Tag Archives: South Korea

The Seoul of Korea

At Jongmyo, Gwanghwamun

A mere week after I am back from Seoul, I am done with all the blog posts! My trip was blessed with many nice photos, especially so since we arrived during the week cherry blossom (purely coincidental, something which cannot be planned for). Here are the posts!

Enroute to Seoul, 14th April
A little on pre-trip preparation, and our little get together at Changi Airport and KLIA with my two travel buddies, Shafik & Cheryl

Day 1, 15th April
Arrival at Incheon International Airport, checking into the frill-free Beewon Guesthouse at Gwanghwamum area. Our first palace experience at Jongmyo, which was shrouded with cold weather due to the incessant rain (though, truth to be told, we liked it), and our first Seoulite nightlife at the famous Itaewon clubbing district.

Day 2, 16th April
Second day dawned rather early for us, and we headed to Gyeongbokgung (Palace of Shining Happiness) which was a must-see spot in Seoul. Then we headed for a rather disappointing shopping excursion to Namdaemun Market, before scaling up (via cable car) to Namsan Summit to visit the N Seoul Tower and the attached teddy bear museum. At my insistence, we also visited Myeong-Dong Catholic Cathedral where I had a DaVinci moment. The night ended with some trawling along the streets of Hongik University District

Day 3, 17th April
First road trip out of Seoul to Haenggung and at the World Heritage Site Hwaseong (Suwon Fortress), both located within Suwon City. It was a long but very interesting trip out especially so for the food, namely beef rib soup! Concluded the night at Itaewon again right to the dawn.

Day 4, 18th April
A rather slow day for us, as we all woke up really late. Visit the magnificent Seoul Zoo at Seoul Grand Park, where we spent many happy hours making funny faces at animals and buying useless toys (that’s me). Ended the night, albeit mistakenly, at Seoul Plaza, before heading back to Beewon for an early night. We were totally beat!

Day 5, 19th April
The rest the night before was a blessing, as we made our way to visit the Seodaemun Prison, a historically important site for Korea during the Japanese occupation year. We also brought out the sporty side of us as we sillied ourselves to the max Seoul World Cup Stadium, impromptu picnic included. The night ended with a peaceful and relaxing Hangang River Ferry Cruise, easily the best part of my trip.

Enroute back to Singapore, 20th April
I made my way back to Singapore first, as Cheryl and Shafik continued on their Korean adventure to Busan for a few more days.

All in all, a very satisfying trip though, truth to be told, Seoul is not one of the cities that I will visit again unlike London, Phuket or Santorini. I think I could do another post on a list of things I learned from my Korea trip… but first thing first. Here’s the link to view the blog posts under “The Seoul of Korea” series, and here’s the link for my Flickr collection on all photos taken during this trip.

Gamsa hamiida!

The Seoul of Korea: Enroute Back to Singapore

My last morning in Seoul dawned bright and early. Despite my somewhat early slumber the night before, I was still a little groggy. Careful not to wake up the slumbering Cheryl and Shafik, whose train to Busan was not to depart till after 10 a.m., I packed my things for the final time. After hugs of goodbyes and wishes of bon voyage, I was out of the door. I knew then I will miss my two travel buddies, but I also take heart that I will see them again back in Singapore in less than a week.

Views of Gwanghwamun

The early morning walk in Gwanghwamun area towards Jongno-san Ga station was very refreshing. I was, once again, mesmerised by this cultural district where modernity and traditional lives fused together. I was glad that I have chosen this district as my lodging of choice. Surrounded by palaces and temples of ancient times, I felt like a royalty myself.

Towards Incheon International Airport

The train ride towards Incheon International Airport took much longer than expected. From where I was, I needed to ride to Ghimpo International Airport (despite the name, it only serves domestic flight), before changing to an express train towards Incheon. The entire trip took no less than 1.5 hours. I was kinda suffocated by the amount of black suit cramped into the train cars, since it was the peak hour of a working day. But, seriously, Korean men could afford to have a little more variety on their suits (afterall, it’s a privilege to be able to wear such stuff on a daily basis during winter) than various shades of black and grey.

Incheon International Airport

It was only now when I took in the sights that were Incheon Airport, which was a culmination on all things modern about Korea. The infrastructure and architectural designer were impressive, rivaling that of Changi and KLIA. The only thing I could think of lacking was the “warmth” – human traffic. The service staff attending to tourists like me were on hand and impeccable with their service – with a smile. From the guy at the train ticket counter who topped up my now-deficient T-money, to the driver who offered me a ride on his luggage buggy, to the officer who pointed me to the right terminal for Malaysian Airlines, all were rendered with the famous Korean hospitality.

