It was the year 1998 when I first set foot in Korea and I hadn't been back since until this trip in September 2013. Why did I stay away for such a long time? Navigating the country was stressful as language was a barrier and the Koreans we encountered then were impolite, unfriendly and some even fearsome!
I didn't enjoy my virgin trip there. And that's an understatement.
Way-finding was also much easier with tri-lingual signages (Korean, English and Chinese) and most tourist hotspots have English and Mandarin speaking service staff. It always came as a surprise when I asked for directions in English and the person replied me in Mandarin!
KTO Puts the OK in Korea
Furthermore, the Korea Tourism Organisation (KTO) both in Seoul and its Singapore charter have done a superb job in bridging the nation's culture, attractions and cuisines to travellers. Especially if you're going free-and-easy instead of joining a packaged tour, their centres and websites provide great resources (travel guides, maps and exhibits) for research. I used the materials extensively during my solo exploration of Seoul and they were really helpful.
|Free travel guide and map collected from KTO Singapore office at Korea Plaza, Samsung Hub, #01-02, 3 Church Street, Singapore 049483. Tel : +65 6533 0441.|
Saving Mum's Hair with Evergreen Mobile EG SIM Card
Whenever I travel, there will be one person back home who's constantly losing hair... my mother. So to save her mane, I've taken to posting photos while on the road to my Facebook (she's on my FB list, how cool is she?!) as a way of telling her yes, I'm watching where I stand while taking photos, and no, I didn't follow the stranger who offered me candy.
Instead of waiting to post photos only when I'm back in a hotel with free Wifi, I've taken a shine to upload every moment as it happens. Prepaid mobile plans are usually available at the airport for purchase but in Korea, none is available at Incheon. You have to pre-order online and then collect it at a designated store at the airport.
We went with a 1GB data prepaid SIM card with Evergreen Mobile. Search and purchase a EG SIM card at www.egsimcard.co.kr.
Plan Less, Play More with K-Shuttle
To further remove the pain of planning a trip to see the most of South Korea, I joined a K-Shuttle tour bus to sightsee various UNESCO heritage sites and harder to get to attractions along the Eastern collar from Busan to Seoul.
|Boarded the K-Shuttle tour bus at a Busan carpark near The Westin Chosun Hotel.|
|K-Shuttle has English-speaking tour guides so no worries about the problem of a chicken talking to a duck.|
|Taking a back seat and enjoying the ride.|
I would recommend taking the packages so you don't have to worry about finding accommodation. Plus it is definitely much cheaper than making your own arrangements and paying separate entrance fees to the attractions.
From this point on, I'll go through briefly about the stops and attractions we visited. More detailed information will be posted in upcoming posts. Let's K-Shuttle and go...
To start our K-Shuttle tour from Busan, we flew 6 hours from Singapore to Seoul's Incheon Airport, transferred to Gimpo Airport (30 minutes) and took another hour's flight to Busan Gimhae Airport. A less arduous way would be to find an airline that flies direct to Gimhae Airport.
I would imagine that most tourists who boarded K-Shuttle from Seoul would hop off and spend a few days in Busan and Jeju island before rejoining the route.
I've never been to Busan and my first impression of this second key city in South Korea was that it is Atlantis reincarnated!
|Busan is a city of beaches with strapping developments and skyscrapers lined up right next to the sandy shores. Behind me is the seemingly endless stretch of Haeundae Beach.|
|Busan is the gateway to Jeju island which is famous for some really funky museums. Didn't get to check out the island this time round. Hopefully it won't be another 15 years before I get to visit!|
The ride from Busan to Gyeongju took about 2 hours and we stayed at Hotel Concorde. The next day, we embarked on an exploration of some of Korea's top cultural treasures...
|Rainbow lanterns liven up the mountain where Seokguram Grotto is located. The designated UNESCO world cultural heritage site is home to a quaint temple partially carved into a hill.|
|Another UNESCO world cultural heritage site we visited at Gyeongju was the stunning Bulguksa Temple.|
After an eyeload of historical sights at Gyeongju and Andong, we arrived in Wonju to spend the night at Hotel Inter-Burgo. To be developed into a bio-city, Wonju is envisioned as an urban estate that coexists with nature.
