Having a great interest in traditional eastern culture as well as state of the art technology, you would love Seoul, South Korea. For starters, South Korea not so long ago was considered a third-world country and is now one of the world’s leaders in economic development. Having said that, the experience of Seoul was a mix of new and old, as they erected modern development around traditional South Korean culture.
Day 0 – Flight
The flight was about 12 hours on Asiana Airlines from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Incheon Airport (ICN). If possible, travel with enough people that will allow you to fill the row you sit on (that you wouldn’t mind sitting next to), or just hope for decent seat neighbors. In my case, my uncle that I flew with sat on my left while I sat in the middle between him and this lady who had the window seat. Although my uncle was invading my “assigned space”, it wasn’t nearly as bad as the lady who decided to sleep halfway on my seat when I leaned forward to grab something from my bag, not allowing me to lean backward onto my seat. That was probably the most uncomfortable 12 hours of my life but at least the food that was served was really good and the in-flight entertainment had a good variety between English/Korean/Chinese/Japanese music and movies. For the in-flight meals, you have the option between Korean and Western food, and I chose Korean and ended up with bibimbap (signature Korean mixed-rice dish) that came with soup and fruits. It was delicious, healthy and filling.
Our first day in Seoul started out with leaving the airport on the airport limousine, which is just a really nice bus, checking out the hotel, dropping off our bags and then waiting 10 hours until our check-in time. Our hotel that we stayed at was the CONRAD Seoul, a five star hotel in the center of the business district in Yeouido. Because my uncle has a timeshare with the Hilton, we were able to book this 5-star hotel which is under the Hilton family. During our 10 hour wait, we ventured the surrounding areas and found that directly under our hotel was a 4-story below ground mall, the IFC mall. Here we had breakfast at McDonalds. To our delight, there were several stores that we recognized and pricing was fairly similar to prices in the U.S. After leaving the mall, we checked out a nearby outdoor area which had a nice water stream that you could dip your feet in and relax. From here we walked to Yeouido park, which itself was probably one of the best highlights of my trip. The park consisted of three man-made ponds, a statue of King Sejong who created the Korean alphabet, a Korean traditional forest with little pagodas for resting, and a 3.9km track for walking, 2.4km for biking, with little outdoor gym machines areas around the track. After our park visit, we walked back to the hotel and were able to check-in 3 hours early. When we arrived at our room, we were shocked at how technologically advanced everything was from the card tap door lock, the TV within the bathroom mirror, to the automated blinds and light control.
We opted to include the breakfast buffet to our hotel stay, and it was probably one of the best choices we made. The food that was served was all gourmet foods, ranging from healthy to very healthy with a few exceptions. This made me realize how much the Korean culture promoted healthy living just based on the food choices and the extent of recreational activities provided by the government. After breakfast, we went down to the subway which is connected to the mall underneath out hotel. They call it the MRT, and what it is, is pretty much the main source of transportation around Seoul. You can pretty much get to the main attractions in Seoul on your feet from a subway station. In order to get on the MRT, you’ll need a pass, also known as a T-money card, which is a refillable tap card that you use to gain access to the MRT line that you’re going to ride. You can buy these at any station and they also work at some convenience stores. By the way, the Korean MRT system is very easy to use, because every line is color coded and numbered. Just remember the stop you came from and the stop that you’re at, connect the dots using the subway map, and you’re set. Our first stop was Gwanghwamun, which is where we bought tickets to the Seoul City Tour bus, which cost about 13-14 dollars for a 2 day pass. There are plenty of tours around Seoul, but we chose this one because it allowed us to get on and off at any tour destination and get back on later. From this line we visited the Korean national history museum, the Namsan Tower, two huge palaces, as well as just driving by several landmarks with the detailed audio history provided by the bus.
Because I was a little jet lagged, I ended up waking up every morning at 5am, waited until 6am to go swimming at the hotel pool, which was luxurious. The water that filled it mirrored the glass ceiling, and it was as clear and clean as distilled water. After my morning swim, I went back upstairs, showered, and awaited breakfast. After breakfast, we walked to the subway, and took the MRT to Gangnam, where the Gangnam-style song took place. It was known for its expensive shops, and being the “Beverly hills of Seoul”.
We didn’t get to experience it much because we just walked through it since my uncles weren’t too interested in these shops. After our visit here, we went to the Lotte department store in Myeondong. This also was a fancy department store that also had a really nice food area underground. It was very crowded but the food was really good. We ended up eating some snacks here and went on back to Yeouido where we walked the track around the island and saw the outdoor swimming pools filled with several swimmers of all ages. As night came upon us, we almost walked into a filming of a korean commercial, which seemed pretty common in that area. After that, we bought our tickets for the river cruise for the following day. That night we met up with my friend who is going to medical school in Seoul, and luckily his school was right off the MRT stop so we didn’t have to walk far. He took us out to some authentic Korean food and we ordered cold noodles, and some Korean beef dishes with some soju and beer. The price is a little steep for what would have cost a lot less in a Korean restaurant in Korea town/Los Angeles, but the experience was priceless and the taste was genuine. We explored Hyehwa’s college environment afterward, did some shopping and went back to the hotel.
After my morning routine of swimming the breakfast, we ventured down to the IFC mall and visited Itaewon, which is known for being the foreigner area of Korea. Here, mostly everyone spoke English, and it seemed like everyone was trying to sell you things as if you were at an amusement park. We stayed for a little bit and then moved on back to the hotel as we waited for the river cruise to start. When it came time to go to the river cruise, we walked downstairs toward the subway, and I saw one of my favorite K-pop bands signing autographs in the main stage area of the mall. I realized that the previous weekend there was also another band signing autographs, which made me come to the conclusion that this mall must attract a lot of famous people on the weekends. I thought that was pretty cool. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to stay and watch because we had our river cruise appointment. When we got to the ship, we found our spots on the top deck and we just enjoyed the tour of the river. We headed toward a really long bridge called the Banpo Bridge and waited til the sunset. When the sun went down, music started playing from the bridge and a fountain consisting of 10,000 LED nozzles shot out water in a rainbow. It was definitely a sight to see. Afterwards, we went back toward the hotel and ate dinner at Paris Baguette, where we had most of our dinners because it was such a convenient location for us.
After my morning swim and breakfast, we packed our bags and just explored the hotel. They had really nice lounge areas for executive members, which served nice little snacks and appetizers throughout the day. Unfortunately, we found out on our last day so we couldn’t make use of this paid privilege, but we were still able to enjoy the sights and comforts that the hotel had to offer. Then our Airport limo came to take us away. Until next time South Korea.
By: Anthony De Vera