Vacation 2015: South Korea

08 November 2015

Synopsis

Notes and impressions from our second trip to South Korea.


Travel Tips

Visitors to Korea, especially those from Western countries, need to be aware of a few helpful tips which will facilitate their travels around the country.

My first tip is to learn some language. Koreans don’t necessarily expect visitors to be conversant in their language, Hangul, but learning a few simple phrases will go a long way in helping you to break the ice with the locals. The two phrases I recommend learning are: hello, “annyeonghaseyo” and thank you, “kamsahamnida.” It’s interesting to note that Koreans are just as curious about us as we are of them; especially if you travel off the beaten path as we did on this trip. For example, we stayed in a hanok guest house in Gyeongju for a few nights which is located in a residential area. One morning I decided to take a short stroll around the neighborhood. I happened upon two older women near the entrance to their home who looked at me in a strange way, so I said “annyeonghaseyo” and they immediately broke out into smiles and started bowing in traditional Korean fashion.

My second tip is try their food. Some Westerners still fall into the stereotype of only eating meat and potatoes, and bacon and eggs. Most hotels in Seoul will offer these items on their menu, but if you travel outside of the main tourist areas you will not easily find restaurants serving burgers and fries. Koreans basically eat the same type of food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If you venture off into the backstreets of Seoul, for example, and you want something to eat in the morning, your choices will be limited. My favorite crossover Korean-American breakfast is either donkatsu (also called “donkas”) or bulgogi and fried eggs. Donkatsu is fried pork cutlet and bulgogi is thinly sliced beef either grilled or served wok style with noodles and vegetables. How can you go wrong with either of those two choices? Just remember that you will also get side dishes which will always include kimchi and rice.

My third tip is to always carry multiple credit cards in addition to Korean currency. Korea is a wired country so credit cards are taken everywhere, even in taxicabs. In Seoul, every taxi takes credit cards—which is not necessarily the case elsewhere. One problem we experienced is that taxicabs that do take credit cards may not take all cards so I recommend travelers carry at least two credit cards from different issuing banks. We took two MasterCard credit cards which worked out fine for us. I don’t use Amex so I don’t know if it will be accepted. Also, outside of Seoul, many cabs hesitate to take credit cards for short rides so always have some Korean Won ready. You’ll also need cash if you want to purchase from street vendors or in the markets.

Overall Impressions

The first impression we received was on our arrival at Incheon. On our last trip, there were only a handful of people in front of us in the immigration line. This time there seemed like hundreds in line. It was obvious that many were from diverse countries of origin; I noticed passports from China and Australia for example. Last time, we got threw immigration in minutes, this time it seemed like an hour.

KoreanFlag
Antique Korean Flag

Since our flight arrived after 5:00 p.m. and since it took so long before we got through immigration, picked up our luggage and changed our currency, it was dark before we left the airport. On our drive to Seoul, I noticed many lit church crosses all along the route. We were surprised to see the proliferation of Christianity in this historically Buddhist country.

Cafés are everywhere. I think there are more cafés in Seoul then there are in Paris. Koreans really like their coffee. As was the case on our last trip, decaf is still near impossible to find. Not surprisingly, the cafés located in many hotels in Seoul tend to have it. The Koreans like their coffee sweet with milk. By the way, don’t think that you won’t find decent pastries in Korea because you will. Many cafés either employ or are owned by trained pastry chefs. Witness a group of French speaking tourists taken to a pastry shop in Andong for breakfast by their Korean tour guide. From what I could tell, they were all impressed.

Everyone is dependent on their cell phone. Koreans will never allow their phones to lose battery charge. Auto rechargers and spare batteries are prolific. I can understand how valuable a GPS/Navigation system can be if you’re trying to maneuver through a large city such as Seoul, but really, how necessary is it to travel on the motorway? In the U.S., some folks rely on their navigation system to get around, but there are still some old schoolers out there who tend to prefer a map over a [possibly] buggy navigation system. Anyway, most of the time a little common sense and a map are sufficient. However, if you’re trying to find a location in The Villages, then you will need all the help you can get.

