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Trip Report Belated 2012 Trip Report - Two Weeks in South Korea

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There seems to be an interest now on Fodors to hear more about South Korea, and a dearth of information to go with it. With that in mind, I offer this belated trip report, from August 22 to September 5th, 2012, from before I started posting on this forum. I hope this info will be helpful to someone.

Following a week in Japan, we had two exhilarating weeks in Korea, a continuously mountainous peninsula where First World amenities of clean water, excellent transportation infrastructure, and advanced communications are juxtaposed dramatically with many people living humble, traditional lives.

I am not sure my experience will be all that relatable since my way of traveling is unlike that of so many others. First, I don’t care for having a laundry list of ‘Must See’ sites or monuments. It’s ok with me if I miss something Big. I look for variety.

Secondly, I have to spend some time out of the cities, and for me that usually means renting a car for at least part of the trip. I like going at my own pace with complete freedom.

Also, I am really into trying the food of the land, with as few restrictions as possible, so this can mean going to otherwise inconvenient out-of-the-way places. I already live near a sophisticated food city (Washington, DC) where there is a large Korean community, so bonus points for traditional food that I can’t get easily back home.

Finally, I like to pick up language skills wherever I go. To that end, before going I taught myself Hangul, the Korean alphabet. I didn’t even know Korean had an alphabet! It was easy and fun to learn. Since I started the trip knowing a good deal about Korean food, I knew I wouldn’t have much problem in restaurants. Plus we have no food fears and were willing to try anything.

Going to Korea for two weeks was my son (17), daughter (13), and me, their dear father (53). The idea of going to Korea was my daughter’s. I was going mostly for the food.

We flew from Tokyo to Busan, and planned to fly back to the US from Seoul two weeks later. All options were open.

Since we were fresh from a week in Tokyo and Yokohama in a mostly urban environment, I wanted to spend the middle part of our trip in the countryside, so I decided to rent a car for a week immediately after landing in Busan. After that, the plan was to spend the final week of our trip split between Busan (3 nights) and Seoul (4 nights).

I rented a car through Hertz, which gave me the best price. But Hertz does not have its own counter in the Busan airport; they use the counter of a Korean agency (I forget which). Also, I went to the SK Telecom counter to pick up an iPhone that I rented in advance for the trip. Hertz could not tell me in beforehand if there was any GPS available, in Hangul or English. I crossed my fingers, but I was expecting no GPS and might have to get around on maps.

As it turned out, the car did indeed have GPS in English – what a relief! To be able to use it, though, you still have to know the province, city, neighborhood, and street name and number of your destination. So it pays to start off well prepared.

In deciding where to go on our week-long car trip, I consulted a lot of opinions, but ultimately found a CNN article about the most beautiful places in Korea very intriguing. I could hit so many varied places in a circular route in the south. With teenagers you want as much variety as possible.

We decided to visit Goryeong, Haeinsa, Maisan Provincial Park, Jeonju, Damyang Bamboo Forest, the Dahae Daehan Tea Plantation, Nagan Stone Village, and Darangyi on Namhae Island. I skipped ‘The Big One’, Gyeongju, thinking we didn’t have enough time to do everything justice.

The driving was easy, and the GPS in Korea is much more sophisticated than in the US. Apparently it is quite expensive to purchase. It knows your speed and alerts you when you are speeding. It also alerts you to upcoming road conditions, like a tunnel or a bumpy road. And it changes the read out for night and day driving. It also has movies, music, and other entertainment on it! I assume the movies are for the pleasure of the passengers….

I found Korean drivers to be rather cautious, despite high traffic fatality rates. I was passed only once in two weeks. Even when we took a taxi in the city, the driving seemed unremarkable. Driving in Italy, for example, is much more harrowing, and if you go simply at the speed limit, cars and especially motorcycles will rocket past you continually.

To be continued….

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    Looking forward to more ( can I beg for quickly please).

    We head off to SK on Monday and although we have been before, this time we intend renting a car. We will rent in Gwangju but intend heading to some of the places you have visited -Damyang Nagan Stone Village and that whole corner.

    I'm really interested in how you got on.


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    I am also looking forward to hearing the rest of your report. I am in the midst of posting my report on Japan and SK.

    I like your travel style! I like the idea of winging it. I am impressed that you took the time to learn Hangul. My son told me it was easy to learn but I am a bit thick and when I got a little guide to study I didn't get too far!

    When we were on the freeway in the Seoul area we said it was just like driving in LA, surrounded by Kias, Hyundais and Chevrolets! We did have some crazy taxi rides where the driver was using the GPS in the entertainment mode!

