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krisek Seoul - A travel report by Krys
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Seoul,  Korea, South - flag Korea, South -  S÷ul
14937 readers

krisek's travel reports

Is Seoul keeping up appearances?

  11 votes
Page: 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14
I went to Seoul for a weekend, as stopover on my business round the world trip. I was curious to find out about the South Koreans, their way of life and definitely about what they were doing in their spare time. Weekend was a good choice, I thought.

The Great South Gate
The Great South Gate
Despite many lost wars, which tramped through Korea so frequently (and one still hanging unfinished), Seoul has surprisingly a large number of historical and spectacular monuments, more than Tokyo, I think. There are many palaces and temples, which take a lot of space in the electronic memory of amateur and professional photographers. It is fascinating to see how the historical monuments blend with the glass-and-steel skyscrapers. For example, the city gates are located around the densely populated areas and in the urbanised city, and therefore they become the magical spots. They stand proud amongst the ridiculously busy traffic and 200 meter-high office buildings and remain claiming the several square feet of land where businesses struggle with their budgets to pay for office spaces.

Losing face is one of Korea’s particularities, which travellers ought to understand. The thing is that the Koreans, at virtually any cost, try to avoid embarrassing others or make them feel bad about something. Compromise is the golden rule for all, to make sure no-one loses face by backing off. It is of national highest priority that foreigners have only a good impression of the country. Well, apart from prices being quoted in thousands (there has been no denomination), there is in fact little to complain about Seoul in my opinion, unless I mention traffic too much... no driver would stop before a pedestrian crossing to let people cross, and many drivers jump red lights - so one has to be careful - just in case one thought it was safe to cross the street on green light! But pedestrians are no saints either, I would like to add. Many, usually elderly people, elbow their way through. On occasions, I was tempted to say ‘excuse me, am I in your way, perhaps?” but I never did, bearing in mind the losing face rule.

Favourite spots:
The First Palace
The First Palace
My tour around Seoul started on foot with tracking down the royal palaces. I was staying at the Hilton (I know, not a budget or backpacker option!!), which was conveniently located near the main route leading there. It was surreal to see that there was absolutely no-one visiting the elaborate Gyeonghuigung (Shining Celebration) Palace. It was situated only slightly off the main route. When I visited in the morning, the sun was still shining low, struggling through the occasional if thick cloud, and was giving long shadows in the small park there. The park was empty, and it made me feel rather sheepish stepping into the premises. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to take my shoes off or pay somewhere for the entrance. The palace was built in 1616, and used to be the largest in the country, containing 100 buildings. The Japanese pulled them out during their colonisation of Korea and only the audience hall and a few residential buildings remained. And a lovely gate.

What's really great:
Seoul travelogue picture
I moved on to see the Gyeongbokgung (Shining Happiness) Palace originally built in 1392 by the founder of the Joseon Dynasty (lasting from 1392 to 1910), Emperor Teajo, destroyed by the Japanese in 1592, and rebuilt in 1868. In fact, the restoration job continues to this day on a number of other palaces and buildings in the complex - scheduled for completion in 2009. What had been restored by the time I visited was truly remarkable.

I was lucky to see the change of guards at the main gate, which was quite a spectacle that lasted almost 45 minutes. It involved a parade of soldiers dressed in traditional and bright uniforms carrying traditional weapons and fake moustaches and beards. The ceremony involved striking a massive and very loud drum. It was possible to imagine easily how Koreans were six centuries ago. It was really great.

The entire complex of palaces was extensive and contained a royal village within its walls. Only the royal family and their servants had been allowed there.

Seoul travelogue picture
There were many other palaces, temples and gates in Seoul. I went to see a few only. The second emperor built his own palace, the Changdeokgung (Illustrious Virtue), as he would not live in the first one, since he killed the royal family there to claim his throne. What a concept! The palace was built in 1405, also destroyed in 1592, but quickly rebuilt in 1610 and served as a primary palace until the first palace was rebuilt. This one is considered a fine example of Korean architecture keeping balance between the natural and the built environment. The emperor built a rural traditional house in the gardens as he wanted to experience the life of common people.

