned to squeeze the most out of every available piece of land. Buildings here are stacked high, with parking garages under or above buildings rather than a lot out front. Streets are narrow, yet efficient. Everything has a cozy feel to it. When you get out into the country side such as in the areas surround Pyeongtaek and Songtan, you will find that farms dominate the landscape.

Every available strip of land will have cabbages, peppers, and a whole variety of vegetables being grown. This includes along sidewalks and roadsides. Most homes have some form of a garden, which is really wonderful to see although it would make any HOA in the US scream in terror. The efficiency is impressive, seen not only in their use of space, but in the application of most products.

17. South Korea Has Defined Seasons

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During the summer, things can get pretty warm and cozy here. And by that I mean it gets really hot and humid. While it may not outdo the tropics, it will certainly make you sweat, wish you had a better AC and sleep with no sheets. (We haven’t experienced a Korean summer ourselves, but have heard about it.) 

South Korea also gets very cold. The first snow can come to Seoul has early as late November. When the Siberian winds kick up temperatures can drop to well below freezing with windchill dropping to 0 F. While it’s not as cold as some extreme places, it isn’t just any winter here. If you’re going to be here during the winter, be sure to pack your layers and some warm clothes for snow.

Spring is a lovely time of year, and similar to Japan experiences the cherry blossom bloom. While autumn exhibits brilliant colors and a nice crispness to the air.

18. South Korea And Japan Don’t Get Along 

Juhamnu Pavilion

So without getting too into it, South Korea and Japan have a rather rough history. Japan has had a habit of getting a little aggressive and invading the peninsula over the centuries. Every time they do they tend to inflict a lot of damage on the countryside and people.

Understandably, Koreans can hold a bit of a grudge against the Japanese. Although in today’s modern times the two cultures do get along and go about peaceably, the tension is still obviously there. While you’re here, it’s best to keep in mind that Korea is always better than Japan. There is no such thing as the Sea of Japan, it is the East Sea. If you feel differently, I’d suggest you hold your tongue, as differing opinions on the subject will most likely ostracize you here, not to mention just be very insulting to the country that is hosting you.

19. South Korea Has A Mosquito Season

I’ve lived in Texas and Florida, so I’ve had my fair share of mosquitos and biting bugs. I’ve heard things about mosquitos in the tropics and big fat monsters up in Canada. But I never heard a thing about Korean mosquitos. These things are monsters and they’re everywhere in the fall until the temperatures drop.

They’re really fast, small, and difficult to kill. In our first month or so here, we would run across upwards of 20 mosquitos a day in the apartment alone. I don’t even know how many swarms we went though just outside. Mosquito nets are your friends here, as are other bug killing devices. It’s no fun walking around with a dozen or so bites or waking up every five minutes to buzzing in your ears.

20. South Korea And Dogs

Many foreigners associate Koreans with eating dogs. While this practice still exists, dog meat is not widely consumed and is a dying trend. Outside and internal condemnation has been turning the practice to mostly only among the older and more rural communities.

South Koreans are now becoming pet owners much more frequently than in the past. You can even visit cat and dog cafes in the big cities. South Korea also has a specific breed called the Jindo. It is a strong, proud, white dog that you will see out and about. Many Koreans keep their Jindos chained in their yards or by the homes, and while you may be tempted to go up and pet one because they look so friendly, do not do so.

They are quite loyal to their owners and can be very aggressive towards strangers. Because of the size limitations of South Korea, small dogs such as shih tzus, poodles, and chihuahuas have become increasingly popular over the years. You’re likely to see them walking down the street in stylish clothes.

21. South Koreans Are Very Friendly

Seoul Lantern Festival

South Koreans can wear a stern face and be very serious and work oriented. But they are also very kind and helpful. We have found that South Koreans tend to be quite gracious and giving, and always want to help out. We have been offered various treats and gifts on our outings for reasons that we don’t really understand. As well, if a South Korean knows some English, they’re always ready to try and talk with you to practice their English skills. The South Korean culture is a kind culture.

22. South Korea Gives Gifts

In South Korea, it is good manners to give gifts. They don’t need to be large, or extravagant, it’s more about the thought. When going in for interviews or visiting someone’s home, it is good practice to give gifts as it shows respect to your host or new friends. A few tokens most appreciated are small bottles of alcohol (think single shot bottles) or fruit.

