Dangerous Travel With Kids

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Our four-wheeler slipped and slid on the monsoon-soaked dirt road. I laughed nervously and gripped the door with white knuckles. As we came around the corner, we saw burning tires blocking the narrow road. That’s when I wondered if maybe I shouldn’t have brought my kids on this trip after all. Is it ever acceptable to expose kids to dangerous travel?

How do you quantify danger? What risks are acceptable? Do you take more risks traveling solo than you do with your kids?

I thought a lot about these questions this summer when I took my kids to Nepal. It was the height of the rainy season, which made the steep mountain roads seem especially treacherous. Almost every day I would read about a vehicle that slid off the road and fell hundreds of feet somewhere in the country. The incident with the burning tires was resolved peacefully, but not before we sat for a few hours on the road waiting.

As I reflected on these worries, I realized that what I was missing was not safety, but the illusion of control. Going about my daily life back home, I delude myself into thinking that I can control the threats that my kids face more easily than I could on this trip. In reality, motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for children in America. There’s no guarantee that we would have been any safer on a road back home.

This is not to say that you should needlessly expose your family to foolish risks. Often though, we exaggerate risk when we are outside our comfort zones and minimize it when we are in our comfort zones. Do your research, take precautions, but don’t let fear paralyze you into not traveling.

Weighing the risks against the benefits of the trip, I’m still glad we went.  We’re going back to Nepal in a few weeks – not during the rainy season.

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Muscat – Things to Do in Oman’s Capital

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The history of civilization in Muscat stretches back into antiquity, with settlements dating back over 7,000 years. In the 18th century, Muscat was a major regional power whose influence reached as far as Tanzania. Today it serves as the fascinating capital of Oman. Here are a few things to do in this beautiful city.

muscat mosqueSultan Qaboos Grand Mosque

Sultan Qaboos rose to power in 1970 and has ruled as Sultan of Oman ever since. The mosque that he commissioned can hold 20,000 worshippers. In additional to the sprawling grounds and impressive architecture, the mosque has two unique features. The first is a massive chandelier, the largest Swarovski crystal chandelier in the world. The second is the carpet that covers the floor of the main hall. It’s the second largest carpet in the world, weighing 21 tons. The carpet took 600 weavers four years to complete.

Sultan’s Armed Forces Museum

This museum houses a collection of military vehicles, weapons, and uniforms that trace Oman’s military history. It is also notable because of the location. The museum is housed in the Al Falaj Fort, a 150-year old fortress.

Muscat cornicheMuttrah Corniche

Stretching along the harbor, The Corniche in Muttrah borders Old Muscat. The souq, or market, here has been open for business for 200 years. Shops and stalls disappear into the darkness as alleyways meander away from The Corniche. The smell of frankincense and spices fill the air and silversmiths, tailors, and hawkers sell their wares. Muttrah Fort, built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, sits west of the souq and watches  over the harbor.

Desert safari – Beyond Muscat

Escape the city and explore Oman’s vast deserts for a day trip or an overnight camping expedition. Areas like Bawshar and A’Sharqiyah are easy to reach with a 4×4. Enjoy the solitude of the desert or the excitement of dune racing.

More information

To learn more about Muscat, visit Oman’s official tourism site.

 

 

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Biscayne National Park – A National Treasure

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I love to travel overseas, but I don’t want to neglect the treasures that America has to explore right here at home. Today marks the 37 years since Biscayne National Park was created, so let’s take a look at what it has to offer visitors.

Biscayne National Park – History

Originally considered as part of the Everglades, Biscayne was designated a separate national monument in 1968 and re-designated a national park on June 28, 1980. Evidence of human civilization within the park borders goes back 10,000 years. Biscayne Bay has been home to Native Americans, pirates, and millionaires. Presidents have vacationed here and outdoor enthusiasts have long enjoyed its waters.

Nature

Biscayne National Park
Photo by NPS, public domain

Biscayne covers over 172,000 acres, stretching from Key Biscayne to Key Largo. Biscayne encompasses four distinct ecosystems; an offshore reef, coral limestone keys, Biscayne Bay, and the mangrove swamps along the shoreline. Biscayne National Park is home to several endangered species, such as manatees, hawksbill sea turtles, and American crocodiles. The park also protects hundreds of species of fish, crustaceans, and birds within its boundaries.

