May 6, 2013

Visiting Seoul, Korea

I am a fan of customer loyalty programs.  Using our points on United Mileage Plus for tickets on Singapore Air, John and I flew from Singapore to Seoul for $44. And, using our points from the InterContinental Priority Program we stayed seven nights free at Seoul’s Seongbuk Holiday Inn. This was our first trip to Korea. It had been on our “to-visit” list but we feared the weather at the end of March would be unpleasant.  That was not the case.  The weather was perfect for sightseeing.  We arrived late in the evening so missed the affordable ($15) bus connection into the city and took a cab.  The fare was $40 but the Korean cabs take credit cards so paying was painless.  Seoul has an excellent subway system but the cabs were reasonable and went directly where we wanted to go so we ended up taking cabs most of the time.

We took a cab to the Gwanghwamun Square where we boarded the $10 two-hour tour of the city. Not everyone was able to get on so some had to wait for the next bus.  It was possible to get on and off but we like to take such tours once around.  I was surprised at how hilly the city is and even more surprised when we stopped near the Seoul Tower at a panoramic viewing area - there were buildings as far as I could see.  Amazing! Ten million people live in the city.  

We debussed at Stop 27, the last stop, and next to one of the Gyeongbokgung Palace side entrances. It worked out perfectly because just inside the entrance was the National Folk Museum, a traditional Hanok Village. Admittance was free and there was a self-guided brochure. There were several buildings and displays that depicted the traditional Korean life including the Street to the Past with typical houses, an ox-drawn millstone, and totem poles.  We were able to continue walking to the back gate of the Gyeongbokgung Palace, just one of five great palaces built during the Joseon Dynasty. It has gone through many changes since it was first built in 1395. Between the Japanese invasion in 1911 to the Korean War many of the buildings were destroyed and/or damaged. Nearly half of the original buildings are still standing or have been reconstructed. The palace grounds are extensive and beautiful.  Luckily, we reached the main gate just in time for the changing of the guard ceremony. It was an amazing, colorful ceremony with drums, flags, traditional costumes and pageantry – so much more extensive than I expected. Not to be missed for sure.

We signed up on-line for a tour of the Secret Garden, which is part of the Changdeokgung Palace. Independent touring of the garden is not permitted. The garden is huge. I wish we had been there later in the year when things are in bloom. One day we took an afternoon tour on the river. The tour was great but, once again, we were the objects of curiosity for the local people. They love to have their picture taken with us.

One afternoon we took a cooking class at O’ngo Food Communications.  Cooking experiences are fun – and tasty ways – to explore a culture.  We made Spicy Chicken Stew and Mushroom Japchae. While I could not develop a fondness for kimchi the food we made was excellent.  But, my favorite Korean dinner was Beef Bulgogi.