But don’t give anything too expensive, otherwise it comes off as you showing off and can accomplish the exact opposite of what the gift giving is supposed to do. Also, you should never open the gift in front of the giver. The gift can even be as simple as a piece of gum or candy when meeting for the first time. It is certainly a nice gesture to be remembered by.

23. Shoes Off

Korean House Slippers

This is a trend that I’ve seen spreading around the US for a few years, but it is especially important here in Korea. Because of the Ondol floors, it is usual to walk around in just socks. Floors used to be covered in paper, so wearing shoes could ruin the floor.

Today, when you enter traditional restaurants, some stores, and even some offices, you will be asked to take off your shoes and leave them at the front. You then walk around in your socks, or will be given soft shoes for indoor wear. Just don’t forget to take them off though, as it’s seen as very rude to wear your shoes inside.

24. South Korea Is An Age Status Culture

The market

South Korea has become a largely secular country, though it also has a growing Christian community. But it also has a deeply engrained Confucian history. In South Korea, age is a major determinate in your status. If you are older than someone, you are owed respect, and you can do what you want.

The oldest here are revered by the younger and respect must be given to them. The metro and buses have specific seats for the elderly. Even if the train is mostly empty and there is not a single older person riding, you do not sit in those seats. Because of the Confucian mentality, you also never touch someone on their head or shoulders. It is seen as rude due to the head being the most pure part of the body.

It is also viewed that the foot is unclean, because it is at the bottom of the body touching the ground. So you should never point the bottom of your foot towards someone as it is seen as an insult. And when you’re drinking with someone older than yourself, you should always turn away from them as you drink.

25. You’re A Year Older In South Korea

In the west, you start counting your age from 0 when you are born. In South Korea, you are considered being 1 year old upon birth. So when you are telling someone your age here, remember you’re a year older than you were back home.

26. South Korean Healthcare Is Great

In Korea, you can walk into a clinic without an appointment, be promptly seen, receive medical treatment, and be out the door in under 30 minutes and $30. Now obviously circumstances may dictate things a little different. But South Korea wants to take care of its people, and in a country so densely populated it is important to make sure the populace is healthy.

Drugs are also readily available at pharmacies. You don’t need to go to a specific one to fill your specific prescription or deal with some weird bureaucratic reason as to why you can’t have your medicine. It’s affordable, and you can get it. Women can also get birth control and other  necessary medications over the counter quite easily, say the name of the brand you want, and they’ll give it to you or match it as close they can no questions asked (you may get disapproving looks however if you are not accompanied by your husband). Of course, there are the pros and cons, as there are to any nation.

27. Seoul Is Huge

View of Seoul

Seoul is by far the largest city I’ve ever been in. Its immensity is truly staggering. Traveling via Korail can take two hours to cross the span of the city. Skyscrapers and high-rise buildings populate the landscape for miles on end. The greater metropolitan area of Seoul contains over 25 million people and is the 2nd largest in the world.

The capital was founded in 18 BCE and it has not stopped growing ever since. You can find many sights and experiences among its 25 districts, the most famous of which to internationals may be Gangnam. Seoul proper is noted for having a density twice that of New York City.

~K~

Teotihuacan – The Massive Pyramids of Mexico City

The number one thing that I wanted to see and do while in Mexico City, was to visit Teotihuacan.  Massive pyramids of stone standing in the highlands just north of the capital – these behemoths are the largest in the world that you can climb.

Getting to Teotihuacan

There are many different ways to get to the pyramids at Teotihuacan. The method you choose should reflect what you wanting to get out of the experience and how much of a budget you are on. They are about 25 miles north of Mexico City, so you can’t simply walk there.

  • To beat the crowds, be sure to arrive early. This means that you will have the option of using your own car, a taxi, or an Uber.
  • If you are less concerned about arriving early in the day, you can take public transportation to Autobuses del Norte station, where you can then take a comfortable bus ride to the pyramids.
  • If you want it easy, and you don’t care too much about price – you can take a guided tour, where you will be picked up from your hotel and have everything arranged for you.

