I am really rather behind on writing about some of the travel I did this year, but now that I have a completed draft of my novel, I’m going to attempt to get these out of the way. We travelled to South Korea and Taiwan on the same holiday, but I’m going to separate them on the blog to a) make them shorter and b) feel more accomplished when I actually finish the first one. They probably won’t be as detailed as some of my other posts in the past due to how long it’s been since we were there, but I fortunately made notes to remind me what to write about each day.
Tuesday 24th April, 2012
Jeremy was off on a work trip in Doha, Qatar, which meant that I had to take the journey from home to Incheon airport in Korea without any help for our sons. It was early to rise in the morning, but I managed to sort out a taxi and getting to the LCCT airport without any problems. Doyle and Leo were incredibly well behaved for me, which was quite a surprise as this is not usually the case when we travel together as our whole family.
It’s quite a long flight to South Korea, so basically we spent our whole day travelling. Jeremy arrived at Incheon after us, but fortunately, his baggage carousel was right next to ours, and it wasn’t difficult to find each other.
We didn’t really know the exact directions to find out hotel, but since it was located in the newer part of Seoul, which is about an hour away from Incheon airport, we opted to get a train to Seoul and then get a taxi from there, since it would’ve been cheaper than getting a taxi direct.
Our hotel, The Lexington, was amusingly New York themed, but quite nice. It was located more in the business district of the city rather than for tourists, but that was fine. We didn’t have time to see anything on our first day since it was well past our bed time by the time we got to our room.
Wednesday 25th April, 2012
Since we had such a late night the night before, we slept in late. It was also a bit of a drizzly/rainy day, so the first thing we did was decide what tour we would do, and later ended up booking that for Friday. Then we wandered around the nearby area we were staying in, and found ourselves somewhere to have an early lunch, since we skipped breakfast. We were going to try a pie shop, but the kids were starving and it would’ve been a 30 minute wait for the food, so we ended up at a bakery instead, trying some interesting looking Korean baked goods.
We headed back to our hotel after that, and since it was still quite rainy, we thought we’d take advantage of the free shuttle to a shopping area that our hotel offered. We booked that for the afternoon, and our driver took us to the NC department store. I’m quite attracted to Korean fashion, so I hoped to find some things I would like, but also, I’d assumed the weather would be warmer, and didn’t pack anything for cool temperatures. This meant we looked for things like jackets and jumpers. When our driver took us around the car park, we were amused to see parking attendants who were dressed in uniforms that made them look like they were about to go on a safari.
I ended up finding a really pretty periwinkle blue jacket (pictured), which I loved. The shop assistant helped me try it on and showed me the different ways I could wear the waist tie. She didn’t speak very much English, so we communicated mostly with gestures. I liked that we were at least still able to communicate! (I was trying to determine if we could use the discount vouchers we received from the hotel when I paid, but we discovered we had to save our receipts for later).
Following my purchase, we set off to find Jeremy and Doyle something warm to wear. Doyle was relatively easy to find a jumper for (though he got distracted watching a Korean kids show in the children’s section), and that purchase was fine because he didn’t have any jumpers in his size anyway. Jeremy was harder to buy for because I didn’t really like the same kind of men’s fashion that he did. We managed to find some jeans we both liked, but the jacket or jumper was a lot more difficult. Yes, I’m the kind of woman who wants her husband to look good in what he’s wearing, so I help his fashion shopping sometimes. 😉
We ended up coming across a grey hoodie which both of us liked… but had the Korean shop assistants laughing. Because apparently, as they tried to communicate with us, it was actually meant for a woman rather than a man. We uhmmed and ahhed about it for a little while, but didn’t see anything else we liked, so we got it anyway. It’s not like it looked particularly like a woman’s article of clothing.
Doyle was getting a bit bored with the shopping by then, so we went up to one of the highest floors where there was a sort of small kids’ theme park, featuring the cartoon Doyle was caught up in in the department store, CocoMong. Leo had fallen asleep in his pram by this point, and if I’d wanted to go in with him, I would’ve had to leave his pram outside, locked up. So Jeremy ended up taking Doyle to this playground while I sat outside, playing on the Internet. When Leo woke up, I walked him around that floor and the one above, then ended up getting him something to drink because he was thirsty.