Activities

Biscayne National Park
Photo by NPS, public domain

Biscayne National Park is 95% water, so most of the activities require access by boat. There are campgrounds on Elliott Key and Boca Chita Key which are only accessible by boat. Canoeing and kayaking are popular, as are diving, snorkeling and fishing. Biscayne is home to the Maritime Heritage Trail, the only underwater archaeological trail in the National Park Service. This trail includes 5 shipwrecks that date back to the 1870s which divers can explore.

More information

Most visits to Biscayne should begin at Dante Fascell Visitor Center, 9 miles east of Homestead, Florida. For more information about the park, check out the National Park Service website.

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Haw Par Villa

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The sign warned of the graphic nature of the scenes inside the cave. Parental discretion advised. I’m sure Haw Par Villa’s Courts of Hell were shocking back in 1937 when it opened. The displays evoked only mild curiosity from my teenage sons.

Haw Par Villa warrior

Haw Par Villa was created by the Aw brothers, the founders of the Tiger Balm ointment company. It was briefly abandoned during the Japanese occupation of Singapore in World War II but restored after the war. The sprawling park is now under the management of the Singapore Tourism Board.

The 10 Courts of Hell is a well-known component of the attraction. It functions as a Chinese equivalent to Dante’s Inferno, as each court graphically displays the punishments that await the dead based on the sins that they committed in life. There’s a twist though, as souls encounter the Wheel of Reincarnation at the last court and start all over again. The scenes might be scary for younger kids, but anyone who has seen movies like Lord of the Rings will be just fine.

I was somewhat familiar with a few of the tableaux, such as Madame White Snake, but many other scenes were confusing to me. The one below, for example:

Haw Par Villa 2To say that I don’t get it is something of an understatement.

This was one of those day trips that my kids had to be dragged to. Once we were there, though, they were fascinated by it. I’m glad I dragged them. We wandered around the park for a few hours, checking out each of the displays. The park has over 1,000 statues and displays. Around every corner was something new and strange. Like life-sized sculptures of kangaroos, looking very out of place in this Chinese garden.

Haw Par Villa is open daily from 9am to 7pm and is free to the public. It’s located at 262 Pasir Panjang Road.

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Wild Life Sydney Zoo – Up Close and Personal with Australia’s Animals

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Australia’s famous for its endemic marsupials like kangaroos and wallabies. We wanted to see these unique creatures up close and personal while we were in Sydney. Fortunately, there’s a spot to do this right on Darling Harbour called Wild Life Sydney Zoo.

Wild Life Sydney Zoo

Located alongside the aquarium and Madame Tussauds, Wild Life Sydney Zoo is a small zoo dedicated to those animals native to Australia. This was great for us because that’s what we wanted to see. We got there just before it opened at 9 am and skipped the line because we pre-bought our tickets online.

Petting a wombat

My only experience with wombats up to this point was a children’s story called Where To, Little Wombat and a stuffed animal. They’re a lot bigger in real life. Like a furrier version of a large hog.

Like most zoos, there are talks by zookeepers throughout the day. Immediately following the wombat talk, a few of us were allowed to go into the wombat’s habitat and pet him for a small donation to a wildlife conservation fund. We went in one at a time and got a briefing from the keeper about how it would work and what to do if things went wrong. Like if we were approached by a rock wallaby, for example.

The actual petting was over a fence while the wombat ate some veggies. I listened to his contented snuffling sounds as I petted his soft fur. It was very cool.

Kangaroos

Wild Life Sydney Zoo KangarooThis kangaroo looked stoned.

We got to the kangaroo exhibit at the same time as a school field trip of what looked like 3rd graders. Needless to say, we waited until they were almost through before going in.

The zoo’s website states that you can go into the kangaroo habitat and walk around in the same space that they do. That’s true. It’s also true that there’s an area for the animals that you can’t walk in and the kangaroos learned long ago to stay in that area. Throughout the day, there are sessions where the keepers can lure one of them past you with some snackage and you can pet it. The keeper brought two kangaroos over but the one pictured above sat with its back towards us and pretended to ignore us the whole time. The fur on the other one was soft like a rabbit. We took our turn with the field trippers and moved on.

