First Time in Seoul

62 comments
Asia, East, South Korea

Cherry Blossoms near the Headquarters of LG Electronics on Yeouido, Seoul

It was supposed to be an easy trip.

Back in November last year when my perennial travel buddy, James, and I were planning a short escape from Jakarta in April, we were sorting through places that neither of us had ever been to and would be easy to reach. Of all the contenders, Seoul came out on top. Not only are there several non-stop flights from Jakarta to the South Korean capital, but the fact that Seoul has a vast metro network justified our decision as we’d be able to go from one place to another within the city quite efficiently. Plus, Jakarta now has a fully operational airport train that takes people from the city center to the main international airport much faster than a taxi during rush hour.

On the night we were supposed to leave for Korea, however, as we were watching a tuna fishing competition on TV at the departure area of Soekano-Hatta International Airport, flashes of light outside stole my attention. I came closer to the darkened window to find a very concerning circumstance unfolding before my eyes: a big thunderstorm blanketing the airport with torrential downpours and strong gusts of wind. Not long afterward, an announcement was made, calling passengers of our flight to enter the boarding lounge. But it was there where the true aftermath of this tempest became evident. The runway and taxiways were eerily empty with no activity in sight. Two parked airplanes and occasional bolts of lightning were the only things visible from where we sat. Soon after 11pm, less than an hour before we were due to leave, trickles of information started coming in. First, a fellow passenger who was sitting behind me told another person that the plane from Seoul had been diverted to Singapore. Then the ground staff announced that the flight would be delayed without mentioning for how long. Several minutes later, one of the ground crew told a lady in front of us that the plane had in fact circled above Jakarta a number of times due to the bad weather, but it would arrive “probably at 2am”. And then a final announcement: our flight would be postponed by more than 12 hours.

We were supposed to arrive at our hotel in Seoul before noon, but because of the unexpected drama with the weather, we ended up checking in just after midnight, effectively cutting the already short trip by a day. But thanks to Incheon International Airport’s fast immigration process and efficient baggage handling, as well as a metro line that goes directly to Seoul city center and trains that still run at midnight, we were able to save precious time to get some much-needed rest before exploring the city.

The following morning we had brunch at a small, cozy restaurant just across the street from our hotel. Sometimes it is the first meal you have in the morning that will set your mood for the rest of the day, and this couldn’t have been more true for me after having a satisfying bowl of spicy octopus served with lettuce, beansprout, and seaweed. Combined with delicious Korean fried pancakes and what I consider some of the most succulent and moist rice I’ve ever tasted, I was ready to seize the day, regardless of the time we had spent just to get to Seoul.

We arrived in the beginning of spring, hence the abundance of colorful flowers all over the city, including cherry blossoms which looked pretty despite the cloudy skies. On our first day, not only was the sky gloomy, but it was also drizzling incessantly, forcing us to head indoors. The National Museum of Korea, occupying an ultramodern building overlooking a lake with a small traditional pavilion, was our first and only stop that day. Little did we know that marveling at Korea’s cultural treasures at the museum would take hours, and in the space of a single afternoon we only managed to explore the exhibits on the ground floor. Because of Korea’s position between two Asian giants – China and Japan – I used to think that Korean culture was somewhat inferior compared to those of its powerful neighbors. But I was proven wrong. Artifacts collected from all over the Korean Peninsula show how refined Korean art has existed for centuries and how much attention the Koreans have been putting into their culture, creating masterpieces that have withstood the test of time.

The Sidewalk Has Never Been Prettier

Full Bloom on A Cold and Windy Day

When the Sky is Gloomy at Least the Flowers are Not

Morning Dew on Yeouido, An Island on the Han River

Rise and Shine!

Chinese Apricot Blossoms at Changdeokgung

Inside the National Museum of Korea

Throughout our stay in Seoul, the weather gradually improved. And when the rain stopped falling, we made the most of our limited time to explore the city’s royal palaces. Gyeongbokgung is the grandest of all five palaces that date back to a time when Korea was still ruled by kings. Situated to the north of Gwanghwamun Plaza – where millions of Koreans gathered back in 2016 to demand the resignation of Park Geun-hye, South Korean president at that time – Gyeongbokgung received a steady stream of all kinds of visitors.