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    @SeeHag Being so familiar with food names probably helped me learn Hangul. Also, I found it interesting that some Korean words or phrases are the same or close to the English pronunciation. For example, when I went to an event recently in the US, the Regitartion Table had a sign in Hangul that was pronounced, Checkuh Een.

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    I will proceed quickly! The installment after thsi will cover Jeonju and South.

    We ran into revelations and disappointments. Four big storms got in our way! But through it all we were left with a sense of discovery that was thrilling.


    So off we went to our first stop, Goryeong. The roads are fast, well-engineered, and tunnel through the mountains when necessary. So distances are fast and easy to cover. We spent less time getting to places than I thought we would.

    Goryeong is not on the Western tourist map. The only reason it is on the Korean tourist map is that in 1977, tombs were discovered that revealed a small kingdom separate from the three main kingdoms of Korea. It is called the Gaya Kingdom. The Korean Government decided to build a spiffy, modern museum there, including one excavated tomb protected by a huge dome, and a museum proper with artifacts and explanations. You can also hike a trail leading past a series of unexcavated tombs which are eerie, grassy mounds surrounded by trees.

    I didn’t have a motel lined up, but the excellent Goryeong tourism website had pictures of motels and addresses, so I chose one and entered the address in my GPS. I went for the Zeus Motel since I heard that many Korean motels have unusual, cute themes and that this was a bonus! I have a friend with a Korean wife who told me that good themed motels are plentiful in Korea, and that it wasn’t necessary to reserve in advance.

    The Zeus was undergoing some ‘renovation,’ or at least the central garden looked like it was a bit torn up. There was a small, interior window that looked like a management office, and indeed there was someone there. He was an old guy, looked like he was maybe wearing pajamas, and though he did not speak English, it was very clear to him why we were there. He gave me the price, I understood with my rudimentary knowledge of Korean, but he may have written it down as well. It seemed like an ok price, so with very few words exchanged we had our room for the night. The Zeus was a large place and looked more like an apartment building with a central courtyard than a standard motel. There was a wide staircase leading up to our room on the second floor. The walls of the room were plain, but the furniture was fanciful. In the hallway, there was Roy Lichtenstein wallpaper – this would be the first of three places we stayed that incorporated some of his work into their décor. Also there were Greek-like statues and paintings. The room was very large and completely tiled, with a very large circular bed and some ondol mats for sleeping. My daughter volunteered to sleep on a mat while my son and I shared the big bed.

    The first night we went to eat at a place out of town. Again, we turned to the Goryeong website which had an impressive rundown of places with pictures and at least a brief description of their specialty. I chose a place the features sujebi, aka hand-torn noodle soup. This one had acorn noodles, sweet potatoes, and dates. This was a new dish for me, and I was very excited. We found the place easily with our GPS, and the soup was terrific. Everything I could have hoped for. Typical of so many places to eat in Korea, there is not much of a menu, just maybe a few variations of the same dish. Knowing Hangul and food items, it was easy to select. We ordered one big soup for all three of us, and it came with banchan.

    The next day was our museum day. We were the only visitors around. I have the feeling that this place gets mostly school groups, so if they are not there, you will have the whole place to yourself. The front desk clearly called someone after seeing Americans show up, because soon after we stepped into see the exhibits, an interpreter popped up to help us. She must have been very happy to see us as this place gets almost zero people from outside Korea. It is a big new museum that is, all the same, very sober. Everything is gray, and presented with little flourish and very few graphics. The interpreter was a big help. Next stop was the dome, the highlight of the museum, and it showed how the excavation was done and provided an overview of how the rooms of the tomb were laid out.

    Outside the museum , there is a pretty trail along the unexcavated tombs, and this is a majestic area. Unfortunately, it started to rain heavily, and we were caught by surprise. Halfway up the trail my son started to limp, and I didn’t know why. Back at the hotel, he told me he had an ingrown toenail. He knew about it before he went on the trip, but it didn’t bother him so much so he didn’t say anything. But now it was severe and looked ugly. When we were on the trail next to the museum, the interpreter had noticed him limping and mentioned taking him to the doctor. So I decided that, instead of going onto our next destination, we would go back to the museum the next day to seek out the interpreter and maybe she could help us find a doctor.

    We went back, she made a phone call to clear her leave from the museum, and she accompanied us to a hospital. My son was seen quickly, and the doctor made an incision to relieve the pressure, and gave him stitches. He also wrote out a few prescriptions. The interpreter took us to a pharmacy where they filled them on the spot. They gave us a custom-made strip of pill packets, each one with a large roman numeral, and filled with the different medicines he would need each day. How civilized and easy! The hospital charged us a ridiculously small sum for the procedure, and the cost of the medicines was very low, not worth mentioning.