Food Court Fare at Incheon International Airport

Had my final Korean meal at the airport too. The price was expectedly exorbitant for the bland quality of fare I have ordered, but oh well… what should I expect? I was not about to shell out more Wons for a upmarket meals at some of the Japanese and Western eateries I saw at the aiport.

Incheon International Airport

Soon, it was time for me to board my flight, which was to transit at KLIA (was a breeze, I started blogging at the Starbucks outlet to while away the 3-hours waiting time) before heading back to Changi. The flight was unceremonious, except that… I cried while reading my holiday book The Gift. Kinda embarassing, and thank goodness there was nobody sitting next to me.

I arrived earlier than expected at Singapore, about 20 minutes earlier. By the time I cleared the custom, shopped at DFS, collected my luggage and cabbed home, it was just slightly before 9 p.m. Grateful I was to be back on familiar ground and to be back into the normal grind of life, but I kept having the feeling that I left half my heart behind…

… in the form of two friends whom I got to know much better through the trip, both good and bad. Another step upwards in our friendships. I am sure of that.

Click here for the final set of photos I took from this Korea trip.

The Seoul of Korea: Day 5 – Seodaemun Prison, Seoul World Cup Stadium & Hangang River Ferry Cruise

Rest from the night before was a blessing to all of us. We were well rested and able to take on Seoul for the fifth day! This also marked my last full day in Seoul, and I intend to make the best out of it by setting out to see some of the more out-of-way attraction spots in this city.

Breakfast @ Dunkin Donuts

We had an early start for the day; I remembered because we found a Dunkin Donuts outlet in Insadong and had a good breakfast there! These four doughnuts, plus the drink, were not mine. They were Shafik’s, and Shafik’s alone. He devoured this under 15 minutes and ordered another drink. One has to wonder if his stomach is indeed bottomless? And, yes, I know Seoul and Dunkin Donuts do not exactly go together. But we were hungry, and I needed a sugar fix. So we didn’t really care.

Dodaemun Metro Station

Our destination was a mere three metro stations away from Jongno-san (3) Ga. Upon alighting from the train, I realised that we had the entire station to ourselves, and instantly we know that this got to be the most historically rich station off all. The walls were adorned with marble plaques with Korean writing on them. Cheryl was able to read some… and told me they were names. Hundreds of them. It dawned on me, then, they must be the names of Korean heroes from the place we were about to visit.

At Seodaemun Prison

The Seodaemun Prison was a stark reminder of the sufferings of Korean independence fighters who challenged Japanese colonial rule (1910-45). It contains an entrance gate, two watchtowers, a wooden execution house, interrogation cells and eight of the original 18 red-brick prison buildings. Built to house 500 prisoners, up to 3000 were packed inside during the height of the anti-Japanese protests in 1919.

At Seodaemun Prison

Altogether 40,000 freedom fighters passed through the entrance gate and at least 400 died or were killed inside, including Ryu Gwan-sun, an Ewha high-school student who was tortured to death in 1920. Overcrowding, lack of food, beatings and torture were daily facts of life, and the interrogation cells give a vivid and nightmarish demonstration of what went on there.

At Seodaemun Prison

The independence fighters were brave but too few to threaten the Japan’s brutal rule, which attempted cultural genocide – banning the Korean language and forcing Koreans to adopt Japanese names (12% refused).

At Seodaemun Prison - The Secret Tunnel

The prison, now serving as one of the most important historical landmark of South Korea, was tastefully designed to educate the visitors on the hardship these warriors had to go through during the Japanese rule. The secret tunnel where corpses were ferried out of the prison, the execution chamber, vivid replay of prisoners’ torture (nail prickling, torture box, electric shocks, just to name a few), the house of leper, the actual prison building, the cramped cell… it was a harrowing morning for all of us. Cheryl, Shafik and I left the prison compound in a sombre mood and a newly-gained respect to the steadfastness of Korean patriotic spirit.

Seoul World Cup Stadium

Now on to less-sombering stuff! When I saw descriptions on the World Cup Stadium in the Lonely Planet guidebook, I knew I had to pay a visit. No, I am no soccer fan (you’ll know why in a sec), but architecture of stadiums always fascinates me. The grandeur, the scale, the vastness… yes, I like it big. LOL.

