Kids Toughen Up at Brutal South Korean Winter Boot Camp

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When the South Korean Army announces its biannual boot camp for civilians above the age of 13, there are lots of people who are more than happy to attend. Held at the command base in western Seoul, the 4 to 14 day camp offers basic military training to anyone able to pay the entry fee of 40,000 won (that’s about $36). Teenage boys and young women are seen attending the camp, sometimes along with their families. This doesn’t exactly come as a surprise, given that military culture is quite deeply ingrained in South Korea, a country ruled by army-backed regimes till the mid 1980s.

Apart from the ones run by the army, there are privately-run boot camps as well, which have become quite popular in recent times. People from various walks of life, ranging from school kids to nostalgic war veterans, company employees to families on vacation attend this kind of events. The army says the boot camp is an opportunity to test your limits, enhance your physical ability and learn to adopt the strong spirit of ‘making the impossible, possible.’ Major Lee Joo-Ho, a boot camp spokesperson says: “Boys obviously make up the biggest part because they have the mandatory service coming up.” What he’s referring to is the two years of mandatory conscription that all able-bodied South Korean men have to attend, in order to  train themselves in case of an attack from North Korea. “But more young women are showing an interest, since they were allowed to join a college-based officer commissioning program last year.”

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World’s First Official Barbie Cafe Is as Pink as You’d Expect

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As if Asians didn’t have enough pink in their lives, from all those crazy Hello-Kitty-themed venues, now there’s an official Barbie Cafe in Taipei, Taiwan. And yes, it has dolls, themed foods and more pink than most men can bare.

January 30th witnessed the inauguration of the world’s first official Barbie Cafe, in one of the busiest shopping districts in Taipei. The iconic doll’s maker, Mattel, licensed Taiwanese restaurant chain Sinlaku to open the themed cafe in hopes that it will promote Barbie as a fashion brand. Iggy Yip, senior manager of Mattel’s Greater China division, commented: ”We picked Taiwan because theme restaurants are very popular and successful here. We are very confident that the Barbie Cafe can promote our brand image.” Indeed, the island is home to a number of unique restaurants and cafes, including one modeled after an A380 airplane, a cardboard restaurant, and even a popular toilet restaurant. But there is a special relationship between Taiwan and Barbie, as this was where the popular doll was originally manufactured, before production lines were moved to mainland China and other parts, to lower costs. In 2009, another Barbie restaurant was opened in Shanghai, China, but it closed down two years later, after it proved unsuccessful.

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The Maeklong Railway Food Market – A Strange Wonder of Thailand

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Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory loves trains, but I’m not too sure if he’d like this particular one. The Maeklong market railway passes right through the middle of a tightly packed market – so tight, that passengers can probably grab a few vegetables as they pass through. The market’s stalls are actually set up on the train rails, but shopkeepers know the train’s schedule, so just before it passes through, they quickly drag their goods into the shops and pull the roofs down. After the train has passed through, it’s back to business as usual. This happens no less than 8 times a day.

The Maeklong market has become so popular with tourists that there might actually be more people visiting to see it rather than buy anything. Located 72 km or an hour’s drive south-west of Bangkok, Maeklong is the capital of the Samut Songkhram province. Most people compare the market to something like a movie set; it’s that surreal. It’s amazing how every inch of space available has been utilized. The small stalls on either side of the railway track are made from tarpaulins and sometimes just a bedspread. They consist of plastic trays filled with vegetables and vibrant Thai fruit like mangosteens and rambutans. You can also find fresh-cut flowers, fragrant spices, cuts of meat, fresh seafood and poultry. And it doesn’t just stop with food; there are other goods to be purchased as well, like clothes, lingerie, toys, and pirated DVDs. Sometimes there aren’t even stalls, just people sitting on the ground with trays of fruit at their feet.

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Sick Gambling in Taiwan – Betting on When Terminally Ill Cancer Patients Will Die

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A macabre gambling trend has taken off in Taiwan’s thrid largest city of Taichung. Doctors, nurses and even the families of terminally ill cancer patients are placing bets on when the sick will die, for the chance to win three times the wagered sum.

It’s sick what some people will do for money. According to various news reports, a sinister gambling trend has sprung up in Taichung, Taiwan- people are actually making bets on how long incurable cancer patients in the city’s hospitals have to live. And we’re not talking about isolated cases of morally-challenged gamblers looking to make some money through any means possible, this is a full-fledged underground industry industry worth over $30 million. On a single Taichung street there are over 60 so-called “senior clubs” posing as charity organisations for the elderly that are nothing more than gambling dens challenging punters to place their bets on whatever cancer patient they think is the most likely to die within one month. What’s even more disturbing about this practice is that doctors, nurses and even family members of the terminally ill patients are also eager for a piece of the action.