Koala at Wild Life Zoo SydneyWe also got to pet a sugar glider and stand within inches of a koala. Holding a koala is a key tourist goal, and lots of places with lead you to think you can do so for a fee. In New South Wales, however, it’s against the law. Tourists can get close but not touch. The truth is, koalas are very solitary creatures who like to sleep about 20 hours a day. Being used as a tourist attraction stresses them out. Get close, take the picture, and move on.

Other Options

If Wild Life Sydney isn’t your cup of tea, there are other options. Some friends of ours visited Featherdale Zoo in the Blue Mountains. You can read about their adventures here. There’s also the famous Taronga Zoo, of course, on the shores of Sydney Harbour.

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d-i-r-t

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(C) pixelheadphoto – stock.adobe.com

I could see that most of the fast food establishments were closed as I entered the food court. I had come in looking for a gyro but the gyro shop was closed. I felt annoyed about settling for a sandwich. The hall was nearly empty as I made my way across the room. The brightness of the fluorescent lights seemed to clash with the deserted room. A soft voice caught my attention as I passed one of the tables.
“Sir?”
I turned to see an old man sitting alone in the middle of the vast room. I say old but I tend to underestimate my own age and overestimate that of others. I saw the gray flecked in his black hair even as I ignore the gray spots in my own. His salt and pepper beard was neatly trimmed. His brown courdoroy jacket showed signed of wear. He looked up at me with a soft smile and chocolate brown eyes.
“How do you spell dirt?”
I stepped closer and leaned down. I was sure I had misheard the question. “Durp?” I asked.
“Dirt.”
I glanced at the round white Formica table. Hanging off the edge was a cane. A plastic shopping bag stuffed with clothes lay on the yellow chair next to him. His slender brown hands rested on an open book. I saw that it was a Bible. To the left of the Bible lay a spiral notebook. Three words were printed neatly on each line, like an elementary school writing assignment.

ball      spring      paper
home      clean      Jesus
apple      clothes      red

“You need to know how to spell dirt?” I asked.
“Yes, please.” Again the soft smile. “Sorry to trouble you.”
“It’s no trouble,” I said, but I still wasn’t sure that I’d heard him correctly.
“dirk?”
“dirt,” he repeated.
“It’s d-i-r-t.”
As I started spelling, he grabbed a blue ball point pen and wrote, repeating each letter aloud. He wrote in lower case and with effort.

“d-r”

“No,” I made an effort to speak slower. “It’s d-i-r.”
He looked up at me, confusion on his face.
I pointed to the space between the “d” and the “r”. “The ‘i’ goes here.”
“Would you write it for me?”
I took the pen and wrote, speaking as I did.
“d-i-r-t.” I handed the pen back.
He stared at the letters for a moment. I could see his lips moving as he repeated the sequence silently to himself. Then he looked up at me and smiled.
“You write real good,” he said. “Did you go to college?”
I felt my cheeks begin to flush. “Yes, I did,” I stammered.
The gentleman kept smiling. “Write real good,” he repeated, half to himself. I wanted to explain that I had learned to spell ‘dirt’ long before college, but that seemed like an unnecessary correction to his impression.
“Thank you,” he said.
I nodded quickly and turned away. He turned back to his Bible and kept working.
I thought of all the arguments and counter-arguments about poverty and race in America. About the differences in education outcomes based on socio-economic status and about the partisan bickering about the appropriate role of government in the lives of the governed. All of these concepts faded in comparison to the example of quiet perseverance in front of me.
As I walked away, my problems seemed smaller. I said a small prayer. I gave thanks for all that I have. I prayed for the old, gray black gentleman and his studies.

I thought about him for the rest of the week. I was happy that I had been able to help. I wondered if I should have bought him some food. I regretted that I didn’t sit down and talk to him about the Bible.

I wished my kids had been with me, but I couldn’t explain why. Would I have used him as a living teachable moment, to stress to them the importance of a good education? Would I have been worried that they would say something that hurt his feelings as I tried to help him? Probably both, I reflected. I decided that it was better that I had been alone for the encounter.

There are 7 billion people on this planet, each with a separate story. Everyday our stories intersect in ways planned and unimagined. This was one of those unplanned moments. It broke my heart and made me grateful for all of my blessings at the same time.

