Kait and I spent 6 nights in Seoul, and while it’s a much smaller sample compared to the 30 days we spent in Taiwan, hopefully a review of our spending will still be useful to people.
First, the total up front. Over 7 days and 6 nights in Seoul, we spent $1,095.88 CAD (Everything will be in CAD unless otherwise noted). This works out to $156.55/day. Here’s the breakdown:
Of note, we also spent $181.83 “Shopping” which includes gifts and everyday things for ourselves which I wouldn’t categorize as travel related (unlike souvenirs, which I think of as travel related keepsakes).
For comparison, here’s a table of spending by country. Numbers in brackets are per day averages.
Nothing too interesting here. We spent our entire stay in Korea at the same hotel in Seoul. We paid $577.98 for 6 nights which worked out to $96.33/night. (The reason the per day average is different is because I averaged the cost of accommodations over our total days). This was a discounted rate because we booked our flight to Korea on Expedia and they give you an opportunity to book hotels at a discount at your destination. (And not a fake discount. We did a lot of comparing the discount rate vs non-discounted rates on a variety of sites including Expedia itself). I was expecting the per night cost to be higher in Korean compared to Taiwan, but I was happy we found a good hotel with a great location for less than $100/night.
Food in Korea, both in restaurants and on the street, appear to be more expensive than comparable food in Taiwan. I would estimate things were +25% more anecdotally. The bigger jump in our per day spending came from the fact that we had a longer list of things we wanted to try in Korea, so we ate at pricier places more frequently due to our shorter stay.
We had no intercity travel at all since we stayed in Seoul the whole time. However, if you consider Incheon Airport outside of Seoul, we spent 10,000 KRW ($11.32) on an Airport Bus into the city and 6,900 KRW ($7.81) on an Airport Express Train back to the airport per person. The Airport Express Train was by far more comfortable, cheaper, and more convenient (assuming you can get to Seoul Station without too much difficulty). The rest of our transportation costs came from taking the Seoul Subway. Most rides (under 10km I think) were 1250 KRW ($1.41).
Taiwan’s total for transportation was higher primarily because we did a lot of travelling between cities in Taiwan. Comparing the intracity travel costs, Taiwan was significantly cheaper that Korea (or really, just Seoul). Lots of rides on the Taipei Metro were only 16 TWD, or $0.64 compared to Seoul’s $1.41.
There were only two activities that we spent money on in Korea, and over 90% of it was spent on our DMZ tour. The other activity was the entrance fee to Gyeongbokgung Palace. The rest of our time was spent walking around exploring neighbourhoods… and shopping.
As mentioned in the Taiwan Spending post, we tend not to spend too much on Souvenirs. For Korea though, I set aside some coins as keepsakes since I collect coins and I’ve never been to Korea before. 50 and 10KRW coins are difficult to come by (basically nickels and pennies). Your best bet would be when there are percentage based sales (e.g. 30% off) or in my case, our hotel happened to have coins for me to exchange with them.
Overall, our spending in Korea was pretty much in line with my expectations, and even the amount spent on gifts and personal shopping were quite reasonable. We’re in Japan now, and while I originally thought Japan would be more expensive than Korea, I have a feeling our spending average will be close (or even less). We’ll see how it goes. We’ll be in Japan for just under 30 days, and we’ll be travelling throughout, so we should get a pretty good idea of average spending across Japan.
Anyone have experience travelling around Japan and Korea? What were your experiences with cost comparisons?
We woke up this morning to blue skies and sun, the total opposite of Sunday! Since our plans of going to Yeouido Island fell through yesterday, we planned on spending the afternoon there.
Yeouido Island is on the south side of the Han River. It is Seoul’s finance and investment banking centre, home to the National Assembly, Full Gospel Church (the church with 800,000+ members) and the majority of Seoul’s modern skyscrapers. Every year, Yeouido Island hosts a Cherry Blossom Festival in April. We were lucky enough to be able to catch the beginning of the blossoms around the island.
We walked along the waterfront and soaked in the sun. Food vendors were starting to line the streets leading up to the actual Cherry Blossom Festival grounds. After walking around the waterfront for a bit, we decided to have lunch in the business district. We figured that there would be good lunch specials in the area since there are so many office towers. To our surprise, restaurants in the business area were a bit sparse. We tried to see where groups of businessmen and women were headed – some were going towards the water where we first came from and the majority of them were going into the IFC (International Financial Centre) mall. We followed suit and went into one of the IFC towers. There were three towers all next to each other and they were probably around 50 stories each.
The basement level of the mall is all food. They have all different types of restaurants to pick from: Korean, American, Mexican, Vietnamese, etc. A lot of restaurants had long lines ups outside of them; the longest line was an expensive Pho place. I had been craving Korean BBQ since we got to Seoul and since it was our last day, we decided to have it for lunch. We figured that since most restaurant’s lunch menus are often cheaper, this would be a good opportunity to have BBQ (finally). We saw a long line up in front of “Sariwon Bulgogi” so we quickly looked up reviews online (all reviews were good), browsed the menu and lined up.
