Sojourn in Seoul

A green city: the view from Namsan Hill

(Part one)

As my regular readers well know by now, I have a habit of taking off to parts unknown with my wife Beng at the slightest excuse, and one such occasion came up three weeks ago when Beng marked her birthday (her 36th it seemed to me - as it seemed to me last year as well, and the year before). Of course I'd known for months ahead that her birthday was coming up, so as early as January, I booked us a flight to and a hotel in Seoul, for the first week of June. (That's how Beng and I get our kicks - we jump on early-bird budget fares and commit ourselves to travel months in advance, the better to plot the year ahead.)

Why Seoul? Simply because Beng had never been to Korea, except for stopovers in Incheon, and I'd pledged years ago to take her everywhere I'd ever been. I visited Korea in 2007 on assignment for The STAR, to cover Hyundai's shipbuilding and carmaking operations, and we stayed for a day or two in Seoul before moving on to Busan and Jeju, but I could hardly remember anything of Seoul except for the stately palaces and the enormous beef-barbecue dinners. I could do with another and more relaxed visit, on my own time and schedule, and Beng's birthday in early June seemed perfectly timed, with our semester in UP just having ended.

I also suspected that a sojourn in Seoul would satisfy Beng's yearnings to see, with her own eyes, the locales of her favorite Boys Over Flowers and the birthplace of Lee Min-ho, if not Lee Min-ho himself sauntering down an alley in Myeong-dong.

The planning was the easy part. Like I always do, I went online - to skyscanner.com for the plane fares and to booking.com and tripadvisor.com for the hotel. AirAsia had a good deal for the period, and I was able to locate a small, affordable hotel at a great location in central Seoul with four-star reviews - the Hotel Kyoung Dong in the Namdaemun/Namsan Park area.

Cheonggyecheon Stream, in the heart of Seoul

Because of the fare structure, we signed up for a six-night, Tuesday-Monday stay - a tad longer than our usual four-day getaways. But this would open, as I'll report next week, more fruitful possibilities beyond sightseeing and shopping. This week, I'll focus on the personal impressions of a casual tourist, hoping they'll be of some help when you, dear reader (and dear reader's husband/wife/partner) make your own plans for Seoul.

Yes, we Pinoys need visas for Korea, but if you've done a bit of traveling before or can prove you can pay for your own kimchi, then it shouldn't be a problem (until the end of this year, and by special arrangement, BPI Gold cardholders practically get a free pass to a three-year multiple-entry visa).

It's a four-hour flight to Seoul and ours left around 7 a.m., which was perfect for avoiding the horrendous traffic around NAIA and for arriving at Incheon International Airport at midday (Korean time is one hour ahead). I'd already exchanged my pesos for Korean won at the money changer in NAIA (P1,000=W25,000), so we headed straight for the express bus shuttle to downtown Seoul, a little over an hour away. Immediately Beng was struck by how clean and modern everything looked - no litter, no "informal settlements," no traffic - and I had to give her a spiel about how it hadn't always been like that, and how Korea had transformed itself into an economic powerhouse within a couple of generations.

Our bus dropped us off at Namdaemun Market - which was like dropping off Beng at the portals of paradise, shopping-wise. As we would realize not too long after, Namdaemun is like Greenhills multiplied by 10 - and it was hardly alone, as there was also Dongdaemun to contend with, among other emporia.

Korean bling at Namdaemun

But first, we had to locate our hotel. I usually roam on my phone, so we would have depended on Waze or Google Maps to get us there, but for some reason, I couldn't get online, so we had to resort to the old-fashioned way: asking for directions - which, in non-Anglophone Korea, isn't exactly the easiest thing to do. (And as every wife knows, men would rather walk a mile the wrong way before asking for directions, which is why I always bring Beng along.)

And here we made our first pleasant discovery - that contrary to the notion that Koreans are rude, those we met were invariably kind and helpful. Amid a flurry of gestures and grunts, a parking attendant pointed us in the right direction, and an old man took over on the other side of the street and delivered us to our hotel's doorstep. On the super-efficient Seoul Metro (the arrival of whose trains are heralded by a trumpet flourish you might hear at the Kentucky Derby), we would routinely see younger commuters yielding their seats to their elders, including us (haplessly incontrovertible proof of our visible age).

The last time I was in Korea, everything had been briskly orchestrated by our hosts, with nary a moment for exploring on our own, but now, with a long, lazy week stretching out ahead of us, we had hours to fill with markets and museums, parks and palaces, porcelain-cheeked nymphets in baby-doll dresses (and sometimes even more smartly coiffed young men), impeccably good food, and streetside bargains that gratified our pedestrian desires.

Beng and I didn't sign up for any tours, nor did we venture out too far from the heart of the city. This vagabond pair of seniors decided that they would go as far as their subway tickets and their feet would carry them, spend an hour on a park bench just enjoying the scenery while munching on a slice of sweet green melon or a cob of corn (each for 1,000 won, or P40), and save our energy for the flea markets that, truth to tell and next to the museums, are always our prime targets wherever we go, and Seoul has half a dozen of them on the weekends.

This, Beng and I acknowledged with a sigh and a smile, was tourism senior-style, punctuated by Zantac instead of ziplines, by moisturizer instead of, well, moisture. Some of our happiest moments were the quietest ones - watching the sunset from the peak of Namsan Hill, and the ducks and the carp at Cheonggyecheon Stream.

This brings up one of our small but vital complaints: as wonderful as the city was, Seoul can be hilly in parts, making for long, punishing climbs. Somehow, that doesn't seem to deter the posses of ajummas - bag-toting Korean matrons sporting broad-brimmed visors - from marching to the markets for their daily dose of retail therapy, or perhaps even just the company of the similarly disposed. Had we lived there, we might have done the same.

Next week, I'll report on less geriatric topics: culture, literature, and community.

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Email me at penmanila@yahoo.com and check out my blog at www.penmanila.ph.

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