    After this the interpreter took us to her favorite place to eat in town, serving gamjatang, or pork neck soup. The place was as humble as can be, and the soup was very simple. She said she liked it here because of how clear the broth was. We flavored the soup with various condiments, our favorite being tiny, tiny fermented shrimp. Outside in the street was a street market (this kind of market throughout Korea is often set up every fifth day). Some vendors had set up tables, but also many people were simply displaying their wares sitting down on a blanket stretched out on the ground. It is this kind of juxtaposing scene which has Korea teetering between the modern and traditional, with glimpses of a humble Third World amid the advanced technology. Goryeong itself is not a pretty place, mostly dilapidated buildings obscured by those ubiquitous vertical duratran-lit signs. At this point I wondered if I had made the right decision to come to Korea at all!

    We were a day behind in our vacation, and we faced more and more rain, but the distances (even on the small road going up to Haeinsa) here were more easily covered than a similar road in Europe. So I got the feeling we weren’t really behind at all.

    That night we decided to go to a place near Goryeong where they raise ducks and serve duck bulgogi. I knew it would be rural, but we had the address and our trusty GPA. We arrived at the spot and saw nothing. Off the main street, there was a gravel road that branched off in two directions. One path led to a place that looked more industrial/warehouse, so we took the gravel road that led to houses, and more potential for farmland. Still, we saw nothing, asked someone in Korean who didn’t know, and we returned to the spot where the gravel roads diverged. I then noticed on a fence there was a small, very weathered sign covered by tree branches. I brushed away the branches, and there was the Hangul I was looking for! So we followed that path to a very dilapidated structure. There was an old upright piano sitting out in the rain, and a refrigerated case for sodas, unplugged, sitting outside. No sign on the building what was inside or if it was open. As I approached the place, a woman came out and asked if she could help (in Korean). I said we were looking for something to eat – this is basic stuff you can find in any pocket translation guide. She said ‘ouri?’ (duck), and I enthusiastically nodded yes, and she led us inside.

    Inside, the place was a trip back in time. It had a clay floor. There was a huge broom used for sweeping up the floor, leaning up against a wall made of wood chunks. A cast iron heater with a big stove pipe stood in the center of the room with bare wood tables. I saw through a beaded curtain an ondol room for eating. I have never seen anything quite so rustic. We sat down and she proceeded to bring us the banchan and set down a grill for the duck and some onions and mushrooms. She first made us a chive pajeon (pancake). We then wrapped the grilled duck, and vegetables with perilla leaves and dipped them into a tangy wasabi soy sauce. After we finished the duck, she brought out some rice and made a bibimbap of the leftovers. It was a big meal in a unique setting.


    The heavy overnight rain finally cleared up and the next morning we had a beautiful day in Gayasan National Park, home to the famous Haeinsa, but also may other paths that lead to other temples and shrines. The landscape was lush, and the park looked like a beautiful place to explore. We saw a couple of very beautiful shrines and a collection of odd but dramatic turtle-themed funerary statues. Haeinsa itself is in a lush, pretty location. But I had heard that Korean temples were fairly austere, and, because many had to be reconstructed after Japanese ransacking and destruction, they had some awkward modern touches. The interiors at Haeinsa were not beautiful. The UNESCO World Heritage collection of historic printing plates were kept behind cages, and we couldn’t really view them. So I was a bit disappointed in Haeinsa, despite the lovely location. I would love to go back to Gayasan, hike, and explore the landscape.

    Maisan Provincial Park

    We went on to my favorite stop of the trip, cutting east on a well-engineered mountain road to Maisan Provincial Park. On the way we ate at a highway rest stop and had a fantastic kongguksu - noodles in a cold soy milk broth. Surprisingly flavorful and refreshing, I slurped up every last drop. Upon reaching Maisan, we entered a relatively flat break in the mountains with two oddly-shaped and imposing ‘rocks’, the twin mountains of Maisan, looming ominously over the landscape. Together they looked like a pair of donkey ears. The prime destination here is a hike to Tapsa, a tiny temple wedged between the donkey ears around which a hermit had constructed around ninety stone pagodas (or rock piles). This is one of the most unique landscapes I have ever seen, combining unusual natural formations, cultural heritage, and a stunning piece of folk art. Beautiful, dramatic, touching.

