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South Korea

WARNING: This is a picture-heavy post.
PART ONE is HERE.

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Arriving late at night and getting hassled by South Korean immigration wasn’t a good start for my semestral break vacation.

Soon after arriving at the hostel, we slept away our stress into the morning.

This is KC all bundled up. It was 11 degrees outside.

Waking up extra early, we were pumped for the day ahead. Chungjeongno Station was only a few steps away (literally) from our hostel, so that was convenient.

Before getting anywhere, first on the agenda was figuring out Seoul’s subway system.

We purchased some T-money cards (Seoul City Pass) at this high-tech vending machine.

Seriously, Japan and South Korea are well ahead of the west when it comes to technology.

On a side note: Yay for stored-money cards! We don’t have to get our hands dirty when fishing for loose change!

The Seoul CityPass even came with some discount coupons (though we never got to use them).

Wonder when the Philippines will keep up with the rest of Asia?

At most subway stations in central Seoul, virtual tourist guides are omnipresent, such as this.

Awesome.

I remember having machines like this in Singapore and Hong Kong as well.

I therefore conclude that MISSHA is the 7/11 of Seoul subway stations.

I think I saw more MISSHA cosmetics stores than actual 7/11s. Hmmm… Only in South Korea! 😀

Oh, and don’t forget the ubiquitous lingerie shops too!

They’re everywhere! And they’re so…….. PINK. Hurts my eyes. (@_@)

Miss Hydrocephalic Head says “안녕하세요!” (Anyong haseyo!)

After about 10 minutes of eventful walking through the station, we finally arrived at the trains.

We didn’t have to wait long.

Although most of Seoul’s subways are old (built in the 70s and 80s), the trains are fast, efficient and on time.

No hassle.

Our first stop: Itaewon.

It’s supposedly the main district of most expatriates, and although we’re far from being expatriates, I figured it would have many English signboards (duh), thereby making the place easy to locate food joints, which in my mind is as good of an orientation to Seoul as it gets.

Crappy justification, I know.

Most of the time, I’m a thrill-seeking foodie in search of exotic (and cheap!) holes-in-the-wall. They make for the most interesting meals.

But I wasn’t feeling too adventurous then, as evidenced by my rumbling tummy. I just wanted to EAT.

With starving stomachs, we finally decided on……. Taco Bell.

LOL. Yeah, I can hear the howls of laughter right about now. 😛

I am sorry for this uber FAIL first Seoul foodie post, but you have to understand, we were hungry and I just wanted to stuff myself silly with comfort food.

Besides, I haven’t had Taco Bell in a while (reasons, reasons…).

My raging appetite was tempted to order the El Grande Burrito Salad, but deferred to the Lite Beef Soft Taco, Taco Supreme and Chicken & Cheese Quesadilla.

Not exactly the best meal ever, but it was soooo darn good on an empty stomach. Yummo!!

They had the nicest staff too!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Koreans look so cute without even trying.

I’m not a fan of most abstract artworks (I find them to be a last resort for people who can’t draw shit), but these were awesome. Light-hearted and fun. My kind of abstracticism. 

These look like something my graphic artist friend, Megg, would do.

After our Taco Bell smorgasbord, we meandered through Itaewon’s cute hilly alleyways and found THIS charming bakery, which (as we found out) is apparently a tete-a-tete joint for foreigners, yuppies and old Korean women catching up on their gossip.

Fascinating.

I love Tartine’s logo.

The 1940s woman is a fitting emblem.

The place is too lovely for words, ‘no?

The bread station.

The dessert selection left me in a tizzy. So many to choose from.

But my eyes were set on the Rhubart Tart.

It was, for lack of better words, absolutely delish! And I’m not just saying that for the sake of patronizing description. See, I have a thing for random spikes of sourness in my food, and this tart had just the right amount of sweet and sour to keep me digging in for more.

KC didn’t enjoy it much as her definition of dessert is sugar overload. All the better I suppose because I devoured the entire thing myself. *burp*

We walked off the Taco Bell + Rhubard Tart calorie-overload around the rest of Itaewon and chanced upon a souvenir shop called “Rainbow Souvenirs.”

Surprisingly, the “rainbow” actually did mean something significant. The two female owners of the shop were a couple! And they were already in their forties! Awww… I think my heart swelled a little bit just by looking at them.

Homosexuality isn’t generally accepted nor is it a common topic for small talk in South Korea. So it was nice seeing two people going at it (so to speak), despite all odds. I was inspired. Go support Rainbow Souvenirs now! 🙂

We walked to the far end of Itaewon and spotted this hot American(?) army chick in camouflage.

Helloooooo… 🙂

We thought seeing this chick was so awesome. But we soon discovered that military personnel in Itaewon are a-dime-a-dozen.

For what reason, I’m not sure, but I figure it has something to do with the DMZ (Demilitarized Zone).

