Japan might be the ‘Land of the Rising Sun’, South Korea is the Land of the Morning Calm. This name was given by an emperor from the Ming Dynasty in China – calling Korea ‘Chaohsien’ which means ‘Morning Freshness’; later dubbed as ‘Morning Calm’
However this is a lie in Seoul. Seoul is the complete opposite of calm; however Jeju or other smaller cities, I see it to be more accurate. In Seoul, morning calm really only seems to exist between the super early hours of the morning, I’m going to guess between 3-4am and if it rains. This city seems to 100% energized at all times.
Jeju – the Hawaii of Korea as it’s known. Being on the farside of the island, I did not see anything that resembled Hawaii with the exception of it being an island. However, the 1/2 day I had after the conference, I can see the small resemblance – the waterfalls, hikes, beaches and lava rock beaches. This is starting to sound well at least, look a little like Hawaii. I wouldn’t call Hawaii the Jeju of America, that is just ridiculous.
This is the ‘honeymoon’ island, newlyweds tend to come here after they get married. There are a lot of families as well and no shortage of expensive places to eat. Buffets that run at ~$105 USD to a sandwich that costs ~$13. Maybe it was the side we were on (near the convention center), it’s definitely pricey with eateries mainly limited to hotel restaurants. You want to be vegetarian? Not here you don’t. You’re very limited.
I stayed at the Booyoung Hotel & Resort. Upon entering you feel like you’re in a classy clean modern yet minimalist hotel / resort. It’s just that it’s completely empty, seems like everyone is at the pool or out visiting some other hotel. One restaurant and one coffee shop in the hotel are closed, the lounge was dead – I think there was only 1 time where I saw more than 4 people.
A drive to Seogwipo was also pretty underwhelming. We were dropped off at a street market, with most of the stalls either dedicated to all things Orange (yes the fruit) or some strange sea creatures.
The hike on our last day to a few waterfalls was nice but challenging (too many steps + humidity) and of course Hyeopjae Beach was the perfect way to end the trip. Now we’re looking a little more like Hawaii.
I stayed in the heart of Seoul shopping madness – Myeongdong at the Seoul Royal Hotel (so Royal they asked me to pay 3600 KRW if I wanted some ice). Honestly, this city is itself a mall, anywhere you go. If you walk out of your hotel blindfolded, turn right, left, walk straight, take the blindfold off you’re in the middle of a shopping area, no joke. Every alleyway, every major street, every subway stop, literally people here love to buy stuff. What do they buy? Face masks and coffee. Every corner there are at least 2 skin care shops, probably next to each other and another one just across – endless supply of face masks.
I don’t really understand the Korean people but am somewhat fascinated. To me they are the palest of all Asians yet they want to be even whiter until they turn into a ghost. They want flawless porcelain skin (who cares about the rest of their body as long as the face is perfect). I was given a sample, tried it and I’m still darker than them, felt nice though.
I read a lot about how Koreans don’t care for foreigners and that’s completely true. In the subway you might get a glance or a stare (who’s this lost brown guy and why’s he on the train), you say hello or a smile to get nothing in return except a pretend ignore.
You want to survive, you better learn (or keep a copy with you) the subway map. Study this, this is your lifeline.
In the subway, girls were texting non-stop with a few that were reading. The guys were all playing some war game with a few reading articles. The older people, they’ll look at you up and down and sometimes stare. It made me laugh a few times when I look around and noticed, I’m the only non-Korean person not just in this car but maybe the next 4 subway cars; so it’s given these people will stare at a colored man who is taller than everyone around him.
Few people told me before I went to Seoul, study the subway map and the lines. I didn’t but as long as you have a copy with you, you’re fine. Like I stated before, this city is a shopping mall and the subways are no different. You can buy anything from food, water, underwear, clothes, face masks, electronics everything in these subway tunnels. Impressive, some subway entrances even have signs that tell you this is a spot for underground shopping. There are a few entrances and exits for each subway stop so make sure you know where you’re going otherwise you might unexpectedly be a block or two away from the place you want to be.
The only bus I took was the airport limo which cost 15000 won from city center (Myeongdong) to the Incheon. The rest of the time I was walking, my phone counted 38,173 steps before it died (17.43 miles) in a day. I walked anywhere between 12 – 20 miles everyday and did I feel it the minute I jumped in my bed back at the hotel.
Dubbed as the ‘Palace Greatly Blessed by Heaven’ was built in 1395, 3 years after the Joseon (Chosun) Dynasty was founded by Yi Seong Gye. Destroyed by the Japanese invasion between 1592-1598, left derelict for almost 270 years before it was reconstructed in 1861. Even today, the restoration of the main palace to the original structure continues.