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    After Maisan, we drove to Jeonju where we had reserved out first hotel. For dinner, we tried to go to one of the famous bibimbap restaurants serving a unique Jeonju version, but we got there about 9pm and it was closed. Apparently this is too late for bibimbap! We drove around the neighborhood and found a bar with the simple name of 'Flower' in Korean. It was a hip hangout for young folks, and they had an extensive chalkboard menu. People at another table gave us an enthusiastic thumbs up for the dubu kimchi, so that’s what we ordered. This was my first time eating this dish, and it surprised me. It is served as two different dishes. First, a row of sliced tofu had been steamed with sesame oil for a gorgeous flavor. On the other side of the platter, the kimchi was a fresh version, not the cold, heavily fermented version often served as part of the banchan. It was slices of cabbage, carrots, onion, and pork stir-fried in a pleasant red pepper sauce, served warm. Very delicious. The next day we visited the hanok village, probably the largest and best preserved area of its kind in Korea. Also convenient for people visiting Korea by public transportation. I was bit underwhelmed with this. We had a clear, scorching hot day, and the architecture is very nice, but it is a bit somnambulistic. There are subdued exhibits within some of the buildings, but the heat combined with the lack of excitement made it more effort than it was worth. Late afternoon we had an early meal of bibimbap at Han Gook Wan, one of the six bibimbap places featured on the Jeonju website. We tried both a cool verson with raw beef and egg yolk, and a crispy dolsot (stone pot) version. Both very good, and the haemul pajeon (seafood pancake) was the best I’ve ever had.

    Daehan Dawon Tea Plantation

    The next day we were on our way to Boseong and the Daehan Dawon Tea Plantation. First, we stopped at the Damyang Bamboo Forest norht of Gwangju. This also was a bit disappointing. A somewhat hilly, but ultimately dull lanscape with wide modern trails. This is where I realized the limitations of a bamboo forest, especially one that looked so antiseptic and new, like they just plopped it down as an afterthought.

    Our next stop was at Boseong, and since we had made no reservations, we decided to look first at a couple of motels in town that were very dirty looking inside and pricey to boot! Boseong is not a pretty place. It was getting late, so I made a call to the 24/7 translation hotline operated by the Korean government, to get the address of a nearby tea plantation that I knew from my research had lodging. It was the golmangtae plantation, and there are reviews for this place all over the internet. In a very modern, fanciful complex of buildings – looked like a stuffed mushroom forest - they had a voluminous place for us with a kitchen, a normal bedroom, and a vast ondol room. Again, my daughter was ok sleeping on a mat, so this worked out well.

    Before going to bed we had dinner at a tea shop at the bottom of the hill. It was a new place that a had a short menu – about three Italian items! There was a luscious noodles in cream sauce – outstanding, and fine sautéed pork cutlets. We elected not to risk the pizza. Of course this being Korea there was a banchan of kimchi, fermented black beans, and marinated radish.

    The next day we snooped around their plantation and had tea in a cave where their tea is stored. We then took off for Daehan Dawon, and it is spectacular. I have not been to other tea plantations in Asia, and I am sure from pictures I’ve seen that there are many stunning ones, but this place is flat out gorgeous. We had that rare day which was partially cloudy but not rainy. It was glorious.

    Nagan Stone Village

    After a drive south through the tea valley, a beautiful landscape with many plantations dotting the hillside, we drove to Nagan Stone Village. An unusual and extensive stone village surrounded by a fortified wall. This is an old, traditional village open to tourism, but it is also a real living village where people reside and tend to farming their small plots. This is an example where a lot of people in Korea feel very connected to their traditions, religion, and the land. You are never far from modernism on one had and tradition on the other.

    This is a beautiful and exciting place, and there is enough to explore here to spend a very full day. Maybe more. It’s a lot of area to cover. I knew from weather reports, though, that there was a major hurricane approaching Korea. It was going off toward the west, so not a direct hit, but they were forecasting heavy rains and strong winds. This would be our second big storm of the trip. At this point we decided to veer off course, and not go so close to the coast as planned since it looked like the coast would get battered the hardest. So we improvised, I consulted our guidebook, and headed off to Jinju, a slightly inland city that featured an extensive underground market. Maybe at least we would feel protected there. Jinju also has a riverside castle in a historic park, but that was closed the couple of nights we were there because of the storm. On our way to Jinju we got off the highway and stopped to eat in the outskirts of Gwangyang. Although I am fond of saying there are eight places to eat in Korea for every step you take, this was one place where we saw only houses. After making a few turns in a residential area, we spotted a house-cum-restaurant. It was ondol seating only, so we had no choice. I had some trepidation about this, but there was enough room for me to stretch out a bit, and I was surprisingly fine with it. They had three different versions of the same soup, and we ordered all three, mine with soondae (a supple rice and blood sausage which is fairly mild tasting.)