On another note, I wish I’d taken the DMZ tour (but my companions chickened out), so I’ll have to do that another time. More reason to go back to Seoul!

Funny how they’re standing right in front of a Skin Food beauty shop. LOL.

After a few more minutes of walking (best exercise ever!), KC announced that she wanted to do some shopping (which was the most surprising thing I’ve heard all day considering how decidedly unfashionable she/we are).

But with nothing better to do, I conceded.

We hopped on a train and took the MTR to Dongdaemun.

The Dondaemun area is home to South Korea’s largest wholesale and retail fashion malls. And when I say largest, I mean LARGEST. There were no less than 15 mega-buildings in that area alone, all housing shopping complexes with clothes ranging from bargain buys to high-street.

This is the ancient “Gate to Dongdaemun.” Pretty cool.

I literally got cross-eyed just deciding on which building to go into.

That being said, I highly suggest you skip Dongdaemun if you’re not a die-hard fashionista or retailer of Korean-style clothes. This place will wear you out! Save yourselves the hassle.

After about an hour of browsing through racks and racks of merchandise, we started wondering where THE GROCERY was.

We just had lunch of course, but being our usual foodie selves, we were always on the lookout for more chow.

We saw a couple of pojangmachas (small tented restaurants) around the area for hungry shoppers, but there was no sight of any grocery store.

Here’s lola and her pojangmacha.

All plates were wrapped in plastic and overgloves were used at all times. How hygienic. Reminds me of infection control protocols in dental school. Hmmm…

We came and went into about 3 more buildings before realizing that aside from 7/11s, large grocery stores were NON-EXISTENT in Dongdaemun. Say whaaaaat??

Yeah. Apparently the Koreans like to shop for clothes without having to be tempted by fattening shopping sprees at the grocery. HOW SAD.

Well, thank god for random food stalls that made us feel better.

Soon after having our fill of these goodies on sticks, we left Dongdaemun and headed for Seoul Station, where the largest LOTTE Mart (grocery store) in Seoul is (as suggested by a volunteer tourist information guide).

For what it sounded like, we were expecting a pretty big smorgasbord of perishable grocery goods. But we soon found out that South Koreans DO NOT like to eat NOR do they like grocery shopping.

The Seoul Station LOTTE Mart was big, yes, but about 1/3 of its floor space was consumed by cosmetic products (Face Shop, Skin Food, Aritaum, IOPE, Laneige, et al).  Only in Seoul.

KC, who is a chocoholic (understatement), was beyond disappointed at the sheer lack of chocolate and candy selections which didn’t even occupy half of one aisle!

We’ve never seen so little foodstuff in such a big grocery store. Insane.

Personally, I was both amused, and exasperated.

We figured, there’s no use fighting the system. South Koreans are vain, so we might as well hoard all the cheap skin care and cosmetics we can get. Ride the wave, as they say.

By some lucky twist of fate however, KC discovered the BEST moisturizer for her overly-sensitive skin: Laneige.

Now weren’t we just glad South Koreans are SO. DARN. VAIN?!

Later that night, we had our first proper Korean meal at a popular restaurant in Seoul’s University area of Hongdae, which is absolutely picture-perfect at night.

Unfortunately, I can’t remember the restaurant’s name because there was no English translation. Sorry.

The place was pretty spartan, but served amazing food. No wonder a lot of people were flocking to it.

Here’s me and my sad, hungry tanga face. (No food on table yet.)

Now this is ME and my happy face (see: glorious food on the table). *drool*

Now, KC and her happy face (…and that big SLAB of meat). Oh daaang.

Enough food to feed a small army.

Enough food to feed our two stomachs.

We are gourmands. Here us RAWRRR.

BEST rice bowl meal everrrr!

The crispy nori strips made all the difference. I still have dreams about it.

With stuffed bellies, we hightailed it back to our hostel for a good night’s sleep.

By the end of the day, we were already making plans of going back. *fingers crossed for promo fare*

Needless to say, Seoul ‘had us at hello.’ 🙂

NEXT UP: Insa-dong, Myeong-dong and more of Hongdae!

 

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Seoul, South Korea 10/'11

Unlike most people, I don’t own a TV set — not anymore. I haven’t watched TV in over 4 years, so I became oblivious to the Korean novela wave of ’06-’09. Everyone at dental school was talking about characters that I, apparently, have never even heard of. “Boys Over Flowers” became so predominant at conversations that I just stopped eavesdropping altogether because I couldn’t understand an iota of what they were talking about. That was in 2008.

[photo via cikangkuh.blogspot.com]

Fast forward to 3 years later, my then-Koreanovela-crazy-classmates spotted a promo fare on Cebu Pacific Air for Cebu to Incheon (Seoul). The price? A grand total of PHP3,300 r/t incl. taxes. Since I’m known for being a travel-crazy nut, they naturally invited me. And since the price was too good to pass up, I decided to join in — not knowing what to expect.

