Travel: South Korea

“Summer in Korea?” I wonder. “What would I do during summer in Korea?”

Having grown up and lived in a country with summer-like weather most of the year, I initially didn’t see the appeal of traveling just to experience the same season. At the same time, I’ll be the first to admit that Korea was never really in my list of top destinations to visit. When the Korean craze swept the nation in recent years, I remained mostly indifferent to all the K-pop, K-drama, K-everything that everyone went crazy for. Besides, I had also heard that Korea is best during the other seasons of the year, but never really summer.

Still, who could resist the lure of discovering a new place? Philippines AirAsia had recently introduced once-a-day direct flight from Cebu to Incheon, so there was no excuse not to check it out at any moment’s notice, no matter what time of the year. As the trip drew nearer, it had also become a personal challenge of sorts to find out the lure of Korea; also to discover what it was really like there, considering the significant population of Koreans in the Philippines. A cultural exchange, if you may.

The late afternoon flight was a smooth sailing affair, traipsing through fluffy white clouds and bright blue skies that never seemed to change hues despite being up in the air for several hours. It was my first international trip that involved timezone changes, so arriving at the Incheon Airport and being one hour ahead of the Philippines slightly disoriented me (wuss).

Or maybe I was just cranky from the four (five? I’m still not sure) hour flight and was in dire need of food. In any case, upon meeting up with our tour guide Jina, we went straight to our first meal of the trip, bibimbap at Cafe Bonjuk at the airport. It was either that or fastfood, and  heck if I came all the way to Korea for some fast food.

Bibimbap at Cafe Bonjuk & Bibimpa

Having delicious and authentic food, plus a quick nap on the trip from Incheon to Seoul revived my energy a little. My roommate Kris only had less than 24 hours in Korea and was due to fly back to the Philippines by noon the next day (earning her the fond moniker of being my one night stand), so the entire group set out after checking into the TMark Grand Hotel. There wasn’t much open at that late hour, but we still managed to find a few interesting spots here and there, including a deserted Myeongdong Street. Later, we hit up a local convenience store for some banana milk, and moved on to a 24-hour chicken and beer place near the hotel.

Elevator mirror selfie with Kris, who had less than a day in Korea
Banana milk!

The next day found us wandering the streets of Bukchon Hanok Village, a neighborhood of traditional Korean homes (hanok). While most of them have had their interiors repurposed for more modern needs, the exteriors retain the same old-style architecture, making the place charming for a morning stroll and several Instagram photos. A short ride away was the famous Gyeongbokgung Palace, the largest of Korea’s five great palaces. Unfortunately we weren’t able to catch the changing of the guards ceremony, allegedly a highlight when you visit the palaces, but the trip was still worthwhile if only to see glimpses of Korea’s history. We also encountered numerous people walking around in traditional hanbok. Apparently, entrances to several tourist destinations is free when you wear the Korean costume. I wanted to don one for photo-op purposes, but a rental was just too darn expensive.

Bukchon Hanok Village

Since we were still full from breakfast, we decided to hit up nearby Insadong Antique Alley, a street that houses several stores offering… well, antiques. Most of them were rather pricey, but we found several shops with great sales we couldn’t resist (so much that we ended up going back another day). Jina then took us to Nam Chon Ok for samgyetang, or chicken ginseng soup. Seems a little crazy to have soup in the middle of summer, but to be fair, Korean weather is much cooler than in the Philippines. It’s a whole load of carbo loading – a whole young chicken swimming in noodles AND stuffed with rice. I would have finished the entire thing had I been hungrier, or, you know, hungover.

Samgyetang or chicken ginseng soup

We needed to walk off that very filling lunch, and where better to do that than at the N-Seoul Tower? Admittedly, the place isn’t much from the outside, but it offers spectacular views of Seoul from all the way up. The elevator ride itself was also fascinating, with LED visuals giving off the feel of being shot off into outer space (that sentence would make more sense if you take that elevator). Unfortunately, even for summer, the views were rather foggy that day. N-Seoul Tower is also best known for being Korea’s answer to the love lock trend that’s popular in Europe. There’s a section off to the side where couples can attach padlocks to trees and railings to proclaim their everlasting love. Adding to the spectacles were love benches, which were basically… well, benches, bent in the middle. It is said to bring two shy people close together.

N-Seoul Tower. Not much from the outside, but…
… offers great views of Seoul

The rest of the trip found us exploring Seoul’s more modern attractions. I especially loved the Cheonggyecheon Stream that runs throughout downtown Seoul. It was said to be a neglected waterway for several years, until the Korean government took restorative measures. Today, it’s the perfect example of urbanization working in harmony with nature, as it’s a public space where Koreans and other tourists flock to. The entrance offers a view of an artificial waterfalls where water from the Han River is pumped into the stream. There are steps on each side of the stream, where people can sit and even opt to take their shoes off and submerge their feet into the cold waters. Further down the stream are more ‘untouched’ areas with more trees, and big stones to let you cross from one side to the other.

Cheonggyecheon Stream

I also enjoyed the Dongdaemun Design Plaza, although for being the center of Korea’s design industry, it sure was hard to find an angle for Instagram-worthy shots! This stunning place showcases the most amazing architecture I’ve ever seen, from striking lines to almost-impossible curves. Inside was especially interesting, as there were so many fascinating things on display, from novelty items to Korean-designed products. Most of them were too expensive to purchase, unfortunately, but it was a good hour well spent just to look around.

Dongdaemun Design Plaza

I think the thing I most enjoyed about going to Korea was the shopping (!!). I had committed to not spending so much than necessary on a trip (and was relatively successful in Hong Kong), but my self-control went out the window the moment I stepped into Myeongdong Street! That entire alleyway lined with all the beauty stores was just impossible to resist. I spent a good chunk of my pocket money in Nature Republic and walked out with a haul that would cost me 10 times more if I bought all those things in the Philippines. Doesn’t hurt that every time I’d walk into a store, I’d come out with a lot of freebies also. H&M also had an insane sale that blessed me with a really great pair of pants, so no harm done, right? 😛

The Namdaemun Market was also an awesome shopping destination – awesome in the sense that it took all of my money! I got a great pair of quality red combat boots for around Php 2,000, when in all likeliness that would set me back at least Php 5,000 here. Everything was so darn cheap there, it was seriously hard to exercise restraint. Fun fact: I went to Korea with nine kilos of baggage, and came home with 18. Haha!

The thing about my trip was that it barely occurred to me I was traveling during summer. Sure, it helped that most days were clear to make the sightseeing experience easier, but I can see how most of the sights would be pretty also during the other seasons. That said, I’d have to pin Korea’s charm on… shopping! If there’s anything that’ll definitely make me go back – no matter the season – it’s the chance to hit up Myeongdong and the Namdaemun Market again. Until then, this Seoul has done her fair share of wandering.

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