    After our late night arrival in Jinju, we decided to hit the market the next morning. My kids love to go shopping. The shops were fairly ordinary, and it was not a picturesque market, but we did find a couple of things to buy. After that we scoured the vast above-ground market which went on for many blocks. Although it was still raining, it didn’t bother us as the market is completely tented. This is the kind of traditional market that dots Korean cities and keeps modern life at bay. We had a spectacular lunch at a nearby restaurant, and this was my first taste of galbi jim, braised pork ribs. A fantastic dish. A couple of ladies at a nearby table saw we looked like we needed help and gave us suggestions, though they did not know English, so they simply pointed. We also had a spicy octopus stew and the most generous banchan of the trip that included a couple of grilled fish.

    Namhae Island

    After our stay in Jinju, the storm passed and we took up our planned route to descend to the coast and visit Darangi Village on Namhae Island. The drive along the coast of Namhae is beautiful. Darangyi is a terraced village plunging down into the sea. In the right season (I think the Spring), there is plowing, and even educational hands-on activity. But in the summer it is fallow. Although the terraces and the village are not particularly attractive in the summer, the site and the coastal hiking trail is very beautiful. A trail goes over a small footbridge perched on some immense coastal boulders, and the trail continues along the coast, up hills and along a terrace of garlic and a pretty gazebo. We were thrilled being here, our first real view of coastal Korea. The water was a very pretty color. I imagine that in the Spring season you get the best of both worlds, combining coastal beauty with farming activity.

    At a terrace restaurant, we had a pot of anchovies – a local specialty, along with an addictive kalguksu (knife cut noodles), here served with chopped manila clams. The noodles in Korea are so much better than what I am used to at home. In general with Asian food away from Asia, the noodles are the first thing to suffer in quality. So when in doubt always order the noodles! We then drove back to Busan to drop our car off at the airport and took a taxi to the hotel that we booked in advance. Our exciting and eventful road trip was over.

    Next up, Busan and Seoul....

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    I am really enjoying your report! You are a very descriptive writer! I am so impressed with your willingness to eat in the primitive place you described. I am sure you and your kids were the talk of of the village! Your description of the meals is making me want Korean food.

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    The duck place with the clay floor was out of some kind of dream. Seriously, I had no idea of what I was in for, but it was so far from what I could imagine. I was also happy that I adjusted well to the ondol seating that I didn't blink an eye when we went to a place in Seoul where there was not a chair in sight. I also like the idea of staying in Korean motels which are a very different experience from other places I've been, including Japan.

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    After eating Korean food IN South Korea, I haven't been willing to try any in the DC area again. (Same thing with several other cuisines, sigh.). Is there a place you recommend?

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    I know what you mean. it is very easy to get spoiled. The more you know out about a cuisine, the less likely you will be pleased with weak iterations.

    I live close enough to Annandale, where there at least 30 Korean restaurants in close proximity. and have explored quite a bit. My favorite place at the moment is very much like my experience eating in Korea: it's a place in a tiny house featuring a very limited menu and no bbq. It is called Mandu Rang Kimbap Erang. Get the small mandu, the ddoekboki, and the udeng kimbap. The limited banchan includes a very fine kimchi and a delicious clear chicken broth that has a delicate flavor enhanced with a touch of fish sauce or dried shrimp flavoring. Talk up the nice young man who runs the place, his mom does a lot of the cooking using her recipes. You may need help anyway since I am not sure there is any Englsih on the menu.

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    Thanks so much for the speedy report on the "car" part of the journey. It's very helpful to have your experience.

    I had expected Damyang to be a highlight but will be prepared. There is a garden just south of there that is meant to be really nice -the name escapes me at the moment. I hope that will live up to the reports.

    I am interested to hear the Nagan Stone village is worth more time. I had thought it might be a short stop but will now allow a bit extra just in case.

    Its great having more experiences from people. It's really only you and Kja that have reported on this area It is helping fill the gaps. We are just winging it and will stay in motels where ever we get to at night. Except for Gangjin further south where I need to be for a few days.

    I'm looking forward to your experience in Seoul as well.

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    The final week of our trip:


    The hotel we booked in advance was the Elysee Motel, made to look on the outside like a French chateau. But with nearby buildings squeezed so close together, it’s hard to get much of a sense of the exterior. The lobby is drab. The rooms have recessed ceilings above the bed with an outer space design of planets, stars, and hidden blacklight fixtures. So if you wanted to, you could turn off the regular lighting and just look up at the stars with their glow-in-the-dark quality. Maybe this was a love motel? Hmmm. I booked the hotel through Agoda, and when the manager of the hotel got my email address from Agoda, he sent me several documents in English about how to get to the hotel, with a step-by-step series of photos showing how to walk from the nearby subway stop. Also directions in Hangul to hand to a taxi driver. Very nice that.