Needless to say this place and the surrounding areas are massive. You can easily spend a few hours here just walking from the buildings that make up the palace area, walk through what an old Korean settlement looked like, walk through the era’s of Korea (from the mid 1900s to modern times) and into the National Museum of Korean History – which I sped through.
One would think I mentioned markets and shopping enough over the past few paragraphs but this breaks it down a bit more, other markets outside Myeongdong (view the video below)
Similar to Myeongdong but definitely more geared towards arts and crafts. From buying traditional Hanji and hanji based items to paintings, jewelry boxes, antiques etc… if you want to get your hands on some crafts go to Insadong.
A U.S. Military base exists here which makes the entire area very foreigner friendly. You have your typical Korean restaurants next to a bunch of American restaurants, think Bdubs, Taco Bell, etc… While walking around, you’ll hear a lot of English being spoken, see a bunch of westerners, U.S. military personnel in uniforms. The bars will blast America’s top 40 hits to lure us in. I figured I had enough of the walking (quite hilly in some areas) and it was time to head back.
Infamous worldwide thanks to Psy and his annoying ass ‘Gangnam Style’. Psy is still a big deal in the Korean k-pop scene. This is the ‘rich / ritzy’ part of Seoul. Walked around during the day and felt I was walking on an Asian version of Michigan Ave. Insanely packed, nothing new there. This is the place you want to be if you’re looking to go clubbing, however take note: Many places do not allow foreigners to enter. Itaewon is becoming the next area for clubbing / bars.
What is it? It’s typically the whitest / palest with the most slickest hair I’ve seen on a boy band, mixed in with electro annoying pop music and you have Korean Pop. Apparently there are some female KPOP artists as well but everyone, girls swoon over the pictures of the guys. In the markets (here we go again), you’ll see street vendors selling laminated pictures of the boys, only to remind you of how girls used to buy a bunch of Teen magazines, cut out the picture of a guy and stick them in their locker back in Jr. High. It’s still cool in Korea (not sure about the locker thing).
LOTTE Runs Seoul
Literally, Lotte runs everything. One of the largest conglomerates with department stores, chemicals, amusement parks, etc… Lotte is everywhere.
Otherwise known as Namsan Tower. It’s a solid hike to the base and then take the tram up to the top of the mountain (base of the N-Tower). I didn’t go in due to the haziness of the weather, pointless if you can’t see it from the top, but just walking around the 4 floors of … you guessed it, stores, restaurants, etc… will keep you occupied. Each level is dedicated to some thing with ‘love’, love bridge, love locks, love parade; just kidding about the parade though. Pretty cool view if it’s nice out, you can take a tram one way up and walk downstairs – I bought a roundtrip ticket.
Dongdaemun Design Plaza, probably my favorite place in Seoul. Completed in 2014 and quickly became one of Seouls premier tourist destinations. Designed by Zaha Hadid this structure is a modern, sleek, fluid curves, elongated structure that has a museum, design lab (which I was closed when I got there) and the LED rose garden with lights up the night sky. Just beautiful. Definitely need to spend more time there. You can feel some creative juices starting to flow while walking around the DDP and marveling in the sights.
‘Architecture should allow people to image what they could not have imagined before’
In the end, my take on Seoul – I was never interested in visiting Seoul, I probably would have never gone had it not been for a client in Jeju. I’m glad I went, it’s checked off and I can say I’ve been there and spent time. Would I go back, no. It’s definitely not the best place for vegetarians – I’m telling you I had a sheet of paper that said, ‘I’m vegetarian, so no meat, no fish, no fish sauce, etc…’ and I was once given a dish with prawn. Then I told another Korean what happened and she said, ‘oh yeah, you have to be super specific’ so she added, ‘no seafood, no chicken, no pork.’ I take it to a few places in Seoul, and they said they have nothing for me – some said they use Oyster Sauce others just waived me off. I was told I’d get some amazing vegetarian bibimbap in Myeongdong, it was a lie. I had vegetarian bibimbap in Jeju at some fancy ass place, totally unimpressed. I was still starving and couldn’t really finish it.
So, yeah – if you’re into fresh seafood, go to Seoul. If you’re looking for really friendly people like Bali, don’t go to Seoul. I think 3.5 days were enough and I pretty much covered everything I wanted to with the exception of the Design Lab at DDP .
I also feel I wrote a lot so hopefully this helps you plan your trip. Here’s the gallery