There are a lot of places that we want to visit in the world, after all, it is a pretty big place! We usually throw around places like Egypt, France, Burkina Faso, India...you know, places with something famous to see...places that are unlike where we were raised. India has the Taj Mahal and is the most densely populated country on Earth...France has its romance and the Eiffel Tower, Egypt the desert and the Pyramids of Giza...and Burkina Faso...well, it has a pretty cool sounding capital city...Ouagadougou!
One place that I've been multiple times is South Korea. Pae has never been there, but has been subject of one of the best marketing campaigns by a nation I've ever seen! Korea markets itself here in S.E. Asia through it's t.v. dramas and tourism programs on KBS World...one of our cable stations that shows Korean dramas, news, sitcoms, game shows, and most importantly, FOOD shows!
I have a natural draw to the peninsula and her people since I spent all together a year there as a Marine and a year as a missionary. I have retained a conversational ability in the language even after not using it for the good part of 10 years. (translation- I can still order food and hail a taxi) I was there in the early 1990's, 1998-1999, and this would be my experience in 2009. So I can pretty much say that I have seen a lot of growth and advancement in Korea between the three times I've been there.
Our decision to go to Korea during our school break was made easier as it was going to be too expensive and too difficult immigration-wise to get to the States. We had planned on visiting family in Utah and Florida over the course of a month, and also making it to some of the bigger cities just for fun...but getting a visa for Pae was a very difficult process and with tickets being a combined $3K for both of us, it was a hard ask. Korea was our next choice. It is relatively close, 5 hours direct flight, and I needed to use up my Delta Sky Miles before they expired. Our total outlay came to no more than $200 after paying the taxes on the free tickets! And we got to fly on Korean Air, which was a bonus because they have the shortest flight into Incheon.
We had one major concern about our trip, and that was, again, immigration. There are constant warnings on the internet to Thai tourists planning to spend their time in Korea, that occasionally random tourists are turned back and sent back to Bangkok upon arrival in Incheon International Airport. For whatever reasons, the immigration officials can just not like the look on your face or the contents of your luggage, and see you as an illegal immigration risk, and send you back to your country. So, this was a legitimate concern of ours.Our flight from Bangkok left after midnight, so the airport was pretty much empty, and luckily for us, our row on the plane only had three of us and five seats...so, no sweaty non-showered backpacker sitting next to me the whole flight.We arrived in Korea around 7 in the morning and rushed to the immigration counters. We were basically the first ones there and went through adjacent lines. We had no problems getting in, a major relief for us both. We got our luggage, changed money, bought some T-money cards (public transportation card) and found the train that would take us to the subway system.As our hotel, also payed with using frequent guest points (5 nights free), was clear across the city, we decided to hit my old digs in Incheon before we checked in. We drug our luggage on the train and then to the subway all the way to the last station on the Incheon line, a line that I was pretty familiar with from my mission in that area. We dropped our luggage at the tourism office at the station and started the first half of Day 1. The picture below is of the Incheon subway line...They decorated the interiors of the cars with plastic flowers and fruits, apparently in celebration of spring!Right outside of Incheon Station is Chinatown. It's a pretty simple area with a lot of Chinese restaurants and stores, nothing really to write home about.I wanted to go through Chinatown because it leads to a hill with a park called Chayu Park (Freedom Park) where I had gone in the spring of 1999 when the Cherry Blossoms were in full bloom, one of my most memorable days in Korea. We made it up the hilly paths to Chayu Park but we got there about a month too early and the trees had not yet begun to blossom. We did get a good panoramic view of the harbor. We also visited a statue of General MacArthur, who lead the Marine landing in Incheon during the Korean War.After Chayu Park we made our way on a local bus to Wolmido. Wolmido is a seaside boardwalk type place with super fresh fish restaurants and an amusement park. There are rows of small orange and blue tents where "street food" is always ready to eat.Foods from boiled snails, french fry covered corndogs, boiled silk worm larvae, squid, chestnuts...etc. There is pretty much everything that you would want to suck on while walking on the boardwalk in the chill of early spring.This is another place I had been on P-days ten years ago. Wolmido is also right in the center of the main landing beaches for MacArthur's forces back in 1950. The only thing different about this time was the two old ladies that got in a fist fight outside of a restaurant.We ate a giant seafood soup at an upstairs place with less conflict. The soup is big enough for 4 people, but Pae and I, being the professional eaters that we are, chomped our way through this delectable concoction of spicy and squishy! In Korea, sidedishes are a very important part of every meal. You know, kimchi and the like, and our first meal had plenty.Our soup came to the table and we both looked at it and realized that the octopus was already boiled in the pot. Usually, the octopus is brought to your table alive and tossed in the boiling water...yeah, then the poor thing wriggles and squirms around until it dies...then you eat it. It's cool to see the death of the cephalopod, however horrible that just sounded, but the enormity of the dish washed away any bit of disappointment there may have been.We left Wolmido absolutely stuffed and ready for a long subway ride. The Seoul subway system is huge! There is virtually no part of the city or even suburban areas that are unreachable. And anywhere that it is less accessible, the bus and train get you there quite easily. Here is a map of the Seoul subway system.We hopped off of the subway where we thought was the right stop, but ended up taking a taxi a few kilometers to our hotel. We stayed at the W Seoul Walker Hill. It's a nice hotel, right next to a Sheraton which housed a casino. The strangest thing about the hotel had nothing to do with the hotel itself. The place is on the side of a mountain (hill) along the Han River. Pretty expensive real estate I'm guessing. From our room we could see a restaurant on the top of the hill...prime real estate!...It was a pizza joint! I was expecting steak and fine wine...nope, pizza and neon lights!After we checked in to our free hotel, we got ourselves a little unpacked and then decided that we wanted to eat again! We've been watching Koreans eat on t.v. every day for over a year and we only had ten days to satisfy our cravings for "real" Korean food! We headed across the river only a few subway stops away to a little area called Nonhyeon. A big party area for adults with hundreds of restaurants, mostly seafood or Korean BBQ. We found a place we had heard about called "The Born" and enjoyed our first Korean BBQ of our trip. This place ended up being the best of all the BBQs we would eat at. The greenage, vegetables used to wrap your meat and condiments in, came in a long dish the length of the table. The beef was sliced nice and thin and cooked up very quickly...that's important, the faster it is cooked or even half cooked...the faster we can eat it! We ordered several portions and ate the night away.
First impressions of our first day in Korea...It was a lot colder than I expected. Day 2 I would have to buy some type of spring jacket. The food rocks. The transportation system has gotten so much better over the past 20 and 10 years. Too bad we would miss the cherry blossoms in Seoul. Next time!