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Blue Mountains National Park – Part Two – Wentworth Falls Bushwalk

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Wentworth FallsThe varicolored leaves on the ground serve as a constant reminder that what I think of as spring is actually autumn here in Australia. The crisp air is a good reminder too. Crisp in this case is a euphemism for significantly colder than the humid tropical weather back home. But the sight of Wentworth Falls cascading down the cliff amidst the fall foliage makes me forget the colder weather for a moment.

The village and the eponymous waterfall nearby are both named for William Charles Wentworth, one of three explorers who led the first successful crossing of the Blue Mountains in 1813. There are several good bushwalks here of various lengths, including one that was used by Charles Darwin in the 1830s.

Wentworth Falls signWentworth Falls Bushwalk

The bushwalk is a clearly marked trail with steep hills and lots of steps. The waterfall plunges over 100 meters to the valley below.

I’m a big fan of the Danger sign post. In a country that is known for its dangerous animals, the park service pleads for you to use common sense as you navigate this natural waterfall/hazard.

Princes Rock Lookout

This track follows a steep path that has been used for over 120 years to amazing views of the falls and Mount Solitary. The half-mile trail from the picnic area is steep with lots of stairs. The railings at the lookout do not date back 120 years; my companions tell me that they weren’t present when they were kids.

Undercliff Track

Undercliff is half of the Overcliff-Undercliff Track, a 2.25 mile loop that goes over and under cliffs and through swamp and rainforest.

Conservation Hut

The Conservation Hut operates a cafe and has information on the surrounding area bushwalks.

You could spend a half-hour or a whole day hiking near Wentworth Falls. Read about the Three Sisters, another famous Blue Mountains landmark, here.

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Blue Mountains National Park – Part 1 – Three Sisters

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The weather did not look good but we had to make the best of it. When you only have a day trip to the Blue Mountains National Park to see the Three Sisters, you press on. We did and were rewarded with an incredible view.

Blue Mountains National Park

Blue Mountains National Park

Just 50 miles west of Sydney, the Blue Mountains National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site that spans over 600,000 acres. Sydneysiders come out here to get away for the weekend. There are lots of bushwalks (Australian for hiking) and the scenery includes deep valleys and interesting rock formations caused by erosion of the sandstone hills.

Three Sisters

The Three Sisters is the most famous rock formation in the Blue Mountains. Located high above the Jamison valley in Katoomba, this peculiar formation sits separated from the rest of the cliffs. Aboriginal legend holds that these rocks are three sisters that were turned to stone by their father to prevent them from marrying men from a neighboring tribe. The father was killed in battle and thus could not turn them back into women.

Scenic World

The easiest way to see the Three Sisters is to go to Scenic World. This tourist attraction includes a cable car and a railway that descend into the valley below. The railway is the steepest railway in the world at an incline of 52 degrees. You can even adjust your seat to make it 64 degrees. Once on the valley floor, you can explore the unusual flora and connect to Blue Mountains National Park bushwalks.

Scenic World also has a cable car known as the Skyway that crosses the valley. None of this is cheap, and you could easily spend a lot of money at Scenic World. It does have terrific views however.

Carrington HotelIf You Go

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Hunting Dragons – A Trip to See Komodo Dragons

Komodo Dragon resting
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We were dragon hunting, on a mission to see Komodo dragons. I knew this could be dangerous, but I didn’t know the dangers would start before we’d even left our hotel. Our balcony had a commanding view of the port in this sleepy Nusa Tenggara town. The price for that bird’s eye perspective was a treacherous walk down a slippery path to the pier. Calling it a goat trail would be an exaggeration. Goats would have turned around and went back to bed.

Komodo Airport LabuanbajoThe town of Labuanbajo lies on the western end of Flores, Indonesia. It is the usual jumping off point for excursions to Indonesia’s Komodo National Park. So intertwined is its economy with its neighboring island that the airport in Labuanbajo is named Komodo Airport. I had brought my sons to this remote part of Indonesia to fulfill a lifelong dream of mine, to see Komodo dragons in the wild. But first there was a three-hour boat ride to endure.