Inside the Seoul World Cup Stadium

Costing US$151 million, the spectacular 64,000-seat World Cup Stadium was built to stage the opening ceremony and some of the matches of the 2002 World Cup soccer finals, which Korea cohosted with Japan. Under the stadium is CGV, lots of small shops, a giant hypermarket and household goods. Around the stadium are large parks that have been cleverly reclaimed from landfill sites and returned to natural states.

Inside the Seoul World Cup Stadium

For a mere W1,500 (that’s about S$2), I get to go inside the stadium, onto the pitch and into the locker rooms! Again we had the entire stadium almost entirely to ourselves. Rows and rows of seats, perfect green grass, sitting at field side… I felt almost like a soccer player myself. LOL. And of course we did a great many video, like how I tried to come up with a soccer strategy which was a total failure (see below), changing in the local room and was rudely interrupted by incoming visitors, a full length tour of the soccer players’ locker room, and of me showing off my non-existent soccer skills in the warm up room.

We also took a great many photos of here, many were beautiful because of the majestic stadium. There was also a soccer stadium attached, depicting the colourful history of soccer mania in Korea (look at the soccer players!) and visiting football teams. It was also here where I discovered that my digicam has a wide landscape function. I know, I am such a total klutz! To thin that I have been using the camera for almost two years now.

Picnic @ Seoul World Cup Stadium

We had plenty of time left before our plan for the evening, so we decided, impulsively, to have a picnic right here! The weather was lovely, we saw some green parks around the stadium, and there was a hypermart in the mall where we can get some food.

And so we did. Granted, we could have chosen a better spot than a non-grassy plain next to the helipad (yes, there was one right outside the stadium). We had a great time trying NOT to get sand into our food, as well as to play with them. Like how fling a peanut is really a lost art form, and why certain things are not safe for work (NSFW).

Our next plan was to take on the Hangang River Ferry Cruise. However, time flew by faster than we expect, and by the time we were ready to leave the stadium, it was already past 6 p.m., and the ferry was to depart at 7.30 p.m.! So it was a mad, mad rush for all of us from the stadium to Yeouido pier. Like, Amazing Race style (see above).

Hangang River Ferry Cruise

We made it to the ferry in the nick of time, but not before all of us were breathless from the run (yes, we ran from the metro station to the ferry), all sweaty and bothered. Okay, that sounded sexy, but actually it wasn’t. Less than five minutes after we came onboard, the ferry started to sail away from the pier. Phew!

Hangang River Ferry Cruise

The river ferry cruise took us back and forth across different sections of Seoul, including Yeuido, Yanghwa, Ttsukseom and Jamsil. There was a live performance onboard (attracted mainly middle age aunties), but we were more interested staying at the deck of the ship to take in the sight. Night has fallen and everything was dark, so it was difficult to make out what is what. But we had a better time relaxing facing the night wind (chilling as it was), just talking and be with each other without a mad rush to another point. It was calming and relaxing… and as strange as this may sound, I found this to be the highlight of my trip.

Larvae - Korean Delicacy

Upon alighting from the Hangang River Ferry Cruise, I decided once and for all to try the Korean roadside delicacy which I have seen everywhere I go – a big pot of steaming hot larvae. The smell was kinda nauseating, but not bad enough for the adventurous side of me not to take a little dip into the (literally) unknown.

It wasn’t that bad, actually. Tasted like chicken. Though I finish only 1/3 of the cup. LOL. This is a video of me taking my first bite, and here’s the second part. I even managed to convince Cheryl to try out (her being a Korean princess and all), but the single piece of larva she tasted proven to be too much for her.

Last Dinner @ Insadong

Soon we were back in Insadong for my last dinner. We trawled the streets of Insadong at night, which was totally different from the day as the sleazy part of this culture-rich district came out to play. We found a satisfying cafe at which I bought everyone dinner. It was a good one – Korean food for me, lots of meat for Shafik, and non-veg for Cheryl.

A befitting end to an adventurous day, and to my last day in Seoul. Click here for the full set of photos for today.

The Seoul of Korea: Day 4 – Seoul Zoo @ Seoul Grand Park & Seoul Plaza

After a thoroughly rowdy evening the night before, understandably we slept in late, drillers notwithstanding. By the time we woke up and got ready for the day ahead, our collective heads were still pounding and it was wayyyy past lunch time even. So after a quick lunch (or bulgogi beef, which was satisfactory) near Beewon, we headed to a very unlikely tourist destination.

At Seoul Zoo

THE ZOO!!! Of all things we decided to do, we decided to see animals on two, four or more legs. Actually it was stemmed from none other than Shafik. Everytime I asked him where he felt like going (since I am the type who don’t plan my holiday itinerary beforehand), he will say “I want to see animals”. So the Seoul Zoo, it was!