Driving North

After seeing a few videos and pictures of incredibly big crowds at Teotihuacan, we decided that we should get in early. Briana also read somewhere that you could catch the site of hot air balloons if you got there before the park opens (unfortunately this didn’t end up working out for us). We didn’t trust trying to take a taxi, so we took an Uber. This is where I made our first mistake – which you should avoid. You should be sure to put in the address as:

55800 Teotihuacan, State of Mexico, Mexico

And if you have the option, further specify the pyramids and try to get to Gate 2. There are 3 Gates you can enter at.

We began by grabbing some water from a local convenience store and then grabbing an Uber.

I Made a Mistake

I did not put in the correct address. Upon ordering our Uber, I simply put in Teotihuacan – which is a city north of Mexico City, but not the pyramids. This led to some confusion later on. Our driver picked us up around 8 in the morning and away we went. They did take quite a while to arrive (around thirty minutes), though, which delayed us to the point that we wished we had just taken the bus or slept in a little more instead. Our path meandered through the primary roads of the capital but soon gave way to rough streets and tiny villages.

I thought we might be lost, but signs for the pyramids kept appearing, so I assumed we were on the right track. It was taking much longer than it should have though. Finally, in the middle of an alley way, the driver stops and says we’ve arrived.

There was an obvious problem, but within a few minutes, and a quick talk with a local police officer, we managed to find our way to the pyramids. Sadly, what should have been a $25 – $30 USD Uber ride became a ~$60 USD ride due to my incorrect routing. Briana’s dad graciously picked up the tab.

We got in a little late, but ultimately, it turned out fine. Just be sure to specify exactly where you want to go!

Arriving at Teotihuacan

We arrived later than we intended due to both issues with Uber, but the site was still pretty empty. We made our way up the road from Gate 2, which faces the the Pyramid of the Sun. Entrance to the ruins costs $70 Pesos (~$4 USD), which is really cheap compared to most sites of such grand scale.

After passing the ticket booth, there is a road that leads towards the main area – lined with vendors. Most of the vendors where not active yet. We were also pleasantly surprised to find that the venders weren’t as pushy as we’d read – a simple “no gracias” was all it took to be left alone.

The enormous compound consists of four main parts:

  • The Pyramid of the Sun
  • The Pyramid of the Moon
  • The Avenue of the Dead
  • Cuidadela / Feathered Serpent Pyramid

It is oriented where the Pyramid of the Moon is on the northern end of the Avenue of the Dead, with the Pyramid of the Sun on the eastern side of the Avenue of the Dead halfway down, and the Cuidadela / Feathered Serpent Pyramid on the south end of the mile and half long Avenue of the Dead.

Pyramid of the Sun

The Pyramid of the Sun is the largest of the pyramids at Teotihuacan. It is impossible to miss, as it stands at 216 feet tall, and 760 feet wide. It is also the largest pyramid in the world that you can climb.

Briana in front of the Pyramid of the Sun

We approached it in the cool morning air, and began our ascent. It looks big from afar, but you can’t really grasp just how big it is until you begin to climb it. It just keeps going up, and you can’t see the summit. As you go, you get winded and hear the sound of jaguar and eagle whistles from the vendors below.

Pyramid of the Sun

Briana ascending the the Pyramid of the Sun

Luckily, the pyramid is stepped, so there are multiple places to take a rest and look back on how high you’ve climbed. There are rails to assit you up and down – but the friendly stray dogs don’t seem to need them.

Stray Dog on the Pyramid of the Sun Stairs

Upon arriving to the summit, you’re given an awesome view of the surrounding plains, mountains, and site. We stayed at the summit for close to a half-hour, just admiring the views before continuing down.

Kyle with a local stray overlooking Pyramid of the Moon
Kyle and Briana atop the Pyramid of the Sun
Briana and her father atop Teotihuacan
Briana descending the Pyramid of the Sun

Pyramid of the Moon

The Pyramid of the Moon is on the northern end of the Avenue of the Dead and has it’s own plaza, surrounded by numerous smaller temple mounts.

View of the Pyramid of the Moon

Although not as tall, the Pyramid of the Moon is still huge. The steps to to the first platform are also far steeper than any others at Teotihuacan. We climbed to the platform and then rested there for a while. We enjoyed the sites and views before moving on. You can’t climb to the summit here though, because the top is more in ruins than the top of the Pyramid of the Sun.

