I imagine travel for most people as a well-planned endeavor. Getting the most out of your cherished two weeks off from the daily drudgery is probably some of the most well thought out plans a person makes during the year. Weeks spent searching websites trying to find the perfect hotel, flight and entertainment usually follow months of reading dreamy destination brochures filled with glossy pictures of a glamorous life somewhere on a distant side of the globe. Some seek advice from a travel expert, often a lady behind a desk covered by brochures who seems to have been everywhere and tasted the buffets of every gleaming cruise ship that plies the seven seas. Some attempt to make life simpler by booking a prearranged trip that meets most or all of your travel dreams. Spending more time dreaming and less time studying the details is compelling to those whose busy lives don’t allow much opportunity for the work it takes to plan the perfect trip.
Being on the road continuously means we are nearly always busy learning about and exploring the area where we currently reside. Figuring out public transportation and taking care of our daily needs occupies a large portion of our time. We have become very efficient at fulfilling the necessities and because we normally stay in one area for extended periods we normally have plenty of time to focus on exploration and enough time to plan further travels.
Over the last few months, we have picked up our pace. Our travels through China, Vietnam and Cambodia didn’t allow a lot of time to plan onward travel. In one 4 day period we changed hotels daily. Planning transportation, hotels, meals and things to do started to become less well thought out. Combined with the increasing summer heat our schedule was wearing us out. We increasingly wanted to find a cooler place to stay for a month to rest up and get ready for a planned trip home to California to attend a wedding.
In the last 7 years, we have already surpassed most of our dreams and visited most of the places we ever imagined we would get to experience. We have visited nearly every country in Asia that interested us. Looking at the map, we had thoughts of seeing the Philippines but checking the weather report found it was already hot. Singapore looked fun but we thought it might be small for a whole month. We had never thought of visiting South Korea. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to go, we just hadn’t considered it. Like most Americans, I don’t think we knew much about the country. We knew of the war almost 70 years ago. We knew we liked kimchi and we didn’t like the Gangnam song. A weather check said that it was still quite cool. The flight from Phnom Penh to Seoul was inexpensive (as long as we didn’t mind a long delay in Kuala Lumpur). A cheap flight was available for our return to the U.S. We made a quick and virtually uninformed choice and booked an apartment and flights to Seoul.
After the heat of Cambodia, the morning air at Incheon Airport felt positively brisk. We nodded in and out of sleep after boarding the hour-long commuter train to Seoul. We passed along the coastline on the clean and modern train. Our destination was Seoul Station where we would catch a taxi to our apartment. After a no sleep night in Kuala Lumpur we were anxious to get to our new home. We were staying in the Gangnam area which until now was just a song title. We now knew that “Gang” means river and “nam” means south in Korean, so we were staying just south of the Han River in a nice suburban area.
We managed to hang on until after filling the house with groceries and getting unpacked before taking well-deserved naps. When we awoke the next morning we were ready to begin our visit. We found Seoul to be a huge city of 10 million inside an even larger metropolitan area that hosts 25 million people which is about half of the total population of South Korea.
Seoul is an ancient city but has not always been known by its current name. We decided to make the massive National Museum of Korea one of our first visits. The museum showed us the history of Korea and displayed an excellent collection of art and artifacts from ancient to modern times. We also spent most of a day at the excellent Seoul Museum of History which focused solely on the interesting history of this ancient city. Different rooms had displays that followed the life of the citizens from times past until modern days. Both museums were excellent and free and easily reached by Seoul’s huge subway system that transports its citizens virtually anywhere they want to go in the city.
The city began to warm as spring temperatures and bright skies brought people out to enjoy the changing seasons. Seemingly overnight trees blossomed all over the city. The excitement was contagious as we walked along the river or through some of the many vast parks as everyone seemed to be out enjoying the sunshine. The most popular of the blossoms were the beautiful cherry trees that lined many streets. Many people dressed in brightly colored traditional costumes called Hanbok were out and posing with the trees strategically placed in the background.
Korea had a difficult 20th century. Japan occupied the country from the early part of the century until after World War II. After the war, the country was divided by the superpowers and soon after the devastating war destroyed much of their country and killed millions. We visited the War Memorial which gave us an excellent understanding of the war and the conditions that lead up to it. With much of the world’s attention focused on this area now our visit to the War Memorial gave us unique insights into current events.
Many of Seoul’s historic buildings were damaged or destroyed during the 1900’s. South Korea has made great efforts to preserve what is left and reconstruct many of the most important buildings. Our visit to Gyeongbokgung Palace was a perfect example. The main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty, the palace once had 7700 rooms and 500 buildings. Mostly destroyed during the Japanese occupation and left in ruins after the war, many of the buildings have been beautifully rebuilt using traditional means.
When we visited, South Korea had just hosted the Winter Olympic in Pyeongchang. In 1988 Seoul hosted the Summer Olympics and many of the parks and stadiums are open to visit or attend a game in. We visited Olympic Park and enjoyed walking amongst many of the stadiums that were built for the games. The Olympic museum is located in the park and told the entire story of the games. Later we visited the Sports Complex area where the main Olympic Stadiums were built. The two professional baseball teams in town were having their rivalry games at the big stadium and we had fun in the atmosphere the fans created for the game. Baseball is very popular in South Korea and the fans are famous for their boisterous enthusiasm.
Seoul is very modern and a shoppers paradise. We visited several huge malls during our stay. The Lotte World Mall area that surrounds the Lotte Tower was worth a visit. The tower is the 5th tallest building in the world and when viewed at night when it is lit is quite the sight. Another building we visited was the Dongdaemun Design Plaza located in downtown that hosts an art museum and features some of the most modern architecture anywhere we have been.
We enjoyed our stay in Seoul. We found it very modern with a great appreciation for their past. The city is extremely clean and organized. Transportation is easy by subways or buses. We found the people reserved but very helpful when we interacted with them. We didn’t get as much chance to enjoy the food as we would have liked. Seoul wasn’t the cheapest place we have visited but it was mostly affordable with plenty of things to do for free.
We were happy we picked South Korea. With as little effort as we made to research our choice, we felt we could not have picked a better last stop in our Asian travels.