Seoul Grand Park, Gwacheon

The Seoul Zoo is located at Seoul Grand Park, a park complex to the south of Seoul, in the city of Gwacheon. Alighting at the Grand Park metro station, the walk towards the entrance was like walking in Hong Kong Disneyland. The main path was packed with hawkers selling similar food stuff and tourist trinkets. It’s just that they are not touty in any way, which was a blessing after my experience in Istanbul. From the big glass building, we have three options to get up the hill towards the entrance of the zoo – a tram, a skylift, or a 15-mins walk.

Skylift at Seoul Grand Park, Gwacheon

And we took the skylift. It was perfect madness. Me, the guy with a severe phobia of height, was going to sit on a chair with no foot rest and get dangled metres above water and ground. I remember nothing much of the ride up, which took an unbelievably long time, as I had my eyes closed most of the time. To go over the hills was not that bad, but it was over open water (there was a large lake) that scared the beejesus out of me!

At Seoul Zoo

Soon we was in the zoo! I have to say, for a mere W3,000 (that’s less than 4 bucks), you get to experience a huge and beautiful zoo in all its glory. The excellent and extensive zoo (Seoul’s best) is set among forested hillsides and families picnic along the shady banks of a stream that runs through the park. You can hike along a number of marked trails that stretch 2km to 6km. The zoo is home to a long list of exotic creatures, including the African ones.

The best way to enjoy the zoo was to take a second skylift up to the topmost of the zoo, and then walk our way down slowly towards the exit, enjoying the animals along the way. We took a great many photos throughout the trip. Here are some of the best ones:

At Seoul Zoo

Polar Bears at Seoul Zoo

At Seoul Zoo

At Seoul Zoo

Giraffes At Seoul Zoo

My stay at the zoo also showed me something about Korean parents. There were a million children at the zoo, considering that it was a Saturday and all. But instead of hordes of screaming and crying children generally becoming a nuisance to everyone else… the Korean kids were an obedient bunch. No, they are still mischievous and curious about everything. The parents, instead of “tying a verbal leash” on their offspring to control their behavior by scolding and instructing and commanding, they… talked. They talked to their children, played with them, laughed, had fun.

Of course, Cheryl was the one who pointed this out to me. From that point onwards I start to realise that this was indeed true. The Korean parents are really different from the typical Asian parents I saw before. Is it little wonder why the Koreans are such a progressive society? The younger generation need not to be policed, and the adults created an environment of encouragement, supportive and stimulating.

At Seoul Zoo

And with that, I brought out the child in me and bought a blue dolphin helium balloon. LOL. It floated alongside me as I walked around the zoo. Sometimes my blue dolphin will see its siblings (fellow blue dolphins) and relatives (pink dolphins)… and I will grin at the startled owners, the kids. Hahaha. It was really fun, at least for me, though Cheryl and Shafik though I was out of my mind.

At Seoul Train Station

We left the zoo in the late afternoon, and by the time we hit back to the city, it was well past 7 p.m. Headed to the Seoul train station so that Cheryl and Shafik get buy their express train tickets to Busan. The plan was that they will leave Seoul for Busan the same morning I return to Singapore. I stayed in Seoul for about 6 days, and they were to extend their stay for another 5 days.

At Seoul Plaza

Right after that we headed to Seoul Plaza, planning to do some shopping. Seoul Plaza is a central plaza located in front of Seoul City Hall at Taepyeongno, Jung-gu with the purpose to provide the public an open space. I must have mistaken, for Seoul Plaza is not a shopping place. More like a venue for concerts and stuff. There was one in progress, apparently for the disabled people in Seoul.

We went back to Beewon for the night at the early hour of 9 p.m.! Which was a good thing, actually. We rested, talked and generally let our tired body recover from the past few hectic days.

Click here to see photos taken during my fourth day in Seoul, mostly of animals in the zoo. We don’t look very photogenic that day!

The Seoul of Korea: Day 3 – Excursion to Haenggung and Hwaseong (Suwon Fortress) @ Suwon City & Night Out @ Itaewon

Third day in Seoul already! This was the start of the remaining 60% of my trip (I always think of my trips in percentages that way), and we started off early because of the out-of-Seoul day trip we were about to embark off.

Brunch @ Insadong

But of course, first thing first. We went off in hunt for a suitable food place, and at that hour in the morning (about 9 a.m.), we were disappointed to find most of the places around Beewon were closed. But after some venture into the other side of Insadong, we hit jackpot! Had this most authentic brunch at this little Korean couple-run eatery, where I had this amazing ginseng soup and spring chicken stuffed with glutinous rice. How… riveting.