Selfie sticks should be banned! The Koreans have become infatuated with this infernal device. Remember, a selfie stick is used to take a picture of yourself with some interesting thing in the background. My question is how many pictures of yourself do you need? It’s all a form of narcissism if you ask me (okay, you really didn’t ask). I don’t mind taking pictures of subjects with people in it especially on busy streets or in markets where the absence of people would be unnatural. But I don’t want my photos cluttered up with people taking selfies. Besides, many good shots are missed because serious photographers lose patience waiting for people take their lousy selfies and move out of the way. Sorry! By the way, Disney had the good sense to ban selfie sticks at their theme parks in Florida and elsewhere. Speaking of selfies, I always take one selfie on each trip I go on with my Nex-7 and I don’t use a tripod or timed shutter release. I leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out how I do it.

Perpetual festivals and expos. There is always a festival or expo going on somewhere in Korea. While we were there, two major festivals where going on: the Andong International Maskdance Festival and the Silk Road Cultural Festival in Gyeongju. Since most festivals are international in nature it’s not unusual to see performers from different countries doing their thing. However, sometimes there will be a non-Asian performer who speaks Hangul and tries to do the Korean shtick. I caught one of these on TV where either an Eastern European or Russian woman was trying to impress the audience with her Korean moves which the Koreans seemed to love but to me it was creepy.

Our Travel Arrangements

We booked our flights through the Korean Air website again, but this time we booked straight through from Orlando. Since there didn’t appear to be any available flights from Atlanta on our travel days, we opted to fly out of JFK. Since Korean Air partners with JetBlue we flew out of Orlando with them. I was pleasantly surprised with JetBlue; they offered much more legroom compared to other airlines in coach and I like the Live TV in every seat.

Making our connections in JFK entailed a lot of walking and rides on the AirTrain to move between terminals. Fortunately, we had plenty of time to make our connections, but if you are cutting it close, it could be a problem. As far as flight times go, there was no advantage to leaving from New York over Atlanta. JFK to Incheon is still 13 hours and 45 minutes so next time I think we’ll plan to leave from Atlanta. Besides, the flight between Orlando and Atlanta is barely an hour as opposed to two hours between Orlando and New York.

As for our hotels, we used both Booking.com and Agoda.com. I only used Agoda.com because I thought it would be easier to rebook the Hyundai Hotel and the Andong Hotel since they are both in my booking history. No problem with the Hyundai Hotel but the Andong Hotel where we stayed in 2012 is now called the Andong Park Hotel. This caught us by surprise since we thought we were going to the same hotel as we had on our last trip. Well, we eventually got to the correct hotel, but it wasn’t exactly easy because the Andong Hotel is not located on a through street. I won’t be using Agoda.com in the future.

Booking.com provides different room rates based on whether or not you want the free cancellation option. It’s a good thing we opted for this feature because we changed almost all our hotel reservations at least once, some a lot more than once.

Itinerary

Our exact itinerary for this trip was not completely planned in advance. We made our hotel reservations in cities that would be stepping off points for additional excursions around the country. For the most part, with the exception of Seoul, our travels consisted of locations in Gyeongsangbuk-do and Gangwon-do provinces. We stayed overnight in hotels in the following cities and towns:

  • Seoul
  • Gyeongju
  • Jeongdongjin
  • Sokcho
  • Ulsan
  • Andong

In addition to the places listed above, we also visited Yeongcheon, Pohang, Seosaeng, and many locations along the eastern sea coast.

Seoul

We scheduled two separate stays in Seoul since our itinerary included many excursions including some overnight and extended visits around the country. Our stays in Seoul served as the bookends for our trip.

Upon our arrival, we were met at the airport by my wife’s nephew and niece who drove us to our hotel and then took us to a very good Korean barbeque restaurant that isn’t frequented by tourists.

Our first hotel stay was at the Fraser Suites Insadong within the Jongno district in central Seoul. The hotel is located in the center of the popular shopping and souvenir district. Make no mistake, the souvenir shops carry many unique and quality items not just the usual junk you expect to find.

We spent our first day visiting Bukchon Hanok Village and the Seoul Museum of History. My wife’s niece and nephew, along with his wife and baby, all spent the day with us. In Bukchon, we stopped at a tea house/café for a snack and had some Korean waffles. Korean waffles are not your typical Belgian variety; you need a knife to cut through Korean waffles. They are very chewy and surprisingly good, especially with ice cream.

We finished off our trip with a second stay in Seoul, this time at the Fraser Place Central Seoul. We stayed at this hotel during our first visit to Korea and really liked it. The hotel is walking distance to City Hall, Gwanghwamun Square, Cheonggyecheon, and Deoksugung and Gyeongbokgung palaces. In addition, the Fraser Central Seoul has an excellent Korean/Western breakfast buffet.