    Our first night, we walked through the colorful neighborhood, past the Lotte department store with its pretty light-changing display, across a boulevard, and onto a pedestrian street with tons of nightlife and packed with throngs of young Korean tourists. Despite the fact that plastic surgery, skin whitening, and hair coloring are popular for young girls here, we saw flocks of young Koreans with jet black hair and olive colored skin. This scene would not have been possible in Japan, where skin whitening and hair coloring dominate.

    The next day was a time to finally do some laundry on our trip, and we took a taxi to a laundromat near the Bujeon subway stop. The hotel manager gave us a handout with directions; he was prepared for everything! We had a lot of laundry to do. Near the laundry I noticed a place specializing in duck bulgogi, so we went there while our wash was in process. This time the duck was heavily marinated first, and it was one of the best meals of our trip. So rich and fatty, and the duck got beautifully charred on the grill.

    After we got back to our hotel, we got ready for another storm, so our best option was to go to the Shinsegae Department store, supposedly the biggest department store in the world. It has a golf driving range, an ice skating rink, and tons of other things inside. By this time we already realized that most Korean clothing would not fit my American kids – it was all very small sizes. Bit we tried anyway.

    The next day we walked to the nearby markets. First to Jagalchi, the big fish market, a modern building with three or four levels. So many tanks of sea creatures and running water! Behind the fish market is a beautiful view of a bay and lines of boats. Looking to the land, you see the mountains and hills of Busan descending down to the water. The Korean San Francisco.

    Here is where we ran into our only major language barrier of the trip. We went up via an escalator to the second floor of the fish market, where there is a dining hall. But there was only one door, and when we tried to open it, we were shooed away. Not sure what was going on, a woman directed us up to the third floor. We waited for a moment, to no avail, then decided to follow signs for a ‘restaurant.’ But this was no normal restaurant, it was a tiny room with a small kitchen where people working at the fish market could eat. We sat down, and without asking they simply starting serving us food. A pot of angler fish in a red pepper paste, a tofu stew, doenjigae, and a fabulous array of banchan including one of my favorite offerings of the trip, a freshly cooked omelet with pieces of liver. We paid a rather small amount of money – I had no idea how much this was going to cost as there was no menu and no sign. It was only later that I realized there were interior stairs from the ground floor of the fish market to walk up to the dining hall. Oh well. We then walked down the picturesque raw fish street – if we wanted we could have purchased 5,000 Won shoes here from a vendor who piled up his wares on the ground – and onto Gukje Market, another extensive market that went on for many, many blocks. It felt like an entire city. There were some old fashioned shops and some mod stuff as well. That night we decided to go to a small amusement park, ME World, at the opposite end of Gwangalli Beach. The park was dark and the scary rides truly scary – partially because things did not look safe or safely operated. It was a bit too wild for me. Allegedly it is patterned after the successful Cosmo World in Yokohama, but this place was not centrally located and it was poorly attended.

    We walked along Gwangalli Beach, which is wonderful at night. The Diamond Bridge is a causeway that oddly parallels the shoreline connecting two outcroppings of land, and the bridge has color-changing lights at night. There are skyscrapers at one end that have impressive moving light displays. And there are occasional performers playing music. Along the street facing the beach is an array of ‘international bars’ and purveyors of food and drink aimed at international visitors. We wanted to get something to eat, and we spied a traditional Korean inn among all the flashy bar offerings, about a half block off the main drag. Inside, the place was full of Koreans. We got a pot of enormous mandu, each one the size of a large stuffed cabbage. They were unique and delicious, served in a broth heated with a flame and filled with several kinds of mushrooms and sliced vegetables. Later we got some bingsoo (a shaved ice dessert) at a fashionable coffeeshop called A Twosome Place. It was ok, but too Westernized for my taste.

    Here is a link to the restaurant, highly recommended:

    The next day we packed up and took a high speed train to Seoul. It was an easy and brief trip.


    Getting out of the Seoul train station was a bit confusing. We went to an exit that turned out to be a kind of 2nd or 3rd story plaza with no obvious means of descending to street level. We finally found an external escalator and rather than deal with possible stairs to the subway we wound up at a taxicab stand. For some reason, the three of us plus our three suitcases would not fit in a single cab, so I was in one cab while my kids were in another. I had booked a motel near the Jongno-5 subway stop; it was not on a main street but as part of a labyrinth of alleys. Despite the very good map I gave them, the cab drivers seemed to have a problem finding the place. There was a point that I worried I might get separated from the kids, putting our vacation in a kind of permanent reverse. I gave the kids the name and address of the motel just in case. But we finally got there. It was the Ben Hur Motel, and true to form of Korean motels there were plenty of mixed metaphors in the hotel design. Out front, there was a mannequin with an astronaut space suit, Corinthian columns with twinkly lights, and inside more Roy Lichtenstein décor mixed with Roman themes. This was definitely a love motel as there was a box of condoms conveniently placed at the front desk. The room was for three people and had a loft and a small couch upstairs, the downstairs was tight in space but was decked out with lots of amenities with two PCs, and hidden storage with an electric kettle, coffee maker, alarm clock, etc. The bathroom had a glass wall….. which we were able to cover up with towels and bathrobes provided so we could have a respectable amount of privacy. It was a spiffy, new bathroom, and everything about the place was a combination of mod design and utilitarian function.