Normally, I plan my excursions around places I reaaally want to go to. But when you’re strapped for cash, you can only go so far. As much as it breaks my heart that I can’t travel the entire world just yet, I have learned to prioritize. In this case however, I haven’t even given Seoul (or South Korea for that matter) any prior thought. So much for priorities. We bought the CEB-ICN tickets in February of 2011, for travel in late October 2011.

During that 7-month interval, my travel buddy KC and I combed through Bangkok, Hong Kong, Macau, Beijing, Melbourne and Sydney (in that order). By the end of the combined 2-month excursions, we were exhausted. Jaded, with emptied wallets and maxed out credit cards. We were BROKE and we vowed to go on a year-long travel sabbatical, disregarding the Incheon tickets as well and foregoing the PHP3,300 fare we paid for (much to our resentment). But life has a way of spicing things up when you least expect it.

A month before the departure date for Incheon, the number of people still willing to go to Seoul (out of 9), whittled down to just 3: Rosana, Carlo and Isabel. Sang, in particular, did a lot of convincing to make us change our minds. To cut the story short, I am an invertebrate with a weak backbone. I relented. Two weeks before departure, there were 6 of us willing to give it a go. However, it took another week to get us off our asses for VISA processing. That left us with just ONE week to file AND get our VISAs. Stupid move.

In the end, only 3 people were given VISAs, which unfortunately, did not include the Korean novela fans who planned the trip to begin with. On this note, I shall soon write about the process of applying for a South Korean VISA. Hopefully, no one will have to make the same mistakes we did.

October 25 came and we were off to Incheon via Cebu. Cramped in a relatively small plane (A320) for over 4 hours can feel suffocating. We forgot to book premium seats in advance, so we were left to chance. Luckily, the check-in counter agent at Mactan International Airport gave us 3rd row seats, which was a god-send. I cannot stress this enough: Book a premium seat when traveling international on Cebu Pacific! The additional PHP100-200 fee is so worth it. As usual, complimentary meals were not served on board. Instant noodles, chips, drinks and other snacks were available for sale. All things taken into account, it was a smooth (and cheap!) ride.

We landed at Incheon International Airport at 9:30 p.m. so were right on schedule. But one praning immigration officer (who I think, was a newbie) threw a curveball my way. Let it be known that I have an ugly, oversaturated passport photo that looks fake. Not my fault. Apparently, a whole batch of early 2010 passport photos look as horrid. Anyway, I’m not sure what that damn woman thought wrong of my passport, but she took me to the immigration room for further assessment. One senior officer did the rounds of background checking and that-thing-they-do-with-a-microscope-like-apparatus. After 15 minutes and 8 yawns later (I was sleepy), they finally released me.

We stepped out of the airport to a welcoming gush of cool autumn breeze. Ahhh… I love the smell of winter coming. Bought tickets for the Airport Limousine Bus (KRW10,000 one-way) at a freestanding stall outside the terminal. Then we waited for Bus No. 6015 to take us to Bangrang Hostel, near Chungjeongno Station. The bus ride went smoothly and took about an hour. The driver, in particular was gracious and soft-spoken, like most South Koreans (as we were about to discover). We felt we were in safe hands.

(Because I’m a lousy blogger, I didn’t take pictures. This photo is from someone else’s blog.)

[photo via skippingclouds.blogspot.com]

We passed by the CBD and the first thing that came to mind was: Sydney! Some parts of Seoul looked exactly like Sydney, Australia — with its multi-level roads and mix of old and new buildings — save for the indecipherable signages in Hangul. Even if it was nearing midnight, some yuppies were still milling about the corporate buildings. Interesting. Oh, and they had really nice outfits. Haha.

(Having problems with my SD card, so I am unable to upload some of my own photos at the moment. I shall replace this as soon as I get my SD situation in order.)

[photo via cityviews.net]

At half-past 11p.m., we finally arrived at Bangrang Hostel. Kim, our host, patiently waited for us at the reception area despite an hour delay.

Sidenote: Koreans look so cute and amiable without even trying. See? (No, I’m not turning straight.)

Check-in went without a hitch, then Kim showed us around the front part of the hostel where all the amenities were, including: the common area, computers, kitchen, and TV room.

We then had to go around a hilly block to the adjacent building at the back, to where the guest rooms were located on three floors. This is exactly how our room looked like, although I have yet to upload my own photo of it. Bear with me.

Note: This was our room for the first two days only since we had to change rooms 3 times in 6 days. That’s what we got for not booking early enough. Hah.

[photo via lonelyplanet.com]

KC and I collapsed on the two lower bunk beds (our other roomies had not yet arrived), and called it a night. We were expecting another friend, Momsy, the same time next day. KC, in particular was more giddy than usual and went to bed early (which usually never happens).

The magic of Seoul has begun.

NEXT UP: Doing the rounds at Itaewon, Dongdaemun and Hongdae = HERE.

 

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