During our second stay in Seoul we decided to take the Seoul City Tour Bus in lieu of using taxi cabs. We rode the bus to the National Museum of Korea. We planned to catch the bus again to continue the circuit around the city but due to some street closures along the route, the bus never showed up at the scheduled time. The two other men who were waiting with us got impatient so they flagged down a cab and offered to share the ride with us to Namsangol Hanok Village. I wasn’t planning on going back to Namsangol since we checked it out during our first trip to Korea but it turned out to be a good choice anyway. Believe it or not, I had a barbeque chicken-on-a-stick from the same street vendor that was there three years ago.

Jajangmyeon
Jajangmyeon

After Namsangol, we caught the Seoul City Tour Bus and made the ride back to where we originally got on at Gwanghwamun.

Gyeongju

From Seoul we took the KTX train to Singyeongju, about 20 minutes from Gyeongju, where we were met by my wife’s cousin who drove us to our hotel. We only booked one night at the Commodore Hotel in the Bowman Lake resort area since Mr. Seo, my wife’s cousin’s husband, planned to take us on a 3-day trip along the eastern Korean coastline. It was Mr. Seo, his wife, and daughter who also escorted us around Europe during our visit with them last year.

After our trip along the coastline, we stayed at the Hanok Sodamjeong Guest House. We never stayed at a hanok before so we decide to give it a try. Now that I’ve tried one, I will never stay at another one again. It’s okay if you like sleeping on a hard floor. The description from the Booking.com listing says that they provide “Korean-style futon mats” which I thought would resemble a thin mattress. Well I was wrong; the futon turned out to be just a very thin quilt which felt like nothing between me and the floor. Also, don’t be fooled by the pictures; the rooms are much smaller than they appear on the Booking.com website. There were a few guests staying there from Europe who seemed to like the experience. I guess they are used to austere accommodations.

After returning from our excursion to Ulsan, we finished out our stay in Gyeongju at the Hyundai Hotel. The Hyundai Hotel felt like the Four Seasons compared to the hanok. The Hyundai Hotel is located in the Bowman Lake Resort area which has walking trails from the hotel and is very scenic. The only negative I can find with the Hyundai Hotel is their high food prices. Breakfast will run you around $25.00 per person and dinner around $50.00 per person.

The Gyeongju Hyundai Hotel served as the hub for our excursions in and around Gyeongsangbuk-do.

Since we spent a fair amount of time in Gyeongju on our last trip to Korea, we had already seen most of the major sites. However, during our last trip it rained the day of our tour so this time we decided to revisit some of the sites we visited on our previous trip.

We visited the following sites and attractions:

  • Silk Road Cultural Festival
  • Night City Tour
    • Donggung Wolji (Anapji)
    • Cheomseongdae
    • Gyerim Royal Tomb of King Naemul
    • Woljeonggyo Bridge
    • Gyochon village
  • Poseokjeong
  • Bulguksa Temple
  • Seokguram Grotto
  • Underwater Tomb of King Munmu
  • Gyeongju Market

Gyeongju is famous for its bread and the best place to get it is at the Chalboribbang. I really like the Chalbori tteok which is the dark chewy bread that they cut in large squares. It is really good and if you are hungry, it can almost serve as a meal (of course, you may have to eat a few of them).

After spending a few hours at the Silk Road Cultural Festival, we needed to find a place to have dinner. Since it was Chuseok, Korean Thanksgiving, many of the restaurants around the Expo were closed. So, we decided to get a cab back to our hotel in order to check if anything was open in one of the food villages around Bowman Lake Resort.

On the ride back, we mentioned to our cab driver that we were looking for a good bulgogi restaurant and he recommended a place about 15 minutes outside of Gyeongju. On the way, our driver called to make sure the restaurant was open. After about 15 minutes or so, out in the middle of nowhere, we finally arrived the restaurant. The proprietor greeted us at the door as our cab pulled up. The restaurant was the Dong Baek Sootbul Garden which turned out to be very good. After dinner, the proprietor called our cab and the same cab driver picked us up for the ride back to the Hyundai Hotel.

Just so happens, we returned the next day with my wife’s relatives who came up to visit us from Geoje.

Gangneung and the East Coast

After spending our first night in Gyeongju, Mr. Seo picked us up and we drove to Pohang to pick up my wife’s sister who would be going along with us. From Pohang, we took Highway #7 north along the coast.

This excursion along the coast with Mr. Seo turned out to be the highlight of our trip.

