An island to the south-east

Of Singapore, that is.

Bintan island is located so close to Singapore – about an hour’s ferry ride – and so often twinned with tour packages to Singapore, that people are forgiven if they forgot to pack their passports when moving on to the Indonesian island.

Singaporeans who don’t want to pay for a flight to escape to some sunny island resort, often seek out Bintan.

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So that was what I did. Packing a light overnight bag, I journeyed over choppy waters on a gloomy Friday – who would have guessed that the rain clouds would choose to come out on the very morning I was due to depart for Bintan – and made my way to Nirwana Resort Hotel.

Thankfully, the sun came out bright, proud and fiery soon after lunch and gave me my much-needed tan. This glow should last me till my next seaside sojourn in early August!

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Hell on earth

A quirky sort of hell on earth, that is. And one that could bring on plenty of giggles.

Work may be picking up speed now as we slip into the second half of 2013, but nothing will stop me from bringing my team out for a little bit of fun. So we packed up and left office at 4.30pm, and headed right to a theme park that has stood still in the passing of time and amid Singapore’s rapid infrastructure development.

Haw Par Villa is a sprawling ground on Pasir Panjang Road in the west, filled with numerous statues that depict ancient Chinese folklore and attempt to educate visitors on traditional values such as filial piety as well as religion.

The most popular attraction here is the Ten Courts of Hell, withfrightful statues that demonstrate the various forms of eternal punishment meted out to sinful people. This is probably the Chinese version of Dante’s Inferno. Funny how people from vastly different cultures and different parts of the world all have the same concept of hell and afterlife punishment.

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The last time I set foot in Haw Par Villa was 25 years ago – when I was only eight – and I still remember how terrified I was with the Ten Courts of Hell.

The attraction is just a little less frightful today. It still is pretty dark inside, with just enough spotlights to accentuate the horror of the statues, some showing abusers of parents being mashed up in a stone grinder or cheats being dismembered.

After emerging from hell, the rest of the theme park is pretty light-hearted.

Allow me to bring your attention to this particular statue.

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For visitors who cannot read the Mandarin captions at the foot of this display, kinky play probably comes to mind. And Lord, forgive the poor child who has to bear witness to such obscene on-goings!

A colleague told me that a Japanese travelogue on Singapore had a lot to laugh about over these statues.

But really, this display is extolling the virtue of filial piety – the young woman is offering to breast-feed her starving mother-in-law.

There are plenty more interesting statues in Haw Par Villa, and you can make plenty of humourous photos. Entrance is free.

Sinpo Market for chimek

The South Koreans really love their fried chicken and beer. There are little hole-in-the-walls that specialise in nothing but fried chicken, and a very efficient delivery service has been established around this diet.

According to my guide, anyone with a late-night craving for chimek – a nickname for such a diet, formed by combining chicken and mekju (local word for beer) – needs only to make a phone call to the fried chicken shop and a delivery boy will send the feast right over in under 30 minutes.

FYI, the fun-loving people of Daegu is celebrating chimek with a first-ever festival dedicated to this diet later this month. How fun! Pity I wouldn’t be around by then.

In Incheon, I was told that the city’s best fried chicken could be found in Sinpo Market, a network of alleys that are lined with little shops that sell almost everything that locals and tourists would want to buy, from fresh produce to tasty seasoned seaweed sheets and colourful traditional cakes required for weddings and ceremonial prayers, and to all sorts of addictive street eats.

Sinpo Market has come a long way. In the late 1800s, Chinese, Japanese and Western people who lived and traded in Incheon flocked to Sinpo Market to buy fresh vegetables. A greater variety of things were sold over time, and when South Korea started to pursue tourists, Sinpo Market began to attract foreign shopaholics who desired something local to buy for friends and family back home.

According to my guide, this particular fried chicken shop commands such a following that an incredible snaking queue would form in front of it on weekends.

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Since I was there on a weekday morning, the market was gloriously deserted and the brutal time-consuming queue was nowhere to be seen. So I took the opportunity to find out for myself what’s so magical about the fried chicken here.

