South Korea is probably not at the top of everyone’s tourist destination list when traveling to Asia. These lists probably start with the more popular countries of Japan, Hong Kong, and Thailand. And while those countries are near the top of my list as well, it made me that much more excited to spend five days in South Korea. Everyone has heard of it, sees Samsung phones and Kia cars every day but I feel people don’t really know too much about the country. I’d argue North Korea is even more well-known than their neighbor to the South, although that is mainly for bad, nuclear-program related things. Since South Korea isn’t known as a huge tourist destination, especially for westerners and in the winter, I knew it would be a challenging country to explore. Luckily for me, my buddy Yun, who was born in Korea and lived there until he was 14, was there for a few months and offered to show me around. As soon as I heard he’d be my willing tour guide, I booked a ticket from Bali and decided to go for it.
The extent of my South Korean knowledge was small, in fact, the entirety of it was from the four Korean BBQ experiences I had with Yun during our Remote Year trip. Of all the places to eat Korean BBQ, I enjoyed it in Chile, Colombia, and Mexico. Each time was a new and different experience and I really loved the action of cooking your own food on the grill in front of you. It was the only context I had for the country but at the end that was enough for me, especially since it was food related.
My flight from Bali left at 1:00am and was 7 hours to Seoul. I was able to sleep on the plane so I arrived in Seoul at around 8:00am. My next task was getting to my AirBnb with no cell phone data, no English signs to refer to, and a 2-hour train ride with multiple changes. All I had was a short paragraph of directions that Yun had sent me and although it seemed easy enough, it proved to be a bit challenging. I got through customs, got my bag, and then went to go buy a train ticket. After several unsuccessful attempts and no luck talking with the information desk, I realized I needed local cash to buy the ticket. I found an ATM and got out some local money. Next, I bought the ticket and went down to the platform. Since my stop was so far away and not on the airport line, I had trouble figuring out which train to hop on. I decided to pick the one that most people were getting on and hoped it was the correct one. I rode this train for about an hour and then got off where I needed to change. I changed successfully onto the correct line but picked the wrong type of train. I picked the train that stopped at each station and not the express train that skipped many of them. Because of this, my trip extended to over 2 hours but I knew I was at least on the correct line and didn’t want to get off. Finally, I made it to the station and to my surprise Yun was waiting right outside the platform. This was a huge relief since I had no idea where to go now that I had finally gotten off at the correct station. It took way longer than expected but I made it successfully and that’s all that matters. This became the hardest part of the trip to each new Asian country for me – getting to my Airbnb from the airport. The information desk people don’t really speak English, almost all the signs are in the local Asian language, the airports are too far away to take Uber, and I had no data or WiFi to help figure it out. It takes some patience and a bit of luck but eventually I made it to my destination without incident each time.
I was starving when I finally put my bags down after a long journey so Yun and I went to grab lunch. This put me in a much more positive mood because this was the one thing I did know how to do in Korea. We went to a local Korean BBQ place and ordered the usual – pork belly with Soju and beers. We poured a few ounces of Soju into our small glasses, filled up the rest with beer, cheers-ed and drank away. For those who haven’t had it, Soju is similar to Sake but a bit sweeter and to me, tastier. It is very traditional in Korea to mix beer with Soju. The beer is super bland and light so the Soju adds a bit of flavor and makes it taste better. It also helps to pour an 18-20% spirit like Soju into a 4% beer. After a few minutes, the waiter brings out all of the accompaniments and then the main course, which was pork belly for us today. We began cooking the pork which filled the room with a great smell and I began to nibble on all the “sides”. Kimchi, bean paste, bean sprouts in vinegar, cucumbers, rice, and a few other things lined the table. Once the pork was cooked, you take scissors to cut it into smaller pieces, load it in a piece of lettuce, add all the accompaniments you need, douse a bit of hot sauce, and down it goes. I love how Koreans make lettuce wraps as their vessel for the meat as it has a good crunch and just feels healthier. Anything to make eating pork belly healthy is a good thing for me.
After lunch, we decided to tour the major sites in town which included the old Imperial palaces. About five minutes into our walk from the palace, I knew I was screwed. I looked down at my phone and say my weather app saw 3 degrees – and it was sunny out! I certainly didn’t pack for this, especially since I was just in Bali and 85-degree weather for a week. It was the weirdest feeling being sunburnt in 3-degree weather and I wouldn’t recommend it. All I could do was layer up, so I put on as many as I could but that still didn’t help with my frozen head and ears. It wasn’t ideal but we had to suck it up. I bought a coffee just to try to keep my hands warm and later in the day I bought a hat and gloves which saved my life over the next few days.
Finally, after what seemed like years we made it to the main Imperial palace. To our luck, it was during the changing of the guards so we were able to watch the whole performance before we toured the inside. The palace was huge and the architecture reminded me of Japan with the curved roofs with the pointed ends. The most amazing part to me was the detail. If you looked closely, you could see how everything was hand painted with bright greens, oranges, yellows, and blues. It also amazed me that this structure was built in 1395 – over 600 years ago! The guards were wearing traditional clothes that kind of reminded me of what a samurai might wear except that they were in all sorts of bright colors. The inside was a massive open courtyard that was a juxtaposition of old and new. If you looked out one way, you’d see all the skyscrapers but if you looked the other way, it was just mountains. Yun told me that this is how Korea protected itself from Japan – they built their capital right below a small mountain range so they couldn’t be attacked from the Northern side. We walked around the entire palace grounds and saw where the old emperor lived, where he would throw parties, the room where visitors would wait, and plenty of other buildings and structures. It was really impressive walking around and if it wasn’t so cold outside, we might have stayed a bit longer. It was awesome having Yun give me the history of the palace but also stories about how he visited it when he was a kid while on a school field trip. It’s really amazing when you put into context how old everything really is and how it has been kept restored so well over the years.