Sariwon is famous for its sweet marinade because unlike most bulgogi marinades which use sugar to make it sweet, Sariwon’s contains only fruits and vegetables.
In looking at the menu, we decided to get their marinated grilled beef ribs set menu, which included salad and a rice or noodle and looked like it was 35,000 KRW =$39 CAD. However, after we ordered and got the bill (they put the bill on your table when they put in the order in Korea) we saw that it was 35,000 KRW per person! We flagged down our waitress to try to explain to her we only wanted one order (since most portions we’d been getting in Seoul had been very large). She wasn’t able to communicate with us so she brought over another waitress who spoke a little bit of English. She explained that you can’t just order one set to share (which I think is silly because it’s not all you can eat) and that we couldn’t order two different things. We looked at each other and hesitantly agreed since we had been waiting for BBQ for a while and it seemed like a good place (they claim they’re a “legendary” Korean restaurant).
With the set, each person gets two beef ribs, a side salad and either cold noodles or rice with a tofu hot pot (we ordered one of each). The waitress cooks and cuts the meat for you, which is nice but I think I would have liked to cook it myself. But I guess since this place was fancier, you’re paying for her to do it. An interesting note is that Sariwon’s table BBQs suck the air in and doesn’t need a fan over top so you don’t smell like BBQ when you leave the restaurant (genius!).
The beef was delicious and we both agreed it was among the best beef we’ve ever had before. Every piece was tender and melted in your mouth even though they were cooked well done. If the beef wasn’t good, I think it would have been very upsetting for both of us.
After lunch we walked towards Yeouido’s Cherry Blossom Festival area, which was almost back to where we first got out of the train station. The festival was basically just the cherry blossom lined walkway around the island with a few vendors (not very good ones) and some live music. For a Monday afternoon, there was a surprising number of people there.
After walking through the festival, we ended up at the Korea National Assembly building. While sitting by the fountain for about half an hour we noticed four helicopters circling the city and dipping very low towards the buildings, we thought it was weird but no one else seemed to notice. I don’t think I’ve been to another country with so much visible military and police presence like South Korea. I feel like we see large groups of police officers almost every where we go, military vehicles driving up and down city streets, or in this case, multiple military helicopters flying low in the air doing loops around small areas.
South Korea has mandatory military service for all its male citizens, 18-35 for a 21 month period, so you see a lot of young men dressed up in military uniforms around the city (even going on dates at night, as you’ll see later on in the post).
After giving our feet a bit of a rest and getting some sun (my forehead got darker from yesterday, not the best tan), we headed for the train station to take us to the Gangnam District of Seoul. Gangnam is an expensive area to live and is known for their concentration of high end stores, trend setting fashions and PSY’s “Gangnam Style” song.
Gangnam is also known for being home to the World Taekwondo Headquarters. Set on top of a hill in Gangnam is Kukkiwon, the World Taekwondo Academy. Tim used to do Taekwondo when he was younger so he was interested in visiting. It’s about a 10 minute walk uphill from the shopping area. They have prime real estate in a very expensive area and what we learned while there was that when the facility was built in the 1970’s, there were no houses or anything around. Now, the headquarters is surrounded by nice Korean style houses.
After visiting Kukkiwon, we did a bit of browsing/shopping around Gangnam and then planned on staying around the area to watch the Rainbow Fountain Show at Banpo Bridge. The bridge has a light and water show three times a day and two shows at night in April. We planned to watch the 8pm show.
We had a couple of hours to kill so we walked to the bridge from the main Gangnam area. It was a long walk.
We finally made our way to Banpo Bridge as it got dark. We walked around some of the buildings close by that were lit up. The water show did not live up to the hype of the guide book, it was pretty disappointing. The show lasted for about 15 minutes but we left a little earlier because it was really cold and windy (Tim: and boring).
I was looking forward to getting back inside and defrosting. It was extra windy right by the bridge and we didn’t have as many layers as we should have. We took the subway back to our area (it felt like a really long train ride back) and decided our last dinner in Seoul would be fried chicken.
We went back to the street by our hotel (the businessmen street) and went to Kkanbu Chicken. As with every week night, businessmen lined the streets smoking outside restaurants. When we went to Kkanbu, we got seated next to two businessmen taking shots of soju, drinking beer and eating chicken. I decided to order the spicy soy glazed chicken instead of just regular fried chicken. I didn’t taste too much sweetness, but I sure did taste the spice. Tim and I struggled to finish that plate of chicken. We can’t handle Korean heat.
It was a long last day in Seoul. We headed back to the hotel to pack everything. My backpack is pretty full now with all those Korean socks and face masks.
It’s our last night at Hotel Shin Shin. I’ll miss the comfortable beds and heated toilet seat.