A three-person serving of fried chicken costs 16,000 won (S$18) – not cheap, I thought, for street food. But what the heck. I must know if it indeed lives up to its reputation. To play it like the locals, I also threw in an order of a beer.

Then my companions and I took a seat in a small eating hall behind the busy shopfront.

Within minutes, the star of the show was brought right to us.

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The proof of the pudding is in its eating, and after taking our first bite we all fell silent as we eagerly devoured our chunk of fried chicken.

I guess that silence is enough proof of its quality. :)

Korean fried chicken typically comes drenched in a sweet, spicy sauce. The version sold here has a strong and fragrant honey flavour and its spice hits the back of your tongue after a few seconds of chewing, while bits of crunchy peanut add texture to the meat.

If I’m ever back in Incheon, you know where to find me. :)

Shellfish heaven on Eurwangni beach

I love shellfish. I love them even more when they are freshly hauled from the sea, such that their flesh is still sweet without the aid of seasoning.

So imagine my delight when I discovered Haenam Jogaeguee, a two-storey restaurant that sits along Eurwangni Beach in Incheon, a two-minute walk from Golden Sky Resort.

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Actually, there is a strip of two-storey restaurants along that beach, and most specialises in seafood caught from the sea. Take your pick, although be warned that all these dining establishments get really crowded on weekend nights. And that was why we chose to come here in the day for lunch.

In Haenam Jogaeguee, all tables come with a gas stove in the middle and it is on this stove that diners can barbeque a dazzling variety of shellfish, most of which I cannot name.

Diners can choose what they would like to eat from several tanks on the ground floor. I left the selection to my local host, as I was just too overwhelmed by the options. :)

While he ‘shopped’ downstairs, I made my way to the upper deck and settled into a good seat with a clear view of the sea. That, plus the cool, salty breeze, provided the perfect setting for a casual seafood feast.

My ambitious host chose a great variety of shellfish to barbeque (I could only recognise scallops and mussels!), as well as a pot of hand-cut noodles cooked in a seafood broth and with plenty more shellfish and plump squid. As with all Korean meals, the restaurant served a selection of complimentary appetisers such as kimchi and mashed pumpkin. It was obvious right from the start that there was no way we could finish every item!

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Along with the seafood, we ordered several bottles of Cass, a local beer; makgeolli, a traditional rice and wheat liquor that is just so good with all sorts of Korean cuisine; and soju. Well, you know, it is never too early to start drinking!

Fresh seafood hardly ever disappoints and this meal was the best I had eaten on my trip to South Korea this time. The fancy meals at five-star international hotels in Seoul and Jeju came nowhere close.

Haenam Jogaeguee is not a fancy restaurant and much of the weekend crowd are locals who are escaping busy Seoul city for a relaxing day by the sea. Diners barbeque their food on their own, eat however fast or slow they like, and toss the empty shells into a plastic bucket under their table.

And perhaps because it is not yet a huge draw with the international tourist crowd, a seafood feast at Haenam Jogaeguee is still incredibly kind on the wallet. Our bill came up to about US$60 for four people. Imagine that! I’m very sure that the bill would be much lesser for diners who don’t go madly overboard with the selection of shellfish and order far more than their tummies could accommodate.

Jungmun Daepo Coast

If you have had the chance to visit Jeju, you will most likely admit that the South Korean island wholly deserves its position as one of the New Seven Wonders of Nature, a title bestowed upon it in 2011.

The columnar joints at Jungmun Daepo Coast is just one of the many natural attractions – Jeju is after all a volcanic island and was born out of volcanic eruptions – and it is most majestic.

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I realised that this view of the columnar joints must be one of the most photographed locations in Jeju! :)

It costs 2,000 won to cast one’s eye upon this natural land formation – I thought it strange for the authorities to charge visitors a fee to see something created by Mother Nature – but that is hardly a deterrent to most tourists. The park was packed with visitors, most of them from China, and it takes a bit of patience to snag a perfect spot for that memorable photograph of the columnar joints.