Briana Climbing the Pyramid of the Moon
Briana atop the Pyramid of the Moon looking towards the Pyramid of the Sun
Pyramid of the Moon Teotihuacan

It should also be noted, that you should wear plenty of sunscreen. At over 7,000 feet elevation and a lower latitude, exposure to the sun is more intense and sunburn happens quick – as we figured out. We quickly applied some sunscreen, but too late. We continued for the rest of the day to use an umbrella and wear jackets to shade ourselves as much as possible.

Briana exploring a temple along the avenue of the dead at Teotihuacan

Palacio de Quetzalpapalotl

On the west side of the Plaza of the Moon lies the Palacio de Quetzalpapalotl. Although smaller, be sure not to miss it. The area consists of two parts: the upper and lower areas.

The lower area contains some well-preserved murals of jaguars and altar spaces. There is also a temple that is underneath the Palace. In this area, you can see a great mural of a feathered serpent.

Underground temple at Palacio de Quetzalpapalotl
Briana and Father at Palacio de Quetzalpapalotl
Original Mural at Palacio de Quetzalpapalotl

The upper area consists primarily of ruins. However, there is a well preserved courtyard of Palacio de Quetzalpapalotl that contains many columns with great relief carvings.

Entrance to Palacio de Quetzalpapalotl
Restored Wall at Palacio de Quetzalpapalotl
Relief Carvings in the Courtyard of Palacio de Quetzalpapalotl
Courtyard of Palacio de Quetzalpapalotl

Just outside the palace is Gate 1. You can enter / exit the site here, or you can check out the numerous vendor stalls. Here we picked up some banana chips to satiate our hunger until we returned to the city or got food and a few affordable souvenirs.

Shops Along Avenue of the Dead at Teotihuacan

History of Teotihuacan

The structure of Teotihuacan is that of a planned city complex. At it’s height, it is estimated to have been the home to around 200,000 citizens. Construction began sometime between 50 and 500 CE.

View of the Sun from the Moon

Residence Ruins at Teotihuacan

The pyramids were constructed sometime between 200 and 250 CE. The complex as a whole consists of 15 massive pyramids along the Avenue of the Dead.

Unlike today, the tops of the pyramids were only ever visited by royalty, priests, and sacrifices. The Teotihuacans practiced extensive human sacrifice – as did much of the region – and would kill prisoners of war, citizens, and children to appease the gods.

Palacio de Quetzalpapalotl at Teotihuacan

The methods were brutal and bloody. Decapitation, crushing, removing the heart – the methods were extreme. Thankfully, these are no longer practiced today.

When the Aztecs arrived in the 1300s, Teotihuacan was already in ruins. The original names of the site have been lost, but we now know them by way of the Aztecs. They believed that this was the birth place of the gods.

Calidad de los Muertos

The Avenue of the Dead stretches the entire length of Teotihuacan, and consists a project just as massive an undertaking as the the pyramids themselves. The avenue diverts the San Juan river, which allowed for better irrigation and water control.

Along the entire length, are great plazas, temple mounts, temples and pyramids. The walk takes a long time to make your way through, considering the up and down nature of climbing the many steps.

Avenue of the Dead Field Teotihuacan
Avenue of the Dead Field

The Avenue of the Dead also provides ample opportunity to see old ruins, newer constructions, and reconstructions. Here is a preserved mural of a puma.

Puma Mural

This pyramid had a temple built atop it.

Old Temple Construction at the Avenue of the Dead Teotihuacan

You can tell what has been reconstructed by the look of the buildings. Reconstructed buildings have stone that was found on site, brought together with a local motar, with small black volcanic rocks in the mortar between the stone. It creates a nice look that also helps you to easily identify what is original.

Restored Ruins Example
Restored Temple Platform

La Ciudadela and the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent

After a very long hike along the Avenue of the Dead, we finally arrived at the last of the primary sites for the day. The Ciudadela is a massive plaza that consists a field of grass surrounded on all sides by low temple mount constructions.

Briana at the Cuidadela
Central View of the Cuidadela at Teotihuacan
Cuidadela Teotihuacan Side

On the far side of the plaza rests one last pyramid – or rather two. At this point, Briana and her dad decided they didn’t want to climb the pyramid as we’d already walked and climbed so much. I decided that I wanted to check it out anyways.