The weather changed from warm and sunny to cold and rainy. Originally we had planned to go to Yeouida Island, but because of the weather (it’s supposed to be a nicer day tomorrow), we decided to stay to walk around the old area of Bukchon and go shopping.
Bukchon is an area in Seoul that still has traditional Korean houses. Many of the houses have been converted to restaurants or stores, but the majority of them are still residential. Bukchon is located close to the Gyeongbokgung Palace we were at a few days ago. We didn’t realize it was so close or else we would have gone that day when it was sunny.
We left the hotel around 11:30am after Facetiming with our families who were having dinner together at one of our favourite restaurants in Burnaby, Pearl Hot Pot (similar to the hot pot we’ve been having in Taipei). It was nice to see everyone together. We miss them!
On our walk to Bukchon, we decided to have lunch at Popeye’s. We noticed there were a few locations in Seoul and we were tempted with the meal combos advertised on the front of the door. The last time we had Popeye’s was last summer when we went to New Orleans (where we had fried chicken 3 times in one day), it’s my favourite fast food fried chicken. We ordered a combo and it satisfied our cravings.
After lunch we continued on towards Bukchon and stopped in some shops along Insadong. Before leaving the hotel, I tried to do some research on all the different beauty shops. I found some blog posts and articles on the stores but the information given wasn’t that useful. I decided to just go into a few shops and just take my time to browse around and look at the different products.
The first shop I went into was, Innisfree, which is Korea’s first “all-natural” brand. Most of their products’ ingredients are sourced for Jeju Island (Korea’s Hawaii). As soon as I walked into the store, a sales girl started following me around very closely without saying anything (I realize this is common practice in all stores in Seoul (Tim: or rather, in the stores that Kaitlyn went into)). There are so many different products in all these beauty shops, you really do need to take your time and read everything. It would’ve been easier if I knew how to speak Korean since the sales girls weren’t able to communicate what products she would recommend for me. I ended up only buying a “sea salt whipping cleanser” for 10,000 KRW = $11 CAD.
The next store I went to was, Missha, which was having a “sale” (I think everything in these stores are always on sale). This brand I had also seen everywhere and was recommended by a friend as having the most reasonable beauty products. I forgot to mention that each of these stores have a girl outside hustling to get people to go inside the store. As soon as I walked in, a girl started following me, but this time she started speaking English to me (I guess she figured I didn’t look Korean). Her speaking English was extremely helpful but at the same time she was a good salesperson and would suggest all these expensive items.
I ended up spending the most time in Missha and the most money (I used my credit card for the first time on this trip). I bought mascara (2,640 KRW = $3 CAD), an eye brow pencil (6,400 KRW = $7.25 CAD), face masks (500 KRW each = $0.56 CAD), moisturizer (12,400 KRW = $14 CAD), hand lotion (2,400 KRW = $2.72 CAD), foundation (13,860 KRW = $15.70 CAD) and a brush (7,400 KRW = $8.40 CAD). The majority of the items I bought from Missha were discounted 20%-50%.
I went into a bunch of the other beauty shops (Tim was very patient and stood around) but was hesitant to go into the shops where there was no one inside because I wanted to be able to browse around without any pressure. I remember reading a blog post from an American saying that she would probably buy more if they weren’t breathing down her neck (they’re literally one step behind you as soon as you walk into the store and I don’t think they’re on commission or anything (Tim: Maybe they’re actually focused on loss prevention?)) while looking around. I would agree with her because it makes browsing around fairly uncomfortable. I only experienced this in the beauty shops and clothing stores.
In addition to the hundreds of beauty shops in Seoul, there’s a tea house that we noticed the first time we were in Insadong, called Osulloc Tea House. The store specializes in green tea they roast from Jeju Island, but the item we wanted to get was a green tea milk spread. We first tried their samples of this and it was delicious – like a green tea pocky in a jar. We bought two jars to bring back for our families, hopefully they’ll still have some when we get back so we can have some. The jars were 8,500 KRW = $9.60 CAD.
After Insadong, we made our way to Bukchon (finally after a couple hours in the shops). We had about 20 minutes of dry weather but as we continued to walk around Bukchon, it started to rain really hard (almost like the downpour in Kenting except it’s cold here). I feel bad for the residents who live in this area because their streets are full of tourists poking around and taking pictures in front of their house (like us, at least we didn’t sit on their doorsteps).
When it started to pour we took refuge in a Softree Ice cream shop. Softree is a Korean organic ice cream soft serve shop that is Soft Peaks in Gastown’s inspiration. We decided to get the original soft serve with honeycomb. It was a bit pricey (just like Soft Peaks) at 4,800 KRW = $5.45 CAD).
The rain eased off a bit so we decided to power through and try to get to the train station (Tim: I’m not bothered by the rain). At this point in the day we were thinking of going to the Yoido Full Gospel Church on Yeouido Island for a Sunday service. After feeling tired and soaked by the rain, we decided to save Yeouido Island for tomorrow (which is supposed to be a nice day).