When Jeremy and Doyle finally came back out of CocoMong Kids Land, Jeremy informed me that they got to meet the owner of the place, and he offered Doyle anything from the gift shop for free, apparently because they don’t get a lot of white visitors. Doyle could’ve chosen the most expensive thing there, but instead just opted for a DVD of CocoMong (he’d also spent a bit of time watching it when he was inside). CocoMong is presently Leo’s favourite DVD to watch, so I think he made a good choice. The Korean kids shows that air in Malaysia are Pororo the Little Penguin, and Dibo the Gift Dragon. We didn’t see any Dibo things in Korea, but there was certainly a lot of Pororo merchandise around. Doyle ended up getting a Pororo toy/lolly container with his pocket money later.
We stayed in the mall for dinner, but rather than go to one of the restaurants Leo and I walked past, we ended up in the food court at the very bottom floor. Here, pretty much all the restaurants Jeremy and I were inclined to try food from had Korean only menus – and by that I mean they were all in Korean characters with absolutely no English characters to help us translate what anything might be. Even when we settled on a place we could get Korean food, the people working there spoke very little English with which to communicate to us that the food was quite spicy and were we sure we wanted to try that? I ended up getting something just because the man said it would be noodles – though it was a soup noodle dish, and not quite what I was expecting. Jeremy got the spicy thing, which was perhaps spicier than he was expecting. Of course, our meal also came with a side of kimchi. For Doyle and Leo, we just got some food from the Korean fast food chain, Lotteria, which is quite similar to KFC.
I think I was most surprised by the lack of English spoken, considering how many other countries I’ve been to in Asia where the English is a lot easier. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was because Korea is relatively self-sufficient (considering it’s one of the richer countries in Asia) and doesn’t need to rely as much on English speaking tourists as the poorer countries I’ve been to, like Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and The Philippines. On the other hand, even Japan (well, when we’d only been to Tokyo previously, though the same was true when we later went to Osaka) had more people come up to us speaking good English wanting to help us.
After dinner, we picked up a few things so we could have breakfast in our room the next morning. When it was time to go, we returned to the concierge, who called our driver for us so he could take us back to our hotel. He ended up helping Jeremy get our refund on the receipts we could get with the discount voucher we had, and while we waited, a Korean woman who actually did speak decent English came up and talked to me, while her 3 year old had some fun playing with Doyle.
I should probably mention that our driver also spoke relatively good English. By the time we got back to our hotel, it was pretty much bed time.
Thursday 26th April, 2012
Often on trips to Asian countries, I’m inclined to give Jeremy full reign of at least a day to go ahead and decide everything we do, because I get a bit nervous around the language barriers sometimes. In Korea, today was that day.
After breakfast, which we had bought from the mall the night before, we walked to the National Assembly, where there was a subway station, and Jeremy took us to the Lotte World theme park. When we got there, I had a look at the program guide to see if they had any shows we might like to watch, and saw they had listed “K pop.” I thought it would be cool to catch some Korean pop music whilst in Korea, though when it finally started, we noticed it was more like a marching band than anything I’d have thought was K pop.
From there, we headed straight to the folk museum that was part of the theme park, since we wouldn’t have time to go to the cultural village I wanted to go to as well. There were a lot of models and examples of what Korean fashion and housing has been like over the years.
It was lunch time by the time we finished looking around the museum, so we tried to find a restaurant the boys would be happy to eat at, whilst also getting to try more Korean food, but Doyle vetoed everything we thought would look appetising for him in the restaurants that had the plastic food like Japan has. So we ended up going back to the main part of the theme park and getting something from the food court there. Again, there wasn’t much in English to indicate what things were, but I later discovered the dish I chose was called Bibimbap. That ended up becoming my favourite Korean dish. It’s a bowl of rice with a medley of other things on top, often plus an egg, which you get to mix all together. Delicious!
Finally after lunch we were able to try out some of the rides at the theme park. I ended up having to get a special ticket for Leo to ride with us, even though he was free to get into the park. We didn’t go on too many rides, because some of the lines were quite long, and others had Doyle feeling a little scared. We still enjoyed ourselves, though.
After leaving the theme park, we stopped at the Mos Burger in the shopping mall for dinner, since Jeremy and I quite enjoy that Japanese fast food chain – Korea is the third country we’ve been to where we’ve tried it.
It was quite an exhausting day, so after finishing our dinner, we caught the subway back to the National Assembly, walked back to our hotel, and relaxed for the rest of the evening. I think this was probably the night the kids watched the CocoMong DVD too.
Friday 27th April, 2012
Today was our last full day in South Korea, so we had a tour booked to make sure we could make the most of our limited time. We probably could have done everything in the tour on our own time for less money, but it would’ve taken us a lot longer to get from one place to the next, and we simply didn’t have the time to be that leisurely. In any case, our guides were really informative, and I feel like I learned more about the history of Korea with the tour we went on. We chose Seoul City Tour‘s most popular full day city tour, which was a combination of their Palace Morning Tour and their Changdeokgung & Namdaemun Market Afternoon Tour (we swapped guides and exchanged a few tourists after lunch).
