Korea is a lovely place to visit, a good place to work and a nice place to live. I've done all three there, although they were all about ten years apart, working as a Marine in the early '90s, missionary late '90s and as a tourist in the past few years!
I've spent about twelve years around the Asian Pacific, if you will. I can't be more thankful for the opportunity I've had to spend big parts of my life in Korea, Hawaii and Thailand, especially as an adult, not from birth. Being raised in South Florida and then living in these places, eye-openers all. Cultural experiences all. Places where I've gotten to know myself. I have considered all "Home" at one time or another. All places where there are people whom I consider family in one form or another.
The beginning of April saw us head off on a package tour to Seoul, Korea. We, Pae's family and I, decided to purchase tour packages rather than get everything separately, make our own schedule, pay for everything ourselves, entertain ourselves, etc. When Pae and I went in 2009, we flew on frequent flyer miles, stayed in our first hotel on points, then a hostel for the ramainder of our stay. We were there for 9 or 10 days, free to go wherever, do whatever, whenever.
This time, a tour package made more sense as it is all inclusive, airfare, accommodation, meals, tour guide (Thai speaking), and pretty much everything for five days is all laid out for you. You just sit back, listen, look, eat, sleep, eat, take pictures and eat some more. I have always seen tour groups in Hawaii, in New York, and here in Thailand. Many times all of the members will be wearing the same color shirt or something to distinguish themselves as a member of a particular group, and they will always be following a guide or tour leader with a little wavy flag or placard. Our group was no different, we had a guide who lives in Seoul and "knows" Seoul, and we had a tour leader who pretty much made sure we were always accounted for and on time to the bus or breakfast in the mornings. We also had pink buttons (pins) that had the name of our tour on them, but not many people wore them after the first day.So, our tour hit pretty much all of the Seoul spots that people would try to go on a quick couple days in the city. Our tour had an equal amount of pretty much four things- Historical/cultural, shopping, sales pitches at tourist trap-type places, and eating. It was honestly a smattering of everything packed into 5 days for a person who had never been to Korea. For Pae and I, we'd pretty much "been there done that" but for the others, I think there was a lot to see, different from here in Thailand, and for Pae and I, and the others, it was really nice to be somewhere, doing something with the whole family, Mom and Dad, the two brothers P'Neung and P'Nut and us. It was nice to spend pretty much a whole 5 days together, doing things, experiencing something as a family.
I wasn't sure how I was going to blog our experience, but I think I figured out how I want to do it. Instead of one long entry with a bunch of pictures, and instead of breaking it up into days (we did so many things in a day), I think busting it up into small activities or excursions and lots and lots of pictures of the whole family together.
For reference purposes, here are links to our first trip together in 2009-
Pae and Guy in Incheon
Pae and Guy at Dongdaemun
Pae and Guy at Myeongdong
Pae and Guy at Seoul Tower
Pae and Guy in Jinhae
Pae and Guy take it easy
Pae and Guy at Gyeongbokgung
Pae and Guy at Seoul Grand Park
Pae and Guy at Nami Island
We hit some of the same places, but also had a lot more freedom to do what we wanted and stay as long as we wanted in one place. I guess I should throw up some pros and cons of going with a tour group.
TOTAL IMMERSION- Part of being in a new place or a different place is to get out in the streets and "get around" in an unfamiliar environment, both language-wise and as far as transportation is concerned. A tour definitely takes this part of the adventure out of the equation, as there is always a coach waiting for you around the corner to take you to the next attraction and almost no interaction with Koreans, outside of renting an electric adapter from the front desk at the hotel. When you go alone, you HAVE to figure all of this stuff out, by yourself, with body language, trial/error. There's nobody there holding your hand, speaking for you, giving the taxi driver directions or even figuring out what subway stop to transfer at. WINNER = GO ALONE
FOOD- When you go alone, you spend a lot of time thinking where the next meal is coming from or just eating at some restaurant or food stall in the area you just happen to be at that time of day. This leads to many great cultural experiences, but also you may walk right by a "diamond in the rough" hole in the wall restaurant unaware. On a tour, you don't have to think about anything. The tour food selection hits many of Korean cuisine's main offerings, Bulgogi, Bibimbap, BBQ, Ginger Chicken...etc. (and lots and lots of kimchi) so if you're a Korean food newbie, and have no idea what to eat, a tour will suit you well. Every restaurant you eat at though has five or six tour buses parked outside, and your tour guide and leader help serving food! Odd. For me, personally, WINNER = GO ALONE, but for the purposes of our trip as family, I'd have to go with WINNER = DRAW because people are different, and as busy as we were on the tour, its nice not to have to decide between 6 people "what should we eat for lunch" and where, not to mention cost.