Because of the change of plans we decided to just make today our designated shopping day and head back towards the hotel through Myeongdong.
I would say that 90% of all stores/stalls in Myeongdong are beauty shops, socks stalls and accessory stores. Since I bought enough from the beauty shops, it was time to buy our Korean socks.
We had seen some stalls during our second night here that were advertised as buy 10 get 1 free. For some reason tonight, we weren’t able to find many stalls that had this promotion. After going up and down each street and looking at each stall advertising 1000 KRW = $1.13 CAD each, there was no buy 11 for 10,000 KRW in sight! We ended up just going to a stand that had all the socks we were looking for. Then as we started to head back to the hotel, we found a buy 11 for 10,000 KRW stall away from the main area… of course! What made us feel better was that they didn’t have the socks Tim wanted (Ironman and Captain America). We decided to buy more socks, so we went from not sure if we were going to buy any to buying 21! So we got 21 pairs of pretty cool socks for 20,000 KRW= $22.68 CAD.
For dinner we went to Myeongdong Kyoja, which I found after reading a few blogs and reviews online. They have been in business for over 40 years and are well known for their “knife cut noodles” and dumplings. The menu only has 4 items, so we just ordered the noodles and dumplings. We decided to share the noodles and dumplings. Good thing we shared the bowl of noodles because the portion was quite large (again). Everything was good, except I wished the noodles were cooked more al dente as they were too soft for my liking (Tim: Too soft for any reasonable person’s taste… everything else was good though). Food portioning here is definitely good bang for your buck, but it’s not ideal for two people wanting to try more food.
After our first day of shopping during this trip, I feel guilty that I got a bit of a “shopping high” when we came back to our apartment and I laid down our haul. After spending time in a few of the beauty shops, I can see how you can get very carried away by buying a lot in those stores. There are so many different products at very reasonable prices and since Seoul isn’t exactly accessible to us in Vancouver, it’s the fear of regretting not buying something. I know it’s an irrational fear but I seem to get this feeling every time I go shopping while traveling. I feel like if I came here on another trip I would “go crazy”, but I guess it’s better that we’re in Seoul during this trip since I had to restrict myself.
While shopping, I experienced that Koreans in retail are not very friendly or courteous. I think the nicest Koreans we have interacted with have been street food vendors and most restaurants. As much as store workers want you to come into the store by being “friendly” it comes off as aggressive (who really enjoys having facial masks being shoved in your face as you walk down the street? I don’t!). Once you’re in the store, as mentioned earlier, you feel a bit harassed because they aren’t following you in a “I want to help you kind of way” (although there are some that are not as aggressive) and once you go to pay, they ignore you on the way out. I know it’s not a language barrier thing either because you can be courteous towards someone without speaking the same language (ie. at a few stores we were shoved aside by store clerks without any acknowledgement, I guess that’s normal?). In Taiwan, where I don’t speak Mandarin (even without Tim around) store clerks were always very friendly, helpful and grateful if we ever did buy something. Tim says I won’t experience any of this type of behaviour when we go to Japan.
Anyway, that’s just my observation on things here and my mini-rant on customer service and common courtesy in Seoul (Tim: “Common” in the North American sense). While it’s a great city to visit, I can see how little annoyances like that can irritate me in the long run.
After a long day yesterday, we slept really well last night. Our plan for today was to hang out in the university areas: Ewha Womans University and Hongik University’s Hongdae area. It was another nice and sunny day in Seoul – around 18 degrees Celsius!
Since it was a nice day, we decided to walk to Ewha Women’s University, which took around 30 minutes. On the way to there, we passed by a wedding dress street (reminded me a bit of New Westminster) and a furniture area. Seoul is hilly compared to Taipei, so walking around was more of a workout than walking around was in Taipei. The street leading up to the main gate of the Ewha Womans University was full of vendors, mostly food and sock vendors. Chicken galbi skewers are popular in this area (and were also recommended by a friend) so we decided to try a couple. The prices around this area were cheaper than the Myeondong food vendors.
Ewha Womans University area was a neat area that had a lot of shopping leading up to the university grounds. We would probably go back if we have time to eat as it seemed like restaurants and food stalls were priced more for students rather than tourists (unlike in Myeongdong).
Close to the university is another street of interest called, Sinchon Street. This area is also full of shops and is full of lots of young locals shopping on a Saturday afternoon. Comparing the areas we went to today to Myeongdong, there are definitely more locals rather than (Mainland) tourists.
There’s literally the same beauty/cosmetic stores in every area you go to Seoul. I think Myeongdong has about 2-3 Etude Houses within a few blocks of each other. When people go to Korea, they always bring back face masks and stock up on creams and cosmetics. Today, I was feeling really overwhelmed with the shopping streets in Seoul. I’m going to have to do research on which store is the “best” and if there’s any “must buys” from them, since they basically all look the same to me. (Tim: and perhaps they are pretty much all the same?)