Before we were collected for the tour, though, Jeremy picked us up some street food for breakfast – omelette sandwiches – from a place on the corner of the street we were staying on. It was quite yummy!
Our tour bus collected us at 8.20am, and as we were leaving we noticed there were some people filming outside the Lexington Hotel, probably for some Korean TV series or movie. I thought that was pretty cool.
The bus (well, van) took us to another van, which would take us to our first stop, the Jogyesa Buddhist Temple. The temple was very brightly decorated with lanterns forming a cover overhead like a pergola. I’m not sure if it’s always like that, or if it was just because, as we had been informed, there were also celebrations for Buddha’s birthday. I was probably more impressed by the lanterns than the actual temple, though the temple was also brightly coloured, and nicely Korean styled.
Once we returned to the van, we passed by the Blue House, which is South Korea’s version of the US’s White House. It was quite pretty, but difficult to get a photo from a moving vehicle.
Our next stop was a Folk Museum, which was nearby Gyeongbok Palace. These two places are where we spent the majority of the morning. Jeremy and I separated with the kids to wander around the museum since it was a bit crowded, and it was easier for us to see everything we could in the allocated time that way. Some things were similar to the museum at Lotte World, but this one had more actual artefacts from throughout history.
We met up with the rest of the group and then it was a short walk to Gyeongbok Palace. It has undergone some restoration over the years, but I found it to be really beautiful to look at. I loved the Korean style architecture, because it’s nothing like European style palaces, and it’s certainly also different to Japanese ones, which is the closest comparison I have seen. I’m not sure if Chinese palaces might be a closer comparison. It was interesting that the king and queen got their own buildings, though! After walking through the whole palace grounds, we got to the other side in time to watch the Changing of the Guard ceremony, which was really cool to watch. I loved the colours of the guards’ uniforms.
During the next part of our drive, our guide commented on the fact there were actual Malaysians also on the tour, since I had mentioned to her that we live in Malaysia. She talked to me for a while about what she presumed would’ve been a language barrier, until I informed her that actually most people in Malaysia seem to speak English, and you can get by just fine knowing only that language. She then turned to the Malaysians to find out if that was true, and they agreed. So she then turned the discussion with me onto the level of English proficiency in Korea, since she seemed to think it was quite low, as I had noted, but that it was improving, as it’s taught more in schools these days. She seemed to think she could be out of a job within a few years due to the uptake of English lessons, so foreigners might not be so reliant on tours like the one we were on. Personally, I doubt that, because there will always be people who would prefer to have a guide than figuring out how to get from place A to place B on their own. Plus, as I mentioned above, I learned a lot more about the history this way, and thought the tour was well worth the extra money we spent rather than trying to do it ourselves.
Having said that, our next stop was a Ginseng centre which was most likely on the tour to encourage spending, and the tour company and/or guide probably got a commission on the sales. This sort of thing seems to be pretty common on tours I’ve been on around Asia, though — not that I’ve been on a lot. The most obvious example would be on Jeremy’s and my honeymoon in Phuket, and we went to a jewellery/gem factory/store, where I ended up getting a blue topaz/white gold ring. That’s probably the most we’ve spent at a place like that, part of a tour, though. Our tour in Vietnam included a trip to a lacquer workshop, and our tours in Bali had a couple of similar stops where we were encouraged to buy things, too. Now, had this ginseng place had ginseng coffee like the kind we got at one of those said tour stops in Bali, I think we probably would’ve got some. Sadly, they did not, and we weren’t really interested in the kind of ginseng they did have on offer. I ended up heading back to the van a bit early because Doyle and Leo weren’t really happy just standing around in the shop part.
Just before lunch, we dropped off a couple of people who were only there for the morning tour near a US army base that was pretty much in central Seoul. Although we were informed the base would soon be moved out of the city, I was somewhat stunned by the fact it existed at all. I hadn’t really been aware at that point of just how many army bases the US has on foreign soil. I understood it probably ended up there because of the Korean war, but that was decades ago. I guess I just don’t really understand the necessity of the US having bases all over the world in places where there are currently no wars going on.
For lunch, we stopped at a traditional Korean restaurant, where we got to sit on the floor, and our feet went in a hole under the table. It was pretty cool, and the meal just so happened to include my newfound favourite Bibimbap!
