Sunday, August 05, 2012

Korea X2 ~ Part I ~ Seoul


Korea X2
Part I
Seoul

Korea X2 is my most recent trip to Korea, X2 being my second in 2012. My earlier trip this year was in May 2012 to Seoul and Jeju, so being back to Seoul again is like returning home! This time round, I will be visiting places where I haven't been to during my last trip.
Getting around Seoul is very easy, and you do not need to study complicated train schedules and names like you have to in Tokyo. Seoul metro/subway is operated by 7 operators, but generally the train stations look the same and are interconnected in the transit zone, without having to exit the gantry. All you need to do is to purchase a T-money flash card from any convenience store and you can reload the flash card at automated tellers at train stations. The automated tellers have an English menu and accepts notes and coins. With the established metro network, you hardly need to take a bus at all. After getting used to your surroundings, you will realise that it is in fact possible to walk between stations. Ticket prices are 1,150 won for a trip up to 10 km, with 100 won added for each subsequent 5 km. Prices for Uijeongbu LRT and Sin Bundang Line however start at 1,300 and 1,750 won respectively. Price is deducted upon entry and any additional will be deducted upon exit. So you might want to save the 1,150 won by walking a station. For example, I was able to walk from City Hall Station to Jongno-5 Station, and then to Myeongdong Station.
Language can pose a fear in many people who are planning free-&-easy trips to Korea. However, in Seoul, you can get around with basic English. In Myeongdong, it is even possible to speak Mandarin, thanks to the influx of Chinese migrants and Chinese tourists. Young South Koreans generally have studied English up to high school, but the lack of using the language, makes it almost impossible for them to understand long and complicated sentences. They are only able to understand a few common words, and are usually not able to speak in English. Nevertheless, the locals are generally helpful in helping a lost tourist.
Dining is definitely the main reason I visit Korea again. If you can stomach spicy food and kimchi, you will love Korean food. However, do note that most eateries contains pork and finding halal food is very difficult. Majority of the eateries cater to the South Korean's favourite pastime, table-top barbecue. Other dishes include dakgalbi (spicy stir-fried chicken), kimchi or dwenjang jjigae (kimchi or bean-paste stew), samgyetang (korean ginseng chicken soup), pajeon (pancake), bibim-bap (mixed rice) and naengmyeon (cold noodles). At every eatery, they will serve you banchan (small dishes of starters) for free, and can be replenished. Do note that most of the time, it is better to dine as two persons, since barbecue and dakgalbi are usually served at minimum two. Prices are also indicated as per head, so you need to multiply that by two. Cold distilled water is usually served free and not cold roasted barley tea. Koreans, both young or elderly, love their alcohol in the form of beer or makgeolli (unfiltered rice wine). If you are interested in non-Korean cuisines, you can still find international fast-food joints such as McDonalds and KFC. Koreans love donuts and do not be surprised to find Dunkin' Donuts and Krispy Kreme everywhere. If you like to chill in coffee houses, there are Starbucks, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf as well as the local chain, Caffe Bene.


Arriving really late, we found a barbecue shop that operated in the wee hours of the morning.
When in Korea, one must definitely the local table barbecue culture of Seoul.


Since I stayed at Intercontinental Hotel Seoul COEX at Samseong, I decided to explore the area first. On the tourist map, there is this icon of a Buddha. It is not difficult to spot the towering Buddha statue once you are standing outside the COEX Convention Centre. This is the Bongeunsa Temple and entry is of course, free. However, tourists ought to respect devotees who worship here in the tranquillity.
The Bongeunsa Temple located directly opposite COEX at Samseong.
I believe these paper lanterns are wishing lanterns which can be made by making a donation.

I visited Itaewon to experience the cafe culture of Seoul. The main road are lined with small shops and stalls that sell sports wear, "I love Seoul" clothes and clothings that you can find at Pyeonghwa Market. You can skip these if you are not looking for touristy stuff. Behind the shops, short steps lead you down to the private residences area, where you will discover that many chic western cafes scattered in the area. You will be amazed by how the locals can convert small spaces into a cafe.
You can find western fashion labels which are popular among the young. However, I usually give these shops a miss, as they tend to repeat themselves in different areas. I decided to go deep into the area and witness how the locals live. It did not take me long to arrive at these giant arachnids at Leeum Samsung Museum of Art.

Around the Hyehwa station, you can find restaurant with many interesting facades. The area of Hyehwa-dong starts to become vibrant in the evening. Do not be surprised if you do not find shops and restaurants operating in the day.
Make sure you find this wall painting when you visit Hyehwa.
A short hike up the hilly residential estate of Hyehwa leads me to the Seoul Fortress Wall.
Miss Lee Cafe can be found almost everywhere in Seoul. This is the one at Hyehwa.

