It was in July when I was busy studying for my finals that Pau skyped me. He was pretty excited to inform me of a crazy AirAsia promo for KL-Seoul tickets that was due to start in a few hours' time. And yes, we waited until 2am, when the website was literally jammed with other cheap ticket hunters who thought that the promo was going to be something worth checking.
And it turned out that we managed to get to purchase the cheapest ticket available for the night. A KL-Bintulu return ticket for RM200 is cheap, but what say you when you have KL-Seoul at the said price? I didn't think much and snapped the ticket straightaway; well, even if we were to cancel the trip (which we hoped we won't), RM200 was still not too much to lose.
The AirAsia X plane that I boarded.
Come November, Pau, for his valid reason (internship) had to not go. I was literally left worried of the prospect of having to give the trip a pass; it must be very difficult to travel alone to a place where the people don't speak English and the places are not marked in Latin alphabets. After the initial thought of cancelling the trip altogether, I decided that I would not let the ticket go unused. I would go.
The flight to Seoul took me 6:30hrs. As I reached the airport, the first thing I noted about the place is its obsession with punctuality. The luggage carousel, which more or less read "Kuala Lumpur. Please wait 5 minutes for your luggage" could be seen operating at full-speed, and the whole custom and immigration process went very smoothly with thin (if any) queues. The airport's bigger than KLIA, and is architecturally impressive, too.
The chauffer (I pre-booked my airport-to-accommodation transfer earlier for a whopping AUD70), with a tag which clearly displayed my name met me at the arrival hall entrance. Thank goodness for the tag, for the driver could barely speak any English. His constant smiling and friendly appearance made it all look much less intimidating, though. The trip to the city took us an hour plus.
The accommodation that I booked turned out to be located at one of the most convenient locations in the whole of Seoul. It's in the middle of Myeong-Dong shopping districts, and I managed to get the much-coveted single room with an en-suite bathroom in the cheap, yet very safe backpackers' hotel. Knowing how fully-booked the place was, I had my early planning and booking to thank.
Myeong-Dong, alive at night.
Talking about Myeong-Dong, the place truly resembles Bukit Bintang's vibrancy and youthfulness, but safer and more organized. It should be the shopper's heaven in the city already considered a shopping mecca. There are many boutiques and stores that specially cater to the mercurial tastes of the yuppies and fashion-conscious students. The area also boasts a multitudes of restaurants serving a plethora of cuisines; this reflects the cosmopolitan nature of Seoul itself. The area paints Seoul in a decidedly western picture, but the strong presence of Korean restaurants which sit side-by-side with the cafes and popular Italian restaurants there gives you an impression that you're in Asia. The good fusion of the Eastern culture and the pervasive Western influence seen in the city is very intriguing and no less refreshing to look at.
The crabmeat Pasta.
One thing I noticed about the Seoulites is the people's obsession with fashion. Everyone seems, for better or worse, very fashionable and immaculately dressed, which sets Koreans apart from the more easy-going, relaxed and a little scruffier Australians, who are world-famous for their laid-back attitude and shirts-and-thongs culture.
A Seoul trip is not complete without visiting the city's many palaces. Gyeongbokgung Palace, which I visited on the second day of the trip, was simply impressive. I believe that it's not as colossal as its counterparts in Beijing and Europe, but it's architecturally stunning. I was also pretty lucky that it snowed the night before I visited the palace, since I found the view of the Asian terracotta Imperial palace roofs being covered completely in snow fascinating. There's also a lake garden behind concubine's wing of the palace, which is a good place for morning strollers to seek an oasis from the urban craziness outside the palace compound.
Unleashing my camwhore moment :p
However, the relative lack of details in the palace's interior rendered slight disappointment as I walked around the palace compound; visitors are not permitted to walk into much of the interior, and the rooms are not even furnished the way one would imagine it would have been like during their heyday. It'd be amazing if the palace could seem more 'alive' and furnished so that the people could get a better glimpse of what life was like back then for the Korean royal families.
