Wednesday, 21 March 2018

On Seoul

South Korea. Mention that country to someone and amongst the things that people might know about it range from Samsung or LG (both of which show this East Asian Tiger's technological prowess), Kpop (because there’s no getting away from that nowadays and undeniably, the country's most powerful export), kimchi (and other dishes), its squabble (which is somewhat an understatement) with North Korea, melancholic Kdramas with more twists and turns and bumps than a Malaysian road, cutesy-styled ceramic-porcelain-faced guys, or that one magical word that everyone – from young school children, to teenage girls, to their grandmothers’ moms – knows: oppa. Why this sudden mention of the land of the rose of Sharon anyway? It’s because I was lucky enough to step my feet there last October. This is a bit of my experience and stories from my trip to the miraculous city by the Han River, Seoul.

To Begin with…


This post might be a bit long since I will share my anecdotes of Seoul - about its people, about random stuff I saw, the places that I went to, what I did and ate, and maybe some tips and tricks. The itinerary and expenditure of my trip are located on the bottom section of this post.



So, my friends (Zell, Jaceyy, and Syed) and I chose Seoul as our next destination while we were still in Osaka circa 2016 (which reminds that I still have not written a post on that amazing trip… oh well). I think with the influence of that nation in our country, that was a natural choice for the next travel. Anyway, different people have different reasons why they travel. For me, I love to experience the cultures of other people, both tangible and intangible. It’s good to know how people are similar or dissimilar with all of us. Besides that, travelling is also one way to at least have a glimpse of people’s behaviours and attitudes, way of life, way of thinking. Travelling enriches our minds. Of course, I want to have fun too. That’s a valid thing.



Autumn in My Bones


We went to Seoul in October, which was like early to mid of autumn I guess? The temperature of Seoul in October fluctuates between 10 to 20 degrees Celsius, so if you come from a tropical country and are skinny as me, seems like a bit of hell so to speak. I wore Uniqlo’s Heattech (not a promo) and still I could feel the cold wind seeping into my bones, although the clothes did actually work in keeping my body warmer than what it was supposed to be if I hadn’t worn it! The plus side was since the temperature was quite low (especially during nights), we didn’t really sweat and that made our adventures more comfortable. I was a tad disappointed as we were there quite early during the autumn and the leaves hadn’t really change to those postcard-ready warm tones, but that was a minor issue. Interestingly, Koreans actually wore shorts and short-sleeve shirts, but then again, it was obvious to that Koreans were used to low temperatures like that. I should be grateful though. Originally, my friends wanted to go there during winter, but luckily, we didn’t. I think Seoul in winter might be the end of my life hahaha. Never mind the snow.



Where ½ of Koreans Made Their Homes


Seoul, the heartbeat of South Korea and the pulse of its economy and politics is a metropolitan city. Around 25 million people live in its metro area, and that is about ½ of the whole South Korean population! You know, one of the purposes of travelling anywhere for me is to observe people and Seoulites were no exception. The city itself was quite clean (when it comes to cleanliness though, Japan is the clear winner). Not so much trash, which showed how civic-minded the population was to me. Just like Japan, many Koreans do not speak English, and so communication can be a bit tough. My friends and I had to translate certain things using our smartphones or gestures to ask certain stuff. Syed knew a bit of Korean (from watching Korean shows hahaha), so at least it was easy a bit. (Side note: Due to the situation, now I understand how my friends felt when we were in Japan since when we were there, I was the one who communicated with the local a tad more as I knew some Japanese from my UiTM years. In Korea, it was the other way around hahaha.) Nevertheless, shops frequented by tourists are obviously exceptions. Usually, the staff there would know English (or Mandarin). Anyway, interesting things about Koreans from what I experienced – 1) Some peeps actually ran quite fast in train stations. Based on my reading, it IS a typical Korean habit. Needless to say, I was scared s**tless. 2) If a place was popular, they did not mind queuing up even if it took a lifetime to enter. Trust me, I saw that at Hongdae area. 3) Yes... old people in Korea do actually wear those old people kind of clothes that you might have seen on TV. With bright blinding colours and strange patterns and all. You know, if I wrote this post earlier, I’d remember a heck more things, but now… whatever. Let’s move on


"They are so Beautiful I Want to Kill Them"