However, not too far to the east, another equally impressive palace was a lot quieter when we visited. Changdeokgung is in fact the only of Seoul’s royal palaces that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and we were fortunate to be able to explore the complex on a sunny morning on our last day in the city. Mother Nature really has her own sense of humor – our journey began with a thunderstorm, continued with gloomy skies, and ended with a fine morning just when we needed sun the most. The sun, however, failed to bring a little warmth to the frigidly cold spring day, and these fingers of mine, more used to dealing with tropical heat, suffered the most.

I grew up reading about how South Korea successfully transformed its economy at an unprecedented speed, bringing the country out from poverty into the developed powerhouse it is today. A story I always remember from my school days is how South Korea’s per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was equivalent to Indonesia’s in the 1950s, but it is now seven times richer by the same measurement (although by GDP per capita at Purchasing Power Parity, South Korea is ‘only’ three times richer than Indonesia). I also read about how South Koreans’ collective spirit to beat Japan economically has boosted the nation’s confidence to leap forward and reach the same level of prosperity with many First World Countries today.

It’s not hard to find Samsung or LG mobile phones, TVs, or other home appliances wherever you go now – probably even you have one. And Korean automobile manufacturers – chiefly Hyundai and KIA – have also found their way into all the four corners of the world. As one of the Four Asian Tigers – a collective term for South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, whose economies had transformed drastically, making them highly-industrialized, developed countries/territories in a relatively short time – South Korea is a success story many are trying to replicate.

Buffeted by the Cold Wind at Gyeongbokgung

Look Up Where Beauty Abounds

Traditional Houses in Bukchon

The Soft Light of the Morning Sun

My First Meal in Seoul

Street Food at Gwangjang Market

Despite the palpable modernity in Seoul – glass skyscrapers, extensive metro lines, world-class architecture, technology in everyday life – Seoulites are keen to preserve some old traditions that have been passed on for generations. Apart from the grand palaces, the city is also home to Korean traditional houses, hanok, which stand unassumingly against the backdrop of the city’s concrete buildings, which are a result of South Korea’s march toward modernity. And in spite of the advent of foreign dishes, the Koreans will never let go of their kimchi, bulgogi, gochujang, tteokbokki, yukhoe, and a wide array of other dishes local families have been eating for centuries. Instead, they export them, introducing Korean flavors to the world, not only to places with significant Korean communities, but also to countries whose traditional culinary scenes are as colorful and rich as the one from the East Asian country.

This successful soft power diplomacy – a country’s effort to spread its influence through peaceful means – is without doubt backed by other exports South Korea is famous for: K-pop and K-dramas. While Japan relies on its manga (Japanese comics) and anime (Japanese animation) with unique characters and captivating stories, South Korea opts for upbeat music, flawless make-up, and touching stories about love and family. South Korean soft power has even reached far-flung places where a fascination with Korea was unheard of until recently. Turkey, itself a major exporter of soap operas, has particularly been swept by Hallyu – the Korean Wave – and it is now home to six King Sejong Institutes (founded by the South Korean government to promote the Korean language), more than any other European country. Meanwhile in Peru, K-dramas enjoy higher levels of viewership than locally-produced TV series, and the South American country has the most Hallyu fan clubs in the world.

Isn’t it nice when countries try to exert their influence across the globe not through intimidation or military might, but through songs, movies, books, and other cultural offerings?

But it’s not always good news in Seoul. The city has one of the highest suicide rates on the planet, a problem attributed to South Korea’s culture of hard work and decades of stellar economic growth, and air pollution has stubbornly remained a big problem. However, driven by better public awareness of what makes a city more livable, Seoul keeps reinventing itself, solving one problem at a time. Cheonggyecheon is a testament to this spirit. The stream that runs through downtown Seoul was once covered by a four-lane highway that was built during the rapid industrialization of South Korea. Only in 2003, a project to restore the almost dry stream was commissioned by the city government and it has become a popular place to hang out or just stroll around. Another example of Seoul’s resilience can be seen at Namdaemun, a 14th-century gate which served as one of the major gateways to the city through the long-gone city walls. Destroyed by an arson attack in 2008, the gate’s wooden structure had to undergo an expensive restoration project that lasted for five years. Today, against all odds, once again it stands proudly in the middle of a busy intersection surrounded by the city’s modern buildings.

For long I had been overlooking Seoul in favor of other destinations, not because I wasn’t interested in it, but more because of what some people had told me.

“After going to Japan, South Korea will feel underwhelming,” a coworker once said.