For those with a thing for some nice aerial night view of the city, Namsan Tower's a must in your itinerary. I went there on the second night I was in the city. Again, the hotel location couldn't have been better; the Namsan Hill Cable Car Terminus was within walking distance to my accommodation (in fact, it took me roughly 20 minutes to reach there on foot). The cable car ride cost me around 8000won (AUD7) and it was a steep uphill ride.
N Seoul Tower (better known as the Namsan Tower)
The tower, while not really tall (I think it should look like a midget next to KL Tower or even Sydney Tower), is located atop a fairly impressive hill, which interestingly remains green amidst the inner-city development of its surroundings. Its location also means that the observation deck is high enough to provide the visitors with a breathtaking bird-eye view of the whole city. Even North Korea can be seen pretty clearly on clear days. There are two fairly expensive restaurants at the top floor and a cafe (The Twosome Place), the latter being more kind to my not-so-well-endowed wallet.
For the prosperity and economic success of the country, many tend to forget that South Korea's still in a literal state of war. Looking for something different, I went to the Korean War Museum, which is accessible from Samgakji Metro Station. It houses an impressive collection of war artifacts, from the primitive spears used by the warring tribes centuries ago to the North Korean torpedo that's alleged to have caused the death of 46 South Korean sailors on the ill-fated warship Cheonan in 2010. Too bad my camera died just after I took a few snaps of the tanks and fighter jets.
Seoul, being a cosmopolitan city, has several neighborhoods characterized by a large presence of certain ethnic groups. Itaewon, which is approximately 15 minutes subway ride away from Myeong-Dong, is known for its sizable Muslim community. The neighborhood, which houses the only mosque in the whole city, is, to my delight, dotted with many halal restaurants, and grocers. It's more or less what Brunswick is to Melbourne.
There is also a significant presence of Malaysian community there; I never bumped into any Malaysians anywhere else in Seoul but I did see Malaysian families and students many times as I walked around the area. The suburb's main shopping street is also lined with many souvenir stores, and the stuff there are pretty cheap (for Korean standard, that is). The shopkeeper at the place that I went to (Tigers Souvenir Store) even spoke some Malay, to my amazement. The haggling made it all more fun, too. Very much recommended.
Interestingly, I also made some new friends in Seoul; that's one of the wonders of staying at the backpackers' hotel. We had a seafood dinner at a Korean restaurant, and had a good chat on the things students are always talking about. I even had the chance to visit their university (Yonsei University); I went there at 10pm and it was still teeming with people, which is a contrast to my university, which is normally nearly empty by nine.
Basically, I did all I wanted to do in Seoul except for one; DMZ Trip. I really wanted to go there and see what it's like to be uncomfortably close to the North, but the situation near the border at the time in the wake of North's recent aggression meant that the DMZ trips were too risky. Hence the government's having given an order for the tour operators to suspend all trips to DMZ until the situation gets better. Pretty disappointing to me, to say the least.
Traveling alone isn't half as intimidating as what I used to think. It's a liberating experience; nothing tastes sweeter than going your own way in a place where the scent and sight is totally unfamiliar to you. You go with your own flow. Nobody knows you and no one's there to make you think twice before doing things you like.
And have I mentioned the feeling of achievement and the rejuvenation for having pushed your boundaries out of your comfort zone? It's beautiful. Try it on your own, see the world from your own lenses, and good luck!
BASIC FACTS ON SEOUL
A ride on the Metro: KRW1,000
A set of Kebab at Itaewon: KRW6,000
An Airport Shuttle Bus Ticket: KRW10,000
A meal at a fancy western restaurant: KRW15,000
An Indian buffet at Itaewon: KRW16,000
A slice of cake: KRW4,500
A can of drink: KRW700
Backpacker's Accommodation (1night): less than KRW50,000
The exchange rate is roughly AUD1/USD1 = KRW1,100. RM1 = KRW330