Koreans… their fashion sense was just on point. The young ones especially. Even amidst the cold autumnal days, they still chose to wear chic and classy casual clothes. Hongdae, as the mecca of youthful life, was amongst the favourite place for hip and trendy Korean youngsters to hang out (three universities are located near the area). I loved the way Koreans dressed. Yes, there were a few who wore stuff that seemed to be pulled straight from bombastic Kpop music videos, but many were genuinely street stylish. The influence of Korean popular culture was in their styles and they made themselves look oh-so-good without looking over-the-top. Newest trends were up-and-about between the girls and boys. How about their hairstyles? Damn they got good salons there. Some guys (and girls) did have hair colours made up of pink, or lime green, or light blue, but let’s be honest here, Koreans are fair. Any colour would fit their skin tones like puzzle pieces, methinks. Speaking about their skins, I wonder how much they spent on skincare and cosmetics because their faces were silky smooth (well, at least from how they looked like. I didn't go touch their faces absentmindedly. In fact, go to Myeongdong, and you’ll be surprised by the sheer numbers of beauty shops there. Myeongdong is the place to be if you want to buy quality skincare, beauty products, makeups, and cosmetics. My friends, they are not big makeup junkie but they are super into facemasks, and Myeongdong (and Insadong) had tonnes of them, for dirt cheap, you won’t believe your eyes! One thing that I also noticed (but beware, this might be gross generalisation and skewed perception) – Koreans were slim. It was very rare for me to see someone under 40 who was chubby (and many people above 40 were slim as well). Based on what I read, Koreans have this tendency to be slim due to the expectations of society and the ever continuous effort for perfection (hence all the surgeries you tend to read about). So, is it good or bad? Perspectives perspectives.



Kpopping Everywhere


South Korea is a powerhouse when it comes to entertainment, especially music. Kpop is a part and parcel of many of my students here, I bet if they were to live or study in Korea (let’s be hopeful with that), they might be spoilt. It was fascinating to see the lives of Koreans were impacted by Kpop. Billboards for Kpop of all kinds can be seen everywhere. One that I find remarkable has to do with Kpop fans. Kpop fandoms can be very very very loyal towards their artists. I saw in different Seoul Metropolitan Subway stations billboards rented (you actually rent billboards isn’t it?) by fans in which they congratulated on the recent wins in awards and wished “Happy Birthday” to Taeyeon (and I can’t leave this part without saying, yes, Taeyeon IS. A. GOOD. SINGER!). See how dedicated they were? I am not even sure if Taeyeon actually uses the subway (for all I know, she could just glide gracefully through the air to go anywhere) but there you go. Besides that, I don’t think it is surprising to say that you could hear Kpop songs being played (or blared) almost everywhere, from local restaurants, to boutiques, to your mom-and-pop-shops. Merchandise? Official or the not-so-official, you can find them. I bought (not for me) some file folders that featured Twice and BTS on them. I also bought (this time for me) two original albums… which coincidentally are also Twice and BTS. What gives? Oh, at Hongdae, there is a place where musicians and dancers congregate to perform. We were there for quite a number of nights and enjoyed seeing all those performers entertaining visitors there with Kpop songs and dances.


Convenience on the Go

Japan is known for its amazing convenience stores (which I experienced first-hand and can attest to. They ARE HEAVEN ON EARTH!) but I could really say that South Korea might be the second best when it comes to convenience stores. In fact, every day before we started embarking on our journey, my friends and I would stop at GS25, the nearest convenience store to the place where we stayed, and had our breakfast there. The choices of drink were excellent! Various beverages that would make your dietitian cry in horror over their calorie counts, but really, them stores got your sugary daily drink intake taken care of. There were also a number of take-away food and snacks to choose from. Yes, not all of them are permissible for Muslims so you do have to be careful, but I did munch a lot of samgak-gimbap (Korean onigiri) and eat their amazing instant cheese ramyeon. The cheese ramyeon was awesome. You can cook your instant noodle at the convenience stores if they have the means to do so and throw everything away at the same place, so your life is easier. Also, it saves your money.



Toilet Chronicles

(If you don’t like reading about toilets, skip this section) I will readily admit that I am really really concerned about WCs in foreign countries since they mostly do not have one thing that we have in Malaysian toilets – bidet. South Korea is, unfortunately (but that depends on how you see it though), one of those many countries without bidets. So, doing a certain business might be a bit tough. Hence, the need for wet tissues and stuff. Not having bidets in the cubicles does have benefits though. The floors of many of the toilets that I went in were clean and dry. Other than that, Korean washrooms were quite clean. That made the experience tolerable hahaha. One noteworthy thing: many cubicles actually had small bins inside. The bins were there not for general trash, but for tissues that were used to wipe the seat-of-wisdoms clean.  You see, South Koreans don’t throw the used tissues into the toilet bowl and flush them goodbye. Instead, they throw them into the small bins. The prospect of seeing what’s inside the bins might not be a good moment for some of you, especially the weak vomit-prone ones.