After Sinchon, we made our way towards Hongik University. The area around it is called Hongdae. It is a popular area for young people, and has a lot of restaurants, clubs, and cafes. The street also has a lot of street performers, which I have a lot of pictures and videos of. This was probably the most fascinating part of Hongdae (to us at least). Our friend, Sabine, said she liked to hang out in Hongdae and I can see why!
We spent most of the afternoon and early evening in Hongdae walking up and down the streets and watching all the street performers. Our favourites were the groups of boys dancing in front of mobs of screaming girl groupies. (Tim: Imagine groups of guys casually doing dance routines from boy band music videos)
After walking around Hongdae for a while, we decided to eat an early dinner in the area. We passed by some places during lunch that were pretty busy so we went back to one that served pork hock. The restaurant is called “Myth Jokbal”. It has two seating areas and considering it was only about 5pm, it was almost full. We decided to order the pork hock and a salad (which looked pretty good and we hadn’t had a salad in a while). When we ordered, the waiter said the pork hock comes with the salad and a kimchi type hot pot soup with noodles. The food came and the portions were huge. I think Seoul would be best if we came with other people or if their portions were half the size and half the price.
Everything was very tasty – I really enjoyed the salad. It felt good to eat fresh vegetables like that as it’s been a while. The pork was very good, but for pork hock I actually don’t enjoy all the fat so I stuck to more of the meaty pieces and Tim ate more of the fat. I was surprised at how many tables were all women sharing such a large portion. The ladies beside us ordered the same thing but had two bottles of beer and ordered soju while taking their time eating the pork.
After dinner we planned to head to the Dongdaemun area, which is an area that is famous for being open very late and some malls are even 24 hours! But before we left Hongdae, we were mesmerized while watching some of the dancers – especially the group that seemed to have the most groupies. Young girls were going crazy for them and even boys in the audience were dancing along and singing.
We finally left the area around 8pm and took the subway to Dongdaemun (History & Culture Park station). When we got out of the station, it felt like we were transported to the future. Dongdaemun area is extremely modern and with all the tall buildings and bright lights it was a totally different scene from the university area, which was a lot older.
After the DDP, we walked down to Seoul’s Eastern gate. We are staying close to the Southern gate. There is also a part of the Seoul city wall across the street from this gate which you’re allowed to climb up and touch.
The main reason why most people go to Dongdaemun is to go shopping late at night. We decided to check out the mall, Doota, because I read that it has more unique Korean brands that you don’t usually see on the street or in other malls. It was 7 floors of small shops on each floor – the mall was really warm inside which made for an uncomfortable shopping/browsing experience.
We were feeling really tired after another long day and took the train back to our hotel at 10:30pm. We passed by the street where we had fried chicken last night and it was pretty dead. We have come to the conclusion that this area is only really busy during weekday nights when the businessmen are out.
Tomorrow we’re planning to go to check out another neighbourhood in Seoul, the island of Yeouido. They host the cherry blossom festival here in April, hopefully some have bloomed already.
Before coming to Seoul, we were guilty of not knowing much about Korean history or even much about the Korean War. That being said, it was important for us to learn more about its history in order for us to fully appreciate our time in Seoul. Our plan for today was to go to the DMZ and visit the Korean War Memorial Museum.
We booked a DMZ tour with Koridoor Tours, who operates with the USO (United Service Organization), which serves the American military and troops overseas. We arrived at “Camp Kim” at the USO at 7:30am to check in and wait until our bus left at 8am. Our tour group only had 9 people (2 people didn’t make the bus), mostly made up of Americans. Our tour guide was a small middle-aged Korean man named “SY Hong”.
The drive to the DMZ was about an hour from central Seoul. As we got further away from Seoul, the highway and scenery became very empty and sparse. The highway became lined with barbed wire and had watchtowers every few hundred metres or so.
Our first stop on the tour was the Imjingak Peace Park. This park is located just at the edge of the Civilian Control Zone, 6km away from the southern edge of the DMZ. The park is a place where many South Koreans go to remember relatives who are still in North Korea. The main sight here is the Freedom Bridge, which is where South Koreans came back from North Korea after the signing of the Armistice Agreement in 1953. This area is used every year for a lot of unification events.
Our next stop was inside the Civilian Control Zone (behind a security check point) and extending into the DMZ. When signing up for this tour, they require around 4 days in order to register each person with a valid passport. The tour company then has all this information ready for the security checkpoint so they can verify everyone going into the CCZ. After each security check point, the bus can’t drive straight, but has to maneuver around large blockades to prevent cars and buses from speeding in the DMZ.
