My wife and I recently spent eight days in Seoul, Korea over the New Year period. Here is perhaps an 'alternative' and quirky overview of all that we experienced in the city and what went in to making it one of our best trips ever.
Brass monkey weather
I'd kept tabs on the weather for several weeks leading up to the trip and we knew it was going to be cold. Very cold indeed. The lowest temperature while we were there was minus 10 - and there were very few days when the temperature rose above one or two degrees. But surprisingly the sub-zero temperatures weren't as painful as I expected given that we had just flown in from a hot, sweaty Bangkok.
Sure you needed your thick sweater, a heavy jacket, a pair of gloves and a scarf (a hat wasn't a bad idea either unless you look as ridiculous in a hat as I do) but once you're all decked out in your winter woolens, the cold really doesn't prevent you from enjoying the city.
It was always nice to seek refuge in a warm shopping mall or coffee shop though, however this always presented its own problem. Many shops and restaurants have the heating turned up so high that within minutes you are dying of suffocation. It became quite a skill to walk around, juggle bags of shopping and peel off layers of clothing at the same time.
My wife told me that many Thais who visit Korea will choose to go in the Autumn months of September and October when not only is the weather milder, but they can enjoy the natural beauty of the leaves changing colour, etc. You certainly wouldn't need as many layers on!
This was the first time we had booked accommodation anywhere in the world using the Air B'n'B website. For those not familiar with it, Air B'n'B allows house and apartment owners to rent out either their whole property or perhaps just a room in the building. It's a win-win situation. The traveller gets accommodation at a cheaper price than they would booking a hotel or guest house - and the homeowner earns extra income from letting out space.
We found a small but modern apartment to rent right in the heart of Seoul's main shopping district for less than 80 euros (3,100 baht) a night. The apartment was owned by a young Korean woman with clearly an entrepreneurial streak. She owned several properties in the same apartment building - and was renting them all out on Air B'n'B. Now that's the way to do it! You can take a look at the flat here and read the review that I posted on the website.
We got off to a disastrous start. When we found the apartment, feeling tired, hungry, cold and disoriented from being in a very strange city, the combination to the doorlock didn't work. After several frustrating minutes of tapping in the code and trying endless variations, we realised we were stuck in the corridor with no bed for the night. I seriously contemplated just bursting into tears.
Although we had Alice's contact details (the lady who owned the flat) we had had no time to organise a Korean sim card nor did we have a wi-fi connection. Our smartphones were useless unless we could backtrack and perhaps find a coffee shop with wi-fi. But neither of us relished going back out into the cold in search of a Starbucks and dragging two big suitcases along with us.
And then along came a knight in shining armour! A Korean gentleman emerged from the flat opposite to put a bag of garbage outside in the corridor. We begged him to help us.
And with a combination of his appalling English and our non-existent Korean, our saviour got on his phone and contacted Alice. Within minutes an elderly Korean lady (the cleaning lady I believe) arrived on the scene and let us into the flat. Apparently the previous guests had changed the combination to the door-lock when they had no authority whatsoever to do so. My god aren't there some idiots about?
To say thank you for helping us out of our predicament, I gave the Korean neighbour a big man-hug, which he seemed to enjoy immensely.
From that moment on, everything about the apartment was perfect. The modern bathroom, the piping hot shower, our own kitchen area, the comfy bed, the super-strong wi-fi signal, the underfloor heating (which was actually too warm at times) and plenty of space for two people to move around in. It was a fantastic place to come home to at the end of a long and tiring day's shopping and sightseeing.
Our apartment was just one metro station (or a ten-minute walk) from the Myeong Dong shopping area. Imagine Siam Square, but bigger, busier and better. Anyone who wants to see and be seen makes a beeline for Myeoung Dong. It's a shopping area for the beautiful people, the in-crowd - but mercifully free of those high-end eyesores like Gucci and Louis Vuitton.
But that's not to take anything away from our immediate neighborhood around Chungmoro metro station, which had everything we wanted - some great coffee shops, a convenience store on every corner and several streets packed on both sides with Korean and international restaurants and cafes with menu prices to suit all budgets.
Smiling, happy people
In my book, the locals always make or break a holiday. It's the one reason I can never gush about Prague in the Czech Republic the way that other people do. Beautiful city but by jove, the locals are a sour, miserable lot. You get tired of walking into places and being begrudgingly acknowledged by a surly waiter or shop assistant with a face like a slapped arse.
