South Korea

Written by on December 27, 2013 in Asia, General with 1 Comment

It’d been almost one year since I left San Francisco on a mostly solo journey around the world.  Last December in Vietnam, I’d reconnected with two of my friends from New York City who’d since moved back home to South Korea.  They invited me to visit them, along with several other travel friends I met this year who coincidentally also lived in South Korea.  How could I say no?  Especially given how close I was and how cheap it was to fly from Tokyo (relative to visiting at a later time from the US).

I connected from Bangkok through Tokyo and arrived in Seoul on a muggy June afternoon.  It was obvious from the second I stepped into the airport that I was no longer in the third world.  I had done zero research on South Korea, so had no idea what to expect upon arrival.   I had no idea that 10 million people lived in Seoul, and that nearly 26 million people lived in the “Seoul Capital Area”, which includes the suburbs in surrounding Incheon and Gyeonggi provinces, making it the second largest metropolitan area in the world.  I expected modern, but hadn’t realized the city backed up to beautiful mountains.  What I did know was that I’d have to come back someday to explore, as I didn’t have enough time to even scratch the surface on my one and half days in Seoul.

Seoul, South Korea shot from the air

The airport was spotless and signs were translated into English, so it was easy to find out which train to take.  When I got out of the train station, there was a tourist desk 50 feet away with helpful guides who showed me the way to the hostel I’d booked.  Seoul was huge, and I only had one night here, so I decided to stay in the Hongdae neighborhood, named after the nearby university, and known as an urban arts and indie culture haven, as well as some good clubs and nightlife.   It was also where I was going to meet up with some friends later, so thought it’d be easier since they’d be giving me a nightlife tour later on.

Rewind back nearly 9 months to when I was in Dahab, Egypt, where I stayed in a women’s dorm at the Red Sea Resort and met a family of 4 South Koreans traveling around the world.  Throughout the year, I’d become and remained Facebook friends with Ellie, a 14 year old girl whose parents had yanked her out of school to travel.  Ellie had to grow up fast, as she and her younger brother became translators for their parents on their round the world trip.  Anyway, I promised Ellie that if I was ever in South Korea, that we would have to meet again…and so we did.

Ellie and her mother, Jiin Kim, came to the hostel to meet me and then took me on a mini-tour of Seoul.  First stop was at Gyeongbokgung Palace, a royal palace that was first built in 1395, later burned down and abandoned for centuries before being rebuilt only to be completely demolished by the Japanese in the early 1900s.  Today, 40% of the original buildings stand or have been restored and it is quite fabulous.  Not quite on the scale of the Forbidden Palace in Beijing, but still a fantastic slice of history smack in the middle of shiny skyscrapers in the downtown metropolis.

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We got there to catch the very tail end of the changing of the guard.

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Ellie seemed as interested as I was to be there, and commented how she found it strange that she’s now travelled around the world, but doesn’t really know her own city well.  I suppose that’ll change as she gets older and gains more freedom from her parents.  She and her mom were so sweet!

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We walked around the palace grounds, finding plenty of photo opps.  Here we are in front of Gyeonghoeru Pavilion, a hall that was used to hold important and special state banquets 8 centuries ago.

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We worked up quite an appetite sightseeing in the humidity and found a yummy Korean BBQ for a mid-afternoon lunch.

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The afternoon flew by, and after my redeye Bangkok-Tokyo-Seoul flights, I either needed to rest or a giant red bull.  We found a place to get a cup of coffee and I think I’ve found my new motto:

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So we said our goodbyes and I returned to my uber-clean and air-conditioned hostel to take advantage of the lightning speed wifi to work on blog stuff and make a plan with my friends Ali and Julia later that evening.  They were both students at the University who’d I’d met and hung out with in Laos while they were on their Spring Break.  They were both exchange students from a college in Germany, although Ali is Egpytian and Julia is Swedish.  I was excited to meet up with them again, as we already shared some fun memories in Luang Prabang and at the Elephant Festival.  I’m realizing I don’t have any pictures of us from our night out in Seoul, so adding one here 🙂

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We decided to meet up for dinner and then attempted a bar crawl, but ended up buying some bottles of Soju and mixers at the store and sitting outside at the Hongdae Playground, which literally is a playground that is just outside a strip of bars in the area.  It is a place for students to gather and drink whatever they buy/bring from the store rather than paying hefty drink prices inside the bars.  Soju is a clear drink made from rice with about 20% alcohol and a slightly sweet taste.  I’d never even heard of it before, but apparently it is the number one best selling spirit in the world.  The US has definitely not caught on yet, but Japan and China are huge consumers of the stuff.  One bottle, which has about 9-10 shots in it, cost about $1.  Nice!

After several bottles, we went on a mission to find a karaoke bar.   What seemed like hours later, but was probably only 20 minutes, we found a norebang, which is what they call the karaoke rooms that you can rent out and have your own little karaoke party.  There were about 6 of us, and we were there until at least 5am.  I was definitely not the one who attempted Celine Dion, but I’m sure I remember it being hilarious.  So much fun!  

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The next day I slept in, which was fantastic!  I probably should’ve spent the day trying to figure out what else to see in Seoul, but instead I took a walk and stumbled upon an air-conditioned shopping mall with a movie theater and opted to relax and enjoy, knowing that I’d come back to South Korea to do it right some day.  That afternoon, I took a 3 hour train ride city by the sea called Busan, where I was reunited with my friends Shin and Jane.  Shin had been relocated to Busan a couple years ago by his company, but says they want to move back to the US, so I felt like this was my chance to come visit and instead of running around sightseeing, I could just relax and soak in the pretty Korean beach city.   This was the sunset view from their apartment – NICE!

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Busan is on the southeastern-most tip of Korea, has Korea’s largest beach and is home to about 3.5 million people.  Shin and Jane lived a couple blocks from the beach, which was awesome.  I had heard about some temples that were a couple hours drive away, but we ended up just going to the beach every day.  I was definitely “templed out”, and figured they aren’t going anywhere.  Besides, at this point, I’m no longer wow’d by much, so I figured it’s probably better for me to go back someday with fresh eyes and mind.

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The 80 degree weather was perfect for hitting the beach, and the nights cooled down so we could enjoy strolling through the Haeundae neighborhood, checking out the local nightlife.

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Jane’s brother David joined us most days and nights, and I had to check out another Korean BBQ before leaving!

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I can’t comment too much on what to see/do or where to go in South Korea from a cultural perspective, but I’m happy I stopped in to see some old and new friends and get a taste of the two biggest cities in South Korea and will be back one day.

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  1. Bill says:

    when I was Treasurer of Mobil Japan, i also was Treasurer of South Korea where we had a loint lube oil company with Kumho, a munitions maker. I visited several times during 1977-80. They had 12 am curfew then. Wherever you were and with whomever you were with at 12am you became best friends until 6am Needless to say as the bewitching hour came one tried to find the best friend possible Also learned through the school of hard knocks or scotch several drinking games. always seemed ti be seven girls against or should I say opposing me, Not fair. Never desired to return to Korea after I left Japan in 1980. Loved to return to Tokyo and have been back at least 5 times but never saw the newer Seoul that has remained a unenlightened second choice. Thanks fro bringing back the memories, Will be in NYC for New Years. If nearby lets catch up.. If not Happy New Year and see you somewhere sometime in 2014. Bill

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