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Ghost Money – Currency of the Afterlife

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If there is indeed such a thing as afterlife, the Chinese and Vietnamese might just be the richest people there. And that’s because their living relatives make sure they are well provided for – by throwing money into flames. Well, not real money. Only fake notes. This fake money is commonly known as ghost money, “Joss paper” and as ‘pinyin’ (literally ‘shade’ or ‘dark’ money) in Chinese. The ghost money, along with other papier-mâché items (usually expensive stuff) are burned as a part of Chinese tradition – on holidays to venerate the deceased, and also at funerals, to make sure that the spirits have plenty of good things in the afterlife.

Traditionally, Joss paper is made from coarse bamboo paper or rice paper. The Joss is cut into squares or rectangles and has a thin piece of square foil glued in the center. Sometimes, it is even endorsed with a traditional Chinese red ink seal depending on the particular region. The paper is generally of a white color (symbolizing mourning) and the foil is either silver or gold (representing wealth), hence the name, ghost money. The three types of ghost money are copper (for newly deceased spirits and spirits of the unknown), gold (for the deceased and the higher gods), and silver (for ancestral spirits and local deities). Sometimes Joss paper is completely gold, engraved with towers or ingots. The burning of joss paper is not done casually, but with a certain reverence, placed respectfully in a loose bundle. Some other customs involve folding each sheet in a specific manner before burning. The burning is mostly done in an earthenware pot or a chimney built specifically for this purpose.

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Vietnam Festival Is Dedicated to Meeting Ex-Lovers

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Most people cannot stand the thought of their partners even talking to their exes, let alone socializing with them. But things are different in a small community of Vietnam. A yearly ‘love market’ of sorts is held in the hillside village of Khau Vai, 500km north of Hanoi, near the border with China. It takes place each year, on the 26th and the 27th of the third month of the lunar calendar. During these two days, hundreds of ex-lovers from various hill tribes like Nung, Tay, San Chi, Lo Lo, Dzao, Giay and Hmong are reunited. They trek in from various mountainous districts nearby to be able to spend two days with the ones they could not spend their lives with.

This concept might sound extremely unusual to us, and there might be every possibility of a cat-fight breaking out if this unique love festival was held anywhere else in the world. But the people of Khau Vai have a strong reason for the celebrating their love market. It has been a part of their tradition for centuries, originating from a local legend. The story is rather sad – an ethnic Giay girl from Ha Giang had fallen for a Nung boy from Cao Bang., but she is said to have been so beautiful that her tribe did not want her to marry a man from another community. What followed was a bloody war between the two tribes. As the lovers witnessed the tragedy that surrounded their lives, they decided to part ways in the greater interest of peace. But their love did not die there. A secret pact was made between the lovers to meet each other once a year in Khau Vai– on the 27th day of the third Lunar month. The tradition is still being carried on today. On the designated days of the festival, local artists decked up in colorful clothes reenact this tale of forbidden love.

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South Korea’s Toilet Theme Park

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We’ve seen our share of bizarre theme parks here on OC. Ranging from Hello Kitty to Atomic Reactors, we thought we’d seen it all. Until we heard of this extremely strange and slightly disturbing theme park in South Korea, based on the last place in the world you’d want to be stuck in – the toilet.

The Restroom Cultural Park,  in the city of Suwon, South Korea, is a massive complex dedicated to the humble toilet. The main exhibition hall itself is shaped like a large toilet bowl and the pathway leading up to it is adorned with bronze figures of humans in mid-squat. The facility was opened to public earlier this year and is the only one of its kind in the world. Other indoor exhibits include WC signs from around the world and toilet-themed art. What’s even more interesting than the toilet theme park is the story of its origin. Apparently, the place was initially home to the former Mayor of Suwon, Sim Jae-duck. He died in 2009, but that has not stopped the South Koreans from still regarding him as their very own ‘Mr. Toilet’. This was partly due to the fact that he ran a successful campaign in the 1980s to dramatically improve South Korea’s old toilet system, and also because Mr. Sim was born in his grandmother’s loo. So inspired was he by his place of birth that he built his own house in the shape of a toilet. He, in turn, is said to be the main inspiration behind the theme park.