“You should have done it the other way around, South Korea first, then Japan,” another person suggested.

However, despite the less than ideal weather and a short trip that became even shorter, I ended up enjoying Seoul so much. Its juxtaposition of the modern and traditional, its magnificent cultural sights, and the delectable Korean food (from the best kimchi to succulent Korean steak tartare and melt-in-your-mouth bulgogi) are reason enough to plan another trip to South Korea – and a much longer one at that.

Namdaemun (Officially Sungnyemun) in Downtown Seoul

The National Folk Museum of Korea and Gyeongbokgung amid Seoul’s Modern Buildings

Just An Ordinary Day at Gwanghwamun Plaza

The Ultramodern Seoul City Hall with the Municipal Library in Front

Cheonggyecheon, Shot under the Effects of Makgeolli (Korean Carbonated Rice Wine)

A Highway Once Covered This Stream Entirely

Yes, I Do!

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

62 thoughts on “First Time in Seoul”

  1. It was a good choice for and your friend to go to Seoul. Even though your trip was delayed by bad weather, you still had a wonderful time and collected all these fine images. One thing, Bama, impresses me every time I read a post on your blog you research all pertinent topics like history, culture, economy etc. very well and then present the facts in easily understood writing. In short, it is a pleasure to read your blog!

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    • It really was worth all the hassles. Peter, I think the way I write is similar with how I prefer people to tell me about a place I’ve never been. I like it when everything is put in context, because that is the best way to get a better understanding of a place. Thank you for reading and for all the encouraging words!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Glad you two were able to make a great trip from a shaky flight out ~ and I like your description of the first meal (or first experience) of the day that can set the mood. Based on the incredible cherry blossom photos, Seoul was waiting for you with open arms. Enjoyed the additional insight into the city I was not aware of (even though visiting there a few times!), always a treat to read your in-depth posts. Cheers to a great weekend ahead.

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    • When I booked the flights months earlier, cherry blossoms were not what I had in mind. However, I was glad that they were still in full bloom during our short stay in Seoul. We were a bit worried at first since the ones near our hotel were already past its peak. Fortunately there were quite a lot of places in the city to see them. Thanks for reading, Randall! And have a great weekend too!

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  3. What a lovely account of your trip to Seoul. Sounded like a very bumpy start with the weather and flight delays but it seemed as seasoned travelers, you and James just rolled along with it. Better late than never. I haven’t visited South Korea before but have heard a lot about it from others traveling there but more so in the media – Korean culture has quite an impact here in Australia. I own a Samsung phone and have always stuck with that brand, works for me, and a while back I was into K-pop entertainment. Korean culture these days is one of its kind, not just efficient but memorable because of that. Definitely a great way to exert their influence as you said – in a way this is utilising soft power to build bilateral relations at the economic and cultural levels, and maybe even political.

    It is heartwarming to hear tradition is still alive in Seoul amidst the hustle and bustle of metropolitan life. That speaks of a city that doesn’t forget its roots, grounded in longtime lessons and customs that are significant one way or another. Very nice to hear you enjoyed the food 🙂 Maybe you will write more about that at some point 🙂

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    • Much appreciated, Mabel! Actually when the ground staff made the announcement that the flight was delayed for more than 12 hours, it was very surreal. But then I guess I can still consider myself lucky for some people have experienced worse, like cancelled flights. As an Indonesian I need to get a visa to go to South Korea, and one of the required documents I had to provide was a letter of statement from the bank. I remember the bank’s customer service officer’s reaction when I told her that I was going to South Korea because to her I didn’t look like someone who would enjoy K-pop or K-dramas. It’s the historical places I was looking forward to visiting the most, I explained to her. 🙂

      Speaking of South Korean products, I actually own an LG mobile phone, and my parents have an LG TV. I think my mom has a Samsung phone as well. As for the food, yes I will be writing about that. 🙂

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      • Lol the experience at the bank sounded hilarious. But good that you got the visa (which sometimes can be such a hassle depending on where you are going!) and the trip was a reality. Better a short trip than no trip 🙂

        Looking forward to your Korean food post. It will make me so hungry 🙂

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  4. There is so much to see in these photos. I will have to come back to study them when time allows. Wonderful work on your part…as usual.

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  5. Love your words about countries exerting influence through cultural offerings. And your photo of the three women is beautiful — their motion in front of the stoic architecture holds such great contrast. Beautiful post, Bama! I hope to get to Seoul someday soon!

