There is a Korean proverb that says: Aneun gildo muleogara – which translates something like: Even if you know the way, ask one more time – which means don’t be arrogant in thinking you know everything. Visiting Seoul, even for a few days, is an excellent reminder of this. We hear so much about the Eastern area of Asia in the news of late and almost daily about North Korea that it would be easy to think that we have some idea of what it is like in this region of the world. I suggest that one visit to Seoul will probably change whatever notions you have accumulated.Our hostel was nestled into the internationally themed Itaewon area whose narrow winding streets are packed full of more cafes, coffee shops, pubs, restaurants and snack shops per square meter than we have ever seen. We rode the subway to many locations around the city to see various sites but we could have easily spent a year just in the neighborhood trying all the food and drink offerings from all over the world. Since we had less than a week in the city we tried to get in a balanced mix of sites, streets, history, markets, and of course, food.One of the first things we visited was the War Memorial of Korea. It was extensive, with dozens of vehicles and aircraft on display and multiple large sculptures and murals. In addition to commemorating Korea’s sacrifice and struggle, the site also paid tribute to all the nations that came to South Korea’s aide. Of all the things on display I felt this piece encapsulated the heart of the memorial best.A 60-year-old emblem of the struggle – an F-86 with Republic of Korea (ROK) markings.The old city wall, despite being hundreds of years old, is excellently preserved. The portion Amber and I explored also provided some nice vistas of the city.We did a short walk-through of Bukchon Village. The architecture of the traditional houses, called hanok, and the richness and texture of it’s winding hilly streets was mesmerizing! These houses were built during the Joseon Dynasty, as far back as the 1400’s!We were only able to visit two of the city’s five palaces. Unlike the other palaces of the city, Changgyeonggung Palace consisted mainly of royalty’s living space. It is spread out among a lot of green space and had a serene quality to it. Like so many of Seoul’s historical sites, it is immaculately maintained and preserved. The country seems to genuinely cherish it’s history and we certainly appreciate their willingness to share it with us. At the National Hangeul Museum of the Korean language we were introduced to the fundamentals of reading and pronouncing their alphabet. It is an extremely logical system with the shapes designed as a clue to pronunciation! It is the only language I have ever heard of designed for the purpose of making it as simple as possible to learn. This traditional candy is pretty much just a big disk of crispy, griddle baked sugar on a stick. I loved it!Amber preferred this pancake filled with red bean paste. Oh, it was excellent but the shape… yeah, it is supposed to look like what it looks like it looks like! We would love to hear from you what it looks like to you.Easily, the best thing that we experienced in Seoul was getting to meet up with a friend we made during our stay in Vladivostok who lives in Seoul! He and a buddy of his took the time to show us around, answer our questions, and show us how to enjoy genuine Korean barbecue! Each table has a live grill right in the middle and a big vacuum to suck up the smoke. How cool is that?!We spotted this homage to the “Gangnam Style” video proudly displayed. If you have not seen the video, it is readily available on your favorite video channel. We won’t bother you with a link here. The Ihwa Mural Village is dotted with spectacular murals both big and small. Many of them appeared to have been painted with selfies in mind. I suggested we get a picture with these angel wings, for example, as they were a perfect match for Amber’s personality. You can tell from her expression that she obviously agreed.
We joined a few hundred other visitors at Gyeongbokgung Palace to see the ten am changing of the guard. The entire process probably took 30 minutes and was accompanied by narration in Korean, Chinese and English. All of the participants appeared to take their role seriously and it made it easy to imagine what the court might have looked like in days of old.
We did have one other interesting experience the day before we left Seoul. We were going to need some cash upon arrival in our next country to pay their visa fees. Despite all of the nearby banks being of the international sort, with multiple currencies on hand, the currency we needed was not one of the offerings. They did, of course, have US dollars available and our next country would accept those. So the day before we were scheduled to fly out we went to the closest international bank to draw out Korean Won and exchange it for USD.
Upon entering the bank we were informed that all the banks were going on strike that day and they could only help with emergencies! Huh, we were pretty sure this was an emergency as we were boarding a plane early the next morning and we doubted the destination visa officers were going to be interested in the labor issues of Korean bankers! We took a number and watched as people from one nation after another filed into the lobby to be told by the sweetest attendant the bank was going on strike but they could take a number to wait to see the one working teller. People appeared to be there for all manner of reasons. They were activating their international debit cards, wiring funds out of country, and of course, exchanging currencies.
We made a remarkable observation at that point. No matter what country a person’s language or dress indicated they were from, they all had US dollars! It apparently comes in handy while traveling… apparently. So there we were, the only two US citizens in an international crowd of 20 or so who were the only ones without USD. Sigh. Eventually our number did come up and we were, indeed, able to acquire the coveted green bills. We immediately secured them away with all the rest of the necessary visa application materials in anticipation of our arrival in Hanoi, Vietnam.
Finally, we saw this caricature on display recommending that you get your caricature done here. I am sure if their northern neighbor did take the time to visit Seoul he would be just as impressed as the Awed Travelers!