The east coast has everything: caves, beaches, quaint towns, strange hotels, history, culture, great seafood, unusual and outrageous outdoor displays, DMZ, and of course mountains.

CaveExit
No advantage to being large

The trip along the east coast took us to the following locations:

  • Yeongdeokgun Goraebul – scarecrows
  • Seongnyugul – cave
  • Samcheok – beach, fishing town
  • Haesendang Park – aka, Phallic Park
  • Jeongdongjin – cruise ship hotel
  • Gangneung Unification Park – North Korean Sub
  • Ojukheon – ancient scholar residence, black bamboo
  • Jumunjin Beach – rock formation
  • Yangyang – Buddhist hermitage
  • Sokcho – strange hotel
  • Goseong Unification Observatory – DMZ

We stayed overnight at the Goodstay Davinci Hotel in Jumunjin Beach which is located behind the Sun Cruise Resort and Yacht. The Sun Cruise Resort is a cruise ship on a hill—something you just have to see to believe!

Our second overnight stay was at the AM HO Hotel in Sokcho. This hotel would definitely qualify as strange by U.S. standards. Nevertheless, it was okay for an overnight and it was the location where I took my only selfie during the trip.

Our trip along the coast was capped off with a visit to Seoraksan National Park which included a ride on the Seorak Cable Car up Seoraksan Mountain.

Ulsan

This was our first time visit to Ulsan. And since we were only staying for two nights we decided to splurge so we stayed at the Lotte City Hotel. I have to say that the Lotte definitely lives up to its reputation as being a first class hotel.

Putae’s brother escorted us around Ulsan during our stay. We visited the following locations:

  • Seuldo Breakwater Elbow Lighthouse and harbor
  • Daewangam Park
  • Jangsaengpo Whale Museum
  • Jangsaengpo Whale Watching cruise
  • Taehwa River Seepri Bamboo Grove
  • Seosaeng

One of the dolphins at the Whale Museum aquarium tank swam right up to me while I was standing near the glass. I theorized that it was either friendly or wanted to communicate in some way (see the photos in my Photo Gallery).

We also took the 3-hour whale watching cruise that left from the museum area. It seemed that we were the first and only ones to get on the boat so I started to be concerned especially after I noticed the tables and chairs chained down on the upper deck. Anyway, just minutes before departure, a few busloads of Koreans showed up so that put me at ease. I can’t say that the cruise was rough but it wasn’t smooth either. After a while I decided to hang out at the stern where a few Korean men were congregating. We didn’t see any whales or dolphins but I did get a few photos of a Korean warship.

While the notion of visiting a bamboo grove may not be at the top of most people’s must see list, the Taehwa River Seepri Bamboo Grove is a nice way to spend an hour or two. It’s very peaceful and scenic with many photographic opportunities.

Seosaeng is Putae’s mother’s hometown. After Putae’s mother passed away, the property was sold and the new owners rebuilt the house to modern standards. The old well that she used is still there but sealed off. Over thirty years ago Seosaeng was deserted, now it resembles a Florida shore town.

Yeongcheon

We made a day trip from Gyeongju to Yeongcheon so that Putae could visit with her aunt and other relatives. Later that evening, the cousins took us to a Karaoke bar.

Andong

Andong was the next to last stop on our travels around Korea. We stayed at the Andong Hotel which is not to be confused with the Andong Park Hotel. The Andong Park Hotel must have changed their name since our last visit in 2012 because the Andong Hotel is in an entirely different location. As it turned out, the Andong Hotel was in a better location being right near the market and shopping district.

Since we visited Andong on our last trip, I wanted to catch some sites that we missed the first time. The two sites I definitely wanted to see were the large stone Jebiwon Buddha and the 7-story brick pagoda. In addition to these two sites, we also visited:

  • Andong International Maskdance Festival
  • Andong Dam
  • Woryeonggyo Bridge
  • Andong Folk Village

Final Thoughts

Overall the trip was great. We got a chance to revisit some familiar sites along with the opportunity to visit some new locations, especially the eastern coastline. For the most part, we covered all the locations we wanted to see in Andong and Gyeongju.

Within the coming year, Mr. Seo is moving from Gyeongju to Ulsan so as to be closer to Hyundai Heavy Industries, his place of employment in Ulsan. So, most likely Ulsan will become our new ‘hub of operations’ in Korea.

Speaking of next time, if I do make another trip then I’d like to cover the western part of the country along with stops at Jeju-do, Geoje-do, and Busan.

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Copyright 2015 Gerard Sczepura