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    • Kelly, believe it or not, when I wrote those words I was actually thinking of you and what you wrote in your love letter to Asia, that the world is a beautiful, terrible place. Wouldn’t it be better if countries the world over compete with each other through cultural means? Thanks for the kind comment, Kelly. The wind was quite cold that day, and you can see that in those women’s faces. You should visit Korea one day! I know you would love it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Bama! Thank you! No wonder those words resonated with me! What a thought — a cultural race instead of an arms race. That would be fascinating and so good for the world. Artisans, architects, craftspeople, cooks, storytellers, performers, etc. would all be heroes of the time. Could make for a really good novel! Thanks for your inspiration.

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  6. I felt similarly impressed by Seoul a few summers ago. My husband had done business there decades earlier, and he truly hated it. I could not have had a more opposite experience. Sounds like you and James need to head back soon – wish I could, but I’m a teeny bit farther away!

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    • I guess back in the days when your husband was still doing business in Seoul the city wasn’t as pretty as it is today. Maybe it looked more dreary as its focus was more on industrialization than livability. Yes, James and I will definitely go back to South Korea, and hopefully next time we’ll be able to visit historical places in the country’s southeast, as well as the island of Jeju. Never say never for returning, Lex. 🙂

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  7. Hi Bama, loved your description about Korean art being so refined; a practice developed over time in an effort to preserve Korean culture and history. That was so beautifully written, to be entirely honest. I can tell you that my culture, New Mexican Hispanic, doesn’t practice its art enough to truly preserve it. It’s being lost with every new generation, including my own, and it’s a sad process to see.

    Jess || https://www.learningfromstrangers.com

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    • I also feel that in general my generation is not as interested in preserving our traditional cultures as our parents. However, there seems to be some kind of gradual revival of traditional art in many parts of Indonesia, at least based on my own observation. Sometimes it needs foreigners who are so fascinated by one’s centuries-old culture to raise his/her awareness of the importance of preserving his/her own heritage. Thanks for reading and for sharing your thoughts, Jess!

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    • Thanks Alex! We made sure to make the most of our limited time in Seoul. We ended up not visiting some places in and around the city, but that means it’s now more of a question of when, instead of whether or not we will return.

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  8. Wow a 12 hours flight delay would make me so anxious, glad you made it there safe! I’ve heard the same things about South Korea from people who have visited both Japan and Korea, how Korea is underwhelming in comparison. I’ve been drawn to Korea for some years now, due to the cuisine and just a desire to see a country that has transformed itself so rapidly and remains an example to many countries around the world. The octopus meal looks scrumptious! Korean soap operas, movies, fashion and music are a massive hit in Nepal too. I didn’t know that their influence extended to as far as Peru! That is truly incredible.
    Besides some Samsung phones that I’ve owned in the past, Korean products that I use regularly are my Hyundai car and instant shin ramyun noodles that I can’t seem to live without hehe. Did you see any vending machines serving noodles? I think I had come across an online video showing one of those from South Korea..

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    • I guess it all comes down to one’s own preference, and Seoul happened to fit mine.

      It’s quite amazing to learn about the global reach of the Korean Wave, isn’t it? And yes, their spicy ramyun is among my favorite noodles now. A brand called Samyang is so popular here in Indonesia despite its rather steep price. I did see quite a lot of vending machines in Seoul, but I wasn’t paying attention to those that serve noodles. That’s another thing to look up next time I go! 🙂 Thanks for reading, Pooja!

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  9. Wonderful photos, Bama, and outstanding insight into this great city. “Soft power diplomacy” – I love it. If only other countries would take that example. Latin America is our focus now, but someday we’ll travel throughout Asia and your blog will be our travel guide!

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    • Thank you, John & Susan! I think when people and leaders around the world realize how much a country can gain from successfully projecting its soft power, they too would follow.

      Latin America is a part of the world that seems so far from where I live now but definitely is among the places I most want to visit. I will surely return to your posts on Panama, Ecuador and beyond when I travel to those countries one day!

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  10. What a great post about a place I had not thought to visit. My son has been there briefly and loved the food. I should stop there on my way to Italy one day.

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    • Actually when I was in Seoul there were ads from Korean Air and Asiana Airlines about their destinations in Italy. I guess you can fly with one of them one day. The food in the city was so good; I really enjoyed some of the Korean dishes I previously wasn’t too fond of.