The next stop on our tour was a famous street where many of the Korean politicians lived. We walked past the President’s house, which they call the Blue house, and up a series of hills until we got to the top. We started to walk down a series of narrow, winding alleyways with little shops that lined the roads. The homes up here were very old, traditional, and apparently very expensive. It was funny to me that such a touristy area was where many of the high-ranking officials lived. You’d think they’d want some privacy and they probably had it before this became a fun spot for tourists to walk around. We walked down to the bottom of the hill, through several food and clothing stalls and continued to go see the main Buddhist temple of Seoul. We walked through the temple where people were making offerings and again I was in awe by the sheer size of it all. At that point, we were so cold that we had to call it quits and head back to the Airbnb. I would’ve loved to walk around a bit more but it really was miserable in the cold without the proper attire so we decided to cut our losses and head back.
After relaxing and warming up in our AirBnbs for a bit, we were hungry again and decided to opt for a meal that would keep us warm throughout the night. On the way to dinner, I saw a craft beer bar and I couldn’t resist trying something local so we stopped in. I sampled a couple different beers from local Korean breweries and they were pretty good, which surprised me. I hadn’t;t expected to find much craft beer here but was pleasantly surprised with the options I found during my trip. Our dinner restaurant was right around the corner and Yun told me the chef/owner was famous in Seoul and was on many popular cooking shows.
The place was non-descript with plastic sheets for walls and heating lamps scattered throughout the restaurant. The tables and chairs were red, plastic, and had a thin white paper sheet on top of them. The tables were lined up uniformly across the fairly large open space and everyone filed into the next table “in-line”. I had never seen this before but I suppose it makes sense. The tables are filled one by one in order from left to right. Once the first line is all occupied, the next patrons take the first table in the second line. This was a bit odd at first as the restaurant was still 2/3 open when we got there but very crowded in our area since all of those tables were filled. Another interesting point, I noticed was that every table only had two people at it. There were no tables of 3, 4, 5, or 6 and while I suppose it was just a coincidence, it was definitely a quirk that I noticed. The menu here consisted of different kinds of soups. We got the one with everything in it that was called the “Army soup”. The server brought out a personal hot plate with a steaming pot of red-colored broth. The soup had pork, spam and some other mystery meat along with some veggies. You could add different sides to it as you pleased or make it spicier if you wanted. The pot was huge and could’ve probably feed 6 people but I guess that was the standard size. On the side, Yun ordered a rice dish and they brought it out in a bowl with rice, seaweed, mayo, some other spices, and plastic gloves, You were supposed to mix the mixture yourself so that is exactly what I did. It actually tasted delicious, just like a sushi roll to me, so we ended up getting more. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the soup but after looking around, I realized it was what most people were eating next to us so I was glad I tried it. It certainly looked better than the chicken feet soup the girls next to us were eating but then again they looked like they were thoroughly enjoying that themselves.
After dinner, we just decided to walk around the area a bit. We were staying in Gangnam which is one of the more upscale neighborhoods where kids our age hung out on the weekends. It’s also the neighborhood made very popular by the song “Gangnam Style” by Psy. It was a Friday night so we hit the town to see what we could find. The first thing I noticed was how many people were shopping at around 8pm on a Friday night. All of the department stores were packed with people, which surprised me. All of the locals seemed to have the same haircut and same outfit – a huge down, puffy jacket that went past their knees. I guess I can’t blame them with how cold it was outside. Yun and I popped into an H&M to buy a hat and gloves as I couldn’t stand another day walking around without them. The area was really cool with flashing lights everywhere and tall buildings advertising whatever activity they had inside. I’ve never lived in a big city so it was surprising to see many bars/restaurants/cafe to be on the 3rd or 4th floor of a building. We ended up at a virtual reality cafe since we figured it was a pretty popular thing to do in Korea. It ended up being really fun and I realized that almost every activity Koreans my age do is around technology. Instead of drinking in bars, they go to virtual reality or gaming cafes. As we continued walking around we saw several interesting options I had never seen before like indoor fishing ponds, airsoft gun shooting ranges and indoor archery ranges. It was an interesting array of activities for a Friday night but then again I don’t blame people for hiding inside from the cold.
After walking around for a few hours and poking our heads into some of these places, we decided to just grab a beer somewhere. I found out that this isn’t really a thing to do in Korea. If you are at a place drinking, you need to eat as well. We walked into a couple places that wouldn’t serve us unless we were going to eat and finally we had to pretend we were going to eat just to have a beer somewhere. It wasn’t particularly late but it still surprised me that they required every patron to order food in order to sit down. It is always interesting learning the different quirks of cultures but this one surprised me since Korea is known for having a big drinking culture. Maybe we were just in the wrong area but either way we had a beer and decided to call it a night since we were tired from walking around and being freezing all day.
It was a great first 24 hours in South Korea and I was super excited for the weekend ahead. Just that morning I was in 85 degree weather in Bali and now I was in Korea wearing pants and a sweatshirt to bed to say warm. I still fell asleep right away ready to recharge for the weekend we had ahead.