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Lighting Up Christmas – The Giant Lantern Festival of San Fernando

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The Philippines is home to a variety of Christmas traditions, but particularly famous is the Giant Lantern Festival of San Fernando, the capital of the province of Pampanga, a 1.5 hour ride from Manila. Locally, the festival is known as the Ligligan Parul. It showcases the most popular product of Pampanga – the ‘parol’, or lighted stars. The artisans of Pampanga are renowned for their ability to create the biggest and most elaborate parol in the country. Each year, the best parol makers of the region show off their creations at the Giant Lantern Festival, vying for the title of ‘winning parol’ and lighting up the night sky.

In the early days, parol had simple star shaped designs, but they have evolved a lot over the years. Today, the biggest ones are about 40 feet in diameter and shapes vary from floral patterns to religious symbols. They are generally made from materials like soft drink straws, crepe paper, glass, plastic, bamboo dowels, and some even contain assorted electronic parts. For the artists who make the parol, excelling at their work is a matter of pride and building a reputation. Several hours go into the making just one of these superb works of art, and the cost can rise to several thousand dollars. Of course, once the Holiday Season is over, their creations have little use.

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Style Oddities – Fake Braces Worn as Fashion Accessories

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It’s at times like this that I simply don’t understand fashion trends. I mean, what would prompt otherwise normal teenagers to consider something as horrendous as braces to be a fashionable accessories? Don’t get me wrong, I think braces are an extremely useful dental tool and I used to wear them as well, but I always dreamt of the day I would be done with them forever. Kids in countries like Thailand, Indonesia and China, however, think very differently. For them, braces have become a huge teenage fashion statement.

As unfathomable as the trend sounds, there’s actually a reason behind it. Just as ‘plump’ people were thought to be attractive at one point – as a sign of prosperity – braces to the Asian kids are a sign of wealth, status and style. The reason: genuine orthodontic braces are quite expensive. A set of braces in Bangkok would set you back about $1,200. So all the kids want to wear what the rich kids are wearing. Braces are also popular among young celebrities and youth icons like Indonesian heartthrob Andika Kangen and Thai pop singer Earn the Star. Many Thai and Indonesian websites display pictures of Gwen Stefani sporting braces back in the 90s. Apparently, she had recently confessed that her braces were a ‘fashion choice’, and she’s since become an instant hit with Asian kids. The internet is littered with countless blogs and websites on fashion braces. I tried googling them and found that braces are available in an explosion of colors and varieties.

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Indian Believers Roll in Food Scraps of Higher Caste to Cure Their Illnesses

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A century old ritual in India dictates that those considered low-caste Hindus must roll in the remains of food eaten by members of a higher caste. But it’s not the ritual itself that’s strange. The strange part is that while social activists are actually seeking to outlaw the practice, the ‘low-caste’ Hindus don’t want to stop rolling in the leftovers.

The ritual, called Madey Snana (Spit Bath) is specific to the state of Karnataka, during an annual event at the famous 4000-year-old Kukke Subramanya temple in the coastal district of Mangalore. It is also followed at the Sri Krishna temple in Udupi town. As a part of the century-old Snana, Dalits (members of a lower caste) roll over leftover food eaten by Brahmins (the upper caste) every year, in the belief that all their troubles will disappear and ailments will be cured. It is practiced every year on the festival of Champa Shasti or Subramanya Shasti. Last year alone, 25,000 people rolled over the ‘spit’ of the Brahmins. This happened even as the district administration watched helplessly after their attempts to ban the practice failed.

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Coffee Won’t Keep You Awake at Tokyo’s Hypnosis Cafe Colors

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Apart from a variety of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, the menu at the Tokyo Hypnosis Cafe Colors, in Shinjuku Golden Gai, also features some offbeat items, such as Trauma Erasure or Past Life Regression.

Tokyo is known for its unique cafes, many of which have been featured on Oddity Central (Cuddle Cafe, Vampire Cafe, Hammock Cafe, etc.), and today I’m thrilled to add another one to our growing collection – the Tokyo Hypnosis Cafe Colors. As the name suggests, this intriguing venue uses the power of hypnosis to attract customers (and maybe trick them into coming back). Originally opened in the city of Sapporo, the hypnosis cafe moved to the Shinjuku district, in Japan’s capital city, where quirky establishments are becoming increasingly popular. Numbering just eight sits, all at the bar, the Hypnosis Cafe Colors offers visitors the chance to try out a number of hypnosis techniques, including reconnecting with your inner child, quit smoking suggestion, or trauma erasure. Simple hypnosis is performed by an expert who also plays the role of bartender and magician, and is basically free, but special techniques cost between ¥1000 ($12) and ¥50000 ($600).