My visit to Sinchon was short due to the drizzle. There is really not much to miss, as I had previously mentioned, shops and businesses tend to repeat themselves in different areas. I almost could not tell if I was in Sinchon or Hongik. I found myself buying a waffle with strawberry and green tea flavoured cream. This huge waffle filled me up for lunch.
A giant Gandalf stands outside a CGV movie theatre.
A castle in the city?

If you are looking for good dakgalbi, you should try Yoogane. Yoogane is a chain store and can be found in every popular area. Their stir-fried chicken is really spicy, so be prepared to break out in sweat! There is English menu and you just have to point to the young crew and indicate how many persons' portion. The crew will bring a paella pan containing the marinated meat along with cabbages, and cook it in front of you. The way to have dakgalbi is too have the meat first, and when you are halfway through, order a portion of bap (rice) or myeon (noodles). The crew will then throw it into the pan and fry it with the remaining meat and sauces. Worried about staining your white top? Fret not, they will actually provide you with a small red bib. Just be prepared to smell of dakgalbi when you are done.

One of the highlight of visiting Seoul has to be visiting Lotte World. Lotte World is just located above Jamsil station, on the southern side of the Hangang River. Lotte World is adored by many locals and a favourite tourist attraction. Do a careful study of the entry fare structure. I had some difficulty checking the fare the counter sales but in the end, I ended up with the day-pass at the cheaper price that was not advertised. I suspect that I was given a student price. It is also cheaper to visit the theme park in the evening.
 http://www.lotteworld.com/ 
Lotte World has the largest indoor amusement park. Most of the rides in the indoor area are kiddy rides which are child-friendly.
The other part of Lotte World is the outdoor area, where the adults can get their adrenaline rush with the roller-coaster and gyro-drop rides.
Be sure to be trilled by the exciting rides at Lotte World.

No visit to Seoul is complete without a visit to the local market. At Gwangjang Market near Dongdaemun, you can find cooked food, sundries, wet market, Hanbok, dress materials, handicrafts, lacquerware, bedding and more. Getting to Gwangjang Market is easy via subway to Jongno-5-ga station or Euljiro-4-ga station. It is also a short walk from Dongdaemun station. I strongly recommend a visit to Gwangjang market in the morning to get yourself a local breakfast.
The must-have mung bean pancake! There are many stalls selling this pancake. All are equally good.

I had previously posted photos of my visit to Nandaemun in my May 2012 visit to Seoul. Hence, not much photos from this trip. At Nandemum, it is like a wholesale market where you can find clothings, shoes, kitchenware, sundries, cooked food, souveniers etc. Be sure to visit the underground market. I discovered a snack which I had missed previously. You can easily find Hoeddeok (sweet brown sugar pancake) at Nandaemun, but I found this Hoeddeok look-alike which is a savoury version. It is filled with vermicelli and vegetables. You can request for them to apply a sauce on to outside to give it some spiciness to the taste.

At the City Hall area, you will have to pay Gyeongbokgung palace a visit. Note that they are closed on Tuesdays. Getting to Gyeongbokgung is easy via subway to Gwanghwamun station or a short walk from City Hall station.
Take a short walk around the Gwanghwamun Square.
At Gwanghwamun Square, enjoy a panoramic view of the surrounding and see how children play at the open-air fountain.

Spot this giant seashell within walking distance from Gwanghwamun Square and you know that you are at the start of Cheonggyecheon Stream.
You can visit the Cheonggyecheong Stream either in the day or night. It is a 5.2km long stream that runs through the city and some major attractions sit adjacent or above part of the stream.
In the evening, the stream transform itself into a beautiful attraction of laser and light display.
Many locals will gather under the bridges in groups or couples. You can also do what the locals do, soak your feet in the cold running water.

One of the cafe to visit have to be Miss Lee Cafe. Miss Lee Cafe can be found in almost every popular tourist area. Miss Lee Cafe is a chain of teahouse which serves a variety of traditional Korean tea prepared in a modern and chic style. If you have watch "We Got Married" featuring Yonghwa (of CNBlue) and Seohyun (of Girl's Generation, or Soshi), the "married" couple dated at Miss Lee Cafe. While you are at Miss Lee Cafe, remember to leave a note and hang it anywhere you want.
We ordered a cold Jujube tea and a hot five-taste tea, which the latter taste like herbal tea.
At every outlet, there will be a life-size mascot to pose a picture with.

Take a walk down Insadong, and remember to stop over at Ssamziegil. At Ssamziegil, you can find many small shops that sells trendy apparals and artistic handicrafts.