Our first stop within the CCZ was the “Third Tunnel of Infiltration” by North Korea. South Korea has discovered four tunnels so far that were designed to be used for surprise attacks on Seoul but were found before the could be used. The Third Tunnel is about 1,635 metres long, 2 metres wide, and runs about 73 metres below ground. It can allow up to 30,000 infantry to pass per hour. South Korea thinks there are more tunnels built by North Korea that they still have not yet found.
We were able to go down into the tunnel and reach the third concrete barricade that South Korea installed to block any access from the North. The walk down is pretty steep and dark. If you’re claustrophobic, I would recommend not going down into the tunnel as there are a lot of people from other tours down there as well. It took about 10 minutes to walk down to the tunnel and another 5-8 minutes to walk to the third wall barricade. You can see the second barricade wall through the third. This was the closest we got to North Korea, as we were within the DMZ and only 170m away from the Military Demarcation Line (i.e. ceasefire line), but underground. This was really cool, but unfortunately no pictures are allowed in the tunnel as you have to lock up all your belongings before going down.
Our next stop was Dora Observatory, which is a viewpoint situated on top of Dorasan mountain overlooking North Korea. This viewpoint is the closest you can get in South Korea to North Korea (without being in a tunnel). There are binoculars (500 KRW = $0.56 CAD) set up at the observatory so you can see the closest city in North Korea, Kaesong or Gaesong depending on how it’s anglicized.
Kaesong Industrial Park was used by about 120 South Korean companies to manufacture goods with cheap labour. The companies paid the North Korean government their wages directly and employed 53,000 Kaesong citizens. But due to recent tensions between the two countries, the industrial park has since been closed as protest against the North about their recent aggressive actions – e.g. their satellite launch and claimed hydrogen bomb test in January 2016. The plants actually just closed in early February, which made going to the next two stops even more interesting.
Since it was a hazy day, we were only able to see outlines of the buildings in Kaesong City. We also saw the large North Korean flag flying in “Propaganda Village” on one side and the South Korean flag flying on the other. According to our tour guide, the North and South were having a flag pole height war (Tim: “Dick measuring contest”) for a while, but the North “won” with their 160m flag pole. We could also hear propaganda blasting from loud speakers coming from the North. (Tim: “Propaganda Village” is a bizarre fake town with buildings that only have painted on facades, used to try and attract South Korean defectors. Also built at a time when telescopes and binoculars sucked apparently).
Unfortunately, you aren’t allowed to take pictures from the ledge so everything that we saw I couldn’t photograph. You are only allowed to take pictures about 15 feet away from the ledge, which basically means you can’t photograph anything.
Since the closing of the industrial parks in Kaesong, there is no permitted travel across the border at this time. This made visiting the Dorasan Train Station and immigrations/customs centre very interesting since there was no activity at all. The train station and immigration centre were eerily empty.
Our DMZ tour ended around 1pm and we got back on the bus and headed back to Seoul. I fell asleep on the whole bus ride back. We both really enjoyed the DMZ tour and learned a lot about the Korean War. Originally we wanted to do the DMZ/JSA tour, but the JSA tours were all fully booked. JSA is the “Joint Security Area” which is the only place in the DMZ where North and South military personnel are standing facing each other. Next time we come to Seoul, I would want to go to the JSA. We’ll book earlier next time!
When we got back to Seoul, we walked over to the Korean War Memorial Museum to spend the rest of the afternoon. The museum has free admission and is worth spending a few hours in (at least). Tim and I took our time to go through everything and we both learned a lot about the Korean War and it was a perfect place to go to after visiting the DMZ since we could tie together everything we learned. The threat from the North is still very evident as they have proven to not obey the Armistice Agreement since it was signed in 1953. There has been several aggressive acts from North Korea since then, as recent as 2010, when they bombed Yeonpyeong Island.
The wish for unification was very strong both at the DMZ and at the museum. We learned that North Korea was very close to being defeated (and Korea unified) with the help of American and other UN countries during the Korean War, but it was only when China joined to help North Korea that South Korea lost ground and they retreated back to the south (below the 38th parallel, which is basically the original border).
I’m always left humbled when going to war museums when you learn about how so many young men and women didn’t hesitate to fight for freedom and for their country (Tim: or more striking, for a country that isn’t even theirs). Without these fearless individuals the world would be a very different place.
After about 3.5 hours at the museum, we made our way back to our hotel. We got off the train and walked through Namdaemun Market. The first night we got into Seoul we walked down this street but we learned that it closed at 9pm. Namdaemun Market is basically a cheaper version of Myeongdong with lots of socks and fake everything. We walked through a street with food stalls and the older Korean ladies were quite aggressive trying to get us to sit down – Tim was grabbed a couple of times.
We rested up for a bit and then decided to go for Korean fried chicken. The first night we walked around we noticed a bunch of chicken and beer restaurants (where all the businessmen were) so we decided to go back and try, “Chicken Mania”. We ordered an original fried chicken and it was juicy and delicious!
After a long day, we came back to the hotel room around 9pm and plan on taking it easy for the rest of the night.
