Travel Planning: Fall in Asia
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Review: Park Hyatt Tokyo
Recap: Time in Tokyo
Review: HND JAL First Class Lounge
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Recap: Time in Seoul
Review: ICN Cathay Pacific Lounge
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All told, we spent about 2 days and 3 nights in Seoul and to be honest, it was plenty. I didn’t particularly love anything about Seoul and wasn’t really that excited about visiting. We were mostly there because of the way our award ticket routing worked out.
The one thing I was dying to do while we were there was to visit the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, which is only about 1.5 hours North of Seoul. Chris and I both have a weird fascination with North Korea, so it was a given that we would want to check this out. Not only did we want to see the DMZ, but the area that’s actually the coolest is the Joint Security Area, which is where you can see the North and South Korean soldiers facing each other and you can technically set foot in North Korea when you’re inside of a conference room. We had initially booked a tour to see both the DMZ and JSA through Viator, but it was cancelled a few days after booking. Apparently, we were visiting near to a Korean holiday and the JSA would be closed for something like a month because of it, so even if we went another day, it wouldn’t have been possible to see. We were a bit disappointed, but went on the tour anyway.
The tour company picked us up directly from our hotel and after making a few other stops, we were on our way to the DMZ. Our first stop was Imjingak, which is a park with war artifacts and the Freedom Bridge, which POWs crossed on their way back to freedom. From there, we headed to an area built around one of the infiltration tunnels discovered by the South Koreans. The North Koreans actually tried to tunnel into South Korea, but many of the tunnels were discovered and then completed by South Korea so they could be blocked off. We put on some hard hats and took a walk down into a long, dark tunnel to see where it had been blocked off, then trekked back up the steep tunnel, which was surprisingly tough. After that, we headed to Dora Observatory, which would allow us to see over into North Korea with binoculars, but unfortunately the weather that day was misty and foggy, so we couldn’t see anything. Our last stop was Dorasan Station, which is essentially a train station used by workers who move between North and South Korea. After the DMZ tour and back in Seoul, while they had a captive (literally) audience, the tour company awkwardly took us to what was essentially a ginseng exhibition hall where employees educated us about how ginseng is grown and then tried very hard to sell it in every possible shape or form.
Once we escaped the ginseng exhibition, we were dropped off in central Seoul and set off to find lunch. A coworker of Chris’ gave us a list of recommendations for Seoul and we ended up at Mr. Pizza, which is a Korean pizza chain that caters to women. Chris was really excited to visit, which just goes to prove that he’s half female. It was kind of odd, but the pizza was decent and we honestly weren’t quite ready to foray into Korean food just yet.
After lunch, we walked along Cheonggyecheon Stream, which was created as part of a urban renewal project and was quite beautiful. Fittingly, on that rainy day, there were hundreds of umbrellas hung over the top as some sort of art installation, which was really cool looking.
As our last stop of the day, we decided to head over to the War Memorial of Korea, which was housed in quite an imposing building and was a pretty extensive museum covering much of South Korea’s history up to the Korean War. The exhibits were in Korean and English, so we could at least read things, which was nice, and it was also free. Worth a visit, but I doubt you’ll have patience for all of the exhibits. That night, we were so tired that we just skipped dinner and went straight to bed.
The next morning, we decided to visit the two main palaces in Seoul, Changdeokgung and Gyeongbokgung, which are located next to each other near downtown Seoul. We started with Changdeokgung. The various temples were beautiful, but the design doesn’t vary at all, so they are all the same colors and have the same look. After a while, the design gets a bit old and there’s not much to see. We made it out of the palace and wandered through a bit of Bukchon Hanok Village, which is a historic neighborhood with the highest concentration of traditional homes. After this, we were a little palace’d out, but decided to see Gyeongbokgung just in case it was something really good. Sure enough, the buildings had similar designs to the first palace, but the grounds were much more beautiful and we liked it much more. If you’re trying to decide which to visit, go with Gyeongbokgung.
After our busy morning, we decided to try out some Korean BBQ for a late lunch. We found a place that looked like it might have some English on the menu and sat down. Neither Chris nor I have ever had Korean BBQ before, so we ordered and then literally had no idea what to do once the food came. We knew we were supposed to cook our own food, but we didn’t know when you were supposed to start or how high to turn the burner on or anything. So we kind of just sat there trying to find someone nearby who was cooking to use as an example or trying to find someone who spoke English that we could ask. Unfortunately, there was no one. After a while, our waitress came back (she spoke zero English) and said some things in what sounded like very exasperated Korean. She started cooking stuff for us and we basically gave her sheepish looks and tried to apologize for our ignorance. That was enough Korean food for me!
Seoul was an interesting city, but is definitely not a place I feel the need to return to. I’m sure I would like a smaller Korean city more, so maybe someday, but on this trip, we were happy to be heading to Hong Kong early the next morning.
Just a twenty-something with a full-time job and a full-time obsession with traveling. It's best to LiveTraveled.