Brunch @ Insadong

After the brunch, we made our way to the subway for the one-hour ride to Suwon, our destination of the day. It was so far out from Seoul that the train map in Lonely Planet did not even show Suwon station. It went right off the page! With the addition of a couple of stations along the subway line we were on, for a few moments we panicked that we were on the wrong train. But my gut instinct preserved and soon we alighted at Suwon, found the tourist information office, and off we went to Suwon City on a cab!

At Haenggung, Suwon

The cab driver dropped us at Haenggung, a “temporary palace” built by King Jeongjo, who stayed here on his visits to his father’s grave, which is nearby. His father met a tragic fate, the victim of court’s intrigues, he was suffocated in a rice chest. Courtyard follows courtyard as you walk around the large wall complex.

At Haenggung, Suwon

One hall depicts the 60th birthday party of King Jeongjo’s mother, while another hall features Daejanggeum, a female Joseon dynasty cook who rose from humble beginnings to a high position in the royal court. The TV drama about her has been a huge hit throughout Asia, and was partly filmed here (you know, Da Chang Jin in Singapore?). Military uniforms and weapons are on display and you can make a wish and tie to the oldest tree in Suwon. Other activities take place, mainly at the weekend.

At Haenggung, Suwon

We took a great many photos here, but truth to be told… once you have seen one Korean palace, you have seen it all. The palaces all started to look the same to me, except for the differences in its history. So after spending about an hour here taking in the sights (including a uniformed male guard who was flirting with a female visitor!), we made our way uphill to begin our proper tour around the Suwon Fortress, also known as Hwaseong in Korean.

At Hwaseong (Suwon Fortress)

This World Heritage fortress is in Suwon, which is home to a million residents. The majestic fortress wall snakes 5.7 km around the city center, and 95% has been faithfully restored. It was originally constructed between 1794 and 1796, during the reign of King Jeongjo, a much loved monarch due to his filial piety, and concern for ordinary people. The fortress wall is made of earth and faced with large stone blocks, while additional features are built of grey bricks.

At Hwaseong (Suwon Fortress)

Hiking all the way around the walls takes two hours and include views of the city, large entrance gates, small secret gates, sentry towers, bastions, command posts, a giant bell, and archery field, and the signal beacon platform used for sending messages in an age before mobile phones.

At Hwaseong (Suwon Fortress)

To “speed up” our tour around the entire fortress wall, the three of us took the trolley ride from on top of a hill. The tram will snake around at least half of the walls which surrounded the city. We were at the last seat, thinking that our view will be awesome since there were no seats in front of us… only to discover that a non-English speaker attendant will perch himself right in front of us Cheryl throughout the trip.

At Hwaseong (Suwon Fortress)

We were unbelievably quick to take nice photos even as the tram was moving. The sights around Suwon Fortress was truly beautiful. It was hard not to be envious of Suwon residents to be living within this very ancient walls. The people of Suwon were out in full force to appreciate the grandeur of their city and the awesome cherry blossom season.

And of course, we didn’t lose out and did a very funny video during the tram ride. Watch out for how Cheryl describe her “uncle’s residential palace” while Shafik did an impromptu dance. Yes, really, he did that! And here’s another video on what we saw during the ride.

Lunch @ Yenpo Galbi

At the end of the tram ride, we found ourselves in front of an archery field (which I wanted to try but got distracted by souvenir shopping) and a Korean restaurant called Yenpo Galbi. This famous log cabin restaurant serves us galbi including a special Suwon version of galbitang – chunks of meat and a big rib in a seasoned broth with noodles and leeks.

Lunch @ Yenpo Galbi

It was also here where I made my first acquaintance with Seju, a local alcohol packed in smallish bottle, which tasted like vodka. At only W3,000 each, it was a bargain and a sure fire way to, you know, drunkard heaven. LOL. One tip – mix this with ice cubes and orange juice, and you can’t tell the difference between that and those expensive jugs you always get in Singapore clubs.

At Hwaseong (Suwon Fortress)

After our hefty lunch (which only cost W28,000 in total!), we continue scaling the wall of Suwon Fortress towards the exit, taking in the sights along the wall, sentries, gateways, smoke beacons, pavilions. And being our silly selves, we took many funny videos of us here along the wall. Here’s one of Shafik and I “fighting on a pavilion (see below too), one of Cheryl asking for more abuse from Shafik, and (of course) a commentary from Cheryl on being a Korean princess.