    Form what I’ve read, a lot of people think of Seoul as just another modern city. But look on Google Maps and you will see, in between the wide boulevards, are huge swaths of alleyways, sometimes as large as 14 x 20 blocks. These comprise entire neighborhoods of residences, shops, and places to eat hidden from the normal tourist view.

    Our first night we went to have BBQ at Majang Alley, the center of meat distribution in Seoul with at least a dozen restaurants clustered near many, many butchers and wholesale vendors. You buy your steaks raw from a counter and grill them yourself over coals with big, flexible venting tubes hovering over the flame. Very little in the way of banchan, this meal is all about the meat.

    The next morning we went down the alley and right across the boulevard to the oldest market of Seoul, the Gwangjang Market, and searched out the bindatteok ladies freshly grinding mung beans for these gooey, large pancakes. At 4,000 won, sharing one was actually enough for a meal for all three of us. We went on to the Gyeongbokgung, the reconstructed palace with extensive grounds, and next door the National Folk Art Museum. Anytime you get a chance to experience folk art in Korea, it’s a good idea. It is unique and remains important to the culture. This is a fantastic place, and outside there is a collection of different village architecture from throughout Korea. After that we exited the West Gate of Gyeongbokgung to go to a North Korean market store/place to eat that featured buckwheat noodles, a specialty of the North. There were about six low tables, and only ondol seating, but it worked our well for us. I was no longer a novice at this! We again had kongguksu. This was a lot thicker, creamier but less tasty than the version we had previously on the trip. They provided a dish of salt on the side to liven it up.

    That night we decided to go to Nanta, the stage show that features juggling, percussion, and dancing all around the comic theme of preparing an elaborate banquet under pressure from a demanding boss. It is highly entertaining, and the talent on display is jaw-dropping. We liked it so much that we decided to go back another night to see The Original Drawing Show, yet another spectacle of physical theatre, this time based on performers creating visual works of art during the show. Although not as spectacular as Nanta, it was unique, curious, and fun. The shows were performed at a theatre center where there was one main stage and about three smaller performance spaces near the Seodaemun subway station. The confusing thing about Nanta is that it is not always performed at the same place or they sometimes have multiple venues going on at the same time with different casts. It is best to verify the address of the theatre for the evening and not to assume form a brochure or a poster or even their website..

    The next day was our ‘fun’ day, going to Lotte World, a hybrid indoor/outdoor theme park right in Seoul. The half that is inside has about four levels, and some interesting thrill rides plus beautiful themeing. It not only has a picturesque ‘balloon’ ride that takes you on a overhead track way up in the air for a panorama of the place (you are so high up that the people below look like toys), but also the entire place looks over a huge, sunken ice skating rink, so from top to bottom is a thrilling perspective. Outside there are bigger thrill rides and a pretty view of the city. After our day was complete, we stopped off at the Daelim subway station to try Daelim Manuel Garlic Chicken. This is a special kind of fried chicken served with a mountain of garlic sauce. When you see the serving you are tempted to think that ‘Korea’ must translate into Land of Garlic. Hard to imagine how many shipments of garlic they must go through every day. The kids were also brave enough to order a pot of larvae (this was probably the only menu on our trip we saw that had some English). On the menu it was listed as ‘chrysalis.’ It came in a bubbling pot with a thin brown spicy liquid. It was very good on its own, but we finally found a use for all that garlic sauce that came with the chicken: we added to the larvae, and it was terrific. The chicken was wonderfully crispy, served on an iron platter, and accompanied by a dry shredded cole slaw with a heavy dollop of thousand island dressing on top. It was a fun, simple meal.

    The next day we decided on a food related outing. Since we are all diehard tofu lovers, we decided to go to an area at the foot of Bukhansan National Park that had four places specializing in making their own tofu. Koreans strongly associate hiking with eating tofu. We took a very long subway ride out to Dobongsan station and walked to a commercial area where there was a dazzling array of hiking/sports stores, all with the latest gear. Tucked among the stores were some places that specialize in tofu. The one we chose had a patio that overlooked some tall trees, right up against a mountain, so we felt very much like we were out in the country. Well, in a way we were. Korea is so mountainous; where the city stops, the mountains begin.