I suppose the beds at Hotel Shin Shin are comfortable because we both slept in and with Seoul being one hour ahead, we didn’t leave the hotel until about 11am! We did a quick look at the map and decided that we’d check out the Gyeongbokgung Palace, Insadong and Myeongdong shopping streets. The weather today was perfect, sunny and a high of 20 degrees Celsius.
The Gyeonbokgung Palace wasn’t too far from the hotel so we started making our way there on foot. The walk there was a nice walk along Seoul’s business district and we passed by City Hall. There were lots of high rises and businessmen in suits walking around. We’ve both noticed that the male to female ratio in Seoul’s business district seems to be like 10:1 (Where are all the business women?).
Seoul is a very modern city, Tim described it well when he mentioned it felt a bit like Berlin. Like Berlin, much of Seoul was destroyed during the Korean War and they had to rebuild everything in the last 50 years, making it a very modern city with lots of (destructive) history.
On our way to the Gyeongbokgung Palace, we came across a large statue of King Sejong. He is most known for inventing the Korean alphabet in the 15th century. Previous to his invention, Korea was using Chinese logograms to represent their language, which left some parts of the Korean language without appropriate written representation. Later in the day, we found out that up until a few years ago, learning to read and write Chinese characters was still in the school curriculum in South Korea, but apparently they are moving away from that.
After going through King Sejong’s museum (free admission), we made it to the entrance of Gyeongbokgung Palace. It was about 12:30pm, and we hadn’t eaten lunch yet so we decided to get something to eat before heading in. Our good friend, Sabine, lived in South Korea for about a year, so we asked her for some recommendations. She told us there was a really good ginseng chicken place close to the palace so we made our way there for lunch.
The restaurant is called Tosokchon Samgyetang and it specializes in their ginseng chicken soup (Samgyetang). There was a huge line up when we got there around 12:45pm, but the restaurant is like a compound inside with different rooms, so the wait was only around 10 minutes. All the dining rooms required customers to take their shoes off before they sat down. We sat down and ordered their ginseng chicken and a roasted chicken. When the dishes came, we realized (again) that it was a lot of food for us.
Everything we had was really tasty, but we regretted ordering two chicken dishes because it was too much chicken (2 full chickens!). I regret not ordering a seafood pancake as planned. We decided we’d have a light dinner tonight!
After lunch we walked back to Gyeongbokgung Palace to spend the rest of the afternoon. Admission to the palace is 3,000 KRW = $3.40 CAD. Gyeongbokgung Palace was built in 1395 and was destroyed once during the Japanese invasions during the 1500s and then restored in the 19th century by the reigning king at the time. During the Japanese occupation in the early 1900’s, they dismantled the majority of the palace only leaving a couple of the main buildings. That being said, much of the palace that stands today are not the original buildings. They plan to finish the entire palace as it originally was by 2045.
We walked around the palace grounds ourselves but then went back to the entrance to meet a guide for a free English tour. This ended up being really informative as there weren’t many informational signs in English around the palace.
After the tour ended, we exited behind the palace to see the “Blue House”, where the President works and lives. It called Cheong Wa Dae, but is nicknamed the “Blue House” because the roof is blue tiled. It is located right behind the palace grounds. When we went to take a look, there was a lot of security and secret service looking guys all around the grounds.
We eventually made our way to the Insadong area. Insadong is known for their arts and craft stores. There were a lot of art galleries and stores that sold Korean stationary. It was a neat street and I would like to go back and take a closer look at the stores another day.
After walking through Insadong, we made our way back towards our hotel by walking through the famous Myeondong shopping area. Before we got to the crazy shopping part of Myeongdong Street, we stumbled upon the Myeongdong Cathedral. It is the first Catholic church in Seoul and was built in 1892. When it was built, you used to be able to see the cathedral from most places around Seoul as it was built on a hill, but now with all the high rises it’s no longer that visible.
Seeing the Cathedral was the calm before the storm as we made our way into Myeongdong’s shopping area. Since being in Asia, I hadn’t been in such a dense area with that many people. Even at Shilin Night market in Taipei, it didn’t feel this crowded. Myeongdong is Seoul’s shopping district filled with endless beauty product stores (you can buy face masks in bulk here), sock stands, high end brands and department stores. I can see why people just shop when they come to Seoul. Since this isn’t really (Tim: “or not in the slightest”) a shopping trip for us, I have to limit myself to socks and maybe some masks.
Along the streets were also food vendors, which was where we ended up having dinner. We had kalbi meatballs, japchae bulgogi and black soybean noodles. Everything was good, prices are higher than street food in Taiwan but I think we just have to get used to everything being more expensive here. We took out 300,000 KRW = $340 CAD for our 6 days in Seoul and have already used up a third. We’ll have to take out more cash or start to use our credit card.