Train to… Way Longer than Busan


Rail systems in Seoul were quite good. Here’s a tip (that you probably would know if you plan to visit Seoul) when using trains in Seoul: buy the damn T-money card. T-money is a card similar to our very own Tn’G. I used it to conveniently ride trains/subways in Seoul. With the card, you don’t have to queue to buy tickets. You just tap in when you enter the stations and tap out when you are done. Since it’s a rechargeable card, you should top it when your credit is low. The ticketing machines do have English as a language option so that will make your life easier. I bought my T-money at Incheon Airport. It only cost me about 4000KRW. I recharge an amount of 20000KRW the first day I was there (since clearly airport rail to the city IS expensive) and I was good for like two days before having to recharge. One good thing about T-money is the credit stored in the card has no expiry date, so you can actually use the same card when you visit Korea again. Now about the train systems. Being the capital of a first-world country, there’s no denying that the public transport system of Seoul is one of the best and most extensive. The trains and stations were clean and well taken care of. Announcements and signs in English were provided. During rush-hours/peak-times, trains were definitely packed, though there was still room to breathe. There were no seats, so we had to stand up, which was a bit tough especially when our destinations were quite far, though we did not really think about it as long as we could arrive as early as possible. Some Korean subway/rail stations were actually really large, that we had to walk like really far just to change trains or get out. Perhaps that is how Koreans stay thin heheh. But honestly, I remember this one time when we were at Seoul Station trying to change trains. The other line was located upstairs, but arriving there during morning rush hour, so many people were lining up at the escalators. We decided “hey, let’s take the stairs instead”. Bad decision man. The staircase was so so so long. You thought Bukit Bintang MRT station staircase was long? Try Seoul Station. We were definitely out of breath and sanity when we reach the top. No wonder people would just line for the escalators.


Seoul-searching for Food: Part 1


One of the perks of travelling (perhaps the best perk) is that you are able to savour the dishes of the countries you visit. Seoul, South Korea is no exception, and with an abundance of local and international cuisines, to street food, to items in convenience stores, you’ll be pretty hard-pressed to not find things that you like. So, when I was preparing our itinerary, there were a few places or things that I just needed to check out. One place that I insisted to my friends was Shin Old Tea House or in Korean, Shin Yet Chat Jib. The tea house is located at Insadong and there were a few reasons why I really wanted to drink tea there. The tea house is well-known for its small yet cosy, inviting atmosphere. The building the tea house is in is old, the ommuni who ran the business told us the building was build more than 100 years ago. The tea house itself was filled with paraphernalia from the yesteryear, Korean decorations, and awesome antiques. The traditional Korean flavour of this place was the thing that got me attracted. I could imagine if someday I were to visit Seoul again, I wouldn’t mind going there again. Even if you’re alone, Shin Old Tea House is a good place to be reflective or just wind down. I drank omija-hwachae (magnolia berry punch) and ate yugwa (a type of Korean rice snack). The tangy cold drink was perfect for me. The ommuni who own the shop was über nice too. If you come to Seoul, please don’t forget to come here.



Seoul-searching for Food: Part II


Dongdaemun is also one of the most well-known areas of Seoul, and here lies Dongdaemun Grilled Fish Street, a street that is filled with… uh grilled fish restaurants. The restaurant that we dined in was the first one that you would see when you enter the street, and that is where most Malaysians will have their grilled fish. Evidence for that? The internet… also the owners and workers greeted us with “Selamat Datang”. Like, I don’t even know how they guessed us as Malaysians. Probably Syed and I gave away the fact that we were Malaysians. Jaceyy looks Chinese, even though she’s not (which is confusing to Malaysians too) and Auzellea… well she could be anything hahaha. Anyway, this restaurant has two floors and we elected to dine on the upper level. T
he ceiling of the second floor of was quite low. The female restaurateur was friendly and she provided us with food suggestions. When we bought our dishes, we ordered them according to what we liked. We didn’t realise that the grilled fish that we ordered would be rather large. We thought it would be like personal-size fish for each person. In the end, we shared everything (including other delicacies that we asked for), but since the dishes were so yummy, we did finish almost all of them.