The officers of UNESCO would probably have a heart attack if they see the kind of atrocities we were up to along this world heritage site. To this day I am still amazed on how close you could come up to these ancient monuments of Korea. In Europe, such sites would probably be cordoned off with thick ropes and manned with guards – you can only admire them from afar. In Seoul, however, you can literally climb onto one, have a sword-vs-scarf fight, and take a video without anyone shouting abuse at you. Of course, we didn’t spoil anything!

Fresh Produce Market @ Suwon - Ginseng

At the exit of Suwon Fortress, there was a fresh produce market (if I am not mistaken, it was called Jieju Market). You shoud see the amount of seafood and exotic items on sale – including mountains of ginseng on display in baskets and trays, as if they are mere vegetables. In Singapore, such ginseng would probably be boxed up and locked away in shops.

Dinner @ Insadong

By the time we were back in Insadong, it was already pass 7 p.m. and we were famished. Managed to find this BBQ place run by a Mandarin-speaking owner (what are the chances?) and we had the most satisfying BBQ meal ever.

Right after dinner, we went back to Beewon, slept for two hours, before dolled ourselves up for another night out at Itaewon (Hongik was just a little to tame for us, hehe). And wild it was! I can’t even remember what time we came back to our room… probably in the dawn or something.

Click here for the full set of photos taken during the third day of my holiday in Seoul. Plenty of nice photos, including some awesome Sakura in Suwon!

The Seoul of Korea: Day 2 – Gyeongbokgung (Palace of Shining Happiness), Namdaemun Market, Namsan Summit, N Seoul Tower, Myeong-Dong Catholic Cathedral & Hongik University District

After our rowdy night the day before, what with all the hotel-toilet-crashing and bashing-into-lamp-posts (plural), we were all understandably shagged to the max. Tried to sleep in late, but the workers upstairs turned up for work right on time, and at 8 a.m. sharp the drilling, knocking and smashing began. It was impossible to sleep, hence I roused Shafik and Cheryl so that we can begin our day early.

On the way to Gyeongbokgung

Our first destination of the day was within walking distance from Beewon, right smack in between Jongno-san (3) Ga station and Anguk station. The early morning walk was really refreshing, and soon we found the palace… but first thing first – we need to feed our stomach!

Breakfast @ Lime Tree, near Gyeongbokgung

The Lime Tree Cafe & Deli was a quaint, atmospheric eatery serving your typical Western food fare. The food was nice, but what really attracted us was the internal deco. The owner really put in a lot of thoughts into setting up a place like that. When I have my own book cafe, I would want it to be like that!

At Gyeongbokgung, The Palace of Shining Happiness

Right after breakfast, we went over to Gyeongbokgung, the must-see tourist destination in Seoul. And rightly so – we were sharing the entire palace with an unbelievable number of shrieking children, apparently on school trips there. There were also hundreds of men in uniform – the Royal Naval Academy of Thailand was out in full force as well. Understandbly, Gyeongbokgung was packed to the max.

At Gyeongbokgung, The Palace of Shining Happiness

Why so? The Palace of Shining Happiness was originally built by King Tajeo, the founder of the Joseon dynasty, and is the grandest of Seoul palaces served as the principal palace until 1592, when it was burnt down during the Japanese invasions. It lay in ruins for nearly 300 years until Heungseon Daewongun, regent and father of King Gojong, started to rebuild it in 1865. King Gojong moved in during 1868, but the expensive rebuilding project nearly bankrupted the government.

At Gyeongbokgung, The Palace of Shining Happiness

Two of the grandest architectural sights in Seoul are here. The first is the two-storey, ornate Geunjeongjeon, the main palace buildings where kings were crowned, met foreign envoys and conducted affairs of state. It is best viewed from the imposing second entrance gate, Heungnyemun, which is guarded by soldiers in Joseon uniform With its double-tiered stone platform, flagstone courtyard and surrounding open-sided corridors, Geunjeongjeon is an impressive sight.

At Gyeongbokgung, The Palace of Shining Happiness

To the left is Gyeonghoeru, a large raised pavilion resting on 48 stone pillars and overlooking an artificial lake with two small islands, which is almost as grand a scene. State banquets were held inside.

The Changing of Guard Ceremony @ Gyeongbokgung

Just as we arrived at the palace, the changing of guard ceremony kicked off! We were lucky to be able to catch the colourful ceremony, complete with traditional Korean music, march past of guards in colourful costumes, flag bearers, ancient weapons… you get the drift. Here’s a video of the event.