So I climbed the pyramid and found that on the other side of the pyramid was yet another. So I descended the pyramid and came across the Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent. This pyramid was far shorter than the others, but much more exquisitely decorated. Numerous carved heads of serpents lined the walls and stairs.

Temple of the Feathered Serpent
Feathered Serpent Detail

The Pyramid of the Feathered Serpent was used specifically in the sacrifice of children.

Other Notables at Teotihuacan

Across from the Cuidadela is Gate 1. Gate 1 has a small visitors center and restaurant that you can visit. However, the prices are very much tourist prices, and if you have the patience you can get a better and more affordable meal back in Mexico City.

Teotihuacan Vistor Center and Restaurant

There is also an on-site museum on the south side of the Pyramid of the Sun. We didn’t visit because we were very tired – we had been trekking around the area for around 6 – 7 hrs by this point and were a bit hungry and eager to get back with our worsening sun burns – and we had just had a good look at the Teotihuacan exhibit at the Anthropology Museum the day before.

It is also worth noting that the weather can be temperamental. When we arrived, the temperature was around 60F, but when the sun came out it would shoot up into the mid 80s within a couple minutes. At such a high elevation, the weather can change quite quickly. We were also lucky to be arriving at the end of the rainy season when everything was green.

Getting Back to Mexico City

There is a bus that arrives every fifteen minutes at Gate 2 that goes back to Mexico City to the Autobuses del Norte station. A round trip will cost $100 Pesos or $50 Pesos each way.

Waiting for the bus to arrive at Teotihuacan

We found the bus ride to be pretty enjoyable overall. Although it was crowded at first, a few people got off and we were able to get seats shortly. We were then treated to a better view of the north side of Mexico City.

On The Bus to Mexico City

The ride took a little over an hour to get to the bus station – which does not have good food. Along the way, police came on board to document who all was on board. This may happen, and it’s a simple safety precaution – nothing to be worried about.

All in all, Teotihuacan is an awesome experience that you should not miss on your visit to Mexico City.

Avenue of the Dead Ruins

~K~

Batu Caves, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Guarded by a giant golden statue, with the cacophonous yells of monkeys, you’ll find the Batu Caves looking down upon Kuala Lumpur. Weathered and rugged limestone hills steeply climb upwards, adorned with festoons of jungle foliage, giving way to one of the most popular Hindu shrines in the world outside of India.

Upon coming to Kuala Lumpur, Batu Caves was one of – if not the – top thing that we wanted to see. The caves are very easy to access. You can take the metro directly to the town of Gombak where the shrine resides for RM 4.40 (~$1.50) from KL Sentral Station. However, we had to take an Uber to the caves, as we were in Petaling Jaya which did not have rail access. This was not an issue though – it was cheap, quick, and efficient.

Consecrated Gold Statue of Lord Mudrugan

Upon arriving to the caves, you will first notice the golden statue of Lord Murugan. It towers above you at the entrance to the long staircase. Which brings me to the second thing you’ll notice immediately – the stairs. There are 272 concrete steps bringing you to the cave complex within the hill.

Batu Caves Stair Entry

The Batu Caves are an active religious site, and you should come dressed appropriately. This means wearing shirt sleeves and covered knees for me, and to covering shoulders and legs for women. If you don’t meet these requirement, you cannot enter – however there are usually attendants at the base of the stairs renting out sarongs for only a few RM each. Actually entering the cave complex itself is free.

We began our climb in the late morning under the surprisingly warm January sun. We took our time climbing the stairs, but it only took ten or fifteen minutes to reach the first landing. Along the way, we took time to admire the jungle and local inhabitants of the caves – namely monkeys.

Climbing the Stairs
Monkeys Just Hanging Out
Mischievous Monkey

The monkeys keep their distance mostly, but as we’ve learned in other locations, they are wildly unpredictable, curious, and will take a swipe at any opportunity. On the way up, we saw a baby monkey had managed to swipe an entire ice cream cone.

Monkey With Ice Cream
Monkey Stealing a Waterbottle

Dark Cave

We took our first stop at the landing of Dark Cave. The Dark Cave is an undeveloped part of the cave complex, which offers tours. There is a 45 minute guided tour for RM 35 (~$10) running every 20 minutes. For larger groups and advanced notice, you can book a 3 – 4 hour tour, further exploring the cave complex for around RM 80 (~$22) a person.

