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.
Here is part two of my trip report. (Read first instalment)
Whenever I travel abroad, I'm something of a serial vacation planner and I think the best starting point is always a city's transportation system. Once you've become au fait with the subway system, the whole city is accessible - including all the major attractions and perhaps even a few neighborhoods where your average Joe Tourist doesn't venture into. Seoul, Korea is no exception.
Doing my online research, I read reviews on several sites that rated Seoul's metro system as 'the best in the world'. It's certainly clean, modern, convenient and covers the vast majority of the city - but I wouldn't go as far as calling it the best in the world. The signage at some of the busier stations - particularly when you have to change lines - is often confusing or non-existent. And even though almost every station has an information desk, they were rarely ever staffed.
I was desperate for a simple, fold-out map of the whole subway system (something that beats any smartphone travel app any day of the week) but maps were only available from information desks. That's if you could find a member of staff to hand you one.
Truth is, your typical Seoul subway commuter doesn't need to have face-to-face contact with anybody. You can buy single tickets and stored-value cards at vending machines all over the station and use those same machines to top up when your card runs low.
Signage problems aside, one thing I will certainly praise the Seoul subway for is its safety. During the whole trip, we must have used the system at least forty times and not once did we see a drunk, a druggie, a vagrant, a beggar or a group of menacing-looking teenagers. People are at subway stations for one reason - to catch trains!
The subway systems in Barcelona, Paris and Prague (three cities we've holidayed in recently) are all excellent - as good as Seoul's in fact - but by jingo, do you need to keep your wits about you. The Paris metro is full of organised gypsy gangs and pickpockets (very often children) In Prague, you can't buy a ticket from a vending machine without some homeless alcoholic offering to assist you for the price of a cup of tea. And in Barcelona, commuters, particularly tourists, are sometimes mugged on the platforms in broad daylight. We saw it happen THREE times in just four days.
I'm convinced you could travel around on the Seoul metro with your entire holiday money sticking out of your back pocket and all you would get are kindly Korean citizens pointing it out to you.
Seoul is very much a shopping city and every main subway station has its own shopping mall with a couple of dozen retail units selling snacks and coffees to go and cheap-end, 'impulse buy' clothing and cosmetics. With freezing temperatures outside, many of the shops were doing a roaring trade in hats and scarves. But whether you are there to buy or browse, the subway station malls make a very pleasant ten-minute diversion on your way to catch the train.
You won't need to venture far on the Seoul metro either, although I guess it depends which area of the city you are staying in. As I pointed out in part one of this trip report, we stayed in an apartment just a few minutes walk from Chungmoro station. To see all that we wanted to see in Seoul, we started at Chungmoro and never had a journey of more than five stations!
I must end this section on public transport by highlighting another aspect of Korean culture that truly fascinated me.
As on any metro system around the world - including Bangkok - the Seoul trains have designated seats for pregant women and the elderly. What happens in most places is that an elderly person will get on board a train and stand there for a few awkward seconds until the fit and able-bodied person occupying one of the 'special' seats decides to get up and offer it to the needy.
This does not happen on a Seoul subway train.
When an elderly commuter gets on, they make an instant bee-line for the designated seating area and if you're a young or middle-aged person occupying one of those seats, then you had better shift your arse pretty damn quick. If you dawdle or you're engrossed in the music on your MP3 player, you'll receive a sharp tap on the shoulder and a fierce scowl from an old Korean gentleman. The scowl translates as 'you're young. I'm old. This is my seat. Now MOVE!'
Oh, and what's also interesting is how the metro system positively encourages passengers to stand two abreast on escalators. There are even signs on the wall warning the public not to move quickly on the moving staircase. There is none of that worrying about which side of the escalator to stand on - particularly during rush hour - and none of that fear of being shoved in the back by a businessman who's late for his morning meeting.
I kind of admired that gentle, 'don't hurry, be happy' attitude towards the daily commute to and from work.
On our first night in Seoul, not wishing to push ourselves too much after the journey (and the stress of being locked out of our apartment) we took a stroll to Myeong-Dong, Seoul's premier and busiest shopping area. As we walked around taking in all the new sights and sounds, I heard a couple and their two children chatting in Thai. Then another couple. And then another. Was this Seoul, Korea or had we been magically transported back to Bangkok and a new ice age had set in?
My wife had told me in the past that Korea was a popular destination for Thai travellers looking to go abroad for a New Year break. But I didn't realise just how many there would be. It was a strangely surreal situation.