At Gyeongbokgung, The Palace of Shining Happiness

One of the best thing about this palace was that they allow you to don a set of traditional Korean costume and take photos… for free! They even have assistants whom will help you to wear the costume correctly! The only catch was that, you must wear the whole set and not just parts of it. I reckon it was out of respects for the Korean culture.

At Gyeongbokgung, The Palace of Shining Happiness

The costume was huge and “flowy”, and being the klutz I was, I managed to trip myself at least half a dozen time walking around the palace to take photos. Shafik and Cheryl were game enough to wait for me to try this out, and to take photos for me. Thanks, guys! :)

At Gyeongbokgung, The Palace of Shining Happiness

A word about the Cherry Blossom Season in Korea. During the season, sakura flowers across Korea and Japan will bloom in unison. A riot of colour of colours engulf the cities, including Seoul, providing excellent photography opportunities. The whole season lasts a little more than a week every year, usually during early April. When I booked for the trip, I have never heard of this, and it was by pure coincident that the three of us visited Seoul during the peak of the bloom, so to speak. We took plenty of photos of blooming Sakura everywhere we went!

At Namdaemun Market

After an exhausting morning at the palace, we took a cab to the Namdaemun Market, which was located at the Myeung-dong district. This huge night-and-day market dates back to the 15th century and has thousands of shops and stalls selling food, ginseng, dried seaweed, clothes, shoes, hiking gear, watches, handicrafts, spectacles and contact lenses. Food stalls offer cheap meals for the adventurous, including octopus and tteokbokki (pressed rice cakes and veggies in a spicy sauce).

At Namdaemun Market

Despite what the Lonely Planet said about this market, to me, Namdaemun Market was nothing more than a cleaner, more organised version of Chatuchak (the famous market in Bangkok), with only half the fun shopping at the latter. We bought little more than some snack, which wasn’t that great to begin with. We also had our lunch here – mildly satisfactory. It was over lunch that I decided that, yes, I do not and could not like kimchi!

From the market, we navigated our way to the Namsan Summit, where the N Seoul Tower was located at. It was within walking distance, but not exactly very near to walk. As usual, we amused ourselves with silly antics throughout the way.

N Seoul Tower

N Seoul Tower is a communication tower located in Seoul, South Korea. Built in 1969, and opened to the public in 1980, the tower measures 236.7 m (777 ft) in height (from the base) and tops out at 479.7 m (1,574 ft) above sea level. It has also been known as the Namsan Tower or Seoul Tower. After the tower’s original owner merged with the CJ Corporation, it was renamed the N Seoul Tower (official name CJ Seoul Tower).

Namsan Cable Car

Most visitors ride the Namsan cable car up the mountain, and then walk to the tower. I don’t know about you, but I have a phobia of height. So riding on the cable car across valleys (albeit beautiful, with all the blooming flowers) was a terrifying experience. Thank goodness it was a quick ride!

Teddy Bears @ Namsan Summit

The tower features a gift shop and restaurants on the ground floor. Visitors may go up the tower for a fee. There are four observation decks (the 4th observation deck, which is the revolving restaurant, rotates at a rate of one revolution every 48 minutes), as well as gift shops and two restaurants. Most of the city of Seoul can be seen from the top.

At Teddy Bear Museum, Namsan Summit

But did you know the main attraction of this spot was a teddy bear museum? Apparently this is a spin-off from the original one at Jeju Island. But the three of us sure had a whale of time shopping at the museum shop (at which I spent most of my shopping budget) and of course the museum itself. Took a great many photos at the museum, which featured bears in various scenes throughout the history of Korea. I even made a Vlog featuring (Princess) Cheryl telling us how bears were the ones who built her *cough* castle *cough*.

By the end of our little adventure here, I was absolutely beat, and I can tell that Shafik and Cheryl were utterly exhausted too. But I was hell bent on visiting a Seoul cathedral. To me, to visit a place of Jesus-worship in a predominantly Buddhist country was truly a novelty. And there happen to be one nearby where we were.

Myeong-Dong Night Market

On the way to the said cathedral, we passed by the night market of Myeong-dong. Actually, Myeong-dong is a compact, traffic-quiet zone packed with fashion stores that attract mainly young shoppers. From here you can find many shops you could typically see in Singapore, but it was the fashionable crowd which caught my attention. I was not sure if this was the Orchard Road of Seoul, but it sure felt like it.