The best Samgyetang (Korean Ginseng Chicken) in Seoul has to be at Tosokchon. Tosokchon's reputation is endorsed not only by many travel guides, but the long queues of locals and tour groups. Another popular dish here is the roasted ginseng chicken. The staff here can speak and understand Mandarin.
The proper way to eat the samgyetang is to order one pot per person. The spring chicken is stuffed with glutinous rice and stewed in a light broth stewed with korean ginseng. A shot glass of Korean ginseng wine is served before the dish. You can take a small sip to taste the bitter wine. The hot stew is then served in a piping hot stone bowl. Pour the ginseng wine into the stew to give the soup a stronger ginseng taste. Do take note to add with moderation as the soup may become too bitter for your liking. Pry open the belly of the chicken and start with the rice stuffing. Then proceed to the chicken meat and then the soup. At every table, there are pots of kimchi and kkaktugi (cubed radish kimchi) which are free flow. There is also a metal pot which is meant for you to discard to chicken bones, so make sure you do not leave the bones on the table.
Be prepared to queue for at least half an hour before being able to get in.
Tosokchon is within walking distance away from Gyeongbokgung station.

From Gyeongbokgong palace, you can walk to Angguk station, where Samcheong-dong and Insadong are separated on the both sides of the station.
Samcheong-dong is an area where you should visit to see traditional Bukchon village houses are preserved residences.
Fall in love with the picturesque alleys.
There are many photo spots inside the Bukchon folk village. Remember to grab a map from the area Tourist Information.
By chance, we found a nice little cafe inside a traditional house.
Unwind and rest your tired feet, while you enjoy a cup of coffee.
On another part of Samcheong-dong, is where modern buildings create a contrast to the landscape. These buildings houses cafes, restaurants and fashion shops. Remember to accommodate half a day for Samcheong-dong.

It is breakfast again at Gwangjang Market. This time round, we patronized one of the "salad-like" stall. This is actually a bibimbap stall. There is no hot stone bowl here. The ahjumma (elderly korean lady) will scoop generous portions of raw greens, preserved vegetables and bap (rice) into a large metal bowl, before adding in a broth and gochujang (hot pepper paste). She will then use a scissors to cut the vegetables up in the bowl. You can then start mixing all the ingredients with the rice and sauce.
Trust me, this is really good stuff! Healthy and tasty!
There are plenty of cooked food stalls to choose from at Gwangjang Market.
While you are here, remember to buy some kimchi back home. They will actually put them in meal bags and sealed them in layers of cling film. They will also offer to put them in plastic containers or tupperwares at an additional charge. However, I always go prepared. I will bring my own containers when I visit Korea.
Be spoilt for choice with the variety here. Don't be shy to ask for sampling before buying.
They range from 1000 to 2000 won per 100g, which is inexpensive.
My favourite stall and ahjumma.

Korea is famous for their Trick Art Museums. You can find one at Hongik.
The best way to get a good shot at Trick Art Museums is to used a compact camera where you can zoom, frame and preview how the shot will look before capturing it, to make it realistic. Most importantly, have fun and don't be shy to ask others to help you with a photo.
At Hongik, be sure to Sangsang Madang where you can find a shop which sells lots of interesting lifestyle products. It is not surprising to find artistic things here since the Hongik University is just nearby.
Push carts around the Hongik children playground are always there selling things from fashion apparals to handphone accessories.
Saturday afternoons are the best time to visit the Hongik playground, as there will be performances by aspiring musicians and also the Saturday flea market.
You can find lots of handicrafts here by mainly students.
Remember to snap a picture of the playground which appeared too many times in Korean drama. If you are a fan of Jang Guen Suk, he was basking here in "Mary Stayed Out All Night".

When you are in Seoul, I strongly recommend paying a visit to Ewha Women University. You can get there by subway to the Ewha Women University station. You will definitely fall in love with the picturesque and movie-like setting of the university. From the station to the university, you can find shops which sells fashion, apparels and cosmetics, though many similar shops can be found in Myeongdong.

If you are a Gundam fan, you should visit The Gundam Base at Yongsan.
I came to Yongsan to check out gadget and found the The Gundam Base, where I was tempted to score a couple of rare kits and figurines. The prices here are quite good as well, though it is still best in Hong Kong.
 
 
 
 
 
 Almost every popular model kit here has a built display.
 Do you fancy riding a Zaku?
 
 The Gundam Base is located on the 7th floor of the mall. The lower levels are packed with stalls selling IT products such as cameras, laptops, gadgets. You can probably get a good deal here, but be prepared to battle of the hardcore touting as you walk past the stalls. As a recommendation, be sure of what you want to buy and go prepared with the price in mind.
 
To get here, take the metro to Yongsan Station. Yongsan Station is also a major train station where you can board the bullet train and long-distance trains.


There is no better way to complete your trip with another round of barbecue!

The heart of shopping in Seoul has to be Myeongdong, where locals and tourists alike, prowl the streets of Myeongdong. Shops here operate from noon till 10 at night.

Here goes the Running Man!

Friends can check out the complete gallery of photos on Facebook!

Photos shot using Nikon D90 with Tamron 18-270mm VC, Panasonic Lumix-LX5 and HTC Desire HD.
©William Tan 2012

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