Just recently we had the opportunity to visit South Korea and indulge in a host of activities that were to help us understand Korean culture. As I have just got my new Panasonic Lumix GX7 I was extremely excited about taking photos on a real camera again instead of my iPhone, great as it is though, I just wanted to go back to the old skool way and Korea was going to provide me with the perfect opportunity to do so with all of its promised vibrancy and offerings.
We flew via Korean Airlines, which immediately gave us a taster of what we were about to experience. Koreans are gentle and polite, bowing is a sign of respect and there are different levels of hierarchy. How high or low the bow is shows just how important you are – the lower the bow the higher the importance of the person.
Arriving into the city of Seoul we notice a vibe not dissimilar to any other big city such as London and NYC or alike. Seoul is super busy, hectic and cosmopolitan! There’s also an odd juxtapose of skyscrapers surrounded by so much greenery/mountains that makes it look like an urban safari jungle.
The Grand Hyatt where we were staying is grand, opulent and impressively decadent! As we hit the streets of Seoul we notice there’s an eclectic mix of people, everyone from grunge to cutesy to smart to suited business types. South Korea seems to have a lot of money; designer shops adorn the main strips of Seoul. The main streets also host several street food markets and other knick knacks, K-Pop blares out onto the streets from the shops.
We took in key city sights including the Cheonggyecheon stream, and the Sungyemun gate in the city’s fortress wall as well as taking a gentle stroll around the Myeongdong district. We ate at one of many popular joints that only serve fried chicken and beer. The chicken is good and there are a few varieties on offer; a classic fried chicken option, one smothered in sauce and chicken wings with a soya bean coating – all three options are delicious. Hunger satisfied, we took in a few more sights and notice just how much the Koreans like animations, even the police station has cartoon like statues outside.
Fortunately, we chose to give the infamous karaoke bars that like Starbucks, appear at every corner, a miss. We were told that karaoke in Korea is quite different from what us westerners are used to. For one, Koreans partake in karaoke to sober up after a night out, unlike us Brits. Hmm not sure that would work for us – we need some Dutch courage before belting out tunes! Instead we head back to our hotel for a nightcap at the grand lobby bar.
Second day in and we have an early start to Namyang, where Kia’s R&D centre is. We were given a tour of their design centre and see exhibits from their annual Idea’s festival including a sneak peek of the future of gadgets including a little egg gadget that you lay on top of whilst it moves around (super cute). We also drove around different track testing surfaces, which we learn all new cars need to go through so that they can be tested for driving in all conditions.
Next stop we get the high-speed bullet train to Gyeongju (Korea’s old capital city). After some local sight-seeing which included a tour of Anapji in Gyeongju’s national park and a visit to the Cheonmachong tomb, we check in to Ragung Hotel that is traditionally Korean but with a few tweaks for westerners including the inclusion of beds for which we are extremely grateful (Koreans like to sleep on the floor apparently). There’s also a plunge pool in our rooms, which after a fusion Korean meal becomes our communal get together to continue our drinks. Keeping with Korean tradition we sip soju (Korean Saki) and beers until the early hours, adding in our British twist.
The following morning we check out of our hotel and experience Korean spirituality as we move to Bulguska to see the head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism, before moving on to Sukgulam for a tour of the rock cave shine. Here the heavens open and we also encounter our first bout of torrential rain soaking us to the core as we head back wet and cold on our bullet train to Seoul. I always considered the majority of Koreans to be Buddhists so was surprised to learn from our tour guide that 10% of Koreans are Catholic, 22% are Christian and only 23% are Buddhist, the rest are non-religious. There are supposedly 317 national treasures in South Korea and I believe we hit about seven of these in the temple including two Buddha’s.
Back in Seoul we have a meat feast Korean BBQ by the pool at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. We followed the meal with cocktails in the lobby bar which like MacDonald’s happy meals, offered toys with cocktails instead of food. Only in Korea, but still a massive highlight as we walk away happy to bed having acquired Zebra’s and Ponies to keep us company that night.
For the penultimate day we braved the roads of Korea and took a road trip in our brand spanking new model of Kia Soul (ours is super cool mustard coloured one), we’re also one of the first to test drive this model known as the Mixx. Kia Soul comes ‘Ready to Roll’ with a DAB radio for cruising to some city vibes or USB and AUX ports for blasting out our own music. We opt for some Fleetwood Mac and start our in-car karaoke sessions as we headed over to Imjingak, which was about an hour and a half out of Seoul. We park the cars at Imjingak which is a park located on the banks of the Imjin River in the city of Paju, South Korea. The Park has many monuments and statues regarding the Korean War, also colourful ribbons which have prayers written on them – hope for unification.
After a short break we headed over to the DMZ (demilitarised zone) for a unique tour. The DMZ is a pretty surreal place which acts as a buffer zone between South and North Korea to prevent military collision. We took a tour of the third tunnel and Dorasan Station, which if one day a peace agreement is reached will connect the North with the South. We then moved over to Aegibong Peak Observatory for a bird’s eye view of North Korea. We also learnt here that at 170m high, North Korea has the largest hanging flag in the world.
We return to Imjingak to pick up our Kia and drive back to our hotel before indulging in our final meal at a traditional Korean restaurant of bulgogi beef at Samwon Garden in Seoul. The beef here was unbelievably tasty, I must have consumed my body weight in its meaty goodness. The beef is cooked in front of you and then you are to make little wraps with lettuce leaf and eat as much as you like. The meal ends traditionally with a bowl of rice and a spicy soup. Shots of Soju are offered freely and we are only too happy to oblige. After dinner we drink at the LP bar, which is a cute underground/speakeasy style bar that takes your vinyl requests and would perhaps seem more at home in Brooklyn or Soho, but it certainly proved to be our home away from home as we partied the night away until the early hours sipping whisky and champagne to classics such as Son of a Preacher Man or Madonna’s Papa don’t Preach and Californian Dreamin’ amongst many, many others.
We definitely felt more cultured and informed about Korea than we could have imagined on our short trip and quickly learnt that there is far more to Korea than gangnam style, kimchee and Kia’s! Definitely worth a visit if only to sample the delicious beef…
All the photo’s featured in this article were taken on our favourite new device Panasonic Lumix GX7
We drove the new Kia Soul on our road trip
For more information on Korea including tours, go to Visit Korea