Myeong-Dong Catholic Cathedral

And so on to the cathedral. The Myeong-Dong Catholic Cathedral is an elegant brick Renaissance-style Cathedral was constructed between 1894 and 1898 by Chinese bricklayers. Inside, the traditional vaulted ceiling and stained-glass windows contrast with the modern air-conditioning and the TV screens that help worshipers at the back see what is going on. The cathedral provided a sanctuary for student and trade-union protesters during the long period of military rule after the Korean War, and is a national symbol of democracy and human rights.

Myeong-Dong Catholic Cathedral

During our visit, a mass was in session, presided over by a nun. According to Cheryl, it was amazing that a weekday evening mass like this was so well attended, unlike in Singapore. I felt very disrespectful to take photos while the mass was in progress, so after a few quick snaps, I stopped. Partly because the droning voice of the nun (can a female lead a mass?) was mystical if not a bit eerie, and partly also because I saw some very interesting features in this church.

Myeong-Dong Catholic Cathedral

If you, like me, are a fan of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, you will know why I find at least three features of this main door interesting. I won’t go into the details out of respect for my Catholic readers, but if you would like to know what I am talking about, drop me a note.

Night @ Hongik District

Our final destination of the day was Hongik, a student-filled district because of the nearby Hongik University. After a relatively long train ride from Myeong-dong to Hongik, we immersed ourselves among hordes of students – both locals and foreigners. It was indeed a very vibrant “university town”, with fashionable students walking up and down the streets, plentiful of shops catering to the young crowd, impromptu student music group performances, youth parks complete with localised graffiti… you get the drift.

Night @ Hongik District

We had our dinner here at Whoppee (the Korean version of Pizza Hut, where I fall asleep waiting for my food – I was that tired!) before trawling the streets looking for nice places to drink. Found a basement jazz bar playing absolutely delicious classic jazz songs, with a Korean waitress who speak close-to-perfect English! After that, we spent almost an hour walking up and down the streets trying to look for another bar playing English songs, and finally settled for a second-floor place called Storm Bar.

By the end of the night, we were so beat (and me, a bit high from the endless rounds of Long Island Tea) that we took a cab back to Beewon and called it a night. I guess we all needed the rest!

Click here for the full set of photos we took for the day. My camera’s memory card somehow maxed out during our time at Gyeongbokgung, so for the rest of the day I was snapping away using Cheryl’s. Thanks, girl :)

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.

The Seoul of Korea: Enroute to Seoul

The start of another journey – this time to the most intriguing city in Asia (or so claimed the Lonely Planet guidebook), Seoul in South Korea. The idea of the trip was born a couple of months back as a 21st birthday present for Shafik. Now presenting the fabulous trio who will soon terrorise Seoul with their total random bout of nonsense and insatiable hunger for food and drinks.

Checking In @ Changi Airport

Here’s the birthday boy, Shafik, whose birthday was actually last month but it was not until today that all three of our schedules were able to make it for the trip.

Checking In @ Changi Airport

And here’s the lovely Cheryl, who had to go through a lot to be able to go for this trip. She totally deserves this holiday, and Shafik and I vowed to make it a happy one for all of us!

Inside a Malaysian Airlines Plane

My airline of choice was Malaysian Airlines, over Singapore Airlines (which was too expensive) and Korean Airlines (which didn’t give me the confidence for a good ride). Alas, my previous wonderful experience on MAS to Sydney did not extend to this trip. The plane was tired looking and the seats were donned in a lurid combination of colours. Worst of all, there were no inflight entertainment! A far cry from my experience on SQ during my winter trip.

In addition, the flight also took way too long. First of all we had to fly into KL for transit, which include a 3-hour wait at KLIA. Then enroute to Seoul we have to stop at Kota Kinabalu for an hour before moving on. It was an ironic experience for me to return to my birth town after leaving it almost 30 years ago… and not being able to even set foot on the ground.

All in all we took about 12 hours for an otherwise 7-hour journey and it was definitely tiring. Remind me only to choose SQ next time!

My Holiday Read - "The Gift" by Cecilia Ahern

How would a holiday be complete without the compulsory accompaniment novel? For this trip, I brought along the latest novel from Cecilia Ahern title “The Gift”, which was totally engrossing ten pages into the tale. It was not until the end of my trip when I finally managed to finish the entire novel… in a flood of tears. Ahern has the impeccable capability to weave a TV-like magical quality to her stories, and this was one of her best. Highly recommended!

So… we only arrived at Incheon International Airport in Seoul the next day, so the tale of our arrival will continue on Day 1 of my “The Seoul of Korea” series!

Click here for the full set of photos taken pre-flight to Seoul.