It was 5:30 in the morning when our guide came to fetch us. We followed Misel out into the darkness and down the long winding trail. This is the part in the horror movie where the family is never seen again, I thought to myself. After what seemed like an hour but was only five minutes, we reached the main street which was wide and well-lit by comparison. We had the street to ourselves as we crossed it and walked out onto the docks.

Misel introduced us to Odin, the owner of the long boat that we were taking to Komodo island. A few salaams were exchanged and money changed hands. Odin sized up our small dragon hunting party and disappeared down the dock. He reappeared with fins and snorkels in our sizes as we stepped onto the boat and met our crew of two. They greet us warmly and moved around the boat finishing preparations. As we sat at a table near the bow, their movements indicated that this once-in-a-lifetime trip for us was routine for them. The sun was just coming up behind us as our boat slipped out of the harbor.

But first, manta rays

Komodo National Park comprises not just the island and its fierce dragons but the waters around it as well. The park sprawls over 600 square miles and includes more than two dozen islands and some of the richest marine diversity on Earth. A standard trip to the park includes a stop at Komodo or Rinca island to see Komodo dragons as well as several snorkeling or beach stops. Frequently, visitors will arrange a two-day trip and sleep overnight on their boat.

We ate breakfast – bread that we had bought in town the night before and bananas from the boat. The steady puttering of the boat’s motor caused Labuanbajo to gradually recede on the horizon. The sun steadily rose in its place. We took turns napping on the roof of the boat’s cabin, shaded by an awning a few inches above us. I woke from dozing to find that we were at our first stop, Manta Point.

Makassar Point, more popularly known as Manta Point, is known for the manta rays that swim there. It’s a popular stop on the Komodo tour, but there are only a few boats in view when we drifted into the area. Our captain stood on the bow scanning the waters below, signaling his first mate to throttle the engine back at the appropriate time.

The current is strong at Manta Point so we didn’t cast an anchor. Instead, we held a rope strung along the side of the boat and drifted slowly as we watched the mantas below. We could clearly see the ocean floor 30 feet below us, as well as the huge rays winging their way past us. The water is quiet except for the constant crackling of shrimp.

Indonesia banned fishing for manta rays in 2014, creating the largest manta ray sanctuary in the world. Our boat had a rope on the side that we just hung on as he slowly motored around the area. We saw a turtle and lots of tropical fish as well.

One of the best parts about Komodo National park is the size. At over 2,000 square kilometers, it never feels crowded. There were a few other boats in our area but it still felt very private.

Snorkeling at Pink Beach

After about an hour of snorkeling, we motored down to Pink Beach. The sand is pink because it’s composed of crushed coral and the remains of foraminifera, tiny pink marine organisms. There was a massive yacht parked in the distance, so big that it had an interior dock for “toys.” We anchored about 100 meters off shore. Instantly, two smaller junks pulled alongside with locals trying to sell stuff to us. Wooden Komodo dragons, abalone shell bowls, cheap fabric hats. They also offered to shuttle us to the beach (for a price, of course). I was a bit nervous about leaving all of our stuff on board but our crew assured me that it would be fine. We swam to the beach across beautiful corral. We saw a neon blue anemone and clam shells as big as your head. A few minutes later a larger boat pulled in and the junks abandoned our boat for a chance to make a sale.

We spent an hour on the beach and in the water. Back on board, the locals tried to make one last sale before we departed. We ate lunch on the way to Koh Liang, a tremendous spread prepared by our crew. Fish, Tofu, mee goreng, rice, veggies. There was enough food for eight people.

Komodo National Park

We tied up at Koh Liang and walked to the ranger station. There are fees to enter the park. Lots of fees. A fee for entering the National park, which includes the water around the island. A fee to enter Komodo island itself. A fee to hire a guide, which is mandatory. A fee for bringing a camera. A conservation fee. All told, it was 940,000 rupiah ($70 US) for the four of us.