On my walking tour, I almost missed the Old Town (Insagong). In fact, I had to turn back from certain point. It was a pleasant part of the city with narrow alleys, petty shops, numerous art galleries, teashops and fairly good restaurants. The main street there was supposed to be pedestrianised but it was not true.

Pagoda at Changdeokgung
Pagoda at Changdeokgung
The place to go out in Seoul was the Itaewon district. It was full of bars, eateries, American soldiers and working girls. Many clubs there had security guards, who wore bullet-proof vests. I didn’t think much of it, but then I remembered that the country was still in the state of war with North Korea. There had never been a peace treaty and the current situation is based on an armistice signed in 1953. Although I wasn’t entirely convinced that I wanted to go out that night - I must have walked 40 km that day - but I was curious. I wanted to try some of the places, which played jazz or blues, like the Just Blues Club. But it couldn’t be found. I did check my map, but it looked like I somehow passed it twice. Instead, I went to Gecko’s, Woodstock and Nelly’s. The places were packed with American soldiers, particularly the Gecko’s, and people visiting them in Korea. A few locals attended as well, but mainly just to meet up and go somewhere else. The clubs were great, though. I had fun.

Traditional house
Traditional house
Bowing was a must in Korea. It was refreshing to see people in the service industry respect the customers. I was sitting at the bar in Gecko’s and a young Korean guy asked me if he could claim one of the stools beside me. He had one beer and at some point spoke to one of the Korean waiters, asking for something, I think. The waiter listened very carefully and gently took a bow before leaving the area of the bar and returning to his duties. I loved that! I thought that bowing was a Japanese thing, but I guess it was also a Korean thing.

Whenever credit card passed to a merchant anywhere in Seoul, it was always returned being held in both hands. Actually, anything handed to anyone was by holding the item in both hands. There were no exceptions from this custom. It was a little intimidating. I felt so rude there, and yet I consider myself a polite person, in general.

Old Town Restaurant
Old Town Restaurant
After spotting one of the few traditional restaurants in one of the side streets of the old town, I made myself comfortable with a local beer in hand. As I chose my dish from a picture and a short description in plain English, the lady owner said it was designed to serve two people. I had to change my choice only to hear that the other dish was also too large for one person. But this time, I insisted it was provided to me anyway. It was a pan of seafood cooked in a really spicy sauce, served sizzling. I was in heaven. I could not finish it completely, but hey, I heard that one should leave something on the plate otherwise it would indicate that one is still hungry.

Other recommendations:
The Market
The Market
Seoul really impressed me. I was expecting a huge metropolis (it is huge, no doubt), modern and impersonal. And I found a lovely place, so diverse that it defied reason. The old met the new almost on every street in the capital. The skyscrapers, the ancient gates, the grand palaces and parks, and the other parks and the people so remarkably well dressed that they must have spent a fortune on their tailors. And the women were so beautiful and feminine, I find it hard to describe. When I thought that the Koreans loved only their work, I knew little about the nation, who do work hard but they also play hard. Oh, yeah - they play hard! And that what made Seoul such a great place.

Published on Tuesday February 26th, 2008

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Sun, Oct 26 2008 - 08:30 AM rating by gloriajames

Good job on the report though it was a weekend trip for u.
Guess u missed out on Nami Island and the shopping districts (though it would appeal to the ladies (";).

Fri, Mar 14 2008 - 01:45 PM rating by alfonsovasco

i will never go to korea, i am too old, burt enjoy reading your report about this far aqway country

Sat, Mar 08 2008 - 12:26 AM rating by bootlegga

I loved Seoul...nice pics!

Fri, Feb 29 2008 - 07:12 PM rating by mistybleu

Excellent pictures and a really interesting report.

Wed, Feb 27 2008 - 11:04 AM rating by rangutan

Few attractions mentioned for a big city but then the people well covered, which I like. [4.6]

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