FLEXIBILITY- Flexibility was one thing about our 2009 trip that was important. Being in Seoul for 10 days, we didn't have to really stick to a strict schedule to see the things we planned to see. If we were worn out after day 4, we could move an excursion to another day or cancel it all together. Low stress, although we were tempted to be lazy in the hotel for the whole morning more often than not, and risk losing several hours of exploring time that way. The tour seemed just as flexible, shifting this to here and that to there, depending on time of day, weather, traffic, etc. The only thing with a tour is that wherever they advertise as part of their package, they have to go, or it's a bit of breach of contract. Actually, I'm sure there is small print in the contract and brochure saying that they reserve the right to change the itinerary based unknowns and unexpecteds. We were (supposed to be) up at 6:00 AM each morning on the tour, "6 wake up, 7 breakfast, 8 bus." WINNER = DRAW
COST- This is not even a competition. A tour includes airfare, accommodation, three meals a day, visas, transportation, bottled water, everything. If you go alone, you pay for all of this, and your airfare alone is almost the same cost as the whole tour package (from Thailand to Korea, I'm sure from other locations to Korea is a different story). If Pae and I hadn't been able to use points for free flights and 5 nights in The W Hotel in Seoul, we would have spent triple of what the tour cost. WINNER = TOUR
PLANNING- Another category that will probably end in a draw. Planning activities before you go on vacation is part of the excitement of going. The lead up to your flight is always full or "Where should we go", "What should we do", etc. That is fun and gives you that vacation anticipation feeling for weeks prior to leaving. A tour package is all laid out for you. You look at several packages, look at the activities, decide, and it's done. No more thinking. Maybe you pull the pamphlet out and look at it again before you go, but there is not that "plan-it-yourself" feel to it. Again, different strokes for different folks. WINNER = DRAW (although my preference is obviously to plan ourselves!)
INTIMACY- The winner of this one will obviously be "go alone", but there are some positive points to going as a larger group. The main plus to a tour is that there is always going to be a person or group of people who will take a picture of your whole group for you, in exchange for the like of course, so, when you get home instead of one person missing from every photo, you have enough with all members of your group. A member of your tour will generally take a good photo and is willing to take several poses for you, whereas a passerby on the street might actually refuse to take your photo, may run away with your camera, often takes a picture of their own finger rather than your face, or just takes a picture of the group with no consideration for the composition of the photo. Look at many of our pics from 2009, we would prop the camera on the dirt or on a post or trash can to get pictures of us together, hahaha! Fun, but it's nice to have proper photos. Our tour was 23 people (25 originally but two "escaped" after immigration, entered Korea as if they were tourists, but actually came to work, and disappeared into the concrete jungle after we got to the airport) 23 people isn't exactly intimate, you're always with them for five days, and often you end up eating with them as most tables are for four people, and our group was only six, so one table almost always had two strangers from our tour eating with us. WINNER = GO ALONE
Overall, both are good. In 2009, going alone was perfect and met our needs, budget, level of fitness, group size, etc. This year, as a family, the tour was perfect for us!
I personally had a great time. We even got the boys out one night to experience Korean night life...not a part of the tour, hahahahahah!! It was great fun to be with the family on vacation.
Pictures to follow (of Korea)...
P.S. Wedding countdown to May 7th...two weeks!!!