We called it an early night, getting back to the hotel around 8pm. We have an early morning tomorrow as our tour for the DMZ leaves at 7:45am. We have to take the train to the another area to meet our tour. We ended up picking Koridoor tours after reading their reviews on Trip Advisor. Looking forward to an interesting day tomorrow.
We woke up earlier this morning to finish packing and clean up the apartment before we left for Seoul. Uncle Albert picked us up at around 10:15am and we headed to Taoyuan for our flight to Seoul’s Incheon Airport at 1:25pm. The airport is about an hour drive from central Taipei. Hopefully when we come back in a few years they will have finished the train line connecting central Taipei to Taoyuan Airport.
It was my first time flying Korean Air and Tim’s second time (he flew with them to Brazil). The flight wasn’t full as they moved us up about ten rows when we checked in at the counter. There were a lot of Americans on our flight as it was a code share flight with Delta and it seemed like a lot of people were connecting through Seoul en route back to North America.
We had about an hour to kill at Taoyuan before our flight boarded. We decided to have lunch, unsure if we were going to get anything to eat since the flight was only 2 hours. There was only one restaurant near our gate that served Taiwanese set rice sets and noodles. We shared a pork chop rice set and I got a drink from the vending machine since it was priced the same as outside the airport at 20 NT = $0.80 CAD.
Our flight went by pretty quickly and we did end up getting a meal on the plane – oh well, now we know. We landed in Seoul-Incheon at 4:30pm (South Korea is an hour ahead of Taiwan). Looking out the window, it was a sunny day but it was very hazy so it was hard to even see the mountains in the distance. We haven’t seen a clear blue sky in a while.
When we got off the plane, we had to take a tram to immigration and baggage claim. Once we got off the tram, we went to the immigration area and the line up for foreign passports was crazy. It took us about an hour to get through customs (I hate line ups!). After we got through and went to the baggage area, all the bags from our flight were already taken off the carousel. We found our backpacks and headed to the bus area.
The bus area was another gong show. We had to take bus #6015 to get close to our hotel which is in the Myeong-dong area of Seoul. We lined up to board the bus then and realized we needed to buy tickets from the ticket counter before boarding (tickets were 10,000 KRW each = $11.30 CAD). We ended up finally leaving the airport at 6:4opm. The bus ride into the city is about 70 minutes long – I fell asleep along the way and only woke up when the bus started to make stops. The bus doesn’t make any stops until you get into the city centre (which is after 50 minutes).
When I woke up, we were in the city and everything felt big, busy and bright. My first impression of Seoul is that it’s very modern looking and a bit overwhelming. Finally, we got to our stop, Namdaemun Market, and walked to our hotel which was about 3 minutes away. Yesterday, I watched the hotel’s instructional video on how to get from the bus stop to the hotel. It was really helpful and we didn’t even need to look at a map!
We’re staying at Hotel Shin Shin in the Myeong-dong/Namdaemun area. I found the hotel while looking on Trip Advisor as it has really good ratings and is one of the top hotels in Seoul that isn’t a branded hotel (and is very reasonable at $85 CAD a night). Our room is another two single bed set ups, which I picked because it was the cheapest room option (Tim and I are roommates again). The room is fairly small but very functional and everything in it is modern.
After we settled in and rested a bit, we went out to walk around and look for dinner. It was about 8:30pm and we were starting to get hungry. When we stepped outside, it felt like we were in Vancouver because of the crisp cold air (about 12 degrees Celsius). We decided to go to the Namdaemun Market to see if they had street food, but when we went there everything was closing. I think we took for granted that not all markets are night markets like in Taiwan. We walked around the neighbouring streets and mainly found restaurants filled with Korean businessmen drinking and smoking outside. It was interesting, there weren’t many women around at all and Tim kept asking if I felt uncomfortable (I didn’t). Seoul definitely has a lot more smokers than in Taipei – just based on walking around this area. It seemed like everyone was outside smoking. We looked at the restaurants that did have menus outside and noticed that the prices were a lot more than Taipei. The prices are more similar to Vancouver pricing for food.
We walked around for about an hour and then decided to go to this noodle restaurant we passed by closer to our hotel. It looked clean and had locals eating there so we decided to give it a try. The waitress was very nice and knew we didn’t speak Korean – we pointed to the pictures and ordered spicy noodles, fried dumplings and sweet and sour pork. When the food came, we were both surprised at how large the portions were (mainly the size of the dumplings). Next time we don’t need to order that much.
Everything was very good but spicy – even the dumplings. We drank all the water they gave us and Tim was sweating like crazy. I guess we’re not used to the Korean heat.
We came back to the hotel and washed up. We’re looking forward to exploring Seoul tomorrow, it’s always exciting to explore a new city together. So far we hadn’t encountered any issues with language barriers yet. I’m practicing saying thank you in Korean, “gomabseubnida”, so at least we can be polite tourists.
Step count will be updated tomorrow, Tim is sleeping already.