Seoul-searching for Food: Part III

Obviously, there are so much to Korean food than just kimchi, and we managed to get our hands (and mouths) on a number of them. It is safe to say, trying them did satisfy our curiosities on how the food that we saw on Korean TV programmes tasted like. Some were good, some were uhhh, quite an acquired taste. Jjajangmyeon (sweet bean sauce noodle), as savoured by my friend was nice, but naengmyeon (cold noodle)… well, uhhh... it was as cold as your ex's heart. I had a lot of beef bibimbap and bulgogi, and being a carnivore, they were delish! Meals in Korea will come with side-dishes or banchan, so unless you are a really heavy eater, you don’t really have to order too many dishes. Kimchi is served as banchan and you might be surprised by the different kinds of kimchi that they have. Street food is everywhere in Seoul, being sold from street carts or small stalls. We tried so many tteok (both grilled and tteokbokki) and twigim (Korean fried seafood or vegetables) since they were quite cheap and filling. The food sold by street vendors is meant to be eaten standing up which was what we did. In Myeongdong, I had an ice cream that was piled really high on its cone. The taste was alright, but the height was nerve-wracking. The prices of street food in places such as Hongdae or Myeongdong are between 1000KRW to 4000KRW. One of my weirdest experiences related to food (but which I did not have the guts to try) was san-nakji (raw live octopus). At the stall where my friends tasted the freaking thing, the owner cut the octopus alive (hence raw and live, raw since she ain't gonna cook the octopus, and live since the octopus used to be a living thing and because you got to see it being cut LIVE in front of your very eyes). The cut octopus pieces were then sprinkled with sesame seeds, smothered in sesame sauce, and mixed with I-don't-know-what-leaf-it-was. Just like what Auzellea experienced, since the nerves of the octopus still functioned even when the tentacles were cut (and the octopus long dead), the suction cups could still attach to the mouth or throat. Really, unless you are brave enough, don’t try this. I didn't try because... I ain't gonna eat that!

Seoul-searching for Food: Part IV

If you are worried about searching for halal or Muslim-friendly food, try not to fret as there are various restaurants that cater to Muslims. Itaewon, especially, has many halal restaurants, ranging from local Korean to Western to South Asian and to Middle Eastern cuisines since a large number of Muslim expatriates live there. At Insadong area, one restaurant that you could go is Ose Gye Hyang. It is vegan/vegetarian and I admit, I am not a big (or should I say titanic) veg-eater, but hey, the dishes were all superb! Anyway, to make your life easy, when you reach Incheon, ask for Muslim Dining Guide at the Information Counter. You might even get special coupons for the restaurants listed. You can see the names of the restaurants that I went to in my expenditure list down below. One more thing, if you want bring back edible goodies such as ramyeon (my friends loved the spicy cheese ramyeon) or gochujang, you can buy them from groceries or convenience stores. My friends did that and ended up having to pay extra for luggage.



I·Seoul·U
Our Awesome Seoul Itinerary and Expenses

We stayed at Sinchon Kimchee Guesthouse. If was quite inexpensive and if you don’t mind bed bugs, then this is the place for you. Mind you, the guesthouse has both shared rooms or dorms and private rooms, so if you end up choosing this place, just be a bit careful when booking your room. Sinchon Kimchee Guesthouse is also a stone's throw away from Hongik University Station, so it was quite easy for us to commute using Seoul’s efficient Metro.

Here, I will share with you our post-trip itinerary as opposed to my original pre-planned one. I didn’t actually fix everything rigidly when I did our itinerary. It was just a guide for us, but during the trip itself, the places we visited depended on where we were and what time it was. So, while most of the places that I selected were there, a few did not make the cut in the real trip, while some others were added.


Day 1: N Seoul Tower à Banpo Hangang Park + Rainbow Bridge + Han River
Day 2: Insadong à Bukchon Hanok Village à Jogyesa Temple à Itaewon
Day 3: Full Day: Nami Island + Petite France à Hongdae
Day 4: Full Day: Lotte World Adventure à Hongdae
Day 5: Gyeongbokgung Palace à Gwanghwamun Square à KYOBO Bookstore Gwanghwamun à Cheonggyecheon River à Dongdaemun à Gwangjang Market à National Museum of Korea
Day 6: Namdaemun Market à Myeongdong à Hongdae

As you can see, we went to Hongdae quite a number of times since it was near to our accommodation, plus the atmosphere of Hongdae was just electrifying and very very youthful. National Museum of Korea is free-of-charge and on Wednesdays, it is opened even during night. As for Nami Island, I will say this, if you are a Korea first-timer, then do go there. It might be a touristy place, but the Island for me is a thing you are obligated to visit. It is a charming little river island really. Petite France, regrettably for me, is not a must-go. I did not enjoy that place, but if you like French-themed places, you do you. If you want to buy Korean silk or try san-nakji, Gwangjang Market would be your choice. N Seoul Tower, we did not pay 10,000KRW to go inside the tower as the outside area was beautiful enough. You could still see Seoul from the top of the mountain. If you want to walk along Cheonggyecheon RIver, combine it with Gyeongbokgung Palace and Gwanghwamun Square. They both are near to one another and the starting point of the stream. Markets in Seoul are lively places, so visit one or two. You might find wonderful trinkets or souvenirs for yourself or your loved ones.