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    • Yes, you should go back to Asia, Nicole! South Korea can be a good start for your exploration of the continent, and you can bring your family along since Seoul (and probably other parts of the country) has many things to offer.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Hariom. Thanks for dropping by and for your kind words. I hope you’ll get the chance to go to South Korea in the not-too-distant future!

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    • It’s a trend many cities around the world try to emulate, with varying degree of success. I guess now more and more people are aware that modernity shouldn’t come at the expense of their centuries-old heritage buildings.

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  11. OMG 12 hours delay is really something! I would have been freaking out but also feel relieved that I didn’t have to experience a bumpy flight in such weather. Glad to know that you and James eventually had a great time in Seoul despite the preflight hiccup. I had a pleasant visit to in Seoul, ten years ago. Though I can’t really remember now which places I visited at that time. I only remember vividly the scrumptious bulgogi I had in a local restaurant. Oh! and it was the first time I tasted flower bibimbap too! I couldn’t help thinking, uhmmm…begini toh rasanya Suzzana ngunyah bunga. Hahahaha :p

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    • Exactly! The most important thing was that everyone was safe. The trip was far too short, but at least we got a glimpse of what Seoul has to offer — and why we need to go back. Speaking of bulgogi, oh my, we had the best bulgogi ever on our last night in the city. We actually ordered a lot of food, and I thought because of that having a bottle of makgeolli each would be fine. I was proven wrong. At the end of our dinner we kept laughing at how “cupu” we were for feeling tipsy! 😀 Flower bibimbap sounds interesting! I’d also like to find out what Suzanna tasted. 😀

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  12. Stunning images, Bama! Their hanok look strikingly well around modern looking buildings. Regardless all the troubles, you made it and had great time there 🙂

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    • Thank you, Indah! I’m glad some traditional houses managed to survive the years when South Korea’s economy grew in a breakneck speed. Now they provide us with a glimpse of a time long gone.

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  13. Seoul seems to have put on a spectacular show for James and you! The cherry blossom shots are spectacular. Thanks for the extra details. When exactly did you go? Is mid April a good time?

    Having just cancelled an entire trip because of late arrival – read non arrival, am still waiting – of my visa, I can relate to your stress at the bumpy start. Glad it turned out well in the end. Lovely post Bama.

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    • Despite the weather, and the pre-departure hiccup, we ended up really enjoying Seoul — the food itself is enough reason for us to return one day! We went in the first week of April. Mid-April should be better weather-wise, although it will be past the peak of cherry blossom season.

      Oh no, that is really frustrating, Madhu. Where were you supposed to go?

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    • Hi Sid! When we were still stuck in Jakarta I was actually thinking “Seoul, why are you so hard to reach?” But as you can see, the South Korean capital really didn’t disappoint. You should go there one day, explore its magnificent palaces and ancient sites, try makgeolli, and experience jjimjilbang — I didn’t have enough time to try the latter, though.

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  14. Despite a rough start it looks as though you and James made the most of your time. The cherry blossom photos are exquisite. The sight of life blooming again warms our winter chilled hearts. So interesting about the high suicide rate. So sad to think that the pressure to achieve success can cause such tragedy.

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    • Luckily we did. Actually that trip to Seoul is only my second time traveling in spring (the first was Australia), and it was so nice to see those flowers blooming despite the chilly temperature, as if they were telling people that gloomy days were about to end. As for the suicide rate, I think more and more Koreans now realize how bad the problem has become, even the president is planning to impose a limit on working time — South Koreans are notorious for their long work hours.

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  15. One thing’s for certain Bama – our trip to Seoul was far too short! Even without the flight delay I’m not sure we could have covered much more ground. But it was well worth the trouble in the end. I too loved the National Museum of Korea and the Joseon-era palaces. We were so lucky to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom at Yeouido; what surprised me about that morning was the fact that the promenade was not really crowded at all. We’ll have to return to Seoul for a week if not longer next time… there’s still so much that we haven’t seen and experienced!

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    • Far too short, indeed. Our visit to the National Museum of Korea confirmed what I’ve been thinking since a few years ago that Gyeongju is the place to go to see more history. At least in our very limited time in Seoul we managed to eat all those dishes, see cherry blossoms (first time for me), and visit Changdeokgung when the sun was shining. I still remember the cold temperature, though.

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  16. Pingback: The House of Korean Treasures | What an Amazing World!

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