    We ordered an assorted tofu platter (served like bossam, with boiled pork, lettuce leaves, spiced veggies, and raw garlic cloves) and also another round of dubu kimchi. The tofu here is very colorful, some made blue with mugwort, others green or red. The flavor is not really unique, but the rough texture is. We though about going on a hike, but the fourth (and final) storm of our trip was coming in. And when it rains here, it pours! We took the long subway trip back and stopped at Dongdaemun Market where we hit up more shopping and exploring.

    After that night, it was time for us to get everything ready to go home. We caught an early taxi to Inchoen airport. I had received an email offer for a super cheap upgrade, so not only did we fly back to Tokyo business class, but we got to use the lounge at the airport where we ate for free, which helped us pass the time waiting for our flight. We felt like VIPs.

    Practical Lessons Learned:

    If you’re driving, distances are short and easily covered. Even those little back roads. So it is not too much trouble to go out of your way to see or experience something special.

    Depending on the season, rain comes down in sheets, so flexibility in scheduling is good.

    Korean motels are indeed cute, beds are very good (this is important!), and a vastly different experience from staying in motels elsewhere. We loved staying on our alley in Seoul; it got us off the main drag to see a slice of Korean life that we might not appreciate otherwise.

    Thanks for following along. I dream of going back someday!

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    Seems you continued to have some truly remarkable experiences! Your children are fortunate to have such early exposure to other cultures. And Nanta was fun, wasn't it?!? Thanks for your TR and for the tip on the Korean restaurant in Annandale. :-)

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    It didn't all go smoothly, and it didn't always live up to my expectations. So sometimes it's a question of attitude and letting the sense of place dictate to you instead of the other way around.

    As a traveler, I very much enjoyed that I had the 'Best of Both Worlds:' Modern conveniences and a profound traditional culture. There are some things progress is not good for!

    If you go to Mandu Rang Kimbap Erang, then let me know what you think. You can always send me a PM at stevenDOTsiegelATymailDOTcom

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    I can't imagine a trip that is even slightly off the beaten trail that goes entirely smoothly, but as I see it, that's part and parcel of such trips One's sense of humor is a must-take!

    I will, indeed, let you know if / when I go to Mandu Rang Kimbab Erang. As I said, I think I'll wait a while....

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    >>>There was a point that I worried I might get separated from the kids, putting our vacation in a kind of permanent reverse.<<<

    How I love your humour and observations, shelemm! This thread is blessed with truly gifted writers like you and the esteemed kja. Makes for a most enjoyable read this business travel Sunday morning in Seoul (and was scheduled to be in Hong Kong for meetings this week, but for various reasons, that's a reschedule). As I conveyed to kja, your impressions are an inspiration, as my S. Korea business trips to date have largely entailed Seoul hotels and office buildings and the Incheon airport. Also congratulate you on travelling with your children (and not losing them); I was blessed with similar opportunities as youth and certainly one reason my current posting is Singapore.

    Speaking of SIN, always honoured to offer lodging, dining, aviation suggestions concerning our city-state.

    Keep up the brilliant writing; warm Sunday wishes to you and all,

    macintosh (robert)

    ... Singapore Airlines, You're a Great Way to Fly ...

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    Hi Shelemm and Kja,

    Enjoyed reading your posts (and the threads) on your trips to South Korea. You might enjoy reading ours on our travelogue: Audre & Dimitri's Traveling Love Affair. We start with our flight and arrival in Seoul and it continues on our meanderings through the country. At the end of each post, if you want to continue chronologically, go to the end of the post (below the comment box) and click "Older Post" (yes, it's counter-intuitive). The first post is:

    We have a Maryland Korean restaurant question for you. Once in Maryland in 1999 or 2000, we went to a Korean restaurant where a man was making noodles. We think it was off of the Rockville Pike but not yet in Rockville. If Hyattsville is a right hand turn off of Rockville Pike, it was in Hyattsville. We haven't been in the DC area since 1993 so our memories are fuzzy!

    The man at this Korean restaurant would knead the dough by throwing it against a Plexiglas window between him and the customers. It was a blast watching him and hearing the “thump” of dough against the window.

    We thought that we would find noodle makers throwing dough against windows all over Korea. We never saw even one. The closest we came was “the mom” putting her dough through a machine in the tiny restaurant.

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    Hyattsville is nowhere near Rockville Pike. There aren't many choices for Korean food near Rockville Pike, and nothing I've heard about regarding handmade noodles. There are a couple of ethnically Chinese Korean restaurants in Beltsville, MD. Those are the kind of places (noodle shops) that may have had something like that at one point.

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