Dark Cave Entrance

We didn’t take the tour, because we didn’t have closed-toe shoes. If you have the time and opportunity it is a great tour though. The caves are home to the rarest spider in the world, endemic geckos, and other fauna found only here. The 2 km complex exhibits a wide range of geological formations with stalagmites, stalactites, cave curtains, flow stones, cave pearls and scallops, and other features. Instead of taking of the tour, we read the informative plaques at the entrance to the cave, and watched the antics of the monkeys – very entertaining.

Cave Map
Batu Caves Flow Stone
Plaque at Batu Caves

Temple Cave

After a half hour, we continued up the last third of the stairs to the shrine. When you arrive at the top of the stairs you will find a large landing opening to a large cave atrium. You will actually need to descend more steps into the main “room” which houses several small shrines.

Kyle and Bri on the Steps
Inside the main room
Shrine within Batu Caves

Various vendors will sell you trinkets, drinks, and other items while up here. Keep in mind that the drinks in the shrine are more expensive than at the base because everything must be carried up by hand – no elevator or wheel-chair access here.

Proceed further into the cave and you find another shrine in the back. Here the roof gives way and light enters the cave. This allows the cave to feel more open and inviting than many other cave complexes you may encounter.

Staircase to Interior Shrine
Shrine Within Batu Caves

Batu Caves is actually a rather recent development. The caves are estimated to be 400 million years old, and has been used by the indigenous Temuan people for centuries. Modern day usage of the caves began in 1860 with Chinese settlers  excavating guano for fertilizer. The caves then became famous after being recorded by colonial authorities and the American Naturalist, William Hornaday in 1878.

An Indian trader named Pillai was inspired by the ‘vel’-shaped entrance to the cave. In 1890 he founded the Sri Mahamariamman Temple within the cave. Wooden steps to the temple were originally put in, but concrete steps were placed in 1920 to accommodate the heavy number of visitors.

Thaipusam

The Batu Caves serves as the premier place to be outside of India for the Hindu holiday of Thaipusam. We are still kicking ourselves for not visiting the temple during the holiday (we were in Kuala Lumpur during it).

The festival begins in the early morning hours and features devotees walking several kilometers from the the city. During their march, kavadi bearers pierce themselves will metal skewers, and elaborate shoulder carriers (Kavadi), as a display of their devotion. Priests tend to the devotees sprinkling consecrated ash over the flesh of the participants.

Thaipusam

This display is made to offer milk to Lord Murugan, the god of war within Hinduism – though he also features prominently within some sects of Buddhism in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India as well.

Thaipusam

Photo courtesy of: nina.bruja

While the display can come off as extreme and macabre, the surreal experience is viewed as a purifying bringing good luck in the coming year.

The festival is extremely crowded, attracting over a million visitors on the day (which takes place in late January or early February.

Thaipusam

Other Attractions In Batu Caves

At the base of the stairs, there are two other cave temples: the Art Gallery Cave and Museum Cave. Both feature Hindu statues and paintings. For those interested in the history and lore of Murugan and other Hindu teachings, these are excellent places to check out – though not free like the cave temple.

Art Museum Cave

There are numerous shops and stalls surrounding the entrance to the complex selling souvenirs, clothes, food, and drink.

I enjoyed my first of many coconuts on our travels here. Briana also managed to grab some vegetarian food easily and for a very reasonable price.

Kyle with Coconut
Veg food at nearby stall

We really enjoyed the Batu caves and recommend it for anyone visiting Kuala Lumpur. It’s a great activity for most anyone, especially families and active adults.

Things To Keep In Mind At Batu Caves

  • This is an active religious site, and as such you should dress and act respectful and modest
  • The complex is large and will take several hours to properly explore
  • The temple requires strenuous physical activity as there is no elevator or wheelchair access
  • Pay attention to the monkeys, we recommend not carrying food, and keeping water out of site when not actively drinking.
  • Keep all loose items on you or in a bag, don’t let the monkeys grab your stuff
  • Monkeys have personalities, some are far more bold and aggressive than others
  • Once a monkey has an item, it is no longer yours – don’t get bit by fighting a monkey 

~B & K

Briana Descending Stairs
Angry Monkey