Those who live in Thailand, particularly Bangkok, will be familiar with the LINE chat program and all the stickers you can send to friends featuring the antics of Brown, Moon and Coney. In Thailand, everyone uses the LINE chat app.
Well in Seoul, they have now opened an official LINE store with shelves and display cabinets rammed with LINE paraphernalia. Mouse-mats, mugs, dolls, key-rings, fridge magnets, notebooks, you name it.
The store was heaving. Shoppers jostling elbow to elbow to fill their baskets. And yet look around you at people tapping away on their smartphones and there's hardly any Korean people who use the LINE app to chat with their friends and colleagues. Unbelievable I know but almost every single customer in that LINE shop was Thai. Isn't that incredible!
My wife spends a lot of time on the popular Thai discussion forum pantip.com. There are large sections of the website devoted to travel, particularly Japan and Korea. Thais share travel tips online and help each other out with advice on what to see and do, etc. However, most Thai travellers do Korea as part of an organised tour group. What's really amazing is just how cheap they get it for.
According to my wife, tour packages from Thailand usually include the return flight with Air Asia or a similar low-cost airline AND several nights at a decent, centrally-located three-star hotel. Not only that, they will also have a busy schedule of organised coach trips. And the whole package can be cost as low as 10,000 baht per person! (a little over 300 U.S dollars) No wonder there are so many Thais there.
As you would expect, there isn't a great deal of profit for the tour operators in these packages so everything has to be done rather 'on the cheap'.
I learned that for Thai package travellers, one of the half-day coach trips includes a stop-off at a Korean strawberry farm (December and January is the height of the Korean strawberry season) where Thai tourists are encouraged to wander around the fields looking at strawberries (no, it isn't my idea of fun on a freezing cold day either)
But here are the rules! You are allowed to eat THREE strawberries and three strawberries only. I don't know what punishment or fine is dished out for those who scoff a sneaky fourth when the farmer's back is turned but three is the maximum. Oh the joys of package tour travel!
A cosmetics paradise
Not all Thais go to Seoul on some sort of package tour though. Again my wife had to educate me on matters I knew little or nothing about. There is apparently a growing number of Thais - often young women - who are invading Seoul with thing on their mind - cosmetics!
Everywhere you look there are discount cosmetic stores, with prices about a third of what you would pay in Bangkok. Thai 'kitchen table' entrepreneurs have latched onto this. Travel to Korea, fill a 30-kilogram suitcase with face masks and creams and lotions that weigh next to nothing. Then sell them online and to friends back in Thailand and rake in the profits. It's proving to be a very lucrative business for many.
I was in awe at the 'salesmanship' that goes on at these cosmetic stores. I thought the sales staff in Hong Kong were good. In Seoul, they're in a different league.
Most, if not all shops, will place a member of staff outside in the street. It's their job to lure in the punters. Often dressed up as a cutesy cartoon character, they will hand out a free gift (a small sachet of skin cream or something) and gently persuade the casual browser to enter the store. Once the potential customer is inside the shop, one of the in-store sales staff will take over. They've got you!
The whole sales process is beautiful to watch - and my wife was a prime target. Firstly she was Thai and secondly, she had come to buy cosmetics in bulk. It's as though the shop assistants have a sixth sense for it. They are never pushy and never aggressive. They follow you around the store with a little basket so the customer has both hands free to choose goods and every time the customer takes an interest in something - there's suddenly an offer on the table. Buy a pack of ten face masks and we'll throw in another pack of ten for free. Buy this gift set of five bottles of hand lotion and we'll pop another gift set in your bag just to say thank you for shopping with us.
You start off as a casual browser and you end up leaving the shop with more bags than you can physically carry. As I said - the sales techniques are something to behold. And you'll like this - the shop assistants can even quote prices in Thai and use basic Thai language expressions. They know which side their bread's buttered.
I hate to admit it but from a man's point of view, I was disappointed in Seoul's shopping. There are far too many of these cosmetics shops and most of the clothing stores are geared towards women as well. Hey! what about us fellas?!
Although I think in general that Seoul makes a nicer city-break than Hong Kong does, I enjoy the shopping in Hong Kong more because it's a terrific place for quality, affordable men's clothing.
You won't hear any complaints about shopping in Seoul from my wife though. And I now know what it's like to lug 40 kilograms of cosmetics through Bangkok Airport.
In the third and final instalment of this trip report, I'll concentrate on Korean food and things to see and do in Seoul itself.