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Japanese Rent-a-Boyfriend Service Caters to Lonely Women in Need of Cuddling

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Yes, Japanese women get lonely too, but luckily for them, there’s Soine-ya Prime, a dispatch service where women can hire a handsome young man to lay with her in bed for a night. Believe it or not there’s nothing sexual about it.

Two months ago, we posted about Tokyo’s popular Cuddle Cafe, where everyone could lay down next to a pretty girl for as little as $40. The joint had just opened in September, but it had such success that a second venue was recently inaugurated. But what about lonely women looking for attractive guys to cuddle up to? Sometimes you just want to crawl into bed and feel someone’s arms around you, without any other implications. But when you’re single that can be tough. Well, for some women, the need of a warm body next to them at night is so bad they’re willing to pay a total stranger. Created in 2011, Soine-ya Prime caters to the needs of Japanese lonely women by dispatching attractive men to sleep in their beds, without engaging in any kind of sexual activities. Clients are not allowed to kiss the men, touch them in any inappropriate ways or contact them without permission from the company. They’re to be used as pleasant company and nothing more.

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Thailand’s Cobra Village – Where Men and Snakes Live in Harmony

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Sixty years ago, a doctor from Thailand had a vision for his small, dusty old village – to convert it into a major tourist attraction. And in an attempt to do so, he actually convinced his fellow villagers to raise pet snakes in their homes, putting them in shows for tourists. Surprisingly the ploy worked, and today the village of Ban Kok Sa-Nga in Thailand’s Northeastern Province of Khon Kaen is better known as ‘The Cobra Village’, among tourists.

All of the 140-odd homes in Ban Kok Sa-Nga have at least one pet snake, which they place outside in wooden boxes. The pet snakes range from deadly ones, such as king cobras or monocled cobras, to less dangerous ones such as copperheaded racers and pythons. The atmosphere in the village itself is always festive; it is one big snake show theme attraction. The snakes are bred in captivity and put together in daredevil shows such as – you won’t believe this – man vs. snake boxing matches. Obviously not for the light-hearted, these shows involve the handlers taunting an already enraged giant king cobra. As the snakes slither across the stage, the men pull their tails to provoke them further. Despite all the weird stunts that take place in these shows, what spooks out most tourists is the level of comfort the villagers share with the snakes. Most people are terrified of these creatures, but the people of Ban Kok Sa-Nga don’t even bat an eye-lid. Even the children are completely at ease; they are taught how to handle snakes, how to fight them and feed them, at a very young age.

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In Thailand People Change Their Names to Improve Their Fortunes

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You might have heard of people changing their names because they didn’t like the ones their parents gave them. Or in an attempt to change their identity and escape their past. But in Thailand, name changes are common for a different reason altogether – to bring good luck.

A case-in-point is 46-year-old Baramee Thammabandan, formerly known as Teerapol Lilitjirawat. While neither name strikes us as charismatic, the change has made a world of difference to Mr. Baramee. About 10 years ago, he had suffered a major misfortune, when his garments business had failed. His eyesight became poor, he couldn’t manage his affairs and to make matters worse, his wife left him. And so he did what is natural to the people of Thailand – he changed his name. “I wanted to become a new person,”  the now clean shaven and slim Baramee says. Ironically, his new name does mean ‘charisma’.

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Thai “Sorcerer” Gives Disciples Bulletproof Tattoos, They Decide to Try Them Out

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Boonyong Luangjumpol, also known as Ajarn Ton, was recently arrested in Thailand’s Yanglad district after he allegedly gave local teens magic tattoos and told them they made them invincible. Unsurprisingly, they wanted to try out their ink armor and engaged in a series of brawls.

Sak Yant is an ancient type of Thai tattoo said to bestow the bearer with mystical powers. It incorporates Buddhist prayers called Mantras or Katas that will invoke supernatural powers. These magic spells were originally inscribed on pieces of cloth, and centuries ago, Thai soldiers would wear Yant-printed jackets to offer them extra protection in battle. After Budhism was adopted as a religion in Thailand, it became common for devotees to have Sak Yant tattoos etched into their skin. Even today, many Thai men believe in their mystical powers, and have one or more tattoos inscribed on their bodies. There are also lots of stories of people sporting Sak Yant tattoos who were shot at close range without even having their skin pierced, or horrific car accidents from which tattoo bearers emerged unscathed. But as recent events have proven, they don’t always work.

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