After the meal, we swapped tour guides, now a male who our previous guide lauded as the best guide working for the company with his knowledge on history and the palaces and royal family in particular. As we drove, our new guide told us about some of the history of the Royal Family. I was particularly interested in the way she talked about Japan’s influence, trying to take over Korea, and sending a Japanese princess they believed to be infertile to marry the Korean prince, only to later be furious that she conceived a baby. If I remember the story correctly, the first baby died and it was probably an intentional death, but the couple later had another child, which was protected in Korea. Though Korea is now a republic, it sounded like they are still proud of their history. Unfortunately, there’s only one person left in the royal line. I think there might have also been a story about one of the more recent Korean princes falling in love with a white American woman, and people being upset that he was choosing love outside his race (despite the fact he was already part Korean, part Japanese).
Our first stop on this tour was another palace, the Changdeok Palace. This one wasn’t as busy with tourists as the previous one, probably due to the lack of the changing of the guard, but that doesn’t mean it was any less interesting. Naturally, our guide was good at talking about the various buildings within the palace grounds. I still really love the colours decorating the architecture. When so many cityscapes look blandly the same, I love having the opportunity to see the differences in traditional architecture from around the globe.
When we were done with the second palace, we were taken to the Insadong Antique Shop Alley where we had time to do a bit of souvenir shopping. I ended up picking up a cool hand mirror for myself, and a bookmark for a friend. That was followed up by going to an amethyst shop which was a short walk away, and similarly on the programme like the ginseng place. Though we didn’t buy anything, I enjoyed impressing one of the shop assistants with my knowledge of the names of some of the gems they had on some of the bracelets they had for sale. This was due in part to my childhood, growing up adoring tiger’s eyes, and owning a few rose quartz items.
Our last stop on the tour was Namdaemun Market, a relatively cheap street market, and this is another thing that tends to interest Jeremy and me when we travel, as we are drawn to checking out local markets around Asia. The only thing we got here, though, was some street food because Doyle was feeling a bit hungry.
We headed back to our hotel after that, swapping into yet another van since people had to go back to hotels in different areas. We weren’t the only people on the tour to be staying at our not-as-well-situated hotel, though! Admittedly that only included one other man.
For dinner, we headed down the street and ended up underground at a restaurant called VIPS, which is probably similar to Sizzler, as it is a buffet style restaurant but you can add on extra things like steak. It was also quite good, though we didn’t really have a lot of Korean choices there. It’s hard to choose meals in Korea when you have children travelling with you who aren’t as inclined to try new things.
Saturday 28th April, 2012
We didn’t have any specific plans for our final day in Seoul since we knew we didn’t have a lot of time to get around and see things, especially given where we were staying. So, we decided to take it easy and have a bit of a sleep in. It had been a long and eventful day the day before, after all! Jeremy fetched us some breakfast from a nearby 7 Eleven. Then we decided to check out and leave our bags at the front desk while we went for a wander around the nearby area. As we left the hotel, some Korean teenagers came up and asked us some questions, I believe because they wanted to practice their English.
As we headed out, we walked north toward the river that separated where we were staying from the old part of Seoul, where we had spent the previous couple of days. The weather was very clear which meant it was actually the perfect day for us to do this. A lot of people were down there relaxing in the sun, and we had a great view of the cityscape. Then we headed under the road to another park, which was just simply beautiful. Though it was spring, interestingly some of the leaves in the trees were orange. There were a few Korean style structures and lampposts in this park I quite liked, too.
Once we’d spent enough time there and I wanted to make sure we had enough time to get to the airport, we headed back to the hotel. I waited with the boys at the bus stop (right out the front of the hotel) while Jeremy fetched our bags, and I think he might’ve got us some lunch, too. We took the bus straight to the airport, which was super convenient.
The final problem of the day was having the check in clerks want to see the card I’d used for booking our flights to Taiwan – which I had inconveniently left in Malaysia, since it’s the card that has US dollars on it, and I only use it when I’m planning on using US currency. The ended up letting us go anyway.
Overall, I really liked Seoul, and I didn’t feel like we got to spend enough time there. Indeed, there were a number of other things I would’ve liked to have had the opportunity to do, like the DMZ (De-militarised zone) tour along the North/South Korean border, because I thought it would be interesting to have the opportunity to find out more about that, and look into North Korea. Understandably that probably wouldn’t have been the most interesting thing to take children along to, though. There were also a number of other sights outside the city that were a bit difficult to get to without a tour group, but they’re just things I’ll have to remember to go back and see on another trip. I’d certainly recommend it as a place to visit, despite the language barrier being a little more difficult than another Asian countries I’ve been to.