I hung around for 30 minutes, mesmerised by the view and the roar of the ocean’s waves crashing onto shore. Although it was a summer morning, the air was cooler than I had expected, and the wind was strong, which altogether made the visit to Jungmun Daepo Coast quite pleasant.

The home of the last mermaids

Two years ago when I visited Jeju in South Korea for the first time, I heard of the island’s notorious feisty grandmothers. These are tiny women with big voices and a hardy character, unafraid to reprimand you should you be in their way.

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As the story goes, the people of Jeju lead a tough life as the only abundant natural resource lies in the ocean. Husbands must go out to fish, leaving wives to stay home and tend to the children. Rough oceans took many men away, so wives must also be hardy enough to make a living. And so, a number of older generation women also sought out the ocean for harvests they could sell for daily necessities.

These women became haenyeo – women of the sea. They dive without oxygen tanks to as deep as 15m in search of shellfish, sea cucumbers and fish. Most can hold their breath for up to two minutes, and would dive four to five hours each time.

The job is a tough one, and even more so for the early haenyeo who had to dive without protective rubber diving suits. They wore only cotton outfits that did not keep out the cold and protect their tender skins from rocks and other sharp shells as they searched for shellfish on the ocean floor. And when they suffered cuts, the salty ocean water stung their wounds.

It was only in the last 40 years or so that rubber diving suits came into their hands.

When I was in Jeju last week, I had the opportunity to meet and speak with two haenyo who are already in their 60s. Kim Sun-Ok (left) has been diving for a living for the past 40 years, while Moon Sun-Ja has ploughed the ocean floor for 45 years.

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They told me that only experienced haenyeo can reach depths of 10-15m. Mid-level haenyeo can only dive up to five to 10m, while beginners only start with five metres. Many haenyeo have been diving for decades, taking their first lessons on gathering seaweed when they are 10 years old, and retiring around 83-85 years old when their bodies could no longer work.

Diving is only possible when the ocean conditions are right, such as when the tide is low or the ocean is not too choppy and cold. But when the need for money is dire, haenyeo will throw caution to the wind and dive anyway.

“We had elderly haenyeo who suffered fatal heart attacks while on the job in winter, ” Kim said softly, unlike the visions of feisty grandmothers I have always had in my mind.

Her interpreter added that it was also common for haenyeo to drown when trapped in nets cast by fishermen in motor boats above them or to be hit by passing fishing boats. Emerging from the waters too close to motor boats is dangerous too, as the engines churn the surrounding waters, making it too choppy for haenyeo to stabilise and catch their breath.

The fiery tempers of these mermaid grandmothers would flare when they come in contact with fishermen.

While it was common for generations of women under one roof to dive for a living,  Kim and Moon do not wish for the same lives for their own daughters.

Kim crossed her stout arms to form a large X when she was asked if her daughter would become a haenyeo too.

“She’s a librarian now. This is a tough and dangerous job that no young woman will want,” she chuckled.

The story is always the same, isn’t it? Forefathers are willing to work hard in difficult, dirty jobs in order to create a better life for their offspring. With education, the latter no longer need to take up physical labour.

And so, haenyeo is becoming a dying trade.

Today, according to the interpreter, there are 4,800 haenyeo in Jeju. In the southern village of Beophwan in Seogwipo, Jeju, there are only 100 left – 60 are active divers and the rest have retired due to old age and health.

And the oldest active haenyeo is 85 years old.

The scale of hardship is not proportionate to their earnings. Haenyo make only US$20 or so a day, depending on the weight of the day’s harvest. In Beophwan there is a Jeju Haenyeo Experience Centre (Tel: 064 739 1232) where visitors can learn about the history of this unique job, see the old mermaids at work, try on the early cotton diving suits and take a dip in the shallow waters of the ocean, and later feast on seafood caught fresh by haenyo. Through this initiative, a good portion of the money made from visitors are used to fund the welfare of surviving haenyeo.

So if you are heading to Jeju soon, do make a trip there to meet these iron ladies of the ocean and support them in any way you can.