Komodo Dragon restingThere are three treks you can take, short, medium and long. Our boat captain had already told our guide that we only had time for the short one. It would last about an hour. We started down the path of crushed coral to the beach. The massive dragons were all laid out in the afternoon shade. Our guide explained that they’re more active in the morning. Standing three feet from a seven-foot monitor lizard, I was happy to catch them being lazy. A few yards away, a deer laid in the grass resting. Even though deer are the main source of food for the dragons, they only eat about once a month. I guess the deer thought he could risk it. Two more dragons lay under a porch next to the kitchen. We walked along the trail to a watering hole in the jungle made by the rangers. Along the way, our guide pointed out native birds and plants. He pointed out custard apples, tamarind, and palm trees. We startled a few boar piglets as we came around the bend. Suddenly, a few feet off the trail we saw another dragon. It stared at us with uncaring eyes. Its mouth opened to smell us. They can smell prey up to 7 kilometers away. There are over 127 kinds of birds on Komodo. There are over 2,000 dragons, outnumbering the 1,700 people who live on the island. Two more deer were getting a drink at the watering hole. They were oblivious to the dragon we saw a few yards earlier.

We came to a fork in the trail. Our guide explained that one path led to a souvenir shop Artisan carving Komodo dragonwhile the other led back to the boat. I admired the fact that he gave us the option. Most museums make it impossible to leave without passing through the gift shop. We opted to check out the souvenirs anyway. We bought a hat and a wooden Komodo for the kids. A t-shirt for me and one for my father-in-law. Ellyn bought three abalone shell bowls; one for her mom and two for herself. When the locals discovered that I spoke Indonesian, they quickly switched to the local dialect.

Dolphin near Komodo islandBack on the boat, we started the three-hour journey back to Flores. Our ever-hospitable captain gave us cut pineapple and crackers as snacks. I think a longer trek would have bored the kids. On the way back, we had a pod of dolphins chasing our boat. Motoring toward Flores, time has an elastic quality. Each island you pass seems to never get closer until suddenly you pass it.

One of the best parts of travel with kids is opening their eyes to the world around them. When my sons talked about the latest movie trailer they watched on Youtube, I pointed out that the kids we saw back on Flores have probably never seen a movie in the theater. Their idea of going to the big city is to travel to Labuanbajo.

If you go to see Komodo dragons

Fly into Komodo Airport (LBJ), usually from Bali although Garuda Air does fly direct from Jakarta.

Stay at Bayview Gardens Hotel. It’s built into the side of the hill overlooking the bay. This means you’re going to climb stairs but the reward is terrific views of the bay from every room. The hotel staff can arrange a tour to Komodo for you. Alternatively, you can find look for other hotels on Agoda.

Bayview Gardens Labuanbajo

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Touring the South Korean DMZ

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I had to crouch in the tunnel because it was too short for me. Stretching out my arms, I could almost touch both sides at the same time. Our tour guide said it had been dug as an invasion route from North Korean into South Korean. It was estimated that 15,000 North Korean soldiers could move through the tunnel each hour. Kids, welcome to the South Korean DMZ (Demilitarized Zone).

Bukchon Hanok Village
A quiet morning in Seoul, less than an hour from the DMZ.

Leaving from Seoul, the DMZ is just 35 miles north. That’s because North Korea occupied Seoul during the Korean War and the South only pushed them back a short distance before the armistice. That’s an important word, armistice. There was no peace treaty, so the two Koreas are still at war. They’ve had a cease fire in place for 64 years. So if it feels a little tense while you’re on the DMZ tour, now you know why.

A South Korean DMZ tour is South Korea’s biggest tourist attraction. You have to go on an organized tour, and you usually have to book in advance (try the USO). A tour will typically include a stop  at one of the ‘invasion tunnels’ (the South Koreans claim to have found four so far), a train station on the border, and an observation tower. You can peer through binoculars into North Korea and see North Korean soldiers staring back. You can also visit the famous blue building in the town of Panmunjeom that straddles the border. You can stand inside the building with one foot in each Korea. There are, of course, opportunities to buy souvenirs at every stop.

The DMZ was a surreal experience, especially with kids. We’ve toured battlefields like Gettysburg, but this was different. It’s like pressing the pause button on a war movie and stepping into the frozen picture. It’s made even more surreal by the short distance back to Seoul. By mid-afternoon we were back in the Insadong district of Seoul, where life has continued to move.

If you go:

  • Fly into Seoul’s Incheon International Airport
  • Stay at a traditional Korean house, known as a hanok. I recommend the Bukchon Hanok Village area.
  • Book a DMZ tour through USO
  • Eat in Insadong district. Just duck down an alleyway and pick a restaurant. You won’t be disappointed.
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