I didn't know what to expect of Koreans. I've never had a Korean friend. The only Koreans I've ever known have been the dozen or so students I came into contact with during my English teaching career. I taught a bunch of Samsung executives back in the mid 90's who were frankly, horrible. And I taught a small group of Korean missionaries some years later at a private language school. I'd say the missionaries were more pleasant to teach than the Samsung executives - but not by much.
Well, I came away from Seoul with nothing but admiration for the Korean people and their character. Cheerful, friendly, welcoming, helpful and a hundred other adjectives I could use.
The Japanese left a huge impression on us when we stayed in Tokyo several years ago. We couldn't believe that a nationality could be so nice. But I would say that the Koreans are right up there with the Japanese when it comes to making a visitor feel 'special'. I can't pay them a bigger compliment than that.
The standard of English is not that great in Seoul. Some of the shop assistants really struggle to make themselves understood. But they have a go! There is none of that running and hiding when a foreigner enters the establishment that you often experience in Bangkok. Their attitude is 'I may not speak English well, but I'm damn well going to try my best'. I for one, really admired them for it.
Coffee shop culture
If there's one city that has embraced the booming coffee shop culture, then it must surely be Seoul. There are coffee shops everywhere! And they're not all Starbucks either. Many of them are small chains and independents but whatever they are, they all offer a welcome refuge from the bone-chilling temperatures outside.
Seoul coffee shops can be a bit on the pricey side. Expect to pay 20-50% more than you would in Bangkok. Something basic like a hot cappucino will run you about 150 baht but start getting extravagant and order a dollop of whipped cream in your caramel macchiato and prices of 200 baht plus are not uncommon.
One huge disappointment was the selection of bakery goods. Generally, the display cabinets were far less enticing than those in Bangkok. Where were the sumptuous slivers of cheesecake and the mouth-watering wedges of banhoffie pie? Where were the dainty sandwiches and the freshly-baked crossants?
Often all you had to choose from was the desperately unimaginative 'waffle and ice cream' or the new kid on the block - 'honey toast'. If you can see the appeal of a huge chunk of bread that sits on your plate like half a house-brick, then you're a better man than I am.
I did love the ordering system though. Once you have selected and paid for your goods, you are given a small flying saucer-shaped device that you take back to your table and the device will start buzzing once your order is ready. I just loved that! It avoided that horrible situation of a group of customers all huddled together around the serving area, hands-in-pockets, all wondering why the barista doesn't get a bloody move on.
I'm going to end part one of this trip report to Seoul with a funny story. It concerns one of the very few cultural faux pas that we made during our stay.
At the bottom of our apartment building was a delightful coffee shop called 'Love Coffee' We wandered in there on our second morning in town and ordered two hot chocolates and a couple of cheese and ham toasties. At the end of a very tasty breakfast, we got up, put on our jackets and made for the door.
"Excuse me" said the owner, in a very low, almost apologetic tone, "would you mind bringing over your dirty cups and plates?"
"No problem" I said, and went back over to our table to fetch them.
When I arranged the plates and mugs on the counter, the coffee shop owner decided I needed some friendly advice. "In Korean coffee shops, you should always bring your cups and plates back. The staff would not be expected to clear up after you. In a restaurant, it's no problem. The staff are paid to wait on and clear tables. But not in a coffee shop"
I had clearly offended the man - and his lovely wife who looked after the shop with him.
"Oh I'm so sorry" I replied. "I really didn't know about that"
"No, please, don't apologize. How were you to know this if you have just arrived? It's impossible to come to a new country and know every aspect of that country's culture. Don't apologize"
His response couldn't have better diffused the situation or made me feel less culturally ignorant if he'd tried. He handled the situation beautifully.
In Prague, the cafe owner would have probably waited until we reached the door and shouted "Oy, what did your last fucking servant die of?"
But not in a suburb of Seoul.
We returned to that coffee shop a further three times during the holiday and became very friendly with the owner and his wife. They were both half-Korean, half Kiwi (how's that for a combination?) and next year they planned to return to their hometown of Auckland after running the coffee shop in Seoul for five years.
In part two of this 'alternative' trip report to Seoul, I'll touch on the somewhat over-rated Seoul metro system, Thai tourism, super salespeople, and why Seoul is more of a women's shopping city.