The Seoul of Korea: Day 1 – Incheon International Airport, Beewon Guesthouse, Jongmyo @ Gwanghwamun & Nightlife @ Itaewon

We have arrived! Not really in style due to the insufferable long journey, and I had never been so glad to see another foreign airport in my life.

Arrival @ Incheon International Airport

Incheon International Airport was a hassle-free and efficient airport. Less posh than Changi, but painless nonetheless unlike some other airports I can think of. A bubble of excitement starts to rise within me when I see Korean writing all over the place. I was indeed in Seoul!

First Ride on Seoul Metro System

Getting to the city of Seoul from the Incheon airport was kinda tricky. The Lonely Planet guidebook for Seoul was written back in 2005, when the metro system was yet to be connected to the airport, which was located on a separate island away from the mainland.

So feeling more and more like some clueless travelers in a metropolitan city, Cheryl and I managed to decipher the unhelpful Korean “code” to know that to get to Jongno-san (3) Ga station, which was where our guesthouse was located at, we need to take the airport train run by A-Rex to Gimpo International Airport (despite the name, this airport now only serves domestic flights), and then to connect to Seoul’s metro system Line 6.

First Ride on Seoul Metro System

To my surprise, the entire journey from the airport to Seoul city took more than 1.5 hours despite the efficient train system. It was also during this journey when we had our first “cultural shock”.

Koreans are undoubtedly very respectful of their elders. Whether that’s because theirs is an aging society (hence the high number of senior citizens in Seoul) or it was simply a Korean culture, everywhere you go you’ll see the privileges bestowed upon the older Koreans.

Like in the train. At the end of each train cars, there will be six seats allocated by the elderly, pregnant women, and handicaps. But being the clueless Singaporeans we are, we thought it will be the same as Singapore train system. So we plonked our collective assess on these “reserved seats” and promptly fall asleep with our luggages and backpack…

… only to be rudely woken up by a Korean man, who jabbered at Shafik and I in Korean, pulling us up from the seats and pointed to the signs above us. Cheryl was totally terrified with the commotion, and tried to stand up. Another man joined the commotion, seemingly to tell off the first man for reprimanding us the clueless tourists. The first man relented and pushed Cheryl back into her seat, where another elderly woman who took my seat pulled her down as well.

It was not the Korean hospitality we were expecting, and the saying that the Koreans are a “rat-race population like any other metropolitan citizens, but a graceful one nonetheless” will take on a whole new meaning of which I was going to discover in the next few days.

But next time you are in Seoul, remember to stay clear of these seats, unless you are over 65.

Beewon Guesthouse

Beewon Guesthouse was my accommodation of choice for various reasons. I was eager to experience again the fun of meeting with other backpackers, it was highly recommended by Lonely Planet as “the best of cheap sleep in Seoul”, and it was located within Insadong, the small districts filled with ancient palaces and cultural tea shops.

This new budget option is located in an orange-tiled building down the street behind the GS gas station, opposite Changdeok Palace. It sets new standard combining motel-styled rooms, with guesthouse style communal facilities. The owner keeps it clean and works hard to please her guests. Rooms have air-cond, satellite television and video, fridge, hair dryer, towels, soap and toiletries. Breakfast Internet, and the washing machine are free and discounts are given for longer stays. The kitchen is large and the lobby has greenery and a mini chandelier.

We booked for a room for three, and it was a basic one. A double bed (which of course I have gracefully granted Shafik and Cheryl the honour) and a (thin) mattress on the heated floor (they are heated throughout the day). An attached basic bathroom with bath tub. And that’s about it! Just enough for us to feel comfortable but not enough to make us reluctant to leave the room to taste whatever Seoul has to offer.

The only complaint that I had was that there were some construction going on during our stay, and apparently work was being done in the room directly above ours. Hearing drilling and knocking and sawing first thing in the morning wasn’t my idea of a wake up call, but we preserved, and I have to thank Cheryl and Shafik for putting up with these for me. They are more used to staying in hotel but gamely agreed to try this out at my insistence.

In the end, we didn’t get to know anyone else since we were out of the guesthouse most of the time. So… it wouldn’t have made any difference had we stayed in a motel instead, but, oh well! There is a first time for everything, hehe.

Beewon Guesthouse

After a quick one-hour nap, we rose ourselves in search for our first Korean culinary experience… only to discover it was raining. Again! I had the worst luck with weather, just like my experience in Athens during Christmas and Boxing Day. But I was determined to head out, and so we did… and in not time I was drenched. Not enough to be entirely wet, but enough to make me feeling sick and feverish.

Definitely not a good start for the holidays, but my high spirit proven too strong to be intimidated by some fever. (Plus Cheryl has packed some panadol which I took religiously for two days, hehe)

First Korean Culinary Experience

Soon we found a promising looking eatery serving Korean food, so we stepped in… partly because we were famished, and we needed the shelter from incessant rain. To our (slight) horror, none of the wait staff speak English, and the menu was entirely in Korean. After some heavy hand signs and finger pointing, we agreed on a “set meal” priced at W10,000 each, which seemed reasonable for me.

The first dish arrived in a big pot simmering on a hot stove, cooking some kind of fish meat with loads of vegetables in a spicy looking broth (I wasn’t wrong).

