Prior to visiting Korea for myself, I had the following impression on the country, its people and their culture: 1) They have a lot of English schools in the Philippines. I used to work in one as a teacher and our house in Tagaytay is walking distance from a couple of home schools as well. 2) They eat a lot of Kimchi, a smell I started to heavily dislike when I started said ESL teaching gig. 3) They produced Boys Over Flowers (the Gu Jun Pyo and Jan Di version). 4) They have Dara Park of 2NE1 and that I find myself watching Korean KPOP channels to catch 2NE1 TV every now and then (She never really fit in as Sandara here and she deserves to be the success that she’s now). 5) The Philippines has so many Korean tourists that some restaurants have Korean-language menus and some signs are actually written in Korean.
However, after this trip, I found myself falling in love with a lot of things about Korea, quickly dismissing myself about the misconceptions I had about it.
Cool autumn weather and hot, make-your-nose-run soups, stews and grilled anything? I’m down with that. I can’t eat Korean food everyday but when I am in the mood for Korean, I can eat a LOT of it and properly so – it’s mostly vegetables anyway. Get your kimchi on, I say.
As in all countries, the BEST food always comes from some random family-run restaurant at the end of an alley.
THE PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION SYSTEM
If you’ve read my Track Throwdown post then you’ll know how incredibly biased I am towards favoring the Seoul subway system. You can easily find your way around and in the subway stations. The bus system is also very efficient, transparent and convenient. Everything is clean, upgraded and working.
[Both the bus and train systems were very efficient, clean and on time!]
THE TOURIST SPOTS
From the classic Gyeongbokgung Palace grounds to the modern Cheonggyecheon stream, there is a lot of things to do in Seoul. In fact, for our planned itinerary we had several back up trips that we could take if we didn’t feel like it. We could’ve gone to the Namsan Tower or visited one of the traditional villages in one of the many parks in Seoul.
Shopping is also a big thing in Seoul and both open air markets and posh malls and shopping areas are big in Seoul. You can even book yourself shopping tours where you’ll do nothing but, you guessed it – shopping.
[The wonderful Seoul Cultural Exchanges & Tourism Information Center at the 5th floor of the M Plaza in Myeongdong.]
THE SPECIFICALLY KID-FRIENDLY TOURIST SPOTS
We initially went to Seoul to make a whole theme-park round up. They just have a lot of options just for kids. They have the world’s largest indoor theme park, Lotte World. They have a wonderfully themed Everland just outside of Seoul. We went to the Children’s Grand Park, which also houses the Seoul’s Children’s Museum which is one of my favorites. We could’ve easily spent an entire day in that museum alone.
Then there are the other parks such as Seoul Grand Park (different from the Children’s Grand Park), Dreamland and Seouland. They’re all quite interesting to go to since they are distinctly Korean and doesn’t have that international feel like Disney or Universal Studios parks.
THE CARTOON CHARACTERS
There’s Pocoyo, Dibo the Dragon and Tayo the Little Bus but definitely the most known cartoon exports from Korea are Pucca and Pororo the Little Penguin.
There’s Pororo anything and everything and we like it like that. It’s so cute – even when we were. We even walked away from Seoul with a giant Crong doll and Pororo lunch kit (minus the kimchi).
THEIR GRASP OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE
There was an older gentleman who helped us navigate through the Seoul subway system and he has amazing English. The guy who manned the cellphone accessories shop across from our condo actually spent two years in Tagaytay learning English. Every other guy and girl who came up to us in the subway and bus station just to chat all had, at the very least, conversational English. A far cry from the practically-zero English that most Japanese people have (not that’s a bad thing, it’s just a culture thing) and with regards to us English-speaking, this was a major point.
Ticket kiosks, public transport systems, maps, and any electronic machine was conveniently accessible due to the marvelously translated English menus
THE MAKE UP
Allow my narcissism to bake in this section. Face Shop, Etude House, Skin Food and Innisfree are just some of the top cosmetic brands that have made their way to Philippine shores. During our time in Myeongdong, I had the opportunity to go through all the wonderfully decked out stores filled to the brim with lippies.
My personal runaway favorite has to be Etude House. I’m not one to be all cutesy kawaii and peace-signs all over kind of girl but the makeup that they have are so perfect for everyday use. You can now find me raiding the Etude House stall in Mall of Asia on a semi-regular basis.
Made a killing in Etude House
THE OPEN AIR MARKETS
The most famous has got to be Nandaemun market but there are also a lot of other markets out there. If you want a large spectrum of food choices, Gwangjang Market is your bet. Dongdaemun is a women’s fashion haven (since Korean women aren’t familiar with plus sizes, I stayed away from here). There are also weekend antique markets or weekly hand-made/Etsy-ish markets happening all over the city.
Find what you want to shop for and head there. We were predictably headed for Nandaemun because they have our number one shopping find: souvenirs.
Nandaemun Market’s goodies
With experience of Korean tourists visiting the Philipines, I always thought of Koreans to be more of the snobby type. Even our neighbors in Tagaytay aren’t the friendliest bunch. However, I went through a totally different experience when I was Seoul. It was actually the people that helped us locate our condo or help us through a Korean only menu. They were the ones coming up to me and giving me compliments on how cute Tonie is. Though most of them spend their times looking at the phones, if you do make contact with them, they are very welcoming and often flash very accommodating smiles.
To this day, we still watch it on Youtube. To this day, Tonie requests to hear it on repeat as we drive to school. To this day, she still does the dance – in private nga lang. To this day, we are still under the whole Gangnam Style spell. I truly believe that being in Seoul helped with that prolonged lifespan of the trend in our house.
Seeing the face of Psy – cartoon or real-person version – was as common as a subway station. It’s probably died down by now but not eradicated entirely – so if you go now, there’s still hope to see a Psy mask somewhere. We sort of regret not bringing one home.
We are so hung up on Korea that we are thinking about going back for a nice frosty winter holiday. Thanks to the subway system, this was also one of our cheapest trips (minus the shopping) of all – adding to our pool of reasons why Seoul is so damn awesome.
Christmas ski package anyone?