Here is my expenditure list. Mind you, this were MY EXPENSES for the trip. Which is why I included my own personal stuff. Yours will be different. The total of each day has been rounded up to the nearest RM (as of March 2018 exchange rate).

DAY 1
ITEMS
PRICE/FEE/PAYMENT (IN KRW)
T-money
4000 (top up for the day – 20000)
Mushroom and oyster porridge - Congee House, Myeongdong
8000
Namsan Cable Car
8500 (two-way ticket)
Matcha ice cream
2000
Room (original price divided by four, for six nights) – Sinchon Kimchee Guesthouse
90000
Convenience store purchases
5000
TOTAL
141000 (518MYR)

DAY 2
ITEMS
PRICE/FEE/PAYMENT (IN KRW)
Shikhye (Korean rice beverage)
1000 (real price 2000, hooray for good uncle!)
Decorations for my room
5300
Hangul scarf for mom
10000
Deco Travel World Map – bought at Ssamziegil
15000
Omija-hwachae and yugwa – Shin Old Tea House, Insadong
7000
Tteokpokki
1500 per person (shared)
Bulgogi bibimbap – Makan Halal Restaurant, Itaewon
8000
Love Museum
8000
Rolled ice cream
4000
Convenience store purchases
5300
TOTAL
64800 (238MYR)

DAY 3
ITEMS
PRICE/FEE/PAYMENT (IN KRW)
T-money recharge
10000
Bus ticket to Nami Island
6000
Nami Island visa payment (a fancy way to describe “entrance fee”)
8000
Sky Bike
3000
Bulgogi with rice – Asian Family Restaurant Dongmoon, Nami Island
12000
Ice cream
2000
Petite France
8000
Convenience store purchases
9000
TOTAL
58000 (214MYR)

DAY 4
ITEMS
PRICE/FEE/PAYMENT (IN KRW)
Lotte World entrance fee (this price is exclusive to Kimchee Guesthouse guests)
37000
Mirror Wall
3000
Haunted House
3000
Vegetarian omurice – Lotte World Food Court
6900
Cheese ice cream
3000
Garlic cheese potato
4500
Passport cover
16000
Arcade game
2000
Lotte World photo card
5000
Clothes for my dad
29900
Convenience store purchases
5000
TOTAL
115300 (430MYR)

DAY 5
ITEMS
PRICE/FEE/PAYMENT (IN KRW)
Gyeongbokgung Palace
3000
Books – Kyobo Books
39900
Grilled fish and other dishes – Jeonju Sikdang, Dongdaemun Grilled Fish Street
12000 per person (shared)
Silk fabric
25000
Nutella cream waffle
3000
Convenience store purchases
4600
TOTAL
87500 (322MYR)

DAY 6
ITEMS
PRICE/FEE/PAYMENT (IN KRW)
T-money
5000
Hot stone pot bibimbap – Busan Jib, Myeongdong
8000
Grilled tteok
1000 per person (shared)
Watch for dad
59900
Various souvenirs
13000
Frame with hanbok décor
25000
A4 Kpop folders (3 pcs)
6000
Calligraphy
15000
Calligraphy scroll
20000
Book
1500
Dinner - Ose Gye Hyang, Insadong
10500
Nutella cream waffle (yeah, it was really good!)
3000
URBAN BREEZE – Vintage Water EDP by The Saem
17500
Convenience store purchases
3800
TOTAL
189200 (700MYR)

DAY 7
ITEMS
PRICE/FEE/PAYMENT (IN KRW)
Phone call to Malaysia
2500
T-money
10000
Twicetagram (Twice’s album)
27000
Wings (BTS’ album)
27000
Bulgogi kimbap - Nimat
5500
Convenience store purchases
2700
TOTAL
74700 (280MYR)

So in the end, I spend about 3000MYR (more or less) for seven days in Seoul. My flight return tickets were around 1600MYR. Basically, I spent about 4600MYR. If you are able to buy cheap flight tickets, that’ll be even better! In fact, many people actually got to visit Seoul with just about 2000-3000MYR. I spent a lot because, well, I just couldn’t stop myself from buying food and souvenirs. In fact, the list up there is not even exhaustive. I’m pretty sure I left many things (though they were not essential to the trip but essential to the happiness and well-being of my soul) out haha. See, Seoul is quite achievable for everyone.

So, to end this rather long post, I’d say, travel if you have the means to do so. The world is too beautiful to be left unexplored. Your world is going to get bigger if you see life beyond your own.