And then the side dishes start to arrive. I counted not one, not two, not three… but seven side dishes altogether. Later on I realized that the Koreans always, always have side dishes to go with their main courses, including the mandatory kimchi and radishes.

First Korean Culinary Experience

For the price we are paying, there were sure many dishes, including a platter of raw fish of unknown origins but tasted absolutely heavenly to me, grilled saba fish much to Shafik’s delight (since he did fancy most of the dishes served on the table), and many other varieties of Korean goodness. I was stuffed to the brim (ah, to hell with my diet, I am on holiday!), but Cheryl can’t eat most of the vege, and Shafik needed more meat.

But first thing first. After lunch, we needed to start our proper visiting! And no one can argue the appropriateness of starting off a Korean tour by visiting one of the many palaces all over Seoul, especially in the Gwanghwamun area where we were based at.

Towards Jongmyo @ Gwanghwamun

Although their size and splendour have been greatly reduced by wars, fires and Japanese colonial policy, Seoul’s royal palace compounds contain a variety of restored buildings that offer visitors glimpses of Korea’s fascinating feudal past. The palaces followed Confucian ideals of frugality and simplicity, which makes them unique, but don’t expect the opulent grandeur of Western palaces.

Today the large palaces are deserted, but the maze of corridors, courtyards, buildings and gardens, used to be thronged with hundreds of government officials and scholars. Eunuchs and concubines, soldiers, servants and slaves, the grand formal buildings, the government businesses were carried out, contrast with the smaller, more informal living quarters, divided into male and female sections as dictated by Confucian principles. In the warmer months, free concerts and historical reenactments are held in the palaces, some of which are popular backdrops for wedding photos and videos.

At Jongmyo, Gwanghwamun

And we had one literally at our doorstep. Surrounded by dense woodland are the impressive buildings of Jongmyo, which house the spirit tablets of the Joseon kings and queens and some of their most loyal government officials. Their spirits are believed to reside in a special hole bored into the wooden tablets.

Jongmyo was one of our few palace experiences in Seoul. While we appreciate its steep history, but after many rounds of reading on Korean history related to each building, the Korean names started to be interchangeable with each other, and the facts started to sound the same.

So instead of really immersing ourselves in the ancient tales of Seoul (com’on, we are no history buff!), we took a great many photos instead. Here are some of the best photos I took at Jongmyo.

At Jongmyo, Gwanghwamun

At Jongmywo, Gwanghwamun

At Jongmyo, Gwanghwamun

At Jongmyo, Gwanghwamun

Here in Jongmyo we also shot Shafik’s first (and only) MTV in Seoul. LOL. I dare not share it here in case he get mad at me. But we did the first of our many Vlog here as well.

Right after the shoot of this Vlog, we trekked our way back to Jongmyo’s entrance and soon was in hunt for… food! Shafik was hungry. Okay, that’s a given, he is always hungry. But Cheryl and I were kinda starving too. So when we saw pictures of food at this restaurant we just couldn’t resist.

Late Lunch @ Insadong

We ordered so much meat-based dishes just to satisfy our cravings here! It was also at this little eatery at the corner of Insadong where I had my first Korean beer called “Hite”. Absolutely smooth, though a little bland, but fatal nonetheless.

Clubbing @ Itaewon

After a couple hours of rest in the guesthouse, we set out for our first nightlife in Seoul! Our location of choice was none other than Itaewon, a foreigner-friendly spot dotted with countless bars and clubs – though you’ll need to be careful not to step into any of the sleazy ones if sleaze is not what you are looking for.

We had a whale of a time here, and towards the end of the night, one of us *wink* was mighty drunk and had to be escorted back. It did not help that the cab driver we got didn’t speak a word of English, and he dropped us at some obscure part of Insadong. Frustratedly I navigated our way back to Beewon, with loads of crazy antics along the journey home the way only drunk people could achieve. LOL.

All in all, a great night out and a great end to our first day in Seoul.

Click here for the full set of photos taken during my first day in Seoul.

7 Thoughts on “The Seoul of Korea: Day 1 – Incheon International Airport, Beewon Guesthouse, Jongmyo @ Gwanghwamun & Nightlife @ Itaewon

  1. I really felt nice when I chanced upon your blog. You’ve captured some interesting moments with Cheryl. I’d love to follow your blog. By the way, both of you make a cute pair.

  2. @ Juana – Thanks for dropping by! I have another four days of Seoul to blog on, so stay tuned. By the way, how did you come across my blog? Just curious.

  3. amylia on 4 July, 2009 at 5:13 pm said:

    just want to ask i will go there end of it expensive food in there?normal if i bowl of mee is how much?i mean street food..tq.frm KL

  4. amylia on 4 July, 2009 at 5:13 pm said:

    pls email me tqtq.

  5. @ amylia – I can’t remember exactly, but a good meal for us is about S$10 per person. That’s about RM22. Lots of food to choose from. Go for Korean food; it’s more interesting and cheaper than western food.

  6. izce on 24 July, 2009 at 3:52 pm said:

    Hi Raz! I found your blog very interesting as i’m looking for ways how to enjoy my 5days stay in Seoul this Oct.

    I hope to read more about your experience. thanks for sharing them :)

  7. @ izce – Thanks for dropping by. Seoul was beautiful in its own right. Hope you enjoy your trip. If you do blog, do let me know your blog posts on your holiday!

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