|Love how atmospheric these few trees left standing at a vacant plot next to our hotel look. Feels like winter in autumn.|
A not too long ride from Wonju brought us to Pyeongchang where the 2018 Winter Olympics will be held. We visited the ski village that will play host to the athletes and this...
|... Alpensia Stadium where the winter ski events will take breaths away. My legs got wobbly just by staring down the slope!|
Following an encounter with acrophobia at Alpensia Stadium and a quick browse of the ski village, our K-Shuttle wheels rolled into Gangneung where we visited the former home of the late Shin Saimdang (a notable artist with multiple talents in Korea) and the picturesque Seongyojang, a classic upper-class residence of the late Joseon dynasty (1392 - 1897).
|Photos : (Left) The image of lady Shin Saimdang is on the Korean W50,000 note. (Right) A passage through time at Gangneung Seongyojang.|
Our final sightseeing stop before heading to Seoul was Sokcho, where the majestic Seoraksan rises with peaks and cliffs shrouded in fog and mist flowing like a milky river. It's surreal.
|It's not that cold up on Seoraksan at this time of the year but since I brought my puffy jacket, die die must take a photo in it. LOL. But come during the winter months and you'll need more heavy-duty jackets than this.|
An almost 5 hours ride from Seoraksan with a rest stop in-between brought us to our final stop... Seoul! We dropped off at Exit 6 of Gwanghwamun subway station. It was almost 9pm by the time we arrived which goes to show that K-Shuttle really packed our itinerary to the max.
I travelled with 3 other buddies on the K-Shuttle route and 2 days in Seoul but after that, I've extended my stay for another 3 days on my own. I wanted to see if Seoul has changed from what I remembered it to be 15 years ago.
Yes, it has. And I had an awesome time on this second visit!
|Our accommodation was booked through Hana Tour, a stock exchange listed travel and tour agency with its roots in South Korea. The agency has a Singapore presence to help travellers to South Korea get the best deals. We stayed at CenterMark Hotel, a 4-star accommodation next to the art and antiques enclave known as Insadong.|
|One thing I never understood about Korea is its militant division into North and South. Why the in-fighting? A trip to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) finally shed some light and made me appreciate the value of democracy even more. Our very knowledgeable guide from Grace Travel, with whom our half-day DMZ excursion was booked, had a apathetic tone of compassion while explaining how her country came to be divided.|
|The strict attire and behavioural code to be observed when visiting DMZ up my curiousity ante when coming on this tour. The soldiers here really mean business!|
|From the modern military struggles of Korea, I forayed into the grandeur of its imperial past. Visited the highly decorated Changdeokgung Palace and got a glimpse of its Secret Garden enjoyed by the bygone royalties.|
|For my solo stay, I moved to a guesthouse near Myeong-dong and at the foot of Namsan where the Seoul Tower watched over the city. Oh, and I tried sannakji (octopus sashimi where the tentacles are still wiggling)!|
|Picked out a huge Alaskan crab, tiger prawns and a fish available only during autumn for lunch followed by working off the gluttony with Gangnam Style on you guessed it... Gangnam Street!|
Where I used to think that it's rocket science to go on a free and easy tour of South Korea in the past, I'm of the opinion that travelling independently with a self-customised itinerary is much easier now. Getting somewhere in Korea is definitely much easier today with efforts by the tourism board to demystify the Korean language and various tour operators.
The question is not so much how to get there, but where do you want to go? Do you want to see the heritage sites or 'serious' side of Korea? Or do you fancy the delirious artistic, delicious nomnoms or better yet, a mix of everything?!
|With Eunice and Lesley inspiring the next dance craze from Korea... the K-Shuttle Style! LOL.|
Despite the hectic travelling and being constantly on the road, I thoroughly enjoyed myself on this trip.
And that's an understatement.
This post has been made possible by Korea Tourism Organisation Singapore, K-Shuttle, EG SIM Card, Hana Tour, and Grace Travel.
Sole companion : Timberland.